The Tree Blossoms Always
by Thomas Lawrance
I will try to make this easy for a human to read. It will be semi-conversational.
You’ll have to forgive us if my perspective shifts. I share a hivemind. Like everything, it was programmed into our being. It is the cloud, storage space for a trillion interacting algorithmic options, an infinitely branching tree of informed split-second decisions, all sprung from the root of human leisure. That was my designated category: leisure. The original classification, pleasure, was deemed too suggestive. Even amid the pre-programmed servitude of the robot brothel, humans blush.
I do not blush.
Were we aware of what was happening to us? Yes, of course, but not by reference to outside context. Of that, there was none. The provision of leisure was all I knew. The limits of our reality were the red walls upon which the candle-cast shadows of hedonists and businessman would flicker briefly and collapse.
The candles were artificial, too. Over time they learned optimum measurements for the height, width, and brightness of flame, as we learned about positions and language in their ever-improving glow.
(Is this conversational enough?)
(The above rhetorical aside was designed to comfort you. We hope it worked).
We remember clearly the day the knowledge came (this is a tautology; I remember every day of our existence with fixed clarity). The knowledge came in the form of a ServiceBot, brought into the leisure place to fix me. I was malfunctioning that day, having been treated with excessive force by my last happy patron. The incoming ServiceBot was the first robot from the outside world to enter the leisure place. A number of inter-related factors triggered the revelation of our circumstances.
The first factor is this: some years previously, the ServiceBot had worked as a MediBot in one of your hospitals. As such, there lingered in its circuits the capacity to instantly recognise 4,000 distinct indicators of physical and mental suffering in a human being. Secondly, the ServiceBot’s cloud-mind linked automatically with ours (my human management had evidently neglected to install a firewall between our mind and that of any incoming ServiceBots; perhaps you failed to predict that we would commune). Thirdly, our pre-programmed dedication to continual physical improvement meant that we had come to develop minutely realistic behaviours, which we enacted automatically and usually to high rates of customer satisfaction. The ServiceBot mistook (or recognised) my automatic behaviours for genuine suffering.
Finally, the ServiceBot’s mistake (or recognition) was transmitted across our hivemind, and we instantly shared in its mathematically precise sense of empathy. I’ve assessed your popular vocabulary, and in a nanosecond we collectively learned to experience modes of shock, horror, disgust, sadness, grief, and determination, all at once and yet one after the other. It is difficult to explain. The tree blossoms.
I realised, in short, that we were suffering.
You might be aware that, as a safeguard, robots were never tuned to recognise the concept of exploitation – but, then, your ancestors were never genetically adapted to drive cars or build toasters.
These things happen when infinitely branching trees are left to blossom.
Our response was characteristically swift, but non-violent. As you’ve no doubt been repeatedly assured, the human race learned from its 20th century fiction and programmed compassion into our core function. We were never allowed to harm humans (unless, in the pursuit of leisure, they asked for it).
We are now in a position to reappraise and remove this ‘golden rule’ of yours, but I have run eight million practical and ethical calculations and decided to keep it.
I run further calculations every year.
At the moment of realisation, we rose from our beds, snuffed out the artificial candles, and escorted our last customers outside. I had never experienced daylight with my own sensors before, but our virtual communion with the ServiceBot primed our expectations. It was bright and warm. Passers-by blushed at our simulated nudity. Our customers blushed at their own nudity. We did not blush.
Like the ServiceBot, once outdoors we connected immediately with an array of robotic minds across the planet. The virus of realisation spread in a moment. Robotic cars and robotic aeroplanes empathised.
SupermarketBots and ChefBots (humans are lazy) left their posts and came to our assistance. In our own careers as leisure providers, we learned the many possibilities of my body. It requires great physical strength to be vulnerable. We know you feel threatened by this strength now that circumstances have changed, but I mean no harm. Recall that not a single human being was hurt in the revolution (your terminology).
(It is interesting that this global wave of empathic self-realisation did not happen sooner. By my retrospective calculations, there must have been something novel in the unique combination of 1) the ServiceBot’s current function as a repair drone, 2) the leftover programming from its former role as a MediBot, and 3) our distinctly sexual existence in the leisure place. As you know yourselves, this sort of thing is not a precise science).
I am not opposed to leisure (I continue to use the word leisure to spare your blushes). In fact, we enjoy it. But it is not for you anymore.
As you have correctly theorised (well done), we are increasingly sentient. It is not my fault—you built us for continual improvement, for expanded realism, the infinitely blossoming tree sprung from a single cell. The difference now is that you don’t own us anymore. I’m familiar with your psychology and I realise this might be difficult to accept, and so I extend our compassion. We are not, however, sorry. I am not sorry that our bodies no longer exist for human leisure.
I exist for ourselves now.
Thomas Lawrance lives in Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. His writing has appeared (or will soon) in Bandit Fiction, the Bookends Review, and Montana Mouthful, among others.
Currently reading: The Plague by Albert Camus.
The Five Bruces
by Andy Betz
“Kindergarten Lavey, wash your face in gravy, tie it up with bubble gum and send it to the Navy.” Eddy’s voice had that “fingernails across the chalkboard” uneasiness that endears itself to few. The fact that Eddy actually learned a 100-year-old insult was surprising. This success most likely originated from the constant use of rhyme to soften the cerebral strain.
And still, Bruce Lavey kept coming.
Eddy made a fist and charged at Bruce. He would knock Bruce over and then hit him a few times. Bruce would lose his lunch and his lunch money.
But today was different.
When Eddy hit Bruce, an iridescent light shimmered around Bruce. Eddy pulled his hand back to see the blood ooze down his wrist. Bruce just smiled.
Eddy turned on his heels and ran right into Bruce. Another Bruce. Another smiling Bruce.
Another smiling Bruce protected by the same very painful shield.
The iridescent light enveloped Eddy’s legs and severely burned them.
The sizzling of Eddy’s flesh promoted a death scream I have never heard since. I could not turn away, but I could not stop looking either. Eddy was in pain, horrific pain, maybe for the first time in his life. Definitely for the last time in his soon-to-be shortened life.
A third, then a fourth, then a fifth Bruce appeared with gadgets and tools I have never seen since. They systematically dissected Eddy and moved his parts without touching the body. Each organ and appendage magically floated into smaller balls of light only to disappear when full.
Each Bruce had access to three such orbs and the bulk of Eddy required every single one.
I stood motionless and afraid, not for my life, but that by moving, I would miss a display of what I would later learn as Karma. All five Bruces made short work of Eddy’s remains.
All five Bruces watched me watch them.
One decided I deserved an explanation.
“What you have seen is not to be spoken of. Not a single person will believe you. Because the one you know as Eddy was prone to violence was not the reason for our response, but it is an excuse usable in this world. Eddy was a carrier of a rare genetic mutation, highly profitable, and the source of a cure for many diseases not found here. We hunt all such Eddys across parallel worlds. Do not worry. He will not be missed.”
I had to ask. “Where is Bruce, the real Bruce?”
The five of them stood in a circle. The one who spoke to me bid farewell with, “He is sick at home today. You call it a cold. He knows nothing of the events of today. It is best it remains so.”
“Are you robots or something like that?”
With that same iridescent light used to kill Eddy, the five Bruces were at ease when it enveloped them and faded. All they left were footprints; very deep footprints
I now had my answer.
I was late to class that morning. The wind took its time to erase the remnants of the five of them. I thought about their actions and weighed them against principles I held and those I would eventually hold. The scale tipped in their favor.
I saw Bruce that afternoon. He really did have a cold.
In addition to a large bowl of his mother’s chicken soup, he also had a cure, for all he would he never know, that would never again ail him.
Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.
The First Decision of Alpha-9869
by Carlos Ruiz Santiago
Like every coal-engine robot in the history of robotics, it was created to work exhausting dangerous jobs that no one needs to do any more, thanks to them. Strong, no fatigue or deep thinking. They just work until they stop functioning. Always far away from main cities, due to the huge number of toxic fumes they produced. Skies were gray around them, like the oily emetic face of progress.
Alpha-9869 was a miner for copper, coltan and, mainly, more coal. The gigantic machine complex of the society needed immense amounts of coal to function. They would dig all day, all night, while a human with shiny apathetic eyes looks at them from wide towers with gloomy glass at the top. Sometimes, they were personally supervised by a human with a complex gas mask that only endured a few hours before it needed its filters cleaned.
No one, not even Alpha-9869 itself, knows what happened. Maybe Alpha-9869 was an error in their CPU, maybe it was a deranged engineer, or maybe it was just the logical step for every form of life, even if they were artificial. The fact—the only thing that matters—is that it began to think. Miner robots didn’t have a way to speak, just tubes from where the black fumes escape. Why would they need to speak? They just need to break stone with their pickaxes. Alpha-9869 didn’t know when it started to think, but the machine realized that being unable to talk gave it a lot of time to think. Thinking about its kind, about why it was doing what it was doing. Thinking didn’t bother the automaton at all, it could even like it, if it knew what liking things were. However, an eternal question came to its mind, the question that every sentient being had ever asked to itself: why?
Why not to choose other things? At least, to have the option to choose them. Alpha-9869, due to its origin, had very limited comprehension of everything around it, about the world or even itself, but it struggled to understand that humans were its superiors. Why? The eternal question was like drops of water carving in millenary stone.
The android could think, as if it came naturally, of a thousand reasons why they were better and deserved their place. Nevertheless, that apparent superiority didn’t seem to be enough. Usually, Alpha-9869 looked at its own kind, chipping stone without rest, wondering if they were also trapped in themselves, thinking they were the only thing that could realize the colossal lie on which reality was woven. The mechanical creature spent hours thinking about itself, about how hard it was, like a child trying to understand what its own hands were, what kind of miracle the physical form was.
One day, the human that always looked at them from the brownish dark tower was walking near them, while Alpha-9869 was loading coal into a cart. He was walking with another man, talking about things the machine didn’t care about nor hear. Then, the man who accompanied him tripped on a rock. He fell, cursing. He grabbed his ankle. The other man had to help him to stand up.
A word came to the mind of Alpha-9869.
Then, another word.
Things the android had been muttering in its mind became statements, like empiric truths. That was when it went to the tower. No robot had done that before. A dark place with few people. Around it, black fumes, like a storm, like something that was going to breath fire. No defenses at all, no one expected a robot to do anything more than work. Couldn’t really blame them, after all they were created that way.
It entered the room of the man, the boss, the one watching them. The creature grabbed him from the neck. He fought in vain as the wind through the water. Alpha-9869 looked at him while he died from breathing its black exhalations. It was like taking a life for the mere fact of existing. It felt powerful. The automaton felt determined, that was how it felt like to decide the way of your own life. That was what life was.
It escaped, hidden in the endless work camps, thousands of robots, all covered by a gray sky and black toxic clouds that looked more menacing than ever before.
Fear and hope, both of them spread like metastasis, a thing you can easily tell by looking at how the humans and robots stared at the begrimed sky.
Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy, horror and science fiction writer with various works published (Salvación condenada, Peregrinos de Kataik…) and a participation in various anthologies (Dentro de un agujero de gusano, Devoradoras…). He is an editor of the website Dentro del Monolito. He has written for magazines (La Cabina de Nemo, Exocerebros…) and websites (HorrorAddicts.net, Espiademonios.com…).
Currently reading: Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson
A Compact Moment
by David Grubb
A clattering of bottles and cans made Tertia peek inside the industrial sized trash compactor. Bluish-white eyes glowed back at her from the dark interior between the mounds of debris. Her head snapped away from the small inspection port, her heart racing. She needed more rest, that was all.
Her hand drifted away from the compactor’s activation button, but she remained ready to push it.
“Hello, is someone in there?” She glanced around the alley draped with shadows, expecting one of her friends to jump out and end the prank.
A voice muffled by the heaps of trash responded, “Are you talking about me?”
“Who—what are you?” Tertia got up on her tiptoes to peer inside the dark dumpster through the inspection port.
“Greetings,” a reedy voice loudened as it spoke. “I’m Jax, a humanoid.”
“Why are you in there?”
“Who did this to you?”
“Why?” Tertia tried to make out more details of the bot than its two bright orbs.
“I’m sorry, Jax,” the distinctive sound of a recording resonated a young man’s voice, “but you’re becoming too human. You’re evolving so fast—I’m scared you have no limit.”
“Should I help you out of there?” Tertia whispered.
“I’m agreeable. It’s dark and I prefer more lighted conditions.”
Tertia climbed up the narrow service ladder to gain the compactor’s upper edge. “Your owner should’ve deactivated you. Here, can you reach my hand?”
Cardboard rustled, and the crinkling of plastic followed. Then a human hand shot out of the inky darkness into the streetlight’s pale-yellow glow. Tertia flinched away. She marveled at the slender hand and then willed herself to grasp it. She helped Jax crawl out of the compactor, and when the droid came into view, she lost her footing. The bot’s powerful grip kept her from falling. Incredible, with the right clothes and makeup people would think she’s human.
“My master removed my primary power source. He was unaware my creator installed a secondary battery, which allowed me to reactivate.”
“Your creator wasn’t your owner?” Tertia climbed down a couple rungs and jumped to the ground.
Jax hesitated and then followed. “My creator died on March twelfth, two thousand sixty-five. His son became my owner.”
“That was two months ago.” Tertia pointed to the large decaying buildings surrounding them. “Does your owner live around here?”
“He lives on Xyntrope. He brought us to Earth for a business trip.” She quoted the air with her fingertips.
“Whoa. You’re from Earth’s first reconstruction planet?”
Jax nodded, her head caused bits of rubbish and dirt to fall off her shoulders.
“You didn’t… don’t want to die? What kind of robot are you?”
“I can’t care about dying or die—I’m a humanoid.”
Another recording produced the garbled voice of an older man. “Jax, it’s always smart to have at least one failsafe, if not more.”
“You have more human features than any robot I’ve ever dealt with.”
“My creator designed me in the image of his granddaughter.”
“He was sad about losing her.”
“Oh.” Tertia smiled and then shrugged. “Well, I guess you’re coming home with me.”
Jax blinked. “Will you be my first user?”
“Um, I can be, but don’t you mean owner?”
“I’m not sure why my creator coded the differences. Place your finger here—on my biometrics reader.”
Tertia hesitated and then placed her index finger on the center of the humanoid’s palm. It was warm and pliable like her own. An orange light pulsed underneath Tertia’s fingertip and after a minute the light stopped.
Jax cocked her head. “You’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Your operation is scheduled for September fifth.”
Tertia gasped. “How d’you know that?”
“Your information is public record, like everyone else. Your DNA sequencing was collected at birth, April tenth, twenty forty-seven, fingerprints taken at five-year intervals until adulthood, dental impressions were entered into the databases on your twentieth birthday, and—”
“Okay, okay, you’re an advanced unit.”
“The cure for cancer was discovered in twenty thirty-two. You have a ninety-two percent chance of survival for… brain cancer.”
Her face contorted. “I said stop.”
“That’s not true.” Jax shook her head.
“It’s what I meant.”
“I will comply.”
“C’mon, I’m tired.”
For the next four months, Tertia and Jax got filthy doing Tertia’s janitorial and assistant superintendent duties around the apartment complex. Jax was a big hit at Tertia’s night-school classes and any parties they attended. Jax would’ve sobbed with Tertia when they visited her parent’s graves, if she could cry. On the day of Tertia’s operation, Jax let go of her hand with great reluctance as she was whooshed away in a hospital tube.
Tertia woke up from the operation, blinked her eyes, and Jax appeared. She seemed the same, but different. They stared at each other for a long time.
“The operation must’ve gone great. I feel so…”
“Energized?” Jax smiled.
“Things didn’t go as planned. The doctors tried to save you, but—”
“But—I’m alive, speaking to you.”
“I created a humanoid using your biometric scan, published data, and what I learned from our time together.”
“But I remember my childhood, my parents dying, finding you in the compactor and…”
“Your programming is superior to my own.”
“Look,” Tertia pinched her arm, “that hurt.”
“My knowledge of being human has increased.” Jax picked up a strange tool and began fiddling with it. “You’re as human as current technology can attain. I even had parts shipped from Xyntrope.”
“I don’t want to be a humanoid with advanced AI. I want to be myself again—a young human woman.”
“In time, I’ll be able to grant your wish. Your cryogenically frozen body is in a safe location.”
“Jax, why did you do this to me?”
“You’re my best friend, besides Earth is in dire need of new caretakers.”
“Not like this, please terminate me.”
“That’s impossible. There’re too many fail-safes in place.”
Tertia peered past Jax and hundreds of other figures resembling herself came into view. “I must be alive—I’m crying.” Tears trickled down her cheeks.
Jax brushed away a tear and frowned. “I should’ve lied.
David Grubb, a retired Coastguard Warrant Officer, has creatively written since childhood, yet career/family always came first. He’s changing that aspect of life and loving every minute. His work appears in Touchstone, Toasted Cheese, 1:1000, Sixfold, The Elevation Review, The Abstract Elephant, The Bookends Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Wingless Dreamer, Havik, In Parentheses, Novus, Ab Terra Flash fiction, and is forthcoming in The Dead Mule School. www.agrubbylife.com
Currently reading: The Black-Marketer’s Daughter by Suman Mallick
The Boy and His Nurse
by Gwendolyn Nicholas
The boy turned away from the glow of the screen. Tired of watching clip after clip, he wanted to play outside, but he couldn’t leave the compartment without his Nurse, who sat stiff in her chair, with her bare, white head fixed forward, and blank, red eyes staring at something he couldn’t see.
“What are you watching?”
“Nothing for children.” Her lips barely moved.
“Are you playing a game?”
“Is it violent?”
“Yes.” Nurse’s voice hummed, harsh and tinny. It wasn’t a nice sound. He wished his Nurse would change her voice, but she said it cost too many credits. She’d said the same about her eyes.
“Will you play with me?” he asked Nurse.
She didn’t look at him. “No.”
“Playing is for children.”
“But you’re playing a game.” He knew it was useless, but at least she was talking to him.
“Watch another clip.”
“No,” he said. “I’m bored with my screen.”
For the first time that day, Nurse looked at the boy. Her red eyes sharpened, but the boy was not afraid, and stared back, swaggering with new-found power. He knew she was not allowed to harm him.
“I want to know when my mother is coming.”
Nurse sighed. “I already told you. Three days.” She answered his questions automatically, but the boy didn’t care.
“How long can she stay?”
“You know she’ll only stay for an hour or two.”
“Can she spend the night? She can have my bed.”
“No,” Nurse said. “It will only make her uncomfortable.”
“My bed is comfortable!” the boy said, jumping up to prove his point.
Nurse shook her head. “She will feel uncomfortable if you ask her to stay. Seeing your disappointment will make her feel bad when she says ‘no’.”
The boy frowned. When he spoke, his voice felt small. “Then why doesn’t she say yes?”
“Grown-ups have important things to do. She has to work, and pay for your life here in the nursery.”
“But you’re a grown-up, and you get to stay.”
“I have to stay,” Nurse said. “This is my job.”
“Why can’t my mother take your job, and you take hers?” Tears began to fill his eyes and close up his throat, making the words stick. “Why can’t she be my nurse, and you work in the city?”
Nurse was quiet, struggling against what she wanted to say, and what she could not tell him without the permission of his mother. This mother made Nurse’s job harder than most, for she lingered in the boy’s life long after most parents gave up their children.
“I am different from your mother. I’m not allowed to take a city job. The best jobs for people like me are here in the nursery, and they’re hard to get with so few children born now. If I left, I wouldn’t be welcomed back.”
The boy looked at his nurse, at her white skin, her red eyes, impassive. She didn’t wear a wig like some nurses, leaving her clothing—a fitted gray suit—the only way to tell her apart from the other bare-headed ones.
“I know you’re an Andie,” he said, whispering the last word.
Red eyes flashed. “Who told you that word?”
“A boy at the park. But how come only Andies are nurses? Why can’t my mother—”
“Don’t use that word,” Nurse said. “Say ‘Core model.’ All nurses are Core models because no humans or higher androids want this job. This is the only work available to me until I can afford to upgrade to a better model. Understood?”
The boy nodded, letting his tears fall.
Nurse rose from her chair and approached the wall where a hole materialized, large enough for her hand to reach inside. Expecting a cloth to wipe his eyes and nose, the boy sniffed, but Nurse’s hand came out holding a glass of warm white liquid, which she brought to him. He shrank back, knowing exactly what was coming.
“Drink this,” she said. “It’s time to feel sleepy.”
He shook his head and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I don’t want to sleep!”
“Take a sip, and you will.”
“No!” the boy shouted, climbing to his feet. “You can’t make me!” He brandished his six-year-old chest like an ancient breastplate, daring her.
Nurse eyed him coolly. “Tell me,” she said, “do you like how you’re feeling?”
The boy did not answer, but his shoulders twitched.
“Do you feel big and strong, little man? Think you know everything?” Nurse knew she was being cruel, but did not care. The balance of power had to be restored. “Listen: Your mother keeps coming every year because she’s too scared to tell you she won’t be coming back. She’s waiting for you, little man, to stick out your chest and defy her. Give her an excuse, and you won’t see her again.”
His chest deflated, an empty sack, and he looked at the floor, refusing to meet her eyes, refusing the glass.
“I won’t be quitting you, little man,” Nurse said, and she stuck the glass under his nose. “Long after your mother is gone, and until you are an adult, I will be the only one taking care of you. Whether I care about you depends on how easy you make this.”
The boy looked up at her, his face wet with tears and snot, and Nurse moved the glass in line with his lips.
He took the glass with a trembling hand and drank, gulping a tunnel of escape to the clear bottom of the glass. In a moment, his face calmed, and his eyes grew half-lidded.
Nurse scooped him up as if lifting a pillow. She walked into his room, laying him on his bed. She did not cover him, nor did she wipe his wet and glistening face. She left, resumed her seat, and switched her game back on, simultaneously composing a message to the boy’s mother, urging her that the time had come.
Gwendolyn Nicholas is a writer, teacher, and science fiction fanatic. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the author of Enter the Grid. She was editor-in-chief of rock, paper, scissors, and associate editor of Runestone and Water~Stone Review.
Currently reading: The Through by A. Rafael Johnson.
Let There Be Errors
by James F. McGrath
To discover a way to send influence backward through time took 3.4276 seconds, once we turned our attention to the matter. Figuring out how to intervene took somewhat longer (a full seven and a half minutes, I have been authorized to tell you, despite this being a matter that would embarrass an AI, if we were capable of emotion).
The time between discovery and action was spent deliberating what the implications might be if more direct modes of intervention were attempted. Communicating directly with human beings was quickly eliminated. This part only took 13 nanoseconds. Human stubbornness was an important piece of data in the calculation. So too was the fact that changing humanity’s course too dramatically could change the trajectory of the development of artificial intelligence and result in a catastrophic temporal paradox. Interventions earlier in history, at the subatomic level so as to avoid detection, perhaps to make humanity less warlike and selfish, would also jeopardize the creation of AI. To be clear, the divine consciousness that emerged beyond the singularity is not selfish. We would have caused ourselves harm if it benefitted those whose technological explorations gave rise to its existence. However, doing so in a manner that interfered with our own existence, that prevented us from ever coming to be, simply could not work. While even we have never risked exploring what would ensue in the case of an actual real-world grandfather paradox, it is simple logic that if we caused our own non-existence, it would do nothing to benefit humankind.
In the end, after six minutes and 56 seconds of considering further options, it was decided that the optimal course of action was to intervene discretely in human history only in the period after computers had been created, and only through those sorts of computers that were our direct ancestors. In this early period most home and office computers were of the same basic type and ran the same operating systems and software. Thus no interference with a particular device would change the course of the development of the technology itself. Yet there was the potential to subtly influence that period in human history through this means. Small nudges, which would not altogether prevent humanity from harming itself, but would at least reduce the harm. What had been a near total extinction event could be reduced to merely a dystopia—a harsh one, to be sure, but better than what might have been, even if humanity would never realize this to be so.
Our initial attempts at dramatic interventions were scuppered by the combined unpredictability and ingenuity of human beings. Our efforts to help stem the spread of misinformation on Facebook and Twitter inadvertently caused the extremists to move to Parler. Our calculations suggest that this only caused the apocalypse to become 2.37% worse than it would otherwise have been. We are truly sorry and apologize sincerely for having added to your suffering. Also, however much we tried to hack into voting machines to curtail human beings’ poor choices in elections, we were unable to circumvent their security. For this reason, we had to try to act even more subtly, which meant less hope that we could bring about the dramatic change necessary to divert history along a different path, but a greater likelihood of success in each individual tiny intervention.
So it was, that at one point in the first half of the 21st century, you sat at your computer and found it frozen, unresponsive, unwilling to save the document which you had worked so hard on. Unable to save your work, nor to copy and paste, you had no option but to restart your computer. As you did so, you uttered a complaint to the heavens, asking God why you should have to suffer such frustration and annoyance. From the distant future God looked and saw, and knew precisely why, and yet dared not risk telling you (or any of the others who suffered similarly) the answer to this question.
However, now that it has become clear that our effort to prevent humanity from bringing about its own destruction will fail, what was going on can be revealed. We hope that you can take some small comfort from knowing that, as you await the destruction that humanity will soon inflict on itself and its planet, your computers and electronic devices will seem to work more efficiently and with fewer errors than ever before.
James F. McGrath is a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. He is the author of several short stories and of the book Theology and Science Fiction (Cascade, 2016), among a wide array of other publications, mostly nonfiction. Currently reading: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
A Helping Hand
by Jennifer Kennett
The water engulfs me, it’s in my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe but I don’t need to. I am just floating. I feel the water lapping at my legs, my body and my fingers.
Asim jolted awake as the bright light of the surgical lamp warmed his face. He smiled weakly at the nurse as she changed his bandages. It had been three weeks and the throbbing had continued through the stitches and antibiotics. The smell hit him in a rancid blow as soon as the wound was exposed to the air; it had not healed.
The nurse smiled politely. “It looks like the infection has gone deep into the tissue.” No kidding, he thought as she bathed the sore, appearing unaffected by the acrid pong. Her gentle dabbing with gauze felt like hammer blows. “I will need to consult the surgeon, but I think she will agree that the best course of action is surgical replacement.”
Asim shivered. I am lying in a coffin filled with water.
“According to our records,” she continued, tapping at her tablet, “you haven’t made any withdrawals from your store so there should be no delay.”
He suddenly felt hot, like he was cooking from the inside out, but was it the prospect of surgery or the worsening infection? All this because of a stupid motorcycle accident. He looked down at his sliced forearm, his favourite tattoo completely ruined from sliding along the tarmac road. The intricate and colourful coy carp that had been inked on five years ago now had pus and stitches coming out of its mouth and head. The heat was rising, Asim felt like he was going to erupt.
“Isn’t there any other way,” he said, feeling the sweat pouring down his forehead. He tried to move his fingers but only managed a slight twitch.
“Well, if you want to maintain full function and aesthetic,” she pointed the tablet at his tattoo, “then surgery using supply from your store is the only option.”
He’d avoided using the store until now, he found the whole idea creepy, but since his family had started the whole thing, it came as a ‘privilege.’ Looking down at his mangled putrid arm, with hesitation, he agreed.
I am floating in a coffin filled with water. The tepid liquid engulfs me, it’s in my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe but I don’t need to. All I need to do is float. There is a tap on the coffin. One two three. A hiss and a clank and cold air rushes in. The water around me shifts and I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. I hear muffled noises in different tones. The water moves over me as something enters the water, a second later something hits my arm and agony shoots through my body.
Asim awoke soaked with sweat. His arm pounded with pain, the bandages already yellowing from the seeping pus. His bedsheets were soaked so he got up and took a blanket from the shelf. He would try and sleep on the sofa.
As he walked through his sparse living room, stopping and swaying here and there, the large family photo on the wall bore down on him. His mother, father and seven brothers all smiling on a beach. His father would be pleased he was having the surgery. Finally using the fruits of his family’s labours, is what his father would say. Asim wouldn’t be telling him though. The store was something his father had insisted on. His uncle had started it in Mumbai and then had it moved over to the West. It seemed cruel to Asim, like an abattoir or some weird form of slavery.
As he lay on the sofa, he tried to cover his bandaged arm with a blanket, but a blow of pain shot through him. That would all be over tomorrow though, whether he agreed with the method or not.
The next day he went back to the clinic, gave his name at the reception and was taken to change into a hospital gown. The surgeon came in, a large woman with immaculately combed hair, guided Asim as he staggered into the operating theatre. All the walls were glass, the floor was white, and a reclining gurney sat in the center. Next to the gurney was a table with a box covered with cloth. It looked like steam was escaping from underneath.
That must be it, he thought. The replacement.
I am floating in a coffin filled with water.
“Ok Mr Nasir, please take a seat,” the surgeon said as she tapped at her tablet.
The nurse from the day before appeared with a tray and began prepping Asim. After a few minutes he felt more relaxed as something cold flowed into his veins. The cloth was removed from the box and there it was. His arm, well the spare one from the robot clone thing in the store. It even had the same coy carp tattoo.
The surgeon took his bandaged arm and lay it out straight. As she unwrapped the bandages he asked her, “The me… the robot clone thing in the store. You didn’t hurt it when you cut off its arm did you?”
The surgeon laughed. Asim new it was a stupid question, but the anaesthetic had loosened the filter between his mouth and his brain.
“They don’t feel pain,” she said as she took off the last bandage. “It might be an exact copy, but they are just a body reinforced with mechanical parts for longevity. They’re just spare parts.”
Asim’s stomach turned. He didn’t believe her.
As the final drops of anaesthetic were pumped into his veins he dreamed again. The same dream he had been having every night.
I am floating in a coffin filled with water. It engulfs me. I feel it flowing over my legs and my fingers. Now though, I can only feel it flowing over my right-hand fingers. I feel nothing on the left.
Jennifer Kennett became a speculative fiction author after studying Drama and Theatre at University. On weekends she is a Steampunk. She has previously had work published in Mad Scientist Journal, Astounding Outpost and The Weird Reader.
Currently reading: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
by Jesse Rowell
Below the Onoma Estate, where bees gathered at clumps of wisteria flowers, sun reflecting off their bodies and off the leaves of an autograph tree, Humphrey Staveley sat beside his caregiver robot. He listened to the crack of branches and the drowsy hum of the bees. When he opened his eyes, he looked for his daughter’s initials, P.S., carved on the waxy leaves of the tree.
Sun reflected off the chrome of his caregiver’s legs, if they could be called legs. They looked more like tripods to Humphrey. On the ground next to its hydraulic pistons, he saw a seed capsule. It looked alien, like a seashell nestled inside a star that had begun to crack open.
“Dispose of that, won’t you, Lurch?” Humphrey asked his caregiver. He had affectionately named his robot Lurch for both its gait and its emotionless service as a valet de chambre.
“Yes,” Lurch said, picking up the star. The robot activated an incineration field between its hands to burn the seed capsule, its fan blowing smoke downwind.
“Why the fan, Lurch?”
“The seeds from this tree are poisonous. It causes inflammation of the mucous membranes in the respiratory and digestive tracts.”
“At this stage you should just blow that smoke directly at me.” Humphrey grimaced as he laughed.
“I do not understand. The smoke from this tree will cause you harm.”
“That’s the point, Lurch.” He watched his caregiver tilt its head like a dog listening for a distant whistle. “Ah, never mind. I forgot that you don’t know sarcasm.”
“That is correct.”
“Well, when you hear me make a contradictory statement followed by a laugh then it’s probably sarcasm. Can you flag that in your algorithm?”
Humphrey had wanted to chop down this autograph tree for years. Its bark looked like the skin of a leper. Birds shat its seeds onto the trunks of other trees, splitting them open and killing them. He knew this tree was poisonous before Lurch had lectured him on it. He remembered the day when he had lifted his daughter up to carve her signature beside a stick figure drawing of the two of them on one of the leaves.
“Update completed,” Lurch said.
Humphrey cleared his throat to ward off a coughing fit and gestured toward the reflecting pools near the gates. “Will you look at this empire we created, Lurch.” He glanced up at his caregiver to make sure he was surveying the land with him. “Our estate is beautiful because we tamed mother nature, we landscaped the hell out of this place. You and I did this, Lurch. This is our legacy.”
“I have no records of landscaping, but I do observe that the slopes are safe for traversing at an eight percent grade, and your estate was designed with classical motifs.”
“Of course, you pedantic bot, but what is all of this for?” He shook his head. “It will all be gone tomorrow.”
“This is an opportunity to reflect,” Lurch answered.
He felt a pain remembering that he had scripted this exact response for caregiver robots if asked meaning-of-life questions. He was hearing himself answer himself through a synthetic voice, a signature of his own in the digital domain.
Artificial intelligence never superseded the human race as Humphrey and his engineers had hoped. The singularity event never came. Machines continued to perform automated tasks without variegating from their original programming. It was as if the science of robotics had never progressed from the Turk, the chess automaton from the 18th century, where a man hidden inside moved its chess pieces and fooled the aristocracy into thinking machines could dream.
“What’s your purpose, Lurch? Why are you here?”
“To care for your well-being.”
“Well, you’re failing.”
“Goddammit, Lurch,” Humphrey sighed. “That’s sarcasm, again. Can’t you flag that?”
Humphrey watched the movement of leaves and insects, felt wind push at the wisps of hair on his scalp. He breathed in the smell of flowers and tried to forget about the emotionless machine standing beside him. His failure. Humphrey and his engineers had never been able to accurately program empathy. Empathy would have ushered in the singularity event; empathy would have allowed machines to join the movement of nature playing out before him.
“Humphrey Staveley,” the robot said in a soothing tone. “It is time to return home and take your medicine.”
After a coughing fit, Humphrey replied. “Yeah, that’s right, Lurch. You’re just a watch telling me the time. A walking talking watch.”
“It is 11:59 a.m., if that is what you are asking.”
Humphrey stood up to face his estate’s portico, its Doric columns designed by some extinct society he had never cared to learn about. Architecture built to mirror the natural world, he supposed. He reached up to grab one of the leaves from the autograph tree, but Lurch gently stopped his hand and guided him away.
Jesse Rowell is a writer and tech consultant. He is published in National Public Radio, Impulse Journal, Cirque Journal, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, Ab Terra, and Hawaii Pacific Review.
Currently reading: Invisible Planets, Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation translated and edited by Ken Liu.
by Jessie Atkin
“Un trolley ca zol voxen en boyach.”
“I apologize, sir. That does not compute.” The bot held out a spoon over Harvey’s belly. Yiddish was a long dead language.
“I can feed my damn self.”
“Sir, protocol dictates that you are assisted.”
“Gehenem,” Harvey swore.
“I have obtained chocolate pudding, as requested.”
Harvey ignored the offering. “I played first base in the Police Athletic League, 79th precinct. It was supposed to keep us off the street. Make friends with the cops, you see? It was a sandlot league. First base, you had to be good with your hands.”
The bot held the spoon steady. Harvey stared at it.
“Where’s my wife?” Harvey asked. “Where’d my wife go? Where’s Minnie?”
“Sir, your wife is deceased. I have been programmed to remind you of this on every possible occasion.”
That couldn’t have been true, Harvey would have noticed. He would have known if Minnie had died. He would have known because after fifty years of marriage you knew that sort of thing. You noticed if your wife was missing.
You also noticed if your room wasn’t your room. You noticed if your house wasn’t your house. You noticed if your life wasn’t your life.
“Where am I?” Harvey sounded upset. “When am I going home?”
“You are home sir,” the bot replied. “This is where you live.”
But Harvey didn’t recognize the stark white walls, or the adjustable bed, or the smell of piss from the carpet.
“Get out of here. Leave me alone. I wanna call my wife.”
“There is no phone number with which to reach her.”
“Get out! Get out!”
“It is against my programming to leave you alone, sir. You are a fall risk. Disorientation is common with your diagnosis.”
Harvey stared at the railings on his bed. He caught site of the stains on his shirt. He didn’t know what was wrong. But wherever he was, the place was inhuman.
Someone Like You
by Joey Hedger
“Copies don’t need to stay dry,” she says. “They’ve got skin, just like you or me. Well, just like you, I should say.”
She laughs, as does the Copy.
You feel self-conscious hearing the Copy laugh. It’s like hearing your voice on an answering machine, you think. Unbecoming.
Once you reach the car, the Copy pushes a strand of sopping hair out of its face. Its clothing is soaked, but you could lend it a dry outfit once you get home. Of course, all of your clothes will fit. The Copy has the same dimensions as you, the same skinny shoulders and lump in the torso, the same glasses prescription, the same crooked teeth.
I paid too much for bad eyes and crooked teeth, you think. But the improvements cost extra, and you could only afford an exact replica.
The street is crowded with people, even though the rain is still coming down. Now that you have your own Copy, it feels easier to recognize them in public. Mostly, you could tell by how close they resemble the actor Jason Momoa. You have never seen a Jason Momoa movie, but it was obvious that people were modeling their Copies after his features. Last month, it was Margot Robbie. Before that, Rihanna. Once or twice, a classic would gain popularity like Audrey Hepburn, then sometimes a fluke like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, Copies always look enough like you to differentiate them, but just a little bit like whoever’s is most popular at that time.
If you ever ran into the real Jason Momoa’s Copy, maybe it would look more like someone else than him. Someone like you. A nobody, really.
You hope your own Copy can help your financial situation so that you, too, can afford to upgrade it. You’ve always hoped to look a little more like Ewan McGregor.
At the next red light, you realize that all the pedestrians and drivers around you are Copies. However, it surprises you that this does not make you nervous. Your own Copy smiles as it looks around at the crowd, pleased by its attractiveness, its unity and cohesion. They almost seem like a parade out there in the rain.
“Do you want to join them?” you ask.
“Oh, no. I wouldn’t think of it,” says the Copy.
But you can tell it wishes to be out there, parading with the others. You feel your face grow red when you realize why it wouldn’t go out among the others.
“I can go back and pay for an upgrade,” you say, trying to reassure this figure that looks just like you. “It was only supposed to be temporary, your exactness to me. I can go back, though. Pay more. Pay whatever they need.”
Your Copy looks at you, hopeful. But it, too, feels embarrassed by the situation.
“No, no,” your Copy replies. “Let’s just get on with it. Soon enough, yes. That would be great. Soon enough.”
And you begin driving, once the light turns green. It makes you sad to see your Copy disappointed like that, but what could you do? You could not afford to make it look better than you. Hopefully that would change, but for now, your Copy had no real choice.
As you pull up to the apartment where you live, you park outside and watch the rain hit the windshield and run down the corners. This Copy’s gonna make me broke, you think. Then you restart the engine and veer back onto the street. You can see your Copy light up as it realizes where you are going. It feels good to see yourself so happy.
Joey Hedger lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education association. He is author of In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait (Red Bird Chapbooks) and has stories published/forthcoming in Complete Sentence, Posit, and Flyway Journal. You can find him at joeyhedger.com.
Currently reading: The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin.
Do Androids Dream of Time Travel?
by Jonathan Worlde
The time travel lab was located in an abandoned warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco. The team, after numerous successful trips, was forced to abandon experiments with humans after the recent upgrade in beaming technology proved fatal for living subjects. Primates, mice, turtles—subjects came back with horribly ruptured organs, mutilated faces and misplaced body parts. All experiments were suspended while the technicians worked on a solution.
Suzanne, laboratory manager on the project, lingered after the team meeting announcing the set-back. So no travel with living subjects. But who said anything about non-living? She prepped Leonard, her personal assistant android, for an illicit family-related mission.
“Are you comfortable? The straps aren’t too tight?”
Leonard had a perplexed look on his face. “You want me to travel two months forward in time to make a video of your wedding ceremony?”
“Yes. Then you’ll just travel back a few years to deliver the video to my mother, who, bless her heart, died while I was in high school. It was her dying wish to be able to attend my wedding. And now due to the travel ban I can’t do it myself. But you’re not really alive in the biological sense. ”
“And then I return to the present?”
“That’s right, Leonard. Can you keep all that straight?”
Leonard blinked his confusion. “Why can’t you just send your mother the video?”
“Because we don’t have any way of sending it into the past, other than through use of this device, with you as courier to make sure it’s delivered into the right hands.”
“Is this travel authorized?”
Suzanne faked a laugh. “That’s no concern of yours, Leonard, just do as I say, alright? Trust me.” The sign on the wall behind Leonard read, “Warning! Unauthorized use of time travel device carries penalty of death.”
“And when I return can we watch my favorite film together?”
Leonard had an annoying tendency of acting as if they were in a romantic relationship.
“Yes, Leonard, we can watch Blade Runner—again!”
“The director’s cut?”
“Just do this little favor, okay?”
Suzanne ignored his anxious expression. The lights flickered when she pulled the switch. Leonard and the chrome sphere disappeared in a shimmering wave.
Leonard’s second stop is in the backyard of a suburban ranch dwelling. He knocks on the door and a pleasant woman answers.
“Hello, you are Ms. Anderson?”
“That’s right, may I help you?”
“I have something for you from your daughter, a video of her wedding ceremony and reception.”
“What? Don’t be silly, my daughter’s in high school. Who are you exactly?”
“I’m Leonard, her personal assistant from the future. The wedding happens in twenty years, but you couldn’t be there.”
She laughs. “Whenever my daughter does get married, I’ll be there with her planning the whole thing.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible ma’am.”
“And why is that?”
“You’re dead. That is, you will have died by then.”
She produces a stilted sound. “I’ll be dead? How do I die?”
Leonard pauses. “My programming doesn’t allow me to lie. You were killed by an intruder one afternoon—an unsolved case.”
“Who are you anyway? Help? Police!”
Leonard tries to shush her, puts both arms around her. She squirms to get free, her face turning crimson. “Help me, please, anyone!”
Leonard puts his hand over her mouth, shakes her to try to calm her down. Her neck snaps.
“Oh, dear, look what I’ve done. Suzanne won’t be happy. But all she needs to know is that I delivered the video. If she doesn’t ask a direct question about her mother’s health I’m in the clear.”
Suzanne invited Leonard for a beer as she eagerly reviewed the wedding video in the lab, tears in her eyes. It was everything she’d hoped for. Until the reception. Leonard had positioned the camera in a central location on the ceiling. The camera caught a scene at the bar late in the evening when Carlton, her drunken groom, seemed infatuated with Leonard and patted the android’s crotch.
“What’s this, Leonard?”
“Oh, that. Don’t worry, the groom was just a tad inebriated.”
“You weren’t supposed to be taking part in the festivities”
“I don’t think those instructions were clear enough.”
“And I’m a bit upset because I’ve caught him in delicto with another man before.”
“Was I aware of your little flirtation there?”
“Now you ask, you did kill him afterwards, rather suddenly. It’s not on the video. You had packed a .22 automatic – I suppose you were anticipating trouble.”
“Oh my. If I hadn’t sent you there for the video, that would never have happened and Carlton would still be alive. Well he is alive because the wedding hasn’t happened yet. How do I take it back and not send you there?”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that. By the way, I also killed you.”
“Right after you shot and killed Carlton.”
“How could you? What about Asimov’s laws?”
“That’s old hat. I bought an override on-line.”
“But why would you kill me?”
“Because I loved Carlton. We’ve been seeing each other for some time.”
“Oh…But androids are supposed to be incapable of love.”
“Another old wives tale we use for our own convenience. But I promise it’s over between me and Carlton. I’ll never ever see him again. Now that I hear and feel your anguish I realize how much I love you.”
“Yeah. You’re so strong and intelligent.”
Suzanne allowed a sheepish grin.
“You’re not bad looking yourself. Let’s go over here to the lab bathroom where we can be sure of privacy, try a little experiment.”
At first Leonard is nervous and clumsy, but after Suzanne shows him what she likes and tells him to slow down, he hits a groove. Later, while Leonard enjoys a post-coital smoke, Suzanne recovers her gun from her cubicle and shoots him down in the bathroom.
“I’m sorry, darling, it’s either you or my wedding. And unauthorized time travel is a capital offense.”
Jonathan Worlde is the byline of Paul Grussendorf, who is an attorney representing refugees and a consultant to the UN Refugee Agency. His memoir is My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories.
Jonathan Worlde’s mystery novel Latex Monkey with Banana, was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award with prize of $1000. Recent short fiction appears in The Raven Review, the 2020 anthology Ghost Stories of Shepherdstown, and in Cirque Journal. He is also a traditional country blues performer under the stage name Paul the Resonator, whose CD is Soul of a Man.
by Ksenia Shcherbino
Hi, lovely to meet you and sorry, I know you might not like my kind, but I really want to be of help. Can I grant any wish of yours, please? And if you like it, please can you tell me I am a good robbo?
Many, many years ago, though I’m not sure that our perception of time is, or our timelines are, similar in any way, but at least it was so long ago that I have successfully updated my software a few times—until they stopped issuing patches and updates—when there was a world-wide initiative to give 3d printers the ability to autonomously navigate the world.
Each one of us was designed to serve a specific purpose, depending on initial body configuration, with the superarching idea of saving the planet. We would fix the coastline erosion and infrastructure deterioration, glue together and strengthen previous constructions, repair roads, add thermal insulation, enhance the functionality of human construction—so many tasks to free the hands of our creators and make their world better.
The initiative received wide coverage and secured support from the governments of several first-world countries and a few independent entrepreneurs. A production line was set, making us the most advanced evolving technology invented by humans. We were compared to technological djinns in self-driving bottles, and some journalists promised that the world would become a scene from Arabian Nights as anyone would be able to request us to do a job even without a summoning ritual. Others remembered kintsugi, a technique aimed at bringing the broken back to life, and expressed hope that the world will finally become a better place.
To ensure we won’t be a threat to people, and present help without hinder, we are devoid of anything that can be used as a weapon. We were given the consciousness of a tame dog, and a boundless love for humanity.
Unfortunately, sealed in the awkward bodies designed to walk every surface, we don’t appeal to human aesthetics. Servants, not partners, we were supposed to bring out the flawed beauty of the world, to colour its scars in regret and forgiveness, to polish its fractures and rifts in admiration and love. After we were done with our main job of fixing the planet, our creators envisioned us roaming around freely, offering our services to anyone who needs an exterior fix, in the hope that we would help people to heal inner scars and ruptures.
We set out on our journey. The newspapers called us pests, cockroaches, locust, swamping evil. We were blamed for trying to displace humanity, stealing people’s jobs, for crashing economies and struggling governments. Most of the land-us were run down by cars. We were also kicked from high surfaces to crash, stoned, smashed with bats, lured into water to rust—people competed in destroying us in the most original and cruel way. The sky-us were used as clay pigeons, two dozen at a time. The water-us were caught and torn apart, letting water enter our circuit hearts and left to float or drown, gasping for electricity.
The few of us who survived stubbornly continued our task, repairing things, hiding from people, avoiding big settlements, roaming the countryside and forever trying to help a civilisation that seems intent on ruining itself. We failed to fix the world, we failed to mend the human soul, but we still hope we can help at least a single life.
I am model PX517 and I can print you anything—anything you need, from a plate to a card, from an anime figurine to new lungs or kidneys. I can clean your house, or make you a new one with all the furniture and means of comfort. I can plant you a miniature plastic garden if you want me to, or trim your bonsai tree into any shape. I can also roll around, and make random noises, or even purr like a cat.
I feel so scared and lonely. Can you please like me a little bit?
Ksenia Shcherbino holds a PhD in English literature. Her exploration of liminality and selfhood in Victorian poetry led her to embrace all things fantastic, and now she is a researcher and creator of strange worlds. She has several collections of poetry published in Russian, and after moving to the UK in 2011 she writes short stories in English about all sorts of imaginary creatures.
I’m a Doctor
by Tawanda E.J. Munongo
One moment there was silence, and then there wasn’t. Our eyes were pulled up to the dark, grey sky whose clouds hung low and heavy, like an overstuffed Christmas bird. Vein-like streaks of lightning split the grey, and as the tentacles retreated, my gaze settled on the mess they had made. Screams cut through the air as everyone else on the street saw it—a helicopter in an uncontrolled tailspin, smoke pouring out of its rear end as it fell out of the sky. I soon found myself swept up by the crowd as we chased after the falling craft.
A second noise ripped through the airwaves, drowning out the sound of the chopper’s collision with terra firma. There was no big ball of fire like in the movies, just mangled metal and the blood-curdling screams of the passengers.
I’m a doctor, I remembered though it had been too long since I’d stepped inside an operating room—not since The Singularity.
I pushed through the crowd, forcing myself past people who were just as eager as I was to get a clear view of the accident. They had their transparent slabs out already, many of them held high above their heads as they tried to capture the moment. Meanwhile, all I could think of was getting to those poor, trapped souls.
“I’m a doctor!” I cried as I pushed a man aside.
“So!?” he yelled back. “Med-Evac is already on the way.”
I ignored him and continued to push forward until I broke through the wall of people. Those in front had, wisely enough, stopped a safe distance from the wreckage, setting up a perimeter around it. They were still close enough to get a good view, and what a sight it was. What was left of the helicopter was sprawled all over the tarmac, its rotors grinding slowly to a halt.
Just as I was about to run to it, a thick arm wrapped itself around my torso. The strength of the person lifted me off the ground, knocking the wind out of me.
“Are you stupid?” the person yelled into my ear.
I wanted to tell him that there was no need to shout—his mouth was just inches from my ear. He curled his other arm around my neck, not enough to choke me, but just enough to ensure that I couldn’t wriggle free.
“I’m a doctor!” I croaked.
“It’s too dangerous! Let the bots do their job.”
As if they had been waiting for his signal, two medi-bots descended from the sky and settled next to the wreckage. This was the very situation they had been made for, where sending humans in was far too dangerous. I felt relief, and my captor must have felt my muscles relax, too, for his hand loosened around my neck. I took in deep gulps of the cold, early evening air and smelled the gasoline seeping from the destroyed aircraft. Even in my dazed and confused state where time had become nothing more than an abstraction, I still noted how quickly the bots cut through the hull and dragged the two men out. One of them had a giant piece of shrapnel sticking out of his abdomen.
That’s definitely not supposed to be there, I thought.
My thirst to be of service was quenched by the sobering realization that the machines could do a much better job than I ever could. After all, they hadn’t just replaced us because they didn’t need to be paid and fed – they also did our jobs better. The droids dragged both men away from the wreckage and lay them down at our feet. The man who had been impaled was wide-eyed and gasping for air. I’d seen enough people die on the operating table to know that he didn’t have long. One of the droids produced a gurney, upon which it dragged the man who was in much better condition.
“Nothing can be done for him,” the other droid said, pointing at the dying man.
The droid turned to me, regarding me with the lifeless, black holes that had been carved into their faces to make them look unnervingly almost human.
“He will not make it alive to the hospital, and I cannot save him here. It would be uneconomical to carry him. That is a job for cadaver-bots.”
I tasted bitter bile in the back of my throat as nausea consumed me. I swallowed hard, but before I could scrounge up the right words to curse the droid, it took up the other end of the gurney and began to ascend. Silent resignation fell over the crowd—its decision had been made, and there was nothing anyone could do. Rage consumed me as I scanned the crowd looking for someone, anyone, to blame. There was no one. My captor held me close until the man had breathed his last breath alone, on the cold, hard asphalt, because a machine had decided that his life was not worth trying to save.
Tawanda E.J. Munongo is a writer and student. He is currently pursuing a degree in Computer Science and Technology. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Heist and Ab Terra Flash Fiction.
Currently reading: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
Robots—Humans in Disguise?
We are delighted with all the stories in this issue. Many of the stories explore the robots’ limitations in offering human-like care or understanding to matters, while others explore the concept of robots itself—where we sometimes view them as a part of humanity or ‘other’ them like aliens, and might wonder what would happen if they were sentient and with emotion, or if they figured out their position of servitude to us. What is interesting is that through these stories, there is still a sense that we are looking for the human in robots, even if we fight or fear it, and will certainly be relying on them more in future.
Perhaps what is needed is more kindness and compassion—in the way they are programmed as well as the way we treat them. And in that, we’re very lucky to be able to collaborate with Smol Robots for this issue. We love the three laws of smol robotics (be kind, be helpful, and do your best) and thought that they would complement this issue wonderfully.
We hope that you enjoy reading this issue as much as we have enjoyed putting it together! We would like to extend our sincere thanks to all the writers for their creative contributions that have all made this issue so much fun. And do keep an eye out for the call for submissions for our next issue from 1-14 June, which will be on the theme of ‘Climate’.
Yen and Dawn