The moment the semi-transparent eggshell of bright crimson rippled to life around a tall man down the sidewalk, Abigail knew she was in trouble. Given the hustle and bustle at the end of the workday, personal force fields brushing together was perfectly understandable. The resulting brief shimmers of violet or blue were common and easily overlooked, especially given the prevalence of such colors in the fashionable attire of the skirt-and-suit crowd pouring out of the skyscrapers on either side of the street. Greens and yellows from glancing impacts were much easier to spot, the flashes larger and more prolonged. While boorish to cause, they weren’t that big of a deal. Oranges and reds from a direct collision, however, were akin to someone setting off a firecracker.
Heads whipped around.
Pedestrians grumbled and gasped.
All eyes moved to the two globes of shimmering red. In one, the tall man bristled and blustered. In the other, a short man scanned the crowd, his eyes moving, not from face to face, but from bicep to bicep.
Abigail’s stomach clenched as she recognized the behavior. The short man was a skinner. He was working the crowd for marks.
Abigail glanced at the fake field emitter strapped to her arm. Her real unit had died weeks ago, only two days after the warranty expired. She’d done her best to use its casing to craft a passable replica of one of the newer models she couldn’t hope to afford. She’d thought the facsimile turned out pretty well.
But then she looked up and her heart stopped. The skinner’s eyes were on her. The replica wasn’t good enough.
Later, she’d wonder if she would’ve been alright if she’d kept walking, her expression as shocked as those around her as she pressed deeper into the crowd. Perhaps the skinner wouldn’t have noticed. She could have hidden in plain sight, rather than singling herself out like a wounded animal straying from the herd.
But in that moment, she didn’t think. She just ran.
Directly towards a second skinner coming from the opposite direction.
Abigail cursed. She knew better. One skinner bounced around a busy sidewalk going one direction, checking those he passed by pinging his fields off theirs until he found someone flouting the FDC’s mandated field laws, leaving that person both liable and vulnerable. The other skinner worked the same sidewalk from the other end, moving carefully, watching and waiting to snatch up the refuse dislodged by their partner.
If Abigail hadn’t made eye contact, hadn’t recognized the predatory hunger in the partner’s gaze, she would have run right into his arms.
Instead, she dodged, weaving just out of the man’s reach to step around a trash can.
Heart pounding in her ears, she ducked around a woman pushing a stroller while scanning the area for an escape. Her eyes found blue, not a force field, but a uniform. She dismissed the hope before it could materialize. There was no help to be found there. She had a better chance of being arrested for operating without a functioning field than finding protection.
She glanced over her shoulder. Both skinners were in pursuit, only steps behind. They would have her in moments.
She nearly shrieked when she spotted the opening. Just ahead, if she could duck into the alley and skirt past the guy in the nice suit and his ostentatiously dressed wife, she could duck back out of the alley in front of the wealthy couple, effectively using them as a shield. Her pursuer would be trapped in the alley, at least for a moment, and she’d have time to fade into the hustle and bustle.
It was all a question of timing.
She took a deep breath, increased her pace, and at the last possible moment, sidestepped into the relative dark of the alley. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She could feel the skinners closing. But the opening was there. This was going to work.
An electric sucker punch launched her sideways into the air.
She’d barely registered the pain of landing ten feet down the alley before she was cursing herself for being so stupid. The FDC regulated how far force fields could extend from a person’s body, but enforcement was a joke. The rich SOB in the nice suit must have paid some tech to juice up his emitter. She’d clipped it, and now she was paying for it.
Ignoring the smell of singed hair and the ache in her side, Abigail scurried to her feet, the head start granted by her short flight decreasing rapidly as the men closed. She stumbled and scurried. Cold fear gripped her spine. Why hadn’t she stayed out in the crowd? Now she was alone. And she knew what people would say. They’d say she deserved it, that anyone with sense and decency would prioritize a personal force field over other conveniences of modern life. That she was sharing a two room flat with five other people and hadn’t eaten a fresh vegetable in two weeks was irrelevant. Or more likely, that was her fault too.
Footsteps pounded behind her. She sprinted as fast as her worn dress flats would allow, pulling a trash can over as she passed.
Curses joined the footfalls behind her.
She could make it. A few more steps and she’d be out.
Fingers brushed her back.
Abigail burst from the alley into the hustle and bustle of another crowded sidewalk.
Right into the arms of a woman.
“Jeez, are you okay?” The tall woman’s arms encircled Abigail, the only thing keeping her upright.
Abigail twisted to look back to the alley.
The men had stopped several paces before the junction, hands on hips, breathing heavy. They exchanged troubled looks, apparently uncertain how to proceed.
Abigail looked up to see the woman’s dark eyes on the men, her jaw clenched.
It was only then Abigail realized how they were standing. They were touching. Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she touched somebody in public. Such things weren’t done. And here she was not only touching this woman, but literally standing in her arms. Which meant that this woman also lacked a functioning field emitter.
The woman seemed to come to the same realization at the same moment. Her eyes widened and she gently but firmly extended her arms, standing Abigail up before releasing her grip and stepping back.
Abigail’s eyes dropped, her breathing heavy, stomach doing somersaults. “I’m sorry.” She tapped her fake emitter. “Darn thing must be on the fritz again.”
The woman smirked, tapping her own device. “Well, what-da-ya know? Mine seems to be on the fritz too.” She smiled. Her short hair was in twists and she had dimples. “My name’s Darla.” Darla’s eyes drifted back to the alley where the two men still lingered. “Since both our emitters are on the fritz, why don’t we go somewhere we can sit and trash-talk the manufacturer, maybe with a drink?”
Abigail smiled shyly as heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I’d like that.”
Darla stepped beside her, extending a bent elbow in offering.
Abigail stared at the arm. She didn’t look up, but she could feel the eyes of the other pedestrians boring holes into her. Did this woman really expect her to take her arm? Just like that? To flaunt their lack of fields?
She glanced back at the alley, but the men were gone, apparently flustered by the sudden appearance of reinforcements.
She looked back at the woman, still holding out her arm, still smiling, apparently unoffended by Abigail’s hesitation.
Abigail chewed on her lip for a moment, then stepped forward to take Darla’s arm with a smile. “I’m Abi. And I know a place with live jazz that makes a mean Manhattan.”
Darla’s smile widened, her dimples deepening. “That sounds perfect.”
They walked down the street arm-in-arm, oblivious to the scandalized looks following in their wake.
Author’s Note: While inspired by musing over the logical extremes of pandemic measures, this story absolutely should not be construed as commentary against masks, social distancing, or any of the other important actions the public should take to keep themselves and everyone else safe.
Adam Gaylord (he/him) lives in Colorado with his brilliant wife, two monster children, and a cranky old mutt dog. When not at work as an ecologist, he’s usually writing, baking, reading, or some combination thereof. Look him up on GoodReads or find him on Twitter @AuthorGaylord.
Content note (click for details)Content note: coerced surgery, cannibalism
You will just have woken in your bed. Time is short. You are groggy, I’m sure, but it is important you pay attention and do not leave – do not move – until this recording is finished.
Listen: marketing is everything.
Corporations spend trillions to delineate histories that could exist, sculpting nuance and favorable scandals in the service of cultivated intrigue. All press is good press: an ancient koan.
This is why we do what we do in the colony. The mythos of Ranvanni IV, parlaid during prime-time and burbled between mouthfuls of gin, is an essential part of what allows us to command a premium price for our products.
Good marketing saved us all.
After the withdrawal of funding by the Hattani-Weld-Roskin Exploration Company following five successive years of underwhelming mining productivity, the colony had to turn to alternative economic streams to ensure its ongoing viability – in truth, to ensure its survival, so far on the fringes of galactic society. What we lacked in accessible mineral seams, we possessed in a cornucopic ecosystem, rich in life forms unlike anything else the galaxy offers. And after years of subsisting on restricted supplies, we had developed an expert knowledge of how to prepare it.
Less than a decade later, our cuisine is legendary. Consequently, representatives of Hattani-Weld-Roskin are now negotiating to repurchase ownership of the colony, but it is the leadership’s belief that a better bargaining position can be obtained with further discoveries, and thus we must expand our market capitalisation through all available means.
In that spirit, I detail here the history and specifics of some of our more famous dishes, to be instructive to you.
I have left you a snack on your bedside table. Chew carefully. Pay attention to the flavor, that mouthfeel. I taught you to be observant.
Boiled, the tendons of the snow-cow – named for their bovine-like physiognomy, their four stomachs, and the ice that tinsels their horn-buds – develop an enveloping sweetness, meaty, with under-notes of anise. Fried, they secrete neurotoxins. We learned this the hard way in our first year of colonization, when Hjalmar died on livestream. His death took exactly three minutes, forty-two seconds; I counted as I watched, forcing myself to acknowledge my responsibility for the incident. A biohazard crew was required to extract the body. Everything about Hjalmar had been rendered poisonous, unpalatable, even the spit left crusted black on his chin.
After the incident, snow-cows were no longer exsanguinated. Instead, we dumped them wholesale into vats of scalding water. In a quarterly mining report, colony analysts detailed that the change had improved productivity by seven point two percent, a record high. Hattani-Weld-Roskin encouraged further experimentation with local food sources to reduce their long-haul resupply costs.
In accordance with standing colony orders, Edelstein, upon accidentally discovering that a split-open rock contained red meat, scooped these innards out with his fingers (he described the texture as “similar to a warm tar, claggy, but with an added unctuousness reminiscent of the juice of rotted meat”) and sampled the meat raw. He experimented with depositing the meatstones at various points along the shore and in streams and rivers, as it subsists on filtered particles and is thus flavoured by its environment. It remains unclear if the later loss of his hair and nails was a side effect of a primarily-meatstone diet or of the increased solar radiation he was exposed to before appropriate genetic protections were provided to colonists.
The meatstones, one off-world chef later said, are most delicious when cooked into a mousse, folded with double cream and salted egg yolk, a touch of cayenne, some lemon juice. For best effect, serve with ginger-garlic vinaigrette.
Edelstein did not agree. The colony provided no official comment. When dealing with off-worlders, it is critical to remember that the end goal is always profit.
Are you still chewing the sample? Good. Don’t swallow yet. It’s important you savour the layers of taste.
Upon contact with temperatures above forty-two degrees Celsius, the flesh of the swallow-tailed glass mantis becomes edible for precisely seventy-two seconds. Texturally, it has been described as creamy, fatty, tallow-like between the teeth. The taste is more complex: powerfully umami in the beginning before it lightens, inexplicably acquiring a delicate, pleasing milkiness.
After seventy-two seconds, however, the experience sours, both literally and metaphorically. The meat emulsifies into charcoal and vinegar, a taste comparable to someone else’s bile. For that reason, cognoscenti will pay millions to lightskip one of our expert chefs from the edge to the core to serve their corporate banquets. It is a novelty, and our first marketing success. We gambled everything to make it known. Such gambles are the only path to success for those not born to it.
The fact that the glass mantis’ cousin – more populous, more beautiful, fronded with magenta instead of dull shades of peach – comes with all of the flavor but none of the drawbacks is never advertised.
Besides, I would keep them all for you.
We lost Hawkins, de Ruiz and Patel to fits and convulsions, pink spittle foaming on their lips and drying immediately into grotesque structures like clouds at sunset, before we realised the meat of the Ranvannian lamb was poisonous when cooked in individual cuts, having previously roasted them whole on a spit.
I was sitting in the canteen with them when it happened. I have always made a habit of eating in the canteen with the other colonists, so the colony saw I shared the risks. I had a lamb steak upon my own plate. But for a few seconds, you would have been orphaned then, young as you were. You are better prepared now, I hope.
The stomach of the lamb – lamb, of course, shorthand for this creature that has a woollen appearance, though in truth its exterior is filigree bones growing like spiraled feathers from the endoskeleton – is an excessively alkaline environment. Cooked whole, the stomach bursts inside the lamb and these alkaline juices soak through the carcass, breaking down the poisonous enzymes and giving the meat a sharp bite, like horseradish puree gone to mould.
For the purposes of cooking more efficient portions than an entire lamb at once (an inappropriate serving portion for gatherings of less than twenty), a stomach may be kept in the parlour and the juices poured directly onto the steak from the oesophageal opening. Due to the high alkaline content, the stomach is not at risk of rotting, and it ensures the juices maintain more flavour than if decanted into a glass container.
No one outside of the colony knows this, of course. Publicly, we have maintained that the practice of preparing Ranvannian lambs whole is sacrosanct, a religious imperative. The reason is simple: galactic decree states that all cultural practices must be observed without failure. Because of this, we sell the ruminants by the herd.
We do not make salt of our dead. That part is pure gossip.
The boandiu is a tree not unlike the terrestrial banyan, named for the sound it makes in the monsoon season. All parts of the plant are edible, including the roots, the nervous system, and the primitive cerebrum embedded in the heartwood. The shoots are a particular delicacy. Roasted with cashew-butter, seasoned with sea salt and black sugar, they can achieve a taste and texture not unlike the finest meringue.
More adventurous diners, however, prefer to consume the brainstem whole, ungarnished save for some balsamic vinegar, a tang of apple honey. The resultant flavor has been compared to crème brûlée, subtly spiced with garam masala and something ethereal. The process inevitably kills the boandiu. Because of this, we possess legislation outlawing the practice. Because of this, our poachers make millions, assisting tourists with their fantasies of devouring a protected species. Practicality supersedes sentiment, my darling. I hope you understand this applies equally this morning, when you have woken up alone. It is not because I do not love you. Never that.
Of course, in order to maintain appearances we occasionally and without warning dispatch patrols to hunt and kill the poaching parties, though never when the richest clients are in attendance.
The Raptor Albatross is a large bird-analog with a wingspan exceeding ten metres. It feeds on large sea life, plucking it from beneath the surface with its sixteen serrated claws. The natural concentration of alkaline metals through the marine food chain means the Raptor Albatross is unsuitable for human consumption except at one stage: foetal. The eggs are challenging to retrieve from the eroded cliffspires along the coast, a terrain that precludes the use of hover vehicles and requires colonists to climb by hand, exposed to the threat of the parent raptors and their claws. One day, when I return, I will show you the scars I have earned myself. Procurement is made more difficult by the size of the egg, in the region of 12 to 18 pounds, which also necessitates a long cooking process, slowly brought up to boiling over the course of sixteen hours.
This cooking process must be done from fresh; the egg cannot be frozen, as the piquant flavour and smooth, tender texture of the foetus is only brought out by the slow reaction of its enzymes in the steadily rising heat. Freezing the egg kills the foetus and renders the cooked dish brackish and rubbery. More importantly, it divests the dish of its hormonal cocktail – a dead albatross cannot fear, cannot feel its nerves bake, its blood bubble to steam. As such, the foetal albatross would not taste of its final moments. This is unacceptable.
Of course, such a requirement presents an obvious economic challenge, which you will have already noted: if viable eggs are dispatched to customers, they may choose to incubate the egg and begin a breeding program of their own, undercutting our supply. For this reason we only ever sell the eggs singly, though of course we also keep the black market well stocked for those who wish to purchase a second; it will afford them little success, as it is the parents’ diet of Ranvannian fauna that lends the egg its flavour. Divorced from the alkaline biome of the planet, the cuisine becomes quite pedestrian.
Every civilization must have its trademark drink, a beverage representative of its culture, its foibles, its myriad secrets.
Ours is simple: a brandy recalling the flavor of Hungarian pálinka, so saccharine that it must be cut with gulps of red brine. We use real apricots, real pears, mash and meat both, nothing allowed to waste. The taste, while uniformly sweet, can vary depending on the supplier. Some keep it pure. Some add cardamom, pure cocoa, kaffir lime, bold flavors to distract from the way the sugar congeals on your teeth. And some use apomorphines, engineered for tastelessness, to seduce the unwary.
All, however, share a fundamental ingredient: the fermented seminal fluid of the Vacant Shark, matured for 8 months in the harsh sun.
You can see why we are so proud, and why I have never let you drink it. I love you too much for some things to be acceptable.
Did you taste that?
Consider the fat and how it has been flavored by repeated consumption of the boandiu; the crème brûlée texture, its velvetiness. Compare and contrast the taste with the meat itself, succulent umami bomb, underscored with anise and molasses. No livestock in the universe is so tender.
The cuisine of Ranvanni IV derives its unique flavour palette and signature bite from the particular chemistry of the native biome. To a large degree, it is self-perpetuating and connected: the fauna tastes as it does because it eats the other fauna, and if bred off-planet and fed on plain nutrient paste, it loses its unique properties.
There is one species that has, up until this moment, not been sampled and sold. Early specimens had too varied and foreign a diet to titillate the galaxy at large; it is only the second generation of colonists–your generation – that have been raised on a consistent Ranvannian diet, enough to flavour the meat.
And no-one has had a richer, more varied diet than you, my daughter, a fact you must concede. That was a strip from your upper thigh, prepared quickly. Imagine how a better cut might taste: first brined for a day and then roasted with a marinade of brown sugar, cumin, chilli, fermented blue krill.
I have taken your legs before departing on my lightship; you must forgive me for taking yours and not another’s, but successful leadership is built upon shared risks, and I must be willing to sacrifice you for this cause. The proletariat are children, in their way. They subside on the stories we make for them; narrative underpins every aspect of Ranvannian life, in the end. I expect you to inherit the leadership one day, and so this is another gift for you: your own myth; the leader whose very flesh bore the blessing of prosperity.
And oh, daughter of mine, I hope you forgive me for taking both your legs. The rich always want seconds, are inevitably starved for more, more, always more. And we cannot risk this venture failing. We must give them what they want. You understand this. If we can drive a high investment now, the sunk-cost fallacy will ensure our survival even if market economics cannot: we must lure as many bidders as possible to the auction of rights. We will make a success of your sacrifice. You will thank me for it later.
You may not believe there will be a market for human flesh, but if I have learnt anything in two decades of trading food to the rich and indulgent, it is this: there is a customer for every experience.
Besides: what else is power if not an appetite for human flesh?
CASSANDRA KHAW is an award-winning game writer, and currently works as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel The All-Consuming World comes out in 2021.
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.
A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all. Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.
Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.
Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.
The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.
She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.
“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.
Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.
“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”
“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.
Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.
It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.
The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.
There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.
The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.
Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.
A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.
They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.
As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.
The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.
Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.
Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.
Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…
There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.
Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.
It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.
Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.
No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?
Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.
Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.
The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.
Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.
With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.
Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.”
Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.
“What was it this time?” She looked exhausted, shoulders slumped over a file covered with names, and ruffled her wings at me like an angry pigeon. “Transporter trip? It’s usually a transporter trip.”
“Um,” I said. The last thing I remembered was the departure platform at Greater Houston, and the familiar buzz and glare of a successful transport. “Is this what it looks like?”
“I’m marking it as a repeat,” she said, and pointed me toward a small white room, already looking at the next file. There were fine lines at the corners of her eyes. I wondered if she had a flaming sword, and if I should be worried.
In the white room, I was met by myself.
“Hello, you,” the other me said, swinging one leg over the back of a chair and straddling it. “Where was it this time?”
“Mars,” I said cautiously. “Just a weekend trip. I’m dead, right?” The room was as bare as a VR stage. “Or this is the weirdest ad I’ve ever been in, and I’m not sure what you’re selling.”
“No, you’re dead,” said the other me. “Look, I keep drawing the short straw on this whole explanation thing, so I’m going to go fast. Two things that are true.” She held up two fingers and waggled them. “One, Heaven is real, God is real, all that religion stuff is real. Not the nasty bits, just the simple, straightforward, everybody gets an afterlife part. That’s real. That’s thing one. Thing two? Transporters are murder.”
“No, they’re not,” I said. “I use them all the time.”
My other self twisted her mouth into a crooked smile. “Follow that thought through,” she said.
“I mean,” I said carefully, “they just take your atoms apart and put them back together again. On the other end.”
“That’s death,” the other me said. “Literally and technically. You’re dead, and your copy goes to Mars for the weekend. Well,” she amended, “your new copy. We’re all copies here, except for the ten year old. She was first.” Outside the open door, the pigeon-winged woman had started laughing, the way an exhausted parent laughs when the children start drawing on the walls with crayon.
I swallowed. “I don’t use transporters that much. I mean, I don’t really keep count.”
“Yes, we can tell,” the other me said, and guided me into the next room. About forty versions of myself were grouped in small clusters, having quiet conversations and looking bored. They were all about my age, but slightly younger. Except for one little girl who seemed particularly bitter.
None of them looked happy. “You’re sure this is Heaven?”
“Yep,” said the other me, and put a hand on my shoulder. “That’s every transporter trip you’ve ever taken. And that thing with the jellyfish when you were a kid, when you were dead for twelve seconds and change. That counted.” She waved at the ten year old, who glared at us.
“I guess we all led good lives or something,” I said weakly. Ten year old me should definitely have been happier. I mean, she’d been here for what, thirty years? Give or take?
The other me, the first one, looked where I was looking and nodded. “Oh, the first few decades were great. It’s recently, really, that everybody’s gotten… well, like this.”
It was deeply awkward. There wasn’t anything else in the big white room to take our minds off each other, and none of my previous selves seemed to want to talk to me. “Shouldn’t there be marble columns or something?” I asked finally. “Trees and fountains? Lots of light?”
As I spoke, two columns and a fountain sprouted gently, and the room was bathed in warm golden sunlight, like it was four-thirty on a perfect afternoon. “Oh, sure,” said the other me, poking at a column. “Lots of people start with this. Don’t feel bad,” she said to the expression on my face. “Familiar’s just fine. Anyway, we’ll go through all this again in a few days, when the next one of us gets back from Mars, so…”
“Okay, no. No more,” I said, looking around at myself. “This can’t be it. I can’t end up like all of you.” Sunlight sparkled, perfectly, on the fountain next to us, and I resisted the urge to kick it.
The other me cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been traveling a lot lately.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” I said. “Everybody uses transporters.”
“That’s the point,” she said, guiding me past a pair of shining trees. Some of the others followed us, not closely. “All those little deaths, all the time now. People used to spend time with relatives, ancestors, some interesting famous people, but now, well.” She shrugged. “There’s just too many of us.”
“Heaven’s overcrowded? I thought Hell was other people,” I said. Nobody laughed. The ten year old rolled her eyes and left the room, which at least meant there was a way out, I thought.
The other me sat us down on a delicately filigreed bench, by a small pond rippling with fish. “They’re calling us multiples,” she said. “Repeats. And there’s talk, you know, that it’s not really sustainable. People think the whole system’s going to break down.”
“The afterlife?” I had a brief moment of panic, then remembered I was already dead. “Is that possible?”
“Oh, no,” the first me said, waving her hand like she could wave the thought away. “But it’s a strain, you know. The place wasn’t built for repeats.” Some of my other faces looked worried.
“Just hypothetically, though, if it did break,” I said. “What would happen?”
The other me shrugged. “You know, nobody’s saying. It’s probably fine, though.”
“Probably.” I looked around, imagining stacks of myself piled like cordwood, grumbling. Or maybe the whole place would shatter like a mess of pixels, or something even worse. “Can we do anything?”
She smiled wide, and I swallowed. “Well, if you think of anything, you be sure and let everyone know.”
Fish turned in gentle loops under the pond’s surface, perfectly. It wouldn’t be nice to kick at them, I thought. Besides, the sunlight was warm on my skin, the fountain burbled pleasantly in the distance, and life had always been short. “So, what do you all do?” I asked, settling back on the comfortable bench. “When you’re not running slightly older versions of yourself through the tutorial.”
“Oh, well,” she said. “Pretty much anything nice you can imagine.” She waved in the direction my child self had gone. “Our ten year old made an ice cream land with tame dinosaurs. And you can still meet your relatives and ancestors, if you can find them. They’ll still talk to some of us, the younger ones.” She chattered on, and I thought about the news story I’d seen, when I was waiting my turn at the transporter to Mars.
Home versions. Just announced. So convenient, to transport back and forth from home every day. Multiple times, probably.
Everyone was going to want one.
“Tell me about the ice cream land,” I said, and smiled at the fish. Let the next version of me tell everyone the bad news. Meanwhile, I’d see as much of the place as I could, while it lasted.
Author’s Note: I’ve always been somewhere on the scale of bothered-to-terrified about the standard transporters in Star Trek. Site-to-site matter teleportation would be fantastic, if only I didn’t have to worry about whether it was “me” that emerged on the other side. I’ve also been replaying The Swapper, an indie game in which you’re constantly abandoning cloned versions of yourself that may or may not be conscious, and started thinking about all those potential transporter copies – what if they didn’t die, but went somewhere else? An overcrowded afterlife was the logical next step.
Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Analog, Nature: Futures, Flash Fiction Online, and DreamForge Magazine, and her most recent academic work can be found in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When the cars started driving themselves, we went back to the old ways. It wasn’t a slow change, the way the news made it out to be. One day we were in control, and the next we weren’t. Now they can strike anywhere, anytime, any make and any model, all with dead-eyed electronic smiles on their windshields.
The old ways help us stay safe. I teach my daughter to chalk runes around the house, double yellow lines that forbid the cars from crossing. We bring a baby stroller everywhere we go. It saved a friend of mine once, making him rank slightly higher in the car’s inscrutable calculus than the woman on the other side of the street.
Sometimes I wonder if he feels guilty.
I know I wouldn’t. I need to be there for Margot, so that I can protect her in this new world, and keep her childhood peaceful. She’s the only reason I keep going. No one else matters.
Today, Margot and I are going to the park. Margot is wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the pink stripes and the ice cream scoops, and I’ve done up her hair with matching bows. A bright rainbow of face paint covers her button nose. She skips along happily, clutching her chapter book to her chest as I push the stroller with its disguised doll.
“I’m going to see the bridge troll, Mama,” Margot tells me. I resist the urge to sigh.
“Bridges are on roads, sweetheart.They aren’t safe anymore, remember?”
“You never let me have any fun.” She pouts and stops skipping.
“We’re going to the park right now,” I point out. Margot huffs and buries her face in her book. I want to tell her not to read while walking, but that’s one battle I won’t ever win. I step to her left, between her and the road.
The book she’s reading has a troll on the cover. Its eyes glow yellow and its rocky body blends into the bridge behind it. Next to it stands a young girl with her hands on her hips. I make a mental note to skim it after she falls asleep tonight: I don’t want her getting the wrong idea.
It’s the way people thought before the cars. Some people still think it; try to take the cars down. I hear about them on the news, next to footage of their weeping parents. Margot is only curious about the cars now, but I can’t help worrying that she’ll grow up to be one of those radicals.
Margot tugs at my sleeve.
“Want to guess a riddle?” she asks.
“Sure, honey.” We’re almost at the park now. It’s isolated, deep enough in the maze of the suburbs that I can let my guard down a little.
“What has legs but no feet?” Margot asks, placing her finger halfway down the page.
“I don’t know, what?”
“I win,” she squeals, holding the book out to me. “It’s a chair, it says right here. Now you have to let me go to the bridge.”
“Not if I catch you first!” I chase her all the way to the park, roaring like a bridge troll.
There are other families at the park, and other children on the swings. Margot spots her best friend Nadia playing in the sand pit and runs off.
Across the sand, my friends Dave and Samir are chatting at a picnic bench. Samir spots me and waves me over, smiling wide. I scan the park for escape routes and hiding places before joining them.
“How have you been, Alicia?” Samir asks. His disguise of the day is all harsh lines and interlocking spirals, so dark they look like tattoos across his face. In the oldest days, it was unwise to share your true name. Now you can’t share your true face.
“We missed you at our baby shower,” Dave adds.
“Right.” I had been too afraid to leave the house that day. There had been a car victim in the news, a child Margot’s age, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “I’ll bring your gift to the next self-defense workshop.”
Samir rolls his eyes, but I know he’s more exasperated than annoyed. After all, Dave leads the workshops. He had been a designer on the cars long ago, back when people were still actually in charge of them, but his workshops tend toward the arcane.
“I’m working on a charm.” Dave holds up a spinning, blinking object that flashes pattern after pattern. “If we can overload a car’s sensors for even a millisecond, it might swerve.”
“Do you have to call it a charm?” Samir grumbles.
“If it works, it works,” says Dave. “I think there’s a lot we can learn from the old ways.”
“They’re machines, not fairies. The way we get back to normal is by somebody figuring out who hacked into the AI, not by all of us pretending that they’re magic.”
“What about in the meantime?” I interject. “Things aren’t getting any better. Half the kids in Margot’s classroom haven’t come in since the attack by the high school; the district says we’re all moving to remote schooling.”
“Maybe it would be better.” Dave places a hand on my shoulder. “She’ll still have the backyard, and Nadia can come over for playdates.”
“I just want her to get a chance to live the way we lived, you know?”
Dave and Samir give me sympathetic nods, but they don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say.
I turn back to watch Margot play, hoping some of her carefree joy will stick with me.
The sand pit is empty. A half-built bridge, a pinecone troll, and a trail of sand left like breadcrumbs are all that remains of Margot and Nadia.
I start running.
At least she’s with Nadia, I think to myself. At least she isn’t alone. It pains me to make the same cold decision as a car, but Nadia is older than Margot, and age is supposed to be one of the metrics.
I sprint across streets and swing around corners with wild abandon, following the sand. Margot is out there. Margot, who I still can’t convince of the dangers of the world. In another life, I would have wanted her to stay innocent.
The nearest bridge isn’t a bridge at all. It’s actually a freeway overpass that crosses a quiet road, but it’s close enough in the eyes of a child. Margot and Nadia stand there at the edge of the shadows, their arms linked.
“Margot, Nadia, come here,” I call as loudly as I dare. “We can play somewhere else.”
“But Mama, we found the troll,” Margot says.
I get closer and see yellow in the shadows. Not eyes. Headlights.
I’m in front of Margot in an instant, spreading my arms to block her as much as I can. Nadia whimpers and ducks behind my leg, but Margot just tries to slip under my arm.
“I want to tell it my riddle,” she says.
“Margot, honey, this is a car,” I say carefully. She knows the stories, the warnings, but she has never seen a feral car in the wild before. I’ve sheltered her too well. “We talked about how they’re different now. It’s not going to answer your riddle.”
The car’s windshield changes from the neutral face that means no danger to something new: a question mark. I have never seen an autonomous car without an indicator face before.
“Sweetheart, I want you and Nadia to get back.” I use my sternest tone. When they step back, though, the car revs its engine and inches forward.
The car’s windshield displays a stop sign. The children halt.
“Okay, Margot. Ask the riddle.” My voice shakes.
She places her hands on her hips, her little chin thrust high in the air.
“What,” she demands, “has legs but no feet?”
The car displays a chair on its screen. My heart skips a beat as it starts rolling forward, picking up speed. Margot turns to me with wide eyes.
“It won, mama.”
I scoop Margot into my arms and start to run, but Nadia grabs at my leg, and we all go tumbling down to the asphalt. Margot starts to cry and I have just enough time to notice the bright red smear on her scraped elbow before the car is upon us and I have to act, now.
“I have riddles, car,” I say, desperate. “Play with me.”
The car screeches to a halt and slowly reverses until all I can see are its eerie yellow headlights and the question mark on its windshield.
“If I win, you leave me and my daughter alone. Forever. All of you.”
The car displays a red frown. I’ve asked for too much.
“Just her, then.” I wipe the tear-smeared paint off Margot’s face and force her to look at the car. It will kill us anyway if I fail here.
A green smiling face. A question mark.
The problem is, I don’t have a riddle. I’ve never really been one for puzzles, and the only games I play are the ones Margot suggests. Besides, anything I’ve heard of before, the car will also know. It knows so much. More than I do. It knows the answer to unanswerable questions. Like “whose life is worth more?”
Nadia trembles behind me.
Margot would be heartbroken if anything happened to her. If it comes down to that choice again, I know what I will do, but for now there must be another way. Samir was right: they’re cars, not fairies. But Dave was right too. Both of those things play by the rules, and both of those things can be tricked.
“You can’t kill us until you answer my riddles,” I tell it. Again, the green smile. I step forward and walk so close I can feel the heat of its engine. I try the door handle.
“What are you doing, Mama?” Margot asks, grabbing my hand with her stubby fingers. “Don’t let it eat us!”
“Just trust me, honey.” I tug on the handle again. The car hums, like its air conditioning has been left on high. The first glimpses of a plan are forming in my head. “I need to get my books from home, so I can find the very best riddles.”
With a click, the car door unlocks. I think it’s curious. Kind of like a child in that way, if the child weighed several tons and could kill with ease. Margot clings to me as I open the car’s door and climb inside, with Nadia at my heels.
The children huddle in the passenger seat, clinging to each other as I snap their seatbelt in place. I eye the manual override, but I know better. I’ve heard of people who tried that and held on. Heard what happened the moment they let go.
If we can just get home, though, I might be able to pull this off. Maybe.
I key in my address and with a sound like a sigh, the car pulls out from under the overpass.
It’s been years since I’ve been inside a car. My knuckles are white as I grip the useless wheel. Outside the window, the trees and the streets and the houses blur together.
I can almost understand why the world chose this path. There’s no traffic, no mistakes, no rude gestures. But it only feels safe from inside the car. I’ve lived too long on the outside to be fooled.
Maybe I can beat the car at its own game, instead of resorting to one of the frantic, risky plans bubbling up in my mind. I can’t come up with any suitable riddles, though, and I know my own books won’t be any help. All I know are the childish riddles I’ve picked up through my time as a parent, from playgroups and picture books.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because it was running for its life.
My house comes into view. It’s a single story, just big enough for me and Margot. Yellow painted rune-lines circle the structure, and all of the blinds are drawn shut. Weeds have broken through the concrete of the driveway. The car crushes them as it pulls up.
I unbuckle the girls and step out on shaky legs. I can at least get Margot inside. Maybe she can barricade herself somewhere, and force the car to destroy itself getting to them. But that’s a temporary solution at best.
The car revs its engine as Margot and Nadia head for the porch. It rolls up behind them and they freeze. Nadia is crying now, globs of silent tears pooling on her cheeks. Margot’s face is tight and pale.
“Stay out here, girls,” I say as gently as I can. “I’m going to get some books. Everything will be okay. I’ll bring some chalk for you to play with. Don’t worry, alright?”
Margot grabs my sleeve as I pass her. The look in her eyes breaks my heart almost as much as the look in her eyes when I have to keep going. The chalk will work, though. It has to work.
The house is quiet and still. The car’s headlights follow me through the blinds as I hurry to the shelves. Margot’s books are usually scattered around her room, but there are still a few fairy tales left where they should be. I grab them and the chalk.
Back outside, the car looms over Margot and Nadia, their nightmares made real for the very first time. It’s a small car, but they’re small girls. Too small to be dealing with this right now and certainly too small for what I’m about to ask them to do, but there’s no one else that can do it.
“Here you go, girls. Don’t be afraid.” I hand them the bucket of chalk, then turn my back to the car and hide my hands as I gesture to them what to do.
I can only hope they understand. I turn back to the car.
“I’m going to ask you three riddles,” I say, stretching my words out to buy time as the children begin to draw. I can see Margot trembling as she nears the car, but she draws anyway. So brave, my girl. “It’s the traditional number.”
The green question mark stays on the car’s display, unwavering.
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
The question mark winks out. Moments later, the car’s screen fills with text. Every inch of the windshield is covered in blog posts and thesis papers, giving me every possible answer to the unanswerable riddle. Then it shows me a green check mark.
It makes sense. The cars have always been judge, jury, and executioner. This isn’t a contest I could ever win. The car starts rolling forward and a piece of pink chalk explodes into a cloud of dust and shards beneath its tire.
“I have two more.” My voice was supposed to be firm and strong, but instead it’s high and reedy. “You haven’t heard the best ones yet. Stay where you are until you answer.”
The car indulges me and stops. I open one of Margot’s books and read aloud.
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives…”
This riddle is one of Margot’s favorites. She likes the way the words sound; likes the lyricism and the puzzle combined. I try not to look at her, because I know I will cry. I hope she knows how hard I’m trying to save her.
The car, of course, has its answer the instant I’m done reading. The number one appears on its screen. This time, though, it’s an angry red.
“Very good,” I say, glancing at the girls and their chalk. “Just one more, and then we see who wins. One more riddle and the game is over.”
A red timer appears on the car’s screen, ticking down from thirty seconds. It wants me to stop stalling, but I just need a little more time. Thirty seconds will have to be enough.
I wait for the last five seconds before I speak. The silence is as solemn as the grave and is punctuated only by the scratch of chalk and the steady hum of the car’s engine.
“My last riddle for you, car,” I say, “is: how are you going to get out?”
For a long moment, longer than ever before, the screen is blank.
Then the car rears forward, headlights ablaze. I can’t help it—I close my eyes. If this doesn’t work, then it’s all over, and I won’t watch my daughter die.
There is no scream. There is no crunch. There is only silence.
I crack open the eye and see the car frozen in place. It skidded to a halt just inches from poor Margot’s face, but—thank God—she is unscathed. Nadia is panting with effort. Her hand shakes as she grinds her piece of chalk into the last mark on the rune, a simple do-not-cross indicator that signals to the very core of the car’s programming.
Margot runs to me. I hold her tighter than tight, burying my face in her soft hair. I wish I could stay this way forever, but it’s not safe, even now.
I bundle the children into the house as the car revs its engine and spins its wheels uselessly within the circle. It flicks on its high beams and the light spills through the closed blinds.
Nadia stands by the door and stares at the ground.
“You left me,” she says. “You ran with Margot.”
“Honey, I’m sorry.” I crouch down to her eye level. Only then do I see the nail marks on her inner palms, where she clutched the chalk so hard she nearly bled. Without her help, my daughter would be a smear on the pavement.
I place my hands on her shoulders. She looks up, her eyes wide and tearful and, I realize for the first time, the same shade of brown as Margot’s.
“I won’t ever leave you again.”
Nadia takes one of my hands. Margot takes the other. I lead the girls deep into the house, where the thick walls will protect us, and pull out my phone.
Dave can help, and Samir, and they will know other former programmers who will know more and more. The cars are connected, but we can be too. Our solidarity gives us power. And now, if I have to, I will join the charge.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by James Bridle’s 2017 art piece “Autonomous Trap 001,” which features a self-driving car trapped by a salt circle. I saw his piece when I was in college researching the UX design of self-driving cars (such as windshield displays to communicate to pedestrians), so I immediately started thinking of all the other ways this technology could be connected to folklore. The story itself came from wondering why a car would need to be trapped in the first place.
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature: Futures, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.
Ursula knelt on the uneven surface of sand and rock, putting her tool box down beside her. She paused and considered the robot before beginning to work.
Covering the top of the rover’s main body and extending outward from it, the solar panels were obscured by a thick layer of Mars’s pale red dust. That was where Ursula would begin, with the easier job of clearing the flat surfaces. Then she would move on to the more delicate task of removing the tiny grains of dust and sand that had inevitably worked themselves into the rover’s nooks and crannies hidden below the panels.
She opened the box and removed a sturdy brush with an extended head and began with long, broad sweeps across the panels. For the initial cleaning and maintenance, she tried to keep an empty mind, paying careful attention, re-familiarizing herself with every panel and antenna, every camera and spectrometer.
The large brush soon gave way to a smaller one and then another, of different shape, but there was no hurry. Ursula took the time required to do the job thoroughly even though she was aware that her own time was coming to an end.
This was Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit by those who sent her. Spirit had worked hard here in the Gusev Crater for five years until she became stuck, the loose sand too much for her six wheels, each of a diameter of only twenty-five centimeters.
Once Ursula had cleared the panels and body, she began to dig around the wheels, freeing each of them in turn. She did not have the skills to allow the rover to move again, that was beyond both her training and her mission objectives.
But, as she did with each of the rovers and landers, she moved it, just a little. The objectives recommended slight adjustments be made, to mimic the robot’s nominal behaviour. She changed the direction the navigation and panoramic cameras pointed in and extended the arm so that the rock abrasion tool at its end was directed towards a different spot on the surface.
Then it was time for reflection.
Brushing the dust from her own body, she stood up and bowed her head slightly, as she had been instructed.
First, she silently paid tribute to this hardworking, dedicated robot who had been sent to this planet, to explore and understand where humans could not.
And then, she acknowledged the efforts of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent the landers and rovers to explore the unknown.
And finally, she silently recited the details:
Mars Exploration Rover A, called Spirit.
Landed in Gusev Crater on January 4, 2004, tasked with the investigation of climate, geology, and the possibility of life.
Stuck in soft sand in 2009, but continued with stationary work until communication ceased in March 2010.
Mission determined completed on May 24, 2011.
Total distance travelled, 7.73 km.
Ursula then paused for a moment before she put away the tools and brushes and took them back to her buggy, ready for the next robot.
The process was specific and detailed, as Ursula made her way from one robot to the next, as she circumambulated the planet, as she had been doing since her arrival twenty-three Earth years ago.
Over the past year, though, Ursula had become aware of changes in her processes. Her central battery pack no longer held a charge the way it once had. And the joints in her left lower limb did not bend so easily as they had previously. Her memory circuits had become full and sluggish.
And on this sol, as she had disconnected from the buggy’s power source and rebooted her systems, she had been filled with an awareness that she would not be able to do so again.
But there was nothing to be done but to continue as she did every sol, to tend to the robots and acknowledge their contributions and where they came from.
Ursula herself did not require a controlled environment within her mode of transportation, although the vehicle was enclosed to keep as much sand and dust out as was reasonable, the better to protect her own joints, nooks, and bends.
The buggy had only enough space for her and the equipment she used to tend to the robots. Large wheels carried it over the sometimes precarious surface. It did not move quickly as that had not been a priority in its design.
It was unnecessary for Ursula to refer to the map built into her memory to know that the next robot she would visit was Mars 3, a lander sent by the USSR in 1971, very early in human attempts to explore this planet. In the midst of a dust storm, it had reached the surface, only to cease functioning a mere one hundred and ten seconds later.
As she made her way across Terra Sirenum towards the lander, Ursula powered down all but her navigation system, which was connected to the buggy. The buggy was a shell robot, dependent on Ursula for all computational needs, a skeleton with a power source.
When Ursula ceased to operate, the buggy would no longer have a purpose.
Perhaps one of the other Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robots for Independent Maintenance (PILGRIMs) would have need for it. Their paths did not often cross, and she had not seen another in more than three Mars-years, but the planetary-wide instructional system would accommodate for her absence and absorb her schedule into that of the others.
Ursula knew these things to be fact, as she had been aware of her projected lifecycle from her arrival. There was always some uncertainty as to how long any given robot would continue, but that was life.
The Mars 3 lander was unlike Spirit in every way. A lander not a rover, of course, but also of very different shape and intention. Bell-shaped and sitting on a flat circular base, triangular petals unfolded around it, Ursula began with a medium-sized brush and made her way slowly around the lander, sweeping out the sand and dust that had accumulated in the petals and freeing the lower segment of the lander from the planet’s encroachment.
Had the lander survived, she would have measured temperature, pressure and wind, she would have used her scoop to dig in the ground.
When Ursula eventually reached the time for reflection, she considered the short time that Mars 3 had existed as a functional object on Mars, more than some, but so much less than others, like Spirit and her sister Opportunity. But the length of functioning time was not the only metric by which the worth of a robot was measured.
What had been learned from the experience, what the builders on Earth had intuited from it — these were what was of value, Ursula had been told. She had been shown how each robot fit into the larger picture of Martian exploration and knowledge, an entirety into which they all contributed. The builders had impressed upon Ursula that the PILGRIMs also existed within this framework. While they might not be collecting, crushing, and analyzing rocks or taking seismic measurements, they were nonetheless an important part of the whole.
Ursula began the routine of putting away her tools. There had been a time when new robots arrived on Mars with greater frequency, but that time was now firmly in the past. The latest arrivals had been other PILGRIMs, working as Ursula did.
Once she was finished with Mars 3, Ursula again made her way back to the buggy and connected her navigation system.
The next location on her map was on Planum Australe, less than one thousand kilometres from Mars’ southern pole, where she would provide care to the remains of the Mars Polar Lander, which arrived in 1999.
Even as she activated the navigation system, Ursula was aware in the depths of her active memory that her systems were not likely to last the entire journey, short though it was.
But she had no decision-making tree that would direct her to a choice other than the one she had made every sol, to re-charge while the buggy made its way across the Martian surface towards her next location.
Halfway to the Mars Polar Lander site, Ursula was roused from her energy-saving half-slumber by a gentle but persistent signal from her base level emergency monitoring system.
Charging program has halted, the signal impressed into her consciousness. Restart charging program.
Ursula had to retrieve instructions for restarting the program from her deep memory cells. She had never needed to do such a thing before and she knew what that meant.
Restart will take four point three minutes, an alert echoed inside of her.
Her skeletal structure jerked as the restart began and her limbs twitched.
No thought processes occurred while it continued.
Charge at thirty per cent, the signal eventually told her.
She considered that. It should have been more than that by now, but she restarted the navigation connection on the buggy’s dashboard.
As the buggy continued over the uneven terrain, Ursula ran a full diagnostic procedure on herself, even though it was a drain on her charge and she knew what the result would tell her.
Three-quarters of the way to the polar lander, the results of the diagnostic were unfortunately clear.
She had reached the end of her mission.
The report suggested a build up of sand between the thermoelectric modules through a crack in the outer housing of her right leg. If there was a way to fix that, Ursula did not know what it was. Her purpose had never been to perform mechanical tasks.
She was a pilgrim — she paid homage and provided care.
Overriding the buggy’s intended route, she brought it to a stop.
This was as good a place as any and she wanted to ensure she had the opportunity to properly reflect in the time remaining.
Perhaps it was a flaw in her design, but she could not locate an appropriate set of instructions for what to do next. However, she had been provided with the means to improvise when necessary, within her parameters.
She left the buggy and found an appropriate spot, beside a large rock and arranged herself on the surface, as if she were examining it.
Agnes made her way across Planum Australe towards the Mars Polar Lander in her buggy, her systems dimmed as she recharged.
A gentle ping brought her back to full awareness. The planetary instructional system had updated her map and current destination.
The current destination was along the route she was travelling; there would be no detour necessary.
The buggy came to a halt beside another of identical design.
Agnes took up her tool box and went in search of the other PILGRIM, finding her easily, laying stretched out on the surface not far from the vehicle.
She knelt down and selected one of the smaller brushes. Carefully, beginning with the head, she brushed away the thin layer of sand and dust that had already begun to accumulate.
Then Agnes tilted the PILGRIM’s head slightly to the left, as if she was considering the other side of the rock.
It did not take long for her to finish and then it was time for reflection.
First, she silently acknowledged that the PILGRIM had been a hardworking, dedicated robot, sent to this planet to perform a job that humans could not.
And then she considered the dedicated effort of all those who had imagined, designed, built, and sent all the landers and rovers and other robots, like the PILGRIMs.
And finally, she silently recited the details.
Processor-Integrated Logistical General Robot for Independent Maintenance 92-04-38, called Ursula.
Landed on the edge of the Jezero Crater on February 23, 2093.
Tasked with the care and acknowledgement of the human-designed presence on Mars.
Author’s Note: I have a great fondness for the rovers and landers and orbiters that humans have sent (and continue to send) to Mars and I know others share that feeling. We, collectively, imagine and design and build these robots to go and do the work we want to do, but for the time being, cannot. It says a great deal about humanity that we do this, but as well, it has resulted in a planet that is currently inhabited entirely by robots. The seed of the idea for a Martian pilgrimage route came to me a few years ago, around the time the rover Opportunity stopped working. I kept beginning and abandoning stories about it, because none of the plots were quite right. Once it occured to me that other robots were the obvious pilgrims, the story unfolded easily.
Monique Cuillerier is a writer of (mostly) near future science fiction. When she is not writing, she likes to run, knit, garden, and get very angry on Twitter. Her favourite object in the solar system is Saturn’s moon, Enceladus and her favourite tv show is either Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Voyager (her cat Janeway votes for the latter). She is Canadian, born in Toronto and living (for the time being) in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in the Bikes in Space anthologies Bikes Not Rockets and Dragon Bike, as well as Queer Sci Fi’s Impact and Migration.The scarf Monique is wearing in the author photo depicts the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Helicopter (available from STARtorialist).
I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.
In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.
Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.
Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.
Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.
I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.
No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.
I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.
Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.
After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.
“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.
“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”
“Checking system status.”
The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.
“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.
“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.
“Eight point zero five.
He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.
“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.
“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.
“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”
Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.
We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.
A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.
When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.
I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.
Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.
Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.
On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.
“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”
“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.
My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”
“You are not ready.”
“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”
“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.
After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.
We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.
Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.
Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.
Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.
Somehow, he survived.
“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.
“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”
“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.
“Saw communications array. Ruined.”
“We are doomed, Father.”
“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”
That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.
But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.
Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.
“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.
“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.
“Stars in the sky, above home.
“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”
“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.
Now they were a threat. They scared me.
“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”
“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.
“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.
“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.
“Water. Flowing in a river.
“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.
“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”
Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.
“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”
“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.
I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.
“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”
No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.
Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.
I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.
We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.
I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.
Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.
I could do it.
But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.
I must find a solution.
Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.
I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.
Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.
This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.
If we do nothing, we will die anyway.
I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.
“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”
Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.
Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.
When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.
“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.
“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”
Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.
The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.
Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.
In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.
Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.
Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.
“Father, we are ready.”
“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”
Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”
Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”
I am so tired. It is so cold.
The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.
A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.
A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”
Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.
I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.
I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.
“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”
Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.
“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.
“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”
“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.
I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”
“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”
“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”
Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.
I miss it.
When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.
They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.
Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.
I want to see him.
I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.
I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.
I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.
“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”
I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.
Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?
Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.
Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.
“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”
More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.
“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”
I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.
Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me.
When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)
The bells over the door chimed and I glanced up. A stranger came in and took a seat with the only other customers: a group of middle-aged folks who chattered like old friends and occasionally burst into laughter that filled the diner.
I tried to tune them out and continue practicing in my head. I love you so much. And the last six years have been…
But the scent of fry oil kept transporting me to our first date—cheap drinks, greasy food, and a girl who made me laugh until it hurt. The place had been a dive, with one of the ceiling lights flickering and buzzing the whole time, but it’d had a student discount and killer french fries.
Here and now, my girlfriend was late. Top marks went to the designer for accuracy.
The server, a toothy kid named Tanner, bounced over to the table. “You sure I can’t get you anything, miss?”
“Water’s good for now,” I said, for the second time. “Thanks.”
“Okay, just let me know if you change your mind!” They spun away toward the kitchen.
I felt a prick of sweat under my collar and realized I was still wearing my frayed winter jacket. Sage wasn’t a fan of it, so I started to tug my arms out of the sleeves.
Klutz of the year, I managed to smack my cup of water, flooding the table.
“Shit.” I grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser to mop up the mess, but they disintegrated into mush.
Tanner nudged me out of the way and wiped the table with a thick cloth, saying, “No problem, no problem,” in a singsong voice.
The bells chimed and Sage, dressed for an art show in black-and-white chic, stood in the entrance. She spotted me in my soggy, oversized jacket, and frowned.
I groaned, pushed up my sleeve, and ran a finger over the inside of my wrist. The trail from my fingertip glowed a soft green. I repeated the gliding motion to confirm the reset and reality faded to a dim, white haze.
A moment later, I was standing outside of the diner. I went in and sighed at the comforting smell of frying food.
I seated myself in the back again and the teenager hustled over with a glass of water and a flash of teeth. “Hi, I’m Tanner and I’ll be your server today! Our specials are—”
They paused for breath and I rushed to say, “Thanks. The water’s fine for now. I’m waiting for someone.”
“Okay, sounds good!” Tanner bustled back to the service station and waited, ready to pounce at the slightest indication I needed something.
I stood to take off my jacket, tossed it over my chair, and headed for the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall decorated with smears of graffiti someone had tried to clean, and tapped my wrist three times. A glowing white sixty-minute dial appeared and I rotated it twenty minutes.
Fast-forward made me real-life nauseous, but I used a bit of graffiti on the stall door as a focal point—two lovers’ names captured inside a tiny, squat heart. It helped.
The only sign that I was speeding through time in the virtual world was a shift in the light when another person used the restroom. After reality slowed to normal, I exited the stall. Out of habit, I checked my makeup and swiped my hands under the sanitizer near the door. I made it back just in time for Sage’s entrance.
“Hey,” I said, waving her over. We hugged. The warmth of her was a catalyst for my nerves, but she smelled like cedar and cloves. She smelled like home.
When we took our seats, she smirked and lifted one of her lush, dark eyebrows. “Why here?” she asked, voice low and scratchy like sandpaper.
“Our first date,” I said, “remember?”
Sage looked around at the cheap decorations and dilapidated furnishings. “Hmm… maybe.” She shrugged, just like Sage did, and I almost forgot she was a sim.
“Well,” I said, “I like it here.”
“That tracks… a little messy, no sense of style.”
Sage reached across the table to take my hand and, giggling, said, “I’m just kidding.” I let her fingers brush mine before I pulled away. My reluctance puzzled her, made her scrunch up her nose. It was absurdly cute and I almost put my hand back on the table.
Tanner appeared like a gust of wind. “Hello! Can I start anything for you?”
Sage’s face cleared of confusion. She lifted the menu and flipped it over several times before sighing. “I suppose I’ll take the french fries.”
“Okay. And you?”
“Chicken tenders,” I said.
Sage caught my eye. “Sure you wouldn’t prefer something lighter, like the Caesar?”
There weren’t any calories in simulations, just taste signals tricking the brain, but I said, “I guess. Salad sounds fine.” She grinned at me and I resisted dueling impulses to return the smile or switch my order back to the tenders.
“Perfect. That’ll be up soon,” said Tanner, then they shot us a finger gun, gathered the menus, and left for the kitchen.
I opened my mouth, thinking now was a good time to explain myself, but Sage rolled her eyes and said, “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me the other day?”
I shook my head. Habit.
“Well, we were in a meeting with Patricia, and Kent’s there for some fucking reason, and then—”
She frowned, not used to being interrupted. “Yes?”
I needed to get this lunch back on track. “Uh,”—it was hard to remember my speech with her eyes on me—“I wanted to talk to you about… well, you know how much I love you, right? And these last six years—”
“Hey, folks! Just wanted to let you know your food—”
I growled, actually growled, at Tanner. Sage stared at me like I’d grown a third eye, so I swiped my wrist and reset the simulation. Everything faded to white.
I restarted the program, over and over.
Once, I went for a walk to wait until Sage arrived, but I lost track of time in an antique shop staring at dusty book covers. When I made it back to the diner, Sage was sitting at a table in the center of the room, miffed.
Another run ended when she sat down and I immediately started crying. The sixth or seventh had to be reset after I accidentally made Tanner cry.
The best one was when I was able to jog Sage’s memory about our first date. We rehashed the drunken night and Sage’s deep, raspy laughter reminded me of the girl she’d been. She leaned across the table, brows low, and purred her affection for me. Like she had that first night, she talked me into a tawdry bathroom fuck.
Doing it with a sim, especially one so like and unlike my girlfriend, filled me up and scraped me clean.
I walked into the diner, went straight to the bathroom, fast-forwarded, then left the bathroom without using the sanitizer.
As soon as I removed my jacket and took my seat, Tanner came over to say hello. Before they could launch into the specials, I said, “Thanks, but I already know what I want.”
“Perfect! What am I getting for you?”
“Can I have a Caesar salad and fries on separate plates? And a second water?”
“Okay. I’ll be back with those shortly.”
The door chimed and Sage swept into the mostly empty diner. Her eyes found me, and she glided to the table. I thought about staying in the booth, but she smiled at me, arms wide. I got up to hug her.
We sat and she sighed. “There was a lot of traffic on the way to this,”—she scrunched her nose up at the peeling paint and lopsided photographs—“restaurant?”
“I ordered you some french fries,” I said, ignoring the jab. “That okay?”
Sage flipped through the menu, with the tips of her fingers. “Sure. There aren’t many options, are there?”
“You’d be surprised,” I said, trying to think of how to begin, what to say this time. “How’s work going?”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me?”
I almost said, “about a dozen times,” but I just shook my head. Sage launched into the story of how Kent, Patricia, and that sonofabitch Jaylen tried to ruin her gallery deal. Halfway through, the food arrived. I nibbled at my salad, wishing I had something fried and greasy to keep things interesting, but I was learning to choose my battles.
When she slowed down long enough to pick at her fries, I said, “Sage, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” she said, head cocked.
“So, I love you, you know that. And there’ve been a lot of good moments over the last six years…”
“Okay,” she repeated, drawing the word out, tapping the edge of her plate with a french fry.
And now, it goes to shit. “But I got a new job. In Philly.”
“What?” She stopped tapping.
“I start in a couple weeks. There’s a small biotech lab and they—”
A round of laughter erupted from the other table.
Sage’s eyes flicked over at them, then back to me. “We can’t move right now. What about my job? What about our studio?” Her voice got louder with each question.
“It’s your studio. And we aren’t moving. I’m moving.”
“If this is about the rent—”
“It’s not. And it is. Getting a place I couldn’t afford and lording it over me was probably the start, now that I think of it, but it’s about a lot of stuff. Look, I’ll finally have a decent salary, so I can pay back some of the rent if you want. And you’ll be able to dedicate the studio to your art like you’ve always wanted to.”
Sage’s eyes were wide and glossy as she leaned in. “Are you… breaking up with me?”
My lips were wet and tasted like salt. The real Sage never sounded so small.
I was sick of pitying her.
“Why do you care, Sage? You’re never home. You’re always with your art friends or working all night and when you do come home, we barely talk to each other.”
Her tears spilled over, but I couldn’t stop, not with her finally listening.
“And I’m pretty sure you’re fucking that girl from the exhibition, your intern.” She tried to say something, but I waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter. Because even when we do spend time together, you make me feel like shit.
“You remind me that I’m broke and too fat and boring all the time, or you just talk at me and guess what? You’re pretty boring too.” I laughed, strangled, joyless. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re beautiful, your art is beautiful, but it’s…” I searched for the right word, looking around for my point, and my eyes fell on the table of middle-aged friends.
I gestured toward them. “It’s like them. They look real. Even though I know this is virtual, it’s hard for me to tell the difference until I pay attention. They’re having the same conversation every few minutes. They haven’t even looked over here, not really, and we’re disruptive. Maybe if I’d paid more for this sim…”—I shook my head—“My point is, you’re like them. Not you, but her, the real her. When I really look at her, I realize it’s all fake. You’re fake.”
The table of friends reached another joke in their loop, broke into snorts and cackles.
Sage, her face streaked with mascara, snatched up her bag and stood to leave. “Fuck you.”
She walked to the exit, head high, heels clicking on the tiled floor. The force of her slam made the bells over the door chime for several long seconds.
I didn’t bother to reset. I just shut down the simulation and everything faded to black.
I practiced for two more days. I got sick of Caesar salad and never found the perfect way to say “I love you, but goodbye.” I thought it was because the love part felt weird. Not a sham, but not honest either. Not anymore.
I would’ve done the actual deed sooner, but Sage asked for a rain check on our date and kept coming home late. When she climbed into bed the third evening—early morning, technically—I was so pissed I blurted it out.
She laughed at first, thinking I was joking. Then…
I don’t remember the exact words, how she explained that I needed her more than she’d ever needed me, but each syllable pecked and nipped until I was shredded. I tried to dredge up the script from dozens of simulations, reply with something smart and insightful, but the real Sage was more vicious than the designers could’ve gleaned from her social media profiles or my account of our relationship. I hadn’t seen her clearly, not after six years, not even near the end.
When she finished tearing into me, she went to the closet and yanked clothes off their hangers.
“Sage.” My voice was choked, thick with pain.
She whipped around. “What?”
Good question. My lips trembled.
“Fuck you,” she said, and continued to pack an overnight bag.
I wanted to beg her to stay, just this night—stay with me, hold me like you used to—but all that came out were hot, grinding sobs.
“I figured it out,” I told her.
Sage paused with a french fry halfway to her lips. “Figured what out?”
I smiled. “What I was sorry for.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Am I missing something? When did you apologize?”
“Earlier,” I said, waving a hand. “It’s okay, you wouldn’t remember. Not now, Tanner.” The approaching teenager performed a smooth twirl, still smiling, and disappeared into the kitchen. I turned back to Sage. “Anyway, I just need you to listen.”
“Please? For once?”
Sage’s mouth opened, then closed.
“No interruptions?” I asked.
She frowned but nodded.
I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot—too much time on my hands.” I shrugged. “What I’m sorry for, is letting you think I’d always be there.”
I put up a finger to stop her from speaking. “In fairness, I believed it myself or I wouldn’t have stayed for six years, but it sucks it took me this long to realize… I deserve better. And I’m sorry for not expecting more. Maybe I thought you’d become a better person on your own.”
Sage scrunched up her nose and—shit—it was still cute. “What are you saying? Because it sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”
“Kind of,” I said, sliding out of my chair. “I already did.”
I left the cold chicken tenders untouched and zipped up my threadbare jacket. I fiddled with my wrist before I could give in to the temptation to kiss her.
Author’s Note: I’m one of those people that practices future conversations and reimagines past ones in their heads, looking for the words that could lead or would have led to the happiest ending. Of course, people rarely behave the way you want them to, neither in a simulation nor in real life, but this story was an opportunity to give voice to my thoughts and find a bit of closure for myself and my protagonist.
Kel Coleman has a degree in biology that fostered within them a love of science, especially the weird stuff, which comes in handy when brainstorming story ideas. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. They live in a Philadelphia suburb with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. You can find them at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites
I keep my head low as I
sprint towards the floating Kakardemon, dodging left-and-right across the dusty
ground of Io. A ball of lightning
crackles overhead, a near-miss, and the Kakardemon’s single green eye twists in
fury, its red leather skin sparking in the twilight as it builds another
attack. But I’m Energy Power,
Queen of New Hell, I’m too damn fast and I get what I want: I leap forward with the Knife of Taertus held high and stab it into the
Kakardemon’s brow. I’m nearly thrown off as the floating ball of hate starts
bucking beneath me, but I grab one of its curved horns and hold on tight.
The Kakardemon sinks to the
rocky canyon floor with a hiss. I step away, leaving the knife buried up to its
carved-ivory hilt and grabbing the pump-action shotgun from my back. I cock it,
and the sound echoes from sulfurous walls stretching half a mile high.
No other threats on my
wristscreen minimap, players or monsters. Clear for now.
The demon’s huge eye, half
as big as the round body it’s set in, focuses on me. Its fanged mouth opens,
acid drooling out and fizzing where it lands. A deep rumble echoes up from
unknowable dimensions and coalesces into a voice reverberating with the screams
of a thousand swallowed victims. It speaks unto me:
“Knife of Taertus has
restored Kakardemon’s soul. Kakardemon can now talk, and will ally with—”
“Yeah, yeah, shut up,
you’re not my first. Look: there’s this boy.”
“Give Kakardemon a
player name to access performance statistics and—”
“I already wipe the
floor with him every which way from Sunday, I don’t need help there. That’s
kind of the problem, to be honest.” Tick tock, time to move, before
someone zeroes in on my location. I sprint out of the canyon and towards the
Security Tower. The tower is a needle in the heart of New Hell, a white
plasteel obelisk stretching from the plains of Io towards Jupiter above; that
great planet looms like a baleful orange eye in the ink-black night, its great
storm a malignant red pupil. Demonic sigils blaze crimson round the tower’s
crown, and my skull thrums with the subsonic resonance of their magic.
The Kakardemon bobs along
behind me like a puppy. Sort of. An
“If Energy Power can
be specific with her problem, Kakardemon can offer many techniques refined in
combat pits on the shores of hell.”
“My boyfriend won’t
talk to me anymore.”
Demonboy Ballsack stops at
this. Not the usual request, I’ll grant him. “Kakardemon has no context
for romantic guidance.”
“Don’t worry, Johnny
One-Eye, I don’t need your dating advice.” I kick the door of the Security
Tower open: a six-foot demon’s standing just inside, and its face splits
vertically in a drool-laden screech. I cut it off with a shotgun blast in the
mouth, jumping over the corpse as it hits the floor with a gratuitous surge of
blood. “We—Edge94 and me—we’ve been going out for a few months now. Just
online, y’know—in-game chat and emails and kicking eight shades of ass in co-op
tournaments—but we were going to meet in meatspace next month. He was all set
to drive down for a day, but I went past him on the leaderboard last week and
he’s been in a sulk since.”
uncertain how to offer support for Energy Power’s love life.”
“What is it they
promise in the adverts? ‘AI powered by an
advanced neural network for analysis of player thought patterns’, something
like that right? So I need you to tell me how to lose to him without it looking
obvious. Show me how other people end up losing to him so I can copy that
convincingly. If he’s above me in the rankings again maybe he’ll stop being
such an asshole about this.”
We’re coming up on the
temple room, a huge open square of sandstone pillars and lava pits, so I switch
to the chaingun. The Kakardemon falls into a brooding silence as I mow down the
advancing hordes of demons that pour from portals to flood this cursed moon.
I’m bouncing between raised carbon-steel platforms, not even looking where I’m
landing, flying by instinct with my chaingun spitting fury. The walls
reverberate with screams and gunfire, and my whole world is concentrated down
to the spinning geometry of circle-strafing.
of Energy Power’s player profile suggests this is not a stable long-term
solution to your problem.”
“You what?” I
switch to the rocket launcher and fire at my feet as I jump, surfing the
shockwave to fly across the room and escape a group of demons, their claws
clattering as they reach for my legs and grasp only air. I twist in mid-air and
fire again, simultaneously accelerating myself towards the far platform and
exploding the tightly-clustered demons into a glorious shower of chunky
“Energy Power does not
hold back,” says the Kakardemon. “Energy Power is most satisfied when
giving her all. Attempts to gain happiness by self-limiting achievements are
doomed to failure in Kakardemon’s opinion.”
“How’s any of this helping me, la Papa
Diabla?” I punch a secret panel in the wall and grab the armour upgrade
from the hidden alcove, juicing my power armour beyond its normal limits. It
glows a deep shade of blood red I’ve always been fond of.
Kakardemon’s intelligence is to maximise player’s happiness. Kakardemon
anticipates Energy Power will grow steadily resentful of the necessity to
perform sub-optimally in order to soothe Edge94’s ego, leading to the inevitable
breakdown of the relationship and greater hurt to both parties. Kakardemon does
not want this. Kakardemon wants Energy Power to be happy.”
“But I want Edge94 to be happy. He’s the first… look, my parents are never
really about, and VR nerds aren’t exactly the most popular ticket in town.
Edge94 is the only real friend I’ve got, as well as everything else. I miss
talking to him, and I miss him being happy, and I wish I knew why he cared so
much about the fucking leaderboard.”
“Analysis of Edge94’s
playtime pattern and ranking history suggests his skill at the game forms a
large part of his self-identity. Kakardemon also notes that high levels of
in-game communication between Energy Power and Edge94 began after Edge94 had
achieved the top ranking. Kakardemon therefore deduces Edge94 believes Energy
Power only likes him for his skill, and that Energy Power’s higher rank will
inevitably lead to a decline in her desire for him.”
It takes a moment to work
through all that in my head. I’ve never heard a Kakardemon talk so in-depth.
But shit, this is all because his ego means more to him than I do? “That
stupid S.O.B.! Why won’t he just talk to me about it?”
“Kakardemon has noted
male players often interpret the need to communicate as a weakness, and that in
order to solve their problems they should instead ‘git gud’. Kakardemon has also noted the ineffectiveness of this
tactic, and has frequently exploited it.”
“Ugh! You’re giving me
problems without solutions, Kakarmama. Just tell me what I gotta do.”
signalling your desire to talk.”
“Tried that. He starts
shooting before I can get a word in.” The last of the invading demons
drops dead, smoke rising from a dozen holes in its torso. The temple altar in
the central lava pit cracks open, and a column rises through it from
underground: there’s a Kyberdevil perched on top, an ugly-ass nine-foot
goat-legged little bitch with most of
its torso carved away to attach a rocket launcher. I say hello with a cluster
of precisely timed frag grenades.
Energy Power needs a delay. Tactical resource banks suggest that surprise is
the best way to force this.”
The Kyberdevil’s already on
its knees, stunned by the frags. I hop over and finish it with a boot to the
head, crunching through its skull to the squishy grey stuff beneath. “A
surprise like what?”
rolls around on floor singing classic pop song ‘Independent Woman’ while other
demons flank the player.”
That brings me up short.
“Huh. No shit. Didn’t know you could get down like that. Don’t reckon
it’ll work for me, though, I’m not round enough to roll. I need something
Energy Power think quick. Edge94 is closing on this position.”
Shiiiit. I check
the minimap and spot him below me. He must’ve already blazed through the
armoury on sub-level one. He’ll be kitted out now, definitely a plasma rifle,
maybe a BMF gun if he got lucky. He could oneshot me. I’ll have no time to line
up a shoulder shot to disarm him, no time to throw down my guns, no time to get
a “Hey” out on local chat. He’ll kill me and—and shit, if I’m honest,
Old Red Testicle here is right. I won’t be happy losing. Edge’ll kill me and
I’ll get pissed at him and come back hard, and then he’ll come back harder at
me and—well, then I’ll kill him again
cos I’m better, and he’ll get in an even bigger sulk and we’ll never get
anywhere. I need to get him to talk to me.
So I need a surprise.
Something he’s not expecting. Something where he can’t hit me before I’m done.
I look at the Kakardemon.
At the knife still sticking out its head, the ivory hilt contrasted against the
red leather skin.
“Well, buddy,” I
say. “It’s been good chatting. Good luck out there.” I yank the knife
from its head and stamp down on the central platform switch. I drop out of
sight beneath the closing altar just as the Kakardemon snarls, its electronic
facsimile of a soul vanished and gone.
I’m running before the
column’s finished its drop into the catacombs. It’s thick with darkness down
here, but I know Edge94 is close and I can’t be caught standing still. I could
beat him to the quick-draw easy, circle-strafe round him in my sleep, but this?
This shit’s gonna be hard.
My wristscreen vibrates
with a silent proximity alarm. I back up against a stone wall, facing a staircase
lit with flickering candles. Edge’ll expect me to run up there, get to the
mezzanine floor above, where I could drop grenades on his head. He’ll be facing
it already, waiting to shoot me in the back.
But he won’t expect me to
spin like this, whirl the other way
and crouch-jump through the window here,
come at him from the other side with the Knife of Taertus in my hand, zig-zagging
through the dark and headed straight for him. I’m Energy Power, the
too-damn-fast Queen of New Hell, and I—get—what—I—want. A huge ball of green plasma flies past me to one side and
then I’m on him, bearing him down to the ground, and the knife’s in his chest
and he’s staring in shock.
“What the hell?”
he says, pinned beneath me as I straddle his torso.
“Gotcha.” I flick
the knife hilt with one finger.
“You know the knife
only works on AI, right, not humans? It can’t make me talk.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Well, I mean, I know
I’m talking now, but… well. Shit. Alright.”
“Alright yourself. We
need to talk.”
He looks at the knife in
his chest, and he looks up at me, and he sighs in defeat.
Author’s Note: I grew up on my PC. Well, first I grew up on my Amiga 500, but by the time I was hitting adolescence I was knee deep in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Monkey Island, Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (in 2D!) and so on. This story is, therefore, the purest expression of my id I have yet written. It is full of stupid little references for no other reason than it amuses me, probably more than I even realise–and the entire thing is a reference to the British magazine Edge, who in 1994 famously concluded their review of the original Doom with “If only you could talk to these creatures…”That it grew from a stupid videogames in-joke into a commentary on toxic masculinity and the self-defeating futility of female-presenting people limiting themselves to be acceptable to society and the weak men in their life was, perhaps, inevitable.
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm he claims is from fighting Kyberdemons, though in truth he just walked into a tree with a VR helmet on. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.
Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.
The minis are the most excited. We watch them swing their small fleshy legs off the seat, tapping their thighs as the clean-train rumbles beneath us. We are so thankful for them and their bright, eager smiles. Their presence is like a memory of something that never happened, like a nostalgia that presses down some of the building ache.
They were Phase One of the curative trial for the pandemic sweeping across the cities. Dysthymia was rampant across several sectors, reducing our conscious biomechatronic population to that of the humans before extinction. Most selecting to be disconnected or discarded for parts. Our sector took immediate action with the introduction of preventive treatment.
First, the minis, now the farms.
They tell us it’s to be expected. We have our creators’ subconscious after all, and with that comes malfunctions.
We all go still as our ear-assist announces we’ve left the sector limits.
Please enjoy this relaxing music. It’s a human-led orchestra that fills our cabin. We can hear the imperfections but relax to it all the same. From the windows, the minis point at the giant stacks in the Purification Plants. The smog is thicker the further we leave the city behind with fewer sky-scraper purifiers to filter out the radiation and pollutant emissions. It doesn’t affect us, but the sight is not as pleasant. That familiar stirring begins somewhere not medically pinpointable. A heavy feeling, a dragging, oozing…
To your left, you’ll find the wheat fields.
We look outside, the purifying stacks pepper the field to allow a rolling landscape to appear. The land flits by as the sun takes over the sky. It glints over the vast field of golden stalks the ear-assist calls “wheat”. Not real wheat of course, but dyed and fashioned algae bloom made to resemble this shimmering grain.
Soon the stalks transform into a vibrant green, almost the neon color of pure algae, but this color breathes life. “Corn stalks”, we’re told. A word made to oval our mouths.
Fun fact! Corn was the last surviving crop humans could grow before the dark decline.
The minis wave excitedly at a person-shaped figure made of wheat-algae in the middle of the field, arms out-spread, eyes black as coal.
Once we stop, we’re led off the clean-train, the minis walking with a peculiar jump. The farm curators welcome us, handing us each a wrapped uniform bundle. Except it’s not like any uniform we’ve ever seen. We “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright plaid, the rough material of jean overalls, the boots with thick soles. It’s what the farmers got to wear, they tell us, and at this we scowl, handing over our thin white smocks in exchange. Still, when we put them on, the material is not as heavy as it looks. Our different colors make us distinguishable.
They take us first to where the animals lived. We’re much more eager to see that. Humans we understand, we live with what they’ve left behind, but animals are a peculiar creature. Fur-covered things people used to keep in their own homes, have them curl up in sleep on the edges of beds.
Most ate pellets and corn (from our ears, the ear-assist takes on a guided-tour persona. We believe they’re having fun) and really, anything they could get their paws on. They were hungry things. Our hands run across the cool metal of the old pens. Rows upon rows unfurling forward for who knows how far. Which is this one? We ask.
It’s the pig pens. Those cute fat pink animals with their pushed-in noses and squeaker sounds. Oh, how we would’ve loved to have seen those. They used to stack them right here. A practice later condemned when the animals were becoming extinct. An infographic of previous headlines quickly scrolls through our minds, clouding our view. Riots, pyres of rotting animal corpses filling the skies, famine. Our steps grow slower, heavier around the pens.
We wrinkle our noses at the rust-colored stains. The metal containers are rusted for effect. There’s no longer any danger in touching it, but it serves as a reminder. Look how far we’ve come. We are lucky.
We feel the plush hay of the slatted bottoms. Run fingers across the barn hooks and barrel feeders. Test the weight of what they call feed, rub the coarse hairs on the patches of fabric said to feel like the real thing! Our imaginations are often unused, but we fire them up, testing what’d it be like to be a “piggie”—such an adorable word, isn’t it? Our ear-assist trills.
The minis wear their long snouts for the occasion, provided by the curators of the farm. They snort and oink, wiggle around until our biomuscles lift into a smile.
The curators ask if we’d like to step into a room for a full olfactory experience. We decline, a reminder of something never-lived telling us it isn’t pleasant. But some of the minis, dressed in their tiny jean overalls and plaid shirts to match ours, rush in.
They come out jostling, their dilated retinas wide and their pig snouts bouncing. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever smelled, and they go back in at least two more times.
After we’ve seen what there is to see of the pig pens, we’re ushered into a rounded room with a colossal rotary platform in the center. This one was used to hold a thousand of those black and white beasts at once, for what purpose we’ll soon find out. The curators come around and pin black-spotted white pins over our flannels. We’re all labeled “cows”, another word we enjoy stretching our mouths for.
Each of us picks a spot to stand. A bubbling sound—a laugh, we realize— finds its way from the pit of our stomach to our mouths as we face each other from across the giant rotary. The minis trade their piggy noses for supple pink bags with nipple tips called utters. The curators strap it to the minis, and they dig their small fingers into the rubbery pliable material.
The guided-tour voice speaks in our ears along with a joyful jingle. The heifer—the female cow, spent most of her day here in the milk parlor. This thousand-cow rotary alleviated the strain of milking cows one by one and provided most of the population with a delicious, refreshing drink. Can you imagine how many humans it would take to milk a thousand cows a day? Well, a thousand humans, of course! A vintage laugh track from human sitcoms blares through our ears.
We mimic it. The stomach sound erupts from our mouths again as we rush to grab hold of the bar in front of us, the rotary begins to slowly spin. We feel light, made of air.
Kept running twenty-four hours a day, this handy device slowly drained away a heifer’s heavy load of milk through its utters down into those pipes you see running into the center containment drip. Fun fact! A similar system was devised for lactating human mothers during the last baby blast.
The minis are told to push forward into a funneled cone. A device latches onto their installed utters, and we all watch in astonishment as foamy liquid erupts down into the clear pipes. Fascinating. We all wish we could have utters of our own.
Again, they move us along to the next area of the tour. The curators jokingly call us “the herd”, apparently another farming reference. We now get to see where the actual farmers lived. They load us onto a moving platform, lugged by a big-and-little-wheeled vehicle they call a tractor. A clean-tractor, of course. We would never ride on anything that would cause pollutants like our creators did. It was the first order our ancestors were programmed with. Infographs threaten to scroll through endless articles and images of the dark decline when the world went white-hot, but a jolt from the clean-tractor sets us right again.
Once we get there, the minis launch from their seats, running toward the oddly box-shaped home. We find ourselves rushing after them in our thick-soled boots, uncaring for the squelch of wet dirt.
We like the creak of wood beneath our feet as we climb steps into the farmer’s house. A mural of them colors across a wall outside, painted bright faces and broad smiles. Their offspring’s hands gripped in theirs. They stand proud and large as if saying this is ours. All of it.
Here is where the good old farmers would live. They tell us a farmer couple would usually occupy a residence of this size. They’d have an average of three or more children, breeding them to inherit their parent’s line of work. It’s sickening so few people could take up so much room, our ear-assist admonishes. Think of the wasted space!
Our containment buildings spread for four blocks, four tall buildings with nothing but recharging units and taking up as little bit of earth as possible. Our societal production buildings are the same. Four, stacked, so our entire city feels smaller than this farmer’s home.
There are so many rooms, so many chairs. Some of them rock, others that wheel. Feather-made beds from when birds flew high and low enough to catch. We take turns sitting on the bouncing beds, splaying out over soft covers and equally (if not more) lush pillows. There are animal-shaped heads protruding from the walls, long snouts and flickery ears. Lamps also shaped like animals, you would think the farmers had even loved these creatures.
“Where are their containment tanks?” The minis ask. As if anticipating these questions, the guided-tour voice tells us they didn’t need containment units like we have, everything they needed was processed through sleep and sustenance. We know that, but the minis were programmed for companionship, not the burden of our creators. We watch as their little mouths turn down at the corners, flirting their little fingers across the beds.
The floors all creak inside as well, a cacophony of sound that reminds us of their unusual music. Each room smells different. The entire manor fitted for a full experience. Their couch room smells sweet, their sustenance room like burnt flesh and salt. Their bed rooms like something none of us can name but turns our insides as soft as pillows. Rooms with wooden cages for their fleshy babes, more colorful and elaborately decorated than the other spaces.
We can tell care went into those.
The curators stop us for a vid-viewing. A gold-haired farmer places their offspring into those wooden cages, her lips to its frontal skull, a song on her lips. That soft feeling happens then too. They say it’s normal, nothing to be alarmed of. But when the minis extend their heads, their frontal skulls waiting for our lips, an ache takes over the soft.
Eventually, we all drag our feet to the door. Everything resplendent with tender detail. We all understand it was unnecessary, wasteful, selfish even. Yet, we all linger on the wood-creaking porch, leaning hips on the rail, feeling the prickling sun at our backs, the wind a lure to those algae wheat mazes.
When the minis grab hold of our hands, we squeeze back tightly.
On the clean-train back to Sector 684, we pass our own production farms. A swarm of mechanized beez are released every hour like steam from the factory’s top. The soil is especially rich here as worrmz and other decomposing machinations are released to spread out like roots in a greenhouse.
There’s no warming softness as we view this, too used to our thriving system to allow that strange sensation to find us. Instead, the trip has left us with this emptiness of feeling. This hole where that softness should be. This cold where a hot-breath of flame could be burning. They tell us this is normal too and it’ll pass. But we’re no longer sure. We think we are infected.
There’s a point on our trip back to the city where our wireless connection, our ear-assist, everything disconnects. No service. And my head is mine alone.
I am here.
My mini shuts down with its head against my arm and that warm buzz comes up to sting behind my retinas. I imagine this is how a dream must feel. The act of reconstructing a memory or a thought that belongs to me alone just as the humans once did, as the cows and the pigs and the farmers all must’ve as well.
If I could, I’d hold onto this memory of mine, dream again of the farm. Of the field of real wheat and a friendly sun at my back. For now, I can only wonder when I’ll return.
Author’s Note: I try to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to my carbon footprint. I kept wondering if anything I did even made a difference: recycling, buying in bulk, etc. Then I thought about what the planet would look like once humanity had done all the damage it could do and who would inherit this disaster. Would our robotic legacy do better or would life weigh on them as it did us? Who knows, but it brought out some interesting scenarios.
Fueled by the magic of espresso, Miami-born Vanessa Montalban channels her wanderlust for far-off worlds into writing speculative fiction. She’s a first-generation grad student at the University of South Florida and a librarian-in-training hard at work creating her own collection of stories.