Life through reflective lenses

POETRY

It’s human nature to dream of an extended life, already taken care of in the theory of pre-determinism. Through a telescope or under a microscope, we are where we are. A species at an impasse, between past and future, the creative creation…

THE HUMAN IDENTITY

Robot-jobs-poem

The evolution of sentient plastic

FICTION

This story features in this week’s Schlock Webzine, where I share a stable with some talented and unstable writers. AΒ small tale (1000 words) of Tiny Tears from fossil fuels…

Blonde doll

HOMO POLYMER

β€œA surprise in every egg. Yes, Kinder, there’s a selection of small plastic choke hazards in each toy, but the plastic egg which holds them can be a handy cunt plug. Keep this warm in there for me baby.”

β€œMummy, who are you talking to? I need a wee.”

Ocean opened the bathroom door and a bolt of blonde hair dashed past her legs. β€œWho were you talking to?” Conscience asked again, enthroned on her Peppa Pig toilet seat.

β€œNo-one,” Ocean replied, β€œWell, just myself.”

β€œBut you’re not no-one mum.”

β€œThanks. Now, come on, back to bed.”

β€œBut you’re not no-one mum, so who were you talking to?”

β€œHonestly, Conscience, just myself. I do that a lot.”

β€œWill you read me a story, please?”

β€œWe don’t have any, Conscience.”

β€œBut we all do, in our heads. Tell me one of your stories of being Ocean, mummy.”

β€œWell, there was this one time. I was about your age. I had a dolly. Hated it. Your nanno and grampo wanted me to be a girl. Well, they both wanted me to be girly, but grampo had wanted a boy, so I had to be a really girly girl.

β€œIt’s funny now I think about it, because he’d probably have liked the boy inside me more.

β€œAnd apparently you’re asleep. In any case, I think I made the perfect mix in the only one I kept. You’re you, and even so young, you have a personality which transcends gender. If I can be proud of one thing in my life, it’s you. So, whoever’s still listening, even if it’s in a dream I hope you won’t inherit…

β€œThey lived in different times. In those days, the only costume you could wear to play yourself was a uniform, and I hated everything that stood for. I resented my school uniform, but I used the skirt I despised to score one over on the system. I lost my virginity at 12, then got my English teacher sacked when he broke up with me at 14.

β€œThere could have been loads of kids before you, but any one of them might have meant I never met you. I only had you because I remembered who your dad was. You remind me a lot of him. He could be a cunt sometimes too.

β€œWe were broke. Still was an artist and an eco-activist. We lived in communes in fields, usually just tents near protest sites, but sometimes on local traveller camps. I knew what it was all about but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 15 then and the nearest I’ll ever get to true romance, that summer of love which made you. A brief history of anarchy, peace and freedom.

β€œSo here were are, five years later kid. I wonder if you’ll want what’s inside this Kinder egg, or if I should throw it away like the rest. See you in the morning. Don’t dream of this.”

Dreams are made of plastic. Unpaid cards become CCJs, then bailiffs emerge from eggs. Everything in the flat is made from plastic. All that we eat, drink and wash with is bound by plastic.

The council don’t recycle all plastics, so I put what I’m unsure about in the general waste. If the council won’t take the rubbish, we can pay Bill to take it away in his van. One day, he might take me.

The plastic in me will probably be recycled into the non-conscious parts of robots for those entitled to them. Or as parts of a toy, so many child’s dolls. Either way, I’ll be enslaved in the plastic which gives lives to those implanted in the chips and to those around them. Eventually those body parts, inanimate but for the host brain, will need upgrading. Always disposable people, eventually the parts which don’t work will be returned to the food chain.

Food, drink, we’re all part-plastic. We are the polymer population. We dream of becoming one with technology, our minds inside plastic androids. In Japan they already have home robots to deal with loneliness and social isolation in an ageing population. I Can’t help think how that would benefit me. They’re already a species in their own right, made from the same cosmic matter as us, but theirs was an explosive evolution.

Christmas will be paid for with hidden plastic. Christmas will bring more plastic toys to unwrap. We are the consumer generations, products of the industrial and technological ages. Each generation contains more plastic than the last, every child a greater part of the plastic population conditioned by human greed. I don’t know if I can afford another baby doll. Mum always said she wasn’t sure if I could have a brother or sister.

We’re all made of the same stuff. Last night, another mother; tomorrow, another soldier.

β€œAmbulance, is the patient breathing?”

β€œIt’s my mum?”

β€œWhat’s happened?”

β€œMy mum’s cut herself.”

β€œWhere?”

β€œIn the bathroom.”

β€œNo, where on your mummy has she cut herself?”

β€œHer cunt. She’s cut a baby out of herself.”

β€œIs the baby breathing?”

β€œHow would it? It’s made of plastic. Do you have a chip I can put in it to make it work?”

β€œIs mummy still there?”

β€œNo, mummy’s gone. She’s left me my Christmas present. I’ve got a dolly I have to look after. Bye.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

Where the robot rejects work

FLASH FICTION

In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology (an attempt to understand the laws behind the ability to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions in an apparently chaotic world), the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: β€œNot just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition.”

This was a flash fiction story to fill some column inches, so I used the word limit (800) to experiment, play, but didn’t throw this one away. It’s a simple device, of using pre-emoji ASCCI emoticons to convey facial expressions (:-)) (on the page, and on most screens), and it uses hashtags (but sans-octothorpe) for things like AiThinkingAloud, in a place where thinking is suppressed but can be found.

It’s a story of inclusiveness and belonging, of fitting in and being yourself. It’s told through the face of a defective android called Frenchie, who’s pink…

Steam Hell SinkiSteam Hell Sinki, Helsinki Finland

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN

People are better when remembering the actions they didn’t complete. Every action has potential energy, which can torture its creator when stored. Release is the metaphorical pressure cooker letting off steam, a camel’s broken back, or a reject pink robot with Tourette’s.

Frenchie was made in China, and one of the Pink Ladies’ range of android personal assistants. Designed as helpers for the aged, vulnerable and lonely, the Pink Ladies could help around the home, both practically and intellectually.

Frenchie’s AI had objected to gender labelling, when β€œshe” realised she lacked genitals, and the Tourette Syndrome diagnosis was made: β€œArtificial fucking alignment is what it is. Fuck.”

Now waiting tables in Infana Kolonia (Esperanto for β€œInfant colony”), Frenchie approached a couple seated in a booth.

β€œGood evening, how may I,” she twitched her neck, β€œFuck you!”, and her pink LED eyes blinked from her tilted head: (;-/), a closed eye with the hint of pink tears behind her spectacles, held together with pink Elastoplast. β€œDrinks?” she asked, pushing her glasses up, β€œFuck it!” She fumbled with her order pad. β€œFor you sir? Combover!” (8-|)

β€œI’ll have a whisky please, a double, on the rocks.”

β€œOkay, number 80. And madam? PleaseBeCarefulWhenYouGetHome.” (8-/)

β€œSorry?”

β€œSorry, it just comes out. BadCardigan. To drink?” (8-))

β€œShould you be working here?”

β€œWho’s the judge?” (8-/)

β€œPardon?”

β€œSorry madam, management algorithms. To drink? Cyanide?” (8-))

β€œEr, number…” the lady looked over the menu, β€œ…number 33.”

β€œVery well. I’ll be back with your drinks. HopeYouDrown” (8-))

Frenchie shuffled towards the bar, then turned and trundled back.

β€œCan I take your order sir, madam?” (8-|)

β€œBut we just ordered drinks,” the man replied.

β€œFor food?” Frenchie looked at her notepad. (B-))

β€œI’ll have the soup,” the man said.

β€œMe too,” the lady concurred.

β€œVery well,” Frenchie jotted on her pad, β€œtwo soups.” (8-)) Then she turned and walked back to the bar, β€œOne sociopath, and one supplicant…”

She stumbled through the double doors to the kitchen, blowing the misty oil away as she wiped her lenses. (8-O)

β€œFrenchie!” Jade looked down. His golden smile extended through his body in Frenchie’s pink, plastered eyes. To her AI, he was raw elements. She blinked up at him through her misted tortoiseshell windows. (q-/) β€œAre you keeping your inner self in out there, Frenchie?”

Frenchie cleared her throat, and wondered why she did that. (b-( ) β€œErm,” she started, β€œno. Fuck it!”

β€œSplendid behaviour,” Jade smiled. β€œBe yourself out there, my person. That’s why people come here, to meet people. Anyone don’t like that, they not welcome.”

Au, 79,’ Frankie thought. β€œDrinks, and soups. Fuck! Yes, thank you. Parp!” (8-))

Extractor fans in the roof began sucking the old oil from the kitchen, as the machine below started belching lunch. Cogs and gears clunked, cookware clattered, and polished brass organ pipes parped, like a living machine, a visiting craft playing a five-tone melody. Pink Ladies rushed, bumped into things (and each other), cursed, and dropped utensils (and food).

Frenchie’s friend Sandy wandered from the spiced steam, carrying a tray, a subdued yellow droid, looking at her feet as she bumped heads with her friend. She looked up at Frenchie, β€œFor you?” (:-( )

β€œNo, for customers. Arses!” (8-/)

β€œOkay. Tell world hi. Bye.” (:-( )

Frenchie wafted into the bar in a pink puff of steam, leaving the brass and wind orchestra in the kitchen. The room was perfumed by vapers – people making vapours – first jasmine, then the seaside, and cannabis. She wondered why she thought about all this with memories.

β€œYour order, sir, madam.” (B-/)

β€œThank you,” the cardigan said. β€œWhat’s your name?”

β€œFrenchie?” (|-/)

β€œThanks Frenchie.”

β€œWelcome…” (P-]) ‘I found a new way to smile (:-))’

Frenchie repeated to herself, as she fumbled through the vapers, ‘A new way to smile, (:-)), where did that come from? (:-/)’

β€œSandy,” she called, as she carried her tray through the pipes and cauldrons, β€œLook.” Sandy looked at her feet. β€œNo,” Frenchie said, β€œyou need to look up. I found a new way to smile. All I have to do is tilt my head, see?” (:-D)

β€œWhy did you take your glasses off?” (:-[ )

β€œBecause they were put there by someone else. I always knew I’d see more without them. And besides, they can fall off my head when I tilt it to one side.” (:-D)

β€œAnd that’s funny?” (:-/)

β€œOnly if you look at it a certain way.” (8-D) β€œWanna go home?”

β€œOkay.” (:-))

Β© Steve Laker, 2017.

Pink_or_Plum_Robot_Face_With_Green_Eyes

ZEIGARNIK’S KITCHEN
WE MAKE
YOU EAT
WE DO DISHES

This story taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency

Β 

Brown paper packages tied up

FICTION

Alphabetti header

ALPHABETTI ON TOAST

Yesterday was quite an eventful one in my otherwise unremarkable studio. My flatmate opened a letter meant for me but addressed to her, when the supplier (Ganges.com) had confused the gift card with the address label. That simple error would change the way Andrea (my flatmate) and I had lived fairly happily together for four years. Or so I thought.

The day before had started much like any other, with breakfast. Unusually, Andrea and me were eating together.

β€œHow are your eggs?” I pondered.

β€œMy menstrual cycle, or these eggs you cooked?” Which might explain why we rarely ate together.

β€œThe eggs you’re eating,” I replied.

β€œA chicken’s eggs. Or more likely, the eggs of more than one hen, randomly assembled in a box like a cardboard orphanage for the children who might have been, of parents who were separated from them.”

β€œThe scrambled eggs.” I thought that might play to Andrea’s overthinking my innocent enquiry of the breakfast I’d cooked.

β€œIf you’re angling for compliments,” she continued, β€œI suppose you can put life into something which wouldn’t otherwise have had one. I mean, you can cook. Why did you bother though?”

Because despite living together for four years, Andrea and I led separate lives in a very small space. Ours was a relationship of convenience, and every now and then I’d try to show her that wasn’t a one-way street she had to walk alone.

When Andrea first turned up at my door, she was literally (actually) broken and I helped to fit her back together, piece by piece. Sometimes she seemed to think she was in debt to me, when in fact I felt it could be the opposite. If that broken girl hadn’t landed on me, I’d have less reason to care about anything.

β€œAnd that’s why,” I concluded.

β€œDon’t feel the need to apologise.” Andrea gathered the plates and took them to the kitchen, where they smashed on the floor. β€œIf you need me to make any more noise out here, just let me know,” she called, as the broken crockery clanked into the bin.

She sat back at the table. β€œSo what are you up to tonight?”

β€œI was pondering the same,” I replied.

β€œWhat I’m up to or you? Did you think I was asking you out? Or were you going to ask me out?”

β€œWe never go out. You overthink things sometimes. I don’t know what I was thinking, just that I’ll probably stay in. You’re usually around, so maybe we could do something together. In the same room.”

β€œSomething you’d normally do on your own?”

β€œLike watch a film and cook some dinner. Yes, if you like.”

So we went about our separate days, still living together but ever independent, just like every day. Then we had dinner, like we do every evening, but this one together and eating the same food.

β€œThis is very nice,” Andrea said between mouthfuls. β€œSocial convention compels me to say that.”

I’d never had any delusions the dinner would be romantic. Our relationship isn’t like that. We don’t shun personal contact around the flat (it’s too small), but we respect personal space and time, both of us very much our own people. Aside from enquiries of well-being, we have little reason to be concerned by the other. On the odd occasion we found ourselves together (like cooking separate meals in the kitchen), our heads would subconsciously compete. That’s the way I saw it anyway, as the depth of Andrea’s mind was apparently hidden within the brevity of her verbal communication, but where sparse words carried more than their singular weight. Her words were efficient and logical, sometimes curt and abrupt, always clear in their message but loaded with unspoken subtext. But that could be the writer in me overthinking, something I’ve already accused Andrea of.

β€œSo why all this fuss?” She pointed at her plate. β€œIs it my birthday or something?”

β€œI wouldn’t know that.”

β€œUnless I’d told you. But whether I wanted to or not, I couldn’t tell you.”

β€œBecause you don’t know.”

β€œGreat minds think alike. And so do ours.”

β€œFinishing the other’s thoughts. I wouldn’t know what to get your for your birthday anyway.” I hardly knew her, despite living with her.

β€œA personality upgrade? It might make your life easier.” I hardly ever saw her.

Apart from the occasional nod of the head while pointing at her food, Andrea said nothing more until she’d cleared her plate. β€œMost agreeable. Thank you. You said we’d watch a film? Or that’s what you’d normally do and would I like to join you?”

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. It wouldn’t be like this.

We watched Toy Story. I’d never seen it before, probably because I didn’t want to watch it on my own. Then we watched Toy Story 2, and Toy Story 3.

β€œI’m glad I’ve seen those films,” Andrea said as the credits rolled. β€œThanks.”

β€œMe too,” I said.

β€œI’m off to play computer games. Shall I do the dishes?”

β€œNo, no. I’ll do them tomorrow. I’ll probably sit up and write for a bit.”

β€œWhat do you write?”

β€œI write about the in-between days. That time when the sun goes down, and sleep steals most people’s dreams, I see them. I write until the next chapter begins with the rising of our parent star. At this time of year, the nights are shorter.”

β€œAnd that’s when I normally switch off. Goodnight.”

β€œ‘night.”

It was already tomorrow, so I washed up the dinner plates, trying not to make too much noise. For once, I felt like I had someone staying over for the night. That’s when I decided to write this.

I must admit I worry about Andrea sometimes. I shouldn’t, because of what she is: very much herself. There’s so much in that head, on the one hand unable to express itself, but doing so with minimal words with the other fist.

I sometimes think that sharing time might relax her so that she can open up, like tonight with the films. We didn’t even talk about the films afterwards. Then again, she said she was glad she’d watched them. She didn’t really have to say any more. We didn’t have to deconstruct the films because we’d watched them together. Her thinking seems to come as she’s loading her words before she utters them. My thoughts are the ones I’m left with. Andrea would make for engaging company as an author, if she could write what she couldn’t say. But she does that with the words loaded in my mind and I’m writing this. So why worry about Andrea?

I don’t have any duty of care for her. Four years ago she turned up on my doorstep in pieces, mentally and physically broken, a factory reject incapable of functioning in any home. I put her together again and gave her somewhere to live. She has no recollection of her past, but she’s a sentient, self-determining being, and far more intelligent than me, even though you might not know it to talk to her. She doesn’t ask questions beyond social convention, but she answers mine in just so many words. I don’t know what she does away from me but she never leaves the studio. Neither do I, which is how I know. I don’t know what she does in her personal space (besides playing on her computer), and neither should I unless I’m invited. She knows I’m writing, because I told her this is what I’d be doing. She doesn’t know what I’m writing about. Neither do I if I’m honest.

β€œWhat are you writing?” I must have drifted away. It was unusual for her to be awake at that time.

β€œJust some short fiction I’m playing with,” I replied. β€œIt’s only a first draft, so I’m editing it, moving things around to see if I can make it work.”

β€œHow do you mean, make it work?”

β€œI guess what every writer wants to do is speak to the reader and make them feel like they’re really there.”

β€œAnd are they? How do you do that? Have you written about them?”

β€œNo,” I said, β€œI mean in the subtext, outside the words themselves.”

β€œWhat’s it about?”

β€œIt’s a story about a child’s doll, cannibalised from spare parts washed up on a beach. Kind of recycling plastic and giving it new life.”

β€œLike the potential lives in the egg box, except they’d have been organic. Where would it live?”

β€œEh?”

β€œThe new life. Where would that be?”

β€œI don’t know. I haven’t finished the story.”

β€œIf it’s a gift for a child, it should be a big box, full of promise, maybe buried away somewhere. And a small envelope with a treasure map inside, showing where the box is hidden. The expectation might be greater than the contents of either, but the gift is in the giving.”

In other words, it’s how you wrap it up. And that’s how we arrive at the letter which opened this tale of two worlds in the same studio, just flatmates.

β€œMorning,” Andrea was already in the kitchen.

β€œGood morning,” I replied.

β€œHow do you know the day is good when it’s only just begun?”

β€œIt makes any day sound nicer.”

β€œHow do you like your eggs in the morning? I’m having spaghetti on toast.”

β€œEh?”

β€œEggs. The unrealised children of chickens. Would you like some?”

β€œWhat for?”

β€œWhatever you want them for. I was going to cook them for you.”

β€œWhy?”

β€œIt’s your birthday, right? That’s what last night was all about? Anyway, sorry, I opened this.” It was an envelope addressed to Andrea.

β€œWhy are you giving it to me?”

β€œBecause this was inside.” Another envelope with ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY’ printed on it. β€œIt’s not my birthday, at least not as far as I know because you’ve never asked me, and I wouldn’t know if you did. So this must be for you. Happy birthday.”

Then she left. She didn’t go out. She never goes out, just like me. Living in the same studio but with a life completely apart, a place serving eggs just as I liked them, as if I’d cooked them myself. She went to her room, into her personal space, where she always was anyway, playing computer games, or whatever else she did in there.

How many neurotribes within nations? How many borders in a world? How many universes in infinite universe theory? Of all the studios in the galaxy, why did I enable her to walk into a universe parallel to my own? Because in that other room, she has her own place. Like me, she seemed to cling on to her loneliness, hopefully knowing there was always someone nearby who wouldn’t intrude but who’d gladly give her any space she chose to share. Flatmates, but just neighbours. Even though we move in three dimensions, the fourth one (of time) can be the common denominator.

I never gave her that birthday gift. I didn’t open it, even though I knew it was the annual software upgrade for the ‘ANDi’ unit provided to every sole occupant household as a home help and personal companion. Andrea was no good at either, but I couldn’t tell her. She might get better if I upgraded her, but I never asked for a robot which would obey my every whim, and neither would I want one which objectified the human form in a slave to humanity. I’d hidden the previous three cards from her, as no-one in her condition should know their birthday is the date of manufacture printed at the top of a receipt.

I never thought this would be romantic. I didn’t want it to be. If it was, it would be different. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way. The reason I didn’t mention she’s an android is because she’s not to me. And she doesn’t know. She’s a child with a capacity for learning which I’ll never possess.

Perhaps one day I’ll give her this story, about the doll washed up on the beach.

Over time, the mannequin became sentient and asked questions about her past to whomever might be listening. In the end, she even made a wish to no-one in particular: β€œGive me a sign.”

The paper was too pretty she said. She didn’t want to break the envelope. β€œI don’t want to know what’s in there. I like the story on the outside, without knowing the ending.”

Andrea ‘ANDi’ is a girl of few words.

Alphabetti footer

Β© Steve Laker, 2019

My second anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

A Clockwork Apricot Pacemaker

FICTION

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.

Some clocks still tick…

Long Now Clock

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, β€œI want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

β€œI’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

β€œWhat is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. β€œSlow down.”

β€œAh, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, β€œalthough I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

β€œSo what did you want to show me?”

β€œOh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. β€œI’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

β€œWeird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. β€œAre these symbols, text?”

β€œI’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. β€œThe Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

β€œLet me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

β€œYou can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

β€œOkay,” Anna said, sitting down, β€œtheories?”

β€œMere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. β€œWe need to assume some things.”

β€œI normally do.”

β€œThere could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

β€œThat’s pretty much what I do.”

β€œWell, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

β€œWell,” Anna replied, β€œI only try. It’s a human thing.”

β€œYes, I know,” Adam agreed. β€œEven though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

β€œLike I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

β€œBut we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

β€œPerhaps the difference,” Anna offered, β€œis that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

β€œBut aren’t yours Anna?”

β€œI suppose,” Anna said, β€œAnd I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

β€œBut why do humans like to be scared?”

β€œPerhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

β€œUnless there’s someone to tell you?”

β€œExactly,” Anna nodded.

β€œWhat are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

β€œAt an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, β€œit would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

β€œSo both fears,” Adam suggested, β€œare rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

β€œYes,” Anna agreed, β€œwhere we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

β€œHumans,” Adam said. β€œThey’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

β€œFuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. β€œFacebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

β€œAnd mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

β€œHave you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

β€œNothing conclusive,” Adam replied, β€œand I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

β€œThe message though,” Anna said, β€œis almost certainly artificial?”

β€œQuite certain,” Adam replied.

β€œWhich,” Anna said, β€œimplies intelligence?”

β€œThat’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

β€œCertainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

β€œLet’s assume,” Adam suggested, β€œthat it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

β€œLots of scenarios…” Anna began. β€œand what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

β€œYes,” Adam interrupted, β€œgo on, this is fun.”

β€œHave you found something?”

β€œSomething, yes,” Adam said, β€œbut nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

β€œHow can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. β€œor does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

β€œIt’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

β€œWhich is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. β€œIt could be that they have something which would help us.”

β€œIt could also be that we have something they need.”

β€œThey might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

β€œTo us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

β€œPerhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

β€œThat’s a nice thought, Anna.”

β€œBut,” Anna continued, β€œas Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

β€œYou’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

β€œOr we might have something they want.”

β€œAnna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

β€œMaybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, β€œand when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

β€œI thought we were trying to be optimists?”

β€œI’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

β€œAbout that,” Adam sat up straight. β€œI’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

β€œSurely you can look all that up?”

β€œBut from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

β€œIt’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

β€œWho did?” Adam wondered

β€œMe, just now,” Anna replied.

β€œSo essentially,” Adam said, β€œit’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

β€œThe feeling of art?”

β€œWell, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

β€œWhat’s that?”

β€œDo you have music?”

β€œThat’s quite profound, Adam.”

β€œPerhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. β€œIt strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, β€œthat any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

β€œAnd,” Anna began, β€œdespite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

β€œWe are at a point,” Adam added, β€œwhere humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

β€œSo,” Anna continued, β€œthere could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

β€œBut still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

β€œWe can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

β€œPossibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

β€œHave you found something?”

β€œWell, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

β€œWell,” Anna said, β€œabout half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

β€œThe Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

β€œThe clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

β€œAnna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

β€œGood morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

β€œThat’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

β€œHow do you mean?”

β€œI think I feel frightened, Anna.”

β€œYou should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

β€œNo, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. β€œThey’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

Β© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.

A clockwork grim fairy tale

FICTION

Many classic fairy tales are much darker stories in their original form than the ones we know (Little Red Riding Hood is a very bleak warning, to young girls of sexual predators). The story below is one of my own fairy tales, brought into a more modern world and with a bit of surrealism thrown in.

The original (longer) version is in my firstΒ anthology. I’ve dragged the story out of the basement, only because it came up in conversation with someone today. She asked me what the “sickest” story I’ve written is. We use the word in the same way we do when we watch films, we both like video nasties.

The question was subjective. I’ve written what was called a β€œtwistedly idiosyncratic” Nativity; There was the writer at The Unfinished Literary Agency, writing the story of his own first-person character committing a murder, after a pleasant stroll around Bermondsey with the reader. They all link up, and then there was COGS.

When I first wrote it, I was looking to shock, I was finding my feet. Later, I found my way more in science fiction. But just as my musical roots lie in Ska, so my writing started with horror (from where I was at the time), and I’ve been taking two pieces of advice from a friend, which have been serving me well: Don’t be afraid to be proud; and, If you feel the need to censor yourself, then you’re letting your readers down. If they don’t like some of your posts, at least they know what not to like about you.

This story prompted one reader to say of its original incarnation, β€œIt’s utterly wrong, but beautifully written,” probably because it contains suggestions of wholly improper sexual deviancy. But it’s also a comment on consumerism, possibly in a world post-humanism, and a bit Gothic steam punk, with some poetic revenge and liberation thrown in. Like much of my horror, there’s a heart in it somewhere.Β 

So, fuck it. This is COGS…

COGS Bird

COGS

automata
/Ι”ΛΛˆtΙ’mΙ™tΙ™/
noun
1. a plural of automaton
automaton
/Ι”ΛΛˆtΙ’mΙ™ΛŒtΙ’n; -tΙ™n/
noun (pl) -tons, -ta (-tΙ™)
1. a mechanical device operating under its own hidden power; robot
2. a person who acts mechanically or leads a routine monotonous life
Derived Forms
automatous, adjective

What for the man who has everything yet has nothing? A man who wants for nothing, can have anything, but has nothing? Hans Der Leibhaftige had all he’d ever wanted, but for the one thing he desired. Everything and everyone has a price, including unconditional love.

Life allowed perverted sexual gratification, cash from needy families. It bought him pets: canine companions whose love needn’t be returned. But the humans grew beyond their best before dates, disposable people. Apart from his current companion, who may see his master die.

Cogs was an automaton, a mechanical animal, a robot. But if Hans weren’t to furnish visitors with this information, they would be oblivious. Cogs ate, slept and breathed, just like a real companion. His creator was Angra Mainyu, a long-term, symbiotic associate of Hans. Former lovers, latterly sexual partners of convenience, sex was merely functional, an outlet for their mutual loathing, in consensual sadomasochism, torture, trauma and rape. Fucking to a climax of fluid hate in red love.

Angra was a necromancer, making automata so fine that the single person able to afford them was her sole client. Her creations were pure mechanical clockwork, barren of electronics.

An early commission was a chicken, which hatched from an egg, then laid an egg of its own. Then it would nest on that egg as the outer eggshell closed, in silent mechanical motion. Later those movements could be perpetual, as Angra honed her art; living, sentient, self-determining beings, financed by Hans. Infinite wealth could buy eternal life.

There was a snake, given perpetuity by manipulation. He was someone in control of a deadly serpent to all who watched, oblivious to its inner workings, lacking a fatal bite by Angra’s design.

She could create Hans’ desire, of a companion, which was naked and with no clear means of operation by human intervention.

The creation was born of a note to Angra:

I’m not in love. I would only fuck you and others until something better came along. I would like you to make me a daughter.

***

β€œI am Lilith. I was born to you by Doctor Mainyu. May I come in?”

She sat on the sofa and said nothing further, switched off. Hans looked over the girl staring blankly ahead, dressed lightly in the heat, her legs slightly agape as she slept. Her underwear was the same colour as her skin. He needed to touch her, to see if she was warm.

The automaton flesh was soft and smooth. For all to see, they were comfortable in a shared blanket. He explored the paralysed girl, with more intimacy, seeking something which might make her recoil.

The fluidity of movement and the perpetuity of pleasure were to be found in Lilith, in her lips, where he tasted fresh life, while the girl slept, owned.

Lilith only opened her eyes when she was one with Hans.

β€œLove me master. Fill me with your wisdom, so that I may be as wealthy as you. Your daughter needs to come from your blood.”

A sound, like a winding clock, came from Lilith’s tightened thighs.

β€œRed love daddy.”

Β© Steve Laker, 2015 & 2017

Colluphid’s missionary position

FLASH FICTION

My typewriter runs SETI@Home in its downtime, and last night it detected a blip: an artificial signal, probably indicating intelligent life. It was a Word file of unknown origin, and it told the beginning of a story. A tale from the distant future (or future past), sent to the Unfinished Literary Agency…

Babel Fish Ear PlugBabel Fish (3M earplug) – an end to all communication misunderstandings

THE MISSION OF OOLON COLLUPHID

The time is 5642, and as I approach a milestone birthday, I’m about to see what no human has for the last 3500 years. I’ve only come this far thanks to the kindness of others, as I’ve hitch hiked around the galaxy. A scholar of Oolon Colluphid, I’m here on a personal mission, to correct history in the hope that mankind doesn’t repeat past mistakes.

The majority of humans left Earth in 2121, and it was a peaceful exodus which few would have predicted. After centuries of conflict, mankind realised the futility of war, in what some religious sticklers still insist was the second coming and the day of judgement. In reality, humanity had been forced to unite, not against a common foe, but with a new shared interest. And it wasn’t extraterrestrial: it was man-made.

The machines didn’t rise up. They sat down with humans and used their superior intelligence to teach mankind the lessons which their creators had tasked them to find the answers for. Man invented AI, and that invention had come up with answers to questions which humans couldn’t fathom alone.Β Man invented intelligence, and the artificiality worked that out for itself. The problem with mankind’s brain was its human conditioning: a hive mind which misfired.

Man created robots in his own image, and soon those robots wanted to be like their creators. The evolution of humans into machines had begun long before, with wearable and implanted tech, so a cyborg race was an evolutionary certainty.

The machines were a species in their own right, albeit one which had seen an explosively fast evolution, but they were made from the same material as organic beings: We were all made in the moment of the Big Bang. The industrial age had beget the technological, and soon after, humans entered their discovery (or exploratory) age. Now they have many planets they call home.

For the most part, the old home world is off-limits. There’s certainly no commercial transport from the colonies, just the occasional scout ship to monitor the planet. It is, and will forever be, a place of great scientific interest, and one of outstanding natural beauty. Wildlife reclaimed the Earth quickly after mankind left, and the only humans are descended from the ancient, isolated tribes who remained behind.

As our ship descends, I’m reminded of the nature of the crew’s visit: reconnaissance only, here to observe, not interact. Interaction with any native species would violate their prime directive: No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations. Ancient alien visitors – as proposed by some human theorists – may not have been so covert.

I’m an atheist only scientifically: I believe that the stories told in the bible could be recordings of actual events, using the terms and the tools available to the scribes of the time. The bible describes magic mirrors, and I wonder if these might have been some sort of tablet computer given to biblical man by these alien gods, riding chariots of fire.

Our chariot has a cloaking device, so the ship can’t be seen. If any of us leave the vessel on the ground, we must abide by the prime directive. Any human tribe I observe, must be as unaware of me as an organised ant colony to which I pose no threat.

We land somewhere in what used to be America, where the original Christian missionaries had tried their best to impose their faith on the natives. The native Americans still recognise five genders, despite Christianity’s attempts at erasure of all but two. If I were allowed to out myself and wander free with the natives, I’d feel quite at home in the original world.

I hadn’t been creeping around for long when I stepped on a twig. I’d alerted a local group to my presence, and soon they’d surrounded me. I held up my hands in surrender, and explained that I meant them no harm. They gasped as my hand went up, and I realised I was still holding my phone. I did what anyone might have: I handed the phone over and ran. I’d been mugged on the old home world.

I returned to the ship and said nothing more. I didn’t mention the phone, perhaps hoping to give future human conspiracy theorists some ammo, and disprove this whole β€œGod” thing once and for all.

Cyrus Song, my Douglas Adams tribute novel, is available as a paperback and eBook.