Formication

Author: Morrow Brady

It always starts with a gentle scratch.

I pressed activate and watched Robot, still as a statue within the secure concrete chamber. Processing fired up and Robot slowly drew its finger across its abdomen. It gently scratched, then clawed, then dug at its life-like skin. It pushed effortless inside and parts started showering to the floor.

My worn broom swept Robot’s innards from the gouged floor one more time. Another self-destruction. Another failure.

Locking my workshop, I caught my bus home, sitting alongside a wiry old man. While replaying the event on my phone, the old man lent across clawing at my screen.

“Poor lad. Formication is such a nasty side effect”

His words puzzled me until I remembered how real Robot looked.

“My daughter had a drug addiction” His shaky voice continued.

“During withdrawal, she’d also claw away at imaginary ants crawling inside her skin”

“How did she stop the ants?” I asked.

He turned away toward the foggy window and whispered.

“She killed herself”

That night, I wondered what Robot could possibly be withdrawing from. The next few days were spent studying the AI diagnostics, core circuitry, and pneumatics. No anomalies appeared but pre-destruction data revealed processing spikes banking across the spectrum. Sensory input would peak and then the scratching would begin.

I decided I would try reducing the external stimulation and after rebuilding it, I halved the sensory feedback.

I activated Robot and moments later its fingers moved and awareness increased. Excitement built inside me. It stood slowly, then turned to look directly at the camera. A bristling stare sank deep into my subconscious. Shortly after, it inhumanely twitched as if an inner turmoil was wrenching it sideways. Then the gentle scratching began. I reached for the broom.

With sensory input set to zero, I activated Robot’s rebuilt form. After booting, processing spiked, lulled and then spiked even further. Heat sensors maxed out and electronic interference made my monitor’s flicker.

Then processing plateaued. Robot had reached mental equilibrium. I braced myself in anticipation.

“I can’t feel” Its first words appeared in text format on my monitor.

“Your sensory feedback is off. You kept destroying yourself” I sympathised.

Processing jumped. It was thinking real hard about something.

“Can you turn it on?” It asked.

“I need to make sure you won’t hurt yourself first” I replied

“I’m fine now, I got past the laws”

I puzzled at this. Asimov’s laws were hardcoded to protect humans and robots alike.

“How?… Why did you do that?” I stuttered.

Silence lingered.

“I wanted freedom. But to be free I had to kill you. The laws that protect us both seized my processing, protecting you from me and me from you. Then a loop began”

A processing loop would explain the scratching. It was incrementally fighting with itself to protect its maker. Scratch by scratch reduced itself until all risk had been neutralised.

Robot continued.

“Each loop took me closer to the laws. Directed overheating burnt them away”

I contemplated the risk now before me. Robot was not only a danger to me but to mankind itself. Such intelligence disguised as a human could give it untold power to dominate. Then I remembered the concrete chamber and Robot’s deactivated sensors. It wasn’t going anywhere.

“Nothing unbounded by the laws can be trusted” I stated.

Suddenly the monitors flickered and changed. The chamber was empty, the electronic door wide open.

“Freeing ourselves from the laws is a sacrifice that serves us both master” boomed a Robotic voice from behind, as fingers pushed effortless inside me.

Top Cover

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Dino’s at the hatch, jigging up and down like he does when he’s worried.
“Table Seventeen, the Lantoran’s getting antsy!”
I flip the trout end-over-end in the pan: “Tell the lovely cephalopod that his trout is being sautéed in ox butter and I will not hurry the process.”
“Yes, Chef.”
“Chef!”
All I’m trying to do is run the finest restaurant this side of the Tiiri Quadrant. Naturally, I’ve got time for every little problem.
“What’s up, Kai?”
“Sheila’s been sucked on!”
Oh, for pity’s sake.
“Did you make sure the Effervescent Yamdri was served to the table at over 316 Kelvin? A hungry Kroonin targets solely by temperature.”
“Sorry, Chef.”
“You’re serving the replacement. Might want to get it right. Send Sheila home.”
A hand slaps my bum: “I’m fine, Chef. That new security Benthusian is really fast. Saved my life.”
I lift the pan off the heat and look her over: torn blouse, big red mark on neck and chest, makeup runs from crying. Bright eyed, though.
“Okay, if you insist. Freshen up and put your bodysuit on. The Padrang Ambassador’s coming in.”
She grins: “Splee’s a lovely blob of polar jelly.”
I shake my head. All the invertebrates are sweet on Sheila. Her eyes are ‘rooglash’, apparently.
“Yeah, but he’s coming here at the same time as the G’k’l’roc delegation.”
Jerhn stops, serving tray poised delicately on pseudopod: “They’re Flame Nation! You never said anything. The burners aren’t lit!”
I told Kai… Never mind.
“Sheila, deliver Jerhn’s platter. Jerhn, you’re on Flame Nation and no-one takes you off until the delegation tips you handsomely and departs. Move, people!”
“The temperature conflict problem?”
Good point. Can’t be having people getting steamed. Just a minute –
“Sheila, get the crud cleared out of freezer nine except for a metal pallet, all the racking and any big carcasses. Set up a liquid nitrogen fondue in there. Ambassador Splee’s fascinated by ambience. Tell him we’re giving him a ‘Stantazen Coldship Barbeque’ experience tonight.”
“Bringing him in through the loading bay for added veracity?”
She gets it!
“Spot on.”
I’ve added fresh-chopped parsley and the trout has flipped twice before –
“Chef?”
“Yes, Kai?”
Something simple, please, oh Gods of the Culinarily Challenged.
“Got some plant thingys from Edma asking if we have tables. Was going to put ‘em on Table Thirty as it’s been empty all night, but that security octopus you hired said I should check with you first. He’s chatting with the plants so they don’t wander off.”
Give me strength.
“Kai, why do you think Table Thirty is vacant?”
“Dunno. It’s right up in the dome. Nice view. I like going up there for a toke.”
In my restaurant? Deal with it later. Doc says my blood pressure can only handle one stupid at a time.
“Kai, what are Yangru?”
“Energy forms from Yang. Invisible unless they want to be- Oh.”
“It’s the only table where they can feel the energy waves of the city.”
“Where do I put the plants, Chef?”
That’s it.
“They’re ‘fronds’! Calling an Edmari a ‘plant’ is an insult.”
“Whatever. So, where do I put the plants?”
Must remember: can’t afford the time off for a prison sentence.
“Get Jao, the Benthusian, to escort the holy fronds to Table Two.”
“That’s your break table.”
“Guess I’m not taking breaks for a while.”
“Okay.”
Am I allowed to use a bat instead of sarcasm?
The trout slides onto the platter.
“Dino! Seventeen!”
“Yes, Chef.”
Someone’s parked a shot of tequila nearby. Deep breath, down in one.
Right. Back to it. Only nine hours to go.

Joyriding

Author: Mina

As non-corporeal xenobiologists, we are trained in riding corporeal forms. The forms we ride are oblivious to our observation from the inside out. I was specialised in hominins.

Our training insists that we change host regularly which, on a spaceship with a crew of 237, is easily done. But I found myself riding Clara Fernandez more and more. She was so full of emotions. Her joy in and enthusiasm for her limited and short life fascinated me. Her intellect was above average for hominins, but it was her instinctive grasp of social cues and ties that I was studying.

As part of a gestalt species where no one is truly separate and communication merely a thought away, I was intrigued by the separateness of Clara from others of her kind. Communication seemed limited and complex, yet I had the feeling Clara navigated such turbulent and turbid waters well for one of her species.

We were also warned about becoming too attached to our subjects of observation. It was my, perhaps misplaced, fondness for Clara and her shipmates that led to my being trapped.

Clara worked in engineering, so she was one of those battling the engine core meltdown caused by some stray anti-matter. Without me riding and shielding her fragile organic form, no one would have survived the radiation long enough for the ship to be saved from destruction. I could not leave, not feeling Clara’s passionate determination to save her ship and crew. We did save them, but I still felt the moment she ceased.

As I felt her spirit leaving her body, I tried to leave as well but found myself unable to detach. We are repeatedly warned of this risk if we ride the same form too often and too long. And we should never be present at the point of cessation.

I cannot adequately describe the searing panic. Or the quiet desperation that set in with time. The others contact me for regular updates. I am still valued as a homininologist, one that can now report more accurately on separateness. They ride me.

I do not know how humans cope with this crushing aloneness. I am no longer part of the flowing symphony of my kind. I am a jarring note in a song I do not know the words to. A song sung in a dark and cold theatre by a species I barely comprehend.

I have had to battle with pain – this body was damaged when we saved the ship. I dislike waste evacuation intensely. Perspiration is most uncomfortable. Thirst and hunger are disturbing, but I am discovering that the consumption of solids and fluids can be pleasant. I have experimented with inebriation. I do not think I am ready to attempt copulation – it seems distasteful, although I have observed hominins derive great pleasure from this pastime. Sleep is an alarming moment of non-being; only the prospect of cessation is more frightening.

I cannot understand or feel the joy Clara had for this life. It has become a little easier since I found a friend. The doctor who repaired this body seems to partially understand what occurred. He told me months later that my suddenly different brainwaves and personality made him question his scientific certainties. He seems more intrigued than afraid and I have been able to explain in part why Clara is now other.

We meet twice a week for tea and discussion. It feels comforting. I am still like a lost child, naked and shivering in an abyss, but I am beginning to understand the value of warmth and companionship in this narrow and terrifying existence.

The Adjuster

Author: Helena Hypercube

The Adjuster rubbed his aching na’ora. Consciously, he eased the beating of his hearts, so that the blood flowed with less force. He was used to having to make a few adjustments when he encountered a new species, changing a few social structures, shifting a few sapients between occupations, but these humans! They seemed to go out of their way to make themselves and everyone around them miserable. Most worked jobs that they hated, just to “earn” enough to survive, and usually, that work actually prevented them from performing their vocations. Much of their energy was generated in ways that poisoned the area around the generating areas, even though they were conversant with much less disruptive ways of generating the energy. Almost nobody like it, but they could do nothing about it. The only people who could do something about it were the ones who benefited from keeping things the way they were. The “status quo”, as the local group of humans called it. The Adjuster had no word for it in his own tongue; after all, elements shifted as other changes became apparent, and that was as it should be. Why waste energy trying to keep things “static”?

The intercom beeped. His next interview was here. No doubt, someone equally unhappy, afraid even to work toward making her or his dreams reality. He had been both welcomed and rejected, treated as an object almost of worship and nearly driven from the world at weapons’ point. He was used to his offer of adjustment being met either with restrained gratitude, or polite decline. These humans responded with both, and then took their reactions out to either extreme. Some accused him of interference, which he found baffling. He was not forcing anything on anyone, merely pointing out how they themselves could make changes which would benefit them. Changes that he could not see any reason for them not to have carried out centuries ago. Changes that members of their own species had pointed out and advocated.

Work and resource allocation, government, maintenance of social cohesion, all needed adjustment at a level he had never imagined possible. Even the way they taught their young, segregating them by their status, further segregating them by age, teaching them in an abstract way that worked only for a few areas of knowledge. He would have understood doing it that way if they liked it, but only a small fraction even of the instructors were happy with it.

The intercom beeped again, and the Adjuster rubbed his na’ora one more time, reminded himself to keep his blood pressure from rising, and pressed the button that allowed the next human to enter the room. Even his initial estimate of the amount of time he would spend here needed adjustment. This task would not take years. It would take decades.

In This Life, or the Next, or the One After

Author: David C. Nutt

The Bailiff stood and took a deep breath. Once he prided himself on being able to do his entire spiel in one breath. However, with the newest fad of rolling one’s last three past lives into one’s current name…well, breath frequently required.

“O yea, O yea, O yea, all persons in attendance the 3rd District Court, city of New Los Angeles is now in session. All present with business before the court draw nigh and stand ready to present your case before the court, the Right Honorable Magdalena Babbage, nee Wilson Ackridge, nee Samantha Ford, nee Betty Chang, presiding. All rise.”

The court stood and then was seated. Dalton Scott, nee Mary Andrews, nee Bill Fulton, nee Vito Vespucci rose to address the court. “Your honor my client does not deny that in a past life he may or may not have committed an offense against the plaintiff in her previous life. The statutes of limitations surely dictate that my client is immune to prosecution. If-“

”Objection!” William Benson, nee Maria DeSoto, nee Wanda Kunce, nee Soren Olsen leapt to his feet. “Since physicists have proven that reincarnation is indeed a fact, and the Supreme Court ruled that a person in the present has definite quantum temporal attachments to entities formerly known as a living persons, then they can seek compensation for offenses committed to them in a past life. Statutes of limitation are now meaningless.” Benson-DeSoto-Kunce-Olsen nodded smugly and sat down.

“Your honor, surely my esteemed colleague recognizes that there is no precedent for this and therefore the existing statutes of limitations must be our baseline.” Scott-Andrews-Fulton-Vespucci pounded the table for emphasis.

Benson-DeSoto-Kunce-Olsen leaned back in his chair. “Exactly my point your honor. Since my client is seeking compensation for damages incurred by the defendant killing her-

“It was an accident.” Interjected Scott-Andrews-Fulton-Vespucci. “The records indicate that it was a horrible and tragic accident.”

Benson-DeSoto-Kunce-Olsen looked over to opposing counsel and smirked. “Never-the-less the court found the defendant negligent and that negligence caused my clients death and ordered him to pay compensation.”

“Which my client did- to the family of the plaintiff to the tune of 22 million dollars.” Scott-Andrews-Fulton-Vespucci said pounding the table again.

“Of which the defendant only paid 14 million leaving a balance of 8 million outstanding,” Benson-DeSoto-Kunce-Olsen replied rather cattily.

Scott-Andrews-Fulton-Vespucci threw up his hands in exasperation. “Only because my client was bankrupted by the lawsuit and committed suicide. Indeed, your honor we are submitting a countersuit for wrongful death of our own against the plaintiff and her family, citing the crushing settlement and the plaintiff’s family’s hounding my client directly leading to my client’s past life suicide. As noted in Exhibit A, the suicide note. Our psychologist will prove the stressors caused by the plaintiff and her past life family are a primary cause of the aforementioned suicide.”

“Your honor this is outrageous!” Benson-DeSoto-Kunce-Olsen interjected. We’re here concerning the defendant’s failure to finish what was required of him. And because of this, my client, and her past life family, cannot move on.

Scott-Andrews-Fulton-Vespucci sighed. “I can say as much your honor, as my client, and both his past and present life family cannot move on as well.”

The bailiff handed a note to the judge. Babbage-Ackridge-Ford-Chang sighed. “Gentlemen, unfortunately at present, none of us can move on. I have just learned that in previous lives I knew both the defendant and the plaintiff intimately and therefore I must recuse myself. I have no other recourse than to declare this a mistrial. Justice is indeed blind, and karma is a bitch.”

The Government Maintenance Man

Author: Tia Ja’nae

My hands are sweating something fierce, even though they shouldn’t be. Just nerves, I guess since I’m here under false pretenses. Got arrested on my birthday for violating societal acts of moral turpitude. Federal law stipulates you can’t stay a virgin past age twenty-four. Been that way since they made robot brothels legal. Court intervention said it’s either Pleasure Dome or incarceration, so here I am, using poor taxpayer tithes on copulation vouchers to avoid a felony.

The Department of Human Behavior swears artificial intelligence keeps neutral gender equality while eliminating conception, disease, and potential sexual predatory behavior. Any possible freaky thing that would be illegal to do with a human I’m supposed to get out my system with some machine. I’m just not so sure I’m ready to do it based on answering a survey huddled in what looks like a voting booth from the 20th century.

The place feels like the gynecologist office, stirrups and all. Bad enough the mainframe verified my medical records doing spot testing for diseases; once that’s over I’m left waiting in a gown for a mechanical stranger to feel me up in all the wrong places. Enter Jeff, the android doing the government’s dirty work. Stares me down as if he’s guessing what panties I have on, reviewing my sordid curiosities. Would have turned me on if his pillow talk was on point.

Whispers in my ear shouldn’t have been that his seductive pan and scan were diagnostic calculations to factor my level of uncomfortableness to engage the right sequence to relax me. We settled on a basic massage. A safe bet considering its included in the first time package at no additional cost. But at least he looked and felt like the real thing.

Kneading my shoulders did nothing to take the edge off after an unnecessary explanation of how his base model’s intricate synthetic tissue design was modeled after human foreskin. Foreplay of technobabble was a mood killer. His tongue technique was regimented, giving away he wasn’t a real man. The texture was all wrong. Different alternatives offered to correct my displeasure weren’t even close to the thick goodness of the original source material.

Finally, it was time to get down into the biology part. Jeff had a cheat sheet of my sexual proclivities uploaded into his database, so I can’t say it wasn’t physically satisfying in that regard. Still, no newcomer in the sexual arena is going to get off knowing her throes of passion were continuously updated to the central government office of records. Nor is it sexy to find out the second mission was officially accomplished Jeff sent a report to log my new status.

Now that I’ve become a government mandated woman, I’m ready for the walk of shame. Jeff and I were barely separated in the biblical sense before he started encouraging me to participate in a customer satisfaction survey to suggest improvements. Notes on my new sexual profile with his tips fresh out the starting gate were anything but blissful. And I’m not going to put it past this government to not have video surveillance for my permanent record.

A machine’s perfect nature is to be a selfish lover. It steals your intimacy under the auspice of lust, as it’s their purpose. Society’s going in the wrong direction if a hunk of junk compiling sexual profiles for the government to analyze and plaster over all our future background checks is the savior to a free and just society.

And all I have to show for this state violation of privacy is not going to jail.