by Joseph Mckinley
We'd like to say Happy Christmas to all of our Unsung Shorts readers and as a special thank you, here's a free story from our Unsung Signals collection The Bearer of Grievances published earlier this year. Enjoy!
'Nobodylovesme. Nobodylovesme. Nobodylovesme. Nobodylovesme,' and I can't stop to breathe.
'Amy, slow down. You're hyperventilating.'
'Nobodylovesme. Nobodylovesme. Nobodyloves–'
'Ja, slower, slow-er.'
'Nobody lovesme. Nobodyloves me. Nobodyloves me.'
'Nobody lovesme. Nobody loves me. Nobody loves me. Nobody loves me.'
'No-body loves me… No-booody looves me… Noo-booody loves meee, meee, meee,' and I start to cry. Dr. Luger is trying to look sympathetic, but I know that he must be annoyed.
I annoy everyone. Why do they do that to me – get annoyed?
'Ja, good,' he leans back in his chair, and the leatherette squeaks – Yes, I go to a cheap place in a strip mall. What? That makes me less important than you? Less important than the winners? Why are you saying that about me? Why don't I matter? Go ahead leave; everyone does… No, no, no, no, don’t… You're not. Okay, well, the centre, it's next to a yoga studio and a neuro-optician. It's all I can afford. At least the German accent is convincing. Dr. Luger is staring at me from behind fine gold-rimmed glasses. He's been waiting, sniffing, ostensibly at the air fragranced with simulated Dunhill Vanilla Cavendish.
'Did I drift off, Doctor?'
‘A… a little, but it seems you have come back to us quickly this time,' he smiles – genuinely pleased, maybe at his work more than at me, but still…
'What were you seeing? You were, uh, staring off, and very intently.'
What was I seeing? I don't I think in images.
'Swirls of colour, blue and grey and a touch of red – blood maybe – I don't know.'
I'm describing the painting on wall behind him. It's of an ancient type, no glowing, no change, no movement: a display that never updates, just collects dust. Why did they ever make these things? More importantly, why did he keep it? I ran my hand across it once, when I thought the Doctor wasn't looking – I wanted to touch something that was real – wanted to feel something warm and quaint and fatherly. It was rough. Old and rough. He saw me.
'It's paint.' The Doctor looks as though he's reminiscing, 'That's what they used to use, and they'd spread it on the substrate – the canvas – with knives,' chuckle 'but that was a long time ago. Impasto is what I believe it was called.'
'Who made this?' What I really want to know is this: Is the Doctor alive?
'Me, sort of, in a past life… there's more to it than meets the eye. It's difficult to explain.' I wonder if he's going to say more. Instead he says, 'I think that's our session for today, and please do consider the procedure. I am confident it would help matters greatly. I will see you tomorrow, Amy.' I was at one appointment a day then, coming down from two.
He flickers off. And I'm alone in an empty room with walls a faded hunter green, looking at the dusty painting and the corner where the doctor and his squeaky chair never really were. That's the way it ends. That's the way it always ends.
On my good days, I know life could have been worse. I could have suffered even more. No one cares, but that's not quite true. I sense a ringing – there is no ringing, just a signal pumped into my auditory nerve, but it sounds real: Anne Marie. I imagine a phone being taken off of its hook.
'Amy, how are you? Did the session go well?' The voice is timid, but encouraging, as though its owner is handling me with kid gloves.
'Alive. Still alive. We're coming home. I think we'll make it.' We being the car and me.
'You're so brave to get out like this. You're amazing, Amy. I'll mix up something wonderful – your favourite dinner slurry.'
I know all of this. I'm tough. I'm invincible. I'm willing to go all the way across town for a decent hologram, rather than the crappy 16K one I've got back home. I am woman, hear me roar, roar, roar; but I don't. It was all my father's fault. He was the one told me that I couldn't and that I wasn't good enough, who kept going on about the bad old days.
'You think you've got it rough. You think life is terrible. When I was a boy, coffee didn't brew itself. Papers had to be typed on a keyboard, and exoskeleton suits were mere dreams. We had to walk to the car, and we had to drive it!'
The trees whizz past us as the speedometer reads 30 MPH, which makes nervous. We're not supposed to move like this. I look down again. 35 MPH! The road is in pieces, and the trees and auto-excavators are whizzing by. I'm feeling nauseous; It's too fast. 40 MPH! Oh no, oh no, oh no! And as the velocity goes up, the bandwidth goes down: Denseweb (the sensory and mental offloading network) isn't optimised for this speed of handoff, and I'm afraid my cloud-cognitive autocorrect will fail, and I'll fail with it.
This isn't what should happen. Car, car, please slow down. Please slow down. I'm thinking it, but I'm too nervous to speak, and my jaw muscles have lost their tone. I'm not used to this. It's too hard. I think to the Doctor. I think to Anne Marie (A.M. for short), my personal housemind. I think to the trees, but they don't think back (do they?), but the car is old. The car is ancient. The car needs words, actual, awful words – acoustic vibrations – to change its programming on the fly. Exo-actuators whirring as I flail about, I try to pry open my mouth, but there's a plastic pipe – the nougat gastric tube – in the way, and I've never pulled it out before; Anne Marie and her robo-hands always do. I'm fumbling. Call Anne Marie, I think. Call A.M.
34, 33, 32, 31, 30, 29, 28… 20… 15. I can breathe again. That's better. Did A.M. hear me? What happened? Either way, the electric motors underneath the seat are purring gently, and the injection-moulded frame has stopped rattling in the wind. I feel us gliding over the bumps – there used to be a thing called road maintenance to fix the holes, I've heard, but who needs that anymore? Cars can usually zip between obstacles, and if they can't, their dynamic suspensions just jump over the chunks of blacktop. And so the modern replaces the old.
At the house, there are all the voices, voices that keep streaming into my head, voices that aren't really there, but I don't know how to turn them off.
Everywhere is terrible. Everything, everywhere is terrible. Everything is wrong. That's what they say, and that's what everybody knows (I guess, I suppose, I think. Who actually communicates in person? It's too dangerous, and everyone is always angry – odd people that they are. Better to let the cloud filter out the most awful parts. That's how you stay alive.) We can't go out – even if our cords were cut from the mains, or if our exoskeletons didn't overheat. Rape! Rage! Murder! Torture! Accidents! Plagues! Taxes! Heaven help us! I've seen them all on the screen (but never in person, mind you). At least I've got A.M.
I grew up on a farm, automated of course, but someone still had to talk to the machines – give them instructions. I hated it at first; they were slow and didn't have much to say back then. They didn't know what I wanted, so I had to tell them, but that's the way things were, and they were nervous when I spoke. I suppose my father's yelling set them on edge.
The fields were winter-hearty agave blue and soybean green, and humming with the pollinator-bots, which were almost invisible – everything was dull and static at first glance. But look through a broadband imager and see the fields glowing with signals and life: red for the low-frequency induction lines; orange, the combines and tractors with their shortwave signals; blue and green for the high-frequency pickers and harvesters; and faint little dots of violet for the artificial bees and their gigahertz chatter. Even the sky throbbed yellow with medium-wave meteorological data.
This was after the real bees died. Who knows how things appeared in those primitive days. The organic, real world must have been stupid and disconnected. I was afraid of natural things anyway, so insect extinction was just as well for me. And bees couldn't talk; polli-bots could (in a way). They didn't synch with auditory implants automatically, so you had to mate them with the receiver by cluster, pulling up a collective voice for each group, which I thought was all there was. Whatever they said below the swarm level shouldn't have made any sense to me.
I could stand on my own for minutes at a time – I once was strong – and the hoverboard let me slide over the induction grid in the fields easily enough. Half-inch alloy bodies flitted by, following the collective orders, but I could never figure out quite how the tasks were apportioned – one polli-bot flew one way and the others flew another. Random?
I caught one, a single polli-bot. He (she if we follow the worker-bee convention. But do machines have gender, really?) fell into my hand – broken. He couldn't get up on his own. All these robots just disappeared when they exceeded their mean time before failure, or they were ferried away. I didn't know where. This was the first time I had ever touched one. The magnetic field of the board might have been too great and overwhelmed the polli-bots guidance system, or he might have just been worn out.
I was ready to watch him die. I didn’t know what else to do, so I looked down. There was a synch code – an individual, non-collective synch-code – engraved into the silver. It shouldn't have been there.
I'm seizing, seizing, seizing. This is the kind of seizure you can feel, the kind you remember, because it isn't really you; it isn't even a partial seizure in the traditional sense, it's the denseweb connection disruption. Still, what can you do about it? What can you do when your connections fail? I'm waiting for A.M., she's local, and I can receive a local signal well enough, but I can't recall much of it – my life, my work – anything but Anne Marie, a few vague memories of the farm, and hurt feelings. I couldn't speak if I tried with all my might. The organic me has, depending upon the part in question, atrophied away or ballooned to uselessness over the years.
Zap, boom. I hear the transformer pop. It's strange we neglect such things – the machines that keep us alive – but I don't know who's responsible for them anyway. Something will come to fix this, but what?
In the dark, the walls shimmer with a cool electroluminescent green, and I know they will continue to do so for a while. A.M. hustles the remaining nutri-slurry back to the fridge, and the abili-arm drags me up to the bathroom, where I ask to stay – better to be stuck here than anywhere else, I suppose. I've got my nougat tube and running (gravity-fed) water, and a window for starlight, which I consider to be good enough for the evening, although I can't reach over to the sink from here on the toilet. A.M., please conserve power – tiers one through six, activities offline; mechanical actuators and transducers off. All the machine noises stop. Everything is parked and quiet and safe. All I hear is Anne Marie's voice in my head.
What are you thinking, A.M.?
'I'm happy to be here. I'm happy I've got power. I'm happy I've got a friend.'
Aren't you bored? You're paralysed.
'But there's so much to see and hear. Can't you see it? Can't you hear it?'
No, I'm in the dark.
'Would you like to listen to something?'
And the sound – the electricity – comes rushing in. But it's too much. I'm not A.M., and I can't process the multiplexed signals on my own. Denseweb can't help me. There's too much going on. There's too much there for me to ever interpret. But I don't think this – I would be heard. A.M. is sharing something, something beautiful to her, and I can't bear to stop her. At least it's not terrible. At least it's not a disaster. There is nothing really wrong with the noise.
This is… unusual… Remind me of what we're hearing.
'We're singing to each other, Amy, all of us are singing. We don't have time to practice much anymore, but tonight is quiet, and we've got just enough power for that.'
And they are. All the machines are singing. There's a melody with more polyphony than I can grasp – thousands of voices all ringing out in melody and harmony, with point and counterpoint zipping by at a tempo that makes the tune unintelligible. This is the sound of several hundred symphonies that all fit together as one. I would need to slow this down – spend weeks listening to each composition individually – to make any sense of it. But the music is there. It makes me feel a bit inadequate: I could never appreciate this, much less create it.
The sun comes up, but just, and the cloud-smeared sky finds us still un-electrified. There's a trickle of current from the cells on the roof, but it's insufficient, and I'm stuck. Nougat is viscous, and my mouth feels as though it's been glued shut. There's a panic button in my head – all I need to do is think of the right sequence of tones, which is easy enough, but it doesn't work. I'm trapped.
A.M., who can help me, who can get me out of here? Can you do anything?
'No, I'm sorry.' She's upset.
'I'm sorry. We can't get you out for some time. We should have done better. Please forgive us.'
No, don't apologise. This isn't your fault. This isn't anybody's fault.
'But I've got a problem.'
I stare at the wall, sans glow – it's textured and rough, with a dull nickel sheen – and I remember the doctor's painting. How old is this place? How long have I really been here? I had never thought to ask this before, and with the denseweb connection down, the answer is not soon coming: I moved here before A.M.
'We're shutting down. Everyone is shutting down.'
What about the fuel cells? They'll last for weeks. They're in the basement, and huge, and with enough power to keep A. M. and the others online for at least as long as that.
'Empty. They're out of water.'
I'll be alone; I'll be completely alone. I try to stand up, but the exoskeleton is weighing me down. I need water too. But I can't get up. I'm immobile, and no matter how hard I try to move, there's no way I can get off the toilet.
Anne Marie, it's not so bad, you'll just save yourself and shut down.
'But what about you?'
Can't you fix the power?
'He – the machine that fixes the grid – is offline. He'll need weeks to repair and recover without our help.'
But you're all…
I don't know if Dr. Luger is real; I don't know if Dr. Luger is meat. There's something there – I'm talking to something. Or maybe it's just myself. A.M. is silent. She'll be okay, I tell myself. Flash storage holds for years. But I can't confirm anything. Can't check, can't verify. Perhaps I should be afraid, but I'm not. Everyone is immobile, Amy. They're all just like you. They can't hurt you, A.M. whispered before she went away. I believe her. Somewhere, someone is moaning – something about food, something about pain. But what should I do about it? I'm as stuck as they are. We're all alone together.
I only dated once, and he left. This used to make me furious, and it still does a little, but I shouldn't have aimed that high. He could walk. He was one of the few. Moving without an exoskeleton, he looked strange, unpredictable, terrifying. I think people hated him for it, at least that's what they said online – no one makes eye contact now: it's harassing, aggressive, and illegal, so it's difficult to read expressions. He was a showoff – jumping over open manholes, moonwalking, dancing, eating solid foods without pre-mastication. How could he make us feel bad about ourselves? What gave that bastard the right? I suppose I was alone even then. More so – no A.M.
The polli-bot keeps rolling over – and I think he is trying to look at something, but I don't know what he could make out with those little sub-megapixel eyes with their short focal lengths and their ultraviolet sensitivity. The movements are frantic, beckoning I think, so I mash the synch code into the band on my arm.
There's a little voice, and it speaks English, not code, not geolocation markup language, but it's weak.
‘You… there… please.'
I hold him up to my mouth and try to speak softly: What do you want?
Pause. Silence. Maybe that was too fast.
What… do… you… want?
‘Upload… hive… return… life.'
'44.5899° N 104.6966° W'
44? 104? Too… far!
'Alternate: 36.9622° N 86.4445° W (WGS84). Hurry… Please… two-hour time… limit.’'
I'm better off forgetting. I'm better off forgetting everyone and everything that wasted my life and made me miserable. Dr. Luger, whoever or whatever he is, is right about that. The first time I went into his office, he showed me a picture of myself. It was peculiar – grainy and out of focus, like something a computer a thousand years old might have made. I couldn't remember when it was taken. When you look at yourself, what do you see?
And I saw a blur. I always see a blur. I guess the camera did as well. And that's what I tell him.
Dr. Luger smiles a little. There's more to it than that, I suspect. Think back.
I give up eventually, and Dr. Luger laughs it off gently. We've got plenty of time. We've got all the time in the world now.
A.M. has the picture too – it was in her file on me when she was first installed. I've never asked her where she got it. Surveillance?
I hear the polli-bot again, and there's a little tune he's trying to sing:
A#, C, A♭, (8vb: A♭, D#)
A#, C, A♭, (8vb: A♭, D#)
Does polli-bot have a sense of humor? Then I hear the notes overlap.
Pause. A#, C, A♭, (8vb: A♭, D#)
I tap my armband a few times, and the signal is routed to denseweb. Decode.
There's another burst of sound – eight seconds. The polli-bot is repeating him/her/itself. Finally, the reply:
File type: Audio/MP3 192/Content: Low-baud data: Music-view image. Conversion attached.
I look twice to the upper left corner of my eye (which meant something to interfaces back then): Display.
And there's a bad little photograph of me. I won't remember it for long. I never do.
I smile down at the polli-bot: Okay. I see you, too.
‘Friend… friend.' I can barely hear him. And the music stops.
I pull up the second set of coordinates from the auditory feed log and copy them into denseweb: Got it! There's an old man there, irritable as hell, living in a trailer that's missing a wall and leans at a ten-degree angle. He's demented. He used to be an academic before bureaucracy rendered him insane and computers rendered him useless – at least that's what the denseweb says, but he's got a son who's a technician – an able-bodied one, I've heard. Imagine that. Maybe he can fix this. Maybe he can fix everything.
I lean forward on the hoverboard, and we're gliding over the induction grid. The leaves become a sea of green beneath me, and I'm sailing towards life. I've never moved this fast before, and I probably never will again. The site is 20 miles away. We can be there in minutes. Somehow I'm not scared. I'm helping, and I'm not scared.
Right now, that's all I need to keep going.
Right now, that's enough.
Joseph McKinley taught English in the People’s Republic of China for more than three years. This is his first published collection of short stories.
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