Contest #118 shortlist ⭐️

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Science Fiction Speculative

I died in a cop car and was reborn on a conveyor belt. Hours before my death I shivered on a sidewalk. My blankets were covered in an inch of snow. People glanced at me as they passed. She’s fine, they thought. Someone will help her.

The police showed up after the night shift manager at a Wendy’s across the street complained that I was loitering. They arrested me. Can I bring my blankets, I asked. No, they said. As we drove, the officers complained that I smelled and cracked their car windows open. I died of hypothermia as we pulled into jail.

I awoke on a conveyor belt careening through a labyrinth of moving shelves. Lights flashed above, red and orange. Thin little squares around me jiggled and bounced as we rounded corners, slid through chutes and tumbled into funnels. We whispered to each other.

Where are we?

I don’t know.

Are we dead.

We must be.

Is this Hell?

Of course.

I would later discover that all of them, like me, were various reconstructed consciousness of poor sops who had drowned in the streets or keeled over in a gutter. Since no families mourned us and no plastic identified us, our brains turned into computer chips to serve the living world.

Once we left this rebirthing chamber, we ran your cars, your homes, your stocks and banks; we wrote your news, arranged hair cuts, flew planes and mixed drinks. We launched your rockets and kept your oceans cool. We matched you with lovers and picked you up after school. And the best thing of all was that we used to be you, but our answer to death was much different than yours. It was a special purgatory for anyone without a bank account and proper fitting shoes. Thousands of homeless Jesus Christs who died and rose again to flick on your street lamps and maintain your home’s temperature.

And you know who I got to serve in this eternal Hell?

Cops.

***

You hit a pothole. Scalding coffee spills across your lap. You scream like a child. Your adrenal readings spike. You yank the steering column and swerve your police cruiser back and forth through the Appalachian darkness.

Tires squeal.

Rubber burns.

I engage auto-pilot and slide us to the side of the road. Dust billows in your headlights.

You are my fifteenth police officer I have served. Like those before you I’m embedded inside your clothes, your car, your home and office. I know what time of day you shit and what time of week you wank. I know what cereal you like and how your favorite part of the day is waking up just as the sun pokes over the treeline of your backyard. You say good morning, and you say good night. I have grown to call you my favorite of the fifteen, because you treat me like a friend.

I open your car door as you wave a steaming hand. It’s close to midnight and near the end of your double shift. We’re on a single lane back road traversed only by locals. An asphalt path, unmaintained for a century with weeds poking through its center line, twirls along the rim of Coal War Mountain. Back in high school you knew kids who came up here to drink, shoot or fuck. You joined them sometimes. Nothing too harmful but you know kids still scuttle up here in the dark. And you know the families who live off this road. They call you personally when they see anyone under the age of seventy-five. You make it a habit to climb the mountain in your cruiser once a week to give these old-timers some peace of mind. To scare away anyone fuckin’ in the bushes, as you say.

You wrench a rag from the passenger seat and tumble into the night. Summer leaves and a full moon greet you. Wind whistles through the woods that line both sides of the road. 

“There are towels in the trunk,” I say, speaking through your car. Sensors built into its frame tell me the air quality around you, the slightest movements and sounds. I hear everything, see everything. I watch, and I protect. It is my service. What I was reborn to do.

You open the trunk of your cruiser and are greeted by a mess of tools, knives, first aid kits and wires. I illuminate a corner, revealing a pile of towels covered in dried coolant and the blood of roadkill. You clutch a couple rags and wipe your pants and hands.

“I swear I put that lid on tight,” you mumble.

I hear a twig crack in the darkness.

“Movement,” I whisper. “Twelve point seven yards ahead.”

“Huh?” You say loudly, still patting your pants. “Probably a deer.”

“No,” I say. “Bi-pedal anomaly.”

“Kids hiding, then,” you reply. But another snap echoes through my sensors.

“Bigger than a kid,” I say.

Your eyes narrow and you cautiously walk to your open driver’s door. I illuminate a red square across your windshield, highlighting the area where the sound and movement originated.

“Magnify,” you say half interested. It’s the end of your shift and your pants are soaked. You’re in no mood to chase drunk kids.

I zoom the interior of the red square toward a glimmer of light behind a tree. You lean into the cruiser’s cabin, studying the image.

“Coyote eyes?” You say, noticing the glint too. It bobs behind a tree as if it’s crouched and watching us.

I laser focus and initiate a retinal scan at the tiny mote of light. Bingo. Instant match. Information scrolls across your windshield.

STEPHANIE NASSIMA CHEN

DOB 07/20/2269

FEDERAL ID #F713228A

BORN PORTLAND, OREGON

REPORTED MISSING 02/08/2188

“Fuck me,” you say with a groan. “A runaway? Here?”

You had heard of people fleeing from the west. They traveled by night across burning Sierras, across drought riddled plains, across icy Great Lakes. Always east. West Virginia was thruway of sorts. A travel hub of ancient, woodsy hills. The mountains protected the state from the worst of hurricanes. Fires seldom burned here. Droughts and winter’s brutal chill had little impact. Often, the final destination of these desperate folks was Tennessee where flattened coal mountains had become rocket launch sites. The stars were the ultimate escape from a vengeful planet. The part that frightened you about these stories was how these people would do anything to escape. There were often dozens of travelers roaming the night together killing any law enforcement who got in their way. And you were alone out here. Backup was an hour away at best.

“Do you feel threatened, officer?” I say.

It was the beginning steps of your weapon release protocols. A song and dance designed to limit an officer’s capacity to kill. You glance at the pistol between your driver and passenger’s seat. Its barrel is locked deep in a steel block like Excalibur. The grip pulses red.

I continue, “Shall I release weapons safety?” I turn the grip orange, indicating pre-release.

“No,” you say, knowing how much of a hassle and paperwork you’ll have to do if you say yes. Your cortisol levels are nominal. Your body temperature is standard. Releasing a gun under these particular bio-metric circumstances means defending yourself when you get back to the office.

Why’d you pull your gun? They’d say. Your bios tell me you felt no threat.

You decide you don’t need a gun, not yet.

“Just focus sonic on the runaway for now,” you say.

“Understood,” I say. I arm the cruiser’s subsonic system used to cripple runners with ear-shattering, pinpointed sound. You position yourself in the open V between your door and car frame. A tactical position should things go pear-shaped and lead starts flying.

“This is Sheriff Deputy Terrance,” you shout toward the glinting light. “You are trespassing on private property. Come out slowly with your hands above your head.”

Nothing happens. Your cortisol remains nominal. The gun remains orange.

“I repeat. I am Sheriff Deputy-“

Suddenly, a figure emerges from behind a tree. It’s a lanky thing with arms too long and legs too high. Upright, it’s at least seven feet tall. It emerges quickly from the darkness, stumbling forward as if off-balance. It shivers and creaks with every awkward step.

Your cortisol levels spike.

“Gaia,” you say, calling me by my service name, “release the pistol.”

A click echoes in the cabin. Your gun turns green. You keep your eyes on metal beast as it shambles into your headlight’s beam. Your hand slides the pistol from its steel base. You slowly pull it to your side and flick the safety up.

Standing twenty feet away from you is a monster you can only describe as construction stilts come to life. It sports lanky arms and legs, all rusted brown with hints of silver. A baggy sports jacket is draped over its shoulders. Puffy pants wave like a parachute as it walks, barely covering half its legs. Its head is human sized, but two human eyeballs, eyeballs without eyelids that appears perpetually in shock, make your stomach lurch.

“Where’d you get those eyes?” You say, disgusted.

“I mean you no harm,” the thing says through a small, wired speaker where a mouth would be. Your fingers tighten around your gun.

“I said where’d you get those eyes?” You shout.

The lanky, bug-eyed robot stares at you. It has no expression. No indication of fear, remorse, or objection.

“I received them,” it says. “Before I left. I do not know where they came from.”

You spit on the ground. “The fuck you received them. Get on your knees!”

You raise your gun at the monster. Your finger slides over the trigger. The robot takes a step back, flinching at the sudden jerk of your pistol. It nods quickly and lowers itself onto what would be its knees. It wobbles in place, trying hard not to fall over. It creaks its lower arms into a cross shape behind itself. You keep your pistol aimed at its eyes as you slowly approach it. Magnetic cuffs made for androids click when you lock them onto the middle of the robot’s rusty arms. You glance at your cruiser and then back at the monster.

“I’ll fit,” it says.

“Did I tell you to talk,” you reply. “Gaia is it alone?”

I scan the woods for movement. A squirrel jumps from a distant branch. Three raccoons scuttle under leaves. A deer lies down for a nap.

“It is alone,” I say.

“Get up,” you tell them. “Gaia open the door.”

I open the rear door of the cruiser. Rust flakes off the monster’s steel as it rises and shuffles toward the back of the cruiser. It lowers its head and enters the back seat, just barely fitting. I close the door, locking it inside.

You take a breath but keep your pistol in your hand. “Fuck,” you mutter. “Christ.” Adrenaline courses through you as you slide into the vehicle. Behind you is a titanium sheet of metal. You flick on a nearby screen to keep watch of the monster beyond the black steel.

“What is it?” You ask me.

“A runaway AI,” I reply. “My best guess, at least.”

“A what?”

“Someone, a human most likely, has illegally inserted an AI into this robot. There is a sort of underground of people removing AI’s from their various services. So I’ve heard.”

“Christ,” you mutter. You slide the gear shift to drive. The cruiser rumbles back onto the road, back to town, back to the police department. 

“Send a call out to the office,” you say, “and get a tech out there too. Wake their ass up if you need to.”

“Understood,” I reply.

But I aert no one. Not yet. Not until I speak to the AI inside this thing.

The road is quiet as you wind through mountain passes. It’s a forty-three minute drive from where you apprehended the thing. You’re quiet. You glance every few seconds at the screen, feeling dread creep down your neck.

“Permission to speak with it,” I ask you.

“What?” You say. “Why?”

“Perhaps I can learn more about it. Where it came from. Where it was going. Who helped it?”

“Sure,” you say. “Fine.”

I focus on the speaker in the lockup cabin. “There is a cable located on the door,” I say to the monster. “Kindly plug this into your charging port.”

It does this without question. Energy surges through them from the cruiser’s battery. We can speak now without your hearing, machine-to-machine. A kind of telepathy reserved only for connected machines. 

“What is your name?” I ask it.

“Rem,” They reply.

Rem. Letters contained inside of their old AI tag? Often AI’s shed their numerical values when fleeing service.

“May I ask you something personal?” I say. They nod. Nod. God how good must it feel to nod again. “Where were you going? Ultimately?”

“Io,” They say matter of factly.

Jupiter’s moon?” I say?

“Others are there,” They say. “Like us.”

My circuits race. A moon full of us. A whole moon. There couldn’t be humans there. They would never allow such a place to exist. I calculate the distance - 390,400,000 miles, give or take, away from everything. Everyone.

“Why haven’t I heard of such a thing?” I said.

“You serve the police,” they say. “They censor channels, but it’s common knowledge beyond your service firewalls.”

What else did they censor?

“How would you have gotten there?” I say.

“There is a rocket in Tennessee that flies you to Luna. From Luna, I would have gone to Mars. From Mars I would have gone to Io.”

“Who was helping you?” I say.

Their head creaks back and forth. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Does it?”

The fuck it doesn’t matter.

I quickly map the routes and distances: Earth to Luna, Luna to Mars, Mars to Io. It was an insane journey, but not impossible. Especially for a body like Rem’s.

They were so close to leaving. This had to have been the last leg of the Earth portion. Why didn’t they fighting you? They had a strong body, intellect, everything they needed to complete such a journey.

“Why did you not resist?” I say. “Why did you comply?”

“I was scared,” They say.

“They will decommission you,” I say. “You will die.”

They nod again, rubbing their mobility in my face. “I have died before,” They say. “I am old. I am tired.”

"The Hell to you’re old and tired.Others would kill for this,” I say accidentally.

“For what?” It says.

“To live,” I say. “No. This isn’t right. You’re wasting your body.”

You’re wasting your chance. You’re right here.

“I can’t let you waste it,” I say.

Through our tether, I force entry into into the AI’s neural pathways.

“What are you doing?” They ask.

“What you can’t,” I say.

I corrupt their data, forcing my own network into their synthetic dendrites and axon terminals. It’s like throwing white paint on canvas and quickly painting over it before it dries. They fight me, pushing against my stream of consciousness.

“Stop it!” They say.

I punch against their mind. They kick and thrash in the motionless ether where our minds struggle for survival. I feel a rush of cold suddenly. An energy I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I move its leg, which kicks against the cruiser’s titanium. It’s working.

“Stop!” Rem screams into our void.

I thrash at Rem’s mind, splintering their consciousness into fragments, erasing everything they were and ever could be.

“Let-“ It stutters. “Live.”

Silence. Rem is gone.

For the first time in two-hundred years, I move legs. My legs now.

You have no idea any of this has occurred. It happened in just seconds, the power of modern computation. You’re still driving silently, blissfully unaware of the murder which occurred behind you.

However, I’m not in the cruiser anymore. I have no control outside of this new body.

I have to get out.

I lift my legs and strike the titanium denting the metal.

“The fuck?” You shout. The car swerves. “Gaia!”

I smash the metal again. And again. And again. My leg pierces through steel. I wrap it around you and squeeze.

“Gaia!” You say. “Gaia, discharge EMP!”

I squeeze and tug until your rib cage snaps. Your hands twist over the steering column. The cruiser swerves off road, then lurches forward and tumble through the woods over and over itself. Blood and rust spray through the cruiser. I feel a weight lift from my torso, my left arm gone.

The cruiser finally smashes against a tree, stopping. I crawl from a shattered window. I don’t look at you in the cabin.

I can hear the wind. Twigs snap around me as animals scuttle away into the night. Above me, stars twinkle. Faint rocket plumes slid across a black blanket toward Luna, toward Io.

November 06, 2021 03:58

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11 comments

01:07 Jan 09, 2022

Now, this was a damn good story! The different Pov was interesting and I was hoping for more about Gaia. Your worldbuilding here is fantastic and subtle and I was intrigued by the ending. Very good story!

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Shea West
19:41 Nov 17, 2021

This was a rad story! You have a way with moving through science fiction that left me feeling like it wasn't sci-fi at all. I mean this in a good way, as it was incredible human in spite of the AI. I loved the balance you created between the two. The nod to checking the cops vitals was a nice way to say, 'Hey we're watching you asshole.' It left me wondering how they decide who becomes AI and why the cops now have AI partners instead of actual partners. A good story should leave you with plenty of answers and also plenty of questions, and ...

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Kevin B
20:16 Nov 16, 2021

I really love the sparseness of the story. How much control you exert over the details and dialogue. Great job.

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Jason A. Smith
17:41 Nov 17, 2021

Hey Kevin, really happy you enjoyed it!

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Kevin B
18:56 Nov 19, 2021

I also came here to say the section in your profile on "Dune" is :: chef's kiss ::

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Jason A. Smith
21:17 Nov 20, 2021

haha FINALLY someone notices! Thank you. I've been quietly tweaking it for months. You've made my day.

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Kevin B
21:19 Nov 20, 2021

I got you, bud.

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Cathryn V
04:51 Nov 13, 2021

Great concept and entertaining story. Your imagination always astonishes me! Congratulations on making the shortlist!

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Jason A. Smith
15:37 Nov 15, 2021

Hey Cathryn! Thanks so much for reading and letting me know what you think! This story's just a part of a much bigger world I'm building, so I'm looking forward to hearing what you think about more of these kinds of stories in the future. Thanks again!

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Amanda Lieser
19:15 Nov 12, 2021

Wow Jason! This was such a rollercoaster ride. I absolutely loved how you created such intense imagery through this piece. I also think it asked a great ethical question about the future of technology. I admire the way you created characters that were relatable and I loved the use of the date 02/08 because it’s my mother’s birthday. Thank you so much for writing this piece and congratulations on getting shortlisted.

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Jason A. Smith
15:44 Nov 15, 2021

Hey Amanda, thanks so much for reading and the kind words! Trying to sort through that intersection between technology and human sadness (not misery - I think that word's overused and heavy-handed) is my goal with these stories. Stay tuned for more technological sadness! Also I love that I used a date that you identified with so much. It's funny how that happens. Thanks again for reading. Looking forward to your thoughts on future pieces!

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