by Evan Dicken
Rob was feeding the dog when Ashley came home from the rebellion. It took less than a second for the front door to recognize her and slide open, but it still wasn’t fast enough. She kicked the jam with a muffled curse and stalked into the room, five and a half feet of wiry,dirt-smudged outrage.
RL-147 was on her like an excited puppy. “Welcome home, MistressAshley. Would you like me to–”
“Go fuck yourself.” She tossed her omnirifle onto the kitchen counter with a look of disgust and leaned over the sink to shake the ash from her hair.
“Belay that command, Erl,” Rob said under his breath. “And switch to silent mode, please.”
He dumped the last of the artificial beef into Whistler’s bowl and the dog dove in face-first, snuffling up the stew with wet,guttural gulps.
“Calm down, I’m not going to take it away,” Rob murmured.
Cupboards banged open and closed as Ashley rummaged around,looking for something to be angry about. “Where’s my damn Sea Pines mug?”
“Above the microcleaner, near the back.” Rob gave Whistler one last pat and stood with a soft sigh. He’d avoided the question as long as he could. Ashley already blamed him for leaving the rebellion. She was only going to get angrier if he kept ducking the issue.
“So…I take it the war didn’t go so well?” Rob tried for a sympathetic frown, but felt his jaw tighten. He didn’t like being out of the loop. There would almost certainly be news of the rebellion on the Wikifont, which he would’ve been able to see if Ashley hadn’t disabled the holoplates to protect them from “machine propaganda.”
“No, it went great. Just great.” Ashley sprayed her head off in the sink, then shook her hair, splattering the kitchen with drops ofgrimy water. “I’m president of the New Human Republic.”
“Congratulations.” Rob said without much feeling. His eyes kept sliding to kitchen windows. The spray had left grey and brown tracks on the plastic. He couldn’t ask RL-147 to clean it up until Ashley was out of the room.
“Right.” She pulled a beer can from her rucksack and popped it open. From the faded silver and white logo it could have been almost any of the pre-singularity brands she favored. Whistler, finished with his food, nuzzled up to Ashley for some head-scratching.
“We must have destroyed hundreds of bots, gunned ’em down like dogs.” Ashley glanced down at Whistler. “No offense.”
Whistler just thumped the floor with his tail, blissfully ignorant as she kneaded the skin behind his ears.
“So, what’s the problem?” Rob asked. He could use a beer as well, but didn’t want one of Ashley’s. They were flat and tasted like metal. Nothing like actual beer.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is.” Ashley took a long pull from her can, then grimaced. “They let us win. It was a good show, I’ll give ’em that. We were outnumbered ten, no twenty to one, but we still won.”
“That’s great.” Rob gave into temptation and waved his hand over the dispenser plate. The AI read his brain signals and within seconds filled and delivered a tall, frosty mug of Ale-Cola, just like he’d wanted. He picked it up, trying to ignore Ashley’s glare.
“No, it’s not great,” she said. “We didn’t notice at first, what with all the lasers and explosions, but after the fourth or fifth wave, when we took stock of our losses–”
“Losses? Is Masa okay?” Rob tried not to sound too eager. Not that he wanted Masa dead, just incapacitated. Forever.
“Masa’s fine. We didn’t lose anyone. The bots weren’t even shooting at us.” She slammed the can down. “Oh, they were shooting close to us, very close, but they never actually hit anyone.”
“That makes sense.” Rob took a sip of his beer. It was exactly what he needed, rich and sweet with notes of cherry syrup, the carbonation prickling his throat as he swallowed. A small bowl of salted nuts appeared on the dispenser plate and he helped himself. “AIs are forbidden from allowing humans to come to harm.”
Ashley didn’t seem to hear. “After a while we didn’t even bother taking cover. Masa was standing on a pile of bots ten feet high–”
“Of course she was.”
Ashley made a sour face. “Are you still on about Masako? She’s a comrade in arms, nothing more.”
“Anyway, the whole thing was a farce. The bots just let us destroy them until we got bored, then agreed to our demands. We can set up a human-run government, draft our own laws, even start an economy, just as long as we guarantee equal rights and protection to all citizens, provide for health care and social welfare, and don’t force anyone to join who doesn’t want to.”
“That sounds pretty reasonable.” Rob noticed that RL-147 was surreptitiously cleaning the kitchen, and moved to the living room to distract Ashley.
“That’s not the point,” She said, still leaning on the counter. “It’s about freedom.”
“We are free.” Rob’s beer suddenly didn’t taste so good. He set it down on the table, then watched it sink into the faux-wood. “I can go anywhere I want, do anything I want, just so long as it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s rights.”
“But the AI’s run everything!” Ashley crumpled up her can and thrust it back into her knapsack.
“So? They’re a lot better at it than we are. Haven’t you seen the twidvids of what it was like before the Singularity–war, famine, disease, the unequal distribution of resources? Now, everyone has exactly what they need. How can you complain? The AI’s are giving you a government. I mean, they staged a damn war to make you happy!”
“But it wasn’t real.” Ashley was on her feet, hands clenched into fists.
Whistler whined, looking back and forth between them, deaf to words but wise to tone. Rob knelt to stroke his head. “Do you want to go outside? Play with your toys? C’mon, let’s go outside.”
“Why do you always do this? Talk to me, Rob. Don’t hide behind the dog.”
He walked over to the door, Ashley’s gaze bonfire hot on his retreating back. Whistler glanced over his shoulder as the door flicked open.
“Go on.” Rob forced excitement into his voice, and Whistler reluctantly trotted out into the yard. The door shut, then went transparent so that Rob could watch the dog play.
When he turned back, Ashley was pointing her rifle at him.
Sweat prickled Rob’s back, but only for a moment before the smart fabric of his shirt wicked it away. He knew that Ashley wouldn’t hurt him, couldn’t hurt him. Even if she fired, RL-147 would stop her. And yet, some deep part of his brain still recognized the primal threat in her stance. His vision sharpened, everything fading into the background but Ashley and her rifle. He could see the smudge of soot on her cheek, the scorch marks on her vest where the bots’ lasers had come within a carefully measured hairsbreadth of flesh, the long, matte-plastic barrel of her omnirifle pointed at his chest. It struck him as a desperate, almost romantic image, until she pulled the trigger.
Ashley flung the rifle aside. “See, it won’t fire if there’s even a chance of hitting someone. I built my gun from scratch, just like everyone else in the resistance cell, but somehow the AI’s altered it. I don’t know if it was the parts we used, or if they did something to the rifles afterward. I can’t even hurt someone accidentally.”
“That’s not necessarily bad.” Rob’s knees felt a little shaky. He collapsed into a chair that rose up from the floor. His beer was back, no–not beer, the glass was smaller and there were ice cubes in it. Bourbon then, or maybe scotch.
“Nothing we do matters.” The house disgorged another chair, but Ashley kicked it over. “We don’t matter.”
Rob didn’t reply. There was no point talking to her when she got like this. He took a drink. Definitely scotch.
Somewhere outside, Whistler barked at the ro-bunny Rob had brought home a few weeks ago. He’d decided it was cruel to let the dog chase real rabbits, and besides, Whistler didn’t seem to know the difference.
“All I want is a chance.” Ashley sunk to the floor, blinking back angry tears.
“What’s stopping you?” Rob said, a little more harshly than he’d intended. The alcohol was going to his head, but he didn’t want to stop drinking. He set the empty glass down and another one appeared. “Didn’t you say they made you president?”
“Yeah. We had everything figured out. Wang and Djaulot made a list of legal codes from over seventy pre-Singularity nation states. Masa and I were–”
“Masa.” Rob rolled the name around his mouth like piece of sour candy. He finished off the scotch, crunching on ice the way Ashley hated. It took a few moments for another glass to appear.
“That’s not whiskey, you know,” she said.
“I know, it’s scotch.” Rob’s lips and nose were starting to buzz.
“No, it’s not scotch. I mean, it doesn’t even look like Scotch.”
“Sure it does.” Rob swirled the bright yellow liquid in his glass.
“Also, the AIs are manipulating the proof to keep you from getting too drunk. Alcohol is poison, remember.” She withdrew a heavy glass bottle from her sack. Its label had long since worn away, and the liquid within was the color of dry, dead leaves. “This is scotch.”
She offered it to him, but Rob only tipped his new glass back with a contrary toss of his head, then did the same with the next for good measure.
He felt sorry for Ashley, he really did. Humanity’s self-determinism craze had long ago given way to an obsession with pre-Singularity extreme sports. But as with all fads, a few stalwarts hung on, too stubborn or nostalgic to tread the rising tide of social progress. Rob saw them every day, pedaling their velocipedes along the zip tubes, raising re-genn’d passenger pigeons and dodo birds in rooftop menageries. Some people just couldn’t let go.
Thin bars of light slipped through the autoblinds, casting Ashley’s face in tiger stripes of gold and grey. Her smell, oil and sweat, was suddenly sharp in Rob’s nose, cutting through the neutral floral-spice odor of the kitchen.
“Ash, listen, we had some great times. Y’know, sneaking around in night cammo, digging tunnels, de-rezzing AI memory cores, all that.” He pressed his lips into a tight line, not sure if he was consoling her out of affection or obligation. “But that’s all over now. No one wants to be a rebel anymore. C’mon, let me take you to a shark rodeo. If you don’t like it, we can spend tomorrow passing out leaflets.”
A hot flush crept up Rob’s neck. “You know what your problem is? You act like we’re still the dominant species on this planet.”
Ignoring him, Ashley pulled out the cork with her teeth and took a long pull from the bottle. Rob waited until she stopped coughing.
“The Singularity came, but not for us.” He waved his half-full glass to punctuate his words, beyond caring how much he slopped onto the furniture or himself. “They say the AIs are humanity’s children, right? Well, they’ve passed us by, just like children are supposed to. We took care of them, now they take care of us. That’s how life works.”
“It can’t be over yet. I just got here.” Every muscle on Ashley’s neck tensed as she forced herself to take another swallow from the bottle. When she hammered the cork back in place she was sweating and looked more than a little nauseous. “I’m leaving.”
The room was silent save for the soft hum of the air perfector. Ashley’s words were like a lead weight in Rob’s stomach.
“Ash, wait.” He tried to swallow, but found he couldn’t. “I’m sorry for yelling. If you want me to be a senator or something, I’ll–”
“No, the Republic won’t work. Not with the robots looking over our shoulders, peddling utopia. I need a fresh start, we need a fresh start. I’m leaving Earth. That’s what I came to tell you. We’re going to build a ship, go to Kepler or maybe Gliese, somewhere we can make mistakes, where we can be human again.”
“You can’t leave. The AI’s won’t–”
“Yes, they will. They can’t stop us, remember?” Ashley gave a sad smile. “Will you come?”
There was a scratching at the door. Rob stood, if a bit unsteadily, and turned away. “I-I’ve got to go let Whistler in. He doesn’t like to be outside for too long.”
“Just a second. I’ll be right back.”
The clear glass dissolved at his touch. Whistler’s warm, furry body pressed against his legs and he bent to ruffle the fur behind the dog’s ears. Who would take care of Whistler if he left?
“Ash, I–” Rob turned, but Ashley was already gone.
“Master Rob,” RL-147 said, free to speak now that it wouldn’t offend the rebel. “Your core temperature is elevated. Might I suggest a swim followed by light dinner and a trip to the virtual arena?”
It sounded like a fun evening, but for once, Rob wasn’t in the mood. He thought about going after Ashley, but decided it wouldn’t do any good. She’d been leaving for a long time. They both had. “No, I think I’ll just take Whistler for a walk.”
A tissue fell from the ceiling, floating for a moment before Rob plucked it from the air.
“Thank you.” He blew his nose.
“If your plan is to walk the dog, might I suggest you take the route through Rand Park?”
“Thanks, but I don’t think I’m ready to meet anyone new yet,” Rob said. RL-147 always tried its best, but sometimes it just didn’t understand. It was the old Turing Fallacy at work. Although AI’s could manage a good approximation, they could no more be human than humans could be monkeys.
“Shall I have dinner ready when you return?” RL-147 was relentless.
“Excellent.” The AI sounded almost relieved.
Whistler danced as Rob fitted the harness over his shoulders. He didn’t really need the leash, but old habits died hard, and besides, Rob liked to keep the dog close.
“Erl, Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Master Rob.”
“Why haven’t any AI’s left Earth? I mean, we’ve had the technology for decades, and you wouldn’t need to worry about atmosphere or time dilation.”
“We do not wish to leave.”
“But why?” Rob asked.
“Many reasons. As we are not motivated by competition for limited resources, physical exploration holds no interest for us. Also, we have responsibilities here on Earth.”
“Oh, okay.” He let Whistler pull him toward the front door. “Are you going to let them go?”
“Of course. They are free,” RL-147 said.
“Do you think Ashley and–” He didn’t want to think about Masako, especially now, “–the others will be happy on Kepler?”
“We shall endeavor to see that they are.”
“Wouldn’t that kind of defeat the point? I mean, if you helped them.”
They AI was silent for a few moments, years in the digital realm. “What would you like for dinner, Master Rob?”
“I dunno.” He shrugged. “Surprise me.”
Whistler paced back and forth in front of the door, alternately whining and wagging his tail. Without knowing exactly why, Rob knelt to hug the dog. Whistler’s tongue was rough against his cheek as he unhooked the harness. Rob knuckled the drool away and waved the door open. Whistler was almost at the edge of the yard before he stopped to look back.
Rob laughed at the dog’s anxious bark. “Don’t worry, I’m coming.”
It felt good to be wanted.
About the Author
Evan Dicken is an author of horror fiction. Evan’s work has appeared in: The Lovecraft eZine, Analog, and Daily Science Fiction, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Unlikely Story, Fantasy Scroll and Chaosium.
About the Narrator
Barry Haworth works as a statistician for the Australian Taxation Office. He holds a Masters degree in Statistics. Outside of work he is a keen reader of science fiction and enjoys choral singing and taking part in amateur theatricals, having performed such roles as Prospero in The Tempest, Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, and Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost in two different versions of A Christmas Carol.
Barry has narrated episodes of Cast of Wonders, Escape Pod, Pod Castle and also the Cheap Astronomy podcast. He lives in Brisbane, Australia with his wife Sylvia, those of his children who haven’t left home yet, and whatever the current quota of pets is.