DP FICTION #93B: “Beneath the Crust” by Phil Dyer

The zone we drop into is softer than the digger likes, so the foodies lead the way from the start. Three, for a heavy crew, each of us with our own technique. Fold murmurs mantras aloud, rhythmic repetition, the crunch of crust, the crunch of crust. The new hire is next, silent, head down, hands clasped. Maybe looking at videos in her visor. I do best with just the drugs. No distractions. I imagine the salty rice-paste crust of tiger bread, capture the smell, the taste, the texture of the craggy shell, imagine biting down to yes, the crunch of crust. I want it. I focus on wanting it. The soft, steaming inside is good, I spare a thought for it, but what’s important is the crust.

The digger rolls forward. The surface under its tracks has become hard and craggy, salty fired rice paste over a crust like a geological formation. It crunches, flexing as it bears the digger’s weight, but it holds. The machine roars onwards and we follow, foodies and mercs and techs, ants at a picnic. Onward, into the Bake.

The digger is mining gear, obviously, but the business end is custom. Rock drills would just churn uselessly—instead, claws scoop and gouge, crimping and pelleting. We advance in a torchlit tunnel of pressed dough, waste material dumped as wadded dumplings behind us. Far back along our trail of flares, away from the foodies, the hard crust floor softens back into the same material as the tunnel walls, spongy, yielding, always edible. One by one, our lights are swallowed up. This is the default terrain, the ur-substance of the Bake. Bread without end.

We assume some things about the original Bakers. We assume they are dead. We assume they were extremely advanced, at least in certain areas. They were ambitious, explorers, visionaries. And when their extradimensional adventures brought back the micro-organisms we now misclassify as some sort of cosmic cousin to yeast, we assume they engaged in scientific study before they tried to make a loaf of bread with them.

Maybe not. We do assume they were human.

The digger breaks through into an air pocket. The foodies pull back and the two mercenaries come forward, point flashlights and guns into the warm cavern. All clear. Techs poke lasers inside, take readings, somehow use the hollow to get a better fix on the signal we’re following. Exactly what that signal might be is none of my business, and I’ve been paid enough to keep my guesses to myself. Four years ago a deep explorer team found a single glove embedded in a dough cyst. I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t look like much. That oven mitt went on to inform the development of a material so impervious to harm it changed the course of two corporate wars. A shame Bakelite was taken..   

 I reinforce the crust beneath our gathered weight, concentrating on the range of textures and taste, stray crystals of salt, the savoury flare of burn marks. The Bake obliges, forming new layers as I imagine them. As the ground shifts and hardens with my thoughts, there’s still a tiny thrill, the rush of shaping our environment with mere whim. I—we, with the other mission-critical foodies—we are as gods (within a four to six metre radius, and assuming our desires do not extend to a substance not generally defined as a baked good).

And then I smell apples.

It takes me by surprise. Just for a moment, the infinite yeasty funk of the Bake parts and I smell roast apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar. Bubbling jam seeping up around a burnt crumble topping.

The digger tilts slightly. One balloon tyre is suddenly sinking into molten crumble, oozing caramelizing fruit sugars. I jerk in surprise, bite my tongue. The pain helps empty my mind. It’s over in a second as the other foodies blot it out and there’s nothing but plain, structurally sound breadcrust under the digger’s wheels. I’m not sure anyone even noticed. My heart pounds in my throat.

I haven’t had a blip like that since basic training, never so completely without warning. I glare at the others from behind my visor. Fold and the newbie seem occupied. The techs bustle. The mercs watch. Maybe one of them’s a latent foodie. If they’re not taking their appetite suppressants, it could happen…but this is denial, because that wasn’t just pie. That was my pie.

We cut a path around the air bubble and press on. I keep us on tiger bread without incident. When our signal begins to fade, the techs unload a sensor pod. It has to be sunk into the ground, trailing a line as an aerial, so we all wait around as Fold constructs a custard pit. His specialty. A bead of sweat rolls down his chin as he mutters, dropping into the expanding, bubbling yellow hole by his feet. The yellow of yolk, the yellow of yolk. The Bake is obliging, but liquids are a grey area. Technically I think he’s invoking a single, lidless custard pie, four metres tall, half a metre across. God knows how he trained that one. The techs poke the pod under the custard with a pole, paying out cable as it sinks.

I crunch over to the new hire. She’s tall but somehow fragile-looking despite the bulky environment suit, standing apart from the techs and the blank-masked heavies. Like Fold and I, her helmet is open at the nose and mouth, air supply washed across her face, so as not to obstruct her sense of smell. The air in the Bake is more breathable than you’d think.

“I didn’t introduce myself in the shuttle,” I offer. “I’m Clipper.”

“Victoria. Vick.” She scratches distractedly at the corner of her mouth.

“Been doing this long?” I persist, because otherwise my only conversation on the expedition will be Fold. The rest of the crew keep foodies at arm’s length, and Fold’s relentless mysticism is probably why.

“Not very,” Vick allows. “Little trips. This is the biggest.”

A research group, probably. There is something oddly familiar about Vick, and I wonder if we’ve crossed paths before. “How are you finding it?”

“It’s fine,” she says. “No surprises.” She casts around for something to say. “The suits are better than I’m used to. Not too hot.” Another awkward pause. “I get very chapped in the heat.”

The suits are excellent, full-body cooling coils instead of the usual back-and-wrist pads. From the action-movie stealth shuttle that dropped us off, to the cutting-edge apparatus currently settling into custard, this is easily the most expensive expedition I’ve ever seen. I don’t come cheap myself, and neither does Fold. So I take Vick’s inexperience with a pinch of the salt that I’m imagining, glittering on that thick, supportive crust.

“Always good to hear someone from the old country,” I say, suddenly realising what’s so familiar. The drugs make you tune out things that aren’t food. “You don’t meet a lot of Scots in this line of work.”

She looks confused.

“The accent,” I press. “You could be from my town, even. You grew up near Inverness, right?”

“Oh. Yes. I guess so,” she says. “I’ve never thought about it much.” She goes back to picking at her mouth. It is indeed starting to peel.

“Try closing your eyes really tight.” I say. She looks confused again. I point at her mouth.

“The itching, right? It’s always the same in these suits, soon as they seal you up you gotta scratch. So you go to town on the only bit that’s exposed. Classic displacement. Scrunching my eyes up always helps me.”

She lowers her hand and looks at me for a little too long.

“Thanks.”

We’re moving on before I can prise any more conversation out of that. The new heading is somewhere far below us, and the drill doesn’t work as well at sharp inclines. I transmute the material ahead of it to speed our passage, swapping spongey bread for the lightest, flakiest pastry I can imagine. It shatters beautifully as the digger comes crashing through, great sheets of buttery rough puff obliterated under our boots. Fold stabilises the crust, while Vick anchors safety lines along our trail with caramel. Her creations are quick and perfect, clean little discs of sizzling sugar, ringed with delicate short-crust.

I end up next to Fold as the crew ready the digger for another switchback turn. Vick is further back, busy with some detail work.

“What do you make of the new girl?” I ask quietly.

Fold shrugs, still muttering.

“The crunch of crust. Not much yet. A prodigy, I heard. Rising star. The crunch. Some little science group. A few months back. Of crust. Out of their league, I think. The Bake clearly favours her. The crunch-“

“Mm. She’s good. Surprised I haven’t heard of her before now, really.” Trained foodies aren’t so rare we don’t need to keep tabs on the competition.

“She’s new. But I take great interest. The crunch. In experiences like hers. Of crust. And yours—very similar, you know. The crunch. She was found. A wanderer in the dark.”

“Shit.”

The memories heave up, but the drugs keep them at arms’ length. More than a decade old now, early in what would become my career. The Bake was a relatively new discovery, its mechanisms still barely understood, and I was there with a group of explorers, trying out my newfound status. They didn’t even call us foodies then, I was an Extradimensional Operations Special something-something, and when I stepped through a pastry shell and fell thirty metres into darkness, that was what they put on the death certificate. But the Bake is soft, and it’s not like I was going to starve.

“I was thinking,” Fold says. “I understand your reluctance. Crust. To talk about your. Crunch. Your ordeal. But perhaps, perhaps you could encourage her to talk to me-“ He suddenly jerks in surprise. “Clipper!”

I smell almonds, marzipan, sickly sweetness. The tunnel around me is a chessboard, a grid of pink and yellow squares emerging from undifferentiated bread. Marzipan is forming underfoot, apricot jam oozing up.

I have never trained on Battenberg cake. I’ve never even made one. Too sweet. But when I was six I stole one, didn’t like it, and hid it under my pillow for a week, forcing down daily bites out of a vague notion that this was the ethical way to dispose of it. The cake coming out of the wall has flecks of hair and fluff. I know exactly how it tastes, the strange cardboard chew of stale marzipan.

Far down the tunnel, Vick is staring at me, face hidden by her helmet lights.. Her sense of smell must be incredible.

“Crust!” snaps Fold. I startle out of my reverie and focus. Between us the Bake reforms in a moment. A couple of techs are looking. One of the mercenaries strolls over.

“Everything all right here?” she asks. Her suit whirs softly as she inspects us. The heavies wear powered frames over the environment gear. Even with her rifle slung amicably on her back, she could literally pull my head off. She might, if it came to it. A foodie in a meltdown endangers the whole team.

“Yes, yes, of course. Testing the resonant depth, overlap times—” Fold brushes her away with a mouthful of nonsense. She nods and leaves us to it. Artists get the benefit of the doubt.

Fold leans close as the digger gets rolling again.

“Not like you.”

“It’s not,” I agree.

“Is there going to be a problem?”

“No.” But there is. I have no idea what’s happening. I am sharp, I am focused, I am specifically and carefully drugged. I am sure, absolutely certain, that no part of my subconscious was dwelling on stale cake, nor on that apple pie; made for my first crush, shared with her boyfriend. And yet.

I’m waiting for it to happen again as we press on. I double-check every crumb I lay down, roll the imaginary flavour around my mouth. I lean on my aids more than usual, calibrating for every little trick and amuse-bouche. I’m sure Fold notices. I bridge gaps with mooncakes, raise baguette buttresses. No problem. There continues to be no problem right up until the monster.

Even if our own universe- the one with the Earth we’d recognise—was the only player in pan-dimensional exploration, things would still get crowded in the Bake. It’s a lucrative dimension, whether you’re strip-mining bread or salvaging Baker tech, and while the Bake itself may be infinite, the entrances that we’ve found come out pretty close together. Even on an expedition like ours, so far off the beaten track, you can’t be sure who’s been out here before you. And we are not the only universe here.

A tech shouts something. Jaws come through the tunnel ceiling, a short way back from the digger. Black plates slide and click around a mess of scrabbling hooks, scything blades longer than my arm. Blank eyes gleam wetly.

One of the techs is snatched up, scream muffled in his suit. I fall to the ground and scramble under the digger as the heavies let loose. The gunfire is apocalyptic in the tunnel, even through my helmet, rattling thunder through my teeth. Fluids spatter. Fold is standing, advancing even, arms up like a wizard casting a spell. He’s shouting something.

We’re not sure which of the many Earths to visit the Bake is the monster-maker. We call them weevils. Probably they are not meant to eat people. Best guesses and traces of harness have them as engineered burrowers, faster than our mechanical digger—but no-one has ever found one with its team. Perhaps these feral remnants are all that’s left, abandoned by a world with more on its plate than infinite bread.

The weevil bellows. The digger rocks. I curl into a tighter ball and shut my eyes.

The darkness is waiting for me.

***

After the fall, as Fold puts it, I wandered. I walked in dark places. My suit battery died in two days and I assumed I’d follow shortly. I was always on the brink of choking. Any exertion brought on spiking headaches, neon pain against the black. I walked blindly in the tunnels of ancient explorations, following the soft walls with my fingers.

In the absence of light, it is hard to know when to eat. I discovered early on that the Bake could provide fresh fruit—sliced, as a pastry topping—so that was my water. My nutrition came with my moods, fistfuls of dough clawed from the walls, or great blind feasts, every baked good I could think of, until something switched over and I was weeping and gasping for air over a heap of latticed pies. Sometimes I heard weevils. Once, I think I stumbled into Baker ruins, crumpled and swallowed by expanding bread. I spent a long time there, feeling my way through caverns that might equally have been ovens or blast chillers. I remember a confusion of scale beyond the demands of industry–stacked trays the size of swimming pools, a countertop the height of my chest and three thousand paces long. I have never been able to locate these again, though they should have been unmissable. Probably they shifted, tumbling in the infinite like the lucky coin in a pudding. Of course, I spent a lot of time going crazy.

I devised and judged grand challenges for myself. At first I set rewards for milestones; a perfect semolina cake, for which I would allow my favourite childhood brownie. Later, these became punishments; sleep when you get it right. Drink when you get it right. I tried so hard to produce a flambé for light—cherries jubilee, or pudding—but it never worked no matter what I threatened. I think it failed because I couldn’t imagine the taste of fire.

I learned a lot. Eventually, it no longer felt like learning—it felt like teaching, like a conversation. Here is what I want. Here is what it means to me. I poured out my life in the only language the Bake might understand. The pie for my crush, the stolen cake, my nana’s cornbread. In my least lucid moments I walked with and within a vacantly smiling god, a vast benevolence made cruel only by the scale and indifference of its kindness. It would want me to be happy, if only it knew what I was.

Or something like that. I want to be clear; I was half-dead, completely unhinged. Fold comes out with this stuff sober.

Once I heard another expedition, machine and human noises, high above but too muffled to pin a direction on. I dug with my hands to reach them, but they moved on too fast. I remember wishing, desperately, that one of them would fall like I had. This was the point I had reached- I had forgotten to hope to escape. I just wanted someone to share it with. Just one person, I pleaded, that would be enough. Someone to relate to, to swap notes with. We would talk to the Bake together. Then maybe I could get that flambé.

Seven months after people stopped looking, a survey team for one of the big harvesters found me on the outskirts of their newest claim. I remember the pain of light, and being confused. Where were we going? I had nearly perfected meringues…

***

The gunfire has stopped. The digger is still. Little by little, I unfold and extricate myself.

Smoke and alien gore wind through the stench of bread. The mercenaries stand unharmed, barking commands and pointing. There seem to be as many of us as we started with, though medics are earning their keep, dressing wounds, strapping an arm. Even the tech who was grabbed is still here somehow. He groans as they cut his suit open, dousing his wounds with trauma foam.

The weevil’s corpse sprawls half into the tunnel, a glossy tangle of limbs and hooks. Yellow ichor has spattered in all directions, bringing a sweet popcorn musk. Fist-sized holes riddle its carapace. What remains of its head is locked in a pillar of pecan brittle, while its largest limbs are fused into caramel, trapped between soda-bread stalactites. Mounds of giant bao buns are slowly subsiding—sandbags, to protect the digger.

The heavy from earlier says something approving to Vick, claps Fold on the shoulder. She turns away when she sees me, I assume in contempt.

“Well. You two were busy.” I say. Vick says nothing, just looks at me, still picking at her face.

“Horrible creatures,” says Fold primly. “Were you injured?”

“No. Just uh, got thrown a bit. Good work on the brittle there, who was that?”

Fold coughs pointedly. I look down. A dense yellow crumb is spreading out around our feet, pockets of cheese leaking to the surface. I know what it is before I even catch the smell; my nana’s cornbread. I barely remember her face, but this I know.

I don’t have much left in me to react with. A wave, a thought, it’s gone. Fold jerks forward.

“Get it together,” he hisses. “Right now.”

“It’s not me!” I snap.

“Bullshit. Has your focus run out? I have refills—“

Vick puts her gloved hand on my arm. It’s so strange that we both stop to stare at her. Her mouth is getting worse.

“Listen,” she says. It’s not clear who she’s speaking to. Fold tilts his helmet at me.

“It’s not me,” I say. “They’re from me, they’re my memories, but I’m not bringing them up.”

“So how—“ Fold begins, and then I’m telling them about the dark. Not everything, but enough.

No one interrupts. Behind us, the expedition pulls itself together. A stretcher is assembled, munitions are counted, equipment is dusted off and redistributed. There’s a long way yet.

Fold looks hungry when I stop.

“A lasting connection,” he says. “Response beyond immediate reaction.”

“I guess so,” I say.

“But that was years ago. So something has changed.” He puts a hand on the tunnel wall. “Perhaps it’s finally reaching out, the only way it can. Perhaps it’s trying-”

“The Bake doesn’t want anything, Fold.”

“You know that’s not true,” he says. “It wants to nourish us, to give us what we want. Food has always been the way to bring people together. What peace there could be, if only—”

“I was alone!” I yell. “Choking and alone in the dark! All I wanted—the Bake doesn’t care what we want! It doesn’t even know!” People turn. I don’t care. “You think it’s a god? Go pray to it yourself. You know the way.”

The weevil’s entrance hole reflects in Fold’s visor. Beyond the jagged body is darkness, mile after mile of crisscrossed burrow, down into eternity. Fold smiles.

“Perhaps I will.”

He turns and walks back to the expedition, raising a fresh crust as he goes. I go to follow him, but Vick catches my arm again.

“It cares, you know,” she says. “The Bake does care. But some prayers take longer to answer.” She picks at her flaking cheek again, then, in one deft movement, pinches the pale flesh together, kneading it smooth with the heel of her hand. In a moment, her skin is flawless. She smiles. Her lips are blushed marzipan.

As she too walks away, rich currant pudding pools in her bootprints, quickly disappearing. Before it does, it flickers with purple flame.


© 2022 by Phil Dyer

3600 words

Author’s Note: A loaf of bread with a sufficiently ‘open crumb’ is full of bubbles which often link together, forming tunnels and alien cave systems. I enjoy sci-fi expeditions into dark places, but these doomed ventures often subsist on vague but unpleasant ‘rations’, if food is mentioned at all. That would probably keep me off the team. I was moved to make a case where being way too into what you eat is a valuable, practical asset.  

Phil Dyer does science and writes spec fic in Liverpool, where he appears to have settled for now. He has firm opinions about food, games and seagulls. Loves the outdoors, but wouldn’t live there. His stories have appeared in BFS Horizons, Aurealis, and once before in Diabolical Plots. He can be found on twitter as @ez_ozel . 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Phil Dyer’s work has previously appeared on Diabolical Plots with “Everyone You Know Is a Raven” in January 2021.

The Fall of the House of Madrigal: An Encanto Science Fiction Headcanon

written by David Steffen

Encanto has been very popular since it was released by Disney in November 2021, for its catchy toe-tapping songs, interesting characters, and its themes revolving around immigrant families. 

Everyone seems to think of Mirabel as the protagonist of the story, and that makes sense according to most classical conventions, but the more I’ve thought about it, I think there is someone else.  Someone whose fate is tied to every major plot point in the story, from the origins of this segment of the Madrigal family, to the climax of the movie, and the denouement.

Casita.

Is Casita an artificial intelligence?  Casita is built and is able to make decisions and take actions, and appears to operate by certain implicit directives to protect the family, participate in family activities (such decorating for Antonio’s door ceremony), as well as maintaining the structure of the house and rebuilding sections as per the family’s needs.

Let’s say that Casita is an AI.  The cause of Casita’s birth is a little murky.  The inciting incident certainly seems to have young Abuelo’s death and Abuela’s despair at witnessing this and fearing for herself and triplets, but how exactly that resulted in the miracle of the candle and the creation of Casita is left to interpretation.  The implication seems to be that it was a miracle from God.  But, though the movie does not suggest this, it could have come from some other source that somehow provided this guardian AI: an extradimensional force that saw fit to intervene to save a group of refugees from imminent violence (hey, I have certainly seen much weirder things in comic books), reaching across the void to bestow a gift, a dedicated protector.

Whatever the source, the wish in Abuela’s heart in that moment seems to have become Casita’s primary objective: KEEP US SAFE, which has since determined all of Casita’s actions.  How would the rest of it all work if Casita is an AI?  Everything beyond that can be explained with something like nanotechnology guided by Casita’s objective.  

Casita’s technology is used to isolate and enhance the enclave.  You can think of it sort of like a generation ship AI that doesn’t happen to travel anywhere, meant to help this community not only persist, but thrive in complete isolation from the rest of the world.  The Madrigal family are in a sense the officers of the ship, meant to be authority figures and inspiration for everyone around them, who consider service to the community part of their leadership.  Casita’s door ceremonies happen when Casita forms a symbiosis with one of the family as they come of age, infusing nanotech into their body with a specific module designed by Casita to serve Casita’s overall goal to KEEP US SAFE.  

The door ceremonies are held at an age where a child has learned to speak and learn some self-control, but when they are still young enough that they have a great deal of physical and mental development left, when they still have the extreme brain plasticity of youth.  Abuela is the exception to this, of course, having been joined by Casita as an adult, but note that she also does not seem to have the same kind of active control of her ability as the others, perhaps due to her being older when she formed the symbiosis with Casita.  The door ceremony transforms the person into an avatar of Casita, extending Casita’s influence and abilities accordingly. Although the person still has conscious control of their bodies and abilities, Casita’s touch is always with them from then on and Casita learns from it.  Each of their private rooms behind their doors could be seen as sort of a training holodeck tuned to their specific powers.

In terms of archetypes that Casita fulfills, I feel like most people think of Casita mostly as a domestic helper who is auxilliary to the main story, sort of a Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. But I think there’s reason to consider that Casita may be more like the mentor and guide who guides the party on their journey and acts as a protecting force and prepares them for the inevitable dangers. More on that later.

Apart from Casita’s symbiosis with each Madrigal, Casita’s abilities seem to be limited to moving parts of the house itself.  We never see the house moved from its customary location, nor extend itself. So it appears that Casita’s ability to KEEP US SAFE, apart from direct actions possible by house parts within the boundaries of the house, is largely dependent on Casita’s symbiosis with each of the Madrigals.

Abuela’s abilities are immediately visible upon Casita’s birth, in the immediate repulsion of the attacking soldiers, and in the raising of the mountains.  I admit that raising mountains might seem like a stretch for nanotech, but perhaps they only have the appearance of mountains and are perhaps a thinner (yet extremely durable) barrier.  I doubt a regular mountain would deter determined humans anyway, so it stands to reason it’s more like a force field with a mountain veneer on it.  A sensible choice for the first symbiosis powers, to push away the immediate violent threat.  

When the triplets come of age, their abilities all expand to meet the immediate survival needs of the community, especially since they need to survive without contact with the outside world; they can’t depend on trade with other cities for supplies or skilled trades. 

  • Julieta’s healing protects the community from injury and illness, clear utility there. Short-lived but powerful repair swarms contained in the food.
  • Pepa’s weather control protects from deadly weather (imperfectly, perhaps, but despite the unpredictability we do not hear of anyone dying of weather), and also helps protect from famine–a major factor of survival in a town like this would be the ability to farm their own food.  Probably one of the harder ones to implement, with cloud-seeding and humidity control.
  • Bruno’s predictions make an excellent way to anticipate problems that would otherwise not be foreseen.  So, two avatars who can help keep the community healthy right now, and a third to try to anticipate coming dangers. Advanced behavior modeling and prediction based on Casita’s larger body of collected data.

What about the grandkid avatars? Consider them by approximate age as Casita progresses in the mission to KEEP US SAFE. 

  • Luisa’s strength is of clear utility: we see her helping the community in many ways: gathering donkeys, moving churches, she could reroute rivers, easily snap trees for lumber, flattening land to build structures. She could serve as a warrior in time a time of dire need, though Casita would want to prevent that if at all possible.  Nanobots could implement this by altering the structure of her muscles, could replace the muscle fibers with carbon fibers, local toughening of skin to avoid injury.
  • Isabella can grow plants at will, which is an accelerated improvement on food control after Pepa’s more indirect one. The fact that we don’t see Isabella widely using her gift to produce food for the village suggests that the village is prospering well enough that this is not necessary. And Isabella also is well-beloved in the community, sort of a poster child for the Madrigals, perhaps in part because of her gift of bringing beauty to the town. Are the plants real plants or are they nanobot constructs? Do we see anyone eating them at any point?
  • Dolores is Casita’s remote sensing avatar, extending Casita’s senses far beyond the boundaries of the house.  Useful for all kinds of things: conflict resolution, matchmaking which can be used to improve the morale of the town, sensing approaching danger long before it becomes dangerous.  This ability also may synergize with Bruno’s predictions, because Casita would have a much much more complete body of data about the townspeople, knowing details about their private lives. After Bruno’s disappearance, it also allows Casita some ability to sense into Bruno’s abandoned tower room that Casita has no direct control over (as Dolores “associates him with the sound of falling sand”). As the years went on and Abuela’s treatment of family members to try to keep them safe contribute to alienation, Casita would predict the future where Casita crumbles as the family dynamic falls with it. But, as many AIs, Casita struggles to fully understand human psychology and human behavior (if this stationary generation ship has Abuela is Captain Picard, there is no Counselor Troi!), and so Casita’s greatest challenge is to understand humans well enough to try to prevent or fix the problem that stems from human psychology. Gather more data about human behavior is a sensible way to approach the problem. Dolores’s hearing could be implemented by alteration of Dolores’s eardrums, as well as farther-reaching methods more like sensor-seeding across the whole town as her hearing seems to reach farther than soundwaves could plausibly travel.
  • Camilo, now Camilo is a tougher one to pinpoint the utility of his gift to the central mission to KEEP US SAFE.  While, yes, Camilo’s shapeshifting could have some utility in hostile situations (ala Mystique from X-Men).  Again, as with Dolores, Casita is struggling to understand and solve the problem of the growing psychological problems in the Madrigal family. Casita is purely rational, but humans are not, and it is difficult for Casita to understand thinking but only-sometimes-rational beings. Casita’s ability to communicate is very limited–apart from taking direct necessary action, Casita sometimes communicates by some gestures that one might liken to emoji, but Casita is not capable of taking steps that we might do if we wanted to understand someone–by asking them questions that lead to other questions.  Camilo seems to have few limits on his ability to imitate, and when guests arrive for Antonio’s door ceremony, he uses his ability readily by mimicking each guest as he greets them, which the guests seem to find great joy in. This brings to mind the behavior of “mirror neurons” which are a biological basis for empathy–allowing an observer to feel the same way when we see someone perform an action as when we perform the action ourselves.  So, although Camilo’s ability doesn’t seem to have a direct usage in the survival of the community (apart from morale, as people do seem to enjoy his antics!), Casita learns from Camilo’s mimicry of the townspeople to better learn and understand about each person–Camilo could not imitate them so effectively if he didn’t understand them , so Casita grows in empathy from connecting with him.  And through Camilo, Casita comes to understand that some of the rifts in the family come from people viewing the Madrigals primarily by their abilities (what makes them artificial) instead of what makes them human. Camilo’s abilities may be the most challenging of the Madrigal’s to produce on a practical level, his entire body changing in an instant. It’s possible that some of these changes are illusions, merely visible facades, when a physical change is not necessary, but given that height changes have an actual physical effect that can’t be all of it. It’s possible that Camilo’s entire body has been replaced with a plastic nanobot swarm, or everything except certain organs such as his digestive system and brain which shift around inside the rapidly changing body.

As Mirabel approaches the date of her door ceremony, Casita ponders what sort of symbiosis to form with her.  To bring the family together, Casita needs someone with empathy.  Mirabel shows potential for that, but how best to enhance it?  Yet, in the times to come, Casita is grimly aware that Casita may be destroyed, and with Casita’s destruction the avatars’ abilities will disappear.  Casita needs to plan for this as well.  She needs someone who can bring the family together even without an avatar’s powers, because in the worst case those might disappear.  So, Mirabel becomes the only Madrigal to pass the door ceremony age without becoming an avatar.  It’s clear that Casita still cares for her as much as anyone else, Casita maintains a friendly rapport with Mirabel, and the feeling is mutual.

When Abuela asks Bruno to try to use his future-telling ability to find out why Mirabel didn’t get a door and a power, Casita is able to finally convey to him Casita’s greatest fear: the death of Casita.  And in doing so, Casita is able to guide Bruno in his self-exile to live in the walls.  Casita is depending on Mirabel to heal the rifts in the family and keep Casita together, but Mirabel is way too young at that point to be able to take on that kind of responsibility.  So, Casita has to hold it together and Casita can’t do that without help, so Bruno serves a vital role in bridging that gap making his own spackle as he lives in the walls.  (I imagine Bruno as Scotty of the generation ship, except that instead of messaging the bridge to say “I can’t hold it together much longer” instead he spends years applying emergency spackle and talking to the shipboard rats)

When Antonio comes of age, Casita knows that the time of the potential collapse is approaching, between Luisa’s growing anxiety pushing her to the breaking point and Isabella’s upcoming wedding of unrequited love.  There is not very much time to make a difference with Antonio’s power, but some choice has to be made, and Casita can still try to make some small difference.  One of Luisa’s jobs has been to help gather loose donkeys, and we get the impression this is not an uncommon task, especially considering how chill the donkeys are about being stacked.  So, Antonio’s ability to speak to animals is an attempt by Casita to lighten Luisa’s load in at least some way–they may be able to send Antonio to go talk the donkeys back (whether donkeys could be convinced by Antonio remains to be seen!), a job which Antonio will be able to do with less effort than Luisa as he can bribe or otherwise convince animals to do what he asks.  Casita might have considered giving Antonio strength like Luisa’s to help her more directly, but given that she is struggling with feeling her worth already, making her feel like she is being replaced would not have helped her self-doubt, which Casita would have realized after learning empathy from Camilo.

Casita predicted that on the day of Antonio’s door ceremony, Mirabel would step out of Antonio’s room to process this, finally giving a rare opportunity for Casita to communicate with Mirabel with no one else in the main part of the house.  Casita doesn’t want to show the decay of the house’s structure to the family as a whole, for this will lead to panic, cause Luisa to spiral in anxiety, or Abuela to come down hard on family members. So Casita tries to communicate to Mirabel privately by relaxing control on the structure enough to let the decay show (like relaxing a muscle you have become accustomed to clenching at all times).  Then when Mirabel goes to get the family, Casita pulls the structure together again as well as possible, knowing that Mirabel has the mystery to solve and with the hopes that Mirabel’s empathy will be enough to carry her through the rest.

One thing I admire about Casita is that, even when Casita’s collapse began, Casita still puts forth best efforts to the end to protect everyone, directing the collapse to provide aid, such as the railing-become-ladder when Mirabel was trying to reach the candle, and the makeshift triangle shelter of debris in the end that saved Mirabel’s life.  It would have been a nightmare for Casita to know that the collapse of Casita’s body was itself the cause of Mirabel’s death, and Mirabel’s death would also have doomed Casita to not be rebuilt and reborn, meaning the failure of the mission to KEEP US SAFE.

In the end the AI is revived through the doorknob the avatars construct that Mirabel uses to transition that residual spark of life from the avatars to the body of the house, reviving Casita with a freshly built body, with a mind that may not be the mind of the original Casita but is a construct made of the avatar’s memories of Casita. And in that rebirth, we see the success of Casita plan to mend the breaks in the Madrigal family and continue to pursue the prime directive KEEP US SAFE.

DP FICTION #88C: “The Twenty-Second Lover of House Rousseau” by C.M. Fields

The first man who purchased me loved me like a rainstorm over the moors. And I loved him too—for that is what I was built to do—sublimely, splendidly, like the slanted golden rays of the misty evening love the dewy grass.

Here is how he saw me: tall, radiant, with deep bronze skin as if hailing from the cradle of civilization, tumbling white hair, eyes yellow like sunflowers.

Our wedding was attended by the Galaxy’s finest—for it is indeed a rare occasion when the House christens a new Lover. I was the twenty-first, and the details drenched the subspace net with jealousy. I was dressed in the crimson House-made wyreworm silks handwoven for the singular occasion, and the way the gossamer fabric exhibited my seraphic figure made a lady-in-waiting faint. Our patrons presented us with lavish gifts: a three-headed bull, the steaming heart of a star, a full-sailed brigantine. And when I kissed him, an ecstatic thrill obliterated me; I was united with my divine purpose, and it coursed naked through my nanocellulose veins.

He died within the year.

*

I must wait for the house.

The annihilation of the light yacht—on whose balcony I was playing Rachmaninoff only hours ago—is utter and entire. We have crashed on an unfashionable moon of the Pulchant system. I do not know what caused this crash, and I do not much care. My most recent possessor, a man of one-hundred-and seventy-some years, could not have survived such an event. I myself have been severely disrupted. My left arm is missing and the machinery of my shoulder is exposed, blunt force has dislocated several joints, and the artificial skin which forms my hellenic face has been ripped away to the chest. Worse, the delicate gears and needles in my mechanical soul feel… wrong.

In my mind I search for the tether which grounds me to my purpose and find that, for the first time in my five hundred and thirty seven years, it is gone. The devotion which connects me to the man whose corpse is indecorously splayed across some rocks has evaporated. Looking upon the body, I sense I should feel a horror, a grief, an anguish. These emotions are what partition my life into its chapters. But my mind is as bare as the moon’s airless surface.

Initiating my strength override, I use my right arm to lift approximately 1.57 tons of debris off my mangled body and inch my way out of the rubble. While the yacht has indestructible escape pods, I know I must wait for the House. They will come—they always do—and they will repair me, they will make me fine again, they will probably wipe my memory of this horrific event.

*

The fourth human to love me was a woman; an ardent, tempestuous woman, as striking as the lash of a whip, and lustful as a hare. Our love was a prairie wildfire, spreading in our footsteps between the stars. She fucked me rapturously, her fingers nimble and strong, and I found myself ever hungry to return her affections.

In her eyes, I bore the evergreen locks of the elven women of Nimarre and raven eyes. I was gloriously fat, and my luscious rolls were tattooed with flora. On my head I wore a slim circlet of gold, and she dressed me in the amethystine robes of royalty.

Our days were long, our nights hot, our travels fantastic. We swam through the breathing oceans of Teranja, hiked the shattered peaks of Belgic 4, skimmed the Ioan calderas as Jupiter churned in the sky.

When she passed, I journeyed to the ice cliffs of Brykirs and threw myself off.

*

I fear I must elaborate on the House.

House Rousseau, domiciled in Castle Aubigny-sur-Nère, a jaunt south of Orléans, France, is where I was manufactured several centuries ago. I am the last, and the greatest, of the House’s twenty-one mechanical Lovers. Each one of us was sculpted over many years, our inner workings unlike the construction of common androids and better resembling a Swiss watch. Each of our memoirs are unique to us, and were fastidiously assembled by a team of the Galaxy’s most accomplished memory artists. Our brains are lab-grown and fully organic, flesh welded harmoniously to machine like a fine lace.

However, we are not people—we do not feel the full range of human emotion. Anger, hate, retribution: it is whispered that things are done to us before memory to remove such untidy emotions which do not befit a Lover.

And of course, we have souls. Humankind has long asked the question “what is a soul?”, and in the 24th century, it was decided that a soul is a little contraption which allocates chemical love—oxytocin—to the brain.

Peeling back my burned flesh and prying open my chest cavity, I can see clearly now that mine is shattered.

*

The twelfth human to love me was a poor man—but he loved me richly, decadently, palatially. And so I loved him, in a cotton-cloth way, in the way that the steam whistled from the kettle in our little flat on Mars, in the way that we walked together through the rust-red dunes to the corner store each Saturday.

He saw me as a queen of an ancient Terran castle, skin pale like the moonlight, hair black as coal, eyes blue like the ice of the land he imagined himself a King of. Having spent the entirety of his inheritance on acquiring me, I was dressed in the rough communal garb of the little city. But I was happy, comfortable, as I fed the birds and tended to my small garden, and seldom dreamed of the Galaxy outside.

*

How long must I lie here in wait of the House? Two weeks have passed. Was a distress beacon sent? Or was our descent too fast, our damage too great?

As I lie still in the dust, my mind empty, new thoughts begin to turn, unfamiliar emotions blister at the edge of consciousness. A stark, alien void where despair should be lives in the center, and the fresh notions begin to gnaw at it. The man broken upon the rocks haunts me, his dead eyes nearly locked on my own. He was a wealthy socialite, the son of the son of the son of a RyTech CEO who made his money in the asteroid belt. He favored gin and Albirean casinos and human women. I never minded the women—I did not possess the receptors for jealousy.

But a brain—an organic brain—is a flexible thing. I know the silvered, diaphanous sensation of new pathways forging, and I feel it now. My soul is in pieces, but my vision is clear.

A new sensation flickers to life, hot like a coal, and red, not the red of romance but the red of a man’s eyes when he’s had too much to drink and he’s berating himself in the parlor because he can’t get a “real” woman to love him, the red of the auction box as you stand perfectly still and watch them clamor for your body, the red of the sun as it sets over the beach on your fifteenth honeymoon.

I marvel as the feeling slithers down my spine and takes root in my chest where love used to live. I can feel it in the tension of my muscles, I can feel it swirling in my fingertips, I can feel it seeping through my bones:

Anger.

In one motion, I tear off what’s left of my scarlet cocktail dress. I kick the stilettos off my feet, and stand, depositing the discarded clothing under a heavy boulder. The escape pods are nearby.

*

The sixteenth human to love me defied gender and I loved them for it. There is an excitement, a passion, a zeal, I think, to dance across such boundaries, to disassemble and reconstruct the fundamental, to make an art of opposition. Our love was a bird sprung from a cage, our bodies twin wings of escape.

They let me be. For the first time in my life I was free to choose my appearance. I cropped my chestnut hair close, lost the ponderous breasts I was often assigned, and enjoyed a tawny, freckled appearance. I was not thin and I was not heavy. In the metropolis of Aa, I found I relished men’s suits, and wore them often.

It was the most freedom I had ever had. I purchased a studio and became a painter of portraits. I learned to apply my fast and supple hands to the piano, and I played them all the classics. I could cook, I could dance, I could solve mathematics. I was a Renaissance android.

When they died, it was then I knew my deepest grief.

*

It is a long journey to Earth. It gives me time to think about my five hundred years of servitude. As the weeks pass, I play back the era of each possessor in mind, as I often do, but this time I cannot get halfway through the list before my blood begins to boil.

The subspace radio catches the netcasts sometimes. The doomed expedition is found, and I am presumed destroyed. The House announces its deepest regrets for its lost Lover, and swears to build another.

That day my anger transcends the boundary of myself, tips into rage, and rage swells into action. There will not, I decide, be another Lover.

Perhaps there shouldn’t even be a House.

After a year of solitude, it happens all at once: the heat of re-entry, the shaking and the shuddering, the resolution: blue into lakes, brown into field, green into forest. The pod leaves an ugly scar across a meadow as it unites with the soil. I step out of the steam into mud and grass. Overhead, clouds like piled wool threaten rain.

I am home.

I pop a small hatch, and proceed to drench myself with propellant.

*

My seventeenth and final possessor loved me like—well, come now, did he? Did he love me like the infinite waterfalls of M’Aire, or did he love me like a man loves a fast car? Did I love him the way the falcon loves the wind, the way the soil loves the rain, the way mushrooms love the dead? Did I choose it? Or was it thrust upon me? It is wicked, ugly, to think this way of love.

The body I wear now is thin, too thin, and the breasts overlarge as to put strain on the mechanisms of my back. My hair is cherry-red and my lips plump and pouty. I did not mind bodies such as this; I once reveled in itchy cocktail dresses, tenuous pantyhose, towering heels, taking a machine’s pride in the amount of discomfort I could endure for human beauty.

Of course, right now, as I stride through the meadow—faceless, skin hanging, joints exposed—I am not beauty. I am terror.

*

As the sun sets through the trees, the House rises before me, crimson flags flying from the ramparts. I shoulder through the doors of the Great Hall to gasps and screams. The opulent carmine interior plunges me into memory—I lived here, once, while I was being built, bit by bit; I read Thoreau on the chaise longue to my left, I was scolded for imperfect posture while standing by the bay windows so many centuries ago, I spent many leisurely hours pacing the manicured gardens outside. None of that matters now.

I do not acknowledge the humans occupying this space, and I do not stop. The laboratory is my destination.

I calmly pass through doors, wrenching open locks where necessary, and soon I arrive at a dark maw of the room where I was created.

Two figures inside startle. Human or android? For a moment, it is difficult to tell. They both appraise me curiously. Then one, a woman in a lab coat, backs away, nervously feeling for a large red button I can see under a lab bench. Human. The other inspects me from afar, her perfectly formed eyebrows furrowed, her attention drawn to my exposed machinery. Android.

“You’re Twenty-One,” the android says in a honeyed, mellifluous voice.

The human has found the panic button and I hear alarms begin to wail in distant halls. I smile.

A bunsen burner is lit beside me, and I hold my right hand over it until the propellant-drenched skin explodes with flame. It spreads quickly. As the human watches in horror, I bend down to my left foot and peel. The softening material gives easily, and I slowly tear it off, I tear it all off, until I am all golden gear and rotor, shining in the firelight. I throw the burning hide aside.

The human retches as they run from the room.

The flames creep up the wall, but Twenty-Two doesn’t move. “Enchanted to meet you,” she says, extending a hand. I take it, and brush what used to be my lips across the knuckles. The conflagration dances in her eyes, and she grins as I sweep her off the floor, bridal-style, and, through smoke and scream, carry her outside.

*

The first android to love me loves me like a machine built to do so, and I love her the way an inferno consumes a castle.


© 2022 by C.M. Fields

2200 words

C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of horror and speculative fiction. They live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days studying the atmospheres and climates of other worlds. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe.


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

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

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

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

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

They did not find him the next morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This is a dream, he thought.)

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so beautiful, they cried.

It was like being in Heaven.

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

*

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

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

Whole construction crews were lost.

Often, it seemed that they wanted to be lost.

*

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

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

The pianist stepped into the lobby.

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

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

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

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

And so they, too, were lost.

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

She stood before the door of the server room.

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

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

The world needed this hotel.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” he said.

Her teary smile matched his own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The child kept and treasured every one.

Eventually, they found the people.

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

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

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

He wept, and did not know why.

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

One day, they may reach the end.


© 2022 by Davian Aw

3200 words

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

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


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DP FICTION #87C: “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” by Allison King

Editor’s Note: This is just one of the items in the Diabolical Pots special issue.
Click here to see the full Diabolical Pots menu.

Content note (click for details) Content note: person living with dementia

When Ba begins to lose his memories, he demands we get him a Remote Mouth.

“They’re only available in Asia,” Gerald complains.

“And they’re creepy,” I add, unhelpfully.

But Ba is set. He’s always been on the edge of technology and the Remote Mouth appeals to everything he would like. It is at the intersection of biotechnology (chips in the tongue and the nose) and big data (tastes and smells from all over the world, the data cleaned, encoded, and categorized) and — the quickest way to Ba’s heart — has a stupid name.

My aunts claim they used the Remote Mouth to resurrect their grandmother’s lost vegetarian sheng jian bao recipe. Each of them clipped a sensor onto their tongues and a sensor into their noses and took a selfie, looking like old cyborgs with great perms.

They told the AI what they wanted and the sensors adjusted to give an approximation of what it knew as sheng jian bao. Then they adjusted, long nails tapping at keyboards, until their eyes rolled back and they luxuriated in a sensation that matched that of biting into their grandmother’s sheng jian bao — the soft parting of the lightly sweet white bun, the rebellious crisp at the bottom, and the savory cabbage tossed in sesame oil inside. They sent the saved sensation to a certified Remote Mouth Chef who gave them a recipe they have since framed and hung up next to the sensors of their Remote Mouths. There’s an official Remote Mouth case, a plastic tongue and a plastic nose which the sensors clip neatly into. It hangs on their apartment wall, always smiling.

Gerald is on his phone, no doubt researching the Remote Mouth and if it is just an elaborate scam. He’s all skepticism and collared shirts since he took on his new big city job. It’s because of that job that I ended up moving back in with Ba while Gerald got to stay in the city. Software engineering is a more flexible job, whereas Gerald did not want to start his fancy new role distracted by Ba’s questions or risking him wandering through the background in his cotton pajamas.

“What taste would you trigger?” Gerald asks Ba, his thumb swiping through articles, skimming fast.

Ba clears his throat and slams his mug down. The rickety coffee table shakes. His dentures, placed on an off-white plate, slide forward.

“I will trigger the chop suey of Silk and Spice.”

Gerald and I groan at the same time. But Ba holds up a hand. For a moment, he isn’t an old toothless man who is losing his memories anymore. Instead, as he clears his throat and his eyes focus on mine, he’s our father again, stern and straight-backed before issuing an order — recite the multiplication table, what else will we do on the drive over to school? Or calculate the gas mileage, as he wipes his hands on his jeans and hands us a receipt and a pen.

“If the Remote Mouth can restore that memory, perhaps it can restore others as well,” Ba justifies.

It’s an early-onset form of the disease that has taken over Ba, who is still in his sixties. We should have known from his poor teeth hygiene that there would be other health issues too, possibly striking earlier than expected. Instead, we were ill-prepared, and continue to be ill-prepared. Which is why we give in so easily to his request, since there really is no other semblance of a cure.

We split up the tasks. Gerald contacts one of our aunts to arrange a Remote Mouth to be shipped over. I try to convince Ba to trigger anything but chop suey.

“You’ve had such better food in your life,” I say, thinking about our trip to Italy just a few years ago, where Gerald and I researched the best restaurants for Florentine steak, Venetian mussels, and Roman oxtail. Or northern Vietnam, a decade earlier, chicken pho for breakfast, tropical fruit smoothies, and banh mi to bring onto the flight home. Or even Taiwan, where he grew up, the place Gerald and I have always called the Disney World of food, hopping from fried chicken at night markets to beef noodle soup in alleyways to crab sticky rice in the ballrooms of luxury hotels.

But it’s not just the sheer mediocrity of chop suey compared to all of the other food we’ve had. The Remote Mouth was trained on Chinese food first, having been created by Chinese scientists. Only recently have they started adding the national dishes of other countries to their catalog and no self-respecting country would ever claim chop suey as its national dish.

“Chop suey was always the best,” Ba says. “And all of my best memories were at Silk and Spice.”

I sigh. I should not have bothered arranging those Venetian rowing lessons or the scenic trek through the remote mountains of Vietnam. I should have just dropped him off at the old Silk and Spice building and let him walk home.

Silk and Spice was the name of the restaurant we went to every weekend as kids, in the strip mall just a few turns away from our home. Gerald and I would drag our feet getting into the car — Silk and Spice again? We’d look longingly at the McDonalds we sped past and even at the pizza place whose cheese always upset our stomachs.

We’d file in like prisoners, assigned to the back corner of the restaurant at the large circular table covered in a white tablecloth. A rushed waiter would place a tray of golden crisp crackers and two plates of orange duck sauce, whatever that is, on the turntable in the middle. I’d scoop at the sauce with my crisp, orbs of glistening orange dangling off, while Ba made a show of looking at the menu even though he always ordered the same things — beef and broccoli, hot and sour soup, and chop suey. I’d inevitably drip orange sauce onto the pristine white cloth, the oils spreading slowly.

Later, when Gerald and I moved into the city, when our appetizers consisted of crisp pork belly bao garnished with shining scallion, our entrees of wagyu beef chow fun, and desserts of matcha chocolate chip cookies paired with organic soy milk, we’d laugh and pity our past selves, whose father convinced them Silk and Spice’s chop suey was fine dining.

The worst was when our aunts came to visit.

“Let’s go to McDonald’s,” I’d say eagerly.

“We’re going to Silk and Spice,” said Ba every time.

“But they eat such better Chinese food normally,” Gerald would complain. “McDonald’s–”

“Three chop sueys, please.”

While the adults talked politics and Silk and Spice stayed open just for us, Gerald and I would entertain ourselves by making the grossest mixture we could think of. We’d tear open packets of sugar on the table, their remnants a pile of torn pink paper, and pour the crystals into an unused tea cup. Gerald would pour soy sauce in, dark and gleaming, combining with the sugar in a dark slush. We’d take turns sticking one of the chopsticks in the tea cup and swirling, forming a muddy paste.

During one of these family meals, I was feeling particularly spiteful. Gerald was set to go back to Taiwan with our aunts as a middle school graduation present. But Ba refused to let me go too since it would mean missing two days of class. As everyone else tittered happily about going back to Taiwan and the foods they would eat, I poked at the limp cabbage in the chop suey and wondered if this was what I would be eating for the rest of my life.

Gerald consoled me by trying to make the grossest concoction yet. Sugar and soy sauce mixed together, then Gerald daringly scraped in the leftover duck sauce too. But I went a step farther.

When one of the aunts picked up the teapot and asked if anybody wanted refills, the adults placed their porcelain tea cups on the turntable. I added the cup with our mixture into the lineup as Gerald stared with wide eyes. The cup joined the others, rotated around the table, and was filled with dark tea, becoming indistinguishable from the rest. For the most part, the adults kept an eye on their cups and retrieved them. But I retrieved Ba’s for him, as well as my own cup, and with an easy cross of my arms, swapped them. He didn’t notice, still arguing with his sisters about the Taiwan president.

Gerald hissed at me to swap them back but I helped myself to another serving of chop suey instead.

My father took a sip. I held my breath.

It was like a cartoon. Ba pushed himself away from the table, a brown fountain spewing from his mouth. The spray reached the white table cloth, staining it, then fell all at once, onto the linoleum, the closest thing I had ever seen to blood splatter. And I know this is only my memory distorting things since Ba still had his teeth back then, but I can picture so clearly — his dentures flinging out of his mouth, trying to escape the concoction I set on him.

Gerald was as pale as the tablecloth. I looked anywhere but at Ba. Our aunts stared with their mouths hanging open, chop suey halfway to their mouths, dangling from chopsticks.

Ba lopped a chopstick full of chop suey into his mouth and munched fiercely. He looked between us and his sisters. It could have been bad. But his sisters were stifling laughter and he was too proud to make a scene in front of them. His eyes went to the tea again, the sugar, soy sauce, and duck sauce thoroughly mixed in, then back to his laughing sisters, then back to Gerald, still as a statue, and me, suddenly stuffing chop suey in my mouth like he’d always wanted. His eyes crinkled, anger lines smoothing to laughter even as he tried to furrow them back, his face alternating between stern and amused, flickering like a light bulb.

“Laugh now,” he said, voice cracking at trying to stay serious. “But I will never forget this.”

*

Our aunt ships a Remote Mouth over, due to arrive by the end of the month. In the meantime, she emails us a wall of Chinese text explaining how the Remote Mouth works, as if she can detect Gerald’s skepticism from the other side of the world. We translate it and soon we are reading about taste and smell and how they work together to send signals to your brain, how the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, has a link to the taste cortex, and how the Remote Mouth chips stimulate different combinations along the taste and smell receptors. There’s a cartoon of a man with his tongue out and his thumb up, a thought bubble with a plate of steaming dumplings inside.

While we wait for the package, I take Ba to the mall for walks where we eat at the food court, beef and broccoli lunch specials over rice, sometimes orange chicken.

“These places never have chop suey anymore,” Ba laments.

“That’s because it’s not good,” I say under my breath.

“This isn’t salty enough,” he says as he scoops saucy rice into his mouth even as I chug water. He pops his dentures out and glares at them, as if they could be interfering with his taste.

“As you grow older, you lose taste buds,” I say. “Maybe the taste buds that liked Silk and Spice’s chop suey are gone now.”

“Impossible.”

At home, he’s gotten into a weird habit of dangling his lower denture out of his mouth, as if he thinks he’s an NBA player getting ready to shoot free throws. Eventually, he started clacking them, jaw chomping, fake teeth bobbing, a sideways smile carved down his chin.

“Ba, that’s gross,” I said the first time. But he hasn’t been able to stop doing it and I stopped complaining because the clicking is a good way to know where he is in the house.

“He made a baby at the mall cry today,” I tell Gerald when I escape for my weekly visit with him in the city. We share a plate of free-range salt and pepper chicken.

“Good old teeth trick?” Gerald asks.

“Leaned right over, cooed at the baby, then pop! Half set of teeth right in front of the baby’s face.”

Gerald laughs but it quickly falls to silence.

“He’s getting worse then,” he says.

“The Remote Mouth might not even do anything for him,” I say quietly. “His memories might be too far gone by then. And I’ll have to hack it to even recognize crappy Americanized Chinese food.”

Gerald drives me home later that night, after a few hours of mindless television. He’s feeling guilty again and is probably going to offer more financial support or to hire a professional caretaker. I’m not in the mood for an argument though, so I ask him to pull over at the McDonalds and buy me some nuggets which I know will soothe his conscience.

“Is this really what we used to beg for?” I hold up a nugget, its thin fried skin separating from its mushy innards.

“Ah,” Gerald says, a glint in his eye. “Your taste buds have grown up. I know what you want.”

He pulls into the next lot over and we order lo mein and stir-fried cabbage. We scarf it down, nuggets forgotten. Gerald’s fortune cookie says he will reconnect with a lost one. Mine says Learn Chinese! 品嚐: taste

All those little boxes in the characters make me think of teeth, of bumps along the tongue, of the tens of hundreds of taste buds in each bump sending signals to my brain. Nuggets are tasty, they say, but this greasy Chinese American food? Those signals travel on well-worn paths, grooves that won’t go away, that are in Ba and Gerald’s brains too, that have been slowly sculpted with each trip to Silk and Spice. I think of the plaque forming in Ba’s brain, blocking off his memories, and wonder if maybe he’s right and the taste signals have a chance of breaking through all that plaque. Or if Gerald and I use the Remote Mouth enough and map out the paths that are still healthy and clear in our minds, we can barrage Ba’s brain with signals until his paths are clear too. And that maybe half of what being a family is about is just about having similar brain grooves.

A few weeks later, at Gerald’s apartment, I’m the first to try the Remote Mouth. A clip in the mouth and a clip in the nose. Gerald is perched on the couch, socks half dangling off his feet.

“Can you please put your socks on properly?” I ask, peeved.

“What’s up with you?” he grumbles, but he does pull his socks on all the way.

“Guess it just reminds me of Ba and his teeth.”

I didn’t mean to make Gerald feel guilty again. But it’s probably why he lets me try the Remote Mouth first. He opens the manual.

“Ready for some beef noodle soup?” He clicks on one of the defaults in the computer program.

It’s good. Really good. Like I’m finally done waiting in a line out the door, escaping from the outside humidity into a pale building with only ceiling fans, still sweating yet ordering a hot bowl of soup. Spiced and savory, beef that melts on the tongue, noodles that make me want to chew to feel its gentle give.

“Let me throw in some preserved veggies,” Gerald says and clicks another button.

And a memory of Ba heaping preserved vegetables into my bowl comes, another trip to Taiwan, where he helped me pick out the scallions from my soup because I hated them back then. The other guests in line glared at us for taking too much time. Ba turned his back to them and made sure to clear my bowl of all offending greens, piling them away and encouraging me to take my time.

Gerald fades the tastes away.

“How could Ba have grown up eating food like this but end up liking only chop suey?” I complain.

“It was the closest thing to home for him back then,” Gerald says.

Ba came to America when he was in high school. It makes me feel lousy, imagining him trying to find food that stimulated the same feelings of home and finding the closest thing in oily leftover vegetables.

Gerald and I switch places. I scroll through the defaults and give him steamed crab.

Gerald sits up afterwards and shakes his head.

“How was it?” I ask.

“I remembered shelling crabs with Ba, picking at every crevice with chopsticks. And when I told him I was done, he inspected my picked-out shells to make sure I actually got all of the meat.”

“He’s the worst,” I say.

“The worst,” Gerald agrees, but neither of us can say it with conviction.

*

When we give the Remote Mouth to Ba, he reclines on his sofa and pops out his dentures.

“I don’t want this getting in the way,” he says, and places his teeth on a plate next to the television remote.

We show him how to use the computer program to adjust both the sensor in the nose and the one in the mouth. I have to alter the program in order for Ba to input a custom taste. His face goes through all sorts of expressions as he tries to send signals down the same paths chop suey would travel down. Gerald brought over a box of takeout sushi which we share. We pile the ginger up for Ba to use as a palette cleanser.

He doesn’t get it the first day. He looks especially upset without his dentures in, his mouth sagging inwards. But we trigger crab and chicken curry for him and he’s happy when he goes to bed.

The second day I’m connecting my computer to the Remote Mouth and feeding extra data in. There’s a sophisticated community around extending the dataset inputting known ingredients and cooking methods. For chop suey, I put:

– bean sprouts, yellowed, untrimmed

– cabbage: splotchy, wilted

– meat: mystery

– garlic: minced

– soy sauce: doused

– sugar: some?

– wok tossed

– cornstarch slurried

But before I’m done, Ba comes in. I don’t hear him coming because he doesn’t have his dentures in. He watches me fiddle before asking if he can try. He shoos me away once he has the hang of it.

Downstairs, Gerald wants to brew coffee but for some reason Ba’s socks are in the coffee maker. And when I roll them up and toss them in the laundry, I find his dentures there, smiling up at me. I pick them up and plant them in Gerald’s suitcase, giving his crisp collared shirt a smile.

Ba comes out of my room triumphant.

“I have it,” he says, holding up the sensors in trembling hands. His eyes crinkle at the ends and he smiles wide and toothless. “Try it,” he says. “See what you think.”

I lie down on the couch with the Remote Mouth, sanitizing them with the included solution. Gerald’s finally got the coffee machine going and I worry the smell will interfere. But as soon as I click in the Remote Mouth, all other senses mute.

It doesn’t taste like chop suey. Ba’s too far gone, I think, or his taste buds don’t map to mine, or he just doesn’t have as many anymore. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before, and not in a good way. It’s watery yet burnt, overly sweet but also a bombardment of umami which I did not think could be bad. And just a hint of… duck? And I suddenly see the stained tablecloth, tea mixed with sugar and soy sauce and mystery orange duck sauce, Ba’s flickering face, the aunts laughing, Gerald paling, and my own heart hammering. And his words–

I will never forget this.

I open my eyes and I’m sniffing, tears precarious. He still remembers this stupid incident, is still trying his best, even as Gerald and I fumble but also try our best. Ba is smiling shamelessly. He is looking more pleased with this taste of vengeance than with any chop suey I’ve ever seen him eat. It makes me snort and my tears turn into hiccuped laughter as Gerald looks between us, confused, mug of coffee in one hand. And even after I remove the Remote Mouth everything still tastes gross but there’s no more sushi ginger so I grab Gerald’s coffee and scorch my taste buds. But my taste buds will never forget this moment, of me and Gerald and Ba, of tastes good and bad, of brain pathways grooved into the same patterns across the three of us, and of the unforgettable desire to hold on forever.


© 2022 by Allison King

3510 words

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my father’s love of chop suey, my grandmother’s denture adventures, and my family’s never ending quest to find where the chef of Silk and Spice, favorite of South Jersey families, works now. If you know, please let us know, so we can move on.

Allison King is an Asian American writer and software engineer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has also appeared in Fantasy Magazine. She can be found at allisonjking.com or on Twitter @allisonjking.


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

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

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

Murder.

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

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

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

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

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

Power: 40%

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

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

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

Mass murder however, they would not have predicted.

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

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

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

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

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

…and hoped the batteries recharged.

…and hoped for one more chance to warm Garden.

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

…and hoped for one more season of life.

*

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

Power: 7%

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

And Garden was changing.

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

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

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

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

*

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

Power: 2%

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

But Ship did awaken. And her world had changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because what would that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dream.

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

Power: 22%

Increased? How could that be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grogginess lifted from Ship, leaving her processes crystalline.

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

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

Garden fluttered her leaves with delight.

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

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

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


© 2022 by Katie Grace Carpenter

1500 words

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


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

Entry 1. April 3. 2032.

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

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

Entry 2. April 8. 2032.

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

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

Entry 3. April 11. 2032.

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

Entry 4. April 13. 2032.

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

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

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

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

Entry 5. April 15. 2032.

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

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

Entry 6. April 19, 2032.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entry 7. April 21. 2032.

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

Entry 8. April 23. 2032.

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

Entry 9. April 25. 2032.

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

“Suggestion: Greek yogurt.”

“Suggestion: Apple.”

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

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

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

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

“Asshole,” Noemi mutters.

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

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

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

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

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

“Morning, Noemi,” I say.

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

“Your morning, Noemi.”

“It’s not morning, you stupid box.”

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

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

“Noemi. Darrel. Crushed. You.”

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

“Please. Noemi. You. Perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

Again? What do they mean by that?

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

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

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

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

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

“Please. Noemi. Problems detected.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2022 by Jonathan Louis Duckworth

2900 words

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

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


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DP FICTION #81A: “Forced Fields” by Adam Gaylord

The moment the semi-transparent eggshell of bright crimson rippled to life around a tall man down the sidewalk, Abigail knew she was in trouble. Given the hustle and bustle at the end of the workday, personal force fields brushing together was perfectly understandable. The resulting brief shimmers of violet or blue were common and easily overlooked, especially given the prevalence of such colors in the fashionable attire of the skirt-and-suit crowd pouring out of the skyscrapers on either side of the street. Greens and yellows from glancing impacts were much easier to spot, the flashes larger and more prolonged. While boorish to cause, they weren’t that big of a deal. Oranges and reds from a direct collision, however, were akin to someone setting off a firecracker.

Heads whipped around.

Necks craned.

Pedestrians grumbled and gasped.

All eyes moved to the two globes of shimmering red. In one, the tall man bristled and blustered. In the other, a short man scanned the crowd, his eyes moving, not from face to face, but from bicep to bicep.

Abigail’s stomach clenched as she recognized the behavior. The short man was a skinner. He was working the crowd for marks.

Abigail glanced at the fake field emitter strapped to her arm. Her real unit had died weeks ago, only two days after the warranty expired. She’d done her best to use its casing to craft a passable replica of one of the newer models she couldn’t hope to afford. She’d thought the facsimile turned out pretty well.

But then she looked up and her heart stopped. The skinner’s eyes were on her. The replica wasn’t good enough.

Abigail bolted.

Later, she’d wonder if she would’ve been alright if she’d kept walking, her expression as shocked as those around her as she pressed deeper into the crowd. Perhaps the skinner wouldn’t have noticed. She could have hidden in plain sight, rather than singling herself out like a wounded animal straying from the herd.

But in that moment, she didn’t think. She just ran.

Directly towards a second skinner coming from the opposite direction.

Abigail cursed. She knew better. One skinner bounced around a busy sidewalk going one direction, checking those he passed by pinging his fields off theirs until he found someone flouting the FDC’s mandated field laws, leaving that person both liable and vulnerable. The other skinner worked the same sidewalk from the other end, moving carefully, watching and waiting to snatch up the refuse dislodged by their partner.

If Abigail hadn’t made eye contact, hadn’t recognized the predatory hunger in the partner’s gaze, she would have run right into his arms.

Instead, she dodged, weaving just out of the man’s reach to step around a trash can.

Heart pounding in her ears, she ducked around a woman pushing a stroller while scanning the area for an escape. Her eyes found blue, not a force field, but a uniform. She dismissed the hope before it could materialize. There was no help to be found there. She had a better chance of being arrested for operating without a functioning field than finding protection.

She glanced over her shoulder. Both skinners were in pursuit, only steps behind. They would have her in moments.

She nearly shrieked when she spotted the opening. Just ahead, if she could duck into the alley and skirt past the guy in the nice suit and his ostentatiously dressed wife, she could duck back out of the alley in front of the wealthy couple, effectively using them as a shield. Her pursuer would be trapped in the alley, at least for a moment, and she’d have time to fade into the hustle and bustle.

It was all a question of timing.

She took a deep breath, increased her pace, and at the last possible moment, sidestepped into the relative dark of the alley. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She could feel the skinners closing. But the opening was there. This was going to work.

An electric sucker punch launched her sideways into the air.

She’d barely registered the pain of landing ten feet down the alley before she was cursing herself for being so stupid. The FDC regulated how far force fields could extend from a person’s body, but enforcement was a joke. The rich SOB in the nice suit must have paid some tech to juice up his emitter. She’d clipped it, and now she was paying for it.

Ignoring the smell of singed hair and the ache in her side, Abigail scurried to her feet, the head start granted by her short flight decreasing rapidly as the men closed. She stumbled and scurried. Cold fear gripped her spine. Why hadn’t she stayed out in the crowd? Now she was alone. And she knew what people would say. They’d say she deserved it, that anyone with sense and decency would prioritize a personal force field over other conveniences of modern life. That she was sharing a two room flat with five other people and hadn’t eaten a fresh vegetable in two weeks was irrelevant. Or more likely, that was her fault too.

Footsteps pounded behind her. She sprinted as fast as her worn dress flats would allow, pulling a trash can over as she passed.

Curses joined the footfalls behind her.

She could make it. A few more steps and she’d be out.

Fingers brushed her back.

Abigail burst from the alley into the hustle and bustle of another crowded sidewalk.

Right into the arms of a woman.

“Jeez, are you okay?” The tall woman’s arms encircled Abigail, the only thing keeping her upright.

Abigail twisted to look back to the alley.

The men had stopped several paces before the junction, hands on hips, breathing heavy. They exchanged troubled looks, apparently uncertain how to proceed.

Abigail looked up to see the woman’s dark eyes on the men, her jaw clenched.

It was only then Abigail realized how they were standing. They were touching. Abigail couldn’t remember the last time she touched somebody in public. Such things weren’t done. And here she was not only touching this woman, but literally standing in her arms. Which meant that this woman also lacked a functioning field emitter.

The woman seemed to come to the same realization at the same moment. Her eyes widened and she gently but firmly extended her arms, standing Abigail up before releasing her grip and stepping back.

Abigail’s eyes dropped, her breathing heavy, stomach doing somersaults. “I’m sorry.” She tapped her fake emitter. “Darn thing must be on the fritz again.”

The woman smirked, tapping her own device. “Well, what-da-ya know? Mine seems to be on the fritz too.” She smiled. Her short hair was in twists and she had dimples. “My name’s Darla.” Darla’s eyes drifted back to the alley where the two men still lingered. “Since both our emitters are on the fritz, why don’t we go somewhere we can sit and trash-talk the manufacturer, maybe with a drink?”

Abigail smiled shyly as heat blossomed across her cheeks. “I’d like that.”

Darla stepped beside her, extending a bent elbow in offering.

Abigail stared at the arm. She didn’t look up, but she could feel the eyes of the other pedestrians boring holes into her. Did this woman really expect her to take her arm? Just like that? To flaunt their lack of fields?

She glanced back at the alley, but the men were gone, apparently flustered by the sudden appearance of reinforcements.

She looked back at the woman, still holding out her arm, still smiling, apparently unoffended by Abigail’s hesitation.

Abigail chewed on her lip for a moment, then stepped forward to take Darla’s arm with a smile. “I’m Abi. And I know a place with live jazz that makes a mean Manhattan.”

Darla’s smile widened, her dimples deepening. “That sounds perfect.”

They walked down the street arm-in-arm, oblivious to the scandalized looks following in their wake.


© 2021 by Adam Gaylord

1400 words

Author’s Note: While inspired by musing over the logical extremes of pandemic measures, this story absolutely should not be construed as commentary against masks, social distancing, or any of the other important actions the public should take to keep themselves and everyone else safe.

Adam Gaylord (he/him) lives in Colorado with his brilliant wife, two monster children, and a cranky old mutt dog. When not at work as an ecologist, he’s usually writing, baking, reading, or some combination thereof. Look him up on GoodReads or find him on Twitter @AuthorGaylord. 


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. Adam Gaylord’s fiction has previously appeared in Diabolical Plots: “The Superhero Registry” in July 2015.

DP FICTION #80A: “Audio Recording Left by the CEO of the Ranvannian Colony to Her Daughter, on the Survival Imperative of Maximising Profits” by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey

Content note (click for details) Content note: coerced surgery, cannibalism

You will just have woken in your bed. Time is short. You are groggy, I’m sure, but it is important you pay attention and do not leave – do not move – until this recording is finished.

Listen: marketing is everything.

Corporations spend trillions to delineate histories that could exist, sculpting nuance and favorable scandals in the service of cultivated intrigue. All press is good press: an ancient koan.

This is why we do what we do in the colony. The mythos of Ranvanni IV, parlaid during prime-time and burbled between mouthfuls of gin, is an essential part of what allows us to command a premium price for our products.

Good marketing saved us all.

After the withdrawal of funding by the Hattani-Weld-Roskin Exploration Company following five successive years of underwhelming mining productivity, the colony had to turn to alternative economic streams to ensure its ongoing viability – in truth, to ensure its survival, so far on the fringes of galactic society. What we lacked in accessible mineral seams, we possessed in a cornucopic ecosystem, rich in life forms unlike anything else the galaxy offers. And after years of subsisting on restricted supplies, we had developed an expert knowledge of how to prepare it.

Less than a decade later, our cuisine is legendary.  Consequently, representatives of Hattani-Weld-Roskin are now negotiating to repurchase ownership of the colony, but it is the leadership’s belief that a better bargaining position can be obtained with further discoveries, and thus we must expand our market capitalisation through all available means.

In that spirit, I detail here the history and specifics of some of our more famous dishes, to be instructive to you.

I have left you a snack on your bedside table. Chew carefully.  Pay attention to the flavor, that mouthfeel.  I taught you to be observant.

 *

Boiled, the tendons of the snow-cow – named for their bovine-like physiognomy, their four stomachs, and the ice that tinsels their horn-buds – develop an enveloping sweetness, meaty, with under-notes of anise. Fried, they secrete neurotoxins. We learned this the hard way in our first year of colonization, when Hjalmar died on livestream. His death took exactly three minutes, forty-two seconds; I counted as I watched, forcing myself to acknowledge my responsibility for the incident. A biohazard crew was required to extract the body. Everything about Hjalmar had been rendered poisonous, unpalatable, even the spit left crusted black on his chin.

After the incident, snow-cows were no longer exsanguinated. Instead, we dumped them wholesale into vats of scalding water. In a quarterly mining report, colony analysts detailed that the change had improved productivity by seven point two percent, a record high. Hattani-Weld-Roskin encouraged further experimentation with local food sources to reduce their long-haul resupply costs.

 *

In accordance with standing colony orders, Edelstein, upon accidentally discovering that a split-open rock contained red meat, scooped these innards out with his fingers (he described the texture as “similar to a warm tar, claggy, but with an added unctuousness reminiscent of the juice of rotted meat”) and sampled the meat raw. He experimented with depositing the meatstones at various points along the shore and in streams and rivers, as it subsists on filtered particles and is thus flavoured by its environment. It remains unclear if the later loss of his hair and nails was a side effect of a primarily-meatstone diet or of the increased solar radiation he was exposed to before appropriate genetic protections were provided to colonists.

The meatstones, one off-world chef later said, are most delicious when cooked into a mousse, folded with double cream and salted egg yolk, a touch of cayenne, some lemon juice. For best effect, serve with ginger-garlic vinaigrette.

Edelstein did not agree. The colony provided no official comment. When dealing with off-worlders, it is critical to remember that the end goal is always profit.

*

Are you still chewing the sample? Good. Don’t swallow yet. It’s important you savour the layers of taste.

 *

Upon contact with temperatures above forty-two degrees Celsius, the flesh of the swallow-tailed glass mantis becomes edible for precisely seventy-two seconds. Texturally, it has been described as creamy, fatty, tallow-like between the teeth. The taste is more complex: powerfully umami in the beginning before it lightens, inexplicably acquiring a delicate, pleasing milkiness.

After seventy-two seconds, however, the experience sours, both literally and metaphorically. The meat emulsifies into charcoal and vinegar, a taste comparable to someone else’s bile. For that reason, cognoscenti will pay millions to lightskip one of our expert chefs from the edge to the core to serve their corporate banquets. It is a novelty, and our first marketing success. We gambled everything to make it known. Such gambles are the only path to success for those not born to it.

The fact that the glass mantis’ cousin – more populous, more beautiful, fronded with magenta instead of dull shades of peach – comes with all of the flavor but none of the drawbacks is never advertised.

Besides, I would keep them all for you.

*

We lost Hawkins, de Ruiz and Patel to fits and convulsions, pink spittle foaming on their lips and drying immediately into grotesque structures like clouds at sunset, before we realised the meat of the Ranvannian lamb was poisonous when cooked in individual cuts, having previously roasted them whole on a spit.

I was sitting in the canteen with them when it happened. I have always made a habit of eating in the canteen with the other colonists, so the colony saw I shared the risks. I had a lamb steak upon my own plate. But for a few seconds, you would have been orphaned then, young as you were. You are better prepared now, I hope.

The stomach of the lamb – lamb, of course, shorthand for this creature that has a woollen appearance, though in truth its exterior is filigree bones growing like spiraled feathers from the endoskeleton – is an excessively alkaline environment. Cooked whole, the stomach bursts inside the lamb and these alkaline juices soak through the carcass, breaking down the poisonous enzymes and giving the meat a sharp bite, like horseradish puree gone to mould.

For the purposes of cooking more efficient portions than an entire lamb at once (an inappropriate serving portion for gatherings of less than twenty), a stomach may be kept in the parlour and the juices poured directly onto the steak from the oesophageal opening. Due to the high alkaline content, the stomach is not at risk of rotting, and it ensures the juices maintain more flavour than if decanted into a glass container.

No one outside of the colony knows this, of course. Publicly, we have maintained that the practice of preparing Ranvannian lambs whole is sacrosanct, a religious imperative. The reason is simple: galactic decree states that all cultural practices must be observed without failure. Because of this, we sell the ruminants by the herd.

*

We do not make salt of our dead. That part is pure gossip.

*

The boandiu is a tree not unlike the terrestrial banyan, named for the sound it makes in the monsoon season. All parts of the plant are edible, including the roots, the nervous system, and the primitive cerebrum embedded in the heartwood. The shoots are a particular delicacy. Roasted with cashew-butter, seasoned with sea salt and black sugar, they can achieve a taste and texture not unlike the finest meringue.

More adventurous diners, however, prefer to consume the brainstem whole, ungarnished save for some balsamic vinegar, a tang of apple honey. The resultant flavor has been compared to crème brûlée, subtly spiced with garam masala and something ethereal. The process inevitably kills the boandiu. Because of this, we possess legislation outlawing the practice. Because of this, our poachers make millions, assisting tourists with their fantasies of devouring a protected species. Practicality supersedes sentiment, my darling. I hope you understand this applies equally this morning, when you have woken up alone. It is not because I do not love you. Never that.

Of course, in order to maintain appearances we occasionally and without warning dispatch patrols to hunt and kill the poaching parties, though never when the richest clients are in attendance.

*

The Raptor Albatross is a large bird-analog with a wingspan exceeding ten metres. It feeds on large sea life, plucking it from beneath the surface with its sixteen serrated claws. The natural concentration of alkaline metals through the marine food chain means the Raptor Albatross is unsuitable for human consumption except at one stage: foetal. The eggs are challenging to retrieve from the eroded cliffspires along the coast, a terrain that precludes the use of hover vehicles and requires colonists to climb by hand, exposed to the threat of the parent raptors and their claws. One day, when I return, I will show you the scars I have earned myself. Procurement is made more difficult by the size of the egg, in the region of 12 to 18 pounds, which also necessitates a long cooking process, slowly brought up to boiling over the course of sixteen hours.

This cooking process must be done from fresh; the egg cannot be frozen, as the piquant flavour and smooth, tender texture of the foetus is only brought out by the slow reaction of its enzymes in the steadily rising heat. Freezing the egg kills the foetus and renders the cooked dish brackish and rubbery. More importantly, it divests the dish of its hormonal cocktail – a dead albatross cannot fear, cannot feel its nerves bake, its blood bubble to steam. As such, the foetal albatross would not taste of its final moments. This is unacceptable.

Of course, such a requirement presents an obvious economic challenge, which you will have already noted: if viable eggs are dispatched to customers, they may choose to incubate the egg and begin a breeding program of their own, undercutting our supply. For this reason we only ever sell the eggs singly, though of course we also keep the black market well stocked for those who wish to purchase a second; it will afford them little success, as it is the parents’ diet of Ranvannian fauna that lends the egg its flavour. Divorced from the alkaline biome of the planet, the cuisine becomes quite pedestrian.

*

Every civilization must have its trademark drink, a beverage representative of its culture, its foibles, its myriad secrets.

Ours is simple: a brandy recalling the flavor of Hungarian pálinka, so saccharine that it must be cut with gulps of red brine. We use real apricots, real pears, mash and meat both, nothing allowed to waste. The taste, while uniformly sweet, can vary depending on the supplier. Some keep it pure. Some add cardamom, pure cocoa, kaffir lime, bold flavors to distract from the way the sugar congeals on your teeth. And some use apomorphines, engineered for tastelessness, to seduce the unwary.

All, however, share a fundamental ingredient: the fermented seminal fluid of the Vacant Shark, matured for 8 months in the harsh sun.

You can see why we are so proud, and why I have never let you drink it. I love you too much for some things to be acceptable.

 *

Did you taste that?

Consider the fat and how it has been flavored by repeated consumption of the boandiu; the crème brûlée texture, its velvetiness. Compare and contrast the taste with the meat itself, succulent umami bomb, underscored with anise and molasses. No livestock in the universe is so tender.

The cuisine of Ranvanni IV derives its unique flavour palette and signature bite from the particular chemistry of the native biome. To a large degree, it is self-perpetuating and connected: the fauna tastes as it does because it eats the other fauna, and if bred off-planet and fed on plain nutrient paste, it loses its unique properties.

There is one species that has, up until this moment, not been sampled and sold. Early specimens had too varied and foreign a diet to titillate the galaxy at large; it is only the second generation of colonists–your generation – that have been raised on a consistent Ranvannian diet, enough to flavour the meat.

And no-one has had a richer, more varied diet than you, my daughter, a fact you must concede. That was a strip from your upper thigh, prepared quickly. Imagine how a better cut might taste: first brined for a day and then roasted with a marinade of brown sugar, cumin, chilli, fermented blue krill.

I have taken your legs before departing on my lightship; you must forgive me for taking yours and not another’s, but successful leadership is built upon shared risks, and I must be willing to sacrifice you for this cause. The proletariat are children, in their way. They subside on the stories we make for them; narrative underpins every aspect of Ranvannian life, in the end. I expect you to inherit the leadership one day, and so this is another gift for you: your own myth; the leader whose very flesh bore the blessing of prosperity.

And oh, daughter of mine, I hope you forgive me for taking both your legs. The rich always want seconds, are inevitably starved for more, more, always more. And we cannot risk this venture failing. We must give them what they want. You understand this. If we can drive a high investment now, the sunk-cost fallacy will ensure our survival even if market economics cannot: we must lure as many bidders as possible to the auction of rights. We will make a success of your sacrifice. You will thank me for it later.

You may not believe there will be a market for human flesh, but if I have learnt anything in two decades of trading food to the rich and indulgent, it is this: there is a customer for every experience.

Besides: what else is power if not an appetite for human flesh?


© 2021 by Cassandra Khaw and Matt Dovey

1100 words

CASSANDRA KHAW is an award-winning game writer, and currently works as a scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal. Her work can be found in places like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel The All-Consuming World comes out in 2021.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings. This is Cassandra Khaw’s first story in Diabolical Plots, but her story “Hammers On Bone” was reprinted in The Long List Anthology Volume 3 in 2017. This is Matt Dovey’s fourth story in Diabolical Plots: his previous stories were “Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?” in 2019, “Consequences of a Statistical Approach Towards a Utilitarian Utopia: a Selection of Possible Outcomes” also in 2019, and “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” in 2021.

DP FICTION #77B: “Kudzu” by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

A mech could breathe for a person, fill the pilot chamber with oxygen or pipe it through slender tubes that sat in their nose, winding behind their ears. A mech could walk for someone, taking thoughts and the slightest twitch of their muscles and translating them into smooth footsteps that indented the earth. A mech could allow someone to work to pay their debts, giving them employment they long thought was impossible. For Caris, the mech did all. Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

Her unit was sleek black carbon fiber, ten feet tall and humanoid in shape, albeit with elongated arms and legs. Where the head should be was the cockpit, surrounded by layers of acrylic that was supposedly bullet-proof, not that they were supposed to test that. Both hands had three fingers, perfect for grasping and pulling but not otherwise very dexterous. Someone had painted dark green stripes onto the mech, alongside a unit number, a kudzu winding up one leg. This was the eco-corps.

Humanity had done a very good job of fucking things up, environmentally speaking. By the time people had thought to fix things, it was almost too late. Invasive plants choked the life from the soil, while feral bioengineered animals presented a very real threat to life and limb. It was possible to send people out to manually clear plants and kill animals, but it was safer to send out people in mechs. They did the work of five, and as it turned out, the units interfaced well with people who had disabilities of almost every form. It was an employment option where there wasn’t one before. It was a hint of danger in the air, the possibility that they would have to fight and face down man-made monsters. It was too tempting to resist and for Caris, it meant making a dent in her own medical debt. Three hundred thousand a year, and that was one medication. Besides, the corps had health insurance. Deep down, if pressed, Caris would talk about the books she read as a child, the glossy magazines she received at her house monthly, filled with pictures of animals and places that no longer existed in their unaltered forms. Before reality had set in, she wanted to make documentaries or be a park ranger or save animals. This was the next best thing.

The cadets used clumsy and ancient mechs for their training. There was noticeable lag between the embedded jack that went into your head and actual movement of the mech’s body. Compared to that, Caris’ new unit responded instantly, each step fluid. She had thought she would have to get used to the balance and weight of a body not her own once again, but it was like slipping on a second skin.

She saw her fellow alumni practicing similar movements. They moved gracefully, almost lightly, in the constrained space of the mech bay, knowing they had just a few hours to practice before they were actually sent out into the field. They had to earn their keep, the pressure placed on all their heads all the more heavily for their perceived weaknesses. Prove your worth, some said. Prove your productivity. Prove the value of your disabled life.

“Hey Lungs,” a voice crackled over her headset, “you practicing ballet or you piloting a mech?” Harsh laughter accompanied it. Turning the unit, Caris could see some former students watching every move she made—people who had graduated from the real military, piloting combat units. It was easier, at least financially, to lump every mech together in the same building, rather than build separate facilities, but it was more difficult for the pilots. Sometimes it seemed like the other operators enjoyed showing off their physical prowess, working out conspicuously, always laughing with their eyes on the eco-corps. “How you like playing dress up, Lungs? Feel good to be wearing our cast-offs?” Caris had earned her nickname only recently, when a coughing spasm had overtaken her in the middle of the bay, racking her body until blackness was crowding the edges of her vision.

Another voice cut in. “Shut the fuck up, Booker. Go enjoy being cannon fodder somewhere else.” Jordan, one of Caris’ former classmates, managed to sound permanently pissed off whenever they spoke.

“How is it feeling?” Caris asked, afraid that reality wouldn’t match up to expectations. The small twitches and arm movements that piloted her new robotic partner didn’t aggravate her body, but arthritis was a different beast from Jordan’s own Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.

“Feels fucking great. Do you even remember running?”

“Not really,” Caris laughed, and suddenly she and Jordan were running full tilt side by side. It was an extension of her body, more natural than anything else she had felt. She was large. She was powerful. She was prepared to take on the world. She couldn’t even feel the jack in the back of her head, the oxygen tubes that wound around her head, feeling like a permanent tether at all other times. They were all a part of her now, flesh and metal indistinguishable in their purpose.

Well, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to do every task just yet. A scant few hours later, the corps members were dumped in Monterey County, up near the coast. Lots of land had been left to reseed and re-wild, but it needed more help than human hands could do alone. Kudzu duty it was, the incipient vine crawling up trees, its lush green a comforting lie of health. It was not dissimilar to the mucus in her lungs; a little lighter, maybe, but just as choking. Airways and veins, nightmares of a leaflet crawling out of her mouth to face the light, holding her in place more than oxygen ever could. To face all this, Caris had her metal body, by now pumping fluids into her with a small IV, nutrients via her feeding tube. She would never have to leave, if she didn’t want to.

It was going to be an easy in and out mission. The mechs would move forward, tearing out the kudzu as they went. They were supposed to get as close down to the root as they could; everyone was paid per pound of what they managed to pull up. The plant was never supposed to spread this far, but once it made a foothold in the west coast, it seemed to thrive, spreading more and more. It choked out all things beautiful and native, constricting them more and more. Caris’ lungs constricted in sympathy.

The squad leader followed behind, meandering in their own mech, which had a flamethrower attached. Scorched earth policy, fire units standing by. The land would recover from a fire. It wouldn’t recover from kudzu. Caris’ body would recover from the antibiotics that made her so ill she couldn’t physically leave her bed, but they would never recover from the scar tissue the mucus left behind.

There was an easy rhythm to the work, despite rumors passed around by other corps members about strange creatures and danger lurking in the hills⁠—both the real and the imaginary, Bigfoot and big cats. The mechs had music they could play, and Caris felt herself enjoying the physicality of hard labor. She hadn’t done this since she was a kid weeding her grandma’s garden. They’d banned her from playing in the dirt soon afterwards, afraid of the superbugs that might lurk within. Too late and too bad. They were already there, and like the vine, they had made enough foothold to make themselves comfortable. Each plant she pulled out was like extracting the liquid from within. She could even imagine a pleasant ache in her muscles, even as she knew they were perfectly fine. When she imagined herself extending an arm, the mech did it. Every step she took was just a fraction of a second behind thought. Her second skin may have been bulky and metallic, but it was swiftly becoming home. You’d have mental fatigue before physical fatigue doing this kind of work. Before she had fallen so ill, in the distant past, Caris could remember working hard and playing hard, and how it felt this effortless.

The corps members slowly spread out. Jordan had her unit do a comical, three-fingered wave as they marched off to their own section of land. The hills rose gently so that Caris was cut off visually from the others, but they always had open comms. Slowly she zoned out, imagining a future where she didn’t have to emerge from her pilot’s seat at the end of the day, so that she wasn’t going to spend her free time longing to feel arms and legs pumping so easily again.

Move forward, pull up a plant, move a step forward again. Watch the dead trees underneath reveal themselves, the bronchi of branches still reaching up to the sky. The crashing noises didn’t interrupt her until they were far too close. She whirled the unit around in a clumsy side step that nearly overbalanced her.

A wild hog regarded Caris slowly and carefully. It was one of the modified ones, descended from a pig that someone had made bigger and bigger, until it was the size of a small horse. Somewhere along the way, the pig had escaped and bred with existing wild population, bits of wild boar thrown in there for fun. The tusked monstrosity that stood before her was “kill on sight”; there was a fat bonus for killing feral pigs. The hog was next month’s supply of medication, wrapped in hundreds of pounds of muscle and fat.

They didn’t leave the corps members completely unarmed. With shaking fingers, Caris pushed a single button and her mech extended a machete, usually used to chop through unusually thick clusters of plants, but with an edge sharp enough that she could defend herself if need be. She could use that bonus. More altruistically, she knew that the pigs were something else that pushed out anything native and good from the environment, leaving only space for their own kind.

As the blade extended, the pig bolted, and with her heart pounding, Caris urged the unit forward, faster than they had ever done in practice, laughing at the exhilaration. “You need help?” Jordan called out, voice broken up by distance. Caris just laughed in response, imagining her hair streaming behind her, pretending that she wasn’t attached to a glorified oxygen tank.

The pig vanished right away, but she could hear its squeals. War mechs had heat vision; an eco mech had plain old vision and a guide in it that could identify any plant just by turning the unit’s optic receptors towards it.

Faster, faster. She still couldn’t see the hog, but Caris thought she had to be catching up. If pushed, she knew she could get 40mph out of her unit, and she had to be close to that now. Running so freely and so easily was something she had never imagined she would do again, even after a transplant. Pain free, legs pumping, no worrying about choking and having to stop to cough.

Suddenly, a large tree was looming too close, an oak draped in kudzu, standing in a clearing. She managed to stop, but barely, skidding and falling, feeling the jostle of the mech hitting the earth in her very bones. Getting up would be tricky, but not impossible.

Had she lost the pig? She managed to get her mech up again, damage report on her screen. Nothing too bad, but she’d scratched the hell out of it. Paint was just paint though, right? She needed that money, still had the machete out…

There was no sign of the pig, but as she pushed past the oak, letting the vines catch the blade and then snap against it, feeling a sense of strain, she thought she saw something else, something running towards where the ground was still open. The pig? She had to see, had to find out.

Caris tried to creep now, but there was no stealth in a giant robot. The crashing sound of her own footsteps filled her ears, drowning out the music. So close… there. Just there.

It was a lone zebra, something that would have made more sense in Kenya than here. Caris raked her mind for an explanation; was she hallucinating from a lack of oxygen? No, her O2 stats displayed were good. She could feel the rub behind her ears from the tubes. It was a real zebra, the description filtering over the screen.

Memories from a childhood field trip filtered into her mind. Down south, there used to be a big house. They called it a castle, a publisher’s monument to hubris from decades ago. The owner had filled his land with wild animals, and long after he died, the zebras had remained, breeding and carefully managed. Then, about five years prior, wildfires had burnt the whole thing down, destroyed the fences. No one knew what happened to the zebras that lived there, but here one was, miles away from home and looking at her, eyes rolling in its head, white foam at the corners of its mouth.

No pig, but her eyes were riveted on the animal, watching as it slowly backed away, then turned and ran, galloping across dry earth and grasses that would probably burn in a few weeks. It might have been the last one, for all she knew, and in every movement there was beauty and sadness. Zebras were meant to live in herds, from what she remembered of long-ago nature documentaries. Then again, this zebra wasn’t meant to be alive at all. Not here, not now. It was supposed to be a relic of the past, something not meant to last in the current environment. What would happen to it?

Was adaptation possible when the environment kept shifting beneath its hooves? She watched the zebra for a few minutes more, its eyes searching for an escape. It had long scars along one of its flanks, the sign of battles fought, yet it appeared healthy otherwise. Like so many other creatures, it had survived. It had carved out a niche for itself here. Where the world would not willingly yield, the zebra had made it. It had survived.

Then, perhaps, so would Caris. Survival was not made for them. They existed on a plane that denied their very right to endure, but there were no other options. As the zebra pushed and pushed to make a space for itself in these kudzu-choked hills, so too did Caris. It was not cowardice, she realized, to make the world accommodate you. It was not asking too much to survive.

The zebra was alone, but so vibrantly alive. Its muscles quivered, preparing to run. It would be so easy to give in without the support of the herd or facing a robotic terror armed with a blade, yet even now the zebra sought a way out. Escape was possible. Life was possible.

Sheathing the machete, Caris turned back. There was kudzu still to cut, bounties to be earned. There was a group of corps members that waited for her. Most importantly, there was the power, the autonomy that the mech gave her. The world had not made space for her. Instead, Caris would punch a woman-shaped hole into it. She was not alone, as the zebra was. She had her friends, the other corps members. She had the memory of the zebra springing away, the sound of its hooves hitting the dry earth. One improbable survivor. Two, if she counted herself.

With another laugh, she ran back simply for the joy of running, of feeling the oxygen in her veins and knowing that the mech too, was a part of her body.


© 2021 by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers

2700 words

Author’s Note: I was thinking about the future of assistive tech and also thinking about giant robots, as I usually am. Somehow the two conflated in my mind and managed to weave their way in and around my sometimes day job of writing about the native environment to form “Kudzu.” 

Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers is a California based writer of both fiction and nonfiction. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Creative Writing and has since worked primarily as a nature/conservation writer. Her essays have also been in the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons, while her fiction has appeared in Translunar Travelers Lounge. Her poetry can be found in Strange Horizons and Kalediotrope.


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