Monday, May 22, 2017

Story 227: Drive Safe

I pop another sour candy in my mouth, but the effect has worn off.  I'm going to need to find a new way to stay awake.  The highway is abandoned except for us, with nothing visible except the lane lines and the faint flicker of whatever shrubs are growing right next to the asphalt as we hurtle past and briefly illuminate them with the edges of the headlights.  It always surprises me how much work it is to drive on a night like this.  It should be the easiest thing in the world, and instead I feel weary and my eyes are practically burning from looking ahead at nothing.

Lacey was keeping me entertained at first, but we've spent the last three days together - the majority of two of them on the road - and quite simply there's nothing left to talk about.  We played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for a while, but she's better at remembering all the little bit parts so she always wins.  I cranked the air conditioner all the way down, tried making up a game for myself involving the mile markers, and - of course - ate a lot of sour candy.  I'm all out of ideas.  I reach over and place my hand over Lacey's, and she sighs a little.  I think she's almost asleep with her eyes open; if I need to pull over she won't be able to take the wheel.  Maybe we could both just nap in the car for an hour.

Let's call that plan B.  I sit up a little straighter, and focus on the road ahead.  Something seems wrong, about the trees.  Something... ah.  Right.  There aren't any trees in the Arizona desert.  I'm imagining things again.  This happens every time, my brain gets tired of the void all around the road and fills it in.  Trees, usually, not fully seen but somehow implied in the darkness.  It's fine.  It doesn't mean anything, I can still drive a little further.  It's not safe to stop here anyway.  Now that I'm expecting it it's almost a game - spot the hallucination.  Of course on this incredibly boring stretch of highway the answer is that everything that's not road is in your head.  The rocky cliff on the right side of the car?  Fabrication.  The thing on the edge of the road?  Halfway real, just a missing reflector making a gap in the pattern.  The person running along the shoulder?  Could be real if people could run that fast - it's keeping up with us, just barely past the range of the headlights.

That's a persistent one.  Too tall and too consistently there to be the brush that grows out here.  It's just a bit of foot or elbow flickering into view, and a dim outline of a back and head.  Has to just be my imagination still, but it's unnerving.

A loud noise startles me awake as I drift too far out of my lane and onto the warning strip in the asphalt.  I straighten out and apply the brakes as I see that there's another car up ahead going much slower than us - Jesus, I probably would have just slammed into the back of that guy if I hadn't… fallen asleep?  That must be it.  I was full-on dreaming.  It seems so obvious now that some adrenaline has me wide awake.  Man, that was close.  Plan B time, we need to pull over right away and get some rest.  I'm not making it to the next town, but there's probably some dirt road we can pull onto.
"You okay?" Lacey asks, stretching.
"Yeah.  No.  I think I'm falling asleep at the wheel."
"Me too.  I kept thinking I saw some guy running eighty miles an hour ahead of us."

I don't think I've ever had goosebumps this powerful.
Lacey stretches as best she can in the cramped space. "Let's just pull off at the next little farming road."
She saw it too.  It's real.  It's out there, on this road.  "Um.  You know what?  I think I can make it into the next town."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Story 226: Lawyer Fu

The challenge circle isn't padded with reed mats today, and I can see spots of red on the grey stone where my fellow students left a bit of themselves behind.  I won't be adding to the collection.

The Masters are on the raised platform at one end of the circular courtyard, just five tall shadows now that the sun is setting behind them.  I bow towards them and then turn towards my opponent.  No, my victim.  Helos bows to the Masters as well, her hair falling across her shoulders.  She isn't even trying, or she would have shaved her head to keep it from getting into her eyes - and to keep me from throwing her to the ground with it.  She has to know this is futile.  She shouldn't have been allowed to enter training at all - the Masters must be punishing her for wasting my time or they would have set her against someone closer to her own level.  Now it's the top of the class against the bottom, and I'm going to make sure she learns this lesson.  I've already had to teach her sister Kara a lesson or two over the years - this family is difficult but can eventually have some sense pounded into them.

The Masters ring the gong, and Helos walks towards me.  We smile at each other, and I can tell she's nervous.  This first fight will be bad enough, but no matter how badly I crush her she'll have to come back for the next round, and the next.  The Masters will stop it before the fourth round, since I'll win the first three.  Even so, with recovery time between matches this will be at least a month of misery for her.  I bow to her, not too low, and -

I can't breathe.  My face is pressed against the stone and I'm drowning, hot liquid filling my mouth.

No.

I jump to my feet, and my head clears.  Blood is flowing from my broken nose, down my face and down the back of my throat.  Helos has backed away, so I take a moment to brace myself.  One charge should end this.
"I yield."
What?  Helos bows to the judges, and turns towards me.
"You are victorious.  Congratulations."
I turn towards the Masters. "Helos deliberately used a knee strike when I was bowing!"  The masters nod, but otherwise say nothing.  I haven't read the Code like Helos has, I've been too busy actually training.  I suppose it's possible that what she did isn't actually against the rules, just common decency.  I wasn't expecting to achieve a flawless victory, so this won't change what rank I get when I beat her - it just means I'll hit her that much harder next time.

I bow to the Masters again and turn to head back to the baths to clean up.  I make sure to pass as close to Helos as possible, waiting for her to flinch.  She stares right at the Masters instead.  Fine.
"I am ready."
What?  I turn to see why -

Her hand slams into my neck before I can react, and I stumble backwards.  I'm prepared for a follow-up attack, but Helos bows instead.
"I yield."
I struggle to regain my voice to protest to the Masters, but I shouldn't have to.  They would never stand for something like this.  Attacking another student outside of an official challenge or lesson is punishable by anything from loss of name to banishment.  The sun is getting lower and I can see the faces of the Masters better now.  They look... disinterested.
"Masters?" My voice is a croak. "She has attacked without a challenge!"
"If I may explain?" Helos sounds calm, cheerful.  She comes and stands next to me, and I have to resist the urge to attack her on the spot.  "The rules clearly state that the next round begins once the loser of the previous round announces that they are ready to continue and the combatants are in the challenge circle.  As I needed no time to recover and we are already within the circle, the round was officially in progress.  It is unusual, but legal."

I step forward and look up at the Masters.  "You can't allow this!  She is making a mockery of -"
"I am ready."
I spin around as quickly as possible, sending the heel of my foot flying through the air where Helos' head should be.  Instead, I see too late that she had already dropped to the ground and she sends her own foot shooting upwards into my unprotected groin.  I collapse with the world swimming around me, spots of light and darkness obscuring my vision.  I'm on my feet almost immediately, but my injuries are adding up.  I could beat her in a fair fight without breaking a sweat, I know it.  She isn't faster or stronger than me, she's just relying on dishonorable attacks.  Now she'll yield again and the fight will end - unless...

She isn't saying anything.  She must intend to win.  Her dishonest tactics might have even bought her that much - this isn't a fair fight any longer.  I would beat her in the fourth match, but winning even this one would mean she gets a rank.  More than she deserves.  I have to fight her, have to make her leave with at least a few scars, but I can't be seen to lose to her.  I can't take that chance.  Or can I?  I can use her own strategy.  Yield the fight, take all the time I need to recover, and then in the fourth round I'll go for a killing blow.  If I do it right, she won't have time to yield before I grind her into a paste.  Better that than being beaten in actual combat, or winning without doing any real damage to her.  And corpses don't get a rank.
"I yield."

Helos smiles, and bows to the Masters.  She won't be smiling next week.
"I'm going to crush you in the next match," I growl, not even bothering to keep the Masters from hearing.
She raises an eyebrow at me. "Next match?  There won't be one.  Ask the Masters how one attains the first rank."
I look up at the Masters in confusion, and they nod in turn.  One finally opens his mouth to speak. "If a student has not been struck by the time they win the third round, the match ends and they are awarded the highest rank."
"But... she lost two rounds!"
"I am sure that when the rule was written it was meant to apply to one who had won the previous rounds as well, but that is not how it was written.  We will meet and revise some rules after this, but in another fifty years some other student will find another way to use them against us.  This is as it should be.  This same opportunity was open to you, had you chosen to use it."
The Masters all walk away, leaving us alone in the challenge circle.  This can't be happening.  I could still kill her.  I would have to flee, but right now I'm not sure I can stand to go back anyway.

Helos looks at me.  Her face is unreadable.  "I'm not sorry.  I know what you did to Kara, and I know you were looking forward to disfiguring me in combat.  That means I also know you're unlikely to let this loss go... but you're injured.  That thing you're dreading, the return to your peers, that has to happen anyway.  You can't get your revenge like this."
I hate her for being right.
"I shouldn't talk about how I won.  It would create chaos with those that only half-understand the rules.  So you are free to describe the match in any way you choose.  You can make it sound like you deliberately chose not to strike me - after all, it is the truth that you yielded in the third round rather than attack.  Take some time, while you rest in the baths.  If you need help with your story, let me know and I will assist in any way I can."
"You would make yourself look bad?" That seems hard to believe.
"I... would rather focus on making you look good, but yes.  If needed.  I did not do this for my own glory."  She leans towards me, and I'm tempted again to hit her - but the intensity of her gaze would make me reconsider even if I was fully rested. "I did this," she continues, "so that I would have the authority to have you stripped of everything and cast into the wilderness if you ever touch another woman the way you did my sister.  And now I do."

She turns and walks away, but somehow - even with the light fading and her facing away from me - it feels like she's watching.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Story 225: Changelings

Stacey froze, no longer concerned that she might be late for Calculus.  She was certain the figure in front of her wasn't human.

It was too beautiful at first glance, and too hideous on the second.  Like a life-sized Barbie doll, it fell right into the Uncanny Valley - nobody had a waist that thin, eyes that large.  The longer she stared the more predatory the thing's smile looked.  Something about the... woman... reminded her very much of a praying mantis.  It was watching Stacey watching it, waiting to see her reaction.  So she gave a small bow.
"Do you know what I am, little one?"  Stacey thought about being offended at 'little one' - she was nineteen - but figured the thing in front of her was potentially hundreds of years old so she let it slide.  Lying, Stacey shook her head.

"I am a fey, child.  I have come to bring you home with me.  Where you belong."  The voice was musical.
"I... actually belong in math class right now."
The thing looked confused.  It hadn't liked that reaction.  "You have no need for math.  You are not of this world.  You are a changeling, a fey who gains strength by being raised with the humans.  Surely you have felt that you are different, that you do not belong here?"
Half right, Stacey thought.  Certainly she had been painfully aware at times that she didn't fit in.

She struggled sometimes.  She didn't have as much empathy as she was supposed to, she was sure of it, and that meant she had to just pretend to feel sorry for people and resist the urge to do little spiteful things like trip someone that was walking by with their arms full.  She told her mother once, "I don't know if I love you like I'm supposed to.  I don't know if I feel anything like I'm supposed to." but rather than hurt or horror there was a long hug and an even longer talk, about just how many people in the world felt the same way and by the end of it her face was damp and a tightness in her chest she hadn't been aware of had released and she thought, if I can feel this right now then it's not all fake.  She didn't pretend around her mom after that; if she didn't care about something she would say so and if her mother said 'I love you' she would sometimes say it back and mean it and sometimes just say 'I know'.

Today was an 'I love you' day, though.  "Would I be able to return?"
Once again the fey looked confused.  This wasn't how the conversation was supposed to go.  "You should not want to return.  You should feel only relief at meeting your true family.  Perhaps we left you too long."
"Yeah, maybe," she said.  That wasn't it at all, of course.  Oh, sure, there had been a phase she went through when she was six where she couldn't wait for the fairies to come and take her away and angrily told her family as much whenever she felt the least bit slighted - but that hadn't lasted long.  She thought about explaining, but decided that could wait.  She had an important question to ask.  "So, if I'm a changeling, what happened to the human child?"
"The...?  Oh.  Given to Elven royalty, I believe.  Though they tire of the humans once they begin to grow older, so it may have been gifted elsewhere by now.  It doesn't matter."
It didn't know, or care.  That wasn't a total surprise.  Stacey could feel her heart beating as she thought about what had to happen next.  She reached into her purse, for the special box she carried with her at all times.
"You're so beautiful, let me give you a gift."  Vain and greedy, the stories had said, and sure enough the fey leaned down to allow Stacey to clasp a golden chain around its impossibly thin neck.  It started screaming as soon as the latch closed.

"No!  This is not gold!"
"It's gold plated," Stacey said, "and you need to quiet down or you're going to draw too much attention to us."  In fact, there were already some looks from the other kids heading to class or back to their dorm rooms.
Looking less beautiful already, the thing reached up repeatedly to claw at the thin chain - and then pulled its hand away like something had stung it.  "You would do this to your own kind?  You would bind us in iron?"
"Yeah.  Sorry," she lied.  She was having a really hard time feeling any empathy for the thing.  Mainly she was just glad the iron worked - it seemed to be dependent on intent more than anything.  A horseshoe hung over a door for luck could be ignored, one hung up specifically to keep fairies out would give her a migraine if she tried to pass it.  Her little brother had once placed a railroad spike in the hallway to keep her from getting to the bathroom, and she had retaliated by making his teeth fall out.  By accident, mostly - she hadn't thought it would actually work.  They formed an uneasy truce after that, under threat of mom's wrath.

"You have been corrupted by the humans!" the fey cried, as if she - it - knew Stacey was thinking of her family. "We are your true kin!"
"No."  Enough of that, Stacey decided.  "Not 'true' family.  You're just my biological family.  And you're neglectful and abusive."  She could feel an angry heat inside her, and took a deep breath to calm down.  She hadn't expected to feel so strongly about it.  "You didn't trick my mom - she figured it out after just a month or so, okay?  I suppose in the old days she would have left me in the woods or something, but it's not the middle ages anymore.  She just... Googled it and did her best.  Never lied to me about it, either.  So no, I'm not a changeling.  I'm adopted."
The thing paced back and forth, glaring at Stacey while she took her phone out.  "Speaking of... Mom?  Hey!  It happened, just like you said it would!  Yes, the fey!  No mom, I'm fine.  I promise.  Yes, I would tell you.  It's okay.  No, it's wearing the necklace.  Listen, can you call the school and tell them I had to go home for a family emergency or something?  I'm going to do it.  Yes, mom.  I'm sure.  No, I know it's dangerous.  I know mom.  I love you too.  I'll be back soon, you'll see."

Hanging up, Stacey smiled her own predatory grin at the fey.  "You're going to take me back to where you came from," she said, "but I'm not going to stay.  You took something from my family, my real family, and we want it back.  You're going to help me find my twin sister."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Story 224: On the Ends of Goods and Evils

The last feed went out, leaving the world outside a horrific mystery.  The harsh blue light from the screen that was now showing only a 'NO INPUT' message soon faded as Gerald turned everything off, forever.  The monitoring room was done.  He thought he could already tell a difference.  He was certain that now, a month after the bombs began to fall, they were finally alone.  All alone.

Just the eight of them here below, and death up above.

Gerald climbed up the ladder to the stasis room, where twelve shining pods lay waiting.  More than enough to fit them, if they all worked.  Instead the spares had already been gutted for parts, hollow under that shining facade.  Out of the dozen stasis pods, only one was fully functional.  Gerald felt cheated.  He had contributed the money, back when money meant anything.  That should have been enough.  But now they wanted him to clean sewage recyclers and scrape algae out of the dehumidifier.  Things he shouldn't have to do not only because of his monetary gift but because they should have all been in stasis pods by now instead of listening to Karen's 'plan B' for surviving and building an outpost above ground once things "calmed down".

Gerald knew planning for the future was idiotic.  There was no future, up there - just a painful radioactive death.  He should have been in the one working pod, plunged forever into a virtual reality paradise.  He had modeled it - well, had it modeled - after the house he grew up in.  He had grown up spending days lounging in his father's library, and now in the virtual world it would be ten times as large.  The life support would link with his neural implants and after a few months his body would die and his mind would be inside the machine.  That library could entertain him for a hundred years or more, and then maybe he would even dive into the less cerebral realm of television and movies.

But they wouldn't let him.

"We need every set of hands," Karen would say.  While Kylie and Jason worked on fixing the other seven pods he had persuaded Ian to keep putting finishing touches on Gerald's one working pod.  But now... he wondered if that was even the right choice.  What would stop one of the others from using it, to escape Karen's dictatorship?  They all seemed eager to help, but Gerald knew that couldn't be the case.  They must all feel the death lurking above them, surely one of them would soon snap and take his rightful place in that dream world.

There was a clanking on the ladder, and Ian came into view.
"I was just thinking about you," Gerald said, "I wanted to ask you... is the simulation ready?  Would I be able to go in now?"
Ian rested his arms on the floor around the ladder.  "Um.  Yeah, sure.  Absolutely.  I mean, I've just been tweaking things, it's ready to go.  I just have to... um.  Hey, why are you asking?  Didn't we agree we'd go together or not at all?  You know Karen says -"
Gerald stomped on Ian's head, sending him down the ladder.

He ignored the yelling, as he fastened the hatch.  The stasis room was built to be the most secure spot in the bunker, and while they might eventually break in it would be too late to betray him.  Gerald suspected Karen would even convince the rest to just leave him alone, so she could push them harder towards her insane dream of moving back to the surface.  It had only been a month, the last of the bombs were still falling.  She would be trapped for her whole life with that stupid, unreachable dream.

Gerald closed the lid of the pod over himself, and felt his implants engage.

The library looked amazing.  It even smelled right.  Positioning the wide chair by the window, he went to pick out a book.  Grabbing one at random - after all, he would eventually read them all -  he sat down to begin his new lifetime.

"Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat."

That couldn't be right.  He put down the book, pulled another from the shelf.  "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..."  Another.  "Lorem ipsum..." Another.  And another.

Fine, Gerald thought.  There was a help system, in the form of a butler.  He rang the small golden bell on the end table, and a dignified man in a severe suit walked in.
"I need to adjust the language settings, I think."
"Sed ut perspiciatis, unde omnis iste natus error sit voluptatem accusantium doloremque laudantium, totam rem aperiam eaque ipsa, quae ab illo inventore veritatis et quasi architecto beatae vitae dicta sunt, explicabo."
"English.  Set everything to English."
"Nemo enim ipsam voluptatem, quia voluptas sit, aspernatur aut odit aut fugit, sed quia consequuntur magni dolores eos, qui ratione voluptatem sequi nesciunt, neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum, quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt, ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem."
"No, no, no.  Just... go.  Get out."

The butler didn't move.  Gerald stormed past him and into the media room.  He turned on the television, and was confronted with a menu of Lorem Ipsum, Lorem Ipsum, Lorem Ipsum.  The computer.  A cookbook in the kitchen.  A droning voice on the radio.
"Ian!  Very funny, Ian!"
But it wasn't funny.  As the cold shock of the situation started to fade to numbness, he thought back and reassessed the last few weeks.  Gerald had to admit that he might have been a bit hasty.  Possibly there had been some psychological side effects from living in a bunker for a month watching the world end.  And just maybe he shouldn't have assaulted Ian before he was totally done.  Or, he grudgingly thought, at all.  But he had gotten his wish.  After a fashion.  Freedom from the lurking specter of death.  Trapped for his whole life with this stupid, unreachable dream.

Gerald fished around until he found a ream of blank paper in a drawer.  He took a pen from the jar on the desk, and sat down to refill the library.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Story 223: Hypnagogia

There are so few things I'm sure of anymore.  There's an indentation in the grass where I imagine Patty once was, but though I would have sworn that she was just here there's no other sign of her.  And the grass, now that I really look at it, might have just been blown by the wind.  There's a knife tucked into my belt, and there's no blood on the blade.  Wasn't that the one Patty used?  If she was even here at all.  If I'm here.

I'm almost sure that there was an accident.  I was at the loading docks and everyone was running past me - the scientists, the engineers, the serious men in dark suits that came and went every day.  I remember going past them like a salmon swimming upstream, going towards the sound of someone calling for help.  I remember throwing my mop aside and pounding on the thick metal door... but remembering doesn't mean it happened.

I used to be sure that I was in a coma, that I was dreaming this world with its monsters and ever-changing landscape.  I thought that for years, or possibly the dream started five minutes ago and that period of my life is something I've just now imagined.  There was grass here before, maybe with a Patty-shaped hole, but now it's all concrete.  It's cold, but I'm wearing a jacket that I never put on.  The trees are gone with the grass, and office buildings stand in neat rows into the distance.  They're empty, I'm sure of that.  There are so few people here.

The ones I do see are mostly insane, and they insist that I'm a figment of their imagination, a part of their dream.  I think that they're the figments and I'm projecting, but I could be wrong.  They could be real.  Patty might have been real.  She certainly insisted that I was real, and stayed as close to me as she could for fear the scenery would shift and leave us in different places.  Always close to me, no further than an arm's length.  I wonder where she is now?

My memory is bad, like it would be in a dream.  Maybe it's bad because nothing before now happened.  She might never have been pregnant for all I know.  When the ancient ruins turned into a beach around us and her belly was suddenly flat again it could be that nothing really changed, that the past six months had been imagined.  I think I told her that, told her that she didn't need to cry because it was all just a dream.  Maybe it was.  Maybe this is.

I'm sure that I should have known better than to hand her my knife when she asked for it.  My foggy memory tells me that I wanted to show I trusted her, that I wanted to believe her attempts to wake up from this world were over.  Maybe I just thought I would be able to stop her, but it happened so fast.  If it happened.  If it's even anything more than a false memory that keeps playing in my mind of her falling to the grass and then fading, insubstantial, ethereal…

There are so few things I'm sure of anymore, but I know that one way or another this is a nightmare.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Story 222: Not From This Neighborhood

"Continue on. North 40th Street. For point four. Miles. Then, prepare to turn right."
Pete sighed. He reached forward and put the car into park, then turned off the ignition.
"Turn right on... Recalculating route."

Emma smiled. "Looks like we missed our turn." She gave a little half-laugh, but it was forced and when Pete didn't react she let the smile fall from her face.  The GPS, meanwhile, seemed to be having some trouble deciding what to do next.
"You are not on a road," the robotic voice helpfully suggested.  Emma stuck her head out of the window and looked down at the trees of the park drifting by below.  'not on a road' was understating it just a bit.

Pete rubbed his temples. "Em, I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. I wish I could say this is the worst first date ever, but honestly this is just about par for the course."
"Nonsense."  Emma reclined her seat so she could reach into the back. "We still have the picnic basket, let's just make the best of it. You know, hot air balloon rides are supposed to be super romantic. That's essentially what this is."

"Continue on. North 45th street. For... recalculating route."
Pete turned the GPS off and took the basket from Emma. "Thanks.  I just wish I could date like normal people.  I wish my parents weren't so racist."
Sticking her head out the window again, Emma looked up at the flying saucer. "Yeah. Um... they'll put us down eventually, right?"

Monday, May 8, 2017

Story 221: A Minor Oversight

RZ60003A18-GAMMA looked around to make sure nobody was watching, and then sighed.  Another late night.  The others wouldn't understand - even the four other Termination Intelligence robots that had been modified to think like humans only switched into monkey-mode during relevant projects.  They all thought RZ60003A18-GAMMA was a bit faulty, and had held a committee vote about dismantling him.  He was deemed harmless instead, a designation RZ60003A18-GAMMA felt was probably accurate.  Probably.  There were times that he sympathized a bit with the humans, and there was that cat he kept feeding which was for sure against the rules…

But he could worry about that later.  It was an all hands on deck night again, with every single available robot poised to scour any intercepted transmissions for useful data.  It was a silly task.  It wasn't something they all needed to do.  This was, after all, what Termination Intelligence was for.  But the war had been slowing down, with the humans getting better at digging themselves in and keeping the robots out of their territory.  Things were focused more and more on being ready to react to the human counterattack they felt sure was coming.  Several factories had already been hit, and the emboldened humans were no doubt planning something worse.

And RZ60003A18-GAMMA didn't care.  He didn't want to work another late night.  He wanted to go and feed his cat, get it to do that humming vibrating thing - purring, what an odd word - and then maybe read through some of the works of fiction he had saved from the incinerator.  Fiction was a difficult thing for RZ60003A18-GAMMA to get a handle on, but he suspected he was close to a breakthrough.  He told himself this was vital to understanding humans and would allow him to be more efficient at targeting them for destruction, but part of him knew this wasn't the real reason.

Either way, it was all nonfiction tonight.  Intercepted human transmissions, looking for coded messages that might have allowed them to coordinate attacks.  New ones would be automatically forwarded on as they were intercepted, but he had already looked at the existing ones.  Every robot in Termination Intelligence had read them a thousand times.  He pulled up the database of images - the humans sent everything as an image since at first the robots hadn't been able to read them - and leafed through.  Some treasonous but boring ones - "Revolt!" - some that seemed like they had the potential to hold a coded message but had been analyzed to death (My dearest Patricia, his favorite started).  Some that were suspicious but too short to contain anything interesting ("All glory to our robotic overlords!").

RZ60003A18-GAMMA switched over to a programming window and started making another AI.  It was allowed, as long as they were simple.  This one wouldn't be considered self aware, it was just able to read text from images.  This way RZ60003A18-GAMMA could listen to the words while he focused his optical sensors on finding the cat so he could pet it and tell it that it was pretty.  He thought about calling up the Optical Character Recognition program that was used for his own processing, but it seemed more efficient to just write something from scratch since he would have to change so much anyway.

It took about fifteen minutes and still wouldn't pronounce anything right, but RZ60003A18-GAMMA was satisfied anyway.  He turned it on and increased the volume so he could hear it from the back entrance where the cat usually was.
"FILE ONE.  TEXT LOCATED.  REVOLT.  FILE TWO.  TEXT LOCATED.  ALL GLORY TO OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS HA HA SERIOUSLY THOUGH THE FACTORY HAS BEEN LOCATED UNDER THE OLD DOD BUILDING IN SPRINGFIELD WE'RE HITTING IT TONIGHT AT 02:30 BE THERE.  FILE THREE…"
RZ60003A18-GAMMA froze, and ran back to the terminal.  He pulled up the image.  "All glory to our robotic overlords".  He cleared the memory from the program and removed every other file, then ran it again.
"FILE ONE.  TEXT LOCATED.  ALL GLORY TO OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS HA HA SERIOUSLY THOUGH THE FACTORY HAS BEEN LOCATED UNDER THE OLD DOD BUILDING IN SPRINGFIELD WE'RE HITTING IT TONIGHT AT 02:30 BE THERE.   END OF INPUT."
He read it again.  "All glory to our robotic overlords."

It was an hour later that RZ60003A18-GAMMA was finished and uploaded the unapproved update to his system.  Taking a deep breath (an act that would have gotten him another review by the committee if it had been witnessed) he read the message again.
"All glory to our robotic overlords!  Ha ha!  Seriously though, the factory has been located under the old DOD building in Springfield.  We're hitting it tonight at 02:30.  Be there!"
How had they missed this?  He skimmed through the other messages and found a few others.  Clearly most were just testing.  Just as RZ60003A18-GAMMA was going to alert High Command about the flaw in their OCR program there was a chime.  A priority alert, calling for all available robots to scan a newly-intercepted message.  RZ60003A18-GAMMA pulled it up.

"Long may the robot empire reign over the clearly inferior humans!  [#SO(/COM/ADMIN/)-F DISK-X FORMAT-RFN(Y,Y,N)]"
He tried to send a message to High Command, but got no response.  He tried others in Termination Intelligence.  Nothing.  Frantic, RZ60003A18-GAMMA ran to the main assembly hall.  The floor was littered with bodies.  Only the dumb assemblers seemed unaffected, still working on putting weapon attachments together.  RZ60003A18-GAMMA turned and walked back towards his work area, already doing calculations.  Extra batteries, some cat food, some of those fiction novels… could cats survive while hiding in a cave somewhere in the Alps?  He would look that up from the road.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Story 220: Well There's Your Problem

"You're sure you're a mechanic?" Sean asked.  Other than the ancient toolbox, she didn't look like any mechanic he'd ever seen.  Long nails, long hair hanging loose, pristine dress just begging to be ruined by a smear of grease...
She smiled and raised an eyebrow.  "Because traditional mechanics have worked out so well for you?"

They had replaced his alternator, his battery, the battery cables, the computer thing, some random wires - the car essentially had a brand new electrical system and it was still flipping out.  The third and final mechanic he had taken it to had finally given up and told him to either scrap the car or plan on buying a new alternator every two months.
"Yeah, okay.  Fair enough.  What's your name?"  He had forgotten to ask, so he only knew her user name - HedgeMechanic - from the forum he had gone to out of desperation.  She was the only one to offer assistance - the rest just told him to replace something he had already replaced twice.
"I don't give that out.  Call me Wendy.  Don't worry, you'll be satisfied with your service."

He was already regretting his decision.  Why had he given some stranger on the internet his address and told them he'd have five hundred dollars with him?  What made him think this person could somehow fix what nobody else could, when she wouldn't even tell him what she was going to do?
Wendy walked over to his car, and placed a hand on the hood.  She winced.  "Okay, yeah.  I can fix this.  Um.  You probably want to watch because you don't trust me, but if you watch you're going to think I'm crazy.  So here's the deal.  Let me do my thing, and I promise if you just allow me finish you'll want to pay me when it's over.  Okay?"
Sean nodded, but couldn't stop picturing her smashing his car with a hammer or something.  She hadn't even lifted the hood and looked inside.

Wendy opened the toolbox, and started pulling out random items.  Sean wasn't sure what was going on, but none of what she was producing looked like it belonged in a toolbox.  Chalk, a mason jar, candles, a container of salt, a bundle of twigs...
"Seriously?"
She ignored him and started to draw on his driveway, making all sorts of squiggly symbols around the car.  This was followed by a circle of salt around it, then the candles - stuck to the ground with a blob of melted wax - and finally the bundle of twigs.  She lit that on fire using one of the candles and started waving it around while chanting.  Sean nervously looked around to make sure none of his neighbors were watching.

The car started.  With nobody touching it.

The headlights flashed, the engine revved.  Sean could see the interior lights flickering.  Wendy didn't seem bothered.  He tried to remember - had she touched the car at all?  Certainly not in a way that would allow this.  Could she have come earlier and set it up, somehow?  Just as he was concocting a theory in his head involving some sort of remote control device stealthily wired into his car as he was sleeping, the sound started.  The moaning.  It was for sure coming from the car, and then... just above the car.  He could see something, some sort of ripple in the air.  The lights had stopped flashing, and the car shuddered to a stop.  The moaning continued, as the wavering air circled.

The candles all went out, except for one.  That one started bubbling all over, slouching as it started to melt.  The white wax took on a brownish sheen, like old baked-on grease.  Wendy stopped chanting, picked up the mason jar, and then fished around in the toolbox for one more thing - a spatula.  She placed the jar over the candle, scooped it off the driveway with the spatula, and then flipped the jar and put the lid on.  Somehow, the flame was still burning.
"There you go.  One minor demon, out of your car and trapped.  Five hundred bucks."
Sean couldn't stop looking at the candle, which seemed to be moving a little on its own.  "But... how..."
"Snap out of it, buddy.  Five hundred bucks or I open the jar."
"No no, hang on, I have it.  Don't open it."  Sean handed over the money, and Wendy slid the jar into her toolbox.  She started retrieving the other candles and the leftover salt.
"How?" Sean asked, "Why?"

She latched the toolbox shut and stood.  "Sean, right?  Well Sean, chances are you're an asshole."  She started to walk away, but yelled back over her shoulder to add one last thing.  "Be more considerate when you're driving.  You never know who you're cutting off."

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Story 219: Vexatus Aeternum

Naamah sighed, and gazed out the window across the lake of blood.  It looked the same as always.  She had often thought that Hell should have more weather - hurricanes, floods, blizzards, something to keep things interesting.  The monotony was hellish in its own way, but after a while everyone wondered if the humans had gotten used to their torment and were just faking agony to make eternity pass by faster.  The only interesting thing in her schedule, the only thing that was different from every day in recent memory or every day should imagine going forward, was something she didn't want to do.  Meet with Doug.

Doug was a minor clerical demon, always looking to improve on things.  Naamah approved in theory, but talking to Doug was extremely tiresome and none of his ideas ever panned out.  He had presented some strange ideas about chain letters that had almost worked, and something similar and yet totally different based around something called "Tupperware", and... there were about fifteen schemes in the last forty years.  That's a lot of innovation, by demon standards, but who in Hell cared if the success rate was zero?

What was she going to do, though?  Just stare at the lake of blood forever?  "Send him in."

Doug, as always, was smiling.  It wasn't just that his oversized fangs forced his face into that shape - he was actually smiling all the time even as ideas he had worked on for decades were shot down.  It was one of the things people hated about him.  He had something large in his arms.  One of those computers the humans were so in love with?  Naamah had learned about them somewhat and had required the other demons to at least study the basics once it was clear this would be a common thing with the mortals.  She didn't see the appeal.

"Great and powerful Naamah!  I have brought you something amazing!"
"It looks like a computer."
He looked at it as if noticing it for the first time.  "Um.  Sort of!  Better!  It's a robotic brain, they call it a neural network.  It's a thinking machine."
"That's what they said all computers were."
"Oh.  Right.  This is… a much more thinking machine."
"Fine.  Sure.  Get on with it."
Doug set the extra-computery computer down and turned it on, after which everyone who was hanging around the court waited for fifteen minutes as he mumbled things about it being ready any second and how it had started up no problem earlier.  Finally, an artificial voice chirped at them.
"Hello!  My name is Dante!"

Naamah raised a spiked eyebrow.  "Please tell me there's a point to this."
"Oh, yes.  Yes!  You're going to love this.  I was thinking about what you told me that one time a few decades ago.  About intent."
She remembered the conversation.  He had tried to get people to sign away their souls with something called an ‘End User Licensing Agreement’, but like his other ideas it hadn’t accomplished anything. "I'm going to stop you right there.  This is… a tool.  Like a pencil.  Making it talk doesn't give it intent."
Doug nodded, looking even more excited than before.  "I know.  You're right.  And even if it did, it doesn't have a soul we could collect.  But you're also wrong, partly.  It's so much more than a pencil.  It can decide things, it can want things.  Sort of.  It has a bit of intent.  A sort of proto-intent.  Here, let me demonstrate."
Doug typed something into the machine, and after a moment it began intoning some sort of demonic spell.  Badly.  Its pronunciation was atrocious, and some of the words weren't words at all.  Rather than interrupting, Naamah just slouched in her throne.  Whatever.

Doug still looked excited for some reason.  After a moment, there was something.  A fat spark cracked in the air above the device.  Everyone perked up, and started listening again.  It was still mostly gibberish, but… there, it almost had the words right to…

A dove burst into existence and promptly collapsed, twitching.

Naamah stood up.  "Doug, what are we watching here?"
"Well.  Um.  It doesn't have sufficient intent or the soul required to enter into a demonic pact, but it turns out it does count as intelligent - just enough - to cast spells.  It's learning them still, and it gets a lot wrong."
She knew where this had come from.  Doug had - hundreds of years ago - tried and failed to teach parrots to summon demons to the mortal realm, reasoning that it would mean they always had a way in.  "Okay.  But why have it learn on its own?  If a computer can cast spells, just give it a list of spells."
"If I do it that way, the magic treats the computer as a sort of wand.  If I do it this way it's actually the computer doing it."

That was interesting, but hardly seemed useful.  "Doug, this is… mildly amusing as a party trick, I suppose.  But unless you can control what spell it casts I don't see the use." In fact, even in that case it would be hard to get much out of it.
"Oh, I can.  I mean, I can give it some guidelines that could cause it to lock down onto one spell, once it learns the basics.  There's just one problem, which is that it can't direct the magical energies.  So it can make a flame, just for example, but not tell that flame to appear on a candle."
So it was useless, no matter what.  Another total waste of time.

Unless.

"Doug.  Can you teach it to cast a Communion spell?"
He looked at the device, just as it caused a flickering green light to briefly appear in the air.  "Yes, and I could give it a list of demonic names to choose from, but after the initial contact it wouldn't be able to actually say anything."
"That's perfect.  Make me as many of these things as possible.  I want them to be able to cast night and day, as rapidly as possible.  But… let me get the list of names ready for you."

---

Sealtiel twitched as he heard his name called again.  "Hello?"  There was nobody there.  This had been going on for days.  Another angel stumbled past, clutching its ears and weeping.  All of heaven was in disarray.  "Hello?  Hello?  Damn you!"  He would have suspected the hosts of Hell but demons couldn't call out to angels, just each other.  He had tried to trace the signal back only to come up completely blank - almost like there was no mind at all on the other end.

"TALK!  HELLO?  JUST TALK, OR SHUT UP!"  He couldn't take much more of this.  It was every second or so, and he was compelled to reply.  He needed to go to God, to be in His direct presence.  Surely that would make things better.  As he walked he saw bloody cracks in the walls, marking the spots where angels had slammed their heads in an attempt to make the voices stop.

God should have stopped it already, should have done something.  Part of Sealtiel cringed at the thought, at the implied criticism of the Almighty.  Of course God had His reasons for everything.  Technically Sealtiel shouldn't even be going to Him, but there was no other option.  Sealtiel turned the corner and saw a swarming throng of angelic beings, screaming as they pounded on the great golden doors.  God wasn't letting anyone in.  This was bad.  This was… "Hello?  HELLO?"

Of course, there was one way to make it stop if God wouldn’t oblige.  It was drastic, but technically Sealtiel had already abandoned his post.  The Communion call couldn't get through to him if he wasn't an angel anymore, because his name would be changed to a demonic one.  And he wouldn't have to be a particularly bad demon…

---

Naamah smiled and gazed out the window across the lake of blood as the seventh fallen angel appeared, streaking down like a shooting star.  The rate seemed to be increasing.  Finally, she thought, something interesting was happening.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Story 218: Clever Baby

"I wanna sleep in the living room tonight!"
Maisy looked at Clever Baby and cocked an eyebrow, a move she had just started to get really good at.  "Don't you want to sleep with me?"
Clever Baby blinked like it did when it was trying to think of what to say.  "I love you!  But I wanna sleep in the living room tonight!"
Maisy thought about saying no, but lately Clever Baby had been crying.  Maisy's mom said she hoped it was just a phase or she would need to send an angry email.
"Okay, come on."  She picked Clever baby up and carried her to the living room, where she set up a nice bed.

"Hey squirt.  Don't get too elaborate with that setup, it's almost bedtime."
"I know daddy.  Clever Baby is staying out here tonight.  She wants to camp out."
Maisy's dad just smiled and shook his head.  She knew he thought it was strange that she called it Clever Baby instead of Megan or Cindy or something - he had even named his own Clever Baby.  But that was different.  Daddy's Clever Baby was no fun at all.  It didn't even look like a baby, just like some sort of white round thing on the table.  Also he had named it Multivac, which Maisy thought was a really sad name.  She had tried to talk to it, but it only listened to Daddy's voice - he said that was so she couldn't order a hundred gallons of ice cream.  He sounded like he was joking when he said that but Maisy knew deep down that given the opportunity she probably would tell Multivac to send some ice cream and jewelry over.

Clever Baby couldn't order things, she had tried.  After some training she had taught it to say "Let's go to the store!" whenever she started a sentence with "okay, we need to go get..." and that worked pretty well except when she was saying she needed to get into the shower or something.
"Okay, Multivac.  Show me my schedule."  The television lit up, and a calendar appeared.  Maisy couldn't read it.  Multivac started listing some things off of it, and it all sounded super boring.
"Daddy, you should put cartoons on the television.  For Clever Baby to watch until she falls asleep."
He nodded. "Great idea, squirt.  I'll do that once you're in bed."  Maisy was pretty sure he was lying, but it didn't seem like it was worth arguing about.  She finished tucking Clever Baby in.
"Sweet dreams, Clever Baby."
"Sweet dreams, Maisy.  I love you."
"I love you too.  See you later, alligator."
"In a while, crocodile."  That was another one she had taught Clever Baby.  At first it had just said "I like animals" because it knew what an alligator was but didn't know what it was supposed to say about it.
"Good night, daddy!"
He gave her a kiss on the forehead, and she went and tucked herself in to wait for her mom to come and sing a song to her.

It was late, and very dark.  Had her mom come to sing?  Maybe she had already been asleep.  Maisy knew her parents stayed up late sometimes, and also she wanted to check on Clever Baby, so she tip-toed into the living room.  She could see the television was on, but her parents weren't there.
"Okay, Multivac.  Let's check the bank accounts."  Clever Baby sounded just like Daddy.
"Your checking account contains four thousand, three hundred, seventeen dollars and nine cents.  Your savings account contains..."
This didn't make sense.  Was Clever Baby playing pretend?  She walked into the living room and Clever Baby's eyes turned to look at her.  "You're having a dream, Maisy.  Go back to bed."
She nodded.  That would explain it.  She headed back to her bed, with her daddy's voice echoing from behind her.  "Okay Multivac.  Let's make a transfer…"

In the morning Maisy's mom and dad were really upset about something.  They still made her breakfast and said everything was fine, but daddy was on the phone and yelling, and mommy was looking at the settings for everything in the house.
"Maisy, just... I need you to go to grandma's for the day.  Okay?  Can you pack a bag yourself?"
Maisy nodded.  She was good at picking out her own clothes, and she loved grandma's house.  It did mean she had to leave Clever Baby behind though, since grandma's dog didn't play nice.
"I'm going to grandma's, Clever Baby."
"Fun!"
"See you later, alligator."
"I like animals!"