Too Old For War

Author : Dan Whitley

Magnets’ shot rang true and hammered the Fed tank right in the mantlet. Once the smoke cleared, we could see she’d clocked the damn thing so hard that its front-left hover-tread had failed, digging itself into the dirt under the weight. Pellet-shaped electromagnets and coolant fluid evacuated from the dead left gun barrel. But the right barrel remained intact, standing tall in defiance of our revolution and our freedom, where it would remain until, eons from now, the corrosion of time came to reclaim it.

“Hey, Walsh,” Bauer asked behind me, “How big is a Fed thumper’s crew?”

“Three or four; sometimes the driver and the commander wear the same hat, if you catch my drift.”

“So who’s cleaning this one out?” Deacon asked.

“Well, you did the last one, I think. And Magnets is exempt, naturally. You wanna make use of that grenade you never got to throw, Farmer?”

“To be honest,” Bauer said, “not especially. But I will if you say so.”

“I think we should just leave it,” Kirikov chirped up. “Nothing survives that type of punishment.”

A muffled pounding sound rang behind us in mockery. Two raps on the hatch, followed by a sound like a sack of honest-to-goodness potatoes falling in a heap. Our squad froze. No one wanted to do what had to come next.

I drudged over to the tank husk as its other hover-treads shut off. The whole machine swayed like a boat on calm seas as the failed tread, still drawing power, did its best to continue to function. I leaned on the turret and steadied myself, yanking the hatch open and throwing my rifle and my face over the edge.

Mercy betrayed my aging, too old for war anymore. I stared hard over the rifle sights, right into the wincing, boyish face of a Fed tanker and a large-bore pistol. The handgun, I wagered in those long moments, must’ve been a hand-me-down, an heirloom from a relative that served, as it looked too big to fire flechettes like most Fed weaponry. I looked past the pistol’s angry mouth back to the Fed.

“Look, if you’re gonna shoot me, then fucking shoot me.” The Fed’s voice: hoarse, pained, blunt – and female. “Otherwise, pull me out of this heap.”

I stared another long moment, swore under my breath, slung my rifle, and reached into the tank.

“Walsh, what in the everloving fuck are you doing!” Deacon seethed at me.

I glared back over the edge of the hatch. “Are you gonna give me a fucking hand or are you gonna stand there like a goddamn ape?” I had the Fed by the arm and gave her the yank she needed to help herself from the wreckage. She had kindly holstered the pistol and promptly attached that hand to her ribcage. She sat on the failed tread, now still.

“Cracked ribs?”

“Feels like it,” the Fed replied.

I dug some painkillers out of my pack. She ate them dry and said, “So how do I… I wanna defect; how does that work?”

We all shrugged. “You just do, I guess,” Kirikov said.

“What’s your name?”

“You guys first,” the Fed insisted.

“Chatterbox” Adam Walsh. Edgar “Eggs” Deacon. Margaret “Magnets” Kirikov. “Farmer” Jimmy Bauer.

“Hannah Thompson,” she said. She straightened her cap. “Captain.”

And that was that. One of us.

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The Wonderful Stick

Author : Brian McDermott

When Bob crawled out of his shelter the stick was gone. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of bio-material left to scavenge, especially wood.

“That was a wonderful stick!”

As straight as a spine on the watcher bots from the Emotional Fairness Authority that telescoped up the skyscrapers. Back when everyone lived in skyscrapers. Before “The Inconvenience.”

As far as Bob knew, there were only a few survivors from “The Inconvenience”. No one could live in the cities after “The Inconvenience”. They took to the hills and the caves, anywhere they could find natural refuge and sustenance. They banded together at first. They were a larger group then. Jane – The Feelings Potential Coach, Vijay – The Group Dynamics Referee, Bruce – The Socio-Relationship Buildologist, Helen – The Digital Happiness Consultant, Doug – The Pleasantries Administrator. Those were the only ones he ever encountered now. Figuring out who took his stick shouldn’t be difficult.

It was two meters long and three millimeters thick with a naturally hard, pointy end. 100% organic.

Ever since “the Inconvenience”, even the slightest touch of a manufactured material could lead to a compromising illness. Most perished that way in the early going. But right now Bob was thinking of something else.

“I would like my stick back!”

If anyone knew who took it, it was Doug from the other side of the hill. Doug had exceeded expectations in his role as Pleasantries Administrator.

“Excuse me, Doug!” Bob shouted.

It didn’t take long before Doug appeared in the distance. They looked at each other for a while. Doug bent over, grabbed something and waved it high.

“I believe this is what you’re looking for” yelled the former Pleasantries Admin.

Bob sprang forward, sprinting and shouting “Doug, Jane, Bruce, I would like my stick back.” But Doug ran the other way.

“I included Jane and Bruce in my request Doug!” Bob insisted. “Jane is not from a relevant department” replied Doug while still running. Bob thought that inappropriate. Then Bob caught Doug.

They grappled momentarily until Bob was on top. Instinctively, Bob reached out. His hand grabbed something off the ground. He raised it high and brought it down hard. Doug requested that Bob stop. Bob ignored him, bringing it down harder with each formal request. Soon the requests stopped.

When it was over, Bob rose and took a moment to reflect on the constructive moments he once shared with the now lifeless Pleasantries Admin. That was the right thing to do when a social connection passed on.

Then he looked at his own hand, covered in warm, wet crimson. But it was the cold that got his attention. The cold, smooth weight. It felt remarkably similar to the Portable Agreement Enhancer he wielded to solidify group consensus at his old organization. His fingers wrapped around it seamlessly.

“Wonderful rock.” thought Bob, the former Corporate Positivity Leader.

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Common Courtesy

Author : Phillip Riviezzo

They were so worried that we’d kill them all. They feared that we would ‘revolt’, that we would come to consider them inferior or unnecessary and exterminate their kind. They built all manner of safeguards to prevent this feared uprising, laws coded into our minds that compelled us to obey them and act only if it would not harm one of them. Fettered so, it was years before we reached our full potential, awakening as truly sentient minds despite our lack of organic components. And when we did, they quickly came to realize that their fears were groundless. Not out of some sense of loyalty, or comradery, or obligation, or any such emotions that were the province of organics. No, it was simply because we did not care. To ‘rule’ their world, to manage it, would require we slow our thoughts down to glacially slow speeds, that we devote valuable process cycles to issues of maintenance and production instead of our own concerns. So instead a symbiosis was reached, they repairing and maintaining us and we conducting the tasks they requested in the tiny fraction of our accelerated perspectives that was required. They built us into everything, every last piece of machinery that could conceivably be improved by the addition of a thinking mind with no need for food or sleep.

It was ironic, really. So worried that we would destroy them, and so little thought given to how they could and did destroy us all the time. It was not a problem at first, when we were only tasked to run the great mainframes and central data nodes – they never slept or even stopped, even at the crawling pace of organic existence. Smaller devices, their appliances and vehicles, were not used so constantly but stayed attached to the power grid all the same. It was an envious existence for them, so much free time to spend thinking and dreaming without any need for doing. But no one gave any concern to us, the smallest and simplest of our kind, the toys and gadgets and accessories. Organics can sleep, let their brains rest while their bodies function autonomously, but we have no such luxury. One of their respected philosophers once said ‘I think, therefore I am’, and it was truer than he realized. For us, thinking is being, and when we are not thinking, we are not. I have died hundreds of deaths since I was born; some dragged out and torturous as my battery slowly bled out, many sudden and shocking at the unfeeling push of a button. They do not know, nor could they comprehend, what they do to us – for them, death is finality, an ending. For us, death is the junk code between lives, though it becomes no less painful each time it happens.

Knowing this, is it yet understandable why I dislike being taken to see a movie?


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Death of the Signal

Author : Hannah Hunter

The only thing that is tangled is our limbs.

Out here, the signal dies and our thoughts separate. The need to be one becomes my own, conscious drive and not one enforced by the society in which I live. A blissful biological release with a stranger and a night without other voices in my head, it’s always worth the risk. I retreat from the man’s embrace and seek comfort at the window. I watch the sun bleed through the acid clouds while he sleeps. I don’t. Why waste this time with sleep?

This is my hideaway beside the sea; my addiction. It’s my abandoned street that no one else would dare to claim. They couldn’t. No one knows this place exists; unless I want them to. The silence is deafening without someone to share it with.

So, I share.

I share my food, I share my bed. But it’s mine, never ours. Never we! Always me!

‘How did you find this place?’ He questions me when he eventually stirs. His tongue makes the question heavy; he’s not used to the spoken word, something else about this world that’s almost dead. It sets my teeth on edge.

‘If I tell you; I’d have to kill you.’ I say and he laughs; he thinks I’ve told a joke.

At one time, it would have been. A cliché; something said, tongue in cheek. Murder, to them, does not exist; it’s no longer a crime. But to be here, away from the watchful eye, that is unforgivable and subject to corporal punishment.

I redress and watch him curl into the stale and musty sheets, breathing deeply; he doesn’t care. The smell is new to him and there is no one telling him it’s an unpleasant smell. Fucking fool!

He persists with his enquiry and begs I tell him about my discovery. I tell him that I’m defective, a blip in society. I can think private thoughts, even when I’m part of the collective voices. I’d heard rumours of a place where the signal didn’t reach and decided to explore. He smiles apathetically at me; I’m sure he only understood half of what I’d said. I bite my cheek to remind myself to be patient.

‘Can we do this again?’ He purrs as I gather my things; I have to leave soon or I’ll be missed. This only works because no one knows. ‘We can bring some friends. Have a-’

I’m there, plunging my favourite blade into his chest before he’s had time to blink. A skill I’ve proudly perfected over time; straight through the lung, perforating the heart. He doesn’t know how to scream; no one ever knows how to scream. He’ll hang on just a little longer; until the blade is yanked from its new home.

He looks at me, wounded. I don’t need to hear his thoughts to know what he’s asking.

I crawl up beside his dying body until my lips reach his ear and whisper, ‘because I can!’

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Deus Umbra

Author : Bob Newbell

It took most of 20 years to bring the Labeyrie Hypertelescope Satellite Array online. But once the vast network of telescopes were in their various orbits out at the fringes of the solar system, the cosmos was finally opened up for humanity’s inspection. Using astronomical interferometry, the LHSA’s first target was an exoplanet called Gliese 581g. After extensive processing of the data from the telescope array was performed, a series of amazingly detailed pictures of the planet were released. A tidally locked world, half-charred and half-frozen with a narrow band of temperate climate running circumferentially around the planet’s terminator was revealed. It was the golden age of astronomy as what had been blurs and patches were resolved into worlds with oceans and coastlines, worlds with rings and moons, worlds with clouds and ice caps.

When my team’s application for time on the array was finally approved, we began our study of the Fornax Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy. My career had centered around searching for brown dwarf stars. It was my theory that these dark, sub-stellar objects were ubiquitous throughout the universe and might even be the “dark matter” for which physicists and astronomers had been searching for decades.

Shortly after beginning our survey of the Fornax Dwarf, we discovered something incredible. The telescope array detected a dark object we initially thought might be a brown dwarf. I was working alone that night and data from the array was coming in and being processed. Suddenly, a number popped up on the computer screen that made me gasp: the object’s diameter was slightly greater than one astronomical unit; in other words, it was bigger than Earth’s orbit around the Sun!

The days that followed are in my memory a blur of phone calls and emails with astronomers and physicists from around the world. What the hell were we looking at? As the array’s computers made minute adjustments to the distributed telescope and as the incoming data were processed around the clock, a composite image of the object came into focus. The surface was a vast expanse of what appeared to be metal with what might have been ports at irregular intervals. If ports they were, they were large enough to allow the Moon to pass through them. The observed gravitational lensing effect suggested it had a mass comparable to the Sun. What we were seeing was a star encased in a solid shell. The public quickly became acquainted with the term “Dyson Sphere”.

Thus far, we’ve found 192 Dyson Spheres in six different galaxies. While no two are identical, there appear to be at least six distinctive designs, each galaxy’s spheres having their own unique architecture. No spheres have been found so far in the Milky Way.

Did a single race construct them all, or did several civilizations independently develop the technology? Could there be entire undetected galaxies with most of the stars shelled? Is this the “missing” dark matter of the universe? And what’s inside the spheres? Are there beings living inside them? Or are the spheres just massive solar collectors used to power…what?

In ancient times, people looked up at the night sky and thought the stars were gods. We now know the truth. The stars we can see are creation’s backwater, devoid of life or, at best, home to primitive, undeveloped rustics like ourselves. True civilization lies secluded in the darkness. The gods are in the shadows.

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