By Helen Marshall
The first prototype was expensive. The technology was a bugger, and he ended up with four hairy arms instead of the original two. The glitch was sorted out, and the appropriate geneticists were sacked.
The second one was cheaper. Less errors. Two arms. Check. Ten fingers. Check. Everything else was redundant.
The third saw an upgrade in productivity. The costs were halved again, so that the project seemed almost realistic. Cloning may be cheap, but there were still housing issues, and all those bananas.
By the time we had the fiftieth, we got the knack of it. Our estimations suggested that the number would be doubled within a year, and quadrupled in another six months after that. Not enough, but we were getting there.
In ten years, the Earth could no longer sustain the population of monkeys required to keep the Project running. Ten thousand square miles had already been occupied, but we still didn’t have enough. We talked to the Russians. We talked to NASA. Mars was colonized in 2026 by the S. S. Albert III, and it didn’t take long to fill up the habitation pods.
At this point, the type-writers became a problem. They didn’t respond well to zero G. Something to do with the effect of gravity on the ink. More engineers were sacked.
By 2033, the number of monkeys had far exceeded the human populace. Genetically altered, their bodies now recycled 96% of their wastes, thus requiring less and less maintenance from the remaining workers. Their fur had been altered to accommodate the harsh temperature extremes of alien planetary surfaces. Only the fingers remained untouched.
The first simian edition of Hamlet was published in the summer of 2079. A typo in Act I, scene ii—“ Frailty, thy name is Loman!”—led scholars to reconsider the intertextuality between Shakespeare and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Back on Earth, the famed mystic Ms. Tyra declared that the Bard himself had been reincarnated in the form of a four-foot martian-bred monkey by the name of A5-9945-02. A
When the first draft returned to us, we in the Project wept to read it. Beautiful! New solar systems had been reached, colonized and then forgotten in the great literary Diaspora we had created. For us, there would be no artistic stagnation, no authorial burn-out, no author (how old fashioned!). There was only the machine, and the billions of hairy fingers typing away—the culmination of an entire species processed through a cosmic zip-ding!
You can hear the sound—almost deafening. All those type-written pages. They have written this story already. They have written all the stories—Plato, Milton, Wordsworth, Hemmingway, Heinlein. They have written every word you have ever said. They have written every word you will ever think. Amidst those piles of ink-stained debris, the greatest literary masterpiece exists. Only one question remains: how will we ever find it?
Winner of the Ad Astra 2008 Flash Fiction Contest
By Kevin Nunn
He concentrated on what he’d always loved before. Tenderly he flicked his tongue to tease out her nipple, his eyes closed, but her little gasp telling him what he needed to know. His hand searched down, feeling around to follow up on the feelings his mouth had wakened. His hand trembled as it skimmed the scales where she used to have a stomach.
With eyes pressed shut he focussed on the familiar sounds, her fluttery gasps, trying not to hear the flicking of her leathery wings, or feel the tentacled hand now pressing his head more firmly against her smooth and tender breast.
His hand finally found the new location of something soft and familiar, and he moved his face to make the most of the discovery.
As they lay in the afterglow, her claws flexing in the ground, she sighed in a contentment that had long denied her he could finally open his eyes again and look in her beautiful eyes. Behind the contented glow, the sadness was still there.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
“Forever” he vowed, “Just like I promised.” He held up his hand to show where her wedding ring now nestled next to his.
“Perhaps…” she said, looking away, “…perhaps we can get back to an earth colony, perhaps human doctors…”
“Shh…” he said and kissed her gently. “Forever and ever, just as I promised…” he whispered where there used to be an ear.
By Helen Marshall
The ghost cat leaned against the fluttering tail of her cotton dress, before it leaped up on to her lap. She couldn’t feel it of course. She could only see the deft paws probing for a place to settle in the warm recesses between her arms and her stomach. Sarah smiled, as it gave a little purr of contentment.
Beyond the porch, she could just now see the massive shape of the rising sun. These days, it seemed to take up the entire sky, so she had to wear dark glasses when she went out in the day. The light was less bright than it used to be, more diffuse, but it still hurt to look directly at the sun.
“Kitten,” she said affectionately. There were no cats left now. No mice to chase. No dogs to be chased by. No milk bowls left out by “accident.”
A minute or two later, she could hear music out of the house next door. The sounds were high and screechy, and she could only catch glimpses of the bass. Paul and Hilary had lived there a long time ago. They had left as well, but she still liked the music they used to play every Saturday.
The ghost cat refused to settle down today. Something had obviously agitated it. Its ears twitched back and forth like a metronome.
Still, Sarah couldn’t help but enjoy the last vestiges of the mammoth sun sinking behind the row of neat little houses. Already the phantom hum of mosquitoes was beginning to fill her ears. They were gone too, of course.
Sarah hummed along to the scratchy Elvis song coming from the house next door. The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky…
The cat twitched again and jumped off her lap. Its feet made no sound as it hit the porch. Sarah started up, as the ghost cat leapt to the next porch over. It was coming then. She thought the air felt different tonight, like it was vibrating along with the music from next door.
And as I wonder where you are I’m so lonesome I could cry…
Her joints felt achy, and there was a cool breeze as she padded down the steps. Perched on Hilary’s porch, the cat circled again in a nervous way. Sarah followed after it.
“Shhhh, kitten,” she whispered in a comforting voice. Sarah could hear laughter from inside the house.
She looked in through the window, and saw forms hidden behind the gauzy curtains. She recognized them. A slow smile spread like molasses across her face.
I’m so lonesome I could cry…
Ah, she thought. I hoped it would end with dancing.
By Kari Maaren
Also available here.
George found himself awfully embarrassed by the watermelon. He had grown used to the shifting eyes, the puzzled glances, the children pointing and whispering with their friends; he had grown used to them, but he still felt the heat mount to his face every time, and he wanted to melt into shadow on the sidewalk whenever someone–made bold by the bizarreness of the situation, perhaps–approached him to ask, “So...what’s with the watermelon?” He would have been less bothered about it if he had been able to see the watermelon himself...but he never had. All he knew was that it was simply, inexplicably always there, floating just behind his head, a damp green phantom he knew existed only because everyone (it seemed to him) was constantly telling him it did...and because he thought he could sense it sometimes, lurking just outside his vision with a damp vegetable smile.
“So what is with the watermelon?” said Marcia on a certain Tuesday, at a certain cafe.
She wasn’t looking at him; she was looking at it...as anybody who ever talked to him always looked at it. George shrugged, knowing she probably wouldn’t notice. He couldn’t explain the watermelon. The watermelon was.
“I know what it is,” said Marcia. “It’s one of those things...you know. A meta. Phor. Thing that means something more than it means, sort of like.”
She thought about it. “That doesn’t entirely make sense. It’s there, isn’t it? It’s a big green watermelon that follows you everywhere. I think it’s kind of cute.” She was looking at the watermelon, still. Not at him.
And he was watching Marcia. He sometimes thought he had been watching Marcia for years, while she had forever been watching the watermelon. Dark hair...heavy brows. Eyes turned away. He felt his cheeks redden but knew she wouldn’t see. It didn’t, somehow, seem fair that she wouldn’t see. A waiter walked by, staring at the watermelon. “Cute,” said Marcia. Looking away.
George flung an arm out behind him...willed himself to feel...rind, firm and slightly wet. It was there, under his fingers. Clenched hand. Pulled...it out in front. Onto the table. Closed his eyes. Smashed...pulp churning, running across his wrists, as he gouged out gobbets of cold flesh. Juice...tasting of pink...somehow. Scraping the rind with his fingernails.
George opened his eyes.
Marcia was looking at him. “What,” she said, “was that all about? I thought we were, you know, talking about your watermelon.” Inevitably, her eyes slid away...unfocused. Looking behind.
By the time they left the cafe, George knew he could not, after all, sense the watermelon lurking just outside his vision with a damp vegetable smile.