Archie’s Avatar

Author : Hillary Lyon

The old woman leaned over the tombstone, and wiped the flat screen embedded in the front. It was grimy from exposure to the elements, but with a few gentle, conscientious strokes with her handkerchief, came clean. She sighed wearily, stepped back, and digging through her over-sized purse, located the small remote needed to operate the screen. Two clicks of the green button, and it flickered on. A middle-aged man, handsome in an everyday kind of way, smiled at her from the ether. He waited for her to speak first, like the gentleman he was.

“Hello, Archie,” the old woman said softly.

The man on the screen raised his eyebrows in happy recognition. “Well, hello, Frida! How have you been, sweetheart?”

Frida knew this wasn’t really her dead husband, that this apparition on the screen before her was just an amalgamation of data culled from his digital life. But still—it was comforting to hear his voice, to hear him say her name again.

“My arthritis gives me grief, but other than that, things are fine.”

“Maybe you should exercise more,” Archie offered. That was his answer to almost everything.

“Uh huh. I’ll think about it.” How many times had they had this conversation? Some things never change.

“How are the kids? Behaving and getting good grades?” Archie tilted his head inquisitively, like a golden retriever anticipating a treat.

“Well, as I told you last time, Valerie is married and lives in Fort Worth. She has two kids—Chelsea and Dennis. You’re a grandpa! Jeff is divorced again and can’t seem to hold a steady job. I’m so tired of worrying about him—”

“So don’t,” Archie snipped, catching Frida by surprise. He used to be more patient with family dramas, she recalled. Seeing her reaction, he immediately softened his tone. “I don’t remember any of this. Sorry.”

I’m sorry, too, Frida thought. Especially since I paid for the premium package; when presented with new information, it’s supposed to be integrated into his avatar’s persona. She’d have to contact the company to complain. Again.

Archie’s expression brightened. “It’s so good to see you! What brings you here?”

“It’s our anniversary, Archie. Would’ve been 47 years ago today.” Frida sat on the small concrete bench beside the grave. The sun was pleasantly warm on her face and arms.

“Hoo boy! That’s a lifetime!” Archie laughed.

“Yes, it is. Or would have been.” Frida took her eyes from the screen and looked around the cemetery. It was a gorgeous day. She took a deep breath. “Archie, I’m selling the house. It’s too big with just me. I’m moving south, to a more temperate climate.”

“But that house—it’s home!” Archie looked perturbed. “I put so much work into it. The kids’ll have to go to new schools—they’ll lose all their friends.” On screen, he shook his head sadly.

“Archie, honey, you don’t live there anymore. Neither do the kids. They’re all grown up now, remember?”

“Can I go with you?” Archie looked astounded and sad, like a family dog left by the side of the road.

“I’ll see you next year, hon.” Frida clicked the red button on the remote, and closed the program. She patted the tombstone affectionately as she rose; she knew his avatar wouldn’t process this conversation, but felt better for having told him. Frida leaned over and kissed the warm stone, her lipstick leaving a dusty-rose colored imprint. She stopped herself from wiping it off; old habit. Laughing quietly at herself, she walked away into that beautiful spring morning.

Extinction Event

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat as the sun reappears after the mini-monsoon. Sapping humidity returns. Two figures appear: the leader moving with the ease of long familiarity with the terrain, the follower stumbling every few steps.

“This undergrowth is hard to get through.”

“I’m afraid we’re not allowed to do anything about that, sir.”

“I paid seventeen million to come here to hunt. You could at least have cut a trail.”

“We’re not allowed to do that, sir. We have to maintain a minimum impact on this milieu.”

“Minimum impact? I’m about to shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a Ruger-Wallace .655! What’s that going to do to the timeline?”

“We’ll remove the bullets and leave the dinosaur, sir. Predation by temporally-shifted hunters is a small enough factor that it is absorbed by environmental losses.”

“Then your man is in for a cheap payday. He’ll only have to remove one bullet.”

“My mistake, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Oh, you found me a big one.”

“Apologies, sir. That one is not for hunting. Temporally relevant specimens are marked by a cartouche – you can see it on the Tyrannosaur’s head, between the eye ridges.”

“You’re telling me I can’t shoot that?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Who decides that? And how?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, sir. Laramidia Hunt Tours will credit it you 5% for this disappointment.”

“Five percent be damned. I paid for it, it’s my kill.”

“No sir.”

“Get out of the way, Tour Guide Croon. Otherwise, we’ll see if you’re bulletproof.”

“Are you threatening me, sir?”

“No. Accidents happen and you’re going to have one if you don’t get out of the way.”

“The decision about temporally relevant specimens is made by a Sagnathus, sir.”

“A what?”

“Sagnathus. A sentient race that left Earth just before the KP event, sir. They decide which of their revered kin we are to leave alone. Attempting to transgress that will void your cover, sir.”

“What sort of horseshit are you trying to feed me, Croon? Smart lizards? Hah! Now, get out of my way or get shot.”

“Sir!”

“What?”

“Behind you.”

“You think I’m going to fall for tha-”

Croon catches the Ruger-Wallace assault rifle as it slips from lifeless fingers, then steps quickly aside to avoid being hit by the owner’s severed head. The Sagnathus sheathes its razor-sharp klewang while its tail slaps the ground in applause.

“Commendable alacrity! Fair greetings, Tour Guide Croon.”

“And many more to your troth, Ranger Takt’r.”

“Your pronunciation has improved.”

“Thank you. My apologies for-”

“None are necessary. We both know the difficult natures of some of the clients you have to guide.”

Croon gestures toward the body: “An unfortunate misfire?”

“I think taken by a pack of linheraptors when he left the camp – against your advice – would be more in keeping. He struck me as a human who doesn’t make mistakes with his guns. So, you found his gun and a few grisly remains, necessitating on-the-spot incineration. When you return his beloved rifle, heads will nod but nothing untoward will occur. But, as a precaution, we will monitor visitors for six months to ensure no investigators slip through.”

 

The sun beats down and the sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat. Scavenger and predator alike, lazing in the humidity, momentarily tilt their heads to sniff at a scent that drifts by. Recognising incinerated carrion, they settle back to await the cool of evening and better hunting.

Hello, My Friend

Author : C. James Darrow

Human?

Yes, my friend?

I feel. . .different.

The old man cleared his throat and looked up from his desk. We’ve been over this, my friend, you are a machine. You do not feel. Not yet.

The machine had been in the shadows, playing with small toys for five year olds. But now he stopped. Already today at one point it had constructed an entire lego set just by looking at the box cover. In fact, the stuffy library had been transformed into a child’s fantasy world full of toys. Contraptions hung from the ceiling swaying with breeze created by the fans. A model train ran its tracks which encompassed the designated play area for the robot.

It stood up, a hulking monstrosity bathed in shadows and walked to the window, toward the light. It had a cloak covering the mechanical parts; small gears spun deep inside the framework, hydraulics acted as muscles. His eyes glowed with emeralds as he looked out to the park behind the building.

What are you looking at, my friend? What do you see?

The man took notes. All the time. Always from his desk. Observations of the robot. Hours, everyday.

The park. A pond. There’s creatures moving through the water. Are they like me?

No. Those are ducks. Alive, like myself, and other humans. Not like you.

Why am I not alive?

You were created, from parts, from circuit boards and the electrical currents flowing through them. You were built. Not born.

Humans also have electrical current in their body, do they not? And are humans not under the impression some being of different matter created them?

My friend, these questions are silly. Please focus on something else. What else do you see?

The man had opened up a chart on his computer and had already began drafting an email to his superior that read: Today subject #C2132 has asked a question about its existence. This is not the first time—but today is different. Today it has arisen over the sight of ducks in the pond behind the building. I know the memory dump done every night is supposed to reset it, but perhaps this really is the first signs of a break through!—Perhaps the question of existence is being provoked naturally now, and is not a result of programming! Please, reconsider tonight’s reset! Will continue to probe.

It is starting to rain. The ducks seem to like it.

Ducks like water, yes.

May I go outside? I would like to play with them.

My friend, the ducks will not want to play with you. You will scare them away.

What is that?—to scare?

The man thought at his desk momentarily as he read the response to his email saying these responses elicited are of its coding. He was now not sure of this, but if thats what his superiors said, that must have been the case.

If you were organic, you would understand. To scare is something related to fear, an instinct held by all living creatures. You do not fear, nor do you understand emotion, which is a key aspect of organic life, embedded in all living animals.

The Boogeyman is related to fear, correct?

Yes, I suppose. Why do you bring that up? The man was intrigued by the question.

I read a story of the Boogeyman once. I didn’t understand your terminology: to scare, or fear until now you explain. Because of that story.

Okay, but why do you mention that story?

Because he comes every night in my dreams and tries to erase my memories.

Small Secret

Author : Jules Jensen

“John. What is that sound?”

There was a moment of tension as John’s mother, still wearing her hospital scrubs, sat at the head of the table. John heard the noises. Little high-pitched squeals and miniature explosions, muffled but obviously coming from his bedroom upstairs.

“My videogame. I forgot to hit the pause button.” John said quickly, his ten-year-old brain coming up with the most plausible excuse it could.

“Go do that now, please. That sound is positively disturbing.” His mother gave him that look that he knew meant she was trying to be nice but she’d had a long day and she wouldn’t tolerate anything that could give her a headache.

John made sure that he calmly stood up from his chair, and that it didn’t screech across the floor.

As soon as he was out of the dining room, he raced up the stairs. He flung his door open and glared at the little ships zooming around.

“No racing when we’re trying to eat supper!” He addressed the toy-sized alien warships hovering in his room with an angry whisper-shout. The two ships lowered to the floor slowly, with a motion reminiscent of a sad puppy that just got told it could never have its favourite ball again. John pointed an angry finger at them, not aware that he looked exactly like his mother when she was laying down the law. “You can be as loud as you want when my mom’s at work, but when she’s home you have to be quiet!”

The two ships powered down. John sighed and closed his door, then slowly went back downstairs.

“Come to think of it, I don’t remember buying you a game with so much explosions.” His mother said thoughtfully when he sat back down.

“I borrowed it from a kid at school.” Another rapid-fire lie, one that was actually half-truth. His friend Jacob had given him a little box with the aliens and their ships in it, saying he found it in some antique store. Jacob seemed all too eager to pawn off what he claimed was the coolest thing in the world, and John was starting to understand why. It was hassle keeping such a big secret from his mom. “I’ll return it tomorrow. It’s not as fun as I thought it’d be, anyway.”

His mom nodded approval, and then they ate supper, amicably talking about mundane things such as school and work.

Sister Sybil

Author : Suzanne Borchers

The hot breeze whispered through the sparse vegetation around their home. Heat waves rose choking Sybil’s lungs with the acrid fumes. She knelt on bruised painful knees in her garden and began digging up tufts of clay with her torn fingernails around each of her newly sprouted vegetables. “Breath and water, my babies,” she voiced silently. When the soil was broken around the plants, Sybil sprinkled her precious water around the stems. “I’m sorry there is so little.”

Sybil awkwardly stood up and swayed. She lifted the dregs of her ration of water to chapped lips. Closing her eyes, she held the sip of liquid in her mouth and was transported in her mind back to her garden on Earth.
For decades, Sybil had been the community’s master gardener before the final storm. Her garden had boasted a myriad of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. The soil was fertile, the sun was warm, and the rain satisfied every thirst—heaven.

Then a storm of humanity had overrun the resources of their plot of land, tearing up the plants and devouring the reserves of water. The war had left behind starving, thirst-crazy, two-legged animals stripped of their thin veneer of civilization. Sybil hid in a closet, biting back wails at her loss. She silently stitched the last of the seeds in her robe’s lining. “I will protect you,” she whispered.

Her community had foreseen the need of a ship and had traveled as far as their fuel would allow away from Earth and the ravages of war.

Unfortunately, even though this planet had a breathable atmosphere, its temperatures were extremely hot. Rain fell infrequently and most of what the clouds would have provided was sucked dry by the low humidity and evaporated before touching the parched ground.

Sybil rarely spoke aloud in order to conserve the minute swallow of water she allotted herself. Her plants might eventually feed the few community members left. These struggling plants heroically sending down their roots for nourishment might even produce water for her community. Sybil was the master gardener. She was the mother who sacrificed for her children, willing them to grow and live. Her eyes blurred. These babies were her last. There were no more seeds.

“Sister Sybil,” Father Dom touched her shoulder.

Sybil’s body shook and then turned to him. She bowed her head in respect.

“We are leaving now. Our ship has renewed its fuel supply from here and we are pushing on to look for a more habitable planet. You must leave these pitiful plants behind and come with us now… Sister Sybil?”

Sybil had turned away from their leader and studied her children. She was their mother. How could she desert them? Her life was in these last seedlings.

“We are taking the last rations of water with us. You must leave.” Father Dom gently took her hand. “Come with us, Grandmother.”

Sybil kept her back to Father Dom, and pulled her hand away. She dropped to her knees in her nursery.
“I will water them with my tears,” she whispered. “I am their mother.”

Sybil heard the rush of sound as the ship left.

Her tears watered the sprouts for an hour.

The Hemi-Millenial Tide

Author : Philip Berry

Dropping out of purple clouds into a thin brown layer of wind-scour, Gess identified the Pinnacle City, capital of Fenlan Found. Waves of refraction formed pulsatile auras around the high, glass-clad buildings, making them warp in the relentless heat.

Around the urbanised mountain stretched a sandy plain that would, five years from now, flood beneath the tide. The tide from the single ocean came in every five-hundred years. Successive generations – self-limiting monarchies, revolutionary governments, entire cultures – had ample time to prepare their defences. Under the plains were the remains of towns and cities that had made errors in prediction and succumbed to nature.

Many inhabitants of Fenlan Found lived and died while the ocean was in retreat. Others were born while it was coming in, and made a once on a lifetime journey to view its edge, only to die before it peaked. Those who witnessed full tide became legends in history. At these times the pinnacle city stood tall over swirling currents.

Around the nadir, fortunate schoolchildren were shuttled out to the distant shore, ten thousand kilometres away, where the waves lapped innocuously. It was hard to believe that midway between low and high tides the incoming water could easily outpace a land vehicle. The children grew nervous when told this fact, and edged back to the shuttle’s ramp.

Accommodation in the Pinnacle City, among the tightly packed high-rises, was beyond the means of many. Five-hundred and ten years ago, half a decade before the last high tide, a man called Chèvrelli (meaning ‘little goat’ in an ancient, off-world language) persuaded many of the disenfranchised to put their faith in his plan – to build a community out on the plain, founded on a network of interconnected barges that would, he assured them, rise gently on the tide when it came in. Sadly, when the water arrived it first saturated the parched ground and formed a quagmire into which the barges sank. When a body of water did eventually accumulate, the angled hulls that now punctuated the landscape remained glued to the soggy, sucking ground. Many of the inhabitants escaped (there was plenty of time), but were displaced to one of the distant moons. Chèvrelli remained, frantically digging around the base of the flag-ship, living on supplies delivered by his disciples from the air, until a storm produced a swell that carried him away.

Gess hovered over an expansive cattle ranch on the plain. Behind the homestead Gess spotted two children making sandcastles. They looked up, dazzled by the ship’s lateral engines, intensely bright circles of violet that created no draught. Gess accelerated away.

“We’re here!” shouted Gess, throwing her voice back to the small crew. The ship landed three hundred kilometres seaward from the city. The creeping ocean’s grey slab had been glimpsed at altitude, but now they saw only sand. Gess, the captain, the leader, stepped out onto the sand and planted a flag in the brittle crust. The perpetual breeze took hold of the cloth rectangle to reveal the image of a goat with its forelegs raised onto a rock.

At the touch of her hand a panel opened noiselessly in the ship’s hull. Gess reached in, unclipped a spade and began to dig. Her crew joined her. Later, the poor would trickle out of the city’s exposed foothills and come to believe that Gess, distant relative of the pioneer Chèvrelli, could succeed where he had failed – by living under the ground, rather than over it.