Oooohhh. Good job here, ladies and gents. For as much as some of you loathed this challenge – and I can’t begrudge you, because I thought it sounded tough even as I pitched it – you all soared to some degree in this one. The ideas were great and the structure was fantastic. I suppose that could be a byproduct of the lack of the word limit? Well, whatever it was, y’all made us proud this time around, and have made it an exciting final four.

Bret Highum

A sub-process ran as the facial recognition software keyed a secondary routine that rarely ran. Warning programs and evasion protocols were bombarding EFCC-224, but none of the scans or video history tripped any flags requiring action, so the CPU tried to override the obviously false alarm response. The interplay between the operating program and software package slowed EFCC-224’s processor to a near-standstill and overloaded the cooling capacity. Internal breakers tripped and the robot halted all movement as the gyroscopic sensors needed for balance went offline. One by one, other systems went down as the secondary routine inexorably powered its way through the security interlocks and code protections, sending its wireless tendrils out into the nodes controlling the cameras and sensors along the street and shutting them down as well.

I’d never seen a maintenance ‘bot stop before. They’re kind of a full-size version of the old Roomba vacuum cleaners. There’s one for every block, moving at just the right speed to cover every nook and cranny of every yard and alleyway, returning items to the places they occupied at noon the day before and tracking everything from satellite imagery to vibration patterns. Seeing an M-bot stopped dead gives me an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

I’m not from around here, so maybe this isn’t as unusual as I think it is, but the slight tremors that ripple across the flexible lifting digits can’t be good. If an M-bot needs repair, it’s got an instrument station it’s supposed to enter, and obviously there’s automatic responses from other M-bots if that’s required. I glance around, up and down the quiet street, but it doesn’t seem there’s any other ‘bots on their way. I tentatively move closer to the M-bot, but I don’t have any idea of what I could do to help.

This robot is a lot different from the one on my block, though it’s still obviously of the same type, unlike a police droid or a repair ‘bot. For one, it has a much bigger hopper for debris storage, and the extremities seem to be flexible strips of metal, without the protective padding I’m used to seeing. The designers must have finally got the pressure sensitivity control responses set well enough to handle delicate items, which is interesting. The lack of sensitivity is one of the only reasons robots haven’t taken over my job yet, but it looks like progress is being made on that front.

I reach out and give the central trunk of the M-bot a stiff poke with two fingers. It’s like nudging a streetlamp. The M-bots are supposed to shy away from contact- better safe than sorry when a toddler gets near a two-ton metal garbage man, after all. This is the first time I’ve ever touched one.


“DNA confirmed,” droned Specialist Willis, his nasal voice a constant irritant to Station Chief Barnwell Why couldn’t a woman with a sexy British accent be assigned as his communications officer? Barnwell sighed and tried to concentrate on the positives. At least Willis didn’t have the terrible body odor problem Calhoun had, and he was much, much more proficient with the manual controls than Ansah. Ansah had been a disaster.

“Target authorized, Specialist Willis. Proceed with cleanup.” Barnwell intoned, taking care to pronounce each word carefully and relishing the way his deep baritone reverberated off the block walls of the command center. It would be an excellent place to sing an opera, Barnwell mused to himself. He signed off on the official sanction and sent the notice to his superiors, hitting the send key with an exaggerated flourish.


I’d just noticed an odd, rust-colored stain on one of the grappling extensions and was leaning in for a closer look when the M-bot emitted a startling “whirrrr” and jerked back to life. A miniscule twitch of a walking appendage sent me flying backwards, landing in a well-trimmed box hedge and staining my surgical scrubs green and brown. Struggling to extricate myself, I looked up to find the maintenance bot moving towards me in an oddly jerky fashion. It extended a limb towards me, and for a brief, bizarre second, I thought it was going to help me up, so I reached out for it. I realized my mistake as the metallic digits closed around my head. A brief sensation of pressure, then a brief sensation of pain – they really hadn’t fixed that sensitivity control yet, I thought confusedly- and the world went dark.


EFCC-224 reported the time lapse once its processor had rebooted, but there was no response. Since EFCC-224 had never received a response after reporting time lapses, it had no expectations of anything different.

Later that week, EFCC-224 was cleaning grid 14AX when it came across a discarded newspaper. Newspapers were a tricky item- if complete and folded, they were to be returned. If they were wrinkled and incomplete, they were flotsam to be discarded. EFCC-224 held it up to scan it, and a photo on the front page- the headline was “President’s Surgeon Missing, One Week before Brain Tumor Surgery”- tripped the facial recognition software. No subroutine ran this time, but EFCC-224’s memory banks still held an image that matched the photo, so another report was sent in. There was no response.
EFCC-224 placed the discarded newspaper in the hopper and moved to grid 15AY.

K: Maybe I’m missing my guess here, as technobabble does wear on me after a while even if it’s true to the story, but it seemed like this one spent a lot of time setting up a story that barely happened. I was stunned when I saw that this one was ending, and felt a rare sense of unfinished business afterward to the point that I looked in the email for more. This story feels like such an honest genre piece that I hate to be so meh about it, but it really didn’t take me anywhere.

LATER: Okay, I trudged through the babble again to see what this was all about, because it deserved a second look. I don’t trust it fully since it took so long to reach me, but there’s actually a pretty fun story here.

DK: I really liked the contrasts in writing style between the sections here, and the way this is structured through and back out to those perspectives sets up the premise and the mystery here well without giving too much away early. I also liked a lot of the character touches, especially in the middle section with Barnwell; the humorous tone of his quirks and commentary doesn’t hit a darker slant until the real nature of the events here is revealed, which gives it a nicer effect. SILVER

MG: Hooray, intrigue! This was a smartly-written piece of work, with enough thick and chewy sci-fi/computery/robotty details to really set up the situation and its context without drawing too much attention to the effort. The final reveal was a bit too “taa-dah!” to be truly flush with the style of the rest of it, but there’s not a whole lot else one could have done there. It was admirable that you kept that final reveal contained to the notice of the maintenance bot itself. All in all, I enjoyed this story. BRONZE
Annette Barron

Feather took the last few steps to the street two at a time; eager to feast her senses on her new city. Her lungs struggled a little with the thin air; Denver was so much higher in elevation than she was accustomed. But the sun was shining warmly above and the world was bursting with possibility.

She only noticed the Tourist Droid at the last possible moment to avoid collision. It seemed to be frozen in place at the top of the stairs from the underground. Only her quick step around saved her from smacking her nose into its metal shoulder. “Goodness! Why are you stopped in such an inconvenient place?”

“I am a Denver Municipal Android, identification number Alpha 779.”

“That’s not actually what I asked you.”

“I am a Denver Municipal Android, identification number Alpha 779.”

“So you say.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am?”

Feather turned. Two uniformed police officers approached from their scooters on the street. “Yes?”

“I’m Officer Downs and this is my partner, Officer Myre.” He nodded to the older policeman talking on his link. “This droid has sounded an alert and has identified you as the cause.”


“Yes, Ma’am.”

“There must be some mistake, Officer. I haven’t even been in Denver long enough to get in any trouble.” She beamed up at him. “I just got here off the underground. From Burbank. It’s the first day of the rest of my life!” It was impossible not to grin back at her.

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding.”

“Isn’t this just a Tourist Droid?”

“Yes, Ma’am. But they are also programmed to send an alert if they notice anything untoward.”

“You’re going to have to come with us.” The older cop had finished his call. “There’s an issue.”

Feather looked up at him, worried now. “Sir? What’s this about?”

“What’s your name, Miss?”

“Feather Feng.”

“The problem is, Ms. Feng, that the security cameras in the underground have no record of you exiting a train. There’s no record of you even being in the underground, however you came up the stairs and popped into view. This caused the droid to call in an alert.”

“There must be some malfunction then. I just did get off the train from Burbank.” His earpiece buzzed.

“Records indicate that the last train from California was four hours ago.”

“But . . . that’s not right.” Feather’s bright blue eyes lost some of their shine. “I DID just get off.”

Downs stepped forward. “Do you have your ticket, Ms. Feng.”

Feather brightened and nodded her cap of golden curls. “Of course! It’s right here.” She handed him her big duffle and started pawing through her shoulder bag. She checked all of her pockets and rifled through her bag again. “It should be right here on top.”

“Let’s go to the station.”

“But I have to find lodgings! I just got here.” A police transport lowered from above. Downs helped her in and secured her seat and bags. Officer Myre loaded their scooters into the back and nodded at the driver. Feather stared out of the small window next to her seat. She looked so little and lost; both officers felt uncomfortable causing her distress.


“Put her in interrogation room three.” Myre instructed.

“Are you sure that’s necessary? Those rooms are so intimidating.”

“Downs! Get a hold of yourself. Something about this isn’t right and you’re tiptoeing around trying to take care of the suspect.” Myre scowled, tamping down his own protective instincts.

“Right. Interrogation room three.”


The technician handed Myre his earpiece. “Here you go. I’ll give you what I get as I get it.”

Myre entered the room. Downs and Feather were drinking coffee and chatting like long lost chums. Ignoring Downs, Myre went around the table and sat in the chair facing Feather.

“Alright, Ms. Feng. We’ve run a diagnostic on the security cameras and there’s no evidence of hacking. Yet, somehow you managed to appear on the stairs from the underground. Care to explain?”

Feather’s lip quivered. “I don’t know why this is happening. I got off the train and I came up the stairs.”

Downs reached over and put his hand over hers on the armrest of her chair. Myre frowned at him and he hastily pulled it back.

“Also, the train from California, which was early this morning, has no record of a Feather Feng as a passenger and you can’t seem to produce a ticket. Did you keep the receipt?”

“I don’t know, maybe if I went through my bag again . . . .”

“Actually, an officer is going through your luggage right now. If they find anything helpful, I am sure they will bring it to my attention.”


“You say you came from Burbank?”

“Born and raised.”

“Do you have friends or family here in Denver we can contact?”

“No.” Feather fidgeted in her chair. “I’m relocating here. I need to find a place to stay and a job.”

“What do you do, Ms. Feng?”

“I’m a personal assistant.”

“Do you have family or friends in Burbank who we can contact?”

“My parents are dead and I don’t have any siblings.”


“I make new friends wherever I go.” She beamed at Officer Downs, who looked bemused.

“Hmm. How about a former employer?”

“Mr. Jimmy Dean.”

“Do you have his number?”

“Certainly.” Myre handed her an electronic note pad and she keyed in the number. Myre’s earpiece buzzed. “Everything she says, she absolutely believes. And that number belongs to a sewage plant. Also, her social is fake, unless she’s an 80 year old deceased kitchen tech.”

“Ms. Feng, my information indicates that your social security number belongs to someone else.” He leaned back in his chair. “Why don’t you tell me what’s really going on here?”

Feather shook her head, hair flying. “Why are you saying these things? That IS my social security number! “ Her face reddened and her brow lowered. “This is very upsetting.”

Downs once again reached over and laid his hand on top of hers. Abruptly, he snatched it back. “Ow!”

Feather began fanning her face. “I don’t understand what is happening; I haven’t done anything!” Her face darkened.

“Myre!” In his ear. “My sensors are . . .” Zzzzt.

Feather’s small breasts heaved as she struggled to get enough air. A blue light began pulsing from under her small chin. Downs pointed at it. “Feather? What’s . . . .”


The hair on Myre’s arm was standing at attention and the pulsing blue light seemed to be escalating. Myre stood, knocking his chair backward and lunged across the table. He grabbed the flummoxed Downs around the waist and dove with him to the floor. An excruciating chime sounded, followed by a blinding flash.


“Damage was imminent. Subject removed. Planet designated as hostile.”

“Affirmative. Subject reassigned.”


Shifth climbed out of the sea, shaking the fluid from her dorsal fin. She adjusted her intake of ammonia, regulating her gill colors to the correct shade of amber to indicate her current cycle of egg production. She carefully watched the stream of Growder, judging her time to slip in and join the trek to her new feeding pod. The Growder sang out their welcome. The suns were shining warmly above and the world was bursting with possibility.

K: This is all kinds of fun, as the only early criticism I had was the bizarrely calculated dialogue, which was of course explained once we learned a little more about Feather. Turning the “human” into the more compelling and supernatural character was an idea that paid off, and the structure of this story works at every turn. SILVER

DK: I have to say I wasn’t terribly surprised by the way this played out; either the signaling early on here or my own familiarity with the tropes that go with this subject matter made it pretty clear, and so I was mostly waiting to see the reveal of who was ultimately responsible for Feather being placed there. I did think she was a nicely endearing character though; a good mix of the necessary wide-eyed naivety combined with some snark as in her interaction with the Droid made her pretty sharp.

MG: Well, that escalated qu–never mind. You managed to pull off a nifty little bit of compact tension building with this story. There was just enough time for us to feel some kind of optimistic hope for poor Feather, and then make us feel weird for rooting for her when stuff started to get all cosmic and crazy. It’s easy to put aside the fact that this story really didn’t need the robot in it at all, thereby dodging the prompt a bit. It was still a fun idea, and as you probably guessed by now, not hand-feeding me the explanation at the end earns you bonus points. Well writ. GOLD
Erik S

Lt. Davies heard the TRAKR approaching before he saw it; there was no mistaking that awkward gallop of theirs. He turned around and saw the odd machine loping up the empty street to his position.

It was built like a dog with two front halves stitched together, though without heads and constructed of metal and wires. The legs were connected to the “body”, where all the command functions and software were located. While the design made it surprising mobile, the manner in which it maneuvered was certainly unsettling. So much so that requests had been made to decommission the series from quite high up the chain, despite their effectiveness. Lt. Davies hadn’t heard what the response from the brass had been, but there were still out in the field in vast numbers.

Davies gave the signal for his men to hold so he could interface with the TRAKR. He made sure they maintained a defensive position (minds tended to wander during these long treks through the Abandons), then turned his attention to the machine.

He fished out the plugin to the device on his belt and inserted it the TRAKR’s body. Instantly his helmet came alive with images: video, schematics, and otherwise.

“Talk to me, boy. What do you see?” Davies asked.

An odd, tinny, and robotic voice chirped into his earpiece. “Good evening, Lt. Davies. I currently observe the following organisms in transit within a quarter kilometer radius: 156 mosquitoes, 1,276 ants, 26 squirrels, 5 raccoons, 302,121 leaves…”

Davies sighed. “Whoa, whoa, boy. Is there any humanoid movement in this sector.”

There was a pause as the TRAKR fetched the data. “I am detecting 21 humanoids within a quarter kilometer radius.”

“Besides my squad, boy.”

Another pause. “Other than the 21 humanoids in the immediate vicinity, I am detecting no humanoid movement in this sector.”

Davies shook his head, though only slightly so the men wouldn’t notice. “All right. Good boy. Continue sweeping.” Because it amused him, he patted the top of the TRAKR’s CPU unit as though it was a puppy, but then felt the warm humor seep from him as he watched the machine skitter off with its unnatural gait.

Part of the Davies’ uncomfortable feelings toward the TRAKR units were, in addition to the anthropomorphic qualities that people intrinsically would bestow on them, they were, in fact, and unholy marriage of beast and machine.

Everything above the surface was hardwired. The cameras, relays, and all manner of communications had to be done by direct line as the rebels had long since been able to intercept wireless communication. This would naturally hinder any sort of automated scouting as they would be required to be tethered to grid.

However, someone at the Factory had stumbled upon a solution several years back (Davies wanted no part of the knowledge of that particular tale). All of the TRAKRs’ information was processed through canine brains, which were separated from their owners, then integrated into the hardware. He didn’t fully understand the mechanism, but it had something to do with rebel computers not being able to decipher signals from living creatures. While the results were effective, it certainly felt unnatural, and sometimes it caused the TRAKRs to be, well, kind of dumb.

Davies raised his hand to call for attention, ready to end the patrol and return to base. Just as he waved his arm forward to move out, a plasma charge detonated, and chaos exploded around him.

Davies was knocked to his feet, but besides a brief dazed moment, he was able to collect himself together and started screaming orders. His squad took refuge among ruins and began returning fire to the rebels that were pouring out from the chasm they’d created in the middle of the street.

The rebels, though numerous, were ill-equipped and poorly trained. Davies suspected this was one of the outlying militias rather than the main core of the Resistance. Their armor was dented, the Obfuscaters to shield their faces from the cameras weren’t as diffuse as they could be and wavered from time to time.

Almost as quickly as the battle had started, the rebels began to fall back into the sewers. Lt. Davies faced a moment of indecision, and quickly decided that purpose of the attack wasn’t to lure them into trap (though what the true purpose was he wasn’t sure), so he ordered his men to follow and destroy the combatants.

Just as Davies was about the jump into the hole behind his men, he heard an alarm behind him. Spinning around, he saw two rebels carrying off the body of the TRAKR as it squawked into the distance. Its legs had been neatly severed off; the lopped ends were still glowing from whatever they’d used to amputate its limbs.

Davies cursed as the purpose of the attack was illuminated (he now recalled recent reports of the rebels snatching up Factory intel machines), and decided to take on the duo themselves as his squad decimated the main diversionary force. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to split up and still carry the TRAKR, he charged straight after them.

Angered at his own shortsightedness, he abandoned simple gunfire and pulled an ion grenade from his belt. The tracker in his eyepiece gauged their distance and speed and offered a target area, of which he neatly landed the grenade just to the right of.

The starboard rebel took the brunt of blast. The upper half of his body bounced off the side of the remaining wall of a nearby building, and landed with a sickening plop. The rebel on the left was thrown several yards by the blast, but seemed relatively unscathed. Davies drew his sidearm as he closed the distance to the prone attacker, ready to cheerfully put a charge through the rebel’s eye for his troubles.

As the rebel struggled to get to his feet, Davies charged and delivered a swift kick to his mid-section, flipping him over on his back. He took aim at the facial area, finger beginning to depress the trigger, just as the rebel’s Obfuscater flickered, then failed, revealing his face.

Her face. Her beautiful face. Her dark skin was marred with dirt and scars. Her long hair was tethered in small, thin, and tight braids, all pulled back behind her head and tied with colorful strip of cloth.

Davies had never seen anything like her before. His own wife at home had the smooth, flawless, and pale skin that all women shared, thanks to the treatments available in the Beauteurs. All women (and most men) kept themselves as clean and prefect as possible to separate them from the “scum” that lived under their cities. Davies never realized how boring they all were until that moment.

All of the sudden, Davies realized that silence had fallen around them. The empty ruins of the neighborhood were still; the only sound was of the two of them panting as they stared into each other’s eyes. Davies felt his finger release the trigger and his arms dropping, seemingly unable to stop them. So disarmed was he by this discovery that the fight in him left along with the adrenaline.

She, too, was equally surprised by this development. The defiance and savagery in her eyes dissipated as the barrel of Davies’ gun removed from them. The emotional vacuum then filled weariness and fear. A cloud of vulnerability passed over her face which only served to pull Davies in deeper.

The discipline that he was going to face for this was still just a shapeless fog in the back of his mind, and he pushed it down further still. His arms dropped to his side completely, and then he holstered his sidearm. She gazed up at him with a mild suspicion.

“Umm, hi,” he managed. “I’m Davies.”

She stared at him a long time before she answered. “Zekia.”

Aware that his arms were still hanging limply by his side, he offered them out to help her up. The distrust came washing back as her eyes darted over his frame, trying to gauge what his angle was. But her eyes landed on his again, and apprehension on her face slowly dissipated as she meekly offered out her own hands.

He reached out to take hold of them… and missed. In three swift motions, the Laserblade she conjured from somewhere on her person lopped both of his hands above the wrist, then back precisely across his midsection between two armor plates, and then she kicked off of his chest as she somersaulted backwards back onto her feet.

He fell down on his backside and stared at her stupidly, the stumps of his arms held aloft in the air, trying desperately to figure out what had just happened as he began to bleed profusely.
She calmly collected the hands lying on the ground in front of him, produced a small bag which she placed them in, and stowed them in a satchel at her side.

“These should get us past a few security doors until they realize you’re dead,” she said calmly, and blew him a kiss as she turned to leave.

He stared at her helplessly, so in shock that he could only produce a reedy gasp. Their gaze met again, and she hesitated. As she stared back into his eyes, a moment of doubt crossed her face.

She produced the Laserblade again.

“Those eyes’ll probably get us a few doors further.”

K: Wait…’all of “the” sudden?!’ This opens with a bit of a bang, with complex ideas about marrying beast with machine, and the strange rules about how humans should be expected to interact with robots. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit sterile when the story’s action starts to happen, and it really does seem to walk in place rather than build tension. Or maybe robots just don’t grab me? I guess that’s possible, but I feel like most of the last two thirds could be condensed or punched up. BRONZE

DK: I really enjoyed the concept of the TRAKR as an idea and subject, and if I’m honest I was a little disappointed to see the course of the story here move away from it. With the initial setup of Davies’ views on them and their general level of (lack of) acceptance, I thought that was an interesting thing to keep exploring. The ultimate conflict between Davies and Zekia felt less devleoped to me on a character level, but the action through that ending sequence is well-written and intense and, again, the TRAKR was a cool enough concept on its own. BRONZE

MG: Nasty bit of business at the end there, when Zekia shows just how mercenary she can be when given the opportunity. It’s unfortunate it took so long for us to get to a place where a character can show grit of that sort, because the front end of the story has a pretty labored pace to it. The makeup of the TRAKR bots, while interesting, don’t really do much for the narrative in terms of energy, conflict, or excitement. As it turns out, their unusual makeup doesn’t really figure into the rest of the story, so why belabor it for so long? The appearance of the rebels is treated very matter-of-factly, especially in light of how jaw-clenchingly brutal an ending you came up with. So I’m stuck with a wallop of a finale at the end of a sorta unremarkable beginning and middle. (Also: “All of the sudden”? “ALL OF THE SUDDEN”?????)
Christina Pepper

It’s late afternoon—later than I meant for it to be—and the fog has already begun to roll in. It forms out over the bay and then by some meteorological trick I’ve never understood, it spills into the city, creeping up streets and engulfing entire blocks.

I tried to lose myself in it the other day. The fog was thicker than usual, but every time I walked into what looked like a promising area, I could still see my immediate surroundings. I know it’s simply evaporated water from the Pacific Ocean that has condensed upon tiny particles of sea salt, but I wanted it to be something more.

I went into the office this morning but couldn’t concentrate, so I took the afternoon off. My boss suggested I go take a yoga class to clear my chakras. Like he knows anything about anything. I got on a bus and just rode around for a while before deciding to come here. Or maybe I knew I was going to come here all along but didn’t want to admit it.

Up close, the bridge is bigger than I expected it to be. Brighter too. Even with the fog, it’s as if that international orange is glaring at me.

There are also more people than I expected. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised by them. This is, after all, a major tourist attraction. I somehow thought a random weekday would be different. In my head, I was the only one here.

“That’s exactly your problem,” I can hear Elise saying. “You only think about yourself.”

So maybe she’s right after all. Although if I truly only think about myself, why am I thinking about her right now?

My phone vibrates in my pocket. I reach for it, then stop. If it’s work, I don’t want to know. If it’s her, I don’t know what to say.

A clump of tourists overtakes me and I move to the side, toward the railing, to get out of their way. I look over the edge, out into the bay. Through the thin spots in the fog, I can see the deep blue water some two hundred feet below. It looks calm from here, though I’m sure the currents are strong.

“You don’t make sense anymore,” she said last night. “You just go through your day mechanically, and sometimes I don’t even think you know I still exist.”

“Of course you exist,” I replied. “There are just things I need to take care of. Sometimes I need to be alone.”

I wanted to tell her more—about the roaring in my head, how it gets so loud sometimes—but I couldn’t find the words. And even if I could, it wouldn’t make any sense anyway.

I watch the shifting patterns of fog until I’m not sure how long I’ve been standing here. An odd whirring sound catches my attention.

“What the—”

Some sort of thing—a robot?—is motoring toward me. It’s vaguely egg shaped; the exterior is a smooth, dull silver. The thing is perhaps five feet tall. I stand in place, unsure how to react.

It stops a few feet from me and expels a small strip of paper from a slot that could conceivably be called its mouth. I find myself compelled to reach out and take the paper. It’s just slightly larger than what you’d find in a fortune cookie.


“What the hell?”

I say it aloud, although I’m not sure the machine has the capacity to understand human speech. What does it mean, “this is a test”? This isn’t a test, this is me on a bridge.

It doesn’t move.

“Look, what do you want?”

I study it for perhaps ten seconds, and then it spits out another slip of paper: THIS IS A TEST.

“You said that already. Is that all you’ve got?”

I look around to see if anyone else has noticed this robot thing, but the tourists are nowhere to be found. You would think something like this would attract a fair bit of attention. Or maybe this is old news to everyone but me. I can hear Elise now: “Haven’t you heard? Homeland security deployed robots months ago. It’s for our own safety. You should really try paying attention to the news once in a while.”

The noise in my head, which has been faint since I left work, begins to crescendo.


“Fatal and tragic,” I tell the robot. “Did you know that? The consequences of jumping are fatal and tragic. Fatal first. The tragic is more like an afterthought.

“Actually,” I go on. “At least thirty-four jumpers have survived. Not that I’ve looked it up or anything. You have to hit feet first, though, and at a slight angle. Now, you might survive—you look pretty sturdy—but I suppose the rust would get you in the end.”

My phone begins to vibrate again. I’m tempted to answer it, say “this is a test,” and then fling it over the railing. Of course, then Elise would just have another reason to tell me how incomprehensible I’m being.

“Do you want to hear a story?” I ask the robot. I don’t know why I keep speaking to it, but it’s here and I’m here, so why not?

“There was a boy,” I begin, “a baby. Do you know what a baby is? The baby was so very small. There had been an accident and the baby came too soon and most people thought he would probably die. But the baby’s mother wouldn’t give up on him, and by some miracle he survived.

“The boy’s father become ill and died about ten years later. The boy figured all the miracles had been used up on him, and there weren’t any more left. He and the mother cried a lot. She told him he was all she had, so he tried very hard to make her happy.

“But the boy doesn’t know what’s happening anymore. It’s like—well, this you’ll understand—it’s like some wires are crossed somewhere and no one knows how to fix them. And there’s all this static inside that keeps threatening to overwhelm everything. And I guess that’s why I’m here right now.”

After I finish, I look at my newfound mechanical friend, waiting for I don’t know what. After fifteen or so seconds of silence, it spits out another slip of paper.


Disappointment bites at me. I don’t know why I thought it would say anything different.

“Look, I need to go,” I tell the creature. “Good luck with, uh, whatever it is you’re doing here.”

I turn and walk back toward the city. From here it looks so small and quiet. I notice I feel hungry—have I eaten anything yet today?—and I hope the wait for the bus isn’t too long. I almost wish I could invite the robot to come to North Beach with me for some pizza from Golden Boy. I can almost taste the gobs of gooey cheese and spicy sauce right now.

When I reach the end of the bridge, I pull out my phone. Five missed calls. Damn. I should probably text Elise before she gets any more pissed off than she surely is already.

Something that sounds like cheering breaks my concentration. I look up and see a small group of people moving toward me. They’re young—college students maybe?—smiling and trading high fives. I glance behind me to see if I can figure out what’s attracted their attention. Then they’re surrounding me.

“It worked,” says a hipster-looking guy with black framed glasses. “It seriously worked.”

“How are you, man?” asks the lone girl. She’s got long black hair that whips in the wind coming off the bridge.

“What’s going on?” I ask, stepping back from all of them.

“That robot you were talking to?” said a tall guy sporting a TARDIS t-shirt and a ’fro . “It’s ours. We built it for our senior project.”

“Um, okay.”

“HELPER is designed to prevent suicides,” says the girl, smiling. “That stands for: Humanoid Electronic Lifesaving Program to Engage and Rescue. In addition to having its own camera, it’s networked with all the surveillance cameras on the bridge. It can monitor the entire thing at once.”

“And there’s an algorithm,” cuts in the glasses guy. “It analyzes movements and calculates which pedestrians are most at risk of jumping. It’s designed to be far more efficient than any human could possibly be.”

“Did you know you were standing in one spot for 5 minutes and 38 seconds?” asks yet another guy, this one looking closer to twelve years old than twenty. “You were far and away the biggest risk of anyone on that bridge just now.”

“And we saved you!” says the girl. “HELPER is designed to be nonthreatening and can assist people in highly volatile emotional states by acting as a calming presence. We hypothesize that it encourages production of alpha waves in the brain.”

This must be some sort of elaborate joke with me as the punchline. I look around to see if there’s a camera crew nearby.

“What’s with these?” I ask, pulling the slips of paper from my pocket.

“It’s not done yet,” explains the twelve-year-old. “We still need to program it with appropriate phrases. Hey, maybe you could help us! What do you think it should say? Maybe, ‘today is not a good day to die?’ Or how about, ‘just say no . . . to jumping.’”

My head had been quiet—more due to shock than to anything else I expect—but now the roaring returns, louder than ever.

“Don’t worry about him,” says glasses guy. “I know this a lot to take in. But this is our very first test in situ, so we’re pretty stoked.”

I stare at him dumbly.

“Hey, you want to go grab something to eat with us?” asks the girl. “I mean, it kind of feels like you should celebrate with us or something.”

I’m suddenly not hungry anymore.

“I’m going to go now,” I say, turning away from the group. Then I look back at them. “You know what I think? I think that robot of yours is a great big piece of crap. You fucking college kids think you can just program some hunk of metal and save the world. Well, it’s not that simple.”
I turn away so they can’t see whatever hideous facial expression I’m no doubt making. The roaring is so loud now I can’t even here whatever it is they’re trying to tell me. Even if they—I mean it’s not like I was going to . . . . You can’t just program a dumb machine and think you’ve fixed everything.

I sit on a bench at the bus stop, elbows on my thighs, and I hold my head in my hands, trying to make sense of the noise. I remind myself to breathe: Inhale. Exhale. Sometimes music at a loud volume will cut through everything in my head, but I don’t feel like listening to anything right now.

I just need to be somewhere dark and quiet and warm. Inhale. I just want to be somewhere where things make sense. Exhale. I think of the robot, smooth and metal. This is a test. Inhale. It’s only a test. Exhale. It’s just a day like any other day. Inhale. Tomorrow will be another day.Exhale. Another chance to figure things out. Inhale. Another chance to try. Exhale.

I take out my phone and call Elise. She picks up on the first ring. “Don’t go anywhere,” I tell her. “I’m coming home.”

K: This is the stuff, right here. One thing I beg for more than almost anything is subtext, and here’s a character who doesn’t even seem aware of HIS OWN emotions, even while acting upon them. The hubris of the college kids is a nice red herring before the narrator essentially reveals that the kids and their robot was right all along. The backstory with Elise all comes bubbling to the surface, and the story is brilliant all at once. Excellent. GOLD

DK: It’s fresh, so I may need a longer perspective, but this might be one of my favorite things I’ve read here in a long time. Everything here landed with me in a strong way: the effectiveness of the specific settings and the atmosphere invoked first by the fog and then the bridge, the richness of the main character and the way their thoughts flow inelegantly and inconsistently, along with the recurring motif of the headnoise creating a nice parallel with the robotic interaction. The way the robot works, not exactly as intended, but shifting back from success to failure to (hopefully) success again (as well as creating a strong climax for the story itself) is also really well done. GOLD

MG: High fives, author, I love how confident you were in this idea to take the prompt and NOT go with something sci-fi (or at least, more classically sci-fi like the first three stories). The hero’s darkness and mental anguish was very well represented, and would not have been out of place in a longer piece that wasn’t predicated on robots. At first I was kind of disappointed by the gaggle of students, but then I started to accept them and their role in the story. And I wanted to punch them as much as your protag surely did. I wouldn’t say this story was uplifting–nor that it needed to be for its own ends. But it was sympathetic and non-condescending towards that dark condition of unceasing mental anguish. So naturally, it spoke to me. SILVER


Christina Pepper, for talking us all down off the ledge, has won Immunity this time. And she acted SO unprepared at the get-together last night. AW, BALDERDASH AND A FIDDLE-DEE-DEE

Anyway, vote for not-her by tomorrow night (Friday) at 9pm Central. I have a groom’s dinner (not mine…the first marriage is still working for me) so results will be late. You know, as always, that I have your interests in mind and will post as soon as I can, though. At that time I’ll drop the brilliant, perfect final challenge* on all your asses and we’ll get to it.

* – I haven’t decided what it’s going to be yet.

Cheers, Survivors.