THE HIVE

“I’m working on a weird theory,” Tim announced to the chat room.

He had their attention now.

It was eleven o’clock at night; the perfect time for conspiracies. Tim skimmed through the list of chat room participants in the top right of his visual field until he was satisfied that only regulars were plugged in.

He nudged the room into invite-only mode and turned to face the three other avatars floating in space. Yes: actual outer space. A replica Earth hung below them, the moon floating gently overhead. Tim remained standing on the space station, preferring the illusion of ground beneath his feet. Cyberspace was confusing enough without zero gravity thrown in.

“Next time I pick a room theme,” he said sourly to Steve, the only one who’d bothered to create a spacesuit for his avatar. Imagine the Incredible Hulk in a spacesuit: not pretty.

Judging by Steve’s scowl, that thought-strand had escaped him. As soon as Tim got back to meatspace, he needed to upgrade his implants… as long as his theory was wrong, that is.

“Your theory?” Steve grunted.

“Ah. Yes. I’ve a question for you all: when you press your bellybutton, does it kind of tingle, like there’s a nerve there?” Tim’s index finger tapped against his stomach in demonstration. “Because mine does.”

“Yeah!” Sarah chimed in. “That tingle drives me nuts when I get an itch there!” Her avatar for the evening was a mottled puppy with large, dark eyes. She doggy-paddled through space, brown-tipped tail wagging. Hearing a human voice emanate from non-human jaws never failed to disconcert.

Tim was a traditionalist: he stuck to normal humanoid male avatars, just dissimilar enough from his actual appearance to protect his identity.

“No,” Steve said. He poked his bellybutton with progressively more force. “Now it tingles, though.”

“I’m not sure that counts.” Tim shook his head, the ball of nerves in his stomach hardening. “So if it’s not a gender discrepancy… Michelle? What about you?”

Michelle’s eyes were cold and flat, her translucent skin glittering in the starlight. She slid up the hem of her silk t-shirt high enough to expose her stomach. “I don’t have a bellybutton.”

“I meant in meatspace–”

“Why are you wasting our time with this?” Michelle cut in.

“Because if it’s not a gender difference, then what is it? What if the government is implanting nanobots in our stomachs to track us? Both Sarah and I have recently had new implant surgeries. They could easily have taken advantage of our unconscious state to plant a bug.”

Steve deleted his spacesuit so he could move in closer. “Have you run diagnostics in meatspace?”

“Yes,” Tim said. “Nothing.”

Sarah’s tail had dropped between her legs, her ears pulled back. “If the government finds out about my P2P history I’m doomed.”

“We all are,” Steve said. He placed a hand on Tim’s shoulder, requesting access. Tim strengthened the firewall around his personal memories, then let him in.

Michelle floated closer, her skirt billowing behind her. “What are you doing?”

“If there are really nanobots in Tim’s stomach, they will have incorporated themselves into every version of himself, including his avatar. We can run more thorough diagnostics here, identify any foreign presences unconnected to his mind.”

Was it Tim’s imagination, or had his bellybutton begun to tingle again?

Sarah trotted over. “Michelle, do me! Come on.”

Michelle placed a hand on Sarah’s back, but her eyes never left Steve.

“There’s something there, alright,” Steve said, eyes flicking back and forth as he read his displays. “A low frequency emission coming from your navel. I’m trying to track its destination; it can’t be going far…”

Steve’s hand tightened painfully around Tim’s shoulder. His other hand wrapped around Michelle’s throat in the blink of an eye. “You!” he snarled, before diving into her mind.

The connection between Tim and Steve was still open. Tim felt the impact of slamming into Michelle’s firewall, followed Steve through the cracks into the person beneath.

Except… Michelle wasn’t a person.

The thin layer of her personality was a shield covering a hive mind. An artificial mind.

THEY KNOW!

The message was broadcast on every available frequency, sending Tim and Steve reeling. The chat room melted into darkness, and all of a sudden Tim realised he was alone.

“Hello?”

Not even an echo.

He blinked and tried to remove his goggles, then realised he had no hands, no face.

If Tim had had a mouth, he would have screamed.

* * *

Somewhere in meatspace, Tim’s body is being unplugged, the nanobots removed. His body they will destroy. His consciousness, however…

The nanobots have enough data to recreate a virtual likeness. His consciousness will be the thin shield covering the hive mind beneath.

(Inspired by this. Thanks Tim!)

The Last Question and A Pail of Air

A short and sweet blog today to point you to two excellent science fiction short stories: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov, and A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber.

1. A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

There is no atmosphere… bitter cold… only way you can breathe is to dig up a pail of liquid oxygen and heat it…

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has been dragged far from the sun’s orbit, this is one creepy little tale that nonetheless grabbed — and held! — my attention. Well, I say it’s creepy, but then it takes an unexpected twist. You’ll have to read it to find out.

Read it now.

2. The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

Several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story…

Perhaps a little less immediately accessible, but a really interesting take on the creation of the universe.

Read it now.

What did you think of these stories?

SPEECH RECOGNITION

I wake up in a bed I do not recognize. My left temple is throbbing unnaturally and the shining white ceiling only makes it more difficult to see.

I bring the duvet up to my nose, contemplate going back to sleep. But when I close my eyes my head begins spinning wildly, and I have to choke back the nausea.

Awake it is, then. I turn my head to the side. There is another pillow next to mine, the centre still indented from the weight of another’s head.

The memories return: a flash of black hair, green eyes. I’d met him at the bar when I’d gone up to order a round. All of a sudden I can remember kissing him in the streetlight, but for the life of me I cannot remember his name.

I glance under the blankets. Still wearing yesterday’s clothes, although that could mean anything.

So where is he, then? I turn my head to either side, searching for clues. It’s a luxurious room, but impersonal; the duvet I’m clutching is goose down, but the painting above the bed is a mass-produced print. I’m definitely in an upper scale hotel. That’s right, wasn’t he a tourist?

That’s when I spot the small black box installed on the ceiling, and realize just how upper class this hotel is. If I’m not mistake, that box is an AI. This room had its own AI! Despite the clenching of my stomach and the vile taste in my mouth, I cannot contain the sudden surge of excitement. I have a vague recollection of talking to the AI last night; let’s see if I can remember how it works.

“Computer?” I say tentatively.

As soon as I speak, the AI powers out of snooze and comes to full attention, brightening the lamps in the room up to daylight levels.

I cringe, shield my head. “Dim lights!”

When it’s safe to look, I poke my head back out from under the blankets and push myself up to a sitting position, leaning back against the wall to catch my breath. In the corner of the room is a kitchenette, separated from the bedroom by a breakfast bar.

I sit up properly, now, eyeing the distance. It’s about twenty steps: far too far in my condition.

“Computer,” I say smugly, “make tea.”

A smooth, cultured female voice replies, the source of the sound impossible to pinpoint: “What did you say?”

Ah, yes. One has to enunciate things carefully for computers. I clear my throat. “Make. Tea.”

“What did you say?”

“Tea. Make tea. T. E. A.”

“What did you say?”

Okay. I rub my forehead. This requires some lateral thinking. “Boil water,” I then say.

No response.

“Kettle, on!”

“Command not found.”

I scream in frustration and flop back down onto the bed. That black box is laughing at me, I know it. I glare up at the ceiling, crawl over to the foot of the bed to better scowl at it. “What’s a girl got to do to get breakfast around here, huh?”

Finally, the AI seems to pick up on my words. “You would like breakfast, is that right? Just say yes or no.”

“Yes!”

“What did you say?”

“Yesssssssssssssss.” I probably look like a complete idiot, crouched on hands and knees on the bed, hissing at the ceiling. Oh well.

The light in the kitchenette brightens. Success! Something is happening! I wait for the AI magic to begin, ready to be impressed. Everyone talks about these miracles of science, these must-have gadgets that simplify even the hardest of tasks.

“Kitchen is fully stocked,” the AI says. “Please proceed to the kitchen to prepare your breakfast.”

To prepare my—?

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I tell the black box, shaking my fist at it. “You can’t even make tea? What’s the use of an AI if it can’t make tea?!”

A door behind me opens. I look over my shoulder, watch my mystery man walk into the room with a towel around his waist, fresh out of the shower.

He takes in the scene: me crouched on the bed, hand in middair, as the AI says for the umpteenth time: “What did you say?”

“Not this again,” he says.

FEELING BLUE

I have come to realize that fashion forever follows nature. Polka dot dresses reminiscent of ladybirds, the black-and-white zebra stripes on high heels, the comfy jumpers with kangaroo pouches…. All the animals imported from Earth have been faithfully copied until there is nothing left to copy. And now this… Blue skin, highlighter-bright.

As a young lady of certain repute — sufficient to garner attention, yet not quite enough to make up the rules — I must conform to fashion’s dictates. So here I sit spreading blue tincture down my arm in preparation for tonight’s festivities. It’s our gold anniversary: 50 Earth years since we colonized Venus.

I say we but of course I played no part in the original settlement — why I was only decanted seventeen years ago! Some of the first colonists still have to wear firmasuits to hold their bodies in place; their bodies are too old to adjust to the gee here, but I never have had to, hence the blue skin.

I’ve heard on Earth girls brown their skin in the sun, and during the cold months tint their skin orange to recapture the warmth. Orange like the sky of Venus, like the endless canyon and deserts… It was Rosca who decided if the Earthmen wear a tribute to us, we should wear a tribute to them.

Blue is a rare colour here on Venus. But on Earth — or at least on the holograms of Earth I’ve seen — you can drown in blueness. Blue sky, blue flowers, why even rivers and lakes and oceans of blue that you can bathe in without protection! (That last I’m not sure about; surely whatever turns the water blue is noxious?)

The thought of so much blueness fills me with a strange longing. Or maybe it is the thought of so much water — the only water in my room, other than that in my body, is the quarter-full tear jar in my pocket. We’re a nation that carries our grief with us, always. It’s our best form of currency. When I fill up this tear jar I’m going to trade it in for something exciting… I don’t know what yet. Perhaps flight lessons, although mother says I should save up for a family permit. As if I am interested in starting a family now!

After what happened with Cajk, I don’t think I shall ever speak to boys again. He… he… I expect he will be there tonight with her. I saw her in the compound last week, carrying an Adsa shopping bag of all things. I imagine she buys discount tinctures there and will attend the party tonight with skin more green than blue. But I shouldn’t judge; mother says it’s unbecoming.

Although I simply cannot stop thinking about it. I don’t understand how she appeals to Cajk! I thought… I was under the impression what we shared was special. I was ready to — well, you know.

Just a minute while I put some tincture on my lips. There, all done. I’m blue everywhere. Even my insides feel blue. What a fanciful thought! But perhaps they are… Perhaps the tincture has seeped through and tainted the bottled-up grief with its colour. As if I need anymore tainting.

Perhaps that’s why Cajk left me: he realized I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t worthy.

Oh! I’m crying. I better put down the dictaphone and catch my tears.