2nd Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winners – Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Beth

First-place winner (Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy) in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards

By Densua Mumford


Today. 18:32. Location unknown.
We sit in the car in the middle of the woods while rain pelts the bonnet and windscreen. The wipers drone as they slide across the glass.

"What I did to you," says Master William without turning to me, "it shouldn’t have happened." It is his habit to speak to himself but I know this time that his words, the first in twenty minutes, are intended for me.

"You’re not human," he whispers. His voice is monotone yet his pale hand taps the steering wheel. His lip suddenly shudders as if he were about to cry. I am the perfect companion; I reach out to comfort him.

Master William flinches. His voice rises. "Don’t you ****ing touch me." I return my hand to my lap and give him a smile, hoping that my restraint pleases him. He scowls and rakes his hair with one hand. His pimply forehead is waxen in the bright light of the car.

"Why are we here, Master?" I ask him. "I should be home to greet Lord Father when he returns from work."

Master William snorts. "I can’t believe he programmed you to call him that. Arrogant bastard." His eyes dart towards me and then back to the windscreen. "I just can’t believe… what I…"

After a pause, Master William turns fully away. I watch him, trying to ascertain what it is he feels so I may please him. During the silence, I sit still, scanning through my memory for clues to his behavior.

20/03. Time unknown. Location unknown.
I am created to obey. I know this when I first open my eyes to behold my Lord Father.

"Look at her, son. The culmination of thirty-six years of blood and sweat and tears. Isn’t she beautiful? My beautiful baby girl."

My artificial brain processes and stores Lord Father’s first words. I sit in a chair with bright lights above me and wires crisscrossing on the tiled floor like a web. I can also see monitors in my peripheral vision. I am unable to move, for my motor functions have not yet been initiated. Lord Father stands before me, bent at the waist, his hands propped on his knees. He shows his teeth. It is a smile.

"Oh, yes. Wonderful," says Master William. He stands beyond Lord Father, leaning against the steel door. His arms are crossed and his head is turned away as if he seeks something else to look at. He wears black, all black. His hair is black too, and his eyes behind the glasses, are grey.

"Like rain clouds," I say. I know of rain clouds. Lord Father stored much information in me before my birth.

Lord Father frowns and rubs his nose. "A bit strange for first words, wouldn’t you say so, William?" He clasps his hands before him and bends close with wide eyes. "God, she is beautiful. The Directors at the Institute won’t believe their eyes. And once we unleash her onto the market, neither will the rest of the world. What’s your name, darling?"

Master William makes a nasal sound.

"Snort," I say.

Master William laughs. "Oh, wonderful." His voice changes in pitch and tone. "You’ve never seen anything like it. A machine that can walk, talk, think and learn. The next generation of artificial intelligence is at our doorstep. The amazing Snort."

Lord Father frowns. "No. Tell me your name. Your name," he says.

"Beth."

"See? She’s fine. Now, Beth. Initialize a system check."

Master William remains for a brief period of fifteen seconds as I recite my status. My software is unable to read his expression.

21/03. 12:06. Living Room, Home.
I walk for the first time. Lord Father leads me by the hand into the living room while a mobile camera records us.

"Good afternoon," I say, addressing Master William, who is sat in the settee. He watches the latest news reports on the television. I infer that he has just gotten out of bed because his hair is tousled and he still wears his pyjama bottoms. He also wears a black T-shirt stating in white lettering: ÔWe are an endangered species Ð War Against Machines’. He glances up as Lord Father guides me to the settee, but says nothing.

"Well? Aren’t you going to greet her?" asks Lord Father, smiling.

Master William issues a voice command to switch the channel. "It’s a breaking story," he says. "Some guy’s just been put through a speed-trial for abusing his AI."

Lord Father’s smile becomes sad. "William, my best creation just took her first few steps, and that’s all you’ve got to say to me?"

Master William remains silent, seeming too preoccupied with the television.

"So I take it you’re just going to sit around all day and watch rubbish on TV?"

Master William still does not speak.

Lord Father expels air. "Useless. You’re positively useless." He looks at me and his smile returns. "Not like you, though, my pretty. You’re not going to be useless at all." He crouches before me so our eyes are level. "You are the realization of a dream, do you know that?"

"Your dream, Lord Father?"

"Yes, my dream. A dream thirty-six years in the making. In a week’s time, I’ll be presenting you to the Institute, where you’ll create such a buzz. There’s never been anything like you. Artificial intelligence attuned to the moods and habits of its owner."

"I will please them?"

"My God, you will blow them away." Lord Father squeezes my hand. "It will be the proudest moment of my life."

I return his smile, satisfied that he is happy.

At that moment, Master William rises from his chair. "Off," he says to the television. He throws me a sideways glance as he strides out of the room. I detect no signs of pleasure in his expression.

23/03. 20:24. Dining Room, Home.
When Master William does not ignore Lord Father, he often argues with him. This is particularly true during supper, when they sit facing each other at table. Master William instigates these arguments most of the time and they tend to concern the same issue. I sit between them with a 500cl bowl of FuJel before me. I spoon FuJel at periodic intervals into my mouth as I observe them.

"It’s a ****ing disgrace," says Master William. He taps his fork against the side of his plate. Agitation. Perhaps anxiety.

Lord Father sips his glass of wine. "How did you figure that?"

"He got three years, Dad Ð three whole years Ð just for kicking his own robot. Since when did machines have rights under the law? Since when did we put the Ôwell-being’ of an artificial creation before the rights of a man with two children and a wife. Jesus Christ."

"Every AI is the property of the Royal Institute for Robotics. Under Section 52 of the Artificial Intelligence Act, no human is permitted to damage or destroy any AI created by the Royal Institute for Robotics, unless the machine poses a threat to the people involved."

"The Artificial Intelligence Act. Just another incompetent law passed by monkeys in the government. What ****er thought to give machines rights?"

"Nobody’s giving machines rights, son. It makes sense, if you think about it. Each AI is created to learn and develop, and therefore each one becomes unique within ten minutes of first opening its eyes. The Institute just wants to preserve them as best as it can, and it couldn’t do that if people threw them away with the trash when they broke, or smashed them to pieces in a fit of rage.

"Besides, that man hurt his AI because it intervened when he started on his wife."

"Hurt? Tell me, how does someone hurt a lump of metal?" When Lord Father does not respond, Master William flings himself back in his chair and folds his arms. After a period of seven seconds, Master William’s gaze falls on me. Again, I find I cannot read it.

I smile. The Fifth Precept: Be respectful and polite. Always greet your masters with a smile.

"And if she ever turned on me?" says Master William. "Would you stand there and twiddle your thumbs because it was against the Artificial Intelligence Act? How comforting."

"For goodness’ sake, William. Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve always been argumentative, but since you joined those… those vandals, you’ve been downright unbearable." Lord Father waves his hand to indicate the black T-shirt William wears. The design is a red rifle with the words ÔI am a soldier in the War Against Machines’ superimposed in white.

"ÔWar Against Machines’ may one day be the only thing standing between machines and human destruction. We depend too much on these things to do everything for us. They build our homes, make our food, control our electricity, run our banks. And some Doctor Frankenstein’s just publicized his plans to make an artificial womb. In ten years’ time machines will be giving birth to our ****ing children. Someone’s got to stand up and shout the truth."

Lord Father rolls his eyes. "Doctor Fischer happens to be a colleague of mine, and her intentions are perfectly benign. Artificial wombs will provide a new option for childless women."

"Bullshit. It’ll become a commercial industry within a year. Too busy with your career to have children? Don’t panic – just chuck your genes into this mixer, come back nine months later, and you’ll have a perfectly formed baby."

"The wombs will screen the child periodically as it develops, provide a perfectly safe and sterile environment for the fetus, and Ð if she can perfect the technology Ð it will even prevent genetic diseases."

"They can also manipulate genes to determine the fetus’ gender, its eye- and hair-color, the shape of its bloody nose. Machines will be telling us what we should look like."

"You’re exaggerating."

"Why do we feel it necessary to make things that come to look more and more like us? Why do we need machines that think and learn and develop? Perhaps our ultimate goal is to replace ourselves. Christ’s sake, look at her." Master William waves his hand in my direction. Having been addressed, I smile.

Lord Father rubs his temple. "I created Beth to be a do-it-all. She will do things from helping domestics perform their chores to assisting Prime Ministers in decision-making. She can learn to play various instruments, learn to cook a million dishes, learn bloody Yoga if one wished. But what makes her special is her ability to observe and analyze behavior patterns to get a good idea of her master’s tastes and habits."

"Does she need breasts to do all those things? Does she need hair? A beautiful face? An arse?"

"Would you like a toaster to rub your shoulders for you? In looking human and having a pleasant face, Beth allows her owners to feel more comfortable around her. She is to be thought of as a friend, a helper, a companion. Someone to baby-sit your children while you take your wife out."

"She’d also put the blow-up doll industry out of business."

I catch Lord Father hiding a smile behind his glass. "Very true."

Master William clenches his jaw. "She’s a ****ing abomination."

Lord Father’s smile vanishes. He locks eyes with his son across the table. I wonder at the look of satisfaction that crosses Master William’s features.

"I don’t know what’s wrong with you," growls Lord Father. "Where did I go wrong? Doctor Fischer has a daughter your age, a clever girl who will attend Cambridge in a year’s time to follow in her mother’s footsteps. My son, on the other hand, likes to spend his days locked up in his room, corresponding with faceless people on the Internet, people who commit unspeakable crimes in the name of some imagined war against progress.

"My son dresses like an undertaker, listens to trash all day rather than be a man and make a living, and has no ambitions, no plans for his future, immediate or otherwise.

"My son shows no respect for my work, and rather than congratulate me on the biggest achievement of my entire career – an achievement which might win me the Institute’s most prestigious award – he sits before me while I eat and throws it all back in my face.

"I am sick and tired of you, William." Lord Father pushes back his chair and rises to his feet. I too stand up, smiling. Lord Father does not smile back. He retreats to his study, half-empty bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other. When the study door slams behind him, I turn my smile to Master William.

"Don’t look at me," he says.

The First Precept: Obey my masters in everything and at all times. I avert my gaze at once and sit down to finish my FuJel.

Today. 15:10. Master William’s Bedroom, Home.
Master William is a man of strong convictions.

I realize this as I stand in his bedroom, turning my head slowly from one side to the other as I observe his possessions. I have already performed all the chores Lord Father assigned to me this morning. I have decided to use my spare time to get to know the young Master better.

His room is untidy. I would put it in order but it displeases him when I touch his possessions. There are shelves above his bed, each one stacked with books. The titles are mostly works of scientific theory, sociology and philosophy. The fiction novels have their own place on the floor, along with his unwashed clothes and dirt-encrusted shoes.

Various posters hang on the walls. One depicts what seems the head of an attractive human child, until one notices the corner of the eyebrow peeling away to reveal the metallic skull beneath. At the bottom, in simple script, it says: ÔNot Like Us Ð War Against Machines.’

A tapping at the window distracts me and I walk towards it. Large drops of rain explode against the pane of glass, blurring the world outside. I press my face to the window and look up at the darkening sky, thinking that I have not yet experienced the sensation of precipitation on my skin.

"What are you doing in my room?"

I turn at the sound of Master William’s voice, and produce a smile of greeting for him. He stands in the doorway, one hand still on the doorknob, and a bag slung over one shoulder. His glasses are speckled with tiny drops of moisture.

"Observing," I reply.

He hesitates, as if he does not understand my explanation. "Get out." I make to leave, but walk just three paces when he says, "Wait."

He drops his bag at his feet and uses his foot to shut the door behind him. Once again, I cannot discern meaning from his expression as he stares at me. I am uncertain how to be with him, for without behavioral clues, I cannot function as the perfect companion.

After a brief pause he takes a step towards me, reaching out to touch my hair. His fingers stroke a lock. I suppose he is fascinated. "Is this real?" he asks.

"No, Master. It is synthetic, but I can make it grow like real hair." He is very close. I use his proximity to observe his face in detail.

One corner of his lips twitches upwards at my answer. That can mean anything from amusement to disdain. He drops his hand, but his eyes hold mine a moment, then begin to roam downward. I follow his gaze, wondering what he is searching for.

"You look so real," he says, his eyes returning to my face.

"Yes."

He brings his hand up to my chin once again and traces the pads of my lips with his thumb. "Open your mouth."

I obey. His thumb slips into my mouth and dabs the back of my tongue. He wears a look of incredulity as he takes it out and rubs it together with his forefinger. "You even produce saliva?"

"Yes."

"What else? What else makes you so damn special?" His eyes travel again looking for something. He reaches out and unfastens the buttons on my blouse, the corner of his lips twitching again as the material parts to reveal my upper body. His hand shakes as he presses a finger into my left breast. I wonder if he thinks there is something other than silicon inside it.

Cupping the breast, he squeezes it in a rhythm. I stand still, intent not to break his fascination with me. This is the closest I have been to Master William since my birth, and perhaps my one chance to observe him closely, and learn to please him.

"Did Dad create you to…?" He pauses, seeming unable to concentrate on talking and massaging at once. His breathing becomes shallow and erratic.

"Yes?" I say.

Master William removes his hand and waves it towards the bed. The look on his face is unreadable once more. "Lie down."

I walk to the bed, sink down onto the mattress, and adjust my body so I lie on my back with my head on the pillow.

"Take off your… your trousers."

I move quickly to obey, raising my hips to peel my trousers down my legs. I fold them into a neat square and set them beside me. Then I lay my head back on the pillow.

"Underwear, too," says Master William.

Once I put aside my underwear and lay back, he walks to the end of the bed. His eyebrows rise.

I do not comprehend the reason for his surprise but it perturbs me to realise it is something about me that produces it. I must have done something wrong; perhaps he prefers me to lie in another way.

His gaze remains locked on me. His body is rigid, but his right hand clasps and unclasps in an unconscious show of anxiety.

He unbuckles his belt, peeling his trousers and boxer shorts down his legs. Naked from the waist down, he clambers onto the bed to lie above me, his arms to each side of me and his legs between mine.

He clenches his fingers about my breasts and squeezed. He does this for some seconds. "Your skin…" he says between breaths. He does not finish his sentence but raises his head again and adjusts the position of his hips.

I watch Master William’s face, his eyes closed, his lips parted as his body rocks above me. I wonder if I should respond in some way but he gives me no instructions, so I lay still.

He continues his rhythmic motions for less than a minute, then, suddenly, he expels air and his body stiffened above me. He remains that way for three seconds, then silently slides off me to lie at my side with one arm flung over his eyes. I turn my head and watch him.

"Are you pleased?" I ask.

He says nothing for a while, only the curling and uncurling of his fingers indicates he is still conscious.

"The perfect companion, huh?" He chuckles. It is a sound indicative of amusement yet he does not seem amused. "Now I understand." The negative tone in his voice answers my question better than his words. He lowers his arm and turns his face toward the window, where the rain continues to whip the glass. "You can go now."

I take my clothes to dress in the living area.

Today. 17:29. Living Room, Home.
Master William emerges two hours later as I sit on the settee awaiting Lord Father’s return from work. I hear his footsteps hurrying across the landing to Lord Father’s bedroom. When he comes downstairs again, he carries a briefcase and a folder in his arms. He does not look at me as he rushes by into Lord Father’s study.

I hear the familiar hum of the computer as it boots, then Master William’s voice commands, and finally the tuneless singing of the printer. More sounds follow, the slamming of drawers, another voice command. This goes on for a half hour. Then the humming stops. Eight minutes later, Master William marches out with the briefcase and three more folders wedged beneath his arms.

"Get up," he says. "We’re leaving."

"Where are we going, Master?"

He throws a glance towards the clock on the wall above the television. "No time. Just follow me."

Today. 18:35. Location unknown
Master William leans forward and squints through the windscreen. The rain gives no sign of abating. His fingers continue to tap the steering wheel.

"What are we waiting for, Master?"

He gives me a sideways glance. "In a short while, some people are going to turn up. They’re here to collect you and all of Dad’s notes about you."

"For what purpose?"

"To learn as much about you as they can. When they’re finished, they will probably destroy you."

Of course his answer does not surprise me because I have come to understand his behavior towards me. Still, I ask why because I know it will make him feel better to explain.

"Something like you, that looks and acts so much like us but is essentially the antithesis of human life, should not exist. We come to rely on you too much." He pauses for five seconds. "It’s so easy to do. First you are merely tools helping us to build things, to travel faster, to make our lives easier. Then we use you for communication, building relationships, interacting with other humans. After a while, rather than being the means, you become the object. We have electronic wives, virtual reality children and pets, robotic secretaries, and bank clerks and television presenters. You invade every aspect of our lives. And after what happened this evening… I guess it just shows that none of us are infallible."

It is the first time he has allowed me to understand his reasoning. I realise that I may never have pleased him.

So I ask him the one thing that is imperative. "Do I please Lord Father?"

"Yes," he replies, his lips twitching, "very much so." He stops and I think he has finished speaking, but then he begins again. "You know, when he comes home from work, you are the first thing he wants to see. He talks about nothing but his projects, he cares about nothing but his creations. You stopped being the means a long time ago, Beth. You’re the pinnacle of his life. And I am just his son." His voice is low, his tone, uneven. When he looks at me, his eyes are the same colour and shade as the rain. "That’s just another reason why you have to go."

"It is not right to do this without Lord Father’s permission. It will displease him greatly. He will miss me."

"I’m sacrificing his feelings for the sake of humanity. Besides, you have no choice but to do as I tell you because you were created to obey. Isn’t that right, Beth?"

"Yes."

As I speak, a bright light shines through the trees. Within ninety seconds a car emerges from the gloom and parks approximately six metres from ours. Someone climbs out of the car and stands waiting beside it.

Master William twists his body in his seat and pulls the briefcase and folders from the backseat. I suppose they contain all of Lord Father’s notes Ð all that I am. He says nothing as he looks at me and he is expressionless. He raises the latch on the car door and climbs out.

Winners

Grand Prize Winner: The Bunker
Horror Winner: When The Bough Breaks
Sci-Fi/Fantasy Winner: Beth
Thriller/Suspense Winner: The Replacements
Mystery/Crime Winner: Three of a Kind
Romance Winner: Casualty

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