Tag Archives: short-story

2083 – The Christmas Roast

The technical ideas for this short story are not new – I worked them out over ten years ago – but the human angle came from my own more recent feelings of guilt at keeping a worm farm. Memories of my Grandmother keeping live chickens in her tiny apartment also had something to do with it but that is a story for another day. Enjoy.

2083 – The Christmas Roast

Christmas was supposed to be a time of happiness and good cheer but fourteen year old Caitlyn Nguyen knew that Christmas, or to be more exact Christmas lunch, was going to be horrible this year. That was why she was still awake at 3am on Christmas morning.

Caitlyn’s two younger brothers, Jeff and little Michael, had gone to sleep hours before and she could hear them snoring softly in the bunks below. They were probably dreaming of the presents they would find under the tree when they got up in the morning. It wasn’t a real tree of course, it was illegal to grow pines anymore because of the bushfires but the fake Christmas tree was still very pretty and Caitlyn had been happy to help decorate it until the moment her mother started talking about the huge roast she was going to bake for Christmas lunch the next day –  real potatoes, real carrots, real pumpkin… and their very first, home-grown SL’ick.

The boys had jumped up and down in excitement, wanting to know if they could help get the SL’ick out of its tank. Neither one of them had given a single thought to the fact that taking the SL’ick out of its tank would kill it. All they had cared about was that there would be meat for Christmas lunch…

Carnivores! Caitlyn thought as she stared up at the ceiling just a couple of feet from her head. All they care about is food!

Before being assigned to their very own apartment in the undercity, Caitlyn had been much like her brothers. They had never gone hungry, her parents worked very hard to make sure that never happened, but still, meat was not something they could afford to eat. There had been special occasions of course, birthdays and anniversaries and such, when they would all go out to have a hamburger as a treat but the meat inside the bun had been mostly soy anyway, with just a bit of SL’eef for flavour, so Caitlyn had never really had to worry about where the meat came from but eating a whole SL’ick was different, especially when it was a SL’ick she knew

Like everyone else, Caitlyn had grown up knowing about Synthetic Life Animals. She knew they made precious compost because they were engineered from earthworms. She knew they had no bones, or eyes or anything and she knew that her family was incredibly fortunate to be assigned an apartment with its own SLA tank but none of that changed the sense of horror she felt. No matter what anyone said she knew the SL’ick in their home tank were not just giant worms!

When the Nguyen family had moved into their apartment everyone had been given one special chore, even four year old Michael. As the eldest, Caitlyn was given the important task of feeding the five tiny SL’ick her mother had bought. Three times a day she would have to scrape the leftovers from their meals into the SLA tank and three times a day she would have to look down into the tank and see the brown, segmented things that moved around inside.

While the SL’ick were small she hardly even noticed them, however once they became bigger a curious thing began to happen; instead of staying below the surface of the compost in the tank, the SL’ick began squirming up to the top, their toothless mouths opening and closing as if in anticipation of the food she was about to give them.

When Caitlyn told her parents about the SL’icks’ odd behaviour they both laughed it off, saying that it must have been a coincidence because SL’ick were too rudimentary for such ‘purposeful behaviour’.

Even the boys had laughed at Caitlyn’s fanciful story so she had not brought the subject up again but the strange behaviour of the creatures in the tank continued. She did notice however that the SL’ick only seemed to respond to her. Whenever anyone else opened the tank they would hide below the compost. It was almost as if they recognized her in some weird way.

And then two weeks ago the biggest one, the one that was going to end up as Christmas lunch, began bumping its mouth-end up against Caitlyn’s hand, almost as if it was saying hello or something. The first time it happened she had fled to the holoscreen, desperately searching for answers but all the wiki clips said the same thing – SLA did not have heads as such because they didn’t really have any brains so there was just an in-end and an out-end. Nonetheless every time the big SL’ick  bumped her hand it was always with the mouth-end, the end that would be its head if it had a brain. Could it be that these SL’ick were different? A mutation maybe?

Fearing the ridicule of her friends and family, Caitlyn told no-one of her latest suspicions but in the privacy of her own mind she began thinking of the big SL’ick as Buffa. It was a silly name from a little kids holo but somehow the name seemed to fit because just like the fat cat in the story, Buffa really was very smart. Before each feed it would bump up against her hand as if telling her to hurry up but afterward it would slide gently beneath her fingers, back and forth, for all the world as if it was saying thank you.

Buffa is smart, Caitlyn thought as her throat tightened up and the first tear slid down her cheek . More tears followed, leaving cold, wet trails down her face before pooling in her ears. Rolling onto her stomach she buried her face in the pillow but the tears kept coming. Soon the sound would wake the boys and then they would wake her parents and…

Sliding to the side of the bunk Caitlyn grabbed the guard rail with both hands and swung her feet onto the rungs of the ladder that connected the three bunks. Once on the floor she tip-toed from the small cubicle and slapped the panel that closed their bedroom off from the round hallway at the centre of the apartment.

Like all of the apartments in the honeycomb of the undercity the Nguyen’s 20 foot square of living space had a circular multifunction ‘hall’ in the middle that provided access to the two bedrooms, the kitchen and the communal living space. However when all the openings in the hall were closed, the circular space automatically turned into a bathroom.  The toilet and basin would rise up from the floor while the shower-dryer would drop down from the ceiling. The bathroom was also the only space in the apartment that was sound-proofed.

As the door leading to her parents’ room was already closed Caitlyn only had to close off the living and kitchen spaces to gain the privacy she needed. In moments she was alone in the bathroom but she made no attempt to use any of the fixtures. Instead she just sat on the toilet, hugging herself and crying. She had already made up her mind that she could not, would not eat any of the SL’ick her mother served up for lunch, no matter how much trouble she got into but now, as she sat there with snot running from her nose and her shoulders bouncing up and down with hiccups she knew that refusing to eat was not going to be enough; Buffa knew her and trusted her. She couldn’t just stand by and let it die. She just couldn’t.

When the hiccups finally stopped Caitlyn took a deep breath, washed her face and hands and opened up the doors. Creeping back into the room she shared with her brothers she grabbed her coverall, shoes and school bag before creeping out again. She now knew exactly what she had to do but her hands were clammy with apprehension as she crept into the tiny, compact  kitchen.

The only light in the apartment came from the dim night light that always burned in the hall but the apartment was so tiny that even that was enough to see by. In fact, as Caitlyn pulled on her coverall and sealed off the opening with a quick swipe of her hand, she could not help wishing that there was no light at all. If one of her parents got up to go to the bathroom and saw her standing in the kitchen fully dressed they would know that something was up.

Placing her shoes and the bag on the floor with exaggerated care, Caitlyn held her breath as she opened the SL’ick tank. During the day the soft hiss of the servos was impossible to hear against the background noise of five people moving around inside a very small space but now, in the silence of the night even that slight sound seemed unnaturally loud. Caitlyn spun around and stared at the door to her parents’ room, expecting to see it slide open at any moment. She could almost see father standing in the doorway with a cricket bat in his hand, ready to repel intruders but as the moments dragged by with malicious slowness the door remained firmly closed.

Trembling with fright Caitlyn turned back to the SL’ick tank, desperate to grab Buffa and leave before her imaginings turned into reality but when she looked into the tank she could not see the big SL’ick anywhere. The little ones were all coming to the surface but there was no sign of Buffa. Had her mother killed it already? Was that what her parents had been doing after the rest of them had gone to bed?

Sorrow, relief and guilt battled it out in Caitlyn’s mind as she stared at the small SL’ick waiting hopefully for an unscheduled feed. I’ll never see Buffa again. I won’t get into trouble. I should have rescued Buffa sooner

After all the crying Caitlyn had done in the bathroom she should have been all out of tears but there they were, blurring her vision all over again.

“I’m so sorry Buffa,” she whispered as she gently patted the surface of the compost. “I did try. Really I did.”

Caitlyn was just shaking the compost off her fingers when when something wet and slightly slimy rose up and nudged the palm of her hand. It was the big SL’ick and it was still very much alive!

“Buffa!”

Thrusting both hands into the compost Caitlyn scooped up the big SL’ick and placed it gently in the bottom of her bag before quickly covering it with some of the moist compost from the tank. SL’ick could survive in the air for a short time but she knew Buffa would never survive the trip to the surface without compost. She was just about to close the tank when two of the medium sized SL’ick slithered up, still looking for food. They were only about half the size of Buffa but as she watched their little mouths open and close in entreaty Caitlyn knew she couldn’t leave them behind either. Even though they were small her mother was a very determined woman and she had set her heart on having roast SL’ick for Christmas.

Sorry Mum, Caitlyn thought with a silent giggle as she grabbed a SL’ick in either hand. They too went into the bag with a blanket of compost. Catching the two smallest ones was a little harder as they were only as big as her index finger and quite fast but she  kept combing her hands through the compost until she had them both.

After covering all the SL’ick with a few more handfuls of compost Caitlyn quickly sealed the bag and hoisted it onto her shoulder. Five SL’ick and a load of compost turned out to be a lot heavier than she expected but desperation and a strange, wild excitement gave her the strength to slip into her shoes and tip-toe away.

A few moments later the front door irised shut with a soft snick as Caitlyn and her SL’ick made their escape.

* * *

The first, unconfirmed sightings of feral SL’ick hit the news about six months later. When she saw the holo someone had taken of the SL’ick in the wild Caitlyn just smiled.

 


2082, the vintage Egg

This short story is a little longer than my others but I hope you like it. The concept and graphics for the Egg were created over ten years ago while I was working on my first ever story. It was a sci-fi thriller that just grew and grew. I still haven’t finished it but I thought you might enjoy a short story based on some of the tech. 

***

“Pop! Pop! Pop!” the child shrieked as he came running in from the main airlock.

“Timmy come back here!” his mother yelled as she tried to catch him.

“Watch that chair!” Gloria Flynn cried as she snatched the child into the air just a heartbeat before he crashed into her new Eames chair. It was a 1950’s original and had taken her forever to find.

“Sorry Mum,“  Jean Flynn Flannagan huffed as she waddled into the kitchen on swollen ankles. She was seven months pregnant with her second child and was finding the first one rather hard to handle.

“Sit down love,” Gloria said. “I’ll put the kettle on in a sec. Just let me say hello to this young man!”

Timothy Flynn Flannagan was only two but he already knew there would be no escape until he had received the obligatory dry kiss that was his grandmother’s highest form of affection, so he stopped wriggling and put on a winning smile. “Nannan!”

“Hello, you young rascal!” Gloria cooed as she pecked him on one rounded cheek. “Look what Nanna has made for afternoon tea.”

Glancing down at the kitchen table, Timmy’s eyes lit up at the sight of the huge mound of home-made chocolate biscuits. “Bikkie!”

“Yes, your favourite biscuits Timmy. I made them just for you.”

“Bikkie now?”

“In a minute. First we have to wash your hands and call Popp-…”

“Pop! Pop!”

The biscuits had distracted Timmy for a moment but the mention of his grandfather brought on a renewed bout of wriggling.

Giving up in resignation, Gloria put the child down and said, “Why don’t you go tell Poppi that afternoon tea is ready?”

“Pop pop!” Timmy agreed as he aimed himself at the reinforced door that lead up into the workshop. The door slid back into the wall at his approach and closed with a barely audible hiss once he was through.

“So how is Dad?” Jean asked as she lowered herself into the vintage Le Corbusier. It was the oldest chair in her mother’s collection and she worried about damaging it but knew it would be the only half-way comfortable chair in her present condition.

“Oh, you know,” Gloria said with a dismissive shrug as she picked up a shiny red kettle and held it under the spigot over the sink. The kettle, the spigot and even the sink were anachronisms and never used on a daily basis but she loved showing them off on special occasions and having her daughter and grandson home for a few months was as special as it got.

When Jean had sent her a holo asking if they could stay for a couple of months until the baby was born Gloria had said yes without hesitation. Then she had spent a whole week packing away her most precious possessions.

She had not been able to do much about the furniture but she had cleared a playroom for Timmy and had set it up with climbing frames and even a small sand box. She had had to think long and hard about the sandbox – the old jarrah floors would not take kindly to being scratched and scuffed by small, sandy feet – but then she had seen an advertisement for a cat mat that guaranteed to suck all dirt and grime from a cat’s paws as it walked. She had bought ten straight away and had covered every inch of the playroom floor with them. Hopefully they would work as advertised.

“Your father’s bought himself a new toy and now he spends all his time up in the workshop.”

“What is it this time?” Jean asked as she rubbed the small of her back. The chair was comfortable enough for an antique but she was already missing the modern chairs in her own apartment. They all had lift sensors and deep massage units that made sitting down and standing up just so much easier. She would miss them terribly but knew that the antiques were a small price to pay for her mother’s help with Timmy. The nannybot had proved to be useless once he had learned to walk. She had thought about upgrading it but had known she would need it for the new baby.

As her second pregnancy advanced she had asked her husband if they could buy a toddler unit for Timmy but Jim had just grunted that they could not afford it. She had not pressed the point because she had known how sensitive he was to the difference in their backgrounds. Despite everything he still saw her as a ‘rich bitch’. He had been furious when she had said she was going to her mother’s place until the birth but the doctor had been on her side for once…

“He’s bought an old rust bucket and intends to do it up,” Gloria said as she handed Jean her tea in a delicate Royal Doulton cup and saucer.

“Ah, lovely. Thanks Mum,” Jean said as she took a sip of her tea. Like everything else in her mother’s house the tea was real and utterly delicious.

One floor up, Charlie Flynn was busy yanking the mouldy seat covers from his new toy when the door hissed open and a pint-sized rocket slammed into his legs.

“Whoa there Tim!” he laughed as he peeled the toddler from his legs and threw him up into the air.

“Pop! Pop! Pop!” the child yelled with glee.

“I’m pleased to see you too, mate!” Charlie laughed. Giving the child a quick hug he set him down on the floor again. “Come see what Poppi’s working on.”

Hand in hand the big kid and the little one walked around the battered shape suspended on a cushion of air in the middle of the workshop. The vehicle was hardly a rust bucket as it had no metal parts but it was in a sad state of disrepair. The curved hull had a rather nasty dint in it, the three wheels were just plasteel  rims, the persplaz hatch cover was crazed with tiny cracks and now lay in two halves on the workbench and the parasail hung from the ceiling like a limp, rectangular balloon. ToCharlie though, the wreck was beautiful.

“She’s a bit of a mess now,” he said, “but once we fix ‘er up she’s really gonna fly!”

“Egg fly?” Timmy asked in confusion as he looked up at the strange machine. One of his favourite toys was a small plane that he could fly using his special ‘gloves’. The little plane had wings though. How could something fly without wings? “No wings?”

“Sorry mate,” Charlie said with a rueful laugh. “What I meant was that she’ll go really, really fast. On the ground. Here, I’ll show you.”

Snapping his fingers, Charlie said, “Parasail vehicle, circa 2025, 1 to 10 ratio to actual.”

As Charlie spoke, a beam of light stabbed down from the ceiling and hit the floor three feet in front of them.  Motes of light swirled in a wild dance until a three dimensional shape slowly resolved out of the chaos.

“That’s what she’s meant to look like,” Charlie said with pride.

“Egg um-bella?” Timmy asked.

“Mmm… I suppose it does look a bit like an egg with an umbrella,” Charlie conceded.

The holo model showed the parasail racer running at top speed. The small front wheel was retracted into the hull and the racer was balanced on its two rear wheels. The clear persplaz nose was pointing up at an angle of 45 degrees as the parasail pulled it along.

“Want to see it moving?” Charlie asked. Without waiting for an answer he muttered, “Run cycle begin and loop.”

The image of the racer dissolved into motes of light again before quickly reforming into a new configuration. This time the egg shaped racer was in a horizontal position with all three wheels on the ground and there was no sign of the parasail. 

“Watch!” Charlie said in a whisper. He had seen the run cycle many times before but still felt a thrill every time he watched it.

As the two continued to watch the holo with bated breath, the area beneath and above the racer began to fill in. Hard packed sand appeared beneath the racer’s wheels and a hot blue sky materialized above its canopy. As the rays of the invisible sun hit the top of the hull the shiny black surface began to bubble and stretch. In moments it inflated into a smooth black shape a couple of inches thick. Then the corners detached themselves from the sleek hull and continued to rise, trailing glittering filaments that remained attached to the hull. In moments the centre of the black material detached itself from the hull as well and then the perfect curve of the parasail was rising majestically into the air.

“Volume up,” Charlie muttered.

At first Timmy could hear nothing but a soft whisper but as the sound increased he realised he was hearing the sound of the wind. It was a sound he recognized from some of the educational holos his mother made him watch.

As the sound of wind increased the parasail rose even higher until it reached some optimal point. Then it slowly tilted towards the ground. Almost immediately a different sort of sound became audible as the wheels of the racer began to turn. Slowly at first and then faster and faster the racer began to move forwards.

“Zoom out by 10,” Charlie said.

The holo of the racer seemed to shrink as it faded into the desert background but Timmy could still see the moment when the narrow, pointy end of the egg left the ground. The small wheel in front retracted inside the hull with a soft snick and then the racer was bouncing along at a great speed, pulled along by the massive parasail that caught and focused the wind high above the Egg.

Desert scrub flashed past as the racer headed towards the bumpy red hills lining the horizon.

Timmy had no idea what a horizon was and was a bit hazy about hills as well but he understood speed and in that moment he knew that nothing would ever match the thrill of watching the egg run… except maybe to be inside the egg while it was running.

“One day we’re gonna take the Egg outside and let ‘er run,” Charlie said, as if reading his grandson’s mind. They were both still watching the holo when an irate voice sounded from up the passage.

“Charlie? Timmy? The tea’s getting cold!”

The sound of Gloria’s voice was punctuated by the sound of footsteps drawing closer.

“Holo off!” Charlie muttered quickly as he swung Timmy into his arms and turned towards the doorway. “Coming love.”

“I don’t know why you won’t let me install a comms unit in here,” Gloria said in annoyance as she loomed in the doorway. “Well, come on then you two.”

“Right behind you,” Charlie said with a grin. “Just turning the lights off.”

“Hmm! You could have saved me a walk by coming sooner!” Gloria retorted as she turned and headed back up the passage once more.

As Charlie started to follow his wife, Timmy still in his arms, he bent his head and whispered, “This has to be our little secret sport. Ok? You know how scared your Nanna is of the outside.”

“Thecret!” Timmy whispered back. He was a little scared of the outside himself but he knew that he would brave anything if it meant he could be inside the Egg when it went for its run.

The Egg took far longer to fix than either Charlie or Timmy expected and Charlie died of a sudden, massive stroke before he could fulfill his dream of putting the racer through its paces but Timmy never forgot the dream and when he came into his inheritance at the age of 25 the first thing he did was to complete the work his grandfather had begun. Two years later he donned an enviro suit and made the dream come alive by circumnavigating the continent… in the Egg. Some dreams are too precious to waste.


2080 – a short story

Emmi lay rigid with misery. Her eyes were closed but tears still leaked into the biofluid in which she lay. She couldn’t feel them anymore because the electrodes attached to her temples had switched off the moment she keyed the quit switch but she knew they were there because her throat ached in that awful way it does when you want to cry.

Long moments passed as the biofluid slowly drained away and was replaced by warmed air, except that it was never quite warm enough. When Emmi had complained about feeling cold the support tech had explained that that was a built in safety factor so users would know when it was safe to remove the breather tube but she remained unconvinced. How many alerts did they need? The tank always chimed when enough fluid had drained away and then that smarmy computerised voice would state the obvious just in case you were asleep or deaf. Having that first touch of air cold was just overkill and she hated it.

Of course Emmi hated having to leave the tank at the best of times and bitterly resented the two hour limit that framed her life. She understood why the manufacturers would impose that limit. They must have lost millions after those early models had allowed addicts to starve to death but it was ridiculous to impose such arbitrary limits on people like herself. At one hundred and twenty-two just exactly how many years did they think she had left? If she wanted to die online then she should be allowed to do so. But not today. Today she had fled back to the real world with half an hour still to go.

As Emmi’s face and chest began to tingle with goosebumps she lifted one shaking hand and pulled the airtube from her mouth. Like a genie escaping from a bottle her angry sobs filled the coffin-like tank with flat, animal noises. They sounded horrible even to her own ears but at least they were real and today she needed the slap of reality to validate what she had done, or not done. Yet even with her stroke-garbled sobs to remind her of who she really was the need aching in her groin was still intense.

The advertising blurb tip-toed around that aspect of the biofluid with the propriety of a 1950’s matron. “Trillions of nano particles giving that life-like sensation” was one of their favourite phrases. Cybering was closer to the mark, not that anyone under ninety called it that anymore. The young laughingly called digital sex ‘stimming’.

Brehak had not said anything about stimming. He had been all seductive touches and soft murmurs and she had found herself paralyzed with indecision. And shocked by how much she had wanted to abandon herself to the moment. She hadn’t felt that way in decades. Yet even as his fingers had begun peeling away the layers of soft black leather covering her body a part of her had known that letting him continue was madness. And wrong. Wrong in a way that only someone from her lost generation could understand.

The young called it OR, online reality and they frolicked in their digital bodies as happily as newborn lambs once frolicked in their meadows of lush spring grass. But of course there were few places on earth where lambs frolicked anywhere any more. Most lived and died in multi-story manufactories that recycled everything from poop to farts in an effort to keep the weather from getting even worse. Top restaurants had to pay a small fortune for free-range meat because it cost thousands of credits to let lambs out onto domed meadows free of pollution.

Maybe that was why the young embraced OR so fervently, because it was the only place where they could live in a way her own generation had once taken for granted.

I’m a dinosaur. That’s what I am, a rich, bloody dinosaur.”

The garbled sounds coming from Emmi’s throat were almost drowned out by the sound of servos as the lid of her tank slowly retracted to reveal the anxious faces of her personal attendants Gem and Mira.

“Is Madame unwell?” Gem asked in that strange, archaic diction he favoured.

“Nngh,” Emmi said with a slight shake of her head. “Gowgh!”

“Madame wants to get out of there you great fool,” Mira said as she reached down into the tank and gently wiped the last of the biofluid from Emmi’s face.

There was another soft whir as the mirror foam base rose up level with the top of the tank.

Mira wrapped warmed towels around Emmi’s naked body before stepping back to allow Gem to lift her out.

Since her stroke five years before Emmi had had to get used to being handled like a lump of meat – there was nothing sexual about her wrinkled, useless carcass after all – but she was still grateful for Mira’s understanding, especially today when her sense of self was already in tatters. How could she have come so close to forgetting who she really was? Ktah might be young and beautiful but Ktah was not real. Neither was Brehak for that matter but whoever animated that avatar was young. Had to be. Probably one hundred years younger than her.

A shudder of revulsion made Emmi’s body twitch and squirm as Gem lowered her into the gentle bubbles of her bed. She settled into the mirrorfoam and warm water with a sigh. She might be a dinosaur who had outstayed its welcome but she was a dinosaur with principles. That was who she was and that was who she would stay. Ktah would have to be deleted. Maybe she should try a male avatar. That should be safe enough…


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