DP FICTION #73B: “The Void and the Voice” by Jeff Soesbe

I turned my father off again.

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.

“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.

“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.”

“Barely. Ship?”

“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.

“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.

“Son, please respond. Son, please respond. Son, please respond.”

“I’m here, Father.”

“Son, I was worried, I was afraid. I was alone.”

“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.”

“Father?”

“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.”

“See him.”

“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.


© 2021 by Jeff Soesbe

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!)


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DP FICTION #72B: “A Study of Sage” by Kel Coleman

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.”

I scowled.

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—”

“Sorry… Sage?”

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?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For 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.”

“But I⁠—“

“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.

Everything faded to black.


© 2021 by Kel Coleman

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


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DP FICTION #72A: “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey

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 eight-foot-floating-demonic-ball-of-hate-and-blood-with-one-eye-and-spiky-horns puppy.

“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.”

“Kakardemon remains 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.

“Kakardemon’s analysis 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 kibbles.

“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.

“Purpose 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.”

“Kakardemon suggests 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.

“Kakardemon concludes 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?”

“Kakardemon sometimes 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 else.”

“Kakardemon suggests 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.

I’m Energy Power, and I get what I want.


© 2021 by Matt Dovey

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.


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DP FICTION #67B: “That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban

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.


© 2020 by Vanessa Montalban

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.


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #12: Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2004 film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters, a surreal fantasy/science fiction story about taking a big step to help your mother understand you, among other things.

The film starts out speculative in the first few seconds, even before the first person has shown on the screen. We see a constellation in the sky that looks a bit like Orion, though it’s more likely the Scissor Sisters logo. A shooting star fires into the middle of where its belt would be which causes other stars to shoot off in all directions, and one drifts slowly down onto grass. From this, I conclude that although this story involves space, it is a fantastical one rather than one attempting to operate by known laws of physics, since all of this makes no sense in terms of our understanding of celestial bodies.

The star, a literal two-dimensional five-pointed star, drifts to the ground on a planet (earth?) among the grass, and with supernatural speed forms a plant with a bud that blooms into a flower while at the same time disgorging a floating piano with a woman in a blue dress lying on top of it and a man in front of it playing a guitar. Given that these people were born from an exploding flower, it seems unlikely that they are the human people that they appear to be; this impression is only reinforced by the fact that this floating spore spins wildly around, including upside down, without dislodging its passengers in its flight. So, given the evidence, this seems to most likely be an alien spore of a pod person type alien race. It’s not clear how the spore knew that it should create human-looking simulacra, since it has not established contact with anything, though maybe it found traces of DNA in the ground or perhaps this kind of spore is pre-configured for what kinds of people are known to be on this planet.

A man appears in the foreground, facing away from the spore, not outwardly acknowledging their existence, and possibly not consciously aware of them, but when he begins singing to their tune it becomes clear that they are exerting their influence on him, whether or not he is consciously aware of them.

He sings lyrics about trying to grow up “like a good boy oughta” and how he is the favorite of his mother, and the girls all like him because he’s handsome, likes to talk, and is fun. As he’s singing this, the landscape behind him transforms, hills and tractor and cows and bar popping up seemingly two-dimensional like they are a pop-up book. And another man appears, who I think may be an analog for the singer himself, as a woman appears and kisses him on the cheek leaving a red lipstick print. She appears to be the same woman depicted on the floating spore-piano, which raises the question of whether she is the pod-person or whether she is the human being that was copied by the pod-person. A rocket-propelled… jukebox, I think?… chases some kind of winged creature in the background.

“Now the girl’s gone missing and your house has got an empty bed.” Has the girl gone missing because she has been replaced by a pod person? Did he move out of his house? “Folks’ll wonder ’bout the wedding, they won’t listen to a word you said?” My best guess is that he discovered that she was a pod person and managed to defend himself or flee but no one will listen to his dire warnings about the invasion and instead are hyper-focused on trying to resolve what they imagine to be a minor relationship dispute.

These last couple of lines are sang by the ensemble we’ve seen so far singing as a band on the comparatively gargantuan open palms of a woman (the singer’s mother?) who looks suspiciously like the pod woman on the piano who looks down at them with a shake of her head and then throws them up with apparently superhuman strength as all of the band members literally fly up into orbit. From this I gather that she must be the woman that the pod woman has based her form on , and part of her head shake is disapproval at this fraud copying her form as she tries to return the pod woman who copied her and the other copies back to space from whence they came to trouble her no more.

The band continues to play and to dance in space, though the main singer has changed his denim overalls for feathery white overalls. There begins the refrain of the song “Gonna take your mama out all night, yeah we’ll show you what it’s all about. We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne and let the good times all roll out.” Given how the mother reacted before, this taking out of the mother on the town is an attempt on the part of the pod people to keep her from rejecting them and launching them back into space and being forced to deal with traumatic re-entry again and again. Is there a reason they can’t just land somewhere far away from the mother where their subterfuge would go better undetected since the humans they are mimicking would not be nearby to notice, or is their continued existence dependent on being nearby the people they are emulating. Or is she some kind of authority here on alien invasions and likely to be called in to intervene wherever people are acting strangely?

He eventually falls back down to earth, only to fly back up and down again, apparently not in control of this movement. “It’s a struggle living like a good boy oughtta”, no doubt when you have visited outer space with pod people and you may or may not be a pod person yourself, it is hard to live in the cultural norms of your own rural area. “When your mama heard how you’ve been talking, I try to tell you that all she wanna do is cry.” This could mean talking by saying things that are against the cultural norms in this rural area, or it could be talking in alien language to the other pod people coordinating.

The song finishes with our protagonist jamming with the pod people in space again, singing the refrain about taking your mama out all night again, before eventually turning into the Scissors Sisters constellation again–presumably this is part of the pod people reproductive cycle since that’s where the original spore came from.

This is a very interesting science fictional tale about pod people trying to fit into society to survive and earn the right to be themselves among others like them.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be Iron by Woodkid.

MOVIE REVIEW: Insurgent

written by David Steffen

Insurgent is a 2015 dystopic science fiction film based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, both of which are the 2nd installment in the Divergent series. The first movie, Divergent, was reviewed here, and the Insurgent book was reviewed here. Much of the general summary of the plot here is the same as the review here of the Divergent book because the basis of it was reasonably closely adapted.

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from coordinated attack masterminded by Erudite that involved turning much of the deadly and well-trained Dauntless into mindless killing drones. Now the remnants of Dauntless are scattered and trying to figure out how they’re going to fit in in the new shaken order.

Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley)was born Abnegation but chose to switch to Dauntless when she turned sixteen, the one opportunity anyone has to switch. Although she is officially Dauntless, she has shown tendencies that seem to say she is actually “Divergent”, which means she has aptitudes for more than one of the factions, as does her boyfriend Tobias (Theo James). This is considered very rare, and very dangerous–others have died for even being suspected of being Divergent. This unusual trait may have saved many lives because she was able to resist the conditioning that turned much of the rest of Dauntless into mindless killing machines.

She and many of Dauntless are now hiding out in Amity, trying to find their next plans. It is a troubled truce with Amity, who value harmony and thus do not get along well with the violent and impulsive Dauntless. But their refuge isn’t going to last very long anyway, because the other members of Dauntless, the ones who sided with Erudite after the original conflict, are coming.

The first movie was a very close adaptation, but this movie, about halfway through, has quite a bit of divergence (ha)from its source material. The characters are the same, the setup is the same, but it ends up in a significantly different place than the book its based on, even though they’re kindof thematically connected. I admit I found this quite distracting, having read the book first, trying to figure out if this was one of those cases where an author lost the creative control over their own work and this was some Hollywood creative going wild making an adaptation into something completely different, or if Veronica Roth did have a say and decided she wanted something significantly different from her book. Still plenty of action and intrigue, but if you have already read the book you may find yourself distracted by the changes that didn’t really seem that necessary and which interfere with the third book being able to be set up in the same way.

MOVIE REVIEW: Divergent

written by David Steffen

Divergent is a 2014 dystopic science fiction movie distributed by Lionsgate, based on the 2011 book of the same title by Veronica Roth. Much of the general summary of the plot here is the same as the review here of the Divergent book because it was very closely based.

The story takes place in an isolated city-state that used to be Chicago in the future, where it is walled off from the rest of the world where no one seems to know what is happening outside of it. Almost all of society is split into five factions, each of which values certain human traits above all others. At the age of sixteen, every person must decide which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives or risk falling into the huddled masses of the factionless who are barely acknowledged by the society.

The Abnegation values selflessness, and expect its members to never think of themselves. Dauntless values courage, its members are like a trained military force, expected to take on dangerous challenges without hesitation. Candor values honesty, and its members are expected to always tell the truth in all situations. Amity values harmony, and wants everyone to get along peacefully. Erudite value intelligence, they’re the inventors of the society. Every person is expected to be a clear fit for one of the factions or they are an outcast, but there are whispers that some people are “divergent” who have tendencies toward several factions at once, these people are considered dangerous to their social order.

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is born and raised as Abnegation, but although she sees the worth in Abnegation’s values, she feels like an impostor because she can’t seem to hold to those values. On her Choosing Day she has to choose between staying with her family in Abnegation or leaving them behind to join one of the other factions. She joins the Dauntless faction because it seems to be the closest to what she wants to be, there she is trained by a mysterious man who calls himself Four (Theo James).

This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the movie. The main difference overall seems to be that it feels like the Dauntless acts are dialed up even higher so that rather than being simply reckless they are borderline suicidal, I guess to punch up the movie shock effect. But this is still an interesting look at a really terrible social structure that I would never recommend (particularly that you have to choose your faction at sixteen and can never change it forevermore). Worth a watch!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 by Michael Milne

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

written by David Steffen

Allegiant is a 2013 dystopic science fiction novel by Veronica Roth, the final book in the Divergent trilogy after Divergent (reviewed here) and Insurgent (reviewed here).

These stories take place in a future Chicago which is walled-off from the rest of the world and has been split into five factions: Candor (who value truth, Abnegation (who value selflessness), Amity (who value harmony), Dauntless (who value courage), and Erudite (who value intelligence). This order has existed for a long time, relatively undisturbed, but now the world is reeling from several major disturbances in the social order that began when Erudite converted much of dauntless into mindless soldiers and slaughtered much of Abnegation before they could be stopped. The factionless who have lived starving and forgotten in the background for much of recent history have risen up under a new leader, and now on the heels of that change, a video has surfaced that shakes the foundations of their whole world.

The video shows a woman claiming to work for “an organization fighting for peace” says that the world outside of Chicago had been corrupt, and that the city was sealed to allow the Divergent population to increase and that this recent increase means that it is time to reopen the city to the outside world again.

“Divergent” is this society’s name for people who don’t fit into one of the five factions. Many have considered such people dangerously unpredictable, and some have been killed to prevent their unpredictability.

Tris Prior and her boyfriend Tobias are both Divergent, both members of Dauntless that switched from Abnegation at the age of choice, and because of these traits have saved many people when they were able to resist the conditioning that other Dauntless fell prey to.

Now, Tris and Tobias and some others allied with them are venturing outside the city, the first time anyone has done so in generations. No one has any idea what they will find out there, what the society on the outside looks like, if it has survived at all. And now they’re going to find out.

The previous two books were told in first-person from the point of view of Tris. This one takes a little bit new angle on it, by having dual first-person points of view: both Tris and Tobias. I found that I had trouble keeping track of who was the first-person at any given time since they have similar backgrounds and are similar in several ways, I would think I was following Tris until something was mentioned about the character’s parents that didn’t fit Tris and then I would realize it was Tobias. I think multiple first-person can work, but I don’t think it worked very well here because of the similarity between the characters and their situation.

Much of the plot of the story also revolved around romantic tension between Tris and Tobias. In the book, both of them get jealous of the other talking to someone of the opposite sex, and then immediately go and do the same thing themselves. It gets pretty old after a while, especially since they are in a series of life and death situations where their actions affect the lives of hundreds or thousands of other people, and they’re worried about this. I wanted to take them both aside and just tell them too that this is their first relationship and it might not last forever and it’s not worth ruining your entire life over, but that doesn’t seem to be a popular angle to take in a book written for and about teens, so I guess that wouldn’t work.

I didn’t really care for the ending, though I won’t say anything else about that. Overall, I thought this one was the weakest of the three books, though if you’ve read the other two you’re probably going to want to find out how the whole thing turned out–I would!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #8: People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson, a fantasy/SF thriller about a little girl imprisoned in a research facility.

As the film begins we see our protagonist, a young girl in a rainbow-colored dress, sitting on a metal examination table and looking scared and worried while men and women holding clipboards study her. She is remarkable in this initial image because everything else is black-and-white, completely without any other colors, and she has the rainbow dress and what we would consider ordinary skin and hair tones. As the scenes go on we continue to see her in enclosed spaces being asked questions, being watched from windows while she looks at an abacus while she is stared at by monochrome children who sit apart from her.

One of the researchers (Kelly Clarkson) acts differently from the others. Of course, since she has the same face as the non-monochrome singer in the refrain who sings “People like us, we gotta stick together”, so we already have the dramatic irony that this woman is like the girl, even before she pulls out her bright yellow phone to take full color pictures of the girl. This action is, admittedly, rather baffling. That she wants a picture might make sense, but why wouldn’t she be a little more discreet about it, and why would she pull out that phone in front of the other researchers–even if they weren’t paying attention at that moment, that bright yellow is eye-catching even in our chromatic world let alone in a world with no color.

Later when the girl is by herself, the yellow-phoned researcher visits her room alone. She takes off her glasses, and takes the girl’s hand to brush across her face, the first friendly moment or contact the girl has experienced in the film (and who knows how long she has been here!). Where the girl’s hand touches, the researcher’s skin returns to a healthy flesh color instead of the monochrome makeup she had apparently been wearing. They share a smile as the girl realizes she finally has an ally.

Again with this moment, it leads to the question of “why?”. For the second time the girl’s would-be-rescuer, the woman with the yellow phone, has made an extremely risky choice without clear benefit. I mean, it’s a clear benefit to let the girl know she is like her, to gain her trust for her participation in the escape. But why the face? Why not roll up her sleeve and show her there where the skin can be covered up again before they leave the room. Perhaps the woman with the yellow phone knows that whatever cover story she has given will be blown as soon as the girl is out of the room, so there’s no point in covering it up anymore? Or maybe the woman with the yellow phone is more moved by a flare for the dramatic rather than being a strategist.

In any case, soon alarms are blaring and men in suits are chasing, but they escape to their bright red BMW, with men in suits in hot pursuit. (For the third time, again, why didn’t they get a black car or a white car, what is the point of the risk of a red car where anyone would be able to spot them such a long way away as an anomaly in a monochrome landscape!). In the car, the woman with the yellow phone is now in full color again, perhaps there is some aura of color trapped within the car, like the air in a submersible.

They travel through a tunnel and emerge on the other side into a normal chromatic world, where they stop the car and are joined by a crowd of other people in full color.

The men in suits emerge from the tunnel and as they exit their car they stare in wonder at the world of color all around them. Again, I have questions–are they not concerned that these guys in suits won’t panic or continue on with their tasks to try to take the girl by force, perhaps using guns. Unless their continued monochromatic state implies that they are powerless in this world that is not their own–perhaps their guns won’t fire, perhaps they are as ghosts. Or perhaps the woman with the yellow phone is not alone in her flare for needlessly risky dramatic gestures, and maybe that’s inherent in this world of colors.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Radioactive by Imagine Dragons.