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.

Old-Fashioned Girl

“So Jeynce and Carr are getting married in three months.”

Ernest was projecting on the top of the decorative bridge, tossing tiny sticks into the flowing water. They’d chosen an ancient Japanese theme for this afternoon, and he hoped that Ilyah found it relaxing, because Ernest was bored by the tranquility.

“Wow. That’s a surprise.” Ilyah’s eyebrows rose and she swung her leg over the shimmering water idly trying to discern the repeat cycle of the scenery projection. “They’re pretty young. But if that’s what they’re going to do, why wait so long?” She batted at a low-hanging branch with her toe. “Cold feet?”

“Nah.” Ernest shook his head. “They’re followers of Dra’nar, remember? They’re doing it the old-fashioned way. Embodied,” he clarified.

Ilyah’s expression registered mild distaste. “How odd,” she commented, a liberal to the last. “It’s hard to believe anyone still holds with those old customs.”

Ernest shrugged. “To each their own,” he said, and Ilyah nodded with practiced political correctness. “Still,” he added, “I’m actually surprised they could find an open space large enough to hold it that wasn’t under radiation lockdown.”

“The guests are expected to embody, too?” Ilyah was aghast. “Old customs are one thing, but to impose them on everyone else… that’s just rude.”

“Of course not,” Ernest told her with a sigh. “But for that big an occasion, the projections will be programmed for no impact, so they have to have room for everyone to stand.”

“Still seems sort of vulgar in the modern age,” Ilyah mused. Ernest said nothing. He knew better than to argue with his wife.

At last, Ilyah sighed and stood, stretching with a little yawn. “Well, I’m going to log and make something to eat,” she informed Ernest. “Want to meet in the house program at seven?”

Ernest nodded, and when Ilyah bent down, he brushed the lips of his wife’s projection with his own. Ilyah smiled and shimmered, disappearing from the scene. With a sigh of relief, Ernest touched the controls and switched to something more palatable. Something with feeling. The tranquil garden was replaced by a dark slummy city street, an exact replica of the one above ground in every respect save the radiation. Ernest’s mouth twitched. No matter how much she professed to be a modern woman, his wife really was an old-fashioned girl.

Forty Days

“She likes the rain,” Ms. Jones explained to her neighbor when the woman called in a panic, yelling that Xue had spent the last six hours sprawled across the top of the house ‘looking like a half-drowned corpse.’ She scowled at the shrill, busybody voice, but saved her choice words for the sound of the dial tone after Mrs. Hatter had been disconnected. The social workers had warned her that the transition would be difficult for Xue, but no one could have cautioned her about the Hatters.

The entire country had seen the news reports of the commune raid, but it had been reduced to late night talk show jokes in a matter of days, and within two weeks, it was forgotten. The commune leaders were sent to jail, which Ms. Jones’ pastor described as a light punishment for the crime of playing God.

In the first few weeks, Ms. Jones had become aware of the whispers that stopped when she drew near to the groups of ladies assembled to collect their biological children from the church’s after-school care program. She’d learned to ignore them, eyes forward as she swept through the handful of women to the corner where Xue played by herself. After she gathered the abnormally small child into her arms she always made it a point to walk past the other mothers with her posture straight, her jaw clenched, and her eyes narrow. It had taken Ms. Jones less than a month to become fiercely proud of her foster daughter. The condescending glances only strengthened her conviction.

Such a pity, the ladies gossiped. The girl’s barely human. Can you imagine? And with no husband to help. She should have just gotten a pet.

After Ms. Jones replaced the phone on its cradle, she left through the front door and walked to the sidewalk, shielding her eyes from the downpour and scanning the roof for Xue. Sure enough, the girl was stretched across the mottled shingles. Ms. Jones didn’t bother calling her name. She strode to the ladder and climbed eleven feet before stepping over the edge of the ranch house roof.

“Xue?” Ms. Jones said softly. The girl shuddered, sending droplets of rain in every direction. “Don’t you think it’s time to come inside, honey?”

Xue turned, her dark, unblinking eyes meeting Ms. Jones’ blue ones. Her nose twitched, but she offered no response to the question.

“It’s cold out here,” she said. “You must be freezing.”

“I’m not cold.”

Ms. Jones shrugged as she took a seat beside her foster daughter. “I am,” she said.

“That’s because you don’t have fur.”

Ms. Jones had no argument. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched the clouds scrolling over the horizon.

“No one’s making you stay out here,” Xue said. Her voice was cool, sullen, and seemed old for her eleven years.

Again. Ms. Jones shrugged. “It’ll stop raining eventually,” she said.

“Whatever.”

“And the colder I get, the better the hot chocolate will taste when I go back inside.”

Xue’s whiskers trembled. “You have hot chocolate?” she asked.

“And marshmallows,” Ms. Jones said.

The girl considered this for a long minute. “Maybe in a little bit.”

“No hurry.” Ms. Jones brushed away the lines that rain had traced through the thin fur of her daughter’s forehead. “It’ll be there whenever you’re ready.”

The Sky is Full of Diamonds

Jupiter pulled on her wrist, dragging her behind the shed. It was right after evening prayer, and the sky was turning bright orange and deep purple. He kissed her like he had seen his parents do, putting his tongue in her mouth, wiggling it around. She backed away from him, giggling.

“Can I do it?” he said, holding out his hands, palms up in front of her.

“I don’t know.” she said.

“Please Katie? Don’t you like me?”

“I like you.” Katie pulled his hands down onto her tiny breasts and he massaged them though her wool dress. It felt warm when he touched her like that; so different from when she touched herself.

Jupiter smelled like boy sweat and river water. He fumbled with the buttons at her waist. She let him unbutton her, and he slid his hands up on her slender ribs, on her small breasts. His fingers found her nipples, and he pressed her against the shed, grinding his hips on her thigh. He squeezed her nipples tight between his fingers, and she clenched her teeth, letting out a sharp whistle of breath. Jupiter mistook this for encouragement, and he twisted them, hard, and she cried out. Just a little, but she cried out, and then Jupiter’s uncle came running round the corner with a lantern.

Jupiter got six lashes, but they were going to exile her. They didn’t need girls around that would tempt good boys to the devil. They lashed Jupiter outside of the courthouse, in front of the terrible small cell where they put her. As they lashed him, the people in the village came by to throw rotting fruit at her between the bars, and call her horrible names. Her brother came by and called her a slut and spat on her. Her mother and father watched her from far away. Her aunt came by and said that her parents were happy, because now the village would let them have another child, one that wasn’t a slut and a whore and one that would be a god fearing child who would be with them when they all went to heaven.

At night, the guards came by with knives, and they showed her what would happen to her after exile. They would shoot her up into the blue sky, past the blue out into the black, and then the metal men would take her out of the pod, and she would be their whore. They showed her what they would do, thrusting with the knives into the air. The robots were made of knives, they said, and they would cut her from the inside out. That’s what they did with girls.

Once, someone had been exiled who had been possessed by evil spirits. When they sent the pod up in the air, it burst into flames partway up, exploding like fireworks, bits of plastic and flesh raining down from the sky. Katie prayed all night that she would explode, that God would hear her, even though she was a whore, and that he would kill her rather than let her die with the robot men.

In the morning, the same men took her out of the prison and bundled her into the pod. As they closed the door, Katie saw her mother in the crowd, crying. They had always held each other when they were feeling low, and Katie wanted nothing else than to have her head in her mothers lap, her mothers fingers in her hair. Katie cried out for her mother, and the door sealed shut.

The pod rocked so hard that Katie threw up and knocked her head against the cushioned sides. The pod was so small, she couldn’t move inside it, and the sides became terribly hot, and then suddenly so cold that frost formed on the inside walls.

Then, after a long time, the pod stopped. There was a hiss and then the door to the pod slowly swung open. Kneeling on the other side of the pod was a bald woman in what look liked tight blue underclothes. The woman reached out to Katie.

“It’s alright.” said the woman. “No one here is going to hurt you.”

Katie cringed. “Are you a robot?” she asked, her fingers pressing into her thin arms.

“That’s complicated sweetheart. I’ve got a cybernetic net over my brain and there are a few cameras in my body, but I’m mostly meat, so no, I’m not a robot.”

“Are the men out there robots?”

“No robot men on this ship little one, though there are robots in the universe, but they aren’t likely to hurt you.”

Katie shivered. The bald woman sat back on her haunches.

“Thirty-eight years ago the people on our planet launched me into space, just like you were launched. They though they were sending me to slave traders, because that is what their grandparents did. But things have changed here in space, and slave trade is outlawed in this sector. I set up an organization to collect the girls, and it’s mostly girls, that our people exile. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have to tell you, there are bigger things than on that planet down there, and some of them are wonderful and some of them are scary, but not one person coming off our home world hasn’t been able to handle it. You can’t go back, and you can’t stay in the pod. Why don’t you come out and we can get you something to eat.” The bald woman held out her arms, palms upward.

Katie reached her hands out of the pod. “I’m Katie.”

No Regret

“We’re sorry, but the tissue damage is irreparable. It’s spreading. You’ll start to feel the pain in a few days, then, nothing at all.” The silence in the room gave way to a gentle sigh from Russ, whose eyes looked up at the Doc with longing.

“Doc, what’s my time?” he barely choked out.

“Honestly, Russell you have about a week, maybe two.”

Russ’ girlfriend just looked up, concerned, but Russ didn’t seem phased by the time he came to ask about the only alternative safe enough to use this day and age. “Can they prep the machine before that? I mean they’ll be able to clock me in, right Doc?”

Checking his clipboard, the doctor made a few hums and clicks as if he were prescribing medicine for a cold. A sense of nonchalance hung about him before his brows rose, “Well, we do have an opening in about five days. Early morning, though. That won’t be a problem for you will it?”

“Five days?” The patient nodded as he mulled it over before looking to the corner seat where his girlfriend was. “Honey, we got anything going on Saturday morning?”

“Uhm… you got that job interview in the afternoon.” Her words showed the most concern out of anyone in the room.

“Shit, you’re right. Wait, I can probably make it back before then, right?” Hopeful eyes glanced to the doctor who already started to yawn at the whole situation.

“Yeah, Russell, I think everything will be okay. Now I wrote down what probably caused the long-term effects, and the guys at the machine lab will be able to tell you some ways to fix it all up.” The Doc checked his watch as he handed him a note card. “Russell, I have other patients today, so just give me a call last week and let me know things are fine and I’ll bill you for this in a couple of days.”

Smirking as he glanced over the card, Russ shook his head, “Right, right… but Doc, c’mon! I can understand the smoking but… caffeine? Alcohol? This is going to be tough convincing me to quit this.”

Shrugging, the doctor opened the door to exit, “Hey, I don’t make the laws of time, I just tell you what you got to fix to live, Russell. See you around.”