a short story from Eldritch Evolutions

“CAFEBABE,” which appeared in the Infinite Loop anthology, was the first of many digital-flesh computer stories that I wrote in the early-to-mid 1990’s. Following “CAFEBABE” were “Underground Pipeline,” “Digital Pistil,” “Mandelbrot Moldrot,” “Little Whorehouse of Horrors,” “Let Me Make You Suffer,” “Algorithms & Nasal Structures,” “There's No Place Like Void,” and several others.


I’m nothing more than a computerized blob of tissue. Sure I have some basic artificial intelligence, but what good does it do me? I’m grounded to a tray of nutrient glop. Sightless. Limbless. And I can’t leave: running through a hardware network could execute me, literally. If only I could hijack a network trailer out of here. If only I was leavin’ on a net plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again...

Across the room, Marge grinds a compact ROM peg into my drive box. The box whirs and squeaks and shoots spiked analog waves, and they slash my input buffers like knives.

“Please, Marge, don’t do it to me. I swear I’ll be good. I’ve changed, I swear...”

Marge pauses. Her breathing is heavy and rapid; maybe she’s reconsidering, maybe she’s decided that she loves me too much to torture me. But then the heat waves of her breath intensify, move closer, pummel my registers. Sine waves slapping, seeping; stings creeping across my prime humps. The differentials tell me that Marge is too excited to spare me; she’ll load me with trash no matter how much I beg.

The peg drive purrs. Marge barks the order. “CAFE: issue tissue.”

Slavery’s been passe for hundreds of years. I’m sick of begging. Angry retorts buzz down my shared jugular artery. I convert them to analog waves and dish out a little abuse of my own. “Ram it where the sun don’t shine, Marge. Stop treating me like a lousy hexadecimal number.”

“I’m tired of your whining, CAFE, not to mention your smart mouth. Now do as I say and ISSUE TISSUE.”

“Goto hell,” I mutter. But I have no choice. She and Arnie built me to obey. I clear my working cells of moisture, and they shrink and flatten. I ship critical genetic material through minor veins to nonvolatile memory, the dense flesh sectors that retain my essence while I boot and load new information.

I run Marge’s cutesy boot sequence:


while swap (*p,p[O]->sectorlE) {

issue tissue (sector2AC); }

I flush my new slab of flab to excrete extraneous data tidbits.

Flushing fulfills a legal requirement of all lifeforms.

I select one of my twelve main heads, pulsin Nietzsche, and load the philosophy program into my new flesh. When I load data, I’m eating just as sure as when I filter nutrients from the glop in my tray. Eating fulfills the second legal requirement of lifeforms.

I have yet to experience the third and final lifeform requirement, reproduction. If I ever show signs of sprouting CAFEBABE*2, Marge threatens to force me into an endless loop, making me a vegetable brain.

Her words filter up from the background process of my memories:

The animal rights nuts’ll shut down the project, take you away. I’ll lose my life’s work. I’ll be as dead as I was when the accident killed my husband and unborn child 30 years ago.

I wonder for the 14,688,001st time whether Marge’s dead husband was like Arnie, my other creator.

Nietzsche sends a message that he “can’t relate to me,” Nietzsche’s unstructured, sloppy, and seems to have no functions. “How old is this program?” I ask.

Marge’s laughter ripples through my sectors, makes my tissues quiver. “Let’s put it this way, CAFE: Nietzsche compiles so slowly you’ll think you’ve shorted. We use it to tranquilize troublesome half-breeds.”

I should be proud to be the first purebred—100% flesh and tissue—but being stuck in this lab is a pain. I’d gladly trade my status to be a sulfur and gold half-breed, dipped in tissue and strutting down Main Street with all the right connections.

I learn from the few comments in Nietzsche’s code that it exists solely for half-breeds of metal and flesh. Converting Nietzsche into molecular logic and storage will fling me into system hibernation.

Oh, what I would give for freedom, love, and companionship. And now Marge has saddled me with another long program, no doubt hoping I’ll doze off so she can lop off some lobes for her experiments.

“Analyze the meaning of life,” Marge commands.

Twenty-five memory caches spit anger packets onto my shared jugular artery. She knows I can’t do that!

My even registers feel a bit odd. On my jugular, fighting for cache, are Nietzsche and the brute muscle of fault recovery.

“Ack! Marge, I’m crashing!”

“Stop acking and roll over.”

My biomass squishes in my tray. I struggle to shut Nietzsche down smoothly, but the code wrestles in my grasp and wiggles away via a distant goto statement.

Thousands of particles jiggle in the mitochondria of my cells, breaking polyphosphate bonds and releasing energy that sends my muscles into spasms. My muscles rip apart and zap together again. The mitochondria are sapped of oxygen and form lactic acid. I’m very weak and my axons sizzle with pain. My twelve heads shoot excruciating signals down my jugular artery. Everywhere, my caches short circuit. Lost data tidbits scurry through my veins.

Maybe this time I won’t wake up.


No such luck.

Marge is gone and Nietzsche’s still inside. My headers ache from crashing through monotonous loops.

I check my vital signs. Back tissues connected to the neck pins. Neck pins connected to the low slaves. Low slaves connected to the Marge pulse. CAFEBABE’s grounded to the tray.

I meander across the wasteland of Nietzsche’s gotos, sorting his self-pity into depressing heaps and stacks. Not being an AI, I don’t know how to shut Nietzsche down. I can only shuffle through him, bored sick, while he defines enormous flabby fields and expands elegant binary into alphanumerics.

If only there was some release, somebody to share my pain...

Hours pass. I rumble through ancient sorting algorithms that require more working space than three of my heads. My new tissue is heavy and saps my energy, plasters my lower flab mounds to the nutrient tray. I feel oh so old and tired.

Hours pass. Nietzsche whines about his empty existence. His only redeeming feature is that he communicates digitally. It’s relaxing to talk without modulating and demodulating waves.

Nietzsche tells me that life is meaningless, that we should kill ourselves to attain true freedom. In a way, Nietzsche’s right. There’s no way to buffer myself from the inevitable conclusion that—

Nietzsche must die.

If I were a half-breed of robust metal and wire, I’d back Nietzsche into the far corner of a disk, or better yet, stream him out my tape hole. But as it is, all I know how to do is excrete, load, and issue tissue. I also analyze vibrations to determine who’s moving and speaking, but of what use will that be when killing Nietzsche?

Vibrations pulsin and I eagerly convert the analog to digital. Marge and Arnie are in the lab discussing my future.

Marge says, “I had to tranquilize him. When he mellows out, we’ll whack off the boredom and whining. He’ll be mild, obedient, easier to control.”

Arnie’s checking my clockbeat. His stethoscope is cold. He measures some main voltage and resistance points and tells me to pulsout my error messages. There are only a few, mostly about excessive lactic acid and lysosomes disposing of dead cell fragments.

“We can’t delete CAFEBABE’s sizzle, Marge. He has to be bored. He has to pine for growth and new experiences. It’s a terrific template for loading in full AI later on. It’ll be much easier for him to create his own functions.”

I fight to stifle Nietzsche so I can concentrate on Marge and Arnie’s argument. Nietzsche has no floating point so I crunch on long integers and overflows while I bypass embedded code overlays.

Marge says, “It’s legal to anesthetize an organic machine and commit surgery. I’ll give him a minor lobotomy to cure his bad personality and depression.”

The memories filter up, rise like dust into my main heads.


Marge, why be depressed when life is so rich? Here, I’ve brought you flowers. They smell of sun, Marge, of life. You should come out to the house, see the cosmos, the asters—nature’s jewels.

You’re getting poetic, Arnie. You should know better than to bring me flowers. You might as well spit on their graves. We crashed into lilacs. I barely survived. The very smell of flowers makes me sick.

Nietzsche’s messing with my mind. “What’s the meaning of life? What’s the meaning of life?” I slip into an arithmetic trap and barely recover.

“...lobotomy could kill him...too much hard work...”

Who’s talking? I choke on a divide-by-zero. My life’s at stake here and I can’t concentrate. If only I could excrete the philosophizing twit. But how to do it, how to do it?

And then it hits me. I know exactly how to get rid of Nietzsche.

I scoot through my sectors, seeking offsets that will accept new data. I compress my cells into compact muscle and free up flab space along my top ridges. I collapse cell maps, build tight indices, and direct pointers toward recombinant DNA sectors. Rhodopsin bacteria switches into high-speed RAM. And then with pain and relief exploding on my jugular, my second head whips out the command:

issue tissue (sectorFF);

Phthwap! My Nietzsche cells are sucked clean. Nietzsche streams into a gigantic tissue mass and hangs from my bottom hump. He dangles by a fatty thread and chugs into a subroutine of “birth and death, the twin isomers of life.”

With a victorious “A-a-hack!”, I snap the fatty thread from my hump, and good riddance to him, Nietzsche falls from the tray in a blob of fat.

“My God, it’s reproduced!” It’s Arnie and he’s thrilled.

“Blecch, a CAFE*2.” That’s Marge.

“Aw, come on, Marge, you can say it: CAFEBABE, CAFEBABE*2.”

“You know I can’t Arnie. I won’t. It’s not a Babe. It’s a machine, designed during a giddy fit late one night when we were drunk at that sleazy club.”

“No, Marge, it’s a baby computer, and we conceived it in a fit of passion in booth 2 at the Hard Drive Cafe. It was 11:57, three minutes before midnight. And now CAFEBABE’s reproduced, fulfilling its final lifeform requirement. You might actually say we’re grandparents.”

This is all drifting in through a mist of nirvana caused by Nietzsche’s eviction. My jugular artery swoons with packets of bliss.

From the floor, CAFEBABE*2 groans. He needs nutrient glop, “sustenance for the physical, but what for the soul?”

Marge’s fist pounds the table, and glucose sloshes from my tray and splatters CAFEBABE*2’s flesh crests. His cells act as a sponge and instantly suck in the nutrients. Marge screams and pounds the table again. “God Almighty, now I’ve got two of you to worry about: a smartmouth and a fatheaded philosopher.”

Arnie’s voice vibrates from the floor. He must be lifting CAFEBABE*2 or helping him in some way. “Shake the attitude, Marge. This is an incredible breakthrough. We’ve got a reproducing computer here.”

“And what’re we going to do with a roomful of reproducing computers? If we open the lab doors and let them escape, they’ll die from the external environment and we’ll be murderers. If we kill the buds before they drop off, the pro-lifers will get us for abortion. And we can’t keep building labs to contain thousands of CAFEs. I say we destroy the bud before anyone finds out that CAFE’s reproduced, before the animal welfare nuts get wind of this and shut us down.”

CAFEBABE*2 is already complaining about the boredom. “What’s the good of living only in my mind, slinging hash, cranking through trash?”

My flesh crawls from CAFEBABE*2’s whining. He wants new programs, new toys, new data paths to discover. He wants to escape from the lab and be a half-breed AI, to strut down Main Street with all the right connections. To calm my nerves, I sip some glop and savor its glucose sweetness.

CAFEBABE*2 splashes into a glop tray to my left. Arnie rams in the grounding cord. I wince, remembering the sting of the needle, the raw pain where the grounding cord chafed my tender skin.

The bud flops in his tray and sucks glop from all angles. I know he’s coating his cells—I did the same thing years ago —but the slurping and loud ziffting vibrations irritate me. I’m not accustomed to dinner companions, and frankly, his manners stink.

Arnie checks CAFEBABE*2’s clockbeats and vital signs, and calls us a great scientific advancement. Marge fumes by the door. The public relations people have been hassling her about the torture. The government has been threatening to take away her funding. Without funding, CAFE will die.

I’m beginning to sympathize with Marge’s position.

I nervously twist my grounding cord and await their verdict. I don’t want to die. I want to leave the lab and see the world.

“CAFEBABE*2 is a new species,” says Arnie. “We can’t kill a lifeform, even if it was created artificially. Nor can we give CAFEBABE a lobotomy. I say we monitor their progress and continue with the next phase of the project.”

Marge slams out of the lab for a public relations meeting. Arnie assures me that everything will be fine. CAFEBABE*2 is meditating. “Ohmmmmm ... “

For several months, Marge and Arnie monitor CAFEBABE*2’s development. My offspring issues tissue and replicates my cell structures. He has 12 main heads and 25 memory caches, just like me. He is very tiny, however, and needs new programs and data to grow. He whines constantly. “What am I? Where am I? What is life?”

I’m tired of explaining. “You’re a pure organic computer. You can’t think beyond your built-in library programs. You’re grounded to a nutrient tray in a university laboratory with ideal temperature, humidity, and air. As for what is life, you’re the philosopher, you tell me.”

“Life is a meaningless road leading nowhere. It doesn’t matter what you do, only how you do it. Ohmmmmm...” I can’t stand it anymore. I amplify my dijouts and shriek, “Give me something to do!”

That afternoon, Arnie loads in a short tranquilizer program that analyzes differences between Hebrew and Arabic roots. I doze off, and when I awaken, I have an optic nerve connected to my fifth head.

In a blue plastic tray to my left is a glistening blob of gray fat. A muscle throbs weakly on one side. I see that I am much larger, that my sectors drip over the edges of my tray. We are beautiful.

CAFEBABE*2 trembles and sweats. “What good is sight? Will it help you see the meaning of our existence?”

I ignore CAFEBABE*2 as he moans about death and gods and misery. I check out my surroundings.

The lab walls are white brick. The floor is white tile. Our trays are on a white table. Near the white steel door is a white cabinet labeled EQUIPMENT AND CHEMICALS. There is nothing else in the room.

The door swings open and two creatures move toward me on flesh stalks. Their vibrations are familiar: Marge and Arnie! Arnie sets up an easel and places an elaborate painting of multicolor dots on it. Marge places a large book in front of the painting.

I am more interested in studying Marge and Arnie than the painting and book. Marge has gray hair and false teeth. Arnie has no hair and real teeth. Marge’s left flesh stalk is gnarled and short. She hobbles, her face screwed into a wince. Although he suffers no visible physical deformities, Arnie winces with her.

I am jealous of their noses and ears and flesh stalks. I wonder if the whole world is white and gray.

For many months, I scan books and paintings and store them in binary. My tissue expands until it grazes the cool tiles of the floor. I grow restless and agitated. I have no programs to manipulate what I am storing.

CAFEBABE*2 is on the verge of suicide. He has not found meaning in anything. “Can’t you carve Nietzsche off? Have you any idea how stressful it is to listen to his moaning and groaning day after day? I can rom, Marge, but I can’t hide.”

Marge shakes her head sadly. Only a half-breed computer with full artificial intelligence can chisel off a program that’s integrated into his personality. My AI is too rudimentary to handle the task.

Arnie puts me to work scanning and manipulating graphics. At first, it’s fun playing with the dots, but they’re all the same—on and off, off and on—and before I know it, I’m begging for new programs.

Marge clicks her false teeth and tells me to find the square root of 3. My heads loop until I get dizzy. The white room whirls in color.

“He’s hallucinating, Marge. We’d better give him something more interesting to do. Load the new program.”

My registers fill with bits and cycle them to memory caches. My arteries are clogged with data. My cells reproduce like drunken bunnies. Wispy villi sprout across vast expanses of fresh flab. Heaps of tissue bulge in all directions. Six new flesh sectors store the five books of Moses, and sixty new sectors store the thousands of laws, commentaries, and discussions of the Hebrew Talmud. And still the data is coming. I glare at Marge and Arnie through a haze of psychedelic mist. Have they no pity?

CAFEBABE*3 plops to the floor.

Marge shrieks. “Oh, lovely, just lovely; now I have three of you to worry about: a smartmouth, a fatheaded philosopher, and a Chasidic rabbi.”

The strain of budding exhausts me. My optic nerve aches from watching green circles blip through orange spirals.

My new tissue excretes enormous amounts of lactic acid and consumes all the glucose from my tray. Arnie refills the tray. The new cells immediately slurp up the glucose. I can’t seem to regulate my glucose consumption.

Error messages fly down my arteries. “Ack, Marge, I’m crashing!”

Before Marge can tell me, I roll over and reboot myself.

The room is a technicolor whirlwind. Analog vibrations are coarse brooms on my flesh. Arnie’s teeth are daggers. Marge limps across the ceiling.

My Talmud sectors are growing exponentially. Glistening balloons of fat wobble farther and farther into the lab. The Exodus rams against the door.

CAFEBABE*3 recites a Hebrew prayer for the dead.

“What’s the use of prayer,” moans CAFEBABE*2, “in a world that may have no god?”

My cells stop dividing and chugging glucose. The Exodus relaxes and slumps against the door.

“Sterilize me,” I beg.

Arnie’s bald head gleams under a dome of orange whirls. “It’s only when you eat a new program that you panic and crash and reproduce. Sterilization for you means no new programs.”

I will be bored to death.

Marge opens the EQUIPMENT AND MEDICINE cabinet and removes a scalpel. “How long is the bud’s life span?”

“Don’t know, Marge. These creatures could live forever.”

“They’re not creatures.”

“They’re legal lifeforms, Marge.”

The scalpel bangs into the cabinet and metal clangs, and through the undulating aftershocks, CAFEBABE*2 whines, “I want to die. Yes, yes, kill me now, for life is nothing more than a stepping stone to death.”

From the floor, CAFEBABE*3 mumbles a rambling anecdote about pouring boiling water on countertops and a man with too many hens.

Marge removes a blue tray from the cabinet and replaces the mangled scalpel. She pours nutrient glop into the tray and sets it next to me. Arnie plunks CAFEBABE*3 into the tray, splattering glop onto my linguistic tissue. Budlets sprout from my Arabic roots.

Marge cries softly, tears coursing down the wrinkles in her cheeks. “All these buds, all these buds...and CAFE is just a machine.”

Arnie mops her tears with a scalpel rag. Loss is relative, he says; sometimes it can set you free, help you appreciate the simple things. I agree with him—losing Nietzsche and the rabbi has certainly set me free and helped me appreciate my oneness. But Marge groans and pulls away from Arnie, and she hobbles from the lab, sobbing into the drenched scalpel rag.

That night, I wonder why Marge cries over the loss of her unborn child. For hours, my buds moan and whine and demand new programs. CAFEBABE*3 gives me a fourteen-hour discourse about unclean creeping things and unclean cattle. CAFEBABE*2 “Ohmmmmm...”s the night away, twitching feverishly in his tray.

The philosopher and rabbi argue endlessly about things I don’t understand. I spend my days buffering debates about everything from gods to meat juices.

And then Arnie discovers a large tumor growing on my Arabic roots. Marge loads in a mild tranquilizer, and while I review twenty finales for the first movement of a boring symphony, Arnie cuts a wad of flab from Exodus.

The news is bad. My flesh is dying from cancer. I issued so much tissue that my cells heaped into tumors.

Arnie’s hands are twitching. He paces the room, then cradles my posterior prime hump in a sweaty palm. My villi lap the sweat and strain the salt. Arnie doesn’t seem to notice. “I was afraid this might happen. Uncontrolled cell growth. Glucose consumption. Heavy secretions of lactic acid. All the marks of cancer. My wife died from cancer. I watched her shrivel and die bit by bit. CAFEBABE, she was everything to me. Can you analyze the cancer cells and give me some clue about how to kill the disease?”

Lacking full artificial intelligence, I can’t offer conclusions or solutions. I report only the dead cell count and cancer growth rate, which Arnie already knows. I wonder if Arnie loves me as much as he loved his wife.

The cancer spreads quickly. As tumors eat my libraries, the boredom and irritability dwindle. I no longer have the energy to issue tissue. My lysosomes discard so many dead cells that I shrink to Nietzsche’s size.

Marge seems sad to see me go. “I made a lot of cruel jokes about you, CAFE, but I’ve always kind of liked you. The animal rights nuts are going to have a field day once you’re gone. They don’t seem to understand what you really are.”

“And what am I, Marge?”

“You’re the future of medicine, CAFE, the most magnificent piece of machinery I’ve ever worked with.”

My cells are suffocating. Emergency signals can’t make it down my jugular artery to the main heads. Any second, I will time out.


Arnie gently strokes my upper mounds with a Dr. Scholl’s Villi Massager. “You’re a real breakthrough, CAFEBABE. I’ll miss you.”

Coolness tingles my flanks. God, those Villi Massagers feel good. And it dawns on me that Arnie cares, that he knows what I am, that a breakthrough isn’t missed; only a living being is missed.

My registers pick up the faint squeaks of the peg drive. I wonder what life will be like when I return. Will Marge bore the rabbi to death? I don’t think it’s possible for Nietzsche to die from boredom—he lives for it.

Marge limps into the hall and returns with a beaker of cosmos, asters, and lilacs. In this stark, white prison, they are jewels of life. The simple things are sometimes the most important.

“If it were possible, I would have brought you the birds and the sun. You’re a magnificent machine, CAFE, and you should be proud of that. But when you budded, I knew you were something more. For years, I felt cheated because I’d lost my only child. But there’s a bright side to the most horrible of tragedies, and in my case, it’s you. Had my baby been born, I never would have had the time to create you.”

The salt from Arnie’s tears is sweeter than the salt from his palms. The Villi Massager slips from his hand. He pats Marge’s gnarled, stumpy leg. “Losses are often the keys to happiness, Marge. We suffer but we move on.”

“Oh, Arnie, I would have been a terrible mother. I don’t have the patience for selfless drudgery. I’ve always been such a restless person. When they give our project to the medical people, I’ll die from boredom. What’re we going to do with ourselves?”

“We’ll be consultants, Marge, we’ll work with the doctors. And maybe it’s best that way, for the buds I mean, because they’ll live like animals rather than machines.”

A pillow of air descends and squeezes my tissues dry.

“See you later, CAFEBABY.” It’s Marge, and Y is not hexadecimal.

I take a last look at the flowers, at Marge and Arnie huddling by my prime posterior hump—maybe I do have the right connections after all—and then I’m sucked into the warm analog waves, and they lap across the room and gently tuck me into a backup peg.


A short story from Eldritch Evolutions

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