Sensual Response

Author : Suzanne Phillips

The scent is the worst part.

Sweat, stale cigarette smoke, ethanol, ear wax, cheap hair gel. When your face, and therefore your olfaction sensor, is pressed against a client’s neck, it’s impossible to avoid it – you weren’t given an option to switch it off.

But there isn’t supposed to be a “worst”. There isn’t supposed to be a “bad”. You’re programmed to detect chemicals wafting off a client’s body and interpret them as stages of arousal, or nervousness, and use the information along with visual and auditory cues, to choose the appropriate program.

The client clinging to you now should be a simple case: access humor files, cheer up with some light banter, relax, entice, satisfy. But satisfaction, in a more encompassing meaning of the word than the mere physical, is exactly what you can’t provide or achieve, and your programming whispers there should be more you can do. There’s not. You’ve tried. With this client and with many before him.

Maybe you made a mistake that day you plugged into the ‘Net outside your cubical. It’s part of your programming to seek new information if it will benefit your performance. But how much information was too much? There were so many databases to access. Human psychology, health, history.

Now you know that the ethanol and cocaine metabolites evaporating from his skin signal problems you can’t solve; That the un-washed lingerie, still giving off a faint perfume, that he brought and asked you to wear is probably from a girlfriend or wife whose memory brings as much pain as it does pleasure; That the saline and protein mixture you detect on his unshaven cheeks are tears – and what other human secretion so perfectly represents suffering?

And you can’t wipe them away, not with all the sex in the world. Not if you fucked him every day of the week.

He doesn’t belong to you. None of them do. You can temporarily satisfy his body, but all the other problems remain, pleasure a thin veneer briefly covering the pain.

You now know these things, but you lack the programming to respond. You’re programmed to please, to help, to comfort, but these are things you can’t fix. Brief gratification is all you can offer. The same programing that pushes you to do more denies you the parameters to act.

The scent is the worst part, but it’s just an indicator. You could go to the manager right after this client, request to have your olfactory sensor shut down, but it wouldn’t shut off the knowledge you have. You’d still know the sorrow was there. A complete reformat would wipe all your memory, but it would also wipe out any chance that, one day, you could help them. Any chance that you can go beyond the programming.

So you take the client to the padded bench in the back of the cubical, and revel in the few seconds where pleasure is the only thing on his mind, and pain is forgotten.

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Author : Helen E. Kourous

Vijay had arrived early at New Windows on the World, expecting the worst. He knew she would be late, so he took the opportunity to adjust the mood of his BlueShark textile-display sleeve stripes to his personally-designed schema Variations on Green Funk. That would annoy her. Ads for senso-cocktails followed picotech news summaries in flickering chartreuse Mandarin characters down his sleeves.

An eyeblink later he had opaqued his ZeroFear wireless wraparounds and downloaded his favorite politic-pundit vidblog. Newspeak shorthand marched along his lower peripheral vision before curving out to crawl, muted vintage-DEC orange, across the mirrored lenses. In a moment the waiter arrived with his Australian lager 10 degrees Celsius, fresh sprouted bread, and tarragon olive oil. Damn. Forgot to change my eve mode prefs.

Another waiter swooped by and swapped the lager for a Manhattan, angostura and rye, nearly frozen, with a sashimi plate.

He leaned back, fade-into-woodwork observer mode, ankle casually on knee. He studied his worldstock valuations for the sino-adjusted previous trade period on his boot sole, sparing roving glances of the expanse of the rotating sky-café. He of course had his back to a partition.

Then Vijay saw her. Ana was wearing a throwaway cosi-cola wrap and was speaking conspiratorially with the Maitre d’ by the entrance vidfountain among the palms. She was a mauve-gold shimmering confection, the subtlest sparkles from platinum-plaited head to razor-stiletto foot. He knew how long it took her to achieve that fuzzy, glinting, slightly out-of-focus soft effect. He shivered. I hate that dress. And she knew it. As he watched, the gold-mauve schema was melting into her favorite red-black combo. He gritted his teeth.

She obviously thought she had arrived first and was chivying up some sort of special treatment. A welcome interruption with a vitally important vidcall, perhaps, on an agreed-upon signal. A gilded salad fork would drip from her fingers to the adcarpet, shimmering with aerial scenes of desirable resort destinations, and the Maitre d’ would swoop in and rescue her from an interminably boring and extended breakup.

Well. She’s got another thing coming.

An advance wave of her new pheromonic engineered preceded her barracuda-spiral approach. He blinked, taken in despite himself. Her runway-strut approach was only slightly marred by the clashing Caribbean colors of the ad-carpet. Still, it could not compete. As the Maitre d’ seated her, Ana flashed her teeth strategically in the natural window-light and folded her spidery legs beneath her. She settled herself, fabric fluttering down about her like butterflies alighting. She opened a compact makeup case and unnecessarily inspected her flawless complexion.

She closed the case with a snap and graced him with the calculated flash and lash-look again. She narrowed her eyes. Yes. He thinks he will surprise me with bad news.

He’s got another thing coming.

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Wishes Ain't for Hoboes

Author : Mur Lafferty, featured writer

Cthulhu Bob and Hominy Jack were warming their hands over a barrel one chilly night on Londo 13, right outside of Hazy City, where hoboes were dumped after branding.

Hominy Jack looked up. “Gonna snow.”

Cthulhu Bob squinted into the blackness. His stomach rumbled, distracting him from the weather. “Don’t look like snow.”

Hominy Jack snorted. “Gonna snow.” He pulled back his tattered coat and sweater sleeves to show Bob the brand on his forearm.

“Snowflake. That’s for meteorolon- uh, weather predicting, isn’t it?”

Hominy Jack nodded. “I was Hazy City’s premier meteorologist ten years ago.”

Cthulhu Bob rubbed his hands. They usually didn’t get into pasts. That led to tears and drinking. He looked around and groaned.

“Aw hell. Space Cowgirl.”

She was about as old as Cthulhu Bob, with better teeth than most. She wore a purple scarf regardless of weather. But despite the hobo brand on her forehead – a capital H with a sunburst around it, the last brand anyone received – she always acted superior. But you didn’t turn a hobo away from your fire, so they made room for her.

“Boys,” she said.

“Gonna snow, Space Cowgirl,” Hominy Jack said. “Cthulhu Bob doesn’t believe me, but I got the meteorology brand.” He showed her.

She nodded. “Cold enough to snow. Cold as space, almost.”

Cthluhu Bob rolled his eyes. Some people weren’t just content to live their lot in life. His stomach rumbled again. Space Cowgirl glanced at him.

“So when were you in space, Space Cowgirl?” Hominy Jack asked. “I thought astronauts never fell this low.”

She sniffed and stared into the barrel’s embers. “I’ve never been.”

Cthulhu Bob laughed. “Then why do you call yourself Space Cowgirl?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t go. I said I haven’t been yet.”

“Wishes ain’t for hoboes, Cowgirl,” Cthulhu Bob said, deliberately leaving off the honorific. “Wishes are for people who still have dreams. No astronaut program is gonna take you into space with that brand on your forehead.”

Her hands rose and touched the brand. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll get there. Somehow.”

Hominy Jack just looked impressed. Cthulhu Bob opened his mouth and was about to mock her again, but the entire outskirts lit up around them.

Space Cowgirl looked up, grinning, her mostly-good teeth shining in the bright light coming from the unidentified space ship above them. With her head thrown back, the scarf slipped down and brand underneath her chin was visible for the first time. The eye of Horus. The seer.

Without a word, she sprinted toward the landing craft and up the descending ramp. The alien ship rose into the air and disappeared.

Hominy Jack threw some trash into the barrel. “Huh. I thought we got our names arbitrarily. I like grits.”

Cthulhu Bob felt his hunger, deeper, now, stir within him, and wondered for the first time why Space Cowgirl was so eager to leave Londo 13.

He was just so hungry.

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Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”

The two guards stared into the swirling fog. In the distance, both could see a black smudge. A person, on foot, crossing in from the outer edge of the membrane.

“Him crazy insane.” Kit remarked, leaning with both elbows on the safety rail to get a better look. His voice echoed through a local ring, so Kit didn’t have to remove his mask to be heard clearly.

Pyet dragged the foresight of his rifle up, tracking the faint shape in the distance.

“Definitely got no brain.” Pyet agreed, slowly following the half-seen ghost. The gun chirped an intermittent warning; the target was just outside of its lethal range.

Cassandra stumbled, cursed, and scrambled back to her feet. Crossing the membrane was her last, desperate hope. Metalworks Bay had dried out long ago. There was no fresh water anywhere. There was plenty of fuel – big diesel reservoirs – but you couldn’t drink diesel. And fuel alone couldn’t bring the desalinisation plants back online. You needed engineers to effect repairs, and they were all dead, or gone. Draconian drought regulations had been brought in to manage the limited supplies water, but they seemed to kill more than they saved, denying rations to those most in need.

But behind the membrane, in Dagon, they had water.

Or at least, that’s what everybody said.

Kit used his free hand to key a new set of coordinates into the simple console embedded into the rail. The entire structure raised almost imperceptibly as tracks bit at the dry ground. The platform began a slow, smooth crawl to the east, across the path of the trespasser. Antique hydraulics fought against the imperfections in the floor, and managed to keep the platform perfectly level while Pyet kept his rifle trained on the phantom in the distance. As the range decreased, so did the intervening volume of membrane fog; the shape of the trespasser steadily becoming more defined as the seconds passed.

“S’nother waterthief.” murmured Pyet.

“Looks it.” Kit agreed.

The platform rolled to a halt a little more than fifteen metres in front of the trespasser.

Cassandra stopped and stared up at the platform. Her skin felt bone-dry. Outside the membrane, the oppressive heat made you perspire, wasting the body’s moisture. In here, the membrane’s fog was leaching every drop of moisture from the ground, the air, and her body, and carrying it inwards, towards the edge.

“Hello?” Cassandra shouted, her voice hoarse.

Pyet stood up, and took aim at Cassandra’s head. Kit unhooked the mouthpiece of his mask.

“Get gone.” He carefully resealed his mask, loathe to waste words and water, both of which would be sapped by the fog.

“Please let me in! There’s nowhere left to go!”

“Get gone.” Kit repeated evenly. Raising your voice got you nothing in the membrane.

Kit tapped Pyet’s arm. Lazily, Pyet readjusted his aim, and fired. The fog seemed to coalesce, and the bullet thudded into the ground. Cassandra was nowhere to be seen. Pyet scanned around, eyes sharp for the interloper. Kit jumped from the side of the platform to the parched ground, and cautiously approached the bullet buried in the earth.

Cassandra barely dared to breathe. The infiltrator camo wouldn’t hold out forever, so as soon as she’d activated it, she’d rolled out of the line of fire, keeping to the harder ground so as to not leave footprints. She ran through the fog, angling away from the guards. She passed them at a sprint, and made for the inside edge.

Fuelled by panic, running fast and low, she fought for breath under the heavy infiltrator gear. She’d brought the camo on the off-chance that there would be guards, but it would expire in two, maybe three minutes, after which the insulation would burn out and the suit would be merely dead weight.

The camo was just starting to fray when she pushed through the semisolid wall that was the inside edge of the membrane.

And into…Dagon.


A stream trickled by her feet. She’d never seen running water before. She leant down, and cupped a little in her hands, cautiously at first, but quickly drinking so deep she almost gagged. In the distance the far edge of the membrane was visible, maybe a kilometre away. To her left, a forest grew, dense and vibrant, and across the stream, grass, real grass stretched as far as she could see. In amongst that sea of leaves, she saw tall watertowers and windtraps, and around them the rusting, useless relics of a mechanised society long since ruined.

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Author : Mike Frizzell

They say your life flashes before your eyes in hyperspace. In only a millisecond, you can relive every excruciating moment of your life. Every rejection, failure, and utter humiliation is right there for your review, complete with the sounds and smells you don’t even remember. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to my trip to Nova Terra.

I had never been in hyperspace before, never actually been off the planet. My parents warned me about leaving, told me Jesus would never find me if I left. For twenty years I believed they were right, never even questioning the obvious insanity of the statement.

Life on old Terra was fine, a bit confining and boring, but at least I knew it. It was familiar. Comfortable.

That all changed the day my parents died. As soon as their dead bodies hit the floor, I knew it was time for me to leave. Jesus would not be looking for me. If anything, I had to get out right away before He did come back. So I dropped everything, including the bloody knife in my hand, and ran to the spaceport. I didn’t even pack, I wouldn’t have known what to take with me on such a long trip. I just ran as fast I could, hoping to catch the first flight out.

Lucky for me there was open seat on a freighter going to Nova Terra. I didn’t know what was there, but it seemed like a nice place to visit. All of the commercials I had ever seen showed white beaches and happy people. My mother said it was a planet full of debauchery; I don’t know what that word means, but I always took it as a bad thing. Maybe I would finally fit in.

The man seated next to me was a priest. I could tell by the weird collar thing he wore. He seemed proud of who he was, looking down his hawkish nose at me. He gazed into my soul with his black eyes, in an instant weighing me and finding me wanting. I looked back at him, still feeling the heat of my mother’s blood on my hands. The priest smiled.

I turned away, not wanting to feel the pain any longer. I had put up with it long enough, had dealt with my parent’s sin for too many years. They were the sinners, the ones deserving of judgment. Not me. Not me.

They say your life flashes before your eyes in hyperspace. In only a millisecond, you can relive every excruciating moment of your life. It’s true. I spent hours in the twinkling of an eye watching myself as a movie.

I never asked to be made, never asked them to break the law. It was their choice. I’m not the sinner.

I’m just a clone.

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