Monkey Paws

“And it will grant anything I wish?” the boy asked.

The demon nodded. “Aye sir, that it will do, anything your heart desires, the Bowl will provide. You only have to say out loud what it is you truly want, and it shall be yours.”

The boy turned the bowl over, examining its underside, and tapped the base with his fingernail. It made a dull soft thud. Nothing out of the ordinary as far as he could tell, just an ordinary clay bowl, like any of thousands he could buy in the city markets.

The demon smiled. “But be warned, sir, make your choice with care. There is always a price to pay.”

“Anything at all?” the boy asked again, a shade of uncertainty in his eyes as he turned the bowl face up again.

“Anything.”

“I’ve heard of bargains like this before,” the boy said. “There’s always a catch, isn’t there? Some kind of unforeseen consequences, a terrible prices to be paid for messing with things a man was not does meant to understand. Magic isn’t a toy for a child to play with. It is a dangerous, poisonous thing.”

The demon smiled again, but said nothing.

The boy held the bowl up to the light, as if by examining it closely once more, he might discover some secret he had missed every other time he had looked at it. It was covered in strange abstract patterns, swirling lines and dots arranged in patterns he could not recognise, whose meaning he could not tell, if they had any meaning at all.

“I wish I knew what to do,” the boy said.

“No! Wait! You can’t–” said the demon.

The boy smiled, raised his arm above his head, and threw the bowl to the ground with all the force he could find. It struck the floor with an ungodly howl, and cracked into a host of sharp dark shards. The demon screamed, and scrambled across the room, frantically trying to gather up the shards, which turned to dust just before he reached them. The demon let out single pitiful sob, and then he too turned to dust before the boy’s eyes.

“Well, that was simpler than I expected,” the boy said.

The Scout

It felt good to be warm. I was made for this temperature, a brand new world, not the cold ancient air of home. Heat coursed through the folding metals tubes across the outer surface of my skin, warming the metallic liquid conduction matrix to near boiling point. I stretched out my hand, each finger shining metal. For the first time in living memory, I felt fully awake.
The ground beneath was hostile, a desert my designers could never walk on.
The sky was a glare, bright screeching reflections intensifying the light and amplifying it, a sheer and intense whiteness with the merest tinge of blue grey. Beneath it, the earth was crisp and arid, baked yellows and dulled reds, windborn waves and crescents turned to dust with each step I took.
The air was silent and dead, full of silences waiting to be broken, as if the whole world was about to speak, but too shy to say the first word. I scanned in every direction as far as I could see, a straight line broken by an occasional small rise of rock and stone, and to the far left, what seemed to be a mountain range in the distance. I recorded as much data as I could, taking audio-visual, sonar and radar readings, and checked the timer. Once the satellite was in place, I transmitted the first message. Landed safely, here are my first impressions. Once I got an acknowledgment, I closed the signal, and looked towards the mountains on the western horizon. It was a good a direction as any, and I began to walk. Two feet. Two hands. Four fingers and a thumb. Legacy design artifacts, even when the configuration was inefficient. But it was familiar, and muscle memory is a powerful yoke, even when muscle is replaced by hydraulics and servos. One foot in front of the other.
Exploration is very often methodical and dull. Walk slowly, then stop. Measure, test, analyse, transmit findings. Wait for acknowledgment, rest, then begin again. Progress was slow, and after eight days, the mountains on the horizon seemed almost as far away as when I began. By then, I had shown that we could survive the heat and pressure. On Day Nine I found a suitably flat plain, and I signalled to send more help.
I was built to be the first, and the tests I ran were rudimentary. Soil and atmosphere analysis, temperature and air pressure, and the most primitive scans of the landscape ahead, enough to see the lie of the land and calculate with best paths to take, balancing the potential rewards in exploring more interesting sites against the hazards on the way.
Once the second wave arrived, we filled our days with more frenetic activity. Deeper soil analysis, higher resolution scans. Still, all we found was a dead world. The mountains in the distance held my attention, but I had to be patient. Protocols would be followed, and we would wait until we were done here before taking the next steps.
It was becoming clear this had not always been a dead world. Even a billion years cannot totally eradicate the traces life leaves behind, fossil markings encoded into rock and dust. The flat plain was once an ocean floor, and the seven of us pored over the new data, extrapolating as best we could from the echoes of the past.
Sixty-three days passed before we were ready to move. Sixty days to survey the ocean floor, and three days to decide where next. Seniority carries some privileges, and I argued successfully that the mountains were the best choice. Traces of life extended in all directions, but the mountains may once have been above the water, and that opened a whole new possible promises.
Even so, progress was slow. Travel half a day, stop for a day to test and survey again. Transmit, rest, resume the journey, and more often than we liked, stop and spend a day cleaning the fine dust accumulating everywhere and impeding our sensors and scanners. Still, we made progress, and the mountains drew closer.
Ocid was the first to detect the anomalies. Straight lines and sharp edges are rare in nature, and right angles are virtually unknown, yet there it was. It could be trick of the light of course, an optical illusion of some kind, a fluke of perspective and line of sight was always a possibility, but over several days, the results were consistent. It was still a distance away, but to the left of the range, the structures rose from the ground. Everything else in the landscape made sense, but this did not belong. Regular shapes persisted where they should not be, corners and the ghosts of corners.
The debate took another day, as we transmitted our results and argued over their meaning. I wanted to change direction, and others supported me, but the results were not unanimous, and others argued we should continue on our original path until we had more information. Ultimately, the decision was made for us. At our next transmission, along with our data acknowledgment , came the instruction to change course.
On the final morning before the course correction, as we rested and recharged, I found myself without any further data to analyse. There were no paths to plot, no landscapes to map out. Without any purpose to occupy my mind, my thoughts wandered, and I wondered how long it had been since I was last idle. I could barley remember the time before I was reimagined, when I was a living being and not just an aware mind. We wasted generations trying to build artificial intelligence, yet though our machines could run ever more billions of calculations, sentience eluded us in any detectable form. We made them bigger, faster, better than ever before, yet they remained machines. Fast, dumb machines.
The breakthrough came when we realised those fast, dumb boxes were now big enough to transplant our own minds. Why search for an artificial intelligence, when we already have the naturally occurring resource? It was much simpler to move our minds into the boxes. Or was I copied. Was I still the same mind I used to be, before that first transplant? How many times had I been copied since then? I could no longer remember.
This body was my latest, custom built for an alien planet, a world as hot as the lucifer’s hells. How long since the first? I realised I had not been idle in a very long time, so many I lost count of the years and the centuries. How long had I been too busy, too occupied with purpose to stop and reflect? How long ago since I was a man called Sevi?
We rested for the best part of the day, and though I never asked, I wondered where the others had let their thoughts go in idleness. Had they too gone back to their memories of the past, or the future and the near present, and what the new morning would bring?
Finally we set off to walk. By nightfall, we had made most of the ground, and I could not help but notice that as we drew closer, my pace quickened. I was impatient. We all were. I realised it had been a very long time since any of us had seen anything novel. We gathered data, we analysed it, we tested assumptions, we squeezed it for every drop of meaning, until data became information and knowledge.
At nightfall, we gathered round, but the consensus was quickly reached. Curiosity overcame caution, and we agreed to keep going even as the light faded. Caution would still dictate a measured pace in the darkness, but there was no reason to stop just because the light was fading.
As the first scout, I took the lead. I devoted my attention to picking out the best path, and did not speak, but behind me, I could hear the others talking. The new world turned purple, then a paler blue fading into pink, and the sun rose behind us. Shadows raced away from us, and the structures loomed ahead.
The sun was halfway to its zenith when we finally reached them. We were drained from the journey, so instead of scanning, we rested first. Up close, the structures seemed more random than they had first appeared, large flat slabs with esoteric marks carved into their sides. Cubes, prisms, a solitary cylinder. Their dark surfaces, in contrast to the bleached landscape, defied analysis. Whatever it was, it was manufactured. And now that we were closer, we could see the first inklings of even more structures in the mountains ahead.
Whatever their meaning was, or what purpose they had served, we had no way to tell. All we could know was that they were designed and built. But there was no way to know who the builders were. Perhaps they knew their world was dying, growing too warm to support life any longer, and they needed to leave a monument to the universe, a was to say clearly, for one brief moment we were here. Or maybe this was just a stray artifact, a single moment from the dead world preserved by chance, like five fingers on a metal hand.
All of our data told a single story now. This world was once cold enough to hold life, before it overheated. Our scientists and historians had debated the warm worlds theory over long generations, arguing that this planet, like our own, grew hot thanks to intelligent life run amok. But while we were lucky and stopped in time, there life ran unchecked until the world burned.
We barely escaped the same fate. The people who built these structures had not been so fortunate. It didn’t matter if this was a monument or an accident. They built it, and we would understand it. We would remember them.
Yesterday, I remembered who I was in an idle moment. Tomorrow, I will remember the people who build Venus. In the mountains ahead, we will explore even more of their creations. We will understand them soon, once we reach our destination.

The Patriot

A Short Fiction

Grandad would tell us the stories every evening while Gramma listened.
How he remembered the glorious revolution, when he was a young boy. How he was called to do his duty, and did not hesitate. How he fought alongside his friends, and how some of them fell. He would take Grammas’s hand in his, he would tell us he fought for Grandma, and he would smile.
After he died, Gramma told us her story.
“He was fourteen, and they gave him a gun and a uniform,” she told us. “It was the most terrifying of times.”
Gramma didn’t smile.