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Short Story Review: Containment By Susan Kaye Quinn

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From Dark Beyond the Stars: A Space Opera Anthology edited by David Gatewood.Spoiler warning: there are spoilers in here. There kind of always are when I do these things because as one of those weirdos who doesn’t care about spoilers (99% of the time) I’m kind of spoiler-blind when I write.

Also, this review appeared on my Patreon page ten days before appearing here. Become a patron and you’ll not only help boost me and my POOR POOR SUFFERING CHILDREN toward the poverty line and, hopefully soonish, actually over it, but you’ll get to see a lot of posts way early, plus occasional exclusive posts, and you can even get free ebooks when I publish (and you get those a whole MONTH before the rest of the world! But now, the review:

Containment is an artificial intelligence in a Solar System wide civilization story. It’s also a know thyself story. And a coming of age story in a strange sort of way, and a finding your purpose in life story. Maybe a work-life balance story. And…

…there’s a lot to unpack in this one. The last paragraph makes it sound like the story is a massive chaotic mashup and it definitely is not.

It’s an elegant story. It progresses smoothly. It bears you along like an inevitable word-river. The imagery is not literary or flashy but in this story it should not be. The real beauty and intrigue is elsewhere and too much flash in the outside world would only be a distraction. In this story the author is too smart to distract you.

As I read, I felt echoes of the technological hard science fiction of the masters of the 1950s and 60s, yet it was undeniably modern and accessible. That impressed me and brought out happy memories of myself as a child in the ’70s and a teen in the ’80s immersed in 10 and 20 and 30 year old books and loving them.

There’s an element of mystery in this story, and the eventual revelation of the purpose of the little tower of rocks discovered in the beginning by the Mining Master of Thebe, one of Jupiter’s smaller moons, is natural and smoothly handled, as are the little hints along the way.

Much of the story takes place in the inner world and reasoning of the Mining Master, who is an artificial intelligence (and whose interchangeable purpose-made bodies are an interesting, useful, and story-vital feature). We spend a lot of time in their head before and after the stealthy and subversive upgrade the Master gives himself without permission from his superiors.

While internal impressions and monologue can be boring, it is not here. I found myself fascinated. The protagonist’s inner life is at turns logical and soulful, robotic and humanistic as they cycle from full sentience to blunted sentience to full sentience again and then to something more, something undeniably human.

It’s a what makes us human story, too. And a what could make AI human story. A type of story that has been done many, many times before, but in this incarnation made me stay up reading so late it became early and the birds singing in the dawn made it difficult to fall asleep. Damn your wily storytelling, Susan Kaye Quinn!

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I Would (Maybe) Kill For A Gardenerbot

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“Wow, this garden is overgrown. Beep.”

This is becoming something of a miniseries — you can see the post about the maidbot here, and there’s a link to the tinkerbot post at the end of that one.

This post appeared on my Patreon page ten days ago — become a patron and see them FIRST. Also you get a free ebook or an exclusive post sometimes!

But enough about those things. This is about gardenerbots and how I just might be willing to kill for one.

Though, maybe not yet because a ratty old trailer in a rundown old trailerpark doesn’t provide a lawn worth keeping up (barring acts of Murphy, we ought to be taking up residence in a little rental duplex or even a small house sometime in the next 1-3 months. Wish us luck!).

But it would almost be worth if just for my little urban garden that I grow in felt pots (which are awesome — plants don’t get rootbound, they grow well, and if you want to put them away for the winter they fold up pretty well). If a gardenerbot was really cheap, like maybe I found a used one on Craigslist that someone was letting go for a hundred bucks because one arm got smashed in a freak tree-trimming accident, I’d totally jump on it (assuming it was near the beginning of the month and my patronage had just hit my PayPal account — otherwise I tend to spend it on food or laundry soap or a while back I used some of it to replace a dead mouse, or contributing to the internet bill. You know, stuff that being able to afford makes this little trailer a more congenial place to live and write).

I could go for it because my gardening skills are only so-so. When I grow my veggies the yields are pretty inconsistent and I’m pretty sure I lose plants I shouldn’t. But a gardenerbot with halfway decent programming, I’m sure, wouldn’t have that problem. I just might kill for one.

It would be all the more enticing if I had a quarter-acre or so of backyard to gardenify. Even an eighth-acre. Or to mow. I’ve never been a fan of mowing lawns.

In fact, I bet within ten or twenty years of rollout a gardenerbot would be cheaper than a good lawn tractor. Then you wouldn’t have to buy a lawn tractor. Or a tiller. Or even a cheap, crappy version of either.

You could buy the absolute cheapest of each of those. An old-fashioned non-motorized push mower.

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Instead of an expensive power tiller (or less-expensive but yearly tiller rental)? A couple of good shovels, a hoe, and a rake.

Because what’s the gardenerbot going to do? Get tired? Suffer heatstroke from overwork in the hot sun? Complain about the long hours during sowing and harvest?

Nope. Because it’s a machine. And in the future if self-aware AI is possible…

…it doesn’t take self-awareness to cut grass and plant bell peppers and fertilize the roses. So you don’t even have to worry about being gardened to death in the robot revolution.

It won’t forget to water the vegetables until the leaves get droopy like I’ve been known to do.

If the vegetables or grass or trees start looking unhealthy it will be able to identify the most likely nutrient deficiency or infestation and treat it. When I have to try to identify that kind of thing, I’m mostly guessing and it’s mostly luck when I’m successful.

If I had more room to garden and more lawn to take care of, it would be worth it and I’d totally kill for a gardenerbot then.

Another benefit I hinted at above: tree maintenance. Bush trimming (I mean shrubs, this isn’t a ’70s porn post — the other kind would be handled by a sexbot or a barberbot), stump pulling, digging where electrical or gas or water lines might be.

You know, the dangerous stuff. Not only would a bot not, you know, die if a tree dropped on it or it jammed a shovel blade into a live power line, but the gardenerbot would have access to online maps of these lines so it could avoid them way better than you trying to figure out exactly how the symbols on the map correspond to locations on your lawn (humans do not have GPS, but a bot would). Surely it could do a better job than you or I referencing multiple utility company maps and trying not to forget anything.

All that, and more fresh veggies and fruit than I can grow left to my own devices? Yep, I’d totally kill for a gardenerbot.

I Would Kill For A Tinkerbot

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I’m pretty sure there’s something a tinkerbot could fix using a chainsaw and a… um… sonic laser drill Christmas tree pinky-purply thing

(Previously: “I Would Kill For A Maidbot“)

There are a lot of little things that go wrong around a house or whatever it is that serves you as one – personally, at the moment I’m living in a trailer that’s only one year younger than my middle-aged ass and more things than average go wrong around an ailing junkpile (and, yes, as a starving writer with a starving family to support I’m totally going to pimp my Patreon and my books right here).

But, things always go awry. Entropy shows its bony claw to let you know it has not loosened its grip on the world. Sinks start dripping, toilets running, caulk and grout grow cracks, door handles loosen, lightbulbs die, vases fall and break, dresser drawers begin to squeak and catch…

…I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

An automated little helper to watch out for all those little problems and fix them before I even notice I need to. Something programmed with the right way to fix things so I’m not improvising, covering up tack holes with toothpaste and repairing cracks in the wall with strategically placed posters and fixing drafts under the doors with strategically trimmed expanding foam.

Something to fix that funny noise the fan in the bedroom is beginning to make before that funny noise grows loud and persistent enough to start annoying me – which kicks off a week or two of “I ought to fix that” followed by procrastinating and forgetting and later testily saying to myself “why the hell didn’t I fix that? Well, maybe I can take care of it after I finish cooking dinner.”

I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

I’m sure some folks with higher income would just give the tinkerbot an allowance and let it purchase deliveries of whatever it needed to do repairs. That would be awesome. But even S.A. “Under The Poverty Line” Barton could surely benefit from a bot that would advise me what is needed and then I could either bargain-shop or look for it in secondhand stores. And some things it could probably manage with just the basic set of tools I keep under one of the kitchen shelving units.

I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

Maybe the damned thing could even fix the water leak under the elderly washing machine that still works but which I must tip up and install a thick mat under every fourth load so the water won’t start running out into the hall.

Oh, yes. I would definitely kill for a tinkerbot.

And for those of you whose appliances aren’t ancient and ailing, I’d imagine a tinkerbot could still pay for itself by extending the lifetime of your newer appliances, not to mention all the hours of changing lightbulbs and touching up the housepaint and fixing gutters and whatever – and averting the larger damages and inconveniences that our not noticing and putting off that sort of thing often leads to.

Yep. Tinkerbot. Kill.

(When I write the next one in this mini-series, the link will go here)

If This Goes On: Healthcare “Reform”

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This is where things could go if they go very, very wrong for the American people — not quite the wrongest. The worst case, as usual, is

nuke

And, as a Cold War kid, that image and possible end is always with me. Yep, we could end up eating squirrels and burying half our kids before they turn five, just like the old days. Traveling in nomadic packs. Living the Mad Max life until the gasoline runs out, then just running around in silly overdone armor hammered out of crap dug out of junkyards because it’s a lot easier than trying to find iron ore and making new stuff now that civilization has dug up all the easy to find metal deposits.

(deep breath)

BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT I’M HERE TO TALK ABOUT, I said to myself.

I’m talking about, what if this health care reform deform sets a trend? This massive wealth distribution to the already very wealthy that slashes Medicaid to the bone and reinstalls lifetime and yearly coverage caps for care and calls for pre-existing condition rate hikes that will price cancer survivors and people with genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia and, you know, old people right out of coverage altogether?

What if this “American Health Care Act (AHCA) is just the beginning? (By the way, GOP? I know you’re all on this “learning and education and expertise are bad” jag, but in American English “healthcare” is commonly ONE FREAKIN WORD SERIOUSLY YOU’RE THE ONES TELLING EVERYONE TO SPEAK ENGLISH? Learn to speak and write English, but not too well or everyone will think you’re one of those EVIL EDUCATED SMART PEOPLE AIEE OH GOD RUN BEFORE IT INFECTS YOU WITH LEARNING.)

But I digress. Again. Unfortunately I’m really good at that.

What if this AHCA passes, and sets a trend, and things just keep going that “if you wanted to be healthy you’d have had sense enough to pick wealthy parents” way for a few decades? How bad could it get?

Let’s imagine. Because that’s my business.

But let’s not imagine this healthcare deform will be alone. No, it will come with other things that are developing in our society. Let’s look.

So. Boom. It passes. Very wealthy people enjoy the windfall of anywhere from six hundred billion to a trillion dollars collectively. Sockaroonie, right into the hands of people who make more than a quarter million a year, but mostly into the hands of people who make a million or more a year. And more for billionaires than for you paltry millionaires.

They squirrel a bunch of it away into accounts in the Caymans and elsewhere (I hear Russia is enjoying a vogue in certain bad-hair-tiny-handed circles for some reason).

They open some new factories in China because First Lady Ivanka (is it Co-First Lady? First Lady of Daddy’s Heart? It’s so hard to keep track) has some there and she says it’s a great place to do business, not like that annoying USA where she’d rather drop dead than have a product made. And elsewhere, wherever the labor is cheap.

They invest some at home, though, too. Building some factories, but soon enough robots can build them, not people. So, mostly buying robots from overseas. But when they build a steel mill or an automobile factory or a social media farm to send out #MAGA tweets or whatever in the USA, rest assured they’ll need dozens of people to run a really enormous factory. Mostly fixing robots and tweaking their programs. It might take a little while to get the robot fixing robots on line, like an extra generation.

The robots aren’t quite there yet, in many professions. But we’re getting there fast.

When the people who are babies now go out to find jobs — and there may not be quite as many of them as we thought, the AHCA and its successors may well redistribute more wealth upward with bigger and better cuts and outright elimination of things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, EBT/Food Stamps, and so forth, which means higher infant mortality and more kids who die before adulthood — they may find robots doing them.

And not just the poor kids. The less poor kids, the scions of the dying middle class and the bottom of the upper class, the ones making only a paltry quarter million a year, may find their jobs being done by robots as well. It’s easy to imagine robots digging ditches and selling fries, but they can also order supplies and pay bills and manage expenses and plan advertising campaigns and handle routine legal cases and do surgery and repair cars and dispense prescribed medications.

They’re close to that today. In a generation they’ll be able to do it. Once robots are popular enough, the economy of scale kicks in as it is right now with solar and wind power, and prices drop precipitously, and then everyone will want robot workers and nobody will want humans with their messy bathroom breaks and headaches and needing to attend funerals and weddings and wanting retirement funds and asking for raises because the kid needs braces.

So not only will the money be for the top 1%, but the jobs and the healthcare will be for the top 1%. If you’re really lucky. Maybe all those things will be for the top .1%.

And everyone else?

Well, the ones with the money and the jobs and the healthcare will have to figure out what to do with you.

Maybe human servants will come into vogue and we can all get jobs serving the very rich for room and board and maybe some basic medical care. But probably not for cancer or disability or chronic illness. Servants are cheap. When one goes bad, you throw it away and get another one.

Because now life is cheap, and all the gains of society are routed into the pockets of the megawealthy, and all the cool stuff the robots make goes to them as well.

And if you don’t like it? Robots can make more than cool stuff. They can make war as well. Without risking any precious rich skin. Even the military, traditional route out of poverty, can be handled by robots and very, very few humans indeed.

There are a few million more people who can do without healthcare — or at least, who will have to, to free up some more money to give away to the already very wealthy.

Remember, this is a worst case imagining. Things might turn out better than this. But for that to happen, we’re going to have to fight for it. Hopefully figuratively, with words and protests and votes and candidates who can imagine a better purpose for our society than slashing healthcare for half of the nation in order to put a trillion dollars into the pockets of billionaires.

Flash Fiction: Under Ashes

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“Anything worth a damn is made on a coast and ships from a coast. By air or sea.”

That’s what the president said. At least, it’s what was reported on the shadow web that snakes through the makeshift network of “smart” stoves and washing machines and automobiles (if you can afford them!) and can openers and athletic shoes and disposable razors and anything else with WiFi and an app.

The authorized news, on the other hand, ran a piece on how the economy was so gloriously rampant and virile that airlines have formally discontinued coach and business class seating, leaving nothing but a spacious expanse of first class and super luxury class seating in their cavernous airliners.

The anchorbot’s perfect on-air voice floated like a cloud behind the image of an iron-haired general, her chest a solid plastron of stars and ribbons like a compacted galaxy. Her feet were up on an ottoman and a masseusebot worked the suspension bridge of corded tendons in her neck with eight-fingered silicone hands.

Then, as the anchorbot droned a lulling narrative bridge, a puffy gilded teen cherub sat with a megaplatinum record from Motherland Records on a hefty wood base with a tall glass cover occupying a seat of it own beside her. A stewbot cracked the claws of a four pound lobster with deft blurs of a little brass gavel and slid the laden tray before the starlet who tucked into the chow with a flood of melted butter.

Finally, the anchorbot burbling upbeat and drawing to a conclusion, the vid showed a man in an immaculate dark suit and bright tie. The men are always first or last, symbolic frames of the stream of words and images, carrying with them weight and importance, tangibility. The lights and vids of an array of three monitors suspended from the ceiling (the “overhead” on an airplane, is it called?) flickered gem-reflections off the heavy steel rims of harsh six-angled eyeglasses. His hair was a blond cap, waxed down like a helmet. Sideburns trimmed to stilettos stabbed the angles of his jaw in the new style I can’t get used to. A trackball in each hand, he Does Important Things for the cameras.

The images fade to the state news logo and the anchorbot climaxes and relaxes into a commercial.

We all have televisions so we can see how good things are. We may not have hot water, or even running water. We only have electricity part-time. I can’t afford the simplest drugs to treat my pre-diabetes or even aspirin for my arthritis half the time. I set snares for squirrels or I’d have nothing to go with the endless lumps of hard bread (gotta soak it in a bowl of water to eat it) and cheese the Army hands out to keep us from starving or rioting or both.

But the state provides televisions. A new one every Christmas, even if you forget to bring them the old one to trade in.

We’re doing great, dammit. We’re finally great again. The television tells us so. All the biggest world powers respect us they way they should, the announcerbots say.

Just outside the city line – I can see it from the kitchen table in this two room shack I’m blessed to share with just two other bachelors – a bot crew and one Christ of a huge fanged combine-thing, driverless and nameless, chews up the old interstate highway and loads the bits into an endless stream of self-driving dumptrucks that take the blacktop south to do God knows what with it. Thin dribs and drabs of snow float through the scene like in a snow globe, and icicles hang from the noses of the workbots. They don’t care, of course.

I hear blacktop is made from oil. Maybe they’re squeezing the oil back out of it to ship to India or China or Brazil. Those places are hungry for oil and any other resources they can get their hands on, the shadow web whispers from the WiFi toilet when I crap. Who knows if it’s true. The television doesn’t say a word about that.

But the stock market is up again, and the Air Force says Fallujah will fall again soon.

There’s going to be a celebration when it falls, next month in DC. The commercial for it is on again. It has been playing twice an hour since spring.

The commercial ends and my gaze falls on the faded cap hanging on its nail across from the window. The cap is gray now, like my hair before it fell out, but you can still see the crimson fire peek out of the deep folds of the seams like ember under ashes.

I wish I could be in DC for the celebration. To wear the cap again, pump my fist in the air and holler again. Full of power, strong like a bear. Those were the days.

But the highway has gone away, and I’m not much for walking anymore. Nobody I know is.

END

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page, 02 January 2017. My patrons get to see a lot of things early, and can get free ebooks and even paperbacks! Come help me get the hell out of this damned trailer park and into a place where I can have even a small writing office and maybe even write ALL THE TIME. Well, almost all the time. I do have kids and a wife and a cat to think of as well.)

SciFi News Network 2074: The Explosion of Bot-Based Home Entrepreneurship

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(First appearance on my Patreon page, 22 December 2016)

AllBot News and Entertainment

Week 35, 2074

L. Flora Wong

Jayla Johnson is the face of a rising new cottage industry that, some think, poses a threat to the old corporate order.

Economists estimate there are a million just like her in the United States now. Across the world, from our neighbors in Canada and Mexico to even the heavily state-managed economies of the Greater Russia Federation and China, there may be as many as ten million more. Using bots to rapidly create and sell handcrafted products worldwide is small potatoes by corporate standards. Last year, they sold perhaps $N5,000,000 ($100,000,000 pre-revaluation) in goods. But five years ago it was half that. Twenty years ago, a tenth.

Some corporations seem to think that trend could continue, and undermine their profitability. Currenty, lobbyists and sympathetic members of the rump Trump Party (now rapidly weakening through defections to the new, revived right-progressive Bull Moose Party) are attempting to push a bill through the House levying draconian fees and taxes on home entrepreneurs.

Thankfully for people like Jayla, the measure has little chance of becoming law.

As the chaos of the Great Contraction of 2027-55 came to an end, the proliferation of basic income programs combined with plunging costs and soaring capabilities of bots for the home market brought opportunities earlier generations couldn’t have imagined.

But Jayla could imagine. “I was one of the first to see what we could really do with these bots. I was selling furniture I made from salvage. Real art pieces; I started out as a sculptor. Back in the day I finished a couple of pieces a month and sold them around the neighborhood, long before I had any bots. It was a way to keep food on the table, because, you know, with all the automation there was hardly any work for anyone. But I was feeding my soul, too. Doing what I loved even though the world was going to hell all around us.”

By 2055 her business grew beyond mere subsistence. She took advantage of the first wave of Rebirth Loans then. The low-cost, flexible and long-term repayment funds allowed her to buy two bots. She went from finishing two pieces for sale per month to, in 2056 and to the present, finishing two per day. While the bots were and are marketed as automation for the home, mechanical servants for taking care of mundane tasks like cooking, cleaning, and budgeting, she saw that their learning algorithms allowed them to become able helpers.

“I still have the original bots, and now they actually do the dishwashing and whatnot they were made to do. (Laughs.) The new bots are so much better at learning tasks than the old ones. I have one to assemble pieces, one that scrounges for good salvage out of the landfill, the beach, and around the hood, one that cleans and sterilizes my materials (that took so many hours before bots!), and one that takes orders and ships them out.”

With the help of her bots, Jayla is among the upper 1% of earners in the bot-assisted home crafts industry. She estimates she sells about $N30,000 worth of furniture and art objects yearly, about $600,000 pre-revaluation.

“My basic income stipend, well, I give that to local food banks. $100 per month goes a long way for them. I’ll never forget that I was hungry, once upon a time. But thanks to these bots, I’ll never be hungry again. I hear Trump Party types go on about how people need old-style jobs. Spending all your hours doing junk that bots can do better, junk you don’t really care about. No wonder things went to hell! Who wouldn’t rather find something they love and make themselves some money doing it, whether it’s a little bit of extra spending money or, if they want to work their butts off like I do, a lot?”

13 Word Story: Misanthrope’s Paw (now with image)

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I posted this story about a year ago, before I started putting the stories on images.

I like the story being on the image much better. It looks better. Somehow it makes the story feel better. And you can easily save and share this image anywhere you want if you like. You couldn’t do that before.

If you do decide to save and share the image, I’d recommend clicking on it to expand it first. Hopefully WordPress will be nice and give you the full size which is somewhere around 2000 pixels wide.

As for the 13 word story itself, I leave you to ponder the potential of robots, androids, AI-what-have-yous as force multipliers for small numbers of humans, even a single human.

Or, if you’re into visions of Terminatoresque futures, for themselves.

Of course, there are a host of reasons why a scenario like this is highly improbable. The safeguards we devise will expand and improve along with the technology to create autonomous war machines. However, determined humans have a way of finding a way to bring their dreams to life.

Even if those dreams are nightmares.

Sleep tight.

[Preview and Preorder] HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW: “Black Grail”

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A short story, about 3500 words.

Parkhar’s father has a plan to wrest an ancient talisman from the glittering City of the ancients and the godlike, deathless Bots that guard it — but it will be Danwill, Marjay, and their cohort who take the risks. What they find will shape the future of the whole tribe, maybe even of all humanity itself!

 

This is my newest ebook short story single. While my patrons at Patreon have downloaded their free copies as part of their patron privileges, thirty days before release, at this writing it is available elsewhere only by preorder. The release date is April 7th HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW! The cost is a mere 99 cents — all you can get for that price at Starbucks is a funny look from the cashier. Of course you don’t have to buy and read this — you should read what you want, that’s kind of a central idea in this whole freedom of expression thing we like to talk about in authordom — but it would make me really happy if you did. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be happy too, because if you’re here reading this far into a science fiction writer’s bloggy stuff you probably enjoy science fiction in general. Right?

 

The preview below is a bit over the 30% you can view where it is available to preorder (or buy directly if you’re reading on April 7th or later). You can find it at AmazonBarnes & Noble, Google Play Books, Kobo, Smashwords, and hopefully soon at iTunes! [Right now iTunes is not listing it, though I haven’t gotten a ticket from Apple about any problem with the ebook file — if/when it finally is listed, I will hopefully remember to come back here and update the link to point at the book instead of my iTunes author page]

 

Enough of that, here’s the preview:

 

Black Grail

Preview

S.A. Barton — Copyright 2016

 

Since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, the People have sought the Grail. Today, I hold it in my hand. The other two survivors of our band eye me as warily as I eye them. It is easy to talk of sharing before you hold the key to all wealth and power in your hands; after, it is more difficult to practice. Temptation…

Parkhar sits with his back against the office door, twisting a leather tourniquet tighter on his left wrist. He hisses through his teeth at the last twist. His hand and the stumps of his fingers tremble, dotting his pants with more blood, red over red. He’s wondering if we’ll let him live now that we’ve found the prize. Marjay, though – she and I are unwounded but for scrapes and scratches. She’s short, broad, agile almost to the point of acrobatics; she stands across the massive burlwood desk from me, eye on the grail, hand on the haft of the heavy machete at her hip.

“Well, Danwill?” she asks, soft in the silence that falls after Parkhar’s groan. “Can we share, or must we duel?”

#

For a thousand and some years, we the People have lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the City. For the same amount of time, anyone setting foot in the City has been swiftly confronted by its tireless Bot defenders and either killed or captured. They are immortal spirits, avatars of the ancient giants who strode the land before the People were created and who have since passed Beyond. A few Bots fly through the air on circle-blades that whirl faster than even the wings of hummingbirds flap; a few, the size of bison, roll on wheels. Most wear forms like those of human beings, but bulky and shiny-black armored, and they walk in magic boots that never wear out. When Bots take a captive, on nights when the winds are still the captive’s cries can be heard all the way up in the mountains. Some of them live and scream for many weeks.

The City, in stories passed from grandmother to grandmother to grandmother, has always been a pool of jewels in the night, luminous treasure cupped in the great ancient mountains’ palms. As in the tales, even now it is bright there while in our tents and burrows we strain our eyes at guttering tallow candles. It is warm there while we shiver. There are storehouses packed with food while our lean bellies growl. The City is jealous of her bounty.

The holy tales say that once, the People dwelt among the giants in the City. Then, talismans brought them shelter, food, and other luxuries we can no longer imagine. The holiest talisman, the Black Grail, is said to grant the bearer all the heart’s desires, provided by the Bots.

With the Black Grail, the People might be brought back into the City to live in riches – and the one who brings them would be their King.

Or Queen.

#

“Well?” Marjay asks one more time. The cords stand out on her thick forearm with the power of her grip.

If we fight, either might die. Even the victor might die of wounds later, or lingeringly of gangrene. We are too closely matched.

Slowly, I draw my own machete – a little longer than hers, its spine not quite so thick.

She tenses. Half the length of her blade clears its sheath in a blink, with a sound like the chirp of a bird.

Slowly, slowly, eyes locked with hers, I extend my blade, turn it sideways, lay it on her side of the desk.

“There’s only one way that we both walk out of this place,” I say.

“You have to be joking,” Marjay replies. “You know I have no interest in men.”

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Over many years, many bands of young warriors have challenged the City and its lethal Bots for the Black Grail – or simply, in famine times, for a few armloads of food from the City’s warehouses.

No previous expedition has ever recovered the Black Grail. Few who have gone hunting it have returned. From those handful of survivors, we have some trinkets of the city among us. The Herndez clan has a ball-shaped lamp that has stayed lit for twenty generations. The Denneh clan, Marjay’s, has a box that plays music that no instrument of ours can duplicate. When it stops playing, allowing it to rest in the sun for only an hour will restore it to play for many days. My own clan, the Kirkays, keeps kitchen herbs in metal cans that once held food captured from the City in a famine time a hundred years ago. There are a few other trinkets, but not many.

Few are willing to challenge the Bots. They cannot be harmed by blade, arrow, or spear. There are tales of talismans that might stop them, but those have proven as elusive as the Grail itself.

My father was one who was willing to challenge the Bots, in his own way. By studying the holy tales and the many stories we tell around our campfires, he thought he knew where the Black Grail must lie. But he was also a man of extraordinary patience and cleverness. Instead of going himself, he made a plan for the future. As he executed his patient plan, his hair slowly turned iron-gray and I grew into a man.

I remember, dimly, being four summers old, waddling with the weight of a reed basket of dirt and gravel gripped in both hands. It was a scoop of what my father and his fellows dug out of a long tunnel under the city boundary. Part of his plan was simple: avoid the eyes of the bots for as much of the path to the Grail as possible. The entrance of the stealthy tunnel, squared off with heavy smoke-blackened timbers, was shielded from the inspection of the Bots by the abrupt stony mound of a hill near the city limits. Still, that we were digging must have been obvious. We children, who, grown, formed the company that has brought we three survivors to the residence of the Grail, carried out endless buckets of earth and stone, filling nearby dry washes and building new hills. It’s obvious in hindsight. So many things are obvious in hindsight. Things that might have saved lives if only they’d been obvious to us before. But the desire for the Grail was strong in us all, we young adventurers, our aging parents and grandparents, even our wise toothless Eldest whose food we youngers trade the honor of chewing for her ease. The vision of wealth blinded us all. Perhaps that is the curse that ended the reign of Giants and allowed the humble People to step from their shadows.

But the Bots had never shown curiosity about anything beyond the border of their domain. We had never seen any pay attention to anything under the ground. And so we thought we were safe…

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Thirteen Word Story — Television Tropism

(One day, perhaps the descendants of the mechanical beings we are nearly ready to create today will have myths of the creator who rose to power and created, only to be ejected from paradise, leaving Its creation behind in Its place…)

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Eventually, humans grew sessile, feeding on light of television screens.

But robots lived.