Author : David Atos
Professor Samuel fidgeted excitedly as the chroniton engines whined down. His movements caused showers of Cherenkov radiation in the chamber of the time machine. In his left hand was an audio recorder filled with his observations of early Macedonian pottery techniques. He was certain that his discoveries would earn him tenure at his university, and turn the field of anthropology on its head. His right hand held a simple USB thumbdrive, filled with the contents of an online encyclopedia, change history and all, from the moment before he was sent back to the Greek peninsula, circa 827BC.
“Okay, Professor Samuel. You’re back. Insert the thumbdrive for validation, please.”
The professor thought back to his training, the culmination of a ten-year application process. The technician would compare the data on that USB stick to a live version of the encyclopedia, to ensure that nothing he had done in the past had changed the present. And he had been meticulous about the required precautions. Remain out of sight. No communication with anyone. No food, no drink, leave no waste. The sterilization of all bacterial fauna in his body would take months to recover from, but it was all worth it for his research.
Professor Samuel was snapped out of his reverie by a blaring alarm and a flashing light.
“Professor, we’re showing a discrepancy on the order of 10^-16.”
“10^-16? No! That can’t be more than a couple of characters! Surely that’s too small a change for–”
“You know the rules, Professor. I’m sorry.” The operator reached towards a large red button on his control console
— FLASH —
The operator reached towards a large red button on his control console, and depressed it. But the machine made no sounds. The chroniton engines remained still. A small orange LED blinked rhythmically on the display.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked the Professor.
“It appears that your trip has been retroactively denied. Sorry, Professor.”
“But, the years I spent getting it approved! It took me over a decade! I need to go back for my research!”
“You know the rules, Professor. The machine locks us out in the event of a post-factum revocation. There’s nothing I can do now.”
“But . . . my research,” the Professor said in a weak voice.
“Don’t worry, professor. You can always apply for another trip.”
Author : A. Katherine Black
The bulkhead door’s round window slowly split in two as Clyde’s vision skewed. He continued pushing air from his lungs. That’s it, his lungs yelled, none left, but he knew they lied like everything did eventually, so he kept on blowing. Every bit of Earth air must be purged.
The computer chimed. “Please breathe in,” said a soft inhuman voice.
Tightening his lips around the wide tube, he breathed in, long and deep. Prickles burst in his chest. He’d felt worse. He held his breath while he stepped through the bulkhead. The heavy door thumped shut behind him. He breathed out.
No turning back now.
Clyde slipped into the last open seat and buckled, avoiding eye contact with the other twenty or so escapees. He was on his way. A brief elevator ride, a not-so-brief space jaunt, and he’d be back to repairing big rigs, like he’d always done. Just with a small change of scenery, is all.
He breathed in and winced at the pain.
“Hurts, don’t it?”
Duh. Clyde had no interest in acknowledging the face attached to that comment. He’d be stuck in conversation forever after that. Easiest way to get along with these people was to stay as far away from them as possible.
So he grunted, eyes on the floor, pretending to be interested in the beige tile design. No doubt a subtle attempt at soothing the passengers, who could freak out at the realization they were leaving everyone they’ve ever known forever, who might scream at the thought of microscopic robots reconstructing their lungs to breathe fake air on some frozen asteroid hurling toward deep space at a gazillion miles per second or whatever.
Clyde decided the soothing tile patterns were a brilliant idea.
Sweat rolled down his cheeks. It felt like his lungs and his heart were in a fight to the death. Either way, he suspected he was on the losing end.
A throat cleared next to him. Clyde finally looked the guy’s way, suddenly wanting the distraction. Maybe the guy would be a world-class jerk, and Clyde would hate him more than the bleeping nanos tearing his insides apart.
“My brother said it’s normal,” the guy said. His long black beard shimmered as he coughed. “Feels like World War Six just started in your gut, eh?”
Clyde looked away and grunted again. No point in conversation. He and Joe started with innocent chats on the bus to work, and six years later Joe moved out of their apartment while Clyde was on shift, ruining a perfect run for no good reason. Commitment? Sharing a lease and a bed every night isn’t commitment enough? Well, yesterday he’d signed his life away, and now he’d be tethered to an asteroid ‘til death do they part. If that wasn’t commitment, Clyde didn’t know what was.
Engines powered up as the room lighting faded to blue. Soft computer voices instructed them to hold on, don’t worry, they’ll only feel the crush of a few g’s after a small explosion underfoot.
Then everything shut down. Overhead lights turned searing white. The engine cut, giving way to a whining ring in Clyde’s ears.
Some lady’s voice on the com. “We have an emergency call for Claudius Rain.”
The activity in Clyde’s chest doubled. He was near vomiting.
“Mr. Rain, will you take the call?”
He opened his mouth. Nothing came out. So he shook his head.
“That’s a no?”
Tears mixed with sweat, indistinguishable. “I’m already gone.” His chest burned.
“Okay then.” A pause on the com. “We’re off, people.”
And the engines roared.
Author : Bob Newbell
The passport control agent looks at me and sighs. “Another one,” he says succinctly. His use of “one” rather than the epithet “shellhead” probably has little to do with concern that I might be offended. The woman in front of me got a “Have a nice day” from the man. I get a jerked thumb over his left shoulder to indicate I can proceed.
I’ve gotten used to it. I received a similar reception at Bradbury Station. It wasn’t always like this. Ten years ago, right after I got shelled, the reaction I and the small number of people who had undergone the procedure got tended to be more curiosity than jealously and bigotry.
“Can you feel anything?” a skinny twentysomething on the RFS Valentina Tereshkova had asked me nine years earlier.
“Yes,” I’d told the young Russian. “There are sensors that feed into transducers that connect to my nerve endings. Everything feels a bit different from what skin feels. But, yes, I still have sensation.”
“So, you can feel everywhere? And, uh, everything…works?”
I’d smiled. “Everything works,” I’d said.
Shelling was novelty back then. The first patients who underwent the procedure had nanocomposite plates glued to their skin. In addition to being impractical and dysfunctional, they looked like early sci fi movie robots. Astronautical physicians soon realized that replacing the skin itself with a microtessellated armor was the only viable solution. It can flex and distend as well as human skin and it solved an important problem: cancer.
In the 2160s, significant numbers of people started migrating beyond Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars and the Lagrange V station. Outside of the protection of Earth’s geomagnetic field, solar and cosmic radiation caused cancer rates among space travelers to be seven to ten times that of their terrestrial peers. Trying to protect off-world settlements and ships with massive shielding or high-powered EM fields proved to be expensive and difficult. It was noted that travelers who spent more time in their spacesuits tended to have lower cancer rates. But suits are cumbersome. A more intimate solution was required.
“What have you done to yourself?!” my mother had said to me when I first saw her after my shelling. My uniformly gray skin with its subtle sheen made me some kind of a freak in her eyes.
“My job keeps me in space most of the time,” I’d explained. “If you can’t go outside the Van Allen Belt for any length of time you can’t advance your career.” After that afternoon, we didn’t talk again for nearly three years. And even to this day, things aren’t like they used to be between us.
“Welcome to Amazonis Planitia!” says a cheerful voice that snaps me out of my reverie. The voice comes from a smiling black man who extends his hand as he walks up to me. But the man’s coloration is not that of a person representing the darker hued races of the human species. I see my reflection in his ebony shell as he pumps my hand. His features and accent are Chinese.
“Dr. Cheng? Sorry if I was a bit distracted. I got a somewhat chilly reception upon arriving here.”
“From the 软壳,” he says. The term he uses sounds roughly like “ruan ke”. He notes my confusion. “The ‘soft shells’,” he reiterates. “An impolite term, perhaps, but one that is catching on.”
“Guess they don’t like us too much.”
“They don’t like what we represent: a higher level of commitment to be out here. Our resolve is more than skin deep.”
Author : Brian Olszewski
The room reeked of burnt flesh. A fluorescent green halo blinked from the ceiling; the emergency lights animated the thick vapor swirling at the lab’s center, partially occluding the operating table.
Two special-ops soldiers entered, with guns drawn, fanning to either side of the door. Each zigzagged the light beaming from the barrel-top of their gauss rifles with precision, highlighting open cabinets, drooping drawers and dead machines. The lab’s floor was strewn with bloodied utensils, shaped and sharpened to cut through the toughest non-human exo-skin and bone in the galaxy.
“Still getting a faint bio-reading, but . . .”
“Weird. The Fe count is off the charts.”
They looked at each other from their ready stances. One motioned to move further into the hexagon-shaped room, the details of which flitted across the holographs of visor-interiors in glowing characters.
One soldier kicked a knife accidentally, clanging it into saws and blades across the maroon-stained tiles. “Dammit.”
“Something’s on the table.”
“Yep. Hope one of experi-pets didn’t stick around.”
They approached the warm mound flashing on their visor’s displays. A knot of fused flesh and steel crystallized in the foul mist they inhaled, a paralyzing horror.
The eyeless head-mass. A pewtered scream flush against the tabletop. The limb-hints protruding from the larger crinkled lump.
Then: ironstone tiles infected boots and the bones and skin within; the vapor-born stony contagion spread, clogging veins, hardening intestines, choking lungs, calcifying hearts, joining the soldier-statues to the ranks of the doctor’s stilled metallic life.
Author : Kevin L
Zaizo sipped on his beer as the ship’s proximity sensor started beeping loudly. His drone, MAX, inquired “You really think this is a good idea? That Kavryan dreadnought in front of us has enough firepower to take out half a planet. Getting rid of a parasite ship like us would be like swatting a fly.”
“Relax, MAX. You know the upgraded cloak can fool any of their sensors.”
“Any of their known sensors.”
“Well, the way I see it, in about 5 minutes we’re either going to be atomized specks of dust floating in space or we’ll be about 2 million credits richer. The Zyrians will pay at least that much for these schematics if it’ll turn the tide of the war.”
Zaizo watched as the parasite ship’s proboscis found a particular panel on the massive hull of the dreadnought. He watched the screens flicker through data until the upload bar showed “Complete.”
“Well MAX, looks like you’re going to be able to buy yourself a new body and I’ll be able to get myself to a beach planet! MAX beeped a few tones of relief and joy. Zaizo slapped the drone on its back and took a swig from his beer.
Suddenly the lights and screens all went off in the cramped cabin. Zaizo dropped his can in the darkness. “What the hell, MAX?!”
“Looks like that virus worked perfectly, MEL. Check to see if we got all the schematic data.”
“100% uploaded on our server, Captain. Good thing our new cloak can fool any sensors.” Myra undocked the Ripley’s proboscis from the larger parasite ship in front of her and set a course towards the Zyrian zone. It was a dog-eat-dog universe, but she would finally have enough money for her and her drones to retire. She started flipping through the brochure for a condo on a beach planet as her parasite ship sped away.