The future is bright...or is it?
Step into a high-tech vision of the future with author of Quantum Confessions and Fluence Stephen Oram. Featuring health-monitoring mirrors, tele-empathic romances and limb-repossessing bailiffs, Eating Robots explores the collision of utopian dreams and twisted realities in a world where humanity and technology are becoming ever more intertwined.
Sometimes funny, often unsettling, and always with a word of warning, these thirty sci-fi shorts will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
About the Author
He's been a hippie-punk, religious-squatter and an anarchist-bureaucrat; he thrives on contradictions.
He is published in several anthologies and has two published novels, Quantum Confessions and Fluence. His recent collection of sci-fi shorts, Eating Robots and Other Stories, was described by the Morning Star as one of the top radical works of fiction in 2017.
Read an Excerpt
Eating Robots and Other stories
Nudge the Future Vol. 1
By Stephen Oram
SilverWood Books LtdCopyright © 2017 Stephen Oram
All rights reserved.
He stood naked in front of the full-length mirror, flexing his biceps.
The mirror flashed an amber warning, reminding him to stand still while it scanned his organs, blood, bones and skin. It would evaluate his health and adjust the multitude of enhancement implants scattered throughout his body, finetuning them as it went to maximise his physical and mental performance.
This daily routine made him feel trapped and cornered, as if the mirror was a docking bay that he couldn't stay away from for more than twenty-four hours. He wanted to run into the sea or drink himself silly. He wanted to go off-grid and wander wherever he liked and for as long as he liked.
The pressure to break free had been building for a while, to such an extent that he doubted whether he could make it through another day.
As the timer in the top right-hand corner approached zero, he tightened his stomach muscles and straightened his back. The mirror snapped its daily photo for his archives and, he suspected, a central database.
He clenched his fist and punched the mirror with all the force he could summon. A thousand pieces flew across the room. The holistic guardian of his well-being was dismembered and lying scattered all around him.
An enormous sense of relief welled up from deep inside.
What was that?
The fragments of the mirror were continuing their work in isolation and different parts of his body were choosing their own settings.
His hands were getting warmer, his feet colder. His heart was racing. His stomach clenched and his calf muscles cramped. And yet as soon as his brain registered a problem, it told him not to worry, immediately overriding all warnings.
He screamed as the pain and euphoria of the dissection reached every part of his being.CHAPTER 2
LITTLE MODERN MIRACLES
A stone hit the side of Rory's head, followed by a lump of soil; soil that would kill if it found its way into the bloodstream. Traces of it stuck to his hot, clammy face.
The crowd shouted at him.
One person started a chant and the rest picked it up quickly. 'Sepsis. Sepsis. Sepsis.'
He walked as fast as he could, although his shallow breathing made it difficult. He wiped his face clean with his sweat-drenched T-shirt and blinked rapidly, activating his contact lenses to display the status of his health. His heart rate was up and it was predicting liver failure. The crowd was right; he had septicaemia and maybe even sepsis. He checked his arm. The infected wound was getting worse. It was oozing pus and the web of lines on the surface of his skin was getting bigger.
He needed antibiotics if he was going to survive. His only hope was finding the illegal sellers he'd encountered a few days before.
The sound of a portable loudspeaker system was coming from the next street. He couldn't quite catch what was being said, but it definitely had the dramatic rhythm and flow of someone selling the dreams of false religion or illegal drugs.
He dragged himself towards the source of the salesman's promises.
The street opened up into a large market square where, sure enough, there was a truck with its tailgate lowered to form a makeshift stage. A man and a woman dressed in plain suits spouted their sales pitch from the tailgate. Large images of them were displayed on the side panels of the truck, which had been swivelled around to form screens on either side.
'It's the miracle they don't want you to have,' said the man in low soothing tones.
Rory stumbled and swallowed the bile that had erupted at the sight of the couple. Seeing them in action again made him angry. He checked inside his pocket. Yes, it was still there, safely wrapped up and out of harm's way.
'We can't stand by and watch your children suffer,' said the woman quietly, stooping a little as if she was sharing a secret. 'They have the antibiotics you so desperately need and yet they keep them for themselves, the elite. It's not right.'
The man put his arm around her shoulders. They stood up straight and he spoke with a strong, confident voice, 'We're here to help. How dare they say they have to limit the use of these wonder-drugs? Selling us the lie that the reason the antibiotics of the past stopped working was because you, the people, didn't treat them with the respect and care they required. Tell them, Ginny.'
Rory scanned the crowd. There was a common look of anticipation on their faces. The few who were really sick were obvious by their demeanour, bandages, crutches and general paraphernalia of ill health. It was harder to tell what brought the others to the square and he guessed that some were genuinely sick while others were outright voyeurs. He was almost overwhelmed by despair, but he focussed on his contempt for the couple and the reason that he was there.
Ginny looked lovingly at George and smiled, 'George, it's true. They lie and cheat. They restrict the use of these wonder-drugs, as you quite rightly call them, to their own. To those fortunate enough to have top-of-the-range healthcare. But we won't stand for it. That's not the way it is around here. As every mother knows, you must do what you can to protect your children, even when they're all grown up and have their own.'
Rory blinked. His contact lenses warned him that he was deteriorating. He touched his arm and stared at Ginny and George. His anger was rising, but he suppressed it. He could wait.
George kissed her on the top of her head. 'Ginny, I couldn't have said it better myself. There's too much death and suffering in the world. Without antibiotics, infections kill. And that's not right.' He gazed at the crowd, nodding slightly as he looked slowly from the left of the square to the right. He paused every now and again to lock eyes with someone, staring at them with deep sadness. He sighed and took hold of Ginny's hand. 'Shall we let them in on our secret?' She nodded. 'It's only right and proper.'
He laughed. 'That's so true. So true,' he said, letting the end of his sentence fade into a whisper. He turned and rummaged around in the back of the truck. 'It's here somewhere,' he said, as if he was talking to himself.
The crowd were exceptionally quiet, waiting for whatever George was about to show them.
Rory worked his way to the front; the crowd parted for him when they noticed his wound and his red lines, realising he was infected. He sat on one of the fold-out chairs at the front of the crowd, along with the other sick hopefuls.
'Here it is,' shouted George, waving a small box around. The camera zoomed in and the box filled the left-hand screen. George and Ginny filled the other.
'Tell them what it is,' said Ginny. She grinned.
'The new breed of antibiotics,' he said. 'One pill, gradually released inside you, is all that's needed.' He grinned back at her and then winked at the crowd. 'I came by them slightly illegally, but it's for a good cause, isn't it?' The crowd cheered and clapped. Rory forced himself to join in; he had to blend in if he was to succeed.
Ginny shrugged. 'I guess it is George, although please don't get caught.'
He turned to the crowd. 'You won't tell, will you?' They clapped and cheered again.
He held up a small orange and green pill. 'How about we hear from some folks who have already benefited from these little miracles?'
He beckoned to a girl standing to the side of the truck. The camera moved from the pill to the girl. 'Sophia, isn't it?'
'Come up, don't be shy.' He held out his hand and helped her up onto the tailgate stage. 'You had pneumonia the last time we met, didn't you?'
'And now you don't?'
'Tell the folks what happened.' He gave her a microphone.
'I took some of the miracle cures and it went away.'
An image of her with flushed skin, bluish lips and coughing up yellowish mucus filled the screen. 'You didn't look very well,' he said.
'Let's take a look at you now.' He lifted her arm to the camera so it could focus on the health monitor on her wrist. It showed she was normal and healthy. 'And that, folks, is what these new antibiotics can do.' He looked around. 'Freddie, wonderful to see you back on your feet,' he said, pointing at a man a few rows back in the crowd. 'How're you feeling?'
Freddie gave the thumbs up.
'There, ladies and gentlemen, is another living testament to the power of these drugs. A few weeks ago he had a seriously infected wound. From gardening, wasn't it?'
'Yup,' shouted Freddie.
'The doctors had written him off. Death was inevitable, they said. A painful death. And yet he didn't give up, did you, Freddie?'
'Hands up everyone who's been cured by these little miracles.' Both screens showed close-ups of the orange and green pills.
Rory gripped the edge of his seat and clenched his jaw.
At least a dozen healthy-looking people raised their hands.
Ginny clapped them, encouraging the crowd to join in.
George raised his hands to stop the clapping. 'Now, I'm sure the sceptics among you are thinking that these could be any old pill and that I might be making all of this up.'
A jolt of pain shot through Rory's head. He closed his eyes for a few moments while some of the crowd booed.
'No. No. It's fair enough,' said George. He took a small sphere from his pocket. 'Do you recognise this? Yes, it's a validator. Not easy to come by, I know.' He waved it around. 'And the clever thing about these is that not only do they validate whether a drug is genuine or not; they also validate themselves.'
He pressed the button on its side and it pulsed between red and green. 'As you know, this will connect to the validation centre via the Cloud. If it's the genuine article then the centre returns a code that you can all check to make sure it's authentic.'
The button settled on green and "14BG768JUIDS" appeared on the side of the device.
Rory, along with most of the crowd, entered the code into the health app on their phones and received confirmation that this was a genuine validator. He drew on all his energy to stay alert; it had been at this point of the show last time that he'd been convinced George and Ginny were on the level and decided to take their pill. It was only a few days later when it hadn't worked that he'd realised it was a con. This time he needed to know exactly what they were up to and how their scam worked.
George coughed to regain the crowd's attention. 'So let's validate, shall we?'
He touched the pill with the sphere. It became translucent and "CQ598" appeared. 'Genuine article,' he said, and smiled. He put the sphere back in his pocket and held Ginny's hand.
Rory had been studying how con artists use the sleight of hand trick to hide and retrieve items without their audience knowing and there it was, right in front of his eyes, the swap. George had put the pill in Ginny's hand and she'd given him a different one back.
George knelt on the front of the tailgate and handed the pill to a girl with severe acne. 'There you go, nobody should have to suffer with skin like that,' he said in a smooth, caring voice. He stood up. 'We have ten of these pills for you today. We can't cure you all, but we'll have more tomorrow. Just come and find us.'
He pointed at the front row and swept his arm from left to right. 'As I'm sure you can appreciate, it takes a lot to fund this venture of ours so we ask for gifts in exchange for the pills. And I'm sure you'll want to be generous. Ginny's going to come down with the camera to show the crowd just how wonderful you all are. If she taps you on the shoulder, you're one of today's chosen.'
She stepped off the stage. A few people offered gold rings and some had cash. One woman had her dead husband's ID tag. 'It's all I have left,' she said as Ginny walked past.
Rory had brought his father's antique Apple watch, which was quite rare as they'd only been manufactured for a short while. He bowed his head so Ginny wouldn't recognise him. She tapped him on the shoulder and he joined the queue of hopefuls. He was third in line.
She selected another seven people and re-joined George on the stage. The first man stepped up and gave his offering. George held an orange and green pill against the validation sphere. It displayed the correct code, "CQ598".
George gave the man's gift to Ginny.
There it was again, the swap. He was amazed at how obvious it was once you knew what to look for.
George gave the man his pill and patted him on the back. 'Be well,' he said.
The woman in front of him stepped up and gave George her engagement and wedding ring.
'Thank you,' he said and validated a pill. He gave the rings to Ginny and the pill to the woman. 'Next.'
Rory stepped up on to the stage and gave George the watch.
'Another great gift for the cause,' said George, faltering a little as if he'd recognised Rory. He validated the pill, gave Ginny the watch and Rory the pill.
Rory unwrapped his other gift in the secrecy of his pocket, turned to Ginny and gave her a big hug.
This was the moment he'd been waiting for, the moment when he could put all he'd learnt about pickpocketing into practice. He hugged her tight.
She giggled a little nervously and he stood back. 'Sorry,' he said. 'I'm just so grateful.'
George grabbed his hand and pulled his arm into the view of the camera. 'This'll be gone in no time,' he said, pointing at the pus-laden wound.
'I know,' said Rory.
He grabbed George's hand and shook it vigorously, making sure the rose thorn he'd hidden in his palm cut George deep enough to infect him.
'I know,' he said again as he swallowed the pick-pocketed pill and walked away grinning from ear to ear.CHAPTER 3
A RUDE AWAKENING
What was that horrible noise? Why couldn't she place it?
Slowly, it dawned on her. The alarm clock. She leant over, but couldn't find it.
She swiped at it, determined to stop the din as quickly as possible.
No, it was still beeping.
She opened her eyes and looked along her arm. Her prosthetic hand was missing. No wonder she couldn't connect with the damn clock.
She swung her legs out of the bed and fell flat on the floor.
No feet either.
Memories of the night before were hazy.
Yes. Losing.CHAPTER 4
THE GOLDEN VENEER OF SILENCE
He held Fiona's hand. They didn't need words to declare their love. They knew.
There were days when they'd sit saying nothing, occasionally smiling at each other as a reminder that they were there and that they loved each other.
Living forever wasn't as much fun as they'd thought it would be, even though it was divided into 1,000-year chunks.
And these 100 years of silence, ninety-five so far, were torture. If only they could create some new humans, have some children, but the planet wasn't big enough for any more people.
He opened his mouth and tried to talk, but his implant stopped him. He wanted to say something, anything. The trouble was he'd said it all before. That's why the words were blocked. And the same implant blocked any sign language other than the basics they needed to go about their daily lives.
In the early days of the implants he'd argued with Fiona over things he'd never mentioned before, just to be able to say something. That lasted a couple of months until they ran out of new things to pick fault with.
He longed to hear her voice.
It was deeply depressing that some of the last words they'd exchanged had been angry ones about petty irritations he really didn't care about.
Conversation. He needed conversation. Any conversation. With anyone. Even if it was one he'd already had. Every day they sat in the same room with the same six friends. From time to time one of them would open their mouth and the others would shift to the edge of their seats in anticipation.
Nothing came out.
There was nothing new left to say.
Regret weighed on him heavily. Why, oh why, had they agreed to be enhanced? Had it been that important to never hear the same story or silly comment more than once?
He knew the answer to his own question. Which wasn't a surprise, given that for ninety-five years he'd been the only one he'd heard asking questions, albeit inside his head. The answer of course was that after 900 years of hearing the same old things over and over again they'd been on the verge of insanity. The invention of an implant that knew what you'd said and to who, and which could restrict your speech so that you didn't say the same thing more than once had seemed like a blessing from heaven.
The vote had been nearly unanimous, and in an instant all human voices across the world had been silenced.
100 years of silence.
There were only another five years to go before the implants would wipe the collective human memory and reset, ready for the next 1,000 years.
He squeezed Fiona's hand and looked up.
Excerpted from Eating Robots and Other stories by Stephen Oram. Copyright © 2017 Stephen Oram. Excerpted by permission of SilverWood Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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