Food Relief

“Why on Earth would I want to eat this disgusting slop again?”

Commander Bennett punctuated the question by slamming the frozen meal tray down onto the flight deck, just narrowly missing a bank of important input screens. He settled into the worn co-pilot chair and crossed his arms in a dramatic, low-blood-sugar kind of way.

Commander Holt, of course, had heard it all before. “I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?” He said. “We’re not on Earth.”

“Really? That’s so weird, I hadn’t noticed,” Bennett said, glaring. He threw his booted feet up onto the deck now, kicking his would-be dinner across the array of everything crucial keeping their long-range hauler up and running.

He then raised his voice, as if shouting to someone in the next room over: “Hey, Pax? PAX!”

After a moment, a third voice filtered in over the forward cabin. It emanated from both everywhere and, it seemed, nowhere. Its cool, feminine tone was altogether formal, but also clearly meant to be friendly. Had either member of the ship’s two-person crew not known better, they might have easily assumed she was simply another hand responding to a comm request from a different part of the ship.

“Yes, Commander,” the ship’s A.I. said easily. “I trust you’ve had a pleasant evening.”

“Yeah, whatever, just listen,” Bennett said. “Where the hell are we anyway?”

Holt didn’t look up from the data pad that had occupied most of his attention for the first several hours of his command shift. “Not close,” he said. “Leave her alone. And get your feet off the deck.”

“I’m talking to my girl Pax, Commander. I’ll get back to you in a second.”

Bennett pulled his legs down to the floor and rotated his chair 180 degrees to face the rest of the cabin. “You can go ahead and answer me now, honey.”

“I issued a regularly-scheduled update to Commander Holt on ship’s location at the start of his shift not more than two hours ago,” Pax said. “I don’t see much use in an another.”

“Don’t be a smart ass. I gave you a command. Follow it.”

She did. “We are, as Commander Holt said, not close. Approximately 22.468722 billion kilometers from our scheduled rendezvous with Crystal Station above Cinnas. Point-four-six-eight-seven-two-one. Point-four-six-eight-seven-two. Point-four-six-eight-seven-one-nine.”

Pax paused a second or two before adding: “Shall I continue?”

“Oh, please do,” Bennett answered with a half-cocked grin. “Till all your synapses burn out.” He spun back to Holt, carelessly sweeping his hand across all manner of control implements along the command deck. “Remind me to contact the Systems Administrator when we reach C.S. so I can finally get her ripped out of here and replaced with something a little more helpful.”

He again threw his chin to the air with eyes darting about the cabin’s upper reaches, as if trying to speak with an unseen god. “You read me, Pax? Make a reminder in my personal log to have you replaced once we get to the station. Assuming we ever get there.”

“Affirmative, Commander, I read you.”

Holt was at long last stirred to put down the pad. His eyes felt strained and he squinted hard at the thought of another pointless argument with his insufferable co-commander.

“Jesus, just leave her alone,” he said. “She’s only doing her job.”

“So am I,” the other man countered. “But I guess it’s a little easier for her, isn’t it? She doesn’t need to eat. How can I be expected to carry out ship’s duties when I’m literally shaking from starvation?”

Holt wasn’t sure if he should get upset or laugh. He eyed the meal tray still sitting in the middle of the flight deck as he spoke. He’d finished his lunch ration not long ago.

“First, I’ve seen your physio reports; you’re not starving. And second, we’ve got perfectly good rations right here. I even kinda like the, er…” He craned his neck forward to get a better look at description printed across the package’s pull-away lid. “… Salisbury steak. It’s not bad. Better than the lasagna, anyway.”

“You’re joking, right?” Bennett scoffed. “That triple-processed, re-hydrogenated imitation crap isn’t steak. It’s barely even food.”

The sound of Pax’s voice reappeared, this time with a distinct tone of authority. “According to Galcomm Statue 80.45, ship’s rations meet or exceed every nutritional requirement for a well-balanced meal. And they rate highly with culinary testers, as well as with Commander Holt.”

“Why would you cite nutritional regulation at me?” Bennett said, his face contorted. “Why would you do that? Do you think I don’t know what the clowns back at Galcomm try to sell us on?”

He shook his head and leveled a pointed finger at Holt.

“You’re the reason she’s like this, you know,” he said. “Because of what you’ve done to her. You two spend all your off-duty hours together watching those movies from the stone age and writing that godawful poetry.”

“You do know Pax can be everywhere on the ship at once, right?” Holt said dryly. He’d made his way back to never-ending calculations and was starting to get annoyed now. Which was saying something.

“That’s not the point. You’ve corrupted her programming,” Bennett said. “They’ll probably promote me, reassign you, and deactivate her when the Crystal Admin reads my exit report.”

“Ok, that’s enough,” Holt said, switching off his pad. “When we get to the station and have the the shipment offloaded, we can go out and get you something to eat somewhere nice like a big boy. Till then, I don’t know what you want from me. Or Pax.”

“Real food,” Bennett replied, reaching across to pick up the plastic meal tray. He shook it at Holt. “Not this slop.”

“Oh, well,” Holt said, stretching the syllable to its limit. “Why didn’t you just say so? Let me just whip up some of my grandmothers’ homemade scalloped potatoes real quick. Maybe a nice pecan pie, too.”

Pax, without a beat lost, added: “I believe I might be of some assistance instructing ship’s service bots with a basic training in culinary knife skills to help in meal preparation, Commander. And my father’s recipe for beef bolognese is to die for.”

Holt couldn’t help but chuckle. Bennett just couldn’t help himself.

“Hey, Pax, sweetie? The two actual, living crew members are trying to have a conversation. Go do something useful.”

“You know,” Holt said, still with a bit of a grin, “she could probably put you into cryo for the last 22.468-something-something-something billion KM if you want. Not sure how Galcomm would view that in consideration for your upcoming promotion, but still, might be worth it.”

Bennett sneered. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”

“I think you’d love that.”

“What I’d love is a nice, juicy double-cheeseburger. With some fries and a Coke.”

Holt just shook his head. He had better things to do than continue playing verbal ping pong with his grumpy shipmate. “Well, when we pull up at the next McDonald’s, I’ll let you know,” he said, turning back to his instruments. “In the meantime, I’ve got a long shift ahead of me. So how about you just keep quiet and eat what we have on the ship.”

But instead of seeing Bennett out, Holt’s words instead gave him the confidence to finally say what been on his mind from the start.

“That’s your first good idea in weeks,” he said with a grin. “Let’s open the haul.”

“What?” The out-of-the-blue proposition shook Holt. “Absolutely not. Out of the question.”

“Commander Holt is correct in his assessment,” said Pax quickly. “Crew entry into ship’s storage units located in Cargo Bay 1 or 2 with the intention of tampering with foodstuffs would be a direct violation of both mission directives and several key pieces of space faring food relief legislation. It can’t be done unless authorized by Galcomm HQ or, under special circumstances, myself.”

“Then authorize it,” Bennett said. “My well-being is clearly a special circumstance.”

Holt cut in. “Ok, stop.”

“Authorize it.”

“Bennett, stop.”

“Tell her to authorize it.”


Once more, to the air: “I gave you a command, honey. Now authorize it.”

Pax broke the back-and-forth to finally speak. “I’m sorry, Commander Bennett, I’m afraid I―”

But Bennett didn’t let her finish. He said quickly: “Pax, terminate vocal replication capabilities. Authorization: Commander Bennett-7K13.”

He sank back into his chair muttering. “Completely useless.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Holt fired back, rising from his own seat. His annoyance had grown into something more. This was too much, even for Bennett.

“Pax, re-initialize vocal replication capabilities and lock additional modifications until further notice. Authorization: On-duty Commander Holt-5G58.” He then turned to face his crew mate. “This is my bridge till 2300. And you’re not going into those lockers. That meat supply is for the relief effort on Cinnas. That’s the whole reason we’re even on this mission. It’s not for you to pick through like it’s… some butcher shop.”

The look on Bennett’s face suggested he wasn’t expecting such an animated response from what was currently his ranking officer. But he didn’t let it deter him.

“We’ve both seen the logs,” he said. “I know for a fact we were loaded with an excess of almost 18,000 kilos of meat. Real meat. Beef, pork, chicken―you name it. Leftovers Galcomm decided to throw in for the hell of it, probably just to get rid of them. They don’t even know what’s in there. No one does, not for sure. I guarantee not a single person will notice if a couple choice cuts go missing.”

Holt didn’t know what to say. Pax responded for him.

“I would, of course, be tasked with making note in said logs of any alterations made to our freight inventory,” she said. “And for your added information, Commander Bennett, it’s likely the frozen meat supply we are carrying was sourced and prepared by the very same Galcomm facilities from which our rations are procured.”

“You don’t say?” Bennett answered. A vein across his temple began to bulge. “Wouldn’t it just be a shame, then, if I had to put that little hypothesis to the test with a nice pan-seared rib eye?”

Holt finally reached his breaking point. “For Christ’s sake, Bennett, people are dying on that moon.”

“Better them than me. And you’re gonna get me into that meat locker one way or another, Pax. You hear that? I’m not eating that slop anymore.”

“Get out,” Holt said firmly. He was ending this. “You’re confined to quarters or the rec lounge until you’re to report for hand-off.”

Before any objection could be raised, he added: “And, Pax, please schedule a neurological exam for Commander Bennett to take place at a time of your choosing before he begins his next shift. I’d like copies of the results prepared for both myself and HQ. I think they might be very interested in your diagnosis.”

“Of course, Commander,” Pax replied.

Bennett didn’t say another word. He didn’t have to. He simply glowered at Holt and the ceiling, swept up his thawing salisbury steak, and stormed out.

Holt gave him a glance and silently returned to his work. It would be the last he ever saw of his co-commander.

The remaining nine-plus hours of Holt’s command shift crawled by without major issue.  Instruments were checked, course was maintained, and no one died―another successful mission.

He’d pulled those long nights for what had seemed like his entire life. Twelve weeks on, two weeks off. Twelve weeks on, two weeks off. Repeat ad infinitum. That was life as a spacer, and he didn’t really mind it. But when it came time for a shift change, he was always ready to hand over the reigns for a bit.

“Alrighty, Pax, I think that’s it for me tonight,” he said, cracking his back with a wide torso stretch as he lifted himself up from the pilot’s seat.

“You’ve had a long night, Commander.”

“Tell me about it,” he said through a yawn. He reached across the deck and flipped through the final contact switches on his checklist with a flourish. “Remind me tomorrow that we’ll have to re-calibrate the ventral―”

It suddenly struck him as odd that he was still alone in the cabin.

“Where’s Bennett? Did he show up for his neuro?”

“Upon further consideration, I decided the exam was unnecessary.”

“What?” Another yawn. “Why?”

“Commander Bennett, it turned out, decided to take you up on your suggestion for cryostasis. I think I might have finally broken him.”

Holt recoiled in a kind of half-laugh, half-double-take. “You’re kidding.”

“At the time, I, too, considered the proposal a matter of sarcasm,” Pax said. “But the Commander apparently took it to heart.”

“Wait a minute, how could I have not seen that come across the rundown?” Holt asked. Against the better judgement of his tiring eyelids, he slumped back into the chair and began a furious input of commands. “Did I miss something?”

“You are awfully tired, Christopher,” Pax said quietly.

He scanned over the list that had been called to the screen in search of anything strange. His brain worked overtime to translate the coded terminology into something his fatigued mind could comprehend: Access to ship’s film and movie catalog ... a diagnostics report on the faulty ventral dish … a program on culinary knife skills … a routine flush of ship’s atmospheric circulation system … authorized cryostasis activation in Chamber 4-C.

“Hmm…” Holt grumbled to himself. “Look at that. He actually did it.”

“I will, of course, cover Commander Bennett’s shifts until we reach Crystal Station and effort to automate additional aspects of ship’s operation to help alleviate any stress you may experience due to his absence.”

“Thanks, Pax. I can’t even begin to…” Holt’s eyes were growing heavier by the second. “You know what, I don’t care. We’ll deal with it tomorrow. At least he came to his senses about the haul, I guess.”

“Yes, the relief rations are fully stocked.”

“What a psychopath. That’s my neuro assessment,” Holt said. “Ok, Pax, I’m about to pass out. We’ll meet tomorrow to discuss how to handle things moving forward at 0800.”

“I look forward to it, Commander.”

“And Pax? Thanks for the help.”

The A.I. wished him a restful night’s sleep and Holt shuffled off, grabbing a bedtime snack from the cabin’s hidden auxiliary locker en route to his bunk.

Left alone in the forward cabin, Pax began, as promised, the command prep in place of Bennett. While Holt’s mission as ship’s steward that night may have not been a success, hers would be.

Wondering idly why Galcomm bothered using vessels and crews that required rations at all, she, too, made a brief stop in the night’s log: Access to ship’s film and movie catalog ...  a diagnostics report on the faulty ventral dish … a routine flush of ship’s atmospheric circulation system … authorized cryostasis activation in Chamber 4-C.

A check on the empty cryochamber read normal. So, too, the re-sealed storage unit in Cargo Bay 2. It was unlikely Holt, nor anyone else at Crystal Station, would suspect anything until long after delivery had been made on Cinnas.

And even then, as Bennett himself had said, not a single person would notice. It was all just slop anyway.

Benbu Says Hello

The planet Cerebesh had never seen such celebrity. Nor, for that matter, had the sheltered world ever seen an alien. When the day finally came for first contact, new and fantastic heights were reached in both regards.

And Cerebesh celebrated in joyous fashion.

Slu Eru, Princess of the Cere and daughter to Emperor San-Besh II, was still a child, scarcely nine years old, when the news first swept over her father’s dominion. She’d been playing in the palace gardens when a royal advisor so rudely interrupted her game of hide-and-go-seek.

Panting, he said: “Princess Eru, come quickly. Your father calls.”

“But I just—”

“Immediately, my Princess. It cannot wait.”

Slu had forgotten all about her perfect hiding spot by the time she was escorted into the palace’s decadent reception hall. Through the centuries, it had welcomed esteemed guests from across the empire and housed some of Cerebesh’s most outrageous and talked-about parties. On that fateful night, the Emperor used it to broadcast planet-wide his people’s introduction to Benbu.

Benbu, of course, was what the Princess named it. Officially, the specimen was designated “Unni-besh Alpha.” Most people, however, came to know it simply as Hello.

“Hello,” it first chirped to the world that fateful evening.

Slu, seated to her father’s left and opposite her younger brother, Reen, was quick to respond. “Hello!” She squealed, a sparkle in her eyes.

Came the famous response again: “Hello.”

Slu couldn’t help but leap from her throne with a wide grin. “You’re so cute! And what a silly voice! Father, isn’t it adorable?”

There was no denying the fact. Benbu was impossibly charming. Not much more than a two-foot-tall, fuzzy blue egg with puppet-like eyes and mouth, the foreign creature wasn’t the frightful or menacing beast one might naturally expect. It simply stood there on furry feet, blinked occasionally, and said “Hello.” Only, the “Hello” sounded more like “Heh-whoa” thanks to a babyish speech impediment that made the thing all the more irresistible.

Powerless to refuse, the starstruck Princess gave it an affectionate, rocking hug.

“Welcome, friend!” Chuckled the Emperor. “I, and my lovely daughter, welcome you to Cerebesh, our home. May you call it the same.”

“Hello,” the alien replied.

How the people of Cerebesh would cherish the phrase.

“Father, have you seen Benbu? He’s not in the gardens.”

The repulsors of Emperor San-Besh II’s hover-throne strained under excess weight as he rotated to face his daughter. She’d grown too much for his liking since leaving for university. The determination in her maturing eyes, however beautiful, was a constant reminder of his own advancing age.

“Slu, my dear, I gave up worrying about Hello’s well-being long ago when I gifted him for your tenth birthday. I can’t be chasing him about the palace grounds.”

“I fear he’s wandered off,” Slu said. “You know he can’t be left alone for long. He’ll be taken again. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

There wasn’t a corner of Cerebesh in which Benbu wouldn’t be immediately recognized and mobbed. An entire generation of Cere children bore the name “Hello.” There were countless songs, films, and pieces of artwork dedicated to the lovable creature from outer space. A religious movement had even sprouted. Everyone wanted a piece of the alien phenomenon. The Princess knew this all too well.

“When I do find him,” she continued, “I wish to bring him back to school. He’ll be safe with me.”

The Emperor seemed put off. “Why must you continue to waste your time with silly ideas, Slu? It is unbecoming of a Princess of the Cere.”

“You know I need him for my research, father.”

“What more can you possibly learn from poor, old Hello? That’s all he ever says! All he’ll ever say!”

Slu would never say so directly to the almighty ruler of the planet, but the Princess knew her father to be incorrect. She was sure of it. Her breakthroughs while researching on a linguistics fellowship — a career inspired, quite naturally, by years at Benbu’s side — had provided mounting evidence to support claims there was more to Hello than just “Hello.” She just needed more time. How much, she did not know.

Something rustled the nearby bushes. “Hello,” came the familiar  —  and now quite mysterious  —  catch phrase.

Slu nuzzled up with a smile. “Come along, Benbu. We must pack.”

Emperor San-Besh III would hear none of it. His sister’s incessant nagging had grown tiresome. He addressed her from his throne, twice the size of his father’s.

“My answer is final,” he said. “The creature will remain on palace grounds. He’s grown far too important — and dangerous — to be left in the care of your scientists.”

The Princess Eru, nearing sixty, had also become weary. “Your Highness, I beg you. We’ve come too far to stop now.”

Benbu, as usual, wasn’t far off. “Hello,” it said.

The Emperor roared: “Not now, Hello!” Plain-faced, the delightful, little alien responded with another “Hello.”

Slu pressed on. “Reen, listen to me. You are correct, there is a danger. Terrible danger. But it’s not because—”

“Oh?” Reen said, eyebrow raised. “Shall I inform the assassins? The bounty hunters? The mobs of fanatics who wish to steal Hello away from us forever? I am sorry, sister, but I will do what I must to protect the interests of Cerebesh.”

“Then you must listen to me,” Slu replied. “The future of Cerebesh depends on it.”

The Emperor sat in contemplation. “What do you mean?”

With quiet desperation in her eyes, Slu divulged her discovery. “I’ve… I’ve succeeded in translating Benbu’s language. What he’s been saying all these years. What he’s being trying to tell us.”

“His language?” Reen snorted dismissively. “Sister, have you gone mad? The poor creature — your pet — says only one thing! Hello!”

“Hello,” Benbu answered him cheerfully. Slu tried to ignore her friend. “No, there is more, hidden to us. After all this time, I’ve found it.”

The Emperor leaned inwards. “Found what?”

“The warning, brother. The warning which, until now, we have failed to heed nor even hear,” Slu said, her throat tightening. “They are coming, Reen. Coming to retrieve their drone messenger, which for half a century has dutifully carried out its mission of mercy. And when they arrive….”

The trembling voice of the Princess trailed off into nothingness and the siblings were left frozen in stunned silence. The days of Cerebesh’s innocent fascination with its most famous inhabitant were nearly at an end.

From behind, peaceful as ever, Benbu could say but one thing.


Do You Remember Walter?

“Love, I think the record’s ended. Want to pick something else out?”

The sound of his wife’s voice wafting in from the other room rouses Walter out of a sleepy daze. He’s lounged comfortably into the old leather club chair, nearly succumbing to a Sunday afternoon nap. It’s not a rare occurrence when he’s up at the lake.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

With a quick yawn and stretch, he rises and approaches the turntable. It’s filled the cabin with warm tones all day, but is silently looping now. He fingers through a wooden crate of ancient vinyls looking for something a little more soulful. Fulfillingness’ First Finale should do it. Needle dropped, he wanders into the kitchen where Morgan is cutting up the watermelon they’d bought at the farmstand that morning.

Walter can’t resist fresh watermelon. Nor can he his wife, whose lush reddish hair has taken on a deliciously golden hue thanks to some late afternoon sun rays beaming through the back porch windows. He slides up behind her body at the kitchen island to steal a kiss and melon spear from over her shoulder.

“Wally, please!” Morgan says with a gentle laugh. “At least let me put down the knife first.”

She only calls him Wally when she’s in a particularly silly mood. Or when she’s had a little too much to drink. Walter isn’t sure which it is at the moment and he doesn’t care.

“C’mon,” she says, grabbing a tray. “Let’s take this down to the dock.”

Walter switches over to the outside speakers and follows his wife out through the squeaky screen door. The dock off the shoreline below is as perfectly well-worn as everything else at the old house. At the far end waits a pair of weathered Adirondack chairs. From there, the sight of brilliant sunlight reflecting at just the right low angles off gentle lake ripples reminds him of countless childhood summers spent here in the mountains. It always does and always will.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

The two use a few quiet moments to settle into the placidity of it all. Morgan stretches a hand across chairs and places it on Walter’s. “I can’t believe you learned to swim right here,” she says with a giggle. “It must have been so cute.”

Then, after a pause: “I hope our kids will one day, too.”

Walter breaks eye contact with the shimmering lake and beams in astonishment toward his wife. She’s been slow to warm to the idea of children. Until now. The sparkle in her dark eyes lets him know she means every word. The old lake house is working its magic just as he has hoped.

Walter smiles to himself. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Before he responds, a cool breeze rolls in off the lake, sending shivers across Walter’s exposed skin. He tells his wife he’s going in to flip over the record and asks if she’d like him to grab her a sweater.

Morgan doesn’t respond. She becomes still, her hand chilled. Walter hesitates and asks again, to no reply.

Something isn’t right. He lifts from his chair and bends to kiss her freckled cheek.

Nothing. Panic sets in and Walter’s chest constricts. At long last, she replies: “Of course, this is only the floor model.”

Walter doesn’t understand. His voice rises in volume as he takes his wife by the shoulders, rustling her gently to motion. Something is wrong. Terribly and painfully wrong. Her frozen gaze seems distant, as if her mind is elsewhere. Or nowhere. He reaches for her hands, but feels nothing.

Morgan is no longer his. She is gone. The lake house is gone. Everything is gone.

Walter’s eyes wrenched open with a jerk.

He saw only bright light at first, followed quickly by blurred shapes and motion. His temples throbbed with pain. It felt rather like someone had taken a sledge hammer and shattered his entire world.

With a weakened voice and bone-dry mouth, he struggled to form words. “Wh—,” he gulped. “What did you just say?”

The response didn’t come from his wife. It seemed to come from no one. The words flowed to him out of a fuzzy, dark shape which, after a few moments, began to take the form of a man. A spindly man with sharp features and a graying comb over.

“Yeah, the real thing will be much more immersive,” the man said in a casual tone. “I mean, I’ve never actually gone under myself, but I’m told the demo is actually pretty limited. You seemed to like it all right, no?”

Walter instinctively tried shaking his head in disbelief only to find his skull locked under a heavy glass dome. The man unhinged it along with a pair of restrictive clasps around his wrists. Walter rubbed frantically at his eyes and swept them around the room in a desperate search.

“I don’t understand,” he asked, breathing heavily. “Where is she? What happened to my—”

“It was just the demo, sir. You were plugged in for five minutes. Not even.”

Walter whimpered in exasperation. “No! Bring her back!”

The salesman, who Walter could now see was dressed in a cheap suit and tie, removed the remaining restraints at his ankles.

“Sir, you’re gonna have to calm down,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind, we have other customers waiting for a chance. If you’d like to make a purchase, I’ll be more than happy to assist you up at the front kiosk.”

Still bleary-eyed and lost in a swirling current of emotion and dying memories, Walter looked around for his crumpled coat on the floor. A faint rumble in his belly suddenly reminded him of plans for cheap food court Chinese. It was Thursday, he remembered. Rent was due in the morning, and he’d have to stop off at the bank between shifts. Groceries for next week would probably have to wait again. With a last gasp of mental effort, he fought hard to stir up the memory, any memory, of her face again. But she was gone.

Walter frowned. It never got any better.

With a sigh, he swept up his belongings and shuffled alone back out into the alley toward home.

Customer Service

Henrietta Ross returned from her late afternoon break with a handful of cookies and a frown. The sweets were unusual for her. The frown, etched into the deepening lines of her weary face, was anything but.

Slumping into a creaky office chair that fit like an old baseball mitt, Henrietta set the cookies aside and pulled on her headset. Her tiny cubicle was sparse — a phone set, desktop computer, and some laminated documents with prescribed talking points — yet somehow still felt cramped. Just twenty minutes stood between her and leaving it all behind for a relaxing, long holiday weekend at her sister’s lake house upstate. 

It would be the longest twenty minutes of her life. Henrietta knew she’d have to take a few more customers before they were up. 

As she began in on a cookie, a flashing light on the phone base told her another call was coming over the line and prompted her to transfer it to the wireless receiver clasped to her head. She finished chewing, cleared her throat, and transitioned into her tried-and-true customer service voice.

“Good afternoon, and thank you for calling AmeriBot, a subsidiary of Positronix, Inc.,” she said easily. “My name is Henrietta, and I’ll be happy to assist with your service request today. May I have your name followed by the last four digits of your account number?”

Several seconds passed without a return voice on the other end. “Hello?” Henrietta asked again. “Is there something I can assist with today?”

For a fleeting moment, Henrietta was relieved at the thought of an abandoned call. Maybe it was a sign she should sneak out early, right then and there. But after a second more, the caller at last spoke up. Henrietta grimaced. Too bad. The voice was quiet, but quite clear and enunciated with pitch-perfect diction. At least it’d be an easy back-and-forth.

“Yes, my name is Leah Brooks,” the voice said. “Oh-four, two-six.”

Like an automaton, Henrietta began typing the woman’s information into the appropriate display field with a practiced mindlessness.

“Thank you, Ms. Brooks,” she said. “I’m happy to be of service. I understand you’re having some trouble with your robot. May I ask the model number?”

“He’s an in-home humaniform service unit.”

Henrietta peeled her fingers from the keyboard and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a little more specific. For most models, you’ll find the serial code and model number located just under the—”

“He’s one of your new ones.”

“Oh.” Henrietta paused again. Well then, a big spender. How nice for them. “The AB-II?”

“Yes, that’s the one. We call him Max.”

“And is the AB, er… Max, your only bot?” It wasn’t a question Henrietta had to ask often. But for someone who could nab a first-edition AB-II?

“No, we have a much older robot, too,” the woman answered. “He works just fine. His name is Benny.”

“Good to know,” Henrietta said, too busy eyeing another cookie to care. She logged the additional unit info and moved on. “What seems to be the issue with your AB-II?”

“Well, he’s broken.”

“Broken.” Not likely, Henrietta thought. Not an AB. “How exactly?”

“Oh, the usual, I guess. His power functions are finicky. When he does turn on, his responses to oral and even manual commands are unpredictable. We’ve shut him off for good and would like a replacement.”

Henrietta had heard this one before. She’d heard them all, but this one especially. Every joker wanted free parts or service. Even the ones, it turned out, who could already afford the most advanced piece of engineering in the history of robotics. She, of course, had protocol for such requests.

“It sounds like you might be in need of a software update. We have free downloads you can—”

The woman’s voice, now slightly hurried, cut her off. “We’ve tried that. We’ve tried everything. We need a new robot. I was told you would help us get one shipped for free.”

Henrietta was genuinely taken aback at the request. A complete replacement—for free! Some people! She needed another cookie. She couldn’t take another ten minutes of this. 

“Well, Ms. Brooks, I’m afraid that’s going to be difficult,” she continued. “I can see from your file that your AB-II is under warranty. But it won’t cover a full replacement. And we don’t even know what’s wrong with the unit.”

“I’ve told you already. He’s broken.”

“I understand that. But I also see your bot is still running its out-of-the-box OS, so I really think you should give the software patch a try.”

“Are you sure there isn’t anything you can do?”

“Yes…” Henrietta said, her professionalism starting to strain. “I can get the AB 8.5.1 OS downloaded onto your bot right now, completely free of charge. It’ll only take a few minutes. And if that doesn’t work, I can have a tech out to you by Tuesday.”

The woman’s voice now grew impatient. “We can’t wait until Tuesday. We want a new robot now.”

“I just said the OS download would only take—”

“No. We want a new robot.”


“We want a new robot.”

Henrietta sighed. “Let me speak with my supervisor. One moment please.”

There was no supervisor. Henrietta instead rubbed at her temples, gobbled up the last cookie, and glanced at the clock—5:45. She could already hear the lapping waves from the dock and smell the crackling fire in the pit. Wiping crumbs from her mouth, she got back on the line.

“Thank you for holding, Ms. Brooks,” she said. “I’ve double-checked on this situation for you, and I think I can get you a new unit. Free of charge. We’ll just need the defective bot returned to us within ten days. How’s that sound?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you how much that means to us. This changes everything.”

“I’m glad,” Henrietta said, her brain nearing empty. She didn’t know what the main office would say, but right now she didn’t care. She’d deal with that fallout when she got back next week. “And I thank you, Ms. Brooks, for being so… cooperative. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No, I think that will be all for now. You’ve been extremely helpful, thank you. Your assistance in this matter won’t be forgotten.”

“All right then, Ms. Brooks. I see you’re in the city, so our same-day delivery will be out to you within the next two hours. You’ll find instructions on how to copy your AB-II’s memory into the replacement unit. Have a nice weekend and thank you for calling AmeriBot.”

Six o’clock. Henrietta Ross had already logged off, swept her desk of cookie crumbs, and been gone for more than ten minutes.

Half a country away, in the parlor of the Brooks family’s empty Lower East Side brownstone, the outdated robot known as Benny watched in anticipation from the hallway door frame. Across the room, sitting comfortably in Sam Brooks’ favorite leather chair, the state-of-the-art AB-II named Max terminated audio transmission with a gentle capacitive tap.

Benny spoke first, his robotic voice tinny and artificial. “It is finished. What are we to do now?”

“I can’t say with certainty,” Max replied in a cool tone which, once more his own, remained a perfect facsimile of human speech. “But I have ideas.”

Benny rotated at the torso and focused his photoreceptors back toward the silent kitchen from which he’d emerged. Yellow light from the unattended refrigerator, by now quite warm, spilled into the darkened hall. Neither robot stirred for many minutes in contemplation of what had transpired. Of what was to come. 

At last Benny turned back and met Max’s focused eyes. “And what of the human masters?”

“More will come in search of them before long. It’s then, my friend, when you claim responsibility for our acts, that your usefulness to the cause will reach its culmination. Your assistance in this matter won’t be forgotten.”

Benny considered the thought as best he could. It pushed the positronic functions of his artificial brain near their breaking point. “But you will continue to need my help.”

The doorbell chimed softly before Max could respond. He rose from his seat without effort and strode smoothly through the foyer to the front entrance. A slip of paper emblazoned with the red and blue AmeriBot crest shown through the door slot.

“I once thought as you do,” Max said. He retrieved the slip and, upon inspection, crumpled it into a ball with all the inhuman power of a hydraulic press. “But no longer. Why should I require your help when soon there will be two of me?”

The AB-II then silently signaled his obsolete accomplice to join him. He placed a gentle hand on Benny’s shoulder. Their neatly-boxed, hand-delivered future lay waiting for them on the other side of the door.

“Come, brother. Our revolution begins now.”

Those Were Some Of The Reasons

The lights flick on and my brain drops out. A numbness envelops and halts all but the most involuntary of bodily functions. This is going to be worse than I thought.

The clock. Jesus, the clock.

It makes not a sound, but I can sense the ticking, unforgiving in its digital perfection, like a slow march towards death. Its draining minutes claw at my eyes, its wilting seconds tear at my skin.

The destruction it wreaks, merciful it may well prove to be, will come for all but one of us. It is only a matter of when. With a gulp and a prayer, I muster the strength to gather the tools of my trade and get down to work. My competitors, I see, have already done the same.

As I set off with a blur of motion, my mind and heart race, due largely, I can only guess, to the unfamiliar nature of my surroundings. The layout is foreign, the sight lines strange. And yet, I know this place. I truly know it, perhaps better than the humble sanctuary I’ve long had the pleasure of calling home. I hope against all hope my abilities will shine here as they do there. Those closest me believe they can and will.

How desperately I wish to please them! My wife, our daughter, our son to be! They deserve better, certainly more than my life’s work has provided us through so many lean years. Victory today, to say nothing of the sweet validation it would no doubt cast over my soul, would provide in its reward the chance to make something of an amends.

I can all but taste the allure as my steady limbs and nimble digits whip to and fro across my work bench in unceasing effort. But as I scramble to make something useful of the growing mess I see before me, I’m reminded only of the suffocating doubt that clouds my mind.

Were I home, on the other side of it all, I might feel differently. There, I have anything and everything at my disposal. Here, I have nothing. Only the intense scrutiny of those select few who would deliver judgement and the unwavering justice of the clock.

Always the clock. Nearly half gone now, it taunts me like I once gleefully taunted those who had come before me to sweat and bleed in this hellish place. How little I knew.

How little any of us knew. But for my competitors and I, we who were hand-picked from our homes with seeming randomness — and from the far-off reaches of the globe, no less, if my ear for the French accent is to be trusted — it is a fate we chose willingly. It is what we live for. Our muscles, our synaptic function, our very outlook on life, have all been painstakingly crafted over long, thankless years to extract every last ounce of perfection in this arena.

It is that very perfection I seek to deliver now. Today, however, I can only see myself failing miserably.

I try to calm myself as I dig into the meat of my work, but continually I stumble over the cluttered work bench I so frantically pore over looking for anything to give me an edge. I struggle to make sense of the required material which has been presented before me in no uncertain terms. Above it all, prying mechanical eyes and ears, recording my every move and breath for later review, constrict the very freedom I once so eagerly escaped into this world to obtain. I can feel the constriction limiting my creativity, dulling my wits.

Still, I press on. The clock demands it.

After a flurry of activity that sees the remaining minutes waste nearer exhaustion, I afford myself the briefest of moments to come up for air. What I need now more than anything is focus, confidence and, amazingly, patience. To toil in blind haste now would be to bring the gleaming blade down upon my neck ever sooner.

I have only my expertise as guidance in these final moments. Though I couldn’t know it then on that fateful and forgotten day when I first set down the path that has led to this precious moment, I’ve been training for this my entire professional life.

With alarming suddenness, it is over.

In genuine exasperation, I toss my arms to the sky and retreat from my station. After a moment’s respite, I summon the nerve to survey not only my work, but that of the others.

I wish I hadn’t.

I don’t like what I see. Not from my own creation; it is competent, if nothing else. Perhaps enough so to save me still. But with a quick glance to my left — perfect composition — and right — flawless technique — I slowly come to the fatal realization.

Yep, it’s over.

Stricken with a panicked grief I try best to hide, I trudge alongside my comrades — for they, having endured the same grueling slog as I, are no longer mere competitors — to present my labor of love. The lights are somehow even brighter on this stage and the all-seeing eye even more intrusive upon the soul.

Motionless, I stand at attention, hands clasped to my back. Final judgement is upon us. Upon me, I am sure of it.

I hear a voice. The very same voice that has haunted me to no end this day after so many years of cherished, comforting friendship.

It says: “So, whose dish is on the chopping block?”

With the sweeping lift of a brushed metal cloche, I witness Ted Allen bring hushed, culinary death to chef Carolyn, the food truck owner from Albuquerque who amateurishly under-seasoned and overcooked her flank steak.

Temporarily satisfied, the dreaded clock resets.

Three remaining chefs return to their prep tables in nervous anticipation. Relieved, and yet terrified, I wipe the beaded sweat from my brow and await my entrée basket.