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.”

The Unexamined Life

Author : D.J. Rozell

Jordan didn’t flirt with Alex until the divorce was final. The marriage had been full of broken promises, but why add one more? However, with the papers signed and a few weeks of decent sleep unknotting the muscles that had been locked in perpetual stress, things changed. There was a lot to like about Alex. Smart and self-confident, but it was the sly smile and the fit of those jeans that made Jordan realize that this was going to happen.

It was clearly a bad idea. Workplace relationships were dangerous enough, but this one wouldn’t even pass the rule of half your age plus seven years. Alex was fresh out of college and Jordan was…not. After inviting Alex to a concert and coffee, which were quickly accepted, Jordan spent much of the intervening time daydreaming. The intoxicating feelings of potential new love mingled with the imagined thoughts of other people watching them together – the looks askance and occasional smirk of admiration.

The first date went well. Coffee turned into dinner and the post-concert discussion continued for hours. Subsequent evenings went so well that, only a few weeks later, they reserved adjacent hotel rooms at a corporate trade show. That first night, after a day of playful teasing, Alex opened the first door connecting the two rooms and found, to no surprise that Jordan had unlocked the other. When Alex slid into the bed, Jordan was welcoming. They had movie-like sex – two silhouettes in blue light – the only thing missing was the soundtrack.

Neither broke the silence of their euphoria for a long time. But as their comfort level increased and things turned playful, Jordan stopped momentarily and fingered the heavy yin-yang pendant hanging from Alex’s neck. “Could you take this off? It keeps knocking into my face.”

“Sorry,” Alex smiled, “I kind of feel incomplete without my body cam.”

“WHAT?!” Jordan slithered sideways and yanked up the bedsheet. Alex’s smile dropped.

“Seriously, what did you think this was? Who doesn’t wear them?” Alex asked sheepishly.

“I know most kids live in the Transparency Age, but I didn’t…”

“So I’m a kid now?” Alex was no longer apologetic.

“Oh, excuse me for being upset, but you just streamed our sex to the internet! It’s a violation of my privacy!”

“Privacy? No one can empty your bank account just from seeing your ass.”

“How do you not understand? It’s illegal!” Jordan was livid.

“No, it USED to be illegal until sensible people realized transparency makes our lives safer. When was the last time you heard about anyone getting raped?”

“Sensible? What if I just smashed that damn camera? How would that protect you?”

“My A.I. service would alert the police and you would be arrested for assault within minutes.” Alex glanced towards the door.

“Damn it, I’m too old for this crap.” Jordan turned away and stared into space thinking about everything said and done over the past month that had been broadcast to the world, suddenly feeling very naïve.

Alex tried a more conciliatory tone, “I’m sorry. I assumed you knew. How about I turn it backwards when you’re naked. It would only be sound.” Alex waited for a reply that never came and then eventually left the room with clothes in hand.

THE END

Ride Home

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The moon is a purple crescent that stretches from horizon to mid-sky. The few stars are scattered pinpricks of yellow, too far apart to make any sort of constellations. Consequently, the available light is less than ideal for people trying to engineer their continued survival from the remains of the formerly super-stealth space interceptor they just crash landed in. Emphasis on ‘crash’.

In a war reduced to slim tactical advantages that are obviated or surpassed quickly, I’d say our time as the most dangerous thing in the heavens has ended. As to what ended it, we didn’t even see it coming. We’re only alive because Mradin broke most of himself refusing to let us die. Ever since making him comfortable, I’ve been trying to wrestle weapons from the wreck.

“Teng, mate, stop trying to make swords from scrap.”

Mradin’s hissing whisper reaches me clearly in a night gone suddenly quiet.

Uh-oh.

A glittering pink energy beam passes close enough to crisp the hairs on my arm.

“They landed and came after us!”

Thanks, Mradin. Picked up on that myself.

From the bluish shadows on my left comes a four ‘armed’ triped at a fast amble. Discounting the one holding the gun, I have a six-to-one chance of hitting the ‘limb’ that’s actually the Clido’s head.

“Mradin?”

“Four.”

We survived. He’s got angels on his side. Fourth limb from the left it is.

Wrenching at the maintenance cutter, I put my weight behind the knee I slam into the obstructing panel. There’s an ominous popping sound and my knee gives out. The pain makes me scream, the shock makes me twist the control bar, and my fall means a glittering beam passes through empty air where I used to be. The bright ray I accidentally unleash incinerates limbs three through five on Clido number one. It stops moving.

In the brilliant light of the ray, I see the other Clido holding a limb in front of its optics. Which means the head is the limb diametrically opposed, as their nervous system interface requires a straight-line link. All I have to do now is persuade Clido number two to stick its head into the ray because the cutter is still wedged under the panel that busted my knee.

I roll off the interceptor and drop into thigh-deep foliage. My dodgy knee hits something harder than dirt. Crying, I move out using an inelegant elbows-and-single-leg squirm.

There’s a ‘clang’ to my left.

“Hey! Ugly!”

Timely distraction, Mradin.

As wrestling the Clido into the ray is a non-starter, I grab a leg strut and scramble up the three-metre-tall exoskeleton. Fixated on blasting Mradin, it doesn’t react fast enough. I stab its organic bit full of holes using the long screwdriver I found wedged under Mradin’s seat. Clido number two expires, leaving me spattered in frothing ichor and hanging from the uppermost limb of a stalled exoskeleton.

“Did you get it?”

“Yes! Now, remind me: which bit of their exos is the access widget for their vehicles?”

“Looks like a jade cybercarrot on the underside of one of the upper limbs.”

“Whatnow?”

“A ridged, graduated cone made of green crystal. About two decimetres long.”

Sure enough, there’s one – on a limb just out of reach. I’m going to have to swing across and grab it as I fall.

“Wait a while, then make hot drinks. I’ll be over soonish.”

“Why wait?”

“I’m expecting to pass out for a bit when I hit the ground.”

“S’fair. So, after waking and drinks, we find and take their – hopefully the newest – Clido stealthbus home?”

“Too right.”

Sixteen Hundred

Author : Janet Shell Anderson

I saw the full moon last night, and it reminded me.

Jonathan has been gone a week.

Sometimes I hole up in Rock Creek Park; I know places in the woods, in the sweetbriar and holly and tulip trees where no one ever comes, hear mockingbirds in the twilight, owls in the dark. That’s all right. The water of the creek running over the stones is like a voice talking about the old days, when it was safe.

Sometimes I hide in big houses on Connecticut Avenue I know are empty. I haven’t seen Jonathan for a week or David either, and I told them not to do it, but of course they did.

They went down to Sixteen Hundred.

There’re all kinds of jumpers now over the wrought-iron fences near that place on 16th Street, all kinds of people in the shadows in the rose garden and the huge, cloud-shaped boxwoods. My Dad disappeared there, across from Lafayette Park. Sixteen Hundred. Sometimes it’s called the WH.

I’ll never go there.

The old, abandoned National Zoo’s a safe place, and the old P Street Beach, at night, the entrance of Rock Creek into the Potomac, all safe. I hunt down there. But Sixteen Hundred’s not safe. Not for most people anyway.

We used to live in Chevy Chase with Daddy, Kiki, and Ivan, who wasn’t our brother, in a big house that wasn’t really ours, but the owner disappeared and Daddy took it. We had all kinds of things, crystal, porcelain, silverware we ate with, even for rice and beans. I slept in a tester bed with real silk sheets.
I don’t know what my Dad did wrong, but one thing was, he knew where all the entrances into Sixteen Hundred via the tunnels for the AC and heat were located because he was a mechanical engineer and helped design the new bomb shelter. So all of a sudden Dad was missing, Kiki was dead, and David and Jonathan and I, as soon as we got home from our private schools and figured it out, we ran.

I don’t know where Ivan is.

Jonathan says Ivan’s in a wall where 16th Street takes a big dive down toward the Potomac, near Meridian Park, probably stashed in there with a couple of Senators and other Disappeared.

I have a nine-millimeter submachine pistol my Aunt Sylvia gave me, so no one can bother me. Getting ammunition’s hard. I know a certain store on M Street not too far from the river where I jiggle open a window, about two a.m., and take some. I think the owner must know and just lets it happen. A lot of people just let things happen.

I saw the full moon last night over Rock Creek, silver over the tree limbs and big boulders, and the voice of water running over the stones sounded like the time when everything was safe.

Killer Shine

Author : Beck Dacus

Before she went outside with her friends, the most she had ever seen of the Sun was the great gleam in the sky directly above the dome. Every twelve hours, the dome would shade itself from that light to make an artificial night. Then the screen would come off, and the unmoving star would shine in the sky again, giving life to the land under the dome.

Mama said the star was a statite reflecting sunlight on their dome so the plants could eat. She didn’t really understand, nor did she understand when Mama told her the moving gleams she saw were spaceships, headed to other planets. She didn’t much care; she just went back to playing with her friends.

As she grew older, she began to resent what she didn’t understand. Mama said she was only allowed to leave the domes every once in a while, and in certain directions that changed all the time. One day, she could only go out this door, and the next day it would be the door next to it. But Mama had also told her that you can’t make up the rules to a board game. There has to be structure, certain things that are always the same, always true. Mama was changing the rules. Mama was unfair.

She asked Mama what would happen if she stepped out the wrong door, and Mama just started babbling on about how the Sun on Mercury was too bright to survive. They were safe inside this crater, since it was at the north pole, and the Sun never rose above the crater wall, but once she left the crater, Mama said, she’d be cooked to a crisp.

What she could understand definitely wasn’t fair. She could go out this door sometimes, but not others? The Sun was good and warm in some places, but not others? It was stupid. She knew it, and her friends agreed with her. So one day, they went out a door they weren’t supposed to. They saw people coming back in through it, all dressed up in vac suits, and they weren’t cooked. So why not go through? Already dressed in their tailored vac suits, they snuck out the door, stood in the “waiting room” while the air did its thing, and then went outside.

It was the same as ever out here, no different than any other time she’d been outside. So she hopped and leaped with her friends, throwing rocks over bigger and bigger craters, making their own craters and naming them. Soon, though, the horizon started to glow. Mama said that you could see the Sun before it came up because dust flew above Mercury. That if she saw it, she should run home. But instead, her friends went to look at it. They stood on a hill for a few minutes, watching the dust get brighter. She started to feel the fear, thinking that the glow was like an intangible monster. She was scared, but she didn’t go back. She watched until her friends were touched by the sunlight, and died in a bright gleam of flesh. Then she ran.

But by then it was too late. The door was nearly a kilometer away, and it had taken her twenty minutes to walk out here. She was never going to make it back in time. Just as the Sun rose, she turned back to look at the monster coming to eat her. In her last instant, she was blinded, her world going dark even before she was destroyed by the brilliant, shining rays.