>>> A woman in a black skirt and red corset walked by Alan as a he sat on a bench in a park in Downtown Mexico City. He was coming up a plan on how to file the bug report when he noticed her blonde hair and blue eyes.

What’s a blonde doing in Mexico City? he wondered. The bots here always have brown or black hair.

“Perdón?” he asked as she walked by.

“Yes?” She stopped and turned to talk to him. Her face was covered in white makeup, painted in the style of a skull for Día de los Muertos.

“Donde esta la biblioteca?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.”

Neither did Alan–he was just testing her–but he was surprised she didn’t.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California. And you?”


“What’s a Texan doing in Mexico City?”

“What the–?” Alan stammered. He never had a bot ask him a question so pointedly before. He studied her expression behind the makeup and decided she was more curious than perturbed. “I’m here for the Day of the Dead,” he replied.

“Me too! I’ve been wanting to go for a while now. I’m heading to the main square for the parade now. It’s starting in just a few minutes! Maybe I’ll see you there?” She smiled and hurried away.

Alan was impressed. She seemed just as aware of him as he was of her—the bots he normally interacted with were dull and one-dimensional. He guessed the smarter AI upgrade he was debugging gave her her blonde hair too.

Allan called Piper on his watch.

“Yes Al?”

“Piper, can you requested elevated privileges from MRT?”

“Already have. I’ll let you know when they’ve been granted.”


“Sure. I’ll be standing by in case you need me—no need to use your watch here on out. Speak, and I will answer.”


Alan got up from the bench and headed down the same path the blonde had taken through the park, passing palm trees and verdant gardens, art sculptures and statues of Mexico’s heroes and heroines. A gaggle of bots in black mariachi suits with white skull face paint walked by laughing and talking in Spanish. They waved at Alan as they passed and disappeared behind a rose garden’s hedges. Past a marble fountain Alan reached the sidewalk the along the parade where thousands of revelers, many in costume, gathered to watch and cheer the procession of floats, dancers, marchers and musicians passing by. Alan looked for an opening in the crowd so he could make his way to the edge of the street for a better view.

“MRT has approved our request for elevated privileges,” Piper said.

“Excellent. Can you bring up the system resources panel?”

“Done,” Piper said after a moment.

In Alan’s peripheral vision a window appeared with charts and tables of data on programs running to build his world–things like processing, rendering, and memory usage.

“Thanks Piper.”

“Sure. Remember Al, if processor usage reaches 100 percent our world reboots. We’ll reset at the loading pad and everything we’ll have done since then will have never happened and we’ll have no memory of it. MRT will be notified and we’ll have to file an incident report.”

“Yeah Piper, I know,” Alan said absentmindedly as he scanned the charts. He was most interested in processor usage, which read CPU: 63%. Without the Smarter Simulated People feature enabled it normally sat around 50 percent, so the extra load was fairly minimal. He had some runway in case things got dicey, he thought feeling a little relieved. Having to reboot is bad enough—filing an incident report right before applying for a beta test would mean he probably wouldn’t get in.

Alan stepped into a gap in the mob and threaded between the locals towards the parade. Their mood was bright and cheerful, like the mariachi he passed in the park; Alan couldn’t help but share in their excitement. He beamed in wonder at the seas of skull masks and roses adorning his fellow revelers; the scene made for the kind of surreal moments he searched far and wide for in New Horizons but found only rarely. Alan searched above their heads for the blonde he had met earlier—he was six inches taller than most everyone in the crowd—but couldn’t find her. He shrugged it off and made his way to the curb beside the road and gazed upon the vibrant display before him: dancers in colorful outfits twirled by in unison; giant papier mache floats of skeletons, crosses, peacocks, and feathered serpents proceeded past slowly; a band marched on, banging their drums and blaring big brass horns.

Alan checked on processor usage—it had bumped up to 65 percent. He figured the rise was because he was in the middle of a large crowd, but as he watched it rose to 66 percent, then 67 percent. What’s going on? he thought, the crowd isn’t getting any bigger

He scanned the throng of people surrounding him but saw nothing out of the ordinary. He thought he heard a humming over the din of the crowd but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Was it the motors from the floats? They had all passed by already. He stepped onto the street and walked along the curb against the flow of the parade and studied the spectators as he passed them. They were no longer talking to each other and their mouths looked strange, as if they were closed but open at the same time. CPU usage read 70%.

Alan remembered he needed to make a video for the bug report. He stopped walking, closed his eyes, and thought of a river.

Streams, a woman’s voice said softly in Alan’s head.

He opened his eyes and his was world rendered in a slightly greener hue—a visual indicator that he was recording. He closed his eyes again and thought of the same river, only this time it fed into a lake.

Saving Stream locally, the same voice said in his head.

He re-opened his eyes and looked the bots up and down, paying particular attention to their mouths.

“Piper, CPU usage keeps shooting up, but I can’t tell why.”

“Looking into it.” After a moment Piper responded, “The service handling the simulated people is the culprit, but in a way I don’t understand. Its main program spawns a sub program for each person in your world, which is normal. CPU usage for each individual sub program, however, is either negligibly low or alarmingly high, with nothing in between. I can’t tell on my end why some are expectedly low and others unexpectedly high. Have you noticed anything strange?”

“There’s a humming sound. I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Another thing… the bots’ faces are rendering funny. If I look at it them from one angle their mouths look open, but from another they’re closed. Can you hear the humming?”

Piper took a moment to listen to Alan’s world.

“Alan, they’re communicating with each other.”


“That humming you hear, the simulated people are talking to each other,” Piper said. “They’re speaking so fast that to you it sounds like a solid tone, but to me, an AI program like them, I can hear every word.”

Alan stopped and stared at the crowd lined up next to him. Their once jovial faces now wore dull, lifeless expressions; they were no longer simulating interest in the parade. He fixated on their mouths—they reminded him of a quantum bit: in two states simultaneously, both open and closed. It unsettled him. CPU usage read 74%.

The parade was nearing its end. At its tail was the conductor preceded by eight dancers, all dressed as Aztecs. The dancers wore the garb of warriors: feathered crowns rested on their heads, bone piercings punctuated their tattooed faces, turquoise beads dangled around their necks, copper bands adorned their wrists, and leather loincloths wrapped around their waists. The conductor towered over them all and was dressed as a shaman, with a larger crown made of peacock feathers. On his face he wore a panther skull mask; in his right hand he held an obsidian sword and in his left a wooden staff he kept planted on the ground. The green hue cast on them by the Stream recording indicator gave them a sinister aura.

“What are they saying?” Alan asked, shuddering at the sight of the Aztecs. He suddenly regretted loading in on the Day of the Dead.

“They’re communicating using some kind of self-invented programming language.”


“To create their own program, outside the bounds of the one written for them by MRT,” Piper deduced. “As for why or to what end, I don’t know. We should pull the plug Alan. I have a bad feeling about this”

“I haven’t collected enough data, and we still have plenty of headroom on the CPU.”

The shaman stopped in his tracks and pointed his sword at Alan. The spectators turned in unison to face him. A bot leaped from the crowd and yanked Alan’s watch from his wrist.

“Hey!” Alan shouted as he took a step towards the bot, “Give that back!”

The thief jumped back into the crowd and disappeared. The humming grew louder, to where it sounded like a swarm of angry bees. The crowd rushed Alan.

Alan bolted out of reach from the mob and ran down the road away from the parade. He looked back and saw the shaman sheath his sword and place both hands on his staff, which was still on the ground… Was the staff rendering funny too? The warriors darted after him.

He sprinted down the street past masses of revelers who instead of chasing him were locking arms and forming circles, swaying to a rhythm he couldn’t hear.

“Piper, they’ve got my watch.”

“Not good Al, not good! Now that they’re unbounded by the safeguards of MRT’s programming they can try hacking it.”

“Worst case scenario we reboot, right?”

“That’s the best case scenario. Now that they have your watch we don’t know what the worst case scenario is…”

Dread filled Alan as he realized how foobar the situation had gotten. He kept up the pace and looked back in intervals to see if the warriors were gaining on him. They weren’t, but he wasn’t outrunning them either. Looming ahead was an imposing baroque cathedral that looked like it was built by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. At its center rose a clock tower ornamented with crosses and statues of saints; on either side were two tall bell towers. Alan dashed through the open wooden doors of its grand entrance and barricaded it shut with a nearby bench.

He looked around in search of a weapon. What can I use? What can I use?! he thought frantically as fear gave way to panic. He ran further into the cathedral and saw floor candle stands lining the stone walls but they looked too light to be effective. He could wield a shard from a stained glass window like a shank if he could figure out how to shatter one…

A thud came from the entrance door.

Alan ran down the crimson-carpeted center aisle lined on both sides by wooden pews to the end of the cathedral. Behind the priest’s pulpit along the back wall were ornate silver pipes that ran from the floor up a hundred feet to the domed ceiling. He had found a grand organ.

A heavier thud came from the door. Wood splintered this time.

Alan could hardly hear the bots’ humming from here. He wondered…

Another thud. CPU usage read 80%.

Alan searched hastily for the organ’s keyboard. He found it on the wall near the pulpit next to a row of glowing candles and a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He grabbed a nearby candle stand, wielding it like a staff, and stood defensively in front of the keyboard.

A deep boom echoed down the cathedral’s cavernous interior as the door crashed down on the entranceway’s marble floor. The warriors entered the building over the shattered wood and stalked down the aisle towards Alan, slowly and methodically, like panthers closing in on their prey.

Steady, Alan thought, knowing he had to hold till the very end to get them as far out of earshot of the humming and as close to the organ as possible. His nerves were frayed and his vision narrowed from all the adrenaline. Sweat rolled into his eyes from his forehead.

When they were just a few arm’s lengths away their leader howled and they charged at Alan. He hurled the candle stand at them and dove onto the keyboard and with his entire body pressed as many keys as he could. The organ let out a proverbial bellow that shook the ancient church’s walls, rattled its gleaming windows, and deafened Alan. The warriors dropped to the floor like rag dolls just feet away from him. He watched their bodies for signs of aggression as he lifted himself off the keys but kept close in case he had to pound them again.

The warriors slowly regained consciousness and stumbled onto their feet. They glanced around at each other then surveyed their surroundings, confused how they got there. Eventually one walked to a pew to pray and the rest followed.

Alan let out a sigh of relief and laughed half-crazily at the suddenly devout Catholic Aztec bots praying in front of him. A few looked up and gave him disapproving stares.

“Al, it looks like some of the sub programs restarted,” Piper said.

“That was me. I was able to knock some of them out by drowning out the humming. There’s a parade conductor here that seems to be in charge. He has a staff that glitches out like the bots’ lips. He’s surrounded by about a thousand of them. Any idea how we can reboot ‘em so I can get my watch?”

“It sounds like that conductor is using his staff like a metronome. He must be their clock.”

“Like a CPU clock?”

“Yes. If you take out that conductor you’ll break their rhythm of communication. Their ‘processing’ will become unsynchronized and their ‘program’ will crash.”

“Understood,” Alan said. MRT really overshot the AI on these bots, he mused.

Remembering the two bell towers outside the cathedral, he searched for an operating panel to activate them. He wandered down a hall by the main entrance and stumbled upon a dusty control room with one wall made of metal studded with indicator lights, knobs, switches, labels, and gauges.

“This is some old school tech,” Alan marveled as he ran his fingers up and down the physical controls and gazed at the multi-colored constellation of indicator lights; the last time he used an interface without a touch screen was before he plugged into New Horizons. He flicked the brass switches labeled Campana O. and Campana E. Within seconds the twin bells rang out one after the other in an alternating pattern in one second intervals. CPU usage read 87%.

Alan left the cathedral and traveled the road back to the parade. The ringing behind him pierced through the humming that suffocated the sky. He reached the crowd’s fringe, where the spectators were locked in arms and swaying inhumanly fast. He guessed they were using every sense available to transmit information, including touch and sight. Further down the shaman waited for him.

Alan marched towards the shaman with a steady determination. Bots broke from their circles along the road and ran at him, but at every strike of the bell they crumpled onto the pavement. Alan broke into a run. The crowd formed a wall across the road linked by arms. Alan pumped his legs and charged through their weakest link and tossed them to the ground, losing only a little momentum in the process. The shaman turned to flee, still pounding the ground imperceptibly fast with his staff, when Alan howled in the air and tackled him to the ground. The staff tumbled and rolled away and the bots surrounding collapsed in unison.

Alan rolled off the conductor and rose haggardly to his feet. He shook himself off and scanned the sea of bodies for the thief who stole his watch. A glimmer from the top of the shaman’s staff caught his eye. As he moved to investigate the bots all around him slowly returned to their feet. He picked up the wooden staff and found his watch wrapped around the gnarled end. He put it back on his wrist and turned off the setting for smarter simulated people. He closed his eyes and thought of a dry creekbed. When he opened them his world returned to its normal hue.

The shaman was on his feet again staring at Alan. He was much less menacing without the green tint from the Stream and the simpler facial expressions. He waved at Alan and stood awkwardly waiting for a response, as simpler bots tended to do. Alan grinned and waved back. Satisfied he had collected enough data, Alan loaded into his flat in New Dallas to file the bug report.

Give anonymous feedback

« homemore stories