The Price of Sin

Author: Anthony Rove

I am sorry, Samuel. You are thirteen and a man. Today, we go to The Grid.

Oh, nephew. Shed your tears in here with me. You are a man now. And, as a man, it is okay to be frightened. It is okay to cry. I cry sometimes too. Sometimes, I am so scared that I press my palms against my ears until I can’t hear anything except my own blood pumping away.

But we men must always cry in secret. Don’t ever let anyone else see you cry. As of today, it is up to you to protect your mother and your sister and everyone else. The women have enough to worry about, eh? They worry about the food, and the shelter, and the tribunal, and the disgusting heretics. That is a lot to worry about. They don’t need to worry about the ‘tons as well. We protect them from the ‘tons. And we do our best to protect them from the fear, too. So finish crying before we leave. Fear is an infection. Don’t contaminate them.

I know you’ve heard stories about the ‘tons. I know because, when I was a boy, other boys would drive me crazy with these tales. My friends would insist that some ‘tons are over fifty feet tall—as big as a pre-incident building! They would tell me that some ‘tons are so small that they could crawl into a man’s ear without him even realizing it. There is truth to these stories, nephew. But do not dwell on them. Instead, reflect on your catechism.

In the beginning, God made the world and God made man. And man lived in harmony with the world. As long as God played the role of the creator, and mankind played the role of the created, it was good. But Samuel, you know that mankind is too arrogant for such an arrangement to last. Mankind insisted on becoming the creator. And mankind created its monstrosities—the ‘tons.

The first ‘ton’s which mankind made were small, no bigger than a man’s fist. They were metal, but not particularly hearty. However, mankind had foolishly endowed them with the four essential qualities of life: movement, discernment, aggression, and reproduction.

The ‘tons were meant to be weapons—attack dogs. Once released, they could topple entire nations in a matter of weeks. By design, they were supposed to move only in certain places; to find only certain kinds of people; to kill only a certain number; to build new ‘tons only a finite number of times.

But the ‘tons slipped the leash. It took only one error. A single ‘ton refused to stop reproducing when it was supposed to. It kept assembling more ‘tons in its own image. Its children began building more in turn. Once they could repopulate unchecked, the ‘tons evolved just like any other living thing. Now they have no artificial limits. They kill indiscriminately and without limit. Today, there are no more nations to topple.

Just when the end seemed inevitable, God once again became flesh. In the Second Coming, Christ did not die to atone for our sins. No, we must atone for our own sins by living in this broken world. Instead, Christ built The Grid: that divine work of technology which keeps the ‘tons away.

In exchange, Christ commanded humanity to stop tinkering with its petty machines. Your brother, Levi, broke this covenant. Attempting to harness electricity in any fashion is unforgivable.

Today, you expel your brother from The Grid and watch the ‘tons devour his body. Today, you see the price of sin.

Avalon Avatar

Author: Kate Runnels

Ara studied the Avatar for a moment, liking what she saw. It wasn’t enough like her to raise suspicions if anyone she knew played the game, but she would be comfortable playing in this body she had tweaked from the stock body given by the game developers.

Especially when she hooked into the game in the fully immersive world with the new sensory impressions. Not death, obviously, but so many other aspects from taste to the feel of wind and water and other sensations.

A clone you control in a world vastly different from the megacities of Earth. An escape from the pollution, continual terror attacks, food shortages, water shortages, and rampant crime on the street in every megacity.

Ara and countless other gamers had been waiting for years for this MMO RPG; the launch of Avalon. This resonated with her coming from London and seeing Stonehenge through protective glass. And many other English historical sights. She could touch grass, feel stone, pet a horse. And then she caught a glimpse of her real body in the reflection of an opaqued window. This wasn’t her true body, this weak flabby body, but that of her Avatar.

At first, after the release date, it was easy to leave the world of Avalon, but she did leave it, to go to her crap job. But for many, it became an addition. Even Ara succumbed, losing weight. Not even leaving the game to eat or shower or change. The world of the megacity was so grey and blah. Ara soon lost her job.

But she couldn’t stop. Like any addict, she needed that great and greater bit to feel anything- needing more to experience that rush from her first high.

Erik, a first responder, shook his head at his partner. “Another one, huh?”

“Do you play Avalon,” asked Michelle.

“No. What about her?”

“The brain gives a response similar to dreaming. She just won’t wake up.”

Erik scowled. “So what?”

“The game has become her reality now. This-” Michelle pointed to the rundown cramped apartment – “is her nightmare. We’ll process her like the rest and see if we can revive her. It’s a shame she has to hide in a game.”

Erik smiled. “She your type?”

Michelle shrugged without answering.

Replicatering

Author: Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

“Look we rescued you, correct?”

“Yes, but-”

“You were floating in a derelict colony vessel. You were a corpsicle. A cryo refugee. We could have LEFT you there!”

“Yeah, I know. You revived me and the other two hundred surviving sleepers. I get it. I’m grateful! But-”

“THIS IS THE SIXTH TIME. And that’s just YOU! That doesn’t count the rest of your kind.”

“Hey, you have to understand. A food replicator is a miracle to us. We’re only human.”

“This is the first ship in the Union that will need to place restrictions. THE FIRST SHIP! It’s EMBARASSING!”

“We’re imaginative primitives new to your time. Like cavemen would have been to us. I’m sorry.”

“Look at this list. You wanted to eat each other?”

“Not literally. Just a taste of consequence-free human meat. And once we found out we could submit each other’s DNA, it just became a party game. Come on. Admit it. You’re curious.”

“NO, I AM NOT.”

“And from there, it was a small hop to tasting all the species onboard we’ve never seen before. Those Tulexians are delicious!”

“I’M a Tulexian, you monster.”

“Okay, I can see how cannibalism, no matter how victimless and consequence-free, might be…. frowned on.”

“Oh, can you?”

“Glad to see sarcasm is alive and well. But what else have we done that’s so bad?”

“The ship’s power went down to 15% this morning.”

“Ah, yes. That.”

“You wanted a….let’s see…I have it in my notes here…a ‘turducken but with every edible animal in the universe’.”

“Yes”

“The main viewscreen crashed in the bridge. The whole ship went down to emergency power.”

“So THAT’S what that was. I was pretty freaked out. My replicator got SUPER hot”

“It was trying to complete your meal! Do you KNOW how many edible animals are in the universe?”

“No?”

“Taking into account that there are 8.7 million species on your Earth alone and there are 237 planets in the Union…..”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Your replicator was literally trying to apply the animal-within-animal turducken principle to…double checking here…yes, 2,961,933,238 recorded animals. That’s nearly three billion layers of meat.”

“In the shape of a turkey”

“Yes. In the shape of a turkey.”

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t do that again.”

“You can’t. We’ve made it a protocol in the computer that you can no longer do that.”

“Okay. What about an eternal moebius pizza just coming slowly out of the replicator forever?”

“What? No.”

“Anatomically accurate cakes using medical records of fellow crew members?”

“Listen…”

“Bowls of rice with famous paintings on each grain?”

“OKAY THAT’S IT! You’re banned.”

“What?”

“We’ll bring you replicated nutrients and set up a kitchen in the quarters of you and your fellow wakened cryosleepers.”

“Let me have the replicator for ten more minutes. PLEASE? I want the replicator to fry me a copy of your delicious dorsal claws. Then we’ll be cool. We cool?”

“By Tursuk’s tears. No. No, we are not cool.”

“Oh, I just KNEW you wouldn’t be cool about this. I should have eaten a copy of your FACE while I had the chance!”

“By the Hammer of Sherindal! Such depravity. The restrictions stand.”

“Well NOW what are we supposed to do? It’s a long journey back to Earth.”

“We have many means of entertainment available. Although, I’m curious, how come you all haven’t been giving us the same kinds of problems with our holodeck?”

“You guys have holodecks? Can we try that out? That sounds cool.”

“Oh……by Tharlat’s hairy claws. Computer, initiate holodeck lockout procedures alpha prime. Union personnel only.”

“Oh come ON! You guys are the WORST!”

The Palace Gardens of Mhunghelvardh

Author: Sam Matey

Nnenna Inkar Uzoma, first human consul to the Empire of Mhunghelvardh, walked out of her spaceplane onto the dais and into a fantastical wonderland. The palace gardens of Mhunghelvardh spread out below her, kilometers of alien vegetation in every color. A few meters from her face, purple tentacle-vines were gently waving in the breeze, flicking out every few seconds to snatch one of the circling swarm of songbird-sized, fluorescent pink five-winged insect-like creatures. On the other side of the slabs of jet that formed a path through the garden, about twenty pulsating yellow organisms squatted low to the ground. They looked a little like brain coral, with their wrinkly network of fluid-filled crisscrossing crevices, and a little like toads, as they were covered in pustulous-looking warts filled with gray pus under a transparent lining. They appeared roughly circular from the top, with a diameter of about a meter. Four tiny, flexible tentacle-feet emerged from under their bodies, plunging deep into the reddish earth. Nnenna inhaled deeply: she detected a faintly floral and saccharine scent from the purple creature and an acrid, tar-like tang that she could almost taste from the bed of yellow ones.
“This is…incredible.” she managed, pausing to collect her thoughts while she heard her translator locket repeat her words in the guttural Shqir Pakh language. She looked at her Shqir Pakh guide, a senior Palace Guard named An!k’yrek. “May I touch them?”
“Hrel’uhkt/aa!k nhrukht.”
“Yes,” her translator locket said in perfect Globish. “But be careful. The purple one would eat your hand and the yellow ones would leave spermslime on your fingers.  Try this one.” An!k’yrek indicated a cantaloupe-sized gray bulb poised at the top of a long, thin red stalk.

Nnenna reached out and stroked the bulb, feeling its soft, velvety contours. To her shock, the bulb instantly turned itself inside out, revealing a shining turquoise interior, with a central dodecagonal structure that seemed to be woven from hundreds of tiny golden threads.
“What is it?” she murmured in awe. Her datalens could find no match for it in the Shqir’pakh’ik’la’druhn’no biome files, but humans still knew very little about the life-forms of this world. She’d only just set foot in Mhunghelvardh, and she was already on the verge of a new discovery!
“Hreg’oh!k.” “Listen.”
As Nnenna watched in wonder, the threads began to twitch and curl around each other, moving faster and faster until a humming began to emanate from the structure, an ethereal sound that was vaguely reminiscent of the tuning of a harp, the cry of a bird of prey, and the hiss of water on hot metal. It was utterly strange and harshly discordant, yet somehow the clashing sounds seemed to complement each other. It was the strangest and yet most beautiful sound Nnenna had ever heard. As she listened, a tear ran down her cheek.
“What is it?” she asked hoarsely.
“It is a Basin of Song,” An!k’yrek answered softly. “The rarest and most melodious of the Music-Globes family. Its singing season only comes twice in its 300-year lifespan. You are very fortunate to have been here to experience its melodies.”
Nnenna watched the Basin of Song curl back in on itself again and go silent.

Save

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We’d been down for a long while before Commander Bramson came up with the idea of linking to the orbiter, getting it to swing into low orbit and tractor beam us off this damn rock. I objected on the grounds that humans can’t extract oxygen from vacuum; the orbiter couldn’t enter atmosphere thick enough to breathe.

“Sure, the ship’s beat up, kid. But the crew section is solid.”

“How the hell can anyone verify that? Our diagnostics and scanners were mangled when the control module got flattened!”

“That’s not the attitude we need. You go ‘bout your duties and leave the serious stuff to us.”

As I leave, Kristin grabs my arm and drags me behind a cargo pod.

“Will you stop kicking off at him? He’s not going to listen, even if you’re right. Always has to be his idea. You know that.”

I know that. But, Bramson’s last ‘bright’ idea planted us in a cliff face that collapsed on us after the ship fell out of it. Which is why I don’t trust his latest piece of inspiration.

Everyone else works like maniacs, morale improved by Bramson’s conviction. Meanwhile, Kristen, Tommy, and I hide what supplies we can as rationing has been abandoned. The pair of them trust me, which, in some ways, scares me more than the situation we’re in.

The moment comes and they all pile in, then peer out at the three of us.

Bramson steps back out: “Come on, Kristen. I know he’s a pretty boy but don’t you let your needs set you on a path to ruin. Tommy! Lars ain’t right. You come here, right now.”

Tommy shakes his head vigorously. Kristen calls Bramson so many names so fast he actually steps back.

“I see you’ve been learning manners from him. Okay, you’ve made your choice. Live with it.”

He steps inside and shuts the hatch. We backpedal quickly as the tractor beam fills the air with pinpricks of light.

I watch it rise through the monocular and well, damn, it looks like Bramson was right. There are no trails of leaking atmosphere. I’m just wondering how to apologise to Kristen and Tommy’s when the crew section pops. It was airtight, but with its reinforcing removed to lighten the load, it wasn’t strong enough to contain the atmosphere.

We stand under a beautiful clear sky, watching the awful result.

As the shock releases us, the monocular beeps: it’s uplink acknowledging the orbiter’s loss-of-life check. The crash and fall out of the cliff hadn’t killed anyone, so as far as the orbiter was concerned, all was well – which caused our problem. But, with a sudden loss of life and confirmed survivors, the orbiter’s rescue beacon will have assistance here within a week.

Kristen turns to me: “Did you know about this?”

“I hadn’t thought it that far through.”

She nods: “Good. Keep that in mind because, in an absence of heroes, the debrief panel are going to be looking for culprits.”

Tommy raises his hand: “Bramson did it. Left us behind.”

We look at Tommy.

“Not strictly true, Tommy.” Kristen smiles at him.

Tommy looks at the sky, then back at us: “Lars disagreed. That’s only insubordination.”

“Tommy, it’s -”

“Irrelevant, Lars. Wasn’t mutiny, so nothing justifies him abandoning Kristen and me. It’s clear dereliction of duty. Throw in crashing the ship in the first place and Bramson will be found incompetent.”

Kristen claps her hands: “Lars saved us!”

“By accident.”

Tommy stares at me: “Accident, luck, whatever. You’re good by us.”

A Trick of the Light

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Baxter found the fortune teller at the very back of the carnival grounds, as far away from the entrance as one could get without leaving the sprawling complex. It was either an afterthought or the origin point, which exactly was unclear.

The ancient tent canvas was greasy grey, the surface the texture of stiff leather, pulled tight over the center pole. The guide ropes stiff as iron keeping the walls at right angles to the ground.

The sign, carefully lettered in a bold calligraphic script, read simply ‘Futures Told, Inquire Within’, and hung beside a black tear of an entranceway which beckoned through the mist.

Baxter stepped into the darkness and followed a soft glow left, partway around the inside of the tent, until he emerged into the interior proper.

A low ceiling of sorts was composed of hundreds of light bulbs suspended by lengths of string stretching up into the darkness. Some were familiar incandescents of various shapes and sizes, some long skinny chandelier styles, and some large clear bulbous affairs, all unlit, having no apparent wiring. Each was tied by their metal base such that their bottom faces were at the same level and spaced equally about a shoulder’s width away from the next nearest in a grid that filled the room.

In the middle was a simple table, and on either side, there was a single straight back chair.

“Come, sit.” The voice came from everywhere and nowhere, and Baxter jumped despite himself, so focused on the decor he’d forgotten there would be someone else here.

From the darkness on the opposite side of the tent, perhaps fifteen meters away, the bulbs started to glow above a figure emerging from another entranceway.

He moved slowly and deliberately across the room to stand behind one of the chairs, and as he did so, a meter wide circle of light followed him, the hanging bulbs brightest at the point directly above his head.

Baxter walked to the table, hesitated for a moment, then pulled out one chair and sat. The parlour trick impressed him. The table had appeared weathered and worn as he approached, but he could see the top now was, in fact, a vivid green dressed in immaculate felt. The man remained standing for a long moment before sitting down himself, the lights above him dimming slightly as he did so.

Baxter cleared his throat, and then started “I’d like you to tell me–”

“I will look into your future, and I will tell you what I see,” the man interrupted as though Baxter himself hadn’t spoken at all, “what you do with what you learn is not my concern.”

Baxter sat back and crossed his arms, the man, in contrast, leaned forward, placing well-manicured hands flat on the table, crisp shirt-cuffs pinned with shining gold links. The light cast strange shadows, hiding the features of the man’s face, and when Baxter looked down, he would have sworn for a moment the man’s trousers were frayed at the edges, his shoes nearly worn through, but then the light changed and reflected back off highly polished oxfords below sharply creased slacks.

“Your hands,” the man said, turning his own palms up. Baxter paused, then leaned forward to place his hands on top of the man’s, and…

Jacob relaxed and sighed. The customer before him sat frozen in place, eyes fixed and pupils fully dilated. He took a deep breath, focused intently on the darkness inside the man’s barely visible irises, exhaled and then…

They were in a kitchen, seated at the table where Baxter was reading a letter in his shirtsleeves, a mug of coffee forgotten, a piece of toast in mid-flight between plate and mouth. Jacob stood and quickly scanned the letter over his shoulder, a ‘Dear John’ from a Vanessa expressing her frustration with his persistent indiscretions, informing him that she’d taken the kids, and he would hear from her lawyer.

Jacob filed the information away and looked cautiously out the kitchen window. They were here, too. Shadows of men staring back at him, unseeing at a distance, but here. Clearly, this wasn’t a viable exit either.

As he turned back to the kitchen table, he reached up and carefully unscrewed the light bulb from the hanging fixture, and then…

“You are going to lose Vanessa if you choose to womanize.” The man was sitting back now, and Baxter blinked twice before snatching his hands back from where they’d been suspended in the air over the empty table.

“Vanessa?” He said, his voice rising, uncertain. “From accounting?” Uncertainty turning to disbelief.

“There will be children, and happiness, a home, but you’ll throw it all away on frivolous affairs.”

The man stood, the lights overhead glowing with his ascent, and they followed as he walked back towards the edge of the tent, where he paused only for a moment to reach above and tie the new bulb to a dangling bit of string.

“See yourself out.”

And with that he was gone, leaving Baxter almost completely in the dark.