Pre-Ruined

Author : Beck Dacus

“VEYAN! COME LOOK AT THIS!”

I looked up from my bio-sweep and bolted to the sound of Carlos’ voice, knowing that the rest of the team would follow me. After rounding a few corners of the empty city, I came upon the intern and followed his gaze to the giant, defunct construction machine. Its purpose was immediately apparent; broken treads would have held up a blocky body studded with instruments, which itself sported a mechanical arm with a 3D printing knob, laser chisel, and manipulator fingers.

“Building machine?” Mirina thought out loud. “Wow. Looks older than most of these buildings.”

“Must’ve been,” Carlos wheezed, still out-of-breath from yelling. “I think it built them.”

“Along with the aliens?” Reifa clarified.

“No, I think there’s more of them around here. I think they’re von Neumann probes.”

We all turned our heads simultaneously. Janthin was the first to speak.

“Can you back that up with anything? We can’t just guess about this.”

“Think about it! It’s what we humans thought about doing for a long time, before we got the Kicker Drives. Send out robots to build your colony beforehand, then send some people– or whatever– over to live in the new city. Once the robots are finished, they self-replicate and repeat on some other planet.”

“You still need more evidence,” Janthin retorted. “It’d be pretty interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

“Besides,” Reifa said, “It doesn’t tell us anything about the people who lived here or why they left. For some reason, neither does anything else.”

Reifa’s words made the answer hit me. “Actually, it might tell us something.”

Attention shifted to me. Their expectant looks were enough to prompt me.

“You all know that we’ve been a little frustrated for the past few days because we haven’t found anything on these aliens. No DNA except for that from the native life, no messages or writing system, no possessions, nothing. We’ve been assuming that this is because of quirks in their biology, psychology, and that they were very thorough in their evacuation. But I looked and that robot, and now it’s clicked: I don’t think anyone or anything has *ever* lived here.”

Carlos, by that time, had caught onto what I was saying. “Yeah, yeah! They sent the robots here, planning to follow them, but then they went extinct. Or lost funding. Or got bored waiting, maybe. But getting the robots to stop would have been too hard and/or too expensive, so they let ‘em do their thing. We’re standing in a city that has never held people.”

We all looked around ourselves, and the place got even creepier just then. An entire city that had never been lived in; the ultimate ghost town. I don’t know if I was being sincere or if I was just scared when I said, “Well, I think that means we’ve found everything there is to find here. Pack up the gear and prepare to rendezvous with the Aristarchus in orbit. We leave in two days.”

The crew nodded, slowly walking to their outdoor stations, looking around to avoid the ghosts of those who had never been.

Roads

Author : Grace Franzen

In 1721 Mary Margaret Thornton is sitting in the shallows of the river when the dairy farmer’s son finds her. He rises often this early, on the breath of dawn, specifically of a purpose to find her before anyone else does. When he sees her in the water, current tugging languidly at her skirts and hair, he shudders to think what the other townsfolk would think of her. What they would do.

“I saw her again,” she says when he helps her out of the cold water, throws his coat around her. “They showed her to me. An angel who will make roads for us in the sky.”

He knows it’s useless to talk real sense to her. The only way to reach her is with her sense.

“And how can the dead know what hasn’t happened yet?” he points out. Mary Margaret Thornton’s face is a pleasant but distant one, never quite wakened from a dream. He sometimes wonders if he and the river and the townsfolk live only in her mind.

“The time and the light touch them not.” She spreads out cold white fingers from his coat, wiggles them lightly. “They cannot forget and cannot lie. And they have seen her.”

She smiles and pats his cheek. It’s a shuddering, enticing feeling whenever she looks at him, whenever she looks right through him.

“She is trying to come back to us,” she says. “My children shall give birth to angels.”

In 2721 Captain Priya El-Aleil is sitting in the chair of command, eyes closed, listening. Outside the great impenetrable windows the coldness of space drifts by, the massive explorer ship Kurosawa tied to no orbit and awaiting orders. Priya El-Aleil looks very different from Mary Margaret Thornton. The blood of giants, of stars, of comets and commanders courses through her, but right now it is the blood of Mary Margaret Thornton within her on which the captain depends. The Galactic Assembly is depending on that blood, depending on Priya El-Aleil, and she is depending on the dead. The dead will at last find what was lost.

The dead, she knows, will finally bring them back to Earth.

Ocean of Stars

Author : Alicia Cerra Waters

Don’t they understand that we have no room for them here? Think about it. We are on the only blue planet in a galaxy of gas giants and colossal boulders caught in orbit, most of which are about to be swallowed up by their swollen, burning suns. Anyone who doesn’t have a death wish and isn’t a complete idiot moved here a long time ago.

Well, why shouldn’t I say it? Is it my fault that those people didn’t do their homework before they settled on a planet that was about to go up in flames? They chose the places they lived. Seriously. It’s 2578. We have ways of figuring out which planets are going down and which ones are going to sustain us. And with no sustainable planet, there’s no future. If you’re old enough to remember earth, you know all about what happens when a planet dies. You remember the oceans drowning cities with poisoned water, you know all about the air giving people a goody bag full of cancers, and you know that if you wanted to get the hell off of that place you had to be strong and you had to be smart. Some people didn’t make it.

As for me, I’m not going to sit around and cry about what I saw. And let me tell you, it was a mess. People needed gas masks and special suits to go outside on the planet that gave them life. If you couldn’t afford the gear, well, that was it. You didn’t last long. I’ll spare you the gruesome details of what people who died that way looked like.

Those of us who worked hard enough could pay a space shuttle to take us away. But if you lived in a poor little country, forget it. You weren’t going anywhere unless a missionary or a bleeding heart liberal saved you because there was no way you would be able to afford the ride. Of course, people fought it. There were riots at so many shuttle launches; guards beat back masses of people who were diseased and thin and desperate, people who had nothing to lose. A few of the riots were successful, but they didn’t do any good. A lot of people were killed, and the passengers who were going to get off earth didn’t get their tickets refunded, oh no. If they couldn’t afford to pay again, tough. Those people who paid everything they had to leave earth turned into the rioters at the next shuttle launch, and if they were lucky that’s how they died. It would be better than another day on that miserable planet. But what does that matter now? Am I supposed to worry about it for the rest of my life?

I survived, and if those people stuck on the desert planets and rock planets can’t do the same, it’s not my problem. Those planets glow red in the night sky. They should have known not to land there, and now they’re paying the price. And don’t talk to me about everything those people never had. I don’t want to hear about their disadvantages anymore.

I’m here in the sunshine. I can breathe and drink clean water, and I wake up every day in a warm bed inside my big house. No one I know is unhappy. No one I know is living on a planet that’s about to be burned. Those places are far, far away. If anyone is screaming, I can’t hear them.

The Works of 1.6

Author : David Maskill

Look below: gravitational lensing but with added sugar.

Ocean currents were rendered hazy and golden. The whole planet was swathed in caramelised whorls of cloud turned syrup. Even the stars twinkled a little too excitedly.

“Have you been messing with my oxygen again?”

1.6 was probably defective. I’d considered resetting him to the factory default but, as is always the way, couldn’t quite bring myself to erase his personality. They take a long time to mature.

“Definitely not,” said 1.6, “Don’t you like what I’ve done?”

“What is it?” I asked, now starting to worry for the planet’s inhabitants.

“I’ve created an optical effect. It looks like treacle.”

“I hope you haven’t harmed anyone.” He’d never hurt anybody before but it pays to be certain about these things. AIs could be testy; the careless traveller has, on occasion, been known to find themselves ejected from their own spacecraft.

“It’s just an optical effect,” replied 1.6, “Don’t you like it?”

I must have looked fairly unimpressed.

“But you like treacle,” he said, without waiting for my reply, “You have it in your sandwiches.”

“Yes. I have it in sandwiches,” I admitted, “but not on planets.”

There was a pause– probably timed to the last millisecond.

“Do you not think it’s pretty?”

And there it was: this ‘treacle warp’ was yet another of his attempts at art. I sighed and then decided to finally tell him the stark truth of the matter:

“Listen. You can’t create art. I’m sorry, but there’s no way you can ever truly understand what art is or what it’s for– you don’t even have an aesthetics driver. Now stop with this nonsense and please concentrate on keeping us in orbit, or whatever else it is you’re supposed to be doing.”

You might think me cruel, but the dozy thing needed telling. How many philosophical discussions on the nature of beauty does one artificial intelligence need to have?

“I wasn’t aware that an aesthetics driver was available,” he replied, as calmly as ever, “Why haven’t you downloaded it?”

I would have answered but for the unexpected scene now unfolding beneath me. The syrupy whorls had blossomed into terrible rosettes of fire, scorching the atmosphere en masse. They set the planet alight with the toasty glow of a thermonuclear apocalypse.

“What are you doing?” I squealed, “Stop it!”

I carried on squealing, but the silent eruptions continued regardless.

“It’s just an optical effect,” said 1.6, “There is no need to panic.”

Of course it was just an optical effect.

“Why haven’t you downloaded an aesthetics driver for me?” he asked again.

“It’s expensive and you don’t need it.” In the back of my mind, I noted that the burning planet did seem to have an oddly psychedelic, even artistic, appeal.

“But if I had one, my optical effects would be art?”

I could not answer.

To be honest, I’d never understood what an aesthetics driver was actually supposed to do– most AIs already have some appreciation of aesthetics, as an emergent feature of their intelligence. In any case, this argument was fast becoming tiresome.

“Only humans can make art,” I declared, as if it were absurd to suggest otherwise.

“Don’t neural networks–”

“No. I’ve already told you. They cannibalise the works of humans. Look: you don’t need to be an artist. That’s not what you were made for.”

“But–”

“Quiet now.”

In hindsight, perhaps a more diplomatic approach would have been advisable, but it was too late now. As I turned to leave, the warning sirens started blaring, and out I hurtled into the vacuum of space.

Smooth Operator

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m reading his thermo-image through the door before he knocks: average human temperature distribution, no suspicious cool patches. Something chilly in his hand.

Tucking the Sternig pulse pistol into the back of my trousers, I open the door with a smile.

“Mister Vance? Your Real-Earth Cola.”

He’s the picture of five-star service, but his eyes hold an element of curiosity. I’m supposed to be a top exec, and what they sometimes do tends to breed rumours. I zip a tip to his ID-pad and he grins at the numbers. It’s real credit, too. I never short the staff.

With him gone and the privacy engaged, I pour myself a tall glass of non-alcoholic fizz that has travelled over a hundred million miles. The bottle slips as I set it down and spills its remaining contents across the table. In my haste to grab a towel, I knock my whiskey and water over.

Working from the edge of the table, swearing loudly, I carefully mop the mixed drink spill up. As far as my watchers know, I’m a clumsy exec with very expensive taste in carbonated beverages.

The headache generated by my implant intensifies as it interprets the code picked up by the scanner in my left cybereye. It’s coming from the light emitted by the whiskey-agitated fluorescent molecules in the very unique cola sent by my agency. A method that no-one out here knows of, and even if they did, they would need the exact mix of whiskey and water to generate light in the same wavelengths.

I have a clear head by the time I leave my room, the Sternig conspicuously left on the bedside table. My watchers are scrambling to be ready to follow me from the lobby, but their timing is off.

Lucia Dedarist got a call from her contact a few minutes ago. She’s a veteran, but the message gave me her reaction and pace times. As I step into the chute, she’s floating to one side of the entrance, heading for the lobby, thinking she’s going to meet her contact. He was killed last week, but no-one will ever find his remains.

My shoe catches the corner of the doorway and I swing into her.

There’s an immediate, angry response: “Get your paws off!”

I clumsily backpedal: “Sorry, miss. Not used to these drop thingys.”

She shakes her head as she straightens her jumpsuit: “Clumsy Earther. You need a handler.”

We drop the rest of the way in silence. I exit at the lobby; she continues on down to the vehicle bays. Picking up my usual tail, I take the expressway to the spaceport. Neither of my followers have time to get a hold placed on me when I switch queues from domestic to offworld. They are still making frantic calls when I catch a fast shuttle to meet a passing freighter that’s headed for Proxima B.

Far behind me, someone will be asking Miz Dedarist why she’s sleeping at the bottom of the dropchute. There will be concern, then consternation. The eventual autopsy scan will reveal that she’s been poisoned: an anaesthetic-coated hollow needle delivered a dose of very unique cola. Which contained a nasty little something tailored to her DNA.

That being said, I didn’t drink any of it. I have a personal aversion to stuff with too many things going on at a level I can’t see.

Settling back, sipping a whiskey and water, there’s time to enjoy the trip for a while. Not that I’m actually going to Proxima B. They just need to think I am.

Under My Skin

Author : Samuel Stapleton

I stared at our instructor, unsure if I’d heard him correctly.

“You want me to what?”

He sighed and stepped back.

“Everyone here believes that any human that loses contact with Interface3 would suffer irreversible neurological and physical damage, yes?”

We all nodded.

“Your parents sent you to this camp in order that we might show you otherwise. But I can’t explain any of the context until you believe me instead of the indoctrination you’ve been fed. So here we are, as far from civilization as we can get in the Eastern United States – the Appalachian mountains. And I want you,” He pointed to me again, “To blow out my Interface.”

He held the small silver emitter out to me again. A micro-emp wand. I stood frozen and barely managed to stutter out a garbled message of resistance.

“Uh, no…er, you can’t…I’m not, it’s not…” I stopped stumbling after a moment and went silent.

He shrugged and touched the wand to the back of his ear as we watched in utter disbelief. He grinned and hit the trigger. There was a quiet buzz and then a snap. Our instructor dropped like a sack of bricks. His pale blue eyes stared up at me from the ground, unmoving. His free hand twitched a few times. One of the girls started screaming. I was about to link with my (s)implant and call for emergency services when he coughed.

“Oh shit.” I heard someone say. “He’s up.”

Awkwardly our instructor regained his feet, grimacing violently as he did so.

“Alright. That was a little showy of me – and I paid for it. But, as you can see I’m under no real duress.”

I still didn’t understand.

“Great, but what was the point? 3Com will read that your device went out and soon rescue will be on the way to pick up your body. Except you’re not dead.”

“Now you’re asking good questions. Quickly, we don’t have much time.”

Our little group went from dumbfounded, to curious, to outraged in about two seconds flat. I heard at least five voices all shouting out questions over mine.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Are we a part of a conspiracy?”

“Do our parents really know about this?”

“How are you not dead?”

“Why can’t I contact emergency services?”

“What have you done?”

He remained silent.

“Tell us something.” I demanded.

“Okay.” He said. “Let’s have a little test. I’m going for a run. Whoever can’t keep up, will become the body for ES to find.” Without another word, he took off.

I maxed out my Interface3, (s)implant, and bioclothing. If he truly had destroyed his interface we should have caught up with him immediately. But he outpaced us for the next two minutes. We caught up to him after he stopped, in the middle of a clearing in the woods.

“All these advancements but the greatest secret of them all is the one you’re never told.” He said as we approached.

“They’re using the biotech to keep you healthy, but reliant on them. To keep you mentally advancing, but only in one direction. To cure you of symptoms, but not the ailments. To keep you complacent, but below them. They’re under your skin, in your heads, using your genetic information – and there’s only one thing you can do about it.” Our instructor said.

Nobody replied. Until the quiet boy who caught up last spoke.

“Hand me that emitter.”