This week on the Drabblecast– three stories about Strange Futures. We bring you Drabblecast originals, “Department of Invention” by R.L. Thull, “The One’s Who Won’t Be” by Martin Munks, and “Cannabilism in the Inhuman Age” by Jaye Viner.
Closing Music by 19 Action News
Saul broke down in an unusual way for a robot. Saul ‘died,’ is the more apt term, but I hate to put a human descriptor to a machine. They already get enough of those…
DEPARTMENT OF INVENTION
by R.L. Thull
Like everyone, you’re skeptical at first.
It’s a new kind of job, say the towering multicolor ads that look down like titans upon full city blocks in your neighborhood. A job for our new economy, safe from automation because only people can do it. But, you ask your friend, isn’t it getting paid for telling lies?
No, they say. It’s not that at all. Try it. You can work from home after the training period if you prefer. Invention is very important work, not lies.
On your first day of training, the Voice corroborates what you’ve heard: WE DON’T LIE. A soothing woman’s voice, piped from multiple speakers overhead. WHAT WE DO IS CREATIVE, HELPFUL. INVENTION NEVER HURTS ANYONE.
Everyday, you walk downtown to your city’s Department of Invention, located in a black, mirror-faced building whose vast geometries evade logic. You cannot reconcile the interior scheme with what you see outside — surely, some square footage must be unaccounted for. Then up a tinted-glass elevator and into a narrow room with contoured foam walls and a sleek microphone snaking from its counter. The booth, you call it, because it is no bigger. Thin metal wafers are fitted at your temples for a purpose unknown. You bend toward the microphone’s head, holding its cold, slender body, and clear your throat.
You begin with the smallest of mistruths.
“Today is Tuesday,” you say. (It’s Monday.)
“I had toast for breakfast.” (You skipped breakfast.)
“The room is bright.” (The room is never bright.)
INVENT MORE FREELY, directs the Voice. This is its mantra.
After a few more starters — “I am left-handed, grand pianos have sixty-six keys, bluebirds are brown“ — you’re able to up your game. “Elvis Presley was assassinated,” you say. “1968. During a performance of ‘Jailhouse Rock’.”The Voice gladly agrees and prompts for more. And you supply. “The tail of a house cat never stops growing… Cats are the only mammal to lay eggs, round blue eggs covered in speckles.”
You swallow from your sweating water glass, shaking off the buzz of nerves. You feel a little like you’ve just shoplifted candy, smoked a cigarette, cursed in a church.
The shift continues. More inventions flow from your lips, and the Voice fills your booth again with its tranquil responses. THAT’S TRUE, it tells you.
“No, it’s not,” you say under your breath.
After your first days of training, you are glad to be earning again, intrigued — but still conflicted. How is this helpful, you wonder. Where do the inventions go, once they’re swallowed down that microphone? The Voice isn’t specific on this point. It tells you, INVENTIONS ARE A POWERFUL RESOURCE.
You ask workmates, why don’t computers do it?
AI’s can’t invent, answers one woman. They just don’t know how, or they short circuit if they try. You’ll catch on, she says. It takes time.
Time does make a difference. After two weeks, your inventions flow more easily. It’s almost natural to lean into the microphone and say outlandish things: “The Earth is slowly shrinking. Penguins can fly. One plus one is three.”
By degrees, the booth gets darker. It turns into a sensory deprivation chamber as your shift wears on, darker and darker still, until everything is static and void, an outline left in your mind, and your imagination rapid fires like galaxies of stars bursting overhead. The metal wafers pressed above your ears thrum, a high-caffeine frequency. In this state, you can spout forth multifaceted gems. “Disco is the world’s most ancient form of dance,” you say. “Developed by the Egyptians to honor the gods. Pharaoh Ramses died of disco fever, so did King Tut.”
THAT’S TRUE, says the Voice. But you know it probably isn’t.
Soon, a divider is lifted to reveal three other booths adjacent to your own, your invention team. You spur each other on, becoming feverish and ecstatic, waving your arms until the ravings end at five o’clock. Spots swim before your vision as the lights are gradually restored. Then a robotic arm unfolds from the wall to sample your blood and sweat, and remove your electro-conductive crown.
In your third week, the Voice begins to steer your focus, but not too sharply. HOW DO HUMANS IMPACT THE PLANET?
Your team pauses, but only for a beat. “Our landfills sink into Earth’s molten core,” says one of you, “and erupt as volcanos.”
Your team produces more on the topic, saying plastic shopping bags amass together and are swept into immense cloud formations on windy days, blocking out the sun.
The Voice always agrees. A moment of rest, and then the next question is lobbed. WHY IS OUR COUNTRY AT WAR? And then, WHO IS IN CHARGE?
You explain the country is at war with Canada and has been for decades, over a hockey game. And a league of super-intelligent apes is in charge of the States now, calling all the shots because the President is only a collector’s bobblehead.
THAT’S TRUE, agrees The Voice.
Your teammates nod along.
You take your lunch outside in the office plaza, crowded elbow-to-elbow with other inventors at tables capped with oversized umbrellas. A month of rigorous training, and you still wonder what it’s all about. Invention is becoming so popular; everyone seems to be trying their hand at it now. But what is it all for?
Rich people pay for our inventions, a woman on your team says over a mouthful of burger, to use for virtual reality scenarios. Her friend disagrees.
Market research, she proclaims. No, for clickbait, says a man.
It’s counterintelligence, another woman suggests. Only human inventions can mix up the foreign bots.
A man at another table turns around to say they’re all wrong; it’s a chemical produced in our brains during the invention process. It can be used as a recreational drug, expanding awareness and changing reality. The woman beside you leans forward and pronounces, that’s true.
Another of your teammates agrees about the chemical, but says they weaponize it, a huge help to the war effort in Mexico. No, the war is in Canada, you say. You think so, at least. And then everyone is looking at you, wanting to know your theory of invention. You shrug. You don’t know yet.
When your six weeks of training are complete, you go for drinks with your team to celebrate. You can continue on with flexible hours now, inventing anytime you wish, from anywhere. You see now it’s so much bigger than the Department of Invention; you’re part of something that can change the world.
Sipping gratefully from your cold frothy mug, you say, “Beer is made from roses and honey.”
THAT’S TRUE, says the bartending bot in a voice that you recognize. THAT’S TRUE.
THE ONES WHO WON’T BE
by Martin Münks
“Your first pairing should appear in an hour or so,” said the nurse sitting across from us, so proper and poised you could balance an egg on her head. “After that our computer will examine pairings one by one, and you’ll receive a steady stream until you make your decision.”
Goosebumps tickled my arms. Partly from the cold in the barren fertility clinic, and partly from a wave of realization that we just spent $23,000 to be part of a beta program.
“And how many pairings did you say there would be again?” my wife Jenna asked. I caressed the little speckle on her wrist, something I found myself doing when I left my hindbrain at the controls. “Was it thousands? Or like, a hundred thousand?”
The nurse smiled, keeping her teeth hidden behind thin lips. “200 million, give or take,” she said. “We process all of them. But don’t be overwhelmed! The app is straightforward, and thankfully it’s easy to filter out undesirable pairings. You’d be surprised at how many slow swimmers there are. No offence,” she added, pivoting to face me.
I waved her off. They’d already screened to pick Jenna’s best egg, but I knew not all my sperm could be perfect.
“You can be confident with the output,” the nurse continued. “We’ve been able to determine height within an inch since 2017, IQ was accurate to 10 points in 2018, and we knew colour of the iris way back in 2004. And recent advances in DNA phenotyping have only made our predictions more accurate.”
The nurse extended a card to Jenna. “This is your login info, and your password is at the bottom. Just download the app, enter in that information, and you’ll get a notification when it’s ready.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, harvesting our jackets from the coat tree. “You have no idea how excited we are.”
“So excited,” echoed Jenna.
“Just remember,” said the nurse as she walked us to the door. “Every couple has a perfect baby in them. So don’t settle for anything less.”
We talked the whole ride home, sharing our hopes for the child we were going to have. What she would look like and what she would be interested in and what she would become. We knew we wanted a girl. We knew we wanted book-smart. Jenna wanted musical. I wanted sporty. She wanted tall. I wanted funny. And of course, we both wanted healthy.
I made popcorn when we got in, and we put on Netflix for the background noise. Then Jenna grabbed the iPad and tapped open the app.
“Cribbit,” she said when the name appeared. “I like their logo. It’s cute. Little froggy.”
I nuzzled closer and threw my arm around her, our eyes sharing the screen.
The app loaded to a splash page and I read: “Congrats! You’re on your way to welcoming your perfect little child!” We clicked through to an empty page. 0 pairings, it said. “I guess we still have to wait.”
“I guess,” echoed Jenna.
We were anxious to busy ourselves that we actually read the Terms and Conditions. The mouseprint spoke to the limitations of the app, how graphs were for informational purposes only, how renderings were an approximation, how Cribbit International Ltd. assumed no liability and offered no guarantees. We’d scanned through about a quarter of the legalese when a notification finally interrupted us. “Matches available!” it read, with a little graphic of a tadpole crossing a finish line.
“Let’s see who the winner is,” I said.
Jenna tapped the green OK. After a brief flash of another tadpole chasing its flagellum, a profile appeared.
The top half of the screen showed a photo of a boy with a toothy smile, about 6 years old, lean and lanky. He wore a red baseball jersey and a cap, brown curls spilling out from under it, and he stood in a ballpark with a bat over his shoulder. It looked like a playing card you’d get custom-printed in little league, where you posed like your favourite pro.
A pentagon occupied most of the bottom half, split into colour-coded sections. A legend in the corner said that yellow meant intelligence, blue meant sociability, green meant health, orange meant creativity, and purple meant initiative. Then there were numbers for height as an adult, age at death, and at the very bottom: the Happiness Index. That showed the likelihood that the child would grow into a happy adult, calculated by running genetic indicators against an extensive survey Jenna and I had filled out. In this case, it totaled 67.
The profile looked slick, especially the boy in the generated photo. Almost like a real child. He was beautiful, a combination of us, like a Mr. Potatohead made from the Jenna and Joe Expansion Pack. But something about him was off. Subtle to the eye, but glaring to the subconscious. He had a slight blur to him, a ghosting effect that stood out among his otherwise crisp features. Human, but not, to the point that I shuddered when I stared too long. But I understood why. Though the technology had proven itself to be uncannily prescient, they could never be 100% certain how the pairing would grow. Just too many variables. The blur was their way of reiterating that it’s still just an algorithm’s best guess.
“He’s a cute kid,” I said. “High on creativity. And baseball, that’s good.” I used to play before I threw out my shoulder.
“But, he’s a little low on sociability,” said Jenna. “Plus, we decided on a girl, so. Next?”
I looked at the boy that could’ve been, imagined games of catch, and tee-ball trophies, and eating $12 hot-dogs in the 500s at a Jays game. “Next,” I agreed.
Jenna swiped left.
A new child appeared. Another boy, around 6, this time wearing a steel-grey conductor’s hat and gluing together a model caboose. His fuzzy face had a slightly different set of our features: my freckles, Jenna’s smaller nose, my big ears, her blue eyes. Even had glasses that looked like hers. Modestly better stats, too, and a 71 for happiness.
“Boy,” I stated. “Next?”
Swipe left. Another boy.
Jenna huffed. “Is there a way to set preferences?” She hit the hamburger menu in the top left and navigated to the settings. A long list of tick boxes and sliders populated the screen, with little frog characters in the tooltips to explain each choice. She found the header for gender and unticked MALE, and then paused. “Non-binary too?” she asked, her finger hovering over the other check boxes.
I felt bad nodding, but that didn’t stop me. We wanted a girl. The rest we were open to.
“And sexuality?” Jenna asked, eyeing the option.
“Well Paul’s gay,” I said. My brother. “He’s happy. And healthy, and successful.”
“Right. Right right.”
“I wouldn’t change him,” I continued. “I don’t think he’d want to be changed either.”
“True. And if we want grandkids eventually, the process for same-sex in vitro is pretty similar,” she nodded at the tablet. “So yeah. Okay. We’ll keep it open for now.”
We backed into the pairing screen and another boy loaded up before quickly swiping away. Seems the processor analyzed sperm one by one before discarding them, so it couldn’t just sort them out completely. Instead it auto-swiped for us whenever a pairing didn’t match our preferences.
The nurse was right. Simple and easy.
Next came a girl in a princess outfit. 6 years old, always 6. The stats made sense, but the way she dressed threw me off. “Is it too girly?” I asked. “I mean, traditional?” We wanted our daughter to be strong and independent, not trapped in old gender roles. Our research into social trends found that most successful women listed high for independence, and she needed to be able to compete—especially if her peers were paired with Cribbit too.
There appeared a girl on a horse. Then a girl in a gymnastics outfit, a girl playing hockey, a girl in a tutu, a girl reading books, a girl painting, a girl hiking. Boys too, flitting by too quickly to notice. But every pairing had something wrong. Too short, too tall, not smart enough, not funny enough, strange interests, strange looks. Left, left, left, left. The motion became routine.
Then one girl made us stop.
“Ooh, this one looks good,” Jenna said, nestling into me. “She’s pretty. I love the golden curls. And blue eyes, just like me.”
“Great stats,” I said, pointing at the pentagon full of colour. “And happiness at 92. Wow.”
I caressed a finger against her cherub face, smooth and symmetrical and for some reason less fuzzy than the rest had been. She had a button nose and a laughing smile that pinned dimples into her rosy cheeks, with crinkles in the corners of eyes that sparkled bright. She sat at a piano, drawing notes on sheet music.
“Look! She’s not just playing,” I said. “She’s writing it. She’s, she’s composi—”
I suddenly ran out of breath. Jenna quieted as well. In the corner, under age of death, it said 22, with the cause listed as Cystic Fibrosis. I felt my throat go tight and the world suddenly twinkled through tears. How strange is that? Crying for this child who isn’t and never will be, just a composite photo and a couple of charts. Yet those numbers told the story of a beautiful girl, of love, of happiness, of life, of our family. And of the number 22, sharpened to pierce my heart.
“It’s not always right,” I said. “Like the nurse said, it’s all just a guess. And who knows where medicine will be in 20 years? Right?”
“I know,” Jenna said. “But.”
“Yeah.” I hugged her tight and kissed her temple. After a long, quiet sigh, I reached across and swiped left for us.
We took a break for a few minutes. Jenna got up to blow her nose, I wiped my eyes with the collar of my tee shirt. When we sat back down we opened the preferences again, this time intending to cross the Ts in our genetic code to avoid any more heartaches and near-misses. There were thousands of options. We unticked all the hereditary defects and disabilities, vision complications, left-handedness, and red hair (I have a recessive gene, apparently). Not that red hair is bad—we just wanted her to look like at least one of her parents. Then we began playing with the sliders. Height over 5’6” and under 6’1”. Death after 60 at least. Intelligence, sociability, health, creativity, and initiative, all over 80. Why not, right?
Clicking APPLY brought up a message. “WARNING!” it said in bold red letters. “Setting sliders too high will result in far fewer pairings. Are you sure?””
I tapped OK without hesitation.
The screen blinked with images, auto-swiping left, left, left, left. Boys and girls flying past so quickly we could only make out their smiles. A blur of lives never lived, laughs never shared, stories never told. Happy children blinking in and out of possibility, like riffling through pages in a yearbook and then throwing it away.
My heart hurt and my stomach tumbled, watching this parade. But it only made me hug Jenna tighter. We were determined to get our perfect little girl. What kind of parents would we be if we settled for anything less?
CANNABLISM IN THE INHUMAN AGE
By Jaye Viner
Saul broke down in an unusual way for a robot. Saul ‘died,’ is the more apt term, but I hate to put a human descriptor to a machine. They already get enough of those.
It was just an ordinary day. Me in the front with the customers. Saul in the back doing the cooking. I took the order of a couple who had just relocated from Chicago. “To get away from the crowds,” they said. I laughed. And then they laughed. Because if they could tell that Omaha had seven thousand people less than Chicago in a way that made it feel less crowded, they were probably robots. It isn’t polite to ask. I convinced them that the 1k BakkenShale Rosé would go better with their meal than the less expensive house synthetic and then I walked back to the kitchen.
Saul was on the floor in the doorway, feet by the kitchen prep table, head in its office.
There hadn’t been any warning. That was the unusual part. At a certain age, robots began to need more maintenance than they could do themselves. That maintenance became increasingly invasive until their care specialist recommended a body upgrade. Very rarely did they collapse without warning.
And when they did, their global positioning chip would begin to beep to show there was still enough power to download their memory. Once the beeping stopped, the history of activity that had been that robot’s identity ceased to exist.
The beeping chip also sent out a signal to the care specialist that something had gone wrong and called a retrieval team to pick up the body. The humans who filled in the cracks of the robots’ daily lives couldn’t be trusted to report such an incident or transport the body themselves, even though the Bill of Rights makes robot abuse a capital offence, people still occasionally attack robots.
I nudged Saul with toe of my shoe. Nothing happened. I leaned into the doorway and saw Saul’s always disconcerting glaze-eyed expression frozen on its face. There was no beeping chip. I figured it just hadn’t kicked in yet. Or maybe, Saul had missed its afternoon recharge session. There wasn’t time to debate cause and effect. The people from Chicago were waiting for their food.
I did what any good aspiring shop owner does when their boss falls down dead: I began to cook.
Contrary to popular belief, humans can cook. We just can’t do it as quickly or as precisely as robots. One might argue that those two values of speed and precision only became values associated with food after the Robotics Revolution, but I don’t like to argue. My point is that these people from Chicago had never been to Saul’s Eat Shop before, so they had no way to tell if my cooking was a little bit different than what we regularly served.
I had the food out in fifteen minutes—it usually took Saul nine—and left them chewing with contentment while they looked out the window at the press of bodies passing on the street outside.
Back in the kitchen, Saul hadn’t moved and there was still no beeping chip.
There are lots of reasons people might attack a robot. It used to be fear. And then, after Sophia the first robot (and first female) citizen of Saudi Arabia petitioned the UN for an amendment to the International Declaration of Human Rights, people attacked robots because they were angry. Neither of those reasons plays much of a role anymore. We’ve gotten used to each other for one. And robot security makes it almost impossible to get away with an attack. So only desperate people attack robots. Not to sell the parts—too easy to trace—but to eat.
Starving people are desperate enough to eat robots. Their organic skin and the muscle definition lining their alloy skeleton yields about four pounds of synthetic meat. I’m not starving now, not since I got this job. Saul is required to provide meals.
But before that, my uMate Chrissa, and my dad, and I lived on the streets. That’s what people here say when they mean the Flood Plain Slums. We were never at the point of attacking a robot—two of three of us always had some kind of job however temporary—but I saw it happen once.
A tourist wandered over the old ped bridge to image capture the brown, red, and rust colored lines left on the crumbling walls of the old city that marked the record-breaking floods of 2019, 2026, and 2039. It was a spontaneous decision, surprisingly uncalculated for a robot. The twenty people who poured out of the ruins also made twenty spontaneous decisions to converge on the robot. They are all dead now, but they had enough time to eat before security arrived.
Dead robots don’t have alarms that go off if you stab them or slice off a bit of a limb. Things at home are tight right now. My dad broke his foot and got fired, so we only have to incomes and two rations to contribute. A little extra until Dad was back on his feet would help.
I shrugged off the idea that hadn’t quite formed in my head and went out to greet some new customers. I took their orders. I came back and cooked their food. Saul hadn’t moved. Nothing was beeping. At the end of the day, I took double my legal food allotment and went home to cook a feast.
When I returned the next day, Saul was where I’d left him and there was a bit of a smell. Very faint, but I’m in the food business. Even the barest hint of something rancid can spell death for an eat shop.
I dragged Saul into the cold room and went about my day. At the end I was exhausted. There hadn’t been time to eat. After cooking for other people, I didn’t want to do it for myself. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it after the long walk to the train stop, after standing with my shoulders pulled towards each other unable to breathe for all the people around me. Not after I sat and listened to Dad talk about how he’d tried to make it to the communal bathroom, but it was just too far, and too hot, and the line too long, and he didn’t want to soil himself in public.
If I waited until after the work rush, the train wouldn’t be as crowded. The sun would have sunk below the skyline and it would be 90 degrees in the shade instead of 120 in the sun. This gave me some time to pause and actually think about the fact that Saul was dead. As soon as someone found out, I wouldn’t have a job.
But if no one came for the body, and I kept the shop going, maybe no one would notice.
It was an absurd suggestion. Easily dismissed except for the fact that I’d gone almost two days alone already. I distrusted the idea that it could be that easy to hide. But in the silence of the empty shop, with the climate unit ticking as it struggled mightily to keep the interior temperature livable until the blessed relief of night gave it respite, I began to hope, to imagine that perhaps. Just perhaps.
If I was going to continue this ruse for a third day and feed my family, I needed a resupply. The shop’s food supplies had begun to run low. I couldn’t put in an order without Saul’s ID.
I took the sharpest knife from the block intending only to slice out its ID chip so I could keep the eat shop going until I found a new job. Kneeling on the cold room floor, I made a shallow cut in Saul’s right wrist. The parted flesh was pink and perfectly marbled, a Grade A synthetic so precisely engineered it probably tasted better than real meat. As I pulled the smooth albulium chip free, my mouth watered.
One or two bites wouldn’t hurt, I thought. When the care specialist’s team arrived, I would tell them there had been an accident. I rolled up Saul’s sleeve and sliced an inch off the underside of his arm. I sliced another inch off the top.
At the prep counter, I cut away the skin and sliced the muscle into strips. I sautéed them with garlic and onions. By then, the smells of the stove had woken the raging beast of my hunger and drowned out any reservations I might’ve had about eating flesh that looked like a better version of my own flesh.
I burned my fingers as I scooped the meat into my mouth. I was still chewing my last bite when I went back to the cold room for more. I filleted Saul’s other arm. And then I took some muscle off each calf, sliced it, and sautéed it. When I had eaten my fill, I boxed up the rest to take home. I used Saul’s ID to place a food order. I put a blanket over Saul and pulled it into the corner, stacked some crates around it, so the delivery drones wouldn’t see it.
Dad was watching gridball and drinking synth beer when I got home. The apartment smelled like something had died in the walls. I covertly examined Dad’s pants for signs of a mess. I did a lap around the room that was kitchen/dining/and living in one. There were no puddles. He’d used the trash can I’d left him in the corner. He just hadn’t bothered to cover it with the Styrofoam sheet I’d found.
Chrissa gave me a look. It was a complicated look that asked me why I was late. It asked if something couldn’t be done about Dad. It asked about the amazing smell coming from the box in my hand. She and Orley, one of the four other people who shared our unit were at the kitchen table finishing a mash of mystery synthetics mixed together from the rations their robot employers had provided. Chrissa worked at a clothing distributer where humans handled all the customers who couldn’t manage to communicate with the automated message system. Orley was in food like me, except he worked at a street vendor near the train station out in the heat and his boss skimmed off his legal ration for profit.
Neither of them had eaten beef—or what passed for beef in this case—for years. It was ThanksDay, Christmas, Ramadan, New Years, and Moon Day all in one. Dad was so powered up he hobbled from the couch and carried his trash can all the way down the hall to the toilets without being asked.
That night, when we were lying in bed listening to the people in the unit above us arguing, and the people beside us yelling at their kid, I almost told Chrissa about Saul. But I wasn’t sure what she would think about eating robot flesh. I didn’t want to spoil it. And if she knew Saul was gone, she would worry about my job. I was the anchor of the whole unit, the only one of us who had a chance of getting those all-too-rare human enterprise permits so I could open a shop of my own.
Every muscle I never knew existed screamed at me when I got out of bed the next morning. I faced another long day of doing both my job and Saul’s, but there would be a feast at the end of it. I would do even better this time. Not just a plain old sauté, but seasonings, intention, presentation. Things robots could only be programmed to do.
The train was more crowded than usual, so I arrived at the shop late. I didn’t have time to check the supplies the drones had delivered before customers arrived. After a quick peek into the cold room to see that Saul was still hidden, I set to work.
Everything was fine until a high roller showed up wanting steak the old-fashioned way—a slab of seasoned meat seared on the outside but raw in the middle. I assured him our steak was the best in the city only to walk back to the cold room and find we were fresh out of beef cuts.
Either I’d forgotten them on the supply order, or the drones had beef on backorder. Again, cause and effect weren’t as important as finding a way to feed my customer. I’d talked the high roller into a 3k bottle of wine to match his steak. If I told him he’d have to settle for chicken or a synthetic, I’d probably lose the sale of the meal and the wine.
As I pulled Saul out from its hiding place, I told myself this wasn’t a big deal. Robot bodies were recycled, the meat remade into hair or cuticles or something else inedible. Not eating it was a waste. I hacked off a hunk of Saul’s thigh, skinned it, and grilled it over an open flame. This was surprisingly satisfying, like I was taking back a piece of my humanity with that steak, helping redraw the line between human and robot.
This vengeful hacking continued after I’d closed shop for the day. I cut more steaks, and then fillets, and two rump roasts. Only when I started in on the ribs did I realize there was something strange about Saul’s body: almost none of it was mechanized.
The bones were white with marrow inside them not albulium and titanium. And the organs, except for the pacemaker, were all organic. There was one mechanical hip, but every other joint was just how I expected mine to be if someone cut me open. The neural system was organic, which I suppose could be possible for a robot, but I’d never heard of anything except standard fiber wiring.
I turned Saul onto its front and cut into the base of its skull where the core of robotic processing was located. This was hard work because by now my knife was dull and the skull was hard, bone though, not metal. I kept cutting until I was sawing. Fluid began to seep out and then there were chunks of grey tissue sliding down my knife. Not a single circuit or chip in sight.
Saul had been human.
My brain began a frantic replay of the three months I had been working for Saul. He had never struck me as anything but a robot. In fact, he’d been more robotic than most of the robots I’d encountered. That disconcerting glaze-eyed stare, the monotone voice, the clinical summations of every interaction like they were a ledger sheet that he wanted to balance green at the end of the day.
When I’d told him about Dad breaking his foot, Saul’s reply had been a cold,
“That would seem inconvenient.” When I’d asked about him sponsoring me on a work program towards my enterprise permit, he’d said, “The chances of approval are less than one percent even with my help. Why try?”
I’d been so furious after that conversation that I’d actually envisioned stabbing the man. But now I wondered if there hadn’t been some hint of sympathy in Saul’s eyes that my prejudice had concealed. Perhaps his hardness had been a necessity for an imposter’s life. What had it cost him to climb through the ranks so that he would be in a position to own a shop? And when he’d finally got his permit, how had he lived with the fear of being discovered and losing everything?
The stress must’ve killed him. A heart attack or aneurism. I wondered if he had died happy. Could he allow himself that feeling in his private thoughts or had he trained himself into a machine in full service of survival?
I turned Saul onto his back and studied that glaze-eyed stare as though seeing it for the first time. It must’ve felt good to cheat the system. To be respected for doing something well was a kind of respect only robots garnered. Something I would never receive even if I did someday earn my human enterprise permit. Unless I was a robot.
I pulled Saul’s ID out of my pocket. The slit I had first cut in Saul’s wrist was hard to discern from all the other cuts I’d made since, but I could still see where the chip had been positioned. Using my dull knife, I cut open my wrist, slid the ID inside, and used edible adhesive to seal it shut.
In Saul’s office I tested my new equipment by logging into his network. The holographic display of our regular supplies list projected from the cameras along the top of Saul’s desk. The projection showed a blinking light warning me that beef was on backorder. It was a strange surreal thing to look at this warning light and realize, as far as the network knew, everything at Saul’s Eat Shop was business as usual.
“Network, update profile,” I said.
The shimmering holographic display changed to show Saul’s biographical information, his various social names, the manufacturer of his body and the manufacturer of customized parts he didn’t have, his enterprise permits and sanitation certifications, his photo.
“Network,” I said, “I would like to update photo.”
The display became an empty rectangular frame reflecting my face. It adjusted until my eyes were centered just above the middle.
“Say cheese,” said the network.
The network made a sound like an antique photo application and then provided me with editing tools. I pressed the holographic ‘save’ button and watched as my image replaced Saul’s on the profile. I stood before it, waiting for alarms to sound, or for a holographic network moderator to tell me I wasn’t allowed to make profile changes without authentication. After what was probably half an hour, the network asked if I still wanted a connection.
When I said no, it cheerfully wished me goodnight and shut off its cameras.
I called Chrissa and told her I needed to do inventory—a job which took most of the night. I did do an informal inventory. But then I spent the rest of the night cooking the rest of Saul’s body.
Some people would squirm to hear this. Cannibalism is one of the few taboos that remain in our fractured culture of individual truths. But it’s a taboo held by the people who came out alright after the Robotics Revolution. People who have never wondered where their next meal would come from, or felt in danger walking home in broad daylight. Maybe Saul was one of those people, but I like to think he was more like one of us, the streeters dreaming of something bigger. He just happened to make it. I wasn’t going to eat any more of him, but I had the luxury of that choice. I figured he wouldn’t mind giving back to his people if they were desperate enough to cross that line. I boxed the meat up with some veggies and noodles into individual portions, packed the little boxes into a bigger box with straps I could hang around my neck, and headed out to the street.