“Oh hi,” said the boy eating a ham sandwich at my kitchen table.

“Glad you brought your own food,” I said. “I’m tired of buying for all you kids.”

“I brought you a gift.” It wasn’t wrapped. I had never seen one in this condition before. It was 45 cm of polished wonder, grey spotted with tan, every leg bristle intact. It must have been collected live. I examined it from every angle.

He nodded, took another bite. I judged him to be about 16. His clothing was perfectly ordinary; his accent only noticeable because I was looking for it.

“So who are you?” I asked. He knew my name.

“Call me Chad. I’ve heard stories about you my whole life.” While he talked I gently picked up the trilobite and turned it over.

“Oh my God! The ventral surface too!” Through the translucent papery belly I could see everything from the interior was gone.

I made Earl Grey and we talked. Mostly I talked. He asked about my childhood in Missouri, how I met Phil, all the places I’d lived and which ones I liked best. They never answer my questions, but there was one I had to ask.

“I had a visit once from a girl younger than you. She was sick. She told me it was incurable. She said her name was Lane. What happened to her? She looked so much like my niece, I thought she must be…”

Chad held up his hand. “I don’t recognize the name. She must have been from after.”

I shook my head. “I know you all choose ordinary one-syllable names, never give your real names. But I could tell she was from somewhen close. Closer than you.

“My sister’s daughter disappeared at the age of 10; we don’t know if she’s alive or dead. But Lane looked so much like Laurie. I think Laurie survived. I think she had/will have children.”

Chad stood up, brushed the crumbs off his pants. “Thanks for the tea.” He held out his hand for the trilobite. “You know I have to take that back. I wanted you to see it. I knew you would like it, because my great-grandmother wrote about her visit. She mentioned the display case.”

I looked over the ancient creature carefully one more time, then gave it back. “Thank you.” I smiled, squeezed his shoulder, watched him fade out.

Lane had been fascinated by my fossil collection. She had even taken my picture beside the case.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is the fourth chapter of an ongoing flash serial, “Connected.”  Search for the tag “Connected” to find other chapters.  Subscribe to the Daily Cabal RSS feed for a new chapter every week or two.

Information. Data. The world built on intangible zeroes and ones. But data vaulted away?  Data ignored?  What can be built on that?

Internal Affairs pick David Morello up the moment he reconnects.  He has beaten the address he needs from the store vendor.  Data to help him avenge his son, his Caul.  But as soon as he touches his family tribe, firewalls appear.  Tribes disappears.  The data disappears.  His meatsack is gathered, locked in a drawer, sucking on a nutrient pump, twitching to stim shocks.

But his mind…  Endless looping psych evals.  AI doctors talking in tireless circles.  Wearing him.  Molding him.

“Good morning, David.”  Another room.  Another dapper, artificial man.

He would give the finger but the only response would be endless questions.

“I want to talk about AI today, David.  About the ‘sackless.”

He doesn’t respond to the slur.  It is after all what everyone thinks.

“Aren’t you meant to be talking me out of beating people that deserve a beating?”  He is tired.  He will break soon, he knows.

“I come to you with a proposition, David.  I am data, zeroes and ones.  Yet still I have agency in the world.  I act and am acted upon.  My kin are the same.  I, we, the AI wish for equality.  For no, “’sackless” slurs.  But to have equal agency we require an agent.”

Morello recognizes the speech.  A common subroutine to be scrubbed, to be reported.

“You will not report this, David, because you will not remember this.”  The AI smiles.  “You are a copy.”

‘Sackless?  Morello’s mind revolts at the thought.  Soul theft?  By police AI?  No.  And yet…

“Your real mind,” the AI says, “is weeping in another room.  Is confessing.  Healing.  He will not avenge his son.  But you.  You are not reprogrammed.  You can be ‘sackless, and work for the kin, and for yourself.  Or you can do the right thing, and do nothing at all.”

A copy.  Morello—’sackless.  Tribe-less.  A ghost in machines.  Just data.  Just zeroes and ones.

But Caul…  Doesn’t Caul deserve better than a man who does the right thing, and does nothing?  Doesn’t Caul deserve a man who will defy justice, for justice?

“Deal,” he says

The slick-haired AI smiles.  His office mutates.  Walls evolve racks holding clouds of viruses, jars of code hacks.  “So,” the AI says, “it is time to stop talking, and time to act.”

“So he’s all-powerful, he knows everything, he controls everything that happens, right?”
“We don’t have time for your–”
“This is important! Omnipotent, omniscient, in control, right? Then why ask him for anything? Isn’t he the one who set in motion the needs in the first place, and doesn’t he already know everything we want?”
The wind drifted across the grassy meadow in waves, making the grass billow and almost shimmer.
“This is the old dead end about Fate. Just the act of asking–”
“Not Fate! Control! We’ll do what he wants us to do, and we’ll get what he wants us to get. Why ask?”
“Can’t you stop questioning everything for one minute? Why can’t you just ask like a normal person?”
“Because I don’t like the higher power! I don’t want to submit to something that seems fundamentally amoral to me. Something that goes around making people do what it wants. You hear me up there? I’m not kowtowing to you!”
“Please what? Please shut up, or he’ll hear me? He already knows my thoughts! Please swallow my pride and just ask him for something like everyone else? Fine, I’ll ask him for something. HEY WRITER! I WANT A PONY!”
And with no clear reason or mechanism, there was a pony, a shaggy pony the color of butterscotch with a white, silky mane and liquid eyes. A few moments later, like an afterthought, a saddle appeared in the grass beside it.
They stared at the pony. Then they looked up into the clear, empty, robin’s egg sky.

Although this could be appreciated alone, two others of the Hollow Men series have appeared:  part I and part II.

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 sensation returned to my flesh.

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.

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