Sunday, August 13, 2023

“Katafalka” • by Paul Celmer


Mark Stanton, a lean, middle-aged rocket salesman, and Katafalka Threekaykaysix, a lithe platinum-blonde engineer, were stranded in the middle of Lake Superior, one of the largest inland bodies of water on old Earth.

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Katafalka said. 

“You’re just mad I found an antique jet ski.” Mark noticed her hair made a gentle whispering sound as it brushed against her copper bio-metallic skin. They sat side by side on the long saddle like it was a park bench. Lately he had been thinking a lot about her.

“Jet skis were good for nothing but letting drunks ride around in circles and yell ‘look at me! Whee!’ in front of pissed-off people on the beach.” 

Mark shrugged. “The clients get a kick out of it when we zoom up to their private floating cities. It helps sell escape pods. They think we’re cool. Retro. Common folk.”

“I told you we didn’t have enough gas.”

“You’re never wrong, are you?” Mark smiled his most winning smile. He noticed the bobbing of the jet ski made the light glint on her bare shoulders, like some god had sprinkled her with shards of sun.

“That’s my job. The data. And go ahead and use that smile. I’m not one of those rich widows you can charm out of their life savings.”

“I wanted to make one last sale.” Mark’s eyes darted around the tiny deck of the jet ski. Two moldy life jackets and a coil of rope. No extra tank in sight.

“Everybody with money has already left, genius.  Why are you always procrastinating?  The planet’s about to explode, remember?” Katafalka rolled her slightly larger than human eyes.

“The seismologists said we had a month,” he said.

Over the previous two centuries, trans-world corporations had tapped nearly all the geothermal energy out of old Earth, seizing up the molten core. With the result being increasing instability.

“They said it can happen anytime between now and a month.” She stared him down. 

“Why you always so negative?” he teased. “Worried we’re going to have to swim for it, and your prissy little circuits will short out?”

“Platinum doesn’t rust. And I’ve got factory sealed bearings. Except of course for…”

“Jeez, not again.” Mark shook his graying head. “Do you always have to be so crude?”

“Just trying to get your attention, four-eyes.”

He pushed his glasses up the narrow bridge of his nose. “Try twirling on top of a music box.” 

“Good one. Actually, I want more than your attention. I love you,” she said.

“Very funny. So I made one mistake.  I’ll call the office. They’ll send a hover—”

“I’m not joking.”

Mark stared. “I thought robots couldn’t be charmed.”

“I lied.”

“Your kind…do they….” he mumbled.

“Have sex? We do. Not exactly like humans. But it gets the point across, if you know what I mean.” She flashed a coy smile. 

“I meant love.”

“Oh. All I know is I’ve never felt this way. I’ve met lots of guys, believe me. I’m one hundred and thirty years old. No sparks. Until now.”

“But you’re programmed…”

“Christ. Do I seem programmed?”

Mark thought back on the months since he had met Katafalka. There were so many times late at night they would sit and drink and laugh so hard his guts hurt. They talked about everything. Obscure books. Their favorite cities across Mars and Venus. Dreams of escaping the rat race. When he was with her time went away. “You mean except for the time you blew your top when we made our first trip to Mars and I hid your passport? No. Not programmed.”

“Glad you can see that at least, you Descendant-of-Apes,” Katafalka shot back.

“I’m not as stupid as I look, you Descendant-of-Some-Pimply-High-School-Science-Kid’s-Erector-Set.”

When they stopped laughing Katafalka said, “I love you Mark. I want to be with you.”

“Shit. You are serious.”

“When robots are in love, deep love, the kind that fills every moment of every day with incandescent longing, we say our beloved’s name three times in a row. That etches our hearts.  Physically burns into the microcode of the microcode. Mark, Mark, Mark. Boom. That was it. Done.  No way to remove it. So no, it’s not like human love. It’s permanent.”


“Last week. My friends told me I had been exposed to too many magnetic fields. I know you’re going to die centuries before my central processor fails. I don’t care. I had to do it.”

Mark looked into Katafalka’s eyes. Dark black pupils, with a fleck of phosphorescence. And something whirling, like the flutter of a bird somewhere at the end of a dark tunnel. He wanted to know what that place was like.

“Kat—I didn’t…”

“It never seemed the right time.” She brushed her hair back again.

Mark felt something tingle at the base of his spine. Then a vibration rising to his skull, then a shuddering thunder coming from everywhere at once. “What the hell?”

The rumble grew louder and louder. Katafalka had to yell to be heard, “27.38 Hertz. And infrasonics mixed in. It’s happening.”

The lake seethed like it was pelted with a million stones. Then just as suddenly the sound stopped.

Mark scanned the horizon. For the first time in his life he was afraid. “Thanks for the data.”

“Like I said, that’s my job.”

“I waited too long, didn’t I?”

“I told you this place was about to blow.” Katafalka’s face was serene.  “And I’m never wrong.”

The breeze died. The surface of the lake turned into mirror.  The splashing of the jet ski went dead still. In the distance, Mark saw a mountain of water rising to drown the sun.

“There is one thing you were wrong about though,” he said.

“Really?” She turned to face him straight on.

With each word he spoke he leaned in closer. “Humans can love forever. Katafalka, Katafalka, Kata….”

The wave that was the world crashed around them.

When not traveling to parallel universes, Paul Celmer is a technical writer in Durham, North Carolina. His recently published flash science fiction includes “Spooky Action At a Distance” in Daily Science Fiction and “The Last Rosy-Fingered Dawn” in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores


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Pete Wood said...

Is it any surprise that when humans fled a dying Earth they left the jetskis behind?
Nice story!

Anonymous said...

Great story !

Slothrop said...

Thanks compadre!

Slothrop said...

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Jet skis are the leafblowers of the waterways….

LookingUp said...

A story that's beautiful and romantic and heartbreaking all at once.

paul celmer said...

Thanks very much for reading and the comments!

Made in DNA said...

Love it, love it, lov--

Slothrop said...


Slothrop said...