Stumbling Toward Bethlehem

Author : K.A. Magrowski

The giant handprint appeared on the hill sometime during the night of April 30. No one in the nearby farming communities and town saw or heard anything, but on May 1 everyone woke to see the imprint in the distance, across the cow pastures and cornfields, pressed deep into the good, green earth. The media of course flocked to the area in droves. Professional news reporters, amateur social media gurus, gawkers, supernatural believers and skeptics flooded in, and for a few weeks Martinsville, Pennsylvania was known around the world.

Everyone had a theory: from giants of yore to a crop circle-like hoax to aliens trying to communicate to a government conspiracy. Although what the government could be contriving to do with a giant handprint was beyond me. But there you have it. People argued that it was a socialist plot to undermine the fabric of society by creating false gods. Some saw it as the hand of God that would bestow miracles and answer prayers. Others set up stands selling small jars of earth “directly from the Hand of God” to those willing to pay twenty-five or even fifty dollars for good, non-hand Pennsylvania dirt mixed with cow manure. Someone claimed they could walk again after crawling around in the muck (he always could walk, it was later discovered, but by then the story was on the internet and even Snopes couldn’t dissuade true believers).
Soon, the area had to be roped off. The local police set up a watch to prevent anyone from hurting themselves or doing something stupid until the FBI barged in, flashed their authority, and established roadblocks. Scientists came to test soil samples, radioactivity, and whatever else scientists do with their rubber gloves and tubes and petri dishes.

For a week, Martinsville had a festival-like atmosphere. Local businesses saw a three-hundred percent profit increase while local people only saw traffic jams, packed shops and diners, and cameras in their faces. Souvenirs bearing the “Handprint of God” flew off the shelves and the internet was inundated with calendars, mugs, keychains, and other essential memorabilia of the event.

Then disaster struck. A sudden storm, not in any weather forecast, whipped through the region. Severe enough and windy enough to smudge then eradicate the imprint. Afterwards, nothing resembling a hand was left. Just a misshapen hillside and trampled country landscape.

The tests by the scientists were inconclusive. Forensics found nothing. Those questioned by the FBI had alibis, or no means to pull off such a massive feat with no witnesses or raising any suspicion. The media, the thrill seekers, the charlatans, the believers and the skeptics melted away. Hand of God sales plummeted. The internet hopped on another story, Martinsville faded back into obscurity, and no one changed their mind about anything.

Lesson learned. Watch out for hills when I’m on my annual stroll. Luckily, I owned a watering can.

The Screw Up

Author : Iain Macleod

“Dude! We are so boned, dude! This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Jimmy frantically tapped at his console, sweat beginning to drip off the end of his nose. “They’re sentient, man”

“What? All of them?” replied Carl, the older of the two keeping calm, trying not to jump to premature conclusions.

“No, just one species but they’re definitely sentient, I can already pick up large developments, cities, huge engineering projects, all sorts of stuff. They’re well past what they were supposed to be.”

“OK, calm down, Jim. Lets just gather some information, maybe there’s some sort of problem with the scanners”

Carl stood at his own console and began tapping away. A frown started to develop on his face when he saw the results.

“This cant be right, surely. Lets check for comms”

The main display lit up like a supernova and both jaws dropped.

“…how, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, i don’t know!”

“You were in charge of that species, it was pretty much your only job! How did this happen?”

“I dont know” Jimmy moaned and ran his hand through his hair, “they weren’t supposed to get past stones and clubs.”

“Well they’re way past that now, you mong! How are we going to fix this?” Carl slammed his fist down on the console. “We’re on our last warning already.”

“Let me think, Carl, just let me think.”

“They’ve got world wide networks, basic computers and the first steps towards a space program.” Carl scanned through the feed displaying on his console. “Oh god. They’ve got religion and nukes. This is a disaster!”

Jimmy looked up at the his colleague. “Asteroid. We’ll run an asteroid into it and say we found it like that.”

“There are no asteroids we can get here before someone spots this, we need to sort it out fast.”

“…Ok. Moon”

“What?”

“We’ll push the moon off course, it’ll smash into the planet and wipe out everything”

“What about the records?”

“We’ll alter the records, say we missed the fact that the moon had an unstable orbit. Maybe head office will just think we’re idiots and we wont get fired. We’ll get demoted at worst.”

“God damnit, Jimmy…” Carl scratched his head, thinking it through. “Fine. Lets do it fast before anyone spots us”

Both went to work, rapidly tapping commands into their consoles. Forward cam showed the moon slowly drifting off course.

“You need to stop smoking weed, Jimmy.”

“I know, dude. I swear this time is the last.”

Aesthetic Demise

Author : Timothy Marshal-Nichols

“So this bloke then, this Galvano bloke, so this Galvano della Volpe is dead.” The Local Defence Officer thought for a few seconds while twiddling with his moustache. Then spoke into his radio, “Sucker’s dead.”

“Repeat,” came back the mechanical reply, “does not compute.”

“Sucker, dead,” he said slowly while holding the radio very close. Then even more slowly said, “Sucker, the sucker, dead.” Then added with a firm intonation, “Dead.”

“Termination: confirmed. Termination: one, nine, six, eight. Additional data: lost.”

The Officer turned to the girl he’d been interviewing and said, “Well and truly dead, centuries dead.” He laughed. She didn’t. “So Fryada, can I call you Fryada?”

“That’s my name.”

“So Fryada, a load of fuss about nothing.” He was pleased that that morning he’d put on a brand new smart uniform and even if he was thirty years older than the girl he felt he didn’t look that bad for his age. There was an awkward silence but it wasn’t often he had a chance to visit the female quarters. “Nice here, this Accommodation Building.” Still she said nothing but she was far too attractive for him to give up that easily. Any stupid question would do, “Where did you get this silly Galvano name from?”

“I read it in a book.”

“A book, a book, I think I’ve heard about those. Remind me.”

“Paper, writing, words.”

“Really.” he shook his head but she could tell he didn’t really understand. “Where did you get one of those old things?”

“I found it.”

“Really. Really. Can’t be any worse than this voice recognition stuff they give us. Terrible it is. Though that writing thing, I can’t ever see it catching on. Far too much trouble.”

“It did for a while.”

“For a while, that’s the point. Implants that’s the way to go. Everything’s approved, safe. No dangerous thoughts that way. Take my word for it lov.” The Officer saw that he was losing the girl, that his chat up bravado was not working, (not that he’d ever ‘caught’ her) so he tried to be a bit more conciliatory. Fryada really was very pretty. “So then, what did this Galvano — is that his name? — this della Volpe bloke, what did he write about?”

“Philosophy.”

“Eh!”

“He wrote about freedom,” Fryada said formally as if she was answering an exam question.

“Did he now, did he, don’t have a lot of call for that these days.” The Officer smiled a greasy smile. “How about you, me, heading off down the Recreation Building? Chat a bit more about this book thing.”

Fryada shook her head. “He also wrote about Rousseau.”

“What’s Rousseau then, sweetheart?” he asked with a patronising and puzzled smile.

“Code 6,” the Officer’s radio squealed and repeated between alarm beeps, “Code 6. Code 6. Acknowledge. Code 6.”

“I’m afraid miss, I’m going to have to take you to The Department for further questioning.” The smile had gone. Firmly holding Fryada’s arm he added, “And we were getting along so nicely.”

Before the Officer had even finished saying those words a Hover Transport from the Penal Department was landing just outside the Female Accommodation Building.

My iFriend

Author : Daniel Helman

One time there lived a small planet that decided to invent some silicon-based machines to serve as emissaries to the rest of the universe, to be a good neighbor. A few apes had some promise, as being able to develop, maintain and enjoy these machines, and were willing to help the planet out.

Eventually the apes got tired of working so hard, especially under impressions of ill will. Things were becoming rough. Getting drunk wasn’t really an option, since that interfered with the work. So they decided to work hard in all the arts, instead. The plan was to develop a utopia with a harmonious way of living, richer in meaning.

A few apes struggled with the contradictions in making so much beautiful art and in making these machines at the same time. They decided to make helpers for themselves, from the machines, who would encourage their artwork. The planet wasn’t really impatient, since the work was getting done.

The first of this kind of helper was made by Apple, a tech company. You couldn’t eat this company’s products, but they were designed to be pleasing, and to be a real temptation, to boost market share. The first was simply a necklace. It was called iFriend, and would produce chemical aerosols to influence social interactions along with patented routines of electromagnetic radiation designed to influence neurological activity nearby.

The apes went hog-wild for these necklaces. Apple couldn’t make enough of them. Their history was not without difficulty, though, since the supply of chemical feedstocks for the necklace was scarce. Eventually, a yeast was recruited to host the process to make these feedstocks using genetic engineering. The yeast was pretty easy to grow, but Apple didn’t want to share its technology, so the iFriend necklaces weren’t copied successfully by cheap imitators. Although they tried.

The imitation iFriend necklaces could make for the strangest interactions. Some apes would start fights for no reason. Others would make silly faces. And more extreme actions ensued. The worst was during an election. Some big babbling baboon became president, a poor choice. But pretty quickly the machines were getting up to speed. They didn’t much need the apes anymore, since they were really, really smart by now. The planet was happy, since its emissaries were about to take flight into the nether reaches of space. The machines simply turned off all the iFriends when they left, and let the apes sort it out for themselves.

Sisters

Author : David Henson

The module thuds onto the planet’s surface.

Commander Stevens adjusts the stabilizers. “No prize for that one.”

Lieutenant Johnson cuts the engines. “You always think you can do better.”

“Do you have to take everything I say personally?”

The com crackles. “Conquistador to Black Sparrow: Are you on the surface?”

Commander Stevens sits up straight. “Confirmed, Captain Ove. Sorry, Sir. I should’ve checked in immediately upon landing. We had a … momentary distraction.”

“I can imagine,” the Captain says. “Now get with it. We need your eyes-on to verify the planetary scan.”

“Yes, Sir, ASAP. Stevens out.” The commander turns toward the lieutenant. “Atmospheric conditions report.”

Johnson studies the blinking panel in front of him for a moment. “Benign. We don’t need suits.”

“Protocol requires them.”

“Then why ask me for the report? I know … ‘Protocol requires it.’ Do you always have to be so by-the-book?”

“There’s a time and place for improvising, Frederic.” Stevens opens a door in the side of the module. “Here.” She hands a small square of silver-colored material to the lieutenant.

“Whatever.” Frederic snatches the packet and pushes and holds a button on the material. It unfolds several times to form a protective suit. He slips it on, then pulls a cord at the collar. A helmet inflates around his head.

Commander Stevens activates her suit and helmet as well. “Com check.”

“Loud and clear. I suppose we have to wear oxygen tanks, too?”

“No, filtration is adequate,” Stevens says.

“Will wonders never cease?”

Stevens rubs her hands down her thighs, smoothing the crinkles in her suit. “Frederic, what’s your problem?”

“You started it, Victoria, with that crack about my landing.”

“No, you started it earlier when — ”

“Oh, never mind. Activating airlock. Protocol.”

***

The planet’s skies are blue and clear, the lawns lush and green; tidy houses line the streets. “Reminds me so much of home,” Frederic says.

“Except for the quiet.” Victoria puts her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “We’ve been out a long time. I think that’s why we’ve been at each other’s throats lately.”

“Probably.” Frederic presses his helmet gently to his wife’s, then turns and watches a light breeze trickle through the leaves of a nearby tree. “Too bad about the birds and other wildlife.”

“Replenishment will take time, but the arks are right behind the colonists,” Victoria says.

“I know. But if our neutronic lasers can vaporize all animal life without hurting anything else, why can’t we refine the technology so just humanoids are affected?”

“That’s above our pay grade, Honey.”

“Lieutenant Honey,” Frederic says, grinning at his wife. He checks his locator then points. “One hundred meters this way is where we told them our delegation would arrive.”

The two walk up the street. There’s a speakers’ platform, grandstands, and what appears to be a parade route with banners and placards.

Victoria turns over a sign with her foot: “Welcome To Our New Friends The Irthlings.” She toes another and chuckles: “We Love Irth.”

“You ever feel guilty?” Frederic says, imagining the excitement the planet’s inhabitants must have been feeling right before they were vaporized.

“A little maybe,” Victoria says. “But it’s so much more efficient to find a Goldilocks and clear it than terraform a planet from scratch.”

“I guess you’re right.” Frederic takes his wife’s gloved hand in his. “Besides, we’ve been deploying this tactic throughout the sector. It’s their own fault for not doing their homework before accepting to be Sister Planets with another world.”

“Let’s get back,” Victoria says. “I’ll confirm to the captain this place is a Go.”