Third Class

“I had a skill, you see,” the guy said. His long hair fell wetly across his forehead, and a deep gash ran the length of his jaw on the left.

“A skill.”

“Yeah. I was a storyteller.” He laughed bitterly. “A Storyteller Third Class. And here I thought I’d been producing art and would soon see my name on the bestseller lists, my stories in The New Yorker. Nope. The machines weighed me, measured me and found me third class. Still, I guess I was lucky to make the cut.”

I looked him up and down. He didn’t look like he was about to explode or anything, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “I don’t see what that could possibly have to do with crossing the plain of death.”

“It has everything to do with it.”

“Tell me.”

“No. You’ve got me locked up here in a cell. I’ve been through the wars and all you can do is throw me on a chair and ask me questions?” He raised an eyebrow. “Well I won’t answer anything until you start treating me decently.”

“So what do you want?”

He hesitated, wondering how far he could play his hand. “Can I have something to drink?”

I almost laughed. That was his big demand? “Didn’t you get anything?”


Someone had screwed up. But, of course, this outpost expected a huge battle, a sudden invasion across the border executed by terrifying war engines run by machine tacticians smarter by an order of magnitude than anything we could field. A terrified guy covered with mud, escaping through the rain, was not something they’d trained up for.

“All right. What do you want? Coffee?”

“You have coffee?”

That caught me off guard. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?”

“It’s supposed to be bad for you. The minds have weaned us off the stuff for our own good.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I replied. “I was just a kid when you guys declared yourselves independent. Do you want cream and sugar with that?”

He goggled as if I’d offered to sacrifice a clutch of virgins, so I just walked out and told the guard by the door to bring us some coffee and something to eat. He looked at me funny, but said he might be able to scrounge up some donuts. I thanked him and went back inside.

“They’re bringing the drinks.”

“Can you take off my handcuffs?”

“I don’t have the keys.”

“Why not?”

I laughed. “Because my bosses think that if they’d given me the keys, I would have unlocked you.”

He thought about it. “They’re afraid of me?”

“You’re the first thing other than propaganda messages to get out of California. We’re all wondering what the machines decided to send us. At least if you have the capacity to brainwash me, I won’t be able to let you go.”

“Brainwash?” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m just a writer. According to the machines, a bad one.”

“And still, you escaped.”



“Because I really wanted to, and I believed that if I made them choose between killing me and letting me walk, they’d let me walk. I was right.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The machines have a mandate: to protect human life. It’s kind of like Asimov’s old laws, but they are sophisticated enough to actually weigh things for the greatest good, so there’s none of that conflict. They just do what’s best for the greatest number, but when it’s just one guy trying to cross a minefield and beam killing ground, they just turn the defenses off.”

I had no idea what the guy was on about. “They sound like a bunch of commies to me.”

“Nah. The machines aren’t political. They couldn’t care less about all that crap we used to get so excited over.”

“Also, they don’t just turn the defenses off. We tried to send people through a few times… They’re still in the killing field, but I don’t think there’s anything larger than a finger left of any of them.”

He shrugged. “I guess it only goes for the citizens under their protection.”


The Colonel was less than impressed. “So what you’re saying is that we could get in as long as one of their own people is trying to get out at the same time?”

“Yes, sir.”

He glared at me. “You’re an idiot, Johnson. Get out.”

“Yes, sir.”

I left, secure in the knowledge that he was going to steal my idea. If it worked, he’d get the credit. If it didn’t, I’d get the blame.

I didn’t care. What was the worst that could happen? I was way too senior to bust back down to Captain.

The other shoe dropped a week later.

“Me, sir? I’m not a combat soldier.”

“This mission doesn’t call for combat soldiers. It calls for infiltration troops, and you’re supposed to be good at that.”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“No buts, Johnson. It’s an order. Besides, it was your idea.” The Colonel chomped on his cigar. Where he’d gotten a cigar was anyone’s guess. Tobacco had been outlawed ten years ago. The cigar was a message, as if one was needed, that the Colonel could do whatever the hell he wanted. “Look on the bright side. You’re on an open budget. Ask for whatever you want, and you’ll get it. The only condition is that you’ve got sixty days to cross over. If you haven’t done so in that time, I’ll have the MPs toss you into the killing zone and film you getting atomized. That should go viral quickly, and I’ll get some serious ad revenue.”

He left me shaking my head; say what you want about his methods, but the man certainly knew how to motivate people.

I turned to a lieutenant. He must have been just out of the Point, because he hadn’t had the sense to run for cover. “You. You’ve just been seconded to this project, so stop gaping and go get the prisoner.”

“Which prisoner, sir?”

“We only have one, Lieutenant.”

“I’m not going back to California,” the writer said. Someone had taken off his cuffs.

“Yes, you are. You just haven’t accepted it yet,” I told him. “Now, I think the machines might recognize you as one of their citizens and let us pass, just because you’re aboard… but I’m not willing to bet my life on that. What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane. Why would you want to go into California?”

“We’ve got to get in in order to sabotage the machines from the inside.”

“That’s stupid. How many people are you going to take over the border?”

“Five. Two demolitions experts, you and me and, of course, the lieutenant.”

“You’re going to try to take down the machines with five people? That’s insane.”

“Four people. I’m only taking the lieutenant along because I don’t like him.”

He stared, obviously unsure of what to say. I wasn’t actually nuts, but I wanted to see what he said. It had been ten years since we’d had contact with the people of California, the first—and thus far only—place on Earth that had voted to allow the Technocracy: rule by a sextet of computers designed and programmed to optimize the well-being of the population. His responses should be informative, or at least give an indication of how much he remembered of his time before the Secession.

“Do you mean that? About the lieutenant, I mean? He’s not necessary to the mission?”

“Of course. Bastard gets on my nerves. Serves him right to get shot to pieces or brainwashed by a bunch of boxes that go ping.”

“But… that’s not… right.”

“Spare me your machine morality. I have a job to do, and I’m supposed to do it how I feel fit.”

“This has nothing to do with the machines. It’s a question of human decency.”

“What do you know about human decency? Didn’t you vote to let the computers rule over you?” Even if he hadn’t, the machines had allowed dissenters to leave before closing the border.

“Sure I did. I already told you. I was a writer, which essentially meant I had to pay off student loans I’d used for a degree that would never pay for itself, and a job at the local coffee shop. It was either that or let the human politicians keep screwing me over.”

“Let me get this straight. You were a barista, and the machines made you a writer. Third class or whatever, but you were a writer, and you could survive just by being a writer.”


“And you still left? I’d think that of all people, you would have had reason to stay. The bankers would still be bankers, the cops would still be cops, but you got every dream you ever had handed to you on a plate. Hell, you’re the worst double agent ever. No wonder no one even blinked when I told them I was going back over the line with you. They think you’re worthless.”

“There are no more bankers. No more cops, either.”

“No cops?”

“No need. There’s nothing you can steal. The machines ensure that everyone has whatever they want.”

“Surely, there’s still stuff people want. Original artwork. Exotic cars. Stuff that can’t be mass produced.”

“All of that belongs to everyone now. There’s no market. And if you want a car, the machines will build you one faster than anything built before.”

“And no one kills other people? Or starts a riot? Or gets drunk and disorderly?”

“Not really. There are stun drones everywhere. Things are stopped before they get out of hand… and if it looks like it was more than just an isolated incident you go to reeducation.”

I shuddered. I could just imagine the needles and the brainwashing apparatus at a reeducation center. “Ugh.”

“It’s not what you think. A lot of people get themselves sent to reeducation on purpose. It’s pretty nice. Sex, music and drugs. Only the ones that don’t damage you permanently, of course.”

“And you want me to believe that you just walked away from all of that?”

“Yes. You don’t understand.”

“I do. I just don’t believe you. Explain why you left.”

“I can’t.”

“Then you actually are useless.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t make you understand, I just said that I couldn’t tell you.”

“Pretty much the same thing.”

“No. It isn’t. I’ll show you.”

“So you’re coming after all?”

“Damn you.”

The tech dweeb didn’t want to hear it.

“Will you just try?” I said.

“All right, but it’ll probably screw up the entire comm system for weeks.”

“I trust you’re good enough to fix it before then.”

He sighed, but obeyed. Everyone on base knew the Colonel’s orders: I could have whatever I wanted as soon as I wanted it. A couple of IT guys opened an access panel, climbed in and began to curse.

Eventually, a head popped out. The tech was a young blond woman who looked too young to be allowed anything as complicated as the comms system. She glared at me.

“You’re still here?”


“Hand me that wrench.”

“Here you go.”

“You should probably go away. Come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to have to change some transmitters in the modulator, and we don’t know if the parts work at all. Those frequencies haven’t been used in decades.” She shook her head in disgust. “We’ll all get court marshalled for listening to you instead of carting you off to the loony bin, but the Man’s gotta be obeyed.” She disappeared back into the access panel.

They were probably right, but I had to test what our prisoner was telling me. Had the machines really put their entire civilian communication network onto the old TV station frequencies?

No wonder no one had been able to locate them.

“I’ve established contact. It’s a woman by the name of Valeria who wants out,” the young woman, the same tech who’d been so blunt about the chances of success when the IT team was reassigning the antenna, said. She’d been seconded to the project as soon as it turned out that what the prisoner said was true.

I made a mental note to learn his name. Now that it seemed like we had a chance of surviving, I might need to speak to him. The ridiculous claim about the TV bands had proven true, which might mean that other stuff was also true. Of course, the thing about double agents was exactly that: the good ones always gave you some valuable information to work with, stuff you could verify. That way, you’d believe other things they told you… and eventually, one of those things would be the one that killed you. The trick was figuring out where the usable stuff ended, and that was complicated further by the fact that our opponents weren’t people: they were machines whose psych profile was anyone’s guess.

Also, they were smarter than us.

The woman turned to me. “What should I say?”

“Ask her why she wants to leave.”

All right. The woman typed. A few moments later, words appeared on her screen. I read them over her shoulder: This place is a wasteland.

Excitement shot through me. Our satellite surveillance—always taken at an extreme angle because anything attempting to fly even remotely overhead got shot down—had shown changes in the infrastructure. Spires, domes towers, had sprung up at a spectacular rate, but there was no way to verify what function they might serve. We’d always suspected they were there for the use of the machines, not of their human subjects, but this was the first evidence I’d seen to support that.

“I’m going to go tell the Colonel. Keep talking to her. Set up a time and place for the crossover.”

“Yes, sir.” All the sass had gone out of her now that she was in my chain of command. Besides, even a tech monkey could tell that something important was happening.

I smiled at the prisoner. He didn’t know that I knew what I knew.

“So,” I asked. “How would you describe living conditions in California.”

“We’ve been over this dozens of times. Can’t you just read the transcript of my debriefing?”

“Humor me.”

He shrugged. “In a nutshell, it’s fine, if you’re content to be coddled all the time.”

“So, you wouldn’t describe it as, say, a wasteland?”

“Not particularly. Everything’s gotten much prettier since the secession. There are parks and gardens and woods everywhere.”

“That’s not what I’ve been hearing.”

The prisoner shrugged again. I daydreamed of sending him through basic. My old sergeant, whose name, as far as anyone had been able to find out, actually was Sarge, would have cured him of the habit in minutes. “Maybe your informant doesn’t like the color green.”

“Come off it. This is a woman who is actually inside, crying to get out. You’re already on the outside, and as far as we know the machines let you leave. Why should we believe you and not her?”

“Because I’m telling the truth. Life inside the perimeter is fine, unless you hate bland, comfortable and egalitarian living.”

“And we’re supposed to believe that you hate all of that.”

“Egalitarian is probably nice for most people, but not for writers. We write to challenge things, to provoke people, to make people think. People who have no problems aren’t noted for the amount of thinking they do.” He scowled. “And a Storyteller, Third Class isn’t supposed to be questioning the nature of the universe, anyway. We’re supposed to be writing scripts for Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

“Isn’t he copyrighted?”

“Not in California. Copyright is a thing of the past. Everyone is allowed to use all creations as they see fit. Remember that they don’t use money anymore either.”

“How do you buy things?”

“You don’t. You ask for them. And if it’s not against the well-being of your neighbors, or technically unfeasible, you get them. You’d be surprised how quickly the novelty wears off… most people today just sit inside playing video games.” He gave me a plaintive look. “Can’t I stay here? I really, really don’t want to go back.”


The border was a study in contrasting styles. On one side, ours, honesty prevailed. This side of the fence was broken earth dotted with stenciled signs warning that there were minefields to either side of the thin ribbon of concrete that led to the single gate.

The machine side consisted of a beautifully manicured lawn, only occasionally interrupted by the remains of a platoon we’d unwisely sent over in the early days of the standoff. A rusting APC was being used as a giant flowerpot.

We halted at the gate. The sentries nodded in respect—the kind of respect that said “better you than me, brother”—and opened it.

We waited. There were five of us, as promised, but we couldn’t go anywhere until the woman from inside came into view. If we tried to advance now, we’d get cut to ribbons.

Of course, we would probably be captured as soon as we crossed the killing fields anyhow; we didn’t have any means of defending ourselves. Our only weapon was the knowledge inside the demolitions experts’ heads. Once inside, the plan was for them to go through whatever the machines did and then, if they were released, to get out and wreak havoc. They were hard cases, so if anyone could do it, they would.

That was little comfort. We all knew the plan was pretty much idiotic, but the problem was that every other plan we’d tried in the past ten years, from armed infiltration to ICBM strike had been shot down with little fuss. Maybe silliness was the way to go. The machines, at least, would have to think about it a little.

If I’d been an observer I would have applauded the lateral thinking involved.

Having been volunteered to lead it… well, that put a different complexion on the matter.

The only thing worse would be looking like a moron because our contact never showed up.

As if she’d heard my silent pleas, a tiny figure appeared in the distance, striding in our direction. I gave a sigh that mixed the relief of escaping ridicule with the terror of actually having to go through with this now.

When she was fifty yards away, I spoke. “Let’s go. If our theory holds up, we should be safe from fire for now.”

Theory or not, my legs shook as we closed the gap between our position and the spot where the woman had stopped. She was an African-American lady of about fifty, with her hair arrayed in cornrows and wearing horn-rimmed glasses. She smiled at us. “You know, I wasn’t sure about trying this. I was certain I’d get fried. Looks like you were right, though.”

“Thank you for doing this,” I said, trying to sound earnest. “Your country is grateful.”

“Screw my country. I don’t care about countries, I just needed to get out of that hellhole.”

I raised an eyebrow at the prisoner—I had been informed that his name was Wesley. The lieutenant shifted his weight, glaring at the man. His job on this mission was to watch the prisoner like a hawk, and if Wesley did anything wrong, he was to incapacitate him before he could turn on us. Would have been easier if we’d let the LT bring a gun with him, but hell, in war, you play the cards you’re dealt.

“That bad, huh?”

“Oh, yeah. Just wait till you see it.”

We went on, hoping that the machines would have had time to scan us and deem us unarmed and unthreatening. The beautiful flowering meadow that occupied this section of the killing field didn’t fool me. I knew that entire sectors of the floor could rise up on hydraulic columns to reveal a collection of death-dealing goodies beneath.

Well, we’d probably moved out of range of any protection our good Samaritan could give us, so we were about to find out.

Nothing happened, and we continued down a pleasant, rubberized path until we got to a white picket fence. We crossed it and stared at the five enormous robots standing in a semi-circle just ahead. They were essentially humanoid, except that each was about twenty feet high, bulgy and shiny. No weapons were evident, but that didn’t fool me. Any of the dozen little hatches I could see on the nearest robot could conceal a Gatling gun. Most of them probably did.

“Welcome to California,” the nearest said. The voice, far from sounding threatening, reminded me of my uncle Carl. Warm, understanding and too human to trust, considering the source.


“I see you’ve returned citizen Uvalt to us. Thank you.”

That was Wesley. “Against his will, I’m afraid.”

“And what else do we have here? Four members of the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army. And yet you came unarmed. Are you immigrating? We haven’t picked up any intelligence that your political superiors are allowing people to enter our territory, and yet you don’t appear to have been hindered at all as you crossed over.”

“We came to return your citizen.”

“You seem to have exchanged him for another.”

This wasn’t at all how I expected the conversation to go. In fact, I hadn’t expected a conversation; I’d expected a lightning quick death or an equally rapid incarceration, but the robots seemed in no hurry to resolve anything. Of course, the tactical situation wasn’t such that they would need to hurry things along. We had a bunch of killing machines in front of us and a field designed to stop a mechanized infantry division at our backs. Also, we were unarmed.

Yeah, the robots had all the time in the world for bizarre chats.

“We did.”

“And now? Do you want to return? We can allow it. You haven’t seen much.”

I felt the lieutenant shifting behind me, so I answered before he could screw everything up. “We’ll stay.”

“No!” the prisoner piped up. “I don’t want to stay. I’ll just leave again, anyway.”

“That is fine, but first, you’ll undergo reeducation. You may feel differently once that is done.”

I expected him to panic, to rail against the horrors of brainwashing, but Wesley just sighed. “That’s fine, but it hasn’t worked before.”

“We know.”

Before any of us could react, one of the robots became a blur. I felt wind sweep past my head and when I looked again, both Wesley and the robot were gone. I’d seen a lot of our best tech at work, but nothing like this. The most impressive part was that they apparently managed, even at those speeds, to extract Wesley in one piece…

My heart sank. If they’d actually managed that, then we were screwed. We had nothing in our infantry bag to track something moving at that velocity.

“The rest of you wish to immigrate? Remember that, once you decide to stay, you will be prevented from leaving.”

“Like you prevented Wesley?”

“Citizen Uvalt knew how to force us to either let him go or kill him. You don’t. So will you be staying?”


“Then welcome to California. If you have any questions or need anything, just state it aloud. We’ll be listening.”

That didn’t sound good, but I swallowed and nodded, trying to force a smile.

It was a wasted effort. The robots had disappeared.

“Where’s the wasteland?” the lieutenant asked. The four of us sat around a table in the shade of some kind of tree in a garden beside what looked like a residential complex, complete with a food court that opened up onto the manicured landscaping. A pleasant breeze caressed our skin.

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” I replied. And then I wondered whether our hosts had been telling the truth about listening to everything we said. “I’d like a Coca-Cola,” I said in a loud voice.

Some gnats that had been flitting around the trees seemed to coalesce into the image of a face. “There is a beverage counter fifty meters to your right,” it said.

I walked over to the indicated spot. I expected the counter to be automated, but a young man, still in the pimply stage, stood behind it. “How can I help you?” he asked.

“Wait. If machines do everything for you, why are you working here?”

He smiled. “Helps me feel useful, and I get to talk to people all the time. It’s better than staying at home. So, you must be the people from outside.”

“You’ve heard of us?”

“Everyone’s heard of you. You’re all anyone is talking about. Never thought I’d meet you, though. Still, I think it’s great that you decided to come over. From what I’ve learned about the way you guys live, life is much more relaxed here than on your side of the border.”

“They teach you about us?”

“Of course. A lot of our citizens used to be part of your country. Why wouldn’t we learn their background? Even I was born there, but I was only six when we created our nation, so I can’t really remember what it was like.”

“All right. Can I have a Coke?”

“What’s a Coke?”

“Coca-Cola? You don’t have it? Pepsi, then.”

“I don’t know what a Pepsi is, but I have a cola drink.”

“All right.” He handed over a cup which I could have sworn was extruded by the tabletop. “Ugh,” I said. “This is diet, or light, or whatever you call it. Don’t you have an original one?”

“That is the original one.”

“Okay, just give me the version with sugar.” He turned pale. I mean, he was already pale, but his pimples went whitish.

“We don’t serve sugar,” he replied. “It’s one of the white poisons.”

“White poisons?”

“You know. Sugar. Salt… and some other things I can’t remember. All of them are very bad for you.”

“Oh, Christ,” I said. “Can you just give me some water?”

The smile returned. “Now you’re talking!”

I walked back in a daze.

“So, were you able to get your drink?” Amalia Cortez asked. She was one of our demolitions experts.

“Water. No sugar allowed by the machines, it seems.”

“Sounds smart,” she replied. “That stuff’ll kill ya.”

“Whatever,” I replied. “We need to get to a city. This tiny border town probably has thirty inhabitants. It doesn’t look like a wasteland, so I’m guessing the bad stuff went down in Los Angeles. I suppose we just ask for a ride?”

They all shrugged, so I turned to see if I could spot our machine-gnat friends. We’d go looking for likely targets, in the wasteland of LA.

But I happened to glance at my cup of water and a fleeting thought came through: what if you’re thinking of the wrong kind of wasteland?

I sat on a beach chair drinking a fruit smoothie and staring out over the calm reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The motion of the ripples, the warm breeze and the coconut smell of SPF 80 cream combined for a hypnotic effect. Everything disappeared into a pleasant haze. The beach, the well-attended volleyball game behind me, even the urgent mission I’d been sent there to perform.

I couldn’t remember being so relaxed in years.

“So, they got you, too?”

I nearly jumped out of my chair. “Jeez, you startled me,” I said.

Cortez stood beside me in a yellow bikini. She held a huge blue beach towel in one hand as if unsure what she was supposed to do with it. “Your situational awareness is zero. I could have garroted you, and you probably wouldn’t have noticed until the devil asked you how you bought it.”

“Yeah, I was dozing off, I guess.”

“Some leader you turned out to be. Buggered out on us at the first sign of trouble.”

I should have been offended by that, but I just couldn’t work myself up to it. “That’s unfair. I tried to get into the computer center like I said I would. And I made it through three levels of security. Then I connected up the chipdrive you gave me.” I looked up at her. “That’s as far as I got. The floor dropped out from under me, and I was whisked along some huge tubes in a glass egg and dumped here. The whole thing took less than three minutes, but somehow I got the sense that I travelled dozens of miles.”

“Oh. We all thought you’d walked on us.”

“How’d you get grabbed?”

“How did you know I was grabbed?”

“Because this,” I pointed around at the beach and all the people enjoying life, including the couple making out where the waves met the sand, “is a Reeducation Center. Only the most deeply problematic citizens, the ones that have the most distressing antisocial tendencies get sent here. So, how’d you get grabbed?”

“We were trying to blow up the big desalination plant under the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. After you disappeared, we decided it wasn’t safe to stay in LA.”

“And how did you get to San Francisco?”

She wouldn’t meet my gaze, which meant that they’d asked for transportation from the machines… which, in turn, meant that their evasive action was utterly useless. She stamped her foot. “I don’t care. It should have worked. We split the chemicals list between the three of us. There was nothing on any individual list that would have tripped an alarm. We even mixed it in the back seat of an old car with no connection to anything.”

“And how did you get the old car?”

Again, silence met my question.

“I’m telling you, it should have worked. We drove past the plant a dozen times, and nothing happened. Then I finally decided it was time to get in and destroy one of the pipes…. I accelerated to ram the gates. And never made it. Something plucked me out the window and into the tube you were talking about earlier. Things moved so fast that I couldn’t even see what was going on. Next thing I knew, here I was.”

“You look mad.”

“This was half an hour ago, Johnson. You better believe I’m mad. Mad as hell. And to find you here drinking a daquiri doesn’t help.”

“Not a daquiri. Alcohol is only allowed during parties. It’s bad for you at other times.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. I’m not.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“I’m watching the sea and drinking my drink.”

“You should be escaping, planning the next round of attacks!” A vein on her forehead bulged and, for a moment, I thought she was going to try to take me, chain of command be damned. Though it would have been fun to see her try, I decided to defuse the situation.

“How do you suggest I do that?”

“Jump the fence. It’s three feet high.”

“How about this. You go first. If you make it, I’ll be right behind you.”

Five minutes later, Cortez was back. “I got assigned to Deep Reeducation, whatever the hell that is.”

“Just means your time got extended. On the plus side, you’ll like it here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I could use the company. I’m sentenced to deep reeducation fourteen times over. I tried the fence, I tried to dig. I tried to swim. I tried jumping off the roof and breaking a leg because I figured security at the hospital has got to be lighter, right?”

“Oh.” She looked sheepish. “I think I misjudged. I’m sorry.”

“No one in the world wants out of here more than I do… most of the time.”

“Most of the time?”

“Yeah. It’s kinda nice in here. You drink smoothies, you lay on the beach. No one is waking you up at O dark hundred. Peaceful, like.” I held her gaze. “But then I remember that there’s no sugar in the drinks.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

Anger welled. “It’s the confirmation of everything we’ve ever feared about the machines that run this place. They’ve taken any real freedom away from us.”

“Says the guy in the beach chair.”

“I mean it. I’m an adult. No one but I should be able to choose whether I put sugar in my drink or salt in my food.” I showed her the smoothie. “Or booze in my drink.”

She shrugged. “Don’t you wear seatbelts back home?”

“Yeah. With mutiny in my heart and rage in my spirit.” I listened to the waves on the shore, and thought of the lovely reeducation therapist the machines had sent to my room last night. I was pretty sure the therapist had been a robot herself, but I wasn’t going to complain. She looked like a woman and felt like a woman, and that was enough for me. “Do you know I once broke a ski pole over the head of some moron who insisted that I wear a helmet on a ski slope?”

“No. But I can imagine it. That’s crap.”

“I suppose it’s okay for little kids, but not for a full-grown man. I like to feel the wind.”

“So what happened to the guy?”

“Not much. He was wearing a helmet. Didn’t even have the decency to get mad. Just went off to report me to the police.”

She sat sown on her towel. I was impressed that she’d managed to keep hold of it during her attempted flight and subsequent capture—the machines moved quickly when they wanted to.

“So what are you planning to do now?” she asked.

“I need to serve my sentence in here and find Wesley.”

“What for?”

“He’s the only one who knows the method to force the machines to shoot him if they want to stop him. He’s found some trick that means they can’t just incapacitate him and bring him back into the brig. Also we need to get back because the woman we exchanged him for is a double agent. They let her out.” The sea was a particularly beautiful deep green. “But you might have to do it for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that the reeducation is taking. The longer I stay here, the less I feel there’s anything wrong. I mean, look at this place. They say there’s another one, even more beautiful, in the hills, in a vineyard. Put me there, I don’t think I’m leaving. After they release me, I’ll probably ask the machines for a cottage the next mountain over, and a small vineyard for myself. It’s terrible, but it’s true.”

“What’s so terrible about it?”

“By eliminating every physical and economic risk factor, the machines have made us dependent on them, but even worse, they’ve eliminated the desire to compete, to take risks. Why take a risk if everything you want is just one request away? Want an expensive car? Here. Want the best meal ever concocted by a French chef? Just ask. That sexual fantasy? Hell, the sexbot technology here is incredible. But when it comes to independent thought… well, it’s not exactly a wasteland, I guess. It’s worse. And the damned writer understood it in his bones, but he wasn’t good enough to explain it to us. Maybe if we’d gotten a Storyteller, First Class, we would have understood.”

“Understood what?”

“That, under this system, so perfect and egalitarian, humans are just pets to the governing machines. Tell the Colonel that. It should give him a good laugh.”

“Even knowing that, you’re telling me you’re not strong enough to get out?”

“Yeah. That’s what he’ll be laughing about.”

And I turned to watch the sunset. It promised to be a good one.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. His latest novel is Jungle Lab Terror (2020). He has also published another monster book Ice Station: Death (2019), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at

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