The Spotter Alone

Author : Jay Hill

Corporal Hawkins woke to a loud ringing in his ears, the sound muted only slightly by the rush of pain swimming across the top of his skull. He undid the strap on his Kevlar helmet and ran his hand through the blood and sweat pouring down from his high and tight haircut. Probing with his fingers, he felt the raw flesh above his right eye, fingering the gaping fold of skin above his brow. A thin shred of shrapnel had sliced a long line in the space between the top of his shooting glasses and the lower edge of his helmet.

“That’s gonna leave a scar,” he said to himself.

A loose wet groan emerged from the mound of flak jacket and camouflaged utilities less than a foot away.

“Gunny,” he called over to the Gunnery Sergeant. The sniper lay on the ground. The laser targeting system that pinpointed his rifle, then heated the 50 caliber ammunition to nearly 621.5 degrees – the melting point for lead – caused the weapon to explode in his hands, turning each bullet into shrapnel that ripped his upper torso apart. A Chinese counter-assault weapon, made with technology stolen from the Japanese. The proximity to his chest, added to the magnitude of the detonation and the absorption limits of his protective armor left the young Marine severely wounded, but not yet dead.

“Gunny,” the spotter repeated, “You okay?”

“Hawkins,” Gunnery Sgt. Dickerson roused slowly. “Hawkins, you gotta go,” the scout sniper said. “You’ve got to leave me.”

“What are you talking about? I can’t leave you.”

After a hundred years of struggle in the Middle East over oil deposits, the United States found themselves once again poring over the Ghazni province in Afghanistan. Following the Great Recession, the U.S. lead the global conversion from fossil fuels to battery operated vehicles, but batteries need lots of lithium and vanadium. The latter proved abundant, but the former, lithium was abundant in only two places: Bolivia and Afghanistan. Once Bolivia emptied, it left only the old mountainous terrain.

“There’s nothing you can do,” the sniper retorted. “And I out rank you. Get back to the base and give them this intel.”

Securing the optimal locations for mining was never going to be easy, but with the recent advance by the Chinese front, Marine reconnaissance teams were stretched thinly over a wide and desolate region.

Still, the spotter hesitated.

“Corporal, I’m giving you an order!”

“But we never leave a man behind.”

“Mission first,” the sniper said, holding out his fist in a defiant gesture.

Hawkins placed his hands over the top of it. “It’s been an honor,” he whispered.

“Besides,” Dickerson continued, “They’ll send somebody out to make sure we’re dead.” He pulled the pin on his grenade and clutched it between his chest and arm, letting the weight of his torso compress the charge temporarily, then did the same with a second grenade.

“And when they roll me over.…”

Boom. Neither of them said the word, but both Marines understood the concept.

The spotter had enough water to last two days, enough food for three meals. Using the map, he estimated it was 150 to 160 kilometers to the closest thing resembling friendly civilization. If he averaged 80 kilos per day, about four miles per hour over the rough landscape, at ten hours a day, then he could make it before he ran out of provisions. There was little room for error, and practically no time for resting.

He plotted his direction and trudged off alone.

 

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Good to Have Company

Author : Townsend Wright

The girl with the bright red hair walked into the dingy, ramshackle hotel. The lobby was edged with people, some standing, watching, most asleep under old coats or bags, except one man with a disfigured face who was sitting cross-legged in meditation.

She walked up to the old man behind the front desk. “Room for the night.” The man looked up and stared wide at her unnaturally red hair. “Relax,” she said and split a part in her hair to show him, “roots, see? Bad fashion statement.” She shoved a wad of bills, some ancient American some World Empire and a few from the numerous makeshift governments forming and dissolving the world over. He funneled them all into a bag and handed her a key, didn’t even bother counting. She took the key and headed for the stairs.

A voice from behind her, “Hey, bitch!” followed by a sharp pain in her right shoulder, “your roots have roots.” Shit, she thought, I waited too long to dye my hair and now there’s a knife in my shoulder. Even if he doesn’t know for sure as soon as the knife comes out there’s no hiding it. With her left hand she dislodged the knife and fire spewed from the wound. In a matter of seconds the fire ceased and all that remained was a smudge of scorched blood. “Ain’t seen a Phoenix in a long time.” Twenty seven generations of careful breeding and genetic manipulation creating dozens of different strains of super soldiers all gone to waste with the fall of another government. Hunted as freaks and recognized only by the visual abnormalities somebody thought might be fitting with the mythical creatures they named them after.

“Hyperactive healing stimulated by an extreme metabolic burn,” she murmured. “Makes someone like me very hard to kill.”

Another voice said “We can find a way.” She turned to see four large men holding knives and pipes.

“You can try.” One with a pipe ran at her. She ducked and swept the leg in one fluid movement, landing on her hands and toes while he landed on his face. She heard another coming at her and pushed off her feet into a front flip that put her facing the new attacker. This one had a knife. She blocked his jab with the knife that hit her shoulder. The third guy came at her with another knife, leaving her with only her left forearm to block. The result was a large gash from her thumb to her elbow. She stuck the flame in the face of the second knife guy. He backed off with his hands grasping his face. Where’s the fourth guy? she thought as her knife fight continued. The guy was advancing. He was good with a knife, but after a few swipes she could see he was going to leave his side wide open.

Before that could happen the man with the disfigured face jumped in and put his hand on the guy’s forehead for a few seconds. He put his knife away, “See you later,” and walked out.

The man looked at her with yellow eyes. “Hope you don’t mind.” A Sandman, able to alter the memories and thought processes of others. He put one hand on the back of her head and held up an old picture of a young man. Suddenly, in her mind, his disfigured face was replaced with that of the man in the photo. “I like my friends not to cringe at the sight of me.”

“Thanks. Good to have company.”

 

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Dockside

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I stand on the shore. I am starting to hate my job.

The smaller automatons here weld and stitch together and ferry cargo. They are mobile. They have wheels and treads. The shipyard is a hive of activity when a ship comes in.

What I do is reach down, pick up a ship, and hold it aloft while it’s cleaned and fixed. That’s it. I’m the largest terrestrial robot that there is.

And I’m bored stiff.

My six legs are all seventeen stories tall. I have two crane compartments for human operators if something fails but both cockpits are dusty. The windows are nearly opaque with grime. They haven’t been used in years. I was built well.

The ships are being built better as well. A lot more these days don’t need repairs. The only pull up and unload. I watch them.

I am red metal rooted to the edge of the pier. I use the video cameras studded around my immense frame to look out at the sunsets. I am a silent sentinel.

I am mostly content but I wish I could walk.

In my dreams during reboot and downtime, I picture myself walking tall over the buildings of the city, twenty-two point sixteen kilometers from here. Either that I picture myself as a giant metal sea-creature. A cross between an octopus and crab but larger than any whale.

Dreams.

If I’m not in standby, I like to play back the recording of the dawns and sunsets and see how high I can push the resolution.

Here comes a tanker. Oh! A damaged-looking tanker! Old with barnacles, listing to port and fragile. It will require care to lift it out of the water. It will require finesse and fine motor skills. I am excited. I am hopeful. If I had fingers, I would cross them. Please be here for repairs, I silently wish. I am happy to be useful.

 

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Chronoscope

Author : Desmond Hussey, Staff Writer

17th Day, 8th Lunar, 1860 N.E. (New Earth )

09:47:23 I look to the west; to the future. I meditate on how close we came to not having one. Our predecessors, our degenerate, self-obsessed ancestors destroyed themselves. We’d be naught but savages now if not for the Founders. They changed the course of history; gave us a second chance, a chance to build a better world. They found the Crystals, which in turn, supplied us with endless power. All praise the Founders!

09:56:43 My droids hum industriously, completing final diagnostics on the Chronoscope. The sound is vivifying. I’m so close! I’ve longed to know what minds could have constructed such monuments to civilization as this long-dead metropolis spread out before me, now crumbling into ruin. High in my laboratory atop the only structure remaining of this vast, ancient city, I wonder: What was life like in those massive, overcrowded cities? What happened to our ancestors who disappeared mysteriously so long ago?

A dark veil has been cast over history, obscuring any knowledge of that time. The Second Dark Ages. Overnight, they simply vanished.

All but 500,000. The Founders of New Earth.

If little is known about Old Earth, less is known about the Founders. No historical records exist before the year 100 N.E. Seemingly intentionally, as if the Founders deliberately wanted to forget the past. Why? Why did they survive and an estimated seven billion disappear without a trace? These remain mysteries to this day. Mysteries I aim to uncover.

10:03:56 Alerts chime. Diagnostics complete. All systems green.

10:05:04 The brass and silver Chronoscope resembles a telescope suspended from the ceiling of my observatory by a multi-jointed, mechanical appendage. A complex array of spider-like, titanium limbs encases its objective lens. I aim it west.

10:06:03 Activate Chronoscope. Rpms accelerate rapidly. The Temporal array spins, whining and blurring.

10:06:45 Engage Temperal-Field Distortion. The tip of each limb flares into an incandescent blue spark, carving a ring of electric fire just beyond the Chronoscope’s lens. There’s a strong smell of ozone as tachyons bombard the fabric of space/time, penetrating deep into the past.

10:07:14 I step up to the eyepiece and look away from the future. I look to the past now, seeking answers.

10:08:32 Through the viewer I see a long tunnel, its walls rainbow-hued quicksilver, which terminates in a glorious spectacle – a vision of the past!

I’ve pierced the veil!

Wherever I aim the Chronoscope a thriving civilization fills my vision. I watch amazed as the ancient necropolis surrounding my tower springs to life, it’s citizens moving in real-time. Their lives are written on their faces. So indomitable! So intrepid!

10:18:27 Recalibrate the Temporal Dampeners to 1 yr/sec.

Days strobe endlessly past. Sunrise. Sunset. Buildings get taller. The city expands.
The population flourishes. Then multiplies. Again. Again. Again.

10:23:23 Then they’re gone. I stop. Rewind 5 yrs. Recalibrate: 1 mo/sec.

10:27:35 Nothing different but for a slowly settling fog, even in fast-motion. Bodies appear. Many bodies. A black flurry of activity. Something from the sky. Then nothing. They’re all gone. It’s over in seconds.

10:35:57 Rewind. Recalibrate: 1 day/sec.

10:38:46 I watch, horror-struck, as the city succumbs to the killing fog, released by black planes criss-crossing the skies. Black dump trucks arrive with white-clad drivers. The bodies are removed and piled in parks and parking lots. Ships come. Many ships. Alien ships. All bear the sygil of the Founders.

The bodies, millions of them are quickly loaded. Then the ships are gone, leaving behind great, pulsing green crystals.

Our payment.

 

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FOOMF!

Author : David Stevenson

“Come in, come in. Have a seat. Mind the filing cabinet. You wanted to speak to me?”

“It’s about my black hole paper.”

“Remind me.”

“Well, In theory, I have a way to generate black holes here, in the lab.”

“Really? Do we have room for massive degenerate stars? Might have to get rid of the filing cabinet!”

“No, that’s exactly the point. We’re not talking about black holes formed from collapsing stars; I believe that I can create a stabilisation field which means we can use essentially arbitrary mass. You could have one weighing a kilogram and carry it around in a box. The heaviest part of it would by my apparatus.”

“Don’t black holes give off all sorts of radiation? That’s not a problem?”

“Again, my stabilisation field. If we didn’t stop the radiation the black hole would evaporate to nothing. We can stop it radiating which means not only that it’s safe to handle, but it maintains its mass.”

“Forgive my ignorance, but what stops it just falling through the bottom of your box?”

“It’s electrically charged, so we can manoeuvre it.”

“And again, I’m sorry to have to ask this, but what on earth would we do with a little black hole in a box?

“What could we do with it? Why the opportunities for research would be practically unlimited!”

“I thought you would say that. Just to remind you: this is a business. We make things. One of the things we make is money. How does this thing make money?”

“If you won’t build it then there are plenty who will once I’ve published. Some things are more important than money!”

“Yes, I was afraid you would say that. Calm down and listen to me. I have some good news for you. Our engineers agreed with you. We could build this device. In fact we already have built this device. That was the easy part. Turns out that using it to make money wasn’t too difficult either. This business, like many others, has a lot of secrets. We can shred our paper and hard drives, but there are agencies out there who will put all the pieces back together. However, a small black hole takes care of this problem. Any information we put into it ceases to exist. It’s theoretically impossible to recover any information. That sort of service is worth money.”

“You’re planning on using my creation as a glorified paper shredder?”

“Firstly, it’s not your creation, it’s my company’s creation. And secondly, it can destroy a lot more than paper. That sort of service is worth even more money.”

“I’m not following you.”

“Ah, you theoretical chaps always need it spelled out. Bodies. You put bodies in, and you get money out, metaphorically speaking. We figure that the government will pay quite highly for that sort of service.”

“I won’t be any part of this!”

“Do you want to see it?”

“What?”

“Do you want to see the prototype? Just step over there and open the drawer on the cabinet. That’s the one. You’ll notice a bit of a blue glow.”

“FOOMF!”

“You didn’t notice me press this switch, or the electromagnets which moved the microscopic black hole right in the middle of your centre of mass. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for you to have noticed the next bit, where we released the shields for a nanosecond and all 80kg of your body was sucked over the event horizon, making a rather impressive noise, but also hurting my ears. And you can’t hear me talking to myself, so I’ll stop.”

 

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A Swirl of Chocolate

Author : K Esta

Time travel is impossible. Or so Charlie had always been taught to believe.

He stood shivering in the darkness of the November morning, his breath creating puffs reminiscent of his long-past smoking days. Worrying about cancer seemed so trivial now.

His leather gloves squeaked as he scrunched his hands inside them to warm his fingertips against his palms. Looking across the playground, motionless under a layer of frost, he ached to be home in bed curled up under the covers.

Watching from the shadows, Charlie saw the earlier version of himself arrive. The slightly-younger Charlie walked hesitantly passed the swing set, the slide, and the jungle gym to the archway sitting innocuously beside the perimeter fence. He strolled around it, getting a good look from all angles, before stopping to run his hand over the crumbling brick surface.

Charlie remembered being that man. The awe he’d felt from the knowledge of the structure’s history and how it had become linked to an infinite mass in subspace. He recalled the butterflies in his stomach during that first step through.

He knew instantly that he would be successful, for he caught a glimpse of a figure, his future self, on the other side looking back at him. The arch began to spin around him, first slowly, then faster and faster, dragging space-time with it like a swirl of chocolate being stirred into a bowl of cream.

With a deep breath and another step, he emerged over the threshold just in time to turn and watch his previous self step through and disappear. He actually giggled.

A few hours later, he would learn the consequences of what he’d done. Anna. Not just Anna, but every sign of her. Their apartment had been transformed from a cozy home to a stark bachelor pad.

This was Charlie’s fourth attempt to undo the damage. He had first tried to talk his previous self out of the trip, but hearing from his own future had caused the earlier Charlie to back away in alarm, and unwittingly stumble into the arch.

Sabotaging his research, even shooting his younger self in the back of the head, every tactic Charlie tried to stop that first foolish mistake was similarly thwarted. And each trip back had taken a casualty. His little brother, his best friend, his mother, they were all gone now.

And here he was, trying again, daring to believe it could be different this time. He watched the second Charlie arrive and approach the first. Then another Charlie appeared, pulling out a gun. He took careful aim and fired.

Charlie remembered this moment also. He’d intended to hit the first Charlie, but the pistol’s kick had been stronger than expected. He’d grazed the second Charlie’s ear instead.

As the first Charlie staggered backwards toward the arch, the second clutched his searing ear, and the third tried to line up for what would be another failed shot. This was his chance.

Charlie rushed them. Grabbing the coats of Charlies two and three, one with each hand, he pulled them forward—fighting repulsion from the sensation of sticky blood congealing on the injured Charlie’s sleeve. The three of them plowed into the first Charlie and they all crossed the threshold together.

The arch shuddered in protest, but began to rotate as it had before. The universe contorted, and Charlie’s memories fogged. It felt different this time; his body was consumed by prickling snaps of energy. The figures surrounding him blurred and vanished. Finally, the arch became still.

No one emerged. Time travel is impossible.

 

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