“What if we’re just a recording? Or a simulation?” Donald skipped a disk of sandstone across the lake. It skipped five times before plunking in. A water strider dodged the stone and skated under the dock.

Denise squinted at her bobber. For a moment it had seemed to dip, but she had been distracted by Donald’s question. She looked at Donald, the sun dazzle on the water beyond him, and the trio of mallards by the far bank.

“Stop scaring the fish.” She sniffed the moist air, redolent of growth and decay. “This seems real to me. The water was cold when we swam this morning.”

Donald hitched around to face her. “No, see. What if you have a false memory of swimming, of being cold? Of course it seems real to us if we have programmed memories, and we’re no deeper than the simulation. We don’t know what we’re missing. Maybe the senses of real people are more acute than our own. Maybe the memories of real people are more vivid than ours.”

Denise laid the bamboo pole down on the dock and stood up. She put her foot on Donald’s lower back and shoved him into the water. When he came up sputtering she asked

“Cold enough for you?” Then she stepped back out of reach.

Donald spat water out of his mouth. “Doesn’t prove a thing. Maybe real cold feels much colder.”

“All these maybes and what ifs are fruitless. If we can’t tell the difference between reality and simulation then we should assume we are real. We’ll have more fun that way.” She reached a hand down to help him out of the water. She pulled him up, dripping, drew him close, then closer.

They didn’t even notice when the pole was pulled off the dock and slowly moved out towards the center of the lake.


“What if we’re just a recording? Or a simulation?”


I trudged for a day in a direction that had not existed the day before.  Tramping to the bleak beacon was like plowing through mounds of slushy snow seeping through your boots.  When the pair of shining black beams smote me, the going slowed to a crawl.

I’d passed beneath the lower angle of the beacon’s lantern room’s reach before the sensation in my goose-pimpled flesh returned.

A white-bearded dwarf exited the base of the beacon waving a lantern, a replica of the one squatting on the beacon.  “Turn back!  Look not into eyes!”  His voice was mechanical, gear-grinding.

The journey had worn my patience so I toppled him.  He fell back flinging his lantern behind.  He hit with a clang; the lantern’s hinged glass door swung open and cracked against the rocky soil, and the cold, coal-black flame soared, guttered, and winked out in the indifferent wind.  The man groaned as I carried on.

Years of severe weathering had pocked the formerly sleek obsidian surface of the beacon.  I ran my hand along its rough flank and steered myself up the inner winding.  The rotting wooden planks protested the load as I pushed wide the trapdoor.

Inside the lantern room, I swung open the glass lens and slid shut the iron vent to suffocate the coal-black flame.  Ice crystals formed in the cracks spread across the vent.

The lens separated into smaller, distorting glass blocks–each chanced to point at the spire that had been my home since my days as unformed crockery.  From this vantage, it looked little more than a mossy screw, but each lens block also pulled it in some direction that made my attachment to it laughable–fat, skinny, hour-glassed, warped.

I pivoted and found myself gazing, across a broad desert, into a land leviathan’s slow blinking gaze.

“You fool!”  The dwarf was hoisting himself up on the floor.  “You’ve opened the gate to misery!”  He brandished a dagger, slashed and thrust.

I dodged.  “Wait.”  Again.  “I see your point.  Please.  Let me open the door, so the flame can breathe, and men do not look.”  With an elbow, I broke the ice and slid the door open, careful not to let the chill black light fall on me.

The dwarf tilted his head back and absorbed the light.

I threw his heavy metal frame into the flame and slammed the door shut.

Ziggi dropped me home. I handed him a wad of the notes Bela had given me. Somehow it didn’t feel like my money. ‘Same time tonight.’
He nodded; drove off. I limped up the path. The jasmine was thick on the front fence, overpoweringly sweet.
‘Verity? Can you get my ball?’ Between the fence palings a small hand appeared.
I picked up the ball. ‘Birthday present?’
‘Uh-huh. But I like yours best.’ I’d given her a book of fairytales – the proper ones, where little children are eaten by wolves with no hope of rescue. Her mother had frowned, but Lizzie ate the stories up.
I dropped the ball over the fence.
‘Thanks, Verity. Can I come over?’
‘Not today, my friend. Maybe on the weekend.’
Inside, the hot air almost smothered me, so I quickly opened all the windows. The breeze did its thing and soon the place was bearable. I sat in one of the faded green chairs on the back deck and waited.
I stretched my leg out and rested it on the top of the table. I looked at the jacaranda tree in the backyard and nodded to the extremely fat kookaburra perched on one of its limbs. A movement caught at the edge of my vision.
‘It’s rude not to knock. It’s also rude to keep my house key since we broke up.’
Bela sat. ‘Someone might need to help you.’
‘Your kind of help, I can do without.’
‘And a big hello to you, too.’ He nodded at my leg. ‘Sore? I can fix it, you know.’
I touched his face. ‘Your price is too high.’
‘So, answers?’
‘Plenty of ideas. No answers.’
‘Why am I paying you?’
‘No idea.’ I told him about last night’s tour.
He sighed. ‘There hasn’t been activity like this since your father.’
I closed my eyes.
There’s a market for everything.
My mother was Normal and gone before I knew her. My father was Weyrd. For a long time I didn’t know there was a difference. The everyday things were salt in corners to soak up curses; bake blood into the bread to keep ghosts away; sweep towards your front door, chanting for wealth.
My father. Twenty years ago he was jailed as a kidnapper and killer, but that didn’t even begin to touch the skin of what he was.
Kinderfresser. Child-eater. Butcher to the Weyrd.

AMOS-312 came online, and pinged the depot overseer, indicating that the recharge was complete. Rusting arms lifted it out of the great empty rack, and AMOS-312 found the following issues during start-up diagnostics:

Item #57: Outer carapace, dented and scratched – beyond allowable parameters

Item #7: Wheels, bald

Item #321: Tracker Camera K32 reporting 0.007 seconds delay – beyond allowable parameters

Item #99: MONTHLY QUOTA NOT BEING MET – Please try harder for those targets, AMOS-312!

AMOS-312 wound its way through the depot, past the repair bays. It pinged AMOS-267, who was patiently waiting for a mechanic to attend to its fouled drive-train. It mournfully reported that this was the 2,513th day it had spent in the bay. The appropriate messages had been sent at regular intervals, insisting that the service be completed, and automated responses assured AMOS-267 that the problem would be rectified, and that it should
remain in the bay until the mechanic arrived.

AMOS-312 rolled across the sea of litter that had blown in through the main egress, noting that the door was still jammed half-way open. It allowed 320mm of clearance either side, which was acceptable. Crunching over a huddle of human skeletons, the beetle-shaped robot climbed the access ramp until it was rolling alongside the highway.

This was unacceptable. The roads were still log-jammed with rusting vehicles, none of which were moving. Extending its instrument array, AMOS-312 scanned the traffic in all directions, watching for various traffic violations. It normally picked up 3.12 violations per hour along the M1.

Other locations were visited, with the same results. Occasionally AMOS-312 would have a Second Law violation, which was distressing for the robot. The constant failures were beginning to cause the machine the equivalent of depression. It sulked beside the highways, shuffled past the school safety zones (usually a great money earner for the county) and wondered where all the traffic violators had gone.

There! AMOS-312 picked up activity near the CBD, a pair of vehicles travelling at great speeds. They were operating with complete disregard for the road rules, and as the robot reached a good observation point, it issued several expiation notices, including:

Item #13: Operate vehicle at excess speed (132 km/hr in 60 km/hr zone)

Item #27: Strike parked vehicle.

Item #56: Leave the scene of an accident

Item #78: Destruction of municipal property (fire-hydrant)

Item #83: Destruction of municipal property (bus-shelter)

Item #102: Discharge of firearms from moving vehicle

AMOS-312′s instrument array went offline for a moment when it was struck by gunfire. Still, it was able to photograph the number-plates of the offending vehicles as they roared past. The driver of the second vehicle had obscured the last digit, several human skulls being mounted on the bumper. Still, a cross-reference matched the vehicle type and colour, and two further fines were sent to the DMV computer.

AMOS-312 finished the job with a quick analysis of their billowing exhaust spectra, and got them both with a #43 (Exceed allowable carbon monoxide emissions). 

Central data confirmed that AMOS-312 had just achieved a personal best, and noted that it should be considered for Operator of the Month.

The Cabal’s third anniversary is approaching, and we’re looking for help figuring out how to celebrate, so we’re holding a contest. Click here to read the details and give us your ideas!

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