Ana waved at the barperson with rainbow hair and forced herself to speak louder than usual to order a Cosmic Sunrise with a Twist. The drink was slapped in front of her as she waved her anonymous credit key over the payment scanner built into the bar top. She cringed as she took her first gulp of bitter fire, then cringed again as she saw her reflection in the mirror in front of her. The enhancement was good – no one would ever be able to tell she hadn’t been born with ubiquitous brown eyes and unremarkable brown hair. Her nose and chin had also been altered, just enough to change her profile. She laughed – she didn’t feel any more comfortable with her new face than she had with the old one, bearing her father’s glacial blue eyes. But she wasn’t Ana anymore; she was Elisa now.
The vid feed was replaying highlights from the funeral yet again. Valda’s eulogy could just be heard over the hum of the early evening crowd – Yuri Maslov, President of the Galactic Federal Union, the perfect public and private man, tragically cut down in his prime. Elisa snorted. Yep, the perfect husband who couldn’t keep it in his pants and who, rumour had it, was assassinated because he had not taken one of his liaisons seriously enough – the favourite granddaughter of his main financial backer. The paid assassin had broken through the finest security system in the universe.
Elisa had not been there. Daddy dearest had allowed her to spend the night working with a fellow student. A carefully vetted student – God forbid that her father not control every single waking moment of her privileged but sterile existence. And of course, she had had the usual security detail with her. Jay had been in charge so it had been easy to disappear. She wondered if Jay had had anything to do with the security breach. She would never ask though; it didn’t matter. The President who thought it was ok to visit his nine-year-old daughter at night did not merit another second thought. His third wife, Valda, had put a stop to it, not out of any concern for her welfare but because it might tarnish his image. Valda had encouraged him to visit sex workers instead, enhanced to look much younger.
Jay, who had slowly gone from being one of her guardian shadows to being her whole world. Jay, who really saw her, who taught her that touch could be warm and safe, who confided in her that he had been legally born a woman but had had translation enhancement as soon as he could afford it. Jay had organised their enhancement sessions and the new IDs which contained a bug that erased all other IDs in the system linked to your DNA at the first scan, but she had used her expensive interstellar financial studies to syphon off a sizeable chunk of her father’s personal fortune.
As she raised her glass to the vid screen for the last swallow and whispered “Bye daddy”, she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned and the sun rose in her eyes as she smiled – had she been facing the mirror then, she might for once have believed she could be beautiful, her face transformed by joy. Jay smiled quietly back, his enhancement also subtle but enough to change the planes of his face. The hair colour was different but he had kept his grey eyes at her request. He stroked her cheek softly and she felt… treasured.
“Yes,” she said simply.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
I’ve shipped many things since the day I left Oktoberfeld. Some legal, many dubious, a few contraband, and nineteen wanted beings. Technically, this is my twentieth.
The job came with some unusual aspects. On a ship like mine – one of the many ‘fireflies’ that flit about the universes delivering the stuff that everybeing needs at prices everybody can afford – a fully sigilled commission was unheard of. The metre-square piece of parchment with its ribbons and wax arrived in the hands of Raine Deckham himself. The ‘Rhamphorynchus’ was being chartered to bring his brother home.
Cargo that wants a view travels in the stateroom. It has a private access to the galley along with a huge starboard-facing window siding the lounge. About as serene as this spaceship gets, because little ships are never quiet.
Raine brought a case full of peripheral noise suppressors. I didn’t know you could get them that small. Consequently, my lounge is still and silent. Disturbingly so. His words carry clearly.
“Nearly home, Doone. Mama’s done the Hazrien lamb you love. Papa picked up Lurina at the ‘port. It’s going to be the first family gathering in twenty years.”
The commission also stated ‘no monitoring’, but this is my home as well as my ship, so I left one basic view-and-listen at floor level. I’m watching now. Can’t take my eyes off it, to be truthful.
There’s a handsome man in a blue and chrome tuxedo sitting on a titanium coffin, candlelit colours almost lost in silhouette against the brightness of the planet that rises across the view. His eyes shine in the light, tears falling as they have done ever since we dropped from transit space into the Deckham system.
“You’re going to love the bower Elspin and Christopher built for you, Doone. It looks out across the Parmadan Falls, set so the evening sun turns the mist to gold, the thing you always said you missed while out amongst the stars.”
Doone Deckham might never have been notorious if he hadn’t been a hero. War turned him into a fierce leader. It also taught him about his love of killing. After the war, he couldn’t stop. A hero who won every battle except the one with the psychopath that lived inside him. That battle was finally won two galaxies and at least fifty murders away, when a Shramni veteran killed Doone as Doone killed her.
“You can rest easy, brother. The hungry dark that stalked your dreams has laid down. No more nightmares, Doone. There’ll always be abeyance candles lit.”
That explains the candles! A naked flame requirement that nearly drove Eddy, my systems tech, round the twist coding exceptions into our watch routines.
“There are no spirits of vengeance to hunt your soul, Doone. Mama wouldn’t have it. She insisted we handle all the rites.”
Which explains why the Deckhams have always paid death dues for every victim in full measure and without attempt at mitigation.
The orbit alarm chirps quietly throughout the Rhamphorynchus.
He pats the coffin.
“Rest ye, son of Deckham. The skies of home will bring renewal.”
With that, Raine stands up. As he wipes his eyes and turns away from the coffin, I catch his whispered words.
“Sleep well, little brother.”
Author: Rick Tobin
“Nobody makes choices carelessly about losing one of their senses, but you know the risk of blowing your neural nets outweighs keeping all your Earthly capacities.” Paloma Derth leaned towards her reluctant client. Behind her were rolling holographic images of her diplomas from medical schools throughout the solar system.
Erli August pushed his taught, strong form back against Derth’s floating visitor’s chair. It expanded and contracted to give him continued maximum comfort. “I never considered this in my dreams at the academy. This is a sacrifice they didn’t cover with plebes.”
“Surely not, Mr. August. We weren’t traveling that deep when you entered ten years ago. With technologies we found abandoned on Phobos, we are going beyond what we now call the Ring Pass Not. No one realized how protected we were until those poor souls on the Cambia were driven mad and ran their ship into asteroids. The rescue crews suffered the same fate, but now we know that electromagnetic fields outside our solar system’s protective barrier overwhelm humans with all five senses.”
“I realize. I’ve met my new crew members. It was quite an adjustment to work on board alongside blind and deaf people. Did they all have to make these choices?” August clenched his teeth as he considered how the Earth’s best could be disabled to fulfill dreams of deep-space missions.
“No, it was discovered early on that academy graduates could not adjust effectively with a sudden major removal of sight or sound and still be competent aboard. I still lose sleep over candidates we harmed needlessly. I later helped develop screening to find our best hopes in special needs communities. It was a pleasant surprise to find so many competent engineers and scientists were interested and available. Adjustments to your ship’s internal systems were not that difficult to support them, as well as sighted and hearing-capable staff. Trust me, you’ll find your crew highly qualified, but you still have to make your choice. With advancements in our medical skills we can now offer a less intrusive selection with fewer impacts: choose taste or smell.”
“Easy for you, Doc, but I’m still not happy about this. I realize we have to fly end of this week. I’ve delayed this as long as possible. So, if you want to help me take this next step, are you willing to help me for just a few minutes to make my selection?” August leaned forward, putting his hand over the advisor’s cupped hands on her desk.
“I’m not sure what you have in mind, Captain…but are you suggesting something inappropriate?”
“Hardly, Doc, but if you would humor me just this once…considering what I have to do. Either I’ll never taste food again or I’ll never smell a flower for eternity. That’s asking a lot.”
A light flush came over Paloma’s face. She did not move from her chair as August approached her from her right side. August stroked his hand lightly over the nape of her neck and then bent down as he lifted her thick hair to his face, bathing in her shampoo and perfume with one deep inhalation. She jolted back as the Captain’s large hands circled the back of her neck as he turned her face toward his. Looking deeply into her green eyes, he kissed her softly and then deeply, holding his lips completely over hers. She finally pushed him away.
“Captain August, I…that was unexpected. Why?”
He smiled, slowly. “I’ve made my decision. Now if you don’t mind, as you cut my wires, play ‘Crazy,’ by Patsy Cline in the background. Thanks.”
Author: C.R. Caison
The laser round exploded in a flash of light by Yuri’s head. He jumped and rolled to the side before a second shot struck the wall where he’d been standing. The blast weakened the wall and it collapsed into a heap of fragments. The crowd roared above him, billions of virtual eyes, nameless spectators, eagerly awaited the outcome of this final match.
Yuri sprinted down the corridor and rounded the turn. Instinctively, he raised his weapon and fired, catching the assailant in the side. The other player fell to the ground and shattered into polygons. Above the arena, the floating numbers keeping count of active players decreased by one. His fans cheered. There were only two players left: Yuri and the reigning champion. The game mode was simple, the last player left standing wins the match. The victor would have their name immortalized as this season’s winner, written into the game’s memory forever, and Yuri wanted glory.
The music in the arena changed tempo. Its beat increased, pounding like war drums in his head. Cautiously, he stalked his opponent. Yuri had studied the champ’s streams, took note of his moves, learned his pattern. Yuri holstered his weapon and with a quick jump, leaped up and kicked off the wall to propel himself high enough to grab the ledge. With a heave, he swung a leg on top and pulled himself up. He perched on the wall, looking across the maze that carved up the arena. The crowd roared at his brazen move. Yuri jogged along, jumping from wall to wall, looking for his opponent. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement.
He focused his mind, drew his weapon, and scanned to make the final shot. The champion darted through the corridor below. Had Yuri blinked, he would have missed him. Yuri launched himself forward, firing the boosters attached to his feet, letting the momentum carry him along the far wall as his weapon barked lasers at the champ. His shots missed, dissipating on the arena floor. His opponent turned and leaped at him, trying to catch Yuri off guard.
Had it been any other player, the tactic might have worked. Yuri smiled. He had prepared for this moment. They always have a pattern, he thought. He kicked forward, knocking the champ’s weapon to the side and colliding into him with his knee. The two landed with Yuri on top. The arena gasped and for a moment there was no noise. Yuri pulled the trigger, sending a bolt into his opponent’s chest. The blast shattered his opponent’s avatar. The arena quaked from the spectators’ screams. Yuri had won.
Overhead, the counter clicked to one then faded away as orange and blue polygon fireworks exploded in the void above. Sparkling embers rained down and the maze walls recessed into the arena floor. The floor beneath him raised up into the air and he stood on a pedestal. Yuri’s name flashed overhead and congratulatory streams, in countless languages, washed over him. He watched as his name was entered into the records as this season’s champion. A feeling of exhilaration and accomplishment ran through him.
The words “Game Over” floated above him. Within minutes, the victory music faded and the world around him dissolved. Yuri felt the weight of his real body return and he pulled off his headset. The dirty walls of his one room apartment replaced the virtual world where he spent most of his waking hours. He wiped his purple ringed eyes, scratched his head, his hair matted from the sweat, and sat alone in the quiet.
Author: Philip Berry
Reciprocation minus 90 minutes: Rebecca Fenton tapped in the melt codes, but the circle of light that had appeared briefly on her curved monitor persisted as a dense shadow in her visual field. It was geometrically perfect, except for a notch in the 2 o’clock position. The door opened behind her.
“Early finish?” said her supervisor, Arthur Kopf. He glanced over her shoulder at the workstation as it powered down.
“A lecture, at the Ethnographic Institute.”
“You and your history!”
Rebecca laughed half-heartedly and gathered up her small rucksack. Arthur knew what it contained. Before he came to trust her fully, he had unfastened the top and peered inside. Just old books, besides the usual clutter and feminine mysteries.
“We’ll meet tomorrow, go over the week’s findings,” stated Arthur, in professional mode. “There have been some shifts in the quaternary echo-line.” Rebecca slipped past him into the corridor.
Reciprocation minus 45 minutes: Rebecca waited in the Institute’s lobby until the wave of applause subsided and the audience began to leave. Then she wove her way against the flow towards the stage. Rebecca’s presence alarmed the speaker, Professor Sheila Innis, who pointed to an area backstage where they could speak privately.
“It came through,” said Rebecca.
“When does the response go out?”
“Forty-five minutes from now. Enough time to give the impression there has been a discussion, and a consensus. I disabled the mainframe, it can’t be reversed.”
“As we agreed. Well done Rebecca.”
Reciprocation minus 85 minutes: Arthur Kopf’s palm rested on the monitor. He had noticed a fading shape in the layer of liquid crystal; a circle. And with the eye of faith, a notch in the predicted position. The universal greeting. A life’s work. But when he tried to power up the system there was no response. His head dropped.
Reciprocation plus 28 years: Arthur Kopf, 81 years old, hung back after a session that Rebecca Fenton, chair of the Global Committee on Elemental Resourcing, had facilitated with customary panache. Looking out over the audience as it dispersed, Rebecca recognized her aged, ex-supervisor. He walked up to the platform and faced her.
“None of this was necessary, you know,” he said, without introduction. “They would have shared their resources.”
“No Arthur, they would have taken them.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“It is universal nature. Loyalty to one’s own.”
“So parochial Rebecca, your philosophy. All your kind, all the Innis-cult.” A pause. Then, quietly, under a brow that displayed the hurt of treachery that could not be forgotten, he asked, “Was it you, Rebecca? Were you the first to see the signal?”
Rebecca, severe behind the thick-rimmed, assertive spectacles that she had acquired in public office, replied, “Would it make you feel more complete Arthur, if I said yes? For you to know the signal was detected by your lab first?”
“I saw it, Rebecca. The circle hadn’t faded. But of course, you had already entered the melt code.”
Rebecca could not look him in the eye.
“Fortunately, for Earth, I was able to halt the melt code. I wrote it, after all.”
“How long until…”
“Forty-seven years. You’ll see it; I won’t.”
Reciprocation minus 7 minutes: The mainframe was back online. The monitor glowed. The notched circle burned brightly in the dark of the laboratory. Arthur adjusted the angle of the notch and bounced the signal back: ‘We will welcome you. But wait. Seventy-five Earth years. When we are scraping the mines and asteroids for precious minerals, and the naysayers have been proven wrong, then come to us. We will welcome you.’
Author: Rebecca Field
Each time I go to the morgue, I expect to find him. And then each time I leave, I wish that I could fall asleep and not wake up again. Become one of them. Lined up in death, all the colours of the rainbow coursing through their cold flesh, their waxy stares fixing on nothingness. Sometimes it is obvious how they died, sometimes not. Since the robots came, we die in many ways.
I can’t keep doing this, I tell myself as I push through the heavy wooden doors. The anticipation, the shock, the disgust. The smell hits first and I pull my scarf over my nose and mouth. This building used to be a theatre, before. Filled with music, songs, and laughter. The heavy curtains are still here, by what used to be the stage. The gold paintwork on the balustrades glimmers in the flickering light of the oil lamps. It must have looked wonderful lit up for a show. I never had the money to come here then. Now we all come. It’s the only way to reconnect with those we have lost.
I pass along the rows, head bowed. I’ve seen some of these bodies before. Those unclaimed will be burned in the mass funeral pyres on the outskirts of the city soon. At least their worries are over. I envy them that.
As I approach the children’s section, I take a deep breath and quickly scan the faces. It feels disrespectful, not to stop and mourn each little life. But I need to know he isn’t here, that maybe he is still out there somewhere.
When I am satisfied, I take a breath, knowing I’ll be back soon. I’ll keep returning until I join the ranks of the lined up dead myself. Who will come to claim me then? When none of us remain, the robots will not mourn.