Metallic

Author : Philip Berry

Every child remembers their first visit to the field. They follow the teacher over the low rise that was a burial mound for the first settlers, and down a glass ramp into the excavated field where ranks of men and women stand staring forward. Each is subtly different in proportion, though their expressions are the same – neutral, heavy, lacking character. That is the tradition – commonality; just one of many; a speck in history.

Some of the statues shine, the metal in the surface having been polished by the families that created them. Some are tarnished, slowly oxidizing. The elements appear as swathes or geographic patterns.

They were made by the second generation of settlers, and by those who have come since. When a settler nears the end of their life, they arrange for an effigy to be made. It must hold a tool or a weapon. After death, it is placed in the great field. Thus we thank nature for the ore which we smelt to create objects that are collected throughout the galaxy. Even the air can be filtered here, its metallic vapours condensed to liquid forms that fill runnels and trickle, gleaming, into the artisanal huts.

When I was sixty, and the joints in my fingers began to stiffen, I was told by a wise woman in the commune that I should begin to think about my effigy. What clothes would I choose for it; what object would it hold? I thought back to the thousands of examples I had seen as a child, and decided that my statue would present a simple pencil, as I am a silversmith and design jewellery.

Last week I looked in a mirror and saw how heavy my eyelids hung, and how the bands of grey across my teeth had thickened. I went back to the wise woman, to ask if I should begin to create the effigy.

She laughed, then asked, did I remember seeing the ‘broken farmer’ in the field. I did. All the children did. He lay on his back, feet pointing to the sky. His chest been cracked open by the fall. I remembered being surprised at how much attention has been paid by the sculptor to the internal structures of the thorax. The chambers of the heart had been modelled perfectly; the great blood vessels had been cast to anatomical precision. In contrast, his face had fallen away over time. Not even the metallic ions in its structure could save it from time’s insistent arrow.

The wise woman approached me. Her skin was bronzed and her mouth barely moved. She tore the top two buttons from my tunic. The fumes from the forge had coated my shoulders and upper chest. The hairs on my chest glistened. She ran a cool finger across the patterned surface, and watched carefully as I breathed.
“Your lungs are stiff. You have a three months to decide.”
“Decide what?”
“Your place, in the field.”
“My effigy?”
She laughed again. “Come, we are not children. You have decided what you will hold – a pencil, very modest. Now you must decide, where will you stand? Where in the field?”

I saw the truth of our tradition.

I saw how the metal had entered my tissues, crept along my tendons, lined my viscera, sheathed my nerves, and immobilized my features. I saw myself, one of many, staring forward, eyes fixed, unaware of the children who passed me on the glass ramp.

Turn It Up

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Walter was led through the facility flanked by four men in combat armor carrying guns. He’d walked these corridors for nearly a decade, but this was all very new to him.

At his lab, the soldiers stopped, ushered him inside and turned their backs as the doors slid shut between them.

“Doctor Koen,” the voice sounded foreign, Soviet maybe? “We need your assistance in handling this little mess that you’ve made.”

The voice belonged to a suit, so black as to be difficult to look at directly, in stark contrast to the almost albino complexion of the man himself.

“Your assistant…”

Walter cut him off. “My wife.”

The suit paused, steepled spider-like fingers together and pursed his lips before continuing.

“Your wife, has become infected with the substance from the crash site. She’s been contained in the hangar bay, but we are unable to subdue her without risking damage to the facility.”

Walter’s attention was drawn to the displays scattered about the room, each now showing security footage from the hangar. He moved closer, searching the monitors for some sign of June, his wife. In one corner behind one of the columns supporting the mezzanine there was a barely perceptible glow of green.

If that was June, she must be all but exhausted.

“We have an injectable compound that will bind with the contagion and temporarily render the subject inert. She trusts you, you need to get close enough to administer the drug and then we’ll move her to safety.”

Walter knew what ‘safety’ meant. They’d been studying subjects infected since the facility had been re-tasked and taken off-book, and although the ‘crash’ was still officially an Air Force test of an advanced engine concept, the DNA of the contagion was clearly not of this world. New patients arrived conveniently each time an existing patient expired, and they remained isolated and sedated while they performed surgeries, took and tested samples, all via tele-metrics.

June must have broken protocol and made physical contact.

The suit poked one stiff finger into Walter’s collarbone, using the pressure to force him to turn slowly until they were face to face.

“If we lose containment, we are going to have to burn this facility, and everything,” he punctuated a pause with a sharp jab, “and everyone with it to the ground.”

He pushed a hypo-injector flat against Walter’s chest, and held it there until he took it. The payload a featureless cylinder decorated simply with a yellow ‘X’.

Walter felt an ache in the pit of his stomach.

“She’ll be sensitive to light, if I turn up the hangar lighting to full, she’ll be blind. I’ll wear goggles and talk to her, she won’t see what I’m going to do.”

The suit regarded him cooly for a moment, and then waved him off absently.

“Whatever it takes. We’ll monitor from here, and the team will be ready outside the doors.”

The soldiers flanked Walter silently back through the facility to the crew doors into the hangar. There they stopped and assumed defensive positions alongside the cluster of armoured troops already gathered outside.

Walter slowly eased open a door, looked inside, then slipped through and let it close behind him.

He walked along the back wall, under the mezzanine and towards the green glow he’d seen on the monitors. Sliding welding goggles down over his eyes, he palmed his control pad and turned the lights up as far as they would go. The hangar was bathed in blinding artificial sunlight, and as he watched, the green glow he’d lost in the darkness of the welding glass appeared again, growing steadily in intensity.

In the control room, the displays blinked out one by one, the brightness overdriving them beyond a safe gamma, leaving the suit blind.

“June?” Walter called, and the green glow coalesced into a figure moving towards him slowly.

“June, we don’t have much time.” Walter stepped forward, and June stopped, then stepped back.

Reaching out his hand, Walter slowly closed the distance between them, and gently took one of hers.

He felt the slow burn of the contagion crawl up his arm and into his chest. He peeled off the goggles with a free hand as his vision changed from blown out whiteness, to night-vision clarity. The fire in his body grew, and the details of June’s face clarified before him. She smiled, and he felt himself smiling back.

As they charged under the artificial sunlight, they knew they had all the time in the world.

Which Came First?

Author : Suzanne Borchers

“Ivan, what the hell is that!” Roger pointed at the creature roosting on the rafter.

“It’s a chicken, of course.” Ivan reached up and smoothed one of its orange feathers.

“We’ve been doing this dig for how many months on this barren forsaken planet? I’ve never seen a sign of life and now you tell me this…thing… is a chicken?”

“Weird, huh?” Ivan shrugged.

“You certainly didn’t bring it from Earth. We don’t have any birds except in pictures.” Roger reached up toward Ivan’s chicken. “Ow!” He jumped back sucking the blood that oozed from the chicken’s peck. “How did this get here?”

“Funny thing about that,” Ivan said.

“I’m not laughing.” Roger scowled.

“I was digging in Quadrant 17 West–”

“Obviously. All five of us are collecting.”

“and I uncovered an egg. The red-orange swirls on the shell gave off rays of warmth that surprised me.”

“You didn’t report it.” Roger stared at Ivan’s chicken.

Ivan’s chicken thrust its head toward Roger.

Roger flinched. “Hey, that chicken has the blackest eyes. Did Earth’s chickens have black eyes?” Roger continued to study it.

“I don’t know,” Ivan said. “I didn’t want to share the egg. When I held it in my hands, I felt peace and well-being surge through me.” Ivan hesitated. “I knew it was wrong. I couldn’t help myself.”

“Well, when did it hatch, if that’s the term for it?”

“Today, I felt it crack along the swirls. Then a chicken emerged. I watched it grow larger and larger until…well, there it is.” Ivan sighed. “I can’t hide it any longer.”

“Right,” Roger said. “Report it and maybe we can eat something better than freeze-dried crap tonight.”

“No!” Ivan pushed Roger back from the chicken. “We can’t eat it!”

“Maybe you can’t.”

“It’s not an Earth chicken, Roger. Don’t be stupid.”

“We’ll report it and then Dr. Lopez can decide what we do with it.” Roger sucked at his finger. “It sure got its taste of me.” Roger glanced up at the chicken. “I wonder how it tastes.” He stared at the bird’s eyes. “I wonder what it eats.”

“I never saw its eyes turn red before,” Ivan whispered. “Do you think–”

“Just leave, report, and cover your ass,” Roger said while he watched Ivan’s chicken.

“I’ll be back soon,” Ivan said. “Don’t hurt it.”

“I think it just got bigger,” Roger said. “Hurry.”

Ivan ran out the door.

An hour later, Ivan brought Dr. Lopez into the room. “Roger?”

The room was empty except for an egg with red-orange swirls gently rocking on the floor.

Cold Night in Edinburgh

Author : Iain Macleod

“Spare change please, pal?”
The couple walked on, oblivious to him. This used to happen in the old days too but for different reasons. Harry had been on the street for almost forty years, ever since the oil price crashed in the mid 2010s. He lost his job, his wife and his house in rapid succession. The streets were the lowest he could sink and when he hit bottom he could never quite get out of it.

“Any spare change, missus?”
The older woman walked by without acknowledging him. The slight glow in her eye told him everything he needed to know. She was chipped. Probably the full suite as well, audio, visual, guidance, the whole lot. Because why look at unsightly homeless people when the chip on your optic nerve could edit that information out and send a more palatable option to the brain to perceive. Harry wondered if he’d been replaced in her vision by a nice potted plant or maybe just edited out of the image completely.

“Any help appreciated!” he said to a man wearing a thick black coat and scarf. The man swerved around him unconsciously. Optic chip and guidance talking to each other to make sure that you didn’t accidentally walk into something that you couldn’t see. Harry new if he grabbed one of them the system would automatically kick in danger overrides and show his presence but that came with a host of problems, like the pissed off person who was unlikely to help or the cops that were automatically informed.

Harry shuddered against the cold wind and drew his ragged sleeping bag around him. Winter got pretty cold in Scotland, without donations he wouldn’t be able to get a bed in a hostel and would suffer like hell. It was already getting dark.

“Anything, even a few pence will help, mate” he said quietly as a group of teenagers moved around him.

He’d heard that some of the street folk had been dead for days before they stopped being filtered out of peoples vision. Apparently a corpse is worth seeing. Harry thought it would take a while for him, under his sleeping bag he could rot for days, maybe even a week before people noticed.

At this rate the homeless population would be gone in a few years. Nobody would notice.

“Spare change please, pal?”
Nothing. He sniffed and wrapped himself up as best he could. He was in for a long night.

Privacy, Please

Author : Jonathan DeCoteau

“Stupid quotes are only tweets in disguise.”
–unknown (but most likely someone who’s been unfriended)

Riley saw the invasive little bug flapping its electronic wings all about him as he stood at the urinal. Riley grabbed the tiny little machine in his left hand and crushed it. He took out his keys and scratched, scraped and shattered every camera lens he saw. Before he finished, the police drones were on him.

Riley was no stranger to police cameras. Ever since the advent of the InterFace, privacy was, by constitutional amendment, abolished. Cameras and microchips were everywhere. The technological advantages were myriad, yet, to Riley, technology meant nothing if a man couldn’t take one private pee.

Unfortunately for Riley, the police drones disagreed.

“Cease. Place your hands where we can see them,” the drones, tiny planes the size of eagles, said, circling.

Riley paused a moment to gather his thoughts. How could he explain himself? The simple fact of the matter was that it all started innocently enough—ubiquitous social media, timelines on Facebook, endless tweets—before the country knew it, everything was public.

“A man needs to take a tinkle every now and again,” Riley said, simply. “Privately.”

“You have no right to privacy,” one police drone told him. “You violate the right of the masses to record history as it’s happening.”

“My bathroom break is a piece of history?”

“Everything is history.”

“Officers?”

“Yes, citizen?”

“Piss off!”

The drones immediately descended upon Riley.

“You’re going to kill me for insisting on a little privacy?”

“Such is the will of the media.”

Arms came out of the bodies, protrusions that doubled as metallic clubs, beating Riley into a senseless embryonic heap.

“I’ll give you whatever likes I have. Just let me finish.”

“Finish?”

“My bathroom break,” Riley said. “Just let me pee in peace.”

The drones looked into Riley’s opaque brown eyes. “Agreed,” they said, flying to the other side of the door. “No cameras are allowed—for two minutes. Instead, we’ll record what we hear from the outside the door as Riley S. Thomas relieves himself so that the historical record will be complete.”

As acute as they were, the drones didn’t pick up on Riley’s movements as effectively as they should have. Over Riley’s flushing, they should have heard him maneuvering back the toilet to reveal a passage that led to a long-rumored, never substantiated underground railroad to the great unbugged country up north. It so happened that this supposedly nonexistent resistance also had underground passages not far off from this particular bathroom. All Riley has needed was a way to get the cameras off of him. And now, due to a bathroom break gone awry, he had found his way to all the privacy a man could desire. Riley placed the toilet back to where it was, dropped down into the connecting tunnel he had dug, and disappeared.

Wherever Riley went, and whatever happened to him—that’s private.

War Games

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m impressed: the manufacturer’s claim was true. C-NhD – Compressed Nhildentium – really does make a ship unbreakable.

“Sir, the worst casualty is Engineer Ruson: both legs broken. Apart from that: cuts and bruises.”

I treat Dral to my best expression of disbelief: “How?”

“It spun us, sir. Everyone was pinned to a solid surface. By sheer luck, the majority were backs to the impact.”

I’ll be drinking a half bottle of brandy with our guardian angel as soon as we get out of this.

“What’s our manoeuvring capability?”

“None, sir. We’re embedded in a cliff face.”

“Can we blast our way free?”

“It’s a two-kilometre drop, sir.”

“Use launch boosters?”

“Tubes are buried in the cliff, sir.”

I perform a mental orientation from that info.

“So, presuming we’ve lost both turrets, surviving weapons will only fire along the cliff face?”

“You presume correctly, sir.”

“Looks like we’re going to have a chance to enjoy the view, Dral.”

He stares out the viewport.

“A pity it’s too narrow to climb through, sir.”

“I like the way you skipped the gargantuan task of breaking supraglass.”

Ensign Clemming interrupts: “It’s coming back!”

Barkdanta is a vast planet. The Barkdantim are giants by our standards; their planet is sized to keep them humble. The vistas here are beyond spectacular. Cloud-decked mountains soaring kilometres into the skies, trees that make skyscrapers look feeble.

And ‘Battlegods’. We thought the Barkdantim were threatening us with mythical vengeance because they couldn’t face us. In fact, they were desperately warning us because their Battlegods cause havoc when roused to defend the planet.

I cannot describe the terror of seeing a mountain fall apart to reveal a being that can single-handedly snatch Bastion-class assault ships from the sky and smash them like Grecian guests break dining plates.

We’re part of a defeat that’ll go down in history. I had, briefly, thought we’d survive to read about it. As an immense hand grabs the hull and wiggles the ‘Vengeant’ free, I mentally raise a glass in farewell to our guardian angel. Thanks for trying.

The sensations of movement cease with a ‘thud’ that’s followed by a trio of deafening taps on the upper hull.

Dral peers out and then looks back at me, his face a mask of disbelief: “It’s pointing to the grounded side and making walking movements with its fingers!”

Well, I’ll be: “Abandon ship via any low-side egress!”

The bale-out scramble is a mix of adrenalin rush, mystification and relief. As we collapse, gasping, the Vengeant is lifted away from the plateau we’re now stranded on. The biggest being I have ever seen turns and swings the grasping arm under its opposite armpit, curling itself down into a crouch as it does so. Ye gods – I know that stance!

The Battlegod unwinds and launches the Vengeant toward a distant valley. I hear my crew hold their breaths.

Just as the spinning spaceship clips the far treetops, a huge being leaps from the left and catches it with an outstretched hand. Both disappear from view, a cloud of dust and debris rises, then the Vengeant is, unmistakably, triumphantly brandished aloft. Our attacker claps its hands and points toward the horizon to our right. Another Battlegod jogs into view, beckoning hand raised.

Dral turns to me: “I may need counselling after this.”

I grin at him: “I want our battlegod to step to the left. If he fumbles a catch, we’ll be the first fatalities of a frisbee game this century.”

“Don’t you mean ‘ever’?”

“Who knows how many landed here before us? These monsters have had practice.”