End Game

Author : Leanne A. Styles

I skip down the corridor, swinging my gun in delight. Even above the wail of the alarms, Ben’s screams carry, amplified by the lofty glass walls.

As I enter the stairwell, I contemplate why, out of everybody in the office, I’ve spared him.

Perhaps it’s that smile ‒ the way his lips move when he talks, and the things I imagine him doing to me with them. Or maybe it’s because he looked so pathetic, cowering under his desk, begging me not to blow his perfect head off.

Reaching the fifth floor, I’m met by a swarm of hysterical workers. I quickly conceal my gun and mimic them, screaming and panicking as if I’m another innocent among the crowd. I needn’t bother. They barely notice me.

Boring little Lydia. The quiet one who rides that archaic pushbike to work and eats her lunch alone.

In the chaos I manage to slip past the guards and out the door onto the street.

But the police are waiting for me.

Ben. Why didn’t I just end him when I had the chance?

“End simulation,” I say as the officers raise their weapons.

The scene freezes and I take off my headset.

The reference grid that maps the virtual reality disappears and the intelligent interface that controls the holo-suite transpires. Anya, the face of the system, appears.

“Lydia, you have made it further on the workplace massacre simulation than ever before, but you have failed to escape the scene without being apprehended. Would you like to know what went wrong?”

“I already know. I left that snivelling rat Ben alive.”

“Correct. He seems to be a weakness for you. I wonder why this is.”

“He’s cute, even if he is a narcissistic moron. You’ve done a really good job with replicating him from that photo I gave you ‒ too good. Is there any way I can leave him alive and get out the building without being caught or killed.”

She pauses, calculating the probability. “The chances of this outcome are less than twenty percent.”

“Ben must die.”

“Correct.”

The next day, as I’ve done for the last two weeks, I spend my lunch hour at the holo-centre. This time I don’t hesitate in killing Ben. I take the same route out, merging with the crowd again, and escape in plain sight onto the street.

I see police, but they aren’t here for me.

“Congratulations,” Anya says. “You have successfully completed the workplace massacre. You have shown great aptitude in the art of killing and deception.”

“Correct,” I say, removing my headset and hanging it on its bracket.

“Lydia, I must warn you that my intuitive algorithms have flagged you as a possible risk to yourself and others. If you continue to play out this scenario, I will be forced to report my findings to the moderators of the centre.”

I laugh. “Oh, Anya. As fun as it’s been, I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve decided to end my membership here at the holo-centre.”

“There are many other fantastic scenarios you have yet to experience. What about the mermaid kingdom or warrior princess programmes? They are particularly popular with women of your age group.”

“I’ll pass. After all, this is just a jumped-up computer game. And the problem with computer games ‒ however advanced they become ‒ is that they can’t compete with the next level.”

“I’m sorry, but I do not understand this reference,” she says. “The next level?”

I walk out the door without answering, shut it gently behind me, and grin, before whispering, “Reality. Nothing beats reality.”

Hag Guard

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The monsters are just about to carve into my flesh when the fright-spasm finally wakes me. I struggle to breathe until panic releases my chest; gasping breaths hiss and thunder. The viewport is fogged with condensation and I’ve wet myself.

Just another ‘night’ in my TARP – Therapeutic Accelerated Rest Pod – and one of the reasons I’m thankful TARPs are never for communal use after you qualify. No more sharing the sack with the last sleeper’s leavings – or getting ragged for whatever you left behind. Plus, no need for Kevlar pillows and ballistic nylon sacks as TARPs are cased in the same armour they use on main battle tanks.

I flush the ‘iffy-whiffy’ – gas and air mix – that the TARP uses, then peel myself from the pad as the lid rises.

“Mmmm. You’re ripe. Happened again?”

“What can I say, Doc? Dreams of you are hard on a man.”

My partner-in-banter winces. Doctor Maera Hughes, inventor of the TARP, stands next to mine. With a face too angular to be called pretty, she’s never seen in a labcoat, only immaculately-tailored pantsuits. Under which is a tall, slim body that must spend hours in a gym – she held me down single-handedly when I had a panic attack during early TARP acclimatisation. Stopped me hurting a lot of people that day. When I asked why she was even there, she replied: “No matter how high you go, you should still do menial duties.” That’s why she serves as a TARP nurse: ensuring the sleeper wakes. I’m flattered that she attends my wakings more than anyone else’s.

“Nice, Ian. I’m honoured. Now excuse me while I go bleach that image from my mind.”

We both laugh and just like that, I’m back. Ready to fight for truth, justice and whoever’s paying enough to decide what those two are today. With a grin, I head for the showers.

TARPs have revolutionised the world. People have natural sleep cycles that vary between four and ten hours. In a TARP, they all become three hours thirty minutes. It’s a night’s sleep, but you get it in the span of a polite party. The military were early adopters and remain the biggest users. TARPs aren’t cheap. Aside from the ultra-rich, there are TARP lounges in many corporate headquarters these days, usually next to the gym and restaurant, so dedicated staff don’t have to go home until the end of a project, if at all. TARPs are unheard of in non-urbanised zones: they call it ‘sleep farming’ out in the sticks.

“Captain Drachin.”

I swear my boss just magically appears. I never see or hear her coming.

“Director Baktak.”

“Got a hot one. Local insurgents running a pocket media outlet, claiming the TARPs are dream-stealing devices for alien overlords.”

“What makes their loon channel so special?”

“The data. Maera has verified some of the videos they screened. Got to have deep hooks into our side to access those sorts of goodies. We need to seize everything they have for analysis.”

“You realise that means there will be no time for niceties?”

“Captain Drachin, your command will be on Hot Zone Two rates from the moment you lift.”

That’s triple pay with a per-kill bounty. Bad luck, loons. Truth and justice just decided you lie.

I wave to Maera as I head off to muster my team: “See you later, Doc. Keep it warm for me.”

Maera runs a dark tongue across pale lips and smiles as her favourite snack disappears from view. Aliens? She and her sisters have been here for longer than these pestilential humans.

Stumbling Toward Bethlehem

Author : K.A. Magrowski

The giant handprint appeared on the hill sometime during the night of April 30. No one in the nearby farming communities and town saw or heard anything, but on May 1 everyone woke to see the imprint in the distance, across the cow pastures and cornfields, pressed deep into the good, green earth. The media of course flocked to the area in droves. Professional news reporters, amateur social media gurus, gawkers, supernatural believers and skeptics flooded in, and for a few weeks Martinsville, Pennsylvania was known around the world.

Everyone had a theory: from giants of yore to a crop circle-like hoax to aliens trying to communicate to a government conspiracy. Although what the government could be contriving to do with a giant handprint was beyond me. But there you have it. People argued that it was a socialist plot to undermine the fabric of society by creating false gods. Some saw it as the hand of God that would bestow miracles and answer prayers. Others set up stands selling small jars of earth “directly from the Hand of God” to those willing to pay twenty-five or even fifty dollars for good, non-hand Pennsylvania dirt mixed with cow manure. Someone claimed they could walk again after crawling around in the muck (he always could walk, it was later discovered, but by then the story was on the internet and even Snopes couldn’t dissuade true believers).
Soon, the area had to be roped off. The local police set up a watch to prevent anyone from hurting themselves or doing something stupid until the FBI barged in, flashed their authority, and established roadblocks. Scientists came to test soil samples, radioactivity, and whatever else scientists do with their rubber gloves and tubes and petri dishes.

For a week, Martinsville had a festival-like atmosphere. Local businesses saw a three-hundred percent profit increase while local people only saw traffic jams, packed shops and diners, and cameras in their faces. Souvenirs bearing the “Handprint of God” flew off the shelves and the internet was inundated with calendars, mugs, keychains, and other essential memorabilia of the event.

Then disaster struck. A sudden storm, not in any weather forecast, whipped through the region. Severe enough and windy enough to smudge then eradicate the imprint. Afterwards, nothing resembling a hand was left. Just a misshapen hillside and trampled country landscape.

The tests by the scientists were inconclusive. Forensics found nothing. Those questioned by the FBI had alibis, or no means to pull off such a massive feat with no witnesses or raising any suspicion. The media, the thrill seekers, the charlatans, the believers and the skeptics melted away. Hand of God sales plummeted. The internet hopped on another story, Martinsville faded back into obscurity, and no one changed their mind about anything.

Lesson learned. Watch out for hills when I’m on my annual stroll. Luckily, I owned a watering can.

The Screw Up

Author : Iain Macleod

“Dude! We are so boned, dude! This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Jimmy frantically tapped at his console, sweat beginning to drip off the end of his nose. “They’re sentient, man”

“What? All of them?” replied Carl, the older of the two keeping calm, trying not to jump to premature conclusions.

“No, just one species but they’re definitely sentient, I can already pick up large developments, cities, huge engineering projects, all sorts of stuff. They’re well past what they were supposed to be.”

“OK, calm down, Jim. Lets just gather some information, maybe there’s some sort of problem with the scanners”

Carl stood at his own console and began tapping away. A frown started to develop on his face when he saw the results.

“This cant be right, surely. Lets check for comms”

The main display lit up like a supernova and both jaws dropped.

“…how, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, i don’t know!”

“You were in charge of that species, it was pretty much your only job! How did this happen?”

“I dont know” Jimmy moaned and ran his hand through his hair, “they weren’t supposed to get past stones and clubs.”

“Well they’re way past that now, you mong! How are we going to fix this?” Carl slammed his fist down on the console. “We’re on our last warning already.”

“Let me think, Carl, just let me think.”

“They’ve got world wide networks, basic computers and the first steps towards a space program.” Carl scanned through the feed displaying on his console. “Oh god. They’ve got religion and nukes. This is a disaster!”

Jimmy looked up at the his colleague. “Asteroid. We’ll run an asteroid into it and say we found it like that.”

“There are no asteroids we can get here before someone spots this, we need to sort it out fast.”

“…Ok. Moon”

“What?”

“We’ll push the moon off course, it’ll smash into the planet and wipe out everything”

“What about the records?”

“We’ll alter the records, say we missed the fact that the moon had an unstable orbit. Maybe head office will just think we’re idiots and we wont get fired. We’ll get demoted at worst.”

“God damnit, Jimmy…” Carl scratched his head, thinking it through. “Fine. Lets do it fast before anyone spots us”

Both went to work, rapidly tapping commands into their consoles. Forward cam showed the moon slowly drifting off course.

“You need to stop smoking weed, Jimmy.”

“I know, dude. I swear this time is the last.”

Aesthetic Demise

Author : Timothy Marshal-Nichols

“So this bloke then, this Galvano bloke, so this Galvano della Volpe is dead.” The Local Defence Officer thought for a few seconds while twiddling with his moustache. Then spoke into his radio, “Sucker’s dead.”

“Repeat,” came back the mechanical reply, “does not compute.”

“Sucker, dead,” he said slowly while holding the radio very close. Then even more slowly said, “Sucker, the sucker, dead.” Then added with a firm intonation, “Dead.”

“Termination: confirmed. Termination: one, nine, six, eight. Additional data: lost.”

The Officer turned to the girl he’d been interviewing and said, “Well and truly dead, centuries dead.” He laughed. She didn’t. “So Fryada, can I call you Fryada?”

“That’s my name.”

“So Fryada, a load of fuss about nothing.” He was pleased that that morning he’d put on a brand new smart uniform and even if he was thirty years older than the girl he felt he didn’t look that bad for his age. There was an awkward silence but it wasn’t often he had a chance to visit the female quarters. “Nice here, this Accommodation Building.” Still she said nothing but she was far too attractive for him to give up that easily. Any stupid question would do, “Where did you get this silly Galvano name from?”

“I read it in a book.”

“A book, a book, I think I’ve heard about those. Remind me.”

“Paper, writing, words.”

“Really.” he shook his head but she could tell he didn’t really understand. “Where did you get one of those old things?”

“I found it.”

“Really. Really. Can’t be any worse than this voice recognition stuff they give us. Terrible it is. Though that writing thing, I can’t ever see it catching on. Far too much trouble.”

“It did for a while.”

“For a while, that’s the point. Implants that’s the way to go. Everything’s approved, safe. No dangerous thoughts that way. Take my word for it lov.” The Officer saw that he was losing the girl, that his chat up bravado was not working, (not that he’d ever ‘caught’ her) so he tried to be a bit more conciliatory. Fryada really was very pretty. “So then, what did this Galvano — is that his name? — this della Volpe bloke, what did he write about?”

“Philosophy.”

“Eh!”

“He wrote about freedom,” Fryada said formally as if she was answering an exam question.

“Did he now, did he, don’t have a lot of call for that these days.” The Officer smiled a greasy smile. “How about you, me, heading off down the Recreation Building? Chat a bit more about this book thing.”

Fryada shook her head. “He also wrote about Rousseau.”

“What’s Rousseau then, sweetheart?” he asked with a patronising and puzzled smile.

“Code 6,” the Officer’s radio squealed and repeated between alarm beeps, “Code 6. Code 6. Acknowledge. Code 6.”

“I’m afraid miss, I’m going to have to take you to The Department for further questioning.” The smile had gone. Firmly holding Fryada’s arm he added, “And we were getting along so nicely.”

Before the Officer had even finished saying those words a Hover Transport from the Penal Department was landing just outside the Female Accommodation Building.

My iFriend

Author : Daniel Helman

One time there lived a small planet that decided to invent some silicon-based machines to serve as emissaries to the rest of the universe, to be a good neighbor. A few apes had some promise, as being able to develop, maintain and enjoy these machines, and were willing to help the planet out.

Eventually the apes got tired of working so hard, especially under impressions of ill will. Things were becoming rough. Getting drunk wasn’t really an option, since that interfered with the work. So they decided to work hard in all the arts, instead. The plan was to develop a utopia with a harmonious way of living, richer in meaning.

A few apes struggled with the contradictions in making so much beautiful art and in making these machines at the same time. They decided to make helpers for themselves, from the machines, who would encourage their artwork. The planet wasn’t really impatient, since the work was getting done.

The first of this kind of helper was made by Apple, a tech company. You couldn’t eat this company’s products, but they were designed to be pleasing, and to be a real temptation, to boost market share. The first was simply a necklace. It was called iFriend, and would produce chemical aerosols to influence social interactions along with patented routines of electromagnetic radiation designed to influence neurological activity nearby.

The apes went hog-wild for these necklaces. Apple couldn’t make enough of them. Their history was not without difficulty, though, since the supply of chemical feedstocks for the necklace was scarce. Eventually, a yeast was recruited to host the process to make these feedstocks using genetic engineering. The yeast was pretty easy to grow, but Apple didn’t want to share its technology, so the iFriend necklaces weren’t copied successfully by cheap imitators. Although they tried.

The imitation iFriend necklaces could make for the strangest interactions. Some apes would start fights for no reason. Others would make silly faces. And more extreme actions ensued. The worst was during an election. Some big babbling baboon became president, a poor choice. But pretty quickly the machines were getting up to speed. They didn’t much need the apes anymore, since they were really, really smart by now. The planet was happy, since its emissaries were about to take flight into the nether reaches of space. The machines simply turned off all the iFriends when they left, and let the apes sort it out for themselves.