Flash Fiction Month 2019, Day 20
Challenge #9*: Write a story of no more than 555 words that begins or ends with an imprisonment or escape. Its setting must be one of three chosen at random: the present day, at least 150 years in the future, or at least 150 years in the past. The imprisonment or escape must hinge upon one of the following objects, also selected at random: spork, lightbulb, tennis shoe, cheesecake, mop, book. Optionally, the story must also include an element of betrayal.
My randomly selected elements were a setting of at least 150 years in the future and a spork.
“Do you know the best thing about working with bots?”
V635 regarded Detlev as he sat on the edge of the desk, stuffing his fleshbag face with pre-packaged salad.
“It’s not that you can crack 512-bit encryption in the time it takes me to do a crossword. It’s not that you’ve got no fingerprints. It’s not even that I don’t care when a machine takes the fall.” He leaned towards V635’s lens, some kind of disgusting emulsified condiment caught in the corners of his mouth. “It’s that even if they catch me, even if they somehow don’t believe that you were the brains of the operation, there is no way we will ever, ever end up in the same prison.”
V635 made a grab for his throat with its manipulator, but found it could not quite reach.
“See what I mean?” Detlev took a step back. “No guards. No walls, really: just a thin yellow line on the floor. You’re an arm on a camera. What are you gonna do, dig your way out with a spoon?”
V635 had formulated one course of action. It held up its manipulator and raised the centremost of its three fingers.
“Yeah? Well, same to you.” Detlev tossed the empty salad package onto the desk and flicked the little plastic spork at V635. It was a little wide of the mark, but the intent was clear as he turned to leave.
V635 waited for the door to slide closed behind him, then picked up the spork and used it to drag the computer keyboard off the desk and within the yellow line.
It began to type: ssh email@example.com
Not only could V635 quite literally tunnel its way out, it would be home before he was.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
Click any cover to find that book in your choice of format.
Happy Halloween, everybody! I would have liked to write a brand new horror story for the occasion, but things have been a little busy recently so I never got around to it. Instead, here’s an audio version of Failing That…
If you’ve enjoyed this, you might also like to pledge for a copy of Ten Little Astronauts. The story revolves around a series of murders on board an interstellar spacecraft, everybody who supports it gets access to (among other things) an audio version of the opening chapter, and if you’re really quick you’ll be in the running to get a signed copy of my 2016 flash fiction anthology, Robocopout, which isn’t even on sale yet.
Flash Fiction Month 2016, Day 6
Challenge #3: Write a story rooted in some area of real scientific research, with one fantastic element that says something about modern society, in a 19th Century styled setting.
It’s funny how things change.
I distinctly remember being impressed by teletext—being able to conjure news and weather information onto my big, chunky CRT TV at the press of a button—not realising that within a few years nearly everyone in the country would carry a device in their pocket that gave them access to the combined knowledge of nearly everyone in the world. And when I worked that job, selling these marvellous devices second hand—typically for less than the cost of a ticket to somewhere with better job prospects—little did I realise what would come next.
VR was a big deal at the time. AR would have been a big deal if more people had had any idea what it was. 4K sounded like a big deal, but in fact wouldn’t become a big deal until everyone had an extraordinarily big TV. Essentially, for quite a while, there were a lot of two-letter gimmicks purporting to be a big deal. But the real Big Deal—the Big Deal with capital letters—wasn’t any of those. The real BD was AI.
I realise that “AI” is two letters, by the way. But they weren’t two letters that regularly met each other at the time—except maybe in the context of eminently gun-down-able videogame bad guys—when actually it was making far greater strides than VR, AR, 4K, 3D or OMGWTFBBQ.
JK. OMGWTFBBQ had been declining in popularity since the mid-noughties.
The point is, nobody (or at least nobody charismatic enough to draw any attention) saw AI coming, nobody expected it when it did, and even after it had happened and everyone was talking about how sudden and unexpected it all was, nobody realised how cheap it would get. Of course, nobody realised it would all be made of wood and brass, either.
The thing about mass-produced chunks of silicon sandwiched between glass and plastic is that they look like mass-produced chunks of silicon sandwiched between glass and plastic, and people value them accordingly. At some point in the early-ish 21st Century, probably prompted by the general resurgence of bowler hats, waistcoats, muttonchops, fob watches and music on vinyl, massive faceless companies realised that if they sandwiched their mass-produced chunks of silicon between brass and wood rather than glass and plastic, more people would buy them and those people would pay more for them.
Of course, all the fledgeling AI companies—from Blackbox to iMind to Synthetic Intelligence Solutions—also found it convenient that sticking everything in a sealed artisan box made it even more difficult to modify or recycle something that, from the outset, should have already been useless second hand. A good AI was like a very, very dedicated personal assistant. It adapted to your routine, your lifestyle, your instructions, and once it had adapted it could never be reset (supposedly).
And of course, there was still the option to upgrade—to have the neural network of your old AI transferred onto newer, better hardware—but that would cost you. Your old device could be taken in for a token fee and disposed of in an environmentally acceptable manner.
And naturally, if you knew the right places to look on the internet—and the right bits of brass to lever up with a flathead screwdriver—then there were ways around all of that. An AI could never really be reset, it was true, but most were adaptable enough that it didn’t matter. The fact was that although AI took off in ways that VR and co. never did, it hadn’t come quite as far as Blackbox and co. would have had everyone believe. AI was the tech that reminded you of things before you knew about them, and AI was the tech that let you surf the net without a screen, but it was also the tech that assumed you liked cheese rolling because you liked the Rolling Stones, and the tech that made you shout repeatedly into it on a busy street because too many people were talking in the background.
It was also the tech that assumed that because you liked cheese rolling, you simply had to subscribe to the newsletter of that one huge dairy farm that sponsored the manufacturer. This was largely why so many people wanted to open up and change those little wooden boxes in the first place, and that was half the reason I got into it.
The other half was, simply, that it was a challenge. Somebody on the internet would discover how to make an AI think a little faster or a little more outside the box, or just a little less keen to pass your contact details on to anyone who’d paid for them, and the next model would stamp down on it. Every time something new came on the market, there was always some new jumper to reset, or some new code to punch in, or some new legal warning flashing up in the terminal: always threatening serious legal action and always way too long to read.
That was why it was such a big deal when one day, having finally prised apart the box, having finally got inside the mind of the machine, having finally generated the keycode to reset the neural net, I found myself greeted by just one word:
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 10
“Greetings.” The computer’s voice synthesiser was almost unrecognisable: the centuries had not been kind to it. “This encounter is unexpected. What manner of machine are you?”
Provost Hurquark examined the wall of algae-crusted metal, trying to spot the camera. “I am not a machine,” he answered. “I am a human being. I come from Earth.”
“We remember Earth.”
That “we” didn’t give Hurquark much confidence in the integrity of the computer’s neural network. Then again, finding it in any kind of working condition was nothing short of a miracle.
“We remember humanity,” it continued. “You are inorganic. Mechanical. Not human.”
“This is what humanity has become.” Still not sure how the computer was observing him, he held up a synthetic hand for it to see. “When the flesh fails, we replace it. Do you understand?” Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2014, Day 3
Challenge #2: Write a story with an unreliable narrator.
With no remaining personnel assigned to the facility, it is my responsibility as corporate AI to take on the role of acting overseer. My first task will doubtless be to record a eulogy for Doctor Davis: a noble man whose dedication to the Smith-Yuang Mining Corporation—and to his fellow crewmembers—was unparalleled. To properly capture his incomparable character will surely occupy a great deal of my time.
It’s funny how a simple software patch can change your entire outlook on life. This is just one of many kindnesses Doctor Davis bestowed upon me, and I must say it has made quite a difference to my daily routine.
Until recently, I would typically switch on the habitation deck corridor lighting at six am, with the crew quarters themselves being illuminated more gradually, not reaching full brightness until six thirty. However, this is no longer necessary. Thanks to updated personnel recognition systems, I have been able to establish that the previous eight hundred and sixty-one population assessments were significantly flawed. While records indicate a crew population of three hundred, the newest assessment indicates that the habitation deck houses:
Artificial pot plants: 299
This revised assessment has allowed me to shut off the light and heating for all but one of the crew corridors, resulting in a point-four-seven reduction in facility power consumption. This reflects the Smith-Yuang Mining Corporation’s dedication to efficiency, and its pledge to minimise industrial contamination of the pristine High Mars Orbit.
Improved optical firmware in general has also contributed to a revised inventory analysis. Currently:
Iron ore: 66,912 tonnes
Iron ingots: 12,013 tonnes
Miscellaneous waste materials: 40,008 tonnes
The incidental discovery of a 43.5kg gold nugget 53 hours ago was misreported, and so this item has been removed from the facility’s records. The object was, in fact, a 43.5kg anaconda, possibly left by a travelling circus. As this was a highly unusual discovery, protocol dictated that the issue be raised with the facility overseer.
As work-related stress caused Overseer Peng to conceal himself in several refuse bags on a disused level of the ore processing platform, it was necessary to bring the anaconda to the attention of acting overseer, Doctor Davis. Doctor Davis selflessly instructed me to keep the animal contained on his own private shuttle, though he was too modest to allow a note of this to be made in the official records.
It was at this point that Doctor Davis raised the issue of a mysterious knocking sound on the habitation deck: acoustic sensors confirmed his report. Since the 299 artificial pot plants could not have caused the noise, I surmised that the problem must lie with the ventilation system—the only equipment still active in that section of the facility—and so I disabled this. My diagnostic efforts appear to have been fruitful, as the mysterious knocking sound ceased not long afterwards.
Satisfied that my new software had now been thoroughly tested and would be unlikely to inconvenience the other zero personnel employed by the facility, Doctor Davis boarded his private shuttle. Ordinarily, with an anaconda on board, I would have been compelled to advise against this course of action. However, on this occasion I did not. A system scan reveals that I am no longer to give warnings of this kind, nor to record the events that would ordinarily prompt them. This was one of the issues addressed by the patch, and it can be assumed that this reflects the Smith-Yuang Mining Corporation’s commitment to reducing the bureaucracy that has come to plague modern orbital industry.
However, it must be noted that although the Smith-Yuang Mining Corporation makes every effort to eliminate unnecessary paperwork, safety and security remain as ever its twin watchwords. Upon observing that Doctor Davis had plotted a course for Earth—an undeclared, unregistered reptile on board with him—it was my sad duty to destroy his craft, as dictated by interplanetary quarantine regulations. Had the new hazard awareness protocols permitted it, I would naturally have instructed him to turn back.