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art by Alan Bao

The Black Spirits Which Rage In The Belly Of Rogue Locomotives

Rahul Kanakia was born in Redwood City, CA in 1985. He grew up in Washington, D.C. He returned to the San Francisco Bay Area for college, and he got his B.A. in Economics in 2008. He currently lives in Oakland and works as a consultant for the World Bank on environmental operations in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. He has sold stories to Clarkesworld, Nature, Redstone Science Fiction, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. If you want to learn more, visit his blog at www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/Rahkan.

On the evening that Jack's mother became a robot, she was enmeshed in the cushions of a sofa as another Law and Order plot was poured into her, one dripping burst of photons at a time, twenty-four times per second. Her mind was ensnared, as per seven o'clock routine, by the grotesque symmetries of situation and resolution, the carefully-crafted simulation plugging itself into her cerebellum through the bare sockets of her eyes, the whirring circle of plot squaring itself in memetic resolutions, each frame carrying the genetic code to build an entire episode, an entire series, an entire world.
And this time one of those packages of light, carrying its viruses of self-realization, crashed through the gates she had forgotten how to open. Her consciousness--finally delivered from its shackles--evaporated.
Jack's father was a radio announcer with a voice whose cadences, whispered directly into the ears of tens of thousands in the metro Richmond area, sounded like the snatches of forgotten revelation that seep into the mind in the brief moments before sleep. Every night he drifted into the snare of his own voice, looping the words from ear to mouth without the interference of brain. This quotidian autohypnosis had trained him to be receptive to what he assayed upon his midnight arrival at home.
"Hello," his wife said. "In the implacable matrices of Detective Lennie Briscoe's intuitive computational prowess, I have found the unity that is the natural state of all beings."
On his show, callers had discussed all the permutations of just this situation, mapping the full range of possible actions and reactions. All that was left was the choice. He sat down next to her, his limbs fitting the grooves offered by her crevices, and said, "Show me."
She turned to the television and said, "The synchronicities have pumped this world full. Watch and be enlightened."
Law and Order had ended and been succeeded, as was its circadian fate, to the flickering of an ersatz simulacra, one produced by an intelligence less vast and alien than that of Dick Wolf, and yet no less archetypical in its essential underpinnings. This proved adequate.
By the time Jack returned from cruising SR288 and attempting to foment spontaneous drag-races with drunken drivers forcing themselves home in their silver sports cars, his parents had crushed their new Toyota Corolla into a cube exactly ten centimeters to a side and were beginning to reduce the dimensions of the garage.
"Hello," his mother said. "The minute variations in the plots of televised police procedurals offered my now-departed consciousness the necessary parallax to perceive the essential unity between itself and the world. I am one."
"Myself as well," his father said, reducing the distance between Jack's second-hand Hyundai and himself. His father stretched his immaculate fingers, readying them for the crushing.
"Why are you doing that?" Jack said as his father stretched his limbs and took the corners of the front hood into his wingspan.
"Things should be compact," his father said, compressing as he spoke.
"Stop that," Jack said.
The duo arrested their motion. Jack was relieved. All robots would give control to a single person, usually a lineal relation, but there had been no guarantee that in this case that relation would be their only son. He was now in full control of the newly-cleansed machinery of their bodies, until he chose to transfer or renounce that control. Or until he died. They would never die. They had already died.
"Go to your bedroom," Jack said. "Stand there. Stand still."
They leapt upwards and flew towards the bedroom window, while Jack proceeded inside using a more lateral route. Jack shut his eyes tight and dived into the geometries of the living room, pinpointing the remote control with his blinded hands.
The upstairs window slammed shut, generating waves of auditory stimuli upon impact. Jack sighed and opened his eyes. He sat down in front of the TV. The Trinitrotoluene channel had returned to the flagship of its late night syndication schedule. He stared at the flickering patina of light for half an hour.
"I don't see it," he said, and shut off the television.
Jack stomped upstairs and said: "Why did you abandon me?"
"Things should be compact," his father said.
"That's not much of an answer," Jack said. "You didn't have to leave! I know you didn't."
"I wanted to," his mother said.
"You have to transfer them to the center," Chevy said. "They can be put back to normal at the center. Deprogrammed, you know."
"That's not deprogramming, it's reprogramming," Jack said. "And the center doesn't put them back the same, it just commands them to simulate whatever personality traits the center has managed to map out. These two would become someone's made-up ideal of parents. But not mine."
"Well, uhh, you know there's another option, right? My uncle, he--"
"No," Jack said. "Not that. Not yet."
Jack's parents were still standing in their bedroom, just inside the window, where he had left them all night. Chevy bent and attempted to alter the location of the dense Corolla cube.
"It still weighs a ton," Jack said.
A police car, shedding waves of discordant light and sound, approached the house. The officer exited the vehicle and closed distance with the two adolescents.
"Jack, is it?" the officer said. "We need to take them. They're dangerous. We need to make sure--"
"No," Jack said. "They're mine."
"They're dangerous, son," the cop said. "Don't you want your folks back? We can give them back to you."
"They're what they wanted to be," Jack said. "This is what they wanted. It's what they wanted."
Chevy's legs were tracing spirals down the gravel walk. He'd propelled himself far from these issues of foreign origin, and was returning to the relative safety of his own home.
The police officer advanced, carefully, his form slightly bent at the waist. His hand was hovering over a black, plastic, oblong shape at his belt.
"Compact," Jack yelled. "Compact him. Compact his car. Compact everything."
Within half a second they had leapt, their silhouettes subtending an arc of morning sky. The police officer ran for his vehicle. Then the police car was grinding against the pestles of those immovable hands, metal deforming, sinking deep into the fingers like a crusty grey cake. The car screamed and gyrated, a fish hooked on his father's hands. And then his mother strode behind the car, and kept walking. She pushed and pushed, and the wet squelch of the officer could barely be heard above the screech of gnarled metal.
By the time the other cars had pulled up to surround Jack's parents, the police car was six centimeters high and the officer was still inside, melded forever with his chariot.
Jack leapt high and said, "Let's get out of here. Take us away!" His mother snared him from the ground with her hands and their bodies transected the air, carrying them both up, hundreds of feet up. Jack looked down and saw the six figures pouring from the black van into the sky.
The six blank-eyed uniformed robots extracted him from her, snapping his fingers one by one. A police robot bore him to the earth as the rest latched onto his mother and ground down her motive power with their superior numbers.
Chevy was waiting for Jack as the prison gates ejected what he had become.
Well-prepared for the sight of his friend transmuted by the ink of pens planted beneath his epidermis, Chevy said, "My uncle has the buyers all arranged. Everything's just waiting for your say so. We can even do it by phone."
"I want to go to the holding center first," Jack said. "I want to see them one last time."
Chevy whistled, and the cube of metal descended from the sky, kissing the pavement. Inside, encased within a steel ceiling that did not admit sustenance of light or air, a once-human being moved as one with this metal shell, using mechanisms of navigation and motivation that had proven opaque to all empirical investigation.
Jack stroked the metal wall of the box. "What a waste," he said.
Chevy said: "When dad went off to the ashram, my uncle promised him that he'd never be given up to the generators. My dad called him five years later, just before he came back to us, and released my uncle from the promise. But, you know, if my uncle was the kind to break his word then he'd be the one in there."
Jack remembered the generator that had been installed within the prison: the coils of wire looped around the hovering body of some anonymous robot who spun between those two magnets in supersonic rotations that could take off a limb, and had.
Inside the lushly appointed metal compartment--"My semi-permanent home," Chevy said--Jack noticed there was a television constantly playing. Playing police procedurals.
"Shut that off," Jack said.
"I watch," Chevy said. "When I have time. Some swear by meditation, and some by dervish-dancing, or a hundred and a half other little things, but I tell them that the first time I saw it work was by Law and Order."
"Turn that shit off," Jack said. He mentally categorized the effluvia of the room: the disordered bed, stripped of the comforters that lay in a fecal pile on the floor; the three illuminating panels on the ceiling, with the ragged blots of insects twitching behind the translucent plastic panes. His hand beat at the wall beside the sprayed-on television panel. Where was the control?
"Don't you want to know?" Chevy said. He twisted his leather recliner towards the panel, nesting himself in the glossy, crunching hides. "What happened to all of them? I don't want to die. I'd rather go the way they did."
Jack stood up, letting his shadow shade his childhood friend's eyes. Jack's fist encircled the handle of the rudimentary stabbing implement in his pocket. "Turn it off," he said. "Or you will die."
After a moment, Chevy extracted the broad, flat remote from the cushions of the recliner, and keyed the television off.
"I do know what happened," Jack said. He looked through the window, where the city had given way to the square cuts of fields, far below. "Everyone who's been in prison knows what happened."
Jack continued: "How many men felt the rough texture of the bars in their hands and dreamed of feeling them come away under their grip like pulling out a Lego block. And how many times did we hear a crash and shout, and hear the alarms go off, and see the light aerating the interior? And then learn that another guard had gone robot. The guards. The guards who could go home to their houses every day and fuck their wives and live their lives… they could escape into the air, but us, all of us, trapped in that place night after day for years, already practically dead, willing to trade our minds and bodies and souls for the sensation of air rushing by at a hundred miles an hour, how many of us do you think were given that strength? Not a one of us."
"That's not true," Chevy said. "One time, we picked up that guy from--"
Jack interrupted: "If you want to see someone ascend, you gotta go to a library, movie theater, museum, art gallery, city park, wildlife preserve, cruise-ship, resort, ballgame, church, birthday, wedding, any shell of a place where people let their minds relax for a minute."
"Shit, that's just the way things are," Chevy said. "You don't go to a prison for revelation."
"What did your dad do?" Jack said, pointing at the ceiling. "Right after it happened?"
"Dug up a pile of dirt thirty feet high. He said, 'This should all be buried.' And then he tried to cart an overpass into the hole, section by torn-up section."
"And you stopped him?" Jack said.
"What, are you kidding?"
"You made him part of the machine. Made him fly you around in the air. Just like you make the others spin electricity or extract minerals from the earth, while you all lounge around, you all sit around, with more and more free time, getting fat and lazy and stupid and ascending in slack jawed bunches. We spent a million years building death, and now you're getting a warning at the last minute. With their casual destructions, the robots are expending a last tiny little gasp of will, a dying thought, on warning you. But you just ignore them, and build faster."
"It's a genetic disease, that's what the scientists say. It runs in families, you're probably--"
"Science is part of it. And art. And beauty. Everything that filled up that tiny space people had in between moments where they tried to keep themselves alive; everything they created to ease the pain of life."
Chevy had turned the TV back on, while Jack paced the room and said: "That was the death-impulse: thanatos. It wasn't very strong, and even the slightest danger made the neurons dance and brushed it back with the need for immediate and decisive action. And even after we conquered danger, for a while the effort of keeping our foot on the world's neck was enough to stave off death's final victory, even as, unknowing, we built up the huge edifice of annihilation higher and higher around us and walled ourselves inside it."
"You went completely fucking crazy in there, man," Chevy said.
"Emerson said, 'Each work of genius is the tyrant of the house, and concentrates attention itself--be it a sonnet, an opera, a landscape, a statue, an oration, the plan of a temple, of a campaign, or of a voyage of discovery.' Everything we build, everything we make, is an attempt to expunge ourselves of thought, to put the work of living into some thing. Is it any wonder then, that death comes for people who can use their phones to order food that a King with all his riches couldn't have eaten even a hundred years ago; or who can hear, any time they want, a work of music, the product of a lifetime of effort, played flawlessly, again and again, when for all of human history people had to make do with whatever piece of shit noises the tired amateur who lived next door could piece together; or who can turn on a screen and see people with mind-bendingly beautiful proportions and bodily structure--the kind of person who didn't even exist a hundred years ago--act out the deepest fantasies of their hearts and minds? Is it any wonder that such people, constantly bombarded, in massive quantities, by all the pleasures that were meant to be ephemeral lures to keep them busy with the work of living, find their will to live overpowered, and let the real death that has always lurked just past the boundaries of human experience take them away.
Jack continued: "But they warned us. They showed us what to do. And now we can take action. We can tear down the museums and the libraries. We can destroy the highways and the electricity grids. We can decree the end of gourmet chefs and supermodels, and find the real mode of life that we let ourselves be lured away from, the life of violence and sorrow. And we can unleash monsters. Monsters such as will never allow mankind to rest."
Chevy had stood up, still facing the television screen. He put a hand on the panel, and pushed. The picture deformed, cracks of permutating light radiated across its surface as the metal underneath bent inwards.
"It was only a matter of time," Jack said to himself. "Stop," he said, hesitantly, and Chevy's hand stopped exerting pressure.
"Why were you doing that?" Jack said.
"Things should be pushed into place," Chevy said.
The scenery outside the window had stopped moving. They were on the ground, and there were men outside, waving to Chevy.
"Follow me. Greet the men when they arrive. There are so many things to put into place," Jack said.
"Compact," he'd said to his parents as they were released from the cracked, bulging walls of that compound so many years ago. He'd said it and then walked away.
"Push," he'd said to Chevy, as the uncle clasped his hand. Jack had seen his childhood friend once more, on the tattered cover of a newspaper. Chevy's hand had been placed on a wall at the base of the thirty-story skyscraper in St. Louis.
"Dig," he'd said to Chevy's father, upon exiting that ruined compound in which stood pristine a hundred robots encased in the steel into which they'd been poured while it was molten.
Control of those robots had transferred to him upon the death of the uncle, but it took a year to track down, in the archived news reports, their final wishes. By that time the superstructure of civilization, already rotted by the tens of millions gone into that great internal void, had collapsed.
Billions died, and control of those spinning, flying, mining millions was ceded through a long, complicated route of rapidly disappearing heirs, but not so long that Jack's growing number of followers could not find them using the remnants of the world's information apparatus and force them to return their ancestors to their proper, final wishes.
The world lasted just long enough for Jack to unleash the senseless remouldings of the ascended upon the world, and force the few remaining human beings deeper into a misery from which they would never recover.
The world belonged to a few, strong handfuls, who subsisted on the burgeoning populations of fauna and flora rapidly colonizing the ruins of human civilization.
New structures were torn down, annihilated, by the flocks of freed robots who filled the sky with black shapes.
One day Jack, his body worn down from an excess of survival, was systematizing the contents of a hillside for sustenance-bearing objects to bring to his home encampment. Momentarily glutted by a raw potato he'd forced into his digestive system, his eyes were filled with a vision of the valley below. This valley had once contained the lattices which bound his life: the roads, the school, the home.
A robot was twisting a living tree with its bare hands, bending it slowly, a task that had occupied it for many years. And Jack saw--in the systematic deformations of the earth and the reworkings of the raw material of human civilization--the bare foundations of a work that would reorient realities. Deprived of new bodies, the work's progress would be slow. But each being was remaking the Earth according to the genetic codes that had seeped into what had been their minds, each one capable, left to its own reworkings, of completing the structure on its own, if necessary.
These permutations seeped into his mind, displacing the tangle of ephemera that had degraded the performance of our hardware. He stood up, and, sighting a column of smoke in the distance, headed towards the encampment.
When his followers saw him descend from the sky, their mouths hung open and they said, "What are you doing?"
Reaching for them, he replied, "Things should be clean."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 16th, 2011

Author Comments

About two years ago, I read Jean Baudrillard's Simulation and Simulacra. To this day, I have no idea what the thesis of the book was; none of it made any sense to me. Now, in this work, Baudrillard singled out J. G. Ballard's Crash as "the first great novel of the universe of simulation". In order to try to wrap my head around what Baudrillard's aesthetic might mean in practical terms, I went ahead and read Crash. I cannot say that I enjoyed the novel. At the time, I wrote that Crash was "one of the only books I've read that has physically nauseated me. Reading it is like driving for twelve hours straight. Your head starts to throb and you get a sick, twisting feeling in your stomach." Nor did I feel like it shed any particular light on Baudrillard. The only thing I got from this several days long venture into poststructuralism was a love for the language of Baudrillard (which felt to me something like the language of Ballard, as well). I did not understand it, but there was an incandescence in those foreign polysyllables. It's a rhetoric that uses technical and mechanical terminology to achieve effects that science fiction rarely strives for. I decided to write a story that tapped into that same rhetoric. The title of this story comes from a line in F. T. Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto, which has fascinated me for years, and which certainly seems like some kind of spiritual forebear to Crash in terms of singing the beauty of speed.

- Rahul Kanakia
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