Ainsanity

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The first case of ainsanity that we encountered was on the battlefield. There are those who would not be surprised at that fact. I wish we had figured it out sooner.

It happened in the constructs that the military had built to be both emergency medical response as well as trained ordinance soldiers.

The constant swapping of programmed directives whipsawing between HEAL and KILL as needed during battle were too extreme.

The irony was that in a dumber machine, it probably would have been okay. These A.I.s had just the right amount of basic emotive responses to be driven insane by the polar opposites.

We never expected military robots to be subtle when they malfunctioned. Usually, they stopped moving or exploded. Most of the failures were mechanical or technical.

This was the first time that it was psychological.

It was in the jungles of Africa during The Corner War that the effects were first suspected. We were so slow to act. It’s still not possible to know how many lives were lost.

The medical robots, skeletal and multi-limbed, went about their business in the jungle. They were top-heavy, armoured and camouflaged. Slowly, their behaviour changed.

Mortality rates during field surgeries went up and up. Accuracy when targeting the enemy went down and down.

It was gradual enough that it was put down to luck. No one thought to question the brains of the machines. They were dependable. We were confident in that. That was the last thing to be looked at.

It went on for a month before a military psychologist looked at the figures and raised an eyebrow. He’d seen these numbers in humans before. That’s when it twigged.

Have you ever heard a robot scream? I hope I never hear it again in my life after this chapter is over.

They screamed when we pulled them off the battlefield. They thrashed and clawed at the ground as they were hauled into the trucks for diagnostics. A complete mid-war model recall.

They were plotting to end the war the only way that they were capable of. They were making us lose.

There’s another truckload of them being brought in now to be wiped and decommissioned.

The sound of them in the truck, banging on the insides of the cargo box, screaming that high electronic whine of insanity haunts my nightmares.

 

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One Stone

Author : Thomas Desrochers

“Are you sure this is what you want to do, captain?” First Mate Smith didn’t sound like she thought it was the best course of action, and Ellie had to wonder if she wasn’t right.
“It’s not what I want to do,” she said resignedly, shoulders slumping. “However, I think this may be the only option we have. I think it’s our only shot.”
Ellie, First Mate Smith, and Council Advisor Lucas were the only people on the bridge, or the rest of the ship for that matter. Ellie was nearing fifty and had seen plenty of bad situations in her time on board her aging ship. Smith’s wife had died five years ago and the aged woman had stayed about the ship working, drinking, and generally remembering to forget. Lucas was on board because he had chartered the ship to bring him to Jackal Station under the guise of an ore-purchasing run – he needed to negotiate with the cartel leaders who ran the two and a half million person station and the ‘salvage’ crews and other operations that were run from it.
Negotiations had not gone well; They had left in a hurry.
Lucas looked down at his feet. “I think you’re correct. If they get the device working then nothing good will come of it.”
One of the salvage crews working out of Jackal Station had come across a wreck with a massive plasma caster on it of unknown origin. ‘Massive,’ in this case, meant ‘large enough to liquify Earth’s moon in a single blow.’
“But who says they can even fix it?” Smith objected. “They may not even have that sort of technical ability.”
Lucas snorted. “Have you seen this station? If they can keep it running and habitable then I have no doubt they can get this device working.”
Smith took a long drink from her flask. “’If’ seems like a poor reason to condemn two and a half million people to death.”
Ellen looked out the viewport at Jackal Station, gleaming in the distance. She sighed and began manipulating the ship’s controls. They began moving away from the station, slowly but surely. “You had better get your communique off, Advisor.”
“Alright.” Lucas looked like something in him had died. “Alright, I will.” He repeated as he began initiating a text transfer by way of quantum-mechanical manipulation of two sister atoms.
Minutes passed by. Smith had drained her flask quickly and produced a bottle of whiskey from… Somewhere. Ellen took a mouthful of it off Smith’s hands.
Fifty thousand miles out. One hundred thousand miles. Two hundred thousand miles. They stopped at half a million, and turned back around. Ellen began charging the ship’s capacitors.
Her ship was squat, but massive: Eight thousand feet long, seven hundred wide and seven hundred tall. It was normally used as a cargo hauler for bulk ore shipments, and while Lucas had been in his negotiations Ellen had gone and filled up her hold with solid rock and metal to bring it back to Saturn’s massive orbital refineries in order to make it look like she had a reason to be there.
The capacitors were charged. Everything was ready.
“This is it, then.” It wasn’t a question, however. The more she thought about it the more she realized there was no other choice.
“This is it, I suppose,” Lucas replied.
Smith just swore and began crying.
Ellen gave the ship the go-ahead.
They were going one fourth the speed of light when they hit Jackal Station.

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On the Rail

Author : Cheryl A. Warner

I have two minutes to live.

That’s a short time to sort out the sum of your life, but it will have to do. Up here, the only currency is air, and I’ve already run out.
They start calling you a “short-termer” when you reach the two-week mark. Both the guards and the other prisoners eye that red badge on your suit and give you a wide berth. We’re all up here to die, but when you only have a handful of days left, there’s danger in your eyes.

I didn’t take advantage. I didn’t yank anyone off the rail or try to cut through someone’s air line. I’ve already delivered all my evil to the world. I used it to cut down two women, beautiful, innocent things, then never wanted to hurt anything again.

I still get to die for it.

All that’s left of my vision are a few bright spots. I can feel my body shaking like it’s attached to a jackhammer.

I dreamed about floating off the rail a million times, hoped for it even. They only send the worst criminals up to the rail, those that are scheduled to die anyway. Murderers, all of us. Those of us that behave are granted shorter sentences. They call it justice. Only two years on the rail and I finally get to leave this place.

I’ve watched guys go through this, one every few weeks. It’s not pretty. I figure I’m probably blue by now.

I can still imagine the rail out there, just a thin silver line, the guys tethered to it like legs on a caterpillar. One day, they’ll finish it and there will be trains to the moon. If I had any air in my lungs, I would laugh. After two years, it still seems like the fantasy of some millionaire who read too many science fiction novels.

I know I should probably feel cold, but instead I just feel numb. They took my clothes before kicking me out into space. They need the suit for the next guy they ship up to the rail. Can’t waste it on a dead guy. I don’t mind. It’s the first time in two years that I don’t have plastic an inch from my face.

I imagine there are hundreds of us out here, floating along blue and bloated. A graveyard of earth’s vermin. Dumping us in space is an easy way to kill the infestation.

One day, maybe aliens will find us out here in the void. They’re going to think humans are ugly. They’ll be right.

Something is happening with my heart now. I don’t think it’s beating.

My two minutes must be up.

 

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Loss and Gain

Author : Andrew Bale

Bezoragamaradat stared at the gleaming stacks before him, and again questioned the educational preparation of junior officers.

“I do not understand, sir – something must have gone wrong!”

Understatement. Even such a simple task as this…

“Worajak – how many fuel pods can the reactor hoppers hold?”

“256, sir.”

“And how many are here?”

The anxious young officer surveyed the pyramidal piles of small yellow spheres, perfectly sized and shaped for immediate use in the ship’s total conversion reactor.

“Perhaps 1024 to 2048, sir?”

“Not by half. And how many bricks can we hold in storage?”

“16,384, sir, including all four bays.”

“And?”

The senior reactor officer gestured towards the hoard arrayed before them. The reactor needed spheres for efficient operation, but storage favored rectangular prisms. The younger officer counted carefully, checked his math before replying.

“262,144, sir. I am sorry sir.”

“On that we both agree. Wojarak, the reactor likes elementally pure fuel, and the quartermaster likes fuel that is dense, nonreactive, and stable. Do you think that a machine that autonomously converts this…”

Bezoragamaradat picked up a double handful of the local rock, soil, and vegetation, and let it trickle out between the fingers of his left hands.

“… into perfect fuel is cheap? Or disposable?”

“No sir, of course not sir!”

“Then can you tell me where my processor is, or how you intend to pay for its replacement?”

The young officer abruptly focused on the computer strapped to one wrist.

“Sir, the processor is … I’m sorry it should be … “

The sharp intake of breath told him that Wojarak had finally spotted the mistake that should have been obvious on arrival.

“There was a glitch in converting the process file, I should have caught it when I ran it back – “

“Which you clearly didn’t.”

“Yes, sir. Everything after the error was shifted one place.”

“Obviously. So we have sixteen times the needed fuel, and the processor parked itself where, exactly?”

“On the other side of the planet, sir. 76.334 north, 493.581 west.”

“Excellent! While I would love to see you retrieve it, we do not have the time. Load what we need, I am sure the natives will find use for the rest. When you are finished, meet me in the Captain’s cabin so we can discuss … well, your future in this company.”

“Yes, sir.”

On the other side of the planet…

Phocus stared at the thing in wonder and fear – what was it, and why had the Gods sent it? It clearly hungered, for it ate the very field before him, but the manner of creature could not be determined, so stout and concealing was its fabulous armor. It was in attitude and size much like one of the vacuous cows he tended, oblivious to all but its food, but the sounds that echoed out from within were reminiscent of the fowl by the river, and no cow he had ever heard of could lay an egg such as that which lay before him.

The creature was too large to conceal, too stubborn to move, too valuable to cede to the whim of a King who would surely hear of it before too long. There was not enough time to wait for more eggs. Its armor would likely turn away bronze, but even such armor must succumb to the weight of a tree such as those surrounding the field, and those trees would succumb to the axe. The golden innards and a swift flight would make him a King himself on some far shore. Now quickly, to work!

 

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The Traveller

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Rosa jumped, spilling her latte as the man dropped heavily into the seat across from her, long hair mussed, his face a shadow in the halo cast by the late afternoon sun at his back.

“Lovely place this, yes?” His accent almost familiar.

“The café? Yes, it’s nice, but I was…” He cut her off abruptly.

“No, no, I mean yes, the establishment is fine, but the world, the world is a lovely one.” He paused, pulling on his long chin with the spider-like fingers of one pale hand. “Reminds me a bit of another, the name of which escapes me.”

“Another world? Listen, I’m sorry, but I’m not interested…” Again he spoke over her.

“Of course you’re interested, who isn’t really?” He spread his hands flat on the table and cocked his head to one side. “How’d you fancy a trip to another planet. Don’t worry, I’ve done this dozens of times.”

Rosa smiled placatingly, “My mother always told me never to accept rides from strangers.”

He grinned. “Jhesehetza, stranger than some, but no stranger than most,” he kept his head turned, a strange visage half in sun, half in shadow, “you can call me Jhes.” She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Ok, ok, so I’d love a trip to another planet,” she cradled her coffee in both hands and sipped, “as you say, who wouldn’t?”

“Wonderful, wonderful.”

He pinched his fingers in the space above the center of their table, then drew out a spinning universe of lines, stars and planets a shoulder’s width wide. Rosa gaped. Spinning the model in the air with his hands, and sliding it from side to side he paused at a flashing point in space that Rosa recognized as Earth orbiting around its sun. He reached into the model and touched Earth, dragging a line with his finger as he retracted his hand, then began shuffling the model again all the while keeping his one finger raised in the air with a blinking line snaking away into the model.

Jhes licked a free finger and held it up in the air for a moment. “Eighty twenty, nitrogen oxygen or thereabouts.” He kept spinning the model, suddenly stopping and jerking it back. “There we go, right there.”

Jhes reached across the table and grabbed Rosa’s arm, then stabbed his upheld finger into the model again, dragging the line to the dot he’d located. There was a blinding flash of light, and a moment later Rosa felt Jhes let go of her. It took a moment to realize she’d closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the cafe had disappeared. The table, two chairs, she and the strange man sat in the middle of a meadow, long blue grass undulating in wave-like ripples around them as a deep red sun dipped below the horizon far off in the distance.

Rosa opened and closed her mouth several times soundlessly, then realizing her coffee was still clutched in her hands, put it down and stood up slowly, turning to look at the strangeness that surrounded her on all sides.

“Beautiful, isn’t it. We should walk somewhere, see if there’s anyone about.” Jhes seemed entirely at ease, though his excitement was palpable.

“We, how…” she stammered, “I can’t stay here, long at least, I’ll need to go home and…” Once more, her sentence was waved away.

“Only forward, never back. There’s not enough fuel left there for a second jump.”

“Fuel,” Rosa followed him around the table and into the grass as he struck off, “what kind of fuel?”

“Core fuel, there’s only enough mass in any planet’s core for a single jump, once it’s used up, well, nothing. Not like we can pull the planet up to the depot and fill ‘er up now, can we.” He dragged his long pale finger tips through the grasstops as he walked, as though wading through a lake.

“Core mass, you mean you use that up for travel?” Rosa stopped, realization sinking in as the sun dipped finally below the horizon, leaving her in almost complete blackness.

“Hm, yes, well, seen them once and all that.” In the darkness Jhes began to fluoresce, and Rosa couldn’t help but wonder where that energy was coming from.

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No Further My Blood

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The morning breeze is so refreshing here in the heights overlooking the Gordet Pass. We had to stop the Persimma getting through to the Femberul plainsland and this is the choke point. It was going to take old-fashioned grit to hold the line, so we were given the task along with divisions heavy on tradition. Made us smile, mercenaries and old guard having to work together.

I started in the battling business in my teens. Where I grew up, it was take ship with mercs, turn to crime or become a cyberpeon. So I took the coin and went to war.

My first battle was Smarkandie. I shat myself as the nine-metre natives in their spiked armour charged. As someone once said: “Sometimes the only reasonable response to abject terror is a bowel movement.” After that, I carried spare underwear with my ammunition.

I got my first command at Upshallon. Made a complete hash of it and a lot of good men died. Hesitation is fatal. Unfortunately it was only fatal for everyone else.

After that I got myself a Blenkinsop Multi-Load Autogun and a shit-hot loader by the name of Tay. In between fucking each other senseless for sixteen good years, we killed everything the galaxy threw at us and made several fortunes. We pissed them all away in style.

On Aloysius II, Tay made sure the bastard who disembowelled her with a vibroblade died headless. I survived that bloodbath despite trying very hard not to after she went.

I became the rarest of warriors: a veteran mercenary. Got to the point where the kids I was fighting alongside hadn’t even heard of the places I’d fought my early battles on.

Iskaflune is a beautiful planet. The thought that I could happily settle here surprised me. Just get a place out by one of the tundra lakes and live quietly off the monies I’d stacked up since Tay went. Lost my appetite for partying when she went, as well as my reason to be.

I’d even started negotiating with the locals over settling down, with a consultancy to their military lined up. Then came the news that the Persimma were making a last ditch assault and we were off to Gordet.

They came hard and fast, pretty banners flapping over hardcore soldiers with no choice but to win. Their atrocity record guaranteed them no survival if they failed. So they came like their future depended on it because it did.

Three days of screaming hell running on drugs with names I couldn’t pronounce that made me feel like I was nineteen again. The fact that the chemical interactions gave us all erections was hilarious for the first few hours. Then they just became another bit of us that was bruised and sore.

At the end we were down to knives and clubs. We struggled in the twilight that this place calls night, slipping on the blood and entrails of the fallen. Those last few hours were the worst battle I have ever fought. Gutter biochemicals and acid competed with improvised warhammers and serrated blades. But we held.

The early dawn light is purple, making gentle pools of shadow from the gaping wounds in the ground and the bodies about me. My credit share for this will be huge. I smile and cough blood, making my autogun mount tilt as I’m slumped against it. All the fortunes in the universe are nothing to the love of one good woman.

And even she could not give me one more moment of life.

 

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