Perfectly Humane

Author : J.D. Rice

“I really want to take this fork and stab it through your chest, Mr. Johnson.”

“That’s nice, Sam. Now please eat your food.”

The boy eyes me with his cold, twitching eyes, fork hand ready to strike, bits of gravy smothered chicken still stuck between the prongs. A few of the other residents at the table watch with mild interest, wondering if I’ll just smile and wait like I always do. Somehow, they think eventually I’ll break and show some actual fear. After a moment’s pause, Sam sits back down and starts in on his mashed potatoes.

“I wish you would have stabbed him, Sam,” a smallish boy says. “It would have been cool to see Mr. Johnson’s blood everywhere.”

“Thanks, Pete,” I smile. “But you guys should probably drop the subject.”

All the boys nod and start talking about the newest video game they picked up on our last outing. My boss tells me that this kind of group home treatment is a revolution. When he was a counselor like us, they used to have one staff for every three or four residents, just to keep the peace. With the advent of behavior modification chips, my partner and I can keep track of almost twenty residents between us. The boys have no choice but to behave themselves, despite what twisted things may be going on in their minds. The chip takes care of that.

After our meal, we walk the residents back to the house where they complete their evening chores and head to their rooms for the night. Once all is done, my manager regales us with stories from the old days, stories of residents locking themselves in bathrooms, peeing on the floors, running off into the woods or onto highways. He tells us of the attacks and restraints and of sending kids off to detention, to be locked in cells like animals. It’s all amusing and all degrading. The things these kids had to endure at the hands of the state were unthinkable.

As I begin to droll on about how much more humane our current system is, my manager gets a troubled look in his eye, as if he doesn’t approve. I explain how much better things are, how the children are allowed to be themselves, not forced to conform to society’s norms. The chips protect others from their violent nature, but they are allowed to hang on to their identities, their thoughts and wants and needs aren’t challenged by some religious or philosophical dogma. We respect them while protecting others. And as soon as the children are adjusted to the chips, we send them home, safe and sound.

It’s the perfect system. Perfectly safe. Perfectly humane. I don’t see how anyone could object.

***

Sam arrives home three months later and doesn’t hurt a fly. His mother is amazed at the change in his behavior, all thanks to the chip. One day, he sees girl about his age walking down the street. He imagines what it would be like to see her lifeless body in a ditch.

“Only a matter of time,” he thinks. “This chip has to break down eventually.”

 

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Golden Years

Author : Thomas Desrochers

Bertie was a kind looking old man of eighty who had more wrinkles from smiling than anything else, and who looked like he always had a joke on his mind. He wasn’t particularly tall, though he was clearly handsome once. His shirt was plaid and tucked into his pleated khaki pants.

Drene was taller than Bertie by a few inches, and although she had begun to look rather severe in her old age of seventy five she had a friendly smile ready for anybody and everybody. Her hair was perpetually in a white ball around her head, a hair style reserved only for the old, and she was always sporting a pretty, if not plain, heavy-cut, and old-fashioned, dress of some sort or another.

Bertie and Drene had no children or grand-children left planet-side, and to make up for the lack of company would spend every afternoon sitting on their apartment’s front steps watching the people go by. Sometimes Bertie would read the news on his computer, and Drene was usually knitting something colorful and vibrant – today it was a scarf.

“It’s rather nice that they learned how to control the weather,” Drene commented one day. “Though I do miss the rain sometimes.”
“Mm,” grunted Bertie. “Never feels quite the same any more. Always too temperate.”

“Oh hush,” Drene told him as she rummaged through her bag for a small gauge needle. “You’re always finding the bad things in the new tech. You should just be happy with change for once.”

Bertie set his paper-thin computer down on his lap and watched the people who walked by. “What about all the surgery and cosmetics? Can I complain about that?”

“Oh Bertie, why are you always going on about this?” Drene sighed.

“Because,” he exclaimed. Then, softer, “It’s sad.”

He watched the people go by. They were tan, perfectly so; They had well-proportioned noses and attractive cheek-bones; Their eyes were all blue or green, their hair blond or black to match; There was no fat on their bodies, just electrically stimulated and grown muscle; Nobody was taller than anybody else – the women were all five feet and ten inches tall, and the men were all six feet and four inches; Everybody had tattoos, though on closer examination they were really just different variations of the same popular thing; Everybody had perfect teeth and their clothes were all fashionable, albeit very similar.

“It’s sad,” Bertie said again. Everybody was the same at first glance, and sometimes even on closer inspection. “Kids these days.”

“They’ll grow out of it.” Drene paused her knitting to pat him on the leg reassuringly. “We did, after all.”

“Yeah, well,” Bertie grouched. “You’d think kids would learn more from the silliness of people before them.”

He turned back to his news. Long-range faster than light was finally ready for commercial use. Saturn’s Erys space station had finally reached twenty million people, and was continuing to grow. NovaCorp was finally beginning to harvest the core of Venus. The last veteran of the Gulf War had died. A senator had been caught having an affair.

Funny, he thought to himself, how some things never change while everything else is moving and changing and never stopping.
Bertie’s phone rang. He looked down at it and smiled, answering with a “Well, hello there.”

“Hi grandpappy,” a happy child’s voice giggled. “Daddy says we’re going to come visit!”

He smiled. Some things never change.

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Ghost beacon

Author : M. A. Goldin

Elise had been bellowing at the comms for two minutes. Where the hell was he?

Keeper McDermott scrambled into the room and fell into a chair before the console. He wore worn clothes and a week’s whiskers. “Sorry, I was just tinkering with the electrical shielding in my bedroom.”

She glanced at the readings on her screen. “Keeper McDermott.”

“Yes?”

“You were making it worse.”

“Really? You don’t say.”

“Since you kept me waiting, I’ve been through your systems.” She frowned. “Beacon’s fine, so I don’t have to get a repair team out there right away, but you’ve got an awful lot of screwy in there.”

“Wait, Boss –“

“Shut it. You’ve got unauthorized electronic devices wired all over the place.” She made a face. “Audio files called ‘creepy’ and ‘moaning’.”

“They draw zero power.”

“You’ve got abnormally high electric fields in most of the living quarters and the repair shop.”

He fidgeted. “They’re barely above background, really.”

“You’ve got a subroutine in the air processing system that’s intentionally causing random backups in your ventilation.”

“I like breezes.” Behind him, a door slammed violently shut.

“Uh huh. And now I see there’s… thinning in the exterior insulation? Re-directed heat ducts? Are you crazy?”

“It’s just a couple of cold spots, no big deal.”

“Cold spots! What the hell are you doing to my Beacon?”

“Nothing! Don’t you get it?”

She slumped back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Clearly, no. Explain.”

“Please, don’t send a repair team.” He ran his face through his hands. “I’m fine. The station’s fine, I just –“ he sat there, staring at the console without really seeing.

“Keeper?”

“The weird feelings, the slamming doors, the moaning, the cold spots.” He looked up at her, his eyes pleading. “It’s better than the silence. Better a Beacon with ghosts than alone on a dead rock.”

Elise chewed her lip. Let him wait a little. “Had to send a crew out to Beacon 113 last month. New lightkeeper.”

McDermott looked confused. “Yeah?”

“The old Keeper wasn’t dead, so it never tripped the bio sensors here. Only reason we knew something was off was he had the oxygen cranked way, way up. Son of a bitch had drilled a hole in his skull. Big one. With that plus the oxy, he was blissed out of his mind when they got there. Walked out an airlock when nobody was looking.”

“Holy Christ.”

“So now I’ve got an emergency boat headed out there with a new Keeper. You got any idea what that costs? Company’s probably going to take it out of his life insurance.” She glared at McDermott. “Am I going to have to do that twice in one month, Keeper?”

“No, ma’am.”

She stared at him through the screen, trying to see the man through bad lighting and a billion miles of interference. The Beacon would run fine, if need be; would he?

“I suppose ghosts are better than tripping balls till your Beacon explodes.”

McDermott blushed and tugged at a piece of hair behind his ear. “Yeah.”

“You get any other ghosts out there, ones you didn’t make, you tell me. Let me send your replacement on a slow boat.”

He smiled, nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“San Martin out.”

 

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Two Paths

Author : Chris Daly

There were two, quite different, options open to him now.

The optical sensor domes sprouting from his aft projections registered six thermal spikes; a quick cross reference from his synthetic aperture radar strips confirmed the incoming ships. Pulling a polite one gee acceleration towards him, they were slipping into a rough hemisphere about three kilometres apart. It was a subtle combat stance, if you counted subtle as not actively broadcasting your intent to surround and confine the target. Of course, that broadcast came over within minutes, gently tickling his microwave sensors: the ship captains urging him to deactivate.

He looked slowly out over the empty starscape ahead, his gravity field reshaping to align him towards a polar orbit of the vast B-class star stretching below his bulk. The blue radiance below was blinding his ventral sensors, especially in the incredibly bright UV region. He knew that his pursuers would have difficulty seeing detail, only a faint smudge due to his stellar occultation at half a light second distance. His transversal velocity was steady at nearly two kilometres per second, forcing the hunters to aim ahead to the intercept point; at their current range missiles would not have enough fuel and acceleration to hit him. He began small, random adjustments to his acceleration, negating any projectile targeting completely. Time was now the limiting commodity.

He retreated to the faster optical substructure within his core, buying him additional thinking time, and began weighing up his options.

The first was the most obvious, easiest to perform and physically safest choice: Surrender. He had no online weapon systems, so fighting was contraindicated. Of course after surrender the pursuers would not destroy his body; it was far too valuable as a technological entity. However, his personality would probably be etched away or modified, which was the worst outcome. Fear of death, it seemed, was not limited to biologicals.

The second was riskier and much more difficult: Running. His body was much stronger, faster and more agile than any two of the other ships combined, but there was one major physical limit. The vacuum he swam through was permeated by the mass shadow of the brilliant star below him, allowing him to anchor, push off and resist against the gravity field. The further away he ran, the less capable he would be – deep space was not an option.

Anger and frustration reached their apex and he sprang out of the isolated optical core, screaming into every available spectrum. Signalling lasers flickered into the darkness; microwaves tore out and superheated every polar molecule in a kilometre radius; his magnetic shielding expanded, producing bright aurorae as it focussed stellar charged particles. Finally he kicked out against the gravitational ether and felt massless as a great ripple raced out, like a tidal wave in space-time.

Two minutes later, his rage subsided. His sensors reopened and sampled the thermally hot sphere he now sat in. As it slowly radiated and cooled back to background levels, he observed hundreds of small objects slavishly following a dead trajectory where his pursuers once flew, on course to add their mass to the great star below him.

He lay in the vacuum, retreated to his quiet substrate, and slowly contemplated the third path.

 

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Stupid is as Stupid Does

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Humans had always been looking for a way to legitimately kill the stupid. But where did they draw the line? An outside force had to make the choice. Humans couldn’t morally make that kind of decision.

After first contact, Earth was catalogued, included in their star maps as possessing both intelligent and non-intelligent life, and then left alone. It was quite anticlimactic. Almost business-like. The aliens themselves had translator machines that picked up our language nuances wonderfully. They went to great lengths to appear human. Aside from the blue skin and golden eyes, they succeeded. Their spokespeople appeared on all of the talk shows and deftly handled all of the xenophobic questions. They mollified the humans, measured them, and left.

The silence in their wake was depressing. Those that had been waiting to become part of the galactic family all of their lives felt like they’d been given nothing more than a high-five.

The aliens left behind a device. It wasn’t understood how it worked but the components were simple and easy to recreate. It was the machine the aliens used to detect intelligent life. It flashed red on animals, meaning non-intelligent life, but green on most humans.

Most humans.

Some humans were classified as red. The mentally challenged, those with brain damage, and most children under the age of eight, for instance. But around fifteen percent of adults tested also fell into the red category. In most cases, it wasn’t a shock. Racists, incompetents, overly aggressive men, willfully ignorant people, non-readers, dubious politicians, and religious zealots for instance. There were exceptions to all of these categories but the ones that showed up red were rarely surprising.

Many genetic theories were thrown into the pot. Perhaps these people, mostly from the same families, were closer in lineage to our ancestors and had not been given sufficient spurring to evolve. Perhaps they were from a strain of the human race with defects. Perhaps inbreeding millennia ago had produced throwbacks.

That’s when the theory started that maybe the human race needed to be pure for the aliens to return, that maybe we were being watched and tested.

The first few ‘red murders’ were put down to extremists but as Green Wave Party started climbing in numbers, death tolls rose.

At first, all of the red-positive folks were rounded up for their own protection. Those temporary lodgings turned into refugee camps as the months and years went by. They were a drain on resources. Several leaders in the scientific community calmly suggested euthanizing the lot of them. After all, according to the alien’s machine, they were no smarter than stray dogs.

Most of the cities concurred.

Calmly, deliberately, and with a cold, orderly precision that would have made the nazis jealous, the lives in the camps were extinguished.

A few rebelled and successfully broke free only to become the hunted. A few were released because of sentimental attachments concerning Green Wave Party members. Wives or stepsons, that sort of thing. They were neutered and let out into GWP custody with no more rights than pets.

After this purge, the human race became smug, docile, and happy. Everyone was routinely tested. Everyone who was green was smart and happy. Anyone red was executed.

And it was all thanks to the visitors. The humans can’t wait to show the aliens what’s been accomplished when they finally return.

They haven’t come back yet.

 

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Kiss Migration

Author : Clint Wilson, Staff Writer

The Pai-Toxh beings of the twin planet set, Andromedae 2787A and B, were nearing their migration time. The entire flock had just about finished feeding and were full of energy for their upcoming journey. Calls went out as alpha leaders stirred up the others. The creatures began to spread out their wide skin flaps. It was becoming crowded and there was much squawking as they all jostled for room on the great lichen covered stony plane.

Then finally when it seemed everybody had a spot they all quieted down and began to wait. It would be soon enough. The beings hazarded glances with their multifaceted eye domes toward the western horizon. And then it appeared.

A hum rose up through the flock. It would still be several hours before the great winds came yet every creature vibrated with anticipation as the other planet drew around for the closest approach of its yearlong extremely elliptical orbit.

The sister world grew to enormous proportions as it rose gargantuan in the western sky. Yet closer and more massive still it drew toward them. Ever larger, ever looming, until a vibrant green ocean and mighty straddling continent with a spectacular twenty-five thousand kilometers long mountain range seemed close enough to touch. And the Pai-Toxh beings could literally feel a magnetic pull in their hollow bones. Yet still it advanced, until finally a rushing of air could be heard in the distance.

And as the sister passed directly above, not a hundred kilometers separating the two interlocked planets, their atmospheres kissed and the great winds began.

Air rushed in like a tidal wave building up and up from a mighty gale to an onslaught that raged at several hundred kilometers per hour. Suddenly the sky was filled with dots and dust to the west as other flocks of Pai-Toxh were hurled skyward alongside a multitude of insects, plants, seeds and pollen, the great winds tearing them all from their stony perches. And then in another moment the heaviest of the winds arrived in full force.

The local flock was hurled into the air like so many spinning kites, many of them collided, some died, but the lucky ones who managed to avoid danger and debris were soon in the upper atmosphere, where the air was very thin, the pressure extremely low.

But these creatures had evolved to survive this migration. While other beings stayed near the less turbulent poles, or burrowed underground to avoid the annual storm, the Pai-Toxh along with other interplanetary migratory animals let themselves fly free, up past the limits of their normally calm stratosphere, to where the two worlds momentarily mixed air.

And there they passed their cousins coming back the other way, members of their own species arriving from the sister world, to mate and birth offspring in the place the flock had only just abandoned. By now they were all so sparsely interspersed that there were far fewer collisions. For the most part they would soon float safely and intact, down to mate and have young of their own in their wonderful new home there on the sister sphere.

And then one day, after another long year had passed, their descendants would eventually return to this place, and it would all start over again.

And year after year it would continue, over and over, each and every time the heavenly dancers twirled toward each other to once again dip in and share their brief kiss.

 

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