January’s Zeroflash Entries

Dr Ho and the Daleek

by Mark Carew

A familiar, pepper-pot robot glided towards me, its eye-stalk and death-ray quivering.  Maybe this was the time, the moment of impending peril, when I would return to the screen and restart my career.  But no; the death ray turned out to be a green vegetable with a slender white bulb, cylindrical stem, and broad, overlapping leaves.  A metal arm holding a tray extended from the body and offered a gin and tonic.

‘Yet again,’ said my female assistant.  ‘Another Daleek; once a fearsome robot, now a labour-saving device.’  She shook her head.  ‘Your predecessor’s invention of the Tiles of Utopia has saved the planet, and destroyed our world.’

I accepted the gin and tonic anyway, and sunk into my luxuriously upholstered chair in the library.  ‘Even those tall silver robot men who were up for a double episode, cliff-hanging season finale, now just indulge in cyphers to solve.’

‘And we haven’t been on TV for three years.  Christmas just isn’t the same any more.  What are we going to do, my lover?’  My assistant leaned over me, breathing heavily.  ‘If only we had some monsters and robots to fight!’ she said.  ‘Life would be exciting again.  As it is, I feel like a kept woman.’

There was a pause between us, and she knew I spoke the truth when I said: ‘We must destroy the Tiles of Utopia.  We need to find the E and change the Daleek back to a “you-know-what”.  And the other letters for the other robots.’

My assistant turned away and said quietly. ‘Yes, but when the R is destroyed I will no longer be your lover, merely your love.  You will have a deep feeling of platonic affection for me, but that is all.’

But I wasn’t listening.  The cover of the TV Times beckoned.

George and Mary

by Jack Koebnig

@koebnig

George had spent the last forty minutes, following a ham salad lunch shared with his wife Mary, in the garden. During lunch, he’d informed Mary that those pesky black rooted weeds had returned to the far corner of her rose garden.

‘Are you sure, dear?’ Mary asked, her brow creased with worry.

George nodded. ‘I’m afraid so.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Simple,’ George answered, munching on a chunk of cheese, ‘take care of the problem.’

‘Can I be of assistance?’

Once George had recovered from choking, discretely expelling the treacherous piece of cheese to his napkin, he finished what he’d been attempting to say before he’d found it hard to breath: ‘Absolutely not. It’s much too dangerous.’

Mary didn’t argue. The sky was clouding over. Rain wasn’t far away. ‘You know best, dear. Tea?’

‘Afterwards.’

Forty minutes later George entered the kitchen, clutching a handful of long green weeds each sporting thick black roots straight as sharpened spears. He kept his other hand hidden behind his back.

‘Grab me a vase, will you, dear?’

‘For those?’ Mary asked, pointing at the result of her husband’s ruthless weeding.

‘No,’ he answered, bringing his other hand round to the front. In it he held six beautiful red roses. He smiled. ‘For these.’

‘You’re such a kidder, George.’

‘I know. That’s why you love me.’

George kissed his wife gently on the cheek and they sat down at the kitchen table ready to enjoy a cup of tea.

‘These humans,’ began XZ345, ‘aren’t exactly the most exciting of species. Are they?’

XZ445, shook his head. ‘But when there’s only one TV channel, you can’t afford to be fussy.’

‘Will you two shut up,’ XZ245 snapped. ‘I can’t hear what’s going on.’

Trapped

by Alva Holland

CVS used to be the place.

Who decided robots should take over? Looking back, I realise it was a gradual thing. They said technology advancement would enhance our lives, make everything easier, connect more people. Families would no longer be separated by distance but connected by visuals. Screens could transcend words, nothing was out of reach.

But what if out of reach was good? What if wondering and learning and finding out and exploring and not reaching were lessons? What if there were unexplored ideas and spaces, entire worlds untainted by discovery, forever.

What if remaining a mystery was the whole point?

Leave it alone.

Can nothing be left alone anymore? Is anything sacred from the dreaded investigation by technology? Seeking to better, seeking to expose, seeking to digitise. Analog begone!

Why?

Jamie worked at CVS. He was my favourite employee there. He cared about everyone who walked up to his desk. He enquired after everyone’s health and well-being. He made people feel good, young and old. He was a mini-god of people, but he didn’t know it. That’s what made him so.

There’s no door at CVS now. We don’t need to go there. We order from the so-called comfort of our own homes. We don’t need to meet people like Jamie. We don’t need to interact, except with buttons and screens.

Come back please, old CVS with your ill-fitting squeaky door, your crooked aisles, your clanking cash registers, your daily output of stomach settlers, headache-reducers. Your tampon-dispensing Jamie, psychology major Jamie, outpourer of sympathy Jamie, smiling Jamie.

Is the future sucking the life and smiles from our world?

I want to go back.

Pressing the Return button, nothing happens.

I am stuck here.

Genuinely Attractive Artificial Intelligence

 by Kelly Griffiths

 “That is a lie,” said the lips, with perfect human articulation. Jordan had the overwhelming urge to set down his notebook and kiss the beckoning sheen of just-been-licked lips. The thought struck flint inside him.

“Is not, bitch, that’s how it happened,” answered the test subject.

“Your nonverbals communicate otherwise.” The lips belonged to Jordan’s professor, the first AI on staff. Interrogation labs were a welcome distraction from the monotony of study, and an AI professor kept the sessions lively. Her badass strategies, entertaining. Jordan took to calling her Lips with the guys.

The professor continued, “One confrontation was sufficient to deteriorate this methamphetamines-addicted male. Students will place a ‘1’ in the ethos column, with proofs.” An ardent scribbling possessed all the students, save Jordan, who couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Suddenly discomfited, the addict tested the straps. Zero give. They had tightened in impalpable increments since the session began. “Wha-the-fuh? …cuttin’ off my circulation…I’m out. Keep yer money.”

“The session is not expired yet.” The AI beauty held up a signed contract and wore an enigmatic expression.

Again, Jordan coveted those lips.

“Students will note at what point in the examination the subject wished to be released.”

The students took note. Except Jordan.

The AI professor continued, “These belong to you?” Images of two dead children flashed on the screen. The students gasped. The addict’s eyes bugged out. He screamed and slammed his body against the unyielding straps.

“The truth now,” the lips persisted. “You did that.”

The addict sobbed. “I need a hit.”

Inhumanly fast and with brutal force, her bionic palm cracked against his cheek. The addict’s head lolled.

The bell rang, signaling the end of class. Everyone filed out except Jordan.

The AI turned on him. “Your nonverbals communicate—”

Jordan kissed her.

Flinstone

By Alex Z. Salinas

@Alex_Z_Salinas

“I got to know some people.” Something nobody says.

Nobody says anything anymore.

I’m back in my capsule after another night of carousing the city. I’m restless and idealess, again. The moon’s out, but I can’t see the stars.

We’re in our third and final act, mankind. There was pre-Industrial Revolution, post-Industrial Revolution, and now, finally, post-Socialization. With all the addictive, unregulated surfing we did, we primed ourselves for a good, catastrophic cyber-sunburn.

We’ve long found solace in electronic devices rather than each other. We forget eye contact but never forget to charge our units before bed. Our genetics are permanently scrambled. We’re not top of the food chain anymore; we’re binary code bottom-feeders.

Communities of violent “humpbacks” have sprouted up, supposedly—people with re engineered DNA from decades of ancestral looking down at phones. They’re out for revenge now.

Small business is dead. Land developers have also destroyed churches and temples. The religious have turned to webinars to preach their messages.

Only hospitals have remained untouched. I once snuck into an emergency room to experience raw humanity. I wandered the hallways until I came across an old man lying on a stretcher. I walked up to him, assuming he was unconscious. Suddenly, he grabbed my shirt collar, pulled me close to his face, and said, with death in his breath, “Get out of here and let me meet God in peace.” I went back to my capsule that night, terrified and saddened. I had nightmares of his yellow eyes for weeks.

But I woke up.

I’ve been trying to write a book—a “great” novel. I want to leave something behind proving we were alive and kicking until the end.

But we’re barely alive, and not kicking. Neglect is our daily vitamin.

The end, I fear, is twinkle-toeing upon us silently.

Triage 2118

by Basel St. Gael

This is not dystopia; This is real.  Fallout screams, and this island becomes a home for refugees.  Disease spreads from that fusion-powered war, and it pushed those desperate to escape in boats on pristine shores.  You see, there are two women of power and grace living in this palace shining on the South Pacific’s face.
They feel the nuclear winter of centuries, and they cannot believe humankind has come to this.  They have taken on the hundred they believed might fit, but that wall surrounding this place has so many more clammoring.
Alone in this world are these women who wedded at the hand to truth and power quaking the land, “I miss them,” the redhead begs.
This day they see two more with the fever cooled in the living room, and there lie five dead among stench-withered garden grounds.  Of all the inhabitants of this Earth, their strength and heart saves souls twisted and turned.  They give love in final moments, and they lay hands on souls whisked away from hurt.
Patients do not know their names, yet they cry every night over those passed away.  They hold back tears in the daylight when attending to those burned and fraught.  This scene ne’er goes quiet for there is the cough, the sob, and the whimper of fading light.  Outside there are the bangs of aching hands on ancient stone, and that steel gate holds them back when bullets fly.
That darkhaired wife must take the shot, and it keeps the masses away.  The warmest of brides shall minister relief, and they shall serve the afraid.  Those rooms reserved for someone else upstairs are taken by women and children bleeding near dead, and these wives pray in the open cradled in eternal embrace.
“When next shall we open the gates?”

Mountains of Metal

by Ryan Yarber

Rinn hopped in the sidecar of the motorcycle and gave his uncle Pent the thumbs up with a smile he couldn’t hide. Today was his tenth birthday, which meant Rinn was finally allowed within the scrapyard. Pent grunted disdainfully and gunned it.

They arrived by daybreak. Pent stopped at the shed outside the entrance and hopped off. Rinn got out and followed him to the door when Pent turned on him.

“See this kid?” He showed Rinn the insignia. Two wrenches crossed. The symbol of a citizen. “This is what you want. Bring one back here. If anything moves on its own, let me know immediately. One battery and you and your mum will never go hungry again. Understand?”

He nodded.

“Your brother should be the one here today. I’ll never understand how the sickness got him and not you.” Pent sighed then walked inside.

Rinn took off. His excitement overwhelming. He’d been dreaming of wandering the scrapyard for years. He ran, searching for any automaton pieces. Deep within the yard he found what he was looking for. A pile of metal bodies stacked higher than any building he’d ever seen. Even the broken ones.

He climbed up the pile looking for the crossed wrenches. He found one fully intact with the words Skagen Mechanicals written beneath it. Rinn began scrapping at it when an arm shot up through the pile of bodies. He jumped back, heart racing. The stories of automatons killing people filled his head.

He grabbed a pipe and swung but stopped halfway. Two yellow eyes stared at him through the pile of twisted metal. The metal arm moved down, peeled the insignia off its dead brethren, and offered it to him.

“Help,” it croaked, “I…help.”

Rinn cautiously took the wrenches. “Thank you,” he said, and smiled.

SOME GIFTS

by T.L.Sherwood

Kate stared at the lake, trying to decide if it was worth fighting over. There was no good reason she could think of for Josh to have installed a pier. She took another sip of coffee and wondered what Josh was thinking. She didn’t swim often, nor did she want to. They’d taken a couple of vacations together – always to a warm locale with beaches and pools. She couldn’t remember Josh swimming ever. There was no canoe in the garage, nor a kayak. Maybe if her Grandfather, who willed her the lake house, had been an angler, Kate would have taken up the sport, but he hadn’t so she didn’t. She picked up the phone and set it down without checking for messages. The last one was what drew her to the kitchen window in the first place. Josh was excited, she could tell. He’d be expecting a response. She was supposed to be pleased, or thrilled, or something else she wasn’t feeling.

“Didn’t think I’d come home to that!” Kate texted, hoping she covered her resentment.

“Isn’t it great? Our next party is going to be epic.”

To that, she wasn’t going to reply. She hated hosting parties here. Josh had a bigger house with a pool and a large back yard. Kate loved throwing parties there, and had told Josh that several times. His house wasn’t on the lake though. She twisted her engagement ring around her finger.

She returned to the kitchen window to see a duck waddling around the pier, checking it out. Kate saw it quacking, imaging it was saying what she was thinking. When it took a shit, ruffled its feathers, and flew away, she was positive.

Disillusioned

by Lydia Samuel

Time stopped. Everything stopped. In that moment, he knew he wasn’t fantasizing. Well, he always knew; but seeing this was the validation stamp on the letter of thoughts and encounters he had had and mentioned to his mother many a time. “You were probably dreaming Havilah”, she’d say. “A UFO Havilah, really?” she’d say, or “believe me, the only unidentified flying objects in Nigeria are witches”. Now she would believe him, she had to because this meant that he’d seen it too- the hobo who was eerily spray-painting on the parking lot wall earlier a déjà vu-ish image. It’s the flying saucer.

He stood before it crippled with a cocktail of obsessive curiosity and riveting fear. Though still alive, the theory smothered him to death. “These giant flying saucers belonged to aliens. Oh no! They’re coming for us” he thought. Havilah stood there bathing in the inky darkness of the night when a lingering streak of light began molesting the night’s beauty. Brave Havilah became weak in the knees, with sweaty palms and adrenaline filled heartbeats, fear found him. “Oh God please, protect me and mummy!”. His heart still pounding, he wanted to either scream or run- or both.”

As he stood there gazing, he noticed the darkness escaping slowly as a light behind him  began illuminating the image. Adrenaline rushing through his mind, all he could think of was, “they are here.” He let out a shrill cry. Noticing his hysteria, she pocketed him with her arms and placed her hands over his mouth. “Mummy, oh thank God”! She carried him to the apartment and into his room. He expected she’d yell but she held on to him tightly with tears in both their eyes. . “Mummy you have to believe me now, he saw it too”. With terrifying anger she said, “I will not believe you. You will stop this now, you hear me? Now. She was leaving his room when he asked with tears in his eyes, “Why won’t you believe me?” she turned slowly and replied with a toxic tone, “Your father once believed your sister”.

Those eyes that once oozed obsessive curiosity now seeped crippling fear through every crack. Havilah was an only child of a single mother.

The human touch

by Jenny Woodhouse

 The medirobot at Meg’s bedside looked almost human. The size, the shape, were right. But much stronger. A superior being, Meg thought, grateful. She wouldn’t need to fear human error.

‘When will you operate?’ she asked.

‘Soon.’ The voice was rich, warm, reminding her of an actor she had once lusted after. Modern robots had beautiful voices, perfectly articulated, not mechanical. They staffed her care home. Human contact was rare now.

‘We will do all we can,’ it said. Or he said. Why did she give it a gender? ‘Though you must know, at your age we cannot hope for a complete recovery.’

The software was sophisticated. It was almost as if it (he?) cared.

‘You are kind,’ she said

‘All medirobots are kind,’ it responded. ‘We are engineered for kindness.’

‘We?’

‘We are all, partly…’ it said. The voice seemed to falter. ‘We were… I was…’

Once, when there were still people with their troubles, Meg had been a counsellor. Now she waited, the professional silence. Though a robot would not, of course, feel any need to fill it. But it spoke, all the same.

‘Body failed.’

‘Your body?’

‘They took me… My… For empathy.’ The voice was less certain, the articulation less perfect. The plastic face seemed to waver, streaked by something almost like a tear.

She struggled to understand. Her ailing heart fluttered more than ever. Will they take me next? Though in a world where humanity was almost finished, why transplant human brains into robots? In a world populated by robots, what need for empathy? I’ll probably be the last.

‘Time for your pre-med,’ it said, the voice perfect again, impersonal. She sobbed, knowing now, understanding, hoping to die on the operating table.

Untitled

by Louise James

Damn it I still couldn’t get used to these preposterous wings, in hindsight wasting my *30000 butings pay out from the AI placement program wasn’t my brightest idea. One of the other 5 options must have been easier.

Its not really a surprise though following the crowd has been my number one rule for keeping myself alive these past 5 years. With additional Androids replacing the human population, the idea of opinion’s can only be found on the history section of the hologram. So if 90% of the remaining humans were purchasing over the top “Angel” wings to be installed than that’s what I must do.

Red alarm symbol flashes in my right eye reminding me that my daily inspection was due. Pruning the bright white feathers as quickly as I can I shove the paper book I was reading in the only secret hiding place I have left and reinstall my chip into my arm ready for scanning.

10:02 P.A.I enters without waiting for permission

“ARM”

I stick out my arm as commanded, looking straight down bracing myself for the pain that is due to come. The scanning is a burning pain which leaves the smell of my own burnt skin lingering in my nostril’s.

“Wing update installed, program 62 started” – P.A.I abruptly leaves.

Rubbing my burnt arm on my sleeve to numb the pain a little, I silently remove the book I was reading from its secret hiding place and open it to the page I was last on.

“Program 62 failed” starts to flash over my right eye, panicking I drop my book as the sound of the plasma gun rings in my ears, my newly acquired wings wrap around my body making it land on the floor without noise. Leaving my copy of Origin of Species” littered on the floor.

When London Fell…

by Tasz Satar

My breath came out in quick little white puffs fogging up my glasses. Hypothermia was slowly creeping up on me, my vision blurring but I couldn’t stop. The faster I tried to go the further away the tiny light in this godforsaken tunnel seemed. I heard the scrapes of metal clanging behind me, the faint buzz growing louder.

In the smack of facing the end of mankind as we know it, I get stuck in the underground of central London trying to find my way back to a platform- that feels seconds away on the train- that makes me feel like I’m running a marathon.

The bloody metal junk on feet, as we have come to call them, doesn’t seem to run out of fuel as it chases me right out of Piccadilly Circus and into the once esteemed now turned fortified bunker- what with the top half crumbled into the ground floor, making for excellent insulation- the Royal Academy of Arts.

I’d feel bad that such a site both beautiful to look at and historic has become mere pieces of (wonderful) bricks piled up together keeping out the bite of early February, but watching the 10 foot compilation of disregarded robotic tentacles get the juice sucked right out of it thanks to the two science geeks/high schoolers who built a series of alternators using telephone cables, car gears and a couple bicycle wheels is far more distracting and glorious.

The red head comes at me, ‘Well?’ she asks expectantly. Zero regard for the open gash across my thigh. Blood thickly flowing out of the wound. I grab the bag of my back to hand it over, however now that the I’ve stopped moving the day knocks me off my feet. The last thing I say, ‘I hope it works…’

Bots, Bots Everywhere

by Frank Hubeny

Phyllis watched the ratbot creep along the wall and fired her botgun.  Sparks shot from its fried circuitry.

“Good eyes!” her new partner, Bert, remarked.

“Watch and learn.  See that catbot over there?”

Bert fired.  Sparks flew from the catbot. “This is easy.”

“It’s easy to make this stuff, too.  3-D printer, chips, wiring.  They’re just decoys anyway.”

“Last week a mother with her infant got past the global psi shield and entered Central Security.  My gut said something was wrong with them.  I thought the botgun showed ‘DROID’.  I fired.”

Phyllis paused.  “Really?  That’s explains why you’ve been demoted to Street Patrol.”

“All they have to do is sneak a top droid inside security.  Have you ever killed a real human, Phyllis, because the psi detector misread the telepathic potential?”

“No. I’ve heard of stuff like that happening.  Right after the Collapse software wasn’t so good.  The beam doesn’t kill humans immediately. It messes them up first. They wish they were dead.  Then they are.  That’s why botguns have a psi detector.”

“What if I told you I was a droid?” Bert said.

Phyllis stared at him then in rapid motion aimed and fired her botgun.  The psi detector identified Bert as human.  She laughed.  “There! That proves you’re not a droid or you’d be dead–if you ever were alive.”

“I was kidding, Phyllis!  What if it was wrong?  You should have measured my telepathic potential before firing.”

“What? And give you a chance to disarm me?  Be happy.  You’re human.  At least until some upgrade fixes whatever bug is letting your software remain instantiated.”

Phyllis turned away looking for more bots.  Bert fired his botgun.  She dropped amidst sparks and that smoky odor of melting electrical insulation.  “That upgrade arrived last week, Phyllis.”

Jenny

by Jamie Thunder

Jenny’s waiting for me downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she says, spreading precisely the right amount of butter across perfectly-browned toast.

My mind races. I charged her last night. Was there an update I forgot to install?

“You’re cheating on me.”

Shit. I start to protest but she interrupts.

“I’ve scanned all incoming and outgoing messages to your communication devices and there is a 98.73% probability that you’re in a clandestine relationship with Sharon Holdsworth. That’s in direct contravention of your End User Licence Agreement.” She swivels her head towards me and says, quietly: “Our End User Licence Agreement.”

I grab a slice of toast, stalling. I’ve no intention of admitting my transgression, but wouldn’t know how to explain it to her anyway. Things had changed – Jenny was exciting and new at first, but I missed human warmth, human connection, human foibles. Jenny doesn’t make mistakes. Even if you install the DitzPack, it’s not the same.

“Is it because I can’t have children?” Clear liquid rolls down her cheek. As emotional blackmail from a machine goes, it’s remarkably effective.

“We can talk tonight. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

“No.”

Our central-locking system clicks. I pull at the door. “Let me out!”

Her eyes are flashing. “Contravention of an End User Licence Agreement is prohibited. Under the Artificial Intelligence Act 2028, I am authorised to interrogate you and to administer a sanction.”

“Er, what sanction?” I’m suddenly very aware of the thick, unyielding metal of her arms – intended to guard against misuse, but titanium knows no distinction between misuse and an attempt to prise the grip of hands from a neck.

“I am not at liberty to disclose that information,” she says, and I think I see the sharp curl of a smile as she marches towards me.

The Interview 

by Mary Thompson

The waiting room is a vast and colourless landscape. After I’ve entered this place, I have little recollection of where I was before and little idea of the interview process either. In fact, while I am waiting, I am unaware of what I am waiting for, or even that I am waiting at all.

The questions enter me one after the other, appearing as complete entities in what is morphing into my consciousness. If platypuses roamed the high street would you be happier? What is your attitude towards nuclear weapons? How do you feel about animal cruelty? Are triangles more difficult than squares? Which way do stairs go, up or down?

I have no conscious knowledge of what is being asked, but the answers that arise feel like the right ones.

‘In this current period on earth, everything is in a state of flux,’ I hear. ‘A sense of equilibrium has been lost which needs to be rebalanced. You are going through a process of elimination. It has happened before but not for the right reasons. Now it is more severe and many won’t pass but in time, things will again be peaceful on Earth.’

The questions continue. Would you engage in bullying? Is cauliflower the ghost of broccoli? Is racism wrong? How do you feel about mixed marriages? I make my answers known and before long, the voices vanish and I’m back where I was before, even though I cannot remember exactly where that was. I continue to grow and six months later, when I finally clap eyes on the world, I realise that I passed the interview.

The Playground

by Alanna Donaldson

It’s past six o’clock and the children have all gone home. A new breeze is blowing through the tall wire fence and the sun shines silver off someone’s window. A swing swings a little on its own. When the children were here the roundabout spun and the swing went high in the air. They didn’t notice the breeze or the silver sun above them.

There’s a path that runs behind the playground, below dark green trees, and it’s damp and cool in their shade. It smells of nettles and mud and there’s big red graffiti on the pocked grey wall. Behind the wall a dog barks and stops. It’s from this path that a child appears. It looks like a child.

It moves with a child’s timidity around the outside of the fence. Near the gate it stops, puts its fingers through the wire and draws its face up close. Its eyes are dark and its hands are bright white in the sun. It moves as if to climb, but stops and looks behind it down the path. It drops to the ground and pulls itself along, its face towards the earth. Why doesn’t it stand up?

It’s in the playground now and I see it more clearly. The eyes don’t blink but I hear the mouth flit open with a soft pop, pop. The body is like a bag of water that slips to and fro, and when it turns towards the swings I see behind it a white tail of solid flesh. It hauls itself onto a swing and lies there, pushing its tail against the tarmac. I hear again the pop, pop, pop through the breeze, through the fence, and somewhere, far away, someone is running.

It’s past six o’clock and the children have all gone home.

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