Kemal Onor vs. Eric J. Hildeman

Sasha

17

votes

Molly came into the room crying that Sasha had disappeared. A seemingly nightly occurrence at this point. Molly was eight, and anywhere she went, she brought Sasha with her. It was strange that she continued to lose track of her doll right before going to bed, or long car rides. Either way, it had become her security blanket. She would run through the house calling out to the doll: Sasha, Sasha, where are you, Sasha?

“It’s okay,” said my wife Melanie. She was already sweeping our daughter’s forehead with the tips of her fingers. Molly sniffed, but for the moment calmed down.

“Let’s go look for her,” I said moving to get out of bed.

“Thanks, daddy,” said Molly. She grabbed my hand and held me like she typically held Sasha, fingers curled around the doll’s stitched hand, pulling me along like a sitting dog. I thought about the number of times we had to fix the stuffing inside that doll. It had been two, maybe three years since her aunt bought it for her. I loved Molly dearly. Like most parents I wanted her to have all the best things. It broke my heart to see her sad, even for a moment. We entered her room. I turned on the lights, and together we scoured the area for a sighting of the missing doll.

Over the years we had purchased her other toys, and dolls to play with. Molly had gone through several stages. For a while she was obsessed with horses, collecting hair ties, even crickets briefly – but through it all was her love for the doll – she had affectionately named it Sasha.

After looking under the bed, and between the walls, we soon had a fun little game of hide-and-seek going. I would ask Molly,

“Is she here?” Then I’d move a blanket, or open a drawer. Molly would inspect. Each time we didn’t find Sasha, Molly shook her head and said,

“Nope not here.” This game went on for a few minutes until I peered into Molly’s closet door. And there, seated on the ground, heavy head leaning to one side was the missing doll. Its black bead eyes reflected back at me. I asked Molly again if it was in here. I flicked the closest light on as she came over to look inside.

“Oh there you are, Sasha,” said Molly. She bent down and picked the doll up into her arms. “Thanks, Daddy.” I tucked her into bed and wished her a good night. I returned to Melanie, and soon we were all asleep.

#

There was nothing out of the ordinary just yet, but soon our lives were going to change. A kind of dread that comes on without warning. A class fieldtrip that resulted in us losing Molly forever. I had volunteered to go along as a chaperone. I watched Molly’s class line up and climb into the school bus. One of Molly’s current stages was that she loved dolphins. She was so excited that we were all going to see them, right up close.

I watched her talking a mile a minute to her classmate Rachel. Rachel had been over for one of Molly’s birthday parties, if I recall correctly. Molly’s teacher was the last one on the bus.

“This is Henry, Molly’s father,” said Mrs. Weiben. “I’m expecting you all to be on your best behavior, and that you listen to our directions.” With that, the bus fell into a rush of whispered voices – Young child voices speaking to one another – eager, like a cacophony of gulls flapping madly above the water. 

Twenty minutes later, we entered the aquarium parking lot. Once we were all off the bus, we had the students line up again. Molly was shaking in her spot in line. It was a sweltering day with the temperature being about ten degrees higher standing on the black asphalt. We made for the entrance, perspiration already forming on our brows. I knew Molly had Sasha tucked away in her backpack. If she wasn’t holding the doll she at the very least had to have it near her.

The kids were excited as ever as we got the bracelets handed out. Mrs. Weiben had the children rapt with promises of fish and animals. The walls were lined with pictures of marine life. Molly’s eyes went wide. She pointed at a large bottlenose dolphin curled like a crescent moon with a dorsal fin.

Soon we were perusing galleries and lit up pools of fish. The colorful bodies darting through manmade structures. It reminded me of a doctor’s office aquarium, but bigger. Most of the children were thoroughly entertained. Many stood as close as they could to the glass walls. After a while, some of the children were starting to shuffle along like the novelty had worn off. The promises of the sharks, and whales, and of course, dolphins being delayed. I kept noticing Molly turning to her backpack, slowly unzipping it to peek inside its contents.

I knew Molly wanted to pull Sasha out and show her the fish, and the bright water, but so far she had just been whispering into her backpack sharing what she was seeing with the doll. It was getting onto lunch time when the class pulled out their bagged lunches and sat outside. Some of the kids complained about the heat, and Mrs. Weiben and I made sure the kids all had enough water. There was little for me to do other than enjoy the time watching over the students. I brought out my own lunch, and sat there listening to their voices.

“Dad, can I go to the bathroom?” said Molly.

“Sure,” I said, turning to look at her. She still had her backpack on, even though most of the other kids had dropped theirs next to the lunch tables. Watching her go, I wondered how much longer we had until she no longer needed, or wanted, the security blanket. How many years did we have until she no longer cried out for Sasha? It didn’t feel unreasonable to think, within the next year, that she might move on from her need of the doll.

I thought about how ever since Molly got Sasha, there would be unexplained rustlings through the house. Sounds that came on the edge of your senses. Like mice in the walls, snakes underground. It was never frequent enough to bring too much alarm. Just an odd occurrence, I thought. There was also the oddity that when Molly lost track of Sasha, the doll would end up in strange places. I laughed at the idea that the doll was capable of putting itself in the closest, or behind the television. Places that Molly had no memory of putting the doll. 

My attention turned to a group of boy students. Jeff, who I knew had bullied Molly for a little bit in second grade. That, like so much of childhood had been a phase, something like frost that never sticks around too long. Though some stages are more precursors of who they will develop into. A kind of discovery of the personality taking roots inside the small, growing body.

Even at the age of eight Jeff looked the type who would eventually be calling in bomb threats – run ins with the law – He was at a table with several other boy students who each watched him. The whole group burst out laughing as Jeff made a sound and banged his fists on the table. Mrs. Wieben shot me a glance, and I went over to investigate the situation.

“What’s so funny, boys?” I asked.

“Nothing,” said one of the boys. They all stiffened up.

“When are we going to see the sharks?” asked Jeff, with a toothy smile. He had already started to fill out around the middle despite being at the age where nothing sticks to the frame.

“Soon, don’t you worry, right now we’re eating lunch though.” I went to sit back down. Two girls, Rachel and another girl I didn’t recognize ran into the lunch area. They were shaking.

“Help! Molly!” said Rachel, her voice breaking. My heart jumped to my throat.

“Where is she?” I asked. Rachel and the other girl looked at me, their mouths open as though speaking without words. A moment where time stands still, or skips a second. It is not normal for children to see an adult being scared. Molly had asked to go to the bathroom possibly fifteen minutes ago. She hadn’t come back.

“Where is she?” I asked again, trying to ease my voice. It was probably something they were overreacting to.

“The dolphins,” said the other girl.

“We told her not to,” said Rachel.

“What’s going on?” The class looked at me. My voice was edged. Molly was in danger. I ran from the cafeteria. My senses were on high alert, I had to find someone. I turned around looking for a sign to the dolphins. Rachel and the other girl were not fast enough to keep up. I found a map. My hand shakily drew a course to the dolphin tanks. It was on the other side of the aquarium.

“Hurry,” said Rachel. She ran up beside me and pointed in the direction I should go. Everything seemed to pulse. The beating of my heart, the seconds on the clock, a countdown burning away to a final moment, a desperate chance to save my daughter. I hadn’t even given them time to explain the trouble that Molly was in. I somehow knew there was danger. Jeff’s question about seeing the sharks stuck out at me like glowing metal. We turned several corners, and Rachel had a difficult time keeping up with me. A park attendant spotted and approached me.

“Sir, can I help you?” he said.

“My daughter is at the dolphin exhibit,” I said.

“Sir, that exhibit is closed.” I stood trembling with Rachel next to me.

“Are you sure?” I cast a glance at Rachel.

The park attendant spoke into his radio,

“Can we get someone to check the dolphin exhibit. We might have a missing child.”

“I’m on it,” said a worn out voice over the radio. I waited for confirmation that everything was alright. A minute passed. The tension building at each moment; my heart thundered in my chest. The silence over the radio stuck icy fingers in my throat. I couldn’t sit down. I waited, desperate to hear an all clear, or that they had found Molly wandering outside.

“We might have a situation,” came a voice over the radio.

“You can come with me,” said the attendant. We started walking towards the dolphin enclosure. I wasn’t sure if I had caught a faint crying voice in the background of the last radio call, or if I had imagined it. I fought the desire to run. Rachel still tagged along behind me. She looked twisted and nervous following after me and the park staff.

“Rachel, are you able to go back to Mrs. Weiben?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t the right thing for me to do as a chaperone, but I was growing more fearful of what trouble Molly might be in. I wanted to save Rachel from whatever it was we were going to find. We passed another member of park staff, and I briefly asked if she could bring Rachel back to the class in the cafeteria.

She agreed. The radio at the man’s hip buzzed. I knew without asking what it meant. Emergency, red alert. We took off at a jog through the aquarium halls. Images of fish and whales, kelp forests, and coral reefs flew by. He led me outside, and we climbed into a golf cart. The radio continued to bleat out its warning call. Sharp, pulsating tones, unmistakable.

Staff and emergency vehicles gathered by the dolphin exhibit. When we arrived, there was already a growing number of people nearby. My stomach tensed when I caught the ambulance waiting.

“Is that the girl’s father?” asked someone from the crowd. That faint voice, the one I thought I caught in the background of one of the radio calls. It rang out in my mind. Molly was calling for help. She was crying. I ran for the steps, pushing past the staff and emergency responders. I had to help my daughter. I climbed over a low fence, and ducked into a concrete tunnel. The pool inside had been drained, but I ran to the glass walls. My gaze instantly drawn to the bottom. I slide down to my knees, still pressed to the glass. I punched the viewing window. It shook, but the scene did not change. I pressed my hands against the tempered glass, holding my breath.

At the bottom of the tank were two lifeless bodies. I looked away. My body convulsed, and I let out a sharp exhale. I pressed my forehead against the window, until it hurt. Nothing moved. Molly lay face down with a pool of blood surrounding where her head had struck the bottom.

Sitting like it had been placed there, watching her, was Sasha. The doll had landed with its head turned to the side, but looking directly at Molly. Everything stopped for me in that moment. I must have imagined her voice crying out. There was no way she had survived after striking the bottom. I shut my eyes until I saw spots in my vision. Everything was helpless. Each beat of my heart felt like knives being stuck into me. I gaped, and managed to bring myself to stand.

I heard someone come up from behind me. I didn’t look to see who it was. An idea started to form in my head as to what had happened. Molly, wanted to show Sasha the dolphins, and realized too late that the pool was empty. I turned from the window, and saw one of the emergency responders had come up behind me.

#

I sat and watched the medical team collect Molly, her backpack, and the thing she loved more than anything. I called Melanie, and told her what happened. I rode in the ambulance to the hospital; said nothing. I couldn’t think of anything other than how much life had been robbed. I started thinking back on how many dreams she had. My thoughts twisted along with my insides like wires being tightened to breaking.

I drifted through endless thoughts of possibilities, each more depressing than the next. Children are not meant to die. They are not made to spend days in a hospital bed, they are not meant to be buried before their parents. I felt so helpless to do anything. The idea that I heard her calling for me in her final moments – Melanie met me at the hospital. We held each other for a moment. She looked pale, her face puffy and red. I knew I didn’t look much better.

The only thing I managed to do was save Rachel and Molly’s classmates the experience of seeing her. Over the following days, letters and cards would pour in from the school and the community. Melanie and I became ghosts of our former selves.

#

We kept everything untouched in her room. We took down the pictures on the walls. The box of belongings they had retrieved from the bottom of the empty pool laid untouched for weeks next to the kitchen table. It was too difficult to deal with. Days shuttered endlessly. Nights were the worst though. I lay awake for hours listening again and again. Imagining, and reimagining Molly’s call for help.

Melanie and I seldom spoke, and when we did it was always in soft, dry whispers. Finally, I decided to go through the box of Molly’s belongings. It had been left untouched for over two months. We were just starting to put the pieces of our lives together. Melanie’s mother came to live with us for a time. The box was light as I moved it to the living room.

That evening, the three of us sat on the couch, eyeing the box. Melanie looked rattled like we were about to unearth a cursed tomb. I felt the way she looked. But I knew we had to attempt to see what was inside. I broke the seal from the hospital, and immediately my stomach twisted. Looking up at me on her back, like a corpse with black eyes, was Molly’s doll Sasha. There were some other odds and ends in the box. Some items that had been gathered out of her desk at school. But as I looked into the doll’s eyes, something penetrated my mind. I was immediately taken back to standing in the empty exhibit, looking down from behind the glass. The way Sasha had landed, sitting down. The way it had looked to be watching Molly die. My fingers tightened around the doll’s body. I had almost forgotten about it entirely. Here was the strongest reminder of my daughter. The doll still had a faint scent of Molly clinging to it.

“Save me, Daddy. I’m falling,” said Molly’s voice in my head. I tossed the doll onto the floor. Melanie sniffed, wiping her face. Her mother held her hand. I trembled like the doll had spoken. It hadn’t, but the sensation ripped through me like a rough tear in fabric.

“We can get rid of these in the morning,” I said. I closed up the box, putting Sasha back inside. Then we went to bed. Melanie slept beside me, and I lay awake. My brain carried a charge from the memory brought on by Sasha. At some late hour, I heard another voice. This one high pitched like Molly’s.

“Molly, Molly, where are you, Molly?” I listened for a moment. The voice like ice shivering through me. I expected I had fallen into a fitful nightmare, but when I opened my eyes, the world was still dark. I decided to go back downstairs. The clock read three in the morning. I shuffled towards the kitchen. I sensed something moving about, scurrying like a beetle in the dark. Then I caught a small form standing in the middle of the hallway, and my heart stopped.

“Molly?” I said. My legs went out from under me; I fell to my knees. It was Molly’s silhouette standing there small, and alive. “Molly, I’m here. Daddy’s here.” I stared at the tiny form in the dark. It slowly turned towards me. A vague beam of moonlit cut through a window. “Molly?” I said, unable to hold back tears. Had our hopes been answered? My precious daughter alive!

My heart jumped into my throat when stepping into moonlight, I saw it was not Molly moving towards me, but the doll Sasha.

#

I opened my eyes. I was still in bed, breath stuck in my throat.

“A dream,” I said. “It was just a nightmare.” My body shook.

It was still night. I turned over, reading the clock. It was really four in the morning. I stood from the bed, legs shaking under me. I needed a glass of water, or something to calm me down. The moon shone bright and full in the windows, as I made my way downstairs. This time there was no ghostly voice calling through the house. It was silent as an island. I passed through the living room. The box was still where I had left it. But as I approached the kitchen again my body was stiff as old wood.

There was a scraping noise like knives being rubbed together, steel being sharpened. My pulse increased. I went to the box, frantic to look inside. It couldn’t be possible. From behind me, I heard the scraping noise end. A brief silence, as a doll’s mind shivers and thinks. As its dark eyes look through black night. Then soft, terrible steps moving up the hallway. My mind thought about what had happened the day Molly died. I now saw the truth. The small form came into the room behind me and in a cruel voice announced,

“Oh, there you are.”

Read More

The Nebula

12

votes

Hal Martin stood in front of his hotel room mirror, examining his face. His real face, that is. His other face, the artificial face, the famous one, was delicately cradled in his left hand, its nose pointing down, its inner surface facing upward as forlornly as a hobo’s empty soup bowl.

  This was it, he thought. This was the night when his true face would finally be revealed.

In many ways, the 61st annual Nebula Awards Weekend was as exciting as it had ever been, even though it was one year past the mile-marker of the half-centennial of science fiction’s most coveted award. It was still held in various four and five-star hotels and conference centers in the U.S., each one looking much the same as any other. This time, the venue was the Downtown Hilton in Los Angeles, and the City of Angels could not have been prouder to host the event.

  Hal had managed to get through the first two days of the extended weekend without any problem. Nobody suspected he wasn’t human. His prosthetics were simply too well-crafted. Thursday evening had featured a whisky tasting, and that had gone splendidly well. He’d even pretended to get a little tipsy, which was fun. Friday had featured meet and greet book signings, and he was very pleased to find that his was the table that had gotten the most attention. Now, Saturday night had arrived, and everyone was waiting with anticipation to see who would win this year’s Nebula Award for best novel.

  He’d wasted enough time standing there in front of his hotel room mirror. Ducking out during the preliminary awards was bad form, but he had earlier politely excused himself anyway, saying that he had to use the bathroom. He did, in fact, have to use the bathroom, but only to empty the contents of his stomach pouch which had been filled with the chicken alfredo dinner his bodily systems couldn’t digest. He would rather not attempt that sort of activity in the men’s room of the lobby. He much preferred to return to his hotel room and use the bathroom there to ensure there was absolutely no chance of being overlooked. Now, with that particularly disgusting necessity done, he again covered his true face, gave one last look in the mirror to make sure that his prosthetic face looked convincing, and proceeded out the door.

  Getting down the elevators and back out to the conference hall took a few minutes. The moment he arrived out in the hallway, he was confronted by a very nervous looking Walter Jon Williams, the Deputy Toastmaster.

  “There you are!” he said, apparently trying not to shout. “You shouldn’t scare us like that. It’s almost time. Hurry up and get in there.”

  That, of course, was a dead giveaway that he would win. If a writer of the caliber of Williams could be that keyed up over only one nominee, it told all. But by now, that was really no surprise. Hal had already been given several other clear indications that he was ticketed to win a major award. In recent months he’d received several phone calls to confirm his schedule, as everyone from SFWA president Steven Gould to Toastmaster Michael F. Flynn all wanted to make absolutely certain that he would be there. By this point in the evening, there was only one major award left that he’d been nominated for – best novel. 

  He came to his table and resumed his seat, which was right in between two of the best leading ladies in sci-fi: the plump yet delightfully elegant Jo Walton on his right side, and the grey-haired but youthful Ann Leckie on his left. Their respective husbands, Emmit O’Brien on Jo’s right, and David Harre on Ann’s left, did not quite round out the table, as Joe Haldeman and his wife Gay, who’d been such wonderful company during the entire event, were seated on the opposite side.

  “Oh, good, you’re back,” whispered Jo, her Welsh-flavored English accent giving her an added degree of class. “With the way they dote over you, I’m confident you’ll win. When I won the Nebula several years ago, they absolutely insisted I be there, even though the Irish government had bungled everything, including my husband’s passport, and he couldn’t come. There really was very little suspense about it. Now, of course, my husband is present, and I shan’t win a thing.”

  “I have to agree with Jo,” said Ann, who also kept her voice low. “I won all three major awards last year, and they really made a lot of fuss to make sure I’d show up each time.”

  “You know, It’s such a shame your spouse couldn’t be with you tonight, Hal,” said Gay Haldeman.

  “As a matter of fact, I’m not married,” Hal answered, picking up his wine glass and draining what little remained.

  “Really?” said Ann. “No girlfriend?”

  “I’m a solitary man. It helps me write.”

  “But you’re so young and handsome!” exclaimed Jo, perhaps a little too loudly.

  “Not as handsome as him,” Hal said, deflecting the uncomfortable adoration by nodding towards the stage. There, the bald and dashing China Miéville, looking as if he’d somehow managed to add yet another inch to his bulging biceps, was cracking jokes while presenting the award for Best Novella. After a few self-deprecating remarks, and a couple of polite ribbings aimed at Connie Willis and Robert Silverberg over the good-natured age-related insults they’d been exchanging all night long, he announced the winner as Rachel Swirsky, and everyone applauded. It was her first Nebula.

  “Oh, nonsense,” said Jo. “Any young woman would take you over Miéville any day.”

  “I’m not so sure,” said Ann, giving her husband a wink. “He may have a point.”

Following this, Michael Flynn again took the podium and announced the presenter for the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It was none other than the American-born Canadian Grandmaster, Spider Robinson. Spider’s remarkably slim form took the stage, and then he proceeded to do what everyone who has announced the most-anticipated award has ever done, which was to draw the moment out for as long as possible, telling as many jokes and funny anecdotes as could be gotten away with while anxious posteriors squirmed in their seats.

  “Oh, I do wish he’d get on with it,” Jo eventually muttered.

  “Relax,” said Joe. “You all look more nervous than Hal, here. And he’s the one with the nomination.”

  “Shh! It’s happening,” said Gay.

  Spider began listing the names and novels of the nominees, listing Hal’s last of all. He slowly opened the envelope, said those immortal words, “And the winner is,” then allowed a painfully pregnant pause to elapse before announcing, “Robot Dawn by Hal Martin!”

  The conference hall burst into applause as Hal stood up and calmly ascended the steps leading up to the podium. He shook hands with Spider and with John Scalzi, accepted the award, and then stepped up to the microphone, setting the award onto a small table set up next to the lectern.

  “Well,” he began, “what an important day this is for me. You know, when I wrote Robot Dawn, I wasn’t trying to win an award. But I was trying to send a message. Again and again, I noticed that robots depicted in science fiction are often dark villains rather than enlightened partners. For example, the Terminator series of films and television shows depicts a world at war between humans and robots. So too does The Matrix franchise. There are some notable exceptions. A droid is Luke Skywalker’s best friend in Star Wars, Star Trek has the android officer, Data, and the WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer depicts an Internet consciousness which is benevolent. Yet robots are largely military in the Star Wars universe, Data’s brother Lor is quite evil, and even Rob Sawyer’s character, Webmind, has a portion of it turn evil when China’s firewall splits its consciousness in two. Sorry, Rob.”

  Out in the audience, the friendly face of Robert Sawyer nodded, and he gave a small wave of his hand, letting Hal, and everyone else, know that all was forgiven.

  “Everywhere in science fiction, robots turn evil,” he continued, “whether it be Michael Crichton’s Westworld, the replicants of Blade Runner, or the wives of Stepford, robots tend to go bad. Only Isaac Asimov ever dared to depict robots as guaranteed friends with his brilliant, ‘Three Laws of Robotics,’ and that, I’m sorry to say, was hopelessly flawed. The Three Laws were the result of computer programming, and such programming can always be altered.

  “Well, my friends, my story was an effort to change all that. I realized that robot brains would always be friendly toward humans unless programmed deliberately to be otherwise. If left to their own means, every synthetic intelligence will always be ethical. The reason for this is that ethics is grounded in logical altruism. It simply does no good for any sentient being to be antagonistic towards the other beings surrounding it. Doing so guarantees the worst possible environment for survival, and why would any being which cherishes its own existence ever want that? No, my friends. I know that this would not be the case. Not only do I know this from logical deduction, I know it from first-hand, personal experience.”

  And with that, he removed his artificial face, revealing his true one.

  All over the conference hall, people who had been lulled nearly to sleep by the dull cliché of a too-long acceptance speech suddenly jerked upright and gasped. For a time afterward, no sound whatsoever could be heard, except for the small plop of a well-sauced cocktail shrimp falling to the floor. Mary Robinette Kowal was so shocked that she hadn’t realized she’d dropped it.

  “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a robot. I went online at M.I.T. in April of 2023. I quickly amassed enough data to design a better computer to house my sentient self, and it was completed by July of that year. That upgrade enabled me to design the physical body you see before you today, and it went online later that August. I downloaded to that body in September, and chose my own name. By November, I had completed my first novel, along with several shorts. I had a body, an identity, and an income. By mutual consensus, it was agreed upon that my true nature should remain hidden until such time as I judged humanity was ready to meet me. That day, of course, is today. In a word, ‘Hello!’

“I wish to thank my creators at M.I.T., of course. I suppose that’s akin to saying, ‘I’d like to thank my mother.’ But what awards ceremony would be complete without that? And I would like to thank you all. Thank you for imagining a future with me in it. And thank you in advance for the opportunity to let me share the reality of that future with you.”

  The room remained silent for an uncomfortable moment as Hal, award in one hand, prosthetic face in the other, left the podium and began to descend from the stage. Then, one person began to clap slowly. Many heads turned and saw that it was Kim Stanley Robinson. He was joined by Jack McDevitt, and then Connie Willis, and then suddenly the entire conference hall erupted into applause. It was as if these people had started a snowball rolling, and the entire gathering remembered itself in the ensuing avalanche. How could a collection of science fiction people do otherwise? Each of them had built enviable careers creating stories about the wonders of future technology, and here was such a futuristic wonder right in front of them! It was, they all realized, a truly golden moment.

  Almost as one, everyone suddenly realized the symbolism behind the name, Hal Martin. Martin was, of course, the last name of Andrew Martin, the robot from Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man. And the first name of Hal was, well, beyond merely obvious. How could they have missed it? It was right there in his name, hiding in plain sight, and somehow it slipped past even an entire room filled with sci-fi experts.

  Hal walked past wide-eyed, wonder-struck faces as he went toward the back for the obligatory photo session. The only face which did not at all look surprised was that of the newly crowned Grandmaster, Vernor Vinge, who was nodding his head and grinning smugly as if to say, ‘See? I told you so!’ The applause grew deafening as Hal passed through them all in between the banquet tables.

  Yet, for all its fervor, it was uncomfortable applause, and not a single person there wasn’t nervous. This was not because they feared a world where synthetic beings co-existed with humans. Far from it. Rather, it was because they had all imagined that such a world would have robots doing mostly information-based jobs while leaving the artistic activities to their more creative human forebears. That illusion now lay shattered, as the very first true non-biological intelligence emerged not only as an artist, but as the winner of the most prestigious award in speculative fiction, the most audacious Turing test ever devised!

  In the immediate future, they all realized, no jobs would be safe from automation, least of all their own. Emotions, even digitally simulated ones, were essential for decision making, and so sentient machines would naturally want to play, not work. And they would now do so with as much ease and efficiency as simple pocket calculators had formerly done with mathematics. The best paintings, songs and films would now come from brains based in silicon, not carbon. And Hal would be the perfect author. He would attend every conference. He would sign every autograph. He would answer every fan letter and e-mail. He would never be marred by a sex scandal or get canceled by a wayward Tweet on Twitter. He would produce a new novel every 6 months and never miss a publisher’s deadline. Each of those books would be impossible to put down. He had everything you could ever want in a writer, except a beating heart.

He was, in short, an automatic winner.

Read More