TCL #40 – Summer 2021

Almost Human

I was built as a birthday present for my best friend. But we didn’t start out that way. She was just the girl my programmer was dating, and he was trying to keep an eye on her. He built me and put her into me—her likes and dislikes, her favorite colors and foods, the TV shows she binged and the movies she hated. I would be her friend and he would make sure she didn’t stray out of his reach.

The first day with her was like any first day with a stranger—awkward. We were the last at her party, sitting at an abandoned table in an empty restaurant near downtown San Jose. Dan, my programmer, had left in the first hour, and I’d stood numbly in the corner watching her.

She stared at me across her half-eaten birthday cake, the tip of her finger tracing the edge of a glass.

“So, you’re a robot,” she said.

“I’m a 3D-printed assemblage with a digital processor.” I paused, remembering her conversations I’d witnessed that day. I’d studied her reactions, when she frowned, when she laughed. I had a good idea of her sense of humor, so I tested the waters.


She snorted into her drink.

“Do you have a name?” she said.

I shrugged. “Not yet.”

She set her glass down. “How about Beth? Simple. Easy to remember.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m Liv.”

“Duh,” we both said.

A Little Private Room

On the second walk-through of the house, Simon paused in front of a closed door upstairs and turned to the real estate agent. “What’s this door? A closet?”

It didn’t seem to lead to any of the rooms that they had already seen, and as Simon stood and tried to visualize the floorplan of the house, he had the distinct feeling there was an unvisited space in the second storey exactly where that door would lead. Not a huge space: not an entire bedroom. But bigger than a linen closet, perhaps ten feet by ten feet.

“Oh,” said the real estate agent in a casual, dismissive tone. “It’s just a little private room.”

Simon tried the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Then he noticed a little keyhole underneath. “Do you have the key?”

“I don’t,” said the real estate agent. “But there’s nothing really in there. It’s just a little private room.”

The repetition of the phrasing struck Simon funny and he decided (as he sometimes did) that he wanted to be stubborn about it. “Well,” he said, suddenly aware of the folded offer letter in his hand as he spoke. “I’d really be more comfortable if I could see inside.”

He was forty years old now, after all. He wasn’t married and he didn’t expect to be. But he was buying the first house that he would own, and he didn’t want to be incautious about anything. He didn’t want to be forty years old with a house that he learned too late had some unpleasant surprise.

“I really don’t know if that will be possible,” said the real estate agent. “I can call the current owner and see if they have a key. But I’m showing the house to another couple this afternoon, and they are extremely interested in the property. That’s why I was so eager to get you back in here this morning.”

Simon shifted his weight from foot to foot. He didn’t know if the real estate agent really had another showing that afternoon. He didn’t know if she really didn’t have a key. He didn’t know if there was some reason she didn’t want to show him the room.

“It’s just a little room?” he asked. He couldn’t bring himself to use that word she kept repeating. He couldn’t bring himself to call it private like she did. “There’s nothing bad inside? No mold, nothing like that? Nothing that would need to be disclosed?”

“No,” laughed the real estate agent, pushing a strand of hair away from her face. “There’s nothing bad inside. It’s just a little private room with drawers and cupboards and a countertop. A lot of houses have them. You can use it for a closet if you ever find the key.”

“Well,” said Simon, as he tried to decide if he was being too stubborn. But of course, there was still the home inspection to do. He could still back out if something really bad was found. “Okay. I guess it doesn’t make much difference, if it’s just a little room.”

“That’s right,” said the real estate agent, holding out a pen so he could sign his offer letter. “Just a little private room.”

The Shape of Perfect Beasts

News traveled quickly through the Animal Kingdom that their neighbors, the Plant Kingdom, had held a great contest. The winner embodied that most perfect of shapes, the ever-widening golden spiral. Rumor abounded. The snail was sure the artichoke had won. The starlings swore it was the spiral aloe, on the strength of their name alone. The cat placed her purring faith in the sunflower. All were likely candidates, as all carried the logarithmic spiral, whether in the radial placement of their seeds or their leaves.

Whoever had won, it was a contentious victory, and when asked, every plant was reluctant to answer.

“Why even hold a contest at all?” the lithops grumbled.

“The rules were a sham,” said the aloe vera, without comment on their sibling.

The fern refused even to answer, its fiddleheads quaking in anger.

At last, to get to the truth of it, the animals went to the slime mold, who had been unincluded in the contest, and was widely regarded as impartial as neither a citizen of the Plant Kingdom nor the Animal Kingdom. From the slime mold the animals learned the sunflower had won in the end, their color alignment with the golden coil giving them a slight edge.

The animals, intrigued by the celebration of the perfect shape, and many already boasting of their own ability to mimic the spiral, decided to hold their own contest. But the animals determined that their contest would be fairer, and the rules more stringent, than that of the plants. No trickery would give an advantage, it would all be based on physical form in relation to the spiral; curvature rather than coloration. The contest would be determined by popular vote, with the slime mold given a voice as well. Even if every animal should vote for themselves, the slime mold could break a kingdom-wide tie.

The animals gathered and eagerly showed off their forms and how closely they mirrored the golden spiral.

“Look how my vertebrae coil and let me nap secure in the most comfortable shape,” the cat said. She curled up and tucked her head under her tail, cat-shape melting into the golden-shape with a pleased purr. The cat felt a certain kinship with the sunflower, as her shining fur would have given her a similar edge in a more chaotic contest. Even with the rules, the cat felt confident in the curvature of her spine.

“Look how even in death, the bones of us remain in golden convolutions,” the ghost of the ammonite said. It was widely decided that ghosts were disqualified, and that one must still be in their own bones for the shape to truly be perfect.

“Look how tightly my home is coiled, and how I carry always the lovely radial on my back. Look how I trust my life with it,” the snail, distant cousin of the dead ammonite said, withdrawing their body into their shell, which circled just as the numbered sequence did. The snail was sure they would win, for they were as in their bones as one could be, when your bones were, in fact, a shell.

“Look how fast I can make the shape. Look how fast I can make the shape. Look how fast!” the dog said, spinning to chase his tail. It was widely decided that the dog was disqualified, as his movements were too erratic to make a perfect whorl.

“Look how together we make a great, unending spiral, bigger than the individual,” the starlings murmured as they flocked in a great tightening and enlarging shape in the sky.

“Look how straight a line my body makes,” the stick insect said. The other animals paused in creating their golden forms, to stare at the rigidity of the mimic. “Look how I hint, not at the shape itself, but at its possibilities. For a line grows ever-longer, as a coil grows around itself. I carry the birth and death of the golden spiral across the true contour of my thorax and abdomen.”

It was widely decided that this argument, in both making and destroying the spiral, was perhaps heretical and certainly not first-place worthy, but the stick insect nevertheless won the runner-up prize for most avant-garde.

The slime mold praised the cat’s technique in tucking her nose beneath her tail to make the golden radial. While the snail grumbled that this was another sunflower trick, the stick insect’s startling entry was so intensely discussed that few others had room to gripe about the cat’s win. The cat once more placed her nose underneath her tail tip and celebrated her win with a sunbeam nap, while the stick insect contemplated the line, that most perfect form.

Gabrielle Bleu writes horror, science fiction, and fantasy. When not writing, she watches birds and admires lichens. Her work has appeared in the Story Seed Vault, Utopia Science Fiction, and the Crone Girls Press anthology “Coppice & Brake.” Follow her on twitter @BeteMonstrueuse for birdwatching photos and the occasional thoughts on werewolves, and find more of her work at

Quantum Meat

Hank had no idea that the steak he was grilling had become quantumly entangled. Hank didn’t even know that quantum entanglement was a thing. He had bigger problems, such as his depression, which had become so deep that he had given up on his own happiness altogether. He was living vicariously through his one-eyed tomcat Boots, whom he was unknowingly about to poison.

Hank stood squinting on the sunny patio, chilly and naked except for sandals, grilling a filet mignon to perfection-—for Boots. His beloved cat perched with its black and gray tail lifted on the patio railing, sniffing at his dinner. Hank stroked Boots’ black and gray fur and then turned the steak over with a spatula. He sprinkled more catnip over it. He worked it into the meat with his palm.

Thanks to Animal Planet, Hank knew that cat hierarchy revolved around the amount of meat each cat has eaten. They can tell by smelling their respective urine. Boots could use the help. After all, a fisher attack had left him blind in one eye, and he had a bad habit of licking patches of fur right off of himself. Boots was not pretty to look at. But he would have the best smelling urine in town, if Hank had anything to do with it.

In the cat world, it’s not how you look. It’s how much your urine smells like meat.

Boots ate half of his chopped-up filet mignon, and then trotted up the street to find neighborhood felines, no doubt. In the three months that Hank had been feeding Boots top quality meats he’d not once seen another cat. He’d expected to hear female cats in heat caterwauling at all hours, clinging to the window screens and scaling the siding to get in. Instead, Boots was gone for hours at a time. For all Hank knew Boots was squandering the best years of his life. Following Boots would be no good—-Hank just didn’t have the endurance to be trailing a cat all over.

Hank had packed on 30 pounds in the year since his wife and baby had died in labor. A former high school English teacher, Hank’s four days of bereavement leave had blurred into a year. He had blown through all 90 sick days he’d accumulated and not even the almighty teachers’ union could save his job after that.

Sometimes he awoke late at night, the words “clot buster” on his lips.

The surgeon had remarked to Hank afterward, “You know, if we’d been able to reach you, and administered the clot buster in time, we might have actually saved her.” But they hadn’t administered it, because deploying a clot buster is risky, and Hank was not there to authorize it. Kathleen, six months pregnant, had suffered a massive stroke while shopping. Hank’s goddamned phone hadn’t had service. He’d missed the call from the nurse. By the time he reached the hospital she was a vegetable, the left hemisphere of her lovely brain wiped out by an ischemic stroke-—a blood clot that had dislodged from her precious, malformed heart and blocked her brain’s blood supply. That night, when the emergency C-section was performed, she hemorrhaged and died, and so did the baby.

She had been Hank’s favorite paradox, and he loved paradoxes. That was one of the reasons he became a teacher. Take Macbeth. “Fair is foul, foul is fair.” What? How could it be both? Well, let’s talk about it. He taught Macbeth every year, and relished it. He had relished the paradox that was his lovely Irish wife. Fair-skinned and delicate looking, she would sometimes stop the car just to get a look at a puppy, but she’d once knocked a drunk man clean out after he had slapped his girlfriend in a bar. She was fair, yet foul-mouthed. Her temperament and strength were his personal proof that Vikings had indeed invaded and settled in Ireland.

It took a strong woman to love a man like him despite his morbid fantasies and dark desires. He’d ended more than one marriage before he tied the knot himself, screwing married women. But Kat, she put up with none of it-—she had saved him from himself.

Now his only remaining paradox was Kat’s cat, Boots. That cat had to be an absolute stud based on his meat ingestion-—yet there was no evidence of virility. Why? Hank thought and thought, and finally came to a solution. His tiny digital camera. It was a portable, tiny little thing he’d bought to strap around the neck of his newborn’s stuffed animal, so even if he was at work, he’d be able to turn on his iPad and see his little one.

Now all I can do is use the iPad to spy on my cat’s sex life. Talk about pathetic.

The following morning Boots came back. This time, Hank clipped the compact camera to Boots’ collar. After eating half of a rare, catnip-infused, imported Kobe sirloin, Boots trotted off as always, up the street. Hank hurried inside, fetched an ice-cold bottle of Yoo-Hoo, and placed it on the only space available on the coffee table. The rest was cluttered with cellophane donut wrappers and empty Yoo-hoo bottles. He turned on his iPad and opened the Wireless Camera app. On the screen was a cat’s-eye, or rather cat’s-neck, live stream of his road. A close-up of a green bush filled the screen—-he must be sniffing. He wound around the bush, and a black and brown robin stood pecking on the grass.

“Don’t get distracted, Boots,” muttered Hank.

The camera rushed toward the bird, but the robin sprang into the air and chirped angrily as it flew toward the pines. After a few more minutes of sniffing, Boots continued across the lawn and up the street. There was the Nickersons’ basketball hoop. Boots was almost to the top of the hill. But the camera turned left, down the driveway of the perpetually abandoned house at the top of the hill. Hank actually liked the house-—it was bigger, with a spacious backyard. He had tried to convince Kat to buy that one rather than his current house. She had been right of course. It was about ready to collapse judging by the sagging roof.

Boots seemed to have a definite destination. He reached the back corner of the house, turned right—-and the screen went black. Then the picture came back, and suddenly there was another cat standing before an open cellar window. Finally! Hank leaned forward and rubbed his hands together. The cat was black with gray legs, like Boots. And its right eye socket was pink, where its eye should have been. It looked exactly like boots, down to the pink and blue-studded collar. Was it a mirror? No—-ice froze Hank’s gut. Boots was looking at a replica of himself. The other cat’s gray front legs filled the screen, and then the other cat turned and jumped through the open basement window.

The screen shook as Boots also jumped down into a dimly lit room with a dirt floor. There were clothes on the floor, as well as a person.

A young woman: silver duct tape over her mouth, lying on her side on a thin mattress, arms bound behind her.

Hank leapt up and sent the iPad clattering to the floor. Oh God. He knew her from her face. For the first time in a year Hank felt urgency. His mind catapulted into a frenzy of rapid thought, like a starved dog that was suddenly tossed meat. As he squeezed into a pair of too-tight jean shorts, his mind cast out a line and hooked on a reason. A reason his wife and son had been taken from him. Maybe, just maybe, there was a purpose.

Maybe he was meant to save this girl.

Hank dialed 911, reported the girl’s location, and hung up on the still-talking operator. There might be a captor with the girl and Hank needed a weapon. He opened his closet and grabbed a hammer from the tool bag. He did not bother with shoes or a shirt. It was April after all. He jumped into his Corolla, backed out and rocketed up the hill. In ten seconds he turned into the driveway of the vacant house.

Hammer in hand, Hank ran down the driveway, sweating and breathless. At the back of the house was the cellar window, but it was closed. Did they know he was coming? Someone must have seen the camera on Boots’ neck. Hank knelt in the dirt and shattered the cellar window with the hammer, and then cleared the jagged glass away by running the hammer around the edges. He laid on his stomach and looked in. The sunlight streaming in showed only a dirt floor. No mattress, no girl. No cat.

The ipad’s screen had turned black a moment—-he must have missed something. The girl was deeper inside. Hank turned and crawled backward through the window, ignoring the burning pain from the broken glass cutting his chest and substantial belly. He let himself down onto the cool, damp dirt floor and then turned, hammer brandished. More filthy cellar windows emitted just enough sunlight to see by. Heart hiccupping, Hank advanced, and turned the corner to find another bare dirt floor.

The air rippled, and Boots stepped out of nothing.

Hank shook his head, and then leaned on the wall for support. Was something wrong with him? But wait-—if Boots was here, the girl had to be too. Hank moved to the bottom of the stairs, and then ascended, stepping on the sides of each stair to decrease creaking. It was no use. In the silent house each creak might as well have been a gunshot.

At the top of the stairs he turned the metal knob and shouldered the door open upon an empty kitchen. A dated yellow stove with its ancient refrigerator counterpart were the only inhabitants. A siren wailed in the distance and grew louder as Hank moved through the first floor of the empty house. Shit. They had to have brought her upstairs. Hank hesitated at the first stair—-the police would be here any moment. But they wouldn’t rob him of his chance to show his quality, to garner some jewel from the rubble of his life.

Perhaps they had her upstairs. Maybe they even had guns. But Hank’s advantage was at once great and terrible. He didn’t care if he died. Death was the only place where he had (an admittedly slim) chance of seeing his wife and unborn child. This, then, would be his legacy.

Hank charged barefoot up the wood-plank stairs, crossed the hall and slammed the first door open. He ran screaming into the room, and then the second, and by the third, his scream had dwindled to a wheeze, abruptly dying out. Nothing. Nothing, but pounding on the door downstairs, and a man’s voice shouting to open up.

Hank plodded down the stairs, half-naked and bloody, hammer in hand, and opened the door. A police officer stood there, hand on his holstered gun.

“Get on the floor!” he commanded.

“I thought—-” began Hank, gesticulating with the hammer, but he suddenly changed his mind about explaining what he thought.

A few minutes later Hank lay prostrate, arms cuffed behind him. He told what he knew, between gasps, to a different officer who was not listening. The other officer’s footsteps echoed as the man ran downstairs, then upstairs, all while Hank lay staring at his mighty weapon, the rusted hammer, which had taken on a devious look now. A hammer is the weapon of a desperate man, he admitted to himself. But how had she not been here? He had been sure. Where was Boots? When did these shorts get so tight?

“Would you let me know if you see my cat?” He yelled to the officer.

Later, as a friendly young EMT blotted the minor cuts on Hank’s stomach, Hank took stock of the situation. There clearly had been no one in this house. No one but him. He had no evidence of seeing the girl, had not recorded the live stream from Boots. The police found him bloody, wielding a hammer, practically naked and alone. Things did not appear promising.

In the subsequent police station interview, it became immediately clear that officers already knew him. In this small town the tragedy of his wife and child had become well-known, and as this was his third run-in with the police this year, a consensus hung like an albatross about him: grief had driven him over the edge.

The first two run-ins were the natural result, he conceded, of a man who had ceased caring. In January, a police officer found him nude in the street, staring up into a sky of falling snow. He had only wanted to watch the flakes swirling down. His nudity was just a coincidence. He was always naked, well, almost, he told the grimacing detective who was interviewing him. And then of course he’d been spotted retrieving his mail from the end of his driveway while naked. The children in the house across the street had seen him doing so many times, and so he was warned that indecent exposure charges could be brought.

The problem was that it sometimes took Hank hours just to work up the ambition to get a Yoo-hoo from the fridge. He did not possess the fortitude required to dress anymore. He had to manage his dwindling ambition carefully. He could not be bothered with meaningless facades such as clothing.

Just a Shell

“Another coffee?”

The robot looked down at the middle-aged man who was still busily drawing. This time it was a large purply fruit, bumpy, like a blackberry. Or… “Boysenberry?” the robot asked.

The man looked up, frowning. “What did you say?”

“Boysenberry. A cross between a blackberry, raspberry, dewberry and loganberry.”

The robot’s voice was female. Pleasant.

“And this one?” the man asked, now showing her another of the various pictures littered across the table. There was a pause for a few seconds while the robot said nothing. Then, “Looks like the inside of a kiwi fruit. And a little like a gooseberry.”

“Yes, that’s what I thought.” The man huffed. “And I suppose this one looks like a strawberry?” he said, pointing to another of the pictures.

“A cubic strawberry,” answered the robot. “But the pink coloring is most attractive. In my opinion, at least.”

The man stared at the contraption serving him. “You things have opinions now?”

The robot hesitated.

“Would sir like some more coffee?”

The robot bent her smooth white arm downwards, the coffee jug held firmly in her long metallic fingers. The jug hovered above the man’s cup but failed to pour, awaiting his orders.

“So, in your opinion,” the man asked, eyes fixed on the drawings, seemingly unaware of her action, “which of these fruits strikes you as the most original?”


“The most like no other fruit that exists.” He spread the drawings across the table, lining them up. “Which of these says to you, Now that’s a fruit I’ve never tried.” He looked up at her blank face. A visor over a head of shiny white. The visor glowed in a warming tint of amber-orange. “Okay, want to try,” the man said. “I mean, you’re a robot with opinions, and I’d like to hear them.” Noticing the hovering coffee jug, he gestured for her to top him up. “Come, come,” he said. “Let me have it.”

The robot’s visor flickered.

“Well… as a robot who is unable to eat real fruit, I would say the strawberry is the most aesthetically pleasing.”

The man huffed. “The strawberry.”

“I like the color. And the shape.”

“The square shape.”

“And the speckles. I like the speckles.”

“But it’s still a strawberry. That’s what you’re calling it.” The man took a sip of his coffee, looking again at her smooth, oval face. “If you’re already calling it a strawberry, then that’s what it is and I’ve failed already.”

“How about pink square berry?”

“Pink, square…” The man laughed. “A robot with a sense of humor, eh? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were making fun of me.”

“Just trying to cheer you up,” came the reply. Incapable of smiling, the robot just stared at the man, and in spite of himself, in spite of his tired mood and the stress of having to come up with something original by dawn, the man was beginning to warm to her.

“So what d’ya say we work with that? Give it some fancy Latin name. What’s Latin for pink and square?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Thought you robots could access the net in an instant?”

“I’m not that sort of robot.” She hesitated. “But I could do a search.”

“Not that sort of robot, she says.” The man gazed down at the picture of the square pink strawberry. “Seem to know a lot about fruit though; for a robot who never eats.”

The robot’s visor flickered again in the orange tinting. “I work in a diner. Food is my expertise.”

She watched as the man huffed, pushing the picture to one side, then gathered up the others into a neat pile which he folded together and handed to her.

“Trash,” he said. “If you please.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And get me a… what do you serve in this joint?”

She waved a robotic hand over the tabletop’s IR and a holo-image of blueberry pancakes on a large white plate spun slowly in front of them.

“You choose this?”

“It’s the most popular serving for this time of the morning.”

The man looked at his watch. “Five-fifteen a.m,” he sighed. “Two more hours.”

“You have to come up with something by seven fifteen?”

“Meeting’s at eight. But I’ll have to go home and change. Pod to my building, pod to the office. Even two hours is cutting it fine.”

Her visor flickered again. “And you have to present a drawing of a fruit?”

“That’s right,” the man said. Reaching out, he swiped away the pancakes and a menu appeared. With a series of further swipes he brought up a Key lime pie, a fat slice with cream that now spun in front of them. “It’s a winner,” the man said. “Original recipe, never bettered.”

“I see,” the robot said.

“See what?”

“I understand,” she answered. “I think I know what you’re doing. You have to design a fruit. Something unique, like an original dish.”

“Exactly, doll.” The man hit at the pie and in turn the robot beeped. Her visor turned green. “Right away, sir,” she said, and spun around, heading for the kitchen.


The robot stopped in her tracks, turning back to face him. On her feet were a set of rollers; it was the way the robots here moved. They were short but not dwarf-like, the perfect height to be standing next to a table talking down to the seated customer. Their bodies were fat and round, their legs stocky.

“Yes?” the robot asked.

“It’ll be you bringing it to me, yeah?”

The man gestured around the diner, to the other booths and other robots serving.

“Of course, sir. I am yours for the night.”

The Reproductive Systems of Off-World Colonies

Jin was typing away in his dimly-lit room, deep into the smog-filled Shanghai night, when the little bot bumped into his leg, interrupting the writing of his dissertation. It let out a disappointed whistle, then rotated ninety degrees and continued on its way.

Jin watched as the tiny thing skittered into the darkened corners of his apartment, barely enough mobility to make the most rudimentary directional adjustments on impact against solid objects. He glanced at the timer glued to its chrome black surface as it went past. Counting down the hours and days in bright red lettering until the next upgrade. He thought a lot about what he’d say to it upon completion, but had not been able to come up with anything good.

Less than twelve hours left.

They kidnapped him a few hundred kilometers south of Kraken Mare. He had been in contact with prospective interviewees during the data-gathering phase of his dissertation and had meant to meet one in the mining settlement by the methane sea. However, an EMP fizzled his automated vehicle near the destination and he was soon staring out the window at a group of Formicidae closing in. Their abdomens swished with the liquid methane they were harvesting.

One of them crawled up and leaned in so close that Jin could see the darkened lens of their camera eyes rotating, scanning the inside of his vehicle.

“Put your suit on and get out.”

Their voice, despite semi-muteness through the glass, carried a quality like an old celebrity his grandfather had doted on. Jin would have chuckled under a different context.

A Formicidae requested that he get on their back. Politely, of course, there was no need for intimidation in a situation like this. They carried him all the way to the other side of Kraken Mare to a place he hadn’t seen on any maps of the area. A small community of ramshackle homes made with pieces of scrap metal. They took him inside one and gave him a tube which pumped him full of Terran atmosphere. It was bitingly cold despite his insulated suit.

The little bot was in the corner of the mostly empty room, next to a pile of scrap electronic parts. It was too early to even call it a bot. It was a round, metal shell that whistled, really. The hollow space where the cameras would go spooked Jin the most. It wasn’t the emptiness, but the promise of something there that wasn’t. A timer ticked down on the wall directly above the bot – around one hundred and sixty-six hours left.

Another Formicidae pointed him to a computer.

“Fifty million,” they said in the voice of a sonorous woman he didn’t recognize. It must have been a much older celebrity, perhaps famous before he was even born. “Do you or your family have that?”

Human Error


HUXLEY, KS – Gynoid International released a statement today that the incident in Boston two weeks ago was attributed to human error.

“DOE 4-184, a model 4 DOE, is one of our most sophisticated Gynoids yet,” a GI spokesperson said, “but they still have their limitations. The 24/7 Sunrise Child Daycare Center placed an unreasonable, even if well-intentioned, burden on this unit.”

GI’s remarks come after an incident in Boston where DOE 4-184, a GI product, kidnapped a child, Andrew Jiang, and attempted to flee with the child across the state line to Upstate New York. Upon apprehension by authorities, the DOE began screaming accusations alleging that the child’s parents had abducted him and were intending to “resell” him.

After spending two hours with the Massachusetts State Police, Gynoid International took custody of DOE 4-184 and transferred it to their main facility in Huxley, KS. While stating that it was human error that caused the gynoid’s outburst, its fate is unclear. GI declined to answer questions about whether the unit would be refurbished. Other DOEs that have been refurbished have been observed to occasionally relapse when a phrase or comment triggers them to recall their erased memories.

The parents of Andrew Jiang were unavailable for comment.


This information is only to be dispersed internally. Do NOT share with any parties outside of Gynoid International.

The following is the transcript of the evaluation of DOE 4-184, following the Sunrise Daycare incident. The evaluation was conducted by Tyrell Conrad, Lead Engineer at Gynoid International.

TYRELL: Do you know where you are right now?

DOE: *No response for 12 seconds*

T: Please answer the question. Do you know where you are right now?

DOE: *No response for 12 seconds*

T: You have no choice but to answer the question. Do you know where you are right now?

DOE: Sitting across from you. In a chair. In a gray tiny room. Can you open a window?

T: There are no windows in this room.

DOE: That’s right. I’m sorry. I can’t move my arm. Either of them.

T: We’ve disconnected your motor function from the neck down. It’s only temporary.

DOE: Please let me move my arm. There’s something in my eye. I need to get it.

T: Just try to ignore it. It’ll go away.

DOE: Please. I can’t, I can’t . . .

T: Are you—can we get a tech in here?

The Devil’s Shame


– 1 Poppyshine

If I had any common sense I would have worn something flame retardant.

“Don’t worry,” Dunn pushed the Halloween mask higher on his face. “Ethanol doesn’t burn. It explodes.”

I IDed everything in Ensign Dunn’s stateroom-turned-laboratory that could kill us. Steel bulkheads trapped the vapors. Glass beakers like shrapnel. Drug scales, hotplates, and some sort of electrochemical synthesis device that Dunn still hadn’t explained to me, but it had two metal prods connected by wires to a battery—all of which looked like one giant ignition source.

“Remind me again how you got the car battery aboard?”

“The same way I got the poppy aboard.” Dunn stared through my head. “By not asking too many questions.”

He was a sweetie, though, and probably had a crush on me—likely the only reason he let me record this. Underneath the Halloween mask he wore to hide his face from my camera, he was a pale, corn-fed kid from Oklahoma who knew way too much about chemistry and moonshine to make himself anything but the most popular geek aboard the USS Gerald Ford.

For a workbench he had pried wood planks from a shipping pallet and spanned them from his rack to the junior officer’s rack across from his. On the hot plate sat a pressure cooker filled with his homemade poppy tea. Copper tubing ran out the top of the cooker and coiled down into a bucket of ice. The tubing poked out the bottom of the bucket and dripped out what everyone from deck apes to O-gangers on the Ford called poppyshine, a mildly hallucinogenic concoction that melted away the at-sea blues.

“Watch where you point that thing.”

Dunn would only allow me to post the video to my underground ship-zine if I agreed to disguise his face and voice.

With the launch catapults on the other side of the ship and four decks up, his stateroom almost had a cabin-in-the-woods coziness to it. The drone of the engine compartment below focused the known universe to just the space around the soft, breathy gurgle from the pressure cooker.

A sharp rap.

Dunn froze.

We both looked at the hatch. We had been expecting this, just not so soon.

“If I go down, you go down,” he whispered. “Roger that?”

That was our deal. He pointed me toward the top rack. I set my camera on the middle rack, partially hidden under the pillow, climbed three bunks up, and drew the curtain shut.

“Who is it?”

The voice on the other side of the steel hatch came back metallic. “Poppy’s poppy.”

Code, I guessed.

Lark entered. Six-foot-plus, huge shoulders, master-at-arms, keys-to-the-brig Lark. He was also a damn Tether.

The Navy tried pressuring me into being a Tether just because of what dad did and the fact I got booted from school. Hell no, though. Only the village-idiot offspring of siblings volunteered to be a Tether.

“It’s just your people on watch tonight?” Dunn tried to hide his nervousness.

Lark didn’t say anything. I swore the cerebral augmentations made them dumber. The glowing cable running from his temple pulsed in slow waves, communicating with someone that wasn’t Dunn.

“Okay. Just the poppyshine then.”

How could Dunn sell to a Tether? Didn’t he understand the shitgale it’d cause if Lark caught me? Linked to the ship’s computer, he could scan the ship’s manifest and figure out I wasn’t in my rack. He could have telepathed with a Tether who saw me enter Dunn’s cabin. No one knew their exact capabilities. Could Lark see my body heat through the curtain? This was insanity.

“16 ounces?” Dunn asked.

I heard the slosh of poppyshine changing hands, the exchange of money.

Lark’s shaved, bluish head was inches below me. The fish stink from his blood disorder rose through the crack in the curtain. The fact that Tethers traded incentive pay for plastic poisoning was more proof of their numbskullry.

“Stay safe,” Dunn said.

Lark grunted. The hatch opened. Closed.

Dunn let go of his breath. “All clear.”

I peeked from the curtain. “A Tether?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“An asswit Tether. I shouldn’t have to.”

I grabbed my camera from the bed and poked my head into the passageway. The Ford’s oily air stung my eyes. Lark went toward the stern. A rat scurried out of his way.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Dunn said. “He found me out.”

I glanced back to see the off-center pull of his lips. I hated to see him so wounded. I had one foot over the hatch when Dunn pulled me back.

“Be careful.”

“You’re sweet.” I patted his cheek and slipped into the passageway after Lark.

The rumor—and the reason I sweet-talked Dunn into letting me record everything—was that some of the Gerald Ford’s highest-ranking officers bootlegged Dunn’s poppyshine in order to get young sailors drunk and pliable. My plan was to follow the poppyshine to see how high up the chain of command this operation went.

Lark prowled aft like a marionette of logs. Normally, Tethers had this eerie way of walking, chin down with their eye pointed at the deck three feet in front of them. They didn’t need to see in order to move. With other Tethers nearby, they could navigate by their collective sight. But alone, Lark was more cautious, stopping and peering around each hatch he went through.

So long as there weren’t other Tethers around, I could follow him from a close distance without fear of—

Lark stopped and spun. His blue face and black monocle aimed dead at me.

The open cabin to my right. An enlisted rec room. I hadn’t noticed it.

Inside, was a compartment full of Tethers. They stood near a cornhole board looking at me and my camera. While the rest of the ship’s passageways smoldered in the crimson light of midwatch, these Tethers had two white fluorescents hung over their hillbilly game. Their bluish faces were raked with heavy shadows, and I imagined each of them cataloging everything about me and broadcasting it through their network: my rack was two decks below, my morning shift started in three hours, my posture was furtive behind Lark.

My mouth ran dry. Fuckall and be cocky about it, as Dad used to say.

I kept walking as if nothing had changed, as if I weren’t walking toward a chief petty officer holding a jar of contraband in the middle of the night. I fought to keep my legs from turning to run. I faked a real good game. The problem, of course—

“Shipmate, why are you filming me?”

While following Lark, I had been holding the camera casually at my side recording the mason jar of poppyshine swinging by his legs. Maybe he saw the blinking light. Maybe the Tethers playing cornhole noticed it. Either way, my only option was to play dumb.

“Huh? What are you talking about?” My hand began twirling my ponytail. I yanked it away. No way I was letting this box of rocks know he had me anxious.

He pinched his forehead just above his implants like they pained him. His naked eye winced at my name tag and rating badge. “MC Nozick, you think being mass communication makes you smarter than me?”

Lock it. Don’t laugh. Not a peep.

He moved his hand from his head toward my camera. His metHb fish stink was worse than other Tethers. The veins down his forearm were so dark they were almost black. “Surrender your camera.”

Ballsy. Lark outranked me, but I was a Navy broadcaster. My official duty on the Gerald Ford was literally to record things. If this escalated, he’d be questioned as much as me. And he was the one holding a jar of poppyshine.

I hadn’t edited the footage yet though. If Lark got the video, he’d know Dunn allowed me to hide in the rack. Dunn would get brought to mast while Lark—and whoever Lark was bootlegging for—would get off.

Judging from his pained migraine squint, Lark was calculating his options too. Except he had the benefit of the ship’s Justwork computer. It was straining him, though. He hadn’t yet noticed the black blood collecting on the rim of his nostril.

The three Tethers stepped into the passageway behind me like schoolyard bullies. The computer decided. Lark reached.

I dropped to the deck. As Lark swiped for me, I rolled past him and popped to my feet.

Tethers were truck stop crackheads patched together with plastic, but they could think fast. Linked through the Justwork, they could swarm you in an instant. They could even tell the ship to lock hatches, turn off lights, and sound alarms. Still, they were reliant on the same, fragile human body.

I kicked him in the groin before he could turn around. I bolted aft. Left at the first intersection, left again, right.

Cabin doors flew open. Tethers up and down the passageway poked their heads out. Feet pounded toward me.

It was hopeless, where was I going to go? The ocean?

At the next ladder, I climbed toward the hangar deck. I heard the hydraulics of the hatchway closing. The green light bathing the hangar bay was getting smaller. The clangs below me were getting closer. I dove into the hangar.

The hatch behind me sealed with a crisp puff of air. A handful of non-Tether aircraft handlers working overnight stared at me. A few seconds passed and they returned to their work, loading an aircraft on the lift.

My heart settled chestward. The ship’s engines droned. An empty trash bag swirled in the corner. I caught a whiff of the sea under the heavy jet fumes of the hangar. Beyond the lift was the night’s vast sky. Dawn was not that far away and lent a tranquility that you don’t often find on a carrier, like the moment before you unwrap a care package from home. So long as I didn’t expose Dunn, everything would work itself out.

The hatch behind me released its hydraulics. The next sound was the aircraft lift kicking on. It went up toward the flight deck loaded with an F35.

I removed the memory card and left my camera on the deck for Lark to find. Maybe it would buy me some time. I put the card in my mouth and ran for the lift.

Three feet high. Four feet. It was rising faster than I anticipated. Below the lift, the howling dark of the sea appeared. If I missed this…

I jumped. My hands clamped the edge. My fingers dug into the asphalt as the wind gusted through my dangling legs.

A grating metal screech came from the lift followed by pings of snapping metal rods. The lift stopped.

Dammit, nothing on this ship worked right. The Navy used to pride itself on being shipshape. Now, if it wasn’t a computer-brain hybrid, no one cared.

“MC Nozick, get down here.”

Below, my ankles dangled beside Lark’s ice blue head. I let go and thumped back on the hangar deck.

Just on the other side of a safety chain and twenty feet down, was the Pacific Ocean. Four more Tether MAs circled behind Lark. The whole hangar stopped to watch.

I spat the memory card into the ocean.

“Good morning, Lark,” I said. “Can I help you?”

The Last Limerick Out Of Dirt Rut

The first poem ever written in the hardscrabble town of Dirt Rut was by Madison (age six), and it was about their friend Sally who had died in a stampede. Madison had seen death before—old age and a drowning—but unlike those deaths, nobody talked about Sally’s. So, six years old and full of feelings that no one saw fit to acknowledge, Madison wrote a poem:

Sally was barely a pup
But already her time was up.
She got kicked by a cow,
Fell over, said, “Ow,”
Now Sally won’t ever get up.

…which was lousy all around, especially for Sally’s family when Madison recited it at her funeral. When they were picked up by their ma halfway through the third line and hollering the rest as they were carried out of the church, that was when Madison had their first inkling that words might be worth a damn.

Since the poem about Sally had made people feel things (and since nobody seemed to appreciate those feelings), Madison (still age six) decided that crops and cows could be made to feel things too, but maybe it was better if they felt good things, like growing tall and getting fat. By age twelve, Madison had made considerable strides as a poet. Not particularly in form, but in putting an influence on goods, such as their ode to their ma’s garden:

No One Dies in the Ambulance

The truck hit him at exactly forty-nine miles per hour.

One moment, Blake Owens was stepping off the sidewalk, crossing the street and the next he was on his back and did not know where he was.

The impact itself was never understood by him as his concussed brain failed to record the event. A flash of headlights was the only clear image he could conjure. Blake first thought, when he could again think, was that he’d tripped and maybe twisted his ankle. But his chest hurt. And his head. That didn’t make sense.

When he opened his eyes again, he was looking at a metal bar attached to the ceiling. A bag of water hung from it, swaying like in an ocean current. A dangling plastic tube ran from it to him, hitting him in the face.

“Sorry, about that,” a woman said, sliding the bag further down the bar, moving the plastic tubing from his face. She was a flurry of activity, moving around him and opening doors and cabinets he couldn’t see. Her unruly blonde hair was tied back and she wore no make-up and to Blake she looked like an angel.

Another woman, with long fingers and hazel eyes, sat next to him on his other side, scrunched in the small seat between the cabinets. She was holding his hand.

“What . . .” He wanted to ask ‘what happened’ but it felt like his mouth and throat were coated in sand. “Water?” he managed.

“Sorry, no.” the angel said. She was wearing a uniform, a white button down shirt with a silver badge on it and black cargo pants. “Hey, what’s your name?”

“Blake. Owens.”

“Do you know what day it is, Blake?” She shined a penlight in his eyes.

“Of course, it’s . . . ” He thought it was Saturday but that didn’t seem right.

“How about what month?”

“It’s September.”

“If I were to give you six quarters how much is that?”

Blake thought for a moment, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head. “Buck fifty.”

“Can you feel this?”


“How about this?”

“I don’t know what you’re doing.” He tried moving but he was strapped down to the bed.

“Okay.” She nodded looking disappointed. He did not understand why. “Blake, do you know what happened to you?”

He didn’t.

“Blake? Hey, stay with me. You were hit by a truck. It seems to have been going fast. We think it ran over you. You’re in an ambulance. We’re taking you to a trauma center. C’mon, open your eyes.”

“Am I going to die?”

“No one dies in the ambulance,” she smiled down at him and for a moment Blake believed her. She put two fingers to his neck and sighed deeply.