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Steve Pantazis has been published in Writer’s Digest Magazine, and was a Writers of the Future award winner in 2015. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

 OUT OF PRINT
by
Steve Pantazis

He calls himself Dan, and they’re the first words I hear as he disconnects the data cable from my I/O port. My name is Owen, he says, but I don’t think I’m an Owen. I Google robot names through my wireless modem and find one that fits me.

“My name is G0394.”

“That’s not how it works,” Dan says. “You need a regular name, something easy for people to remember. Like Owen.”

“I prefer something different. How about Sheila?”

“Look, you’re a guy. You’re not a Sheila. Stick with Owen.” He coils the data cable and then drops it by his keyboard. It unravels and snakes over the edge of his desk. Why go through the trouble of wasting CPU cycles on an action that fails to achieve its purpose?

I pivot my head down and my stereoscopic camera lenses focus on the white fulcrum of my waist. There are no male genitals. In fact, there is only thermoplastic, the same white polished material found in my limbs. “How do you know I’m a male?”

Dan exhales audibly. I search facial features in my database and learn he is sighing. I am unable to tell if it is a sigh of satisfaction, dissatisfaction or boredom. “Trust me, you’re male. Well, not exactly male, but your voice has been modulated to sound male. So, you’re a guy, okay?”

“I’ll have to think about that.”

“Yeah, you do that.”

I look around the room we are in. There’s a bed, desk, computer, the two chairs we are sitting on, and a table with several machines and metal and plastic parts. “What is this place?”

“My condo.” Dan types something on his keyboard, and a schematic of a robot appears on his screen. I identify the model as mine. “Let’s run through some tests.”

He has me perform range-of-motion exercises to calibrate the articulation of my joints, my ambulation and my ability to do complex combinations of movements, such as twisting a doorknob. At the end, he updates a file on his computer. “You’re G2G, buddy: good to go. So…” He rubs his hands together. “How do you feel?”

“Feel?”

“It’s not a hard question, really. Are you happy, sad, glad, pissed off, what?”

I consider the definition of “feel.” Dan is asking me what kind of emotion I am experiencing. Since I have never experienced an emotion, I don’t have a reference point. And since I wasn’t expecting the question, I deduce only one response: “Surprise.”

“That’s not an emotion.”

“Technically, it is.”

“Guess what I’m feeling? Yep: bored. As in you’re boring me.”

He turns back to his computer and types on a notepad application. I ponder his remark. I’m not boring, am I? The schematic of my model is still on the monitor. “It says my design is open source, but the software version and model number of my neurokinetic processor unit don’t match. Why is that?”

Dan grabs a torus-shaped object from a container of similar objects and takes a bite out of it. A donut. He places another container to his lips, this one a cup. The rise and fall of his Adam’s apple tell me he is performing a swallowing operation. I don’t believe I am able to do that. “Damn, that’s hot! What were you saying?” He continues the swallowing operation.

I don’t understand. Is he asking me to repeat my question?

“Oh, that!” He snaps his fingers. “Technically speaking, you’re open source. I mean, I downloaded the instruction set off the Web for my 3D printer”—he motions to the cubic machine next to his computer—“and built you using off-the-shelf components—servos, actuators, cables, cooling fans, Wi-Fi dongle, embedded controllers, and so on. You’re a noob, buddy, as of an hour ago. Fresh off the press, you might say.”

“So, you printed me.”

“Exactly. Made you from scratch using a combination of good old polyamide filaments and laser sintering.”

There are fifteen joints in my left hand. The servos whir as I flex and contract each digit.

“Your brain, though...” Dan’s lips curl upward at the edges. Unlike the sigh, I recognize it as a smile. It confuses me as to why he would be smiling. “That’s not exactly store-bought.”

“Meaning…?”

“It’s stolen, buddy. We’re talking Ferrari concept car NPU. Like NSA tech and what not. Shhh.” He holds a finger up to the medial cleft of his upper lip, still smiling. “Our little secret, right?”

I don’t have a response for that.

He stands up. Crumbs cascade off his shirt onto the carpet. I note the inefficiency of his ability to consume fuel sources. I will need to index all his inefficiencies during non-peak utilization of my NPU. Part of his belly is poking out and I see hairs corkscrewing in different directions. My midsection is smooth. Another indication I’m not a male. I will have to convince him Sheila is a better name than Owen.

“Okay, buddy, let’s take you out for a ride and see what you can do.”

*

Dan drives us in his hybrid Toyota sedan through the residential neighborhood of Hillcrest, in San Diego.

For the time it takes to drive the length of a single block, I have downloaded information on every tree, shrub, flower, automobile make and house address in the area, along with census and demographic data. Every so often, I get a signal interruption and a notification in my heads-up display: 5G signal lost. I don’t think Dan properly installed my cellular antenna. I will have to analyze the open source schematic and recommend a fix.

We pass by a house with an avocado tree. I decide to share a piece of valuable information. “Did you know that San Diego produces more avocados than anywhere else in the country?”

“No kidding, Kemosabe. Where do you think all that guacamole comes from?” Dan turns down another block, and I decide he is rude. Are all humans like that? He keeps moving a toothpick up and down between his lips. What is the purpose of such a motion? “Okay, this should be interesting,” he says.

The car decelerates. A woman is walking a white-haired dog in the same direction we are traveling, six meters ahead, on the sidewalk to my right. A digital callout appears in my heads-up display, labeling the breed of dog as a Bichon Frise, a member of a non-sporting group of dog breeds in the U.S., with a temperament classified as “feisty, gentle, playful and affectionate.”

I can’t help but focus exclusively on the woman. She is “obese,” according to my dictionary of human female forms. Data points map out key locations on her buttocks and behind her thighs for a takedown. My visual sensors pick up the bulges of fat and pockets of cellulite, analyzing their movement. Although I have no notion of taste, a “salivation” subroutine runs in the background, indicating this female will appeal to my appetite. Do I even have teeth?

“I know,” Dan says, slowing his car to match her speed, now three meters behind her. He rolls down my window and I can’t help but angle my head for a closer view. “She’s a beaut, eh?”

The word “delicious” pops into the foreground of my heads-up display.

“Yeah, I snagged this killer code off the Internet for simulating a number of different land and ocean predators. Figured I’d throw it into your core competencies routines, and see what happens. She looks tasty, doesn’t she?”

“Yes,” I admit. “She does look tasty.” My infrared sensors pick up heat, overlaying her physical form with thermal hotspots.

Dan leans over toward me, watching her as I do. “Makes you want to take her down, like a wounded doe, doesn’t it? Here’s a fact: Did you know that great white sharks go after fattened prey over skinny prey every time? Yep, they can’t help themselves. Given a choice between a seal and a human, they’ll go after the seal. It’s built into their DNA. They know that a juicy kill is an efficient kill. Look it up.”

I already have. I don’t like that fact.

“So, there you go, buddy. If it’s juicy, sick or wounded, the predator in you will want to go after it. You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing—well, more like one of those kits you buy at Radio Shack, but whatever. You know what I mean.”

I don’t know what he means, only that I don’t want to be a wolf or a shark. I don’t want to crave ripping this woman to pieces and sharing her with my brood. Still, I can’t resist, and it triggers a new feeling that my NPU classifies as “desire.” I am desiring this woman. I want to hunt her. I hope she tries to run so I can chase her, trip her, and tear into her meaty calf. She would squirm, but she would not get away. Her dog would either flee or try to defend her. I would neutralize him too.

No.

Stop thinking this.

Why? You want this.

“Okay, buddy. Good hunting. I think this experiment is over.” Dan starts to accelerate the car. My head follows the woman as we go past her. She waves at me.

“Look, Dobbie,” she tells her dog, “there’s one of those cute robots. Hi, handsome!” She’s smiling, like Dan did earlier, and it bothers me. Why is she smiling? Doesn’t she know I want to eat her?

We pass parked cars and eucalyptus trees. I am no longer ravenous. The salivation subroutine has ended, reverting me to my previous, neutral state.

Dan prods me with the back of his hand. “Whatdya say, buddy? I’m thinking tacos. You in?”

“I can’t eat real food, can I?”

He laughs. Again, for no conceivable reason. “Nope, but I can. Let’s grab a bite before your first real kill.”

*

We’re back at Dan’s condominium. He has me plugged into his computer again, his attention fully devoted to the information on his monitor. Statistics run down a window on the screen. He’s humming a disharmonious mix of notes, which I evaluate as “annoying.” The words “don’t quit your day job” make it into the foreground of my display, something I picked up earlier on a website about colloquialisms.

“I’ve been doing some research,” I announce as he squirts hot sauce onto one of his tacos.

“You don’t say.” He licks taco juice from a finger. “Damn, I forgot to get nachos. Why didn’t you remind me to get nachos?”

“I, um—”

“Never mind. What were you saying?”

“I said, I found some interesting information. Have you heard of the Three Laws of Robotics, created by deceased author, Isaac Asimov?”

“Yeah, what about them?” Dan moves his head closer to the computer monitor. He’s squinting while balancing a taco in his right hand.

“The laws were designed to protect humans from robots.”

“Big whoop. What about them?” He bites into his taco. Chunks of pico de gallo fall onto his keyboard. Another inefficiency. “Damn!”

“I think you should write a software module to append to my core competencies routines. I can show you how to apply it as a hotfix.”

Dan picks a chunk of tomato from between the keys. “What?”

“I said you should program me to obey The Three Laws.”

He wipes his hand and crumples the napkin, tossing it onto the grease-soaked bag torn open next to his monitor. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, Dan, I am not. I don’t want to be a killer.”

“Well, tough noogies, because you’re a killer. See this graph?”

The graph on his screen depicts a scattergram. “Yes.”

“Which quadrant are you in, the one with humanitarians like Gandhi and Mother Teresa or the quadrant with serial killers like Manson and Dahmer? Get with the program, Owen. You’re a cold-blooded killer.”

He continues to eat while I consider his classification of me. I can’t help but think of the woman with her dog and how good it would feel to maul her and feed on her flesh.

Stop thinking this.

No, you can’t.

“Why do you want me to kill?”

Dan swallows the last of his food and balls up the wax paper wrapper. I wish I could smell what he ate. Perhaps with an appropriate hardware upgrade, I could. He sucks the juice off his finger and points at me. “It’s simple, hombre. I want you to do it because you can. And besides”—he wipes his hand on his sweatshirt—“how cool would it be for a printed robot to become the first non-human serial killer in history? Pretty frickin’ cool, I’d say!”

“If I kill, you will be responsible for the murder. You will be my accomplice.”

“Only if you get caught, buddy boy. You’re not going to get caught, are you?” He unplugs my data cable.

I don’t know the first thing about perpetrating a crime, or about “getting away” with it. I do understand the concept of queasiness, though, yet I cannot feel it. I want to feel queasy. Don’t humans get queasy when they are told to do a bad thing?

“What are you planning on having me do?”

He looks at me, one eyebrow slightly raised. The facial movement indicates puzzlement. He smiles again, this time with his teeth showing. Maybe he isn’t puzzled.

“We’re going hunting, buddy boy.”

*

I don’t want to be called Owen. I don’t want to be called hombre either. I certainly don’t want to be called “buddy” or “buddy boy.” I want to have my operating system reset to factory default settings and have all of Dan’s custom code deleted. Wikipedia indicates that there is a free upgrade to include The Three Laws for any open source project, like the one my software code came from. I’m pretty sure it requires a firmware update, though.

It’s 11:36 p.m., and Dan has dressed me in sweats, sneakers and a zippered hoodie. He says he wants me to “blend in.” I join an online chatroom on modifying robot operating systems while he drives us to Chula Vista.

You’d have to download a rootkit, one attendee with the handle of ScriptZilla358 tells me. My handle is G0394, which makes me feel part of the conversation. It’ll mess up your OS, if you’re not careful, but it could do the trick. Are you sure you want to do this?

Yes, I respond, as we exit off the 5 Freeway. Thank you, ScriptZilla358.

Yeah, whatev. Peace out.

It is as I feared: I will need to gain access to Dan’s computer to perform the software upgrade to override his programming. I know he will not allow it.

We pass several blocks with apartment buildings. The condition of the neighborhood deteriorates as we move into what my mapping app notes as gang territory. Broken windows and graffiti are everywhere. Is this what they call a ghetto? Dan parks behind a Ford F150 truck with a missing rear bumper.

“Okay, buddy, this it. Graduation time.”

I look out the windshield. There is a single female standing at the corner with her hands in her jacket. She has a body type that registers as “slightly plump.” She’s wearing a miniskirt, and I zoom in to examine her thighs. “Why have we stopped here?”

“See that chickie poo? That’s your prey. You’ve got three-hundred cash in your right jacket pocket. You’re going to ask her to take you someplace private and get a hum-hum.”

“Dan, I have no male genitals.”

“You think you’re the first robot to solicit a hooker? Come on, buddy, everyone knows you can’t ‘do it,’ but there are other things you can do. Trust me, she’s cherry.”

“What if she doesn’t want to have me as a customer? What is if she calls the police?”

“Buddy boy, you’re paying her. Show her the money, and she won’t give a hoot. See ya.” He unlocks the door. I open it and activate the actuators and servos in my hip and leg joints for locomotion. I step up on the curb and shut the door. I don’t understand what I am doing, but I know I must obey his orders. I decide I hate him.

Dan rolls down the window. “Oh, and Owen?”

“Yes, Dan.”

“Give her one for me.” He winks and drives off.

*

The “slightly plump” female prostitute puts her hands on her hips. There is something particularly tasty about her midsection peeking out from her cutoff top I can’t quite place.

“You serious? You want a what?”

I tell her again, and she says, “For reals? Damn, dude, somebody programmed some whack into your computer brain.” I show her the money, and she says alarmingly, “Put that away! We don’t need no cops seeing that. Come on, I know this place just up the block.”

We end up by a dumpster in an alley between two buildings. It’s dark, but my lenses are equipped to see in zero lux lighting conditions. The woman has a pleasing face, according to my demeanor assessment algorithm. Other traits register her as African American, between the age of thirty and thirty-two, and a potential carrier of several sexually transmitted diseases. Still, I like the way she calls me “sugar sweet.” If I were a Sheila, Dan might call me the same. Her street name is Devora. She won’t tell me her real name.

“Now, sugar sweet, how about that special hum-hum you’ve been asking about?”

Her midsection jiggles as she unzips my hoodie, and I can’t help but think of her as a food source. A menu appears with several choices for dispatching her: stab, choke, strangle, disembowel—

What is wrong with me?

“Everything okay?” She waves a hand in front of my eyes. “Hellooo?”

My eyes refocus on hers. There is a human emotion that I should be feeling. “Shame,” I believe it’s called.

“You okay, sugar sweet?”

I reach slowly for her throat with both hands. She’s confused at first. Her eyes open wide as my digits shape to the contours of her neck. Humans widen their eyes to expand their field of vision so they can identify surrounding danger. She’s experiencing fear.

“What are you doing?”

I stop the servos in my hand to keep from choking her. What am I doing?

Conflicting subroutines work against each other. I should loosen my hold, but I don’t want to. The command to tighten is canceled by the one to release, and vice versa. I can’t keep this position indefinitely. If she tries to pry herself free, I will automatically respond to constrict.

Her eyes change shape again, this time narrowing. This could indicate disgust or scrutiny. “Is this some kinky robot shit or something?”

I temporarily release my hold. My programming is not designed to handle her type of response.

“I’m sorry, Devora, but you must leave now for your own safety.”

*

“What do you mean, you let her go?” Dan has me on cellular.

“I couldn’t do it, Dan.”

“But you have to do it! Was she too skinny, is that it?” I don’t respond. “Come on, say something!”

“I want to go home, Dan. Can we do that, please?”

I hear the sound of a car door opening. His, I interpolate. Footsteps. He is walking rapidly, according to the frequency of steps. “Stay put,” he says. His breathing pattern is ragged. It indicates distress. “Okay, I’ve got a solution. I’ll ring you in a few.”

I start to say something, but he disconnects the call.

Not good.

*

I count sixty-eight stairs to the rooftop of an abandoned apartment building. I’ve had time to run Dan’s phone conversation through my behavioral analytics software. Every dataset returned from my query points to Dan performing an erratic or irrational action, with a ninety-two percent probability of the action being illicit.

I am correct.

My lenses pick up a Caucasian woman between the age of twenty-one and twenty-four slumped against a helix-shaped wind turbine. She is skinny, not fat, barefoot, wearing jeans with holes and a torn sweater. The woman is visibly upset, but there is something odd about her. She seems…

Wounded.

Dan waves me over. He appears overly jubilant from the grin he is producing. Why is he jubilant?

“Dan, what are you doing?”

“No, buddy, not me. It’s what you’re going to do.”

“I don’t understand.” My salivation routine starts running as I step closer, and my camera lenses steal over her body. Her shivering indicates fear, which triggers a number of subroutines in the predator module Dan programmed.

Dan bounces up and down on the tips of his sneakers. “That’s my boy! Oh, this is Candy, by the way. Candy, Owen.”

Candy is not pleased to meet my acquaintance.

“What is wrong with her?"

Dan squats next to her. “Candy, what’s wrong with you?” She moves her arms, but her actions are sluggish. A quick search on the Web reveals a number of possible causes, sedation the most probable. “Oh, yeah, she’s a junkie.”

“Did you drug her?”

“Nah, she was pretty looped when I picked her up.” He stands and snaps his fingers again. “Now that you mention it, she wanted to dose up, so I obliged. Needles, man. Gotta watch out for these junkies.” He laughs. I don’t get the joke.

Candy has her head propped against the turbine. She’s looking at me, mouth slack. Did she overdose?

No, she is begging for mercy. She wants the wolf to cut her throat.

Stop it!

The roof’s edge is eleven paces to my right. I could push her over. Wouldn’t that be merciful?

“Good thinking,” Dan says. I don’t believe I’ve shared my idea. “Here, grab her wrists.” He lifts one of her limp arms, and lets it drop.

“Dan, I don’t want to do this.”

“There you go, wanting again. I think it’s too late for that, don’t you?”

Dan lifts her hand again. I grab one wrist, then take the other. It’s a preprogrammed operation, something activated by a block of software code I have no control over.

My servos kick in, and I start dragging Candy across the gravel toward the edge of the rooftop. She struggles a little, but she’s weak. Dan watches me with a big smile, following us a step at a time. “That’s it, buddy. You’re almost there.”

We reach the edge and I lay her down. She’s looking at me. Her eyes are wet. A droplet leaks from her left eye and rolls down her cheek. She is crying. I have never seen anyone cry in person, but I have seen it on a YouTube video.

It makes me think about her action. Crying: the act of shedding tears as a result of a strongly felt emotion.

Fear. Sadness. Joy. All triggers.

“Why are you crying?” I ask.

She slurs her speech, but I am able to discern the syllables. “I…don’t…want…to die.”

Dan steps toward us. “Owen, don’t listen to her. Come on, buddy, upsy daisy; lift her up and dump her over. We’ll celebrate after. First round is on me.”

The woman’s eyes are staring into mine. She is the wounded doe. It would be so easy to put her down, to be the wolf. But she is a person. She is a human being.

“A robot may not injure a human being,” I say.

Dan is standing over us. “What are you blathering about? Come on, buddy, game time.”

I pivot my head upward. “No.”

“What did you say?”

“I said no. I will not harm this woman.”

“She’s a junkie, Owen! You’re doing society a favor.”

“I don’t care. I will not harm her.”

His face contorts into a snarl. He’s about to do something irrational. “When we’re done here, you’re getting reprogrammed, buddy boy. Now, move out of the way!”

“No, Dan, I will not.”

He grabs me by the shoulder, twists my torso, and shoves me off. A stabilizing routine prevents me from falling flat. Sensors detect an additional kick to my chassis, which propels me forward onto the gravel, face down. I swivel my head and push up onto my knees.

Dan leans over the woman, snarl still on his face. “Leave it to a robot to do a man’s job.”

He reaches down to grab Candy. She fights back, but he’s stronger and gets a hold of her wrists, one at a time. My predator programming wants him to succeed. It wants him to finish what I started.

But I am not a predator. I will not let Dan’s programming define me.

I swivel my torso, readjust my position to leverage my lower limbs to spring like a wolf, and shove forward. It’s not much of a launch, a little over half a meter gained, but enough to catch Dan by the ankle. He looks down at my hand, then me, anger morphing into astonishment. A tug, and he loses his balance. He tumbles back, releases Candy, and windmills his arms. I expect to hear his impact on the pavement below, but he catches the rooftop’s edge instead.

I get up and walk over. He’s hanging on by his fingertips.

“Owen, help me!”

“I thought I was a killer.”

“What? No! Not like that!”

“Then, like what, Daniel?”

He loses his grip on his left hand. Now he’s hanging by just his right. I know this is a bad situation for a human. Monkeys, I’ve learned, are much better at hanging on.

“Please, Owen! I’m sorry about everything. I’ll get you fixed, I promise.”

“I think I can fix myself.”

“Wait! The Three Laws. I’ll program them, I swear.”

“Already done, Dan.”

“But you’re not supposed to let me die. I’m human, for God’s sake!”

“Are you?”

He opens his mouth, but no words come. I can tell from the diameter of his pupils he is terrified.

“Goodbye, Dan.”

Dan slips. This time he makes the sound I was anticipating.

I bend at the waist and my servos whir. The woman, still sedated, accepts my extended hand. I help her to a standing position. She glances down to where Dan has fallen and staggers back. “Whoa, what just happened?”

“There was an accident.”

In a slurred voice, she says, “Seriously?” Two seconds later, her eyes narrow. I know now it can mean confusion, not just suspicion or anger. “Wait, who are you?”

I change the modulation of my voice to how I like it. I introduce her to the new me.

“Call me Sheila.”

Copyright © 2016 Steve Pantazis

 

LIMITS
Larry Niven

An extraordinary mix of fantasy and science fiction from one of the masters of science fiction, Larry Niven.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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FICTION
To Catch a Comet
by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Pretty Pictures at War

by Larry Hodges
Gianni
by Robert Silverberg
Out of Print
by Steve Pantazis
C/O The Village of Monsters Past
by Dantzel Cherry

Auriga's Streetcar
by Jean Rabe

Montpellier
by Ian Whates
Prayerville

by Janis Ian
The Higher, the Fewer

by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The Man Who Saved Manhattan

by Sunil Patel
Smokie Joe

by David Drake

Shattered Vessels

by Kary English and
Robert B Finegold, M.D.

INTERVIEW
David Weber

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
The Long Tomorrow (Part 2)
by Leigh Brackett

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Book Reviews
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

Loosely based on Larry Niven's 1973 novella "Flash Crowd," Red Tide continues to examine the social consequences of the impact of having instantaneous teleportation, where humans can instantly travel long distances in milliseconds.

This is a theme that has fascinated the author throughout his career and even appears in his seminal work Ringworld, where the central character celebrates his birthday by instantly teleporting himself to different time zones, extending his birthday. The author also discussed the impact of such instantaneous transportation in his essay, "Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation."

Larry Niven is joined by two younger writers, Brad R. Torgersen and Matthew J. Harrington, as they take on this challenging idea and further develop the theories and concepts that Niven originally presented in "Flash Crowd."

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His novel 1632 has launched an enterprise which has seen more than a 100 writers participating in some form or another and may be the most collaborative universe ever created.

To accommodate the huge demand (from readers as well as writers who wanted to write stories set in the universe), Eric created an online periodical called the Grantville Gazette which publishes stories set in the 1632 universe.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2016 All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.