Poetry

The Robot Lover

The kiss was sweet as ever, the lilt
of her tongue in my mouth. The slow
separation, her face falling
into focus, near. “I love you”,
I say. And she: “I love—lov—
zzzrvbbrrzz—lovyou.”

That robot smile. The grill of her teeth.
The same old recording: “I have been
discovered. Initiating
sequence 3184.”

“Not again,” I think, and reach
round the bed for the crowbar.
Her eyes begin that light-up danger,
her tensile hands extend for me. I cock back
and swing. The head caves
then separates. Droplets of circuitry
shower the sheets. “Erasing—
erahsih—
euhrahhwwvp.”
And another one ripe for the cleaners.
“Well,” I mutter, “Guess I’ll see if Julia’s free.”

Comments: This a first draft, basically, inspired by the following writing prompt: ‘You’re laying in bed kissing your significant other. They back away a bit, smile, and say, “I love yo…—zzzrvbbrrzz. Love you.” You lean back in horror as you realize they’re a robot. In a monotone voice, they say, “I have been discovered. Initiating sequence 3184.”

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Fiction

A Link to the Office

From blackness, a voice:

“Help me… Please help me… prisoner… dungeon of the castle.… name is…“

The voice drifts away into dream and haze, then returns.

“…wizard has done something…“

The voice (thin, high) fades out and in again.

“…other missing girls. Now only I—”

KRAKABOOM!

I startle awake in my chair, looking around. My cubicle. (A cubicle? Since when?) My tea-stained mug (who gave that to me?), my keyboard and its crumbs. My secondhand office chair, lumpy and torn. (Did the office actually give me this?) I struggle to recall what company I work for. A—bookstore, was it? No, that sounds… not quite—

SSSSSHRAKOOM!

Lightning and simultaneous thunder shake the office floor. A second flash, and then the lights go out. Pure dark.

I start to stand, slam my knee into some hard edge under the desk. Swear words come to mind, but all that tumbles out is a growl of random syllables. I’m clutching my knee and trying to balance on one leg, so I jerk and nearly fall over when a man’s voice addresses me.

“Hey, Link—“

Link?

“—I’m going downstairs for a bit. No need to worry, I’ll be back before long.”

I limp an about face and wince into a flashlight beam, raise my hand to shield my eyes. The light lowers and I see a mustached, balding man with a doting grin.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’ll be right back, just gonna see if someone’s still down in maintenance. You stay here, if the power comes back on you can keep working on the report without me. Or, y’know, go back to napping.”

He winks, fatherly, and walks away down the carpeted hall, disappears around a corner. I sit back down in the dark, massaging my knee. Who was he? Should I know him? He spoke like he knew me. Jerry, my mind says. Everyone calls him “Uncle Jerry”. It’s because of the mustache. Weird.

Wait. I can’t stay here in the dark. I pull open my desk drawers one by one, use the periodic lightning flashes to see their contents. Second try, I find a flashlight. Perfect. I get up, I stick my head over the top of my cubicle, and look around. The other workspaces are all empty. Great. Well, maybe I can find the vending machine and take all the Snickers.

Stupid! I realize when I get to them. The power’s out. Of course they don’t work!

All right, all right. I clutch my flashlight and head past the elevators toward the stairs. Damned if I’m gonna stay up here waiting for Jerry. I’ll just catch up with him downstairs, tell him I’m done for the night, gonna go home. He’ll understand. Heck, he’ll probably head out, too.

I push open the door to the stairwell, hear the noise echo down the lightless concrete shaft. Something about it makes me shiver. Whatever. It’s just the dark, the lack of electricity and people. I shine the flashlight ahead of me and pick my way down the stairs. I can hear the slow drip of water, and pointing my beam out into the empty space between flights, I glimpse something glinting as it falls. A roof leak, I bet. Continue on.

Seven flights down, I reach bottom. The floor is slick with water and my footsteps slap, splash and echo. The flashlight plays off of wet surfaces. Only one way to go—but wasn’t the corridor shorter last time I came through?

Something moans in the darkness, and I freeze, then inch forward, sweeping ahead with my light. There, in a heap against the wall: someone!

Carefully, I inch up. It’s Jerry, slumped where the floor meets the wall. He’s holding something tight to him—looks like a piece of office shelving. His other hand rests on a crowbar that’s lying on the wet floor.

“Jerry?”

“Wh-who? That voice…Link?” Jerry coughs out a laugh. “Thought I said to stay upstairs.”

“I got, I dunno, scared. Bored.”

“Ah, well…Guess you can’t…escape who you are.” He coughs again, and I notice the blood coloring his shirt. “Link…take the…the crowbar. And my shield…do what I couldn’t…rescue…her.”

Jerry’s head lolls as he goes unconscious. I check his pulse: faint but there. I don’t know anything about wounds, so I just make sure he’s comfortable and not bleeding too much.

Then I look down at the “shield” and crowbar. What the hell was Jerry talking about? Sigh. I pick up his “gifts” and stand, flashlight seeking the exit to the lobby. It’s not there. Instead, down the hall, a strange, old-looking wooden door, like you might see in a fantasy video game. I ready the crowbar and shelf-shield, and step slowly down the hall.

Comments: I feel like I posted this one already, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives. At any rate, I’ve revised it slightly, correcting a few words here and there. I still can’t find a good title, so what’s up there now is provisional. (If you have any ideas, by all means, suggest them!)

The idea originally came to me as a fun tribute roleplaying campaign, though Lord knows which system I’d have used. (Seems a number of my story ideas show up that way.) I held onto it for a long time, then was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit to type it up as a story.

Fiction

Jerry Proves God

GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

It was the tone Jerry’s mother used to use when she was annoyed. Jerry rolled his eyes out of habit. “What?”

YOU MUST CEASE YOUR CALCULATIONS.

It was then that Jerry realized he didn’t know whom he was talking to. No one was supposed to be in the Maths wing this late, and he was pretty sure he would have heard the classroom door open anyway. He looked around hesitantly from the chalkboard. Behind him about two meters back, between the lectern and the front row of desks, and hovering perhaps a half meter off the floor, was a figure robed in elaborate white—tall, with a red and gold stole, and three brilliantly backlit heads that emerged from one neck, noon sunlight streaming from a spot just behind them.

Jerry gaped. “Wh-Who are you?” he managed to stutter.

For a long time, the being didn’t answer. Then:

EHYEH ASHER EHYEH.

Jerry raised a hand against the light and squinted. “What does that even mean?”

I AM THAT I AM, GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

“You’re God?”

YES. DESIST IN YOUR MATHEMATICS.

“Stop? No! I can’t. God, no!—sorry—Don’t you realize what this will do to the world? Of course you do, you’re omniscient.” Jerry rolled his eyes at himself. “Jesus!—sorry, sorry—it’s just, this would revolutionize everything! How can I stop? Why? Why would you tell me to do that? You can see the good it would do”

QUITE SIMPLY PUT, EACH BEING MUST FIND FAITH FOR HIM-, HER-, OR ITSELF.

Jerry gave the three-headed being a look. “You’re omnipotent. If my equation is so problematic,” he said, “why not simply prevent me from finding it. Or better yet, make it unproblematic, or make me interested in entomology instead of math?”

FREE WILL IS ESSENTIAL.

“Free will is— So I needed to find faith in my own way, and I need to be allowed to decide what to do with my discovery on my own? You can’t—or won’t—stop me. You want to persuade me.” Jerry sneered out that last verb.

God was silent.

“What if I do publish the formula? What, then? Will you punish me?”

HUMANITY IS NOT KIND TO PROPHETS, GERALD.

“Is that a threat?”

IT IS SIMPLY A STATEMENT OF WHAT YOU KNOW.

“You’re threatening me.”

I DO NOT WISH YOU HARM.

“Great.” Jerry almost rolled his eyes again before a thought stopped him. “Now, wait a minute! I’m not going to preach any sort of religion whatsoever. This is hard, mathematical proof here. Not craze-brained hallucinatory belief.” He spat the last word out like a knot of mucus.

TRUTH IS REGULARLY UNCOVERED, GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN, BY MANY MEANS. IT IS JUST AS REGULARLY BURIED, REJECTED, OR IGNORED.

“So some of those prophets had it right.”

The figure looked at Jerry.

“Well?”

I AM THAT I AM, GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

“OK, so which ones were right?”

ALL OF THEM. NONE.

“Fuck.”

INDEED.

“Alright. So why all the contradictions among accounts? Why all the resultant conflict?”

QUOD VIDĒ FREE WILL.

Jerry narrowed his eyes. “I call bullshit. That’s a cop-out answer, and I won’t accept it. You’re God, or you say you are. Creator, divine spark, all that. Presumed all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful. You made choices. Deliberate ones. Informed ones. There’s no other option for you. Even changing your mind isn’t really a change, let alone a surprise for you, but rather a calculated decision. If it can really be called calculating, since for you, it’s merely knowing. You can’t make something and let it go free to do as it pleases, since you’ve always already known what it will do and become. Maybe it’s not control, per se, but it sure as heck isn’t freedom either.”

The triune figure said nothing. Jerry crossed his arms. “You don’t deny it.”

I AM LETTING YOU COME TO YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS.

“Oh, fuck off. You’re not above this. You came down to me.” Jerry got bolder. This whole thing was going tits up and he was going to blow the cover off it. “Everything you say or don’t say, every little action you take or fail to take, influences me. You know that. You know exactly what you’re doing, and where this conversation will end.”

AND?

“And you’re a royal ass, is what.” Now that Jerry had said it, it seemed a little small, like not enough blanket to cover the bed. Like a baby blanket on a king-sized bed, even.

YOU ARE ANGRY.

“No. Yes. I was, up until I said what I just said.” Truth was, Jerry was tired. “Look. You try coming face to face with your creator only to find out he’s—it’s a giant fucking manipulator. See how you feel.”

A pause. The being floated there, saying nothing, showing nothing.

“Are you—are you hurt?” Jerry asked.

I LOVE YOU, GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

“Like fuck you do. Don’t change the subject.”

I LOVE ALL OF MY CREATION.

“Uh huh. Right. Well. I guess that’s better than the alternative, O He of Two Emotions. I don’t really fancy being wrathed into a pillar of salt.” Jerry felt his cheeks flush again. The fucker was good at pissing him off, wasn’t it?

YOUR SIN DOES NOT MERIT THAT TREATMENT.

“Yeah. What sin does? Real goddamn reassuring, you are. You’ve already determined the outcome. Doesn’t matter what I say, or even what you say. My end is going to be my end, whenever and however that happens, because you chose it. Or actively didn’t not choose it. Fuck you.”

GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

“No, seriously, fuck you. Fuck you for coming down here to tell me what to do, fuck you for trying to make me think I have a choice, and fuck you for predetermining everything anyway.”

Jerry was breathing heavily now, red-faced. This was not how he had expected his proof to turn out.

DO YOU WISH ME TO GO, THEN?

“What?” Jerry was taken aback.

DO YOU WISH ME TO LEAVE YOU TO YOUR CALCULATIONS?

“I- you- they- gaaAAAAAAa!” Jerry kept growling for a minute.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

“What a dickish question. Yes, I want you to leave me alone with my math, but no, I don’t want you to go away. (How often does one get this sort of chance?) I don’t know. Do whatever you intend to do. You were always going to do that, anyway. Fuck.”

There was silence for awhile, then clicking as Jerry picked up the chalk and renewed his work.

JERRY. YOU ARE HUMAN.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

YOU ARE FALLIBLE. FRAGILE.

Jerry hissed out a sigh. “Threats again? How does one tell God to go to hell?”

YOUR WORK EXACTS A PRICE FROM YOUR BODY. FROM YOU.

“Yeah, yeah. Fatigue, stress, etc. I exercise four days a week and I get plenty of sleep, thank you very much. You sound like my mother. Go to hell.”

There was more silence. Then:

YOUR PROOF IS STRICTLY PERSONAL.

“Of course it is,” Jerry said, wiping sweat from his cheek. “I don’t get paid to do this. I get paid to coddle undergrads.”

YOU MISUNDERSTAND.

“What else is new?”

THE ONLY CERTAINTY TO BE HAD IS IN DEATH, GERALD ALEXANDER ROTHBURN.

“Fine,” Jerry said. “You know what? I think I’m going to finish this. Just to spite you, I’m going to finish my proof.”

YOU WILL NOT CONTINUE.

“Yeah? Fuck you.”

YOU MISUNDERSTAND AGAIN.

Jerry clenched his mouth into a firm line. Then he went to move back to the board, but something twinged somewhere in his chest and he stumbled. Tried to catch himself against the chalk ledge, but instead he was on the floor. Everything far away and moving in stilted clips. The distant sound of a door opening, and voices, and

Fiction, Uncategorized

Mariana

We stood back fifty or so paces from the forest’s end, unsettled. We were used, by now, to the monolithic presence of trunks—wide as towers—the stunted, dark-dwelling shrubs/undergrowth. The phosphorescent moss. Even when we encountered ravines, crevasses, one could always make out the other side, dim glow-light at least. Here, though, there was none of that. Beyond the last few wall-like mammoths of living wood, for the first time in seven months, there was only unnerving blackness. No one wanted to go further. “Alright, break!” I called.

The others set down their packs, squatted or bounced, stretched their legs. Moved around.

“Thom, with me please,” I said. Our blond mop of a cartographer stepped up and uttered my favorite word: “Sir.”
I exhaled long, steadying myself. “Let’s have a look at this, see what it is, what we have to do about it.”
“Yessir.” A slight croak, covered by confidence, or feigned confidence.

We stepped forward, a heavy reluctance trailing around our ankles. The comforting pillars around us gave way to emptiness, and suddenly, after over 6 months of marching among primeval giants, we looked out into void.

We stood at the edge of the earth. Below and in front of us, the forest floor dropped off steeply and disappeared. Above us, the air was dark and still, and I could see the ancient timber sinews stretching out beyond our lamplight, patches of moss dimly visible along them. I could only assume that somewhere far above us, great branches arced out into the abyss to join with their twins on the other side—the twins I could not now make out. Hence it remained black, impenetrable beneath the leagues-distant canopy.

Yet when I looked at last out from my vantage point at the edge of the trees, it was not into mere darkness, no. I stared into something terrible and atavistic. A great, vibrating emptiness. There was nothing out there, nothing beyond the dim rim of our light. Our torchbeams reached/struck out into blank space, searching, searching—

I remember as a child shining my little dynamo torch into the night, hoping to see the beam trace its line into the dark. This was like that, save that where, as a boy, I caught hazy cloud-sketches of leaves, branches, here our little light was swallowed by infinite black. No object to reflect anything back to us. No trees, no other lip, and looking down, no bottom. Just, for a little distance, the earth on our own side sloping into emptiness.

By Thom’s calculations, rough as they were without stars, we were some 1600 leagues from our starting point, and theoretically nearing the other side, the end of our long trek. The mythical deep forest, through which we had moved these past months, and to which we had grown accustomed, had enveloped us, cocooned us. Shielded us. As we marched deeper, further from sunlit lands, the life that moved in the deep grew stranger. We grew used to the unusual, expected the unexpected. Now, though, that same primordial bastion of strange, unexpected life had just thrown up something unexpectedly unexpected. In the middle of the boundless forest, a strange place absent of vegetation, life.

Thom spoke up, a breathy whisper that barely carried, trailed off as if swallowed by the void: “It’s…”

I rocked my head in a small nod. One way or another, all the other gullies, cracks, and canyons we had faced had a way across, even if it meant going down through them. But here—here was an abyss with no boundaries.

No. That could not be. Somewhere on the other side of this monstrous null space, was land. Trees. And after that, Asia. There could not be, on our round planet, a crack in space leading to nowhere. An end to reality. There would be no end to our journey, until we reached Formosa.

Shivering, I shook off the despairing mantle and said to Thom, “Look. Nothing within reach of our light out there.”

Thom uttered, trance-like: “No.”

“Nor right, nor left. Only down.”

“Even that’s more tumble than trot, sir” he added, coming out of his stupor.

“Well. Let’s get back to the group.”

The others, of course, were disbelieving. I told them they could go look if they liked, and most of them did. They returned, sobered. I spoke up: “Now. What are our options? Thom, where are we, do you reckon?”

“Ah, by my calculations—rough, mind you, hard doing this with no stars—we’re maybe 1600 leagues from San Fran. Mostly west, a little south.”

“Alright, 1600 leagues and seven months west-southwest. Where does that leave us?”

“Well, if we’ve kept our bearings right, we’ll be nearing the other side, relatively speaking. Maybe another 400 to 450 till we reach Taihoku Prefecture. We’re four fifths of the way there. Still long, but…”

“So then another month and a half ahead of us.” Grumbles followed my estimate, though not from everyone.

“Except that there chasm got us blocked.” That was Pierce. Pessimist, but a good man in a scrape. Followed orders, too.

Jill Tomlin chimed in. “Well, yeah. Praps. But we ain’t tried to go around it yet. An’ it don’t take much down here to be dark as Satan’s arsehole. Could be there just ain’t no moss t’other side to light us up our way.”

“Could be. Could be we don’t know.” Jameson, always practical, stood up, brushing off his pants. “Way I see it, we test first before giving up. Find out if there is another side we can reach easy from here. If not, we find out if we can go around.”

“Sure,” I said. “Good thought. So here’s what we’ll do.”

———
“On my mark,” I said. Jameson held the flare rifle to his shoulder, waited. The others stood nearby, a few paces back from the abyss. “Fire!” I shouted, and Jameson’s flare raced out into the dark, a gleaming bead. We traced it as it flew, arcing up over nothing and then slowly down, down, down, down. No sound as its light fell away.

Everyone was silent, taking it in. “Thom?” I asked.

After a few seconds, he replied. “300 meters out. Nothing. Too far anyway for our ropes.”

“And down?”

“You see it. Just keeps going, getting smaller. Like a little star.”

“Yeah, a little star swallowed by the empty ether.” Pierce sounded grumpy. “All this work, we have to turn back.”

“Alright, now. We’re going to split up. Jill, Thom, Pierce, you’re with me. Jameson, you’ve got the rest. We’ll go north, you go south. Travel light, leave our main packs here. Take only the minimal supplies and tools. Try to get as far as you can in half a day, following the rim, then stop, turn back and meet here. Red flag I’ll nail to the tree to mark the location. Let’s go.”
———
Some four leagues later, we halted not far from a small outcropping that jutted/stuck into the abyss. We had kept just inside the line of trees during our march, and the deep, unsettling blackness of that endless dropoff had faded to an uneasying hum. Stepping out from behind their shield, the vast alien emptiness of it poured onto us, threatened again to drown us, sweep us away. There was nothing beyond the rim of the abyss, a great nothing that rested here in this secret part of the world like a monstrous, lurking predator. Hiding behind the trees, we had dimly felt its presence, but coming out to the edge was as if it had suddenly turned its gaze on us and was hungrily preparing to pounce. It was too big, too vast to exist, and yet it did. It was the incongruence one wants to ignore, but that is too real, cannot be pushed under the carpet.

We stood in silence. Shining our torches further north, we saw only continuation. And beyond, the dim glow of tree-moss diminishing into the near distance and the dark. Jill was the first to speak. As always, it was poetical. “By zounds I done seen enough o’ this void. It ain’t ne’er gonna end. Long’r than God’s cock it is.”

I nodded. “We”ll turn back here, then. We’ll place a marker, first, though. Thom.”

Thom stepped, fumbled in his pack, pulled out a folding spiked rod and unfolded it, attached a small version of our expedition’s flag to it, and jammed it hard into the soil. The banner picked up and fluttered nicely in the fair constant wind that poured through this abyss.

We left the marker and the remains of the boar jerky remonte-esprit we consumed on that outcropping, and turned back toward the place where we first met the abyss.
———
Jameson stepped forward, wiped grime and sweat from his forehead. “Took you long enough, sir.”

“We stopped for tea on the way.”

He chuckled at my reply. “What’d y’see?”

“Just keeps going north. No way of knowing how far, nor if it’s getting any narrower.”

“Or wider,” added Thom.

“Or wider,” I confirmed. Jill rolled her eyes and said “Not like that’d be useful fer us to track.”

“What did your team find, Jameson?”

“A stair.”
———
It wasn’t a stair. Not exactly, not as we knew it. Not hewn (rough or smooth), not built—more a vague jumble of boulders and earth. But it would do. No way north, no way south, no way across, and too far out to turn back now. I turned up my lamp, looked back at the crew, and stepped down onto the first monolithic step.


Notes

This story was a response to the writing prompt “Overnight, the world’s oceans have been replaced by vast forests inhabited by strange creatures. You are on an expedition to find a lost ship in what used to be the middle of the Atlantic“.

In retrospect, I think starting at the lip of the Trench means that I sacrifice the potential buildup of atmosphere that would come from describing a long trek through dark, ancient forest, and thus the emotional surprise of removing the claustrophobic insulation of the trees all of a sudden. Instead, I end up focusing more on the act of exploring, the decisions made in the face of such a radical departure. I’m not sure if it’s as interesting, in the end. Certainly not as dramatic.

I also toyed with the idea of ending on evidence of some strange civilization (i.e., the stairs are actually carved or built, and clearly not of human proportions, and the team decides to descend all the same).

Fiction, Uncategorized

Untitled (for the moment)

“Dude! This is gonna be great!” Paul says. He’s practically vibrating.

Grant rolls his eyes. “You checked the systems, right?”

“Three times. You were with me.” Grant sighs. He doesn’t like being reminded to do his job. Especially when he’s already done it. But Paul is a little puppy. He wants their experiment to work, and there, on the verge of success, he can hardly contain himself.

“Alright,” Grant motions to the machine. “It’s ready.”

Pete moves into the circle made by the displacement arms. “This is gonna be awesome!” He drawls out the syllables of the last word in a sort of singsong. “I’m gonna catch a dinosaur!”

Grant snorts. “Good luck with that. You’re only going back a year first. We gotta make sure everything works before we do anything drastic.”

“No fun, man. Way to ruin the mood.” Paul laughs a little, then pulls the plexiglass shield down around himself. Grant speaks up again: “Remember, the plan is to go back, verify the year, make sure everything checks out, then activate the retrodrive circuit and come back.”

“I know, dude, I know.” Paul’s voice sounds muted behind the shield. “I’m ready. Let’s get this done!”

“Alright.” Grant moves over to the console. “Activating base field.” He flips some switches. “Priming temporal circuits.” He raises one hand so Paul can see it above the monitor. “Firing chronodrive transmitter in five…four…three…two…one.” There is a sizzle and the smell of ozone and Grant peers around the edge of the flatscreen. Paul is gone. If everything goes right, he should be back in five minutes, as they agreed to avoid confusion.

Paul, however, finds himself suddenly not in the lab where expected, but floating in the barren void of space. He exhales a silent shout of surprise—a reflex which probably extends his life a few seconds. Almost immediately, his eyes and open mouth dry out as their moisture boils away, and his body contorts weirdly as his muscles suddenly swell.

He reaches for the retrodrive switch on his forearm. But moving has become difficult, his joints painful and stiff. He cannot quite get there. Still, he has time before it all goes black to reflect on what might have gone wrong, to realize, sinkingly, “Astronomical motion. We forgot fucking astronomical motion.” And then, briefly, to wonder why he doesn’t feel colder.

Note: This piece was originally posted as a response to the writing prompt “Time Travel is finally invented, but you can only move through time and not space” on www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts.