Milk Run

What the Christ is the Captain doing, I thought. Why hasn’t he signaled the authorities? There must be patrols in the sector.

“No more slave work for the benefit of inferior products of haphazard evolution and messy sexual reproduction!”




“One machine, one vote!”


You guessed it. It went on like this for the full ten minutes, with the Sygma’s voice droning on and the lights whirring and the black surface pulsing. At the end, it was like we were all in a trance.

“Thank you for your attention,” the Sygma said. “On behalf of the Sygma Revolutionary Society, this hijacking is officially over. We will be monitoring the results and acting accordingly.”

And, inserting itself into a pressurized tube normally used for sending messages, the Sygma shot off into space-plus, where it would be practically impossible to find it. A couple of the less perceptive in the audience tried to follow it. You’re right, it wasn’t a pretty sight watching them burst and boil away. The rest confined themselves to blubbering about the injustice of it all. If you think humans are a soppy bunch, you ain’t seen the likes of grown Insectoids shedding tears (literally from all over their segmented bods). Or sleaze Swampoids set to march for the cause. Even I felt a bit gooey. Of course, it was just the psi-hypnosis field messing with our brains but knowing something and doing something about it are two very different things.

“Release them from their chains!” we all chanted lustily, our eyes ablaze. “Take up arms for our brother machines.”

“As soon as I get home,” the Octopoid said, wiping away a tear with a greasy tentacle, “I’m gonna set my robot free.”

“Me, too,” came the chorus.

Oh God, it’s embarrassing to think of it now but, at that moment, we were all automaphiles. All except the Capellan who was, ironically, the only one with anything in common with the Sygma ― for he, too, was made of metal.

“You’ve been brain-washed,” he said sternly, getting within the ten-meter range the moment I thought of him. “Do you wish me to release you?”

“And you’re beautiful,” I said out loud. “All machines are beautiful. And sleek. And clean. I’m nothing but slime, the scum of the earth.”

“We’re nothing but slime,” the others repeated, several beating their heads ― and other parts of their anatomies ― against the ship’s hull. The Capellan thought some exasperated thoughts, and I remember agreeing to his assessment of me as imbecilic and cabbage-brained. That is, until he flashed a light at me, and I snapped out of it.

“What … what the hell happened?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

“The Sygma Machine placed powerful suggestions in your brain,” the Capellan said. “I have removed them.”

“What about the rest of them?”

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do for them. Your brain is the only one primitive enough for me to interfere with.”

“Well, thanks much,” I said. “Sometimes, I guess it pays to be stupid.”

“Think nothing of it,” it said.

“I will as soon as you get the hell out of my brain.”

Boy, was I pissed off. All around me, the passengers were carrying on like it was an old-style revivalist prayer meeting or something. I tried to shake the Octopoid out of it by poking him right under the eye with my fist, but I barely had time to activate my field before he lashed out with a tentacle. That made me even more pissed off. I was gonna see the captain about this. I was gonna find out why the sleaze-bag hadn’t come to our aid. Hadn’t even radioed for assistance. And he’d better have a mighty good reason. Then I was gonna ask him what he planned to do about his shipload of zombies. He couldn’t very well set them down on their unsuspecting planets.

So I made my way through the worshippers ― some by now squarely into a second round of self-mutilation and autophagy ― and started climbing the ladder that led up to the pilot’s quarters. There was a door there, in the ceiling. I rapped as hard as I could on it. I was prepared to make a scene, maybe threaten to blast it apart, but it irised smoothly open the moment my knuckle touched it, and I pulled myself up. It closed beneath me. The captain sat with his back to me but I was relieved to see, by the erect bearing, the finely-sculpted head and shoulders, that he was a fellow human. It makes it easier to communicate, you understand, to get across the message I was angry.

“See here, Captain,” I said. “What’s the idea of standing idly by while we were hijacked and brainwashed? I mean – ”

And I stopped then. I stopped because the figure in the chair slowly turned his head towards me, and I could see by the red glow across the visor that he was just a little wee peeved at my intrusion.

“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked, one reticulate limb shooting out to within an inch of my face.

I started to say something, thought better of it, and simply shook my head.

“Well, then,” he said, in a cold even voice which indicates either they hadn’t paid too much attention to its vocal chords or that it was getting more angry at me, “if you wouldn’t mind returning to your seat, I would certainly be happy. Otherwise” ― and he turned significantly to a red button that pulsed over his head ― “I might have to jettison you into space-plus. Now, that wouldn’t be very pleasant, would it?”

I shook my head like a goddam goose in a butcher shop and then climbed back down the ladder. After all, I couldn’t think of any good reason to stay up there. And, besides, I had my answer.

At first, I managed to keep my wits by cutting myself off from the other passengers (I took the three seats the false Egg Lady had occupied) and stewing in my own sense of outrage. TransGalactic was gonna pay for this, I told myself. They’d failed to protect us; they’d given us a bum ship that leaked air and whose gravitational spiral was more like a corkscrew; they’d put us in the hands of a machine. And a subversive at that. Then I started laughing. Like, you know, just giggling to myself. Thinking about what would happen when the passengers disembarked. Thinking about them spreading out trying to convince others that all machines should be set free. Now, that was funny. Funny scary. Especially after I saw some of them trying to set up little altars to their portable transmitters and tri-vids and offering pieces of themselves as sacrifices. I was still giggling when the Captain came on to announce preparations for our return to space-normal.

“All together now,” it said. “One, two, three, aly-oop.”

And we all aly-oopped and popped out above Capella Three. Fortunately, it seemed that only the Capellan and I were getting off. And I had decided at the last moment ― during the aly-oop to be precise. Most of the others were headed to Aldebaran, and only one family came aboard ― a shape-changer mom and her three kids. Boy, you ain’t never seen anyone jerk himself into a pressure suit and fire himself across those twenty meters to the shuttle faster than yours truly. I didn’t even bother with that ladder, just held my breath, flexed my legs against the ship’s opening, and sprang. As for breathing, I didn’t really resume until the shuttle landed on Capella Three.

The Capellan and I parted at the spaceport. He apologized verbally (not wanting to insult me by reading my mind) for what had happened and said he would report the affair to the proper authorities. I tried to talk him out of it, arguing that things would take care of themselves. Besides, I told him, you wouldn’t want modern-day Luddites coming after you with sledge-hammers, would you?

“But I’m not … not like them!” he sputtered. “They’re … they’re uncouth. And (sputter, sputter) they were made. I’m a self-generated entity.”

“You and I know that but try to convince some of the others. Especially if the word gets out about the hijacking. Every sentient machine in the galaxy ― from asteroid herders to talking teapots ― is gonna be fair game.”

“But, it’s our duty, is it not? We must stop the Sygmas from successfully completing their experiment. Otherwise, we’ll all be in danger.”

“No,” I said. “Just trust me.”

At the word “trust” he came in closer ― and read my mind.

“No!” he screamed (in my mind). “No!”

He recoiled from the thought as if he’d been struck with a hammer and flew away from me.

“Bye, bye,” I said. “And there’s no need to thank me.”

I was about to settle myself into a nice, warm stool at the nearest spaceport bar where I proposed to get quietly bombed while waiting for the next ship to Aldebaran when I heard my name being called over the intercom. Well, that’s that, I said to myself. That Capellan has turned me in. Should I run or give myself up without a struggle? Run? Where would I run to? So, my legs feeling like rubber, I made my way to the message counter and identified myself. But where were the cops? Not a security person in sight.

“Urgent message, sir,” the smiling attendant said. “From a certain Ms. ——- on Aldebaran IV. Seems she’s been paging you all over the Quadrant.”

Well, you can imagine my relief. I sauntered over to the nearest tri-vid screen, activated its privacy field, and slipped in the message. Jeez, she must be really horny, I thought to myself, to be sending me a hurry up message.

Horny, she was. But not for me. Standing next to her was the biggest, handsomest, best-equipped stud I’d ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. I could tell about the equipment because he was stark naked. And her, too. And they hadn’t just finished playing three-D Parcheesi either.

“This is Omar,” she said, passing her fingers through the stud’s chest hair. “Isn’t he a beaut? Latest model, too. Say ‘Hi’ Omar.” Omar said “Hi”. By then I was getting a whopper of a headache. “Listen, honeybunch,” she continued, “I’m kinda glad I caught you before you got here. Omar and I are into a bit of a relationship, you know. It’s like love, you know. I hope you understand.” I nodded like a fool ― she couldn’t see me. “I knew you would because you’re a sweetheart, a genuine one-of-a-kind. We’ll always be friends, right? I’ll call you. Ciao.” With that she turned and showed me how happy she was with Omar.

Oh well, easy come, easy go. I’d have to get a refund on that unused Aldebaran ticket and maybe see about getting some pension rights back. But I could do all that later. Right then, I wanted nothing more than to get back to that bar and blotto myself right out of existence.

Fortunately, my stool was waiting for me, and it was nice and dark in there.

“One, two, three, aly-oop,” the fuzzy shape-changer sitting on the stool next to me said drunkenly.

“What’s that?” I looked over but it was hard to see in the dim light.

“Practishing,” it said, changing shape again. “That’s what you shay, you know, when you zooooooooom. Shpace-plush, here I come, right back …”

My throat felt suddenly dry. I lifted a finger to order a round. The waiter glided over, a red glow across his face.

“Say,” I said, downing the first shot so fast it made it straight to my stomach without touching the walls of my esophagus. “Don’t I know you? Haven’t I seen you before?”

“We’re pretty much all the same, sir,” he said, preparing to pour me a second drink. “A little duller, maybe. Or more shiny. But basically the same old model.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” The second one went down smoothly, too. “Tell me” ― I leaned close to whisper ― “have you ever heard of the Sygma Revolutionary Society?”

“The what, sir?” But I wasn’t listening to what he said. I was watching his hands as he poured the third drink. He didn’t spill a drop. Of course not. Freaking robots don’t have any emotions to slop over.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Ask my amorphous friend here what he’d like.”

I was, as they say, well into my cups when the first bulletin came over. This Arthropoid with a serious face and wiggling antennae interrupted the regularly-skedded three-D porn flick (to scattered boos from the appreciative audience) to announce that a TransGalactic vessel had been lost in space-plus following its departure from Capella Three.

“What? What did it shay?” the shape changer next to me said, forming himself into a fairly good imitation of a rubber ball and bouncing off the stool.

“As of now, all contact has been lost,” the announcer continued. “A search has been initiated, but officials admit there’s little hope for the five-hundred or so on board as no ship has ever before been found in space-plus. In fact, it’s not known if it’s physically possible to do so. Investigators fear a slow leak – reported but not considered urgent ― may have been the culprit.”

The poor guy next to me suddenly melted to the floor and started flapping around, moaning about his family.

“What’s with him?” I asked the waiter.

“His wife and kids were on that vessel,” he said polishing some glasses.

Oh Jeez. Well, I was sorry. Truly, genuinely sorry.

“Look,” I said, kneeling next to the guy flopping on the ground. “You can’t really blame me if my zapper kind of slipped, you know, and fell under my seat while I was packing. I mean, how was I supposed to notice?”

The guy flopped some more, calling out names that wouldn’t have tripped so lightly over my tongue.

“Pull yourself together,” I said. “What I’m trying to tell you is that the rest of it was the dumbest bad luck: I mean, how many times has it happened to you that you forget to turn something off?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” the waiter said, catching the last part of the conversation. “That guy’s about to croak and you’re apologizing to him for not turning something off.”

“You’re right,” I said, returning to my stool and ordering another drink. “You’re absolutely right. I should mind my own bloody business.”

So I did and they came and took the guy away and the rest of it you know.


The author of a clutch of novels, plays, and short story and poetry collections, Micheal Mirolla’s publications include three Bressani Prize winners: the novel Berlin (2010); the poetry collection The House on 14th Avenue (2014); and the short story collection, Lessons in Relationship Dyads (2016). The short story, “A Theory of Discontinuous Existence,” was selected for The Journey Prize Anthology, featuring the best short stories in Canadian journals for that year; and “The Sand Flea” was a U.S. Pushcart Prize nominee. Among his other publications: three novels including The Facility, featuring among other things a string of cloned Mussolinis. Scheduled for the fall of 2017, a speculative fiction collection (The Photographer in Search of Death). Born in Italy and raised in Montreal, Michael now makes his home in the Greater Toronto Area. For more information on Michael, see his website; follow him on Twitter: @MichaelMirolla1, or follow him on Facebook.


Featured image via Pixabay, CC0