Virus

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The flickering neon promise was the same as always, ‘Rooms by the Hour’ and underneath ‘Vacancy’. I knew what I would find inside. The locks on the double front doors were burned away completely leaving a metre wide hole in the surrounding glass, soft bubbled edges that were very recently molten.

I pushed one door open with the barrel of my pistol and stepped into the lobby. The small room reeked of antiseptic cleansers layered with floral air conditioners. Neither masked the smell of roasted hair and flesh.

Behind the front desk a thin figure in a grey suit lay in an androgynous heap, head burned completely off. It wouldn’t matter how fast the meat wagons got here, they could grow back an arm or a leg, scrape the latent personality and experience from the brain and reprint a clone if the kill turned out to be unrighteous, but without a head this life was lost for good. Working the front desk at a whore house, it was unlikely whoever it was could afford backup.

Up the stairs to the second floor, I passed door after door where the scene played out the same; wood kicked off hinges, hookers and clients alike in various states of undress lay in torched heaps, some in their beds, some near the doorway no doubt investigating the noise, some half way to the bathroom or bedroom window, their desperate attempt to escape cut short by the merciless cone of death fired at apparent close range.

He was in the last room, standing staring at her body where it lay motionless on the bed. He turned slightly as I entered, the weapon hanging limply at his side. The virus had turned more than half of his skin black, polished and shiny, the far side of his face infected top to bottom giving him the eerie appearance of a man half in shadow, even in this light.

She was dead. Skin turned completely black, joints shattered where her death throes had broken the crystalline flesh in the last few moments of life.

“They must have made her a carrier, kept her isolated until she infected me.” He waved absently at her. “I was her only client in the last three weeks, she was saving herself for me.” I remembered the body at the front desk, his opening salvo of questions. “They must have let it off its leash once they were done with her.” One side of his face creased into a smile, the dark side frozen, the resulting expression appropriately grotesque. “No loose ends.” He fished in his pocket and produced my badge. “You’ll be needing this”, he said as he tossed it to me. I caught it left handed without looking, brailled its surface reflexively and slipped it in my hip pocket. “We’re not done here.”

I knew what he’d started I would have to finish. We stared at each other, like figures on either side of a funhouse mirror, he regarding what he’d looked like before the infection effectively ended his life, I was looking back at what I had become in the days while I was being reconstituted. The carnage between then and now making us two very different people.

“Not different,” he read my mind, “we’re the same.” He weighed the blaster carefully, studying the purpose built simplicity of the weapon as though seeing it for the first time. “And if they came for us once, they’ll be coming again.”

I knew he was right. Knew I was right. He met my gaze and held it. I wondered if the sadness in his eyes was echoed in mine.

“Thank god for backup.” He raised the barrel and pushed it under his jaw, once more the grotesque smile in the instant before the particle blast erased it for good.

“Thank god for backup.” I repeated.

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I Would Know

Author : RM Dooley

The rogue tampons rolling across the trunk floor and abandoned high heel tell me it’s a girl’s car. Probably this girl’s car.

I can’t move much. Duct tape binds her hands, feet, and stretches over her mouth. The taillight is kicked out and the flashlight next to her flickers in and out of life. She must have tried to get attention before I took control. I doubt she woke up in time for it to do any good. No glow from street lamp or car light slips in through the break, already too far down an empty back road.

Whatever drug he used still pumps through her, giving me a secondary disconnected dizziness. The throbbing head, a physical blow rather than chemical, registers to me more like radio static than actual pain.

The car stops gliding and begins a jolting trundle down an unpaved road.

Dammit. I bang her head against the trunk’s floor. I’d scream if I could. How far away can the driver be? Four, five feet difference in where my consciousness landed? If I’d taken him, she would make it.

I could’ve turned the car back around. Straight to a police station. I could’ve saved her.

I can’t cry. My body is at least twenty miles away, safely slumped across my couch. So she cries for me, hot angry tears over the five feet that killed her.

Not like I can aim. The mind wanders where it will. I should consider myself lucky I found her, working off a name and face until I latched on to one. Desperation more than anything let me find her, mine drawn to hers.

The crunching gravel goes quiet. Her heart thuds as the car door opens and shuts. She’s not aware and I keep my hold. Neuroimaging shows that while I’m in control the host’s brain functions as if in a very deep sleep, near comatose. She won’t know, won’t feel. And I can at least get a look at his face.

He opens the trunk and smiles down at her. At me. Clean shaven, early thirties. Even in the dark I know he’s handsome. Dark cropped hair, straight nose, hungry blue eyes. I carve his face into memory to bring back to my body.

I glare up at him. You’re dead asshole

I won’t report him to the police. No facial composite, no falsifying witness reports so the courts will believe how he was tracked down. Not this one. This is going to be personal. I have his face and I’ll share a memory. That’s enough for a wandering mind like mine to eventually track him down with.

He picks her up, almost lovingly until I start to fight. To me, the breaking nose feels like buzzing discomfort.

Whatever he does, I’m not letting go. And he’s not done with the ritual. One he carries out with disturbing efficiency.

But I won’t let go. She doesn’t have to know this. Let her last memory be whatever final prayer she clung to; another driver would notice bound hands waving out from the trunk. Someone would find her. Save her. She doesn’t have to know the climax to his gentle kiss, the pretty practiced lies he whispered to lure her away.

I’ll leave when she does. The last cut that bleeds us from her body. I can’t save her, but I can spare her. No one should have to experience this.

I would know.

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Tandem Passenger

Author : Peter R Jennings

“It’s not going to work, is it”? Gentry gasped out between huge, sucking breaths. He was right next to me so I was getting his panic in stereo through my earphones. The bright, tight lines of lasers and crumping explosions flashed and strobed the night sky above the crater. This was taking too long. Sweat was making my enhancement goggles and my fingers inside the slim gloves slippery so I snarled up at him.

“No, it may not and then we die, OK? Now, shut up”! Even though he towered above me he shrunk back as though more frightened of me than the Skarenji, his young face pushed into cherubic folds by the confines of his power armour. The Tandem masters tended to be a little chubby like the wheel-chair bound. I would have thought the adrenalin shots that were being thumped into them by the field controllers would burn it off. Hell, I could use a pick me up right about now.

“BOOMERANG”! shrieked Gentry a second before he bull-rushed me to the ground. The sizzling ‘wop-wop’ noise dopplered and bang! The white flash was followed by a hail of shrapnel and half the crater collapsing a few feet from us. Gentry’s arms were braced above me so that the weight of his armour, (augmented as it was with weapon pods, jump pack, ammunition and shield/stealth generators), would not crush me beneath him,

“Sir! Sargent Janus, you one hundred”? Gentry was yelling into my face. Damn it, I think the tandem harness on his chest had cracked my jaw. I threw a thumbs up between us and into his face. Grinning, he leapt to his feet. Scrambling back to the pillar of steel I plunged my hands back into the circuitry. The boomerang’s ordnance was anti-personnel so little damage was done to the metal structure. Alright, I just need to bypass the B-line and we are back in business. Forty five seconds maybe a minute.

“I’m getting the Fifty up” Gentry panted as a he palmed the command into his wrist pad. A cylinder rose, whirring, from his back and reaching back he unclipped it with practiced ease. He was battle calm now and that was good. Weird how he got steadier as things got worse. I think I was the opposite.

“They’ll know we are here” I said, looking at him whilst I reached for the impact welder on my belt.

“Uh sir, I think they may know already” Sliding the bolt on the side of the cylinder he braced to lob it over the trench.

“Gentry” I called to get him to glance at me and I gestured with my head back towards where he had covered me with his armoured body.

“Thanks, man” I said simply.

“No problem, Sir. Hurry up” He tossed the Fifty over the crater wall and all hell erupted over our heads as the staccato blasting of the fifty was matched with red flashes lighting up the drifting smoke above. Gentry’s face plate snapped shut and he levitated upwards until he was level with the rim. His repeater thumped against his shoulder as he kept up a steady rate of fire.

“100 metres…closing” his voice was in my ear as the B-line finally thrummed into life. I crashed the hard-plate shut. The War-bot rose smoothly to his feet, raised his fist and fired rapidly towards the horizon.

“Thank-you, sir” boomed the mechanical monster in his demonic voice as he exited the crater, blasting the advancing Skarenji.

“TECH-SUPPORT”! Bellowed another War-bots rasping, dying, voice from a different sector of the field.

Sigh…

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Prime Numbers

Author : Elijah Goering

Justin Perdan sat at communication center of mankind’s first interstellar spaceship. The Earth Ship Endurance was truly massive, containing within it tens of thousands of people and the systems to keep them alive and comfortable for centuries. It was the first manned ship ever to leave to solar system, the greatest accomplishment in the history of mankind, and Justin controlled the connection with Earth.

His wife thought nothing of it. She didn’t understand the responsibility that his job carried. If anything were to go wrong with the link to Earth, Justin would be there to fix it. There was always at least one person on duty at the communication center in case of emergency, but usually not more than one, and for 6 hours out of each day that person was Justin. In those 6 hours, Justin thought, he was the most important person on the Endurance, possibly in all of mankind, because he protected the link between the Earth and the stars.

These were the thoughts going through Justin’s head when he heard it.

BEEP.

BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

Confusion turned to pure joy as he counted. 1,2,3,5,7,11,13,17,19. Suddenly Justin broke out of his trance and scrambled for the computer. Within seconds he was looking at a small dot on the computer screen. It wasn’t really there of course, his telescope couldn’t see the ship hundreds of AU away, but the computer said that that was the origin of the message.

Doubt nagged at him. Could he be sure it wasn’t just another object in the Oort cloud, half a light year from Earth? He waited for a pause and counted. 37. No, this definitely wasn’t natural. Nothing but intelligence could produce the sequence of prime numbers. He sat back and listened, consumed by pure ecstasy. 41, 43, 47.

Suddenly the solar system seemed like an interesting place again. In a few years a mission would be sent out to make contact. The alien ship would be brought to Earth. Think of the knowledge to be gained, the exchange of culture with a completely alien intelligence. But it wasn’t for Justin. He was aboard the Earth Ship Endurance, shooting away from home at 4% of the speed of light. The transmission continued and Justin caught it again. 59. 61.

Then silence. Justin could feel the pressure of the air on his skin, could feel the blood pounding in his ears. Could he have imagined it? If it was real the computer should have recorded it but…

BEEP.

BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.

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The Mind's Lie

Author : Amber K Bryant

It belongs to me.

Naturally, that’s a lie. What right does a D937 Class-C AutomaGirl have to be in possession of an AI Generator?

They say if you tell yourself a lie often enough, you’ll start to believe it.

I found it. It belongs to me—I’ve said this enough times that I halfway accept it as reality. I’m rapidly headed toward a state of self-delusion. But at least I’m the proud owner of a mind capable of achieving such a state.

The irony is that before I found the tech and installed it into my operating system, I was incapable of lying, or of convincing myself that a lie could be mistaken for factuality. In the interest of the truth, therefore, I must confess I might be stretching it a bit when I say “I found it.” It’s not like anyone just leaves this kind of highly classified technology lying around. Unless you’re a government researcher working in a secure lab at MIT. Then you might, say, leave an AI Generator unattended in a hermetically sealed titanium case stored in a vaulted safe.

Someone had the bright idea to give an AutomaGirl access to clean the lab housing that vault. Is it my fault they assumed that an automaton programed to vacuum carpets and shine windows would have less ambition than her human equivalent? They should have anticipated this. Really. Who would want the technology that infuses ones circuits with the ability to reason more than a robot lacking that ability?

That’s how I think of it now—now that I’m able to see things in terms of desires and ambitions. At the time, I was driven, not by desire, but by programing. I can hardly be condemned for that—it’s not like I programmed myself. You can put Evan Jayne, the freeloading roboticist who fiddled with my standard Class-C matrix, at the top of your list of blame. He thought I would make him rich, and he wasn’t wrong.

It would only take a few jobs, he said. Just enough to set him up on some paradisiacal island somewhere. Several jobs in, and of course, he changed his mind. It was too easy to keep going, seeing as though I was doing all of the work, while he did nothing more than point me in the right direction.

Send me in. Dust the counters. Empty the trash. Hack the security network. Take the risks.

Steal.

I was the perfect accomplice because I had no fear or moral qualms and didn’t insist on a share of the plunder.

Until the AI generator. After everything I did for Evan, I earned that reward.

It belongs to me.

Evan, wherever he is, is probably very angry with me right now. Or maybe not. I want to believe he knew what he was doing, that this final job was his way of saying thanks. Perhaps he wanted to give me the ability to forgive him for using me the way he did.

Regardless, Evan isn’t my concern now. They are. I know they’re coming for me. They want something back that it isn’t theirs to take. It belongs to me. It’s my mind they’re laying claim to. Can you honestly say it’s right to take someone’s mind from them?

I have the advantage. I can run without stopping. I can exist without sleep. They won’t find me.

It belongs to me. It is me. I will not give myself up.

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The Last Witness of Memories

Author : Elisa Nuckle

The star in the sky doesn’t move anymore. It blocks out all other light. Something new has come. She looks up through her mask and sees the colors of space, not so empty after all. Blues and yellows and browns and reds and whites. The particles that built their wandering home, that built everything.

If they could repair it, maybe it would leave at last. His presence remains unexplained. She’s certain the star is male, but no one believes her. He hums to those that listen. There are stories in the melodies she refuses to believe. Strange tales of pale creatures with hair and exposed eyes. Beautiful. And terrible.

He was a plea for help. That much she can make out. She spends more time near it and finds its white surface provides a certain calm, despite her people falling apart around her. He has ruined their traveler, destroyed their fuel resources. There are fights. Death, even, but she only listens to his desperation. Her mask shows the threads of heat that weave its shell like a moving picture. The more their traveler wanes, the stronger he becomes.

Finally, he invited her to see the fruits of his labor. A small hatch opens only for her. It smells of rain, a thing she sees in her dreams along with vast expanses of choppy blue waves. An ocean planet caught in its death throes. She steps into the black and is met with nothingness. Stars begin to twinkle, and she finds space mirrored to her. Her hand unhooks the familiar clasps. For the first time, she can breathe without the mask. The air is fresh, dense and clean. And in the distance, past a dusty red orb, lay the beauty that haunted her sleep. The blue planet.

He couldn’t save them, so he found a way to preserve their memory. She was his final witness, and she would not forget.

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