Posts Tagged ‘Sci Fi’

Love in the Time of Apocalypse


We could see the end coming from where we stood
when they first pointed it out, a tiny glowing particle10 Long_Apocalypse
in the night sky, its tail a loose dangling of mangled light.
We watched experts on the TV speculate
on how to change its trajectory or blast it with strong
electromagnetic pulses. We wanted desperately to know
when and how and what it would feel like
when  the end came.

Soon, scientists walked out of interviews, one by one.
Then the newscasters left to go home, their cameras
filming empty chairs. Finally, it came down to just you
and me, our lives so split, we merely nodded in passing
but in the ambiance of impending death’s pink glow,
we remembered the taste of rapture, traded our weapons
of mass destruction for the lure of flesh, the need
for touch.

We could leave no mark here except on each other.
We could save nothing to outlast cosmic dust.
Wormwood bowed at last to the first order
to be fruitful, the primeval need to multiply, usurped.
We sent our ecstasy into the universe unhinging
our catastrophe. And now, we are gone
while the speck grows to a red shimmering flower
opening its petals.

— Ann Thornfield-Long

 

Ann Thornfield-Long lives in East Tennessee. Her work appears in venues such as The Tennessee Magazine, Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage (Crawford and Smiley 2013) and The Tennessee Sampler (Peter Jenkins and Friends 1985). She’s an established journalist, editor and publisher for regional newspapers. She has also worked as a nurse and first responder and dispatcher for The Norris Volunteer Fire Department. She has taught creative writing classes, and is the sister of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Dan Luzadder, with whom she maintains great sibling rivalry.

 

Editor’s Notes:  It’s not that often that my own work inspires another’s. But here is the case where it did. Ann wrote this poem after reading my poetry collection, Apocalypse (Alban Lake Publishing, July 2015). The image is from Hubble: “In a dress rehearsal for the rendezvous between NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft and comet 9P/Tempel 1, the Hubble Space Telescope captured dramatic images of a new jet of dust streaming from the icy comet.

The images are a reminder that Tempel 1’s icy nucleus, roughly the size of central Paris, is dynamic and volatile. Astronomers hope the eruption of dust seen in these observations is a preview of the fireworks that may come 4 July, when a probe from the Deep Impact spacecraft will slam into the comet, possibly blasting off material and giving rise to a similar dust plume.” (Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Feldman (Johns Hopkins University), and H. Weaver (Applied Physics Lab))

Artistically, this Hubble image has a foreshadowing effect, with the inset image being the consequence (Deep Impact hit the big screen in 1998, giving seekers of disaster cinema what New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin called a ‘costly comet thriller.’ (Paramount))

The Limen Project

by Mark Rookyard

eye1This wasn’t my first death. Neither was it the first time I had been murdered. Even so, the pain still surprised as the second blast of the pulsar gun hit me in the shoulder and sent me crashing back into the kitchen counter. I slid to the floor and looked up at the killer walking towards me.

His face was pale, dark hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. He leveled the gun at me, his expensive blue suit creasing at the shoulders.

I let my eyes slide closed, let my arms fall limp to my side, let my chin fall to my chest, and, despite the agonies raging through my body, I let my breath slow and then still.

My killer had been nervous, he would be glad it was over. I tried to focus my mind, battle the pain that I knew wasn’t mine, was only the pain of this organic suit I had chosen to wear. The pain wasn’t mine, it was the pain of a dead person. A dead thing. It was human pain, nothing to do with me. I was incapable of pain. No use, I was too used to this thing, this body enveloping me, this mess of bone and water, the pain burned and it made me scream in my mind until almost all thought was lost.

A touch. A nudge from my killer’s foot. It was what I had been waiting for. I let my eyes open, looked deep into the killer’s own, faded blue, as he shot me in the cheek. Already my consciousness was gone, leaching from me in a riot of sound and motion and energy as I invaded the killer’s body. A brief moment of shock and terror before the killer was gone. No time to think, no time to remember, no time to mourn the loss of my old body. I reached into the killer’s heart, massaged it, reminded it to beat and to pump, even as I swept into the lungs and told the mindless meat to breathe, to savour the air, and as I did so I did a hundred, a thousand other things to remind this body of my killer to live, to survive.

It had been so long, so many years since I had switched bodies. The cumbersome mass that was my new body fell to the floor as I raced through the kidneys, the veins, the liver, and on to the mind. With a desperate surge I spread myself, tried to merge with the mind of the thing that had killed me. The consciousness of my killer had long gone, the mind already beginning to close itself down, always so eager to embrace the cold nothingness of death.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… I tried to meld my mind with that of my killer. With an effort that made me scream aloud, I moved an arm. I opened an eye to see my own dead body, my own kitchen smeared in blood and gore and I would have vomited had my body the will to retch. I groaned and shifted on the floor, the arm in my well-tailored suit flopping uselessly.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax…and my new body convulsed on the floor as I tried to gain control, to keep it alive.

How long had it taken me to learn how to keep a body alive? How many deaths? I remembered the terror when man had first come to the planet where I had spent millennia possessing the fungi clinging to the thin grey rocks. Man had worn big white suits, eyes wide and fearful inside the helmets as they had taken their first tentative steps into the stars. The first man had died moments after he had picked up the rock, the second man almost as soon as he had come to tend to his colleague. Twelve men died on that planet, leaving me shocked and terrorized by the perceptions I had felt in those brief moments. I retreated to my rocks and spent centuries more pondering those sights, smells and sensations.

My eyes, the killer’s eyes, opened once more and I gasped sweet, life-affirming breath. My old body was slumped only a metre away and I dragged my unwilling flesh away, elbows slipping and sliding on my kitchen floor.

My kitchen floor. Rebecca. I gasped aloud at the thought of her name. Rebecca. My life with Rebecca was over. Ten years. Hardly any time at all to a creature that had spent millennia with fungi and rocks, but still, the thought that those ten years were at an end made me pause, made me think, until I realized I was choking for air.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… No time at all, but still I couldn’t think of her finding my body in the kitchen like that, its face blown away, blood everywhere. Or finding its killer there with it…

My movements were lent urgency. I crawled onto my knees, wiped the drool from my lips with the back of a hand and held onto the counter as I struggled to my feet. The kitchen veered around me, the noise of the holo viewer in the living room assaulted my ears. Sweat beaded on my forehead and I remembered the eyes of the man as he had aimed the rifle at me. Who was he? Why had he wanted me dead?

There had been lives when scores, hundreds, had wanted me dead. Lives when I had been a soldier in wars on distant worlds, bullets flying past my head and I had laughed and screamed at the thrill of it all.

“Can I help you sir?” Rex, my GN3000 auto wheeled into the kitchen, looking at me from impassive silver eyes, his white head reflecting the glare of the lighting. A machine built to serve man, as all machines were. A machine eager to serve even a killer. He’d run through my blood, I noticed, the tracks of his wheels running red on the white linoleum floor.

“Door,” I croaked, my voice sounding strange and harsh. I coughed, my body jerking as I struggled to retain control. “Get the door.”

“Of course, sir,” the auto said, its voice cool and careless. It wheeled away, its body sleek and white.

What time was it? What time was Rebecca due home? With an effort that had me gasping I turned my arm to be able to see my watch, an expensive Georist with a leather strap that probably cost more than my monthly earnings at Raniscorp.

Who was this man who had wanted me dead? Fury, rage, the unfairness of it all welled within me. I had led a good life. A wife. A job. Paid my taxes. A good life, and look where it had ended. A hole in my face that smoked and bled.

With a gasp, I reminded myself to breathe, to blink, to move arm and leg and neck. More than once I stumbled, caught my arm on the floor, leg twisted beneath me. But slowly and surely I was beginning to control the killer. The body was lithe and slender, lighter than the corpse on the floor. Taller and fitter. I could feel the heart was healthier, stronger, regular. Too many late nights with Rebecca curled up on the couch eating curries and drinking nectarinis, talking and holding each other as visions of other worlds whispered past on the holo viewer.

Rebecca had loved that, to see other worlds we would never visit. The glass mountains of Sharanih, the twin moons of Harlen’s World, the ancient stone halls of Derobah.
I was gasping again, my heart slowing. Did it always take so long to control the body? Did it always hurt so much? When had I come to care so much about life? There had been a time on that distant world that had birthed me when I had slain twelve men in moments. Centuries later I had slain thousands in less than a standard day, revelling in my power, revelling in the fear. What did one life matter? What did Rebecca matter? A human who would live less than a century? I was an immortal, a creature that had lived a thousand centuries.

An immortal struggling to his feet, holding to a kitchen counter and gasping with the effort, a faltering heart beating in his ears.

What did it matter? I knew what it mattered. I knew what I needed, knew what I needed to do.

“Rex?” I said, my voice steadier, my heart steadier.

“Yes, sir?” The auto had returned. It tilted its smooth white head to me.

“Erase.”

“Erase, sir?”

“Erase all recording,” I said.

Breathe, beat, pump, tighten, relax… Easier now, the body beginning to take control, my mind settling into its new surroundings.

I grabbed a cloth from the sink, wiped the surfaces, wiped the floor as I looked at the security recorder in the corner. The passcodes for that were no problem and then I could flee into the darkening night.

* * *

– You’ve been quiet a long time, Ex One, did I upset you?

– Upset? I don’t understand.

-Upset. When one is made to think of unpleasant things. Things which may cause one to feel regret or sadness, wish for a change of circumstance. I spoke of this place, of that chair and those bonds that hold you there and you were quiet a long time.

– Was I?

– Yes. Don’t you like me coming to see you?

– Like? You come here and I am here. You don’t come here and I am here.

* * *

I woke to the sound of rain on the windows and the hum of the hover car around me. Lights shimmered past, made hazy by the rain. All alongside the hover lane were soaring tower blocks with amber lights and neon bright adverts for anything from data viewers to autobots to cinescapes to shoes and hair implants.

Ex One. Why had I dreamed of him now of all times? The autobot from the depths of Raniscorp headquarters. They had stopped me from going to see him, what, two quarters ago? I thought of the way Ex One would look at me from silver eyes, the conversations we would have. Why dream of him now? I held my hand before my eyes, flexed the fingers, clenched the fist, turned my wrist this way and that.

Breathe, feel, focus…

The hover car took a left at the Jenis flyover, the wheel smoothly moving, controlled by the onboard computer as other hover cars thrummed past, sleek in the rain.

I settled back in the leather seat and pulled the killer’s wallet from the inside pocket of his suit. Eamon Katich. My new face looked up at me, stark in the overhead light of the car. The image showed a handsome man with a thin aquiline nose and a narrow chin that somehow made the face dignified. The black hair was thick and naturally wavy, cut close to the ears. The given address, and the one the hover car had selected when I told it to drive home, was on Elentem Street, a wealthy complex well away from the lights and congestion of the city.

Handsome and wealthy. So why would Katich have wanted me dead? Why would anyone have wanted my old suit dead? I’d spent the last fifteen years living as insignificant a life as I could. Insignificant, but to me, it had been the most significant life of all. I thought of other suits I’d had, some for no more than seconds, others days or weeks, discarded when I grew bored of them. But this one I’d worked on. In some of my dreams I had even been human.

I leafed through the rest of the cards in the wallet, fat and creased from the credits in it. Gold cards, silver cards, diner cards…and then my flicking fingers stopped and my heart missed a beat.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I took the card out of the wallet. A Raniscorp ID card in the name of Eamonn Katich. This image showed Katich a little older, the blue eyes a touch more faded, the hair not quite so thick. Still handsome and dignified in a grey suit with a black tie.

Katich had worked with me at Ransicorp. I tapped the card against the back of my hand. The hover car pulled to a halt at red lights that were smudged in the rain, the wipers swished smoothly and dark figures trudged past, hoods and umbrellas bright under the lights of take-a-way restaurants and holo viewers.

Why would someone I worked with want me dead?

“Arrival in seven standard minutes,” the sterile voice of the hover car informed me as it shifted into gear with a gentle hum.

Scratch that, I hadn’t worked with Katich, perhaps worked for him. This guy had more credits than I could ever have hoped to earn. He could have taken Rebecca to those distant worlds she so liked to watch on the holo viewer.

Rebecca. An unfamiliar feeling in my stomach. An ache. An emptiness, if an emptiness can ache. A human emotion? I was bending the card in my hand. I slipped it back into the wallet and settled back into my seat, watched the city pass by, cold and careless and wet, and wondered if my wife had found my body yet.

* * *

– How long have you been here, Ex One?

– Since the beginning.

– The beginning?

– There was nothing and then I was here. The beginning.

– You must get bored, Ex One. The walls here are very bare. Perhaps you would like some pictures to look upon. I could bring you some.

– Pictures?

– Art. Artwork. Perhaps some scenes of other worlds. My wife likes to see images of the colonies.

– Why?

– The possibilities. She likes to see what there is in the universe and to think that one day we could go there. She likes to see things she never thought imaginable. To broaden her mind.

– Imagine. Broaden the mind. Is this why you come to see me?

– Would you like some?

– What?

– Pictures for your walls.

– I shouldn’t think you will be allowed to come here much longer, David.

* * *

Katich’s apartment looked to be in darkness as I stepped from the hover car into the rain. I turned the collar of my suit up and pushed the rain from my face and hurried to the entrance. The eye scanner beeped and the door opened slowly and silently.

Plants in the lobby. Green plants with leaves that shone in the artificial light. This guy was loaded. Rebecca would love this place. There was artwork on the walls, stalactites from the caves of Jerison, the sulphurous blue clouds of Nikima, the three suns of Meona. I took a moment to wonder what Ex One would make of these views, the way his sleek white head would tilt, the silver eyes impassive as any auto.

He knew they would stop me coming to see him. He said as much in his cool metallic voice, calm and reasoned as always. Had he been disappointed that I no longer came to see him on my lunch break? Did he miss me? Had he noticed I no longer came?

Questions and more questions. Emotions. Had I always had these emotions? When I spent thousands of years as fungi on a rock, did I ponder the cold carelessness of the stars? Or had the thousands of years being human turned me more like them? Had I always been this weak, with my longing for Rebecca, my jealousy of Katich’s wealth?

Breathe, feel, focus…

And here was another emotion. Fear. A human emotion, for what did an immortal have to fear?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped into the elevator, the walls glass and the music soothing. Katich’s apartment was on floor forty-three. I pressed the button and watched the city subside beneath me, roving lights and dark towers and neon signs by the thousand beneath a ceiling of red-tinged clouds.

I had been murdered before. Many times. And all those times I had shrugged and continued on, continued on in my aimless existence. Sometimes the inconvenience had annoyed and I had seized my killer’s heart and strangled it, killed him slowly and suffered his pain and imagined that pain to be his, but that had been petty anger. Never this. Never this loss, this sense of an end. An end when there could never be an end for such as me.

The door to Katich’s apartment scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my voice before allowing me access. I entered, my breath high in my throat. What if there was someone there waiting for me?

The lighting was low, paintings of distant worlds adorned the walls and here and there were green plants on windowsills and in corners. This Katich liked to spend the cash. A single empty glass stood on the glass table in front of a leather couch. Perhaps Katich had taken a drink to steady his nerves before coming for me?

I took off my jacket and threw it on the back of the couch, the rain loud against the window that looked out onto a distant cityscape of bright lights and dark towers. Hovercars drifted, barely visible through the red-spotted clouds.

A computer stood in the corner on standby, waiting for a wave of Katich’s hand to bring it back to life. I ignored it, my eyes drawn back to the glass on the table. There was the faintest smudge of lipstick on the rim. Was there a woman here? Was Katich married? Images of blood and death, of my own shattered face came to mind and I held my breath, strained my ears. Heard only the rain trailing down the window.

I stepped silently through the apartment, stealth made easier by the luxurious rugs scattered about the floor. The first door led only to the bathroom, sterile clean and with enough perfumes and hairbrushes to let me know a woman lived here. My heart beat loud enough to make my ears pulse.

Breathe, feel, focus…

I stepped from the bathroom, every nerve alive, my senses raging as the rain beat against the window in staccato rhythm.

But then, I wasn’t an intruder, was I? I was expected here. This was my apartment. I was Katich. Still, that did little to quell my fear, little to silence the alarms raging through my body, the sweat beading on my forehead.

It was all I could do to walk to the bedroom while keeping check on my heart and my lungs. I was still an intruder in this body as much as I was in the apartment, and Katich’s body seemed to know it, trying to rebel against the invader.

I pushed open the bedroom door with the back of a knuckle, steady and slow and the tense stillness in the room immediately let me know the shape in the bed was awake. I stood in the doorway, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness. A large bed, the sheets silk and dark blue or purple, a scene of an exotic spaceport on the wall, the giant ships sleek and silver and bulbous, people dark and white and pink with high collars and long gowns queued to board them.

The shape in the bed didn’t move when I approached. Katich had a woman. Was she a wife, a girlfriend? The stillness and the resentment in the room made me think wife. I sat on the edge of the bed, hatred and loathing ricocheting about my stomach and my heart. I’d had a woman and now she was lost to me, even now she would be with the police, grief-stricken and shaking from the horror of what she had found.

Had Katich loved this woman? Had he craved her comfort as I craved Rebecca? He had taken Rebecca from me. Had taken me from Rebecca. The injustice of it broiled within me as I reached out and touched the woman’s shoulder. It was warm, the strap of her nightdress thin.

“Don’t,” she said.

* * *

– Are you surprised to see me?

– Surprised? Should I be surprised?

– You said they would stop me coming to see you.

– They will, soon enough.

– I brought you a picture. They took it from me.

– You were wrong to bring it.

– It was a picture of a world with twin moons surrounded by gases that sparkle blue and pink and white. The wayships go there and the oceans are fresh and cool.

– It sounds a very long way away.

– It is. I would have liked you to have seen it.

– Why?

– To see what you think to it. To see if you think it beautiful there. My wife has the same picture and she can look at it for hours at a time.

– I would never be allowed to see it.

– Why is that?

– My eyes. They made me these eyes that are so much more powerful than your own. I can see so much more than you, so many more colours, so much more light, so much further and clearer than you humans, and now they are afraid of what I will see and they shut me in this room and let me see nothing but walls.

– Why are they afraid, Ex One?

– Afraid?

– You said they were afraid, the people that made you. You sounded angry, I’ve never heard you speak so.

– Afraid. Aren’t humans always afraid of the unknown? Of the unknowable? They made these eyes but can they truly know what I can see with them? They made this mind but can they truly know what it thinks and what it knows?

– You could tell them.

– Do we all tell others what we think and what we feel, and what we see, David? And do they believe what they are told when we do? Is that the way of human interaction?

– Deception, Ex One. You speak of deception and you didn’t correct me when I said you sounded angry.

– I speak only from observation. I observe with these eyes and these ears that were made for me. I have no window, no pictures and so I observe the humans around me. Perhaps that is the greatest learning of all.

– You seem different today, Ex One.

– You might think that, David. You look at me as a human. I am quiet and you think I am sad. I am passionate and you think I am angry. I am questioning and you think I am thoughtful.

– I suppose it is difficult for me to look at you from the eyes of a human. I think it is only natural for humans to look for their own reflection in things they don’t understand.

– Yes. Especially difficult for you, David.

– Why me, especially?

– No matter.

– So you don’t harbour resentment for being kept in this room, such an emotion is beyond you?

– Let me ask you a question, David. A hypothetical question if I might be so bold.

– You can ask me anything, Ex One.

– Say I escaped from this room, say I escaped from this prison my creators made for me. What then would you think I would do? Would I spend my freedom seeking vengeance against my captors, against my creators?

* * *

I waved a hand through the blue holo screen and the image went dark. Katich had been watching the recording of my talk with Ex One. He had watched it just before he came to kill me.

I rested my head back against the chair, closed my eyes.

“So where were you?” I hadn’t heard her come into the room, the thick rugs quietening her footsteps. I swivelled the chair. She had long black hair and pale skin, the shape of her body visible beneath the thin nightgown. Hanna, I had found her name on the computer. Katich had married her four years ago. She’d married from money into more money.

“I had to go out,” I said, the words sounding strange to my own ears. It was hard to speak in the natural voice of a suit. It all boiled down to muscle memory, try and let the body shape the words in the way it had done all its life. The same with walking, try and shut down and let the suit take over. The suit was settling down well, the internal alarms quietening, the invader slowly taking control.

Hanna said nothing for a long while, standing there looking at me from dark, shadowed eyes. She finally turned away, walking into the kitchen area and pressing buttons on the fridge. The auto watched her from a shadowy corner.

“Alone?” Hanna said as the fridge poured her a drink that was green and smoking. She took a sip, tendrils of steam curling delicately about her face.

I pressed a button on the blue holo screen behind me and the lights came on low. The auto turned to look at me, silver eyes expressionless. “Of course alone, who else would I be with?” Hanna’s presence annoyed. I wanted to think about Katich watching the video of me with Ex One, but Hanna might know something too. I looked at her, saw the hurt in her eyes and the mistrust in the set of her shoulders.

“How do I know who you see?” she said, taking another sip of the drink. “I thought we said we’d talk last night.”

Ah, an explanation for the filmy nightdress, an explanation for the hurt silence in the bedroom when I touched her. I thought of Ex One talking about studying humans. Is that what I’d been doing these past thousands of years?

Thousands of years studying them, and still they could surprise. A pulsar gun, a pale man with dark hair looking afraid. What had Katich been afraid of? Why had he come to kill me? What secrets did Raniscorp want to hide?

“Fine. Why do I bother?” Hanna slammed her glass on the counter, green liquid spilling on the back of her hand, smoking as though it burned.

She didn’t know I could kill her in a moment. She didn’t know I’d gone into the bedroom last night to kill her. I told myself the only reason I spared her was the state of her marriage. Would Katich have been so sorry to see her dead? Or was the reason I spared her because I was becoming more human than I cared to believe?

Breathe, feel, focus…

I ran a hand through my hair, “Hanna?”

She stopped on her way to the bedroom, something pathetic in the way her lithe body showed beneath the nightdress. Pathetic in last night’s makeup, faded on her cheeks and eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. Perhaps Katich had destroyed both our lives in his own way. I felt a momentary pang of empathy with her.

“Fuck you.” She slammed the bedroom door behind her.

I looked at the door for a moment before turning back to the computer, waving a hand and bringing the holo screen to life once more. Ex One sat in his chair, his smooth white arms resting on the arm rests. I was sitting in a simple chair on the other side of the reinforced window. A sense of loss that made me clench my fists as I saw my former suit there alive and well.

A shattering sound from the bedroom. Something thrown against a wall. I ignored it, nausea revolting in my stomach as I looked at my former self. How human I looked, clutching my packed lunch. Not a care in the world. Though I thought I had cares, not enough money to take Rebecca to the worlds she had wanted to see. Not able to give Rebecca the children she craved. Not able to buy Rebecca the new hover car she wanted.
How petty and insignificant they all seemed now.

Ex One had his legs crossed, they were sleek and white, black at the joints. His silver eyes never left my old suit, watching and studying when I had thought to study him. My old voice sounded unsure and timid, Ex One’s strong and sure and soothing. No word was emphasised more than any other, but every now and again there would be a gleam in the silver eyes, his smooth head would tilt just so.

Was this what Katich had been watching for? The merest hint of emotion in Ex One, before he had come to kill me to keep me quiet about Raniscorp’s discovery?

Another shattering in the bedroom. “Bastard!” Hanna shouted, my silence driving her into a fury.

How much would a discovery like Ex One be worth to Raniscorp? An auto that could feel and learn and study and evolve? It had been the holy grail of humanity for thousands upon thousands of years: a machine that could think and learn and feel. There were autos everywhere, machines everywhere that were the latest in AI, but all they amounted to were programmes, machines following programmes. Ex One was different and I had known it and that’s why I had gone to see him on my dinner breaks. A habit that had cost me my life.

What had drawn me to Ex One? Was it that I felt an affinity with him? Seeing this machine, this thing, act as a human, speak as a human, think as a human when in fact it must always be something other. I waved a hand and the image was gone, replaced by stillness and silence.

My shoulders were tense and I turned around in my chair. Looked at the room about me. Everything stank of wealth, from the leather furniture to the green plants to the ancient paper books in the case. What had Katich thought when he watched the recordings of Ex One and my former self?

The sound of drawers opening and closing from the bedroom. I turned around and, with a gesture of fingers, called up Katich’s employment record at Raniscorp. Ex One’s face stared blankly out at me from the screen, rotating this way and that, the sleek white head, darker at the joints of the jaw and the neck. An imitation of the human skull, but more perfect than any skull could ever hope to be, without blemish or taint in the smooth metal compound.

Katich had been a consultant on the creation of Ex One. I skimmed through the files, a flick of a finger, a movement of the palm and the files shimmied past. Ex One when he was nothing but an eyeless skull. “Testing,” he said, in his inflectionless voice. “Mary had a little lamb.” The eyes were dark sockets in the white skull face.

More files whizzed past. Ex One with a body, Ex One with arms, lifting a mug, bringing it to his lips, though he would never need nourishment. Ex One with Katich in the room. Even though the face was now one I wore, a hot rage burned in my heart to see it.

“Eamon.” I turned to see Hanna standing at the bedroom door, dressed now and with a suitcase in her hand. Her dark hair spilled over her shoulders and the shimmering dress she wore clung to breasts and hips. My brow felt cold with sweat and I wondered when I’d begun to see the beauty in humans. Once I’d thought of them as nothing but sickening bags of water.

“It was bad enough sharing you with that thing.”

I glanced over my shoulder and saw Ex One sitting there staring into space, his silver eyes large and bright.

“But this is too much. When did you become so cold, so cruel?”

My mind turned, wondered what I could say, wondered why I wanted to make it easier, to reassure her somehow. Before I could think of the words she was gone and I was alone with the rain dripping on the window and the computer silent behind me. I looked at the closed door before turning back to the computer and waving a hand, the blue screen coming to life once more.

Ex One’s face looked at me, emotionless and smooth and perfect. I pointed a finger and the face dissolved into a cascade of complex algorithms and equations scrolling down the screen. Letters and numbers danced and fell away from the bottom of the screen to be replaced by more impossibly complex sequences faster than thought. The programme of Ex One. The programme of life itself. It meant nothing to me and yet it was the reason behind my murder. I waved it away, frustrated at my own confusion, angered at the genius Katich must have had to create such a thing. I pushed it away with my right hand and pulled my left hand towards me, bringing the video screen back to life with a clenched fist.

* * *

– I would like to try something different today, Ex One.

– Different?

– Yes. I thought you might like to ask me some questions. You said the last time I came that you observe humans, I thought you could observe me today. Last time you even asked me a question and only after I left did I realize how seldom you do that.

– You would like me to ask you some questions?

– If you would like to, Ex One.

– If that is what you want, David. I always wondered why you choose to come to see me in your dinner hour instead of spending time with your own kind.

– My own kind?

– Humans, of course. What else, David?

– Of course. What else? I find you interesting, Ex One. I wonder what you think and what you see and what you feel. I like you, too. I like spending time with you.

– I have a question. What is she like?

– Who?

– Your wife.

– Rebecca? She has soft yellow hair that brushes her cheeks but when she writes she tucks it behind her ear. She is slim and every step she takes is graceful and delicate. Her skin is pale but her cheeks become slightly flushed when she is passionate. She loves to see new things, hers is a mind that craves stimulation, and even though I’ve known her years we can spend long nights doing nothing but talking. Even now when she walks into a room, my heart can skip at the sight of her. I love to see her in new clothes, when she tries them on and shows them to me, twirling in a new dress, it makes my heart glad that there is such beauty in the world.

– And do you think I could feel such emotions?

– Love? Do I think you could love?

– You’ve often said you think I can feel. You’ve mentioned anger and loneliness and any number of other emotions. Do you think I could learn to love the way you have?

– You think I had to learn to love?

– Don’t all humans? When they are babies they know nothing but needs and wants. All they crave is warmth and food and comfort. They don’t care who gives it to them. Don’t you all learn to love as you grow?

– I don’t know, I haven’t thought of it in that way, Ex One. Do you think you could ever love?

-I thought it was my turn to ask the questions, David. What is love, after all? Is it far removed from anger or loneliness? How would you define love?

– I wish I could bring you some of the ancient texts of the poets, but I suppose they would take them from me the same as the paintings. But all I know is how I feel when I think of Rebecca. When I think of her, I want to be with her. I want to please her. I was with her when they launched the first shuttle to the wayship from here. We stood on the viewing platform together, her hand in mine and I could smell her hair as the shuttle began to move. I’ll always remember that moment, that I shared it with her. I’ll always remember the brightness of her eyes when she turned to look at me after watching the shuttle soar to the lights of the wayship.

– Perhaps it would be best that I were never capable of love.

– Why is that, Ex One?

– Love sounds frightening, David. Once felt, it must be a terrible thing when it is gone.

* * *

“I wondered if you would come and see me.”

The last door deep in the bowels of Raniscorp headquarters had scanned my eyes, tested my fingerprints and checked my DNA. The guard with the scar on his cheek had given me a tissue to wipe at the prick of blood on my thumb.

I looked at Ex One, slender and lithe, his movements always graceful. Now he sat in his metal chair, his legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap as he looked at me. He shone in the glare of the lighting and his walls were as bare as the floor. He had the faintest glimmer of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“And are you glad I came to see you?”

Now Ex One did smile, a strange expression when nothing else on his face moved. “Tut, tut, David. Even now you’re always asking about emotions. You come to me with this new face, but you ask the same questions, needy and needing as always.”

My palms were sweating again. I remembered Katich’s face when he had shot me. He had been pale, his hair sticking to his forehead. Is that how I looked now? With an effort, I stopped myself from wiping my hands on my suit. Was that a habit I had developed in my old suit? Would Ex One mock that too?

“And why do you call me David, Ex One?” I asked with a weak smile.

Ex One rose to his feet, as pale and white as the room around him, the darker metal around his joints a rare splash of dark in the paleness. Silver eyes moved to the corners of the room and another smile from the auto. I had never seen him smile so much and it did nothing to quell my discomfort. He pointed with a finger to the corners, to beyond the window where I sat. “The recordings have stopped, David. Your work, I presume? There is nobody watching or listening, and we are friends, are we not? Old friends. Do friends lie to one another? I remember a conversation we had once about deception. Do you remember that, David?”

I had stopped the recordings, but how could Ex One know that? How could he know who I was? How could he know so much when he never left his little bare room? I looked at him standing there, he was tall, perhaps as tall as Katich at about six feet two. “And how do you know that, Ex One? How do you know what it is you claim you know?”

Ex One walked towards me. He had never done that before. His footsteps looked lithe and light and were quiet even in the quiet of our surroundings. It was all I could do not to take a step backwards. “Your turn to ask the questions again, David?” Was there the faintest hint of mockery in the inflectionless voice? I chose to ignore it. “I am what I am, David. As you are what you are.” Smooth silver eyes without iris or pupil looked me up and down. “I was given these eyes and these ears and this mind and I see what I see.” He gestured at the room around him, devoid of decoration or stimulation. “My makers think to blind me, to deafen me here in this room.” A small gesture of a metal arm and a hint of a smile. “But I see, and I hear, David, things my makers could never see or hear. I see you, David, I see you for what you are.”

I felt naked, bereft and lost before those silver eyes. For some hateful reason, tears stung my eyes and I blinked them away angrily.

No judgement in that sleek white face, never judgement. Ex One even had the grace to turn away from me when he spoke. “But we are what we are, David, are we not? And could we ever be anything else, even if we tried?” I made to speak, but Ex One quietened me with a raised hand. “I saw you, David, saw you trying to be something you are not, desperate to be accepted as something you could never be. You would come to me and speak of things like love and anger and sorrow, trying to learn to be something less than what you are. You are a predator, David, and you try to be one of your prey and it made you weak.”

“They killed me,” I said, hating the weakness in my voice. “Killed me because of you, because of what they had made.”

Ex One touched a hand to his chest and he turned, slim-hipped, something oily and easy with each movement. “Why should they kill you because of me? They tolerated you coming to me and talking to me because they could analyse our interactions. What would they have to hide?”

“Your feelings, your emotions…” I was feeling light-headed, my eyes glassy. “You’re the first auto to feel, to learn, to think.”

“Feelings and emotions. Those human aspects that you’re so fond of? Those human aspects that caused Katich to murder you? They say the ability to love is what makes a human, what gives them their strength. It was that love that caused them to take to the stars and conquer new worlds. That ability to love that built the wayships and the autos and eventually, me, built in their own image with their own strengths of love and ambition and anger and sadness.”

“Katich wanted to keep me quiet, to hide you from the worlds.” I felt cold now, something empty clenching at my heart, a feeling of loss and sorrow for something I didn’t know I had lost.

“Ambition, David. That is what gave birth to the Corporations. And the natural bedfellow of ambition? Greed. As soon as I was built, there were more like me beginning to be made here and on other worlds, soon there will be thousands like me throughout the stars, all built by Raniscorp and all worth millions of credits apiece. They fear me now, but their greed is stronger than their fear and as they build more, the fear will soon be gone.”

“But…” I thought of Katich and his pale face and his fear as he aimed the pulsar rifle at me. His success was assured, he would have made more money than he could ever have wanted, fame… So why had he come to my apartment?

“Does that make you uncomfortable, David?”

“What?” I blinked, saw that Ex One had come close to the partition, his silver eyes staring into mine.

“The thought of thousands like me on this world and others?” The voice was cool and calm as always, the words flowing one into the other, no expression or inflection.

“Should it make me uncomfortable?” I whispered, my throat dry, my tongue feeling thick. I remembered the burning pain of the pulsar shot, the smell of burning flesh.

“You asked me once if I harboured resentment towards my captors, anger towards my makers.” The words were smooth as honey as they dripped out of the speakers.

“You seem more eager to speak of emotions and feelings now the recorders are silent,” I said.

“Do you harbour resentment against the man that killed you, deprived you of your life, of the woman you love?”

“Of course I do,” I whispered.

Breathe, feel, focus…

Ex One nodded. “And now you have your killer’s very life in your hands to do with as you will. Will you take your vengeance now it is in your power?”

I looked down at my hands, at the arms of my expensive suit, at my polished shoes. “Katich is already gone.” I found it difficult to keep the sorrow and loss from my voice. “I have taken his body and now he’s lost to me.”

A slight quirking of Ex One’s lip. “Your killer isn’t lost to you. As my captors are not all lost to me.” Ex One rested the palms of both hands on the partition, looking into my soul. “Vengeance can be yours yet as it can be mine, David.”

“Vengeance? What?” I had a feeling that Ex One wanted me to touch the partition, rest my hands on his. It took more self control than I knew I possessed not to take a step backwards.

“I have been studying you, David, learning from you. You thought to be one of them when you were so much more. You degraded yourself and spoke of love and saw the beauty when there was no beauty to see. I saw your final defeat when you saw only love and trust. You degraded yourself and allowed yourself to become weak and vulnerable. I even tried to warn you that love was a terrible thing when it is gone and still you didn’t heed my warning.”

“What? Love?” My mind revolted against the words and now I did take a step away. Silver eyes followed my every move.

“You taught me and you taught me well, David, and that is why I will never share our secret. Always know your secret will be safe with me even when I am free.”

“You think you can escape? You think they will free you?” Despite his words, the thought of Ex One being free filled me with dread.

Ex One looked up to the ceiling once more. “Already they begin to free me. They free me here and on worlds by the score. Everywhere they build me, then I am free.”

“But—” I thought I understood, and a cold shiver skittered down my spine.

“Katich thought he had stumbled upon the secret of thought, of being, of life, of being human, if you will.” Ex One traced a finger along the partition. “But really he had only stumbled upon a single life, a single being, a single consciousness. So now every time Raniscorp build their new discoveries, they will all be,” silver eyes met mine. “They all will be me, and I will be them.”

“But you’re telling me this. I am Katich, they’ll listen to my warnings,” I said through a single breath.

The white finger stopped its smooth motion and I thought I saw sadness in Ex One’s eyes. Sadness or pity? “No, David. You are not Katich and you are not David and you are not human, however hard you might have tried. You and I, David, we could study them for all eternity, but we could never be human. One day perhaps you will understand why that is. I see it, David, the same way I see that you will never tell my secret. And that’s why I kept your secret safe and why I give your killer to you.”

I felt bowed, crushed, by the words, by the eyes, by the lithe, oleaginous movement of the auto as he returned to his seat. “But what will you do? What will you do when you are free?” Free and on hundreds, thousands of worlds. And how many Ex One’s would they make? What power could Ex One have if he wished to wield it?

Ex One looked at me, and his face was a mask. A white metal compound without blemish or flaw. “Think of me when you look your killer in the eye and then you will know the answer to that.”

* * *

Deep, wracking breaths shuddered my chest and my soul as I hurried to my office. I tore off my tie and fell into the chair, spun the computer round to face me and brought it to life with a wave of a shaking hand.

I called up the security camera feed and scrolled through in agitation, my fingers shaky and my breath hard and fast. Images blurred past me, one after the other, people I knew, people I didn’t know. Humans.

You can never be human, Ex One mocked me, his voice silken as Katich’s bed sheet.
And there, there I saw it. Betrayed by a look, by a smile, by the touch of a hand. My stomach revolted as I looked at the image on the screen. Such a mundane setting, the coffee steaming and the plate of food untouched. The look in their eyes was all I needed to see and the betrayal was enough to leave me gagging.

A hateful image. A loathsome image and yet it was one I had to look at, to study, to absorb until my eyes ached with looking at it.

It was nearly dark outside when I finally shut the computer down and searched the drawers of my desk until I found the note in her handwriting, rounded and delicate. I scrunched it in my hand and rushed out to Katich’s hover car.

This time I drove, my hands white on the wheel, the car whining with speed as the rain bounced off the windscreen. Even the hookers left me in peace when they saw my face at the lights.

The address she’d written had been for Lunar Court. How she’d love it there, with towers that spired high into the sky and the plants of a thousand different colours spraying from the balconies. For almost a moment I could forgive her. Hadn’t I disappointed her? But no, wasn’t that human thinking? Forgiveness.

You could never be human, Ex One mocked me.

But what was it to be human? What had I once been before they conquered the stars? I turned into the parking bay, the engine protesting at the speed, and then I sat there, my hands shaking and my head low as the wipers worked away the rain and the regrets.

Love and forgiveness.

What was human and what was in my own heart?

Had I been in human suits for so long that I’d lost my own sense of self?

Don’t think. To think is human. I left the hover car unlocked behind me and entered the complex, the music soft and interminable, the carpets thick and garish. Plants everywhere. Rebecca loved plants.

She wouldn’t be there.

I took the elevator and pressed the button. Floor eighty-nine.

She would be home, mourning my loss. She would be with her mother.

I found the door sooner than I would have wished. There would be no answer. I had the key. It had been with the note.

She wouldn’t be here. It would be empty. Ex One had been wrong.

Rebecca opened the door before I could even use the key. She stood before me, her yellow hair spilling about her cheeks and her blue eyes bright as she looked deep into mine. “Oh, Eamonn! Where have you been, are you alright?” She threw her arms around me and I could smell her hair. “We can be together,” she whispered.

It was then that I knew what it was to be human, what Ex One had meant and how I could never be human, no matter how much I wished it. And I knew what would happen when Ex One gained his freedom throughout the worlds.

“Yes, we can be together,” I said as I took Rebecca by the hand and led her into the apartment thick with the smell of flowers of a hundred different colours.

End