Two friends discuss a strange flower found growing in one's garden.
The aroma of coffee hung in the air as Jackson Carling finished the last of his toast. He watched his friend Lemah Zakari absently stir a spoon inside an empty mug. Lem didn’t eat breakfast.
“I have a theory about that habit of yours,” Jackson offered, “if you care to hear … Remember when you were attacked by the 21st century? And whatever you ate tasted foul, except just one thing?”
Lem remembered. Three years ago he’d suffered an abrupt outbreak of everything: itchy skin, sore throat, red eyes, and numerous food allergies, with a coppery taste to anything sweet. In less than a month he’d lost 25 kilos, at the same time developing a brief but passionate love affair with iron oxide. “The doctor said I was too healthy, so my system was doing a test run. Checking that my antibodies were still in perfect working order.” Privately, Lem had been convinced the consultant was a complete quack.
“That wasn’t your system—that was Earth’s test run … seeing if she could make the required changes with the existing raw material she had laying about. That’s why you were compelled to go round sucking on rusty nails.”
Lem cursed himself for having confided about the guilty side-effects of his many afflictions. “What raw materials? What required changes?”
In response, Jackson unzipped his Adidas sports bag and plucked a small slender object from inside. It was emerald-stemmed with tiny blue spikes. Glittering tendrils dangled from one end.
“What the hell’s that?”
Jackson rubbed his hands together and looked to the ceiling. “I’m pretty sure it’s a metallic flower. Found it growing in my garden.”
Lem picked the thing up and sniffed it. It was warm with a coppery scent. There was a time when he'd have laughed at Jackson and accused him of finding it in the one-pound shop. According to Jackson, the government was monitoring everyone via their digital devices, fillings, tattoos. But this older, measured conspiracy theorist could have you listening, slack-jawed and helpless, while your brain slowly fizzled from his cogent observations.
Now, Jackson brushed wayward crumbs from his Nebuchadnezzar beard before expanding. “Almost everyone believes Artificial Intelligence will take over the world, yes? But can robots thrive on a planet that's been created to be symbiotic with organic life? The present population needs certain liquids, minerals, gases: All of Earth's current nutrients. A.I.s require an entirely different mix. We can't both stay here.”
“So Earth has had a think about the problem for herself. And she’s found a solution.”
“What? What’s the solution?”
“Chill, dread... “Jackson held up a calming hand. “The solution is that she's cooking up a new primordial soup. She's decoded our messages and is saying, 'Ok, ok, I'll take it from here.'” Jackson waved the flower gently. “Humans can now be diced, spliced, uploaded, downloaded, on-lined, automated, and programmed any which way they want.”
“B-but … but—look, what messages?” Lem hated the way Jackson made everything seem so plausible; but he could feel his skin getting antsy—a sure sign his blood pressure was rising. “And why would robots want flowers?”
Jackson shrugged. The movement made his knitted blue jumper look like it was shivering. “Like I said, she's just tryin' a t'ing—a lickle test run. And messages? Haven’t we already sent her plenty? We prepared the ground by adding toxic shit to food so it can kill us. All around the world we've planted millions of death seeds, that it'll take a thousand years to clear. We’ve got landmines designed to tear flesh apart a hundred different ways. We don’t remember precisely where half of them are in a given location. We spill radioactive waste that will outlive us by millennia. We pollute the oceans. Create biological warfare.”
Jackson was really getting into it, spreading his arms wide like a preacher on a Pentecostal pulpit. Lem could only stare in open-mouthed awe as his friend continued to wax lyrical. “And meanwhile, who's striking a pose outside CERN headquarters, getting ready for the destruction of the universe? The Right Honourable Lord Shiva, dancing out the old and in the new.”
Lem felt he had to counter with something. “No, it isn’t. That's just us destroying ourselves ...” He trailed off, realising his response had to be the weakest riposte ever.
Jackson waved it away. “Yeah, sure we’re destroying our physical form. But at the same time, we’re being compelled to promote artificial ones.”
He picked up his tablet and tapped in a website. Angled the screen so that both he and Lem could see it. “This is a product recall for Synthetic Humans. We’ve built machines that look and behave just like us. What are we really doing here?”
Lem looked at the stunning robot model and grimaced. “We do seem to like playing God.”
“Who, by the way, created Eden and then went back to His higher calling, where He just let the new residents get on with it.”
Lem ran a finger round the collar of his black crewneck. “Christ, you've got me going now. I need a real cup of tea.”
The TV switched on, streaming a set of adverts for Earl Grey, Tetley, and Typhoo. They segued smoothly into the theme music of his favourite programme: an edutainment show on the latest scientific developments. The smooth-faced brunette presenter, Gina—the show's top novelty—was a state-of-the-art robot on a £5,000 a show contract from Yuki Robotics Corporation in Osaka.
Gina's fluent contralto filled the room. “Good news for all you techies out there! Scientists say we're one step closer to online living. Meet TelepathMe—otherwise known as TelMe—the latest apptoy from Tech-Sync.”
She held up a slender emerald-stemmed object. It wasn’t quite the same but was still similar enough to Jackson’s metallic flower to be disturbing.
“The virtual gaming giants claim TelMe can transcribe its user's sensory output directly into thought form. These thoughts can then be uploaded as gaming instructions or shared with friends on social networks. How? Well, it seems TelMe taps directly into the amygdala, the powerhouse of human emot—”
Lem snatched up the remote and switched off the TV. Speech recognition technology switched it on again. Gina’s image and voice shimmered out, addressing Lem directly. “Would you like to adjust your preferences, Lem?”
Lem turned to Jackson, eyes widening. “We have to call someone!”
Jackson stared at the smiling Gina and shrugged. “Who, Lem? Who’re you gonna call?”
All the phones rang.