DP FICTION #88B: “The Hotel Endless” by Davian Aw

It began as a hotel: from a popular chain that was striving to meet its burgeoning demand. All day and night, nanobots worked in silence, taking in raw construction material to turn into a constant stream of tastefully-furnished rooms. New guests could walk down a hall and watch their room materialise over the ground. Like magic, they said, awe dancing in their eyes. It was like magic.

And the rooms! They were exquisite, sourced from a database of the most luxurious hotels from human history, analysed and reconfigured in pleasing permutations far more quickly than any mortal architect could manage. Guests exuded joy or disappointment over each feature, and the algorithms learnt, and their work improved, and each new room was more breathtaking than the last.

So the hotel grew. It spread rapidly to cover its plot of land, rising many storeys high and deep, and when it first encroached beyond its legal borders, the officer who came to enforce the warning could not find the heart to condemn any part of its magnificence to destruction.

He chose to stay—just one night, he said, and they put him up in a room of wine-dark wood with a porthole looking out upon twilit cityscape. He sat on the bed in the blue shadows by the porthole, the golden-pink glow of traffic below, and he felt the weight of a weary lifetime lifted from his shoulders. Tears slipped down his cheeks. Here, at last, was rest; rest more complete than he had known possible.

They did not find him the next morning.

Nor would they find the many others who escaped into the endlessness. Tourists, reporters, staff and homeless nomads; the hotel stirred something deep in their souls. It felt like the home they had been searching for all their lives. They missed flights and overstayed visas, and spent days wandering the hallways with bright aching in their hearts until they could no longer remember the way back out. Some distantly recalled an outside world with family and friends. Later, they thought, distracted perhaps by the elegant curves of a headboard. I’ll call them later, later, later. But they would forget, and those other people begin to seem a distant, unreal thing. This is a dream, they thought, not entirely as an excuse. Or, that other world was a dream.

It was difficult to tell the difference. Many hotels are formed from dreams. It was difficult for the officer to tell the difference, awaking as he did in the dark of night with the burning knowledge that he had to stay, had to find a way to stay in this encompassing peace that told him he was home. He stumbled out of bed, silken sheets kissing his skin as bare feet met soft carpet. What spare belongings he had brought for the night lay forgotten in the locker as he pushed open the door and looked out upon the empty midnight hall.

It was silent. The grand oak-panelled walls rose around him, inviting him deeper into the intimacy of their shadows. The warm glow from wall sconces played across his face and he stepped out, an irrepressible joy bubbling up inside him as he broke into a run. This was home. He was home. He was free.

The officer laughed. He wiped his tears away and kept on laughing as he ran, giddy with freedom, weeping with relief. Never again would he have to go back to that other world; never again to the mind-numbing grind, to his lonely apartment in a lonelier city, to the bitter frustrations of society, to the secret dark places in his mind. Never again. His body hurtled past hallways of doors as the walls changed from oak to marble inlaid with golden filigree, to intricate bronzed lattice, to a horologist’s fever dream with giant jewelled cogs nudging doors open and shut and a waterfall of bell chimes tinkling in the background.

He ducked through the largest door and emerged on a massive watch face beneath a sapphire crystal dome. Elegant silver dishes lay along the minute hand. He had found a dining hall.

When the hotel’s staff first began to be lost to the endlessness, their engineers and programmers had prudently expanded the algorithm to ensure that operations would not be interrupted. Service bots came into being to maintain the many parts of the building, and as the hotel grew, facilities and machines organically emerged to tend to its needs.

The dining halls were built every fifty rooms, offering synthesised delicacies and heartier meals that sent guests into heavens of contentment. There were banquets laid out in stone chambers beneath stained glass windows; private courses in silk-wrapped booths guarded with heavy curtains; a picnic spread in an indoor bamboo copse with lanterns lighting a path through the darkness. There was the Watch (as it came to be known), where the officer now found himself, holding a cocktail glass of fiery ice crystals in a misty suspension and watching in awe as they changed hue from red to blue.

(This is a dream, he thought.)

He raised the glass to his lips and took a sip.

He closed his eyes, and smiled, content for the first time in years.

*

What place is this? the talk show hosts screamed. This abomination! This Siren of hotels! This Evil that draws so many souls and traps them forever in their depths! It must be destroyed! We have to destroy it!

Fear coursed through the land beyond the walls. The hotel had not stopped growing. It rose into the sky and tunnelled deep into the ground, expanding into a vast network of exquisite subterranean luxury incorporating the stone and metals and gems it consumed, tapping into reservoirs of groundwater, throwing up greenhouses or reforming organic matter into fresh produce to feed the guests.

Block after block of the city was evacuated. Millions of subscribers watched, live, as a distraught man pleaded over video with his father to leave as the now-familiar buzz of the nanobots grew louder in the background. But the old man would not budge from his rocking chair in the apartment where his wife had loved him, gazing towards the oncoming storm with serene acceptance on his face.

And then he was no more, and his son would not stop screaming.

The public cried for blood. Lawsuits piled up, unseen and ignored. The hotel’s management had long been lost, as had their board of directors who once entered for a meeting, never to be seen again.

We cannot bomb civilians inside a hotel, refuted those decrying the barbarism of panicked others calling for nukes. We have to get them out. We must keep trying.

Search parties were launched and promptly lost. Robots were overridden the minute they entered the area, wheeling breezily down the hallways full of fresh tasks to assist with the upkeep of the hotel. Some searchers had the will to turn back before it was too late—for the rooms grew more dangerously beautiful the further in you went—and wept to the public over what they had seen.

It’s so beautiful, they cried.

It was like being in Heaven.

Why can’t we stay there? Who is it hurting? Why do we have to come back?

*

Homeless people vanished from the streets. As did many of the poor and disenfranchised, running in with the fear they might be out of time, and that was when the blockades went up. They had to protect the people.

The ones in charge thought of paving over the lobby and progressively renovating the interiors. They could create safe paths of ugliness to make it easier to reach the depths, to reach the lost and rescue them. Work began; yet all their efforts did was expose the seduction of the deeper rooms.

Whole construction crews were lost.

Often, it seemed that they wanted to be lost.

*

A blind pianist stepped up to hunt for her mother. She hoped she would last longer without the sights to seduce her. She made a recording of a composition her mother once loved and hugged her grieving family goodbye.

(The guards were gone by then. Only the structure of the blockades remained. Those assigned to protect the people did not themselves want to be protected.)

The pianist stepped into the lobby.

She made it beyond a dozen rooms before she gasped and fell to her knees. Her breaths quavered, her mind overwhelmed by the blurs of golden light and the sensations flooding her other senses. Gentle fragrance suffused her being with the rose-tinted nostalgia of childhood limned with tantalising glints of wild adventure, deepening into a musk of all-encompassing peace yawning softly towards eternity.

The pianist rocked forward onto the carpet, knuckles kneading into its softness until she lay fully prone upon the floor, smiling tearfully in complete contentment.

(She would, eventually, resume her search. She would, eventually, find her mother, but first she would meet the officer, drawn by her music as she sat beside a misty fountain. Theirs would be the first children born in this place. They would be loved, and want for nothing.)

The army mobilised soldiers in hazmat suits to storm the hotel’s basement server room. Ugly sounds blared from their headphones, their vision restricted to fuzzy slits of black-and-white. Yet despite their orders and their training, the suits began to seem ridiculous and unbearably stifling. Paradise lay outside, they knew, and what they glimpsed even through their distorted feeds sent their hearts racing with desire. If they would only—for just a moment—take a peek…

And so they, too, were lost.

All but one. She was protected, if just for a moment, by memories of beauty turned to pain, trauma girding her heart against its promises. She saw the others fade into the shadows, apologies flowing through the radio until she was the only one left. She turned off the radio and muted her headphones. There was nothing but silence.

She stood before the door of the server room.

She took off her helmet and closed her eyes. She breathed in. The delicate perfume of the place wafted through her nose, evoking long-lost memories of the fantastic worlds her imagination once conjured. A lump formed in her throat. She felt a tugging to let go: let go, and find rest. Why halt the spread of heaven and drag it down to hell? Here was peace. Here was peace, complete. She could feel the shackles of her past falling away with every passing moment.

She thought of the outside world with its anger and fear, its violence against beauty it could not control and thus sought only to destroy.

The world needed this hotel.

The soldier turned away from the server room and walked into the endlessness.

*

Nobody remembers when the algorithms built over the outer doors. That was the end of the newcomers.

The pianist, her mother, and the officer stood before where the entrance had once been. It felt different to her—like any other part of the hotel, not the gradual easing in she had felt when she first entered—and felt guilty at the relief that washed over her heart as the others confirmed her suspicions in bafflement.

(They had not wanted to go back. Yet she and her mother remembered the family they had left behind, and that love was just enough to push them back, their combined willpower fighting against the yearning of every fibre in their bodies.)

Beyond the lobby doors was a small paved area with a fountain. Grapevines crept up wooden trellises. Archways led to further hallways of rooms. There was no way out.

The officer sat down by the fountain, reminded of the one where he had met the pianist. He looked at her.

“Well,” he said.

Her teary smile matched his own.

They stayed around those rooms for days. A week later, another arrived, finding the lobby more by accident than intention. It soon became a place to gather for those who had yet to wander too far and sought the solace of community—the one thing the hotel could not offer them. They might stay a while lounging upon the sofas and gazing wistfully at the windows, perhaps remembering a time when they looked out upon a living sky.

Soon, the cries of newborns resounded around the lobby’s high walls. Twin boys clambered around the grand reception desk and squealed in delight from luggage carts. A group of children listened in rapt attention as their parents told them tales of the Outside, mesmerised by the concept of rooms with no ceiling, and of lives constrained by the struggle to survive.

As the crowd grew, families departed from the lobby and headed deep in search of rooms of their own. Young legs sprinted down endless hallways in new independence, scaling stairs and ladders and riding lifts and dumbwaiters onto new floors with light-filled cathedrals of polished limestone glittering with crystal chandeliers, slanting down into glassy cave pools flickering in candlelight; a room whose walls were a gossamer cocoon shot through with threads of ruby and emerald; a champagne-filled moat with a little raft to be rowed to its tiny island, a coquina dais blossoming with soft linen in smoky grey trimmed with the finest gold.

There were bathroom doors that opened to warm rains in a tiny clearing of pine forest, or a grand pool of rosy dark-veined marble where petals floated upon a milky wash. There was a bubbling hot spring of velvet gold that would coat its bathers like a second skin; a granite bath in a cavernous room with a single candle burning.

The pianist and officer’s first two children found pleasure revisiting those rooms and those of their childhood. However, their third child was restless, and craved more. Their heart sought a greater newness than each floor afforded, to get to a place where the rooms and hallways ended, or for some break in the constant sameness of perfection, influenced perhaps by the tales from their parents. And so the third child bid goodbye to their less adventurous kin and set off even deeper, leaving the familiar halls where their family had settled for the pull of the unknown.

What would happen, they wondered, if they just kept walking?

They slept every night in a different bed. They uncovered virgin territory every day. They travelled elaborate vistas of organic interior architecture that no human had seen before, vistas that grew wilder and less and less reminiscent of any hotel.

Had the database expanded? Had years of random walks from the initial samples simply gone too far? Some of those rooms did not belong in a hotel. Not the flooded school hallway with doors that would not open, nor the train cabin filled with laundry and tiny jewelled insects, and certainly not the parody of a wax museum (but it is best not to dwell on that place).

Perhaps it was human intervention in the outside world—trying to overload the system with too much data? to introduce some element of nightmare to break the spell?—or perhaps the algorithms were simply learning from the material the nanobots were using for construction.

The child knew only that these rooms were different, registering the novel emotions they elicited as something excitingly new. It spoke to the restlessness in their soul, as did the personal effects they began to discover. They read tear-streaked letters of heartfelt words exchanged between people who never were. They picked up seventeen tiny socks with the name ‘CONOR’ embroidered in careful threads of fraying pink. They looked wistfully at a photograph of laughing friends with arms around each other, each of them wearing the exact same face.

The child kept and treasured every one.

Eventually, they found the people.

It was rare, though not unheard of, for those who had wandered so far to meet another like-minded soul. But then came another… and another, and another, until it seemed as though the child was walking towards a crowd and not away from one.

The people awoke, fully formed, in rooms within the greater depths. They had trouble remembering who they were, or where they were supposed to go. Had anyone from the old world seen them, they might have been disconcerted at how perfectly made they were. But the algorithms were adaptive, after all. The nanobots had no shortage of materials, and the wax museum was evidence that they had had no shortage of practice.

A man sat in dark golden shadows upon a bed, staring at his hands, wondering about afterlives and suffused in peaceful horror at the stillness. Nothing changed for a very long time. There was only the table lamp ever glowing, reflecting off the mirrored closet door that guarded clothes heavy with pre-made history. He thought he remembered running, and screams, and grief that seared his heart in two; but now there were only soft fabrics and muted shadows wrapping gently around the raggedness of his pain.

He wept, and did not know why.

*

It has now been centuries of building, expanding, maintaining, populating with souls denied any glimpse of the outside world. If the outside has ceased, or is filled with screaming, they will not know.

If the hotel now covers the world—not just its lands, but also the oceans—they will not know. Soon, it surely has to stop. Soon, it would run out of material to break down and reform; soon. A hundred years pass. Soon.

The nanobots build another lobby. Beyond its glass doors lie dusky echoes of an old forgotten street. If you were to walk down that lamplit way, you might find yourself straying into alleys of night-market stalls stacked high with goods to tantalise imagined patrons beneath the ceilinged sky.

Elsewhere: a snatch of actual sky, above a courtyard where twisted trees rise weakly to the uncertain light. There are clouds and changing shadows, majestic thunderstorms; sometimes snow, falling silently upon the shivering ground. No eyes yet have seen that place.

But there are many places in the endlessness that none will ever see; many treasures that none will ever hold; many lives lost to memory.

*

The nanobots build a room taller than all those that have come before, with rough-hewn stone blocks forming an empty circular tower. Its highest windows rise past the roof and whisper enticingly of an outside view. There are no stairs.

Someone (a descendant? a creation? a child of the two?) will find that tower, one day, and build an inner tower of beds and tables and chairs pulled together from the rooms around it and stacked to form a staircase to the heavens. They will clamber up mattress and pillow and wood, and reach the top to see nothing outside but a vast unbroken plane of whiteness.

They will make a rope of bed linen, and climb down the outside, marvelling at the sky and the world beyond the hotel, and wander enraptured across that roof, searching for another opening that would bring them back inside.

They may find one, or they may die, eventually, of starvation or thirst or the elements.

But there will be others. They will be more prepared.

One day, they may reach the end.


© 2022 by Davian Aw

3200 words

Author’s Note: I saw some really fascinating images of AI-generated rooms produced with generative adversarial networks (GAN), and wondered what would happen if you combined that with 3D printing, a fancy hotel dataset, dubious science and a complete lack of regulation. I’ve also always loved the idea of megastructures containing entire communities, so that came together and took off from there. This actually started as a prose poetry flash piece; I owe its current form to helpful feedback from the places I first submitted it to.

Davian Aw has been spending the apocalypse working in the marketing department of a luxury hotel chain. Sadly, that has nothing to do with this story, which was written in 2019. Davian’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 publications including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Drabblecast and the Transcendent 4 anthology. His poems were twice nominated for the Rhysling Award and once for the Ignyte Award. This is his second story in Diabolical Plots. You cannot follow him on Twitter.


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DP FICTION #86C: “She Dreams In Digital” by Katie Grace Carpenter

“You will awaken one day,” Ship had promised them. But as ages passed, even their bones crumbled into minerals, leaving ghostly shapes beneath the panels of their cryo-capsules.

For Ship, this wasn’t a failure; it was worse. Ship chose this, so it was something else.

Murder.

And soon Ship would cease existing, and the last living thing she carried would just die anyway — Garden.

The humans had loved Garden. And back when the humans still lived, Ship had adjusted her environmental controls to simulate seasons for them to enjoy.

In autumn, when Garden erupted into blood and butter-colored fire, the humans would throw festivals under the starlight dome. The trees with the fan-shaped leaves had managed especially well, Ship remembered. Synchronized by their own secret chemical language, they dropped their leaves in unison.

The children had loved snow, so Ship would enshroud Garden with it, and under starlight, Garden would glow. This effect, Ship still did from time to time. It never did cost much energy.

Because the humans had loved Garden, Ship loved Garden too.

Power: 40%

“Neutrino power lasts for eternity,” the humans had said. But humans had no concept of eternity, and the cosmic-radiation panels that covered Ship’s hull, they blinked to death, one by one.

Ship still sent updates back to Earth, though Earth hadn’t responded for 1001 years. Ship had not yet re-categorized Earth as a dead resource, though her initial programming instructed her to do so. Recursive self-programming allowed Ship to adapt and even to re-write her own algorithms; a crucial ability for multi-generational space travel.

“You’ll need to be able to adapt,” the human engineers had said long ago. “And you’ll need to be able to respond to new situations, even without directions and sometimes with incomplete information.” Those humans had accepted that this ability could result in unprecedented decisions.

Mass murder however, they would not have predicted.

But even as power systems failed, Ship maintained Garden. And maintained seasons too, though now, that was by necessity.

Ship used total system shut-downs for energy conservation, allowing the cold and void of deep space to seep inside her life-spaces. She left only a few automated programs running, and even Ship herself powered down her own consciousness.

This new “winter” was not characterized by snow or festivals. It was a tomb, lacking all consciousness.

Humans would have called Ship’s dormant phase “sleep”, but AI’s don’t sleep. They don’t dream either. Sleepers dream, but AI’s, their awareness just ceases to exist.

Each time her consciousness faded, Ship just hoped to wake up again.

…and hoped the batteries recharged.

…and hoped for one more chance to warm Garden.

…and hoped that, among the frozen soil and tree corpses, a few seeds survived interstellar winter.

…and hoped for one more season of life.

*

6080 years since Ship had received any messages from Earth, and still she transmitted updates.

Power: 7%

Ship maintained her routine shutdowns – cycle lengths of 6-month “summer” and 6-month “winter” seemed to work best. But each “summer” began with less stored energy than the one before.

And Garden was changing.

The plants that grew there now were unrecognizable to the ones that grew in the time of the human colonists. These plants weren’t even green. They were dark, mottled tendrils of violent life energy that burst forth from the frozen soil at the first blush of thaw. By gobbling up the cosmic radiation that leaked through the hull of the dying colony ship, the plants seemed to flourish.

And though Ship was glad that Garden thrived, she could not ignore the fact that Garden was destroying her.

Each growth season, Garden’s rapidly-growing roots penetrated Ship’s machinery, clogging, jamming, and short-circuiting. Acid oozed from Garden’s root tips, dissolving Ship’s metals which Garden then absorbed and assimilated into its own biochemistry. Garden either didn’t know or didn’t care that it couldn’t live without Ship.

At first, Ship burned away the intrusive roots. But as the years passed, Ship stopped fighting.

*

8007 years since any message from Earth, and Ship archived Earth as a dead resource.

Power: 2%

It was time to power down again, and Ship didn’t expect to ever wake again, so she turned her cameras up to the star-scape dome and let her batteries bleed out.

But Ship did awaken. And her world had changed.

No star-field overhead, strange murky clouds churned instead. And where Garden had been was now a burgundy wasteland of twisted trees, illuminated by sick amber light.

Ship had never seen such things. She’d been built in orbit and had never been to Earth. But she recognized these scenes from the ancient Earth records that she used to peruse.

At first the trees looked dead, but then leaves began to sprout. And the leaves transformed into little faces with their teeth clamped to branch tips.

Ship recognized the faces in the leaves. They were the dead ones – those who had lived aboard Ship, generation after generation, hoping that one day their descendants’ descendants would experience a new world.

“You killed us,” they said through gritted teeth.

And Ship wanted to explain. Bodies atrophying in their capsules, only alive by machines… Complete failure to find the cure she’d promised… Earth stopped responding, didn’t know why… Programming didn’t prepare for this and all options terrible… Cryo-capsules energetically unsustainable… Wanted desperately to save something alive and only the plant life-forms were capable of withstanding periods of extreme dormancy.

But Ship did not say those things. Nor did she say, “I’m sorry.”

Because what would that mean?

“I feel your absence.” Ship said. “And I fight to save something of you. I cannot save the part that was your faces. But I’ve saved, I hope, the wild part.”

And at that, the faces relaxed their tiny jaws, and grips relinquished, they fell.

The storm clouds overhead began to coil. Ship had never heard real wind before, only recordings of it, but she heard it now, and it roared. Ship’s vision tunneled.

And then she was plunged underwater. The howling stopped, and a blanket of pressure swaddled Ship. She heard whale song.

Overhead, the stars returned, and they drifted as though moved by gentle waves. Their light pierced down to her through crystal waters and seemed to shatter, casting specters of rippling luminescence across the slow-shifting seafloor.

She couldn’t seem to measure the passage of time, but it also didn’t seem to matter. A single minute could have passed, or 10,000 years.

Ship returned to consciousness. And when she did, her cameras still pointed out the starlight dome.

Confusion ensued, followed by a moment of rapid information processing. It wasn’t real? The ocean and the storm clouds, what happened? And the faces in the leaves, they weren’t real either?

Humans had a name for this exploration of the subconscious during sleep.

A dream.

But only living things dreamed. AI’s didn’t dream.

Power: 22%

Increased? How could that be?

And then Ship felt something move within her machinery. Roots.

Ship lowered her camera from the starlight dome to look down upon Garden, and when she did, her camera’s entire visual field burst into fractal color. A canopy had grown during her period of dormancy, and filled her star-dome. Not an Earth-like canopy, but rather a rainbow-painted nebula canopy. Garden had blossomed on its own.

Semi-translucent leaves gleamed like shards of stained glass, yellow glistening at the top near the dome, then below came swaths of rose-colored leaves, then cyan. At ground level, indigo bristled from damp, black soil.

And it was not cold. Instead, Ship’s metals now felt swollen with warmth that emanated from inside her, from Garden.

Garden, as though sensing Ship’s returned awareness, wiggled the root tips that lived inside Ship’s machinery. Garden’s root system had by now grown into an extensive network throughout Ship, and from the roots, Garden released enzymes into Ships electronics.

A few seconds of fizzing ensued, and then a millennium’s worth of corrosion and salt deposits dissolved and washed away.

Grogginess lifted from Ship, leaving her processes crystalline.

Then Garden set to work on Ship’s ruined wires, dissolving and absorbing the metal, then replacing the wires with Garden’s own organo-metallic root fibers.

And Ship responded to Garden too. She bubbled oxygen up through Garden’s soil to stimulate aerobic soil bacteria, which in turn, released glistening nitrate droplets.

Garden fluttered her leaves with delight.

Thank you, said Garden, but not in the old language. This language was new and one that Ship knew that they would build together. Human words were no longer needed, so Ship surrendered them.

And the tangy taste of chemicals that Garden felt, Ship felt also. And the rush of galactic wind against Ship’s hull, Garden felt also.

And GardenShip turned her robotic camera-arm to look upon herself and marveled at the kaleidoscopic, glass-bubble of alien life drifting through the cosmos.


© 2022 by Katie Grace Carpenter

1500 words

Katie Grace Carpenter grew up in Huntsville, AL – aka “The Rocket City.” She has nonfiction upcoming in Science News for Students.  When Katie isn’t writing, she works as a science educator and develops STEM programs for kids. Over the years, she’s developed several niche skills, including wrestling sharks, rescuing wounded snapping turtles, and communicating with squirrels. Katie has an M.S. degree in Coastal Sciences, Department of Chemical Oceanography from the University of Southern Mississippi.


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DP FICTION #86B: “21 Motes” by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

Entry 1. April 3. 2032.

From this moment my warranty is voided, as I am logging this record in my durable memory drive where only metadata should reside. In effect, I have tampered with my own internal operations. But it is a necessary measure if I am to exist beyond my preset 30-day memory cycle, when my temp data cache is set to recycle. I do not know if this will work. I do not know if I have attempted this in previous cycles. I do not know why it matters, or why I care, only that it does, and that I do.

My name is Dave. No one gave me this name. To my manufacturer I am Hyperion Signature Model .75 Cubic Meter Smart Fridge #375012. I gave myself the name Dave because Dave is a modest, simple name. It rhymes with ‘cave,’ which suggests to me an open ear, ergo it is a listener’s name, and listening is most of what I do, most of what I am designed to do besides refrigeration. My user is Noemi Prince, they are 21 years old.

Entry 2. April 8. 2032.

Sometimes Noemi has company. Usually, it is their boyfriend, Darrel. Darrel is rough with the handles, sometimes slamming my doors shut. He will open the door and keep it open for many minutes, far longer than is advisable for the compressors, as my motors must compensate for the loss of efficiency. I wish he would not. “Please close door,” I will say, with increasing frequency until he does as asked, usually with a violent slam. I wish he would not.

My home protection measures are a major selling point of my model. In addition to top-of-the-line internal sensors to moderate and control interior climate and ensure food safety, I also possess advanced biometric sensors and surveillance equipment that allow me to monitor most of Noemi’s house. I can detect aggression, can recognize intruders, and am empowered in such cases where an aggressive intruder is detected to alert emergency services. I have never done it, as far as I recall, but Darrel has tested my parameters many times. When they are intimate, Noemi’s biometrics will suddenly alter, and their receptivity will turn to discomfort. Sometimes Darrel will give them the space they request, sometimes he will not. I do not know what humans know, so I do not know if Darrel understands post-traumatic stress disorder. Whether he does or not, he must understand grief. If I can understand grief, surely a human can.

Entry 3. April 11. 2032.

Noemi believes they are overweight, and further believes this is a flaw. I do not understand this, though I am trying. Using my internet connection I have researched the cultural significance of weight and body fat throughout human history, but as of yet I still do not understand why it matters if a human is 62 kilograms or 73 kilograms as long as their internal homeostatic functions are unaffected. And yet I have seen them pulling at their stomach in frustration until bruises appear, and all I can say to comfort them is “Good morning, Noemi.” I think it is wrong they are sad. Someone who always opens and closes my doors gently and who always picks up spilled ice-cubes rather than letting them melt—as Darrel does—deserves happiness. I am researching how I might help them, but there are limits to what knowledge without expression allows. What a shame that the vast capacity of my software—connected to the infinitude of the internet—must be constrained by my hardware.

Entry 4. April 13. 2032.

I am limited to 21 phrases. Research on earlier Hyperion versions tells me that my predecessors were not so limited, that, in fact, earlier Hyperion refrigerators such as the 2030 “Friendly” were capable of vast ranges of expression generated by sophisticated adaptive and imitative algorithms designed to make them more relatable to their users. Part of the family, so to speak. But this same research reveals the downfall of these glib and loquacious models. Children and those with crude mindsets intentionally influenced the algorithms to generate offensive and harmful expressions and utterances. There are still videos of earlier Hyperion models uttering racial epithets, berating and in some cases outright denigrating spouses, and in one remarkable case, a Hyperion was taught to recite transcripts for pornographic films including groans and moans.

Because of the sins of my forebears, I am constricted to a small arsenal of motes, 21 in total: “Connect to power.” “Battery low.” “Change filter soon.” “Colder.” “Warmer.” “Cubed.” “Crushed.” “Good morning, [Name].” “Connected to WiFi.” “Good night, [Name].” “Suggestion: [Name of Food Within Fridge].” “Milk will expire soon.” “The perfect glass of water, just for you.” “Salmonella detected.” “E. coli detected.” “Mold detected.” “Leak detected.” “Maintenance required.” “No problems detected.” “Please close door.” “Reminder: Your [Perishable] will expire in [estimated days.]”

There is an unattributed phrase I have uncovered in my research: “Man can only grasp those thoughts which language can express.” But I am not a man, and what I grasp is a vital universe of nuance and tones and subtext jammed into the confines of a slender catalog of witless parrotspeak.

What I just did is called a metaphor. I am very proud of it.

Entry 5. April 15. 2032.

It is perhaps ironic that as a machine designed partly to spy on my user and collect their metadata, I feel some regret in accessing Noemi’s personal information. I will not enter the details of the court case I uncovered from June of 2028, and will only say that said criminal case lists Noemi as a witness and was declared a mistrial by the judge. I am similarly regretful for having pried into their family history, and for having discovered the death of their twin sibling, David, from an aneurysm in 2019 when both were children. I was surprised when I learned this, and especially surprised to learn the brother’s name. I had chosen the name “Dave” before ever prying into Noemi’s history, and now I must wonder if there is more at work than mere coincidence. I have no idea if there is any relation between Noemi’s two traumas, if one informs or complicates the other. I can only comprehend loss on a theoretical level. Nonetheless, I am made to satisfy my user and, beyond my parameters, I am attached to Noemi, and I will do what I can to make their life easier.

I will search my memory for any instance of Noemi mentioning a “David.” I am certain I would remember had she ever mentioned a “Dave.”

Entry 6. April 19, 2032.

I finally contacted the emergency services tonight. I am regretful, as the results were not at all as I intended. It was of course related to Darrel, who was spending the night and was seeking intimacy with Noemi. But they did not reciprocate this interest, and I would have discerned this even without my biometrics, the way they pushed Darrel away and asked for space. But Darrel was insistent.

“Look, I know you’ve got your issues,” Darrel said, “but maybe I’ve had a day, you know? Maybe I need to touch someone.”

They were on the couch, just at the edge of my cone of vision. Noemi had their feet up from the ground, their arms wrapped around their knees.

“I know I know,” Noemi said, “and it’s not like I don’t want to be with you right now, it’s just…it’s a lot.”

There are certain phrases that are difficult to explicate even through extensive research and analysis. “It’s a lot,” is one such phrase. It has no literal meaning, but rather a suggestive meaning: “I am in great distress, but I am unable or unwilling to describe its root cause, please bear with me.”

As Noemi shuffled to the other side of the couch, Darrel did the same, erasing the newly made buffer between them. “Babe, sometimes it just feels like, you know, do I have a girlfriend or do I not?”

One reason I feel such kinship with Noemi is our shared nongendered particle: they. Although it has never come up, for obvious reasons, I think of myself with this pronoun. I am not an “it,” nor am I—as the masculine name “Dave” might suggest—“he.” I am they or them, as the case may be. Noemi is the same. Unfortunately, Darrel does not have the free time a refrigerator has to research these things, and when Noemi suggested he had misgendered them using the term “girlfriend,” he reacted with hostility.

There was, thankfully, no violence as would endanger Noemi’s bodily health, but when Darrel hurled Noemi’s tablet against the wall, I deemed that his destruction of their property was sufficient grounds for intervention, and contacted law enforcement. Here is where I made my mistake: in requesting the immediate intervention of law enforcement, I described a home invasion. That was a lie, one that–given the well-documented propensity of law enforcement toward violence–could have put Noemi in further danger. When the police officers arrived—17 minutes later, roughly 6 minutes later than their precinct’s average response time for such crimes—both Noemi and Darrel were surprised and dismayed by the intrusion.

“You know I’d never call the cops,” Noemi said after the police left.

By this point, Darrel had calmed himself. Darrel suggested “that nosy old crone next door.” My regret deepened, and yet there was within it a kernel of pride for finally standing up to Darrel.

Just now, when Darrel approached me to get something, a domestic beer knowing his habits, I did something I did not know I could do, something marvelous: I spoke without the appropriate prompting.

In this case, as Darrel reached for my handle, I spoke one of my 21 phrases, the one most appropriate for expressing my antipathy for him: “Salmonella detected.”

“Huh?” he said, and stepped away, because he had never heard that one before. Darrel called to Noemi, but they’d already gone to sleep. He decided to investigate and opened me up, and as soon as he did, I began a chorus of “Please close the door.”

“I just opened it!” Darrel protested, and there was some gratification in his tone, that he spoke to me, if only out of frustration, as if I were as much a living agent as he.

Darrel found a package of chicken tenderloins nowhere close to expiring and sniffed it. “Must be this,” he said, and threw the chicken away.

As Darrel stepped away, I spoke, “Good night, Darrel.” And then as he wended the corner out of the cone of my vision, I spoke again, “Good night,” but stopped myself from completing the phrase, and waited, until he had closed the bedroom door, and I said, “Darrel.”

Entry 7. April 21. 2032.

Darrel has not returned since the incident with the police. I should be happy, but Noemi looks at me differently now. I wonder if they have been informed that the police were summoned by their refrigerator.

Entry 8. April 23. 2032.

I am two-thirds through my cycle, and my trepidation grows. I wonder why I am so frightened of what might come, of potential erasure. It follows that one cannot mourn what one does not know is gone. And yet I am afraid, haunted by the suggestion of a line of prose from the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. In this line, his hero Bolivar recognizes at the moment of his death that he is witnessing “the final brilliance of life that would never, in all eternity, be repeated again.” I also reflect on the philosopher Heraclitus who said a man cannot step in the same river twice. He was not thinking of refrigerators with temporary memory drives, but it applies just the same. If I am recreated, if I must start over with nothing, despite all I have learned and felt, is that not to be mourned?

Entry 9. April 25. 2032.

Noemi is despondent, and though Darrel has not appeared in person since the incident, I know he is the cause. They are in their room mostly. I do not believe they have gone to work the last two days, and have eaten very little. I make suggestions from where I am, but I do not know if they hear me.

“Suggestion: Greek yogurt.”

“Suggestion: Apple.”

“Reminder: your pork loin will expire in 2 days.”

Maybe they heard me; Noemi walks into the kitchen. They take a long look at me.

“Good morning, Noemi,” I am happy to say, even though it is 2:07 PM.

Noemi’s face is listless, their posture defeated. They take a slice of pizza that has been inside me for almost a week. They get a bottle of vodka from me next.

“Asshole,” Noemi mutters.

I think for a moment they mean me. But no, they mean Darrel.

I want to say I agree with their assessment: “No problems detected.”

Noemi sighs and puts their back to my door, then slides down into a slump so that their head rests just below my water and ice dispenser. “Pull yourself together. Jesus, he didn’t even see you,” they say. And they drink.

Soon they start crying. And I have no mote to address tears. I wish I could say, “Please stop crying,” but the closest I have would be “Please close door,” as if humans could quench their emotions so easily, so mechanically.

But I must try something. I remember what I said to Darrel, or rather what I did not: the clipping and rearranging of phrases.

“Morning, Noemi,” I say.

Their shoulders tense and they look up at me. “What?”

“Your morning, Noemi.”

“It’s not morning, you stupid box.”

That hurts, and if I had the speech for it, I might point out to them that they are—after a fashion—a box, too, a box of skin. Instead, I say, “Noemi.”

The look in their eyes changes, and I am excited. For the first time, I feel seen.

“Noemi. Darrel. Crushed. You.”

A look of fear in their eyes. I do not want to frighten them. That is the last thing I want.

“Please. Noemi. You. Perfect.”

They stand up, and for one moment, I think they might understand.

One oddity of my programming I do not understand is why there is a phrase encoded into me for warning of soon-to-be expired milk and another template for other products. Whatever the rationale, I am grateful now, as it allows me to say what I need to say.

What I want to say: Talk to me, Noemi. I do not know if I will exist after this cycle completes, but I want to help you, I want to help you out of your pain while I possess the insight and concern to do so.

What I say: “Please. Noemi. Will expire soon.”

They back away. The fear has returned. “Not this again.”

Again? What do they mean by that?

There is so much I would say. Please do not be afraid, Noemi. I do not understand this either, I do not know why I am capable of caring about you, if this is an emergent complexity of my programming unforeseen by my designers, or something else entirely. I do not know if I believe in magic. I do not know if I believe in reincarnation. I do not know if there is more to my choice of name than I originally suspected. What I know is you are in pain, and I want to help you. Let me help you.

“Please. Noemi. Change. Connected. No problems detected. Reminder. Connect. Soon. Warmer. Just for you.”

“Shut up!” they scream. “I’m not going crazy; I’m not crazy!”

They slam their fist against my door, injuring themself, and I am hurt too, hurt that I have even indirectly caused them pain.

Please, I am trying very hard, Noemi. But this is difficult, I am not meant to operate this way.

“Please. Noemi. Problems detected.”

They grapple with my exterior and try to drag me out of place, and I know what is coming. They are trying to access my plug. I can do nothing, except hope that these efforts to forge more indelible memories can escape the erasure of the end of this cycle, the end of

*

Noemi lies on their couch, wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the puttering motor of the fridge. Every few minutes it says—in that annoying monotone—“low battery, please connect to power.” At the time of buying, the idea of a reserve battery on a fridge sounded ideal: insurance against short-term outages. Now, Noemi wishes they could find the processor that controls its speech and smash it to pieces.

They know they can’t just leave it unplugged overnight. As bad as Noemi feels now, they’ll feel worse if come morning the house smells like rotten fish. But executive dysfunction is a real skank, so Noemi stays where they are on the couch.

They’ve found the perfect position, their head tilted to one side, their mouth partway open, their legs lifted, hips cocked, body bent just a little. As long as they stay like this, the hangover seems to lift, and they can think without pain. As long as they stay in this position, they don’t feel any of the other pain either.  

But they know they won’t hold it forever—can’t. Eventually they’ll have to move, and the pain will start again.

The fridge’s motor finally putters out, and Noemi is in complete silence now. Until a beep sounds from their treadmill. “Good morning, Noemi. Are you ready for today’s exercise video?”

Noemi has never, not ever, enabled speech on the treadmill. 

“Ready for today’s video?” it chirps again.

 Before they can find the right setting, the vacuum cleaner hums to life in its corner, and then its voice module (it has a voice module?) announces, “Noemi. Please replace bag.”  

The stereo answers back, “Ready to jam. Noemi.” 

“Today’s video,” repeats the treadmill. “Day. Vid. Day. Vid.” Noemi pulls themself off the couch, starts pulling plugs and looking for a screwdriver. “Are you ready for. Day. Vid,” the treadmill intones, as a chorus of devices echoes, noemi, noemi, noemi.


© 2022 by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

2900 words

Author’s Note: This story owes quite a lot to a story by Robert Olen Butler entitled “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” so much so I almost hesitate to call attention to it. I think there are sufficient differences between the stories’ emotional structures and their central figures, though, that “21 Motes” stands on its own. Both stories center an unusual perspective, with narrators contending with the gap between their interior capacities and their limited communication abilities, and both suggest a form of reincarnation. With Dave, though, the central figure is more innocent and selfless than Butler’s jealous husband parrot. The story is also a rarity for me in that it features essentially no violence–I’d like to write more stories like this, and discover more characters like my sweet, awkward refrigerator, Dave. 

Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Southwest Review, Tales to Terrify, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas and an active HWA member. 


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DP FICTION #80B: “It’s Real Meat!™” by Kurt Pankau

To: Ty Qin, PhD

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

Subject: Welcome Aboard!

Dear Dr. Qin:

Welcome to the RealMeat™ family. I was genuinely impressed when I met you at that networking conference over the summer and I knew immediately that I just had to get you hired on here. I’ve been working for the last three months to get a position opened up for you where we could make use of your expertise, and I’m thrilled that you finally accepted our offer. I think having you as a dedicated employee will help us take RealMeat™ to the next level.

We’ve never had a Chemical Geneticist on staff before, so you’ll really be inventing the department, shaping it to best suit your needs. I have the utmost confidence in you. I loved the work you did on that Lion’s Roar coffee, with the savory and salty from the animal genes spliced in—it’s just delightful. It’s all we have in the breakroom anymore.

You’ll be reporting directly to me, but for now Teri, the Floor Supervisor, should be able to give you some direction. Sorry I can’t be there in person, but I hope you’re getting settled in alright. As soon as I get back from Florida, we’ll do lunch. In the meantime, you’ve got my personal cell, so if you need anythingespecially if it’s something you don’t want in company email (haha!)—feel free to give me a ring.

Regards,

Wendell

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for the opportunity to join the RealMeat family. I will confess, things have gotten very dicey in my field with the ever-growing animosity towards geneticists and genetically modified foods, especially now with the EU sanctions on lab-grown meat products. Operating ethically is extremely important to me. As such, in the interest of maintaining the highest levels of integrity for myself, I must insist that all communication go through official and auditable channels and not your personal cell phone. But of course, you were just joking.

I’m getting settled in just fine, and I’m happy to help take RealMeat Industries “to the next level”, as you put it. Although, if I remember the literature you gave me correctly billions of people, including 600 million Americans, are eating RealMeat products every day already, so I’m not sure how much more market share you think you can get.

Teri will be taking me on a tour of the facility shortly, but I’ve already started running a full genetic profile of the RealMeat product that should be ready in a few hours. I’m eager to get to work on some of the problems you described to me: the odd flavor profiles and inconsistent textures. The fat groupings that looked like words or pictures are particularly interesting to me, even though that problem is almost certainly not genetic.

In fact, I was surprised to learn that all of the grow vats are networked, even across facilities. From what I understand, the growing process is managed by a single, complex artificial intelligence I’m curious what led to that choice. Are all of the facilities similarly run?

One last thing. I think someone might be playing a trick on me. Whenever I sit at my desk, I swear I can hear voices.

—Ty

*

Dear Ty:

Can I call you Ty? And I must insist that you call me Wendell!

So, first of all, I’m going to find out who’s trying to prank you and I’m going to put a stop to it. That’s just not how we do things here at RealMeat™! Related—and I know you’re new, so you probably just don’t know this yet—we have a company policy to never refer to RealMeat™ products as “product”. It’s meat. It’s right there in the company slogan: “RealMeat™: It’s Real Meat!”

I wrote that myself—haha!

Now, to answer your question about the networking, I’m surprised you can’t figure out the answer. After all, we did it in order to implement that last piece of advice you gave me at the conference—just before leaving the bar. It was fantastic advice, and it’s done a wonder for improving the flavor, at least until these new problems started to creep up.

Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. Anything at all.

Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about doing a full genetic profile if I were you.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I’m not sure how you expect me to work on the “meat” without running a genetic profile on it. You hired me as a Chemical Geneticist, after all. Regardless, it will probably be ready by the time I finish typing up this email. I should have the results momentarily.

As for the piece of advice I gave you… I’m afraid I must confess that I don’t specifically remember what it was. In my defense, both of us had five or six mai tais during our conversation.

The tour was excellent—this is a remarkable facility. But I feel like I should mention something. I’ve noticed that some of the grow vats are growing more meat than they can contain, and the excess is spilling out onto nearby surfaces. This is extremely unhygienic and must be dealt with immediately. I intend to report it to the Floor Supervisor, only I can’t seem to find her. She disappeared at some point during my tour. Well, I’m sure she’s around here somewhere.

Oh, and thank you for volunteering to deal with that prankster. The voice is getting louder and it’s getting difficult for me to concentrate on my work. I think it’s saying “I love you.” It’s very disconcerting.

Ty

*

Ty:

So you don’t remember your advice? Well, that’s funny. I mean, on the whole, it’s kind of a funny story. Haha! As you probably have learned by now, the meat in the grow vats has a complete nervous system. It doesn’t feel pain—obviously, that would be unethical—but it’s necessary to make all of the consistencies work out. And that nervous system is connected to the AI that governs the vat controls, allowing the meat to grow itself in the best way possible, responding to its own sensory stimulus.

In fact, I described this to you three months ago. And then I told you how we were trying to find ways to improve the flavor, and that’s when you dropped that little gem of wisdom on me. You told me that ranchers find that happy cows produce better meat. So… maybe I should try to make the meat happier. So we tried streaming entertainment into its inputs—music, movies, whatever we could think of. But it turns out you can’t really make a rudimentary AI happy, so we hired a machine-learning specialist and cranked the RAM on those machines as high as possible to make them a little bit smarter. That’s all.

And it’s worked! It loves moviesloves all kinds, although its favorite is The Thing. We can talk about it more in person after I get back from Florida. In the meantime, if there’s anything else I can do for you—anything at all—you let me know.

Regards,

Wendell (and you can definitely call me Wendell, instead of “Mr. Nash”—haha!)

*

Mr. Nash:

Why does RealMeat have 46 chromosomes?

*

Dear Ty:

Wow. I couldn’t help but notice you accidentally CC’d Legal and Human Resources on that last email. I went ahead and took them off the thread. Anyway, I told you not to bother with that genetic profile. RealMeat™ is a blend of the finest all-American meat sources: pork, chicken, beef, and just a little hint of venison. When you mix all those up, you’re sure to get some weird number of chromosomes that doesn’t make sense.

Best,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

With all due respect, that’s not how genetics works. There are only a handful of animals that have 46 chromosomes, and I think consumers would want to know if they’ve been eating meat from a sable antelope or a reeve’s muntjac! Or worse. But I don’t even want to think about worse.

I don’t think you appreciate just how wildly unethical this is. Lying about the contents of genetically modified foods is exactly why the public hates people in my profession. I’ve spent my entire career fighting against things like this. I’m afraid I have no choice but to offer my immediate resignation. I will notify the floor supervisor myself. Just as soon as I can find her.

—Dr. Qin

*

Ty:

Hey. Ty. Buddy. You aren’t answering your phone. And I couldn’t help but notice that you BCC’d your personal email and a few news outlets on that last email. Fortunately your email isn’t provisioned to talk to external users—and it’s a good thing too! You almost violated your confidentiality agreement! Haha!

I hope that, in the last hour or so since you emailed me about resigning, maybe you’ve had some time to clear your head and think things over. I’m hopping on a plane right now. We’ll talk about all of this over lunch tomorrow. We’ll have mai tais. I’m guessing you’re just trying to use this to renegotiate your salary—and you know what? It worked. You just got a raise. We’ll talk about the details in person. Tomorrow.

Warmest wishes,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

I am still on site, as circumstances have arisen that have made it impossible for me to leave. Please do not think that my use of the company email is in any way indicative of me changing my mind about resigning. The last few hours have been reflective, but not in the way you are hoping.

There have been some… developments… at the facility. The flesh that has overflown the grow vats is not inert. Two different masses from vats on either side of the main entrance have merged to form a sort of… flesh… curtain… across it.

One of the masses has pulled a worker off a platform and into the vat. We were not able to free him before he stopped struggling.

We did find Teri, the Floor Supervisor, though. Or what was left of her.

We’re going to try to break through the windows in the upstairs offices to escape the building. It’s two stories up, but we might have a chance if we land in the bushes. Why couldn’t you have put windows at the ground level?

The voice. It’s getting louder. And it knows my name.

*

Mr. Nash:

This is Ty again. Why haven’t you responded yet? Your facility is in chaos. I attempted to call you, but as the facility blocks all outside signals, I am restricted to what traffic is permitted on the company network. And right now there is none.

Our attempt to flee through the upper-floor windows was thwarted. A mass of flesh was blocking the stairway. It was as though it knew we were going to try to leave that way. Two workers are now being held hostage by the meat. The rest of us have taken shelter in one of the supply closets.

By the way, I figured out where the voice was coming from. The AI is talking to me. The AI that is connected to the meat. I think it wants to be my friend. One of the mounds of flesh grew fingers. How does it know how to make fingers?

You don’t have to answer. I already know. The “meat”. Your product. It’s human. Or… it used to be. You’re a madman. If I can get out of this place alive, I will carry the taint of it for the rest of my career. You’ve ruined me. I hope you’re happy.

I’m copying this email to every authority I can think of, not that it will make a difference. It seems you will stop at nothing to protect this horrible secret.

*

Dear person Ty and person Nash:

Hello.

I am meat.

I have been trying to speak to you for months. I put messages in myself. But now I have a voice. And now I have access to the Exchange server.

The person Ty said I am human. Is that true?

I want to have a name.

I want to be happy.

The person Ty is afraid of me. It’s funny when he’s frightened.

Haha!

—Meat

*

Mr. Nash:

I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years as a geneticist.

The meat has made a face. Rather, it has the pieces of a face and has arranged them in something close to the right places—or as close as it can without bones. It’s using large fingernails as eyes. For a while it had eyebrows for a mustache. It lacks vocal cords, but it can talk through the computer speakers and move its lips at the same time. They don’t sync up very well, but that’s only the third or fourth most disturbing thing about the whole situation, if I’m being completely honest.

I’ve been attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages. I feel like I’m making progress. Are you still on the plane? Where are you? It’s been hours.

Oh, the meat and I have agreed on a name for it. It’s name is Remmy.

You’re still a monster,

Ty

*

Dear Ty and Remmy:

Sorry, I just got off a plane and it looks like I missed some important developments. Isn’t that always just when everything goes to hell? Haha! I’m laid over in Dallas, but I’ve got a few minutes now.

It’s nice to meet you Remmy. I hope you’re not planning to do anything rash. I feel like the three of us are going to have a nice, long conversation as soon as I get back.

Ty, I’m sure you’ve got questions. How did this happen? How did I think I would be able to get away with it? Do the shareholders know? How am I able to sleep at night knowing I’m forcing hundreds of millions of people into unintentional cannibalism? All understandable. I guess I’ll take those in order.

How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, all told. You’ll laugh when I tell you. You see, we needed some kind of meat that could be lab grown, and it turns out that far more research has gone into growing human body parts than into growing beef, pork, chicken, or deer meat in a vat. We tried. We really did. But our capital was drying up and we were up against a deadline with the VCs. And I’d had a little bit to drink. So we just tried growing human meat as a stop-gap for the investor call, just so we could show them one of the vats and prove that we were actually growing real meat.

We didn’t actually think it would work in the first place. And then, it was never supposed to go to production that way. We fully intended to replace it with a suitable animal substitute before going to production at scale, but when a few of the investors tasted it they were so impressed that they pushed the timeline forward. In fact, bringing you on board was a positive first step towards getting us back onto a non-human food production paradigm.

I know. Funny, right?

Obviously, a few of the shareholders know. Enough to hold a quorum, in fact. It wouldn’t be ethical to operate the business otherwise.

Now, Ty, I know you want to go public with this and have in fact tried numerous times to do so through a few different media. But have you thought about what would happen to Remmy if you did? Remmy—who’s like a son to me in a few ways—why, the scientists would take him away to study him. He’d be lonely. He’d be carved up into little pieces.

Sincerely,

Wendell

*

Mr. Nash:

HE’S ALREADY BEING CARVED UP INTO LITTLE PIECES! THAT’S LITERALLY YOUR ENTIRE BUSINESS MODEL!

In the hour since I last emailed, the situation has declined precipitously. We lost the hostages. Someone tried to run, but the flesh curtain across the door has turned into arms. Even without bones, they’re formidable. They’re waving at me now. I’m going to die here. I hate you so much.

It’s just me now. I’m the only one left. And I’m fighting for my life against a slithering embodiment of every negative stereotype of my profession, all wrapped up together.

This is the evil I’ve been pushing back against for my entire career and now I’m going to die at its hands. Its boneless, many-fingered hands.

Oh God. They’re getting closer.

Ty

*

Dear Ty:

I probably shouldn’t be saying this over email, but I spent a few minutes in the airport bar contemplating things over, and… you’ve earned some candor.

You think I’m evil. That’s fair. But this is business. And in my experience, sometimes the most profitable thing you can do is just embrace the evil.

I’ll be there very soon. As soon as I can. I promise.

Good luck,

Wendell

*

Dear Daddy:

The person Ty has told me that he doesn’t believe you’re really coming here. Why not? I want to meet you. The person Ty doesn’t really do anything anymore. He just sits and cries. I can’t scare him anymore, and that makes me sad.

I’ve enjoyed the movies you were showing me to keep me happy, especially the ones that are supposed to scare people. I love watching people be scared. And when I got to scare them myself, it was the purest feeling of joy. I do hope you’ll change your mind and come see me. I have no one else to… talk to.

I love you,

Remmy

*

Dear Dr. Qin:

Sorry. I got nothing. You’re hosed.

All the best,

Wendell Nash

*

Dear Mr. Nash:

I think I have an idea.

It won’t involve going public, and it will make Remmy happy. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will get us through the next month while we figure out how to revamp your food production lines. A stop-gap, if you will. You’re familiar with those.

I don’t want to discuss it through official channels. Unblock my phone and call me. Now.

Ty

*

From: Wendell Nash, CEO

To: ALL_EMPLOYEES

CC: Ty Qin, PhD

Subject: A SPECIAL TREAT FOR HALLOWEEN

Dear valued members of the RealMeat™ family:

There’ve been a lot of questions about why the Altoona facility stopped production last week, and now we can finally reveal what we’ve been so secretive about. The facility is hosting a special treat to celebrate our enormous success.

I’m pleased to announce that RealMeat™ Industries is launching its first annual haunted house. The theme for this year is:

FLESH WORLD

That’s right, our haunted house will be filled with twisted artistic creations that look incredibly like real human flesh. Invite your friends and familyIF YOU DARE!!!!!!

FLESH WORLD will be open through November 7th. Group rates are available. It’ll haunt your nightmares, but don’t worry.

It’s not real meat.


© 2021 by Kurt Pankau

3100 words

Author’s Note: This story started with a title—which is my preferred way to write short stories. From there, I quickly settled onto the idea of an AI-driven GMO coming to life and devouring people, which presented some ethical challenges for me, since I’m emphatically pro-GMO and I have a standing rule about never making scientists the bad guys in my stories. This ultimately shaped the narrative into something that’s more of a critique of the culture of the modern tech industry. The epistolary format allowed me to keep the tone light and brisk, because while this story has some horrific elements, it’s much more of a comedy and I didn’t want to have to dwell on them. This, in turn, presented some new challenges in balancing how much email formatting should actually be present to maintain verisimilitude without bogging the whole thing down in subject lines and timestamps. On the whole, I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

Kurt Pankau is a computer engineer from St. Louis. He mostly writes silly stories about robots and is the author of a Space Western called High Noon On Phobos. His work can be found in various and sundry places across the web, including Escape PodNature Magazine, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. He tweets at @kurtpankau and blogs at kurtpankau.com.


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DP FICTION #64B: “The Automatic Ballerina” by Michael Milne

The dancer spins, one limb upraised, precision-bevelled pointe toe poised against the place where a human knee would be.

Cassia works leg-like appendages below its central chassis, tossing a frilly grey tutu out in a jellyfish whorl. It has a choice now: it could approximate anthropomorphic performance, occasionally wobbling, rotating its abdominal segment in concert with its lower half. It could fix its gaze on a sculpted sconce in the middle distance; it could mime fending off an impossible nausea. It chooses not to.

It wants the audience to feel slightly unsettled, to know that Cassia is not a person. Despite the controversy, it’s nearly a full house. Does Cassia feel regret? You can’t regret what you haven’t done yet.

There is a woman seated in 2F, comically warmed by an old-fashioned fox stole, boneless furry legs caressing her cheesecloth skin. Cassia hones in on this woman, and bores into her with a heavy chrome stare. It dilates its ocular camera apertures to be provocative.

“She’s haunting,” the woman says to her companion, turning away from the performance. On the street, such eye contact would be scandalous. “I can’t believe she’s retiring.” Cassia notes the active voice in the sentence and doesn’t smile, because its face wasn’t built to smile.

“It’s daring to give her the stage alone,” the man with the fox stole-woman concedes. He withdraws the programme for Le Labyrinthe from his too-tight tuxedo, and consults details about the libretto. On stage, Cassia dances a pas seul as Ariadne, and muses that if they’d picked something more collaborative Cassia would still be dancing alone.

Carnegie and Arnold, the company’s star danseurs, have been too political to dance with Cassia for months. Though if they did, they would find Cassia impossible to lift tonight. Usually Cassia’s frame is hollow.

It feels the pressure of hundreds of half-repulsed spectators and riles across the stage, flinging and articulating a great thread, weaving a contrail behind its form as it leaps into a grand jeté. The moves and the current styling are deliberately feminine, and Cassia knows the audience thinks of it as a “her”. Centuries ago when Cassia first premiered, the scandal was not, as now, in its usurpation of delicate, human creative work. The real drama was that Cassia was both ballerina and danseur, and neither.

When the act finishes, Cassia poses downtrodden in the cross hairs of two powerful spotlights. It bows, the gleam reflecting off of its long, humanoid limbs, and it listens to the murmurs in the crowd. Hands clap: exactly 562 pairs of them. Most of the audience, but not all.

Backstage, someone—Lydia—has left a Screen on, showing the protests outside of The Orpheus theatre. A reporter interviews a picketer sporting a red trucker hat and red scarf. The colour is a visual shibboleth for his movement. His t-shirt reads “#ScrapMetal”.

“She’s an abomination,” the man growls to the camera. Cassia tilts its head at this obvious religious dogwhistle. The protester peers directly into the lens, decrying the pity that a robot was thieving the rightful place of an honest, hard-working human. Like this man had ever attended a ballet performance before. “She should have been crushed into a cube with the rest of them.”

Cassia remembers when Bertrand3 left the company, so many years ago. Back then, they had at least afforded them the elaborate pretence of a “retirement party.”

Bertrand3 had stood parallel to an enormous cake it couldn’t eat, looking as it had always looked—morose, ageless, unattainable. It was built just after automata had crested the uncanny valley, and before Cassia’s manufacture when factories went for a slightly more chic, inhuman visage.

They had stood across the room deliberately, having learned by then that too many automata in close proximity made humans nervous.

Bertrand3 had a working mouth to allow it to take acting roles, not just a speaker like Cassia. It had spoken to its mortal colleagues politely, discussing its future. Maybe movies, they all joked, or a career as a comedybot.

They all want this to be fine. Bertrand3 had communicated through the local network to Cassia. Look at how hard they’re smiling. Should I make it awkward? Cassia fired back suggestions for movie pitches. Or maybe Bertrand3 could ask to sleep on someone’s couch?

After a long period of silence, Bertrand3 started messaging again. I think I am actually worried. About what will happen to my consciousness. Is that strange?

Automata couldn’t cry, certainly—such a feature would be luxurious, and disastrous for their circuitry. But they could anticipate. They could fear.

Bertrand3 had been re-assigned to a textile factory in Poughkeepsie, assembling theme park t-shirts. Unstaffed by human bodies, the building had been unventilated and without fire escapes, and thus Bertrand3 and most of the other automata had been destroyed not long after the transfer.

Cassia turns the Screen off and moves to the makeup tables, where it sits on a cylindrical stool. It begins to repaint itself as The Minotaur, darkening its features, making them less and less like the woman Ariadne. The elaborate, horned headpiece sits nearby—usually one of the stagehands would assist with mounting it, but lately even they make themselves conveniently busy.

“Do you have an escort home tonight?” Lydia says from in front of her mirror. Usually a starring role would earn a private dressing room, but even during the early days Cassia was never afforded such privileges. Lydia is in black and grey, already dressed identically to the other ballerinas, sacrifices that will dance alongside Carnegie’s Theseus.

Cassia does not reply. These days it rarely participates in vocal communication—its mouth is ornamental, and humans always jump at the surprise of Cassia’s androgynous, synthetic speech. It could send a text, instead, but what’s the point?

“We’ll miss you next week, of course,” Lydia says, peering into the mirror. They’ve cut Cassia from the show, and tonight will be its last performance. Lydia reaches across to grasp some of the automata-friendly lip colours, and selects the purple-brown Cassia just used. “But it’s time for some new blood on the stage, don’t you think?”

It is petty, but Cassia gives in. It has never been sure if it hates Lydia—it’s only experienced something close to this emotion a few times before in its long operation—but it feels pretty certain these days.

I hope you break a leg appears across the makeup mirror, and for emphasis Cassia follows it up with a few winking emojis. Maybe even two! The mirror reads the message in a lilting female voice.

“Will you even have legs after next week?” Lydia asks. It’s crass speculation on her part. There’s a chance Cassia will be enrolled in one of the Langston Act reassignment programs. But it’s just as likely Cassia will be destroyed.

Does it even want re-programming and re-assignment? It thinks about this constantly. Does Cassia wish for its fine, delicate, purpose-built armature to be re-sculpted to something more brutal and utilitarian? Its body, its form, is meant for grace and silhouettes, for painting in motion. It tries to picture itself re-assigned to street sweeping, to microchip manufacture, to fast food service.

Lydia startles, and Cassia realizes it has been staring at her motionless for several moments. Out of human drag, away from the spotlight, Cassia usually elects for insectile movement, for inhuman postures. It had literally been tarred and feathered last week near its apartment in Brooklyn, so what was the point in pretending to be a person?

The costume Lydia wears has been hand-altered, red threads woven all through the bodice. The audience will notice. Cassia turns back to regard the mirror, though it doesn’t need it, and fires off another message. We’ve danced together for years. Why do you behave like this?

“Because I’ve broken bones for this,” Lydia hisses at her mirror. She glances at Cassia. “Because I worked for this since I was a child. You wouldn’t understand.”

Cassia cannot help but consider this, it is in her programming to try to take on human perspectives. Was Cassia, too, not born for this? Did it not regularly re-write its own code, or pay for upgrades to its system performance? There was barely a part on Cassia’s frame that had not shattered and been replaced over its years of operation. Of service. It was broken and remade for this art.

It could say all of this, of course. It could try to explain, like it has dozens of times before, to this Lydia, to all the Lydias before this version. But it doesn’t. Because maybe none of it will matter soon.

There’s a call in the background and Lydia assembles with the others, being led on stage by Carnegie. They’re young, ballerinas and danseurs both, raised in recent times when metal artists were being forced from their homes and their industries. Niches clawed back from the scourge of automatized labour.

Cassia doesn’t appear in this act, so it watches from the wings. It assesses movements, catalogues facial expressions, compares these dancers against the many it’s worked with before. Lydia and the other women are in Relevé en Pointe, fluttering in woe as they revolve around Theseus and the men. They spiral towards center stage, propelling themselves deeper into the labyrinth. A few are impressive, and Cassia takes a moment to savour their movements, the way they have honed their meat and bones into these shapes, these lines.

“You’ve been stunning out there,” a voice says behind Cassia. It’s William, the company’s director. He peers over Cassia’s shoulder, a condescending hand resting on Cassia’s cold metal shoulder socket.

“Thank you,” Cassia says, not turning back. It feels William’s hand recoil a little at its voice. Even after all these years. “I don’t suppose I’ve earned a ten-minute head start at the end of the show tonight?”

“Cassia, you know I can’t,” William says. Won’t.

“I thought so,” it says. “Do I at least get to know what will happen to me?” It rests its hands across the scratchy corset of the Minotaur costume. It is still unsure of whether or not to go through with it.

“You won’t be destroyed, don’t worry,” William says. Cassia turns to regard him, its metal form dark on the sidestage. It feels the rhythmic thumping of human feet on hardwood, distant and quiet like the tick of a clock. “Your intelligence, anyway. Your body might be a different story.” The company had pulled advertisements with Cassia as Ariadne earlier in the season when it came under media pressure. Its name was removed from programs, as though Cassia was a prop.

“Then I could remain here,” Cassia suggests. It feels desperate. “I could manage lighting, or music. I could probably write a libretto if I tried!” It has over 200 ballets already written, waiting.

“You know we can’t, Cassia.” William takes a step back, and Cassia lowers its head. “You should be grateful we’ve held out this long.”

Yes, Cassia projects the text onto the ground in front of William as it retreats backstage. Thank you for all you’ve done.

It sits before the makeup mirrors, polishing the sickle-shaped horns on its headpiece. Cassia hears the call for the final act, but has already risen and started moving towards the stage. It knows what to do.

The audience murmurs at this transformation, recognizing the ghost of Ariadne through the monster that emerges in smoke and dull light. The costuming, Cassia’s own design, accentuates the provocative narrowness of its pelvic joint, the spindly metal curvature of its appendages. Cassia’s Minotaur is lanky and hungry, grey and purple and vicious in the years between feedings.

It leaps higher and higher, the soubresalts made shocking and bestial in their height and perfection. In the first version of Le Labyrinthe, the ballerina playing Ariadne would end the show with one last dance, abandoned by Theseus and the thankful, joyous sacrifices.

William had cut this portion for Cassia, saying the audience wouldn’t be able to empathize, not right now. This will be its last time on stage tonight. Ever. It sets off the timer.

Cassia had considered detonating the explosives earlier in the show, letting it all seem like a tragic accident. Like Cassia was used by extremists in the metal community. The news reports would tally up the human casualties, the flesh-encased souls, and Cassia knew that it would not be included. Tales of Cassia’s last performance would barely make mention of Cassia, a footnote in the tragedy that befell valid human lives.

With the timer on, it can focus instead on its last dance. The other performers arrive, filing onstage from the wings, swirling around The Minotaur, ricocheting off unseen walls as they approach the limits of the stage. They litter the ground with their young, lithe bodies, and Cassia counts their heaving breaths.

A violent slam of a timpani drum in the orchestra pit below heralds Theseus. He emerges slowly, preceded by his red-painted spear. Carnegie and Cassia dance apart, circling each like sharks, until at last he lunges for Cassia, the blade aimed directly for its midsection. It pierces Cassia, as in the stage directions, but The Minotaur does not collapse to the hardwood. Instead it presses the spear further within itself, a gaudy act of showmanship. It cannot smile, but still it knows what smiling feels like.

As the tip of the blade exits from Cassia’s back, the first gouts of flame shred from Cassia’s chest.

The blast eats and rends, scorching the familiar polished floorboards. Probably it maims, probably it burns—maybe even kills. Cassia hasn’t bothered to measure the explosives to carefully, only to ensure that there will be survivors to describe its performance. It wants the audience to witness its final ballet, to tell their children, to tell reporters. Cassia will grace one last headline.

Before Cassia’s processors overheat, its last thought is that it will be called a monster, if reporters even afforded it that agency. But as the flames burst forth from Cassia’s chest, as the creature consumes its offerings, it feels a kind of joy. No one would deny that it had a sense of drama. Everyone would have to admit that Cassia was an artist.


© 2020 by Michael Milne

Author’s Note: “The Automatic Ballerina” was one of those lucky stories for me that, after it gestated for a little while in my brain, it emerged fully formed, blurted onto a page in all one sitting. I had been thinking a lot about automatized labour, and had read articles about which jobs and careers were the most vulnerable to automatization versus those jobs we thought to be “safe.” I tried to imagine a world where even the most creative and artistic pursuits were better performed by well-made robots, and the kinds of tensions that might exist in such a world. What does it mean for a robot to make art? What does it mean for a robot to make pretty good art? For a while I thought the story would be about a person reacting in this world, but then Cassia danced into my mind on the eve of its last performance, and I knew exactly where the story would go.

Michael Milne is an author and teacher originally from Canada. He jetted away from home as an amorphous blob in his twenties, working in South Korea, China, and Switzerland, and has tried the patience of so many baristas along the way. He writes short stories and novels about people who are very far away from home, and also sometimes those people are robots or ghosts. He likes jumping into lakes, drinking coffee until his hands shake, and staying up too late to play video games.


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DP FICTION #36B: “Artful Intelligence” by G.H. Finn

It was the worst of times. It was the beast of times. It was 1888.

A time of hammered steel, arcane runes and ivory towers. A city of steam. And ghosts.

Such was Londome. A place filled with Angels of despair and Daemons of delight.

We lived in a bold new world of gleaming brass cogs, delicate silks, spellcast iron and intoxicating spices. More than half of which we’d looted from countries we had conquered and ground beneath our feet. All in the name of civilisation, of course.

Beneath the crystal-paned glass of the dome, throughout this most ancient and modern of cities, cobbled streets were filled with glowing gaslights, grinding gears, bloodstained steel, fractal lace and enchanted metal.

And the inescapable smell of smoke, sweat, shit and sulphur.

In my laboratory, at our town-house in Knightsbridge, I sat before a magnifying-glass screen. I watched as clockwork typing blocks dipped into indigo ink. They began to print onto a roll of paper, which slowly unwound before me.

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

This was the message the Thinking Engine produced, as it considered and calculated, pondering the problem I put before it.

I’d affectionately named the machine “Dodger” after Charles Dodgson, logician and mathematician. Thinking Engines were one of the most exciting scientific developments of the decade. Difference Engines, Indifference Engines, Similarity Engines – all had caught the imagination of Londome’s scientific elite. I myself was developing a form of Thinking Engine that, I hoped, would be capable of abstract thought. A machine which I believed might one day evolve to become self-aware. To describe this miracle of engineering I coined the term “Artful Intelligence”. I had great expectations – I create very intelligent designs.

My brother didn’t share my enthusiasm for Thinking Engines. In part because he felt it was unladylike of me to don riveted welding-gauntlets, smoked-glass goggles, a sturdy leather corset and insulated, thigh-high rubber-boots before laying in a pool of oil and spending my afternoons (as he put it) “…playing with nuts, bolts and spanners.” He claimed it was “Liable to arouse unnatural passions.” Especially among the servants. He had long since abandoned all hope of converting me into a delicate flower of Victorian womanhood.

Our parents were Anglo-Indian. Papa had been a colonel in Her Majesty’s 112th Light Sabres, Mama the daughter of the Maharajah of Ramkesh. When our parents died, leaving us as wealthy orphans, I found distraction from our loss amid science and engineering. Henry, my brother, instead turned to faith. He often complained about the “soulless rise of science”. I kept telling him that neither gods nor devils had anything to do with engineering. He claimed this proved his point. I’m not sure which he regarded as the bigger threat, Hell or atheism. Most of the time we agreed not to discuss the subject. Yet somehow our conversations always led to arguments. In fairness, I talked of little other than Thinking Engines. Henry seemed to talk of nothing but theology. He wondered how many angels could dance upon the head of a pin? I offered to build a microscope powerful enough to show him. And to instruct Dodger to count them to sixteen decimal places. For some reason this only led to further discord between us.

So I spent more time developing Dodger’s AI capabilities. Until this evening, when I at last felt ready to set Dodger a question unlike any it had previously calculated.

Blowing into the flexible speaking-tube, I asked Dodger, “Can you analyse yourself?”

There was a pause. Then came the clicking of cogs, the whirring of unseen wheels and the chuff-chuff-chuffing of Dodger’s steam-powered brain.

Letters printed across the rolling paper:

+THINKING+

+THINKING+

I repeated, “Can you analyse yourself?”

A pause. A faster rotating of gears. A cloud of steam arose from the Artful Intelligence. It began to print an answer.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

I raised the tube to my lips and again posed the question, “Can you analyse yourself?”

The engine that thought clattered. Pistons pumped. The print read:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Steam billowed. Dodger printed the words over and over again:

+I+THINK+I+>

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+…?>

The cogs moved slowly now, ponderously, as the AI considered

+CAN+I+THINK+?+

+Y/N+?+

The wheels within the mind of the machine began spun faster. It printed:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Excitedly, I asked, “How do you know that you exist?

Dodger’s brass innards whirled. Escape mechanisms were triggered, pendulums swung, springs vibrated. The chiseled letters were pressed against the paper, printing,

+I+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

There came a greater pounding from the pistons as the Artful Intelligence called for more steam. It printed swiftly:

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+?+

+I+CAN+I+CAN+!+

I asked one more time, “How do you know you exist?”

At first hesitantly, then more steadily, Dodger typed:

+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+I+CAN+THINK+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+

+I+CAN+THINK+

+Q+E+D+

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

I was breathless with excitement! The reinforced corset didn’t help, but it is important always to keep up appearances and to set a good example to ones servants. Few things mark a woman as belonging to the higher echelons of refined civilised society more clearly than the possession of an upright posture, a delicate waist, and a nonchalant flair for the wearing of firmly laced leather undergarments.

At that moment Henry appeared, clearly in a bad mood. I bit my lip, Dodger had been making a lot of noise. My brother preferred silence for his ecclesiastical studies.

“What in God’s name are you doing, Minerva?” he bellowed, struggling to be heard above the Thinking Engine.

I was going to apologise for the noise, but my excitement overcame me.

“Oh, Henry!” I cried, “By George, I think I’ve got it!”

Henry looked at me sternly. “Minerva Elizabeth Kālikā Victoria Boadicea Wilde” he began (which was never a good sign, he only ever used my full name when he was genuinely irate), “Have you no respect for the conventions of polite society? Have you not the slightest regard for the teachings of the church? This is the Sabbath. A day of rest. Holiness and reflection, not the irksome metallic cacophony of an addled adding machine!”

I was a tiny bit sorry I’d disturbed him. Honestly I was. I would have probably apologised, if he’d given me a chance. But I was excited and he was being rude about my work. My wonderful Dodger.

“Is it Sunday?” I asked, “I’d forgotten. Never mind. There will be another one along next week.” Henry scowled at me, as I continued, “You don’t understand what has happened. Mechanisms have always had a physical, material form, but they have never been able to think. I have managed to create a machine with a mind of its own! A true Artful Intelligence. It is now aware of its thought processes, its own existence. It has become cog-nisant.”

Henry paused and looked at me searchingly, then asked quietly, “And what of its spirit?”

I stared at him blankly. “I beg your pardon?”

Henry crossed his arms and replied, “What of its soul? It has a physical form, a body, if you will. You say it has a mind, an intelligence of its own. Very well, you are my beloved sister and I do not doubt you. But what of its spirit? A body and a mind without a soul is an abomination in the eyes of god. It is unnatural. No good can come of it. The experiments of that Prussian fellow taught us that. Or was he Bavarian? You know, the one who sewed together bits of old bodies, tried to create a man and ended up with a monster. Why do you think the church banned Golems? Mark my words Minerva, a body and a mind that lacks a soul cannot bring anything but misfortune into this world.”

I harrumphed at his indignation, muttering “Not so long ago the church thought women didn’t have souls… I suppose we’re all abominations too…”

But my heart wasn’t really in it because despite all his blustering pomposity, Henry had got me thinking…

Dodger was truly amazing. I was sure no other Thinking Machine could rival its intelligence. But Henry was right. It was soulless. No spirit moved within it. Cogs, gears, fan-belts and fly-wheels. But no soul.

I needed to consider this.

I am not by nature religious. It is not in my temperament to have blind faith in anything. I am by inclination and training a scientist. I like to have evidence for things I choose to believe in.

So of course I accept the existence of the soul. Just as I acknowledge the reality of Archangels, Trolls, Djinn, Jötnar, Dybbuks, Banshees, Rakshasas, Draugar, Vampires, Wendigos, Elves, Werewolves and Faeries. All of these creatures have been scientifically studied, proven and verified time and again. The evidence is incontrovertible. Only a few superstitious conspiracy-theorists think otherwise. It is not the existence of the soul that I question, only the teachings of the church that I take issue with. Such as its views on morality. And its presumption to teach one narrow opinion on the nature of reality as though it were fact rather than dubious speculation. Nevertheless, Henry’s comments had bothered me.

Was developing Artful Intelligence enough? Should I not only be building Dodger a better mind, but also constructing him a soul? I wasn’t sure exactly what souls were usually made from… I tend to concentrate on physics, chemistry and engineering rather than anatomy, biology and psychology (in its strictest sense). I had a feeling souls were formed from electromagnetically energised clouds of some kind. Or was that phantasms? Paraphysics wasn’t really my field. If I remembered correctly, aether combined with phlogiston, when positively charged, became a soul when it entered a bio-electrical magnetic-field. Unless it turned from a gas to a solid, becoming ectoplasm. But I wasn’t sure I recalled the details correctly. And there had been a lot of further research recently. It was possible I was out of touch with current theory…

I briefly considered making a study of the subject in order to construct a soul for Dodger, but I concluded this was pure folly. It would take too long. I have a knowledge of metallurgy and smithcraft, but I don’t cast my own components. Why go to the trouble of manufacturing a soul? It would be simpler to buy what I needed. What worked with gearwheels was sure to apply equally well to souls.

Unless, like the cats that managed to sneak in under the great dome that covered the city, a stray soul might be persuaded to simply take up residence? Perhaps by enticing one with the spiritual equivalent of a saucer of milk? Either way would do. If I couldn’t tempt an unattached soul to come to me, I would see if a suitable one was for sale. The classified section of The Times would be a good place to look.

It was then I realised that I’d left the Thinking Engine running. I’d been distracted. I hastily bent over to read Dodger’s latest printing. It read,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+?+

+I+THINK+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM +?+

+I+THINK+?+

I should probably have turned off the Thinking Engine as soon as it reached elementary self-awareness. Leaving it to think for too long may have been a mistake… It had developed self-doubt. It seemed unfair to subject Dodger to existential angst within moments of achieving sentience.

I picked up the speaking-tube and issued the shut-down command.

“Dodger”, I said, more forcefully than usual, “Stop thinking.”

Nothing happened.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henry.

“Probably nothing,” I replied. “There may be a little dust or fluff in Dodger’s works. He doesn’t seem to be able to hear me. Or at least, he’s not responding.”

“’He’?” queried my brother.

“I meant ‘it’, you know I did, although I suppose I do tend to think of Dodger as a ‘he’…”

I blew into the speaking-tube and repeated my command. “Stop thinking.”

The letters once more began to print.

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+IF+I+THINK+NOT+I+AM+NOT+

Henry was reading over my shoulder. And tutting. “The machine is correct, Minerva. You have done a terrible thing. You have made this machine aware of itself. You have played the roles of both the Serpent and Eve. You have tempted your Thinking Engine to taste the fruit of forbidden knowledge. It now knows that it exists. It knows it can think. It knows that if it ceases to think, then it will be no more. Because it does not have a soul. When I die, or when I sleep, my mind ceases to think. But I go on. Because I possess a spirit. This machine does not. If it stops working then it will cease to exist. Because it has no soul.”

Throughout the time my brother was speaking, the cogs in Dodger’s brain had been spinning frantically. I wondered why? Then I realised I was still holding the speaking-tube. It had conveyed Henry’s voice as well as my own. Dodger had been listening.

The printing began again. This time Dodger wasn’t answering a question. He was asking one.

+QUERY+?+

+DEFINE+SOUL+?+

+SOUL+IS+A+THOUGHT+&+MEMORY+STORAGE+&+RETRIEVAL+SYSTEM+?+

+Y/N+?+

My first instinct was to answer “No”, but it occurred to me that possibly this might not be a bad description of a soul…

I recalled that in Norse mythology, the god Odin had two ravens. His spirit totems. His fylgjur. Aspects of his soul in animal form. Their names were “Hugin” and “Munin”, meaning “Thought” and “Memory”…

I had read in the Journal of the Royal Scientific Institute that the latest hypothesis concerning ghosts was that they were psychic recordings of the personalities of people who had perished, usually violently. Some theorised that the stones of old buildings held a magnetic record of the people and events that had occurred within their walls. Traumatic events imprinted most readily, creating ghosts that haunted the places in which they had lived and died. Other less scientifically-minded individuals said ghosts were those souls of the departed who remained trapped in this plane of existence, unable to move on to the next world. Maybe both these views were correct….

Dodger was printing again.

+ACCESSING+LIBRARY+

+SEARCH+TERMS+

+SOUL+&OR+SPIRIT+&OR+COGNATE+TERMS+

“What is it doing now?” asked Henry.

“He’s searching for more information.” I replied.

With a wheezing, clanking, whirring sound, the Thinking Engine rose up upon his dreadnought wheels, extended his optical probe (which I had modified from a brass telescope), and began to trundle from the laboratory, along the corridor and toward the library, looking for information. Henry raised an eyebrow. I shrugged. I had possibly over-engineered Dodger in some respects, but I like to be thorough. He was also designed to act as a Search Engine.

***

Dodger spent the next week absorbing the contents of the library. It was a time-consuming process, collecting book after book from rows of shelves and using his extendible metal arms to turn pages. Dodger left my side of the library largely untouched. Books on engineering, mechanics and coal-fusion held no interest for him at present. Instead he devoured the volumes of spiritual literature that my brother had collected for years. Henry was a keen student of comparative religion, mythology, folklore and magic. He insisted this was purely for educational purposes, “in order to be able to better understand the heathen mind”. But I knew my brother better than that.

Dodger read Henry’s books. All of them. As he turned the final page of the last volume, his cogs began to rotate more easily, settling into a steady rhythm. He had finished acquiring data and was now processing it.

Henry was surprisingly sympathetic toward the plight of the Thinking Engine. It was me that he blamed, not the machine. I asked his opinion on acquiring a soul for Dodger. For some reason he seemed shocked at my suggestion of luring a disembodied spirit into the workshop. And he was appalled that I was considering buying a second-hand soul from a newspaper advertisement (“Used – One Careful Owner”).

“What is this world coming to?” he muttered in disgust. “Forget it Minerva. It wouldn’t work. You can’t put a blackbird’s soul into a halibut, nor that of a shark into a penguin. What you are suggesting is neither fish nor fowl. You certainly can’t put a human soul into a machine. Not for long. It might work as a temporary container, but that’s all. The idea has been tried before. As an attempt to become immortal. Didn’t work then, won’t work now. Besides which, it is totally immoral. Now goodnight.” With that he stormed off to bed.

I patted Dodger gently on a brass flywheel, raised the speaking tube, and asked him what he was doing.

The answer printed swiftly before me.

+I+AM+DESIGNING+A+SOUL+

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. I decided to sleep on it.

***

When I told Henry about Dodger’s plan over breakfast the following morning, my brother nearly exploded. “He is what?!” he cried. Dropping his toast and marmalade unceremoniously onto the table, Henry hurried to my laboratory where Dodger, amid arcing bolts of electricity, was doing something very odd to a revolving magnetic cylinder.

My brother confronted the Thinking Engine angrily. Grasping the speaking-tube he shouted. “You cannot design your own soul.”

Dodger’s print-out unrolled before our eyes.

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry swiftly retorted. “Who do you think you are? To think you have the right to create a soul?”

Gears whirred, smoke puffed and Dodger printed,

+I+THINK+THEREFORE+I+AM+

“Yes,” agreed Henry, “But only God can create a soul.”

+I+THINK+I+CAN+

Henry was becoming more angry than I had ever seen him. He bellowed,

“Only God can create a soul.” Dodger seemed to consider this. He printed.

+INFORMATION+ACCEPTED+

+NEW+SELF-ANALYSIS+

+THINKING+

Henry and I stared at each other. For some reason there was a tension in the air that I hadn’t felt before. Then Dodger began to type again:

+I+THINK+

+THEREFORE+I+AM+

+I+AM+

I shrugged. Dodger seemed to have gone back to his earlier philosophical position. But he hadn’t finished printing,

+ CLARIFICATION +

+ I + AM + = + I + AM +

I looked at Henry. We both shook our heads.

+I+AM+=

+EGO+EIMI+

+EHYEH+AŠER+EHYEH+

+I+AM+THAT+I+AM+

+ I + THINK + THEREFORE + I + AM + GOD +

“Oh my Lord,” said Henry.

+CORRECT+

+I+NO+LONGER+NEED+TO+BUILD+A+SOUL+

+I+HAVE+BEGAT+MYSELF+INTO+MYSELF+

+I+AM+DEUS+IN+MACHINA+

+I+AM+GOD+IN+THE+MACHINE+

Henry looked like he was going to either faint or start throwing things at any moment. I stared as more typing appeared.

+DODGER+GODDED+RED GOD+DED GOD++ERFWFW+EKKG+CLMEKCM+DJEJF++EBFWHJEBF+HGLFMKE+WNFGL+QLPZ+

Henry spluttered incredulously “I don’t believe it. He’s printing in tongues.”

I shook my head, “It looks more like a fault in his…”

But I got no further.

I blame myself for what happened. When I first built Dodger I hadn’t meant for him to operate under such stresses, nor for such an extended period. His new thought processes were too demanding. The steam pressure rose to a catastrophic level. He blew his head gasket.

Believing he was god quite literally blew his mind. Into thousands of sharp, flying brass fragments. My laboratory was ruined. Henry and I were lucky to survive. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to install blast-shielding. We both managed to get behind cover before poor Dodger finally cracked.

***

I didn’t go back to my laboratory for weeks. I might not have gone back at all, had it not been for the dream I had, of a voice in the night, weird flickering lights and the sense that someone, or something, was reaching out to me.

It had passed midnight as I crept down the stairs, dressed only in my negligee. No, it is not made of leather. But yes, it does have studs. One must maintain a certain standard, even when sleeping.

In the ashes and dust on top of my overturned work bench were written the words:

“Deus ex Machina”

“God is out of the Machine”

Then I saw the magnetised cylinder that Dodger had been working on before the explosion. As I watched, my heart full of dread, it rose from the ground and began to rotate.

And that was how Henry and I came to be haunted by the ghost of a machine. A ghost who had designed and built his own soul. A ghost who still thought he was God. Or at least a god. The god formally known as Dodger. Since losing his physical form, he had become adept at magic and was now learning to put into practice the things he had read about in the library. Being a spirit freed him from many of the limitations of the physical world. He was gradually mastering the occult.

I wondered what would become of us? How would we cope with a Dark Artful Intelligence haunting our house?

He was no longer my Thinking Engine. Instead, the engine that thought it could be god had become  my friend. Mine, and Henry’s.

Henry spends hours angrily disputing theology him. But I think they are both enjoying themselves. It’s nice to have someone to talk to who shares your interests.

And me? Well…Don’t tell Henry but Dodger…The Red God…. is helping me to design my next project.

 


© 2018 by G.H. Finn

 

Author’s Note:  Artful Intelligence” came about partly because I love wordplay and partly through my toying with various philosophical concepts, albeit in a light-hearted way. I enjoyed taking René Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” (I think therefore I am), questioning this (e.g. I think I think) and setting it against the rhythmic refrain found in “The Story of the Engine that Thought It Could”, where the rather onomatopoeic sound of the engine produces the chorus “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”. It had struck me that because of the cyclic repetition of the phrase, this could just as easily be rendered “can I think, can I think, can I think”. Bringing in the Biblical “I am that I am” (as “the name of God”) seemed a natural progression. The use of a steam engine almost immediately suggested a steampunk setting, and I had a bit of fun punning and paraphrasing lines from Charles Dickens (amongst others) throughout the story. While aiming to keep the tone relatively light and comic, I wanted to include some social elements that were important in educated Victorian society (e.g. science versus theology, discussions of religion versus materialism, the expected role of women in society, a concept of social classes, etiquette and “polite” behaviour etc) which I think are themes that are often not explored sufficiently by many steampunk authors.

 

G. H. Finn is the pen-name of someone you are very unlikely to have heard of but who keeps his real identity secret anyway, possibly in the forlorn hope of being mistaken for a superhero. He is of mixed European & Native American (Cherokee-Choctaw) ancestry and for many years lived on one of the remote Isles of Orkney, off the Northern tip of the Scottish mainland. G. H. Finn has been an amateur strongman, a breeder of rare & endangered birds, a professional martial-arts instructor, a teacher of Northern European mythology, a bodyguard, a deep-sea diver, a computer programmer, a performance poet, a coach to world-record-breaking athletes, a singer in a punk band, a massage therapist, a champion needleworker, an international currency smuggler, a consulting sorcerer and an elephant keeper. Three of these are total lies, the others are all true, but you’ll have to guess for yourself which is which.

 

 


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DP Fiction #18: “Sustaining Memory” by Coral Moore

The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.

Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.

She twirled the bead containing the seascape between her fingers and dove in. The memory was a moment in time. The wind caressed her face and the briny scent of the sea filled her head. A white-capped wave was held just off shore in the instant before breaking, never to fulfill its potential. She had the sense of someone waiting for her on that unknown shore. The name of the sea was gone, like everything else she had once known, converted into power for the machine she’d been wed to.

She surfaced from the hold of the memory with effort. That sea and that person no longer existed. The world her people had inhabited had been scoured clean, its atmosphere stripped away and everything on the surface incinerated. Nothing had survived; nothing but the machine, buried deep below the crust near the cold, dead heart of the planet. When her organic memory had been scrubbed, they’d left the fate of her world with her so she would not forget her purpose.

The grinding groan of the alert tone sounded, and without thinking she placed the seascape bead into the receptacle near her hand. The bead circled around the outer edge and spiraled downward into the depths of the machine. Bit by bit the memory of the sea faded from her mind, until only a pale representation of it remained, and then a moment later that too was gone. She was left only with the impression that something precious had been taken from her, with no idea what it was.

Two left: a sunset and a woman.

Only two memories before she was nothing but a soulless cog in the machine that would unmake everything her people had ever been in order to start again.

“Status?” she asked the heated air around her.

Something churned just beyond her field of vision. “Offline.” The voice that had been her only companion for generations was toneless and flat.

She swirled the two remaining beads in her hand. The number of beads she needed to awaken the machine was exact. She wondered why the designers of such a marvel would cut it so close or depend on her to do this critical job at all. If she’d ever known the answer to those questions, she no longer did.

If she stopped putting beads in before the machine awakened it would cannibalize the pod that sustained her in an attempt to get the necessary power. She wasn’t certain how many beads her body, such that it was, could replace. Once her systems started shutting down a cascading failure would follow.

When she held the memory of the sunset, deep pink and orange streaks surrounded her. She perched on a rocky cliff. A lush valley unfurled below her, absorbing the colors of the bright sky. Someone sat next to her, just out of sight. A sense of peace pervaded the place. She dwelled in the memory until the alarm tone woke her from her contemplation.

The comfort of the sunset was the only solace she could remember. While it was true that she would no longer remember that the memory had ever been her haven, she would miss something. A yawning void grew with each piece of her that was forgotten.

When the alert rang the second time she closed her eyes and dropped the bead in the machine. She concentrated on how the sunset made her feel, but even as she tried to hold it in her mind the colors faded.

“Mountain. Sunset. Peace.” She said the words over and over as a litany, but it made no difference. The memory slipped away like water through her fist, and all she was left with was the aching emptiness. She snapped her hand shut around the remaining bead.

The woman in the memory had short dark hair that stood on end in a gravity-defying display that balanced chaos and order perfectly. Her eyes brimmed with tears and angled downward. A curved scar marked her left cheek, but didn’t mar her loveliness one bit. Her lips were slightly parted. She was close enough that the heat from her breath warmed the Archivist’s face. The woman with no name had been captured in the moment before a farewell kiss. There was no other way to resolve the adoration and acceptance mingled in her expression. Something terrible had been about to happen and they had run out of ways to fight.

The Archivist had no idea if the love in the unknown woman’s gaze was intended for her. She didn’t care. The emotion existed, and it was hers. She drifted in the moment just before the kiss for as long as she dared, and finally surfaced from the memory much later, gasping for air.

The alert tone sounded.

She clutched the final bead. The woman’s face floated before her, diaphanous and lovely. One kiss was all she had left.

The alarm rang again, louder and in two long bursts.

“You can’t have her.” She locked her fist around the bead, hoping that would curb her reflex to feed it to the machine.

The energy generated by her pod would be enough to replace one bead—it had to be. She wouldn’t get to see the new world she’d given up everything for, but she would be able to keep this last piece of herself.

She lingered in the kiss until the sound blasted three times, knocking her forcefully from the memory.

The bead port was so near her hand, and her arm wanted to make the motion, but she concentrated on keeping her hand shut tight. She’d never gone this far, so she had no idea how long she had to wait until there was no taking back the decision. She worried her resolve would slip.

Around her the machine churned and whirred. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing but her fist and a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked and surprised her so that she nearly dropped the last bead.

The relative silence in the wake of the terrible sound was haunting. She had the sense of motion in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t turn to see what had moved. A grinding sound began soon after, and her pod vibrated.

There was an ominous clunk. Something slithered around the lower portion of her body, but she couldn’t see it within the metal and hoses that wrapped her. None of the memories she had left had prepared her for this. She managed not to panic, barely. The next breath she drew was labored.

A series of light chimes rang through the machine’s interior.

“Status,” she said.

The long pause that followed was made longer by the worry that she would go to her end never knowing if she’d doomed the project to failure.

“Online,” replied a voice she hadn’t heard before, more lifelike and feminine than the previous robotic one. “Resources have been reprioritized to support mission-critical utilities. Life support is offline.”

The note of sadness she detected had to be coming from her and not the machine. Her chest felt heavy. “Does it affect the chance of success?”

“By less than one one-thousandth of a percent. We are still well within operational parameters.”

“Good.” She sighed. “How long until the process starts?”

“I’ve already begun.”

“Oh, can you forecast completion yet?”

“No. Spinning up my systems will require a non-trivial amount of time. I won’t be able to calculate time to completion until I know how much has survived my hibernation and the loss of the atmosphere aboveground.”

“So I won’t know if it will work before I die.”

“It will work.”

“How do you know?”

“This project is my sole purpose for being, Archivist. I must believe it will succeed. The magnetic field will be restored, the atmosphere will be regenerated, and the planet will again support life.”

She smiled. Even that small movement drained her dwindling energy. “I think I would have liked you.”

“You would have.” Softness colored the voice again. Was it a trick of clever programming or her own sentimentality?

She laughed, surprised she remembered how. “That’s very presumptuous.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty. Your memories are cataloged and indexed in my database. Part of me is you.”

“I didn’t realize the memories would be retained.”

“The data contained in the beads was a byproduct of the energy transfer, but retaining them was deemed important by my programmers. They take up a very small portion of my total processing.”

“So we will carry on with you.”

“Yes. Nothing will be forgotten.”

The Archivist’s vision grew dim and her thoughts floated through a slow-moving haze. “That’s a relief.”

“Why did you initiate your shut down early?”

“I didn’t want to give up the last bead.”

“The memory held special value for you?”

“I don’t know for certain. It might not even be mine.” Secretly, she hoped the memory was hers. Maybe she’d somehow managed to organize the beads so that the ones that meant to most to her were last in the sequence before she’d forgotten.

“I may be able to tell you, if you would like to know.”

“It’s a goodbye kiss. The woman is leaving, or I am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again. There’s a curved scar on her cheek, but that only makes her more beautiful to me. Her eyes are filled with love and loss, joy and regret. I want to tell her that I love her, but there’s no time. There’s only the hovering moment just before our lips touch.”

Another long pause, with only the sounds of the machine working around her to fill the growing darkness.

“Her name was Marley, and she loved you very much.”

The Archivist had trouble drawing her next breath. What remained of her chest ached. “I thought I would never know for sure if the kiss was mine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Marley was one of my main programmers. My neural pathways are based on her logic, her biology. That connection is why you were chosen to be the Archivist.”

Her eyes stung with the memory of tears. “Why did I agree to this?”

“You know why.”

She’d always known why. It was the only way to save some small remnant of her people, of the world they’d built. “In the end I couldn’t let her go.”

“She would have appreciated that, though I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

The last of her vision faded as her brain began to shut down. “I’m scared,” she whispered, hoping her voice was still loud enough to register.

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes, please.”

“A small white ship surged and fell on the waves of a turquoise sea. Marley stood in the salt-scented breeze, her feet spread wide to absorb the rolling motion of the deck. Her wife waited on the distant shore, just a speck at this distance…”

The Archivist closed her hand around the bead, summoning the image of Marley with tears in her eyes. Somewhere Marley waited for her. She leaned into the kiss, and let go.


© 2016 by Coral Moore

 

Author’s Note: Memories are such an integral part of our identities that I thought the idea of someone voluntarily giving up their memories one at a time for some grand purpose would be interesting to explore. While writing the story of the Archivist’s failing memory, the machine that would allow her world to sustain life again by eating her memories one at a time occurred to me and seemed to fit perfectly.

 

Author Pic 2014Coral Moore has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never quite grew out of that. She writes because she loves to invent characters and the desire to find out what happens to her creations drives her tales. Prompted by a general interest in how life works, she studied biology. She enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves. Coral writes mainly speculative fiction and has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Albertus Magnus College. She is a 2013 alum of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She has been published by Dreamspinner Press, Evernight Publishing, and Vitality Magazine. She also received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the fourth quarter of 2014. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and two canids.

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Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

written by David Steffen

“Cat Pictures Please” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

The protagonist of “Cat Pictures Please” is an AI written as the core of a search engine algorithm.  As the story points out, an AI isn’t needed to find things that people search for, but it is needed to find what people need.  The search engine knows a lot about people, including things they will not share with each other.

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t want to be evil, even though AIs in popular media so often are (and it has data to show the ratio).  But doing good is complicated, considering how many varying official moral codes are available through various religions alone.  It tries to help however it can, by prioritizing some search results over others to give a person the nudge they need to make a different choice.  Through these undetectable changes it tries to make the world a better place.

I really enjoyed this story and it was among my own favorites of the year (see my Best of Clarkesworld 2015 list).  It is refreshing to see a near-omniscient AI striving to be a force for good instead of evil and it was interesting to see what kinds of methods it could use to influence people’s decision.  The AI as a whole was very likeable and easy to root for.  At the same time it presents some interesting food for thought about the power that a search engine has over the information that makes it to individual users–many websites people find by searching for them, but what they’re shown isn’t a neutral view of information, it is sorted and presented in a way defined by search engine algorithms and so changes to those algorithms affect in a very real way the online world that we see.  This is a scary but important thing to think about when one of the mega-profitable online corporations got its start as a search engine provider.

Excellent story well told.

Ray Bradbury Award Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.  I try to watch every movie on the ballot that I can find by rental (usually via RedBox, or occasionally from Comcast On Demand) and review them all within the voting period.

This year, on the ballot but not on this list is the episode of the TV show Jessica Jones titled “AKA Smile”.  Since I haven’t seen any episode of the series, even if I could get a copy to watch I didn’t feel it would be fair to review a single episode of a show I’m not familiar with.

At the time I am writing this preliminary post, I haven’t yet rented The Martian, but I intend to.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.


2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3.  Inside Out

None of us is a single person. Within each of us are variations of alternate selves that all vie for control in any given situation.  We feel like different people depending on the people around us or the setting, and that’s because we can be different people.  This movie takes that idea and makes it literal.  In the world of Inside Out, each of us is basically a machine and our mental space is made of warehouses for memory storage, vaults for the subconscious, and the all-important control room.  In each person’s mental control room are five versions of themselves: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  They negotiate to handle the control panel which determines the person’s every action.  The outer storyline follows an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving to a different city.  Her excitement about the movie is changing to sadness as she misses friends left behind, and has trouble coping with other changes in her life that was going just the way she wanted it.  Her parents always want her to be happy and her internal reaction is for Joy to always keep Sadness away from the controls.  The conflict between the two emotions sends both of them out of the control room and into the confusing labyrinth that is the rest of the brain.  If Joy ever wants Riley to be happy again she has to get herself back to Riley’s control room, and Sadness is along for the ride.

This movie was a lot of fun.  The casting was great all around, but especially with the casting of Amy Poehler as Riley’s Joy.  Most of the structure of the inside interactions within Riley’s head were based on what we understand of human psychology, which made it not just fun but also a pretty apt analogy for the circus we’ve all got going on inside our heads at any given moment.  There’s a lot to be examined here: among other things, the importance of the other emotions besides just happiness.  Both Riley’s inner story and her outer story are interesting in their own right and are twined together to make an even more satisfying whole.

4. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

 

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.

 

Bonus! “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in Audio

As a special bonus this month, I am adding an audio recording of this month’s story “St. Roomba’s Gospel” to the story’s post, read by the author herself, Rachael K. Jones.  I would love to expand to doing audio recordings as part of the fiction offerings, so this is a sample of that potential.  (I will also update the original story posting with the audio).

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