Author: DJ Lunan
Barden loved Saturday mornings, rambling with his young daughter through the deciduous forest. Perpetually wet underfoot, the forest always kept the eight-year-old entertained.
“Look! Dad!” shrilled Megan. “Someone’s dropped their train ticket!”. She peered precariously at the litter next to a large muddy puddle, “And it says Guildford!”.
Barden frowned, “Megan, leave it, it will be dirty and you may fall in”.
Megan was already stooping expertly to collect it. She proudly handed Barden the sodden ticket, covered in wet mud, “See… Guildford!”.
“Thanks, love, now race you to the climbing tree”. Megan squelched a hasty path to a partially fallen sycamore and started scaling it.
The ticket was stiff and hard, and thinking it might be a valuable season pass, Barden cleaned the ticket’s face with his handkerchief, revealing a purple background with raised silver lettering stating: Guildford (Verger) – Bordeaux (Gravité), Vacuum Avion, Premier Classe, RETOUR, 37e Avril 2053, EU$459. Against the purple background was a subtle animated clip in yellow depicting a passenger jet ascending vertically behind a church before accelerating into the distance, trailing the words ‘Chaque quinze minutes de GV à BG et au-delà’.
Barden was baffled by the astounding technology and the French. Surely a promotional gimmick, but for what?
The sound of rotting branches giving way was accompanied by Megan squawking, hitting the ground with a wet ‘thunk’. Barden stuffed the ticket in his trouser pocket and sprinted to pluck her from the mud.
Barden was wet and muddy after carrying Megan to their car. She stopped sobbing when he promised her cake, imploring irresistibly, “Can we go to The Dabbling Duck? I want lemon cake!”. “Me too!” replied Barden.
At sunset, after their hot chocolate and cake, Barden and Megan held hands returning to the car as the hush of the English Countryside fell, amplifying both their boots clacking along the lane and their inane chatter.
“Mummy loves this little village” he divulged, “She loves cake you mean!” came her whip-smart reply.
Barden stopped abruptly, squinting through the final sunrays at the 13th Century Church. Megan continued tottering up the path, shouting “Come on lazybones”.
His mouth agog, he fumbled for the purple ticket, held it in front of his face. The animation perfectly matched the church, albeit without a launching jet. “Hang on Meg, let’s walk around the side of the church”.
Adjoining the church was not a landing strip or helipad, but a small thatched cottage with a working orchard.
A young estate agent was erecting a For Sale sign in the garden. Barden waved politely.
“Afternoon sir, are you interested in buying a farmhouse?” inquired the agent.
Barden hesitated, half-tempted to tell his intriguing story, expose his purple ticket to some public scrutiny.
“You can go in and look, it’s open and empty, the Jones’ have moved on”.
Megan skipped through the gate, Barden followed. Up close, it was every inch a Fairy-tale cottage of his dreams. Megan bounded through the door, muddy footprints on the clean tiles, her delighted screams echoing, ”Daddy, I love it!”.
Barden’s excitement was building, and wasn’t deflated by the dank smell indicating ancient mould, persistent damp, and rotting timbers.
Megan screeched, bounding into the room, “Daddy, look, I’ve found another train ticket!”
She proudly handed over a second purple ticket, “Look! it says Megan”.
He read the purple ticket ‘Carte d’identité: Megan Barden-Jones, âge 43’.
Barden shuddered, wobbled, the blood draining from his face. He pursed his lips and knelt.
“What is it, Daddy?”
“Pumpkin, I think we’d better show Mummy this house. And find us all some French lessons.”
Author: David C. Nutt
“Are you insane? This was supposed to be a negotiation of terms for surrender. You made it a slaughter!”
COL Mikalelan holstered her weapon and gave her two aides the command to stand down. “I’ve been fighting them for twelve years, Ambassador Nieves. This was no delegation. We specified three, they brought six.”
“Three extra and you kill them for that?”
The Colonel walked forward and kicked the closest alien with the tip of her boot. “This one here- look at its caste mark. Not branded and dyed as their political caste should be, but painted on. It’s really a warrior caste.”
Ambassador Nieves growled in frustration “They told us because of their heavy losses their delegation would be unusual, I thought I made that clear.”
“Indeed you did Ambassador. That’s why when I saw them walking in twice the numbers, I knew they would betray us.”
Ambassador Nieves gritted her teeth. “You military types are all alike. All you see is a threat. We’ve already beaten them. Clearly, we’ve won and they have to come to terms. In time, who knows what we can do together”
COL Mikalelan laughed. “Ambassador, neither one of us is white nor male so spare me your white man’s burden guilt speech. They don’t think like us, have the same standards that we do, have the same values. They are totally alien. Hell, even their math is different.”
Ambassador Nieves was livid. “Of course they’re different! I’m not a child. They have only two fingers, different thinking, alien minds, I get that, but there are still universals. Things that alien and human can and do share.”
“Cut them and do they not bleed? Guess what: they don’t. In fact, we don’t know what the hell they are exactly- reptile, mammal, insect- who knows? All we know is even after extensive negotiation, our first three encounters ended in the total obliteration of our contact parties followed by an all-out assault on our most populated systems with the extermination of ALL human life wherever they took our colonies.”
COL Mikalelan looked at her watch. “SGT Zander call in the air strike. 1LT Ives, engage our shields.”
Nieves looked stunned “Shields? We told them we wouldn’t bring any! Air strike? You had no intention of negotiation at all- you used me! When I get back to HQ you’ll lose your head.”
COL Mikalelan roughly pulled Ambassador Nieves into a huddle with Zander and Ives. Ives pressed a button on his belt and the tell-tale sign of shields crackled in the air around them, encompassing the group of four. Mikalelan and Nieves were almost nose to nose.
“Look over there at the ‘delegation’.” COL Mikalelan tilted her head toward the six bodies. “Their ‘ambassador’ had a transponder which has just turned on, giving their command our exact position. We win or lose with them. We occupy the dirt we stand on or they do. Us or them. In twelve years of contact it has never been different. Binary fingers, binary thought, binary decisions.”
1LT Ives spoke up. “Ma’am, message from command. Our nuke just destroyed the remainder of their forces and 46 of their inbound missiles including two targeted to our position. Advised to stand fast, shielded, until the shock wave from our nuke passes.”
A mushroom cloud appeared over the horizon. A great roaring wind rolled over Nieves, Mikalelan and the Colonel’s aides. Nieves could barely keep eye contact with the colonel but when she did COL Mikalelan raised one eyebrow and spoke.
“Safe or Sorry?”
Author: David Monteyne
His hideout is a tidal cave, little more than a crawlspace gouged into a seaside cliff. He rarely leaves it. He starts brushwood fires to keep warm and forages by moonlight for the limpets and starfish and anemones that populate the tidal basin.
The part of me that is a hunter — a native of this remote frost-bound tundra — shines an industrial flashlight into the crevice where he huddles, pale and gaunt in the tatters of a once-fine suit.
Of course, the hunter being merely one individual within my omni-faceted self, I know who this man is. I am his wife and his father. I am his son. I am his colleagues at law, his drinking buddies, his jiu-jitsu instructor. I am the waitress with whom he had an affair.
His name is Aaron Byers.
It was a satellite that spotted him in the end. A mere handful of pixels, but the part of me that is a geoscientist knew what to look for. In an instant, his location was known to every agent of my being, every vertex of my ubiquity, every athlete and grocer and civil engineer. The hunter, who lives in self-imposed exile to forget the tragedy of his past, was merely the closest.
Three hours hence I stand before him. The cave drips and whispers. A thick frame and a bear-fur mantle insulate this body from the cold.
Aaron Byers, though, shivers. He raises grubby forearms as though to ward off the flashlight beam and croaks, “Am I the last?”
There is no quaver in his voice. I answer, “Yes.”
He lowers his arms. In resignation or acceptance, I do not know.
Brisk winds sing through the cave. I remove a fleece-lined glove, abruptly eager, and extend a weathered hand …
… and the part of me that is Aaron Byers relaxes into itself: rotates a bony wrist, tongues the furrows of a bite-bloodied cheek, and smiles.
Author: David Henson
Susan Wiggins lost an arm at work today. That’s called “making a donation” since the Mandolins took over. We’ve averaged about a donation a month over the past year. I myself donated a finger a couple weeks ago. It’s no wonder. The machinery we use — to make components for their ships, we think — is razor sharp and barely visible. Randall Spindler made the ultimate donation a while back. What a mess.
Anyway, needing a drink more than ever after what happened to poor Wiggins, I stop by the pub on my way home. John Jenkins obviously has already had one too many. He staggers up, claps me on the back and says loudly “Welcome to the Fox & Hound, Steven my friend.” I see Bob Johnson immediately place a call. I’m sure he’s turning Jenkins in for failing to refer to the tavern by its new, assigned name. Poor Jenkins. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again after tonight. Johnson’s nothing but a rotten snitch. Better known as a change advocate these days.
After leaving the pub, I go to Clown Foods to pick up a six-pack and bag of chips for supper. The Mandolins use “clown” a lot — Clown Foods, Clown Pharmacy, Clown Shoe Repair. I guess they think putting “clown” in a name makes it a happier place. I’m sure they also know many humans find clowns a little creepy. Just another way to mess with our heads. The Mandolins are good at that.
I’m sure they don’t even really call themselves Mandolins. They probably think going by the name of a lyrical instrument sugarcoats the fact they’ve taken over our world. It doesn’t.
Back home I have a couple beers and half the chips. Checking my watch, I see it’s still a couple hours before imposition of Home Sweet Home time. I’d love to go see my sister, but Madge’s place is just over the line in the Fabulous Fun zone, and I’m not allowed to leave the Forever Smiles sector. At least we can talk by phone so I give her a call.
“Hi, Madge. How’s everything there? Roger? The girls?”
“Hi, Steven. We’re OK. For now. How are you holding up?”
“You know. Getting by. I—“
Soft music interrupts our call, and a melodic voice announces “You have depleted your allocation of freedom minutes for this month.” The music grows louder. I try to talk over it. The voice repeats the announcement more sternly, and the music becomes louder yet, shrill and off-key.
“I’ll talk to you next month, Madge,” I shout. The music is almost ear-piercing. “Hug the girls for me,” I scream and disconnect, silencing the phone.
It’s still early. I pace from room to room, trying to keep the emptiness of the house from swallowing me, trying not to think about the day the Mandolins declared my wife and son to be surplus delights and took them away on a magic carpet ride. Maybe I’ll go back to the Fox & Clown.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Yosun blinked in the afternoon sun, the viewport on her hazmat suit filtering the harsh UV rays but doing little to reduce the glare.
Her shuttle had settled a few hundred meters from the blast site, the ground compressed into a large bowl almost thirty meters across. Ignition had been seconds before impact, the containment shell having been detonated above the ground to maximize its effect.
Nothing would have survived this.
The damage near ground zero was complete, there were no structures, no bodies, no signs of life. As Yosun walked away from what had been the center of the settlement, signs of what had been a self-sustaining research colony slowly began to appear. Shrapnel from the prefab structures the crew had been sent here with, vehicle debris, fragments of the familiar blue and yellow supply containers from what would have been the landing zone, the remains larger and more defined the further she went.
It was nearly twenty minutes walk before there was any biological detritus.
At first, there were just random fragments of the orange bioshell the containment system would have enveloped any living organism with. Close inspection would reveal body parts, or perhaps less recognizable remains sealed inside the biohazard polymer, but Yosun had no interest in seeing such things so soon after lunch.
Further out still, the flashes of colour on the ground became mounds, then recognizable human shapes, crumpled in heaps, stretched out prone or supine, and a few frozen in place, having been just far enough from the concussion of the blast not to have been knocked off their feet before they were enveloped in the highly discriminate cloud of vapourous biosealant that followed. It would have surrounded and encased any living thing before solidifying in an instant, sealing any contaminated material inside.
People. Contaminated people.
Yosun stopped, looking into the perfect reverse casting of what had been, only a few months ago a healthy colony researcher, someone who never would have known what was coming, or what had hit them.
There was nothing in the polymer shell now but topsoil.
She tried not to think of the panic those not mercifully killed in the blast would have endured as they suffocated, sealed inside a bright orange instant sarcophagus.
The containment protocol described the anesthetic effect of the containment system, assured the command crew there would be no suffering, but Yosun wasn’t fooled, it came in a high-velocity explosive delivery system, and the only mercy that afforded was the speed at which it killed.
She shuddered despite herself.
At the edge of the settlement, she could see the line where the colony prelim crews had scorched back the natural vegetation, drawing a line between what would be theirs, and what the planet would be allowed to retain.
She stood in uneasy silence on the clear side of that line, looking into the deep blues and reds of the jungle. Something had come from there, infected the colony and turned them savage. They didn’t know what that was, but they would be more careful in future. Next time they would isolate the weapon before it spread.
“CeeVee Orbital, this is EeeVee Ground.” She turned, heading back towards her shuttle.
“CeeVee Orbital here, what’s your status EeeVee Ground?” The response was low-rez as the comms system fought with the dense upper atmosphere to get the signal through intact.
“Containment complete to the perimeter. All the biomaterial appears composted. Drop the dozers and bury everything in the hole you made.” As she passed one huddled mass, she could see the cracks in the orange polymer where some particularly determined plant had squeezed out from inside, reaching for the sun. “Get the colony prelims on deck, we’ll need LV5 ready for deployment, and start the clock on thawing the next batch of colonysicles, we’ll want to get them on the ground as soon as the landing platform is ready, there’s much work to be done.”
Yosun shouldered her way back through her shuttle door and waited as the decon wash enveloped her.
Even inside the safety of her suit, she couldn’t push out the thoughts of those colonists trapped in those shells. She closed her eyes and held her breath. Maybe LV5 would get it right.
– Bravo-tango-delta-three-nine-zero-zulu, you are cleared to dock.
– Affirmative, docking sequence initiated.
K8 docked manually; it was against procedure, but nobody would have been able to tell with her level of precision. It was one of the small joys that Dr. Charles Lagarde was encouraging her to reclaim. She – the doctor insisted she think of herself using personal pronouns, and part of her had once been female – had been assigned to him by the military. The first bio-borg created not to be so unstable that it had to be destroyed. Over the last year, Charles had helped her to find control and had given her a compass by which to measure her new existence. He had also refused to call her K8, turning it into Kate.
Charles was humming as usual. As she finalised the docking procedure, she felt his hand on hers. Her tactile receptors sent a message, received as comfort and pleasure by her CPU – was that any different from what she would have felt before her transformation? She could not remember.
– Ça va, Kate?
– I am fine, Doctor.
– You would say that if half your leg had been shot off. Chérie, you are doing good work in good company – that is more than fine.
He grinned at her and she fought and lost the battle not to smile – a foreign but pleasing sensation that threatened to become a permanent state of affairs around him.
The work did feel worthwhile, transporting vital medical supplies to a small outpost. This was a brief refueling stop on their way. And their companionship seemed to be turning into something she did not fully understand but welcomed.
Charles bounced out of their small but state-of-the-art transporter to greet an old friend, Major Oliver Laine. They had combined the refueling stop with the monthly status report Lagarde made on her progress with “socialisation”. She carried out the usual landing checks, her CPU monitoring him out of habit. She felt his surprise, shock and, then, nothing. His mind was… gone.
She moved fast. The pulse weapon she was not supposed to have already in her hand. She reached the deck in less than five seconds and her optical sensors registered his crumpled, prone form.
The major looked up:
– A regrettable loss but he knew too much. There was also some concern that he was not the right influence. You were made to be a soldier, not a sister of mercy.
None of K8’s rage or pain showed on her face as she lifted the pulse weapon and terminated the major; it did not slow her speed as she sealed the hold so nobody could enter. She finished refueling and hacked the station’s systems. She also disabled all the supposedly foolproof checks in her CPU and neutralised the remote self-destruct nestled deep inside it.
She carried Charles into the transporter, laying him gently on his bunk. She would send his body into space, like sailors had once honoured their own at sea.
K8 did not react as the station exploded behind her departing vessel. Her restraint had been based on his ideals, his complete belief that all life was precious. She had respected his feelings in this, but now it was no longer necessary.
She had a medical delivery to complete and then she had a new purpose. They would terminate her in the end but, before that, she would take out as many of their military bases as she could. They had not valued his life; she need not value theirs.