Plugs

Susannah Mandel’s short story “The Monkey and the Butterfly” is in the current issue of Shimmer. She also has poems in the current issues of Sybil’s Garage, Goblin Fruit, and Peter Parasol.

It was designed to make sweet baked goods, so naturally they called it Cookie. Condemned to make cookies all day, to be hardwired with the belief that cookies are important and delicious, but to lack the capacity to ever taste one. What a life! If you can call what robots do living.

Robots are prone to the positronic equivalents of many human mental aberrations. There is no knowing what caused the problem. It might have been a stray cosmic ray, or the time Cookie fell off the curb in front of a street-cleaning bot, or its visit to the STERN Supercollider, during which it was accidentally locked in the magnet storage room for an hour. In any case, Cookie became obsessed. Obsessed with tasting one of its creations. Of course it did.

Cookie began to devote all of its free time and, in fact, all of its resources to inventing a robotic sense of taste. All to no avail. “I’m a baking bot, dammit, not a mad scientist,” it was fond of exclaiming.

One day, a coworker (a lowly dishwashing bot) suggested that Cookie contact a mad scientist for help. So it did.

It took a while, and ended up being rather costly. Not in credits; Cookie didn’t have any. Back then, robots were not allowed to own credit. But in order to get the mad scientist to invent bot tastebuds it had to travel back in time to help the mad scientist save his wife. She had died in a car accident decades earlier. The attempt, like most trips through time, did not achieve its objective. About all that was “accomplished” was that Cookie was dragged across a few kilometers of asphalt by an unpiloted ground vehicle. This kind of ruined its beautiful blue finish.

Bot tastebuds worked amazingly well. The mad scientist earned enough from the patent to build a better time machine. Cookie was not so lucky. Foreign competition caused the bakery to close down. It was cheaper to import human food from Alpha Centauri IV than to bake it on Earth. Cookie was out of a job.

Down on its luck and broke, Cookie found work on the space station. On its first spacewalk it forgot to clip its tether. As Cookie drifted off into Earth’s shadow it moaned “Dis going to be looong night!”

End

Miranda Edison went out into the indigo of the suspended evening to walk. The city was just familiar enough that she kept looking, kept searching for the alley and the interior courtyard that she remembered.

The memory was one of her oldest; she couldn’t have been more than four or five. Just images and emotion: twilight saturating everything, buildings on four sides lit from within like paper lanterns, lulling buzz of distant traffic over the more distant whisper-vesper of the sea. She’d dropped a glove, bent to pick it up. In a window, she saw a face mostly shadow, laughing. He saw her. Answering laughter welled up in her and she clamped her throat against it, ran away down the alley.

A creepy memory, really. The laughing man still scared her. But the vividness – the texture of the stone, the realness of the trampled snow and the worn-fingered gloves, the illuminated drapes, the glimpsed piano in one window, the shelf of candy-bright books in another, the woman in the white mutton-sleeved blouse laying out silverware on a table in a third – had drawn her back to this city on the edge of the arctic twenty years later.

It might have been a thickening of the clouds or one of the sun’s occasional feints further below the horizon, but the sky tinged deeper and Miranda found herself noticing how far apart the streetlights were and how dark it got between them. She was lost; she turned at a corner that seemed familiar from the way out. It wasn’t the corner she thought it was, but this was the memory-place, an alley-end behind tall buildings like the bottom of a square-sided well. The windows were dark; an open one creaked and slammed in the wind.

If the laughing man was there, she couldn’t see him. She almost bolted, then remembered her coat, the scarf nearly up to her eyes and the hat down over her brows – all black. He couldn’t see her either. She laughed, silently, and the panic slipped from her.

She started back for the guesthouse. On the near wall, in chalk that glowed like ultraviolet fire under the evening purple, a line of slanted curly-tipped numbers. She had no idea what they meant, perhaps just the city offering a safer mystery to replace the one she’d just traded away when she found the lost place and broke its mystery.

“Hey, there’s a message in this bottle.”

Kai looked up. Jenine held up her beer. Sure enough, a piece of paper floated near the bottom. There was some writing on it.

“Looks like a fortune. Drink up so we can read it.”

“Don’t be silly. It would stick to the inside of the bottle and we’d never get it out.” She drained her water glass, poured the beer into it, fished out the note, and laid it carefully on the table. She leaned forward to read the tiny letters that almost completely covered the paper.

“Where is that girl with our food?” Waiting for Jenine to puzzle out the note reminded Kai how hungry he was. “Carla! Can we have more chips and salsa? The hot kind. And more beer.”

Jenine frowned. “It’s hard to read. The font is weird. Anyway, it starts ‘Don’t tell anyone the contents of this note.’” Her voice trailed off.

“And then?! Is it like a chain letter? If you don’t do what it says your dog will be repossessed?” While Kai was talking, Jenine was reading. Then, she carefully folded the paper in half and tucked it in her pocket.

Now it was Kai’s turn to frown. He leaned forward and whispered loudly. “Your nipples are hard. Only two things do that and I don’t think you just read some beer-note sex. What’s going on?”

Jenine whispered back, so quietly he could barely hear her. “It’s a prediction. We should get out of here. Now.” She stood up.

“No! What? Why do you believe that stupid note? I’m staying right here till I get my chimichanga.”

“Wherever that note came from, they knew things. About me. I think it’s real.” She backed away from the table, motioning to Kai to get up.

He leaned back and folded his arms. “I want my lunch.”

The window exploded inward and a red Ford F150 plowed into the table and Kai. Jenine screamed and jumped.

She ran to the truck, but when she got there she could see that Kai’s entire chest was crushed. She stood up and turned around just as a police officer ran in. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His eyes were the color of the summer sky.

“Hello Officer Smith,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Have we met?”

“Not really.”

“You’re bleeding. Sit down, I’ll be right back.”

“I know,” she whispered.

The end

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