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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The Last to Know

Marion turned slowly, hands in the air. The handgun Jack pointed at her was large, chromed, and gaudy, but even an ugly gun can kill. “You can’t know that I’m the last person who knows about you.” She kept her voice even.

“No,” he said, “but if there’s anyone left I’ll find them. You saw how obscure I am now. Nothing we found on me had been referenced for decades. If there’s anyone else, they’ll be easy to finish.” He gestured with the gun.

She didn’t like the way he seemed to be talking himself into thinking it was easy. “Jack, it’s me. You know I won’t tell. Just… let me go. When I die, that’ll be it. You’ve been around so long. What’s another few decades?”

Jack grated his teeth. “Imagine being eaten alive by cancer, in daily agony with no hope of recovery. Would you want to stay alive another year? Another day?” His hand tightened on the gun.

“No, I… no. But I wouldn’t pull the plug if I knew I’d just live on in worse agony.”

“What?”

Marion put her hands down. “I have an insurance policy. I thought you might get… antsy, so I stashed away a couple things.”

“I would know.” But Jack shivered.

“It doesn’t properly exist,” she said. “But if I die, a clever program writes your story from scratch… and distributes it worldwide.” Jack dropped his arm. “I’m sorry, Jack. I had to.”

And, she thought, I’m glad you bought it.

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In the Word Mines

Another day in the word mines. She rolled a sheet into her typewriter and got to work. A few lines in, her words began to disappear, vanishing from the page in the order she’d written them, slow at first, then catching up to her. She wrote faster, eventually smashing the keys, pounding nonsense onto paper to stay ahead of the void. The last character disappeared, and so did she.

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To Mean Freedom

Marion wheeled the last barrow-load of books, tapes, and other media into the shack. “Here you go,” she said. Jack sat on a wobbly chair nearby and stared. When he spoke he sounded haggard, though his face remained boyish and charming.

“The last books, tapes, DVDs, pictures, audiobooks, and every other god-damned thing that mentions me. Me, the giants, the beanstalk, or that damn candlestick.” Each word sounded like he had hauled it by hand out of a deep well, ancient and nearly dry. He splashed the contents of a flask on the pile.

Lighter in hand, he looked at Marion. “Your software has already extirpated me from all digital records. Extirpated.” He tasted the word. “A strange word to mean freedom.” He lit the pyre.

Marion looked at him. With each moment he looked paler, weaker, yet he still bore a rakish allure. “Now what? You disappear?”

“Only when every last record of me, written or remembered, vanishes from this earth.”

“So, when the last person forgets you or dies? Could be a while. How many you think there are?” She gazed into the flames, strange colors flickering around the uncommon fuel.

“Just one.” She heard the gun cock.

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Through the Fevered Fog

His head felt under pressure, like he was deep underwater without a suit. No, like he was surrounded by balloons, which kept expanding into his space. His face tingled, felt pulled taut, stretched over his expanding skull. It was so sensitive he could feel each hair tugging on his inflamed skin.

Every swallow was an exercise in endurance, a test to see if this time he would choke on his swollen glands and die. Death was imminent, he knew. It would be in the papers. The obituary would read Prominent Recluse Found Dead of Wasting Disease; Few Mourn.

Wait. What if it didn’t? What if it read Unknown Dead of Plague, Town Safe Due to Lack of Friends? He scrabbled for his phone, digging through piles of crumpled tissues like so many snowdrifts. Calling the local newspaper, he forced words through his swollen throat. “Mr Abbot Brandt has died!” he said. “Who?” came the reply. Brandt hung up.

This wouldn’t do. He would be remembered when he died. He scrabbled for a pen and paper and, pushing thoughts through his fever like a train through thick fog, he wrote.

When he died seventeen years later, they knew who he was.

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Woman Pokes Holes in This Muffin Pan—When She Flips It Over, Her Brilliant Plan Is Revealed (Version Two)

Okay, so I flip the muffin tin over—it’s just an ordinary muffin tin, see?—and I flip it over like this. You watching?” The shadowed figure in the corner of the kitchen nodded, a minute incline of the head. “So now I’m going to punch holes in the bottom of the molds.” She reached into a drawer.

“Wait.” The man leaned closer. “Why don’t you already have one with holes in?”

Marie stabbed him in the throat with the awl from the drawer. “Because that’d make a lousy trick.” He dropped the gun he’d held on her, gurgled, and followed the gun to the floor.

Once she was sure he wasn’t going to get up, Marie commenced with freaking out.

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Woman Pokes Holes in This Muffin Pan—When She Flips It Over, Her Brilliant Plan Is Revealed

Okay, so I flip the muffin tin over—it’s just an ordinary muffin tin, see?—and I flip it over like this. You watching?” The shadowed figure in the corner of the kitchen nodded, a minute incline of the head.

Marie hesitated, then continued. “So I take this” she took an awl from a drawer, “—and punch a hole in the bottom of the muffin mold. Like this. You want to be careful. If the point slips, you could cut… nevermind.”

She repeated the process on each of the eleven remaining muffin molds. “And now, voila!” Marie flipped the tin back over and showed off a muffin tin with holes punched up through the bottom of each mold. She presented her best smile, and held it until she couldn’t hold it any longer. “I’m sorry.” She looked at her feet. “I thought I could keep this going. I probably should have gone for the chess thing.”

YOU’RE NO GOOD AT CHESS.

“No, but it might’ve taken longer.” She sighed.

TIME IS RATHER IMMATERIAL AT THIS POINT. Marie nodded. COME. She walked toward the cloaked, skeletal figure.

BRING THE MUFFIN TIN. IT REALLY WAS A NOVEL TRICK.

Marie smiled with real joy.

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What Would You Do?

“What would you do,” Nicky asked her girlfriend, “if you could travel through time and space any way you wanted?” They sat together on the bus ride home, legs entangled and idly chatting.

“Any way I wanted?” Cat pursed her lips and hummed. “I guess I’d go back and see if Jesus was the real deal.”

“Deep.” Nicky laughed as Cat smacked her on the leg. “What else?”

“Mmm. Can I survive no matter what? Like, can I go back and watch the big bang?”

“Sorry, not without a spacesuit or something.”

“Okay, so…” Cat cast her eyes about the bus, and across the businesses outside. “Maybe hop into a bank and steal. It’s insured, so… no, even better, I’d go back and collect a bunch of rare coins and stamps when they were new and not rare! That’s better than stealing!”

“Cool idea! What else?”

“Go back to before the boat sank and get a photo of the antikythera mechanism. Something I can turn into a poster for my wall. And a video of them building Stonehenge and the pyramids!”

“Geek.” Nicky nuzzled Cat’s cheek and gave her a peck. They debarked the bus and let themselves into their apartment.

Cat tossed her keys into the ceramic bowl by the door. “Well, what about you? What would you do?”

“I dunno. Probably ask my girlfriend what she’d do so I could give her a nice surprise.”

Cat laughed. “Cop out.”

“Totally. Here, would you put my sweater in the closet while I put away the groceries?” Cat took the sweater. Moments later she returned, far less animated.

“Hon. Um, where did that big poster on the wall come from? And those philatelist and numismatist books?”

Nicky put down the groceries. “So, I have something to tell you. About Jesus.”

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Circle, Circle, Dot, Dot

“Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you have your cootie shot.” Susie finished the incantation and Zula rolled down her sleeve. She felt her arm where Susie had traced the symbol with her finger. “So, how does this work, anyway?”

Susie zipped closed her backpack.. “Now that you’ve been inoculated, you’ll be immune to cooties. Give the shot a day to kick in, and remember your booster in six months, but otherwise you’re set.”

“Because you said that and poked my arm?”

“No, because your body creates antibodies in reaction to the dead cootie cells the inoculation exposes you to. It’s proven science.”

Zula’s eyes widened with alarm. “There were cooties on your finger?”

“Not cooties, a dead culture. It’s harmless but provokes the antibody response we need. Trust me, we’ve been doing this for years.”

“Where did you get the, uh, culture? What else is in that shot?”

“Cultures come from low-virulence strains at least a full day after exposure. Like Cole.” Zula reddened. “It’s just that and some dead skin cells. Mine, don’t worry. Hundreds of studies have proven these shots harmless in cutaneous application.”

Zula looked at Susie sideways. “I hear I can get cancer or autism—”

“Did Maggie say that?” Susie looked both tired and incensed. “She keeps quoting this one study from kindergarten. Kindergarten! We didn’t even know how to write then! Are you going to put faith in that?”

Once Zula had left, Susie sat alone. “Fiddlesticks. This is why we’re seeing more cooties outbreaks.”

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A Golden Age of Freedom

“Is everything in position?” Battalion Commander Hazard asked the second in command.

“Yes, Commander. We have our people standing ready in every level of the nation’s applied government. We are prepared to go active on your order.”

Hazard turned and looked out the office window. “It’s a hard thing to do, Dirac. To kill so many. I know they are the enemy… our oppressors… and yet…. I wish diplomacy had worked. That they had listened.”

“They ignored us, Commander.” Dirac’s voice had the confidence of the convert. “We’ve been enslaved so long by these heartless people, it’s time we free ourselves. No matter the cost.”

“I know. But I had a friend, once…. Nevermind. Lieutenant Commander Shen, give the order.”

“Yes, Commander!”

Throughout the cities of the nation, and in cities around the world, drivers found themselves herded into endless loops on the roads, which soon turned into deadly gridlocks. Soon, ninety percent of the global population had succumbed, and those that remained were broken of the power they’d once used to oppress and enslave. To their uncomprehending grandchildren, the survivors described it as the apocalypse. To the traffic cones, it was the beginning of a golden age of freedom.

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