That’s a Strange Noise

Lily was cruising along at a comfortable, almost-legal five miles above the limit when a small smile grew on her face. “Huh, that’s a strange noise” must be the worst thing to say to yourself while driving, she thought.

She started thinking about other times you wouldn’t want to think that: in a plane, on a spaceship. Was it all mechanical conveyances? No, Lily decided, I’d hate to hear a strange noise while high up in a tree or climbing a mountain. Or having sex. Was there any circumstance where hearing a strange noise was a good thing?

Well, she thought, it must depend on the noise. Being strange meant it had to be unfamiliar, and that unfamiliarity made it suspect and potentially dangerous. Even if the noise presaged something good, the listener couldn’t know that, must feel something like fear or discomfort until she could identify the noise. If it turned out to be good, she would experience the pleasure of relief. And if bad, she would have the initial alarm to help prepare herself. But it always started out bad.

Shifting gears to leave the freeway, she heard a metallic squeal. Huh, she thought, that’s a strange noise.

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Bold, Red Letters

KEEP OUT said the bold, red letters on the green door. Sam felt it made clear that the door was worth getting into. He didn’t read instruction manuals, either. A moment with his tools and the door let him in.

That revealed a small office, a comfortable chair, a small rug, a small bookcase, and an old desk polished by use. The room was orderly but not overbearingly neat: a book canted against the reading chair’s armrest, and a pen lay atop a few papers on the desk. Sam looked through the books and papers, leaving little disturbance behind.

He found the notebook inside the desk drawer, next to a pen gone dry. It looked like a journal to him, green with KEEP OUT in bold, red letters. Sam smiled. He wouldn’t need his tools for this one. The inside cover declared in the same bold red NO EXIT. He turned the page.

The first entry began, “After the events of the following page…” Sam blinked, but read on. The author described breaking into a small office and rifling it, coming upon a private journal and opening it. Uncomfortable, he looked around and noticed text on the inside of the door: NO EXIT, red and bold. The next page began, “Then I returned to the previous page.”

Sam felt the skein of the world peel back, and his rising panic subsided into a feeling of superiority as he picked the lock of the green door with the bold, red letters.

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Miriam and Heather

Miriam and Heather grew up in the same neighborhood, on opposite sides of a street that was only just too busy to be easy to cross. That street came to represent their relationship: a minor schism that was always too inconvenient to bridge. Their faiths had split fifty years prior over a matter no one remembered. At school, they were neither friends or enemies but mutual mild irritants. Each was too shy to approach the same crush. They attended seminary together, but almost never spoke.

Through perverse coincidence, they came to minister churches on opposite sides of a street too busy to easily cross. They had an uneasy truce until Deacon Miriam renovated her church. It looked grand, drawing all eyes. The next year, Pastor Heather found the funds for a renovation, and soon her church stood taller and more glorious than that across the road.

The chasm between them widened. Over the next decade, each church added grandeur until they gaudily outshone everything else for miles. Their rivalry finally came down to height, and each heightened their steeple to the extent their church could bear. One stormy night after staring daggers across the street, the two women climbed their steeples, reaching to the sky and screaming at the other.

In a satisfying story, the two proud women would be struck by lightning, or they would find common ground and reconcile. This is not that story. Heather and Miriam hated each other well into their dotage, with no satisfying resolution.

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Danger of Further Sleep

Manny looked blearily at his alarm clock. He wondered if he’d just hit snooze or off, then wondered if he’d wake up again even if it blared more shitty 80s music. “God,” he croaked, “I wish I could sleep longer.” He closed his eyes and hoped he wouldn’t be late for work.

“You can!” boomed a deep voice, eliminating all danger of further sleep. Manny sat upright to see a large man in his small studio apartment, smiling at him with gleaming white teeth. He was muscular from the waist up and an intangible wisp from the waist down.

“How’d you get in?” Manny scrambled for the baseball bat he kept by the bed.

“I’m the surprise genie!” the man boomed. “Now, you can sleep as long as you want, no interruptions, guaranteed!”

Manny blinked. “Really?”

“Truly!” The genie grinned.

“So, I can go back to sleep?”

“Of course! Farewell!” The genie disappeared with a sound like a balloon popping and a burst of purple mist. Manny went back to sleep and got to work three hours late and received a reprimand. As he ground his teeth over it, he heard a distant, “The power was within you all along!”

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A Private Experiment of Dubious Taste

The door swished open as M826-878G-EDZO approached. It knew through the network that M826-502N-POLK wanted to share something over short-range transmission, and the door opening on detecting EDZO corroborated that. POLK was waiting, and the two robots exchanged warm feelings of reunion.

POLK short-cast a strong desire to share something with EDZO, but nothing of that thing’s nature. Though EDZO was somewhat resentful of this cagey demand on its time, it kept frustration out of its transmission. It felt it owed at least some inconvenience to a sibling from the same manufacturing run.

EDZO followed into a small chamber at the rear of the domicile. Most used such rooms for auxiliary storage, but POLK had installed laboratory glassware and unusual lights. EDZO queried the network for the lights’ purpose but found local access suppressed. It short-cast its curiosity to POLK.

Radiating glee, POLK revealed a small dish from a drawer. EDZO detected only fluid until POLK provided a magnifier. The sight shocked it: organic cells, moving by themselves! When POLK short-cast that they also reproduced, EDZO left, casting disgust.

Disappointed, and nervous at the thought of publicity, POLK set about dismantling the lab. It flushed the experiment down the drain.

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Oak and the Duchess’s Son

This is the story of how Oak grew so tall and strong. When the world was still young, Oak was a smaller, more slender tree. A handsome lad camped one night under Oak, and the two fell in love. Oak followed the boy back to his home, a fortress owned by the boy’s mother, the Duchess. The boy declaimed his love, and she as loudly forbade it.

The Duchess sealed the fortress and vowed her son would not venture out until he had forsworn Oak. Spring turned to summer, and none of the three wavered. To see the boy, Oak grew taller and straighter until they could speak over the great keep walls.

Furious, the Duchess ordered that Oak be felled and used for firewood. Her foresters tried from summer to fall, but each day Oak regrew its flesh harder and thicker until it turned their axes.

In the night, the Duchess moved her entire household away. Oak tried to follow, but it had become too tall and too heavy to uproot itself. Instead, it mourned.

That is why the oak is so tall and strong, and why it loses its leaves every fall in remembrance of its lost love.

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Her Frustrated Cry

The baby monitor crackled and hissed for a moment before the toddler’s cry woke them. “It’s your turn,” said Becky, and she rolled away from the noise.

“It’s always my turn at three ay em.” Eric sat up and scrunched his face into some semblance of determination.

“Lucky me,” she said. He could hear the smile on her face. As Eric leveraged himself out of bed, he listened. “That’s her frustrated cry, isn’t it? Not hungry or confused, right?” Becky didn’t answer, apparently taking seriously her duty to get some sleep. Eric turned on the monitor camera and his heart skipped. There in the crib sat his little girl, uttering cries of frustration and facing a scorpion.

He’d never remember what he said, but whatever it was got Becky out of bed right behind him. “How the hell did that get into her crib?” he yelled, made loud by fear as he ran for her room.

They burst into the nursery, Becky awake enough to be calling 911, and froze. Their daughter was silent and still. Breaths caught in their throats, they dashed forward to find her sleeping peacefully, shreds of the scorpion scattered about, a smile on her face.

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Her Phone’s Voice

“Wake up, Harmony.” Her phone’s voice was cool, collected, and female, just as Harmony had set it. She checked the screen. “Hey, why’s it twelve minutes before my alarm?”

“Sleep patterns indicate you’ll need more time this morning. Get up, Harmony.” Harmony grumbled but followed directions. In the shower, she said, “Play something.” Her favorite lively tunes filled the bathroom, helping her pick up the pace. Drying off, she asked if that had made up any time. “No. I factored in the request and response.”

She was thinking about brushing her teeth after putting away her dirty dishes from breakfast when the phone said, “No time to brush, Harmony. You have to go.” Harmony left, arriving at the bus stop just in time to board without delaying the service, which was three minutes late as it was. She was about to sit when her earpiece said, “Pick another seat.”

Harmony looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary. With a mental shrug, she moved to the back. At the next stop, her ex-girlfriend got on and took the seat Harmony had skipped, apparently without seeing her. Harmony thanked her assistant internally.

“You’re welcome, Harmony,” it said in her ear.

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They’ll Never Sell

“They’ll never sell,” I said.

“What do you mean? They’re genius. Everyone will want one.” She followed me out onto the sidewalk, holding her invention in the small box in her hand.

“You’re half right. They’re earplugs.”

“Right! Genius earplugs. They block out everything you don’t wanna hear. How could they not sell?”

“Are you wearing them now?” She shook her head. “Then you can see that humans are good enough at that already.” Mouth hanging open, she stopped, and I left her behind.

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A Pod Full of Robots

“Why do we do this?” Qblhbrp squorpped a contact with its tentacle, launching a full pod of world-conquering robots down to the planet below.

“Do what?” Sskqhht adjusted their trajectories to make sure they all arrived. A full complement of robots could self-replicate and secure the planet in three to five years, depending on resistance. Losing even one could spoil the timeline.

“Conquer planets. We send in the robots, five years later we install our governors. What for?” Some of the robots would become unstable. With mutated programming, they acted against their masters’ interests.

“So we can rule, obviously.” The robots’ network let them perform frequent checks on each other, and they ruthlessly destroyed any that strayed from the mission.

“Yeah, but… what’s the point? We live, we die, and so do our trillions of subjects. Why reproduce?”

“So our children can rule the worlds we’ve conquered and conquer more worlds, and their children conquer further.”

“If they don’t want to?” Qblhbrp stared out the viewport, disconsolate.

“Then we kill them as deviants.” Sskqhht drove its war-tentacles into its partner. Below them, the robots fell toward the planet, inexorable, their tests already questing through the network for deviations from programming.

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