Life is exactly what happens when you don’t keep things in a cool, dry place. In this series of wickedly funny short stories, humans bring technology to all the other clever animals of Earth, and the whole gang tries to learn how to live with each other in this new dynamic. It doesn’t help that the technology is getting out of hand, matching the chaos of living things. Open this freeze-dried meal of despair, spiced with love and hope, and come along for a wild ride with these darn squids in space.
When my nephew Gabriel was about three years old, he was at a park, playing in a sandbox, and he smacked the black ants in the sand with a stick. They’d bitten him repeatedly, and he yelled, “Bad sand guys! They were made by the black Jesus. The black evil robot Jesus!”
Thank you for the inspiration, Gabe.
Excerpt chapter: “Uplifting”
The octopus looked proper stately in a dapper white robotic suit, nearly filling the bulbous cylinder atop a nearly perfect humanoid body. It stood behind a pulpit, reminiscent of a Southern Baptist preacher on Sunday. The octopus’ iridescent skin flourished with patterns, which were picked up by meticulous and highly calibrated cameras. Her suit’s extremely modern system included a completely renovated text-to-speech module. The arena seating in this cavernous, brightly lit room lent itself to the theater unfolding at the pulpit, although, other than a fistful of reporters at the fore, only a few dozen academic types filled in a few of the hundreds of empty seats, in the upper back. Conspicuously, one was a dolphin in a positively huge, caterpillar-esque water tank with insectile metal legs.
The octopus spoke into the microphone.
“How dare you uplift us? What gives mankind the right to deny us natural death? For millions and millions of years octopuses have sacrificed themselves for their young. Now human scientists have changed everything for the gastropod, and have forced it into functional slavery. For every credit a human earns, a gastropod earns between forty four and forty eight percent of the same.”
A reporter’s hand shot up in front.
“Susan Chaudry here, Ganymede Times. Is it not true that since the very inception of genetically modified, sapient gastropods, equal payment for equal work has been a mainstay throughout the system? I have numbers that-”
The octopus retorted, “Let me finish! Let me finish! First, gastropods work in different environments than humans do, which means that the work cannot be equal, and you benefit from our labor unfairly. Second, what a human thing to do to just interrupt a gastropod while she is speaking. Please, human-splain away.”
Her automated voice came across as impeccably condescending.
Susan kept her cool.
“Professor Cerulean-33, I have a report from an independent survey by multi-species think tanks that indicates that revenue from gastropod labor depends approximately ninety five percent on human-made mechanica, and that those machines contribute taxes; so the remaining tax revenue comes from gastropods directly. The mechanica were created by human and robot labor. Are you accurately representing your numbers?”
The octopus pointed a jutting finger at Susan. “The only reason an ape like you would ask a question like that is because you’re too fragile to face the fact that you have an inherently oppressive nature. Gastropods, such as myself…” She had the robot gesture to itself, to where her robot’s heart ought to have been, “Have been sapient since before humans began to use tools. We were spiritually attuned, living in perfect harmony one with another.”
The dolphin in the back top of the room chirped in, which was also rapidly translated. His voice came across booming and emphatic.
“Nonsense! You were solitary, selfish and violent, and above all, deceitful little monsters then, and you haven’t improved a bit since then! Dolphins have songs about your trickery since we took back to the seas.”
The octopus held a hand over her eyes so as to squint at the cetacean. “Excuse me? Since when did they let someone like you in a human facility? Shouldn’t you be slaving away for your masters like a good little Flipper clone?”
The dolphin’s many-legged tank rumbled into the light. “I’m Dr. D*’Ppch, and I personally developed the algorithm that permits you to communicate. If I’d known how nasty your kind would become, I would have rejected my commission, and continued to dine on calamari!”
The humans beside him yelled, “Hear, hear!” and “Huzzah!” from their perches in the nosebleed seats. Obviously, more professors.
At the front, a cadre of squids in suits pulsated with color, and their less-advanced suits protested first in Chinese ideograms, then vocalized into tinny Mandarin, perfectly intoned, which was then re-translated by a Mandarin-to-English automated translator.
“Gastro-podo-phobe!” and “Why don’t you commit suicide and save us the effort?”
They were rejoindered by a mob of self-loathing, self-righteous activists who rabbled about equality and litigation.
Susan smirked while this was all recorded, and her spotty trans-radio service conveyed this unfolding scene across the solar system to her millions of subscribers, consisting mostly of sensible people of the many species who rightly thought all this political nonsense was the apex of insanity. Top notch news work.
Far away, in a multifaceted bay, pockmarked with scorch marks and lights all flickering, a voice came through a radio with occasional static. “See? The dolphin reveals his murderous intent! It is not my fault that I am delicious. Even nature itself oppresses us with being tasty!”
The dolphin trilled and chirped, translated to, “Obviously nothing’s your fault, not even the crimes you’ve committed! Four cities flooded last week by your terrorist thugs, and not a peep from the officials. You’d need a conscience to feel guilt. You’re nothing but a demon wearing a meat suit, and the dinner plate will be your only redempt-!”
The broadcast was cut off with a squeal, then words that needed no translation.
“This is emergency broadcast 77-b. Titan base twenty seven. Titan base twenty seven, do you read me? Survivors must report to the hangar for evacuation and quarantine immediately.”
Sparks buzzed off the wall where circuits had become crossed. Emerging from a bit of lightweight wreckage, a dark-haired man in a sooty lab coat coughed and responded into the microphone.
“This is Professor Chang on… Titan base twenty seven. What is your E.T.A? I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the shuttle in time.”
On the other end of the line, the woman’s voice crackled. “We’ve just landed. What’s a Martian ambulance doing- aaaaagh!”
The line cut short, and the floor rocked. The sound of an explosion carried through the walls, reverberating through everything.
Across the room, a huge, dark and primitive gastropod mechanica was sparking, disabled and contorted. The little cuttlefish inside the water pod was frantically tapping at the interface, to no avail.
The smooth plastic floor was starting to move on its own, first swirling, then tightening into distinctly metallic yet organic humanoid outlines in repeating bodily forms.
The human smiled to the little cuttlefish. “We had a good run, didn’t we, Pink-12?”
The little cuttlefish blinked colorfully, which translated through a little white pod on the hulk, a surprisingly modern module into speech. “Dammit, Chang! We aren’t done yet! Get me up and running again, and we’ll show these inky bastards we mean business.”
A far door opened, and a light-haired woman, also in a laboratory coat, came through. Her legs were covered in a lumpy metallic sheen. She struggled to make her way towards them. She cried, “Chang! Help me!”
Chang hurled himself from his hunched position by the comms array, and rushed to steady her.
She told him, through gritted teeth, “It’s hydrocarbons. Any… Hydrocarbons. And heat. The lab was perfect for it. If you get wounded at all, it just takes over.”
Chang tried to maintain his composure. His voice was steady, but the hot tears running down his cheeks belied the truth. He tried to reassure her. “Trina, you’re going to be… you’re going to be fine. Just fine, alright? The shuttle…”
She glared at him, lips wrenched up in rage. “What the hell are you thinking? This place needs to be autoclaved. You aren’t thinking of leaving, are you? You might be infected! Just… Just send the data back to Ganymede, then burn it all. All of it! Or, you have to freeze it, or…” her eyes glazed over, and began to make crackling, hacking sounds. The veins on her face stood out in black, and her pupils crusted over in a metallic finish. The metallic sludge that shimmered on her legs erupted though cracks on her lips.
Chang pushed himself away from her inert body in horror, loss, and shame. He leapt over a desk, snagged a torsion wrench, and pulled parts away from Pink-12’s suit.
The incredibly small cuttlefish turned black with rage. “Vegan! Weakling! What are you doing? I need this machine so I can murder them!”
Chang scrabbled parts away, stripping bolts and flanges away from the water pod. “It’s broken. We need to go, Pinkie. Nothing we don’t absolutely need!”
Pink-12 asked, “What about the computers? And my toys?”
From the writhing floor behind him, an inky humanoid figure was dislodged from the mass of bodies that the floor was becoming. It arose to its feet, and touched Trina’s statuesque form.
Chang freed the water pod from the mangled machinery of the gastropod engineering rig, and clutched it to his chest, with the wriggling and furious cuttlefish inside. He whispered, “Be quiet.” And he tiptoed towards the door, trying to avoid stepping anywhere on the floor, which was, of course, impossible. Both he and the tiny cuttlefish watched cautiously while the inky figure caressed Trina’s face, and before they knew it, they were outside the door. The polymer floor and walls here were just as pregnant, and spat human forms up. In the low gravity, they bounced fecklessly off the walls, and made confused moaning sounds.
Chang bolted past them, and was not met with any resistance as he bounced across shoulders, heads, and feet. Where he passed, humanoids emerged, and reached to him, but did not grip his suit. In the flickering light, the grotesque emerging forms inspired terror beyond anything Chang had ever imagined. He mumbled, “Just like a dream. It’s just a dream, right!?”
Pink-12’s translator was squealing error codes, and Chang leapt through several sets of flopping, inky legs, then landed steadily at the metal grate floors that led up to the module that lay between them and the hangar. Chang stopped mid-step and gasped, then clapped one hand over his own mouth to keep from screaming.
In the dim and flickering light, on this side of the bulkhead, there stood a dark figure. It was facing away for now, looking through the door’s window with an attitude of intense curiosity. It stood on its tiptoes to look through the window. Down its back, long rivulets of gray, metallic hair flowed. It somehow noticed Chang, and it rotated about. It formed Trina’s face, and in three more breathless seconds, it had taken up a facsimile of her unclothed form, bearing a leaden sheen. She looked at her hands, then at Chang. The thing asked him, “What’s going on, Chang? What’s happened to me?”
Chang was starstruck. He slowly approached her, reaching as if to touch her face with his hand, but didn’t make contact.
Pink-12 yelled, “She is fake! I know a fake when I see one. Don’t fall for it, Chang! She’ll rip you apart just like those other ones ripped up my mechanica.”
Chang came to his senses, and backed away. “No, you’re not Trina!”
From behind him in the darkness, another colleague emerged, and put its hand on his shoulder. It said, “Chang. What are you doing out of the lab? There’s a leak and… and…”
Chang gasped. “Motogawa!”
The figure looked at him intently, trying to make sense of that word. Its eyes widened almost in disbelief, as if it had just gotten a joke. Inky hydrocarbon soot boiled from its ory teeth, and it laughed and quipped, “I suppose I am!”
It actually slapped its knee.
Pink-12’s pod speaker bellowed, “Go! Go, dammit!”
Chang recoiled in horror at the sooty darkness, still clutching the egg-shaped water tank to his chest. He backed against the wall.
Another Trina appeared next to Motogawa, and then three more Motogawas burbled up from the darkened hall which was, by now, utterly vomiting confused carboniferous people into the corridor. The process wasn’t precise, either. Half-formed bodies spurted about, some popping with a fine mist of sparkling dark ash, iridescent like carborundum.
Pink-12 offered, “This wouldn’t have happened if we’d opted for a fully metal facility, as I recommended! I give good advice!”
Chang noticed the release switch for the nearby door, on the now-bubbling wall. He smacked it, and the door half-opened then slowed when it mushed into some ashen goop inside the wall. Chang ducked through. The hallway here was white, well-lit and not yet affected by the weird plague. He skidded around corners and bounced off walls intentionally in the low gravity.
“We’re almost there, Pinkie!”
“Find me a mech and we won’t need to run! You’re a vertebrate! Show some spine.”
The hangar door made way with a gentle whooshing sound, and the other side greeted the pair with an unpleasant site and worse aroma. The magnesium walls had bowed, but not buckled, and were flecked with bits of human gore, metallic goop, and bloody fabric. The long range shuttle that belonged to Titan Base 27 was crumpled from intense compression. The culprit floated in the middle of the room, slowly rotating. It was a short-range medical response vessel, with the words “Martian *edical Resp**se T*am” pockmarked on its tail. Its gravitic drive was still intact, humming away of its own accord, but the crew compartment had totally exploded, apparently from a gas buildup, because there were no scorch marks in it. Chang marveled at it, and Pink-12 urged him along. “Suits, Chang.”
There was a medium-sized maroon hardsuit with an aerial pack installed, on the far wall, among scattered tools and twisted shelves. Chang scrabbled for it over the wreckage, and Pink-12 protested. “What about me?”
Chang looked about, but there was nothing appropriate to plug in the water pod into.
“I’m sorry, little guy. I’ll have to carry you.”
“Little?” Pink-12 yapped, “Yes, I was the runt of my litter, but I am violent. Violent, I say! I have bitten, shot, and cut enemies everywhere I go. Little? I have had very intense sex with all of the women, of every species everywhere! I even tell all of the men of my deeds later, and not one… not a single one has the strength to fight me! You are nothing! You are a vegetable-eating coward!”
“Are you done?”
Pink-12 buzzed around the water tank, blackened with rage, then running series of zebra stripes along the length of his body, then calmed down.
“Good.” Chang set the tank down and climbed into the hard suit.
“We’re going for a stroll. We’ll need to get to the next station and find a shuttle.”
The two waited carefully for the airlock to vacuum out, then emerged onto the surface of Titan. The suit lifted and slowly crusaded along to the next base.
“At least they refilled this thing. Lazy…” Chang smiled, then became teary-eyed at the thought of all the death and destruction that had befallen his colleagues. “Hey, Pinkie, you remember how Trina used to tease you with food? And how that technician, Moore, would sneak you extra protein rations? I bet he took real good care of this.”
Pink-12 was quiet. Chang realized he hadn’t connected the suit’s communication array with the water pod’s output, which he swiftly remedied.
Pink-12’s channel piped in, “-itch telling me what to do all the time. And now my suit’s gone. How the hell am I supposed to earn my keep, I ask you. Well, Pink Twelve is on the scene. One way or another I’m getting another suit, if I have to gnaw the kneecaps off of some half-witted fu-“
Chang hit the ‘mute’ button for a second, took a deep breath, and sighed in general gratitude. While Pink-12 couldn’t hear him, he wept.
The landscape beneath was beautiful, with jagged hills and their quiet chaos. Geysers of black soot glistened in the dim light the floating suit emitted. The far distant Sun was nothing but a speck of light, scarcely larger than the other stars in the black sky.
Out of morbid curiosity, perhaps, Chang rotated the suit about to take one last look at Titan Base Twenty Seven.
Something about the way the base looked troubled him, beyond the fact that it had been effectively destroyed. It was the nearby crater, from which they had plucked the Martian ambulance. The ground was still pulsating, rippling outwards from the center, slowly. He hadn’t noticed that when they rescued the vehicle.
Its last remaining lights winked out, and Chang continued along his low flight path towards the nearest station. He turned on the suit’s CB radio, unlikely to interfere with other equipment. Even after all this time, the primitive technology worked like a charm.
“This is Professor Calvin Chang of Titan Base Twenty Seven. Do you copy?”
The response was swift. “This is Tahir Sheikh of Truck Omicron Seven, of Titan Base Twenty Five. How are you, Professor Chang?”
Chang choked out the words, “Not so good. In need of quarantine, maybe medical assistance. We had an outbreak on our base. Something went wrong with a medical pack.”
Tahir quizzed, “What, like a virus?”
Chang searched for the words. “I don’t know. Did you ever see that old movie Hellraiser? Or Event Horizon?”
Tahir said, “Nah. What are you getting at?”
“This is going to sound crazy, but… Like, like in fairy tales. I think it’s nanotech that got out of control. Any hydrocarbons are being turned into artificial people.”
Tahir grumbled, “Hm. Why didn’t you send out an emergency signal?”
“Our communications array was taken out. We rescued a… a derelict vehicle, and the driver seems to have been, uh… infected. He ran riot all over the base, and destroyed our emergency broadcast system. He killed a lot of people, and then… This is going to sound really crazy. The people he killed were duplicated somehow, and… and they ripped apart the base for no reason. We tried to fight them, and you know how the base is mostly plastic? They started replicating from it. God, they got Motogawa, and Findley Moore, and Dr. Trina Bashir. It’s just me and a cuttlefish guard now.”
A new voice came through the same channel.
“This is Commander Alfonso Nuñez of Titan Base Twenty Five. Professor Chang, are you saying you’ve had an outbreak? Why aren’t you following quarantine protocol?”
Chang’s throat closed up with emotion. “I… I just want to live.”
“Well you don’t get to come infect my base. You stay right where you are until we can get something sorted out. Do you hear me?”
“Y… Yes.” Chang responded quietly, crestfallen.
“This is Commander Alfonso Nuñez of Titan Base Twenty Five. Base Twenty Seven, do you copy?”
“This is Professor Hiroo Motogawa of Titan Base Twenty Seven. You are coming in five by five.”
“That’s odd. We have a bogey by the name of Chang floating in our airspace. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? And what happened with that Martian medical shipment you were talking about? We could feel the shockwave over here. Next time tell them to deliver it a little further out, will you?”
“Ah, the good professor Chang must have neglected his medication again. Please send him back to us.”
Commander Nuñez bit his lip and killed the communicator. “You hear that, Brother Sanchez? Our space cowboy didn’t take his meds.”
A man in the black robes of a Catholic priest sipped coffee in the fluorescent light.
“Oh? What’s so strange about that?”
Nuñez looked over his shoulder at him, resting in the cold white light of the cabin.
“They don’t send people with mental disorders up here. Takes rigorous training, vetting, that sort of thing.”
The priest set down the cup of coffee and smiled knowingly. “People can develop every manner of spiritual affliction, you know. The confines of the corridors, the paperwork, and being stuck in too closely with people. It reminds me of what I read about old Arctic expeditions, and about life on submarines.”
The commander subtly grimaced. “Something about it isn’t right. Policy says I have to send him back, but… something isn’t right.”
The priest offered, cheerfully, “I’ll pay our friends in Base Twenty Seven a visit and see for myself. It’s a good opportunity to do the Lord’s work.”
Commander Nuñez admonished him, “I’m not sending you alone. You’re going with Officer Rachel Peck, and a few engineers.”
The priest’s eyes furrowed in disgust, and Commander Nuñez waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry, Brother Sanchez… Human engineers.”
Brother Sanchez looked relieved.
“They just need a little Christian love from Brother Sanchez. A little… uplifting. It’ll be fine. You’ll see.”