Sato lay on the cement floor of the workshop in a pool of his own blood and tried desperately to get Kuro-4’s legs working again. The robot, in turn, tried to deal with the gaping wounds in Sato’s smashed leg and pelvis.
by Erica L. Satifka
After he passes the age of reason, my brother chooses to become a
foundation. Specifically, the foundation of the new state capitol
building in Austin, Texas.
“You’ve never been to Texas,” I say.
“It was the best opening they had,” he replies with a small, sad
shrug. “And you get weekends off.”
I’m still working the counter at Jiffy Mart, delaying the
inevitable at a pointless task nobody asked me to perform. My friends
have all gone off to be fire hydrants or ATMs or jackhammers or
five-piece dinette sets. “Undifferentiated,” the Makers call shirkers
like me. I hear them whispering through the thought rays that emanate
from their human-powered satellites, saying choose. Decide. Be of use.
And I reply not yet.
The bell jingles and I look up to see a woman in
mid-transformation barging into the store. Probably just took her
injection after a weekend of rest. She’s half-human, half-Vespa, and
her chassis scrapes the paint off the door frame.
“A little help?”
I sigh and maneuver her through. I would have just brought her
purchases out to the parking lot if she’d asked me to. “What do you
“Motor oil. Oreos.”
I tuck the items into her saddlebags. No charge, of course. As I
close the door behind her, she belches a cloud of exhaust into my
face. The transformation complete, she idles at the corner until a
passing Maker hops aboard. It pops an Oreo into its mouth and speeds
off, jagged teeth covered in chocolate bits.
The Makers are alive, but they’re not organic. The division
between “living thing” and “object” doesn’t exist for them. And they
have a hard time believing that we care about such a piddling thing as
keeping our own bodies. To a Maker, a job’s a job, and we all play our
role. Except for us selfish undifferentiated types.
Choose, say the voices in my head. Decide.
“Not yet,” I say. “Piss off.”
That keeps the voices down, for a little while anyway.
The Makers’ home world is as artificial as they are, a spherical
factory orbiting a distant blue sun. No nature, just industry. They
arrived in the bodies of the last race they’d conquered, ships that
died on contact with our atmosphere. The ships died happy, the Makers
told us, knowing they had been of use.
I’m not so sure about that.
It was a slow invasion masked as a self-improvement regimen. None of
my friends really had a job. We were all living on plastic, taking
useless classes at the community college to maintain our health
insurance while we pretended our parents’ basements were fabulous
studio apartments. The lines for the Makers’ employment centers
stretched down the sidewalk like an ant trail.
Except, I kind of liked the art history class I was enrolled in at the
time. I didn’t mind living at home. And anyway, injections hurt.
The Makers tend their human machines like careful gardeners. They
shamble down the human-lined streets on their twisted, insectoid legs.
And every day I feel their alien hate pulsing at me.
When they were full-time people, my parents used to telecommute, so it
made sense for them to become a house. Which is great in one way,
because I don’t have to sleep in a stranger’s armpit. But it’s also
bad in another, because there isn’t any privacy. Sex becomes
unthinkable in a house built from your parents’ bones. I think that’s
why my brother’s moving so far away.
“I’ll miss you,” I say as I watch my brother pack his bags.
He’s already taken his starter injections, and his words come out
thick and gravelly. Stone man. “You could come with me.”
“I don’t know anyone down there,” I say. I don’t add that I don’t know
anyone here either anymore. We don’t wear nametags or anything, so you
only know your friends when they transform into their part-time human
forms. And useful objects don’t want to hang around with
undifferentiated slackers like me. “I’ll write you. You’ll still be
able to read, won’t you?”
“Of course I’ll be able to read. I can do anything you can do. Except move.”
“But you get weekends off.”
“Weekends,” he says, “and alternate Wednesdays.”
I don’t take public transportation anymore, and I don’t dare
climb in a taxi, not when I could be entering the cab of my hated
fifth-grade teacher. Luckily, I only live ten miles from the ocean. I
grab my trusty bike, which was never alive, and pedal down the road to
Choose, the voices say. Contribute. Be of use.
I pedal faster.
Because it’s November, the ocean is deserted. I take off my
shoes, roll up my pant legs, and wade into the brackish water.
I choose to be the air, I think. I choose to be the rain on my
face and the rocks beneath my feet, the waves crashing over the rocks
and the sun beating down on the waves. I wish to disappear into
nature, into the Earth itself. That’s something the Makers can’t give
us, for these things have no function. They are not of use.
I stand in the ocean until the pounding rain becomes too much to
bear. My teeth chatter. But I just can’t bring myself to leave. The
rain drowns out the voices, and the dark keeps me from seeing the
boats in the distance and wondering who they are, if they’re anyone at
Someday, I know I’ll have to choose. I can’t remain undifferentiated forever.
Not yet, though, not yet. I’m not nearly ready yet.
Metal and Flesh
by Steven R. Stewart
Sato lay on the cement floor of the workshop in a pool of his own
blood and tried desperately to get Kuro-4’s legs working again. The
robot, in turn, tried to deal with the gaping wounds in Sato’s smashed
leg and pelvis.
Go stones were all over the floor, scattered like black and white
drops of rock. Go had been one of the few games Sato and Kuro-4 could
play together to pass the time. AIs had trouble with Go, and Sato
could hold his own against Kuro-4. Sometimes he even won. The Go
stones had rested in two worn wooden bowls on the table by the main
hatch; now they were mixed together on the floor, blood and hydraulic
oil oozing around them like a slow river.
Sato twisted his torso, torqued the wrench, and finally popped the
release that allowed the panel on Kuro-4’s lower back to slide open.
The effort made Sato’s head spin. Outside, the cold Martian winds
buffeted the workshop walls, causing the metal to groan. The asteroid
strike had heated the alloy, but now the temperature was falling back
to normal. The lights overhead dimmed, but stayed on.
The wry eyes on Kuro-4’s facescreen studied Sato’s worried face.
“If the impact left even a third of the solar panels intact,” Kuro-4
said, “that should be enough to keep life support going.”
Sato grunted. Sweat poured down his face. “If I don’t get your legs
working, it won’t matter.”
All the suits were in the decom chamber, and the asteroid had torn
that room in half. Rescue would take 44 days to arrive, and if Kuro-4
couldn’t walk to bring back supplies, Sato wouldn’t last half that
“Well, work faster,” Kuro-4 said. “You’re letting me win. I’ve already
managed to repair three of your major blood vessels.”
“Out of how many?”
Kuro-4 was silent.
“You’ve got it easy,” Sato said. “No pain.”
“On the other hand, the mechanisms you’re working on are simple
compared to the human body.”
“It repairs itself; what could be simpler?”
They lay on the floor side by side for almost an hour, a yin and yang
of metal and flesh. They talked back and forth, each contending their
job was harder, that they were winning the competition to see who
could fix the other first. Neither admitted how scared they were.
Eventually, Sato’s hands went numb. Reassembling Kuro-4’s servo had
been difficult enough when he could feel the pieces. Foggy and
frustrated, Sato lay back on the floor and struggled to catch his
breath. The cement felt soft, like a down pillow.
When Sato looked up, Kuro-4 was studying him again.
“What’s that face?” Sato asked. “What are you thinking about?”
“Back home. AI’s aren’t recognized as living beings.”
Sato struggled to sit up. “Why are you thinking about that now?”
“The network says the other buildings are breached, which probably
means you’re the only living human in the complex. If you die, they
won’t spend the money on an evac mission to save me.” The dark eyes on
Kuro-4’s facescreen were weary and afraid. “I’m in here, Sato. I know
I can’t prove it, but I’m in here.”
Sato put a hand on Kuro-4’s shoulder. “I know you are.”
They worked in silence. Once, Sato almost fell asleep. A few times, he
forgot where he was.
Finally, Sato said, “Fire up your voice recorder.”
Sato blinked to stay awake. “I’m dying, Kuro. Fire it up.”
A blinking red dot and jagged green line took the place of Kuro-4’s face.
“I lost,” Kuro-4 said blankly. “I couldn’t save you.”
“Hush,” Sato said. “I’m recording.”
Sato cleared his throat, summoned the last of his strength, and willed
his voice to clear. Then he spoke:
“Command, visual is on the fritz, so I’m in audio-only.”
“This is Sato. Still scraping by. I’m really anxious to see you all.”
“Quick status report…”
Sato continued until he had said everything he thought Kuro-4 would
need. Kuro-4 listened in silence, the green line on his facescreen
spiking along with Sato’s voice. When the recording was over and
Kuro-4’s facescreen returned to normal, there were tears streaming
down his artificial cheeks.
“Recut that any way you need to, to make them think I’m still alive,”
Sato said. “Then they’ll have to come.”
Kuro-4 smiled through his tears. “I don’t know what to say. I’m never
going to be able to top this.”
Sato took Kuro-4’s cold metal hand, smiled, and faded away.
by Robert Dawson
I was half-starved, my head ached from a long day of selling
commonplace vacations to difficult customers, and if I missed the 5:17
dronebus it would be an hour till the next one. Without slowing from
my clumsy run, I cybervisualized the timetable. Bus times hovered in
front of me in glowing red letters, while a calm voice told me that my
bus was running four minutes late and that I could catch it at a walk.
Gratefully, I cancelled the app, and let myself relax. I was out of
breath, my shirt was wet with perspiration under my jacket, and my
shins hurt from the unaccustomed exercise in office shoes. For a
twenty-six-year-old, I was in poor shape.
I got to the stop just in time. As the bus slowed to a halt, a
sultry and not-overdressed brunette materialized in front of me. She
leaned provocatively against the bus shelter, hip jutted, blocking my
way onto the bus.
“Hey there, big boy!” she breathed. “Want to make yourself
irresistible to women?” Her perfume made my nose tickle and my eyes
water. Real perfume would have been illegal in a public place, but
they claim that nobody’s really allergic to stimplant sensations. All
in your mind. Yeah, sure.
I stepped through her onto the bus, swiped my card, and turned
towards the rear. There she was again, standing among the other
passengers, toying with a button of her tight blouse. “Didn’t you hear
me, honey? I’m here to tell you how to get any woman you want. Me, for
The door chimed and closed. The bus started moving; those of us who
were standing swayed and braced ourselves against the acceleration.
She stood motionless in front of me, ignoring the handrail, brazenly
flouting Newton’s laws of motion.
Where the hell was her cancel button? So far only a few maverick
advertisers ignored the law outright, but more and more popup
designers were making the buttons inconspicuous, forcing you to spend
time interacting with their creations before you could exorcise them.
Last year’s ubiquitous red circle-X was a wistful memory of more
There it was, a tiny silver glyph like a piercing stud on her
pouting lower lip. I reached out my finger, like choosing a floor in
an old-fashioned elevator, but she shook her head. “Unh, unh,
studmuffin. It doesn’t work like that. Even bad girls deserve a
I muttered something ungentlemanly, leaned forward, and pecked at
her intangible lips: she vanished. I glanced quickly around, but
apparently nobody had noticed. There was still an empty seat, beside a
white-haired woman wearing jeans and a powder-blue sweater. I sat
down before I could make myself any more conspicuous.
From under the seat came a sinister rattle. A big brown and white
snake slithered out and started to weave menacing loops on the floor
around my feet. Its back bore the name of the Prime Minister, in clear
block capitals. I stepped on its head; it vanished with a puff of
smoke, and the rattle stopped.
“Aaaah! That’s better, isn’t it?” said a soothing friendly voice
that came from everywhere at once and only I could hear. “This June,
vote for real change!”
The woman beside me was looking at my foot. “Was that the snake, dear?”
“Yes,” I admitted. Across the aisle, a thin girl with dreadlocks
seemed to be picking something out of thin air. “Sometime I wish I’d
never got stimplanted. You know, I actually believe the government’s
doing an okay job, but stepping on the snake is the only way to get
rid of it. Otherwise it follows me around all day and gets louder and
louder. And even then it just keeps coming back.”
“Oh, I hate that one!”
“You mean you’ve got a stimplant too? Sorry, that was rude. I apologize.”
“It is mainly a young people’s thing, isn’t it? But my son works
in Shanghai and my daughter’s in Lagos. And it’s almost like being in
the same room with them.”
“But is it worth the popups? I need my stimplant for my sales
job, but otherwise…”
A tiger, the mascot of a breakfast cereal that I had bought a few
times, stalked along the aisle, and paused in front of me.
“Have you had your Quinoa Puffs today?” it asked reproachfully, and walked on.
She gave me a sympathetic half-smile, and nodded. “I almost got
mine taken out last month, though it would have broken my heart. But I
got an ad-blocking patch instead.”
“I thought those didn’t work?”
“My son works for Cybella. He gave me a copy of their newest
product. That was thoughtful of him, wasn’t it? It would have cost me
three hundred dollars otherwise, and I’m on a fixed income.”
Worth every dime, I thought. “Where could I buy it?”
“I think you can download it. I’m not absolutely sure, though,
because mine was a present.”
I brought up my visual display and googled. Sure enough: Cybella,
She smiled. “That’s it, dear.” She patted my arm, almost too
gently to feel.
I authorized the payment so eagerly that I made a mistake on my
password, and had to try again. After a few seconds, the world around
me began to fizz and sparkle as the patch installed. I smelled mint
green and tasted furry pentagons; a million ice-cold ball bearings
slithered over my skin.
When my senses cleared, the seat beside me was empty.
I guess I’m slow on the uptake. I actually looked up and down the bus
to see where she’d gone.
And then, from somewhere under my seat, I heard an all-too-familiar rattle.
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The safety coffin bell still rang. The sexton sent another apprentice to check the grave. Soon, he would run out of them.