Friday flash fiction – Gorilla Dentists

The old saying goes, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

But as telepresence technology evolved from primitive videoconferencing, through phase after high-fidelity phase of virtual reality, to remote capture of domestic synthdroids, it was increasingly the case that nobody needed to know who anyone was.

Take the case of Ambrose Brook, who pioneered the practise of home dentistry in the mid-21st century. Brook, an unusually gifted dental surgeon, suffered from a range of severe social phobias and anxieties which limited his contact with patients.

The dentist’s frustrating setback coincided with the emergence of a consumer trend popular among his erstwhile clientele in the upper-middle class: Takahashi Robotics’ Silverback model of household synthdroid.

Silverbacks were full-size replicas of Western gorillas, programmed for home maintenance and security duties. Like other fifth-generation synthdroids, the Silverback executed its routine functions independently and without the need for supervision. Though of course it was the charming novelty of watching a half-tonne primate washing dishes, pushing a vacuum cleaner and unclogging roof gutters which drove the model’s surging popularity.

It was a feature new to fifth gens which caught Brook’s attention. Silverbacks could be remote-operated by skilled technicians to perform more complex tasks.

Initially these were restricted to security operations; when a paranoid householder hit an alarm, their home security provider could have one of its on-staff counter-terrorism specialists remote-jack the domestic synthdroid, whereupon it suddenly became a Silverback with fifteen years of military situational awareness training and hand to hand combat skills.

Brook saw an opportunity to expand into the same market. He underwent intensive remote capture training. After honing his technique by treating family members and close friends, he found in the Silverback’s high definition sensors and state of the art controls a greatly improved precision to his telemanipulation skills. He also devised a “home dentistry” kit of disposable tools and supplies which could be shipped at minimal cost to the patient’s residence.

To his delight, he found he did not even require an assistant – the Silverback’s prehensile feet were so easily adapted to selecting tools, applying suction and holding out cups for the patient to rinse with, it was like having a third hand. If Brook could think of an action, the household Silverback he logged into could perform it.

Needless to say, his service became popular in no time. Patients fearful of overdue visits for a checkup were easily persuaded to trust the enormous gorilla which made their bed every day. Brook always used the host module’s own voice rather than overwrite it with his own. Somehow the sense of familiarity overcame the fear, mistrust and shame other members of his profession often encountered in their recidivist patients.

The novelty of the service was its prime booster: showing off the results of a whitening procedure performed by a burly great ape was a fine stimulus for dinner party conversations. For the children, he wore a pointed hat and comical bow tie; these were standard kit inclusions.

Routine clean and polish jobs became more sophisticated. Within eight months Brook had developed a home kit which allowed him to floss, fill cavities, and install and remove braces. Medical regulators were initially reluctant to permit him to conduct complex surgery on anaesthetised patients, but within a year Brook’s devoted patrons included movie stars, rock legends and highly-placed politicians, all wealthy and possessed of stratospheric clapplause ratings. Federal approvals were rushed through.

The popularity of Brook’s remote procedures skyrocketed thanks to Gabrielle Tranh, who cultivated minor celebrity, as a fashion model and hockey player forced into retirement from both careers by injury, into a lucrative SenseStream career.

Tranh, possessed of a vivacious personality and a surprisingly high pain threshold, posted a live sensecast of a jaw reconstruction conducted by Brook through Tranh’s household Silverback, whom she called Huggy George.

Tranh’s hilarious one-sided – and muffled – conversations with the enormous gorilla rewiring her mandible, with only a mild sedative for localised pain relief, was a massive SenseStream hit. Replays topped the billion mark. With a number of followup surgical procedures proving equally popular, Brook’s career, albeit tethered to Tranh’s, was made.

Of course, Brook was not the only gorilla dentist. With demand for his services far outstripping his capacity to meet it, he took on partners. His cadre of dentals surgeons, hygienists and technical support staff was known informally as the Tooth Troop, even in later years, when the scope of the company expanded to other medical, therapeutic and educational services. School visits by Tranh and Huggy George, which included a raucous show and free dental inspections, were in high demand.

It all came to an end following the spring 2167 launch of Takahashi’s first sixth-generation synthdroids.

The new octopoid architecture, eight undulating limbs with a hundredfold increase in haptic sensitivity, was embraced by the trend-loving public. However remote manipulation of the extra limbs with their unfamiliar articulation proved to be impossible for all but a tiny percentage of the population. The Tooth Troop, along with most of their imitators, were unable to transfer their skills to the new paradigm, and business slowly receded as Silverbacks transitioned into obsolescence.

Brook himself suffered a minor stroke on his first and only attempt to remote pilot an octopoid synthdroid. After making a full recovery, he went into semi-retirement to produce and star in a number of educational sensecasts for schoolchildren on the importance of dental health care.

For some years after, he also reprised his role as Huggy George, co-starring with his business and life partner Gabrielle Tranh in several well-received casts aimed at a mature audience.

They never met in person.

 


 First of all, I have to give a shoutout to the opening quote of the story, which is from a New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner in 19-freakin’-93! (Which has to make it one of the earliest internet memes, probably). And a followup thanks to everyone on SenseStream Facebook who for some reason demanded ‘Gorilla Dentists’ as the next story (Rob, Alan, Nathanael – did I miss anyone?), and to Amanda and Rob for trying to make clapplause happen. The dream is alive, people.

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Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury

The Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse traced a pretty orange-white swathe of burning gas particles as it dropped through Mercury’s nearly-there exosphere.

On the bridge, Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, mentally edited the live footage coming in from the flock of sensor drones surrounding the shark-like vessel. Only top-notch mission images would be good enough to post on her official PopScope account. And if ever there was a mission that would put her clapplause count into orbit, it was this one. The folks back home loved a squid hunt.

“Eighty seconds to primary checkpoint, Commander,” reported Hector Cromwell, the genetically-uplifted capuchin monkey who served as the Discourse’s pilot, engineer, gunnery sergeant, and currently the rest of its crew. “The signal’s coming from a series of subsurface gas vents inside the rim of Rembrandt Basin.”

“Within the Exclusion Zone?”

“Technically, yes.”

Extensive command empathy training and six weeks of confined quarters with nobody else to speak to had given Commander Cello unparalleled insight into her crew’s psychology. “What burdens your fuzzy brow, Bosun? Concerned about the danger?”

“Certainly not, Commander,” replied Hector, whose status as LEF property legally constrained him from questioning the decisions of senior officers, on pain of an artificially-induced embolism. “My charts classify this Exclusion Zone as a nature preserve, for something it calls the Mercurian Umbral Lava Worm.”

“Poor things,” nodded the Commander thoughtfully. “It’s up to us to keep them safe from being molested by outside influences.”

“But there’s no such thing as Mercurian Lava Worms.”

“No? Well, I’m not a biologist. Are you?”

“Actually I have doctorates in Physiological Modelling and Planetary Ecosystems, so -”

Commander Cello waved her fingers. “I see you’ve missed my point. This is a legal matter.”

Hector decided to risk another comment. “That’s another thing, Commander. The Teuthid Collectivists are –“

“Who?”

“The, er, renegade asteroid miners with the cephalopod morphology?”

“Ah, the squid-faces. What about them?”

Hector posted a looping video signal to her monitor. “They’ve been broadcasting this transmission for the past week. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it. It’s a declaration of legal independence under the Inner Solar Planetary Treaty.”

“They’re not treaty subjects. The asteroid belt’s not an inner planet. Or are you a lawyer too?”

Hector shook his head vigorously. “Not really, sir. I’m only licensed to practice in Argentina, Costa Rica and the Martian Polar Settlements.”

The transmission’s audio boomed through the bridge PA. “-wish to establish an independent colony for maternal health care purposes. Medical engineers commissioned by the Teuthid Collective have recently discovered how to remove the genetic locks preventing transmorph reproduction. We claim these unused Mercury territories, which are uninhabitable by natives of environments with natural gravity and radiation shielding. We take them as compensation for more than a century of institutional abuse and forced labour. Here we will establish a free Teuthid state, open for all transmorphs, and defend their rights and liberties until -”

Commander Cello had heard enough. She cut the recording off. This whole conversation would have to be edited out of her mission report. Nobody got clapplause for giving whiners their due. She composed herself for the cameras. “These squiddy insurrectionists have declared a state founded on illegitimate demands for self-determination and reproductive freedom. As Commander of the LEF vessel Civil Discourse, I have no choice but to execute all avenues of economic and military sanction to discourage this aberrant and probably offensive behaviour.”

“Economic, sir?”

“No, military.” Commander Cello struck a pose she judged to hit the dramatic midpoint between unwavering and bellicose. “Arm the seismic torpedos, Bosun.”

Hector let out a sharp screech which the Commander fortunately interpreted as loyal bloodlust. “Torpedos armed. Target is locked and flight telemetry is green.” He tapped on an alarm display. “The Teuthid Collective is requesting us to unlock and withdraw, Commander. They report over four hundred civilian lives including – oh, more than twenty newborns! That’s impressive work.”

“Disgusting!” declared Commander Cello. “They breed like…like…”

“I’m sure the word you’re searching for is ‘animals’, sir,” said Hector. “Incidentally it looks like our vessel has been painted by both ground-based and orbital weapons platforms.”

“What? Those duplicitous, whip-faced mobsters! How many platforms?”

The capuchin monkey scratched his chin-bristles as he totted up the bright dots on his screen. “Too many for evasive manoeuvres, sir. It looks like they’ve been planning this for a long time.” He reached out and held a tiny fist over his weapons panel. “Shall we launch all missiles and show them how things are done, Inner-Planets-style?”

Yelping, Commander Cello issued the order to deactivate weapons and scrub the targeting lock. She had turned a shade even paler than her usual lunar alabaster. But the cameras were still rolling and she had to make the best of things. “Given this new intelligence on the enemy resources and disposition, I have decided to make a strategic withdrawal to Botticelli Habitat on Venus.”

Hector tapped his navigational profile. “Course plotted and locked, Commander. Thrust sequence initiates in nineteen minutes.”

“Why so long?”

Hector unstrapped himself and clambered out of the pilot’s station. “I need a little time to power up the lifeboat and get it clear of the thrusters’ backwash. Now Commander, I’m sure you’ll be tempted but I recommend you don’t set off the neural disruption charge in my brainstem. I’ve slaved the weapons system to reactivate if my vitals cease. I don’t think the Teuthids will take kindly to another act of Lunar aggression.”

Commander Cello was dumfounded. “But you’re part of the Civil Discourse family. A trusted and valued LEF employee! What will you do down…there?”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll find some use for a civil engineer.” Hector Cromwell saluted. “Goodbye Commander Cello.”

“You’re leaving me all alone! What will I do for a crew?”

Hector thought about that for a moment. “You could try not being such a racist.”

 


This week’s story, which was definitely intended to be funny and not any kind of satire at all, was inspired by (and slightly adapted from) the tremendous sci-fi pulp title generator at Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual. Other (rejected) possibilities this week included such forgotten tales as “The Titanium Airship of Betegeuse”, “The Mystery of the Unthinkable Insect”, “The Trail of the Unlicensed Vampire” and of course the horror-comedy classic “Gorilla Dentists”.
There is a non-zero chance that I will further explore the neocolonial social media exploits of Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, in a future installment. I may also write “Gorilla Dentists”, if pressed.
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Australian SFF – Dimension6

Do you know about Dimension6? You’d do well to.

D6 is a free online magazine featuring three to four speculative fiction stories by mostly Australian authors. It’s published three times a year by Keith Stevenson of Coeur de Lion Publishing, and available to read online or by downloading an ebook edition.

I’ll just mention again – it’s free.

On a recent trip for work, I binge-read the five most recent issues. Let me tell you, those stories made several hours of lounging in empty terminals fly by.

Every issue has at least one outstanding story, if not all of them, and overall the quality is very high. I’d expect nothing less from Stevenson, whose editorial work on anthologies like X6 and Anywhere but Earth is excellent. And the regular appearance of Dimension6 stories in Australia’s various spec fic awards comes as no surprise.

There’s 11 issues out to date – the next one is due at the start of October – so there’s plenty to chew on. If starting from the beginning feels too intimidating, I highly recommend Issue 8, which had four terrific stories, including Thoraiya Dyer’s extraordinary “Going Viral”. But any of the issues so far will reward your time generously.

Or if you don’t want to take any chances, CDL sells annual collections of each year’s stories for just 99 cents. You can get all three years’ worth of Dimension 6 to date for less than the cost of…well, something priced at three bucks.

That’s good value.

PS: For personal recommendations, in addition to Thoraiya’s story above (which concerns politics, genetic engineering and dynastic drama in future southeast Asia), check out Simon Petrie’s “All the Colours of theTomato” (Issue #9), “Going Home Sideways” by S G Larner (Issue #5), Craig Cormick’s dream-weird “The Seven Voyages of Captain Cook” (Issue #10) and Robert Hood’s “Shark-God Covenant” (Issue #3). Those are some of the D6 stories that made the biggest impression on me.

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Friday flash fiction – The View from a Pole

Glenn’s cough is spasm-‘til-you-drop violent; he almost loses his grip. He clenches up with his arms and knees around the power pole, feels a caffeine-kick of panic at the hint of a slide. The wind whips around him, shivering the pole and pumping acrid, oily smoke into every breath.

Try as he might, Glenn can’t catch his breath because he’s going to die up here. And it’s all Ronnie the idiot’s goddamned fault.

Sparks cut through the smoke down below like autumn thunderheads. Something blows in the hydraulic lift crane’s engine and a fresh blast of flame roars from its side. Two tyres burst into rings of fire. At eye level, the elevated crane basket wobbles and tilts away from him toward the building. A flash of relief – at least I won’t be burned – fizzes out at the sound of breaking glass.

An alarm begins clanging from somewhere inside the building, echoing around the business district. Glenn’s heart sinks. He’d been in and out without leaving so much as a fingerprint, let alone getting his gormless mug caught on a security camera.

Now? Out of the window to the bucket of the lift crane – no problem, all according to plan. Then as he’d reached for the control to retract the hydraulic arm and lower himself to safety, he smelled the smoke and saw the fire break out at the base of the arm. Ronnie was making a break for it, not looking back or up. Glenn had tried to call him back and took in a lungful of smoke instead. Coughing, he’d looked around wildly for some other means of escape.

Now he’s on a pole because it was too dangerous to stay on a burning crane. This is a bloody stupid way to go.

An engine revs and tyres screech around the corner. Must be Ronnie making his escape; there’s nobody else around here at two in the morning. He probably thinks he did his job. He stole the crane, drove it three blocks from a construction site without getting pulled over, even got Glenn up to the third storey window.

Glenn looks down and wishes he hadn’t. About a mile away, down at the ground, the crane engine is fully aflame. Little burning droplets spill all around it; from above it looks like a halo.

Another wind blast buffets him. If he doesn’t move he’s going to fall. He wants to go down but it’s too far; if he starts to slide he won’t be able to stop. He grits his teeth and sloth-crawls up the pole, snarling in case it’ll keep the Grim Reaper off his back. He hooks his arm over the crossbar, avoiding the cables and those buzzing things that look like a stack of plates. His face is right next to a wire. Does it take two live cables to kill you or just one? He can’t remember but he turns his face away from it.

The first spot of rain splashes on his face. His phone buzzes; he fishes it out with fingers trembling from the strain of holding the pole. “Ronnie?” he guesses.

“Where are you man? You said to meet at the car.”

“I’m up a pole, Ronnie. I’m up a pole where you left me.”

“What pole? Weren’t you going to come out of the window?”

Glenn’s arm is about to come out of its socket; he’s hanging on by pure fury now. “I did come out of the window Ronnie. I was in the crane.”

Ronnie laughs. “No way man, that’s crazy. I torched the crane.”

“No kidding.” One of Glenn’s back teeth cracks; it’s louder than the alarm going off. “Why did you do that, Ronnie?”

“Can you think of a better distraction to cover our escape?”

“I would have made some suggestions if you’d asked.” The rain’s here now, coming down in fat wet slaps. Glenn’s knees are on fire. Raindrops are forming into rivulets and heading downward. His trousers are soaked. “Ronnie, listen carefully. I need you to-”

The phone slips through his fingers. The sound of it smashing to pieces is lost in the tumult.

He grabs the crossbar; his fingers aren’t closing properly. Distant sirens add a rising harmony to the sound of the alarm. The cops are on their way.

“-come and get me,” he finishes. It’s not gonna happen.

He looks down at the burning crane. The hydraulic arm reaches out from the circle of flame like an arrow in a bullseye.

Rain and smoke get in Glenn’s eyes. He closes them. He starts to cough again.

 


I don’t write much non-speculative fiction; perhaps it shows. When I do dip into crime, it tends to skew in fairly absurd directions. I like to imagine the sequel to this story is that Glenn gets down safely and then spends the next ten years plotting his revenge on Ronnie, who is living in a flat one floor above him.
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Friday flash fiction – The Overzone Rule

Marielle and Oliver squirmed as the gate attendant walked them through the paperwork.

“Since you’ve certified that you have read and accepted the agreement license,” said the attendant, raising a sceptical eyebrow at their apparent mastery of speed-reading and legal expertise, “I just need your on-camera acknowledgment. Do you agree to indemnify Overzone Portal Adventures Incorporated against any and all trespasses and offenses given by you which may result in your being burned as demons, exalted as gods, burned as gods or otherwise fined, imprisoned, sacrificed, eaten or incinerated?”

Their backpacks rattled with their vigorous nodding. The satisfied attendant smiled and handed them each a passcard on a lanyard. “This will unlock the security fields. Each card is keyed to the wearer’s DNA, so don’t mix them up. And remember the Overzone rule: leave nothing but footprints, bring back nothing but photos.”

“I thought she’d never let us go,” laughed Oliver as they stepped through the portal onto a brand new world. The air smelled of tangerines, the sky was a lavender haze and a distant flock of creatures like lions crossed with bats circled about a levitating crystal the size of an apartment block.

“So boring,” giggled Marielle. “All those rules.”

“Don’t forget the stipulations!”

“And the precepts!”

They chortled as they hiked, following the guidebook they downloaded from an anonymous Spreadit user: The Top 100 Spectacles of the Gleaming Principalities. The Principalities was upvoted as one of the five best alternate cosmologies cleared for tourist travel since the discovery of multiversal interstitial tunnelling technology. Tyranno Centralis, Kirbyworld and the Endless Beaches all catered to a wide range of tastes, but for adventurers Marielle and Oliver, nothing beat a realm of picturesque vistas, exotic creatures and scientifically inexplicable high magic.

And what vistas! As they chewed protein bars on a high mountain pass, a migration of Boulderlings, living granite creatures, passed below them in a rumbling religious pilgrimage the guidebook referred to as an Avalanche. They filled memory cards with shot after high definition shot.

Later they came upon a moonlit lake shimmering with silver mist, where dolphins transformed into women and wove their streaming lengths of hair into intricate plaits, decorated with fishbones, pearls and iridescent lobster claws. Maintaining a discrete distance, they took their photos in reverent silence.

Next they visited the Golden Coliseum, a vast stadium constructed from the bronzed bones of giants. There, along with a thousand creatures of all shapes and sizes, they cheered on a herd of unicorns winning a mixed martial arts grudge match against an adolescent dragon. Neither quite understood the details of the dispute, as relayed to them by the drunken triple-trunked elephant in the row behind them, but they got some killer closeups.

With food supplies running low, they reluctantly returned to the waiting portal. As they emerged from the Warlock Woods into the Vale of Allure, they noticed they were being followed. A squat figure approached with a wobbling gait, making sniffing noises.

“Is that an oversized rabbit in a trenchcoat wearing a comically foppish hat?” asked Oliver.

“I’ma take its photo,” said Marielle. She and the rabbit converged with timid, cautious steps, until they were face to face. Marielle set her phone camera on automatic and cooed at the magical creature. In response, the rabbit leaned its bunny face close and reached out a timid paw.

“I think he wants to take a selfie!” squealed Marielle.

Oliver held his own phone up, recording the scene. “Let him. This’ll go viral for sure.”

Marielle held out the phone. The rabbit fumbled with its enormous fuzzy paws. It turned the camera over and peered with big eyes. It twitched its nose and clicked its tongue.

Then it said, “Got it boys.” The trenchcoat immediately popped open from the inside and fell to the ground, revealing three rabbits sitting atop each other’s shoulders. They tumbled apart like a circus act.

The top rabbit tossed the phone to her grey short-hair companion. “Do the honours, Cloudpuff.”

The grey rabbit started tapping at the phone’s screen, muttering to himself, “Unlocked…card storage…gallery files…yep, all here. Mellowgrass?” He tossed it to the third rabbit, a brown angora.

“Wh- what is this?” Oliver scowled, still filming.

Mellowgrass the angora shook his head. “Lotta good stuff here, Flopknot. Illegal recording of a religious ceremony – the Boulderlings don’t like that. Unlicensed shots of a golden ticket cage fight – Volcantio’s agent is notoriously litigious and they’ll be looking for a payday after the Trott clan rolled him. And oooh, paydirt!”

“What’s that?” asked Flopknot, the fuzzy-cheeked leader, kinking one ear and looking directly into Oliver’s camera.

“Paparazzi shots of Princess Longsnout and her entourage nuding it up. Very candid. Great use of natural lighting too.”

“Dear oh dear, Cloudpuff. Can you recall a more egregious case of unpermitted photography?”

Cloudpuff shook his head gravely. “Multiple counts of gross invasion of privacy. Why, if these shots were brought to light I doubt these two would see the outside of an oubliette ever again.”

“Privacy?” barked Oliver.

“But we didn’t know!” complained Marielle.

“Really? Those Overzone agreement licenses are awfully specific.” Flopknot reached into her hat and pulled out an electronic tablet, which booted up with a cheerful bing.

“They were?” said Oliver. “Wait, you get wifi here?”

“We’ve got wizards on staff, we can have whatever we like. Now, as duly appointed officers of the courts of the Gleaming Principalities, let’s talk about your schedule of fines.”

Flopknot named a figure in “golden franchets”, which did not sound too bad until she held up her tablet screen to show them the currency exchange rate. “We accept Paypal, InfraCash and all major credit cards.”

“But that’s a fortune,” wailed Marielle. “Can’t we come to some arrangement?”

Flopknot scratched her chin. “Well, there’s always the oubliette, or –”

“Or? Or?” cried Oliver and Marielle together.

“We can come down maybe ten percent for a really nice review on the Overzone forums.”

Mellowgrass added, “And an upvote for my guidebook.”

 


I’m still sick, so today’s 1000-word story is very much from the “sorry for the long letter but I didn’t have time to write you a short one” school of composition. Share if you liked it, and if you didn’t – well, I will almost certainly probably go back to something slightly less silly next week.
Maybe.
It’s possible.

 

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