Touch Will Come Second

Door, Entry, Hospital, Passage, Red, HandleAlistair Van der Berg opens what he thinks are his eyes and looks up into blinding white lights. Into his field of vision swim three dark blurs in silhouette that resolve, like hardening acrylic, into androgynous shapes.

“Mr. Van der Berg?” says one of the shapes.

“Yes?” Alistair’s voice comes out stronger than he expects.

“Please hold still. We have to check a few things.”

Alistair turns his head and glances down toward his body, concealed under a grey sheet. Lumps and points in all the right places, but he can’t feel any of it. The sheet shifts and moves like a sackful of kittens, but his arms and legs are restrained. “What’s happening?”

“Alistair,” says another of the shapes. “Calm down.”

Alistair looks around the room in a panic. By the door, a sign. Synthetics testing.

It’s happened, he realizes. I died. I’m back. I’m alive again. My brain in a plastic body. “What year is it?”

The shapes have resolved into murky faces that exchange glances with one another. “What year do you think it is?”

“How did I die?”

“One thing at a time, Mr. Van der Berg.”

“Don’t give me that. I’m back from the dead, and I want to know what’s –” He stops as his eyes drift sideways and catch the mirror against the far wall. Not a mirror. One-way glass. Instinctively he points toward it, but his arm only rattles in a restraint he can’t see or feel. “Who’s in there? Is it my children? My grandchildren?”

“Easy, Mr. V –”

“NO!” He reaches out for the voice, and this time, there’s a squealing, shearing sound as the restraint gives way and he swats the androgynous figure aside with a fleshy thwack. He stares at his hand; pale and perfectly manicured, manacled at the wrist. A torn hinge dangles lamely down his arm. He jerks his other arm free of its restraint, then yanks his legs toward him with an awful tearing noise, and he’s free.

There are sounds of squabbling behind him as the other attendants rush to the one he’s injured. Alistair ignores them and goes to the mirror — or tries to. As he swings his legs out of the bed, they tangle in the hospital gown he can’t feel, scrabble for purchase on the cold tile floor, buckle, bend and collapse. He goes down in a heap of pain and confusion.

A voice crackles from above. “What’s wrong with it?The voice is familiar, but he can’t say why.

An androgynous one replies: “Touch receptors aren’t working. He won’t be able to walk or move effectively yet. Photo and audio receptors are online for this primary test, along with speech protocols. Touch will come second.”

The lights go on behind the mirror, and suddenly Alistair is looking past the crumpled wreck of his body at himself standing behind the glass. An older version of himself. Stern. Thoughtful. But alive. And unpitying.

The voice he now recognizes as his own crackles through the speaker again. “Shut it down.”

A tiny electro-dart buries itself in Alistair’s neck, but he doesn’t feel it. His processors drone off into silence and his servos go limp.


Chuck’s challenge this week was a random title. Mine? The Touch Will Come Second. For artistic reasons I dropped the “the,” and not only because I wanted a reason to say “the the” in my explanation.




Chuck’s challenge for the week: Write the middle of a story.  Our goal:  Take the 500-word story begun by another author, and continue it.

I hijacked the story started by one Clay Ashby, Clank.  It’s got some of my favorite stuff: Sci-Fi, mystery, robots, a sense of desperation and lostness.  In short, it would be right at home here in my Flash Fiction collection.

Clay’s bit begins the story.  My bit follows the asterisk.



My eyes opened with a metallic clatter. A single dim lamp reflected its yellow hue on the ceiling above. Instinctually I was able to sit up and balance myself on the table. At least I think it was instinct because I certainly don’t remember ever doing it before. My legs dangled over the edge and my feet didn’t quite touch the floor. The thought of lifting myself off the table and falling, even just that little bit, worried me, but I did it. My feet clanked on the rusty floor as I stumbled, trying to find my balance. With my feet spread wide I was able to stabilize, so I lifted my head to look around.

Large gears turned inside the walls, visible through crumbled sheets of wood and iron. My head began to whistle, beginning at a high pitch and increasing until it was nearly impossible to hear. The sound was terrifying and at first quite annoying, but the mild vibration was soothing, and it seemed to help me keep my balance. I took my first step, a step that was a little too big, but my foot landed on the floor and held firm. The vibration inside my head was helping me. I was sure of it, so I took several more steps. No problem at all! The vibration in my head made it almost easy.

There was only one exit from the room, a dark hallway. I decided to go. I didn’t really have any other choice. Every step I took was loud. It made me uncomfortable, like I was being watched. I tried to step softly, but it was no use. Metal contacting metal simply could not be made quiet. The hallway continued on without ending and my deliberate steps made progress slow. The glow of lamps from the room behind me began to fade. With every step it faded more. I wasn’t sure how much further I could go, so I stopped, unsure if another step forward would be wise. I was able to turn my head all the way around and look at where I had come from, a faint yellow spot now. There didn’t seem to be any reason to return, except fear. The room was vacant and square, with nothing useful inside. My only option was to move onward into the darkness.

I took only one more step, no clank. Imagine if I had turned back at that moment. I was only one step away from a new type of ground, but I would have never known it. With my arms slowly flailing, in search of obstacles, I continued into the pitch black. Still no clank from my feet. The silence combined with the dark made me feel like I was walking into nothingness, but that eerie feeling was certainly better than the creepy clank from before. At least I felt hidden now.

When my face met a solid steel door I thought I had finally made it to the end. I leaned into it and pushed. The metal moaned from stress and a few rivets popped, but it gave way easily enough. Unfortunately this door, my supposed salvation, revealed almost certain doom.


As the door creaked open, antiseptic white light spilled out from the room. Beneath my feet, muffling my footsteps, was a lush carpet covered in cascading geometric designs.  It led into a room that, not unlike the first, was small and square.  Unlike my room, this room was furnished with the soft carpet, and a single bed in the center of the far wall.  In the bed was a human shape, its head propped up on a ponderous stack of dingy pillows, its body bundled beneath a thick sheet.

I didn’t know how I knew the word “human”, but the shape made sense to me the moment I saw it, and the word for the shape sprung into my circuits unbidden.  It was a male human, spotted and wrinkled with age, a wisp of white hair fluttering above its head.  I hadn’t noticed the tower of wires next to the bed, but the human grabbed this tower and wheeled it next to him as it advanced toward me on steps as shaky as my first ones.  The wires snaked from a contraption set atop the tower, dangled by the human’s knees, and ended at an interface in the human’s arm.  No, not wires.  Tubes, delivering a cocktail of silvery liquids into its bloodstream.  It stared at me, this human, its eyes wide and red-rimmed and disbelieving.  It reached out a withered hand to touch my shoulder, my fingers, my face.  Then it squinted, appraising me, measuring me.  Finally, it spoke.

“Identify yourself.”

The command surged through me, irresistible and pervasive.  I would have answered if I could, but my circuits did not contain any information to identify me, no matter how much my processors spun and whirred.  A bit of loose machinery in my torso wrenched itself loose with the effort and a resounding “Clank” echoed through the room.

He frowned.  “Report status.”

Again, I felt compelled to answer, and again, my drives buzzed and hummed, but I could not respond.  It began to dawn on me that there were gaps and rusted connections all throughout my cognitive circuits, whatever those were.  I blinked at the man, my eyelids clicking softly.  He blinked back, his mouth tightening into a frown.

A familiar frown.

“Do you know who I am?”

The compulsion overtook me again, but this time, my neural network lit up and my consciousness flooded with images: a classroom full of people, a dark lab after hours, a chalkboard covered with equations, the soft face of a beautiful woman, the grave face of a doctor, a medical chart covered with indecipherable figures, and hours and hours of treatment and tubes and injections and suffering.   The heavy clunk of ancient clockwork intensified within the walls.  The high-pitched hum in my head was causing my entire body to resonate.

The old man whacked me in the head, a thin “clunk” reverberating through my metal skull.  The images departed.

“Do you know who I am?


   Chuck’s challenge this week:  We’re All Human, Even When We’re Not.
   It took some doing to trim this down, but I did it, and I think the story is better off for it.  This one is a sort of homage to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (the book, not the film.  Nothing against the film.  But the book is fascinating).  Powell and Donovan are from that universe and I repurposed them here.
   So you have an idea where this is going.  Robots and such.  I can’t help myself.  At any rate, here are 988 words of almost human strife.
Also, there are odd odd things going on with the format in this post for some reason, and I apologize.  I’ve done my best to make it as readable as possible.
   “Donovan!”  Powell tossed a bag of chips on the breakroom table before kicking his ratty sneakers up on the table and reclining with a diet soda.  “You won’t believe this.  They found it.”
   “It?”  Donovan tugged the chips open and ate one, wiping a greasy hand on his rumpled shirtfront.
   Powell nodded with great import.  “The Prototype.”

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300 Years a Thief

Here’s a little ditty for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge this week.  My first official one.  I went a bit over the limit but I’m cutting myself a break since it’s my first go.

I rolled a 7 (a time machine) and a 7 (a hard drive filled with secrets).  A happier combination for me may not exist. The title sucks, but I’m stuck on it for now. May change later. I am trying to improve, so if you’re out there, let me hear it.



It was unlike any electronic device she’d ever seen; a tiny silver box, no bigger than a toddler’s alphabet block; gleaming, square, perfect.  And her design for it was now perfect.  Ugly and functional, but perfect.


She didn’t believe that it had been anything at first, it was so insubstantial.  But when she followed Karn’s directions and got it close to the ports in her laptop, it had crazily sprouted wires that reached out for the connection, witches’ arms, grasping.  A flash of light and the smell of burned electrics, and when the smoke cleared, she saw that her old beloved laptop from freshman year was melted and charred, buzzing pitifully as the mechanics tried to spin back into function.  Some heavier gauge wires, lots of insulation and a newer machine had allowed her to successfully connect the cube to her desktop: it powered up happily, flashing strange symbols across the monitor and displaying a progress bar in green along the bottom.  Then the cube had started to hum – its alien mechanisms spinning up to speed – louder and faster until, with a sudden clang and a zapping sound, it launched itself across the room, tearing all the wires and punching a hole in the drywall.

It might have been useful for Karn to warn her about the innocuous little box, but his guidance had carried her this far.  The time for questioning him was long past, not that it was even possible.


Lisa pushed her goggles up, the last solder finished.  She slid the cube into place and clamped it down.  Silvery tendrils snaked out to make the connection with her snarled cluster of industrial wires.  Almost a sigh as the humming started.  The parade of arcane symbols marched across her screen.  She wiped her grease-smeared fingertips on her cruddy jeans and cast an anxious glance at the doorway.  The green bar on her monitor began to fill.


Seven months ago, she had heard that Karn’s estate was slated for demolition.  Some business had been invented about it spanning multiple district lines, containing materials that were a threat to public health or safety or well-being.  When she went digging, the city referred her to the county, who referred her to the next county over, who referred them back to the city, until she got tired of asking for permission and just broke in.

The inside of his big, dark house had been a rat’s nest of science textbooks, wires, defunct mechanical equipment, hastily scribbled notes and vagrant trash.  It was such a mess that she’d all but given up finding anything of value until she sat at his desk and toppled a pile of notes and garbage to the floor.  But it wasn’t the notes that caught her eye.  It was the network of symbols etched into the desktop, with an IP address scrawled faintly beneath it.  She’d made a rubbing and left disappointed, and the house simply wasn’t there the next day, as if some careless creator had reached down and wiped it out with a giant eraser.


The green progress bar filled and disappeared.  The cube hummed happily to itself, vibrating in place on the benchtop.  Her screen blanked out and was replaced by simple, ancient dot-matrix text which blipped into the bottom corner of the screen and asked, directly and bewilderingly, “Displacement vector (hours)?”


The IP address had led to nowhere, an empty site.  It was an easy task to set her system to monitor the site, but over the following days it saw no traffic and never got updated.

The funny little chart she’d copied from his desk turned out to be a cryptograph, a bizarre recursive system where a symbol could stand for a number or a letter or another symbol, filled with redundancy and apparent nonsense for good measure.  But there were no messages to decipher.

Until one day, a few weeks later, she noticed a stream of characters had been broadcast on the mystery IP address.  A stream of characters that looked remarkably like the ones in her chart.

Deciphering the first message had been like trying to follow a rabbit through a tangle of kudzu, but follow it she had, and once she got the knack for deciphering the messages, she started noticing them everywhere.  They arrived at unpredictable intervals, sometimes popping up on her computer screen, rarely making sense at the first reading.  She’d had to dedicate a wall of her workshop to his communiques before she started to understand what he was hinting at.  Bits of yarn connected one scrap of paper to another in a gigantic and cascading web of cryptic messages that should have been indecipherable.  Messages meant for somebody else.  Messages that told her how to build the device, how to stabilize it, and finally, where to find the power source: the little silver cube, the hard drive which housed the mind-bending circuits, calculations, and parameters to open a portal in time.


When Lisa started translating the messages, she had noticed that each one had a string of characters on the end.  Numbers.  A date.  A timestamp.  Three hundred years in the future.

“Displacement vector (hours)?”

She took a deep breath and keyed in 269274.


The cube’s humming climbed in frequency, became a whistling in her ears and then a soundless pressure in her head.  It glowed a bright, luminous blue, an impossible blue, spreading and intensifying, the entire room looking as if it were made of neon lights.  She felt her skin beginning to hum, her insides vibrating in time with the cube, the floor resonating with the impossible frequency bouncing in her brain.  Then a blinding flash, a deafening roar.  She thought, crazily, of the time she’d been skydiving; the sudden, world-shattering wind in her ears.

The cube’s hum died away.  The resonance dissipated.  The computer shut down.  Rain pattered softly at the window.

Had it been raining a moment ago?

She lost consciousness.


She’d tried to learn who Karn really was, but there were not very many records to go on.  A recluse, certainly; a genius, probably; and there was also the matter of his being undeniably, bewilderingly, mind-numbingly insane.  One day he’d been an inventor of some repute, living off the patents and income of some gadget he’d thought up around the time Lisa had graduated high school, and then one day he’d quite simply stepped off into the abyss.  He talked about seeing the future and meeting with himself from a hundred years hence, and how he could bring back the technology to save humanity, and what’s wrong with you all, you can’t lock me up like this, you’re all going to die, and … that’s when they took him away.  There had also been the small matter, of course, of him blacking out the power grid for half the city and blowing a crater a mile across in the desert outside of town, whereupon it had rained ash for three days.  The authorities tested the ash and found it to be perfectly harmless, but it had scared the hell out of everybody, and after that, Karn had disappeared.


It was, therefore, a great shock to Lisa when she woke up and found Karn himself standing over her, wild-eyed, soot- and grease-stained, raggedly-bearded, holding a device – no, it was definitely a gun, it’s impossible to mistake being held at gunpoint, even if the gun looks like something from a bad Star Trek ripoff – about an inch from her nose.

“Wh… y…” he mumbled, licking at his lips and working his jaw impotently, as if he had not spoken in years.

“Who in the blue FUCKING blazes are you?” He finally spat.

She swallowed hard, tried to focus on him and not on the barrel of the device that had to be some sort of gun.

“I’ve been getting your messages.”

“My messages?” he said, blinking.  He shook his head fiercely, his beard flapping madly.  He pressed his gun into her forehead, pinning her to the floor.  “Those were for me.  For ME.  You should be ME.  I should be… WHO ARE YOU?”

The gun-thing and his raving drove coherent thought out the window.  “I… I…” she stammered, shaking her head feebly.

He slammed her head to the floor, placed a finger to his lips, and darted to the window.  He crept over to it and ducked just below its sill, surprisingly spry for as old as he was.  How old was he?  He stole a glance out then dashed over to her, helping her up off the floor and shoving her toward the back door.

“What -”

“No time.  Run.  Hide.”  Once outside, he blustered past her and broke into a dead run, his unkempt hair streaming behind him.  “They’re COMING.”

She called feebly after him, still shaken from fear, “They who?”  But he was already shrinking toward the line of dead trees in the distance.  A thought nagged at her – those trees weren’t dead before she activated the cube – but she pushed it away.  She looked back past the little house.

Robots.  Hundreds of them.  Coming.

She ran.