“Captcha Tomorrow” by Louis Evans

The captcha at the park gate was easy. All you had to do was squeeze the button between your thumb and forefinger and hold it for about ten seconds. Somewhere in there, the captcha shrieked in your ear, and then it measured the reflexive tensing of your fingers.

Julian pinched the button as firmly as he could. He wasn’t as strong as he used to be, but he held the button for the full ten seconds and did his best to merely wince and not flinch when the shriek echoed in his ear. The gate beeped companionably and swung open.

There was a new captcha on the path to the duck pond, one that timed your footsteps, the shifting of weight from ball to toes. Julian took the path with care, rolling his feet the way a podiatrist would recommend, and the captcha lit up beneath his feet, picking out a simple piano scale. He stepped clear to the sound of a chime.

A final turn brought him to the edge of the lake. There were about a dozen ducks on the water. Perhaps a third were obvious sims—plastic wings, aluminum beaks, what have you. The next third were subtle, but you could pick them out with care. One didn’t blink. Another reproduced the same supposed discoloration identically on every tail feather. Yet another flapped its wings exactly thrice every minute and a half, like clockwork.

It wasn’t clockwork inside them, exactly. People still thought it came to the same thing, though. Automata. Facsimiles. Lies and betrayal. They had other, less kind words for it as well.

The final third of the ducks were real. Julian thought so, anyway. He’d been coming to this park for a long time now, and he was good at spotting sims.

The bench had a captcha too, of course. Benches had been the first to go, after manumission. No seats for sims, people had chanted. Save the seats for hearts that beat! Julian remembered the signs, speckled across vast crowds marching.

But this bench’s captcha was an old one, the kind that merely asked you to pick out things you recognized from a vast and shifting list, and Julian never had trouble with those. A few seconds choosing pictures of mountains was an easy price to pay.

Julian sat on the bench with full permission. He unwrapped his rye roll with deft, precise movements. Twelve was the number of ducks—flesh and sim together—and so Julian tore twelve equal pieces of bread.

The ducks were not as fair-minded as Julian. They squawked and scrabbled at the water’s edge, sim and real alike, each vying for the next morsel in a rye-addled frenzy. Suddenly, one of them got a mouthful of another’s pinions and yanked, plucking its enemy’s feathers. The other squawked in pain and fled.

Julian wasn’t sure about the retreating duck. He looked for blood on the feathers, saw nothing. But then, his eyesight wasn’t as clear as it once had been. And maybe plucking a feather didn’t bring any blood to the surface at all.

The remaining ducks, cowed perhaps by the violence of their flockmates, managed to allocate the remaining bread with nothing more than unkind words. Later, Julian took the bus home. The bus trusted your transit card’s captcha, and Julian had a senior pass, whose captcha was friendlier to someone getting on in years, someone a little less sharp in the eye or mind.

* * *

The next morning, the sim working at the bakery took Julian’s order, then reached its hand directly into the sizzling oven in order to pull out a fresh rye roll. Julian made sure to wrap the roll in several layers of napkin before he picked it up.

“Thank you,” he said, meeting the baker sim’s eyes. This sim made no attempt to conceal its nature. Its face was an aluminum plate, its eyes a triangle of glass lenses. With a face like that it wouldn’t matter how many captchas the baker could pass. Still, you saw more and more skinless sims these days. “No skin, no shame,” and all that.

“No problem, sir,” said the baker, and despite its artificial aspect its voice was rich, clear, utterly human.

Julian walked to the park. The streets teemed with children; the pretzel carts were out in full force. Julian remembered the streets back on manumission day—marching crowds with their dueling slogans, boarded-up windows, roving gangs of bandana-masked teens who’d smash any sim they could corner. He shivered. So much better, these days. Not perfect, but better.

The captcha on the park gate had changed. According to the cartoon on the accompanying sign, you simply snapped the clip onto your index fingertip. Julian had never heard of this model before. He shrugged, transferred the roll to his pocket, and got the clip onto his finger.

There was a beep, and then a tingling snap shot up Julian’s hand. His arm went completely numb. His fingers were frozen.

The captcha’s siren began to sound.

Julian leapt back and the clip held onto his immobile hand, binding him to the fence. He reached out with the other hand and pried the trap open and got himself going, got himself walking away.

People were looking, children were pointing at the flashing red light, at the siren that just kept going and going. But they weren’t pointing at Julian, he realized, after a panicked glance around. Julian was old, and he looked it. An old man would struggle with a captcha, sometimes, surely. That was all there was to it.

The siren wound down and silenced itself. The street held its breath for a moment and exhaled.

Julian kept walking, kept his arm inside his sleeve. No sensation was returning to it; it hung limp by his side. Still, an old man’s arm may be stiff, numb, or even dead. He could make it home, and then perhaps a taxi to a repair clinic. He was two blocks away from the park when the young man came jogging up behind him.

“Grandpa, hey,” the kid said. Julian smiled, nodded, and tried to step around him, but the kid blocked his path. When Julian was younger—newer—he would have been able to outrun this kid, easily. Outrun any human. But his age was not an act.

“How’s your arm, grandpa?” The kid pointed, practically grabbed for Julian’s disabled arm.

“Oh, a bit sore,” Julian said, as lightly as he could manage. “Excuse me.”

As he passed, the kid reached out and grabbed Julian’s wrist.

“Maybe you haven’t heard,” the kid said, “but they’ve got that new captcha on the park gate. See, the problem with most captchas is, if you fail them, so what? If a skinjob fails one, it can just try again.”

Very slowly Julian slid his right hand into his pocket, reaching for his phone.

“But the new captcha—well, if a skinjob were stupid enough to stick its hand into that, why, it’d short out its entire arm.”

Julian’s fingers slid over the phone’s screen, dialing emergency from muscle memory.

“Makes it easier to catch ya, don’t you think.” The kid grinned. He pulled up Julian’s sleeve and pinched the unresponsive skin of his forearm.

“Son, I’m just an old man with a sore arm,” Julian said. He let his voice quaver, the way an old human’s voice would quaver.

“Sure, skinjob.” The boy gave Julian a shove and he staggered back.

“Son, I—”

“Emergency services, what’s your emergency?” The voice from within Julian’s pocket was muffled but perfectly clear.

Julian never saw the crowbar as it smashed into the side of his face. He raised his only working hand against the threat and the next blow tore off one of his fingers. Again and again the boy brought the crowbar crashing down into his braincase, and Julian could feel the fractures spiderwebbing outward from his temple—and at the last instant, he heard the wail of sirens. The boy froze, then sprinted away.

The police car shot up onto the curb and cops tumbled out, but when they saw Julian’s broken form, they relaxed. He was curled into a fetal position on his flank, false skin torn from his aluminum ribcage, cables spilling from his neck. He wasn’t moving.

The cops wandered back to their radio to call for a repair truck.

“Just a skinjob,” one of them said, and disconnected the radio. They lit cigarettes, leaned against the police car, and smoked quietly.

Julian lay, face against the cobblestones, and he thought of the rye bread in his pocket, and he imagined some sim in a dozen generations making its slow and comfortable way down to a duck pond, passing not a single captcha on the way. And despite his shattered body, a smile crept to his lips, as he waited for the repair truck to make its rattling, sirenless way down the street.

It’s not exactly clockwork inside Louis Evans, but it comes to the same thing. Louis’s work has previously appeared in Nature: Futures, Analog SF&F, Interzone, and more. He’s a graduate of Clarion West. Louis is online at evanslouis.com and on twitter (sometimes) @louisevanswrite.