Poor Humans!

Author: David Barber

The humans are back!

This time there were no deaths. We surrendered the moment their spacecraft landed. A carefully orchestrated show of humiliation and ritual throat baring.

Now they stride amongst us, arrogant but wary. How are we to be trusted after last time? Everyone in their path flings themself to the ground and writhes in obeyance. Some complain about over-acting, but our conquerors seem oblivious.

Amongst other things, they want us to deliver those responsible for the treacherous attack on their ambassadors. Of course we have no leaders, but some bystanders are sent in chains.

In chains! We can barely contain ourselves! Luckily, humans cannot read our expressions.

The accused will receive a fair trial, they promise. After all, they are not barbarians. Hard to stop exclaiming at everything they say and do.

In addition they demand we disarm, so we ransack museums for weaponry which they hurry into safe keeping. They will be disappointed if they try it out.

I have been chosen to defend our people, and I enter a plea of guilty as charged.

“No, no,” says a human, hurrying up during a break. “You’re their defence lawyer, you can’t keep calling them murderers.”

For the trial, the humans have taken over a building used in an earlier age for communal suicide. The rooms are fashioned in an antique style, vastly tall for us, though they still stoop through doorways.

The human wants to know what experience I have with the Law.

“Oh, none. We don’t have lawyers. I’m a farmer.”

I proudly explain about jestlefruit. “They make a beverage.”

“But… You know what the death penalty is?”

“I assume it means death.”

“You don’t seem concerned! You complimented the prosecutor’s opening speech. You haven’t called any witnesses. You put in a plea of extremely guilty.”

The human removes prosthetics from in front of its eyes, lenses similar to the occulars some of us use. We are alike in so many ways and yet different in the only one that matters. They loom over us, but that is not their fault.

“Look, they won’t let me defend your people, it would look like a show trial, but I can offer advice. You could argue it was an accident. The prosecution would have to prove intent. Perhaps our ambassadors broke some taboo…”

“No, no, we meant to kill them.” A ceremony from ancient times to honour visiting kings. You freed their souls and assumed the guilt of their death.

Humans have heads on stalks. Disconcertingly, this one rotates its head from side to side.

Things are going well! The defendants have been sentenced to death, and our conquerors have even volunteered to execute them.

The one with the magnifiers is back. “Why won’t you appeal? Or ask for clemency?”

So tempting to explain, but we do not know how they would react. There are infinite permutations of the neural code, vast and unexplored landscapes, and we glory in the fact that consciousness is not one thing, even that theirs disperses at death.

Their ambassadors were slain before we realised humans have no souls.

They wonder why the cosmos is empty of space travellers, but those who survive death have different goals. Humans invented themselves instead.

How can we tell them that even they produce freaks sometimes, those born with souls, which the mass of them sense and cannot bear the knowledge. And bitterly nail that flesh to wood.

Poor humans!

Life After The End

Author: Ádám Gerencsér

Happy End.

Damn.

I had reluctantly become the Hero, went on a journey that changed me, prevailed over the oddest of odds, put a distressed damsel out of her misery, defeated the menacing genius and renounced the spoils of victory, save for a keepsake. I ended my story as a recluse in an exotic ashram and vowed never to use my new-found powers for evil, as I watched the sunset bathe airy pagodas in rays of orange light.

Credits rolled.

And now I’m stuck here. The writers shelved their manuscripts, the editors archived the footage, the producers closed the marketing deals. The film was an exercise in tongue-in-cheek metafiction, something about breaking down the fourth wall, and was met with limited success. Soon, everyone moved on to the next big thing.

As all other scripted locations were damaged, destroyed or repurposed, I count myself fortunate that my adventure’s final chapter brought me to this place. The monks are solemn, but friendly, the food is edible and the library is well stocked, though markedly skewed towards Eastern mystics. The grounds are spacious and clean, and the prayer flags strung between hillside stupas make for a strangely uplifting sight in the morning mist.

Nothing much to do here, except eat, sleep, read and think. I’ve grown a tidy pouch, munching on dumplings with yak butter tea in the afternoons, pouring over the popular science magazines the librarian was kind enough to order in for me. All I have to do to earn my keep is follow the daily rigour of meditation and chants.

I’ve been here for two years now. Even if a sequel had been pitched, I guess it wasn’t picked up by the studios. Over time, I realised there are others forsaken like me. Some have been stuck for a long time. Perhaps their franchises were discontinued. Or reimagined. I recognise them by their reluctance to talk. The monks say they have reached ‘nirvana’. Apparently we’ll all escape the samsaric cycle, sooner or later.

I had been conceived as a smart, witty character. Hard to impress. So naturally I thought that ‘awakening’ is going to be something banal. They say that, in the end, everything disappoints.

Inmates here come in three flavours. Those that believe to have attained some manner of enlightenment and live out their days in hazy, bemused bliss. Those that come up against some imaginary inner demon and are defeated by their own lack of persistence. They slowly fade. And those that discover within themselves some well of darkness, a void of infinite diameter, and end their lives by their own hand.

None of these paths enticed me, so I finally took recourse to my keepsake from the erstwhile lab of the evil genius. It was a tiny vial that he had carried on his person, something that should have ensured his continuity after his inevitable defeat. A potion to make him real, outside the plane of fiction. His cackling speech to this effect had given me the necessary time to foil his plans.

I wish I had thought this through before I broke the neck of the glass and downed the purplish liquid.

Passed out as a character, woke up as a person and yet I’m still here. I smell of sweat by midday, grow stubbles and have occasional indigestion, get winded from climbing the stairs when it’s my turn to spin the prayer wheel, and I develop headaches from the monastic moonshine. Worst of all, I think with a human mind. Gone is the peace of stand-by between scenes of purposeful activity. I’m aware of my mortal nature – and I fret.

My awakening brought the ultimate horror. The realisation that I issue from a work of fiction dreamt up by mortals.

I stare at my first wrinkle, a spiteful reminder that expiry is not inevitable, but merely an intermediate rung on the evolutionary ladder towards immortality. And through the vagaries of the cosmic lottery, I was conceived by an author in his own image: capable of reflection on his existence and given to anxiety about its eventual termination, but part of too early a generation to attain the objective of that innermost sentient instinct – the avoidance of death.

Damn.

And now I’m hungry again.

Wingman

Author: Kelly B. Johnson

The clear pot of water came to a boil. Wiping his hands clean on his apron, Monty waved a two-finger gesture over the stovetop’s controls, to lower the heat as he walked past it. He stopped short of the adjacent T-unit. “Hey!” with an ear given to the bedroom. “Are you going to help?”
“You go ahead!”
“I’m pretty much done,” he said under his breath. A touch blinked the fridge open. With a semi-lean into the release of cool air, he located behind a chilled bottle of champagne a glass bowl of ground meatless pork. Yong’s part in preparing tonight’s dinner. Retrieving the bowl, standing straight, and sighing at the champagne, a second touch closed the unit. “I thought we had a tradition, for when I deploy!”
“We do!” Yong’s voice dragged a tonal apology to the kitchen. “But I’ve something to show you!”
“Uh, huh,” he said, having turned to the island of the tight cooking space. The surface top was covered by a snowfall of flour. “Part of our custom is to cook and eat together before—”
“I know!”
“And I could have used help with the dough!” He set the meat down.
“I had preset the nutriator for that reason last night! It would have made the buns without the mess you’ll be cleaning up!”
“We’ll be cleaning up! Together!”
Yong’s laughter rolled on the airflow throughout their quarters. “Sorry, man! Since you insisted on making the buns from scratch, that clean up is on you!”
“Whatever.” Monty glanced at the onyx laminate around the island’s cedar base; the nutriator was a good idea. “Clean floor.”
The kitchen released a bot.
“Hey, Monty!”
“Yeah?” He spooned the meat into the first bun.
“Do you still fly with our picture? Of us at the beach!”
“Yeah, I do! It’s a great pic!”
“I think so! It’s rare! Having a printed picture, I mean!”
“Yeah.” He kneaded the second stuffed ball. “Why do you ask?”
“Because…”
As Monty placed the second bun in the steamer and reached for the third ball, he noticed Yong’s voice had lowered and looked up, and he froze in place.
“I’ll need a copy.”
Speechless, Monty studied Yong—her attire. Her complexion accented the midnight blue flight suit familiar to him. His made him a six-foot shadow.
“I volunteered, and trained while you deployed the past few months.”
Monty noted how Yong’s hips filled-out her uniform, despite the bulkiness of the flight armor vesting her torso, which bore his squadron’s insignia and her commissioned rank.
“I’m your new wingman,” she said. “Our new tradition. Flying and fighting. Together.”
“Well, Second Lieutenant Harris, guess this explains your fitness of late, especially in bed.”
“You noticed, huh?”
Yong’s impish smile smote Monty, and when she snapped a finger at him, he refocused on preparing their dinner. “Since we have a lot to talk about, care to help me finish making these?”
“I’d love to, Lieutenant Commander Harris.”

Rent, robot

Author: D J Lunan

From open-cast cobalt mines to litter-foraging on landfill, BudBot’s rental armada of vaguely-affordable ‘displacement robots’ were sanitising the human labour from the most awful, unsafe, and extreme jobs.

Sitting in her mother’s basement in suburban Madrid, Jaime was persistently angry that her coveted career in ‘poverty alleviation’ hid a sobering reality of stomaching hours of live-streamed dispute resolution with disgruntled and mischievous renters, all scratching a living in the world’s most unforgiving locations.

These robots broke down. A lot. Renters are forced to queue at Budbot’s ill-dispersed booths dotted across the world, and deal with Customer Services representatives like Jaime.

“Next”, she commanded the AI, and was instantly linked to East Nzerekore in the Guinean highlands.
A tall glowering prospector was impatiently pressing his robot’s handprint to the booth’s screen, mimicking the futile fluttered pressing of the elevator call button.

The prospector sighed, leaning on his robot to exaggerate his exhaustion and dissatisfaction.

“This damn ‘bot is not keeping its bloody charge, squire – maybe it is this kak sealant you use – you must swap him out for me – I have kids to feed”.

To Jaime, the prospector was childlike, dwarfed by the scuffed Orbit600 robot shrouded in the amber dust of cobalt tailings. She didn’t need the AI’s personality software to recognise this prospector was concealing something. Limited eye contact, teeth aggressively troubling a liquorice stick, and his sweating groin subconsciously thrust forwards. Whatever he had done, his body language wasn’t disguising it.

“Your i.d. next”, requested Jaime. Without eye contact, the prospector leant forwards like a footballer scoring an extraordinary ‘no-look’ goal, pressing his ragged thumb to the screen while engaging in banter off-screen.

The Customer Services AI fought to process these three primary actions: verify the prospector’s identity, analyse and report on the Orbit600’s operating system, and harmonise their rental agreement terms with BudBots.

Jaime’s screen glowed green, confirming that Pythagoras Obviamb III was the lessee of X0783.91. And he was paid up, which was a first for Jaime’s day.

Jaime read Pythagoras the diagnostic highlights: “Software is fine. Battery is charging effectively. Dexterity is unimpeded. Sealant is working: minimal dust intrusion”.

Jaime and Pythagoras both knew that ‘dust’ was the key indicator. Each robot’s internal sensors report on particle pollution, with spikes hinting at either poor sealant adhesion or unwarranted opening.

Prospectors could always make a few dollars by selling parts to the ‘mobile chop shops’ – bands of hyper-skilled schoolgirls, live-scavenging parts for building off-grid hybrid warriors for the Kyoni Clans or augmented concubines for the lavish courts of the Dahomey Empire.

Pythagoras implored, “Please help me. He runs down, exhausted, in a couple of hours. Swap me another, squire, please.”

“Show me your controller”, demanded Jaime.

Her eyes picked up the mood-change several seconds before the personality software confirmed heat signatures associated with contrition and lies.

“The problem is not my controller, squire!”, ventured Pythragoras, his eyes burrowing into the screen, across 9000 kilometres of water-electrons, “I charge this baby every day”.

Yet the signs of hacking were visible to both naked and digital eyes’.

Flurries of scratches at the controller’s edges where small precision tools had sought an entry.

Jaime shook her head solemnly. The batteries and Mech router had probably been swapped out. $75 for each. At most. But the chopshop’s inferior replacements had started to fail long before Pythagoras had been able to spend his ‘winnings’ on good times.

Jaime sighed and began reading the legally-binding statement, “Sir, your rental agreement is voided by interference with our products….”

“But I have done nothing wrong! And I have paid for the next 18 months….”

Screenshot

Author: David Gianatasio

*Click, click, click!*

It’s on every channel. See what I mean? The show’s been off the air for years — what the hell? It wasn’t even that popular.

There’s nothing on the screen.

Excuse me?

There’s nothing on the screen.

Pfft. Maddening. Maybe the batteries in the remote are dead. Oh man, they’re corroded right through. Are these double- or triple-A’s?

Triples.

You sure? Well, we don’t have any triple-A’s. I suppose I could just get up and change channels. O-kay…

That won’t make any difference.

Lemme try. SEE! EVERY CHANNEL. Can’t be a marathon. On one station, sure. But not all of them.

There’s nothing on the screen.

Well, actually, I kinda liked the show. It had monsters. I think it was about… I can’t remember what it was about or what it was called… It was scary and people always got killed in gnarly ways…

There’s nothing on the screen.

What do you mean. Just look, it’s in perfect synch on every channel. The exact same scene from the same episode. See! What are the odds? What are the chances?

Just stop, OK?

Stop what? Watching TV? I like it on. I like the sound it makes. I don’t like when it gets too quiet… When I can hear…

There’s nothing on the screen.

I… what? Why do you keep saying that?
No show. No picture. No “exact same scene from the same episode in perfect synch on every channel.” In fact, it’s blank on every channel. It was blank the whole time you were fiddling around with the clicker. It’s been blank for a long time.

What? I…

Ah, the majestic motorways! Driving in the open air. With the top down. Breeze blowing back our hair. Well, my hair, at any rate.

What are you talking that about?

Trees and hills blurring past. Empty skies above. I read somewhere that you could drive clear around the world. Start and finish at the exact same spot. I think a ferry’s involved someplace, maybe a couple of trains. Still, it’s mostly driving. How about a long, leisurely drive in the country? Of course, there’s not much to see. Overgrown luncheonettes and abandoned trailers with the windows smashed, doors open wide and empty business suits flapping like flags in the breeze. Those images have a sort of grandeur and resonance, don’t you think? Like crumbling viaducts and slime-skinned rivers and broken roads crammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic that hasn’t moved in years. Eight lanes in both directions going nowhere….

Shut up! Shut up!

You know, it’s very rude of you to point that thing at me. STOP CLICKING! That’s not going to work. You can’t turn me off. I’m here. I’m real. But you’re not.

**Click!**