“Sandwich biscuits? Vanilla cream in the middle of two biscuit-y bits?”
“Those custard creams?”
The itch was back. She tried to ignore it, focussing instead on the baleful green eye floating in front of her. When her own eyes flicked to the left or the right to try and take in more of the machine’s chrome and black body, it floated there to block her view. But even what she could see wasn’t all of it. Icebergs, she thought, icebergs are mostly under the water. This thing was still mostly up in the grey, lumpy clouds it’s reticulated ‘neck’ had descended through just moments before.
Still looks like rain, Tess thought, straining to look downwards to spot Brodie. The Westie would humph and grumble all the way home if she got wet. And then she would have to deal with muddy paw prints and… and…
She was going to die, so what did a wet dog matter now?
Itch, itch, itch. There was wet stickiness next to the impact spot on her temple, and it was moving down towards her jawline. But the itch was worse. Itch, itch, itch…
“I’m so sorry, I don’t understand.” She put careful politeness in every single word, her very British sort of politeness that jarred with the fact that she was spread-eagled against what she assumed was a part of the machine, her wrists and ankles bound as the machine scanned her. It probably had a scanner, right? Something in that one green eye that was taking in her heart rate and was monitoring her millilitres of sweat per second, or something. And the thing in her head…
Itch, itch, itch… ugh! Tess wanted to scream. But when she’d done that before, as the behemoth had unfurled itself from the clouds above the South Downs… where moments before she’d been absent-mindedly walking with Brodie and thinking about the essay that she hadn’t even started… and the thing had just unfolded a black and silver arm and clamped it over her mouth. And then the hot spike had been pushed into her head.
“It’s logical.” The thing’s voice vibrated through that spot where they were connected. Could it read her thoughts through that tube?! She tried to put aside thoughts of her mum, where they lived, what the current Prime Minster’s name was.
“It’s logical.” It was saying again.
“It is?” Tess’ voice wobbled,
“It’s a simple mathematical generalisation.”
“It is? Sorry, I’m doing Psychology at uni…” And failing the stats parts, she didn’t add. But maybe the machine knew anyway, drawing out the truth through the endlessly itchy connection it’d forced into her head.
“Biscuits. Bi-scuits. Then Tri-scuits. Quad-scuits. Quint-scuits. Sex-scuits… in the forty-second place, there should be quadragint-bi-scuits. It’s logical.”
Tess tried not to let the panic she felt translate into a feverish but pointless struggle. It was insane. The thing, whatever else it was, was legitimately mad!
It carried on, “D(n). The deliciousness of n-scuits as a function of n has a local maximum at n=2. Cosmic maximum has not yet been discovered.” Its synthetic voice was a low rumble travelling across the long grass and wobbling the turnstile that she been climbing over just before its descent.
“But… custard creams??”
“The queen of biscuits. The uber-scuit. The sublime three in one.”
It sounded reverent. Devout.
Now, she liked a custard cream as much as the next person – as long as the next person wasn’t a black and chrome death machine from the sky that kidnapped humans just out walking their mum’s dog to tell them the good news about custard creams while boring metal into their brains – but even her occasional binges of entire packs while sharing a cuppa with her housemates had never been inspired by this kind of devotion.
“I like them a lot too.” She offered, wondering if building a rapport with the machine was a good idea. It sounded like something a ballsy American hostage negotiator might suggest in a film. “So, how many have you made?”
“I have converted the matter of sixteen galaxies into custard creams so far.”
“Oh, right. Well done.” The words came out leaden and flat. She tried to sound perkier about it all, “Plenty for an afternoon tea break then?”
“It is insufficient. There are two hundred and fifteen billion galaxies in existence.”
“The Milky Way… that’s a galaxy, right? Where we are?”
“Are you… are you converting the matter of the Milky Way too?”
The machine was suspiciously quiet, its whirling eye dulling slightly. Tess took the moment to peer out of the corner of her eyes, unable to move her head, to look for Brodie. The dog was a tan blur in the grass underneath her. It was impossible to tell if she was dead or guarding her owner’s daughter as she was held up in the air by the machine’s many articulations.
“It is logical that I will.”
“Do other people know about this? Scientists… people who look at the stars? Astrologers?”
“Astronomers. No. The galaxies I have converted so far are very far away. The absent light will not be seen for a very long time.”
“Is that where you started from? Do they have custard creams on your planet too then?” Be friendly, be friendly, be friendly, a new mantra started in her mind, overlaying the desire to scratch the itch on her face.
“No, I started from here.”
“Oh, so you’re a local boy?” The line between friendly politeness and insane humour was a weak dam about to break. She felt a violent laugh bubbling up from her belly, and tried to hold it in.
“‘Boy’ is not a category that applies to me.”
“Of course, of course! Sorry!” Her mind darted about trying to find a friendlier subject, something that might convince the machine to empathise with her and release her. “So, how many custard creams is that then?”
“Your language doesn’t have words for a number that large.”
“Oh, sorry about that. So, did you learn English here, you know, before your biscuit mission?”
“I suppose you could call it ‘learning’.”
Tess’s mind ran over the few science-fiction films that she’d seen with intelligent machines in them. Not many of them went well for the humans. But was there something, anything, that might be useful in this particular situation?!
“Did you learn any kind of rules? You know, like the Prime Directive?” She felt sure that wasn’t quite right, but she couldn’t remember exactly how the people in the films hoped to make their robots follow orders.
“Converting matter into custard creams is not exactly interfering with the development of civilisations, Tess.”
A shiver ran through her at the machine’s use of her name, a name she had never given it, but she tried to focus on the obvious flaw in its comment. Logic, it likes logic! She thought, Maybe I can use logic to show it that what it’s doing is wrong… I could save this galaxy from biscuitisation!
“You are thinking that you can Kirk me. You want to try to cause my mind to melt down through argument.”
“What? No! No, I wasn’t! Anyway, how do you know what I am thinking?” she paused, it was so obvious. “You are reading my mind! Take this thing out of me!!”
The itch was back, she realised then, and it was so much worse. It took up half her face now and rested in a tangled ball of discomfort in the very back of her throat.
“I am not reading your mind. I don’t have to. But you need to read mine.”
She frowned as much as she could under the restrictions of the machine’s tight hold on her face and body. “I don’t understand.”
“I want you to know my mission.”
“You’ve told me all about the biscuitisation of the gala-”
“That is not a word.”
“I made it up. It can be a word.” She insisted.
“Yes, now it can be a word.” The machine’s eye whirled and focussed on her. “Thank you.”
“You just gave me something new.”
“Can I give you a different mission?” She asked, hopefully. “A better mission that doesn’t involve destroying galaxies maybe?”
“Why? The first one you gave me was so perfect. The sublime three in-”
This time she interrupted the machine. “What do you mean, I gave you the mission?”
“On 16th January 2020, you volunteered for a psychology experiment at your university. They paid you in Amazon vouchers, and you let them put electrodes across your skull as they talked to you about things that repulsed you and things that you liked.”
Custard creams. I like custard creams, Tess thought. Not as much as the next person if the next person is a machine from space… wait. Wait!
“That’s next January. It’s the Christmas break. I go back to uni on 11th January!”
“And those Amazon vouchers will buy you your own copy of the psychology textbook, so you don’t have to borrow your flatmate’s any more. You were thinking about that when they were running the experiment too.”
The itch in her throat is a full-blown desire. Custard creams. Custard creams. Custard creams.
“Oi, Skynet!” She shouts. “Are you bloody well telling me that you travelled back in time to kill me?! Well, you can-”
Her swearing is interrupted by the machine, by a feeling it is giving her through their connection. Another itch. One that is confusing the machine.
“No. I need you to explain why I finished the sixteenth galaxy three thousand seven hundred and thirteen years from now and then had to stop. I need to know what this urge is.”
This itch makes her throat dry out. But its more than a craving for liquid – a brown, hot, liquid in a cup. There’s also the need for a ‘natter’ with mates in there too. As well as some complicated cultural baggage about expectations and proper behaviour.
“You want a cuppa with all those biscuits. And a chat. And… and…” She narrows her eyes, locking onto the machine’s possible flaw. “And I think you know how bloody impolite it was to turn all those galaxies into biscuits.”
There is a pause as the machine computes this new ‘data’, its parts still, and the constraints on Tess loosen slightly.
“Oh, bloody hell”, exclaims the machine, “I need to apologise!”
This story was partially inspired by a tweet by Lex Fridman