Inspection Day

Author : Anamarija Slatinec

An oppressive light is shining into my face and it jolts me out of my sleep. A thought hits me hard before my eyes are even open.

“It’s Inspection Day” I say aloud. Every month it feels like it has come around sooner than the last. You start working your assigned field and everything just gets heavier, blurrier around the edges, like someone’s taken a squeegee to your entire life. Every month since my 18th birthday I’ve taken the test. That was 5 years ago. Today marks Inspection Day 61.

I’m a Reader for the Information Defenses Department. Since the worldwide terrorist information hack of 2021 it was established that all information would be monitored by the government for the purpose of preventing any future attacks and eliminating crime. Giving up our privacy seemed a small price to pay. My job as a Reader is to evaluate every piece of information that crosses my desk and flag anything outside of the authorised government outlines.

I shake the sleep off and realise that I’m not in my room. I try to sit up but I’m held in place. My arms are strapped down to a foreign bed. It’s hard to tell with this blinding light in my face. I try to look around but the rest of the room is encased in darkness. Why can’t I remember how I got here?

A deadbolt clicks on a metal door a short distance away and footsteps echo towards me.

“Identify yourself!” I feel the panic rising inside me.

I realise I’ve been biting my lip when I taste the metallic tang of blood. My head is throbbing and I’m racking my brain for some shred of memory before this dark room. All that swirls around my head is Inspection Day.

I keep repeating it, turning it over, hoping it will tell me something.

The footsteps have reached me and they are accompanied by a pair of slate grey eyes. A cold washes over me.

“State your name for the record” the voice says.

“Wanda Reader.”

“And why were you chosen as a Reader Wanda?” He says it in a way that’s clear he already knows the answer.

“I tested with a high aptitude in English sir.” My grandmother used to say that I have a creative soul, which now means I’m skilled in dealing with the ambiguity of the truth for the rest of my life.

“What do you remember from today Wanda?”

“I was hoping you would be able to tell me, sir.”

“What is something you are certain of?”

“Today is Inspection Day.” When I say it this time the memory hits me like a bullet.

“The Hull…” I remember walking into the colossal dome-like structure of The Hull where all Inspection Day tests are carried out. I remember thinking, as I always do, how much darker it is inside than you would expect from a structure made almost entirely out of glass.

“I was at The Hull for my Inspection Day appointment. But that means…”

I feel the familiar cold sensation of the probes on my head before I see them.

Keeping your pulse steady is tough but not unbearable.

Not dilating your pupils during a lie is difficult but not impossible.

Not knowing your fate until your results are back is excruciating.

“I can see that by now you have figured out that your test results from today came back… unsatisfactory.”

This is the part where my blood turns to ice. This is no prison. This is something far worse.

“Welcome to Cognitive Recalibration.

 

Into The Lens

Author : Charles Paul Wallace

The microscope sat on Lena’s desk exactly where she’d found it.

It had been there when she got home from school. Her mother just looked at her blankly when asked where it had come from. It was grey, a clunky thing with an adjustable dial on the side. Beside the dial was a diagram of a finger, pressed onto the glass plate beneath the lens.

Apart from that it looked like any old microscope. Puzzled, Lena placed her finger onto the plate as instructed and peered into the eye piece. All she could see was a hazy, indistinct cloud of colours. She turned the wheel on the side. Suddenly an image swam into focus: her fingernail, she guessed, the hard carapace a pearly grey.

She adjusted the focus. Now her nail was a solid shell, lined with cracks and fissures. Ugh, she thought. How ugly.

She zoomed in further. The image didn’t look anything like her nail now. It had shifted colour to a darker hue, a cryptic pigment she couldn’t put a name to. This is what happens when you accept mysterious gifts, she muttered to herself. Weird things happen.

She found herself mesmerised, unable to look away. Now the picture resembled vast boulders, tumbling end over end across a landscape of reddened sand. I never knew Mars was in my finger, she thought idly, and paused. Why WAS Mars in here? It made no sense. She’d studied astronomy at school, briefly. Ms Elwyn had allowed her to take a look through the telescope she kept on the roof of the science block. Through it she’d seen stars and the moon and the distant, yet recognisable, form of Saturn and its rings.

But nothing like this. She zoomed; and forms of light flashed past, precious stones refracting the stars hanging cold overhead. Black shimmered at the limits of the frame now, a darkness that seemed to suck her towards it. She couldn’t stop – she was hurtling through the void, whirling around galactic clusters, vast nebulae of baby stars thrusting outwards from their gravitational cradles. She gazed upon black holes that crackled with latent fury. She saw streaks of radiance spattered across plasmic photospheres, giant spheres of reddened gases, light curves arcing into near-infinity.

She turned the wheel one last time, and felt it catch. She was looking at what seemed a formless nothing, a white stretch of absolute void.

And then she saw. A dot, expanding toward her with infinite slowness. She realised it was huge; huger than her mind could envisage, an all-encompassing immensity that sucked her consciousness into a bottomless well of non-matter, of un-being.

It filled the lens now, a searching, consuming hunger, gobbling the emptiness set before it with an eternal want, a ceaseless yearning.

This, she somehow knew, is us. The universe. Everything that ever was and ever will be was contained within that form. And it was all inside her, and inside everyone; and now she’d seen it she would never be the same Lena, never be able to un-see the absolute truth of creation.

With a quiet click the microscope went dead. She straightened, rubbing her eyes. The device was dead now, an inert lump of metal, never to be used again. Better to throw it away, she decided. Better just to remember.

“Lena? Dinner’s ready!”

Her mother’s voice sounded from downstairs. Lena pushed the microscope underneath her bed. Later, she thought. I’ll get rid of it later.

That night she ate rice and curry, and watched the stars till she dozed off and her mother tucked her in to bed.

When Love Cheats

Author : Samuel Stapleton

“Megan! Sweetheart! You’re on time!?”

“Not here to chat.” She hissed as she paraded in.

“I know, I know. I’ve got your new look ready, stand still please.” She complied as best she could, but every now and then quivers of excitement would dance down her limbs. As the computer AI finished its calculations I set to work alongside it. We began recoloring her hair and skin first, then played around with the nanoes that were ever so slightly reshaping her face, neckline, and bone structure. “You said they want you to hide in South Africa this time?”

“Did I? Well if I did I said too much.” She answered. When I was done she moved over to the mirror to view her transformation.

“I have a few other clients staying in that area, would you like their contact info?” I offered.

“I have a request.” She countered.

“Of course, name it!” I said.

“This time send him to Japan would you?” She said with a grin. I stared at her.

“But won’t that make it impossible for him to find you?” I asked warily.

“Would you believe me if I said no?” She replied as she raised an eyebrow in my direction.

“Probably. This seems like foreplay for you two more than anything that would jeopardize your chances.” I quipped.

She replied, “Mmm. No one understands us like you Aaron. Just remember. Japan.”

I nodded and echoed, “Japan.” She turned and leaned in close to the mirror, focusing on something specific.

“Ugh. I do love green eyes. I wish I could have them all the time.” She mentioned wistfully. “Wonderful work as always. What’s the damage?” She held out her palm for digital exchange. I shrugged her away.

“You can have this one on the house. I’m sure I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

She blew me a kiss for the gift and practically flew out the door. The company fraud expert, Mr. Mayline, waited a moment before appearing from his hiding place.

“You should’ve charged her.” He said. I shook my head.

“They’ll win again, and both be back, and you’ll have to pay me for the work I do on them, again. I’ll tell you what though, I can’t believe you thought I was helping them cheat.” I said harshly.

“It made sense at the time. We do apologize for that mistake.” He replied as he sat down.

“So did your investigation uncover anything? Are they using tech to beat the memory wipe, or do they have accomplices?” I asked. Mr. Mayline looked over at me and tilted his head slightly. “We hired all kinds of outside consultants. Tech experts. Even ex-military. As far as anyone can tell, they’re not cheating. They’re just finding each other. New skin, new eyes, new voice, new everything. It doesn’t matter what we do to them physically. He finds her. She somehow knows it’s him.”

“What did they say when you questioned them?” I’d been waiting to hear back for weeks now. But he laughed at this question. “We got frustrated by the end of the interview. Mockingly, I asked him what is was like to fall in love with the same woman nine times in one life…”

“And? How’d he react?” I asked.

“He looked back and forth between my partner and I, then looked his wife right in the eyes and said, Gentlemen, don’t be ridiculous, I’ve only ever fallen in love with her once.”

“Well, if that doesn’t make the ratings go through the roof I don’t know what will.” I concluded with a grin.

We Come In Peace

Author : Russell Bert Waters

Their Emperor once conquered vast expanses; like Genghis Khan, who cried when he ran out of lands to conquer.

But the Tar don’t cry. They don’t hear, see, or speak.

Their home planet was a silent and dark place.

No vibrations, no noises, no wind currents, nothing at all.

The minds of its inhabitants were anything but silent, communicating a telepathic tapestry of bold colors, rich language, feelings and emotions, that no outsider could ever bear witness to. There is no greater connection than the ones the Tar have with one another.

Speared through the planet’s core was a reactor, composed of rare and highly sensitive crystals. This reactor, bonded to the very heart and essence of its host planet, stabilized its orbit, and sent beams of power to shipyards and research facilities on neighboring planets.

The planet’s atmosphere is forbidding, disintegrating any masses attempting to enter.

One thing the engineers hadn’t considered was what might happen were a different type of invader to enter. A sound-wave, for instance.

Deep in the vacuum of space there was no concern of sound-waves.

There was no concern until the day a vessel, sent by a small planet light-years away, entered the vicinity, repeating messages such as “we come in peace” and songs such as “The Star Spangled Banner”.

As these sounds, and their vibrations, made their way into the atmosphere, they caused a small ripple, which became a larger and ever-increasing tide throughout the reactor, which ultimately reached the planet’s center.

The reactor itself rattled apart, causing the planet, which was home to the elite minds, the Holy Royal Family, and millions of others, to rip itself apart.

In an instant, the home planet of the Tar was blinked out of existence.

 

The sky was a brilliant blue, the occasional puffy white cloud littered the expanse, casting shadows on the ground.

There was a young man on a skateboard, lazily kicking his way down the sidewalk.

A man and his wife were playfully bickering outside of a roadside taco stand. The couple’s little boy was a few feet away, exploring the area around the picnic table where the three of them would eventually settle.

A small mutt wandered nearby, looking for scraps.

In the distance you can faintly hear the music from a car at the car wash across the street.

The breeze kicks up a bit, and it seems to do so in an unnatural manner.

The dog scurries, looking over his shoulder every so often, as he vacates the area as though something was biting his behind.

The couple look to their little boy, then look up, wondering if maybe a storm that hadn’t been forecast was about to pop up.

The shadows the clouds had been casting were now but a memory, as larger shadows began to fall and swiftly move across the land.

The woman drops her taco, as she looks up and sees that the sky is now peppered with large, silent, black objects, moving swiftly into formation.

The car that once played music, as its owner had carefully run a cloth over its chrome pieces, burst into flames and flipped through the air.

The Star Spangled Banner began to blare from somewhere within one of the larger ships, as destructive pulses began to land, ceaselessly, engulfing everything they struck into flames.

Within seconds, the entirety of Earth’s surface was scorched, the oceans were boiling, and every living being became but a memory.

The ships left as quickly as they had arrived, now blaring John F Kennedy’s recorded voice: “We come in peace.”

Archie’s Avatar

Author : Hillary Lyon

The old woman leaned over the tombstone, and wiped the flat screen embedded in the front. It was grimy from exposure to the elements, but with a few gentle, conscientious strokes with her handkerchief, came clean. She sighed wearily, stepped back, and digging through her over-sized purse, located the small remote needed to operate the screen. Two clicks of the green button, and it flickered on. A middle-aged man, handsome in an everyday kind of way, smiled at her from the ether. He waited for her to speak first, like the gentleman he was.

“Hello, Archie,” the old woman said softly.

The man on the screen raised his eyebrows in happy recognition. “Well, hello, Frida! How have you been, sweetheart?”

Frida knew this wasn’t really her dead husband, that this apparition on the screen before her was just an amalgamation of data culled from his digital life. But still—it was comforting to hear his voice, to hear him say her name again.

“My arthritis gives me grief, but other than that, things are fine.”

“Maybe you should exercise more,” Archie offered. That was his answer to almost everything.

“Uh huh. I’ll think about it.” How many times had they had this conversation? Some things never change.

“How are the kids? Behaving and getting good grades?” Archie tilted his head inquisitively, like a golden retriever anticipating a treat.

“Well, as I told you last time, Valerie is married and lives in Fort Worth. She has two kids—Chelsea and Dennis. You’re a grandpa! Jeff is divorced again and can’t seem to hold a steady job. I’m so tired of worrying about him—”

“So don’t,” Archie snipped, catching Frida by surprise. He used to be more patient with family dramas, she recalled. Seeing her reaction, he immediately softened his tone. “I don’t remember any of this. Sorry.”

I’m sorry, too, Frida thought. Especially since I paid for the premium package; when presented with new information, it’s supposed to be integrated into his avatar’s persona. She’d have to contact the company to complain. Again.

Archie’s expression brightened. “It’s so good to see you! What brings you here?”

“It’s our anniversary, Archie. Would’ve been 47 years ago today.” Frida sat on the small concrete bench beside the grave. The sun was pleasantly warm on her face and arms.

“Hoo boy! That’s a lifetime!” Archie laughed.

“Yes, it is. Or would have been.” Frida took her eyes from the screen and looked around the cemetery. It was a gorgeous day. She took a deep breath. “Archie, I’m selling the house. It’s too big with just me. I’m moving south, to a more temperate climate.”

“But that house—it’s home!” Archie looked perturbed. “I put so much work into it. The kids’ll have to go to new schools—they’ll lose all their friends.” On screen, he shook his head sadly.

“Archie, honey, you don’t live there anymore. Neither do the kids. They’re all grown up now, remember?”

“Can I go with you?” Archie looked astounded and sad, like a family dog left by the side of the road.

“I’ll see you next year, hon.” Frida clicked the red button on the remote, and closed the program. She patted the tombstone affectionately as she rose; she knew his avatar wouldn’t process this conversation, but felt better for having told him. Frida leaned over and kissed the warm stone, her lipstick leaving a dusty-rose colored imprint. She stopped herself from wiping it off; old habit. Laughing quietly at herself, she walked away into that beautiful spring morning.

Extinction Event

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat as the sun reappears after the mini-monsoon. Sapping humidity returns. Two figures appear: the leader moving with the ease of long familiarity with the terrain, the follower stumbling every few steps.

“This undergrowth is hard to get through.”

“I’m afraid we’re not allowed to do anything about that, sir.”

“I paid seventeen million to come here to hunt. You could at least have cut a trail.”

“We’re not allowed to do that, sir. We have to maintain a minimum impact on this milieu.”

“Minimum impact? I’m about to shoot a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a Ruger-Wallace .655! What’s that going to do to the timeline?”

“We’ll remove the bullets and leave the dinosaur, sir. Predation by temporally-shifted hunters is a small enough factor that it is absorbed by environmental losses.”

“Then your man is in for a cheap payday. He’ll only have to remove one bullet.”

“My mistake, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Oh, you found me a big one.”

“Apologies, sir. That one is not for hunting. Temporally relevant specimens are marked by a cartouche – you can see it on the Tyrannosaur’s head, between the eye ridges.”

“You’re telling me I can’t shoot that?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Who decides that? And how?”

“I’m not at liberty to say, sir. Laramidia Hunt Tours will credit it you 5% for this disappointment.”

“Five percent be damned. I paid for it, it’s my kill.”

“No sir.”

“Get out of the way, Tour Guide Croon. Otherwise, we’ll see if you’re bulletproof.”

“Are you threatening me, sir?”

“No. Accidents happen and you’re going to have one if you don’t get out of the way.”

“The decision about temporally relevant specimens is made by a Sagnathus, sir.”

“A what?”

“Sagnathus. A sentient race that left Earth just before the KP event, sir. They decide which of their revered kin we are to leave alone. Attempting to transgress that will void your cover, sir.”

“What sort of horseshit are you trying to feed me, Croon? Smart lizards? Hah! Now, get out of my way or get shot.”

“Sir!”

“What?”

“Behind you.”

“You think I’m going to fall for tha-”

Croon catches the Ruger-Wallace assault rifle as it slips from lifeless fingers, then steps quickly aside to avoid being hit by the owner’s severed head. The Sagnathus sheathes its razor-sharp klewang while its tail slaps the ground in applause.

“Commendable alacrity! Fair greetings, Tour Guide Croon.”

“And many more to your troth, Ranger Takt’r.”

“Your pronunciation has improved.”

“Thank you. My apologies for-”

“None are necessary. We both know the difficult natures of some of the clients you have to guide.”

Croon gestures toward the body: “An unfortunate misfire?”

“I think taken by a pack of linheraptors when he left the camp – against your advice – would be more in keeping. He struck me as a human who doesn’t make mistakes with his guns. So, you found his gun and a few grisly remains, necessitating on-the-spot incineration. When you return his beloved rifle, heads will nod but nothing untoward will occur. But, as a precaution, we will monitor visitors for six months to ensure no investigators slip through.”

 

The sun beats down and the sub-tropical jungle steams in the sultry afternoon heat. Scavenger and predator alike, lazing in the humidity, momentarily tilt their heads to sniff at a scent that drifts by. Recognising incinerated carrion, they settle back to await the cool of evening and better hunting.