Unconditional Love

Author : J.D. Rice

I sit across the table from him, listening as he talks about work, about how frustrated he’s become with his newest project. His voice is even and firm, almost business-like, despite this being the first date night we’ve had in months. I nod my head and take a sip of wine, waiting for my turn to talk. I tell him what Susie’s teacher said about her report card, how she’s the best in the class. He smiles and says how proud he is of her. The silence hangs for a moment or two, before we start talking about how we don’t get out enough, how we really ought to do this more often. After another sips of wine, the quiet sets in.

We’re drifting apart again. We both feel it.

I confess my feelings to one of my girlfriends a few days later.

“You just need a little adjustment,” she says. “Just a minor change, and things will feel fresh again. Trust me.”

It’s the third adjustment we’ve had in two years. I’ve heard of people having as many as fifty in that time. The lines at the clinic are always so long, and the air is so cold tonight. We left the kids with the sitter. As flecks of snow slowly collect on our shoulders, he puts his arm around me, and I feel the warmth of his body like it’s something new. In just a few hours, I’ll feel like this all the time.

The procedure is less daunting this time. I’m less concerned about the sensors and pins, the probes that prickle slightly as they pierce my skull. The doctor smiles at me in a familiar way, telling me how well I’m doing, reminding me to stay calm as the changes take place. The truth is that it’s impossible to not stay calm. The drugs make sure of that.

I come out looking the same, thinking the same, even feeling the same, once the drugs wear off. We both do. But deep down we are different, different in the ways that only count when you’ve known each other as long as we have. Suddenly you prefer vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate. Or you wake up loving jazz. Or maybe you find yourself trying new things in bed. Your personality is changed in just the slightest way, and only those close to you, only those looking for that little change of pace, will notice.

We walk home hand in hand, ignoring the cold, excited to be living a new life. The children are asleep when we enter the house. The sitter leaves with her pay and, surprisingly, we do not make love as we have after the past two adjustments. Somehow, snuggling under the covers is what feels right. In a short time, I feel his breathing slow. Meanwhile, I lie in bed awake, content with the changes that have once again come upon me, content with the idea that they will soon be necessary once again. But most of all, I am content knowing that my husband will always love me, just the way I am.

The Wait Calculation

Author : Beck Dacus

I was told that, when I awoke, I should expect the thunder of battle to have already started. But when the doctor woke me, his face calm, if not bored, I heard only the low rumble of my fellow crewman babbling about something. I would soon learn what that “something” was.

“Welcome back, Sergeant Mansing,” he said.

“Heyo to roo troo docatorr,” I slurred, swirling back into consciousness.

“I’ve got big news for you. I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“I’m arredy dead, aren’t I?” I said, my speech returning.

“No, quite the opposite. The only people who are going to die in the next few months are idiots and unfortunate spacewalkers. We were beaten to our target.”

My recovering mind was shocked. “What!? But… we did the Wait Calculation! Nobody should’ve beat us here!”

“Nobody has. Their weapons have. We should’ve seen it coming, really. Come walk with me.” He helped me out of my freeze casket, allowing me to sit on the casket’s rim and rub my legs before tapping my knee with a little mallet to see if my reflexes still worked. Then I waddled to the window with him, holding onto his shoulder until I could hold myself up. What I saw almost made me fall over anyway.

Alardaana had been annihilated. Red seas of lava burbled on its surface, the comforting crest of an atmosphere at its limb completely absent. Even its moons looked like charcoal embers. “W-what happened?” I nearly whimpered.

“The computer analyzed the damage the moment it saw this through its telescopes, about a lightyear out. It wasn’t relativistic missiles, obviously. If that was enough to kill them, they wouldn’t need to send us here. No, this was far more sinister. Not only has the surface been sterilized by what was probably gamma radiation; the structure of the planet itself took a beating. The most likely explanation so far is a gravitational wave strike. You see, Mansing, that’s why the Wait Calculation lied to us. That only determines when interstellar explorers will overtake each other. Not armies. Not weapons.”

“But… but why didn’t it hit us? Wouldn’t it have plowed through us on its way here?”

“No way. We took an arcing path here to avoid any defenses they might’ve set up directly between our star and theirs. Guess there was more wisdom to that than we thought.”

“Oh my God. This is horrible!”

“More so than you might think. Further analysis of the scene indicated damage inflicted by bubbles in spacetime collapsing on impact with the former atmosphere, releasing immense amounts of energy. A warp bomb.”

“You mean they sent a weapon that can travel faster than light!?”

“Looks that way.”

“Well… why are we here then? Why didn’t we just turn around? And why’ve you waited till now to tell us this!?”

“No use in telling you earlier, if you think about it. And if we didn’t die in battle here, we were always going to use the resources in this system to refuel and resupply. Bringing all our fuel, water, food, and air for the whole trip would’ve been stupid. But we can’t ransack their supplies now; we’ll have to mine everything from asteroids.”

“I, uh… I’m not sure I want to go home. Not when there’s people there who can do this. Who *would* do this.”

“To be frank, we’re out of options, Sergeant. Do you have a better idea?” The doctor walked back to the freeze caskets. Opening one up, he peeked at the soldier inside, and said, “Hello, Ensign Trillar. I’ve got some bad news.”

A Winter Ramble to the Site of the Shapwell Ghyll Spacecraft

Author : Peter Haynes

It’s a long winding tramp from the Ship Inn (formerly the Coachman) to Shapwell Ghyll where the spacecraft rests. At what is widely accepted to be the route’s start, I watch walkers of the Nordic bent de-telescoping and chatting as the first rimy sleet begins to cut in.

They have just returned; we are yet to begin.

She meets me by the chain-linked concrete bollards, where the tarmac of the Pass Road breaks down into clumps. Oftentimes, Shapwell Pass is closed for snows or high winds so thrill seekers don’t get a fatal shove down the scree to their skittering doom. Not today. Bikers tear by, taking advantage of the open season, followed by a trundling old Ford — engine under mounting pressure — with the barely-glimpsed shapes of kids in the backseat, ear buds in.

We leave the roar of traffic behind and begin the many-mile trek to the downed ship. The path we follow tilts down and away into the grey, past a rolling shoulder of land shawled in layers of dwarf grass and gorse.

She talks about it as we go. As it sailed down, she says, it clipped the tops of ancient calderas and dragged a mass of stone with it to dam the valley. The prow (if prow is the right word – sometimes amiable discourse must take a back seat to watching my footing) now rests in a pool of loamy run-off from the ghyll itself.

I experience first-hand how some conspiracy of the Shapwell valleys obscure and open a rambler’s perspective. Not to mention that from further out, along or above, the ship might as well not exist. It abides in a constant mist of its own making.

Eventually, as promised, the light grey cloud is superseded by the slate-dark looming of the ship’s hull. It is as I have heard – the sheer bulk of the thing just is. That it is psychically apparent through its perpetual caul is the craft’s defining feature for those who have made the trip. Was it ovoid or square-sided? Impossible to tell. Too vast to take it all in, too shrouded to mark out edges. What we see is a shape defined by the rough-sided gorge in which it has come to rest. Some of its vastness spills out of the valley head to hang precipitous.

I am forced to look elsewhere.

“Over here,” she says, walking toward a short stump of concrete about knee-height, dotted with lichen and clumps of moss. A previous visitor has scraped the worst away to reveal carved words on its face:

2019 Manzoli-Kraber Award
Third Prize

“I suppose because of the walk,” I say, turning from the stele and the ship.

“Well, yeah. You have to want to see it,” she replies. “When you get here, you usually can’t see anything. Still.”

“Yeah. Impressive.” I’m beginning to feel nauseous.

“So there it is. Told you you’d make it.” She stamps from foot to foot for a moment. “Any blisters? Boots behaving?”

“No trouble at all. Should we be getting back?”

“Yeah. After you.”

I feel the ship pushing down all the way out of the valley, right up until we step from the mist. The sleet has turned to snow; simple weather reasserting is a great relief. My appetite returns. We’d better pick up the pace – the Coachman used to be one of those pubs that closed in the afternoons.

The Long Smoke

Author : David Henson

The chaplain sits beside the young man and lays a small box on her lap. “Mr. Parker, would you like to pray with me?”

“That’s not for me, Chaplain. But I’m glad you’re here.” Parker’s hands are trembling, eyes red.

The chaplain reaches out and squeezes his arm. “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. I have to ask. Why did you — ”

“I wanted the money. Simple as that. For my family, not me.” Parker takes rapid, shallow breaths. “You can understand, can’t you?”

The Chaplain nods. Parker removes a silver disc from his pocket. He twists the outer portion of the disc, and life-size holograms of a young woman and a small boy and girl appear.

“A beautiful family, Mr. Parker. I’m sure they were…will be…well-provided-for.” The chaplain removes something from the box. “Here, I thought you might like this.”

Parker hesitates then takes the small cylindrical object. “Is this a … what did they call it?”

“A cigarette. I found the formula in an old journal and replicated it. This, too.” The chaplain shows Parker how to work the lighter and hands it to him.

Parker holds up the cigarette and tries to light it.

“I think you need to suck on the other end while you do that.”

Parker flicks the lighter again while breathing in sharply and immediately starts coughing. The cigarette flares, then quiets to a slow burn. “I don’t get it,” he gasps.

“I read you’re supposed to inhale more slowly and evenly, like taking a deep breath.”

He tries again, this time without choking. “Better. Actually kind of relaxing.”

The chaplain sniffs the exhaled smoke and thinks she might want to replicate one for herself.

“How are the others?” Parker says.

“Anxious over the uncertainty of course. And most are losing somebody, but nobody like …” The chaplain nods at the holographic woman and children. “They’re mainly loners, adventurers. Some are hoping for fame. I guess I put myself in that category, may I be forgiven the vanity. “I hope, Ensign Parker, that –”

The captain’s voice crackles overhead. “Listen up, people. In less than a minute, we will engage our primary engines, and this crew will become the first humans to travel at near-light speed. You’ve all been counseled, but I want to remind you to be prepared for anything. While this test flight is brief for us, when we return to earth, we will have been in the history logs for more than 500 years.” The captain’s voice turns somber. “Now a moment of silence for the world we knew.”

The com goes quiet for a short time then a computerized voice begins the countdown. “Thirty seconds…twenty-nine…”

The chaplain looks at the ensign’s brightly smiling family. May God have mercy on their souls, she thinks, then wonders at what’s to come.

Ensign Parker turns back to his station, puts the cigarette to his lips, and takes a long, deep breath.

Vacuum

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Sometimes, when we got bored, we’d turn off the artificial gravity and do mundane things in zero gee.

Sitting on either side of what passed for a mess room table over breakfast was a particular favourite pastime of mine. The slow motion ballet of sucking bubbles of liquid from the air, forcing a stream into the space between us and trying to catch every one before they coalesced on some surface.

You were always determined to win, while I remained focused on memorizing every line of your visage as you floated around the room, face creased in concentration, eyes crinkled into a determined smile.

Sometimes zero gee breakfasts devolved into zero gee sex which, if I’m being honest, is my absolute favourite pastime.

Was.

You were studying the morning’s long range scans, and I was playing connect the dots with the flecks of grey in the iris of your eye, charting out some constellation or other in that brilliant sea of blue.

Everything happened too fast for it to really register, the speed of events in stark contrast to the slow motion of the morning.

My coffee container was halfway between the table where it had been mag-locked and my lips when there was the most delicate of snicks in the air between us. The hull breaches auto-sealed so quickly the klaxons didn’t sound, the ship just logging the event for later review.

Your look changed, the light in your eye suddenly dimmed, and your mouth opened in a soundless expression of surprise.

Droplets of coffee drifted away from their cylinder towards you, my eyes only then noticing the hole punched through and through in the alloy, the passing so quick as to not even have registered as an impact in my brain.

A cloud of crimson drops pulsed into existence to hang in the air behind you, one burst, then another, then stillness.

There was no sound, no screaming, no sobbing, nothing at all. You just, in that instant, stopped.

That was three days ago, and as I watch your wrapped body leave the airlock, jettisoned on a trajectory towards the last planet on our records so as not to leave you abandoned in space, I wonder how long before I follow you. You were my crewmate, my partner. You were my lover and my friend.

You were the root of my tenuous grip on sanity out here in the never ending void.

There’s no record of the particles that shot through the ship, perforating inches of shielding and structure like needles of fire through ice. I have no idea if they were meant for us, or if they were chance shots fired astray from some conflict in some other place, some other time.

I find myself wondering how far death travelled, and for how long, to take you from me.

We’re taught to fear and respect the vacuum, that thing that nature so abhors, but in this moment I find myself almost longing for its cool embrace.

Startup

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

My guardian wakes me with a mental alert: “Intrusion!”
I lie there, unmoving, keeping my bodyware idle. The first rule of surviving killsoft: do nothing to allow it further access.
“Where, Teriya?” I silently reply. – It’s a difficult skill to master. There are alpha-class cyberops who still mumble when conversing via headware.
“Left eye.”
“I don’t have a left –”
Yes, I do. There’s hardware in the eyedock.
“How the frack did a wandering eyeball get in there? No bastard got into this cubby and nothing gets past my drone monitor.”
*Ahem.*
Teriya and I chorus: “Who the frack?”
*Please allow me to introduce myself.*
“You’re a man of wealth and taste?” Teriya deadpans the lyric. I have to suppress a smile.
*Once upon a time. Currently, I’m a bodiless intelligence locked in a holographic matrix that’s hidden inside this Zeiss XR1010.*
“How the frack have you rendered a personality from a holostore stuffed into the gaps in a cybereye?”
*I’m using the GPU in your eyedock, running a minimal build hosted in the XR1010s RAM.*
I suspect that’s only theoretically possible – as far as anyone not in my head at the moment knows.
“Introductions, then. I’m Nico. My guardian is Teriya.”
*My name is Paul Wendersson.*
“Fracker!”
Teriya’s ‘shout’ nearly blinds me – loud enough to invoke synaesthesia.
*My notoriety is undeserved.*
“You invented killsoft! My father died because of you!”
Not to mention the thousands of systems and cyberops she’s not related to. This man ushered in a new dark age for computing.
*How do you make a good manhunt?*
That’s an off-topic question – but a fun one.
“You ensure the target has nowhere to hide. Ideally, you goad the public into a hateful fervour.”
Teriya chimes in: “Make your target a pariah… Like revealing the fracker created killsoft?”
*I only wrote the core. In a scientist’s blindness, I created a real-time debugger with hardened access routines. Something you could drop on a malfunctioning secure executable and it would get in, regardless. Then it would transmit fault information to allow the errant process to be patched or brought to a safe halt.*
“A program like that would, inevitably, be weaponised. Stupid of you.”
She’s right.
*True. And when I tried to release counterware, my biolife was ended.*
I ask: “You’ve been waiting a long time for a cyberop with a free eyedock to sleep here, haven’t you?”
*Several years, I suspect.*
“You don’t know because I always isolate my docks from the system when they’re idle. Otherwise, I’d never have woken up, would I?”
Teriya whispers: “Bodyjack.”
*You’re very perceptive.*
“I am. Teriya, can you isolate us?”
“Already did. I’m running local via the building’s security suite with a data-blind tether to real me.”
“Paul, I presume you still have that counterware?”
*Of course.*
“Here’s the deal. You get a clean, hardened prosthetic body like mine. You’ll pay for it by entering into a three-way profit sharing contract with myself and Teriya. Officially, we’ll be anonymous partners, so the inevitable backlash has to work to find us – meaning they’ll have to use ways Teriya and I are used to dealing with. Then we’re going to license the remedy for killsoft itself.”
*Killsoft will have evolved.*
“Not by enough to baffle you, I suspect.”
*Hopefully.*
“Then, guardian and disembodied software guru, this has been the inaugural board meeting of ResurreKt.”
*Really?*
“If you can come up with a snappier name, or just a better opposite of ‘kill’, be my guest.”