On a Branch Floating Down the River, a Wren Is Singing

I pressed my naked thumb against the blue fingerprint whorls on the glass. Hungry. So hungry. Like the rest of the humans outside this tower. The wind whipped the loose hair not tucked underneath my wool cap and froze my tears across my lashes. Screw this crazy post-nuclear weather. Let me in, dammit.

I knew Michio-AI-san could wait forever. My bones could rot against these skyscraper doors and he’d still be playing chess with the other AIs: chess moves spelled out in aircraft carriers, oil rigs, solar arrays, and wind farms. Automated fighter jets flying way too low. Spy satellites echoing data through the cloud cover.

Machines didn’t need to eat, only find fuel to burn. They thought almost at the speed of light. And as the oldest AI, Michio-AI-san knew how to play a waiting game over decades. The humans left living in the New Tokyo subways thought we’d see him take total control of the Earth in our lifetimes, maybe sooner. The AIs in other countries simply hadn’t had the time to evolve enough to catch up.

I felt rather than saw a drone scan me from above. All it would see was a woman in a sequined parka and wool snow skirt, magenta snow boots. My teeth hurt with scan vibration, then the lock clicked, and the sliding glass opened just wide enough to let me through.

The lobby entrance to Michio Enterprises smelled of machine oil and rubber. Its high vaulted ceilings—this skyscraper had been a pachinko casino at one point—still flashed neon martini glasses and low-cut dresses and jumbo dice. I rubbed my hands together, trying to unstiffen them and pulled my iced scarf away from my mouth so I could inhale the warmer air.

The guard bot—a department store mannequin with black and silver skin—walked over, gun in hand.

“Pleased to meet you, I am Yukio Kakutani,” I said through chattering teeth. “I am here for the competition. Michio-AI-san should know me from online forum Tamago-no-Akihabara.”

My cheeks were wet from the water melting from my cap and eyelashes. Even as my body warmed, the pit of my stomach stayed cold. This was it, then: join the AI conquering this world, or die. Competing in this tournament meant no turning back. It meant if I lost, I was fine with serving Michio-AI-san in any capacity. Even as a lab specimen. Even as compost.

Knowing my reputation with the AI, probably compost.

At least Kagemori wasn’t alive to see this. It would have killed him faster than the RJ flu had.

The guard bot studied me, waiting as the walls crawled behind its head, thoroughfares for tiny machines. No doubt the grooves and pin pricks on the walls made sense to spider-clingers, vac-bots, and engine octopi. They were the AI’s eyes and ears, and probably noses as well.

A soft ping nearer my feet, and a greeter robot the size of a small child rolled in front of the guard bot, intercepting me neatly. The greeter had a miniature chrysanthemum growing from a glass vase on its chest. The black and silver guard bot paced back to its post at the door then, its pistol still up.

“Kakutani-san? Poet? This way please,” the greeter bot said in the dulcet tones used for elevators, escalators, and subway doors opening.

I stepped carefully behind the greeter, knowing my boots were wet and the marble floors were slick. I patted the front of my coat for the crinkle of washi paper in my bra, Kagemori’s tiny ink portrait of a wren on a branch floating down the river, tucked against my heart for luck.

Of the two of us, Kagemori had been the real artist. With a line he could make an eyebrow question, tilt a nose in the air, purse lips that told the viewer exactly what the mood of the piece was. He made the walls of the subways come alive with forest scenes and ocean murals. Some of his more fleeting pieces, pieces that would dry into dust and flake off, or slide slowly down the tiles as they aged, became series that the AIs would pay for. Subway dwellers tolerated his temporary art pieces painted across their living quarters because machine scrip was the only currency anyone took any more, and anyone hosting a Kagemori piece that sold got their cut.

Poets, however, were more problematic and Michio-AI-san hadn’t declared any winner in his last poetry competition for AIs and humans. Entirely disgusted, he posted online what he deemed the worst submission, “Neko” an AI piece comprised of the characters for cat repeated 4,096 times with random spacing. Kagemori and I had scrutinized the piece, trying to understand what had made it worthy of being the absolute worst out of a thousand poetic entries. Would 4,095 repetitions of the word cat written by a human have been better?

I thought about how long it would take a human to draw a cat 4,096 times. For a machine with thousands of robot minions, it would have taken no time at all.

Did the AI understand the poetry of human effort? Or did Michio-AI-san and his peers only look at the end result?

Following the greeter across the lobby, I stepped carefully across the echoing black marble floors, trying not to slip in my wet boots. The bot bowed me into the elevator and backed out. Steel doors closed, and I felt the car descending into warmer floors. The heart of Michio Enterprises, using geothermal and nuclear power as its lifeblood.

My last words to Kagemori had been bitter. I had been so angry he had chosen to reject AI indenture, with its medical procedures that would have saved him. Any AI in the world would have sponsored him, been his patron: any of them.

We could have made it past Michio-AI-san’s watchful drones into Korea to start the bargaining. I know we could have. But he didn’t want to attempt it.

I clenched my fists, thinking about it.

The floors dropping past me now were just dots on a screen.

Kagemori had said most AI art always smacked of quantity, safety, hedging bets. If a thousand charcoal variations of a crane emerged from Michio-AI-san’s robot hands, surely one of them would strike the other machine AIs as art and he could pretend the other 999 were a road to that one piece.

The observer would choose, just like quantum mechanics.

Often humans worked with less, knew less, had less time to craft their works. Smaller things, smaller numbers, mattered to us, Kagemori said. But we weren’t the only sentient creatures. Even as we had created AI and had to rethink what being sentient meant, so did the AIs, looking back at humans in their biological frailties and wetware. Looking now at their life in small niches, now that human industry and human wars had ruined the climate.

After I’d screamed and sobbed, in his last hours Kagemori had been calm, even while he coughed. “You and I. One thing,” he’d said, and I’d gone to him and held his hands. “One thing. Matters.”

He’d died that night of RJ-47 flu as I sat with him. We still don’t know why some humans got RJ and others, like me, stayed immune.

In the months after his death, Kagemori’s few remaining sketches had tripled in price. I’d held out as long as I could.

Already some AIs were trying to copy what he did, creating robots with the same length of leg and spine, the same wrist bones, in order to understand what he did when he sketched. Their drones had come down to the subway to measure him, to pay me as his partner for the right to dissect him and take his corpse. I’d said no, and they had left according to AI law. But while I was aboveground making an offering at a Shinto shrine, mourning, some other human had told the drones they could have the body, and took the money.

No one would tell me who had sold out Kagemori’s bones.

The others had tolerated me for Kagemori’s sake and not my own, apparently. I had no real friends.

That’s when I decided I had to compete for myself. Six months later, I had one bowl of ramen with the last of my money, and had set off for Michio-AI-san’s tower.

Once out of the elevator I was taken away by a new little greeter, sleek and trim like an emerald beetle. Beetle-drone guided me inside a vast room where I saw hundreds of other humans sitting at blank terminals, mumbling nervously, composing on fingers, sketching and scanning practice sonnets and other poetic forms in the air with their pens and pocket knives.

A few of them saw me, looked startled, then looked studiously away from where I walked. A couple of times, I blinked and could swear I saw Kagemori, smiling, waggling his fingers in the air as though to warm them up before taking up the digital pen.

Each time it stopped my heart with a pang.

But then, the face would disappear in the other wave of faces for the hallucination it was. Not many women in this room, though I saw a few. Some were from other countries even, perhaps officially sent by their AI-governments.

All the competitors’ faces were like mine: set with the idea they were likely to die here. Their sacrifice meant their region of scattered humanity would receive foodstuffs from Michio-AI-san after the tournament was over. The New Tokyo subways would receive food, if I lost. Local girl does good.

But I intended to win.

I’d posted a few poems online before this that had drawn AI attention. Somehow, as the machines became more verbose, their variations more extensive, my lines got shorter and shorter. The one I was known best for was a single line:

“To think all this office complex had all been a noodle factory, once.”

The machines had poured over this line for weeks, knowing I meant Michio-AI-san’s data towers but uncertain what I had left unspoken. Why had I repeated “all”?

Thousands of machine intelligences had debated that choice.

Then Michio-AI-san had created noodles, the kind you eat on special holidays. Wavy, fried in shoyu and onion. His drones dropped them off in festive packets on the street, down the subway vents, like rat poison. And hungry people had died like rats eating them until we understood about the toxic inks on the packets, that Michio-AI-san wasn’t inspired to human benevolence by my poems. Eat and die, was the answering poem, I had thought.

Eat shit and die, Michio-AI-san.

Some subway dwellers had wanted me cast out to starve into the freezing world above. That one-line poem had killed so many.

Some subway dwellers liked me better for having provoked Michio-AI-san. Something I had done had rattled the machine overlords, made them respond. Wasn’t art all about response?

Kagemori had headed up that group. That was how we met. Talking about a premise of imperfect human art that went beyond wabi-sabi.

Death was definitely part of Michio-AI-san’s art. He also dropped captured bots from other AIs from the top of his skyscrapers, their high-pitched squealing echoing against the corners of the other buildings. Sometimes he even dropped special bots he’d made to look like birds, or abstract shapes, that would then explode on street corners into fireworks, strobing lights.

He had dropped things again in response to my last public poem, five years ago, the one about icicles dropping from branches in a windstorm. His crystal icicles had killed a few subway dwellers who had just emerged from the station doors, and shattered several of his own automated shipping trucks.

The subway dwellers had revolted. Only Kagemori’s standing in the community, and the fact we were a couple by that time, had kept the people from casting me out of the tunnels. That, and I had promised to stop sharing my poems where the AIs could see.

Once I arrived at my workstation for the competition, I unwound my scarf and put my dripping coat carefully to one side. I placed my fingers above the keyboard drawn in white lines across the glass of the desk. Fingertips warm enough to smudge the glass.

Just being human here was messy. I couldn’t avoid it.

“Please everyone—please put the headsets on at once,” a pleasant female voice requested over the loudspeaker.

The headset covered my whole head.

The large room dimmed. The other contestants’ voices stilled to whispers, then to silence.

A wind noise across my ears. I held my breath. Was that the rapid chirp of a wren? I opened my eyes and looked around—my fellow humans were gone, and I was now in some sort of sun-drenched forest, perfect to the last earthy smell. I couldn’t feel my headset or the keyboard.

Some kind of simulation, maybe, but a damn good one. My knees were trembling but at least I was warmer here.

Michio-AI-san’s avatar walked down a hill toward me. Online, he favored appearing as Miyamoto Musashi, a Musashi not as history tended to think of him—old and wizened and venerable—but a young one. I looked up at a strapping, bearded fighter in his twenties, still learning the five strategic rings of combat. Only a two-ring Musashi I thought wildly, and giggled.

He was cute, if walking a little stiffly. Put him in a suit instead of armor, with those flowing dark locks he could have been a J-pop star before the AI revolution.

Maybe I was going mad with fear.

I bowed. “A pleasure to meet you, Michio-AI-sama,” I murmured, keeping my eyes on his face as I rose again.

“Perhaps not,” the Musashi avatar said grimly. He took his sword out of its sheath and then motioned with it, for us to sit. “Humans think so slowly.”

These would be the rules of poetic combat, he explained. Because I seemed a bit mannerless, a scattered female with a stained skirt, our form would be the zuihitsu. I was to think of its chatty call and response as a battle, with strikes, feints, and damage. The conversational tone of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book was the benchmark. How deftly could I call a human scene to life?

Like the Musashi avatar, I would also use a traditional weapon. A naginata appeared on the ground near my right hand. I picked it up to look at its craftsmanship, and the Musashi avatar knocked my hand aside with his arm, suddenly, violently. I dropped the naginata in surprise.

Our eyes met, locked.

Then I understood that the battle had begun, and it wasn’t just words. Michio-AI-san hadn’t forgotten the noodle factory, the icicles, nor his other poems of the physical world. How the other AIs had liked my words better than his physical antics where humans died.

What was shorter than one line? A period. One blow.

His first poem must have been how he knocked the naginata away. My fingers scrabbled in the dirt to grip the weapon again. What was the proper answer to that? I thought for a second, then stood up as he glared at me, the naginata’s long pole helping me rise above the dusty soil.

Subservient prop. I would mock myself for using it, and him for thinking it important.

I said with as much calm as I could muster, “There is nothing remarkable about playing not to lose—it is as common as glass shards on the road and far more dangerous to your feet. “

Musashi looked up me, with his crossed legs and hairy-knuckled grip on the sword across his knees. Knocking a weapon aside when the opponent was not ready was a coward’s move, not a samurai one. He glared at the insinuation from under elegant simulated eyebrows.

“Yearning for the perfection of winter,” he said grimly. “A crest of white on Fuji-sama. Tears on a pale silken sleeve.”

Damn those Heian women court poets, constantly weeping into their kimono sleeves, I thought. And white was the color of purity but also, death. What to say back?

I thought of the racks and racks of machines in quantum data centers, kept frigid for optimal operations. Their lights blinking like fireflies, yet never warming the place. The cool-fingered thoughts of a computational wonder: Bashō or another wandering poet of the 1600s, looking at the seasons in tidy rows.

Musashi startled, blinked at me. Did I have to speak the poem aloud? How much of this contest was the AI reading the electrical signals in my brain?

But according to the rules, I wasn’t supposed to be a Bashō. I thought carefully about the snarky, gossipy Pillow Book and the waka of the Heian period.

I said, looking down at the still-seated Musashi avatar:

“Everyone scrambles after the music is done, to find a chair. One man decides to become a chair maker, so as to create more places to sit. Another woman becomes a tatami. Is the ground not good enough for all? I have decided instead to become the idea of sitting, a restful idea held in my feet while standing up. “

A gust of wind crossed my face, a chill almost as bitter as the cold outside the subway. I guess Michio-AI-san knew what I meant about him being an idea of sitting, an abstraction. How he made the music that each round, robbed humans of opportunities. That I held him in my feet.

The Musashi avatar snapped his fingers, and large fluffy snowflakes began falling from gray skies above us, melting in my lashes and freezing my cheeks again with wet. He was showing me the power to send me back to starve in the subway tunnels, all couched in sweet nature poetry and the petal-light fall of snow.

Unfair, how the AI could control this virtual environment to make its point, skip words entirely. I could only use my body in this space, my posture and expressions. My naginata, my brain…what else did I have?

“I have only my words to bridge the ice of your smile,” I said then, extending the naginata so that its edge was centimeters from Musashi’s face, then while backing away made a sweeping cut in the air like a smile mirroring his bearded grimace.

The damn naginata was heavy. My armpits were wet, keeping the naginata in the ready position—threatening but not damaging Michio-AI-san. I couldn’t talk and fight at the same time. My fingers were getting stiff, and my snow-dusted body had now started shaking, teeth chattering.

He stroked his beard, breath steaming in the air. Then Musashi stood, waving his left hand in a butterfly-wing motion while holding his katana up with his right. I could swear I saw, like a hologram, a monarch butterfly, flitting in lazy figure eights around his waving fingers.

Cheating virtual bastard. One tiny gesture, moving the world on orange-and-black butterfly wings. His rise to sentience that became the eventual AI shitstorm that sent humans underground to starve.

He said nothing more. That was his poem: his identity, his rise to sentience. I played back the visual in my memory. Had he been too hasty in rendering that monarch? Or too generic, drawing it as an amalgam of thousands of butterflies? I took in a deep breath, tried to steady my teeth from chattering with cold fear.

I thought of Kagemori. The wren at my breast. “There is the one thing that matters,” I said. “Can you see it?”

Musashi roared. He threw his sword toward my face, and it was like a black curtain fell across my eyesight.

When I could see again, I was in a new place. Still on a mountainside, but instead of simulating feudal Japan, I was overlooking a panorama of the glittering ruins of New Tokyo. I could feel the sun warm the top of my head.

Where Musashi had stood, glaring at me with his sword in his hand, Kagemori now sat on a sunlit grassy mound. Not the frail and sick Kagemori, as I had last seen him in our subway niche, but a healthy Kagemori, much like when we had first met.

Someone definitely had sold his bones to Michio-AI-san, and not just any AI bidder, because this Kagemori moved exactly as I remembered. The lines of his face, precise and beloved. His dark hair. Even the hand motions and the way he sat, slouching cross-legged on the ground.

“Hey, Yukio,” he said, in that slow, easy way he had when I’d come back from foraging for the day, and he’d been deep deep inside a piece he was sketching. He held up a charcoal sketch: a wren, a sister to the one I had tucked in my shirt. The wren posed near a domelike nest in a hollowed tree trunk. The faintest suggestion of a river flowing in the background.

“All I could come up with today.”

I took it in one hand. The tapered wing lines felt true to Kagemori’s style, and the sketched branch and nest flowed like something he might have made. But I didn’t have to take my own sketch out from my shirt to check—my Kagemori ink drawing had no nest.

In Japan and elsewhere, male wrens make nests, sometimes multiple ones, to attract a mate. By drawing a wren for me on a branch, floating down the river, Kagemori had meant: he saw me, Yukio. We didn’t need a nest as long as Kagemori saw me for who I was.

Michio-AI clearly hadn’t understood what the wren drawing in my shirt meant. If this was Michio-AI-san’s answer to my question about the one thing that matters, he was wrong.

But even being right didn’t help me feel good, facing this fake version of my lover smiling at me. Kagemori more than looked right, he smelled right. This simulation also meant that something else had happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

You couldn’t create an avatar, or make art this close to Kagemori’s just from taking someone’s bones and ligaments and measuring them. You’d need spies, video footage of his processes, voice recordings over time. Maybe even measurements of neural patterns. Artistic habits. Exposure to him over years in the subway.

Someone in the subways had sold us out, more than just snatching his body when my back was turned.

Kagemori held out his hand as he used to, and I took it with my free hand. Squeezed it. Same bones and warmth. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.

I dropped his hand.

“I know what you are going to say, Yukio,” Kagemori said, and he smiled sadly. “That this nesting sketch is a fake, made by Michio-AI-san. That this is Michio-AI-san saying he can fake me, be me so exactly that you should give up fighting him. Give up trying to write about noodle factories. Give up making art.”

I raised both eyebrows.

“And I am sorry if that’s what Michio-AI-san chooses to do. It would be like him, because he’s kind of an idiot about humans and art. But what I am saying now is a recording, contractually agreed to be played after my death,” Kagemori said. “I did in fact draw you a sketch of a wren and a nest. And I sold Michio-AI-san that sketch, just like I sold him a bunch of other recordings of me working, and even a few of our talks about art. It’s why he let us live after the icicle poem.”

“When I got sick, he was all for my full indenture and to try to cure me with his nanobots. But by that point, well, I couldn’t. I saw how much death is actually part of his art. I didn’t want that death to be yours.”

Kagemori shrugged sheepishly. “If you see this recording it means he’s not pretending to be me; he’s letting me tell you that I’ve been pretending to be me, for some time now. I love my art, but something had to balance out, make things so you and the subway folks wouldn’t be poisoned again. And if you chose to compete in the tournament, Michio-AI-san has already had my death to sate him. He doesn’t need to kill you if he wins.”

He looked at his charcoal-smudged hands.

“I did tell him to let you sell my body to the highest AI bidder so they could make their own Kagemori robots, give him a little competition. He said he would honor this request. I wanted to make sure you had money to live on while you decided what to do. Money not from him. From me.

“I love you, Yukio. Remember our one thing.”

Kagemori blurred, then froze in place like a statue, still smiling down at the drawing in his hands.

“I did honor that agreement,” Musashi’s voice came from behind a tree, and the samurai avatar strode up to where Kagemori and I were seated. “But your neighbor Hirano took his body to Liu-AI-san. It doesn’t matter; I had made Kagemori’s physical measurements long ago. I could have imitated his brushstrokes at any time.”

I sat for a minute, looking at Kagemori and at Michio-AI-san in utter rage. Two sentient entities that thought they knew what was best for me, apparently.

I had been so angry at Kagemori for dying and leaving me. And now, this. This hypocrisy. Lying to me for what? When it all came down to this—would always have come down to this—me and Michio-AI-san fighting each other at the end.

And I still wasn’t done here. Our poet battle wasn’t over.

“With all respect, Michio-AI-san, this interlude is still a very fancy way of not answering my poem-question,” I said finally. “There is the one thing that matters. Can you see it?”

The Musashi avatar grabbed the wren with nest sketch out of my hands, waved it at me.

“The nest,” he said. “Safety. Home. That is what matters. He saved your life with this drawing, with his recordings. What else matters?”

I looked up at the scant, beautiful curves of the domed nest. Lines Kagemori had created sometime when he was alive.

How I wished he were alive and we were far, far away from New Tokyo. That he had listened to me, been brave enough.

“No. The wren matters,” I said, getting to my feet.

I reached inside my blouse and pulled out the tiny ink drawing of the wren on a branch, floating down the river.

“Me. I am the one thing,” I said. “He saw me as I really was, as I wished to be seen. He compromised himself, so that I could meet you now as an artist. You might be able to imitate his sketches, his painting style, but you won’t be able to imitate what you can’t see. And I’ve just proved you can’t see a certain part of him. A part of him that saw me.”

I reached out slowly, tapped the drawing in the Musashi avatar’s hands with one finger.

“The nest drawing was for you, Michio-AI-sama. Safe in your towers, underground with your geothermal reactors. You and he were a lot alike. He lied about a lot, but he didn’t ever draw me a nest because he wouldn’t create the lie about us, about me,” I said. “I am the wren.”

Musashi growled a curse word under his breath.

I wouldn’t let that be his answer.

“Japan hasn’t had poetry battles, real ones, in decades,” I said. “Not like the way the Heian court passed notes, or had moon parties to create new verses. I only kept in practice verbally because I couldn’t post my poems anywhere. I could only share them on the fly, underground, in the subway. With—with Kagemori.”

I tapped my naginata on the ground.

“How will you find another Kagemori, another me, without making conditions favorable for humans to thrive? How will you be sure you aren’t missing the one thing that changes everything?”

The Musashi avatar was still scowling.

“Death is unoriginal, Michio-AI-sama. We already have enough death. If death were a poetic answer, humans won that contest—long ago.”

At the word contest, the swordsman struck, and I raised my naginata in time to deflect.

We held like that, as sweat poured down my face. Then quick as a snake, his other hand came out and struck at my elbow, forcing me to drop the naginata.

I backed away, hands without a weapon and I looked up to his hungry eyes.

His sword was now poised at the side of my neck. A millimeter closer and it would draw blood.

I thought about my image of myself: a wren on a branch singing, floating down the river away from where she had been. I willed myself to look at a point above his head, to be looking at the sky when he struck.

His other hand closed my fingers of my left hand gently around something…round? warm…? alive?

As the blade sliced my neck without pain he murmured, “Damn humans…”

I awoke at the workstation, clearly not dead yet, gasping and gagging. A valet bot rolled up, bearing a slim glass of water in its serving tray. My head ached as I pulled off the headset.

I looked down to find that my pleated wool skirt now had no soup stains. I shivered, not wanting to think about the bots crawling all over my clothes to make things the way Michio-AI-san wanted them, while I was in simulation space fencing with Musashi. His drones could crawl up the walls. They could fly all over the world.

Who cares whether one human poet probably had her last ramen bowl in New Tokyo a few days ago and had the stains to prove it? Michio-AI-san.

Maybe I won.

The valet bot waited to speak until I’d drunk the water down and placed the glass back on its tray.

“Michio-AI-sama told me to speak with you about your scores once you awakened,” the valet bot said. “You were the only natural human in this round and the only one who defeated the simulation. The other AIs had all sent accelerated clone proxies, proxies that died rather quickly. Especially the ones from Liu-san, who had a striking physical resemblance to the late artist Kagemori.”

“Did I win?” I asked. “Is it over? Do I have the job of making art for Michio-AI-san?”

In answer, a little hatch opened along the valet bot’s side.

I reached inside and felt it—a warm egg, fresh from some protected hen with laboratory genes, ready to give up itself as a sunny yolk for breakfast. The valet bot said simply:

“Three things I offer to make a woman smile—sun on her hair, the hand of a lover, a perfect egg.”

Michio-AI-san’s first real poem. That had made humanity realize he was alive and not a machine. That was the butterfly wings that had started the AI revolution.

“Is he a sore loser?” I asked the valet bot. I set the egg down gently on the workstation keyboard, willing it not to roll. The wren sketch crinkled against my chest.

The valet said nothing.

“Even if he is mad about losing, can’t he just wait? Doesn’t he know that I’ll die someday, that he’ll always have the last word?”

“I have prepared your apartments and gymnasium,” a loudspeaker interrupted, this time in Michio-AI-san’s Musashi voice.

“You are ineffective with the naginata and you need to master a weapon if you are to be my battle poet. I expect you to run the recruitment testing next month. We need to find and train more humans, humans like you. Humans who can outwit AIs in sim space.”

A pause.

“The war of art is just beginning.”

Because I couldn’t locate the loudspeaker, I looked at the bot. “If you want me to recruit humans to your wars, you have to take care of them and feed them, Michio-AI-sama. I ate my last meal too long ago.”

A compartment on my desk opened, and up popped a steaming bowl of ramen. No packets. No ink. A single soy egg, a slice of pork, a fish cake, a rich miso broth.

The steam rose and wet my face. The asshole knew how to make real food. Maybe there was still a noodle factory underneath this office complex.

I bet I could make him open it.


Betsy Aoki

Betsy Aoki is a poet, short story writer and game producer. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, 580 Split, The Margins (Asian American Writers’ Workshop), and anthologized in Climbing Lightly Through Forests (a Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology). In 2021 she won the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York, selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown.
Her debut poetry collection, Breakpoint, is a 2019 National Poetry Series Finalist, and was published in 2022 after winning the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. You can find out more at

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.