Blink 542

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

We stole the blinkpacks from the research facilities at Ceti Alpha. Stable displacement technology, suitable for individual use. We sealed the holes in our assault armour and slapped on the packs: suddenly we could step through walls and down corridors, infiltrating past sentries and guards and turrets with ease. You could even rig a spare pack to act as a bomb: find something big, displace it into something bigger. If you squint, an overlap detonation looks a lot like a nuke.

From there, we blinked around the perimeter worlds, looting, stealing, hoarding all the high technology and research material we could find: and what we found shocked and horrified us. The colonies were so far ahead of the core worlds that some of them had ceased to even resemble humans. Halfman recombinations with terran or alien stock, populations translated entirely into a digital form or living out in the open under a half-klick of liquid methane.

We blinked out as far as we could; we found terror. Machines. Of arguably human origin. Some even still bore ancient factional flags. There were hundreds of millions of them in every system we checked. Half our men didn’t return, and most of the rest never left again. We dug in the archives, and the libraries; we even unearthed a few buried data centres to find out who to blame.

These were clanking replicators, skewed by thousands of generations of isolation from intelligent guidance. They replicated out of control, torching systems and turning the rubble into more of themselves. One advance party discovered a strain that spent the resources of entire planets to extinguish stars in one shot.

We figured out a plan. It was our only hope of long-term survival. No-one could see any other way. We knew we’d be remembered as monsters, but in the grand balance, we thought that it would be better that someone was there to remember us at all.

We committed grand and unholy sabotage across the thousand worlds. Shocktroops equipped with blinkpacks teleported deep into power stations, factories and defense relays, breaking and fusing and detonating. Navies were brought down in port, armories reduced to useless scrap. We left a thousand worlds without a single communication array or functional ship.

Quickly-assembled arrays folded space, and our navies appeared in colonial orbits. Purification-yield nuclear devices, biological warfare agents and cleansed the hundred worlds we needed. The engineers of the core worlds were flung to these hundred barren wastes, and were set to work. All the while, our fleets tore through the perimeter worlds, conducting a campaign of total annihilation: the might and fury of old humanity, rage driven by our history, our twenty-four thousand years of hatred, violence and war.

We didn’t understand the science, but we certainly understood the engineering. We turned those hundred worlds into the triggers for a giant chain reaction that would wipe out a reasonable portion of our cosmological back yard; isolating the core worlds with a rift of space washed clean of matter. This was our firebreak, our last best hope of survival. We doomed two hundred and fifteen billion people for the sake of thirty billion.

Was it worth it?

I don’t know.

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Dead Man Breathing

Author : S. Clough, Staff Writer

“Tash, stop right there.” Kal barked, raising his rifle, and aiming it squarely at his team-mate. Tash froze, and lifted her hands. She’d known this was coming, but it always caught her off-guard. The rest of the team had gone back to the lander to fetch some more equipment.

During Cat’s exploration of the outpost’s computers, they’d turned up a list of names: each one linked with a location deep inside one of the territories of the nearby polities. The files were touched with sakshan encryption methods: it didn’t take much to figure out that the research facility that they’d broken into was a sakshan outpost — and the list of names and places was a directory of intelligence operatives.

Kal, was the sharpshooter of the team, and was a pure-blood sakshan, with an impressive battery of combat-related headmetal. They’d found him broken and bleeding when they’d arrived to pick over the ruins of a particularly bloody border skirmish. They patched him up, discovered his skills with projectile weapons, and offered him a job. Once he realised command wasn’t coming back for him, he reluctantly took them up on their offer. In the years since, he’d loosened up noticeably, shaking off most of the comprehensive indoctrination that he’d been exposed to since birth.

His subconscious, though, still gave them some problems.

“Kal, don’t do this…”

“This list. Those men and women. If we sell their names, they’ll all die. Picked up and tortured and killed. They have families. This is stupid and futile and I won’t allow it.”

Tash bit her tongue. She knew that she couldn’t talk him out of it. He was visibly shaking: his rifle was rock steady.

“I won’t let you commit mass murder, Tash. I couldn’t live with myself if I did.”

“But you’d kill me?”

“If I had to. To protect my countrymen.”

“Kal, please. After everything we’ve done together — ”

“Just shut up, Tash.”

The silence held for forty seconds. Behind Kal, Frank (the medic-engineer of the team) was just sneaking around the corner, attempting to move silently. He was clutching a portable field generator that he’d modified for just such an occasion.

Tash took a step forward. Kal stiffened.

Frank stepped out of cover, and coughed. There was a clatter of bullets, and an ultrasonic whine as the field clicked on. Kal dropped to the floor, unconscious. Tash was clutching her arm, bent over andmuttering a steady stream of curses: blood was oozing between her fingers.

Grimly, they dragged Kal’s body back to the lander. A more subtle version of the field generator was hidden in the medical bay: the portable generator just induced a current in Kal’s implants, which quickly shut him down before he could sustain brain damage. With the generator in the med bay, Frank could purposefully manipulate Kal’s unconscious mind via the implants: he claimed it was like a first-person shooter, all exploration and twitch reflex. The point of it all was to reset their team-mate to an earlier state. Just long enough ago that he’d forget all about the mission, the list, and the betrayal. They needed him on top form.

They were well away from the outpost by the time Frank finished. Tash met him in the medical bay.

“Think you’ll be able to forgive him?” Frank glanced up at her.

“We always do, don’t we?” She stroked Kal’s hair, and sighed. “Every time.”


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Contractual Obligations

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

I’m just a golem: made of flesh rather than clay, but still propelled along by the words in my head and the fire in my eyes. Under my skull is no clay tablet or ancient scroll, though: break me apart and you wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the contract that binds me. The clauses and caveats were imprinted onto my conscious mind with chemicals and surgery: precise and purposeful. About six thousand golems were created before the company was investigated, invaded and shut down, but by then, it was too late. With the dissolution of the company, our contracts passed to the state.

On the news, there were stories about successful deprogrammings, golems released from their terms of employment to become normal again. When it was my turn, the men in white coats just tutted, and glanced at one another. A few days later, I was told: there was no hope of undoing what the company did. Since the state held my contract, they decided to keep me on as staff. I’m sure they meant well by it, at least at first.

At first, golems were just given menial jobs, things any simian could accomplish. We did them, and did them well. I was in data entry: each time I completed a sheet, it gave me a little buzz of joy. We were Pavlov’s bureaucrats, and we were good at it.

But managers change. And a supply of warm bodies that appear willing to do anything you ask is a precious commodity indeed. I was transferred to a military research establishment. At each step there were cameras and biometrics, and questions in the vein of ‘are you willing to do this for us?’. It never crossed my mind to say no. It was literally unthinkable. I was willing to do anything at all, no matter what. I felt it to the core of me — I guess the tapes were just so the white coats could say ‘look, there was no coercion here’.

At first I was set to work in the labs, preparing chemicals and glassware and the living samples — some animals, some golems. I said nothing: I had been told to say nothing. Eventually I graduated into handling experiments myself, from start to finish, able to follow a complex script

When the quarantine chamber quickly dissolved into a twinkling grey mess, I was transferred away from the experimental levels. I was told that I had been lucky to get away, but it had been my fault. Originally, I had thought the script was at fault, but apparently I had mishandled the samples. It made sense. My original suspicions washed away, like mist dispersed by a freshening wind.

They gave me armour, and a gun, and took me to the east. I was told to defend a small plateau in the mountains: a hidden weapons cache. I discovered that I was unable to get further than about a kilometre from the plateau before the compulsion to return became undeniable.

I’ve been here twenty years

I think they forgot me.

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Best Supporting Actors

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

“My card.” The smooth-shelled android pressed a small square of cardboard into Gin’s hand.

Gin turned it over. Printed, in a fine copperplate script were the words ‘Best Supporting Actors’, and then underneath that, there was an address, a URL, and an e-mail address. He held it between his forefingers, and turned his head about to ask the android question, but it’d already moved on, circulating amongst the crowd. The android was part of Jamie’s entourage: he had shown up to the party with a half a dozen people and two androids. This, in and of itself was unusual — Jamie was a well-known introvert, however much of a contradiction in terms that seemed to be. But today, he had accepted an invitation, he’d shown up, and seemed to be the life of the party.

Gin carefully pocketed the card, and looked after Jamie in admiration.

* * *

“Good morning, Sir. How can I help you? Are you a new customer?” The pretty receptionist smiled at Gin, her entire demeanour exuding confidence and enthusiasm.

“Yeah, I was given one of your cards. I was wondering exactly what you…did…here.” Gin scratched the back of his head, feeling pretty awkward.

“Well, you’d probably be surprised at how many people come in here asking that question. Tell you what, one of our advisors is free. I’ll call him, to give you a rundown of our services.”

“That’d be awesome, thanks.” Gin availed himself of one of the comfortable seats that were available in the reception, and waited whilst the receptionist spoke quickly and quietly into a phone.

Five minutes later, the receptionist looked up at him.

“Mister Gibson is free. Down the hall, first door on your right.”

Gin nodded his thanks, and went to the door mentioned. It opened with his approach, revealing a comfortable-looking office. ‘Mister Gibson’ was sitting behind a desk bereft of paperwork.

“Gin! Gin Holden, it’s an honour.” Gibson got up and darted round his desk, clasping Gin warmly by the hand and shaking it vigourously.

“Uh…do I — know you?”

“No, not at all,” Gibson laughed, and released Gin’s hand, “as a point of fact, I don’t know you from John Q: just got your name and a bit of background data thirty seconds ago. We provide a service, Gin. Your life, everyone’s life is a story. Often an unspectacular, petty, boring story, but still a story. A play, a plot, that sort of thing.”

Gibson gestured to the seat in front of his desk, and returned to his own. He leaned forward conspiratorially, and Gin caught himself doing the same.

“You see where I’m going with this? You’re the lead role. We can cast someone to play second fiddle, to take up the supporting roles. We can be your backstory, Mister Holden. We set up jokes, deliver carefully crafted anecdotes, admire, intimidate and bluff our way through. With one or two of our Actors, you’ll be the centre of any event. We script and thoroughly choreograph everything. We have helpers, advisors, fall guys, muses, sparks, henchmen and the odd nemesis.” Gibson leaned back. “We assign a creative to each client and they decide which of our actors would work best with you.”

“Wow. So…” Gin was taken aback. It did sound like a good idea.

“Let me guess. You want henchmen?”


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Sufficiently Advanced

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

As the supports of Hall’s final prototype sank a half-centimetre into the soft earth, he breathed a sigh of relief.

After a moment’s perfect peace, one of the guide crystals under his seat exploded. Fragments scattered all over the clearing, and a splintered length about the size of Hall’s forearm punched straight through his thigh.

He screamed, and fainted. After an indeterminate time, he regained consciousness to find four people in heated discussion by his now-ruined contraption. The length of crystal was still embedded in his leg, pinning him to the seat: if he moved even a fraction, pain lanced through his body and the wound began to bleed. Hall groaned and gritted his teeth. They were ignoring him, bickering amongst themselves.

“My instruments detected his arrival – he’s mine by right.” The shorter of the men was wearing a white lab coat, with goggles pushed up on his head, and thick gloves.

“Don’t be tiresome, Sil,” one of the women replied. Her skin and eyes were midnight black, her hair and lips a shining silver. “You had the last two spacers, and he looks, what, twenty-third century? All that crystal. Definitely twenty-third. He’s just perfect for my latest expedition!”

“Delectable dark one, I believe you have your history all skewed. His crystals are incidental. Look at his clothing! He’s definitely from the hundred and twentieth.” The taller of the men was dressed in long robes of green and gold, and wore bright jewels in his hair.

“Shatter, Ratri, Sil: I propose we find an equitable way to settle this.” This was said by final member of the group, an almost transparent female. She touched each of her compatriots delicately on the shoulder, and turned towards Hall, who still winced in pain.

“You must choose, traveller,” she gazed at Hall, and he could see her breath move beneath her glassy skin, “You must pick to whom you would rather belong. This is the end of time, and you are trapped here: injured, with your magnificent time machine in pieces around you. Even if it still functioned, you would be unable to remain in the past.”

She approached, and touched the spear of crystal that pinned him to his seat. It vanished, and the wound in his leg closed up.

“My name is Tanelorn: enter my collection and you shall have companionship of the like you could not imagine – all the pleasures of life your origins denied you. Death and suffering are strangers to my domain.”

“I am Sil, the experimenter. To travel through time, you must be a man of science. I am the last true scientist – join me in my laboratories as an equal, not a pet. You will see the universe. You will see atoms dance for you: you will be able to pursue your research to whatever ends you choose!”

“I’m Lord Shatter, a humble student of history. So much has been lost throughout the ages: my life’s work is to assemble a complete history of our beloved planet. There is so much you could help me with – you must come and add the sum of your knowledge to my libraries, and be part of something greater than any one of us alone.”

“And I am Ratri, the traveller. My domain is the outer reaches: come with me to unbind yourself from the fetters of this world. With me, you’ll see the universe. Not Sil’s universe of physics and time, but the cosmos. We’ll visit world after world, see the wonders of the universe up close and personal. So what do you say?”


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