Thursday, January 10, 2019


By Damien Krsteski

Emma was playing with Lev the Lion when the bell rang.

Rainbows gleamed in her father's eyes: the porch camera feed relaying to his optic nerve. Emma giggled as his cheeks and forehead wrinkled up in befuddlement; but his eyes dulled back to brown a moment later, and he went to open the door.

He returned flanked by two women whose gaze was fixed on Lev and Emma.

“Please have a seat,” her father told them and went to fetch tea, shooing Emma and her toy out the room.

She started up the stairs to her bedroom, Lev leaping after her with his hind motors whirring, before she decided she didn't want to wait to learn what the guests had wanted from her father, and so she tiptoed back down, sat cross-legged, the cub purring in her lap, and she put her ear to the door.

Padding on the floor. The clanking of porcelain on tray. Setting of saucers with cups on the glass table.

They exchanged pleasantries among loud sips of tea, the guests complimenting the house, his furniture, the flowerbeds in the front yard, Emma's father managing to squeeze in a That's too kind or a Thank you between niceties, before one said, “Congratulations are in order,” to which her colleague added, “We're pleased to say your unit computed the crucial bit.”

The easy chair creaked, after, presumably, her father had leaned on it. “Crucial,” she heard him say through the door, “for which program?”

“For 't Hooft Dreams.” A sip, then, “This particular simulation was so demanding, our company kept the dreaming software running in idle units for a whole year.”

“Which makes your win all the more impressive.”

“Oh,” her father said, and Emma could picture his confused expression; she clasped her hands over her mouth to prevent a giggle from escaping. “What was being computed?”

“That we leave to those renting our CPU cycles to explain,” the first woman said. “C&M University is undoubtedly preparing a news conference as we speak.”

“An advancement in the understanding of black hole thermodynamics,” the other said, the way her Dad read off a shopping list, “quantum field theory.”

At which Lev the Lion lifted his head.

“Yes,” the first continued, “they sleep, but their brains don't idle; they lend us those precious computational resources and we put them to good use.”

Emma couldn't make out what her father mumbled then. Lev's head was cocked sideways, as if listening in on the conversation, too.

“Well,” one said, “we only need the unit temporarily, for which you as the legal owner will be, obviously, well compensated by VardarFlow Automatics.”

“What for?”

Emma pressed herself completely to the door, listening intently now that an edge had crept into her father's voice.

“Reviewing the result on the actual hardware, checksum functions, verifying data integrity.”

“I've seen this happen before, all you want is to parade—”

“Please,” she interrupted, “a press junket, an interview, one photo op, yes, that might follow, but as the developer of the distributed computation platform which has allowed for such fantastic scientific breakthroughs to happen, we at VardarFlow want only what's rightfully ours: recognition.”

“Publicity,” Emma's father corrected her.

She said, “The point stands.”

There came a simultaneous clanking of cups on saucers as if they'd all agreed to pause the conversation right there for a sip of tea.

“What if I—if we say no?”

“We hope it doesn't come to that, but anyhow you'll find the unit's license gives us the right to repossess it under special circumstances—one way or another, we will get our product back. Whether you choose to spare everyone involved the trauma, and willingly hand over...”

But Emma didn't hear the rest, because Lev had gotten up, and was biting the leg of her trousers, tugging, pulling with weak toy teeth for Emma to stand up, and it dawned on her that those ladies wanted him, he was the unit, they had been talking about her Lev, about taking him away and parading him around when he was all hers, and she sprang up and cradled the cub in her hands and ran up the stairs to her room.

She needed to hide him. Quickly.

But they might search her room, he might roar when in need of charging and give his hiding place away. So she had to dismantle him. Spread him out, and put him back together much later.

Emma kissed Lev's maw, scratched the cub's mane, then powered him off and unscrewed his head, his limbs, and swept the head under a pile of plush toys, placed a leg beneath a stack of notebooks in her drawer, another in her box of beads and bracelets.

She heard footsteps. Somebody coming up the stairs. She hid the other two under her pillow, and lay on her bed, pretending to be asleep.

Her father entered. He nudged her, and she opened one eye as if just waking up.

“Emma,” he said, “let's get you dressed up.” He sat on the edge of her bed, reluctant to come closer.

Emma didn't understand why he was so unsettled to see her leave, why he'd cried when she'd said he didn't have to worry because Lev was safe; she thought of her father alone in the house now, without even the lion for company, waiting for her to be brought back, and she missed him already.

She soon drifted off to sleep in the backseat of the car, dreaming important things.

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I write fiction and develop software, and some of my stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Metaphorosis, Future Fire, and others. Originally from the Balkans, I now live and work in Germany.


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