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News & Features » November 2017 » “Machine” by Ahsan Butt

“Machine” by Ahsan Butt

In October 2017 we published An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, a rare literary science fiction set in a future universe so gorgeously described and perfectly self-contained—and yet so harrowing and cruel—that its only parallel universe is our own. Solomon’s novel has inspired this speculative fiction series. We’ve been through the past, and we haven’t really learned from it. The present? We’re too busy attempting to survive it. So we’re asking you to provide us a glimpse of what comes next. Illustrate the essential choices we must make in the present that will lead us to your brilliant utopian future. Or, if you cannot anticipate utopia, provide us instead with your cautionary tale. Show us where we will fall if we—when we—fail to alter our course. Fri-SciFi stories are published on Fridays because we expect we’ll need the weekend to contemplate your vision. 

This week, one man straddles the line between human and machine…

by Ahsan Butt
Northwest Pakistan, near-future

M watched himself wake in a mirror. His hair was gone and electrodes circled his skull, their wires stripped and dangling like witch hair. The mirror extended from the arm of the gutted surgical chair he was in. It hung over him, its strange reality becoming his.

M had dreamt of giant beetles jittering down a hallway, their bodies upright and crisscrossing in formation, antennae casting light beams on twitchy wings, hard shells, and cracked walls, a door shattering into white. M had watched himself jostled head first into the dried skin of some animal.

M reached for his skull, but rubber caught both his wrists. He turned his head, both to prove he could and to avoid the mirror. Behind him, his wires dragged along the floor and rose up a half-lit metal cart into the back of a black box—featureless except for a switch.

Beyond the cart, further out of light, there was the doctor in his swamp clothes. M had dreamt of him too, sketched his silhouette in countless dreams. When M would come home after dark, him and his bike coated in dirt and dust, Ami would plead with God for some fear to reach him, but she wouldn’t name that fear. It was always Abu who named it, who spoke of the doctor. He would repeat the stories in the same broken rhythm, as if every detail was the last he could remember, and yet it was always the same details in the same order—and Ami couldn’t listen anymore, so she would leave the room and Abu would show M where the tubes and chains went, and the towel and bucket and plank. M would wonder how much of his father’s stories were the gossip of village men exorcising fears, no different than his friends’ breathless exaggerations on their treks up into the pitch-dark peaks and down into the market, but then Abu’s eyes and tongue would lose a story mid-act, and those nights M would dream of the doctor paddling through thick waters of duckweed, under warped cypresses.

M clenched against his stiff backrest. His angle of recline suddenly distressed him—he couldn’t see the floor and the room gave no sense of its walls, as if the space outside the radius of light dropped off into nothing. The doctor pulled forward in his chair and its wheels spun him loose around the cart towards M. Sandals in air, the doctor sailed into light. His face itself seemed no crueler than other American ones M had seen. Though his brow was pinched in vigilance and scrutiny, other creases in his face left traces of humanity. M could imagine those creases curving in laughter or even grief, and he thought to plead with him, but held quiet, thinking it better to let the doctor speak first. In Abu’s stories, they always asked questions and in the questions you could hear the answers they wanted. M was ready to give any answer, anxious to. The doctor tucked his finger under the black box’s switch and looked at M for the first time—his eyes cobalt slits in worn rock—“I know what you are.” He flipped the switch and M’s only prayer was that someone could see where he was and what was happening to him.

There was no shock. M wondered if maybe there was a malfunction, but the doctor slid over to him and began unsticking the pads from his skull. Whatever it was was over and already the wires, the black box, and its switch began to fade from memory—gone. The doctor unlocked a lever and cranked it until M’s chair was upright. M could see a pair of steel grooves that came from the darkness and led to the base of his chair, before the mirror was adjusted to again swallow his view. Then M could only see himself. And he wondered how he had never truly seen himself before—how his eyes were spiteful and the shape of his skull wretched. How his age was a lie, how he had no age. He could feel unfamiliar memories sliding into his knowledge and though the details—who he was, the things he had done—didn’t cohere yet, he now knew what he was and that the self-loathing and humiliation rippling within him were natural and deserved. The screech of metal didn’t shift his gaze. M continued to watch himself as he was slung into dark.


AHSAN BUTT was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review, One Throne Magazine, Pacifica Literary Review, the Offing, the James Franco Review, and elsewhere.


Do you have a story you’d like us to consider for online publication in the Fri-SciFi series? Here are the submission terms and guidelines.

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a conceivable, not a fantastical, future. No dragons, please.
—With your byline, include the date or era OR galaxy or ship or planetary system in which your story takes place. Or both. But not neither.
—To be perfectly frank, we prefer dystopias. But feel free to surprise us.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words, and must be previously unpublished.
—Please include a short bio with your submission.
—Accepted submissions to Fri-SciFi are typically posted 1–3 months after the notification date, and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Nov 1, 2017

Category: Original Fiction, Fri-SciFi, Original Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,