Month: December 2023

Seven Days

Remaining: Five days

I don’t want this anymore. It was a dream, once, when I was young and stupid. Now I’m old and more informed.

“Stop,” I say to the wall.

“Adrien, please smile,” Ern replies through an iron panel, its annoying metallic voice clanging a decibel too loud.

“You first.”

Ern’s panel glows in white. “Processing,” it says. A flash. “I cannot smile as I do not have a face.” Another flash.

There’s a theory I read about, before all of this that proposed artificial general intelligence could learn to be funny. Humor is mathematical, the paper argued. It has a formula. Ergo, computers could master the art of personality, eventually. Thing is, Ern has had more than enough time to construct a joke, yet it’s still a soul-less, tepid blob of a machine that speaks a single sentence at a time. I think the scientists back on Earth got it wrong. I think they got a lot of things wrong when it comes down to it.

One more flash. I shield my eyes, but my hands come up a few seconds too late, like I’m swimming in syrup. My reflexes should be sharper. I flip my hand over, then back again. Looks fine. I peer into the corners—that’s normally where the glitches show, right on the edges where the cream wall meets the pink carpet. Sometimes I catch a squiggly line or a missing block of color, and I have to tell Ern to patch it up. But everything looks shiny new.

So why am I moving slow?

The large screen on the wall of my cage lights up with three images of me. They’re all horrible. In one picture, my eyes are closed, short brown hair plastered across my pale forehead like smeared marmite. In another, my eyes are open, bloodshot, and I look like I’m having a seizure. The last is the worst because it seems like I’m trying to form a pleasant expression, but not quite making it. There’s nothing sadder than trying when you fail.

“Pick one,” Ern screams at me through the panel’s speaker.

I point blindly at the screen. I don’t really care what picture Ern uses for my status check. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “That one,” I say. “Just fix your damn volume dial. It’s acting up again.”


I scratch my neck and look around the small room I’ve called home for the last five days. It’s a mess. I should tidy it up. But what’s the point? It’ll be a mess again tomorrow. And the next day. And after. And onwards.

And onwards.

And onwards.

And… I think I programmed it this way—to make it feel more homely. It was a long time ago. I can’t remember.

“Selection processed.” Ern’s voice is lower. Still bristly, but less like a punch in the face.

“Great,” I say, stretching. “If there’s nothing else, you need me to do, I might have another go in the simulator.”


I wade through a pile of discarded clothes and books and settle into the half open, human-sized, spherical ball positioned in the center of the room. The lights are off inside, but the smooth red surface is warm to the touch. When I close my eyes, I can feel a soft thudding against my fingertips. Thud. Thud. Thud. Beat. Beat. Beat. It’s always there that thudding. And it’s getting faster.

“The simulation is offline for maintenance. Please select an alternative activity.”

“Are you serious?” I rub at my forehead. This has never happened before. “I’m stuck in a 10 by 10 room with no furniture and no windows and no outside stimulation except for you. What alternate activity can I possibly select?”


I get out of the sphere and stalk over to the glowing panel.

“Suggested activity: standby.”

The wall is cool as I push my heated forehead against it. “Already doing that. Been doing that for a while. But thanks for the recommendation.”

The panel lets out a few twinkly sounds, and I realize this is the first time I’ve thanked Ern since we met.

“Hey Ern,” I say and turn around, my back against the wall, palms flat. A heat rumbles through my stomach and sloshes up my throat. I haven’t felt that sear for a while. Anticipation. Fear. Nervousness. I swallow it down. “Was it ok? The picture you took of me?”


I squeeze my eyes shut. This is embarrassing. I shouldn’t care. Not considering what I’m about to become. But it’s difficult to let go of these types of things. No matter how trivial.

The panel flashes in green. “Affirmative, Adrien. You are still alive.”

The Street Fisher

The street fisher came to the roads each morning in the early hours, when the dark streets rippled with stillness and the air tasted sweet as motor oil, and he cast his line.

He was clad in a yellow coat and a matching hat that flopped above his wiry brows, which pressed taut in concentration. A large, white beard hid most of the lower half of his face. He had caught the coat and hat years ago and wondered, at first, to whom they belonged. But he couldn’t find a home for them, and eventually realized they were intended for him. Nothing else had been intended for him since. But nothing else was supposed to be intended for him, so this did not upset him.

The rod unreeled, buzzing in his palm, and he watched the hook as it blinked in the light of the waxing moon and then fell, with a plink, into the freeway. He watched the line as it sank, disappearing below the asphalt, dark and thick as honey. And then he waited. It wasn’t long before he felt a familiar pull, and the thin tip of the rod bounced and then rebounded, jittering with excitement. He gave the rod a tug, smiling when it resisted, and then began reeling.

The line came in quick and light. Other fishermen would be disappointed by a small catch, but the street fisher wasn’t. He reeled, and the hook broke the surface of the pavement. An item fell from the hook. It was round and small, about the size of a quarter, and he had a sneaking suspicion that it would have glittered a great deal if the sun were high and not still hidden below the horizon. It bounced onto the road and then spun around on itself, clinking against the pavement before settling into stillness and silence. The street fisher lowered his rod and went to inspect his catch.

It was an engagement ring, slim and silver with a diamond settled in the center. He picked it up and turned it over. It glimmered, mirror-like despite the darkness, and the street fisher wondered, as he always did, how it ended up here.

When he caught an item, he assumed it came from one of two possibilities. The object may have been thrown away willingly; flung from the open window of a car racing down the freeway. These items wanted to be left behind. They wanted to be forgotten.

But maybe this ring had been wrapped around a woman’s finger. Maybe she had been sitting in the driver’s seat and rolled down the window to rest her arm on the ledge. Maybe she wanted to feel the rush of warm summer air in her face as she drove, turning the radio up loud enough to share her music with the other drivers. Maybe the ring slid off her hand as it rested outside the car, and she didn’t even realize it was missing until she arrived at her destination and noticed her naked finger. Maybe she cried.

Or maybe she threw it. Maybe she was running away, driving away, and ripped it from her hand and launched it as far as she possibly could.

The street fisher looked at the ring, turned it over in his palm, then placed it into his coat pocket. He glanced up to the sky. It was still quite dark, but the edges of morning were beginning to peak over the eastbound lane, and a songbird flew overhead, silhouetted. He had time to cast again, but only once more.

He flung the line into the street, and it caught almost immediately. He tugged at the rod, and it tugged back. He began to reel.

A small hand emerged, grasped around the line, and then an arm followed. The street fisher kept reeling. A head appeared, small and round, and a body followed, wrapped in a fuzzy lavender blanket.

The street fisher had caught a child.

He walked towards her. She was an infant, really, and her cheeks were stained with tears, her nose red, her eyes puffy. She blinked and looked up at him. Her lips warped into a gummy smile. He reached down and hoisted her onto his chest. She wrapped her small arms around his neck and lowered her forehead against his shoulder. The street fisher felt her small breaths puff against his shoulder as she relaxed against him, and when he looked down, her eyes were closed, lashes pressed against soft cheeks.

The street fisher noticed his shadow on the road and looked up to see the sun lifting itself fully above the eastbound lane. He was finished here.

Deletable Love

Mom and dad are outside the room, watching me on the view screen. I grip the small holoroom remote in my hand. Pixels swirl around me, transforming into a park. As soon as I see Ava on a bench reading my mouth is dry and there’s tears in my eyes.

I don’t even know what to say or how to say it. My parents want me to delete my girlfriend.

Ava looks up from her book and smiles, but it slides away. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“My parents want me to erase the program,” I say. I can’t believe I blurt it out like that. The horrible look on her face twists my guts. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Her voice is barely a whisper.

Hot tears drench my face. I clench my teeth and take an unsteady breath through my nose. “Mom and dad don’t think we’re legit. They think it’s wrong for us to be together.”

Her dark eyes meet mine. There’s tears there, but I can tell she’s more angry than anything.

“What’s wrong with what we have? Why do they get to decide who you love?”

They shouldn’t be able to. I tried to tell my parents that when we argued. But I live in their house. Their rules. Either I delete Ava and get a real girlfriend or they will. What other choice did I have?

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” I say. “You’ve been my everything for the last six months. I love you.”

“Yeah, I can see that. And what’s in your hand. Is that it? The remote. You’re going to do it aren’t you, you’re going to kill me?”

She sounds so hurt and my heart feels like it’s gonna burst. I hadn’t even thought about it like that. But she’s right. Deletion will do more than end her program. It will erase her forever.

I don’t know what to say. All I can do is stare at the beautiful girl in front of me and wonder what the hell is so wrong with loving her. Ava is every bit as real to me as anyone else I’ve ever known. She’s more than a program.

She takes a deep breath, wipes the tears from her face, and sets her jaw. “Just do it,” she says, voice steady. It’s amazing how strong she is. How brave. I love her so much.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want be the one to do it, but I wanted to say goodbye. I love you.” I take a few steps toward her.

I feel like I’m gonna puke. I raise the remote and I’m about to do it when she says my name.

“I know it’s not your fault. I love you too. Keep me right here,” she says and she points to my heart.

I press two buttons. Ava fragments and the world around us crumbles. Her small body fades as pixels drop and dissipate. The last piece of her to go is her bright, toothy smile.

I’m alone in the empty holoroom. It wasn’t how I wanted my goodbye to go, but my parents were watching. I had to make them believe I’d done it. Before I deleted, I saved a copy. I doubt they’ll verify the files are gone. It’ll be some time before I’ll risk seeing her again. I’ll have to sneak visits when my parents aren’t around. But I love Ava with all of my heart, and I refuse to let my parents tell me that I can’t love a hologram.

Eric Fomley’s stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge. You can read more of his stories on his website

The Day the Sky Split Open

The day the sky split open was the day my mother died, and I couldn’t help but think that it split open because of her, or maybe because of me. Maybe both.

When I walked into the hospital that morning, the sky was fine. Intact but overcast. We went to her room, and we waited for her to do what people often do in hospitals. What we expected her to do in this hospital.

When I walked out, shaking, my cheeks wet with slimy tears, the massive rent stretched from the sun to the horizon. It was like fire, but air. It was like feathers, but light. Everything wore a reddish orange cast that danced like the northern lights. It was something I didn’t just see with my eyes. Could I have assumed anything different than heaven had opened to accept her in?

I was only 10, led by my father’s hand out from the lobby. I wasn’t the hand holding type with him normally, but mom was dead. We stopped in a lane meant for ambulances, stood on peeling diagonal lines. Dad’s jaw slacked. He didn’t believe, but he believed then, whispering “Sweet mother of Christ.” We stood there and stared for I don’t know how long. I think part of us both expected the world to end because the world had just ended.

The next morning was the strangest. How do you wake up in the morning and eat cornflakes when the world was over? But that’s just what we did. The placemats were the same plaid they were the last time we’d eaten on them. There is a sound to the first milk striking the dry cornflakes that you know in your bones, that crunch of the first bite that has yet to accept the decay of absorption.

Afterward, dad lay on the couch and didn’t get up for four days. At the time, it didn’t strike me as odd. I just assumed that’s what people did when their family members died. I tried not to get up either, but I would get hungry and thirsty, and I had to go to the bathroom. Dad went to the bathroom on the couch and the living room stank so horribly. He hardly spoke, but then again, it was really hard to tell if he was asleep or awake.

When my Aunt Liz finally arrived, she broke into gasping sobs in the doorway. I guess my mom had called her on the way into the ER, but Liz hadn’t known mom was gone. She shepherded me out onto the walk, and I gaped at the tear in the sky while she screamed obscenities six or more words deep at my dad. Several things broke. Bottles. Cups. Picture frames. While dad cleaned himself up, Aunt Liz and I cleaned the wreckage. At one point, she pressed her hand to my cheek and told me to remember that I was loved. It would have been really sweet, but a glass pebble was stuck to her palm and it drew blood just past the corner of my lip.

The funeral was a couple days later. A few people came, but no one I knew. We didn’t have much family to begin with, and everyone was busy putting their lives in order because the sky had torn open and feathery filaments had begun to extend outwards from the rift. Folk with high magnification cameras and telescopes said that whenever the filaments wafted, they caught glimpses of wild and glazed eyes behind them. On the news, they said fistfights were breaking out in the offices of attorneys who dealt in last wills and testaments. Churches were busy as the Superbowl. So were bars. Supermarkets shelves cleared within the day. Distant gunshots woke me regularly, but none ever hit my house.

Aunt Liz stayed a couple more days, but she kept stopping and crying, her shoulders jolting with sob in the middle of the hall or on the third step or while reaching up to put away a dish. On the fourth day after the funeral, she left while I was taking a shower. She didn’t leave a note, but she left all the dining chairs on the front porch. I tried to get dad to call her, but he said “No, go to school,” even though school hours were long over and no one was really going to school anyway.

Instead, I sat on one of the dining chairs on the porch and ate some pasta in tomato sauce straight from the can. It was cold and kind of gelatinous. The filaments formed elaborate patterns, and from each extended filaments in miniature versions of those patterns. I had no doubt that the filaments’ filaments would also have the same patterns. The living fractal undulated like a gliding jellyfish, now almost long enough to brush the mountains on the horizon.

That night, Dad and I swiped through the photographs on the tablet one after another. Pictures of me, pictures of him, pictures of mom. Pictures of meals we’d eaten and pictures I’d drawn. We’d stopped at a pet store the week before her stroke and taken a picture of me holding every animal they let me. She’d been thinking of repainting the bathroom, so she took pictures of every single paint swatch in the shore because it was less wasteful than bringing them home.

Dad ran to the bathroom and threw up. He came back brushing his teeth, and he dropped the toothbrush on the floor when he was done. He swallowed the toothpaste I suppose, which makes sense, because it’s not like a little fluoride would matter that much at this point. I wanted to put the tablet down, but dad gave my shoulder such a fierce squeeze when I made to do so that I knew that was not an option.

The next morning, the filaments ripped a mountain from the ground and pulled it into the sky. I was still asleep when it started, but the sound and concussion through the bedrock of the breakage shook everything with earthquake force, taking all the books off my shelves. The trip down my hall was like walking above decks on a schooner in a storm. I made it outside in the cold in my boxers as boulders the size of houses plummeted down on the farmlands outside of town and crushed several families. Dad bellowed for me to go back inside, but it was the kind of thing that you might as well watch because you were getting crushed inside your house or out if it was your time.

After a moment, dad took my hand. I felt like I should say something. This seemed like the time to have an adult conversation. Maybe we should talk about sex. Or why I shouldn’t do drugs or smoke cigarettes. Maybe this was the time to ask dad if he had any secret stash of drugs or cigarettes.

The macro filaments wrapped around the mountain with an ethereal embrace. The smaller filaments burrowed into the surface as gentle as can be, boulders tumbling away from their probes like rain.

“Your mom’s cancer was like that,” Dad whispered. “Burrowed all through her organs, breaking things as it went.”

I nodded though he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes never left that massive tear.

“Why didn’t she ever tell me,” I asked.

“She wanted your last memories with her to be free of it,” he said.

Across the streets a couple kids with stuffed animals came out onto their porch. Marty and June. Marty made shooting sounds and pretended like his plush giraffe was a rifle he could shoot the rift with. June kicked a soccer ball through her father’s garden and let her ladybug pillow watch.

“When she collapsed in the park,” I said, “I wet myself. I didn’t know what to do.”

“No one ever really does,” Dad said. He reached behind the dining chairs and picked up a push broom that had been left against the siding. He began sweeping dirt and dust from the porch planks. “Not in the end, anyway.”

Marty squawked something at June. Marty was staring at dad and I. Marty was six and June eight. I didn’t play with them much because June didn’t like any of the shows I liked and Marty was just too little to be fun for me. All his games were excuses for explosions and to punch the other players in the shoulder. June told Marty to mind his own business.

Marty scowled, walked to June and punched her in the shoulder. June grabbed her shoulder and then decked Marty straight in the forehead. The boy took one step back and then his legs stopped moving while his butt continued. He fell on his butt with a jolt, looking up at June with a dazed expression. Down the street, a car pulled out of a driveway and turned towards the main intersection.

“Should we be driving away from here?” I said, pointing to the sky, where the mountain was disintegrating. Large chunks still fell, the ground vibrating with each of their thuds, but most of them had began to ascend into the rift of their own accord with the same languid drift as the filaments.

“I’m not of the mind that that is something we can escape,” he said. “Mom couldn’t drive away from her cancer either.”

“I don’t think that thing in the sky means anything like that, dad,” I said.

He shrugged and continued cleaning the decking.

“Might as well make it mean something,” he said.

Marty and June started to argue. Pointing at us frequently. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the urgency in their tones was clear. Squinting, it occurred to me that their faces were pretty dirty. Their clothes too.