Future Tense

“The Skeleton Crew”

Read a new short story about a haunted house, A.I., and a rock star.

A skeleton pops out of an open closet door.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Aroha had been a closet skeleton for two weeks now, the longest anyone had managed to hold the position. At first the job had been utterly undoable, but she and her co-workers had hacked in some we’d-totally-be-fired-for-this improvements. Now she had a subroutine that injected just enough idle movement to give her breaks without incurring any timeout penalties, plus a camera feed monitoring the hallway outside her basement closet. It gave her minutes at a time to stretch her legs and make herself tea, ready to hop back into her chair as soon as the next guests approached. The GhostChat running in an unofficial chat window kept her from feeling too isolated.

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Princess Morgue: was that the big dude???

DarthSugar: flew across his path and jiggled in his face and he jumped backward 10 feet :D

hey cheesella i want to hear the house SHAKE when they get to closet skeleton

btw i think my wing’s busted again

Cheesella: ugh did one of them get grabby

i will slay them

DarthSugar: nah just a panic flail

i misjudged the distance

wish they put stereo vision in the drones

That was a relief; destructive guests sucked, and there wasn’t much the workers could do about them except hide until they made their way out of the haunted house. Although the House of A.I.’s official selling point was an advanced A.I. that could read facial expressions and produce an individually customized haunted house experience, some people seemed to be mostly attracted by the prospect of messing with the A.I.

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But there was no A.I. Customers had been promised one, back when House of A.I. had been selling tickets a year in advance, attracting celebrity investors, buying and renovating an actual abandoned mansion on a tiny private island. But it turned out that no money on Earth could build the A.I. that the House’s billionaire founder had envisioned. The developers tried to buy time by hiring Aroha and her co-workers to control the haunted house robots, patching in a hacked-together remote interface where the A.I. was supposed to be. They were meant to be replaced with the real A.I. once they had provided enough training data. But launch day came and went, and two years later the only sign of A.I. was a few functions meant to keep Aroha and her co-workers in line, functions whose hostility was rivaled only by their profound shoddiness. Like the Scare-O-Meter. Damn, she hated the Scare-O-Meter.

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Mayhem Chicken: how bad is your wing? can you keep going?

(NO cheesella do not slay them)

It was one of the House of A.I.’s selling points, among the very few that it really delivered on, that there were no human employees physically on the island. Even Mayhem Chicken, the closest thing they had to a supervisor, lived in the Philippines. The developers had promised their A.I. would eventually handle security and on-site repair, but since that hadn’t yet materialized, life as a plastic skeleton was precarious. Aroha was already mentally calculating how much time she’d have between guests, whether there was time for her to dash upstairs and try to fix DarthSugar. If DarthSugar’s drone were busted, she’d get no scares at all till the Monday maintenance visit. That would mean a lot of wage penalties. At worst, the system might even autoterminate DarthSugar, which would suck on so many levels. The five remaining House of A.I. robot operators had clawed their way together out of the chaos of the early days, learning the caprices of the Scare-O-Meter and the other scoring systems. To lose a co-worker would not only be a tragedy, but would jeopardize their delicate system of hacks and workarounds. Without the five of them coordinating, nobody would have a job for long.

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DarthSugar: i think it’s just my wingtip. i can ignore it

Princess Morgue: is it just a flesh wound

DarthSugar: i don’t want to go on the cart

GhostChat devolved into Monty Python quotes while Aroha sat back in relief, flexing her fingers and taking a sip of tea. An emergency repair would have been an iffy proposition, although much more practical ever since one of the weekly maintenance workers had finally seen their note and left a small toolkit for them. Aroha returned her attention to her camera, which was now showing the next guests rounding the corner toward her closet, bunched up and nervous.

When they opened her closet door, she lay slumped in the corner for a long moment until she saw them begin to relax. Then she jumped, and they shrieked and scrambled over one another as she climbed to her feet and took two steps forward, her eye sockets flaring with red lights. She had gotten good at appearing to advance without actually moving forward; it made her look scary while keeping her out of arm’s reach. They bolted for the exit, their curses already beginning to crumble into laughter.

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In her vision, the Scare-O-Meter blinked red. EMOTION DETECTED: JOY. BAD SCARE. BAD SCARE. Aroha sighed and directed her camera at the Very Scary Mop in the corner. Rapidly the Scare-O-Meter began to climb. Nobody had liked being Closet Skeleton because the lighting was terrible and the Scare-O-Meter could see just well enough to register that guests were present, but not well enough to see their faces and register a scare properly (not that it was that accurate even in good lighting—no wonder an A.I. built to maximize Scare-O-Meter performance had failed). Being Closet Skeleton had meant accumulating so many bad scares that the job paid almost nothing. The setup was ludicrous, but since they were filling in for a missing A.I. program, nobody had built in a way for them to complain. They’d been reduced to dividing Closet Skeleton shifts among themselves, trying to spread out the damage. Then one day Aroha had noticed that the Scare-O-Meter would sometimes register the mop in the corner as a terrified human. The ability to cancel out the bad scares was a game-changer.

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DarthSugar: nice one cheesella!! heard that

Cheesella: SLAIN

Mayhem Chicken: remember vips at 22:00

Princess Morgue: got it

DarthSugar: got it

Bud Crack: Got it.

Aroha too typed, “got it,” and took a sip of tea while she checked her computer clock and converted San Francisco time to New Zealand daylight saving time. VIPs at 22:00 gave her a good half-hour for dinner while they cleared out the other guests. She wondered who it would be this time. House of A.I. sometimes got real celebrities, since it was expensive and nobody—maybe not even the billionaire founder—knew how deeply crappy the A.I. really was.

She was finishing her curry when the GhostChat leapt to life.

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Mayhem Chicken: vips are here

omg omg it’s DRAGONSULLA

DarthSugar: omgggggggg heart heart heart skull

Princess Morgue: skull skull skull heart

Bud Crack: Who?

DarthSugar: DRAGONSULLA

Princess Morgue: DRAGONSULLA

DarthSugar: ALL BONES ROT

Aroha knew who Dragonsulla was—a metal rocker who used her fame to fight back against the white supremacists who kept trying to claim Ancient Metal as theirs. She’d even had to tighten security at her concerts after one of them tried to bring in a gun. One of Aroha’s friends had a Dragonsulla poster on her wall, the one with Dragonsulla standing in a cathedral knee-deep in blood, looking like she was about to tear it down. Or maybe like she would stand there for thousands of years until it crumbled around her. Aroha didn’t listen to metal herself, but the poster had power.

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Mayhem Chicken: she’s here with a photo crew, sweet

DarthSugar: hey i got booted

Princess Morgue: me too nooooo i need to see dragonsulla!!!

Mayhem Chicken: i can’t reconnect!

Was Aroha the only one still connected? She could still see her hallway camera feed and still move her limbs. Why her? Then she remembered.

Cheesella: i’m still connected. the wifi signal’s so bad down here that closet skeleton has a dedicated router. something must be wrong with the one the rest of you are using. will it fix itself?

Princess Morgue: not likely. someone probably has to manually push the button to restart our router

DarthSugar: ugh it’s docking me for inactivity. i’m TRYING, ok

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Cheesella: i can do it. where’s the router?

Princess Morgue: ground floor, in the closet between the crypt and the spider room

hurry

i think i fell over when i lost connection

gonna look real silly when Dragonsulla encounters napping axe skeleton

Aroha left her closet and headed upstairs. Everything was still in Haunted House Mode, the lights, soundtrack, and even the fog still active. Whatever had gone wrong, it must be just affecting the one router. She took the most direct route, using access corridors to shortcut the winding paths, popping in and out of concealed doorways. She kept her head down by habit as she passed each A.I.-generated portrait—the Scare-O-Meter sometimes registered those as human and would hand out bad scares. When she passed through the guest-facing areas, generated ghosts began to follow her, then stopped, then started to follow her again, stuttering, the face-tracking algorithm confused. At one point she stepped over Princess Morgue, whose empty eye sockets stared at the ceiling, foam ax still attached to one of her hands.

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The door to the router closet was already ajar. Metal and plastic were strewn across the floor, and the router itself was lying among them, several deep gouges in its case.

Aroha sat forward in her chair, heart beating quickly. She took a screenshot and sent it to GhostChat. Then she backed away and hid against the wall among some prop skeletons. She needed time to think.

DarthSugar: holy shit

Princess Morgue: did somebody STAB the router??

Aroha adjusted her headphone volume and now she could hear the floor creaking as someone much heavier than a robot skeleton moved nearby.

Cheesella: they’re still here. i can hear them.

She realized she was sitting very still, typing gingerly. She was 10,000 kilometers from whatever was happening, yet she could feel herself sweating, feel her hands tensing up on the controls.

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You’re the only one left, she told herself.

Cheesella: i’m going to see

She wondered how loud her feet were, how loud her servo motors were, whether her chassis made any sort of constant hum. There was so much she might not hear, being located so far from her body, relying on cheap headphones. It had never mattered before.

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The crypt was lined with skeletons that looked pretty similar to her own body, so she edged slowly out along the wall, ready to freeze. About six paces down the hall, standing framed by a heavy archway, were two people with their backs to her, one heavy, one thin, both white, both youngish. They had guns, she saw with an acid twist of fear running through her stomach. The big black angular kind that Americans used for mass shootings. She took a screenshot and sent it to GhostChat.

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DarthSugar: holy SHIT

Princess Morgue: i recognize those neck tattoo assholes. they were in here last week

they kept trying to mess with me. i had to take a photo and play Threat_of_litigation.mp3

DarthSugar: ME TOO

Bud Crack: Can someone zoom in on those tattoos for me?

Aroha thought she knew what kinds of tattoos they would be. Their look, their swagger, their annoying haircuts, all screamed white supremacist. These assholes must have scoped out the place last week, then hidden somewhere today before the house was cleared for Dragonsulla. There was only one path through the House of A.I., so now all they had to do was wait for her to come to them.

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DarthSugar: oh shit oh shit what do we do

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Mayhem Chicken: call for help. BC you’re in seattle right? can you call 911?

Bud Crack: I can do that. Calling now.

DarthSugar: how long will it take them to get there

it’s on an island right

is there a boat

is there a helicopter

how will they get there in time

Mayhem Chicken: i’m sure they have a helicopter

Princess Morgue: there’s no way they’ll get there in time even with a helicopter. it’s 20 minutes tops from the entrance to the router closet. less if we’re not there to interact.

DarthSugar: BC are they picking up??

Aroha skimmed GhostChat, most of her attention on her camera, watching the two wait with their guns. Her hands still clenched the controls, but her earlier fear had distilled into rage. Their goal was clear. For them to win would be unthinkable.

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They had missed one skeleton, and now there would be hell to pay.

She wanted to fling herself at them and wrestle their guns away. But she was a plastic skeleton, and probably weighed 10 kilos at most. They would bat her away as easily as if she were a coat rack. She couldn’t even block a bullet. She needed a different way

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Cheesella: we have to make sure she never gets to them. gonna sneak away and intercept her

DarthSugar: YES

Mayhem Chicken: we need to know where she is

Princess Morgue: we need the cameras back. maybe my sister can hack into Cheesella’s closet connection. i can call her

Mayhem Chicken: do that

Without intel, Aroha would have to guess which shortcut to take, but first she’d have to get away without the gun-toting assholes noticing. Fortunately she was still against a wall of other skeletons, and the two mostly had their backs turned. She tapped the controls slowly, delicately, trying to make her motion imperceptible.

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It was at that moment that the Scare-O-Meter realized she was in the presence of humans and decided to read the emotions of the backs of their heads.

EMOTION DETECTED: SORROW. BAD SCARE. BAD SCARE.

That would have been merely annoying had it not triggered its occasional “help be scary” routine that unleashed a loud, eerie screech.

She froze as the gunmen whirled around, weapons raised. After a long moment of silence, the larger one ran to her corner and stopped, listening, completely unaware that a skeleton within arm’s reach was watching him.

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“I didn’t see anyone,” Asshole Number One said to the smaller gunman. “Are we sure we disabled the A.I.?”

“We stabbed the hell out of that box. Maybe that noise was just part of the soundtrack.”

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“It’s creepy.”

“Shut up. She’s probably getting close by now.”

Asshole One stayed in the corner of the two hallways, looking occasionally back down the hall past her. Some of his nervousness seemed to register with the Scare-O-Meter, which quieted down the longer he stayed in view—it tended to be the most accurate on white men.

Princess Morgue: oh thank god my sister answered her phone

i’m going to see if she can get us camera or our bodies back

DarthSugar: i wish we could see what’s happening

Mayhem Chicken: cheesella please tell us when you make it to dragonsulla

if you can

BC has the antiterrorists on the phone

he can update them

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Cheesella: Scare-O-Meter sabotaged me. i’m still in the crypt with them. they know something happened but don’t know which skeleton i am

DarthSugar: oh crap

Cheesella: BC what do the antiterrorists say? do they have ideas?

Bud Crack: I’

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I’m still explaining things to them. What we are. They are confused.

Aroha guessed it might take them a while to get from “the House of A.I. is run by an advanced artificial intelligence” to “to avert disaster we must rely on a single plastic skeleton controlled by a frantic woman in New Zealand.” In the meantime, keeping Dragonsulla away from the gunmen still seemed like the best plan.

Asshole One was close enough to her that Aroha was still tempted to grab the gun from him. They would destroy her, but it might take long enough and make enough noise that it would alert Dragonsulla. Or maybe Dragonsulla would just think it was part of the soundtrack.

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Cheesella: i need to get away from them. need to find her somehow

DarthSugar: wait are the AI portraits still working?

that was a third party app

i think they use cellphone signal

Mayhem Chicken: OH

so the website would still be updating!

can you go see?

Aroha had completely forgotten about the terrible A.I. portraits. They were supposed to learn the faces of the guests as they walked by, then optimize a blank fleshy blob until it started to look like them. The resulting faces would follow guests from frame to frame around the house, the resemblance growing stronger with every encounter. Later, guests would be able to view and purchase their photos online.

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In theory, they could figure out how far Dragonsulla had gotten by checking the website to see which mirrors had begun to display her face. Unfortunately, after about a year, an update had broken the optimization algorithm and now the faces were masses of orifices, far too many mouths and far, far too many eyeballs. The creepiness factor had definitely increased, but now the faces were unrecognizable. Maybe DarthSugar could still manage it.

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Aroha took a deep breath and loosened her grip on the controls. She was still stuck in the hallway with a couple of murderous terrorists, but she realized she wasn’t really alone with them. She had a team.

Cheesella: i think i can get away from them

gonna jettison a hand

It was a trick she had discovered by accident and occasionally amused herself with on slow nights. Taking careful aim, she jerked her arm sharply. Her hand flew off and hit the door release panel.

The two gunmen whirled to face the opening door.

“There’s no one there,” Asshole One said after a moment. “What if it’s the A.I.?”

“It’s not the A.I.,” Asshole Two said. “We disabled it.”

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“How do we know, though?”

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“Fine. Let’s go check it out.”

The moment they disappeared around the corner, Aroha made her retreat.

In the next room she stopped among heaps and curtains of spiderwebs, arranging herself in a vaguely menacing pose next to a 3-foot jumping spider. Now that she had faded into the background spookiness again, she considered her options. Freaking the hell out of the gunmen was one attractive prospect—she knew enough shortcuts that she could keep getting ahead of them, keep drawing them farther down the maze, hopefully faster than Dragonsulla was advancing toward them.

Cheesella: ha got away from them

up one room now

plan?

DarthSugar: FOUND HER

garbled image but i would know that eyeshadow anywhere

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wow she hasn’t gotten far at all. she’s still in statuary hall

Mayhem Chicken: so we have a lot more time than we thought

that’s really good

i was afraid she was almost to them

are they still staying put cheesella?

Cheesella: they went one room farther when i opened the door

they haven’t come back up yet

Bud Crack: The antiterrorists say try to get to Dragonsulla and get her out of the house. Top priority.

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Cheesella: got it

DarthSugar: blood room shortcut?

Cheesella: yup

She liked this plan better—less risk of an abrupt end to her intervention, or of them growing suddenly suspicious and doubling back to intercept Dragonsulla. She left the realm of the spiders and moved quickly to the blood room, where blood and viscera oozed from the original crown molding and sheeted down the blanked windows. The blood room shortcut, an opening in the side of a huge fireplace, was one of the secret passageways that was original to the mansion, its corridor wallpapered rather than plywood and running straight down the length of the wing. Her bony feet sank into original carpet as she hurried.

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Princess Morgue: my sister’s hacked in! do we want bodies first or cameras

Bud Crack: They say cameras.

She came out in the statuary hall between two bleeding gargoyles. It was the biggest and best room in the mansion, and the lighting engineers had worked wonders here. Candles flickered from columns and deep recesses, disappearing overhead into mist and swirling crows. Statues were everywhere, dramatically lit, some with extra limbs or talons or glowing eyes. Up on a platform beneath the largest statue, a single, featureless stone, stood three people. Two had their backs to Aroha as they adjusted cameras on tripods and tilted giant silvery light-bouncing screens. And the third was Dragonsulla, wearing tall boots and a long black coat, her eyeshadow rimmed with stars, her hair a shocking white. She was stunning.

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Dragonsulla noticed Aroha and her expression brightened.

“Oh, hello! Can you understand me? I’ve never met an advanced A.I. before.” Dragonsulla’s voice was low and hoarse. “Thanks for being patient. We couldn’t help stopping for pictures here. This room is … ” she gestured expansively.

Aroha flailed her skeleton arms in a shooing motion, trying to turn them back. The Scare-O-Meter flashed unhappily in her vision.

“It’s all right,” said Dragonsulla kindly. “You don’t need to try to scare me. My individually personalized haunted house experience is going to be mostly me gawking at the scenery and taking pictures. It’s terrific how they kept so much of the original mansion.”

Aroha wished her body came with a voice box, or any sound file other than screeching and Threat_of_litigation.mp3.

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Dragonsulla gave her a friendly wave and then resumed working with her photographers.

Princess Morgue: ha i can see you cheesella!

and there’s dragonsulla!!

Mayhem Chicken: where are the gunmen

they’re not by the router closet anymore

DarthSugar: uh-oh i think i found them

they’re coming fast toward you cheesella

only a few rooms away

Bud Crack: They say get her out of there now.

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Get her on the other side of a heavy door.

Mayhem Chicken: the doors don’t lock

Bud Crack: I know. Explaining.

Aroha stood for several frustrated seconds trying to think of a way to use her plastic skeleton body to convey urgency, to do something at them that they wouldn’t interpret as an A.I.’s single-minded attempt to be spooky. She could probably manage to kick over a tripod, but only another haunted house worker would know how out of the ordinary it was to touch a guest or their stuff. Then she saw the far wall.

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Dragonsulla’s eyes tracked Aroha as she crossed the room, then widened as she stopped before the fire alarm and pulled it.

Red lights whirled and a piercing wail filled the room. The houselights came up, and the other lighting effects disappeared, all except for a clearly lit exit sign. The San Francisco Fire Department did not allow a haunted house to mess around when it came to the fire alarm.

With her remaining hand, Aroha gestured emphatically at the exit sign.

Dragonsulla hurried to help the camera crew begin to pack up, the three of them twisting tripod knobs and collapsing screens.

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Aroha paced, playing her scary screech sound file at increasingly frantic intervals, which did seem to make them work faster. Their arms full of gear, the three made their way to the exit door, reaching the threshold just as the first heavy footsteps sounded from the other end of the room. Dragonsulla was holding the door for the photographers, and about to go through herself, when the first of the gunmen came into sight. She froze for only a split second before she slammed the door.

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Now Aroha turned to face the gunmen. She screeched and flashed her eyes red, arms raised into their faces. They yelped, swore, and twisted, and began to fire at her at close range.

If she had been there in person, the sound and flash of the gunshots would have been overwhelming. Filtered through the saturation limits of her camera and microphone, they were merely sounds, background to her increasing sense of calm determination. She was expendable. And as a skeleton she was mostly air. The bullets were blasting into heavy wood behind her, ripping the occasional chunk from her frame as she slowly advanced. There was a spray of sparks as a bullet shot out the red lights of one eye socket, but her camera was in her nose, and she could still see them backing away from her. Her upraised arms were blasted beyond recognition, sparking and dangling finger bones.

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Asshole One was screaming, “It won’t die! It won’t die!”

Asshole Two had just enough presence of mind to shoot for her feet, and a lucky shot blasted away her ankle and sent her sprawling. She disengaged her autogait and began to mash keys, trying to crawl toward them.

“Leave it! She’s getting away.”

“The A.I.’s still alive! It’s still coming!”

“Just this one bot. If it has more robots, where are they?” He kicked her hard and the camera view swung as she slid across the floor. “Let’s go.”

Then he screamed and raised his gun again as a bat-winged drone flew at his face, and another skeleton swung a giant foam ax, knocking the gun from his grip. The other gunman suddenly found himself with a bat drone in his face as well, and he backed wildly away, spraying bullets until he tripped over Princess Morgue’s ax. Mayhem Chicken’s butler skeleton was there among them, deftly reaching in to slide the guns out of their reach. Someone began to play Threat_of_litigation.mp3.

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“Freeze!” It was a new voice pitched at perfect American law enforcement cadence, straight out of the movies. “Raise your hands and face the wall.”

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Aroha took a deep breath and then another, unclenching her hands from the controls, watching the anti-terrorist squad handcuff the two gunmen. The other skeletons came to cluster around her mangled body.

DarthSugar: hell yeah cheesella you were awesome. r.i.p. chassis but all hail cheesella.

Mayhem Chicken: we’re gonna be so fired

Princess Morgue: but we’re heroes??

especially Cheesella

Mayhem Chicken: we’re also cheating hackers who know too much

Soon the officer had a phone, which she was using to relay questions to GhostChat through Bud Crack. It was clear they were each going to be separately, extensively interviewed. It was also clear they were not going to be paid for any of that, and probably not even for this shift, with their Scare-O-Meter ratings in shambles. And yes, probably fired after that.

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From her floor-level camera view where she lay collapsed, Aroha saw a pair of high boots stride into view, followed by two people in jeans and sneakers. One of the jeans wearers crouched down to Aroha’s level and a camera flashed in her lens.

“Are you OK, ma’am? All of you?” The officer’s voice was gentle. “I know that was a lot. We can get you some blankets and hot drinks.”

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“First I need to thank the A.I.,” Dragonsulla said. “And apologize for bringing all that with me.”

When the officer explained the situation, Dragonsulla was first surprised, and then quietly, intensely angry.

That anger blazed forth two days later in an interview, with Bud Crack sitting next to Dragonsulla and looking uncomfortable in a suit. (They’d all known BC was old, but they hadn’t quite realized how old.) House of A.I. had in fact fired them all while trying to cover up the fact that they existed, and this was the interview during which Dragonsulla was officially not having it.

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Of course House of A.I. was free to fire any of them since they were contract employees, so Dragonsulla’s indignation had no direct effect. But the CEO owned other businesses that traded on his reputation as an A.I. expert, and he did not like being caught with fake A.I. that was really remote workers—particularly workers with names and faces and heroic stories. So after that interview, he officially washed his hands of the House of A.I., putting the island and mansion and business up for sale.

Six months later, Dragonsulla stepped from a boat, moonlight catching her white hair, as the band and the audience and all the skeletons cheered. She glanced up at her mansion, grinning and shaking her head at herself, as if not quite believing that this was happening. But then she turned and punched the air with a fist and planted her feet.

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That was the signal for Aroha and the others to clamber onstage, taking their places behind her, making use of their new articulated wrists and ankles. Mayhem Chicken had had her hands full getting robot skeletons repaired and upgraded, getting new ones built, getting a dozen new employees trained to use them. DarthSugar and Bud Crack had kept their tiny bat drones but added stereo vision and speakers. They used them now to buzz the crowd with hilariously low-pitched metal growls.

“ALL BONES ROT.

“ALL BONES ROT.

“ALL HAIL CHEESELLA!”

Read a response essay by Melissa Valentine, an expert on how data and algorithms are changing work.

More From Future Tense Fiction

Scar Tissue,” by Tobias S. Buckell
The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” by Joey Siara
Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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