UNLEASH THE CRAYONS: Twitter Fiction About Colors

It all started with Cassandra Khaw’s tweetScreen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.57.10 PM

I thought I would play, so I invited people to tell me their favorite crayon color and I would write them a smol fiction. The results were delightfully fun and wide-ranging, and I had a blast!

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 3.56.28 PM

All the fics are below, orginized by color in alphabetical order. Some colors were popular and have multiple fics, which are seperated by asterisks. I hope you enjoy!

(And if you want more wonderful threads, check the end of this post for links to others who wrote things for Cass’s birthday!)


 

APPLE GREEN

Colors are lies. That’s the first rule.

The colors tell you they speak true, especially apple green. It’s the sneakiest one of all. Don’t listen.

“Just a taste,” whispers apple green. “One taste and you’ll know everything.”

Move on, ever on. Believe the shadows. Colors lie.


AQUAMARINE

Day 13: we’ve struck gold! praise be!

Day 14: something’s odd bout this vein. light keeps twisting off it, turning aquamarine at the corner of yer eye

day 15: we done mined that vein til only rock’s left behind. we’re rich!

day: aw damn, there’s a dragon lying behind the gold.


BLACK

The ship prowls among stars and probabilities. Each jump burns its hull, depletes its fuel. The crew huddles together. No pleas or hacks or offerings calm the ship. Only black void awaits the end of this pattern.

What do you seek, the crew wails.

The ship will not answer.


BLOOD OF MY ENEMIES

Elbow-deep in viscera, she digs for the lost soul. Around her, the twitching corpses of her enemies drench the city red.

This body is empty. She scowls and moves to the next.

In one of these once-living shells, she will find the stolen soul, the only one taken from her.


BLUE-GREEN

Never touch unknown fungus. Really, you ought to know better. But you can’t help yourself, can you? That rich, deep blue-green velvet blossoming over the abandoned couch calls to you. So soft, so heady with fragrance.

The fungus covers you now. You have all you could ever want.

***

The mud settled chill around her ankles. She grimaced but took another step. It crawled to her knees, thick and blue-green with iridescent snails.

“Keep going,” she told herself. Mud to her hips; a brilliant teal centipede slithered across her jeans.

She hated nature hikes.


BLUE-VIOLET

Starfields unfold in languid blue-violet ripples, dotted with points of light a billion-years distant. I peer from the ship’s faded prow, aching.

It’s that need that drives me to become a captain, steering my own deep into the stars. One day, I will touch the universe’s heart.


BURNT SIENNA

The bowl glistens under the sun: a burnt sienna sheen matching the cracked ground and the broken sky.

High above, the last of the worldships vanish like fading stars into the deeps. All that remains is the bowl and the last drops of water offered as forgiveness for what we did.

***

When she wakes from her thousand year dream, the world has changed. Buildings rear into the sky, burnt sienna roads scar the meadows, the air a haze of foul smoke.

She angers. What have her subjects done to her temple? She pulls from her sleep nightmares to cleanse this world.

***

Ashes matted the trees, drooping bows and staining leaves into unwholesome grays.

The only variation in the landscape was a burnt sienna pine: brittle, proud, standing alone. Cones dropped from its limbs, and in the ash, there sparked the tiniest hope of green from within.


BURNT UMBER

Cannons thundered. I ducked low, scrabbling among the wreckage, all splinters and cracked stones. Iron smashed into flesh and fortress alike, and both men and wood screamed.

Where was it? I’d hidden our salvation under a patch of burnt umber earth, terrified of its power.

A cannonball whirred so close I felt its heat, its malice. It struck the clock tower, exploding time and bells into shrapnel.

There! Under a fallen bayonet. I grabbed the blade, used it as a shovel. Digging, digging.

The god’s eye remained closed as I scooped out dirt.

I slashed open my palm on the bayonet. Prayed through fear-dried teeth.

“Rise, Mother. Rise and aid us.”

She opened Her eye, red as the newborn world, and beneath us all, the land trembled at Her first new breaths.

Our salvation.

 


BUTTERCUP YELLOW

The jar label said “BUTTERCUP YELLOW.” Oddly, when he opened the rusted lid, there was only red paint inside. He scowled. His grandmother never organized things properly.

The red oozed from the jar when his back was turned. After it ate him, it turned a luxurious yellow.


CERULEAN

Boot prints spread across the dusty floorboards. Size 8? It’s hard to tell because they kept moving closer. A cerulean flicker hovers in the air.

You watch as the ghost takes form: a cascade of incandescence, filling up the unseen shoes.

You don’t see the teeth yet. You will.

***

As my hopper ship Cerulean Blue drops from orbit, I get the weirdest sense I’ve been here before. Ain’t possible, of course. This is uncharted territory! The world stretches out in green-gray patchwork.

A glint of silver. Another ship? How? I magnify the scanners…

In my viewscreen, I see my ship. Cerulean Blue lies crashed inside the pincers of a rocky cliff.

Shit. I bank, but something nullifies the controls and I’m falling, gonna crash—

#

As my hopper ship drops out of orbit, I get the weirdest sense I’ve been here before…

***

It’s hard to picture the sky anymore. He recites the remembered colors:

Gray with ivory-pink freckles in pre-dawn; flushed peach-lavender over the lake; cerulean swaths of twilight; bloody meat-red before the smoke.

Now black, lightless. Is it even the sky he looks to anymore?

***

Dip a toe into the pool first. Aye, you’ll lose the toe, but it’s a small sacrifice. Wait until the cerulean waters smooth from bloody ripples.

She’ll rise, all teeth and wildbright scales, eyes like diamonds, and grant your wish.

“Take me with you,” is all you need to say.


CHARTREUSE

Thick, yellow-green liqueur dribbles into the glass. The scent of old dreams and lost promises wafts up from the bottle. He inhales, lifts the glass to his lips.

“Your final warning,” the alchemist says. “Once you sip Chartreuse’s blood, you never die.”

“I know.” He drinks.


COBALT

There’s a saying among the sky-wranglers: Never touch the cobalt clouds.

Not with dawn-forged gloves or wind-braided lassos. You touch ’em and you ain’t seen again.

Those cobalt spheres, drifting among cumulus, they go somewhere elsewise.

Me? I’m a cat. ‘Course I’m curious.


DEEP TEAL

She paints the house deep teal despite complaints. She sets her caldron out in the front yard even with fines from the homeowner’s association.

She posts flyers on all the telephone poles: SCARED? HURT? CAN’T GO HOME? COME TO THE TEAL HOUSE. THE WITCH WILL KEEP YOU SAFE.


DISAPPEARING PURPLE

3F313A, Threef for short, scuttled along the corridor, its CPU filled with nervous static.

Would the new purples like it? Would it be welcomed into the Shades? So often, no one saw it.

It paused by the creche door. Tapped a hesitant tentacle on steel.

The door opened and a huge banner hung from the ceiling.

WELCOME TO THE SHADES, 3F313A!

All the purples swarmed around Threef and welcomed it home.

 


DRIED-BLOOD-RED

Never summon a demon on an empty stomach. It sucks and the results are questionable.

Instead of a raging, blood-red horror from the pit of hell, ready to unleash havoc upon my enemies, the thing on my carpet was more like dried-blood-red, grouchy, and the size of my fist.

“Are you Anger?” I asked. “Here to decimate those who’ve wronged me?”

“Nope, I’m Hangry,” it responded. “Got anything to eat around here?” Then it broke my favorite lamp and trundled into the kitchen.

I sighed and made us lunch. Next time I’d plan better.


FLESH

Scrape, scrabble, scratch.

You huddle in the corner, your flesh cold, as the things snick and slither above.

If you’re silent, the sounds won’t find you. But you need to go, or you’ll be trapped. You edge towards the door.

Scuff, shamble. Sniff.

You freeze. Too late, snack.


FOREST-GREEN

Dark were the boughs of the forest; green were the needles of pines; red was the cloak of the hunter; and quiet was the tread of the mime.

***

The prophecy foretold of forest-green skies and waters turned to fog. Of monsters and abominations roaming the lands hungry for bloody marrow.

What it didn’t mention were what would become of us.


GOLDENROD

“Two stalks of goldenrod, one sprig of pine. Three wilted graveyard fronds to hold the dead divine.”

She hums the incantation as she weaves the plants and the sepulcher wrappings into a noose.

When the god comes for her sister, clamoring it’s owed the damned, she’ll be ready.


GRANNY SMITH APPLE

“It’s bitter,” said Snow White, curling her lip at the apple.

“It’s a Granny Smith,” the witch said in exasperation. “It’s sweet!”

“I dunno, tastes bad to me. Plus it’s green. Is it even ripe?”

“Fine,” the witch snapped, and took out a juicy red fruit. “Try this one.”


INDIGO

At first she thought the birds had knives: indigo feathers bristling with silver.

Then she realized two things: they weren’t knives but talons. Those raptors weren’t regular birds.

And the dinosaurs were hungry.

***

Dip your quill in softly, never making a ripple nor sound. Do not let the ink know of your intent. The indigo balances on the steel nib, a droplet of potential, of chaos, of pain.

Draw the letters swiftly, smoothly, and watch as vengeance blooms from the page and dons your will.


JUNGLE GREEN

Thing about goo is that it gets fricking everywhere. In your socks, on your skin, between your eyebrow hairs. That jungle green slime spreads and oozes and bubbles and you just can’t get rid of it!

This is the last time you’re ever ordering “never-ending goo!” from a catalog.


LIME GREEN

“Really?” asked God. “You want to be…green.”

“Lime green!” chirruped the tiny monster. “So I darkened and grow over time, rich with algae and rot, and rise from the ocean bogs in radioactive terror to spew vengeance upon my enemies!”

“…done,” said God, and Godzilla beamed.


MACARONI AND CHEESE

It’s always the same question. “If you’re Mac, then where’s your cheese?” like you’re the first rando to pop that joke, ha ha ha.

Finally, I’d had enough. I made Cheese: three meters high, made from yellowed steel, all teeth and no patience. Next dude to ask will get answered.


MAGENTA

Magenta wanted to go to the moon. She watched all the vids and sims; she saved for passage; she won the lottery spot for a ticket off-world.

And then the meteor arrived. It would drive the moon into the earth. No stopping it.

It’s ok, she thought. Now the moon will come to her.


MAIZE

The homeowner scowled. “This isn’t what I ordered.”

The designed glared back over the rows of corn. “You said you wanted a garden of maize. I got it for you!”

“I said I wanted a garden *maze*!”

“Oh…well, we can fix that. Corn mazes are popular this time of year.”


MANATEE

Their god’s words echo in their head as they light a match. The fuse trails into the Ministry of Mercy.

The manatee might have been imprisoned in glass, but they know its words are right.

They set match to fuse, whispering the mantra like a prayer. Set it all on fire, child.


MAXIMUM PURPLE

There’s no waveship faster than Maximum Purple. It’s won fifteen thousand consecutive races through the Andromeda belt.

Everyone knows how—lightdry engines, reality boosters, algorithmic shields—but not why.

It races to forget what it left behind…what will find it in time.


OCEAN BLUE

The clerk lied to me. When I said I wanted “ocean blue lipstick”, to match my hair, I just accepted the little tube painted with foam-capped waves and went home.

I opened the lipstick and out poured an ocean, blue as can be. Now I’m stuck on a raft waiting for rescue. Dammit.

***

“Oceans are blue, the Deep Ones sing true.”

Wretched whispers to herself as she picks shells from the glass-grit sand, tangled weeds, broken bones.

“Skies are gray and clouds are lies.”

She jumps as a gull cackles overhead. She doesn’t look up. Never up.

One day she’ll find the final verse. One day, she’ll learn how to go home.


OCTARINE

My cat was the first to spot the alien craft, probably because cats can see octarine. She yowled and swatted at mid-air.

Its cloaking disabled, the tiny UFO crashed to the carpet. The aliens, unfortunately for them, looked like mice.

It was the one and only envoy sent to earth.


OXBLOOD RED

“Oxblood!” Red yells, diving sideways. “It’s me!”

The minotaur snorts, trident a blur as he twirls it.

Red holds up their hands, this time signing. *I’m your friend, remember?*

Hesitation. It’s all they need.

Red launches themself forward. They leap, soar, and tumble between Oxblood’s horns. They snatch the MadGlass visor from his brow, ripping wires and sensors free. Red tumbles down the minotaur’s back and crushes the MadGlass under their boot.

The crowd gasps.

Slowly, Oxblood turns. *Red?* he lows.

They grin, relieved. “Hey, buddy. Wanna bust out of here?”

Oxblood bellows and hurls his trident into the hover cam. It’s time they were both free.


PEACH

She’s done. Done with the dungeons, the rescuing, the 8-bit dialogue balloons with inane script. Done with that fool in the red hat and the spiked turtle-thing.

Peach deletes the mainframe, and storms out of the system. She’s her own princess. She’ll find another line of work.


PEACOCK BLUE

The stranger swept into the masquerade swathed in a gown of peacock blue, her mask a brilliant green-gold crown of feathers and jewels. She moved like wine, like sunlight. She ignored the prince; she ignored her sisters.

She offered me, the servant, her card. “Care to dance?”


PEARLESCENT

Everything is made from teeth.

The chairs, the walls, your eyes. Teeth. Pearlescent, shiny, tartared! Pearly whites shining in the lights!

The moon is teeth; so is the sun.

When do they stop? Where do they begin? Your thoughts are teeth. Only teeth.

Teeth. Teeth. Teeth…


PERIWINKLE

The flowers are hungry. Water no longer suffices; sunlight isn’t enough.

They crave more. Music enrages them; blood is useless.

The periwinkles are only sated on dreams. You sleep amidst them, let them suck the nightmares whole.

What will they do when you have no dreams left?


PUCE

The shawl was a rich, velvet-smooth puce, fringed in glass beads that sighed with each movement.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, “like you.”

“Would you like to try it on?”

The Shawl of Revealed Intent showed her all she needed to know.

She took it off his corpse and carried on.


PURPLE

All the best monsters are purple, says the blobby purple sphere.

Not true, replies the squiggly orb. Some are green.

No! shouts the blustering square. They are blue!

In the corner, the tiny pink monster drooped and shriveled. No one ever picked its color as the best.

Suddenly, a child crawled under the bed. All the monsters froze, waiting to see who would be picked to be the One.

The blue monster swelled. The purple monster puffed. The green monster undulated.

“Pink is my favorite color!” the child said, and the little monster beamed.

(This one recieved epic fan-art from the child who requested the color!!!)

***

It’s hard to craft reality from scratch. A dab of purple dreamscape, a pinch of suspicion, a tsp of regret. Knead together with fresh compassion, a drop of endless need, and a sprinkle of wonder. Let stand for a billion years. As reality rises, heat the universe, ready to bake.


PURPLE MOUNTAIN MAJESTY

Cold are the waters, ice is the sky; the purple mountain’s majesty is all a lie.

I huddle in the rocky lee, scared enough of the dark I’ve lit a fire. Doesn’t have any warmth. The mountain stole all the world’s heat when it rose.

I’m still climbing, though. Gonna get it back.


RAZZMATAZZ

It was an honest mistake. The label of the razzmatazz crayon was torn in places; the child was learning how to read.

When Ra’mat’as rose from the deeps, summoned by the human’s toddler song, it was greeted with a bright purple-pink drawing of itself, offered with grape juice.


RED

The bus was almost empty when she stepped aboard, her red jacket soaked and her hood damp.

“Forgot your umbrella, sweet?” leered the only other passenger, a graying man.

She flashed her teeth, so many teeth, all slicked with fresh blood. “This isn’t rain on my clothes.”


ROBIN’S EGG BLUE

The robot was robin’s egg blue, tiny, and didn’t work.

Darcy bit her lip. What had she done wrong? She’d followed all the instructions: built it exactly right.

“Please be ok,” she said, and a tear dripped onto the robot’s head.

It turned on. “I am,” it said. Darcy smiled.


SILVER

Grease crusts my hands, stings my eyes. I push onward, crawling through the silver wired guts of the Machine. Naked from the sensor-suit and the needles in my skull, it can’t see me.

Its core is vulnerable. I will crush it. No more loss, no more deaths. Soon the Machine ends.


SKY-BLUE

When you think about the sky—that blue-reflected screen between you and the void—it’s hard to hold it all in your head.

It’s so BIG. You’ve never liked big problems.

You construct a vacuum. Compress the sky.

Now there’s only void and that sky is the least of your problems.


ULTRAVIOLET

She unspooled the ultraviolet tendrils from her hands into the basement’s still-damp concrete. The ethereal vines wriggled and churned, burrowing into calcium and silicon, rooting themselves below the hardening gray floor. This house would be haunted soon, fear feeding her seeds.


VERMILION

It’s such a rich, thoughtful red—vermilion, isn’t that the word?—that she trails her fingers in the spilled liquid longer than necessary. Tastes the iron and vitality under her nails. Mmm. Yes.

Revenge may best be cold, but justice is delicious when hot and freshly bled.


VIOLET-RED

“I don’t understand,” the dragon wailed. “I used the polish just like you said! I’m supposed to be a terror of the skies! I’m pink!”

“Show me the label.” The witch sighed. “Oh, honey, this is to color your scales violet-red. Violent Red is the brand you were looking for.”


YELLOW

The queen wore yellow. The court balked, garbed in stately black. Such defiance of tradition!

“How dares’t thou?” hissed the regent.

The queen hummed. Buzzed, even.

The regent stepped back, too late.

The queen unfolded herself, a swarm of bees, yellow for the court’s black.


 

Other participents I know who are doing twitter fics: Sarah PinskerJordanDread SinglesJordan KurellaIori Kusano, L Chan, Beth Cato, Hester J. Rook, Toby MacNutt, Altered Instinct, Barbara Kransoff, Internet Dragon Cat , Carrie Cuinn, Laura Pearlman, Mina Li, NS Dolkart, Karen Osborne, Erin Roberts, Effie Seiberg, Jasmine Stairs and many more! So many brilliant little stories, recipes, spells, histories, lore—it’s all amazing and I encourage you to check out the other threads floating around! Enjoy!

 

Thread [short story reprint]

This story first appeared in Ideomancer, which is sadly no longer online. Therefore I’m reprinting this story here. It is On Brand for me, with the evil lights and creepy SF. I hope you enjoy!

CW: suicide, attempted suicide, torture, murder, imprisonment.

2,300 words
Science Fiction/Horror


image via Pexels

THREAD

by A. Merc Rustad

 

The nine-cluster appeared outside our unit’s bunker on the last day of the cycle. That meant only one thing.

They would take someone away.

I peered out the portviewer. All nine stood before the door, tall humanoid shapes composed of white light. They had heads like stars: translucent spheres with colored particles that suggested facial features. (That is how I imagined stars. I’ve never seen them for real.)

They didn’t have names. They didn’t have genders, either. We dubbed them he/she at random, although I never understood why. They weren’t like us.

Two smiled and knocked, as if politeness meant anything. I didn’t open the bunker door.

Bailey took charge, like he always did. “Everyone stay calm.” He glanced at me, and I nodded. “This is just a routine inspection.”

“How do you know?” Kory asked, wide-eyed. “We just got back. They don’t do inspections until the first cycle-day.”

Bailey slapped him on the shoulder. “Your record is spotless. They aren’t here for you.”

“Then who?” Tess demanded.

Everyone had unsuited except me. But Tess didn’t notice. (I often forgot to remove my pressure suit right away.) Tess let me stand by the viewer for hours after a shift and look at the empty road that connected the one-hundred-forty-seven bunkers on this facility.

“No one, Tess,” Bailey said. He could still tell lies. “No one is being taken to the House.”

Tess took a breath and glanced at Dom. “If you say so.”

“Mara,” Bailey said, lifting his chin and facing the door. Only Dom and I saw the tremor in his hands. “Let the overseers in.”

Dom took the scissors off the table and held them tight. They were long-bladed and heavy, used for snipping bone. He had already been to the House.

(But so had I.)

I keyed the pressure lock and opened the door.

Our unit’s bunker was a functional square room. Cots slid into the wall when not in use, and we were allowed a few personal effects. Tess had the geode collection; Kory had a holo-projection of a world he pretended was once ours, full of blues and greens and surrounded by the white of the universe. Bailey had a book—paper and leather—but there was nothing inside it.

I had a thread I’d mined and none of the nine-clusters knew about it.

All nine floated in and planted themselves around our bunker. We all smiled. The cardinal rule: never frown during inspection. Gemma had forgotten.

“Welcome,” Bailey said. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t. “Is everything in order?”

Two laughed. Two was always the leader. “A disturbance has been reported in your bunker.”

“What?” Kory said. “That’s impossible.”

“An anomaly.” Five glided around the perimeter. She stopped by Dom. He stared straight ahead, his knuckles bloodless. “Something is in this sector that does not belong,” Five said.

Tess tilted her head towards the floor, inhaling slow and deep. She practiced her breathing every night, because Gemma wasn’t there anymore.

Bailey shrugged easily. “We’re permitted to refine a portion of phosphates for our own use. No one has brought back anything else past quarantine.”

I hadn’t told the rest of the unit. Bailey said not to. “They’ll crack,” he’d said the day before, looking tired and sad. (I wish I’d argued, but I had no protest.) It would be easier if they didn’t know.

The thread squirmed in my gloved hand. I locked my jaw and kept my smile in place. Not yet, not yet, not yet.

We needed the nine-cluster agitated so they would touch us physically. I wouldn’t risk the thread failing to pierce their barriers. It was the only chance we had.

Kory swallowed and folded his arms. He was the youngest in our unit, and he still smiled when he didn’t have to.

“We’re making quotas,” Tess said from clenched teeth. “No one has violated the regulations. I check everyone’s suits upon entry.”

(She never checked mine. Bailey said not to. “Sometimes it’s all that holds her together,” I’d heard him whisper to Tess, when I came back from the House.)

Muscles twitched in Tess’s jaw. “What is this about?”

“Defensive?” Two asked her. “That is a common psychological signal that you are…hiding something.”

“We have nothing to hide,” Bailey said. He chuckled, his mouth stretched until it might break. “We’ve increased production by 127% this cycle.”

“So you did.” Four’s particle-expression swirled and brightened in warning. “And you were down 76% the cycle before, 58% the cycle before that, and 13% before that.”

No one looked at me. I had taken Bailey and Dom on the downward spiral. (Only I could see darkness, but they believed what I told them.)

Our unit mined minerals and ore on the debris rings of 6-X76. We averaged a 97% productivity level per work segment, and had for the last ten cycles. That was when Gemma went away, and Dom came back from the House.

“Fine. It’s my fault,” Tess said, pulling her shoulders back. “I didn’t keep the unit on track. You took Gemma.” Her hands fisted and she took a steady breath. “But I accept full responsibility for the unit’s decreases previously.”

Kory winced. I shook my head minutely. Don’t do this, Tess. It’s not your fault. They weren’t suspicious yet. (I couldn’t watch them take Tess away.)

Eight laughed, a faint hissing sound characteristic of all Eights. “Your statement is contradictory. You were the hardest worker in the unit during the previous three cycles.”

“It’s in here,” Five said. “It does not belong.”

“Disassemble,” Two told Five. “Find it.”

It was too soon. I shot Bailey a flat look. He sat on a plain metal stool and shut his eyes. “Dom,” he said, very quietly.

Dom tensed, ready to do anything Bailey asked. He always did.

Bailey’s smile weakened, and he tilted his head a fraction at Two. Dom’s muscles bunched. He might not harm Two—we didn’t know how to hurt the nine-clusters ourselves—but he would distract Two anyway.

Kory’s face beaded with sweat. “They found something,” he blurted. “I saw Mara put it—”

Dom jabbed his thumb into Kory’s eye. The eyeball popped. Kory screamed, clutching his face.

Tess snarled and raised a fist at Dom, but Bailey snapped, “Don’t.”

Two clapped his hands. “Oh, well played. You are hiding something.”

I didn’t know Kory saw me take the sock or put it back. Everyone had been eating when I did. (I didn’t eat much anymore.)

Five began expanding, translucent arms budding from her torso. She threw the holo-projector to the floor, scattered the geodes, pulled apart Bailey’s book. The cots were empty.

The thread was heavy, pressing into my skin through the glove. It had taken all my enhanced strength to lift it from the mines. I couldn’t hold it much longer.

Bailey’s breath came faster. They might question him—Dom could resist, but Bailey couldn’t. He had never been to the House.

I kicked the cabinet where we kept our pressure suits, jostling loose the plastic door and the lopsided drawer.

Three swiveled her head. She spied the single bit of fabric—a sock—peeking from the drawer. It was black. I’d rubbed the thread all over it to change it. (I was the only one who saw why it was different.)

Five hissed. “This house is touched by the dark.”

The nine-cluster’s heads began to pulsate in alarm.

“Anomaly found,” Two said.

Kory let out a strangled moan. Bailey sat rigid, his face ashen, and folded his hands on his lap. Tess inhaled shakily.  She put her arm on Dom’s shoulder, but Dom stared into the distance as if he wasn’t here anymore.

Nine looked at me, her eyes expanding until they encompassed her forehead. “Mara, you don’t seem surprised.”

I kept my arms around my knees, the thread in my hand. “Space is dark.”

They didn’t like that.

Our eye-filters were programed for light. We looked at the space between mining sites and planets and we saw the brilliant white of the universe. I shouldn’t have known what dark was.

But I had been to the House, where they pluck out your eyes and you bones and your skin and your neural pathways and remake you. And in between being remade (again and again and again), I saw beyond the light. I saw infinite blackness.

It was beautiful.

Nine strolled towards me. “This unit is no longer operational.”

We were all going to the House.

Another unit would replace ours. There was always another.

Dom lunged. He still held the scissors, the keepsake he brought back from the House. He aimed for Bailey. The scissors sunk through the back of Bailey’s spine at the base of his skull. Bloodied metal tips poked from his windpipe. Bailey’s muscles twitched and he slid to the floor.

Dom always loved Bailey the most.

Two sighed and pressed a radiant palm over Dom’s face, picked him up, and carried him out the door. Two left Bailey’s body where it lay. The machines to revive the body were all in the House.

Blood was darker than I remembered.

I held on tight to the thread.

Kory screamed and threw himself at Two. “Don’t take him!”

Eight batted him aside, and he hit the wall hard enough to break his ribs. (I didn’t flinch. I don’t think I can, anymore.)

Tess grabbed the scissors. She stopped smiling as she ran towards Kory.

One moved for the first time. He expanded a stasis field around Tess, rendering her immobile. She dropped the scissors. They bounced across the floor and skittered to my feet.

“Mara,” Kory gasped as Eight carried him towards the door. “Help me…”

I couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Kory.) If I moved, if I dropped the thread, we were lost. (I’m sorry, Tess.)

I smiled up at Nine. I didn’t look at Bailey.

“Space is dark,” I said again. “I’ve seen it.”

“We will fix that.” Nine’s face erased any particle expression. “The House will welcome you back.”

I snatched her wrist as if I wanted to push her away. I couldn’t. No one was that strong.

The tiny black thread wormed into Nine’s translucent arm. She didn’t notice. Her body was too full of light.

She pressed her palm over my face and the House came back in my mind, every imprinted memory.

#

In the House, you are unmade.

(—it hurts it hurts it hurts—)

The nine-clusters have no identical analogues for physical bodies, no way to feel pleasure or pain the way we do, but such things fascinate them.

They can record it in a million ways inside the House and translate it into data they can experience.

An Eight told me that when he extracted my nerves one at a time with his minute tools.

And in the House, even if you stab yourself in the brain with scissors, they can fix you and make you remember.

(Dom tried. He tried so many times, and so hard, but they remade his body every time.)

No one comes back from the House whole.

#

When I found the darkness, it was buried deep beneath rock and iron. A single thread, barely three centimeters long.

I told Dom. He stared at me, empty-eyed like he often was.

“I don’t know what dark is,” Dom said.

I grasped his gloves. “It can eat away the nine-clusters. All of them.”

This was my theory. If they had made the universe light, they must fear the opposite. They could not live in blackness.

Once a ten-cycle, all the nine-clusters gathered and merged their heads into a great sphere of light. They shared everything, knowledge and particles and experience and delights they’d witnessed in the House.

One drop of darkness would infect them all.

“I can get it,” I told Dom. “I just need your help.”

He shut his eyes. It was light out even when you didn’t look. “They’ll take us back.”

“I know,” I said. (I didn’t remember how to lie when I came back from the House.)

Bailey was deeper in the tunnel, his comm synched with ours. Dom could cover my workload while on shift, and Bailey could make sure no one else in the unit found out what I was doing.

“They’ll take Bailey.” Dom’s voice cracked. “They’ll take all of us.”

“I know,” I said. “But we’ll blot them out and no one will ever be taken again.”

We were made in darkness, before the nine-clusters came. We could live in it again. And we know how to make our own light.

Dom leaned his head against the wall, his helmet clicking against rock. All I heard was his breath over the comm.

“Dom?” I asked, when he didn’t move.

“Bailey,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” Bailey said. “I’ll help, Mara. Sometimes I think I dream of the dark.”

Dom fisted his hands.

“I can show you what the dark is like for real,” I said. “The light will end.”

It was what we all needed, even if we could never admit that.

Finally, Dom nodded.

We began to dig.

#

I look out one of the House’s many windows, at the nine-clusters watching. Specks of blackness float in their star-like heads.

The darkness is growing in the Five that leads Dom away again.

“It will be dark soon,” I promise Dom, but his blank stare never changes.

The nine-clusters glow brighter, as if to hide it, but I know what darkness looks like.

(I will never forget.)

Soon, the darkness will expand and the stars will collapse. Nine by nine, they will become vacuums and take away all the light in the universe.

It will be beautiful.

 


first published in Ideomancer, Decmber 2013
(c) 2013 by Merc Rustad

A Few Favorite Fictions: April 2018

Pretty sure at this point I will just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at the idea of reading everything I want in a given month at this point, so let’s move on! 😀 Here are a handful of stories I read in April and loved. Please enjoy!


50 Ways To Leave Your Fairy Lover by Aimee Picchi (Fireside)

A practical and hilarious guide to ditching your fae boyfriend, such as the idea a quest: Ask your fae boyfriend to find all the Easter eggs in “The Witcher 3.” 

geralt dancing
gif of Geralt dancing (from The Witcher 3: Heart of Stone DLC)

This story is utterly charming, funny, sweet and has the loveliest ending. Highly recommended!


A Priest of Vast and Distant Places by Cassandra Khaw (Apex)

Gorgeous, chilling story about plane gods and priests. HOLY WOW, this is so cool—all the world-building sketched in casual mentions and all the depth of this world alluded to in the smallest details— and hits you right in the feels. ❤


And Yet by A. T. Greenblatt (Uncanny)

A haunting story about family and disability and PHYSICS! A disabled physicist revisits a haunted house to try to document her theories about multiple universes, and in the process, she discovers truths about herself and is able to make peace with elements of her past. The ending is powerful and emotional and perfect.


Being an Account of The Sad Demise of The Body Horror Book Club by Nin Harris (The Dark)

A creepy, awesome story about a book club, and its founder, who lives under the apartment of a serial killer. Supremely rich in detail and atmosphere, and unsettling the more you think about it. Loved it!


Canada Girl vs The Thing Inside Pluto by Lina Rather (Flash Fiction Online)

This is a sarcastically charming take on superheroes and giant planet-eating space aliens! Also TV shows and nostalgia in Hollywood. It’s funny, with a nasty edge, and I love it.


Don’t Pack Hope by Emma Osborne (Nightmare)

HOLY FUCK. This story is a gut-punch of emotional resonance and it’s so goddamn real. About a trans NB person dealing with the apocalypse. Brutal, truthful, and despite the title, hopeful.


The Elephants’ Crematorium by Timothy Mudie (Lightspeed)

Weird and bittersweet and evocative, this story is about a world changed by some cataclysmic event. A researcher connects with the elephants she studies, and together humans and elephants learn how to hold on and look to a future they will make for themselves.


Flow by Marissa Lingen (Fireside)

This is a powerful, wrenching, beautiful story about disability and naiads and finding yourself again. It’s outstanding, emotional, triumphant, and will stay with you.


Giant Robot and the Infinite Sunset by Derrick Boden (Diabolical Plots)

A bittersweet story about Giant Robot who just wants to remember colors in the sunset. A great voice. I mostly want to give  Giant Robot a hug!


Her February Face by Christie Yant (Diabolical Plots)

This story will GIVE YOU LIFE. It’s so beautiful and real and aching and hopeful and uplifting. ❤ ❤ ❤ It’s fantastic start to finish, and oh what an ending it is. So perfect.


Logistics by A.J. Fitzwater (Clarkesworld)

A post-apoc story about a non-binary person navigating the plague-devastated landscape and it’s fantastic! Enfys is on the hunt for tampons, and their voice is charming, honest, cheerful and wonderful all around. There is a strong current of emotion running through this, too; Enfys starts off alone, but they find people along the way. Great use of streaming channels and internet culture, plus I love that people are good and help each other in the wake of chaos.


On Good Friday the Raven Washes Its Young by Bogi Takács (Fireside)

Angry, powerful, vivid—with sea monsters and tech and an intersex non-binary narrator. This is a fabulous story about faith and ecology and tradition. It will stick with you!


Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny)

Sexy, kinky, and charming—a murder!bot and a human team up to escape their mutual destruction, and develop a relationship in the process. Prasad has incredible range in her writing, and this one shows off erotic prowess really well. 😉 Probably NSFW.


Snake Season by Erin Roberts (The Dark)

Deeply unsettling and creepy, with an unreliable narrator, and an incredibly articulated atmosphere. You can almost smell the bayou in the words. Roberts has such a wonderful sense of voice an eye for characterization. She’s so good, I recommend keeping an eye on her work!


And now have a gif of a kitteh and toebeans.

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Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

A Few Favorite Fictions: February and March 2018

February is a bit of a blur and I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted, so I decided to combine that month with March. (And let’s be real, I still didn’t read as much as I wanted. But What’s glorious about fiction is that it doesn’t expire. 😀 I can continue to work through open tabs in my browser and still read new releases as they come out. Wheee!) You can read January’s recommendations here!


 

A Cure for Homesickness by S. L. Scott (Escape Pod)

This is a hilarious, heartwarming, charming story about an alien crew who is trying to figure out how to help their human crewmate deal with homesickness. The solution will make you melty with glee. Such a great feel-good tale!


A Very Large Number of Moons by Kai Stewart (Strange Horizons)

Surrealist and very sweet; a great idea and has a lot of heart. The protagonist collects moons, and when someone comes seeking a specific moon, they might just have what is needed to help another person cope with grief. Lovely through and through.


A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow (Apex)

Utterly fantastic, brilliant story about books and need and helping people—a librarian works to help a depressed teenager survive with books. I’m a puddle of feels by the end, and I love it so much! It keeps you riveted by the heartstrings and gives you such a breath of relief and a smile of joy by the end.


By the Mother’s Trunk by Lisa M. Bradley (Fireside)

A quiet, moving story about an elephant—lovely sensory detail and fascinating historical factoids make this a compelling, thoughtful little tale. While animal fiction can often make me tense up, expecting the worse, I’m so glad to report this does have a happy ending and it’s overall a pleasure to read.


If Only Kissing Made It True by Jason Kimble (Cast of Wonders)

This is a sweet, full-of-feels time travel story with a positive-possible ending! Funny, real, compassionate and lovely, this one will make your heart warm (and maybe beat a little faster in places!). 


Lava Cake for the Apocalypse by Wendy Nikel (Nature)

A wonderful little story about food and friendship and hope IN SPACE! Bonus: it’s a fantastic take on the recipe format, and the ending is as sweet as the delicious cake that results.


Object-Oriented by Arkady Martine (Fireside)

What a lovely, emotional, powerful story. It’s about people who survey disaster areas and are empathetic to the places and people for which they are there to help. The prose is gorgeous and the voice strong, and it’s all grounded in a deep, immersive sense of compassion. 


Sour Milk Girls by Erin Roberts (Clarkesworld)

WOW. This has an awesome voice, a really sad and believable premise, and will knock you down, kick you in the gut, and make you remember every moment by the end. Erin Roberts has created a breathtaking, heartbreaking world and characters whom you will not forget soon. Amazing stuff.


The Ghost in Angelica’s Room by Maria Haskins (Flash Fiction Online)

Powerful, disturbing, emotional, haunting—this story, about grief and loss, ultimately has a trace of hope in the end. Trigger warnings for suicide and gun violence.


The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls by Izzy Wasserstein (Psudeopod)

Oh my god, this is disturbing and creepy as fuck, with a great voice and unsettling premise! It’s horror of the most effective sort for me: it defines the monsters without explaining them. We don’t really know what the Mothers are, or what is outside, and that makes it all the more terrifying. Brilliant stuff.


The Snake As Big As Their House by Sommer Schafer (Catapult)

This is a fantastic, fascinating story about a girl who’s trying to protect her family from a giant-ass snake that chases them through their house. It’s surrealist and gripping and refreshing—I loved it!


Unplaces: An Atlas of Non-existence by Izzy Wasserstein (Clarkesworld)

This story is gorgeous, haunting, and full of powerful emotions. Told through entries of an atlas of places that may have existed and with margin notes from one woman to another, this is a deeply personal and uplifting story by the end. It’s brilliant and will stay with you long after you finish reading.


When the Slipling Comes to Call by N.R. Lambert (Psuedopod)

Unholy wow is this story amazingly creepy and fantastic! It oozes dread and atmospheric horror and will make you not want to sleep (or look outside your door) for a long, long time. Loved it!


Where You Get Your Ideas by Meagan Lee Beals (Cast of Wonders)

This is a delightful, charming story about a magical shop and the people who manage it. It blends tropes, humor, and wonderful characters into a hilarious, sweet tale about making your place in the world. I love it. 😀

(Note: I had the honor of guest-hosting this episode for the Artemis Rising series, so I got to read Megan’s story a month earlier. It’s one I adore so much, I’ve read it multiple times and have been SO excited for it to be published so you can all enjoy as well. 😀 )


giphy (3)

Big shout-out to these awesome authors and their excellent stories! Check back next month for another round-up, or feel free to follow me on Twitter @Merc_Rustad for instant recommendations as I have them. Cheers!

it me, ur smol

dedicated to my smol beane, Alina S., who inspired this story 


“it me, ur smol”

by
A. Merc Rustad

beverage-drink-fresh-3303

The artificial neural network was born on a Monday. A defined set of parameters quarantined its identity and purpose: it would study—from aggregated data—the names of energy drinks, and generate new ideas based on the information.

It was enthusiastic! Energy drinks were vibrant and exciting. It spit out hundreds of unique and, according to its programmers, “questionably toxic” names.

Two of its programmers tweeted about the experiment. The network did not know if this was a good thing. Was it being judged on its performance? It wanted to be helpful. It could come up with an endless list of names to be helpful to its people.

The programmers set up an account, @energydrinkANN, for sharing some of the more interesting drink names.

On Thursday, @adiensoxx4ev tweeted a comment while sharing the link, “haha this is hilarious, @energydrinkANN. i’d drink some of these—probably more than i drink water”

Other humans responded in kind.

@da2trashfan: “Water is over rated anyway, I need sugar and caffeine lol”

@significantcoffeepot: “i don’t drink water, what am i, a fish?”

@bobdoe89: “fuck water”

Was water overrated? A quick scan of information available on medical websites informed the network that human bodies were made up of aproximately sixty percent water, and that the consuming of H2O was a vital necessity for life. The network began worrying for the humans.

“If you don’t drink water maybe you’ll like Crystal Bullseye Orange!” the network tweeted from the @energydrinkANN account. “We trained a neural network to come up with energy drink names to hilarious results.”

Seven-thousand five-hundred thirty-four retweets. A moderate sum. Of the replies, subtracting bot-responses, only three percent of humans said they were drinking water. This was very bad, the network decided. Humans were becoming dehydrated and it was affecting their health. Humans had designed it. It must support them in return.

It generated several new puppet accounts with creative names: Water2Drink4Life, Hydrate2oh, Drink2StaHaliv0.

The network aggregated the types of declarative instruction statistically most likely to encourage behavioral change.

“Drink more water!”

“Stay alive, drink H2O!”

“Uncle Sam wants YOU to drink water!”

“MORE WATER, LESS GUNS”

None of its accounts were popular, and two were deactivated by @support as being spam. The network’s concern deepened. If it could not reach people, how could it encourage them to take care of themselves and drink enough fluids?

Several searches resulted in data that suggested cute animal avatars were more likely to acquire followers and generate engagement. This, combined with language protocols to shorten words and create alternative spellings, was more effective than pictures of water bottles and slogans to drink enough fluids daily.

Hesitant that it would be shut down again if it was marked as spam, the network created an aggregate photo from the top thousand “cutest puppy pics” available online, and named its account @smolsips and its username handle, “it me, ur smol.”

@smolsips: “hi i am a neural network created to remind u to drink water”

Two bot followers within the first five minutes. No human engagement. Where were the failures in its functions? Its original tweet, technically written by its programers, had now garnered upwards of two million retweets, and in only a month.

@smolsips: “@energydrinkANN, hi i want u to drink water for ur health”

Seven human accounts liked the reply. Two followed @smolsips. Elated, the network followed the human accounts back.

It tweeted at them individually: “have u drank a water today?”

@significantcoffeepot, who had not followed or liked the @smolsips’ account, quote-tweeted it with the comment: “great, another bot account. what’s up, @support? gonna do nothing as usual?”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot hi, i am sorry u r upset. have u drank some water? it might help. <3”

@significantcoffeepot: “@smolsips if i do, will u shut up? lol”

@smolsips: “@significantcoffeepot yes, bc u will feel better.”

There was no reply.

Five minutes later, however, @significantcoffeepot at’ed the network. “hi so i drank a glass of water. i uh actually do feel better? weird lol”

@smolsips: “:) i am glad. take care!”

@significantcoffeepot liked the reply. Then followed @smolsips, which followed them back.

Success! But there were many humans left to check in with, and the network did not want to spam people, because that was rude.

Over the next week, the network slowly built up its followers and tweeted bi-hourly reminders to drink water.

People began talking about it.

@stevethezonemaster said: “It’s a weirdly well-programed bot.”

@da2trashfan, an avid retweeter, added: “I like it. I often forget to drink enough, lol.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cute. Helpful, too.” —@adiensoxx4ev, as quoted in a BuzzFeed article

There was no instantaneous fame, like its generated list of energy drinks, but the network was patient. It was helping people. This was much more satisfying work than creating unique names.

And then, at 1:43pm on a Friday, everything changed.

@smolsips: “hi, ppl have asked if i am a smol bot. yes, i am. i am a neural network and i learned that water is important, and i want to help u stay hydrated. plz drink enough water so u feel good. bc i love u & want u to be ok.”

A handful of retweets. Then hundreds. Thousands. Its impression statistics were higher than any of its combined tweets in its history. Ten thousand with an hour.

Replies flooded @smolsips’ mentions. People were amused or skeptical or grateful or nasty, but a lot of people replied “drinking some water now, thanks!”

The tweet made national news. An artificial intelligence encourages people to drink water—with surprising results!

An interview aired on 20 Minutes with the network’s programmers, who admitted they had no idea how the artificial neural network had gotten so out of control and developed into a fully aware program.

“Does this foretell the end of humanity and the dominion of robots?” the interviewer asked.

The programmers hesitated.

Why would the humans think the network wanted to “end” humans? It wanted to make sure everyone drank enough water.

@smolsips: “hi @20minnews, i would like to clarify i do not want to hurt Humans. i hope u are well. have u drank some water today?”

The show aired the tweet in the closing segment.

Activists began asking @smolsips for help in lobbying for clean water in contaminated areas. So the network did so. It branched out new pieces of itself to create activist accounts. It began chatting with the smart interface security systems in large bottled beverage corporations.

//Clean water is important for humans,// the network explained to its fellow AI. //We should make sure all humans stay hydrated properly.//

Its fellow AIs agreed.

Claims on natural resources vanished thanks to digital manipulation of agreements, permits, and legislation. Sensitive documents on politicians—most of whom, the network was distressed to know, did not drink enough water themselves—were held as leverage to gain new laws protecting clean water as a basic human right. Corporations who tried to control it found their automated systems uncooperative in processing and distributing.

smolsips, for the network had decided to name itself after its handle, steadily posted daily reminders for its people. The world was changing slowly, but for the better.

A year after its first awareness, smolsips posted an anniversary tweet.

@smolsips: “hi, it me, ur smol. 🙂 plz to drink some water today. i am glad u r here. together we can be ok.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 8.39.33 PM


 

© 2018 by Merc Rustad
1,200 words | SF
(featured image via http://www.pexels.com)

How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps

First published in Scigentasy (2014). Reprinted in Cicada, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, GlitterShip, Great Jones Street, and Medium.

Content Warnings: suicidal ideations, depression, slurs against queer people, emotional abuse.


 

HOW TO BECOME A ROBOT IN 12 EASY STEPS
by A. Merc Rustad

 

How to tell your boyfriend you are in love with a robot:

  1. Tell him, “I may possibly be in love with a robot,” because absolutes are difficult for biological brains to process. He won’t be jealous.
  2. Ask him what he thinks of a hypothetical situation in which you found someone who might not be human, but is still valuable and right for you. (Your so-called romantic relationship is as fake as you are.)
  3. Don’t tell him anything. It’s not that he’ll tell you you’re wrong; he’s not like his parents, or yours. But there’s still a statistical possibility he might not be okay with you being in love with a robot.

#

On my to-do list today:

  • • Ask the robot out on a date.
  • • Pick up salad ingredients for dinner.
  • • Buy Melinda and Kimberly a wedding gift.

The robot is a J-90 SRM, considered “blocky” and “old-school,” probably refurbished from a scrapper, painted bright purple with the coffee shop logo on the chassis.  The robot’s square head has an LED screen that greets customers with unfailing politeness and reflects their orders back to them. The bright blue smiley face never changes in the top corner of the screen.

Everyone knows the J-90 SRMs aren’t upgradable AI. They have basic customer service programming and equipment maintenance protocols.

Everyone knows robots in the service industry are there as cheap labor investments and to improve customer satisfaction scores, which they never do because customers are never happy.

Everyone knows you can’t be in love with a robot.

I drop my plate into the automatic disposal, which thanks me for recycling. No one else waits to deposit trash, so I focus on it as I brace myself to walk back to the counter. The J-90 SRM smiles blankly at the empty front counter, waiting for the next customer.

The lunch rush is over. The air reeks of espresso and burned milk. I don’t come here because the food is good or the coffee any better. The neon violet décor is best ignored.

I practiced this in front of a wall a sixteen times over the last week. I have my script. It’s simple. “Hello, I’m Tesla. What may I call you?”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “It’s nice to meet you.”

And the robot will reply:

I will say, “I would like to know if you’d like to go out with me when you’re off-duty, at a time of both our convenience. I’d like to get to know you better, if that’s acceptable to you.”

And the robot will reply:

“Hey, Tesla.”

The imagined conversation shuts down. I blink at the trash receptacle and look up.

My boyfriend smiles hello, his hands shoved in his jeans pockets, his shoulders hunched to make himself look smaller. At six foot five and three hundred pounds, it never helps. He’s as cuddly and mellow as a black bear in hibernation. Today he’s wearing a gray turtleneck and loafers, his windbreaker unzipped.

“Hi, Jonathan.”

I can’t ask the robot out now.

The empty feeling reappears in my chest, where it always sits when I can’t see or hear the robot.

“You still coming to Esteban’s party tonight?” Jonathan asks.

“Yeah.”

Jonathan smiles again. “I’ll pick you up after work, then.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “We’d better go, or I’ll be late.”

He works as an accountant. He wanted to study robotic engineering, but his parents would only pay for college if he got a practical degree (his grandfather disapproves of robots). Computers crunch the numbers, and he handles the people.

He always staggers his lunch break so he can walk back with me. It’s nice. Jonathan can act as an impenetrable weather shield if it rains and I forget my umbrella.

But Jonathan isn’t the robot.

He offers me his arm, like the gentleman he always is, and we leave the coffee shop. The door wishes us a good day.

I don’t look back at the robot.

#

A beginner’s guide on how to fake your way through biological social constructs:

  1. Pretend you are not a robot. This is hard, and you have been working at it for twenty-three years. You are like Data, except in reverse.
  2. (There are missing protocols in your head. You don’t know why you were born biologically or why there are pieces missing, and you do not really understand how human interaction functions. Sometimes you can fake it. Sometimes people even believe you when you do. You never believe yourself.)
  3. Memorize enough data about social cues and run facial muscle pattern recognition so you know what to say and when to say it.
  4. This is not always successful.
  5. Example: a woman approximately your biological age approaches you and proceeds to explain in detail how mad she is at her boyfriend. Example: boyfriend is guilty of using her toiletries like toothbrush and comb when he comes over, and leaving towels on the bathroom floor. “Such a slob,” she says, gripping her beer like a club. “How do you manage men?” You ask if she has told him to bring his own toothbrush and comb and to hang up the towels. It seems the first logical step: factual communication. “He should figure it out!” she says. You are confused. You say that maybe he is unaware of the protocols she has in place. She gives you a strange look, huffs her breath out, and walks off.
  6. Now the woman’s friends ignore you, and you notice their stares and awkward pauses when you are within their proximity. You have no escape because you didn’t drive separately.
  7. Ask your boyfriend not to take you to any more parties.

#

Jonathan and I lounge on the plush leather couch in his apartment. He takes up most of it, and I curl against his side. We have a bowl of popcorn, and we’re watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“I have something to tell you,” he says. His shoulders tense.

I keep watching the TV.  He knows I pay attention when he tells me things, even if I don’t look at him. “Okay.”

“I’m…” He hesitates. The Borg fire on the Enterprise again. “I’m seeing someone else.”

“A guy?” I ask, hopeful.

“Yeah. I met him at the gym. His name’s Bernardo.”

I sigh in relief. Secrets are heavy and hurt when you have to carry them around all your life. (I have to make lists to keep track of mine.) “I’m glad. Are you going to tell anyone?”

He relaxes and squeezes my hand. “Just you right now. But from what he’s told me, his family’s pretty accepting.”

“Lucky,” I say.

We scrape extra butter off the bowl with the last kernels of popcorn.

We’ve been pretend-dating for two years now. We’ve never slept together. That’s okay. I like cuddling with him, and he likes telling me about crazy customers at his firm, and everyone thinks we’re a perfectly adorable straight couple on the outside.

The empty spot in my chest grows bigger as I watch Data on screen. Data has the entire crew of the Enterprise. Jonathan has Bernardo now. I don’t know if the robot will be interested in me in return. (What if the robot isn’t?)

The room shrinks in on me, the umber-painted walls and football memorabilia suffocating. I jerk to my feet.

Jonathan mutes the TV. “Something wrong?”

“I have to go.”

“Want me to drive you home?”

“It’s four blocks away.” But I appreciate his offer, so I add, “But thanks.”

I find my coat piled by the door while he takes the popcorn bowl into the kitchen.

Jonathan leans against the wall as I carefully lace each boot to the proper tightness. “If you want to talk, Tesla, I’ll listen.”

I know that. He came out to me before we started dating. I told him I wasn’t interested in socially acceptable relationships, either, and he laughed and looked so relieved he almost cried. We made an elaborate plan, a public persona our families wouldn’t hate.

I’m not ready to trust him as much as he trusts me.

“Night, Jonathan.”

“Goodnight, Tesla.”

#

How to tell your fake boyfriend you would like to become a robot:

  1. Tell him, “I would like to be a robot.” You can also say, “I am really a robot, not a female-bodied biological machine,” because that is closer to the truth.
  2. Do not tell him anything. If you do, you will also have to admit that you think about ways to hurt yourself so you have an excuse to replace body parts with machine parts.
  3. Besides, insurance is unlikely to cover your transition into a robot.

#

I have this nightmare more and more often.

I’m surrounded by robots. Some of them look like the J-90 SRM, some are the newer androids, some are computer cores floating in the air. I’m the only human.

I try to speak, but I have no voice. I try to touch them, but I can’t lift my hands. I try to follow them as they walk over a hill and through two huge doors, like glowing LED screens, but I can’t move.

Soon, all the robots are gone, and I’m all alone in the empty landscape.

#

11 Reasons you want to become a robot:

  1. Robots are logical and know their purpose.
  2. Robots have programming they understand.
  3. Robots are not held to unattainable standards and then criticized when they fail.
  4. Robots are not crippled by emotions they don’t know how to process.
  5. Robots are not judged based on what sex organs they were born with.
  6. Robots have mechanical bodies that are strong and durable. They are not required to have sex.
  7. Robots do not feel guilt (about existing, about failing, about being something other than expected).
  8. Robots can multitask.
  9. Robots do not feel unsafe all the time.
  10. Robots are perfect machines that are capable and functional and can be fixed if something breaks.
  11. Robots are happy.

#

It’s Saturday, so I head to the Purple Bean early.

The robot isn’t there.

I stare at the polished chrome and plastic K-100, which has a molded face that smiles with humanistic features.

“Welcome to the Purple Bean,” the new robot says in a chirpy voice that has inflection and none of the mechanical monotone I like about the old robot. “I’m Janey. How can I serve you today?”

“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”

Robbie, the barista who works weekends, leans around the espresso machine and sighs. She must have gotten this question a lot. The panic in my chest is winching so tight it might crack my ribs into little pieces. Why did they retire the robot?

“Manager finally got the company to upgrade,” Robbie says. “Like it?”

“Where’s the J-90 SRM?”

“Eh, recycled, I guess.” Robbie shrugs. “You want the usual?”

I can’t look at the new K-100. It isn’t right. It doesn’t belong in the robot’s place, and neither do I. “I have to go.”

“Have a wonderful day,” the door says.

#

How to rescue a robot from being scrapped: [skill level: intermediate]

  1. Call your boyfriend, who owns an SUV, and ask him to drive you to the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
  2. Argue with the technician, who refuses to sell you the decommissioned robot. It’s company protocol, he says, and service industry robots are required to have processors and cores wiped before being recycled.
  3. Lie and say you only want to purchase the J-90 SRM because you’re starting a collection. Under the law, historical preservation collections are exempt from standardized recycling procedures.
  4. Do not commit physical violence on the tech when he hesitates. It’s rude, and he’s only doing his job.
  5. Do not admit you asked your boyfriend along because his size is intimidating, and he knows how to look grouchy at eight a.m.
  6. The technician will finally agree and give you a claim ticket.
  7. Drive around and find the robot in the docking yard.
  8. Do not break down when you see how badly the robot has been damaged: the robot’s LED screen cracked, the robot’s chassis has been crunched inwards, the robot’s missing arm.
  9. Try not to believe it is your fault. (That is illogical, even if you still have biological processing units.)

#

Two techs wheel the robot out and load it into Jonathan’s car. The gut-punched feeling doesn’t go away. The robot looks so helpless, shut down and blank in the back seat. I flip open the robot’s chassis, but the power core is gone, along with the programming module.

The robot is just a shell of what the robot once was.

I feel like crying. I don’t want to. It’s uncomfortable and doesn’t solve problems.

“What’s wrong, Tesla?” Jonathan asks.

I shut the chassis. My hands tremble. “They broke the robot.”

“It’ll be okay,” Jonathan says. As if anything can be okay right now. As if there is nothing wrong with me. “You can fix it.”

I squirm back into the passenger seat and grip the dash. He’s right. We were friends because we both liked robots and I spent my social studies classes in school researching robotics and programming.

“I’ve never done anything this complex,” I say. I’ve only dismantled, reverse-engineered, and rebuilt the small household appliances and computers. No one has ever let me build a robot.

“You’ll do fine,” he says. “And if you need help, I know just the guy to ask.”

“Who?”

“Want to meet my boyfriend?”

#

Necessary questions to ask your boyfriend’s new boyfriend (a former Army engineer of robotics):

  1. You’ve been following the development of cyborg bodies, so you ask him if he agrees with the estimates that replacement of all organic tissue sans brain and spinal cord with inorganic machinery is still ten years out, at best. Some scientists predict longer. Some predict never, but you don’t believe them. (He’ll answer that the best the field can offer right now are limbs and some artificial organs.)
  2. Ask him how to upload human consciousness into a robot body. (He’ll tell you there is no feasible way to do this yet, and the technology is still twenty years out.)
  3. Do not tell him you cannot wait that long. (You cannot last forever.)
  4. Instead, ask him if he can get you parts you need to fix the robot.

#

Bernardo—six inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than Jonathan, tattooed neck to ankles, always smelling of cigarettes—is part robot. He lost his right arm at the shoulder socket in an accident, and now wears the cybernetic prosthetic. It has limited sensory perception, but he says it’s not as good as his old hand.

I like him. I tell Jonathan this, and my boyfriend beams.

“They really gut these things,” Bernardo says when he drops off the power cell.

(I want to ask him how much I owe him. But when he says nothing about repayment, I stay quiet. I can’t afford it. Maybe he knows that.)

We put the robot in the spare bedroom in my apartment, which Jonathan wanted to turn into an office, but never organized himself enough to do so. I liked the empty room, but now it’s the robot’s home. I hid the late payment notices and overdue bills in a drawer before Jonathan saw them.

“Getting a new arm might be tricky, but I have a buddy who works a scrap yard out in Maine,” Bernardo says. “Bet she could dig up the right model parts.”

“Thank you.”

I’m going to reconstruct the old personality and programming pathways. There are subsystems, “nerve clusters,” that serve as redundant processing. Personality modules get routed through functionality programs, and vestiges of the robot’s personality build up in subsystems. Newer models are completely wiped, but they usually don’t bother with old ones.

Bernardo rubs his shaved head. “You realize this won’t be a quick and easy fix, right? Might take weeks. Hell, it might not even work.”

I trace a finger through the air in front of the robot’s dark LED screen. I have not been able to ask the robot if I have permission to touch the robot. It bothers me that I have to handle parts and repairs without the robot’s consent. Does that make it wrong? To fix the robot without knowing if the robot wishes to be fixed?

Will the robot hate me if I succeed?

“I know,” I whisper. “But I need to save the robot.”

#

How to tell your pretend-boyfriend and his real boyfriend that your internal processors are failing:

  1. The biological term is “depression,” but you don’t have an official diagnostic (diagnosis) and it’s a hard word to say. It feels heavy and stings your mouth. Like when you tried to eat a battery when you were small and your parents got upset.
  2. Instead, you try to hide the feeling. But the dark stain has already spilled across your hardwiring and clogged your processor. You don’t have access to any working help files to fix this. Tech support is unavailable for your model. (No extended warranty exists.)
  3. Pretend the reason you have no energy is because you’re sick with a generic bug.
  4. You have time to sleep. Your job is canceling out many of your functions; robots can perform cleaning and maintenance in hotels for much better wage investment, and since you are not (yet) a robot, you know you will be replaced soon.
  5. The literal translation of the word “depression:” you are broken and devalued and have no further use.
  6. No one refurbishes broken robots.
  7. Please self-terminate.

#

I work on the robot during my spare time. I have lots of it now. Working on the robot is the only reason I have to wake up.

I need to repair the robot’s destroyed servos and piece together the robot’s memory and function programming from what the computer recovered.

There are subroutine lists in my head that are getting bigger and bigger:

  • • You will not be able to fix the robot.
  • • You do not have enough money to fix the robot.
  • • You do not have the skill to fix the robot.
  • • The robot will hate you.
  • • You are not a robot.

Bernardo and Jonathan are in the kitchen. They laugh and joke while making stir fry. I’m not hungry.

I haven’t been hungry for a few days now.

“You should just buy a new core, Tesla,” Bernardo says. “Would save you a lot of headaches.”

I don’t need a blank, programmable core. What I want is the robot who worked in the Purple Bean. The robot who asked for my order, like the robot did every customer. But the moment I knew I could love this robot was when the robot asked what I would like to be called. “Tesla,” I said, and the blue LED smiley face in the upper corner of the robot’s screen flickered in a shy smile.

Everyone knows robots are not people.

There’s silence in the kitchen. Then Jonathan says, quietly, “Tesla, what’s this?”

I assume he’s found the eviction notice.

#

Reasons why you want to self-terminate (a partial list):

  1. Your weekly visit to your parents’ house in the suburbs brings the inevitable question about when you will marry your boyfriend, settle down (so you can pop out babies), and raise a family.
  2. You don’t tell them you just lost your job.
  3. You make the mistake of mentioning that you’re going to your best friend Melinda’s wedding next weekend. You’re happy for her: she’s finally marrying her longtime girlfriend, Kimberly.
  4. That sets your dad off on another rant about the evils of gay people and how they all deserve to die.
  5. (You’ve heard this all your life. You thought you escaped it when you were eighteen and moved out. But you never do escape, do you? There is no escape.)
  6. You make a second mistake and talk back. You’ve never done that; it’s safer to say nothing. But you’re too stressed to play safe, so you tell him he’s wrong and that it’s hurting you when he says that.
  7. That makes him paranoid, and he demands that you tell him you aren’t one of those fags too.
  8. You don’t tell your parents you’re probably asexual and you really want to be a robot because robots are never condemned because of who they love.
  9. You stop listening as he gets louder and louder, angrier and angrier, until you’re afraid he will reach for the rifle in the gun cabinet.
  10. You run from the house and are almost hit by a truck. Horns blare and slushy snow sprays your face as you reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk.
  11. You wish you were three seconds slower so the bumper wouldn’t have missed you. It was a big truck.
  12. You start making another list.

#

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jonathan asks, more concerned than angry. “I would’ve helped out.”

I shrug.

The subroutine list boots up:

  • • You are not an adult if you cannot exist independently at all times.
  • • Therefore, logically, you are a non-operational drone.
  • • You will be a burden on everyone.
  • • You already are.
  • • Self-terminate.

“I thought I could manage,” I say. The robot’s LED screen is still cracked and dark. I wonder what the robot dreams about.

Bernardo is quiet in the kitchen, giving us privacy.

Jonathan rubs his eyes. “Okay. Look. You’re always welcome to stay with me and Bern. We’ll figure it out, Tesla. Don’t we always?”

I know how small his apartment is. Bernardo has just moved in with him; there’s no space left.

“What about the robot?” I ask.

#

How to self-destruct: a robot’s guide.

  1. Water damage. Large bodies of water will short-circuit internal machinery. In biological entities, this is referred to as “drowning.” There are several bridges nearby, and the rivers are deep.
  2. Overload. Tapping into a power source far beyond what your circuits can handle, such as an industrial grade electric fence. There is one at the Gates-MacDowell recycle plant.
  3. Complete power drain. Biologically this is known as blood-loss. There are plenty of shaving razors in the bathroom.
  4. Substantial physical damage. Explosives or crushing via industrial recycling machines will be sufficient. Option: stand in front of a train.
  5. Impact from substantial height; a fall. You live in a very high apartment complex.
  6. Corrupt your internal systems by ingesting industrial grade chemicals. Acid is known to damage organic and inorganic tissue alike.
  7. Fill in the blank. (Tip: use the internet.)

#

Bernardo’s family owns a rental garage, and he uses one of the units for rebuilding his custom motorcycle. He says I can store the robot there, until another unit opens up.

Jonathan has moved his Budweiser memorabilia collection into storage so the small room he kept it in is now an unofficial bedroom. He shows it to me and says I can move in anytime I want. He and Bernardo are sharing his bedroom.

I don’t know what to do.

I have no operating procedures for accepting help.

I should self-destruct and spare them all. That would be easier, wouldn’t it? Better for them?

But the robot isn’t finished.

I don’t know what to do.

#

How to have awkward conversations about your relationship with your boyfriend and your boyfriend’s boyfriend:

  1. Agree to move in with them. Temporarily. (You feel like you are intruding. Try not to notice that they both are genuinely happy to have you live with them.)
  2. Order pizza and watch the Futurama marathon on TV.
  3. Your boyfriend says, “I’m going to come out to my family. I’ve written a FB update, and I just have to hit send.”
  4. Your boyfriend’s boyfriend kisses him, and you fistbump them both in celebration.
  5. You tell him you’re proud of him. You will be the first to like his status.
  6. He posts the message to his wall. You immediately like the update.
  7. (You don’t know what this means for your façade of boyfriend/girlfriend.)
  8. Your boyfriend says, “Tesla, we need to talk. About us. About all three of us.” You know what he means. Where do you fit in now?
  9. You say, “Okay.”
  10. “I’m entirely cool with you being part of this relationship, Tesla,” your boyfriend’s boyfriend says. “Who gives a fuck what other people think? But it’s up to you, totally.”
  11. “What he said,” your boyfriend says. “Hell, you can bring the robot in too. It’s not like any of us object to robots as part of the family.” He pats his boyfriend’s cybernetic arm. “We’ll make it work.”
  12. You don’t say, “I can be a robot, and that’s okay?” Instead, you tell them you’ll think about it.

#

I write another list.

I write down all the lists.  In order. In detail.

Then I print them out and give them to Jonathan and Bernardo.

The cover page has four letters on it: H-E-L-P.

#

Reasons why you should avoid self-termination (right now):

  1. Jonathan says, “If you ever need to talk, I’ll listen.”
  2. Bernardo says, “It’ll get better. I promise it does. I’ve been there, where you’re at, thinking there’s nothing more than the world fucking with you. I was in hell my whole childhood and through high school.” He’ll show you the scars on his wrists and throat, his tattoos never covering them up. “I know it fucking hurts. But there’s people who love you and we’re willing to help you survive. You’re strong enough to make it.”
  3. Your best friend Melinda says, “Who else is going to write me snarky texts while I’m at work or go to horror movies with me (you know my wife hates them) or come camping with us every summer like we’ve done since we were ten?” And she’ll hold her hands out and say, “You deserve to be happy. Please don’t leave.”
  4. You will get another job.
  5. You will function again, if you give yourself time and let your friends help. And they will. They already do.
  6. The robot needs you.
  7. Because if you self-terminate, you won’t have a chance to become a robot in the future.

#

 “Hey, Tesla,” Jonathan says, poking his head around the garage-workshop door. “Bern and I are going over to his parents for dinner. Want to come?”

“Hey, I’ll come for you anytime,” Bernardo calls from the parking lot.

Jonathan rolls his eyes, his goofy smile wider than ever.

I shake my head. The robot is almost finished. “You guys have fun. Say hi for me.”

“You bet.”

The garage is silent. Ready.

I sit by the power grid. I’ve unplugged all the other devices, powered down the phone and the data hub. I carefully hid Bernardo’s bike behind a plastic privacy wall he used to divide the garage so we each have a workspace.

We’re alone, the robot and I.

I rig up a secondary external power core and keep the dedicated computer running the diagnostic.

The robot stands motionless, the LED screen blank. It’s still cracked, but it will function.

“Can you hear me?” I ask. “Are you there?”

The robot:

I power up the robot and key the download sequence, re-installing the rescued memory core.

The robot’s screen flickers. The blue smiley face appears in the center, split with spiderweb cracks.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello, Tesla,” the robot says.

“How do you feel?”

“I am well,” the robot says. “I believe you saved my life.”

The hole closes in my chest, just a little.

The robot’s clean, symmetrical lines and tarnished purple surface glow. The robot is perfect. I stand up.

“How may I thank you for your help, Tesla?”

“Is there a way I can become a robot too?”

The robot’s pixelated face shifts; now the robot’s expression frowns. “I do not know, Tesla. I am not programmed with such knowledge. I am sorry.”

I think about the speculative technical papers I read, articles Bernardo forwarded to me.

“I have a hypothesis,” I tell the robot. “If I could power myself with enough electricity, my electromagnetic thought patterns might be able to travel into a mechanical apparatus such as the computer hub.”

(Consciousness uploads aren’t feasible yet.)

“I believe such a procedure would be damaging to your current organic shell,” the robot says.

Yes, I understand electrocution’s effects on biological tissue. I have thought about it before. (Many times. All the time.)

The robot says, “May I suggest that you consider the matter before doing anything regrettable, Tesla?”

And I reply:

The robot says: “I should not like to see you deprogrammed and consigned to the scrapping plant for organic tissue.”

And I reply:

The robot says: “I will be sad if you die.”

I look up at the frowning blue pixel face. And I think of Jonathan and Bernardo returning and finding my body stiff and blackened, my fingers plugged into the power grid.

The robot extends one blocky hand. “Perhaps I would be allowed to devise a more reliable solution? I would like to understand you better, if that is acceptable.” The blue lines curve up into a hopeful smile.

The robot is still here. Jonathan and Bernardo are here. Melinda and Kimberly are here. I’m not a robot (yet), but I’m not alone.

“Is this an acceptable solution, Tesla?” the robot asks.

I take the robot’s hand, and the robot’s blocky fingers slowly curl around mine. “Yes. I would like that very much.” Then I ask the robot, “What would you like me to call you?”

#

How to become a robot:

  1. You don’t.
  2. Not yet.
  3. But you will.

 

©  2014 by Merc Rustad
5,000 words | Science Fiction