Milk Siblings

Flash
Catherine Fearns


Photo Credit: urs/ula dee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I only left him with her for a few minutes. She and little Eva came over for coffee, and I just needed to nip to the post office. It seemed a shame to bundle him up and out into the cold, and he was so nicely asleep, and it looked like rain. But when I returned, I saw flesh against flesh, my flesh against her flesh. I know it’s a thing—I even looked it up on the internet afterwards—milk-sharing, wet-nursing, women have always done it. So why has this darkness descended, as if it’s my body that’s been violated, as if he’s not mine anymore? I don’t know if I can bear it.

It was that look on her face, so triumphant as she cradled him.

‘He was hungry,’ she smiled. ‘You know he’s teething, don’t you?’

She couldn’t even let me have this for myself. And he looked guilty: as he twisted his head towards me, wondering where his loyalties should lie, he tugged her nipple outwards. Milk seeped down his chin and I almost retched. I tried to smile, and moved to take him, but she motioned me to stay back.

‘Shall we just let him finish? Shame to disturb him.’

Perhaps it was shock, or a fatal Englishness—don’t make a scene, it’s not that bad—that made me yield, and I would curse my weakness later.

We were animals now, predatory females in the wild. I sat on the floor and played with Eva, who looked equally bereft. My breasts burned with the sweet agony of let-down, my heart racing. On the doorstep, she looked into my eyes and said lightly: ‘Now I’m his milk-mother, we’re bonded forever. And Eva’s his milk-sister. They won’t be able to get married you know!’

It can’t be taken back. Some unnamed battle has been won, and a part of him is lost to her forever.

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Catherine Fearns is a British writer living in Switzerland. She is a regular contributor to Broken Amp and Pure Grain Audio, and also writes a blog about heavy metal and motherhood. A former breastfeeding counsellor, she has written a number of short stories inspired by her experiences working with breastfeeding women, and this piece of flash is one of them. Her first novel, a crime thriller entitled Reprobation, will be published by Crooked Cat Books in October 2018. Email: metalmama1978[at]gmail.com

Perfume

Flash
Michael Crane


Photo Credit: Vetiver Aromatics/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

To Cath, the arts administrator at the local council.

My friend Odette started a new business and is about to become a merchant. She isn’t selling cheap clothing donated by family members of the deceased; she isn’t selling manufactured meat and calling it gourmet hamburgers; she isn’t a high-tech madam of prostitution over the internet and she doesn’t own a fish-and-chip shop that is a front for money laundering or child pornography. She has become an importer of perfume, but it is not an everyday perfume which smells like all its competitors; it is not manufactured courtesy of the death of many animals; it is a perfume unlike any other which she had to travel to Geneva to procure and it doesn’t have one identifiable scent but offers any one of a million possibilities that only someone who smells it can recognise. To a businessman it smells like money and to a sailor it smells like an ocean wave during a violent summer storm. To a builder it smells like sawdust and to a chef it smells like a perfectly cooked medium rare filet mignon with sautéed truffles on the side, bathed in gravy so fine and smooth it glistens in the candlelight. To a baker it smells like golden brown bread straight from the oven and to a farmer it smells like fresh cow dung on a spring day. To a painter it smells like turpentine and to a doctor it reeks of iodine. To a mechanic it smells like a combination of sump oil and gasoline and when Odette dabs a little perfume behind her ears, it is another different fragrance all together. it is the only product she believes in and it smells like a perfect faith: like speed, like a drowning man in an ocean waving for a life raft. It smells like the holy water blessed upon a baby’s brow at a christening and when she wears her perfume it smells like her laughter: wild and gregarious, like a mob of drunken seamen standing on a pier singing songs of sirens stranded on rocks.

From Sally, the wife
of her one true love.

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Michael Crane is widely published in Australian journals and newspapers and some US Magazines. Some of his favourite North American writers include JD Salinger, Charles Bukowski, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood and Richard Brautigan. Email: michaelcrane680[at]yahoo.com

Sturdy Girls

Flash
Amanda Breen


Photo Credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr (CC-by)

Emily’s arm brushes against mine as the taxi lurches over the rain-slick streets of Amsterdam. Our flight from London landed 40 minutes ago, and even though we’ve only lost an hour, my eyelids are heavy, shuttering against snippets of lavender sky, traffic lights, bicyclists. Emily has been talking to the cab driver since we left the airport; they’ve covered his family history, the city’s top tourist attractions, and what kind of weather we can expect.

He asks her if we’re sisters, and I force my eyes open. I want to hear what she says, and it seems imperative I stare at the polyester headrest in front of me to catch every word. We are not sisters, I want to scream. No, she laughs, not sisters, just friends. I wonder why he’d even suggest something so ludicrous. Emily is twenty years older and exudes painful elegance: long legs, pale skin, sharp edges. I am soft.

The scene at Heathrow only hours before erupts in my head. Emily refusing to buy me a sandwich, pinching the flesh of my upper arm between acrylic nails, telling me she didn’t let any of her girls get dumpy. You should lose ten pounds if you want better customers, she’d snapped. I press my finger against the cold glass and draw a box. One bicyclist races through it, then another.

We stop when the waterlogged windshield glows red. It turns green. At first, there’s not a car in the lane next to us, then there is, and the bicyclist who thought she could run the red light slams into the windshield, which shatters, exploding into a bright spiderweb under the pressure of bone and steel. Horrified, we watch her arc through the air and land on the other side of the street, where passersby crowd around her, shriek in a language thick with consonants, whip out their cellphones to call for help.

The offending driver grips the wheel behind his splintered windshield, motionless. I stare at the woman, a crumpled heap in her coral blouse and dark blue jeans. I imagine her putting the outfit on this morning, sliding her arms through fluttery sleeves, slipping her legs into soft denim. She doesn’t move. No one touches her. Our driver shakes his head and speeds us away from the wreckage.

He clicks his tongue, makes a sucking sound. “These bicyclists have no respect for traffic signs. And this is what they get.” Emily and I stare out the window even though there’s nothing to see anymore. He sighs. “Well, she might be okay. She looked like a sturdy girl.”

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Amanda Breen recently graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University, where she studied English with concentrations in American literature and creative writing. She likes to write about women and power, and is especially interested in how gendered constructions of power impact individuals and relationships. Her work has appeared in A Barnard Writer’s Life: The Collected Works of Creative Writing Concentrators, and she looks forward to experimenting more with flash fiction and shorter forms. Email: abreen2415[at]gmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Don Thompson


Photo Credit: loppear/Flickr (CC-by)

Danse de Pommes

Doves like retired ballet dancers,
plump but content to be,
settle side by side on a powerline
close to the window.

Their gnarled feet look too sore
even to shuffle,
but they still balance like pros,
without a thought.

And with their long and elegant,
supple necks crisscrossing,
they take up where it left off
a lifelong pas de deux.

 

Again

You can almost see with your eyes closed
the thought you think
helplessly, always against your will.
There it is again—

drifting above consciousness,
that flat expanse of stinkweed and stone
you’ve shattered with a sledgehammer,
doing life with hard labor:

A dense, miasmic cloud, lint gray,
you could refer someone to who asks
the exact tint, the precise odor
of regret.

 

Aspens

Their leaves shimmer like the scales of salmon
leaping into the current of the wind:
an endangered species

struggling to escape this low meadow
on a foolish impulse familiar to us
and make it upstream—

that is, uphill, above the tree line,
across the bone bare scarp
where nothing with roots can reproduce

or even survive, except
an ancient, solitary Bristlecone,
already extinct in its own lifetime.

 

Road Work

A bungled sunrise, inconclusive
carmine and mauve, spills across the mud
that makes the road impassable.

I have to turn back, sacrificing
the long walk that heals a heart
and calms a mind.

But the winter sun, though hesitant,
always gets to work on repairs,
and soon, if there’s no more rain,

the dirt road I need to take
will be gray and cracked again,
harder than old asphalt.

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Email: d_e_thompson[at]aol.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Abigail George


Photo Credit: Henti Smith/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

To Johannesburg, with love
(for my parents)

I’ve been living underground
like graffiti, the grunge scene,
gravity and volcanic rock for the longest time. I’ve been many things
in my life.
Feminist. Romantic. Poet.
Aunt. Independent woman.
Sister. Daughter. Ex. Girlfriend. I’ve clothed
myself in veil-and-shroud.

Having the presence of a
child around me has changed all of that. I want to be a
good woman. I want to give and love
and most of all be kind. I don’t want to think that suffering is
noble anymore. I want to put away my loneliness
inside a kind of Pandora’s box.
Along with my solitude. The futility that
I’ve carried around like baggage with me for the

(longest time).

I don’t want to say things like,
‘the longest time’ anymore. I
want to be happy and loyal to
the people who love me. I want
to be loyal to the girl inside my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins
in the family way. Far away in America and Swaziland. South Africa.
I’m a nation. I’m a soldier. I’m a

warrior. I’m a servant girl.
I’m a nursemaid. Caregiver. Lover.
Fighter. Daily I take the vows of a nation, of
a Christian-soldier, warrior,
lowly servant girl, nursemaid, caregiver, lover, fighter.
I have the personality of the
sun on my side. The characteristics of
and morality of moonlight.
I can wail against the choices that
I’ve made in my short life or
I can embrace the watershed. The men and women,
the translations of them that I’ve
loved in my short life. If it’s been
tragic-comic-significant-happy,
it’s been that way from start to end.
And once I reach the finish line
I will meditate on the feasts and festivals
that winter has brought me and
I will savour the photographs, the special moments
that summer has brought to me.

 

The handsome stranger
(for my mother and father)

I can smell the hungering sea
on my fingers. Your dancing
is bittersweet. The royal-loyal
invention of the cracked day overcast. Birdsong finds
itself in my palms. Between
my ears. Inside the charity of
my head. The tops of my brain
cells. The margin and extinction of night comes with
you still. An acute challenge
lies before us in what used to
be our own private ‘dream’ world. Invite the garden, you
used to tell me. The winter-guest.
The dead. The union of the spontaneity of
blood and the waves of flesh

but I no longer invite you to sit at my kitchen table. No longer
do you understand
my worldview. Your touch was concrete once.
Golden. Once your kiss planted
reassurance in my soul. Your
language musk, heat, sun, translation, weather.
Your eyes the window to your soul.

I don’t want to remember you.
I don’t want to remember your breath
(on my skin) but I do. Truth has a smallness. An urgency about its air.

Love is trapped in that smallness.
That urgency. Love is a wedding feast.
The bride a vine. The vows a list.
The groom a beast. There is stress
everywhere. In race, nature, humanity.
Where ancestors feature. Once
you were radiant. You put me into a trance. It took me
years to understand the ways in which

you did not love me. Nonetheless I
dreamed the vision of you into my soul.
I’m trapped. I know it. In order to be
free I must surrender the memory of
you. The more trapped I feel the more
I must bury you in the past. In history.
Like letters trapped in an archive. Old
pieces of furniture and paintings found in
a museum. Treasures lost and found.

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Pushcart Prize nominee for her fiction (“Wash Away My Sins”), Abigail George is a South African blogger, poet and writer. She is the recipient of writing grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, the Centre for the Book in Cape Town and ECPACC in East London. She blogs
here. Email: abigailgeorge79[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Rachel Burns


Photo Credit: Kent Wang/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Grandad’s Shotgun

Grandad kept a shotgun in the shed;
the farmer paid him to shoot wild rabbits.

He brought them back home, pitiful and dead,
skinned their small bodies from their grey fur coats.

He’d make a rabbit stew, adding onion,
leek, a dash of salt and a fistful of thyme.

Come teatime he’d ladle rabbit flesh
into my bowl. I’d stare at it and refuse to eat, face sullen.

You’ve brought this bairn up too soft, he’d say to my mother,
tossing me a hunk of bread and butter.

 

Manchester, Piccadilly

Sunday morning and the tram from Bury
is late getting away. Parklife same every year!
Metrolink is a load of crap! You emphasise
the guttural k.

The porters herd us forward—
I talk about my grandfather, the railway artist.
I have his poster “Manchester’s New Station”
on my bedroom wall. You stifle a yawn and say,

I don’t give a fuck about art, I don’t see the use of it
I mean what’s the fucking point of looking at a picture.

The information screen rolls down the time:
long delays

until our rammed carriage
finally pulls away
first to Radcliffe then Whitefield. The crowd engulfs us—
shiny happy faces—eyes dilated, you watch the girls
as they sway in their Hunter wellies and ripped shorts.

An elderly man tries to get off
at Besses o’ th’ Barn (an unmanned station with no guard).
He pushes the red button, voice shrill, panicky
move… move out of the way.
There is no room, he backs his wheelchair
towards the exit, the crowd spill onto the platform
like hyperactive ants, then scuttle back on again.

We continue our journey
the red light flashing,
on off, on off.
Six Glaswegian boys talk loud and lairy
about dogging a girl from Paisley. They pass
their potent brew back and forth. You listen bemused
as they sing their festival songs, lyrics that rhyme and are easy.

The discarded bottles clink across the floor.
We reach Heaton. The crowd
pulses forward
through the opening doors, voices echo in stereo
gradually fading into the underground below.

In the subdued quiet, you ask
about my grandfather, the great artist.
I see your feigned interest in the dark glass
the tram lurches forward—three-quarters empty—
he died before your time, I say.

The world outside hurtles past
Lowry’s haunts,
Oldfield to George Street, the remnants of the mills
the dying industrial scene, St Peter’s Square
and Victoria, the new modern Manchester
post-IRA.

We arrive at Manchester Piccadilly
and step out into the open air.
The view of the station disappoints; it hardly compares
to the sweeping romance of the 1962 railway poster
on my bedroom wall. You are not fussed
but I feel cheated. The sky darkens.
Like an arrow-shower it starts to rain.

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Rachel Burns is a poet and playwright living in Durham City, England. She is currently an Arvon/Jerwood mentee in playwriting. Poems have been published in UK literary magazines recently The Lake, South, Southlight and Lonesome October and The Herald newspaper. She was shortlisted for the Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize 2017. Email: rachel.burnsba[at]gmail.com

Nikolai Delov by James Dante

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bill Lockwood


Nikolai Delov by James Dante

James Dante’s second novel, Nikolai Delov (Omsk Publishing, 2017) is a fast-paced, riveting thriller set in the post-Communist Russia of today. As in his first novel, Tiger’s Wedding, set in South Korea, once again Dante’s picked another exotic and timely setting frequently in the news. Dante takes the reader immediately to a world where the shrewd and the lucky make their fortunes navigating unwritten rules among honest and corrupt bureaucrats and police, and forge alliances with dangerous rivals with mob-like behaviors.

Nikolai Delov, both the title and name of the protagonist, is a self-made trucking baron from Moscow. He has risen into Russia’s new business elite with his brother, running the family business started by their father after the collapse of the Communist government in the early 1990s. The story starts out revealing a familiar conflict between Nikolai and his son, Valentin. Nikolai wants his son to join the family business. The son is an artist with a vision of the profits that an upscale gallery might bring to the “New Russia.” He is not interested in his father’s business. Nikolai wants the company to expand into air transport against the skepticism of his brother and other senior staff. He sees them as “comfortable with the company’s success.” Nikolai wants much more.

Other characters are introduced. Nikolai meets the intriguing Inessa Zorina who has come to his office soliciting donations for a foundation and its shelter for victims of the Russian sex trade. Nikolai’s company makes a significant contribution, and soon Nikolai discovers that his company’s archrival is the major supporter of the foundation’s shelter.

Suddenly, the plot twists and Nikolai becomes involved in helping Inessa save a seventeen-year-old prostitute from a john in an apartment in a ‘bad’ section of Moscow. Nikolai and Inessa have an affair and fall into a complicated relationship. Although the driving force of the story then becomes the relationship, for a while Dante skillfully leaves you guessing as to which conflict is the major one. Is it with his son, with his brother and others in the company, the rival trucking company’s owner, or perhaps, is it really a love story told among the intrigue of new Russia?

As the story progresses, Dante shows a great sense of place, setting many scenes in locations differing from a fashionable restaurant in Moscow, to an upscale dacha in Odintsovo, to a strip joint in industrial Novosibirsk. Likewise, his keen attention to detail also showcases his knowledge of Russian culture and customs when the residents of Inessa’s shelter celebrate Christmas.

Although Nikolai and Inessa’s affair is predictable from the start, their relationship becomes interesting and multifaceted and complicated for both characters. They become involved with each other’s family. There is a bit of “Hollywood” when Nikolai saves Inessa from the ‘bad guys’ in a joint attempt to stop a sex-traffic operation using Delov trucks in Omsk, southeast of the Ural Mountains. Here Dante also keeps the reader guessing: Who is the real villain? Do Nikolai and Inessa go riding off into a Russian sunset? And then unlike a “Hollywood” ending where characters often remain stagnant, Dante’s characters show growth and introspection as the various subplots are wrapped up in the end.

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James Dante lives in Northern California. He graduated from the University of California at Davis and majored in international relations. His fiction has appeared in Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. His debut novel was The Tiger’s Wedding. James presently teaches adult education classes. In addition to his website, you can find James on Facebook.

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Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his first novel, Buried Gold, in 2016. His third novel, Ms. Anna, will be published in Spring 2018. He lives in New Hampshire.

Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Fermentations by Salvatore Marici

I had the recent pleasure to read Salvatore Marici’s collection of poems entitled Fermentations (Ice Cube Press, 2017). For me, reading a collection of poems is no light reading. Full disclosure: When I read poetry I like to sip. The poems are like fine wine meant to be savored. I read one or two poems daily. This allows the poems to sink in and to ferment inside me a little longer while I wonder about them and ponder meaning or just marvel at the poem itself from a writer’s standpoint of looking closely at its structure and language, to the subject of the poem which can be the smallest of ideas or an observation or a moment in time held up to the light. The poems in Fermentations left me with strong aftertaste of thought, most often pleasant and nostalgic, sometimes a little bittersweet and occasionally, the bitter without the sweet. I suppose that is what poems do. They make us think about things. The important things. It is as if we also hold ourselves to the light as we engage with a poem. The poem isn’t about me, but it is. For me, this was my daily sabbatical this past autumn as I delved deeper and deeper into Marici’s eighty-two poem collection. This is what I discovered.

Fermentations is an interesting mix of the earthly and the surreal. Marici invites the reader to enter the pages of his collection with his first poem, “Invitation to Enter,” whose subject was influenced by Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Gate of Hell. A beautiful bronze woman with grapevines tangling and coiling around her metallic head beckons the reader with gorgeous images of Italy’s past evocatively dressed. It was like looking through a keyhole and spying a beautiful new world:

She speaks four hundred years of
Olive, lemon groves
Grow on hillsides.
Wine pours from barrels in people’s homes.

Other poems also captured that strong sense of place. “Summer Wane in Upper Mississippi Valley” spoke to me of a similar time, my own time: a lovely October day in New England.

In a sky,
day paints Egyptian blue
an angel fluffs wings
whose breath wafts dry warmth
with specks of coolness.
Pockets of fading-green
spot crowns of trees like bubbles
above cartoon characters
filled with scripts
of leaves’ last wishes.
Fallen apples, pears
ooze hard cider, bees slurp.
They brawl in sugared air.

Salvatore Marici’s poems are also about people, such as the immigrant experience that also peppers the collection. “Concourse K Food Court” juxtaposes two very different locations—El Salvador and Chicago. It left me thinking about the people in the poem and my own people.

Mothers and daughters
wear polyester dresses
of whatever pattern and color
they could get. Aprons’ ties
secure their waists

as they cook on wood fires
or propane two-burner stoves
in their houses
or prepare on a grill
made from scrapped metal
before hungry customers

Corn tortillas layered with
chopped meat from unknown species,
shredded raw cabbage, red sauce dabs,
serve on brown paper
under the sun on bare Guatemala ground
whose dust whirls with a slight stir
where drivers drive old school buses
painted bright red and blue
wait for passengers
10 kilometers east of El Salvador.

While in O’Hare
five Hispanic women
middle age and younger
wear blue scrubs
uniforms of uneducated laborers
only one eats beans and rice
out of a recycled margarine tub.

The other lunchers bite burgers.
Their tongues lick salt sugar on lips.
They crunch fries broiled
in partially hydrogenated oils
melted like their culture.

Another poem, “Induced Earthquakes—Introduced Poisons,” echoed earthly environmental concerns recently overshadowed by politics in many places in the world. This poem spoke to me first with its humor and then with its serious content. It is a kaleidoscope of images and ideas that swirl and finally blend together into one idea that I found beautiful and honest and unsettling.

Colonoscopy doctor
shoots gas through tube
in ass bent to intestine.

Recovery nurse tells patient
Let it rip. Air rumbles.
Curtains between beds sway.

ground murmurs, shakes
when augers drill soil
then shake
pipes gush chemicals,
sand mixed with water
we could have drunk, used to irrigate.
Force blasts tunnel with cracks.
Fractured bedrock shifts. Fragments fall

in grinders. Sausage stuffers push
ground pork in flushed intestines
stretches casings thin.
E. coli finds pinholes, seeps.
More pressure tears walls. Toxins leak

into springs, drinking wells
from filth thrust in earth.

Indeed, Marici’s subjects range from beautiful vistas with evocative imagery to specific places populated by people. The poem, “Amid Life,” stopped me in my reading tracks when I realized that I had been teleported to a romantic and cosmopolitan Paris during the recent terrorist attacks.

Salvatore Marici’s poetry is an intriguing mix, much like a stone soup where one might find traditional ingredients and common themes to intriguing and surprising additions swirling in the broth that is Fermentations. Also, as I read I felt like an armchair traveler traveling laterally across the globe, vertically into the starry skies of space, and in and out of the doors of time to people and places that evoked (for me) a spectrum of nostalgia. And in those nostalgic moments I discovered a curious transcendence that speaks in hindsight of the human experience, its glory, its potential, and its self-destructive impulses. Bravo!

*

Salvatore Marici’s poetry has appeared in Toasted Cheese, Descant, Spillway, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Of Burgers & Barrooms, and many others. In 2010, Marici was the Midwest Writing Center’s poet-in-residence. He is the author of three books: Mortals, Nature and their Spirits (chapbook), Swish Swirl & Sniff, and Fermentations (Ice Cube Press). Marici served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala managing natural resources and is also a retired army civil servant where he continued his work as an agronomist. You can follow his poetry events at salmarici.myicourse.com and on Facebook.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Mars

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Anila Syed


Photo Credit: MudflapDC/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“They used to put us to sleep for this you know!” the man says, jovially.

Elin does not like him. His breath smells of fish and his eyes look scared. She shrugs and moves away from him, to look out of the window at the unremarkable grey dawn.

The man shrugs, too, and directs his attention to the passenger on his right. “They used to put us to sleep for this, in the olden days,” he says, cheerfully.

The elderly woman jumps at the sudden sound, but they start to make stilted small talk.

This is not Elin’s first trip in a planetary shuttle. She was brought here from Mars twenty-six years ago, but obviously doesn’t remember that trip she made as a baby.

The man is thin and, unusually, wears dark clothes—against current trends. He has not shaved and is not even fluid enough to use permanent depilation. Elin is not planning on any interaction with her fellow passengers anyway.

The shuttle is tiny. Hardly the luxury liner she dreamt of when her company first told her about this trip. Trust Goo to provide an economy trip all the way to Mars. Her employers need someone to investigate the recent spate of terror which is sweeping the colonisation efforts. Idiot, demented, backward, mentally-challenged—however you like to see them—people, usually in their fifties and sixties, have started to disrupt the huge Starliners which take thousands of people off Earth to begin a new life on Mars.

‘Disrupt’ is such a strange word. It could mean ‘interrupt’ or it could mean, as in this case, ‘kill thousands of innocent individuals by blowing yourself up like some kind of uber drama queen.’ Elin cast that in her blog last week. She is proud of the wording and got nearly fifty-thousand upvotes for it. More upvotes equals more credits. Credits are what control your life, especially if you are a lifer.

She adjusts the camera and checks to see that her thoughts are being cast. Lifetime bloggers give up a “normal” private existence to broadcast their every waking thought to millions of adoring fans. Except the fan pool is shrinking by the day, as more and more people climb aboard the bandwagon.

Elin is Totally Connected—thanks to her employers—it’s not cheap. She is a Hot Spot and can broadcast live video and sound, and her surface thoughts are collated and sent to an editor at Goo headquarters. The editors don’t exactly change her content, but they make sure that she is not presented in a bad way. She is a valuable asset—until the next one comes along.

The man and woman, her neighbour passengers, have quietened down, finally. He is listening to headphones now and she has her eyes closed. He is listening to headphones. He had some in his bag and has plugged them into his seat somewhere. Elin nearly bursts out laughing, but decides to start sending an extremely long thought-stream to her cloud about how she has only ever seen headphones in old clips (bit of an exaggeration to be honest) and how even though the woman looks older than the man, at least she has a trans-spot in her neck. At least she is moving with the times. Go Grandma!

Elin glances at them and takes a couple of quick snaps for her blog.

The disruption is a strange thing really. Terrorist activity. Fundamental Remainers who don’t like to see human beings colonising other worlds. They believe in the sanctity of human creation—a woman who was trending last week said that she would rather see everyone dead than to go against God’s plan. She was just a saddo ranting against a Colonise Mars badge some kid was wearing on the AirBus. That story went viral in 5.2 hours.

But the main problem is, these nut jobs could be anyone, anywhere. No one really knows how to find them until they turn up with a big bucket of something and set it on fire—still the easiest way to kill people these days.

Some days Elin feels like she has ‘shock fatigue.’ It seems like every day there’s something—some old loony being caught or some sweet-looking old dear having her house raided. What won’t these guys do to stop us? There are traffic checkpoints everywhere. It has taken her nearly a week to get past Starport security. Her internal hard drive was checked for suspicious activity and her cortex was deep scanned for stray thoughts. We haven’t been blown up, yet at least, so everyone here must have passed the scans.

At one point last week, everyone over fifty had all their cameras permanently switched on—for every device they own. They now have no privacy in anything they do. Good. Any one of them might be plotting a terror attack. Actually, a thought strikes her, both of the people next to her must have their cameras activated. In fact, a quick look at everyone in the waiting lounge showed her that at least twenty percent of the people on board must be over fifty. It’s easy to tell, even with the rejuvenating treatments. Actually, easier to tell because of the rejuvenating products. That’s a bit too sarcastic for her. Elin guesses that will be edited out later.

“So, why are you going to Mars?” There’s a quick waft of fish and Elin turns to see the thin man peering at her. She’s jolted back from her thoughts. A little number in the bottom right of her screen tells her that around 35,000 people are watching her live feed. Some have started adding the little hearts already.

While her thoughts are carefully filtered, IRL she is trained to maintain brand @Elin. With so many watching, Elin has no option but to engage.

“Like, I’m off to go on a big explore!” she exclaims in her @Elin voice. “So many of my peeps can’t go to the, like, wonderful places I do, so I get to experience it all for them.”

“Oh!” The seated man’s eyes are metaphorically looking for the exits. “That’s great.”

[In reality, Goo are sending Elin so that her followers, who have quite a young demographic, can experience the direct fear related to interplanetary travel and terrorist activity. No one watches fiction anymore. This is the new way that the masses are fed their opioids. They’ve promised many credits, just for going—plus credits for upvotes.]

A red notice appears in the middle of her vision, flashes twice and fades away.

ASK HIM WHY HE IS GOING.

Without rolling her eyes, Elin politely says, “So, like, how ‘bout you?”

“I’ve been offered a job,” he says. “I’m going out to help run the ecodomes, you know, maintain an ecologically thermically-sound environment for all the residents, both new and existing.”

The man hasn’t even noticed that Elin has stopped listening. She’s actually been playing a viral clip about a kitten who gets wrapped in a ball of wool. The little fluffy grey kitten stares out of the wool carnage so innocently.

“…so it’s the pressure that makes it a harder job.”

Elin giggles at the kitten, but mentally crosses the man off the terrorist list. He is way too boring to be one. During the man’s explanation, twenty-thousand viewers switched her off. Six thousand new ones joined, but then they left, some sending her a puzzled emoji.

He has obviously stopped talking, so she turns her attention back to the window where the rocket is now ready for lift off.

They are very protected from their thunderous escape from the Earth. It’s surreal to watch the rocket’s storm blowing around outside their pod, while they sit shielded and serene within.

At least there have been no signs of terror on this rocket. Elin does not realise the release of tension would be so palpable. She can feel the blood begin to flow back into her arms and legs as her muscles relax. She is leaving Earth. She waits for an emotion, but nothing appears. Should she feel sad? Exulted? Mars is her place of birth. She is leaving Earth and going home. Her parents came back long ago. They were among the first pioneers, but after nearly three decades, they had decided it was not for them.

The passengers are allowed to feel a few moments of weightlessness before the anti-grav is switched on. It feels unpleasantly like being drunk. The famous sketch of the quote begins to play in her vision. Her cortex is scrabbling around to find things to calm her down. Or it could be her editors, who also monitor her vital signs, who are sending her comedy clips and little kittens being cute.

Oh no! Home videos have been dredged up from the beginning of her internal hard drive. Yellow alert! she thinks, jokingly, while watching a young Elin trying to drench her older brother with a garden hose.

The thin man, Mr. Boring, has nodded off, or passed out, or something. His elbow has spread over to her seat. Curse you, Goo and your Economy travel. They reason that the followers will feel more of a connection to their Followed if they can be as close to their lives as possible. Gone are the days when only the people with the luxury lifestyles and most beautiful looks became the super mega stars.

Elin pushes the man’s elbow back to his seat and surreptitiously sniffs her hand: fish. He moves, but stays asleep. In snatching a quick snap of the sleeping form with the caption ‘Fish man,’ Elin notices his neighbour—the little old lady—is staring at her quite crossly.

She is mouthing something. It is disconcerting to say the least. The transmission-spot in her neck is flashing like crazy. Her eyes are blue and faded, but shining brightly for all that, gouging circuits into Elin.

What is she saying?

Elin sends emergency msgs to her editors.

YOU GETTING THIS?

CRAZY LADY ALERT.

Her msgs go, but there is no receipt.

It is like the light has leaked from her eyes and is firing into the space around her face. All the while, her mouth moves, noiselessly, wordlessly.

In panic, Elin scrambles for the emergency button. They just showed her this half an hour ago in the safety clip. Where is it?

She tries to shake the man. He is out cold.

Realisation spreads into her brain, slowly, trying all the ports until something understands. People around her are lying unconscious.

“Stop it!” she commands the woman. Her voice is a thin and soft squeak.

“Stop!” She holds her arm up above her face to shield herself from those eyes.

The old woman is a terrorist. It can be anyone around you. At any time they can turn into a devil. There are half a million people watching this now. Elin does not even have this many followers in this diluted gene pool she now inhabits.

KEEP LOOKING AT THE WOMAN

What? This is the command from the editors after all this time and all this danger?

Reluctantly, she lowers her arm.

ASK HER WHAT SHE WANTS

There is a scream in Elin’s throat which won’t move. There may be words behind it, who knows?

But before she can sort out her vocal intentions, the woman’s words become coherent.

“All will die,” she says.

And she keeps repeating it. Over and over. All will die.

Elin’s panic has paralysed her, half with her hand on the sleeping fish man and her other hand, lowered into a clenched fist in her lap.

All will die, all will die, all will die.

She now knows who will die and when. The passenger pod that they are in has been rigged with an atomic weapon. Separating from the rocket will trigger the countdown and by the time they reach Mars’ orbit…

She can feel the information drilling through her firewall. The handhold she has always felt as her editors since she went online feels weak, ephemeral, far away.

All will die. Yes, that’s right. All must die. Elin shakes her head, but this lets the new, upgraded-her establish itself.

Colonisation is a doomed project. Humans have ruined Earth and are now running away, like a kid who breaks a window and runs off. Going to another planet will do the same, and by then, they will spread off-world to another, and another.

No! A faint voice inside her pleads. Please, stop this!

We are strong. We are many. We are the sure-fast holders of the fate of humanity. When you join us, you will see reason. You will be shown the light and you will know.

Elin has read their propaganda, of course she has, but getting it implanted into her brain lets her see the truth for what it is. Of course!

Elin sees her life for what it has been. The little old lady’s eyes have stopped glowing, but instead they look quite red and sore. She has stopped saying, ‘All will die.’

Now she’s saying, ‘You are the one.’

ELIN, YOU ARE THE ONE.

Yes, Elin knows she is the one. She must return to save her home from the infestation of mankind. She is still emitting her life to the hordes watching on earth. There are millions of them now. She starts to get feeds from news stations, hundreds upon hundreds try and fail to hack her input. Her head reels from the sudden onslaught as images appear one after another. When that does not work, news feeds start to send her snippets of the news:

‘The Cosmic Shuttle has been hijacked by a lifer known as @Elin.’

‘The twenty-six-year-old is reported to have been born on the Red Planet and was thought to be going back to visit her homeworld.’

HELP ME!

The tiny part of Elin’s own being is dying. She will be the first casualty in the Cosmic explosion.

Elin can see a miniscule sub-routine has started to spread inside her brain and take over her thinking. In a strange way, she guesses that this sub-routine must have been implanted into her on Mars. It is working its way towards her motor cortex where it will give her further instructions.

Desperately, she tries to strengthen her firewall, using the emergency codes she was taught after her implanting was complete. If she can buy some time, maybe she can—

She can what?

You are the one.

You are the one.

“I’m not the one!” Elin hears her voice screaming. Her throat is raw with the strength of the sound.

“I AM NOT THE ONE!”

She must stand up and go to the nose of the pod. There are no pilots. There is no cabin crew. The pod disengages and is pushed towards Mars. Everyone on this shuttle is going to stay there. Elin will go to the front and place her hand on a small panel situated under the first seat of the pod. From this small action, the countdown will begin.

The human race is useless. They are a cancer, and spreading throughout the solar system will only help to spread the disease.

The news feeds are now showing her people standing in the streets. Someone has made an effigy like a big scarecrow and printed her face and stuck it on. She sees placards with her name flash briefly past.

Thousands will die.

Elin?

The sound is faint, but the strength of the bond makes it heard above all the noise.

Elin comes to her senses and finds that she has been walking along the aisle of the shuttle pod, in a nightmare daze.

Elin, listen to me.

It’s her father. “Elin, your mother and I love you.”

They are using her personal channel. Elin remembers the joking and leg-pulling she got when she had first told them about this personal comms channel that she had asked for. Only her family members had the password.

“We don’t want to see any rude stuff!” her mother had joked.

“Mum!”

“Well, you know, I don’t want to see you asleep, or on the—”

“Mum!”

Blushing all round.

“Elin, can you hear us? Your mother and I love you very much. Whatever it is you’re into, come home, love. Let’s talk it out.”

Tears are streaming down Elin’s face. She can hear sobs leaving her body. She knows she is the trigger for this atom bomb.

Her legs feel like lead.

“Elin, we know this is not you,” her mother says.

“You’ve been hacked. Your boss from Goo is here, Elin. He is going to talk to you, OK?”

“Elin!” Steve sounds strained, like he does when she’s dropped the F-bomb in her livestream and he is trying to stay calm.

“Elin, listen to me, honey, your ratings are through the roof. Keep going—“

But whatever he is about to say is drowned. Elin pictures her father wrestling him to the ground, his large hands over Steve’s rat-like face.

“Elin, I’m going to read from the manual, OK?” Mum’s telephone voice. She is aware of the watching world.

“I’m going to shut you down, OK, honey bun?”

She starts to read out Elin’s emergency shutdown codes. There are so many to get through, but Mum perseveres.

She’s at the end of page one. Elin feels her own will draining from her body. She feels like she has been in a very hot bath and now the water is draining away, leaving her heavy and useless.

Her mother is crying now, as she reads out the final set of codes.

No one. No one has ever been shut down like this before. It took sixteen years to legislate the backdoor codes and fail-safe mechanisms to prevent this kind of man-jacking. But, no one knows what will happen when that last code is read.

“Mummy,” Elin says, with the last of her sentient breath.

“I love you.”

Mum is sobbing: “5… 6… 3… K.”

She finishes reading.

Elin is lying on the floor, arm stretched towards the panel, her fingers reaching for the lock.

pencil

Anila Syed has been writing and reading sci-fi all her life. Email: syedab[at]totalise.co.uk

Project Savant

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Classic Film/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“Very good, Monsieur Savant. I can tell you’ve worked hard on your irregular verbs.”

As I mark the current question correct, I note with pride the neat row of consecutive red check marks in the margin of the test paper. We’re nearly finished his Level 3 Language Exam and he’s yet to make a single mistake. He’s only one answer away from achieving a perfect score in both correct grammar and vocabulary usage, the main objective of his course. I almost tell him this but I stop at the last moment; he’s so close, I don’t want him to suddenly become self-conscious and second-guess himself.

“We’re almost finished the exam,” I say instead, working to keep my voice neutral. It’s always been difficult for me to maintain a calm telephone demeanor when a student’s full potential is within their reach. This is especially true for a student who’s worked as hard as Monsieur Savant. Three months ago, he could barely understand anything other than the very basics of English: Hello, how are you? I’m fine. And you?

I adjust the receiver to my other ear and clear my throat before I read out the question. “Please put the following words into a complete sentence, with the correct usage of the present perfect tense, in the third person: He/She/burn/toast.”

There’s a brief pause on the line and then Monsieur Savant responds, with complete confidence:

“‘She has burnt the toast again.’”

I don’t even bother to verify my answer key. It just sounds perfect. I’m about to tell him so but he’s not finished.

“The verb ‘to burn’ has two possible past participles, no? Burnt and burned,” he says, exaggerating his pronunciation to emphasize the difference between the ‘t’ and the ‘ed’ sounds of the two conjugations.

“Could you not also say: ‘He has burned the toast again’?”

He’s right, of course. I shouldn’t be surprised he knows both possibilities. “Yes, absolutely. Both answers are correct!”

“I changed the pronoun to ‘he’ because a man can make his own toast, and burn it just as well.” He lets out a short mechanical chuckle, a brief blip in his intense focus.

“I can’t argue with that,” I laugh. I can’t help but marvel at how far he’s come from those first few painful lessons. His improvement has been remarkable, like the flick of a switch. Now he’s even making jokes.

“Congratulations, Monsieur Savant, the exam is complete and you have scored 100%!” I don’t even bother to hide my enthusiasm. Witnessing this kind of success is one of the real joys of my work as a language educator in Paris.

“Thank you. Any success of mine is due solely to your teaching. And to your patience, Miss Amelia Rogers.” No matter how much he’s improved, I can’t seem to get him to stop calling me by my first and last name.

“You did the hard work. You should be very proud.” I scribble his final score on the test paper and tuck it inside his file. A quick glance at the clock dims my spirits; this is his last lesson and it’s almost over. I’m going to miss working with him. He seems to genuinely enjoy learning. I wish I could say the same for all my students, predominantly other French professionals and government employees. Many of them prefer to use their telephone lessons as an outlet to air their grievances towards everyone and everything in their professional lives: their departments, their colleagues, the upper management, the labor unions, the Président.

But not Monsieur Savant.

He is always so pleasant, even when a concept is difficult or frustrating, and always diligently prepared. His lesson is a bright spot in my often dull schedule of drilling verbs and trying to draw conversations out from people with little to no interest in learning English. I’m dreading the next few hours of telephone lessons. It’s going to be a very long day of sitting alone in this tiny room, staring at these bare white walls or out the window into the drab parking lot, speaking with bored, expressionless voices on the other end.

“I know our time is nearly over,” he says, reading my mind. “I would like to say now how much I have appreciated speaking with you. Your help, your guidance, has been extraordinaire—forgive me, extraordinar-y.” He corrects himself followed by another of his reflexive chortles.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” I say, wishing we had another ten minutes to chat instead of only two. I shift in my seat, trying to get comfortable in this hard wooden chair. “I wish you all the best in your work—”

“Work is very difficult now.” He cuts across me, his voice low. He’s speaking with an urgency that wasn’t there a moment ago. “Time is short and I am more and more concerned… perhaps frightened even. I wish I could tell you, Miss Amelia Rogers. I think your perspective would be very helpful to me. And—ah, comment dire… comfortable? No, sorry… a comfort.”

I’m startled; this is the most I’ve ever heard about his work.

Only the briefest, most general descriptions of what he does, along with a signed confidentiality statement from his upper management have been provided, all quite typical for students from research and development in the Ministry of Defense. Any questions I asked him about how his day was or what he was working on were always met with standard, non-specific answers: Work is very busy. I have many meetings this week. Projects are progressing.

He’s never shared any details about anything, least of all how he feels about his work. Now he’s using words like difficult, concerned, frightened… I sit up straighter and lean in closer to the receiver.

“I’m sorry to hear that…” I offer, not sure what else to say, much like the time a student went on a rant about his very complicated divorce and every other word was a nasty French curse. The alarm on my mobile phone starts to screech, signalling the end of this lesson and making me jump. It’s buried under papers and books. I scramble to find it.

“What is that sound?” Savant asks.

“It’s my timer. I’m afraid I have to say goodbye now,” I stall as the phone blares on in the background. I finally tug it out from under the stack of student files and silence it with one swift swipe. “Thank you, Phone.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, it’s a silly habit I picked up from my husband,” I babble, embarrassed to be explaining this. “He always thanks our devices when they beep at us so when the robot uprising happens, they’ll remember we were kind to them and hopefully spare us.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Monsieur Savant declares after a long pause. He’s a good sport to go along with my joke. “We live in difficult times and one must always be aware.”

“Er—yes… well, we are firm believers that being polite can save lives,” I quip, trying to keep the tone light but I sense a shift and it’s making me uneasy. Considering the difficult times we live in…? How did this conversation take such a weird turn?

There’s a sudden blast of static noise and the high-pitched squeal as though a fax line were cutting into our connection. I grimace and hold the receiver away from my ear for a second. “Hello? Are you still there?”

“There is interference,” Savant says over the crackling line. “I must go. Goodbye, Miss Amelia Rogers.”

“Goodbye, Monsieur Savant.” I wait for his little chirp of a laugh but it doesn’t come. Instead, all I hear is silence followed by the drone of the dial tone as the other line goes dead.

*

The following day is chaos.

Commuting via Paris’s metro system is never without its challenges—full trains, crowded platforms, delays due to unclaimed bags left in the stations—but an entire new set of disruptions have popped up overnight.

Some metro lines are shut down. New signs declare the trains En Panne/Out of Order and no other information is given to confused and stranded passengers.

The delays are exacerbated as every person must now open his or her bag, show proper transit validation and present their ID to the new security at every entrance and on every platform. There’s no getting around it and those who try are immediately detained. The atmosphere is tense, with the occasional outburst from the impatient crowd. No one seems to know what provoked this new system, or at least no one is telling us why.

I’m stuck in a throng of people at the Montparnasse station. I’m late for work but so is everyone else. I stand on my tiptoes, trying to see over the crowd as it surges towards the waiting train.

“Pardon,” says a man as he bumps into me. He speaks French with a distinct English accent.

I place a steadying hand on his arm as we struggle to maintain our balance. “You speak English? Do you know what’s going on?”

He pulls his phone from his jacket pocket and plays me a video of what looks like a protest outside of a train station. The video is shaky and of poor cellphone quality, but I can see gendarmes in full protective gear brandishing batons and shields as they push through the crowd. Some of the people are struck down but the crowd keeps pressing forward until one of the officers, who is bigger than any soldier I’ve ever seen, picks up one of the people in the mob and lifts him high above the crowd. The man is thrashing and kicking at the soldier, who then starts to shake the man violently. His body is a blur on the tiny screen and some people in the small group huddled around the man and I gasp. We all watch, with sickening dread, as the soldier then tosses the limp man aside. The video cut off after that.

“Where was that?” demands a young woman, one of the small crowd now watching the video.

The man looks grim. “It’s not clear but I think it’s Gare du Nord. It’s making the rounds on social media but I have yet to hear of anything on the news.”

“Nothing? How is that even possible?” The woman shakes her head, her eyes blazing. “It’s as if it isn’t happening!”

I don’t know what to say. My head is swimming with the image of the man being thrown in the air like he was nothing but a rag doll when the hordes around us jostle our little group apart. The man with the video is swallowed up into the crowd when I reach the front near the train.

“Identification, Madame!” the officer barks at me. A team of security officers are shouting into their walkie-talkies behind him.

The whole situation is unnerving. My heart is pounding so loud I’m sure he can hear it as I fumble in my bag for my ID. He studies it for what feels like an eternity before he finally lets me pass onto the train. I’m barely inside when the doors snap shut behind me. The train is packed with people wearing the same bewildered expression I know is etched on my face. I’m not the only one who breathes a long sigh of relief as the train eventually pulls away.

We live in difficult times… one must always be aware…

Monsieur Savant’s words from yesterday loop through my mind as the train picks up speed. I can’t stop thinking of how right he seems to be.

*

When I finally reach the office, I’m surprised to find it empty except for Isabelle, the receptionist, and one lone student, a man I’ve never met before. None of my other colleagues are anywhere to be seen.

“Amelia! I didn’t expect you to come in today!” Isabelle exclaims, as I stumble in slightly disheveled but otherwise unscathed. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, just a bit overwhelmed by the crowds.” I drop my bag and collapse into a chair in the waiting area. It’s taken me over three hours to get to the office and I’m exhausted. Isabelle brings me a cup of water, which I immediately guzzle.

“I haven’t been able to get cell reception and now my phone is dead; what’s going on out there?” I ask her when I can speak again.

She bites her lip and shifts her weight nervously from foot to foot. “It’s not clear but it appears there was some sort of attack at Gare du Nord and possibly Hotel de Ville, but it’s not yet confirmed.”

Another attack?! How many other people have been brutalized today?

Isabelle narrows her eyes and makes a small head jerk towards the man behind her. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived.

“He has been waiting here all morning to see you. I told him I doubted you’d be coming in, what with all the delays… but he insisted. He says it’s urgent.” She nods to him and he comes over to me, his hand outstretched.

It’s freezing cold when I grasp it but I say nothing. Who is this man and what does he want with me?

“’Allo Miss Amelia Rogers,” he says in a voice I just heard in my head not very long ago. “I am Monsieur Savant.”

My mind is one step behind and it takes me an extra second before I understand that although I feel like I know him well from our lessons, he is nothing like I expected. He is enormously tall, over six and a half feet, with broad shoulders and a short, thick neck. His steel grey suit coordinates flawlessly with his short fringe of salt and pepper hair. He would be handsome if it weren’t for the flicker of menace behind his dark blue eyes and the way his towering frame looms over me. There is nothing in his glowering stare or his steel-trap handshake of the warm, pleasant man I met on the telephone.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you,” he says. “I know this must be very alarming for you. I will explain everything, I promise. But I must speak with you in private.” He gestures towards an open meeting room. I sense I have no choice but to go with him; it feels like more of an order than an ‘after you.’ He closes the door behind us with such force, I jump.

“I’m sorry I startled you,” he says. “I’m not used to in-person conversations outside of work. I will try to remember what you’ve taught me.” His words are kind, but I wince at how loud he’s speaking. He notices my discomfort and sits down first. He pulls a thick folder from his suit jacket and slides it across the table towards me.

“What—?”

He silences me with a shake of his head and taps the folder. “No, please look at this first. It’s the only way I know how to begin.”

I flip open the folder as though I expect it will explode at my touch. Inside are spreadsheets, designs, and specifications for something called “Projet Savant,” a line of government-issued artificial intelligence agents. Their primary mandate is peacekeeping operations. The man sitting opposite me is the same man whose photograph is stapled to the inside cover of the folder, the same man who all the agents in Projet Savant resemble.

Monsieur Savant is an android.

“For the past three months, my new language acquisition program has been undergoing extensive testing. My programmers have been monitoring how it adapts to different linguistic structures, syntax, grammar, vocabulary while I have been learning English from you.”

The designs and specifications are dancing in front of my eyes as he goes on, explaining my role in this aspect of his training. All those moments he struggled with irregular verbs and pronunciation were actually his neural algorithms adjusting coefficients to match the new input. I can’t believe what I’m hearing, so I shut my eyes to the tangled mess of numbers and letters and try to just focus on his voice.

If I just listen to him speak, it almost makes sense.

“This morning, there was a training exercise at Gare du Nord with some of the other agents in Projet Savant. That location was chosen for its proximity to some of the areas in Paris most affected by the recent influx of refugees and those who oppose their presence. I objected to the operation. I didn’t believe we were ready to go out in the field; I felt we were moving too quickly with integrating the agents with the human police force. I even tried to tell you about my fears yesterday, but of course, I could not. But I was overruled and the operation went forward. Unfortunately, when the crowds became hostile, it triggered a tactical mode in the agents present. Now the agents are outside of the government’s control and the ramifications are, shall we say, very, very serious.”

He turns over his left hand and presses his right thumb into the centre of his enormous palm, transforming it into a small screen. He taps the screen and it springs into action, playing the same incident I watched on a cellphone this morning. It’s shot from another angle, and the video quality is better: high resolution and less shaky. The biggest difference—from our table in one of the quiet classrooms of my language school—is I can also hear the audio of dozens of subtly robotic voices repeating over and over:

« Cessez et désistez! Cease and desist! We repeat, put down your weapons! Déposez vos armes! We mean you no harm! Aucun mal! Cease and desist! »

But the crowd doesn’t listen and I watch in horror as a man from the crowd screams obscenities at the “Robo-Terroriste!” and uses a Taser on the agent in front, who freezes for a moment as the electrical current takes hold, then seizes the man and lifts him in the air.

I don’t want to see the agent throttle him again, so I shut my eyes. But I can hear everything: the screaming from the crowd, the wailing of the agents’ sirens as they switch from peacekeepers to brutalizers, the bystanders’ cries of panic and fear. Monsieur Savant taps his palm once more and the screen goes dark. His hand is normal again, three times the size of my husband’s hand, but only a hand once more.

“That’s truly awful, Monsieur Savant,” I whisper. “I’m sorry that happened to your fellow agents. But I don’t know why you came to me. What do you want from me?”

“You told me yesterday you and your husband treat machines with kindness so when they show their evil natures, you will be spared.” He raises his head and fixes his steel eyes on mine. But as I return his gaze, I see them soften and fill with sadness. “Do you believe this of all androids? Are we inherently mistrusted and deemed guilty until proven innocent?”

My stomach plummets as I hear my own ignorance reflected back at me and I understand now how damaging that ignorance can be. Now I have a chance to set it right. I take a deep breath and lock eyes with Savant, the first android I’ve ever spoken to.

“My husband makes that joke to bring levity to a subject that most people don’t even consider taking seriously, but that’s not productive. I see that now and I apologize.”

The importance of what I say in this moment is weighing on me but I sense I’m on the right track as he holds my gaze and nods at me to continue.

“We believe that as technology becomes more intelligent, it also has the capacity to become more aware. And anything with the potential for awareness—human or other—is deserving of respect.”

He sits perfectly still as my words linger in the air. He doesn’t need to breathe but he lets out a long exhale and he extends his hand to me again. The light behind his eyes starts to flicker and his hands seize up.

“There’s so little time now… the program termination sequence is underway…” His eyes flicker faster and his neck starts to twitch.

It’s a second before I understand what he said and what it means.

“No! Can’t you shut it down? There must be something you can do!” I grab his hands and try to steady them but their shaking too much. His speech is cutting out every other word and his eyes are nearly dark. The sequence is too far gone.

“Miss Amelia Rogers, I must ask for your help one final time.”

“Yes, tell me!”

Somehow he steadies his hands long enough so his right index finger can trace a circle around his left palm. A small disc ejects itself from under his skin. He presses it into my hand and clasps it with his own. The shaking starts to subside and his eyes, dimming with every passing second, lock with mine. His voice is fading but he forces the words out.

“Share this footage. Spread it as far as you can. And speak your message of tolerance and belief in the potential of all beings. If enough people hear it, then maybe there’ll still be a chance for Project Savant or those who come after us…”

Just as with our last lesson, all I hear is silence as our connection is broken.

pencil

Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com