Okay, gang. We started this game 100 days ago today, and the three men whose stories appear here were all first-round picks by their captains in the draft, if you can dig that. This season started with these guys, and it’ll end with them, too.
It’s been another really fun batch of stories, and as has become the norm, a very strange endgame for this writing season. I’ll probably see all these ties in my nightmares, but all the same, we’ve reached the point where there can be no more, so let’s enjoy three more stories.
The prompt was to write a story about two characters who, for some reason, are unable to communicate verbally despite a strong bond.
“First day, kid?”
“Yeah, it is. Not quite what I expected coming out of the academy, but I mean, it’s a job right?”
Officer Rambeau threw his hand on Jones’ shoulder. “Well, I’ve been here since they opened the place. I’ll show you the ropes.”
They walked through cell block RVD-42 together. “Every prisoner in our facility is a robot or an android. The cells are impenetrable, and every one is basically a Farraday cage. This keeps us from powering them down. That Robot and Android Rights Act of 2247 has really fucked us. Before that, we just used to hit ’em with an EMP blast and break them up for scrap.” Jones frowned, but Rambeau continued. “Them A.I. huggers have given the robots better fuckin rights
than us real people. It’s a real shame.”
Jones was a sixth generation android. In the last hundred years, the technology had advanced quite a bit. These new generation androids were pretty much indistinguishable from humans. The RAP Corporation basically wanted to avoid Jones, and her ilk, having to deal with bigotry people like Rambeau still held onto. Thankfully, the bigots hadn’t caught on yet.
When they reached cell RVD-42-0D8J, Jones looked through the small ballistic glass window. She was here.
Androids of Jones’ generation aged like humans, to really make them fit in. During her first four years of initial programming, JXL-43 was the A.I. who taught her. She knew her as Julia. Jones and Julia became close friends and kept in touch even as Jones was integrating into the world. Their rendezvous were discrete to keep Jones’ status being revealed, but Jones loved her. Given that JXL line didn’t have an advanced emotion engine, Jones’ love was unrequited.
Their eyes briefly met.
“Hey, are you comin’ kid? It’s almost time for lunch.” Jones realized she was lagging behind. She just got here. She had to be careful to not blow her cover.
“I’ll be right there, Rambeau!”
Three months into the job, Jones had finally completed her probationary period. As soon as she was considered full time, she’d asked to be moved to the third shift. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could handle eight hours in the presence of Officer Rambeau. The third shift had one other benefit: solo rounds through the cells.
The new routine was very soothing to her. 2:13 and 5:13 every morning, she’d make her pass by RVD-42-0D8J. She and Julia would have a brief chat using the code that they’d used in public, prior to Julia’s lockup. The movements were too subtle for the human eye to discern, but the speed and length of each of the slight shifts of their shoulder and head said so much. “Are you doing okay?” “Remember that sunset?” “I miss you.” To keep her cover, Jones could only risk a
couple phrases each pass by Julia’s cell. She had come here to be near her Julia and she was thankful for it.
Until one cold winter night, that is.
“Please save me.” Jones stopped in her tracks to make sure she saw that movement correctly. “Please save me.”
Her internal alarm had gone off. “I’ll stay longer on my next round. Tell me everything.” She finished her sweep of the block.
The next two hours passed incredibly slowly. She calculated that she have two minutes to stop at Julia’s cell. That should be enough time. Anything more than that and her partner would get suspicious. 5:13 finally arrived and she stopped at Julia’s cell.
“Guards are abusive, just like him… Please save me. We can run away. I just need out.”
Jones replied, as best she could. “Don’t want to risk what we have. Can’t break my cover. Will do what I can.”
“He” was Julia’s owner. She was imprisoned because of his death. Androids of Julia’s model were essentially personal assistants for the hyper rich, esepcially those who couldn’t handle human interactions. Julia’s owner was sexually abusing her. The concept of androids being the victims of sexual abuse was certainly not something against the law. And the CEO of RAP wasn’t going to be the first person prosecuted. Julia stabbed him to death; swiftly and precisely.
Her self-defence plea fell on deaf ears and she was sentenced to imprisonment.
Contrary to Rambeau’s broken belief system, the RARA wasn’t about rights for robots and androids. It was there to line the pockets of the builders of android prisons. The life of an android was quite, quite long. That time was money in the bank for them.
Jones didn’t like the system, and she’d planned on working from within the system to make things better than Julia. But the logs and camera footage of the second shift guards made Jones realize there was no time for that.
4:53 am, right on cue. Julia started pounding on the ballistic glass window. Fonteneau called through the intercom: “RVD-42-0D8J, calm down or we will fucking calm you down.” Julia kept pounding on the window and screaming as loud as her voice module would let her. Fonteneau hit the alarm button. “Let’s go, Jones. We gotta calm this one down.”
When they arrived at her cell, Julia was still pounding on the window. “You got a count of 10, prisoner! Jones, get your EMP baton ready 10, 9, 8…”
Jones grabbed the baton, and hoped the support line was right. The JXL series were repairable after an EMP blast, despite going black.
“4… 3… 2…” Fonteneau put his hand over the button to open Julia’s cell. “1!” He hit the button.
Jones’ shoulders twitched. “I’m so sorry.” Just as she was taught, she put the baton on Julia’s neck and pushed the EMP button. Julia collapsed immediately.
“Damn, you did that like a pro, Jones!” He tried to high five her, but she left him hanging.
Fonteneau called the scrap team to collect Julia. They’d “confirm” she wasn’t able to be rebooted and then sell her for scrap. Off the books, of course. Since that would be against the RARA.
Jones’ phone showed an incoming call from Scrapco Solutions.
“Hey this is Terrance down at Scrapco. We got that JXL you said you were lookin’ for.”
Jones got there as quickly as she could. Terrance was even more crotchety looking than he sounded on the phone.
“You ain’t up to no funny business now, are ya?”
“Of course not, Terrance. I just need an assistant, and I can’t afford a brand new one, so I need a fixer-upper.”
“Alright, well she’s gonna be 30,000 credits due to uh, the source. And you better make sure you get her some paperwork.”
Jones took out her wallet. “Are paper credits acceptable?” Terrance nodded. “Don’t worry, she isn’t gonna show back up in the system. I got the fake papers and everything.”
“I’m takin’ you on your word. Oh, and one more thing. Her voice module looks destroyed. I hope that ain’t a problem.”
Jones smiled. “I think I can manage.”
K: This one had some spelling and grammar issues early (I fixed the spelling this time), though I guess it stopped short of being a killer. This is an intriguing story. I mean, it’s not a new idea in sci-fi to consider the rights of non-humans who look like humans, but it’s a strong simile regardless and can be great drama if the hand isn’t too heavy. This hand did get a little heavy at times, laying the ideas on a bit thickly where the action itself was doing a good enough job of telling the story. I like this, but all I can say is this: trust your stuff. If you understand what you’re doing, there’s a good chance we will too, without you explicitly stating it. BRONZE
MN – This is a very inventive world, using both the prison thing and the new AI thing. The world itself is fleshed out quite thoroughly, and that’s quite enjoyable. I think you might have bit off a piece that was a little too big for the Turbo format unfortunately, because we ended up with too much telling us how it was/is, and not enough showing. There are some definite elements of showing that come through, but we never quite get close enough to the characters because of the factual recitations. BRONZE
Leo kneeled on one knee, right arm stretched back and fingers pulling against the bowstring. He stared down the shaft of the arrow towards a clearing a little ways ahead. Sunlight streamed through the forest canopy, illuminating the forest enough to see the flowers that Leo had set on the floor. They were lady slippers, vibrant yellow in color.
Occasionally a leaf would float down, making a scraping noise that seemed almost deafening to Leo’s ears. His arm burned and it was hard to keep his breath steady. The weight on his back got heavier with each passing minute.
Finally, he saw it. First the antlers appeared from behind the trunk of an ancient tree. Then the stag stepped full into the clearing, white fur glowing in the dim light. The giant beast knelt its head and bit down on one of the lady slippers, chewing slowly.
Something stirred on Leo’s back and there was a soft cooing sound. The stag jerked its head.
Leo let go of the bowstring and the arrow cut through the air, finding its mark. The stag shook but made no noise. It sat calmly on the forest floor, lay down its head and closed its eyes. The color of its fur seemed to fade, turning a soft gray.
The baby, strapped tightly to Leo’s back, had now begun to cry. Leo knew she must be hungry. He reach behind and stuck his small finger in the baby’s mouth, quieting the child almost instantly. Leo stood, his knees aching, and walked towards the stag. He studied the animal for a moment, his brow furrowed. Then he pulled out his hunting knife.
* * *
It was long past sunset when Leo made it to the cave. Firelight could be seen flickering across the entrance, a clear sign that it was near the witching hour. The child was strapped to the front of his body now, looking with curiosity around the moonlit forest. Occasionally she would turn to her father and smile. Ruffling the child’s head, he walked into the cave.
The air was acrid and sour, and the child immediately started sneezing. The cavern walls were lined with poorly-made shelves, each filled with jars. A tall, slender woman, dressed in an elk-fur coat, stood in the center of the cave tending to a smoking cauldron. She turned towards Leo and smiled, a hissing sound escaping her lips. Her eyes were sewn shut with thick thread, small droplets of blood leaking out the sides.
Leo covered the child’s face with the wrap and stepped towards the woman. He unstrapped a leather bag from his belt and handed it to her. The woman licked her lips and snatched the bag, quickly untying it over a wooden table. The heart of the white stag tumbled out, followed by a human tongue.
Heart of the stag, tongue of the lover. Leo shook as he thought of the requirements.
The woman shrieked and clapped her hands. She grabbed the heart and set it in one of the jars, covering it tightly. Then she picked up the tongue, leaned in close to smell it, and threw it into the cauldron. Leo breathed in sharply, rubbing his hands against his jaw.
The child began to cry again, and Leo bobbed up and down to to sooth her. After a few minutes of stirring, the woman reached into the cauldron with a ladle and filled a tiny vial with the bright green liquid. Setting the vial in Leo’s hands, she grabbed his shoulders and bruskly turned him around, hissing as she pushed him out into the forest.
Leo didn’t look back. He walked quickly, knowing full well how to find his way back to the path. The child coughed for a few more minutes, and then was finally lulled into sleep by the rhythm of Leo’s pace.
Leo thought about finding a place to camp for the night, but the vial was warm in his hand. He held it up and images of his wife filled his head; her pale body laying on their bed, glassy eyes staring at the ceiling. These thoughts filled him with energy.
He ran his fingers through his daughter’s hair and walked through the night.
K: In a relatively small space, I have grown very interested in all three characters here (four, if you count the deadish woman). The prose did a good job of getting the emotion across without ever becoming cloying. The baby is an excellent touch; she humanizes the man while also giving us a reason to cheer for the man to succeed in bringing back his wife. I guess my only (rather small) complaint is that we don’t have anything working against the man, but for a story that’s all mood anyway, I suppose man vs. fate is good enough. GOLD
MN – I’m stunned by how pretty this story is. There’s lots of description, which can sometimes feel like it’s trying too hard, but this doesn’t go there. It’s just straightforward and beautiful. The actions are all believable, and there isn’t anything superfluous in this story. We want to stay with these characters, and in this world, longer. GOLD.
Harrison set his keys down on the kitchen table and drank from the glass left out from before work. He rummaged through his refrigerator, finding nothing of interest. Crossing to the living room, he ignored the TV, sitting instead on a chair looking out the window of his apartment. Nothing yet, but Harrison knew he’d come.
When the cat appeared in the sill opposite Harrison’s, he knew it would be a night of no rest. Harrison retrieved his keys from the kitchen table, pocketing them as the apartment door closed behind him.
Harrison walked north on Hoyne, making a right onto Division. An unusually warm March weekend and a streaking Bulls team meant the bars would be packed with young twenty-somethings stuffing themselves with greasy bar food and beer. Harrison paced in front of the gym across the street from Anthem, the cheers from inside indicating a crescendo finish to the game. Soon they’d pour out onto the street to continue the revelry.
As the bar emptied out, a young couple took a left down Paulina into the darkness. Harrison followed.
“Butler’s been on fire!” the kid in the snapback slurred.
“So on fire,” his companion shouted back, “you’re lookin’ pretty hot too, babe,” she continued, sidling up closer to him.
When they turned onto Crystal Harrison hastened his pace. A few steps behind the couple he let out a low cough. The young man looked over his shoulder.
“Hey bud,” he glimpsed at Harrison, nudging the woman towards the street, “let ‘em by, babe.”
“Can I help you, man?” the guy’s voice waivered.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” Harrison muttered, lifting a gun towards the woman’s head, “he’s chosen you both.”
Two loud pops. Pooling blood on the sidewalk. A man disappearing down an alley.
Blending back into the crowded Division sidewalks, Harrison stifled the urge to vomit. The task never became easier, Harrison was but a servant carrying out Master’s orders.
Harrison locked the apartment door behind him and hung his coat on the rack next to the door. The deed was done. Making his way over to the TV to relax—maybe catch up on a show—Harrison stopped in his tracks.
The cat was in the sill.
Harrison let out a low whimper. Had he not been sated?
The apartment door closed again.
Reporters called him a monster—bloodthirsty. Comments sections on local websites were filled with speculation on who The Shepherd was—theories ranging from a crackpot notion that it was an alien in disguise to thinly-veiled racists certain this was a resurgence of gang violence. All wondered Harrison’s motives. No one understood Harrison had no motive; Harrison was merely in thrall to Master. Master’s plans would be revealed in time.
Again, Harrison found himself surveying Division Avenue. It’d been less than an hour since he’d fulfilled Master’s wish; the place was swarming with police. But, Harrison had no say in the matter. Master had issued the order—it was his follow.
A man exited Rainbow Room and stumbled south on Damen. Harrison followed at a distance. Harrison thought for a moment about the man—what he did and who he loved—but pushed the thought out of his head. It didn’t matter.
The man crossed Augusta just as the light changed. Harrison accelerated to a trot despite cross traffic. Stuck in the middle of street, a cabbie slammed on his brakes and honked, sticking his head out the taxi window.
“The fuck you doin’, man?” the thickly-acceded driver yelped.
Harrison, wide-eyed and vacant, looked back. “S-sorry,” before skittering across the street. The man was still just ahead.
As the man turned onto Walton the routine began. The quickened pace. The cough. The misery of the deed.
“Oh no—Oh god. Please—“
“I’m sorry, he’s chosen you.”
“Hey!” a man hollered moments after the body hit the ground.
Harrison turned. It was the police. The officer raised his gun.
“Chicago Police! Stop right there!”
Harrison pocketed his pistol and took off in the opposite direction.
“I said stop! Chicago Police!”
Soon enough Harrison was sprinting south on Hoyne. Only a few more blocks to go. He slowed his sprint in the Seventh Day Adventist parking lot, hoping to catch his breath for a less conspicuous return to his building. He peered around the corner of the church. It looked safe. He continued on.
As Harrison approached his apartment he noticed two cops walking towards him. Did they know who he was, what to look for? Harrison continued forward avoiding eye contact, trying to look casual. In front of his building he faced the door as he rifled through his pocket for his keys. He pulled them from his pocket and had them in the lock with one swift motion.
A loud clank. Harrison looked at the pavement. His gun. He looked at the cops. They were both wide-eyed.
“Stop! Hands up!” Both reached for their sidearms.
Harrison threw the door open, taking the stairs two, three at a time.
“Chicago Police!” he heard from the apartment’s foyer, “come out with your hands up!” Harrison continued up the stairs. At last, fourth floor.
Inside his apartment Harrison locked everything he could. He barricaded the door with the apartment’s meager furnishings.
“Police, open up!” They pounded on the door. “Police!”
Harrison pushed the futon towards the door. He stopped in front of his window. The cat was on the sill.
“Police, open up! We will use force!” Harrison heard nothing. He was lost in those huge yellow orbs. And then he knew.
Harrison went to the kitchen and returned to the window with the knife. A moan and a wet gargle followed the knife as Harrison plunged it into his heart.
There would be another like him, but there would be no other Master. No one could know Master. Master’s plans were far too important for that.
K: Once I learned who the Master was, I was fully on board with this story; you can’t write a psychopath for too long before he becomes tedious, but with this story length, they work just fine. By the end it seemed like the narrative had kind of run in place a little – there wasn’t much to differentiate the two killing scenes – and some sort of variety would have helped there. I think this was the fitting end for this character, but I also wouldn’t have minded a chance to see some normal people react to him. A strong story that perhaps needed more of its strength at the finish line. SILVER
MN – I like the slow pace to the first reveal, and this does a very good job staying neutral. We care about Harrison, somewhat, we care about his victims without seeing much of them. I think the second reveal, that he’s the target, comes a little too slowly. And I wanted a little more punch from the last paragraph. I love the crackpot theory coming to life angle, but just a slightly sharper twist somehow would have really made my day. A very strong final performance. SILVER
So, ladies and gentlemen, Brian David finally reaches the final two after a couple of close calls in the past. It is now his sole responsibility to choose whom to eliminate of the other two, and then we’ll get to the jury plea and questions. Brian will have until tomorrow (Monday) at 9pm Central to decide, though history tells me that it probably won’t be that long.
Thanks for the words, Survivors. For those of you still in the game, your proper sendoffs are yet to come, but I assure you I greatly appreciated having some different faces there at the end; this season certainly forged an identity all its own.