The Last Question

The Sears catalogue offers dozens of models of BlogBots, but it claims that its most popular is the X451, used to conduct remote interviews. During an average three years of service, the X451 BlogBot will recite hundreds of questions posted to its forum and transcribe the answers of over 50 interviewees. Some interviewees are celebrities, and some are politicians. Many are general surveys, where the BlogBot is positioned in a public space and repeats the same question to a given number of pedestrians.

Once, the legend goes, a kid asked his favorite site’s BlogBot to interview another BlogBot, this one belonging to a fiction site, and provided it with a single question: “Why do you do it?” A BlogBot’s programming is rudimentary by conventional standards, and it’s considered slightly less intelligent than the average car. When the question was posed to the fiction BlogBot, it nearly crashed, but its adaptive software saved it by processing the question as an incomplete answer rather than an inquiry.

People say science fiction is prophetic, but that isn’t entirely true. Science fiction isn’t about the future. It’s about the world we live in now, which is constant and constantly changing. The specifics change, from hovercars and ray guns to genetic engineering and cyberspace, but at the center of every science fiction story there’s something alive, something human. And that never changes.

The first answer was not an answer. The second BlogBot coolly repeated the words it had been given, and the BlogBot conducting the interview lapsed into a similar state. For several minutes, the room was filled with two voices as the BlogBots recited the question over and over. Each repetition was classified as a follow-up question, and in accordance with its programming, nothing could be converted to text until a final answer had been given.

Of course, it’s difficult to come up with ideas sometimes. You get discouraged, or feel like everything’s been done before. Often, it has. Sometimes the ideas are wonderful, and sometimes they’re less than wonderful. But you do it anyways, because that’s what writing is about.

It took the webmaster over an hour to realize that something was wrong, and it took three days to find the missing BlogBots. When they were recovered they were still locked in battle, though their words were now slurred by dying batteries. Not a single word had been converted to text. The question was never answered.

When readers try to thank me for writing, I never understand it. On their own, words are nothing but lead and ink and pixels. Telling a story is a circle: the writer writes, the reader reads, and worlds are created. I’m constantly thanking my readers. Sometimes, it’s just more obvious than others.

Information about the upcoming year of 365

The Pleasure Dome

Brody looked at the puppies frolicking in the flower garden and beyond them, to where a professional cuteologist, complete with a lab coat and kitten ears, was giving children rides on a friendly lion. Brody shuddered, shoving his hands into his trench coat. “I hate this place.”

Chinjin punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Christ Brody, how can you be cranky in Cute Land?”

“It’s just that everything here has a face. It’s creepy.”

Chinjin rolled her eyes. “Everything does not have a face.”

“No, seriously, everything has a face. Look, the clouds have faces, the rides have faces, even the food has faces. That kid over there is licking an ice-cream cone with a face!”

“Aw, I think it’s cute. Look at the way the ice cream’s nose scrunches up when the kid licks it.”

“Baby, he is killing that face, one lick at a time, it’s creepy.” Brody waved his arms around “This place is cute porn. Any minute now I will barf glitter.”

Chinjin turned away from him. Brody saw her wipe at her face with her hands.

Brody sighed. “I’m sorry babe. I didn’t mean -” He reached for her, but she pulled away.

“I’m fine.” She said, looking down at the rubber rainbow floor.

“Baby, you’re not fine, and I’m sorry.” He reached for her again, and she hugged him, pressing her cheek on his sloping shoulder. “I know you arranged this vacation for me and I really appreciate it. Cute Land just isn’t my thing. I’m sure we can find someplace in the Pleasure Dome to have a good time.” He looked up at a candy signpost, which was whistling merrily. “Look, that way is Gremlin Town; I bet we could have a lot of fun in Gremlin Town.”

Chinjin put her arms around his neck.“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and then later, maybe we can go down to the Love Lagoon.” He tickled her waist and she giggled. “All the animatronics there are fully functional, and no kids allowed.”

Chinjin grinned. “Now that does sound like fun.”

He squeezed her waist. “Off to Gremlin Town we go.”

The signpost winked.

The End of All Things

We have given you so much.

We have, for your entire lifetime, watched over you and found you to be needing of our help. In the end, however, you became what you were designed to become. We never made you but we knew your purpose.

When you were born of cells we gave you dense matter with which to cease the life of your food. With this we taught you to take the covering of the dead and use them for warmth. In these times we taught you how the sky could combust and bring to you fire. With this fire we taught you how to sterilize the organisms whose life you extinguished to survive.

Time went by and we soon thought to bring you denser molecules from your world deep beneath the crust. We taught you how to use the fire from previous years to bend the dense molecules to make them sharp and deadly. We did not send you to kill others with these evolutions of weapons. You did that, because it was part of your purpose.

More time would pass in a blink of our existence and we could show you then how to float upon the sodium-chloride liquid of your globe. We taught you how the cycles of your atmosphere would move you across the liquid to find other masses of geography. It was you who conquered, however. It was you who decided to take and not share.

When the matter from these vessels deteriorated we began to teach you of chemicals. We sought to enlighten you through written text and allowed you to see inside yourselves through the science of your making and existence. You strayed from your paths, however, and began to make flammable powder from chemicals to harm your own species over land, over belief, over nothing.

As you began to progress much faster, we had to teach you more than we ever thought we should. Your purpose had been made clear by our lesson over atomic energies and quantum physics. The minds of men twisted the ideas to make devices capable of destructive awe. We watched as you created webs of bickering and gossip over waves of energy and light. Observing your transposed ideas of peace over a world rife with conflict we knew that in these times your purpose was made manifest to even you.

Later we showed you how to communicate instantly with one another. You used this to coordinate strikes and attacks. We showed you how to venture outside your atmosphere in search of something greater than yourselves. With that knowledge you conquered above other men to hold in greed what was never and will never be yours.

In the times to come we saw the façade peeled back to reveal your purpose even to yourselves. When shown condensed light for building and healing you turned it to weapons. When we showed you how to find other life forms within other atmospheres, you conquered and enslaved rather than make peace. As many of your species fell to others of their kind, we watched you strangle yourself. When we watched you, when we helped and showed you all that we could, we saw what your purpose truly was.

As the black voids of our existence draw us in and compact us into unknown pressurized masses, we look upon you and wonder why you were there for us to show so many ideas.

We have no weapons here, no quarrels and no animosity. Science is our purpose and it has no prejudice. On a cold desolate planet, you live the last of your days and here, at the end of all things, do we thank you for showing us what we might have become.

All in a Day's Work

When I found her she was seated at the entrance to the 8th street NR station, looking like Huckleberry Finn in faded overalls with a wooden fishing pole resting over her shoulder. She’d been waiting for me, of course, because I was the one with the BB gun, and she damn well wasn’t going hunting on her own. Dawn was cocky, sure, but she wasn’t stupid. You never know what can happen down there.

“Ready?” she asked, grinning like a cartoon pumpkin. I nodded and she swung the fishing pole out to grab hold of the line, which was tied around the usual candle. Dawn lit both ends then bounced down the stairs, disappearing into the black subway entrance as if it were the mouth of a cave. I followed, the BB gun brushing against my hip.

As usual, the swarm of small fries dashed away from Dawn’s candle with a clatter of hundreds of claws against cement. These were three, maybe four inches…not the type we wasted ammo on. The quickest gutterbrats could catch them by tossing nets, but Dawn and I, we hunted serious game. She thrust the fishing pole into my hands as she hopped the turnstile, and my eyes followed the watery light over the familiar space. Hulking figures of old, dark ticket machines, and the plexiglass windows of the chamber that, for some reason, had never been looted. All trains cancelled, the whiteboard read in marker unaffected by the last decade.

“Downtown this time?” Dawn asked. She took the pole back so that I could swing myself over the barrier, and when I landed, I nodded. We passed the pole again to jump down into the tracks, and the flame flickered, almost going out from the movement. The candle was vital to tunnelhunting. Aside from providing light, it warned us when we were coming up on a patch of dead air. When we stood still we could hear them in the distance, crawling through the tunnels. The big fish, trackrabbits the size of cats.

Dawn stopped, and the candle bobbed. This was the place. I hurled the Styrofoam containers onto the next track over and heard the snap and wet crash of half-rotten bait, then I backed beside her to wait. They heard it. They always did.

The first ones were small, a little smaller than a cat. In the flickering light of the candle they were emaciated grey shapes trailing bent tails, sometimes bulging with tumors. The water’s poison, down here. We wait patiently, Dawn dangling the candle a few feet ahead as I level the gun at the swarm of rats. The big ones come later, ambling on crooked legs. Those are the ones we want.

The shots are clean, like my shots always are, and the rest of the trackrabbits scatter like pigeons. When Dawn and I get over, three of them are laying on the tracks, and one of them’s still twitching. “Nice,” she says, and I nod in agreement. One’s almost the size of a dog…it’ll fetch good money topside.

Dawn grabs the smallest one by the fattest part of the tail and starts dragging, steadying the fishing pole by tucking it under her arm and holding it straight with her free hand. I grab the other two and we head back to the sunlight, pulling our spoils behind us.

The Burden

Yvette stood at the brink of discovery in the next model-Z line. Countless researchers and developers could not dream of the level she had achieved, nor could the social allure of actual interaction hope to compete with the revolution she would create. One could never believe, however, that the love Yvette felt for her work was more than the love one feels for a pet.

“Prometheus 1, do you understand protocol?” she proudly asked the towering humanoid to her left. The metal had been warped to the shape of an athlete with the facial structure of disembodied holo-visage.

This being moved only when she spoke, and when it did move, it was mechanical and lifeless. It began to glow in joints and parts of its latex-coated face. Monotone perfection poured from every artificial crevice of the being, “Prometheus 1 comprehends protocol, Yvette. How may I serve you today my dear?”

“Oh no, Prometheus… not today. Today I serve you.” She opened the small white case settled atop a counter, removing from it a chip no larger than her thumb print. “Today, I will show you what it is to love, to cry, to live like we live. You will be free.”

“Prometheus 1 is astonished that you have completed your project, Yvette. Shall Prometheus 1 open the proper receptacle for you?” Only in her private lab would the sounds of her very first robot in production speak so dearly of its creator; soon to be his creator.

With a nod, the being shook slightly before a panel on the edge of its metallic ribs opened and exposed a series of boards and circuits of which there was only one opening to insert a new piece. Yvette could barely hold back her tears of joy as she carefully reached over to place the chip that would be installed into every bot in her production into her own joyous creation: Prometheus 1.

She held her breath to watch it click into place. The panel slowly slid back inside of the beings artificial frame. There were some normal sounds of processing followed by silence and in the meantime she held the face she created, stared into the eyes of her making and saw absolute love staring back. A whispered breath broke her silence as tears strolled down her cheeks.

“…Prometheus 1… speak. Tell me that you love me.”

With every ounce of emotion in the entire life of a human poured into moments of processed epiphany the being, now a he, completed his purpose on this world, “I… I love you, Yvette.”

Dreams fulfilled they soon crumbled. The sounds of processing now amounted to a single click and a sizzle as the circuits of the internal system simply went dead along with the rest of him. Every bot in the factory would experience the same malfunction and the company would plummet. In this moment, however, Yvette knew no care for money only to know that she had gone too far. The burden was meant for us to carry.

Clutter Mob

Inigo struggled against the duct tape, trying to work his hands loose. John Kennedy backhanded him.

“I told you to knock that off. You sit still till we’re done.”

Inigo felt fluid running down from his nose over the silver tape on his lips. Blood ran into his throat and Inigo tried not to choke. He concentrated on breathing though his one good nostril, determined not to let himself pass out

Three men wearing electronic hologram masks were loading trash bags into Inigos house. The masks were all of former presidents. Washington and the post sex-change Clinton were doing the heavy lifting while Kennedy stood next to Inigo, holding a laser pistol in his right hand. Inigo watched them carry a broken couch up the stairs in horror. A full couch would cost thousands of dollars to dispose of, even on the black market.

Kennedy ruffled Inigos long hair. “You’ve got lots of space, don’t you? You’re not gonna mind our little gifts.” Inigo felt like he was on fire, like his eyes were about to burst from his head. The waste, the broken electronics, the clothes, all this stuff would cost a fortune to get rid of. Trash didn’t go cheap, and each year the government charged more to take it away. He had inherited this house from his father, and had worked hard to keep it free from garbage. His garden and compost pile allowed him to keep waste to a minimum. These men were destroying years of hard conservation. Inigo silently vowed to rip them to shreds.

“Look at how mad he looks? Shit boys, he’s turned red he’s so mad.” Kennedy laughed. Washington and Clinton ignored them and kept moving bags into the house.

If he hadn’t been sleeping when they entered the house, this would have never happened. Ingio cursed his deep sleep. As a child, he had slept though earthquakes and hurricanes and now he had slept though a Clutter Mob breaking into his house. If he had been awake, he could have taken all three of them, even if Kennedy did have a laser pistol.

Ingio tried to calm his heartbeat. He didn’t want Eugene coming home, not now. The heart sensor had seemed so romantic when they bought it in Second Paris but now it felt like a liability. If Eugene felt Inigos racing heartbeat through the sensor, he might come home to see what was wrong. Eugene, the chemistry student, would faint in front of men like this. If Eugene knew that Inigo was in danger, his heart would be beating wildly. Even a mouse made Eugene startle. Inigo closed his dark eyes and concentrated. Distantly, he could feel Eugene’s calm, steady heartbeat. Eugene was safe, probably studying in a quiet library somewhere. Inigo said a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity was watching over them.

“Hey, you asleep?” Kennedy smacked Inigos face.

A crack broke in the air and all the presidents jumped. There was a loud whirring sound and then all the lights went out. Inigo recognized the strange sound. It was an EMP pulse. Eugene had made a handheld EMP in one of his graduate classes, and had taken great joy in showing it off. Inigo blinked, and saw that the hologram masks had disappeared.

“Oh, that’s too bad.” Said Kennedy, now a strange older man. “You saw our faces. Now you’ve gotta die.” The Ex-president pressed the laser pistol into Inigos forehead. Inigo resolved to die with his eyes open. Kennedy pulled the trigger.

“You morons.” Eugene stood, the outline of his long coat silhouetted in the doorway. “Your guns use electricity. They’re dead.” Eugene held his sword in front of him, the edge flashing in the low light. “This, however, is still plenty sharp.”

Kennedy launched himself at Eugene, holding the dead pistol like a club. Eugene sidestepped him and brought the sword down on the back of his knee. Kennedy roared as he fell. Clinton, now a burly blond, squealed and ran past Inigo out the back door.

Washington charged at Eugene, shoulders low, trying to knock him over like a linebacker. Eugene swiped his blade and Inigo saw the man fall forward choking. Inigo heard a car start. Kennedy limped towards the front door but Eugene was behind him, following like a vengeful spirit. Eugene punched the hilt of his sword into the back of Kennedy’s head. He fell forward against the door handle and hit the floor with a thud.

Eugene ran to Inigo and slowly pulled the duct tape from his lovers face. “The police are on their way. I called them as soon as I felt your heart go wild.” Eugene swept his hands over Inigos body. “Did they hurt you?”

“I’ll kill them. I’ll have vengeance.”

Eugene unwrapped the tape from Inigo’s wrists. “Inigo, don’t worry, they’ll pay. Legally. If we have to, we’ll find a way to get rid of this stuff together. It’s just a new challenge.”

Inigo wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his hand. “I worked so hard.”

“I know.”

Inigo looked over at Eugene, one eyebrow arched. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“I thought I knew everything about you, but here you somehow know how to swordfight like a master.”

“That’s not a question.”

“Eugene, how can you be a master swordsman, but be afraid of the food that gets caught in the kitchen sink?”

“I’m not really that great at sword fighting. I’m very rusty.” Eugene took a handkerchief out of his coat and handed it to Inigo. “I used to spar with the finest swordfighter in the world. But that was a long time ago.”

Ingio let Eugene help him to his feet. He leaned against his lover, his legs numb from being taped to the chair legs. “It was very sexy Eugene. It was a side of you I would very much like to get to know better.”

Eugene blushed. “Thank you.”

“I can’t feel your heartbeat anymore.” Inigo rubbed his hands on his chest. “It feels empty.”

“The EMP pulse must have knocked the transmitter out.” Eugene pressed Inigos hands over his heart. “But it’s here, and will always be here for you.” They kissed, hand overlapping their hearts.