Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Bad Code

Jacob’s stomach is still fizzy from the rickety elevator, but holding his dad’s hand is keeping him steady. Uncle Rolly answers in his usual sweatpants and bath robe, looks from Jacob’s dad down to Jacob and back again, like confirming they’re them. When they are, he hooks his chin for them to follow him into his musty apartment, with the magazines and computer parts stacked up to the ceiling, all of it teetering but never falling. Uncle Rolly moves through the tunnels like a giant hamster, and gets to the kitchen first, where he has warm cans of Pepsi waiting, each one with a single belt of electrical tape around its middle.

Jacob’s dad takes his, points it away from himself to crack it open, and then makes Jacob decide if he wants this sugar, now, or a waffle cone at the ice cream place when they’re done here?

Jacob sucks his top lip in, hands the Pepsi back.

“So, last time you were saying about aliens?” Jacob’s dad says to get Uncle Rolly started—it’s his month to check on his brother.

“Well,” Uncle Rolly says, rotating his Pepsi in his hand like trying to figure out where the electrical tape overlaps.

“It’s okay,” Jacob’s dad says, and stands, holds his arms out to the side so Uncle Rolly can pat him down. And then Uncle Rolly’s considering Jacob again.

“He does’t have any secret recording devices on him,” Jacob’s dad says in his fake-serious voice. “I patted him down in the elevator.”

Uncle Rolly tilts his head this way and that way to study Jacob some more, and then finally does that thing where he rubs Jacob’s hair every which way, messing it up.

“Yeah, yeah, I was saying that of course you never see the little grey ones anymore,” Uncle Rolly says, picking right up where he left off last time. “Those models went out with—they went out with the Berlin Wall, you could say.”

“Big eyes, smooth heads, long spindly fingers?” Jacob’s dad asks, miming it out.

“You laugh now,” Uncle Rolly says. “You wouldn’t have laughed then.”

“Model?” Jacob says.

“I thought he wasn’t listening,” Uncle Rolly says, about Jacob.

“I said he’s not wearing a listening device,” Jacob’s dad says, slurping from his can. “But he’s also not listening. Right, son?”

Jacob makes himself smaller.

“They weren’t even really aliens in the first place,” Uncle Rolly says. “I mean, they were alien, technically, in that that they were made by aliens, but—”

“Slow down, slow down,” Jacob’s dad says, making a fist he can burp into, even though it’s just his brother.

“We’re organic,” Uncle Rolly says, touching his own chest with the fingertips of his right hand. “So we assume all other life must be. But . . . what if some other planet evolved circuitry, what if life happened on a motherboard? Thoughts are just sparks, aren’t they? It doesn’t matter if they’re in meat or—on this planet, transistors could have been dinosaurs. Vacuum tubes were trilobites. Computer chips were the dawn of civilization.”

“We welcome our robot overlords,” Jacob’s dad says, and Jacob can tell he’s having to keep his lips from smiling.

“Okay, okay,” Uncle Rolly says, setting his Pepsi down to pace back and forth in the limited space of his kitchen. “Yeah, sure, say it like that. But, what if they’re looking through their version of a telescope from so far away that it takes light years and years to even get there. So Earth is all blurry. But they focus in, they image-correct, they guess, and . . . the picture they draw on their chalkboard is—”

“They think we’re the aliens?” Jacob’s dad says.

“We are, to them. But, from that far away, our heads are big and smooth, our eyes are just solid black, our fingers are long and spindly. So that’s how they design their . . . probes, I guess you could call them. What we called the Greys.”

“So you’re saying that, to robots, a ‘robot’ is a—a flesh and blood—”

“Exactly. But they’re controlling them from all the way back where they are. Have you never plotted out when and where all the so-called abductions and encounters happen?”

Jacob’s dad looks around at all the magazine and junkyarded computers. “I know, what am I doing with my life, right?”

“I’m serious here. Try it, plot them out. They’re all over the globe, at all times of the day and night, but—and this is important—our planet rotates. When you factor time in, and adjust for different time zones, then the majority of the alien ‘interactions’ happen facing a certain quadrant of the sky. Do you know why?”

“I can’t wait for you to tell me.”

“Because all of those interactions, they’re mistakes,” Uncle Rolly says, leaning forward to grip onto the arms of Jacob’s dad’s chair, so their faces can be almost touching. “They’re what happens when the signal can’t connect, and the probes—”

“Which are the bug-eyed grey aliens . . .”

“Have to operate independently, on their last orders or whatever. But? On the other side of the planet, zero interactions, right? Because those are all getting the right signal.”

“I thought this was going to be about why we don’t see those cute little guys anymore?” Jacob’s dad says, placing his pointer finger to Uncle Rolly’s chest to guide him back.

“Because they upgraded,” Uncle Rolly says, sounding disgusted that this isn’t already obvious. “They saw their probes were causing hysteria or whatever, so they uploaded that first generation’s visual recordings, meaning they could make the next generation indistinguishable from us—so we’d never know!”

“Unless they lose their internet connection,” Jacob’s dad says, reaching over to waggle a roll of tinfoil from the junk on the kitchen counter.

“That doesn’t work,” Uncle Rolly says, taking it back all the same and placing it precisely where it was.

“How do I know you’re not one of them, then?” Jacob’s dad says.

“I could be!” Uncle Rolly says, more excited now. “That’s just it—if you are one, you probably don’t even know.”

“Just a human robot,” Jacob’s dad says, robotically.

“One with . . . some bad code,” Uncle Rolly says, tapping his own temple like he’s proud.

“Speaking of,” Jacob’s dad says, and deposits the rattling bag of pills it’s his job to deliver.

“Ha ha ha,” Uncle Rolly says, spinning his Pepsi can again, until he gets lost in it enough that he seems to forget he has visitors.

“See you in October?” Jacob’s dad says to him, and Uncle Rolly gives the smallest nod, which releases Jacob and his dad to the elevator, the street, the ice cream store around the corner.

“I don’t want you making fun of him at school, got it?” Jacob’s dad says to Jacob when they’re in line.

“But you said—”

“Well he’s my brother,” Jacob’s dad says. “But I am going to record him some day. Some of that—it’s golden. I don’t know where he gets it.”

Jacob shrugs, and, minutes later, trying to make his waffle cone last at one of the tables on the sidewalk, his dad chin-points to a remote-control car whizzing past, bouncing off a newspaper stand.

“It’s gonna get run over in the street, just watch,” Jacob’s dad says, hiding his words behind his ice cream.

Fascinated, Jacob watches until the girl with the remote control steps out, working the little steering wheel, the forward and back stick.

“Oh!” Jacob says when a bike slams past her, nearly knocking her down. Her bulky remote control goes crashing to the ground, and some part of it comes out.

“Well, maybe not the car itself . . .” Jacob’s dad says, nearly done with his cone.

Jacob still has half of his left.

The girl’s mom is helping her put the controller back together now. Finally she threads a paper clip or safety pin up from the bottom of her purse and jams it into the black case somehow, which must be just the thing, because the car jerks forward.

But then it stops, even though the girl’s working the controls.

“Mom!” she calls, which is when Jacob’s right arm straightens all at once, tossing his cone over his shoulder, onto a family’s table.

“I’m sorry, we’re sorry,” Jacob’s dad is already standing to say. And then he’s jerking Jacob up from his seat. “What has gotten into you?” he loud-whispers.

Jacob doesn’t answer, is only watching the girl.

She does the wheel and the forward stick at the same time, and the car jumps forward, off the curb, into the street, just like Jacob’s dad said.

To get it back, the girl pulls the stick back toward her, but, instead of the car moving, Jacob’s right arm does, this time dislodging his dad’s final bite of cone.

Jacob looks at his arm like the alien thing it is, and then he feels the sky yawning open behind him, going for light years and light years, forever deep, and what he wants to tell his dad but doesn’t, is that there’s no need to bring a recorder to Uncle Rolly’s in October, not really.

Jacob, he’s already recording.

All of this.

He smiles, blinks his eyes like a camera shutter, and then lets his dad drag him away, into this strange new world.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the NYT bestselling author of nearly thirty novels and collections, and there’s some novellas and comic books in there as well. Most recent is My Heart is a Chainsaw. Next are Earthdivers and Don’t Fear the Reaper. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.