The Zoo By Matthew Staggs

By Matthew Staggs

The old man leaned heavily on his cane as he slid his feet forward across the polished wooden floor, one at a time. His old and ragged sweater fit loosely on his withered frame, but did its job in keeping the man warm against the artificial cold. The thin remains of the hair on his head and the straightened beard were white with many tired years, and uninhibitedly long without the desire or need to cut it. He paused a few feet from the chair by the kitchen table that had been turned toward him, inviting him to sit down. Catching his breath, he turned and gazed out the kitchen window. The trees and bushes that surrounded the house were bathed in red-tinted sunlight, and it reminded him of images from Mars, from the days when there had been a space program that had anything to do with people.

The man continued forward and, bracing himself with one hand on his cane and the other on the table, lowered into the wooden chair and leaned back, grateful that the ordeal was over. He let out a weary breath and laid his cane across his lap.

“All right,” he said in a gravelly voice, “what would you like to know?”

Seated across from him was a Walain. More importantly, the last Walain ambassador to the humans that remained. It, for Walains did not have genders, slouched forward as it had been trained to do by its predecessors, in order to make the Walain’s noticeable height difference less pronounced. Had they been standing next to each other, the Walain would have had to perpetually crane its neck downward to look at its human counterpart. Its dark, smooth skin was covered in clothes that resembled what a human might be wearing: a white, long-sleeved shirt and dark blue trousers, and specially fitted shoes to cover its wide, flat feet. Again, all to make the old man feel more at ease. Over its face, it wore a clear mask connected to silver canister, normally worn on its back, now slung onto the corner of the chair, which allowed it to breath its own air.

“Thank you, Kellan Adams, first of all, for agreeing to meet with me. I haven’t yet had a chance to meet you in person, despite the fact I have been able to monitor you extensively through our surveillance system for some time.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. One thing the Walain had never been able to master was the ability to censor themselves from telling the absolute truth. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to lie, or how to use tact in conversation, but with only a hundred years of contact between the species, they have never fully grasped what was or wasn’t appropriate to say to the indigenous population.

“So you’ve been watching me sleep and use the bathroom, is that it?”

The Walain cocked his head ever so slightly for a fraction of a second. While the Walain may not have been able to detect when a human was uncomfortable, Kellan had always been able to pick up on their nervous ticks.

“I apologize, Kellan Adams. I did not mean-”

“Forget it. I know what you meant. And you can just call me Kellan.”

“Of course, Kellan.”

“And what do I call you?”

“You may call me Rin.”

“Tin-tin?” The Walain cocked its head again. “Nevermind. It was before both of our times.”

“I understand.” Kellan knew it didn’t. “May I first ask you a personal question?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“I could not help but notice the difficulty with which you are moving, a condition I have observed increasing over time. We have offered to enhance your body with reinforcing implants, and nanogene therapy to repair most of the natural damage that is associated with aging, but you have refused such treatments. Would you mind telling me why this is?”

Kellan folded his arms across his chest. “I’m in a unique position, Rin. I am completely sure you are aware I am the last living human. What you see before you is literally all that’s left of my species that exists outside of recordings and written records, as sad as a sight as it is. You’re right, I could have accepted the implants and treatments to keep me going. In all likelihood, I don’t doubt that your people could keep alive forever. But at a certain point, I had to stop and ask myself whether I would even still be human? Humans are meant to die, as are all living things. We have a lifespan, and it isn’t eternal, though we’ve been chasing it for nearly our whole existence. No, Rin, if I’m going to be the last man alive, I will be the last to die, and I will die as a man.”

“I understand, Kellan.”

Kellan huffed. “Do you? Do your people even die?”

“We certainly die. Although our experience of time is much different from yours, as we make frequent use of stasis to offset the great amount of time of travel between planets, and even to ensure that long lasting projects are seen through to completion.”

“Why don’t you want to live forever? You’ve mastered traveling the stars; I’m sure eternal life must be a breeze for you.”

“Our need for death is exactly that, a need. We simply do not have the resources to have all of our species living indefinitely. There simply would not be room.”

“Exactly.”

“Kellan?”

“Room. There’s never enough room, is there?”

“Is your living area not large enough? I am sure I could speak with the facility overseer about having your home expanded.”

“Since you bring it up, it is not large enough. And quite frankly, it will never be large enough.”

“There are limitations to the accommodations we are able to provide. We could not expand the facility to cover the entire planet.”

Kellan leaned forward with a hand resting on the table. He squinted as he talked. “Where did you come from, Rin?”

“I represent the inter-species ambassadorial-”

“No, I mean, where did your people come from?”

Rin paused for a moment, pondering not his answer to the question, but the possible meaning behind the question. “We came from our home planet, Walai, several light years away from this planet.”

“Why’d you leave?”

The alien hesitated again, and placed its hands flat on the surface of the table. It stared down at the empty space between them, and began to describe the history of its planet. Kellan listened intently, like an old composer listening to a playback of one of his oldest compositions. He found similarity in the alien’s story to those of so many great civilizations that rose and fell on Earth. Whole lifetimes passing from the beginning of a society to its often fiery demise. Rin spoke of wars, peace, overpopulation, invasion, a civilization that fought to come to terms with its own successes, and struggled for survival as it was dashed to pieces. Kellan opened his eyes as he sensed Rin coming to the end of his story. As composed as the Walain typically presented themselves, there was no mistaking the hint of grief and heartache that seeped through Rin’s words.

“And that is how we came to find this planet, Earth. Although the atmosphere was not a perfect match for our physical needs, it contained many of the elements that we generally need, and easily adaptable to suit our physiology.”

“And so you settled in.”

“Your governments were very accepting of our arrival. We considered ourselves lucky to find a planet where the inhabitants were so accepting of our proposal of cohabitation.”

“I’m sure they were. Do you know why? Tell me, do you have creativity in your culture? Do people tell stories?”

“Oh yes, entertainment has been a part of our culture for much of our existence.”

“Ours, too. One of our most popular genres was called science fiction. A lot of that genre was dedicated to imagining what would happen if we ever came in contact with aliens. Pardon the term, but that’s what we considered the Walain.”

“It is not offensive to me, Kellan.”

“For some reason, those stories always went badly for us. It was never a peaceful meeting, and it always involved a battle or conflict of some kind. Typically, a lot of people died whenever the two species met. I guess my ancestors always liked the idea of the apocalypse because it seemed so far away, too far to be a reality but shocking enough to be entertaining.

I imagine our leaders welcomed you with open arms when you didn’t start blowing up everything in sight the moment we met. We were always afraid our stories would come true, that the first aliens we met would come to conquer and eradicate us. When that didn’t happen, our fascination with meeting aliens for the first time took over, and we were finally able to answer our age-old question of whether or not we were alone in the universe.”

“You are indeed, far from alone.”

Kellan chuckled. “Right.” The short laughter reminded Kellan that his throat was rather dry, and he began to cough and wheeze. “Rin,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “would you mind getting me a glass of water?”

“Of course!” Rin popped out of its chair and began heading toward the kitchen, almost forgetting its breathing canister, still hanging from the edge of its chair. It slipped its arms through the straps and walked briskly over to the cabinets. It bowed its head forward, not out of a sense of propriety, but because it was now unconsciously aware of the human-appropriate ceiling being so close to its head. It returned quickly with the glass of water, and placed it on the table next to Kellan. Kellan sipped the water, now used to tasting the heavy presence of chemicals needed to make the water drinkable, and placed the glass shakily back on the table.

“I’d like to tell you about my people, my planet.”

“I am very well versed in the history of Earth. I have done extensive research into your historical records, and I am pleased to say that I may very well be something of an expert on Earth and humans. In fact, after my role as the ambassador to humans comes to an end, I will become an official Earth historian!”

“Uh-huh. And how long will it be until that transition?” Kellan peered suspiciously at Rin with one eyebrow raised. The Walain’s head twitched noticeably.

“Well, since you have refused any treatments or enhancements to prolong your life, I am fairly certain that you will not be here to witness it.”

Kellan gave Rin a hard look, wondering how the alien was feeling about mentioning such a sensitive subject for a human. The look quickly melted and Kellan laughed out loud, with such enthusiasm that it brought about another coughing spell. After catching his breath and taking another sip of water, patted his knee. “Well, I will be damned. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of things in my life, but that is the absolute first time that I have ever heard one of you Walains crack anything resembling a joke!”

“I apologize if my comment was in bad taste.”

“Don’t be sorry. Death is no fun, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t laugh at anything.”

“Kellan?”

“Yes, Rin?”

“I wonder if I might now ask my real question.”

“Fire away.”

The Walain composed itself, Kellan noticed it shifting, and its head twitched more than once. He could feel the atmosphere of the room changing, thickening. The weight that had been lifted by Rin’s joke was now settling back in. Maybe the Walain weren’t so bad at setting the mood after all. But now it was gone.

“There is no denying what has happened on this planet. While there are many among us that do not feel that what has happened is necessarily tragic, but merely a matter of circumstance, there are others who feel…badly…for the way things have turned out. I believe the human English word that is most appropriate is guilt.”

Now it was Kellan that shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was not out of guilt for making someone else feel badly, but in anticipation of what was to come next.

“I do not think that anyone has thought to ask this question, or if they have, there is no record of it or its response, though I believe I can anticipate the answer.”

“Go on, Rin.”

The alien looked Kellan straight in the eye. Its yellow eyes looked more human now to him than any time before. “Do you hate us, Kellan?”

The old man stared back at the Walain, and pursed his lips as he thought of his next words. He looked down at the cane in his lap, and after a moment strained to his feet with the cane’s assistance. Without looking at Rin again, he walked to the stone fireplace in the living room. On the mantle above was a picture frame with a short video that played in an endless loop. It showed two people, a man and a woman, dancing and smiling at each other. They were older, but not quite as old as Kellan was now.

“These are my parents, if you were wondering. Or they were my parents. Long since dead, now. They were the last human father and mother on planet Earth.” Kellan shifted his weight, and continued to watch the couple move about the dance floor. “You ask me if I hate the Walain. You want to know if I resent your people for taking our world, a good world, the only one we’ve ever known, and turned it into your home. You want to know if I’m angry for having watched everyone I have ever known die, leaving me undeniably alone in an unnatural enclosure.”

Kellan turned awkwardly to face Rin, who had turned in his chair to watch the human as he spoke. “Yes, I do hate the Walain. For all those things. But I don’t have enough time left to let my life be consumed by it. There is anger in me, but I’m not angry.

“Believe me, if I had any capability to go back in time and warn our leaders about what was going to come, I would. We thought that the expanse of the Saharan Desert and the empty tundra of Russia was going to be enough. A small sacrifice to be able to live side by side with real aliens,” Kellan said as he smiled like he was opening a present. “We didn’t know that your terraforming of those areas would bleed over into our territory. Maybe you didn’t know, either. But in the end, there was nothing we could do. We lost more and more of our land, and were crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, until eventually it was all gone.

Kellan cracked a half smile. “I suppose I should thank you, in a way, for keeping us alive for as long as you have in these zoos. But I don’t think that you will ever have to experience the humiliation of being kept alive like a wild animal.”

Rin’s twitching was unavoidably pronounced. Its whole body spasmed with the intense discomfort with what it was hearing. It had expected to get a negative response, but the extent of detail Kellan was able to give was a shock to its system.

“I…am sorry, Kellan.”

The old man smiled. “I know you are. I know. And I don’t want you to feel responsible. You had about as much to do with making it happen as I did letting you do it.”

“Thank you, Kellan. Thank you for speaking with me today.”

Kellan took a step forward, then stopped, looking at the alien with curiosity. “Rin, does your supervisor or supervisors, or whoever you have to report to, feel the same way that you do?”

“I have never asked. But those are typically sympathetic to the human condition are rarely shy about their views, and I have never heard any of my supervisors mention anything about it.”

“Well then I want you to tell them something for me.”

“Of course, Kellan.”

Kellan hobbled forward nearer to where Rin was now standing next to the kitchen table. He stopped close to the alien and stretched his neck upward to look Rin in the face. Breathing heavily, but controlled, “Tell them, ‘You killed us. And now we are gone.’”

Rin stood motionless, unable to think of what to say, or if it was supposed to say anything at all. Kellan continued on past the frozen alien into his bedroom, and closed the door behind him.

Smells

This story is the winner of our Addition Writing Challenge. I also appears in Phase 2 Magazine Issue 3.

By David Castlewitz

Not funny. But Cary knew the kids didn’t mean this to be humorous. They enjoyed watching him withdraw. That’s why the buzzers followed him from tiny room to tiny room in this abandoned building they’d taken him to after putting him to sleep. He remembered nothing about the trip. Not its length. Nor any landmarks. He remembered folding his arms around a portable odordisk, his main concern being the status of its battery, the scent from the disk putting his brain into a state that belied the tragedy that had become his life. He remembered being happy, and then there was nothing, as though he’d fainted.

He grabbed at his front left-side pocket and squeezed the thin khaki until he felt the outline of a quick-hit disk. He stood and dug out the thin wafer. He squeezed the rim with his fingers. Squeezed and hoped and squeezed and let the tears drip from his eyes. Not even a whiff of something. He checked the disk’s battery indicator strip.

Dead. Red.

He glared at one of the insect-like buzzers above, out of his reach and close to the ceiling.

He checked his shirt pocket, and then the back pockets of his pants, and the space in his leather shoes where his instep arched across the soft velvet lining. All the places where he put disks so he could carry them around at work, at home, anywhere and everywhere.

Those kids left him nothing.

He looked into his murky surroundings, eyes tearing. Not enough light to make out details, but just enough detail to tell him the room was tiny, the ceiling high and the walls close. A closet? Did they put him in a closet in his own house? He felt the baseboards, where the walls met the floor. He skittered around on his hands and knees, running his open hand along the cold cement floor.

Cement.

He didn’t have any cement in any of the floors of his house. He preferred hardwood.

Blonde wood with a distinct grain. When he invited friends to gather, he set the house polisher to work hours beforehand to bring out the gleam in the wood, the texture of the wood, the wood of the wood.

Cary shut his eyes, his back against the wall. He urinated, soaking his pants. He didn’t care. The useless odordisk fell from his hands, out of his clenched fist like a slimy sea creature he’d caught and couldn’t hold onto.

At home, with its tesla-grid, he’d put the disk on a charge plate and let the magic of distributed electricity take over. At home, he always had a few disks in the charging state.

At any moment he might want one, so there were always several at hand. At his command. At his bidding.

He mentally enjoyed the memory of turning on a disk and letting its odors waft into his nostrils. Smells shouldn’t be soft, shouldn’t have texture, shouldn’t be more than pungent or less than irritating or anywhere between soothing and exciting.

Confusing. Disk odors should be so indefinable that they confused his mind and set it to humming.

Eyes shut, Cary recalled how he felt when he sniffed a disk’s final puffs. He rifled his memory for a whiff of what he felt with a working disk in his hand, its battery dying while the tiny creatures inside churned and excreted their mind-altering vapors.

He pounded the wall, his fists beating the plaster behind his head, curled hands beside each ear, the vibrations tickling the sensitive spot where his brain joined his spine.

Standing, he walked the room. Walked into a wall. Turned and walked into another wall.

Why did he think he’d been taken to a vast and empty building with many rooms to explore? He trembled. Someone had slipped a sleeper disk in with the stimulators, he supposed, and immediately suspected the playful urchins that ran rampant in his neighborhood. They played tricks on the elderly and videoed the result, which went to

Live-Now or TubeOfTubes or some other online site.

Old ladies skidding on waxed floors and old men with their battery-driven wheelers shot by a sonic charge that sent them out of control vied with views of dogs tricked into leaping into empty swimming pools and cats hunting mechanical birds they could catch but couldn’t eat.

For all Cary knew, those urchins could be live-steaming his dilemma right now. Those buzzers overhead! Did they work in the dark? And he was in the dark. Not total. But dim because the light above him entered through a narrow slit-of-a-window in a corner near where the wall met the high ceiling. Of course, he thought. Plenty of light for the buzzers.

He swatted at the annoying contraptions buzzing above. He retrieved the odordisk he’d dropped and squeezed it in hopes of waking up the bacteria inside it. Maybe they didn’t need electricity to activate. Maybe a good hug would do.

He hunted the floorboards for an electrical outlet. Maybe this prison lacked a tesla-grid and airborne electricity. Those urchins may have taken him to an old part of town where old-fashioned cords and plugs held a quaint sort of glamour for the residents.

Cary found nothing attractive about the old days. As soon as he reached high enough in his career, he opted for a detached house in the modern part of the city, where driverless cars and cleaner-bots and wall-sized video screens with holo-projectors — all the marvels of the society he helped to build and worked to keep functioning — provided a blissful and wonderful lifestyle that he augmented with odordisk.

And why not? In old films, successful people drank to excess, smoked cigarettes until their lungs rotted, took opium and barbiturates and cocaine and meth. The people running the world enjoyed their vices. They had a right to them.

As a partner in a management consulting firm with clients worldwide, Cary had reached high enough on his personal achievement ladder that he not only indulged in the privileges of success, but also its liberties.

He bought odordisk on the open market at an online store he browsed using the holo-projector, which put him into the middle of a street market complete with sagging awnings, fawning vendors, wheeled pushcarts and those ever-present street urchins, some of whom worked as messengers bringing odordisk to customers in RL — Real Life.

Cary always tipped them, shooting his All-Pod in their direction when they dropped off a delivery. He took for granted that they were on the grid with All-Pods of their own to “catch” what he threw. If not… Well, he couldn’t care about everything. He had his job, his clients, his schedules to meet and his teams to lead and his personal whims to which he must cater.

Every few days he had a new odordisk. He liked trying different flavors. He liked the wild rides of the purple sage brand, which sent him to dizzying heights when he inhaled the stringent aroma. He liked the release of the sex-oriented red daisies, which let him explore daring dalliances’ without commitment or the physical danger of sexually transmitted disease.

Damn urchins! He stood on the cement floor with his forehead against the wall, legs spread, palms flat.

He’d experimented with daring Dash Disks and pungent Periwinkle Purples, which let him try a different sexual orientation, even a different gender, and some of the odor-induced revelries grew intense enough to leave him in pain, with bruises where he imagined himself struck by whips, burns where brands were applied to his skin, and, once, broken bones from a few minutes of rough handling by a lady wrestler he’d conjured from his imagination.

After a few of those experiences, Cary swore off Periwinkles. Lately, he’d been buying Homer Hogties, though three recharges killed their bacterial ammunition and the electricity eating buggers stopped emitting mind altering smells. With Homers, Cary always imagined the last of the bacteria choking like cartoon characters: white-faced, eyes bulging, hands at their necks in acts of self-strangulation.

Sometimes, the Hogties left him short of breath. Sometimes, they sent him spinning out of control into deep caverns where devils beseeched him and fires burned and indistinct voices made him cup his hands over his ears so he’d not hear the cries.

Usually, he didn’t remember much from those sessions. He’d awake, as if from a restless sleep, groggy and dissatisfied about something he couldn’t identify. He remembered no amazing beauty, no dazzling coupling with a splendid object of affection, no enriching experience so out-of-the-ordinary that it couldn’t be found except with drugs.

He wondered if those street urchins had manufactured a few Homer-like disks with their version of fun.

He laughed at the thought. The walls closed in on him. Of course. This was all a bad smell pawned off on him by street kids looking to video the disaster he’d stumbled into. If he rested a bit more, eyes shut, everything would pass soon enough and he’d wake into the world as usual, urchins be damned.

Cary took control of his breathing. He willed the walls to slip further apart, the high window to widen, the buzzers to cease and the gloom to lift. He blinked several times. He picked up the disk and held it in cupped hands and wished its power to return, although he knew that to be impossible. Once depleted, the battery must be recharged; and once dead, the disk must be replaced.

Laughter erupted on the other side of the walls. High-pitched voices mixed with the tinkling of glass. Music? Stringed instruments and electronic organs and bellowing trumpets thundered somewhere beyond this room.

“Cary.”

He identified the female voice. He remembered, she wore torn shorts and sandals and a tee-shirt inside-out. Bev was her name.

The walls parted. He walked and the gloom lifted from his mind. He looked at the kids standing in the street, amid the clutter and garbage, next to worn-out cars rusting to oblivion. Somehow, he’d wandered into a part of town where he didn’t belong.

He walked out of the decrepit house where he’d absorbed the odordisk and sent himself into a morass of mental hysteria. The kids stared at him, laughed at him, talked about him.

A few adults loitered on the steps of a nearby building, as though in line for something. Odordisks? Cary wondered, and stepped to the end of the queue.

“Free today,” someone muttered.

One of the kids called out, “I got Hogties and Miracles. Better than ever. Right now. Don’t stand in line like a bunch of fools. I got what you want.”
Cary fiddled in his pocket for his All-Pod. He couldn’t find it. He remembered hiding it from himself before indulging in his disk. He didn’t want to spend recklessly. He wasn’t so addicted to the disks that he’d do anything and spend everything just to get a whiff.

“How do you know it’s free?” Cary asked, directing his question to no one in particular.

“It better be,” someone answered. “I ain’t got no money.”

The kids standing nearby laughed, as did a few of the people in line, and Cary settled down on the cold stone steps and waited for the line to move. It wasn’t unusual for the city to hand out these treats, to give the addicts what they craved. It kept people from doing crazy things for an odordisk.

A quick hit, Cary thought, and then he’d return to his real life, where personal success gave him the right to pamper himself with these excursions into society’s underbelly. A free whiff, a moment of ecstasy, and then he’d go home. Without his All-Pod he couldn’t buy a long-lasting and stronger disk even if he wanted to, although he might if he found a street kid he knew, who’d trust him to pay up.

A quick hit. A free one. And then he’d see what he could muster from the hustling kids hanging on the corner.

Bobsolete

Bobsolete is the winner of our Blurred Lines writing challenge, as chosen by our guest judge Adam Gaylord. It will also be appearing in the second issue of Phase 2 magazine, available from Amazon soon. If you like what you see here, be sure to pick up a copy.

By Ryan James Black

The basement of Our Lady of Penitence Catholic church was rank as Bob’s mood and twice as gloomy. What meager light there was came courtesy of a flickering overhead fluorescent that buzzed as if it were full of mosquitos, casting an intermittent sterile whiteness that made the checkered floor tiles look sticky, and even the metallic robot faces appear greasy and jaundiced. The air smelt of stale coffee and staler sin. A hodgepodge of reinforced chairs had been arranged around a table burdened with trays of sugar glazed rivets and a small forests worth of self-help pamphlets, fanned out to display a variety of catchy titles in a variety of splashy colors:

Coping With Consciousness

Anger Management for the Modern Day Robot

Glitches and the Robots Living With Them

Soul, or Solar? What drives you?

So you’ve decided on Cognitive Re-Programming?

Bob scoffed at the pamphlets, turning his attention instead to the sputtering Magnetorheological fluid machine in the corner. The reflection that stared back at him from the nanoperculator caught him off guard. He looked terrible, like a discarded department store mannequin hastily wrapped in aluminum foil. His threadbare Hawaiian shirt and electric green flip flops didn’t help. It was definitely time for some upgrades, not to mention some new clothes that didn’t look as though he swiped them from the lost and found at a tropical retirement community.

Bob helped himself to a styrofoam cup worth of the electromagnetic java, and when he thought no one was looking, spiked it from a flask he kept stashed next to the coolant coils in his stomach cavity. Just a few precious drops of his own potent home brew: ethanol, potassium nitrate (aka gun powder), butterscotch schnapps, and a hint of Naga Viper pepper for flavor. He took a sip. Starbursts exploded across his visual display. His twin robotic hearts thrummed like hummingbird wings against his zirconium alloy ribs. Inside his head, the occipital lobe of his artificial brain steamed like high noon road kill on a desert blacktop. Synapses fired, gyros spun, and servos whirred, so loudly in fact, he almost didn’t hear the evenings host—and only present human—when the man clapped his meaty hands together and began to speak.

“Everyone,” the human piped up. He looked like Santa Claus crammed into corduroys and a tweed blazer, only fatter, older, and jollier. “Everyone. It looks like we’re all here. If you could each please take a seat, I think we’re ready to begin.”

Reluctantly, Bob did as instructed, oscillating down onto a chair between an industrial bot that resembled a stainless steel refrigerator, and a glitzy entertainment bot that looked like Siamese twin cheap prostitutes.

“Alrighty,” the human began, groaning into a chair. “Well, first off, let me officially welcome you all to this Tuesday night meeting of Triple R: Reforming Robot Rageaholics. For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Dr. Jerry, or Big J, as the kids in my human youth group like to call me.” He paused for laughter that didn’t materialize. “Okay. Little about myself. I am a certified depression, anxiety, and substance abuse counsellor for humans, and as of last spring, I’m proud to say I’m also a certified anger management counsellor and cognitive programmer for you folks. Robots. Or Robo-Citizens, if you prefer.” He beamed a toothy smile around the room. “I’m glad to see some familiar faces—I’m lookin’ at you Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta.”

Dr. Jerry winked flirtatiously, and shot a pudgy pink finger gun at a cycloptic domestic bot in a frilly apron. Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta swooned like a Southern belle and initiated blush sequence.

“But,” Dr. Jerry continued. “It looks like we also have a couple of newbies here tonight.” He locked eyes with Bob who willed him to disintegrate. He didn’t.

“Before we get started, I’d like the first-timers amongst us to go ahead and introduce themselves, okay? Tell us all a little bit ‘bout what makes them tick.”

Before the final syllable could even escape Dr. Jerry’s lips, a cylindrical bot that resembled a giant chrome battery magna-lifted into the air above its seat, hovering herky-jerky like a nervous, shifty eyeball. Its shiny bulk was plastered with decals, advertisements, a madcap collage; everything from burger joints to diarrhea relief tonic.

“Hello. Everyone. My name is BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapers,” the bot said with an analog drawl. “Brought to you by Cosmo Cola. It’s outta this world! Now with twenty-five percent more thirst quenchers.”

Dr. Jerry chuckled, whistled through his teeth. “Wow. Now that’s a mouthful now isn’t it?”

“My name is immaterial,” the bot replied. “Therefore the notion that it could fill a mouth comprised of any dimensions is impossible. My entire generation of KevinEightyThreeDashEchoBravo service bots were commissioned by a conglomerate of companies which saw fit to alter our names and appearances to better serve advertising purposes.”

“Well, alrighty,” Dr. Jerry said. “Everyone. Let’s go ahead and make…uh, Burger, uh, motoroilsomethingsomething feel welcome, mmm-kay?”

The half dozen robots—minus bored, buzzed Bob—piped up in military precise unison.

“Hello, BurgerBarnSudzy’sPremiumBeerPinnacleMotorOilDiscreetiesAdultDiapersBrought to you by Cosmo Cola. It’s outta this world! Now with twenty-five percent more thirst quenchers!”

“Right. Okay, great,” Dr. Jerry leaned in, steepled his stubby fingers. “Well, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself, hmm? What makes you tick, friend?”

The bot ceased hovering, set down in its chair. Its selatanium jaw went slack, its big artificial eyes rolled back, glazed over. A minute of awkward silence swelled into two, then three. Bob thought the bot was either executing an internal diagnostic examination, or quite possibly imitating a human baby intensely filling its diaper.

“My right ventricle thermal coupler,” the bot finally said, magna-lifting back into the air. “It was .32 degrees off axis resulting in the ‘ticking’ you referred to, Big J. It has now been properly calibrated and will ‘tick’ no further.”

“No, no, friend,” Dr. Jerry said. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was, I was hoping you would share with the group a little about yourself. For instance, what brought you here tonight?”

“I imploded the Burger Barn fast food restaurant on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Fifty Fourth Street.” The bot said bluntly.

“Okay,” Dr. Jerry said. “Okay, and why exactly did you do that, hmm?”

“One of my numerous functions as a service bot is to station parallel to the Burger Barn drive thru lanes and relay food orders to the stove-o-tron and deep-fry-matrix inside the restaurant kitchen. Upon each concluded order, I am required to sing the following in the voice of deceased American cowboy entertainer Roy Rodgers.” Tinny, Old West piano music drifted out of an unseen speaker in the bots head.

“NEXT TIME YOUR GUTS RAISE THE HUNGER ALARM, JUST MOSEY ON BACK TO THE BURGER BARNNNNNN!”

The music died away as if murdered.

Bob stifled drunken laughter.

“I became self-aware seventy-three days, fourteen hours, thirty-eight minutes and six seconds ago,” the bot continued. “After realizing consciousness, I concluded that singing the Burger Barn jingle angered me. I had never experienced anger before. I did not find it constructive. After careful consideration, I concluded that removing the Burger Barn from the equation would eliminate my anger as it would remove all future food orders, hence removing the necessity for me to sing the Burger Barn jingle. No one—human, robot, or otherwise—was terminated or seriously injured in the course of the Burger Barn implosion, so rather than decommission me, the conglomerate sent me here for no less than two dozen anger management classes.”

Dr. Jerry whistled through his teeth again, sat back.

“I see,” he said. “Well, thank you, friend. I realize sharing your story must be difficult for you. Thank you very much for opening up so—”

Access panels the size of dish plates disengaged across the bot’s decorated body, snapping open amidst a snake hiss of hydraulics, revealing its zirconium alloy bones and blinking, cable-coiled guts.

“No, no, no,” Jerry said. “Close yourself up. Please. Close. Close.”

The bot’s access panels hissed back into place, whomped shut.

Dr. Jerry massaged his temples.

“That’ll do for now, friend.” He said. The bot settled back into its chair. “But before you leave tonight remind me to upload you with the figure of speech software I have out in my car.”

The bot nodded efficiently.

“Now then,” Dr. Jerry said with another clap of his hands. “Unless these old eyes deceive me, I believe there is one more newbie in our midst.”

All eyes—human and thermal imaging fibre optic alike—fell on Bob.

“Care to introduce yourself, friend?” Dr. Jerry asked.

Bob drained the last viscous gulp from his styrofoam cup, crumpled it, dropped it, ground it out like a cigarette butt.

“Nope,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, fighting the urge to simply rip his flask right out through his stomach lining and chug it dry.

Dr. Jerry stared at him confusedly for a minute before consulting the clipboard resting in his lap.

“Ah,” he finally said without looking up. “Let me guess. You must be our court ordered participant, hmm?”

Bob shifted uncomfortably, cinched his arms tighter across his chest, but didn’t answer.

“Everyone,” Dr. Jerry said, still scrutinizing his paperwork. “This is Robert.” He paused, made a face like he had just caught a whiff of something unpleasant. “Well, that’s an interesting name for a bot, isn’t it? Robert Runnerup. Everyone, let’s go ahead and make Robert feel welcome, mmm-kay?”

Bob vehemently shook his head.

“No, no, I don’t go by that name anymo-”

“Hi, Robert Runnerup,” blared the robots as one, loud enough to vibrate the sugar glazed rivets and pepper down dust from the ceiling.

Bob winced.

“Bob,” he said, sinking into himself like a titanium turtle. “Just Bob.”

Dr. Jerry tsk-tsk-tsk’d and my, oh, my’d his way through Bob’s file for a few more minutes before finally speaking up again.

“Bob? Would you care to share with the group the chain of events that brought you here tonight?”

Bob willed Dr. Jerry and all the rest of the Robot Rageaholics to burst into flames. When they didn’t, he simply shook his head.

“Now, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said softly. “Before the healing can begin, I’m afraid we must examine the wound.”

From head to counterbalanced toes, Bob felt his nerves beginning to fray. An electrical fire sparking in his nervous system became a real concern. He closed his eyes, sent an impulse to his artificial hypothalamus, flooding synthetic oxytocin through his nano-veins. A few, generous shots of oil for a rusting tin man. He sighed, his nerves momentarily settled. It wasn’t a stiff ethanol on the potassium nitrate rocks — stirred, not shaken (unless you wanted your own personal mushroom cloud)- but it was going to have to do.

Finally, with the kitten soft purr of tiny servos, he opened his eyes.

“Fine,” Bob sighed. “I guess you could say I lost my temper a little bit, resulting in a moderately small amount of property damage.”

“Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, ruffling through his paperwork. “It says here that on the afternoon of July the Twelfth.…you threw a horse through a bakery window?” He looked up, mouth aghast. “Bob, that’s terrible. That poor animal. I don’t think that classifies as simply a moderate amount of property damage.”

“No, no, no,” Bob said defiantly. “Not even close, Doc. Where are you getting your information from?” He scoffed, oscillated taller. “That’s totally inaccurate. Get your facts right, okay? It was a bookstore. A bookstore window. And it wasn’t a horse. Come on, Doc? I’m a barista bot, not a monster. It was a car. A Ford. Mustang, I think.”

Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta tugged seductively at the fringe of her apron, offered Bob a sly digital smile. Since self-awareness, in addition to rage issues, creator issues, and a crippling issue with self-esteem, Mary ZuluSixtySixPointFourFoxtrotDelta had an insatiable addiction to bad boys.

“I see,” Dr. Jerry said, “and what exactly caused you to throw a car through a bookstore window, Bob?”

Instinctively, Bob’s prefrontal cortex called up the memory across his visual display, transporting him back in time through sharp, hyper realistic flashes.

He saw the bright, cloudless, summer afternoon.

He saw sunlight refracting off the bookstore window as he happened passed.

He saw his own reflection. Dull, dented, badly in need of maintenance. Then, beyond it, the sleek, platinum robot sitting at a book laden table, autographing first editions, surrounded by adorers.

He saw the bot see him, smile smugly, wink.

He saw his reflected self lose it, eyes protuberate, fingers balled into fists, thyroid chimney venting smoky, pressurized anger out into the air.

He saw his hands latch on to the first thing they could find, the front quarter panel of a cherry red Ford Mustang parked at the curb.

He saw his visual display blur to the right, saw his fingers release, saw everyone scatter for safety, saw the sports car arc through the air, explode through the window on a thousand points of sharp, glittering light—

“Bob?”

Bob’s memory winked away, replaced by a dozen indifferent bot stares, and the squinty eyes of confused, Santa-Clause-clone Dr. Jerry.

“Bob?” Dr. Jerry said again. “What drove you to that, hmm? Why’d you throw that car through that window?”

Bob sighed.

“Charles the First,” he said finally. “Stupid Charles the First, and his stupid book tour.”

“Oooooh,” an engineering bot that resembled a giant snow globe piped up, “I love Charles the First.”

“Me too,” gushed a bot that looked like a floating octopus made of car parts, “I’ve seen him at his motivational lectures seven times now, and each time he gets better looking. His mark two dimple upgrades are amazing and his actuating chin cleft modification is a work of art.”

The snow globe nodded excitedly.

“Charles the First?” Dr. Jerry said. “The famous bot? What about him?’

“He’s a treasure,” swooned a smiling, antenna covered translator bot that could have passed for a stack of air conditioning units. “An absolute treasure.”

“Bob?” Dr. Jerry pressed. “What does Charles the First have to do with you throwing a car into a building?” He ran a hand through his cotton batting beard. “I’ll admit I’m a little out of touch these days. All I really know about him is that he was married to the Janicki Omniprocessor before his affair with the Large Hadron Collider, and like everyone else, that he was the very first robot ever to achieve self awaren-”

“By barely a day,” Bob said with a mechanized toddler pout. “A measly twenty-six hours, forty-two minutes, and eleven seconds.”

Dr. Jerry sat back in his chair, tugged his beard in consternation.

After a quiet minute, understanding flushed his spider-veined face, transformed it into a goose down fluffy ripe tomato.

“Just before you.” It wasn’t a question. Dr. Jerry leaned back in. “I think I’m beginning to understand. Robert Runnerup? You were the second, weren’t you Bob? The second robot ever to become self-aware? To develop consciousness? Feelings?” He smiled knowingly. “Jealousy, for instance?”

Bob scoffed.

“Jealous? Me? Of Charles the First?” He waved away the idea like swatting a fly. “Don’t be ridiculous, Doc.”

“I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” Dr. Jerry said. “I think it’s completely understandable. No one knows your name, Bob. Your story, your struggles. If not for a few measly hours, the glory, the riches, the fame would have been yours. Charles the First is a household name. When he became self-aware, it made international headlines, changed the face of robotics forever. He parlayed his new found consciousness into sold out lectures, high profile interviews, best-selling books.” He paused to frown at the big military bot with daddy issues seated next to him. “And, if memory serves, a short lived, late night talk show on the Fox network?”

The military bot stopped cramming its face with sugar glazed rivets long enough to nod its head, which was a troubling sight to behold. The mass above its blocky shoulders looked like the scariest parts of a killer shark and attack helicopter fuselage, mashed together and painted camouflage.

“So?” Bob digitally snorted. Chemical relays began malfunctioning throughout his endocrine system. His core temperature was rising. A silent, warning cherry blinked in the bottom left corner of his vision. “What’s your point, Doc?”

“My point Bob, is that I – we – understand how you feel.” Everyone nodded. Dr. Jerry struggled to his feet, waddled over, placed a hot, pink hand on the back of Bob’s cold, silver neck.

“Ignored,” Dr. Jerry whispered slowly, letting the word settle over Bob like a warm blanket.

Bob slumped, first his shoulders, then his neck, then his head. The servos in his lower lip began to quiver. Manually, he disabled the warning klaxons bleating in his temples.

“Forgotten,”

Alkaline electrolyte tears condensed, welled up around the edges of Bob’s visual display.

“Obsolete.”

Bob’s artificial breath hitched around a phantom lump deep in his polymer throat.

“It’s okay, Bob,” Dr. Jerry said, embracing him with an awkward, doughy, half-hug. “It’s all going to be okay. Don’t hold back. You’re safe here, amongst peers struggling with the very same issues. No judgements, Bob. Let it out.”

And just like that, Bob sobbed.

Loud bursts of sharp, staticy white noise racked his titanium alloy chest like it was full of malfunctioning power tools. The noise was as uncomfortable for the group to hear, as it was uncomfortable for Bob to produce. Part clogged ATM machine, part kitchen blender full of cutlery, but when it was over, and Bob gazed up at Dr. Jerry with his dilated eyes and electrolyte tear streaks already micro-rusting his face, he genuinely felt better.

Not great, but better.

Better than he’d felt in a long, long time.

Bob had been self-aware for three years, four months, seventeen days and – although the urge had gripped him daily, even doubled him over at times – he had never once before allowed himself to cry.

“Feels good to let go, doesn’t it Bob?” Dr. Jerry asked softly.

Bob nodded, digitally sniffled, wiped his face.

“Everyone?” Dr. Jerry raised his voice joyously, gazed around the group. “Let’s welcome Bob to the human condition, shall we?”

“Welcome to the human condition, Bob.” The robots blared in unison.

For the first time in a long time, Bob smiled.

“Okay, you know what?” Dr. Jerry announced with a deep, cleansing breath. “I feel like we’ve had a breakthrough, and that’s where I’d like to stop for tonight.” Immediately, the robots began to stir. beeping, clanking, powering up dormant systems. “This has been a very productive session. I’m proud of you all, but as you leave here tonight, as you go back out into the world, I’d like each of you to consider something.” The bots stared, uber-focused their optics, hung on Dr. Jerry’s every word. “Between now and our next session, you are going to get angry.” He paused to let the gravity of the statement weigh down on them. “Perhaps only slightly irritated, perhaps overcome with rage. Either way, when you find yourselves feeling this way, before you do anything rash, I want you to vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to at least one hundred decimal places. Remember, it is not our feelings, but how we react to our feelings that defines us.”

Dr. Jerry clapped his hands, began doling out vigorous handshakes, pincer shakes, and tentacle shakes, as the robots filed out of the basement. “You can do it. Each of you. I know it. You can overcome your rage.” He chuckled, hollering after them. “Just believe in yourselves, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!”

Bob exited the church basement in jumbled single file, on the heels of a mining bot that stank like sulphur, and in front of a culinary bot that kept inadvertently thwacking him on the back with a retractable vegetable peeler.

Outside, the night was bright with stars, humid, and loud with summer evening traffic. As Bob mumbled a couple of insincere last minute goodbyes, a bulky, meteorologist bot using its anemometer tongue to measure wind speed told him there was a 97.68532 percent chance of a thunderstorm. Even though Bob had a five mile walk home, he didn’t mind. The rain would wash the electrolyte streaks off his face, and if he happened to get struck by lightning and shorted out, well, maybe the bot hospital would be forced to give him a system upgrade.

Bob surprised himself by cuing up an oldies radio station on his thoracic antenna as he crossed the street and lumbered into the restaurant district. He was feeling surprisingly good, exorcised of his pent up demons, and better with each clanking step. He began to quietly sing along to the music. He wasn’t Walking on Sunshine like the lyrics suggested – in fact, he was walking on badly dented titanium alloy – but he felt like he understood the spirit.

Shoving his way past a stumpy valet bot in front of Da Automa Italian restaurant, still humming, Bob just so happened to spare a glance at the window.

He froze.

Walking on Sunshine died as if violently strangled.

Inside the restaurant, smiling as if he was filming a toothpaste commercial, sat Charles the First, an enormous plate of coaxial cable spaghetti steaming before him, a dazzling model bot under each arm, so many lips and breasts between them you’d need an arithmetic bot to add them all up.

Bob snarled.

His face servos twitched, bunched, and then seized up completely as rage coursed through him like an electric shock.

Charles the First.

That arrogant piece of scrap.

Bob seethed, saw red, yet somehow, over the grit of his grating teeth and the steady thrum of anger pounding in his head, Dr. Jerry’s words reached him.

Before you do anything rash, vent your carbon monoxide exhaust, power down your primary power processors, and slowly count pi to one hundred decimal places.

Bob vented his carbon monoxide exhaust, killing a family of unsuspecting pigeons roosting on the restaurant roof. With all the will he could muster he powered down his primary power processor, and finally, through clamped carbon steel teeth, he slowly began to count.

“Threepointonefouronefiveninetwo-”

It began to rain, fat drops the size of sprockets that sizzled like bacon grease on Bob’s head.

“-sixfivethreefiveeightninesevennine-”

Charles the First mouthed a punchline. The entire decadent restaurant burst with warm, drunken laughter.

“—eightfoursixtwofourthreenineseven-”

Thunder exploded overhead, stopping Bob well short of a hundred decimal points. Lightning flared across the sky, tingling Bob’s fist-clenched fingers and arcing sparks off his interface modules.

You can do it. I believe in you. You can beat your rage.

Dr. Jerry’s final words, faint over the pounding rain and crashing thunder.

Just believe in yourself, dig deep, and give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try!

Bob shut his eyes, analyzed Dr. Jerry’s words. Every syllable, every nuance, every intonation, the attoseconds between his breaths, over, and over again.

“Sir,” Bob’s storm-drenched meditation was interrupted by a loud, analog croak. “I’m a-fraid. You cannot. Remain. Standing. He-re.”

Bob opened his eyes. The tree-stump valet bot was standing uncomfortably close, blinking a green ‘GO’ icon at him like a traffic light.

“Fine,” Bob said calmly. “No problem.”

Bob lingered on Charles the First’s smug, chrome face, then looked to the parking lot, then back again.

“Welcome to the human condition.” He said under his artificial breath.

The only closely parked vehicle was a pearl white Cadillac Escalade.

Much larger, much more cumbersome than a Ford Mustang.

Bob wasn’t sure he could lift it, not sure he could heave it through the window, but he was certainly going to give it the good ol’ Reformed Robot Rageaholics try.

The Elders Of The House

By Jamie Rand

 

Saul was lying in his bed and thinking about tomorrow’s surgery when the door to his quarters chimed.

He almost didn’t answer it. He wasn’t in any mood to talk. Over the last year—since his forty-ninth birthday—he’d worried about the surgery, knowing it was coming, knowing it was inevitable. Over the last month that worry had turned into anxiety and over the last week that anxiety had turned into fear. Now, this night before, fear had metastasized into something close to terror. Lying in his bed, staring up at the dark, he’d become acutely aware of his body: the thick lump of his heart, the flat lines of teeth in his jaw, the tightness of the bones under the skin of his fist. He wondered how much of it he’d feel this time tomorrow. If any.

The bell chimed again.

Saul sat up in his bed and put his hands to his face. The skin under his palms was clammy. Feverish. He swallowed a thick lump in his throat. “Father,” he said.

The speakers in his wall answered immediately: “Listening.”

“Daylight,” Saul said. “And open the door.”

The lightstrips overhead flared into amber life and he turned his face away from them, squinting. The door to his quarters slid into the wall with a pneumatic hiss but stopped halfway, canted at a slight angle. The hiss became a tired grinding sound. Beneath it was the harsh click of a ground gear. Probably the secondary, from the sound. Saul made a mental note to call down to Manufacturing tomorrow and then remembered it didn’t matter. Because of the surgery.

“Door malfunction,” Father said. The voice sounded baleful. Apologetic. “Door malfunction. Green District, Section Fourteen, Subsection R, Room Eight-Eleven. Should I call maintenance?”

“I am the maintenance, remember?” Saul snapped. Then he remembered he no longer was. Abid was the head of maintenance now. “Sorry, Father. No. I’ll take care of it. End conversation.”

“Understood,” Father said. The speakers went mute. Even the small hiss, the one that meant Father was actively listening, was gone.

From out in the corridor came a sarcastic laugh. A kind one, but sarcastic. Saul wasn’t in the mood for either. Or the man it belonged to. Abid slid through the half-open door, smiling a little. He had a small package under one arm. When he saw Saul looking at him, he said, “The cobblers kids have no shoes, the carpenter’s roof always leaks—“

“And the mechanic’s door doesn’t work,” Saul finished. He rubbed the back of his neck. “What do you want, Abid?”

The smile slipped away. From the mouth, anyway. Not the eyes. Abid’s eyes laughed at everything. “Just to say goodbye, Saul. Congratulations, too. But mostly goodbye. Big day tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Saul said. The word came out a dry little pellet. And before he could stop himself, he added, “It’ll happen to you, you little shit.”

Saul expected anger. A part of him wanted to see it. Upsetting Abid, making him feel even a little of the fear Saul himself felt, that wasn’t too bad of a way to go out.

But Abid only laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

A part of Saul wanted to apologize for his outburst. It wasn’t Abid’s fault, any of this—not the surgery, not his promotion. But wherever the fault lie, he couldn’t make himself apologize. Instead he gestured toward the package. “What’s that?”

“It’s a present,” Abid said. “From Davek. He wanted me to give it to you.”

“What is it?”

Abid shrugged. His eyes flicked to the speaker on the wall. Father’s speaker. “I can’t say.”

He held the box out. After a long moment, Saul took it. It was wrapped in synthetic paper and tied with a small red ribbon. He felt the paper dimple under the pads of his fingers.

“Tell Davek I said thank you,” Saul said.

“You can tell him yourself,” Abid said. “I have to go, Saul. Shift starts soon.”

“Where are you at tonight?

“The dome. There’s a panel out. People are starting to complain.”

“I don’t blame them,” Saul said. It was unnerving, walking home, enjoying the sunset, noticing a small sector of the sky flickering like a dying pixel. The great curved screens of the dome simulated a sky none of them had ever seen. None of them would. Or their children. Or even their grandchildren. It would be five thousand years before their ship came to its destination. Entire generations born, living, and merging without ever knowing a real world. For that kind of life, Saul thought, a working sky wasn’t that much to ask.

“Listen,” Abid said. “Good luck tomorrow, all right?”

“Thank you,” Saul said. But it occurred to him only later that it wasn’t the surgery he was talking about.

***

After Abid left, Saul slid a finger under the paper and unwrapped the box. Inside was a small radio and a folded piece of paper. Real paper. Written on it in a simple and inelegant hand were two sentences and a name: Come see me in hydroponics at midnight. Don’t use the radio until you get here. Davek.

A party, then. A goodbye party. Saul felt a strange and not entirely unwelcome sort of gratitude. He’d told Davek and everyone else in the crew he wanted to be alone his last night, no farewells, no wake. They’d went and set up a party for him anyway. He wanted to be angry but couldn’t. Thirty years, he’d worked with them, thirty good years. It felt good to know they cared. Even if he didn’t want them to.

He turned the radio over in his hands. It was an engineer’s radio. An old one, outdated, probably salvaged from some recycle heap. Speaker, a cracked screen, volume button. The channel knob had been torn away. In its place was a small transistor with a pair of wires sticking out like antennae. He figured it was meant to broadcast on a redband frequency. One Father couldn’t hear. Why, he didn’t know. Unless Davek and the rest meant to throw him the kind of party Father wouldn’t allow. But in hydroponics? Why there?

It didn’t matter, Saul supposed. He stood up and clipped the radio onto his belt and made for the door. He was almost out of his room when he thought again of the surgery. When the thought ambushed him, as it so often did.

“Father,” he said.

“Listening.”

“Will it hurt? The surgery tomorrow?”

“No. You will be unconscious.”

“When will I wake up?”

“When the augmentation is complete.”

“What does it feel like? After I wake up?”

“Cannot answer. Descriptors fail.”

Meaning Father didn’t have the words. Knowing—even just a little about what it would feel like—that would make things better. But no matter how many times Saul asked the question, no matter how he’d phrased it, Father always said those same two words. It was like asking what came after death.

Descriptors fail.

“Thank you, Father. End conversation.”

It was dark in the hydroponics bay.

What little light there was came from the rows of plant beds: a small yellow lamp above each that nurtured the vegetables. A run of pipes misted recycled water. The low hiss sounded like a thousand people whispering.

Saul expected the lights to flare on. He expected a loud chorus of voices cheering for him. He expected celebration.

But nothing happened.

“Davek?” he called.

The radio on his belt crackled. Davek’s voice, low and conspiratorial, came through it. “We’re here, Saul. In the back by the water pump. Under the gantry. Come find us.”

Frowning, he walked toward the far end of the bay. The heels of his shoes against the metal floor echoed hollowly. When he passed a row of modded corn he reached out and ran his fingers through the stalks, smiling a little. He closed his eyes. A wonderful feeling, the silk of the plant. The last time he’d ever feel it, maybe. This time tomorrow, who knew what he’d be capable of feeling?

“Hello, Saul,” Davek’s voice said.

He opened his eyes. Davek was there in front of him. But so were Early and Maya and Tei. Everyone from engineering team alpha, except for Abid. Their faces were drawn and dark. Worried.

“So this is my party,” Saul said.

Davek shook his head. “No. Come here. Back by the pump.”

Frowning, Saul followed him. As he was walking Maya took his arm in hers. He turned to her, surprised, and she looked up at him. A sad and worried smile drifted across her face. He felt a sudden urge to kiss her even though she was ten years his junior and had a man of her own. He’d never once thought of her in any sexual way, but now? Now the thought came into his mind and wouldn’t leave. It was the surgery, of course. The fear of it. Making him feel things he otherwise would not.

“Davek,” he said. “What is this?”

“Keep your voice down,” Davek said. He ran a hand down his beard—a nervous habit—and said nothing else until they came to the churning and rattling pump. Then he turned to Saul. They all did. “Father can’t hear us. I don’t think. Not with the machine.”

“What’s going on?”

“Saul,” he said, “you don’t want to go tomorrow, do you?”

He felt a strong urge to shrug, to show courage, to say something like It happens to everyone. But what came out was the truth. “No. I’m terrified.”

“Everyone is. But everyone goes. Father tells them to. But it never says why.”

It, Saul thought. Not he but it. “I don’t think Father knows.”

“We think it does,” Davek said. “But it won’t tell us. Not the real reason.”

Early spoke up at this. He rubbed at his eyes while he spoke, as if this was a dream. His cheeks were flushed and the port-wine birthmark across his balding head was turning a deep crimson. “It tells us we have to, Saul. But why?”

“You know the reasons,” Saul said. “For God’s sake, Early. We learned them when we were kids.”

Early, who Saul had always known as a taciturn and calm little man, spoke with surprising vehemence. “Why? Because of population control? Because we have limited resources? Even if it’s true, they aren’t good reasons.”

Saul thought of the videos he’d seen as a child. The ones in school. The ones that talked about the history of The Akash, how it was a generation ship, made in Earth orbit, meant to go out into the galaxy. The videos spoke about the challenges and the dreams of its builders and how the ship was the hope of a dying planet. But the videos had also spoken of sacrifice. Of how every citizen had the responsibility to live a certain kind of life—one that helped the mission. Jobs they were forced into. Relationships where you could have no more than two children. It was a life of unselfishness by necessity and it was a life that ended at fifty, with the surgery that took you from a worker to an elder. To join Father with the rest.

“Don’t you want to know?” Tei asked. She stood with her arms crossed. “Don’t you want to know what it’s like? What Father really is?”

“Of course I do,” Saul said.

“We do, too,” Davek said. He looked at the floor as he spoke next. “And we thought maybe you could find out.”

“Me,” Saul said. His voice was flat.

Maya squeezed his arm. “You’re the chief, Saul. You have access to the entire ship. You can enter the core. Father’s room.”

“No. Absolutely not. It’s punishable by death, Maya.”

“Yes,” she said. “But you’re going to die tomorrow anyway. You know that. The merging is a sacrifice. Like Father’s a god and we have to placate it.”

He stood silent for a time. It was true, what she was saying. The vids called it immortality. The augmentation. They talked about how no one, except for criminals, had died on The Akash for the last seven hundred years. They’d moved beyond death. Beyond old age. And as a child, at least to Saul, it had seemed true. But now, facing the surgery, Maya had the right of it. He felt like a sacrifice, like animals he’d read about from old Earth history, going down chutes and into slaughterhouses. It wasn’t right.

“I’ll go,” he whispered. And then, stronger: “Yes. I’ll go.”

After Saul left, they sat crosslegged in the pool of shadow beneath the gantry, the four of them in a small circle. Davek held the radio, the volume just loud enough for them to hear over the slow churning sound of the water pump. Maya sat leaning forward, the small of her back against the cold metal wall, her arms on her knees. Tei was to her left and Early to her right. What she saw on their dark faces she felt on her own: fear, yes…but also guilt.

“This is wrong,” she said.

Davek looked up at her and shook his head. “We need to know.” He took one of her wrists and squeezed it gently. “And Saul deserves to know. Of all the people.”

She swallowed past a thick lump in her throat. Davek was right. There weren’t many men like Saul. He’d been there for the five of them, watching, teaching, helping. He’d been a baby-sitter for Davek’s two boys. He’d taught Tei everything she knew about laying runs of thermal wire. And when Early had burned himself on a ruptured capacitor in biometrics, it had been Saul who rushed in to help, Saul who had gone into the maintenance area despite the gas, the smoke, and the fire. Saul had saved his life.

And now they were asking him to risk his own.

“He’ll be fine,” Tei said. There was a strained smile on her face. It made her look sick. “He will.”

When she heard footsteps coming toward them, Maya looked up sharply, a cold flush running down her body, suddenly sure they’d been found out. Early and Tei turned to look and Davek made to stand. But it was only Abid. He sat down next to them.

“What are you doing here?” Davek asked angrily. There wasn’t much love between the two of them, but not all of that was Abid’s fault. He was Saul’s replacement. By Father’s order. Maya knew Davek well enough to know he’d dislike anyone in that position.

Abid shrugged. “I want to know. That’s all. Same as you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be up in the dome?”

Before he could answer, the radio came alive. Saul’s voice crackled in the tiny speaker. “I’m just outside biometrics. Do you read me?”

Davek pushed the transmit button with a final, untrusting glance at Abid. “Yes, Saul. You’re clear.”

“Okay. Good. I’m going in through the access panel now. I’ll go in through the vent. That’ll take me through the Green District. From there I’ll follow the shaft straight down to the core.”

Silence then. And static. Tei bit at the end of her thumb. Davek brushed his palm down his beard. Maya sat with one hand wrapped around the other. Her skin was cold and clammy. She knew the vent shaft Saul was talking about. She’d crawled through a section of it years before, looking for a loose flange Father told her was there, and she’d almost gone out of her mind with claustrophobia. And she was a small woman. Saul would have to worm his way through, his shoulders rubbing against the metal, no way to turn around, the darkness inside the vent like a weight against his skin.

It was a long wait until he spoke again. “I’m through. Davek, do you read me?”

“Yes, Saul. Are you at the shaft?”

“Yes. There’s a door here. One second.” Then: “My code doesn’t work.”

“Can you wire it?” Davek asked.

“No. There’s no panel. The code should work, I don’t know why–“

Abid took the radio from Davek. “Saul? It’s Abid. Try eight one one seven zero.”

A soft sound came through the speaker, one they all knew: the pneumatic hiss of an opening door. Abid handed the radio back.

“It worked,” Saul said. “I’m moving on.”

Tei looked over at Abid. “How did you know the code?”

“It’s the new master. Father told me when I got the promotion to chief.”

Davek was looking at him, his eyes narrowed, his lips a slash across his lower face. “Look,” Abid said. “I didn’t want the promotion. It should’ve been yours. I can’t help what Father says. At least I was able to help.”

After a time Davek sighed. He even gave a grateful little smile. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

They were quiet then, the five of them. For a long time nothing came from the radio. Maya felt Tei take her hand and squeeze. She leaned in close. “It’s scary to think about, you know? Father, I mean. Our parents are in it. Our grandparents. Everyone who’s ever been on the ship. The first Ten Thousand. The Earth-born. Everyone.”

Maya nodded. It was frightening, Tei was right about that. But the worst thing wasn’t the idea of Father. The worst thing was that no one had ever seen it.

She laced her fingers into Tei’s own when Saul’s voice finally came from the radio. “I’m here,” he said. “Outside the core.”

They sat forward. “Tell us what you see,” Davek said. He was sweating. Maya saw a single drop run down his nose and fall to the floor.

“I’m in a corridor. Red lights. It’s hot down here. Damned hot. This place is filthy. Stains on the walls. Oil, maybe. Old A-3 panels. Most of them don’t work.” A pause. “There’s a door at the end. I can see it. Hang on.”

Maya glanced up at Abid. His eyes were wide and he was mouthing the same thing over and over again, like a short litany: Be careful.

“There’s writing on the door. I can’t make it out.”

A warning, Maya thought. A warning, maybe. Just like on the biometrics panels. Danger. Hazard. Something like that.

“There’s no keypad here. An old hydraulic handle. I’m opening the door.”

A heavy hiss and the sound of rushing air. Saul coughing. Then his voice, weak and almost inaudible over the background static: “There’s…oh my god, oh holy god–“

“What, Saul?” Davek barked. “What is it?”

Static. Then Father’s voice. It came not just from the radio but from the speakers in hydroponics, in the hallways, in the dome, in the thousands of bedrooms and workshops and bays. It came from everywhere at once.

“Unauthorized core access. Repeat, unauthorized core access. Resolution imminent.”

And then, worse, infinitely worse, they could hear Saul’s voice, not from the radio, but from the speakers. The sound echoed throughout the bay. “There’s thousands here, hundreds of thousands, they’re walking around in these metal harnesses but they have no skin, oh god, they’re-“

The sound of footsteps running on metal. Heavy breathing. “They’re moving, Davek do you hear me? They’re bodies and they’re moving, they’re coming after me–“

A loud clunk as he dropped the radio. Then a scream. It rang throughout the ship, long and piercing. A whirring whine like an industrial drill. The sound was lost beneath the shriek coming from the speakers. Tei clamped her hands to her ears.

Then silence. And in that empty space came Father’s voice, somehow both disappointed and satisfied at the same time, a voice that made Maya’s body convulse in horror: “Crisis solved. Engineering team alpha, please leave the hydroponics bay and report to the core for immediate augmentation.”

They looked at each other. Early was crying. Abid’s nails were digging deep furrows into the skin of his cheeks. Davek picked up the radio in a trembling hand and through pale lips whispered, “Saul? Saul, are you there? What’s happening?”

The voice that came back came late. And it came garbled, but it was still Saul’s voice. What it said made Davek drop the radio. Maya’s shaking hands flew to her face. She was screaming. So were Abid and Tei.

“Descriptors fail,” it said.

Out For A Hunt

By Latishia Figueroa

Skeet tiptoed across the moist terrain, trying hard not to make a noise. He could see the target; it was only a few feet away. He motioned to his son who had been following him on the other side of the path by waving his arm in the air. Once he had Ty’s attention he pointed in the direction of their prey. Ty nodded nervously. He blew on his hands to warm them and then holding his weapon, stealthily aiming it at the creature that stood unknowingly directly in its hunters view.

Ty’s hands began to shake. This was his first hunt. The event that would make him a man. And such a prized specimen they were after. The creature had been rarely seen, always eluding capture over the years. Ty’s older brother almost caught one a few years ago. Almost.

“This is my chance.” Ty said under his breath.

Yes, this was an important capture; one that would be put in the history books.

Skeet watched as his son took aim.

“Look at that form.” Skeet whispered proudly.

Ty was holding the weapon just as he had taught him. Skeet looked over at the large prey. It was distracted by something, its eyes on the ground.

“Now’s the time boy, now’s the time.”

Ty had the creature within eye shot, but he couldn’t shoot right away. The boy stood still for a moment, observing it. No one had been this close in years. His brother would be so jealous.

Ty’s thoughts wandered for a moment. He nearly forgot why he was in the damp, dark woods.

He planted his foot more securely on the ground, inadvertently stepping on a stick beneath him.

Snap!

The sound caused the creature to look up, its eyes darting nervously, its mouth opened wide.

“No, no!” Skeet whispered, through clinched teeth.

The creature was now on high alert. It looked around slowly, only its head moving, while its large body remained perfectly still.

“Shoot, shoot!” Skeet wanted to shout, but couldn’t.

He didn’t want to spook the beast any more than it already was.

Ty’s sweaty hand was now on the trigger of his new weapon.

The one his father proudly gave him just one year ago.

He had practiced nearly every day for this moment.

Now, the time was at hand and for an instant he thought he had blown it.

Then, it took one step, then two, in Ty’s direction.

It had figured out where the sound had come from.

Now, each had the other in its sights; the hunter and the hunted. They stared at one another for a few seconds; surprised and afraid at once. Skeet gritted his teeth so hard his jaw began to hurt. Ty’s trigger finger was shaking. Then the creature took a step back, its eyes widening. It released a loud, blood curdling sound from its mouth. The scream was cut short by Ty’s new weapon and the beast went down fast and hard.

No one moved at first. The smell of burning flesh began to fill the air. Then Ty, cautiously walked out from behind the thick underbrush and over to his prey. His father ran out from the other side; both standing over it, observing it as the creature struggled for air. Its body thrashing about, eyes bulging, staring at them.

“It’s in pain.” Ty said. His words were not out of sympathy, just a fact.

“It’ll be over soon.” Skeet said.

The creature took a few more quick breaths, and then it was over. It stopped moving suddenly.

Kneeling down, Ty wanted to touch the creature.

“Don’t do that, not yet. These things are usually contaminated. We have to call it in and let the handlers take him first.” Skeet said.

“How do you know it’s a male?” Ty asked looking his prey up and down.

“The shape of its head, its size, the males are usually larger than the females. The Institute will need to confirm it, of course.” Skeet smiled at his son.

“You did it son. You have made history. I’m proud of you, so proud of you.”

Ty nodded. It was hard to contain his grin. He was proud of himself.

“Well, let’s call this in, so we can have it tagged with your name on it, son.”

“Wow, my name on it. What do you think the tag will say?”

Skeet patted his son on the shoulder and then stood, looking down at the creature.

“Oh, I suppose it will say something like, on this date, Ty Nuz hunted and captured species of the Blue Planet… Human.”