Little Silver Pyramid

Author: J Frank Wright

Clank. Clank. Clank.

The little silver pyramid hovered to the kitchen sink. Two metal arms emerged and started doing the dishes.

Clank. Clank. Clank.

Dan thought that something must have broken when it crashed in the backyard. He didn’t think something this advanced shouldn’t be making that sound. That was over three weeks ago.

“They are coming. I am here to help,” it had said in its robot voice. It continued in what sounded like Spanish, then French, German, and some Asian language he wasn’t sure of. Maybe Russian. It finished with a couple he didn’t recognize at all. He guessed it was repeating the same message but couldn’t be sure. He didn’t speak any other languages. He only knew what the first few sounded like from movies.

It followed him into the house, making a little whirring noise as it hovered. He checked it for a phone number, email address, or anything that would indicate what to do with it, or who to contact if found, but there was nothing. Other than a weird port on one of the sides that was pulsing with a red light, it was completely smooth, shiny, and silver. There were no doors. He still hadn’t figured out how the arms came out. He tried connecting his phone and his laptop to the port, but he didn’t recognize the connection type.

He heard it speak the first time while he was inspecting it, and tried to get it to repeat itself, but it wouldn’t. He tried to get it to answer questions, but it wouldn’t. All it would do was hover and flash that damn light.

He sat down, opened a beer, and contemplated what he was going to do with it. He was just finishing his first when he heard it again.

“They are coming. I am here to help.”

“Who?” he asked. “Who’s coming? I don’t know what that means.” Finally, frustrated he said, “If you really want to help, why don’t you vacuum the floor, because I don’t know what to do with you.” Then the little silver pyramid lowered itself to the carpet. The whirring became louder, and it began vacuuming the floor.

Dan began testing more commands and commanding more complex tasks. He had to teach it to do the dishes, but once he did, it remembered every time. It would even blow them dry.

No one ever came for it, and he never heard anything about it on television or the internet. He knew somebody would eventually come looking for it, but until then, the little silver pyramid would do the cleaning, cook dinner, go clank clank clank, and every 48 minutes would repeat its message.

This is how it went for almost a month. On the 23rd day, the whirring stop. The little silver pyramid was sitting on the ground, no longer hovering. The red light had also gone out.

“Clean the dishes,” he told it, but it continued to sit motionless on the floor. Then he heard a faint ticking noise from inside the pyramid. It only lasted a few seconds, and then the whirring noise fired up again. The light around the port came back on, now a steady green glow. The little silver pyramid spoke again, this time with a new message.

“They are here. Deploy the weapon.”

Sirens began wailing in the distance.

Prodigal

Author: Jamie Bainbridge-Wood

One- The Ghost is Another Machine

The point of this exercise is observation but I’m distracted, observing that Dwyer’s return will cause some surprise.
The house he has chosen sits at the top of a steep slope, between two snowy hills. The memories they gave me are out of date but the location makes sense, in that part of me that Dwyer and I share.
Dwyer’s wife is a good-looking woman. Handsome. I haven’t met many women but I think Doctor Pryce may have been one: a smell in the dark, different than the others, sensed dimly in the time before my assembly had been completed. The first step in a process. Much is still incomplete.
Dwyer’s religion is routine. He leaves and enters his house at similar times. So too, his wife. So too, his children. Upon entering his home, he makes similar noises to his wife and children and they make similar noises back. I know I would not be able to hear these within the limits of normal human hearing.
Even so, being here instead of in the dark, I am defined by barriers. They poured me into this, partition’s inner and outer ready formed. I have no memories before this.
The memories I do have, I share with Dwyer. The slide of his wife’s forefinger and thumb in a tender vice around his/my/our jaw as she reaches up for a kiss; the warmth he experiences for his children; our bitterness at being forced to a different life.
For me, the feelings are only memories. I wonder if this is a remove that Dwyer and I share. I wonder if I will ask him.
West rattles the small bones in my ear, an order to cease my observation. A response is not required. The camouflage that serves me well on the hill will make no difference in the house.
I discard it.

Two- Change Places

There are men that make machines. There are others that design the architecture to make them function. Of these camps, Dwyer belongs to the latter. His aims ran counter to my assemblers. He had been discovered. He had fled, beating a man into disability during his flight. This story, I overheard in the dark. I have no memory of this.
I let myself into the house, using the back door that Dwyer’s wife forgets to lock. The children are breathing above, asleep in their beds.
I am not to kill the children, I am not to kill the wife. Parameters, crystalline. I am promised completion.
At the foot of the stairs, my senses extend. I know them. I know which steps creak. My feet move in silent placement. For the first time, I know impatience.
On the landing, a light.

Three- Study

Dwyer’s wife finds him at his desk. She woke, heart pounding at a sound that bled into a dream. She finds him hunched over a tablet, flicking between panels with a finger and her heart stills. Dwyer, a smile already on his face, looks over his shoulder. “Bad dream?”
Returning the smile, she leaves the doorway
In a stand-up dresser in the corner of the study, a body with a broken neck is curled. Memories are lost forever, their absence a fracture in the new continuity.
Eyes distant, I look back down at the tablet.
Dwyer’s return will be a surprise.

Thought Criminals

Author: Alicia Cerra Waters

My mother came home from work that night with the corners of her mouth turned towards her chin. She took off her yellow fluorescent vest and hardhat, which was scarred with dirt and the colorless remains of the unionist sticker she’d scratched off, and put them on a kitchen chair. She held her hands under the sink and the water ran black.
I was lying on the living room floor in my pajamas. The TV was on the reality channel, and they were doing a special on lewd messages sent between bots and unsuspecting humans on Instabook. I watched her, waiting for the lecture. She always got mad when I used VR because it cost us double the bitcoin of standard res, but that day she barely noticed. A miniature, digital man was gesticulating wildly in the middle of our living room, saying, “Don’t do it, dude! Don’t do it!” The box of Syrupy Corn Pebbles was empty and golden crumbs from the plastic bag were ground into the carpet at my side. She didn’t seem to see any of it as she sat down at the table with a bottle of beer in one hand and the whiskey in the other.
“There was no school today,” I said. “The education center had a staffing shortage again, so they canceled classes.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat and used the lip of the kitchen table to pop open her beer.
“How was work?”
“We’re building another delinquent processing center,” she said. “Open the curtains.”
I went to the window and looked down the twenty stories to the ground. Where we lived used to be beautiful, at least that’s what my mother said. There used to be museums and parks in the city, which had turned into abandoned buildings and overgrown lots before I was old enough to see any of them.
Outside, the nearest overgrown lot was now a pit with rolls of barbed wire piled almost as high as the tenth floor of our building. I saw a banner with the name of my mother’s construction company affixed to a chain link fence surrounding the area.
“We have a contract to build three more of these things in this county alone. So you can keep the VR on as much as you want. We can afford it.”
“Does that mean we have enough money for me to go to a private education center? I know some kids who go to one, and they say their teachers almost never get disappeared.”
My mother put down her beer. “Who told you that teachers are getting disappeared?”
I shrugged. “It’s obvious. Everyone at school knows that’s where they went.”
She took a deep breath and stood. She unplugged the TV and took the battery out of both of our phones. Her eyes were drilling holes into me when she spoke. “Don’t you see what’s outside? Shut your mouth.”
She kept drinking, and the light shifted so that our apartment was an eerie blue. I got up and put a cup of instant dinner in the microwave and watched the cardboard box spin under the yellow light. “When do they get to come out?” I said. “The thought criminals.”
“When that empty pit across the street looks like a garden again.”
“They didn’t do anything,” I said. “How could this happen?”
“It’s happened hundred times before. Your teachers would have told you about it, but most of them are disappeared.”

The Cosmic Patriot

Author: Steven Watson

“It’s not the end of the world.”

This was how Clara consoled herself: by affirming the exact opposite. For it was the end of the world. The earth was dying, and only a small mountainous corner remained habitable. A band of several hundred humans made it their home, but the altitude was such that no life could be born, and after fifty years only Clara was left.

Her pets would likely survive her. They were six-legged, with bulging eyes, and humans called them ‘zergs’. They had long dark-yellow bodies, not unlike slugs, and when they stood upright (which they could do only for several seconds at a time) they towered above any human.

Zergs did not generally consider humans prey, not because humans weren’t edible — which they were, despite their ill-health — but because they were a more powerful and, moreover, a more mobile species. Humans, therefore, kept the zergs as idle pets, much like pigs or sheep, and would sometimes farm them for food.

Several zergs encircled Clara. They were perfectly still — patient, even — though small hissing and whining sounds escaped their terrible mouths. Clara was dying and with her the human race.

The zergs’ preference for not eating humans only lasted up until the human’s death. They ate like snakes: slowly digesting the body whole. Occasionally a zerg attempted to eat someone nearing death, but another human would always stop them. For Clara, however, there was no one left to stop them. As she drifted in and out of consciousness she felt the greedy lips of a zerg attach to her forehead.

Inside the zerg, near what one might consider its belly, were hundreds of sharp teeth that ground the body it was digesting. It could have taken several minutes before Clara reached that stage, and in all likelihood, she would have suffocated by then.

But the zerg’s lips kept re-attaching, and never seemed to make it past her eyes. She was not aware of it, but the zergs were competing over her. One zerg would grip its lips onto Clara’s head, and another would stand up momentarily, then slam its body onto the feeder. It would then take its place and another would slam him. There were six zergs in total, and after one had scuttled away defeated, the remaining five seemed to find a compromise: two got the legs, another two got the arms, and one (the most dominant) got the head.

“Still,” Clara told herself, “it’s not the end of the world.”

Clara was nothing if not a fervent optimist. She thought a miracle to be more likely than a tragedy. She had still believed that she might birth a child, even after she had entered her dotage, and even after the last man had died. She did not identify the extinction of humans with the extinction of humanity. Some might call her a fool, but she remained happy; a more rational person would have been driven mad.

The most remarkable thing then happened — one might even confuse it for a miracle. The zerg sucking and drooling on her forehead had not yet reached her eyes, and so she could still see the sky. At first, the sky turned a crimson hue, then fiery pulses clouded it in kaleidoscopic colour. The pulses became regular and the sky quivered as if about to collapse. The heat became intolerable, and the zergs detached themselves from Clara and lay on their backs writhing in agony.

“Oh, dear me,” thought Clara, not altogether unhappily, “perhaps it is the end of the world.”

Yellow

Author: Jes Sanders

“This is war now.” Murfree Tain blinked his retinal feed off and scowled at the cityscape sliding beneath him. He couldn’t bear watching his company’s stock dive any further.

His companion, Bill, clicked a Zendorphin dispenser that doled out one measured dose and held it out to Murfree, “We’re gonna get this new super AI, this ‘Project Senecio, and everything will work out. But I need you cool right now. Close the deal.”

Murfree snorted up the Zendorphin without making eye contact. “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”

The air car politely informed its passengers that they were arriving, and the public air dock of the QuanTech R&D tower slid up to meet them. Moments later, Murfree and Bill were entering Dr. Jao Ochoa’s office with handshakes and generous smiles.

“Excuse the mess. Please, sit.” The room was littered with half-completed constructions, nests of notes, towers of peer reviews. A young man came in, Spanish, like Doctor Ochoa and dressed in a sport coat to try to add some credibility to his too-short slacks and tennis shoes. “This is my son, Arturo.”

“Arturo,” the man-child confirmed. He fiddled with his fingers as if working some invisible abacus, and looked only at some non-existent point in space. “Magenta maybe,” he muttered, “Not violet, though..”

Murfree asked, “Is it appropriate for your son to be a party to sensitive meetings, such as this?”

Bill sensed the strain in his voice, and very quietly said, “Coool. Be cool.”

Doctor Ochoa shrugged, “If he makes you uncomfortable, you are free to leave.”

Murfree chewed the inside of his lip until he tasted blood.

One screen and station in the corner looked orderly and new and sleek.

“Is that the secret weapon?” Murfree asked. “Is that Senecio?”

Doctor Ochoa laughed lightly, “ That is the instrument, the hammer. But,” he pointed a finger up, “who holds the hammer, and to what end – these are the larger questions.”

Murfree leaned to the edge of the seat. “Can it really do everything I’ve heard? It can intuit an enemy’s moves and devise an unbeatable strategy?”

“That and more. Not only can Senecio defeat your enemy, Senecio can do so in the style of any past war. Want to march on a foreign shore in the manner of Patton? We can show you where to deploy your troops. Or maybe you want to corrupt another corporation’s ledger. We can infiltrate like 4Ten9. But,” Doctor Ochoa said, “only if we believe the ends better humanity.”

Arturo drew right up to Bill and examined him. “Hm. Orange. Orange.”

“Arturo, go get a soda.” Arturo obeyed and began drifting around the office.

“I will give you any amount of money you name.”

“So will any one of a thousand governments, companies or cartels.”

“AfriCorps is murdering us out there!, “Murfree barked. “They have tapped into a vein of pristine grey matter that we can’t begin to touch! I need your machine to take them down.”

Arturo grew agitated as Murfree’s tone escalated. “Magenta. Magenta. Violet!” He backed towards the sleek workstation.

“For God’s sake, get that idiot away from the Senecio!”

“Red! Red! Red!” Arturo exclaimed, and backed into the workstation, spilling his soda over the keyboard.

Doctor Ochoa moved to the office door and opened it, inviting his guests to leave. “Mister Tain,” he said, “Arturo is not an idiot; he is a savant. That machine isn’t our secret weapon. Arturo is. He sees everything in music and color: battle plans, economies, even people. And he can see through you, Mister Tain, can see that your aims are not in keeping with our principles. To him, you are red, when you should have been yellow. You lose, Mister Tain. You lose.”

Apples

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The moon picks out bright lines from the vegetation-shrouded hulks at the sides of the road. High above, our Night Ravens duel with watch drones. So high that any kills fall outside our ken, leaving the night undisturbed.
“A long time ago, they had names for every living thing.” Dappen nods as he works the wheel.
“Everything?” Graea’s unconvinced.
He nods: “Everything. Had a special language for it, too. Called it ‘Latin’. Never got on with it myself.”
“You learned Latin?” Too much!
He looks at me with a grin: “Never did. My grandma had a smatterin’, got it from her grandma. I sided with me mum; it’s past. Best let it go.”
Graea leans forward: “Everything? We still got that. I knows oaks and hornets and jackdaws an’ such.”
Dappen reaches back and ruffles her hair: “Not like that. This language told how things came to be and where they came from, making great big chains of what became what from where.”
“Why?”
He looks at me: “There’s the question. Hang on.”
The rig swings wide round the forested hill that sticks up from the centre of this expanse of cracked blacktop.
“Used to call this the A24, back when they named everything. Funny how the oldest bits last longer.”
“Cheap tradesmen?”
He grins and reaches out to ruffle my hair, but I duck out of reach.
“Likely as any other theory.”
With a sigh, he brings the rig to a standstill. Midpoint. Letting the Night Ravens clear the skies for our run down to the coast.
“Right, while we wait. Why did they name everything? I don’t know. But I’ll guess what it did. Made them think they had a handle on everything, like the ancestors really did back in the times of power when naming something gave you control over it. Except, with these new names, it didn’t. All it did was give them a feeling of comfort, like when you collect stuff. Don’t do nothing but make you feel a little better.”
“Like Dee’s rocks-in-a-row?”
I feel myself blush.
“Just like them. But, for these folk, they were so sure they understood how everything worked they put names to all the stuff they couldn’t see as well, then pretended like they knew how it all worked together.”
“Don’t seem clever. Some of the stuff they guessed at might have turned out grimmer than they thought.”
He grins: “Why do you think we’re sitting in a century-old truck about to drive down a road that’s even older while our patched-up robot birds destroy the enemy clan’s noisy flying discs? All we got is what survived when them what gave the names ran out of words against the fury. Too many people, too few things to keep them alive. Nothing left but the children of the lucky and any technology that was useful. Everything else got left in the ashes.”
Graea leans on my shoulder: “So we’re the lucky and we don’t need to know the names of everything?”
I look across at Dappen: “Not quite. The lesson I get is that knowledge is pointless on its own.”
She claps her hands: “You got to do something with it, not just collect it.”
Dappen nods: “Close enough. Dee used her knowledge to find a possible orchard on an old map. Doing something with it means we now need to get this haul of apples home.”
He swings the wheel and the truck moves ahead. With a chuckle, he glances over at us: “One of you two needs to make tea for the driver. I know he’s parched.”