Acceptance

Author : Suzanne Borchers

Arnold, a four-foot bot, assists an elderly woman by holding her drink in one hand and supporting her upright with the other. He had been superseded so many times that today his job is tending the grannies and granddads at Ever Pleasant Retirement Home. After she has been slowly lowered down in front of the 3DTelly, Arnold places her drink on the table beside her. She rubs his smooth gray pate which he warms to her touch for gentle feedback.

He receives a transmission from Roberta, a translation bot. Arnold wishes he could jump on his rollers, or laugh, or even smile. He forces back the whistles and beeps of glee. He has finally been acknowledged by the newbies. He is invited to a party at the laboratory!

He sedately moves out of the room, beeping at residents, saving one whistle for a granny named Harriet, with long blonde hair and painted face. She laughs.

Arnold enjoys a wheelie around the corner of the Home.

He arrives at the party.

“Hello, Arnold,” Roberta says. “Come in and meet the gang.”

Arnold beeps hello then notices two bots communicating at the far end of the room. They are sleek, and shiny. He knows them. They are the Steven model. They were produced two weeks ago and probably still smell of HT oil.

“Arnold, these guys want to meet you,” Roberta says. The Stevens move toward them.

Arnold wishes he could smile or spin. Finally he will be part of the elite group. They invited him to a party! When he was produced months ago, he was alone. He stood alone in the laboratory and zapped circuit ebots into place on sister boards. Arnold hadn’t known he was lonely until the Charlies were produced. The Charlies worked together as team-soldering bots in an assembly line and communicated within their model. Arnold stood alone and zapped circuit boards.

“Arnold, this is Steven and Steven,” Roberta says. “They are my friends.” She leaves to welcome another bot.

Steven grabs Arnold’s hand and begins to pull him toward the far wall. “Listen, Arnold, we invited you here because we need you to loan us one of your ebots for our presentation tonight. We heard you have the last historically imprinted one.”

“You can stay at the party until we come back,” the other Steven says. “Okay?”

Didn’t Roberta invite him because she was his friend? But maybe if he gives them what they need, they will include him in their group. He looks at the Stevens and gives a low wavering beep. He wishes he could cry when the ebot is removed. But he is at the party. This is his chance to make friends.

By now there are Charlies to Stevens all over the room. Arnold gives out a tiny beep before he rolls over to a small group of Miltons. They are communicating with each other. He beeps a quiet hello. They move away. He tries again with some Justins with the same result. When will the Stevens come back? Where is Roberta?

He wishes he had stayed at the Home and played virtual checkers with Harriet.

He waits alone.

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Perimeter

Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The night is slashed with beams of white light and the sky is spotted with technicolour detonations.

“Who does that? I ask you. Who does that?”

I don’t know how Mitchell can talk and run at this speed. I shrug in reply and keep going.

We pulled up in the panel van at the designated staging point: under a bridge a klick from the target. From there we moved to the edge of their secondary perimeter and commenced insertion. It was textbook, fully planned out, tactically vetted to hell and gone.

Except for one thing: nobody bothered to check if they had a tertiary perimeter. Where it starts, I don’t know. I suspect it’s a couple of klicks out. Which means Mitchell and I are around three-quarters of the way through it and far from safe.

“We’re nearly two klicks out, man. Let’s find some transport.”

He’s the boss. I wait as he scopes out the driveways of the neighbourhood we’re running through. All modern grid saloons; easy to track and useless off gridded roads. Punching the air, Mitchell points toward a vintage Merc. Ideal.

I’m just about to run after him when my suspicions regarding the tertiary zone stop me in my tracks. Which is the thing that saves me as Mitchell dives into the Merc, slams the door and the killing vapours hide him from view. A flytrap – dummy vehicle, wood and cloth interior, organo-molecular acid sprays – this far out is a new level of vicious.

Some very old training surfaces and I run back toward the target. Without pausing to give them time to triangulate, I dive into the culvert we crossed, letting all my gear pull me down to the bottom of the murky flow.

Taking the oxygen bottle from the medical kit, I ditch the rest of my gear, slow my breathing and let the water take me. Just another chunk of waste on the way to the Solent.

Six hours later I’m lying on the sun-warmed sands of the Isle of Wight. Stripped to my trunks, there is nothing to betray me when I present myself to the local police just after sundown. I tell them a sorry tale about having my car stolen while I spent a day on the beach. They will find it where I left it two days ago, when I was picked up for the job. I’ll get assisted transit to it, after they’ve checked it and found it clean. It’s a hire car, after all.

Then back to bonny Scotia and enough of this sorry Police State infested with paranoid private military companies. Whatever they were protecting, they can keep it. I’ve just retired.

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The Year Rounders

Author : Clint Wilson, Staff Writer

A stadium-sized vehicle crawled along on massive tracks to my right. I hadn’t been awarded a sleep cycle for ninety-eight kilometres and was well overdue when the klaxon finally sounded. Not slowing my pace an iota I looked up and saw a half-dozen citizens lowering themselves down the nearby ladder. They moved slowly, none of them in an hurry to reach the rocky landscape below.

One by one they dropped to the surface and automatically began marching alongside the crawler. I scanned my immediate surroundings. There were at least twice as many tired walkers as recent arrivals. Some of them had been on shift almost as long as me. I waited more than a minute. Finally, frustrated, I radioed the deck officer.

“Crawler Seven deck, this is Dawkins off the port stern. Have seen six fresh arrivals. Where’s our relief whistle?” For a moment there was nothing. I almost tried again, then suddenly,

“Dawkins hold your position for the time being.”

My response was immediate. “Hold my position? I’ve been walking for,” I checked my odometer, “almost one-hundred clicks here, what’s the deal?”

There was another long pause. Then suddenly a familiar voice, “Dawkins, you and Chambers are relieved. Welcome back aboard.” I immediately caught the sight of Pavel Chambers dropping back and cutting over across my field of vision. With my own legs turning to gelatine, I followed suit and also drifted toward the crawler. I maintained radio silence as Chambers gripped the ladder and pulled himself up. And I didn’t breathe another word until I too was slowly making my way up toward the massive travelling deck full of greenhouses and livestock pens above.

Finally I broke the silence. “Deck officer. Why do six relieve only two this shift?” There was no response. Twice more I tried. Still nothing.

As I neared the deck I saw people pulling Chambers up and then as I too reached the top a hand reached out and I looked up into the familiar face of my old friend Brendan Chow. “Is there a transmitter out? Are you guys deaf?” I asked.

The friendly smile faded as I crawled forward and then stood up face to face with Chow. He sputtered, “Keep quiet. I will tell you all I can.”

An hour later I sat, legs dangling, off the edge of the machine looking out at the distant crawlers all clambering along westward with their thousands of citizens trudging alongside. Many walked. Fewer and fewer got to ride. The sun sank slowly, but not so slowly that we could ever catch it. It was said that the Earth once turned a thousand times faster than this; that people could live in one place and as day turned into night and then back into day again it never got too hot or too cold.

I looked back toward the nearby greenhouse behind me and noted that the vegetation did appear to be thinner and browner than ever. “Okay I admit it Brendan. We’re running out of energy. But what can we do about it? You know how it is. We are cursed. We must always chase the sun!”

Brendan Chow lowered his head morosely. After a time he looked up. There was a tear in his eye. “Look at them!” He suddenly motioned with his arm.

I looked back out at the dotted landscape of machines and countless tired walking humans and asked, “How did we ever get to this point?”

Chow replied solemnly. “I really don’t know. But I am sure of one thing. Our race will not survive!”

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Take Me Dancing

Author : Brent Benton

Marsha leaned back and surveyed the sky from the park bench. “Johnny, will you take me dancing?”

“Dancing? Marsha, how can you talk about dancing when things have gone to hell? They force us to sleep outside and barely feed us, and you talk about dancing? Where?”

She gazed at one especially bright star, and said. “We’ll think of a place.” She was silent for a moment, “Yesterday, a janitorial-bot said dog packs were spotted in Jersey.”

Johnny leaned closer and whispered, “I’ve made contact with a guy named Tony. He’s ready to resist. Maybe there’s something…”

“Johnny, it’s no use. It’s over. We need to live whatever life we have left as best we can. There’s no more.”

A police-bot approached; a humanoid, phase-shift array version with tactile sensors.

“Hey, O’Toole,” Johnny yelled. “We’re going dancing. Whatdaya think of that?”

“My identifier is 7X307, not ‘O’Toole’. The robot’s voice was staccato-like. “Our Unique Identification Authority requires proper identifiers. Dancing is forbidden also. You should know that, human.”

“My identifier is ‘Johnny’, and hey, we’re only kidding. There’s nowhere to dance, right?”

“You are here every night, I know you. I am tasked to remove humans from Central Park at curfew. You are the only ones here. You must leave.”

The yellow light from a nearby lamp illuminated the three. A chilly wind penetrated the pair’s heavy clothing.

“See that star, O’Toole,” asked Marsha? “The bright one, shimmering with the blue tinge, over there. It’s my favorite.”

The bots compound eye whirred skyward. “That is Gamma 2XT9..”

“No, O’Toole, it’s not Gamma ‘anything’. I call it Alexandria. Loosen up. Every night you come by and run us off. Police-bots are so uptight.

“Our problems with humans are diminishing. The War Treaty allows living humans to continue, but not to breed. You will ultimately terminate and we will then have unhindered control. Please leave now.”

“Hey 7X307,” said Johnny, ignoring the directive. “I’m serious now, how many humans are left? Can’t hurt to tell us.”

“I do not know; a few hundred perhaps.” Then he continued, “I have instructions to warn you that packs of dogs have become a problem. Though we have programs to eliminate them, they are quite resilient. But, they have only been observed in the Jersey sector. Their food supply is limited and they attack humans. The Syndicate Leaders are sorry for this inconvenience and advise watchfulness. My duty is done. It is no longer our concern. Take measures to avoid the packs.”

“We’ll trust in the stars, O’Toole,” said Marsha.

“Trusting in stars is not logical. Dancing is also not logical or legal. Please leave the park now.”

The pair left and crossed Madison. The vast city was empty, dark, and quiet. Rows of deserted buildings and gloomy streets offered almost unlimited sleeping possibilities. A cold breeze slid easily off the Hudson and temperatures fell.

As they did every night, they found a doorway in an empty building and crawled as far back as possible, out of the wind. Then, pulling their heavy, dingy coats tight and dragging their stocking caps down over their ears they embraced, curled up in the corner, and fell asleep. Then they dreamed beautiful dreams. They saw a long forgotten Broadway with music and chorus lines, they heard children laughing and running in the park, and they found themselves out among the stars where they danced with Alexandria and her companions.

In the shadows of the deserted street pairs of yellow eyes suddenly appeared. Dark forms crouched, moving quietly, slowly creeping forward, converging on the pair dreaming in the doorway.

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Inexplicable Reflector

Author : Jay Haytch

Did they teach you in school why the Soviet Union broke up? The story everyone ‘knew’ was of internal strife and bureaucratic inefficiency, but really it was Space Science.

In 1986 we discovered a… ‘thing,’ which stellar parallax put about 107 light-years away. It seemed to perfectly mirror the spectrum of wherever it was observed from. In realtime.

Yes, the Inexplicable Reflector. I like that name better in English than Russian. My colleague came up with it.

Anyway, we studied it for a couple of years until the director-general of the whole program poked his nose in and decreed we should ‘ping’ it. We would send a burst signal, as powerful as we could make, and see what happened. Would it take 214 years to see the result? Who knew?

Well, we started receiving a reply before our apparatus had even finished transmitting. And it was a reply, not just a static reflection – there was clearly information encoded into the complex waveforms.

Eventually – this was 1988; our computers were slow – we processed the signal and dumped the output – 27 pages of coded nonsense – to the printers. We made many copies, which was fortunate because one of the machines caught fire and subsequently destroyed my lab.

This would have been the greatest discovery ever, had it happened anywhere else, but our bosses demanded secrecy so we kept the outside world in the dark while we studied its contents. Eventually the Soviet system fell, and our top-secret research program evaporated with it. We all went on to careers elsewhere, having reached no satisfactory conclusions about the Inexplicable Reflector.

We never ‘decoded’ the message, never translated it into Russian or English or any other human language, but I know what it was. Simply reading it was enough.

We’d been sent a virus, a great instrument of information warfare that ran on human minds as if we were networked computers. I don’t know how it spread or how many became ‘infected’, but there’s no mistaking the signs. Party loyalists became self-serving agitators, protests, riots, and eventually the Soviet Union – the organization that sent the ‘ping’ – was torn apart.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you? 31 years later, researchers in Japan discovered the same object and, again, tried to send a message. And some old Russian men such as myself started coming forward…

We all remember the chaos that followed – apparently the response was much stronger – but I do believe the world is better off since. Every government dissolved, their armies abandoned, bloated corporations shut down out of apathy. But look at what we’ve achieved since then, freed from ages-old bureaucracy! Manned spaceflight, interstellar travel, in just a decade…

Everyone has a theory about the Reflector now. My favourite is that it is an open network port into another universe, and we triggered serious anti-malware defenses from its firewall. But I’m a computer scientist, after all.

Which is why we’re here, just 1.5 AU from the Inexplicable Reflector, on the opposite side from Earth and Sol, in this starship I commissioned. We have no ties to any wider organization – I ensured that. My crew are all men and women like me – scientists; obsessed – driven – with the need to understand this thing.

Proximity didn’t yield any answers. So tomorrow we will tight-beam the most powerful broadcast in human history – the entire energy output of this starship’s drive – right into the maw of the featureless black sphere a planet’s orbit away.

I’m pushing the button. I have to know.

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Refugees From The Singularity

Author : Bob Newbell

“Well, Sammy, they’re all heading out.”

Sammy, the brown tabby cat sitting on my lap, is unconcerned by the slowly enlarging starburst on the holodisplay. Spacecraft tracks. Almost all outbound. Heading away from the dot at the center. Earth.

Sammy’s ears perk up at the sound of an incoming transmission. Another ship about 170,000 miles aft of us.

“Spacecraft, transponder One-Eight-Bravo-November-Seven-One, this is the S.S. Amaterasu, Captain Mariko Watanabe commanding, transponder One-Seven-Alpha-Juliet-Seven-Two, over,” says a female voice over the speakers.

“Captain Watanabe, Captain Juan Abarca commanding the S.S. Benito Juarez here, over.”

“Captain Abarca, your trajectory suggests you’re leaving the solar system.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

The woman sighs and then says, “What do you think’s happening back there?”

“I don’t know. I can’t know. Neither can you.”

Another sigh. “If there’s been a Technological Singularity Event–”

“Captain, there’s no ‘if’ about it. Even a year ago things were getting out of hand. Computer processor power doubling every month. And then every week. Nanotech hackers going from tinkering in their parent’s basements, developing new technology, starting companies, becoming trillionaires, then losing it all and being dirt poor when some better device superseded their product; and all that in the span of nine or ten days. And the wars…”

“I know. That’s why I headed out here. I knew neither China nor Japan would win. The war wouldn’t have victors. Just survivors. If even that.”

“For whatever it’s worth, you have my sympathies. Things are only slightly better in Brazil, Nigeria, and Romania. Human beings can’t keep pace with technological advance that’s that fast. But everybody knew they’d try. Everybody knew that would be the catalyst.”

She says nothing. Sammy bats half-heartedly at a passing dust mote then jumps from my lap and stretches out on the floor. I watch as more tracks appear on the display. Some look to be en route to the Oort Cloud. A few appear to be on interstellar trajectories.

“What do you think it is?” asks Mariko. “Self-aware computers? Bio-engineered transhumans? Cyborgs? Maybe a hive-mind?”

“Whatever we can imagine, that’s not it,” I respond. “By definition, it’s beyond our comprehension. Whatever’s the dominant intelligence on Earth now, it isn’t something we would have or could have thought of. We can’t even say what its motivation might be.”

“I see a few spacecraft tracks are heading back toward Earth. I wonder if they’ll try to communicate with it?”

“They can’t. I can read Hamlet or Plato’s Republic to my cat and he will comprehend them just as readily as any human would understand what…It has to say.”

Another minute of silence.

“Want to hook up at Alpha Centauri?” she asks.

“Alright,” I say. “Second planet out from Alpha Centaui B. You’ll have to keep up with me. I’ll be there in just over 500 years.”

“I’ll wait for you,” she replies with a laugh. “Amaterasu out.”

I touch a control and the display links in with the Solar Telescope Network. I call up an image of Earth. “Mother of God!” I say aloud. The Earth now has a ring around it. What’s being assembled in orbit, by whom, and for what purpose, I can’t say. But the Moon has an identical ring encircling it at a right angle to the one around Earth. I set a course for Alpha Centauri.

I pick up Sammy and walk toward two suspended animation chambers, one large, one small, at the back of the ship. “Let’s take a nap,” I tell my purring companion.

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