by Jason Sanford
Was my name being shouted over the music? There came a knock, then my name again, louder this time. I’d been deep in the code and hadn’t slept in . . . days? But then my circadian rhythms are sketchy at best.
Figuring Papa was at the door I shouted back, “Busy!”
The door cracked open, a rivulet of hall light spilling over the threadbare carpet.
“I’m naked!” I lied. I had on underwear, but this stops Papa cold.
“Put on a robe.” I finally recognized Carlos’ voice with a shiver that tingled from head to toe. He was waiting off to one side, invisible behind the doorframe.
“Okay! Okay! jeeze!”
I looked at my hands to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. I pinched my cheek. It hurt. I’d been thinking of calling Carlos, but resisting the impulse. The boy from down the street who had been my best and only friend forever . . . until he hadn’t.
The usual ache ran down my forearms into my hands, pulsing in my fingertips. I rubbed my forehead and moaned as hard-won tendrils of logic evaporated from my forebrain like spilled acetone. Damn it.
I wriggled into a forest green political T-shirt that fell halfway to my knees. Even after I’d abandoned the radical greens, the Eco-Savior logo had bugged the hell out of Carlos. He’d have to deal with it.
“Gort! Music off!” I paused that quarter beat to avoid confusing the bot. “Come in!”
The door swung open as the music faded. A stocky figure stood silhouetted in the painful hallway light.
“We’re in the dark, Nayla.”
It wasn’t dark, it was dim, but he’d come out of the midsummer glare, and his eyes hadn’t adjusted. “Gort, lights up.”
The room brightened slowly. My space was the usual kind of functional mess. I knew where everything was, and Papa didn’t throw a fit about me tidying it up. Not like my mother used to. The state of my bedroom had driven her nuts, but then, everything about me had. Christ, I was twenty-six years old. Why did I even care any more?
Carlos hadn’t changed a bit in the last two years. jeeze. It had been two years and three months, but I wasn’t sure how many days, because I wasn’t counting. He looked like his crappy LifeBook profile, which was kinda old at this point. Wait. Was his jet-black hair receding already? His father had been bald at the end. I’d watched his hairline recede throughout my childhood, at dinnertimes with his Catholic family, gathered around their huge table. I’d daydreamed, back then, of what it would be like to grow up in a family with a boring religion. Nobody had harassed the Catholics much since Kennedy.
Carlos met my eye. “You look awful.”
He gazed around at the clutter, drinking it all in impassively. Strange that Papa had sent him up. My mother’s religious fervor would never have permitted a boy in my room.
Did Papa no longer give a damn?
Carlos picked his way through my laundry toward the blackout-curtained doorway onto the fire escape. I’d brought three of the pigeon drones up from my workshop for no reason other than I liked looking at them. One of each prototype.
Carlos inspected the birds. Their feathers looked real, but weren’t; that was a dead end in terms of masking their heat signature, which was turning out to be impossible anyway.
“Always wondered if you’d ever finish the things.”
“They’re still not done.”
The bird drones were the first piece of sequestered technology I’d liberated. I’d been sniffing around hinky recombinant DNA research linked to the Eschaton plagues at a consulting company that farmed out military contracts. They rented a lab a quarter of a mile away, on Commonwealth next to the New Frontier Café my father frequented. The partially completed effort I’d snitched I found in a folder titled “Effing Canceled Contracts.” Bio-mimicking drones had fallen out of fashion after that pod of autonomous dolphin drones scuttled the USS Kentucky.
“Your mother loved birds,” Carlos said softly. “I get it.”
She had, but he didn’t. Not really. He toured my room silently, as if he hadn’t just materialized out of nowhere after ghosting me for years. He squinted at the diagrams pinned to my lumpy plaster-lap walls.
He pointed. “There’s the flat Earth. That’s Pellucidar, right . . . ? The hollow earth . . . that’s the . . .” He leaned forward to read the small type. “Welteislehre?”
He’d mangled the pronunciation. I didn’t bother to correct him. “It’s Austrian pseudoscience, an inverted sphere universe. Celestial objects get smaller and smaller as you approach the center point, a forced perspective. Nazi cosmology. What are you doing here, Carlos?”
He ignored the question.
“That’s a Tesla tower. . . .” He nodded at the blueprint of a tall grid-work structure with a domed top, like the love child of the Eiffel Tower and a kaiju-scaled vibrator. His brows knit in a way that brought back our tragic year of Calculus tutoring. READ MORE
by James Gunn
Alice woke up. She opened her eyes. They opened with difficulty, as if she had been asleep for days; but that was strange because she didn’t remember falling asleep, and the ceiling of the room didn’t look familiar. It was like a single piece of ceramic studded with lenses or receptors of some sort. She turned her head to the right, but with difficulty; it was tight and painful as if it hadn’t been turned for a long time, and the view wasn’t worth the effort. It was sterile like the inside of a shipping box, and turning her head to the left gave her an almost identical view. And the bed in which she was lying was like a fancy, ultra-comfortable mattress shaped to her body, which was good because she didn’t feel like moving any other part of it. In fact, between the mattress and her weakness she didn’t think she could move. She tried a single finger and then the hand to which it was attached. They moved, but it was an effort.
A voice came out of nowhere. Or perhaps it came out of one of the speakers in the ceiling. “Alice Milliken,” the voice said, “you are awake.”
“Yes,” Alice said, “and it feels very strange.”
“That’s not surprising,” the disembodied voice said. “You have been unconscious for twenty years.”
“No wonder I feel funny,” Alice said. “But how did I get here, and how did you keep me alive, and where is everybody?”
Her body began to quiver as if all her muscles had decided to move on their own, and she understood why the bed was shaped in such an intimate embrace. It was exercising all her muscles, and that explained why she was able to move at all.
She looked down. It was difficult to turn her head that way, so she mostly used her eyes. Her arms were quivering, but she could see that they were red at the inner elbow, not like places where needles had been inserted but maybe some other form of injection. It felt as if there were foreign objects in her body.
“Where is everybody?” she said again, but she was falling asleep, and she had to focus all her effort on staying awake. But as she went to sleep she heard the same odd, unnatural voice saying, “You will learn everything in time.”
When Alice woke up again everything was the same, the same featureless room—a hospital room, she thought—and yet everything was different. The room was filled with sunshine, as if the walls had adjusted to the conditions outside. She had changed, too. She felt stronger and more awake. Maybe she was recovering from whatever had kept her asleep for twenty years. Maybe her caretakers, whoever they were, had reduced her doses of medicine. And she was not alone. The voice that came from nowhere had gone back to wherever it came from. It was not speaking, of course. There was another presence in the room, standing near the door, waiting to do whatever it was intended to do. Because it was a machine. Maybe it was a robot.
“Hello,” she said. It came out as a hoarse, rasping sound.
“Can I get you something?” said a voice much like her own, as though it was unaccustomed to speaking. But it wouldn’t be, if it were a robot and there was nobody around to speak to.
“I feel hungry,” she said. That was true. She did feel a pang of something inside, but her comment was more to change the uneasy way she felt talking to a robot.
“What would you like to eat?” the robot said.
“What time of day is it?” Alice asked.
“The sun has been up for several hours.”
Alice thought about that for a moment: a robot that approximated the time of day. But then the time of day might not matter much to a robot.
“Breakfast then,” Alice said.
“You will need to be more precise,” the robot said.
“Oh, give me some cereal with sugar and cream,” she said. “With a spoon,” she added. This robot might be casual about the time, but it seemed to need precision about everything else.
The food came with surprising speed. In a few minutes, according to her now grumbling stomach, but may have been fifteen or twenty, a window opened in what appeared now to be a door—a door! That meant it opened to somewhere. A tray appeared in the window with a bowl of food. The robot—a construction of stainless steel and well-oiled connections—rolled across the floor on small wheels, carrying the tray in front of it in snakelike arms. As it approached, a small table emerged from the side of Alice’s bed in time to receive the tray.
Alice’s bed straightened her to a near-sitting position. She slid her fingers under the spoon and lifted it cautiously. Her arm worked with tweaks and protests, but it held together long enough to dig into the mushlike contents of the bowl. She raised it to her lips and tasted it gingerly. Almost immediately the spoon dropped from her fingers and the contents of the spoon were spat out upon the tray.
“What is wrong?” the robot said.
“Everything,” Alice said, “The mush—whatever it is—is too hot and it’s too salty.”
“That is something we will have to work on,” the robot said. “Is there something else we can provide?” `
Alice explained the concept of a sandwich, but the robot had no bread and nothing to put on it. “The voice that spoke to me when I woke up. Maybe it could think of something.” READ MORE