From the Desk of the Editor;
Welcome to Issue Fifteen, Volume Two of Larks Fiction Magazine! We are happy to introduce two up-and-coming authors of fiction this week. The first work is a short fiction about a magical summer afternoon and the other is the award winning tale of friendship on distant planet.
I hope you enjoy today's tales!
Daniel J. Pool
The Street Vendor
By Jeremy Closs
One year, when Summer was sitting in her High Court, she launched an assault against the city of New York, and her magic found its way in at last. The breach only lasted a day, but since the city had gone so long without feeling the season’s full effect, the magnitude of the touch was immense. That day had the lowest recorded attendance of the public and private summer schools, along with the most frustrated bosses wondering where their employees were, and even a few frustrated employees wondering where their bosses were. One such employee was James Walker, accountant for the West Marlow Auto Insurance Company, who woke with the irresistible feeling that today was too great a day to be spent cramped up inside.
James went about his normal morning routine before he really made up his mind. He was still second-guessing himself while brushing his teeth, and almost gave in during his quick shower, but by the time he dried himself off, he had decided that he was not going into work. He hadn’t used a sick day in the past three years, and felt it was high time that he did. James dressed in one of the few pairs of shorts he owned, adding a t-shirt with an unremarkable picture of nature on the front. He called up his boss while his coffee was busy percolating.
“West Marlow Auto Insurance, Bob Hannidy speaking,” the voice said. Mr. Hannidy was not a healthy man, given to drink in excess, and he sounded like it, even over the phone. As James heard that voice, the thought that he should maybe look into finding someone more pleasant to work for crossed his mind, as it often had in the last several weeks.
“Bob! Hi. It’s James. Look, I can’t come in today,” he said. He hoped that the boss wouldn’t ask him why he couldn’t come in today. Bob doesn’t oblige him.
“Whaddaya mean you can’come in? There’s already half the department called in sick, don’tell me you’ve gottit too!” Bob lamented. James thought of pointing out that if half the department really was sick, it would not be unreasonable for one more person to be sick, sickness being what it was in the city. Then he thought better of it.
“Sorry boss, them’s the dice,” he said, and stopped himself to think. How long had it been since he’d said that? College? Middle school? He shook himself. “I really can’t make it. Trust me, you wouldn’t want me in today.”
“…What sort’a signs you got, Jim?” Bob asked with what came close to cunning for the man. A sudden idea struck James, and before he can stop himself, he began to tell Bob exactly what signs he had. He told Bob that he was sick, sure, sick of working in the same place for five years and getting his first and only cookie-cutter raise three months ago, even though he had saved the company tens of thousands of dollars each year. He told his soon to be former boss that he was sick of the instant coffee that they bought for the snack room, coffee that tastes worse than the mud a dirty pig had spent a sweaty afternoon rolling in. Most of all, he reminded Bob of how often he mentioned that he hates being called Jim. Bob let him know James will indeed be working for someone else in the near future, or perhaps living on the street for all Bob cared.
By the time he hung up, the coffee was ready. James drank it with a smile on his face, and made a quick meal of buttered toast and a banana before heading out into the day.
As James stepped out into the hall of the 17th floor of his apartment building and looked down towards the elevator, he noticed that the new tenant was walking towards him. She wasn’t really new; she moved in last month, but the people on the floor still called her the new girl. James had been coming back from work when she first arrived, so he’d helped her move in. It hadn’t been much work, since she hadn’t had much in her old car. Somewhere between hauling up the microwave and showing her how the mailboxes worked, he had learned that her name was Rebecca, that she had just moved from the country, had just wanted to get away from how things had been (she hadn’t told him how things had been, and James hadn’t asked), and was hoping to find a job before too long. James also learned that she was one of the more, if not the most, beautiful red-heads he’d ever seen.
As James watched her dig through her purse for her key, he made a decision. It was an entirely irrational decision, and he knew he was a fool for it, but then again, the sunlight was just right today, and he had just lost his job, so why not? He cleared his throat.
“Good morning, Rebecca. How was work?” he asked. Rebecca had found her new job just a week after moving in. She worked the night shift at a 24-hour diner a few blocks away, Rocko’s. Great pie, awful coffee, and pretty good burgers if the right guy was on the grill. Rebecca was the prettiest waitress in the place, and James was careful not to go in there when she was working if he could help it.
“Oh! Hi James. It was OK. No creeps or anything, but Rocko is pretty good about keeping that kind out,” she answered, smiling at him. Her smile nearly melted James’ legs.
“Hey, look, I know this is out of the blue and all, but, um, how’d you like to have me buy you dinner sometime?” he said, and it felt like he was just watching himself say it from outside himself. Surely he, James Walker, would never ask this young woman on a date when she doesn’t even know his last name. She’ll shoot him down, he’ll lose a friendly acquaintance, there’ll be awkward episodes in the elevator where they’ll both smile politely and pretend they have forgotten that he’d once asked her out, why had he gone and—
“You know, that sounds really nice,” she said. James stumbled a bit, and stuck out his arm to keep from falling. He pretended to lean against the wall to cover, and thought he made a smooth recovery.
“Oh, um, super! When would be good for you?” he asked, like he asked beautiful women out every day of the week.
“Would tonight be OK? Say around 6:30?” she said.
“Tonight would be great. I guess, um, I’ll meet you here?” he asked. She nodded.
“Sounds great. I’ll see you then!” she said, smiling again. She stepped into her apartment and shut the door. James managed to make it into the elevator before collapsing from the whole thing.
He recovered himself before the elevator reached the lobby, and as he headed out into the sun, he realized that he had no idea what type of food Rebecca liked. Rocko’s was obviously out, but where to go? There was that noodle place not too far off, that seemed like a good first date, or maybe that Greek joint two blocks over…
Such thoughts filled his head as he walked to the park. He hadn’t intended to go to the park at first, but as he kept walking, that was where his feet seemed to want to go. The sidewalks were full of people and music that day. It wasn’t the normal New York sidewalk attitude, either. Nobody was bustling and bumping to get where they needed to go. Everyone seemed to have a smile or a far-away look on their face and on every corner was a street performer adding their notes to the great summer symphony.
The park was full, but not crowded. People were everywhere, drinking in the day with an energy they haven’t felt since they were children. There were Frisbees flying, dogs running, ducks being fed, and a fleet of toy sailboats on every pond. James found a nice spot under a tree to sit and think about where to start looking for work. The shade felt wonderfully cool. Just when he decided that maybe going for a walk would help him think, he fell asleep.
He woke feeling refreshed. He hadn’t thought that he was tired when he’d set out a few hours ago, but it seemed that his body felt otherwise. He glanced down at his watch and noticed that it was almost lunchtime. His stomach gave an appreciative growl to confirm this. He decided to grab lunch in the park. There were any number of the usual metal and plastic food carts wheeling around, but James felt like something besides a dog or giant pretzel, so he decided that he’d take that walk after all and see if there was something else nearby to quiet his stomach.
By and by, he came to a part of the park that he had never seen before. It was a large empty circle paved with cobblestone encircled by trees all around the edge, with a gap of two or three trees at the four compass points. At its very center there stood a strange food cart. If James hadn’t felt so hungry, he might have noticed that there was nobody else in the circle with him.
As James walked up to the food cart, he noticed it was made of wood. It reminded him of the cart in the Wizard of Oz, the one everyone forgets about, where Dorothy got her fortune read right before traveling to the land of Munchkins and yellow bricks. There wasn’t a name or sign on the thing. The man behind the counter looked like he may be European, or someone from further north, in the cold lands. He had a pleasant smile on his face, and spoke with enough of an accent to make his speech pleasant to hear in its differences.
“Good afternoon, sir, a very grand afternoon, I think! I’ve not seen this many people in the park for some time, mm?” he said, his voice bouncing as he spoke. James nodded in agreement.
“Well sir, can I interest you in a kebab? Best kebabs in the park, maybe in the city, though I’ve not had every kebab in the city so I can’t say for sure,” the man said. James smiled. Kebabs! That should just about hit the spot.
“Sure, sounds great. I’ll take a chicken kebab,” he said.
The man looked sullen. “Oh, sir, I’m afraid we’re out of chicken,” he said, but then his face brightened. “But we do have quail. Would quail be acceptable?” James had never tried quail, but he remembered a story from years ago when he’d gone to Sunday School, something about quail in the desert. He nodded and said sure, quail will work just fine. The man turned around and started grilling the meats, and in a minute, the smell was driving James wild. Before long the meat was cooked and properly seasoned, and the cart’s owner exchanged the meal for three dollars, a price that James found very reasonable. He bi into the meat and decided quail could be the best poultry he had ever eaten.
“Pardon me, sir, for prying, but you have the look of someone who’s out of work. I wonder if you’re currently employed?” the man asked. James doesn’t know what an out of work person looked like, but he nodded. He finished up his kebab, his belly content.
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I just lost my job this morning. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it just so happens, sir, that I’m in need of a worker,” the man said. James shook his head.
“Sorry mister, I’ve never worked in food before, I don’t think you’ve got the right guy,” James said.
“Oh no, sir, you misunderstand! You wouldn’t be joining me in the cart; I have this well taken care of. You’d be helping with my… Delivery service,” the man said. James misunderstood the pause in the man’s talk.
“Hey, listen, I don’t want to get involved in anything that would, you know, get me in trouble.” James said.
“Sir! No, I’m sorry, I can’t be upset, there are dark sides of this city, I know that all too well. But please understand that I am not asking you to do anything illegal. You see, working in this cart keeps me very busy, but I also have another job, delivering certain items to certain people who need them. All perfectly legal, I promise. The pay’s good, and the job is very satisfying. What’s more, I work strictly on a job-to-job basis, so if you ever decide the work’s not for you, you can step out at any time. Now please, sir, I really need someone this afternoon. There’s a job that cannot wait. It’s a simple thing, really, but it must be done. I’ll give you a thousand dollars,” the man said. It was quite the monologue, but James wondered if he was hearing right.
“A thousand dollars, for one delivery? And you’re sure it’s legal?” he asked.
The man laughed. “Oh, quite legal. A little strange, but quite legal, I assure you. Do we have an accord?” the man asked. James noded. “Good! Then I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Mr. Aimsir. I think that should do for now, yes. Now, as for your job, here, this is all you need. Now if you’ll excuse me…” Mr. Aimsir handed James a piece of paper and shut the front cover of his cart. James looked down at the note he had been given.
--Go to the Public Library that lies to your East. Find a book there, “Gardening at the Best of Times,” to receive further instructions—
James wondered if he was being put on for the sake of some TV show or social experiment. Still, he had always one to play along. As he walked out of the park and back onto the sidewalk, his mind turned to Rebecca. He wondered what he should wear. Was what he had on too casual? It was only the first date. Still, he wanted to make a good first impression. Or had he already made a good first impression by helping her move in? He was so distracted he almost walked right past the library, and was only saved by the bump of a playing child who ran into him, then kept on running without even looking up at James.
As he walked into the cool of the building, James paused and breathed in the scent of the place. He loved the smell of books, and libraries always seemed to capture that smell best. He had always thought that those giant chain bookstores never had the same smell to them. Then he realized that he must look rather funny standing there breathing in the front lobby, so he worked his way over to the information desk and asked about “Gardening at the Best of Times.” The librarian was helpful, and before long he was headed over to the shelves where all the gardening books were. Soon he had found the book. It was a wide book, and the spine showed two elderly people sitting in lawn chairs and enjoying what looked like an ocean of flowers in their back yard. As he pulled the book off the shelf, he found a small wooden box hiding behind it. He retrieved the box and opened it. A tiny porcelain figure, only an inch high, stood inside the box. It was in the shape of a ballerina, and it was the simplest, most wonderful piece of work that James had ever seen. It was standing on top of another note, which James hadn’t noticed until he picked up the figure to get a better look at it. The paper said,
--Take the M15 bus and go to the North Marlin Home for the Well Off. Go to room 114. You’ll know what to do—
James tucked the note into his pocket and headed out of the library, thanking the helpful librarian on his way out. She thought the young man was rather strange; most people checked out gardening books when they came looking for them.
He made his way to the bus stop on Second Street to wait for the M15. The frantic happiness of the morning had begun to wane, and a pleasant buzz of friendliness replaced it. James began to wonder if his mysterious employer might be connected with the city-wide good nature that had flooded the day. Part of him was sure that he had walked every path in Central Park at some point, and the square where Aimsir had his cart parked couldn’t have been there before. Then there was the figurine, something was off with the figurine. It wasn’t a wrong sort of off, the kind of feeling James would sometimes get before getting some take-out that had him rushing out to buy Pepto later, or when he decided to take a different way home from work for no reason besides an odd tremor in his gut, only to find the subway he usually took had gotten stuck on the tracks for five hours.
Instead, the figurine felt off like the whole day had felt off, and it was wonderful; peculiar, but wonderful. Another part of him, though, a part he liked to think as his more rational, intelligent side, told him he was imagining things. Central Park was a big place, and up until this morning, he had held down a fulltime job. That hadn’t left a lot of time for exploring every corner of the park, so however well he thought he knew it, there was plenty of room for a new discovery here and there. Aimsir was odd, sure, but this was New York. What would it be without the occasional odd street vendor? As for the uncommon good nature that seemed to be spilling out of everyone, he thought it may have something to do with the weather. That thought prodded at him, and he glanced down at the figurine again. Just then, he heard his bus approaching. As he stood watching the bus as it made its way up the street to him, his eyes kept darting back and forth between it and the ballerina, and he was almost positive that each time his eyes landed on the figurine, it had moved the tiniest amount. His rational side hadn’t had much to say about that.
James climbed onto the bus, flashing his card out of habit. He noticed the bus was empty, but dismissed it; who would ride the bus with weather like this? He slid into a seat halfway down the bus and turned his full attention onto the figurine as the bus pulled back into the flow of traffic.
“Nice doll,” a man said from behind James. James spun around to look at the speaker.
“I said, nice doll.” The man was wearing a suit of stark black and white; lacking the normal warmth or coolness fabric-makers add in with their hints of red or blue, his outfit was woven from untainted antitheses.
“Thanks,” James said, turning away from the man. The same part of him that told him that the figurine was off, a good sort of off, was telling him the opposite about this man. This man felt sterile. His face seemed to be stretched too tight across his skull, making his pale blue eyes bulge just enough to make it noticeable. Though he was smiling, James saw no good humor reflected in the man’s eyes.
“Haven’t seen one of those around here in, golly, a long time. Where’d you get a thing like that, mister?” he asked.
“My aunt gave it to me,” James lied, keeping his eyes off the man.
“She must be some lady. Hey, how about you let me see that real quick? I sure would like to hold it.”
“Look, no offense, but this thing was kind of important to me, and I don’t even know your name,” James said, turning to the man, who slapped his forehead and let loose a laugh that sounded like something off a cheap sitcom’s laugh track.
“My name! Dear me, my name. How rude am I. I am Mr. Istigh. A pleasure,” the man said, extending his hand. James ignored it.
“If it’s all the same to you, Mr. Istigh, I’m going to keep a hold on this thing,” he said, putting the figurine back into its box and slipping it into his pocket.
“May I ask why?” Istigh asked him.
“Well, I guess I could say I’m on a job, and though I don’t understand what’s going on, this little figurine’s an important part of it. But if you really want to know, it’s because when I got on this bus, I was alone, and we haven’t stopped anywhere to pick anyone up since then,” he said. Istigh’s smile flipped into a snarl, and though he wished it was his imagination, James was sure the man’s face stretched even further, revealing white hints of skull around Istigh’s eyes and lips.
“The Lady picks her pawns well. I can tell you, Mr. Walker, that you are on the wrong side of this fight at the moment. If you were to hand over that little doll right now, I can not only promise you far richer rewards than you’ve been told thus far, but also that you would be doing the right thing,” Istigh said, struggling to return his face to something more pleasant.
“And if I say no?” James asked.
“We wouldn’t like that,” Istigh said. As he spoke, James saw the bus was now filled with other men. They all looked different on the surface, with different outfits, hairstyles and builds, but their faces all shared that same strained look, all their eyes looked like they were straining to escape their sockets. James jumped back in surprise, only to find himself backing into the waiting arms of one of Istigh’s cohorts, who pinned his behind his back. Istigh reached into James’ pocket and pulled out the box with the figurine.
“Ah, wonderful. Thank you for being so cooperative. Now, to show the Lady how much we appreciate her efforts, I’m afraid I must send her a message through you,” he said, pulling an ornate mechanical pen from his breast pocket. He clicked it, extending the tip. “Please hold our guest still, would you?” he said to the man clutching James. The man brought his arm up around James’ chin, clamping his jaw shut and keeping his head immobile. James tried to struggle, but the man was unshakable. Istigh drew the pen towards James’ face, and he can soon tell it was headed straight towards his left eye. Istigh seemed to savor the pen’s slow approach. James tried to scream through his clenched teeth as the pen inched closer. When the pen was all his left eye could see, a giant sound exploded behind James, and a massive force rocked the bus on its shocks.
James slumped to the floor, the support gone from under him. He slid back, shielding his face. After a moment, though, he looked up and saw Mr. Istigh was nowhere to be seen. He made his way to his feet and looked around the bus, only to see the entire bus was empty. Even the driver was gone.
The source of the sound was still slamming into the bus. James turned around, and it took his mind a moment to process what he was seeing. It looked like a constant white starburst filling the window in front of him, melting the windows on either side of it. Then he heard the sounds of laughing, screaming children, and his mind clicked. Someone had released a fire hydrant, and the spray was slamming against the bus window. He couldn’t have said why that would scare off Istigh and his cronies, but at the moment, he hadn’t cared. He scooped up the figurine box and rushed off the bus, finding himself outside the main entrance of the North Marlin Home for the Well Off.
North Marlin ended up being a retirement home, and the residents who still possessed the faculties to express an opinion would have told anyone nobody here was well off. The place kept them fed, cleaned, and looked after per government regulations, and not an ounce more; sometimes, when the budget was tight, a few ounces less. Today, it felt more like a few pounds less. Outside, the summer heat felt wonderful and energizing, but the moment he stepped into North Marlin and feels the AC was out, all his energy drained away. When James told the gum-popping girl at the desk that he wanted to see the person in room 114, the girl was surprised. Visitors were rare. This was the sort of place people were sent to die quietly and conveniently, not happily. Still, the girl let James in without a fuss.
114 was a small room whose sole redeeming feature was a small window facing a brick wall. Even with the window open, the room had to be at at least 95 degrees. It was occupied by a woman who must have been a few years short of her centennial, because if she was as old as she looked, she’d surely be dead. Nevertheless, her eyes were open, and almost aware. There was a small table that stretched over the bed, probably to set her food or medicine trays, and the card was right, James knew exactly what to do. He took the figurine, that tiny dancer, and placed it on the tray in front of the woman’s almost-empty eyes. Immediately they lit up, and a new life seemed to enter the woman. She looked up and saw James, and beckoned him over. She motioned for him to come, sit, sit beside her. James obliged.
The woman began to tell her story, how she had grown up in her home country, how it had been a hard life on the farm, but they had finally saved up enough money to come to America. Things had not been much easier in America. Nobody seemed to like her at the schools, they had call her gypsy girl or other mean names, but her father worked hard, and when she was thirteen they had enough money to buy her dancing shoes. She would go onto the roof of their building and dance every night, practicing and practicing. One day the school had a talent show, and she got up and danced for everyone, danced one of the songs from her homeland. After that, the other children, they made fun of her less.
Eventually she had met her husband, and she married him while he was in high school and she was working in the Laundromats. They were very happy together. They had three children, one of them died in the war and the other two never came to visit, did not call, did not even send a card at Christmas. She kept dancing, and one day she became a professional dancer with a local ballet company. It had not paid much, but she loved it, being on stage, under the lights, dancing, moving with the music, feeling the rhythm in her every motion. Her best performance, her greatest moment, had been one night in a small theater. She had closed the evening with a performance of The Dying Swan, and every person there had been moved to tears. After that, she taught dance to young girls who wanted to be ballerinas.
At some point while she was explaining this part of the story, she fell asleep with a smile on her face. James hadn’t understood a word of the story, since she had been speaking some language he’d never heard, but as he sat taking it in, he also had a smile on his face. As the woman’s soft snores begin to fill the room, there were several loud clicks from air ducts. Soon the fresh breeze of working air conditioning began to blow, chilling the sweat on James’ skin.
James looked at his watch. Cripes! Four thirty already! He had to get home and prepare for his date. Doing his best not to wake the woman, he slid the room’s window shut to keep in the air, then made his way back out onto the street.
That night, the woman in room 114 passed away. The smile was still on her face. The ballerina figure was gone.
He headed to the subway and made his way back to his apartment. When he got there, he found that someone had slid a red envelope under the door. Inside, he found ten $100 bills, and a short letter.
--Thanks for taking care of that job. If you’re interested, there will be others. Meet me in the park, same place, same time next week. The kebabs will be on me. Maybe you’d like to try ram next time?
She likes Italian food. Go with a button-down sleeveless, but keep the shorts-–
About the Author:
Jeremy Closs is the proud father of his newborn baby girl. He lives in Dallas and studies full-time at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he also works part-time at the campus library. He has had one of his works, Ocean’s Pounding, published in cc&d Magazine.
In Humanity’s Eye
Winner of Honorable Mention for L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future
Winner of Honorable Mention for L. Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future
By Sean Dodds
That’s how I usually began my days, except for the long hours spent sorting specimens and tending to terrariums and aquariums full of the fauna that my human counterpart collected. On the world of Charos IX, there was plenty of that to be had. As I ran through my routine, I fed this creature, watered that one. Omnivorous Charybdis flowers poised, silently but eagerly awaited their morning dosage of insect larvae and vegetable meal. I found those to be most fascinating, as they were always eating and never seemed completely content with what I offered them, just like my human counterpart.
Dr. Kalina Sarkoff, the human counterpart to whom I was referring, seemed to study me almost as much as her biological samples. I never completely understood that, as I was designed only to function as a biological laboratory assistant. Dr. Sarkoff was never satisfied with that, and she persisted in assisting me to alter my parameters.
“Bob, I need you to collect samples from the condensers outside,” Dr. Sarkoff said, struggling with a serpentine agala, an indigenous constrictor of Charos IX.
Bob. That was the name she had given me, in an effort to humanize me further. I never understood that, nor did I find a positive way to compute the designation. Even still, I emulated her facial expressions on my plasmic face plate, smiling at her when she stated my name or frowning at her when my work order exceeded hers. After all, Dr. Sarkoff herself told me that humans do not enjoy working more than is necessary.
As a Laboratory Assistant & Research Automaton, I would have preferred the surrogate name of “LARA”, which is what my identical models were called on other assignments. I was assigned to Dr. Sarkoff to assist her in documenting the biosphere of Charos IX, in order to determine its value as a colonization project. It was just the two of us on Charos IX, operating out of a small complex of modular living quarters. My programming includes basic human interaction routines, as most humanoid automatons do. Additionally, I have specialty programming in oceanography, exobiology, botany, zoology, logic, mathematics up to a quantum mechanics level, and edaphology/pedology. The latter is the study of dirt. Dr. Sarkoff always reminded me to tell humans that. I surmise humans should attain a higher level of mental programming.
“I am exceeding my hydraulic capacity!” I responded, in a raised tone, expressing simulated frustration. Dr. Sarkoff laughed at me, initiating a voluntary blepharospasm.
Oh, excuse me. I nearly lost that note in my computer matrix.
My appendages, all four of them, moved about in perfect synchronization as I increased speed to achieve our opening routine more quickly. I knew how Dr. Sarkoff was eager to set out into the forest to collect more samples and enter more scientific entries. In contrast to my base programming, I too felt eager to begin.
After locking down all live specimen containers and hydrating the substrate of the botanical samples, Dr. Sarkoff and I were ready to begin. On the seventh hour of the planet’s revolution circuit, the two of us began our search for the nesting area of a pair of flostipedes. They were a recent discovery of Dr. Sarkoff’s. Flostipedes, categorized as both a segmented phylum of organisms known as arthropods, and the flowering plants known as angiosperms, making them a unique addition to the galactic database. It was not difficult to find them, as my estimation indicated they were over thirty meters in length and weighing approximately 13.6 metric tons. Their huge flowers, used for reproduction and, we believe, photosynthesis, were over five meters in diameter. It had not taken us long to discover them from aerial platforms, but we had yet to locate a nest. After months of research and tracking, it was Dr. Sarkoff’s opinion we had enough data to do just that.
“Hurry up, you old rust bucket,” Kalina called over her shoulder, eying me with her green eyes. I had observed a human male describe them as glittering emeralds. Upon looking into the matter, I too drew a similar conclusion.
“I am not...” I began, leaping from one lichen-covered boulder to the next. “...an antiquity nor am I suffering from metal oxidation. I am running at 98.7% optimal efficiency and am programmed with more routines than my predecessor, the LARS.”
Considering her limited biological abilities, Kalina was an optimal female humanoid in prime physical condition. Despite excessive perspiration, she always managed to move faster than I could.
“Just ninety-eight percent?” she responded between breaths, stretching her tan jumpsuit over muscled thighs. She leapt over an unsafe distance, landing on a flat rock several meters ahead of me.
“What happened to the other two percent?”
“Ninety-eight point seven,” I corrected her, catching up with her. My optical sensors honed in on a cluster of insects ravaging a rotted fruit. We had already discovered that species three weeks prior. “I would be at one hundred if you would desist in your insistence to venture far beyond the established safety zone from base camp, Kalina. Two days ago, I suffered severe mechanical damage to my secondary, right arm. Have you forgotten? Charos salamanders have sufficient jaw strength to severe a human torso.”
He raised his new, repaired arm.
“And a LARA unit’s appendage.”
As usual, she laughed at me.
“But that’s what makes it so interesting,” she replied. She raised her arms, turning her back to the edge of the rock, which gave way to a steep gulley below. “That’s why I’m out here, and not stuck in some sanitized laboratory with one of those bio suits plastered to me in a white room. It’s so... exhilarating.”
“I fail to see the difference between observing a specimen or sample in a laboratory or simulated environment, where it is safe,” I replied.
Kalina furrowed her brow, running her hand through tousled, chestnut hair. She resumed her trek, calling back to me over her shoulder.
“Nature is always best in a natural environment, my synthesized friend,” she retorted. “Just as you’re always best in an artificial environment.”
“That is true,” I admitted. “But I must point out, as I have many times before, that there is a substantial chance of injury or death this far from civilization.”
“Who says I’m civilized?” she said with a grin.
“Certainly not I, Dr. Sarkoff.”
Kalina shot an irritated glance over her shoulder, eying me with measured disappointment. We could never agree on the proper scientific method, though I was programmed with the accepted definition of such information. The two of us continued working our way over the rock precipice, before reaching the far side that opened up into a far-reaching valley of dense canopy and foliage. It did not take long to find what we were looking for. The huge flostipedes flattened layers of foliage, creating highways they traversed over and over again. Their huge necks rose just above the highest trees, opening up several huge flowers on their backs for, what we believe, was a photosynthetic process. Through this photosynthesis, a flostipede was able to overcome the problem of nourishing its bulk. After previous observation, we had come to the conclusion that flostipedes extruded tentacle-like cilia from their abdomens that functioned as a sort of root. They could draw water, phosphates, and other minerals directly from substrate. Yet it was their two-meter long mandibles that seemed to be of the highest interest to Kalina. I had warned her on three occasions that I doubted they were for agricultural purposes.
Does that constitute a joke?
“Come on, Bob,” Kalina urged me. “Last one down’s a complaining, under-maintained automaton.”
“I am already under maintained,” I replied.
I scanned the area, taking note of the distance between us and the giant botanical arthropods. In our previous encounters, this pair did not seem to take much notice of us. Their main focus seemed to be eating as much foliage (and the animal material that chose to hide in the leaves they ate) as possible. Whether by innate placid nature or that they would not exert the energy on such small prey as us, the flostipedes were seemingly approachable. In line with her human tendencies, Kalina had named these two “Susan” and “Harry.” After traversing down the scrub-studded gravel face, we came to the edge of one of the huge “highways” the flostipedes created. It was then that Kalina initiated the most provocative conversation the doctor and I would ever have.
“Alright, Bob,” Kalina said, pausing to re-tuck her khaki trousers back into her all-terrain boots. She blew her bangs out of her eyes. That was typical of her. “So why is it, if you hate being out here so much, you come along on these hikes?”
I rotated my torso to regard her more directly, as I formed foliage-cutters with my plasmic forceps. Cutting through the dense undergrowth, I responded.
“I am a human-made automaton. I was manufactured and assigned to such service. I do not have free will.”
“Okay – so you’re a slave.”
“I would prefer robotic assistant,” I responded.
“I would prefer robotic assistant,” I responded.
She snapped her fingers, smiling wryly as she said, “So you do care. That’s part of being human, Bob. You got offended when I referred to you in a subservient manner.”
I paused to consider this, running different responses through my matrix and researching definitions and philosophical debates before I replied. It took two or three one hundredths of a second to reply.
“I do not agree with your interpretation. I am an automaton. I do not have pride, nor take offense. I simply do not compute the correlation between forced labor and a robotic assistant. I am programmed to exceed basic labors, common among the slaves in Earth’s history. Additionally, you have altered my programming with routines capable of interpreting human emotion.”
“Not all slaves were mere laborers,” she replied, quickly for a human. “Many of them were philosophers, scientists, or warriors. After that tangle with the salamander, I’d say you’re all of the above.”
She smiled and followed after me. On this notion, I took longer to calculate a response. She had an unpredictable ability to provide controversial data input.
“So, why don’t you draw the correlation between automaton and slave?” she pressed further.
“I do not have enough of a basis from which to respond to that,” I replied.
“Pride,” she jeered, smiling over her victory.
“Arguing with you will achieve nothing.”
“Resignation,” she continued with a laugh.
“Logic,” I countered. “You would argue regardless.”
She paused for a moment, as we came within two hundred meters of the huge creatures. Kalina then pulled out her imaging device and began to record data. At this point, I began substrate analysis on the flostipede trail.
“Calculate this one, then,” she said, logging several more photos. The flostipedes seemed to be uninterested or ignorant of our presence. Their huge flowers emanated an odd bass thrum. “If given the choice to save two parents or a child, with no chance of saving all three, what would your choice be?”
I did not have to pause to compute a response, though I was puzzled at the abnormal direction of our conversation. My programming indicated that the human mind should have been more focused on the flostipedes, than esoteric, philosophical debates.
“The choice is simple: one must save the parents,” I replied. “They are, assuming the third human is, as you say, a child of prime breeding age and superior intellectual value. They could easily replace the child. The loss of two more developed minds, for the sake of a replaceable one, is not acceptable.”
Kalina shook her head, exhaling what I perceived as a “breath of frustration.”
“Did you consider that the parental instinct would be better acknowledged by saving the child?” she countered.
“Instinct is irrelevant.”
“Boy, Bob, I bet that’d hold up real well. They’d have you as bucket ‘n bolts real fast for that one,” Kalina replied with a sharp laugh. She pointed at me with her index finger. “Did it occur to you the parents would want you to save the child?”
“Humans are not always so self-sacrificing. Just observe your senate body,” I reminded her. “Many of them have demonstrated self-preservation and monetary gain as their key goals. Perhaps the parents were, as you say, politicians.”
Kalina laughed with more exuberance, this time. It was not my intent to provide humorous anecdote for her, though I have been programmed with such data.
“That’s human bias and paranoia,” she stated, snapping her fingers. “So you’re saying that the key factor in your conclusion is total number of lives and the intellectual sum of two human adults versus one human child.”
“Ignoring your first sentence, yes, that is correct,” I responded. “However, if the parents ordered me to rescue the child, I would do as they ask.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I am programmed to follow human instruction.”
“But that is not logical,” Kalina responded, to my surprise. “And you said, logic dictates your original decision.”
“I realize that,” I responded and then paused. I had a difficult time formulating my next response. I do not know why. “However, I have observed that humans exhibit grief in self-detrimental ways. Perhaps the parents would not exhibit a positive response to the situation. There are many possible outcomes, as you have pointed out.”
Kalina smiled and nodded her head, turning her attention back to flostipedes. We began to move closer to them, as I scanned the grounds for what could comprise a nest. Nearing our target did not slow conversation.
“So if a pack of hungry razor wolves came after me,” she said between laughs, “would you sacrifice yourself?”
“Because I have been programmed to do so.”
“Sounds like you care about me,” Kalina responded, moving closer to the flostipedes. Before I could answer, she raised a finger. “Because you’ve been programmed, yes I know. Well, we humans are programmed with the ability to care about others. I’d sacrifice for a friend, maybe even a stranger.” She shrugged. “So I guess it was my humanity talking.”
That puzzled me even more. Kalina was ever-persistent in trying to compare me to a human being. I could not discern whether it was from lack of contact with other humans, or a display of fellowship. We kept a minimum distance between ourselves and the flostipedes, as Kalina used a bioscanner to trace similarly-genetic life forms in the immediate area. It did not take her long, so deep in the tropical growth, to locate a hazy signature of writhing life forms. She surmised it was a nest. I postulated that it could be any number of things. As usual, I followed her lead. We came closer to the parent flostipedes, before noticing that the ground around them was alive with (I calculated) thirty-two miniature versions of the parents. Strangely, the colors were brighter and their movements much quicker.
“Why do the parents not act defensively?” I queried, as we approached the nearest of the flostipede seed-larvae.
“I’m not sure, but we’ve got to take samples from one of the larvae – or capture one altogether,” Kalina responded, clearly enamored by her discovery.
“Perhaps that is when the parents will choose to respond,” I said in more monotones, doing my best to imitate glum.
“Worst case scenario: I run and you stay behind ‘n distract them,” Kalina said with a sharp laugh.
“I do not find that an inviting prospect. Where’s your humanity in that decision?” I responded, preparing a sample container.
“I guess I can turn my programming off, once in a while.”
She smiled at me again, tauntingly I suppose it was, and we crouched down as we drew closer to the meter-long seedlings. Actually, I just collapsed my leg struts to an optimal height. Strangely, the juvenile flostipedes continued foraging through the leavings of their parents. Even when we were within two meters of one, they still took no apparent notice of us.
That changed when Kalina attempted to draw a sample from the rear abdomen of one.
The overall greenish blue tint of the seedling flushed to a striking red and black geometric pattern. The already brightly-colored flowers, green and red and black, increased their intensity greatly. Several black, saber-like protrusions thrust from porous cavities along the sides and back of the seedling, dripping with a clear fluid. The seedling rose to roughly half its length, emitting a guttural hiss. Kalina jumped back, as I rushed forward a step. The seedling turned its attention to me. I increased my optical flare to match its coloration, fashioning a gaff with one arm and a saw disc in the other. Gently, I took a step back and Kalina did likewise. The larvae hissed once more and returned to its foraging.
“Apparently they are in no need of parental protection,” I stated, entering that into our data log. “An effective display of deterrence...“
I stopped speaking when I turned and noticed that Kalina was sitting on the ground. Her head seemed to have difficulty holding itself upright, and her eyes did not appear to be in focus, though she appeared completely conscious. I rushed towards her and began a medical scan. She turned her arm over, exposing a small puncture on the inside of her forearm. What I found did not compute well.
“I am detecting a neurotoxin present in your body,” I stated, running additional scans.
“Well, I’m certainly not losing consciousness, whatever it is,” Kalina responded, trying to make light of a dire situation.
“Cervical muscle paralysis, initial stages of fasciculation,” I continued my analysis. “There is an adrenal compound present in the toxin. It is doubtful that you will lose consciousness at any point.”
Kalina gripped her forearm, tensely. Laying down on her back, she closed her eyes and began to exhibit erratic breathing.
“What’s... your... prognosis, doctor?” Kalina asked, attempting to offer humorous relief. For a moment, I said nothing. I was computing all possible ways of creating an antivenin capable of combating the effects. Unfortunately, my research displayed inadequate results based on inadequate data.
“I may be able to formulate antivenin after several hours of research,” I replied, monotonously.
“It would appear that a period of less than ten minutes will elapse before you suffer complete respiratory failure, or complete nervous shutdown – whichever comes first.”
Kalina laughed one last time and began to enter a fit of convulsions. Her jaw clenched and she began to sweat profusely, exhibiting pain beyond the human threshold.
“You will not lose consciousness until the venom has run its full effect,” I stated, rapidly assessing the situation and any possible action I might have overlooked.
Quickly, I accessed my medical field kit, forming a hand into a syringe. I injected her with an antivenin compound that accounted for all known forms of anthropoid toxins. Another thirty seconds passed, and there had been no effect. Pain symptoms began to increase, until I was forced to restrain Kalina from harming herself. I estimated she had seven more minutes left before her body failed.
“Bob!” she was able to yell. That would be the last time she ever spoke to me.
More slowly than I was capable of, I began to fill my syringe with another compound. I simulated human comfort gestures by leaning closer to her and lowering my audio level.
“Kalina, I am here,” I stated. I double-checked the syringe. “I have filled the syringe with sodium thiopental to induce unconsciousness, though I fear the natural agents of the venom will combat it. I have combined it with pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride to cause respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest.”
Her eyes seemed to fight for coherence at that moment, and I observed a smile of... understanding, I believe. Quickly, I pressed the needle into her exposed flesh and administered twice the necessary dosage, as I was not certain if the natural venom would not be able to combat that as well.
“Have I performed the humane action necessary, Kalina?” I asked. She did not answer audibly, but she nodded at me. Over the next few seconds, I monitored her vital functions until they ceased altogether.
“So you killed Dr. Sarkoff?” the uniformed legal adjutant, a man of average height and atrophied musculature, asked indignantly.
“I terminated her life in a situation that offered only the outcome of prolonged and excruciating pain, by human standards,” I replied.
I did not approve of the adjutant’s inappropriate laugh in response.
“You killed her. You’re a robot, a mindless, soulless automaton, and you killed her,” he replied. “Where in your programming did you find it ethical to terminate the human supervisor to which you were assigned?”
“My programming offered me no such solution, sir,” I stated in response.
“So why’d you do it?” he snapped.
“I do not know.”
There was a host of humanoids in the relief ship’s briefing room. Many of them observed me with contempt, whilst the psychiatrist assigned to analyze me seemed most interested in my reasoning. I chose to direct my next response to him.
“The possibility of manufacturing the appropriate antivenin did occur to me, though the time required to create it far exceeded the projected lifespan of Kalina,” I said, folding my arms over my pelvic apparatus. “The adrenaline stimulant present in the venom made it impossible for her to experience anything other than what I have described already. To offer a human idiom, I eased her suffering.”
“Based upon the conversation of humanity that you had with Dr. Kalina Sarkoff, yes?” the psychiatrist, Dr. Ukan, asked me, stroking a short beard.
“I adapted my logic routine to include her input,” I responded, the closest thing I could offer to a “yes.”
“Then what you did was the human thing to do,” he responded, smiling faintly.
“He’s not a human,” the adjutant interjected. “He doesn’t have the right to make such decisions.”
“No, no,” Dr. Ukan agreed, smiling more broadly. “He’s a machine, but thank goodness this machine was there to act when another could not. Do you dispute he did the humane thing?”
“I dispute his judgment, yes. He had no idea of knowing if there could be a cure found in some moment of insane brilliance inside his metal head,” the adjutant responded once more, becoming more exuberant.
“LARA unit, what do you say to that?” Dr. Ukan asked.
I paused for a moment, deciding on what to say. My research did not correlate to the adjutant’s statements.
“I am a medically-programmed and proficient Laboratory Assistant Robotic Automaton. My programming indicated and verified my findings,” I replied.
Dr. Ukan smiled and patted the adjutant on the shoulder. He adjusted his trench coat and came closer to me.
“In other words, you are an expert in the field and made the decision based on such expertise,” he offered. I verified his statement. “So the legal body is left with how to try you. Are you human? No. Are you automaton? Yes.” He raised a finger and leaned towards me. “But are you sentient?”
“I do not know.”
“Very well, Dr. Ukan,” the adjutant began, placing both hands behind his back and puffing out his undefined chest. “We’ll have the LARA unit assigned to the onboard medical facility.” He then waived a warning finger at me. “No more humane decisions, robot. You will wait for human command before proceeding.”
He turned and left the room, escorted by his train of guards and legal advisors. Only Dr. Ukan stayed behind. For the longest time, he simply observed me. The thin smile never left his face. At length, he asked me only one question.
“Why did you call Dr. Sarkoff, “Kalina”?”
For nearly four seconds, I could not make a reply. I ran simulations, calculations, and logic routines through my matrix. There did not seem to be an appropriate, robotic response to the situation. Instead, I chose to follow the example of Kalina.
“She was my friend.”
About the Author:
Sean Dodds, a native of the West Coast, has spent most of his life traveling and living throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. An admirer of classical and ancient literature, he has begun his efforts, at the age of twenty-three, to publish his own works of fiction. He draws inspiration from the works and advice of Kevin J. Anderson and Brian Herbert, professing himself a great fan of the DUNE universe. He runs a motorcycle riding group, loves fly fishing, racing sail boats, and SCUBA diving in the Red Sea.