Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The alarm wakes me at five am, just another day in a sea of days. I know I’ve been out for eight hours, but I don’t feel like I ever really sleep anymore. The world floods my consciousness whenever I’m not actively shutting it out. It fills my head with ideas, with trivial information, bombards me with visions. I watched the sun rise over Tokyo last night, time lagged from the observation deck of the Sony Station. I spent hours scrutinizing pedestrian traffic in Times Square, images squished through the lens and low band of an ATM camera. Better than the nightmares of navigating miles of glass tunnel beneath the sea. Anything’s better than that.

It’s five am. On the other side of the earth, the world may have gone dark, but it never really sleeps either. The patterns change, morph, adopt new personalities and a different kind of urgency, but they never stop. Never.

On the street outside, the busses are starting to unload the meat suits onto the benches along the park. Fresh from the depot and ready for another day of occupation. I know this is happening simultaneously across the city as the lowpay workforce readies itself for the daily assault into the physical world. Maybe one day I’ll get a real job, and get out of this place. Not today though. Never today.

I need to backup before I bifurcate, in case I crash getting ready for work. If something goes wrong I can be restoring while I’m out. Nothing worse than coming home to a crash and being stuck in a conduit, or worse, in a meat suit while you’re waiting for a restore. It’s always a little depressing having to compress to fit into one of the suits waiting downstairs. It’s rare that a useful experience comes back when the daily difference is applied, but better to save every day.

Hopefully they fixed the meniscus tear last night. Pain’s a novelty for a few minutes, but eight hours with a knee that locks up is tantamount to employee abuse. I don’t want to endure things I like for eight hours.

Eight hours seems an eternity to be away. Low band communications with the net, the physical constraints. Maybe Sarah will happen by today. We’ll have to watch the difference and see.

Maybe one day I’ll get a real job. Not today though. Never today.

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Beyond, Inc.

Author : Scott Hatfield

Nobody needs to die anymore.

Science has made amazing strides in the last couple of decades. Everyone gets to about 27 or 28 realyears and then simply stops aging. They sell packages if you want to be older or younger, taller or shorter, prettier or uglier, or a different sex. Or both.

All priced appropriately, of course.

And because you don’t need to die, you can try them all eventually (assuming you can afford all the combinations). You’ll see great great grandparents looking younger than their great great grandchildren, children originally born around the same time varying wildly in their personal preference of how old they feel they should be, spouses taking a -80 honeymoon back to when they were youthful – and there’s a discount package for that, too. Just talk to an Aging Consultant, they give you the injections, and your sleeping tube at home does the rest in about a month.

But why am I telling you this? You already know all that, you just asked about my job. I’m only 278, but I carry on like I’m 700. Sorry.

We call ourselves the Death Dealers. Not in public; death is still a taboo subject as you well know. There are the Aging Consultants, and we’re the Beyond Consultants. We sell inhumation packages (get it? It’s exhuming when they’re pulled out… sorry, industry joke) for everyone from the poorest slob to the richest conglomersecutive. Death isn’t good for profits, you see, and self-inhumation is taken very seriously. It reminds me of the Drugs War waged back in the 1900s…

What? I’m surprised you’ve never heard of it, though I guess I am a bit of a history buff. People weren’t allowed psychoactive drugs… Yeah, it is weird, isn’t it? Anyway, the families of self-inhumers face stiff penalties and fines if one of their own chooses that reckless path, so we’ve kept it down in the triple digits. Nothing to worry about at all.

And that’s where we come in.

Another joke: we have four departments, named after the classic War, Pestilence, Famine, and Death. As annoying as an F-inhume is, many cultures still find it keeps them closer to their long-lost ancestors. I mean, who would want a death like that? Everyone gets all the nutrients they need in their daily injections, and it just seems silly to me. But it’s cheap, so the Famine Department keeps going strong.

The Pestilence Department handles all the diseases, cancers, and other microbial inhumes. Along with curing all these mean-n-nasties, we’re able to replicate them at will. A basic long-term cancer package is remarkably affordable for anyone past 400 and only takes twenty to twenty-five years to run its course, and drugs can keep you away from most of the pain in the last half. Remember Ebola? They have a remarkably fast-acting strain that’s very chic these days. Very chic, and very expensive. The chance of spreading is very low now that we’ve tinkered with it, and they’ve been able to vaccinate most of the collaterals in time.

Over in Death Department, they get all the people who have a bit of money, but can’t spring for a WarI. Inhume on the spot, and it includes cremation. A traditional ceremony is only about 20% more for the replication of wood for the casket. Not very exciting over there, but they keep posting steady numbers.

Now for my department. I’ve wrangled a position here in War, and it’s great. They still call it War because of the four horses thing, even though nobody knows what a war is anymore. Or a horse. Can’t get away from tradition, can we? Well, in the War Department we get all the cool ones… and the biggest sales. With death being the last stop (science can do a lot, but we haven’t figured out how to bring them back yet), the last great adventure to take in a full life, the people with the most money want the biggest bang – sometimes literally – for their buck. Want a high-profile assassination? We can do that. The classic chainsaw murderer? A favorite that your family will be talking about for generations, and we can do that too. Just about anything interesting you can think of that isn’t that damned Ebola craze is our specialty.

So, since we’re friends… I can get you a great deal on a freak hover coaster accident. It’ll be the next big thing, I swear.

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Author : Mur Lafferty, featured writer

Dragon Eyes squirmed on the table, but it was no use. Reginald Brady, the supervillain who refused to take an official villain name, had covered her eyes, rendering her powers useless.

“I’m surprised to see you, Dragon Eyes,” he said, tightening her restraints, “Considering how your mother feels about me.”

Her mother, the hero Sunflower, had fought against Reginald Brady many times, in many legendary battles, eventually being the hero to put him behind bars.

“She did warn me about seeking you out,” Dragon Eyes admitted as Reginald secured the blindfold. If it slipped even a hair, she could incinerate him, but she couldn’t use her power through this special cloth.

She was definitely, securely, trapped. In the hands of her mother’s nemesis.

Doubt clouded her mind. She had known Reginald was brilliant with his ability to create gadgets, as he had been the only man to create a weapon strong enough to pierce her mother’s invulnerable flesh. Sunflower often showed the scar to Dragon Eyes, to warn against hubris, she had said. Dragon Eyes refused to look up what that meant.

Reginald fussed with something behind her head, and a machine hummed to life.

“So sorry I had to restrain you. I am reformed, you know. A new man.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “Absolutely law abiding. Did your mother tell you that?”

Dragon Eyes gritted her teeth. “She doesn’t believe you’re reformed. She told me not to come.”

His voice came really close to her ear. “Do you believe it, Dragon Eyes?”

“I-” her voice faltered.

A searing pain tore through her stomach and she shrieked, trying not to writhe on the table.

It was over in an instant. Reginald’s hands were on her belly, then gone. The snap of him removing latex gloves. “You all right?” She nodded. “Not going to fry me?” She shook her head. And off came the blindfold. Reginald’s weathered face grinned at her from underneath his red hair as he loosened her restraints.

Dragon Eyes looked down at the navel ring that had been inserted into her invulnerable belly. A golden dragon’s head winked up at her with emerald eyes. She grinned.

“So when will your tattoo gun be ready?” she asked.

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Girl Shopping

Author : Benjamin Fischer

Alana examines the next child. The young girl dodges her eyes. Alana frowns and gently grabs her by the chin, forcing the little Asian girl to meet her gaze.

“Have you been feeding this one enough?” she asks.

Viktor grinds his teeth.

“Some have no appetite,” he answers.

“And they are all here voluntarily,” Alana sneers.

Viktor swallows.

Alana looks over the eight year old again.

“Not this one,” she says. “Who is next?”

Viktor exhales.

“I will have another shipment arriving from Earth in one week-”

Alana glares at him.

“There is one more,” Victor says.

“Where is she then?” Alana asks, glancing around expectantly at the girls she’s already seen.

“I declined to bring her out,” Viktor says, “because she can be . . . uncooperative.”

Alana’s eyes light up.

“Show me,” she orders.

Viktor snaps his fingers and his lackeys quickly shuttle the six previous girls out of the showroom.

“‘Uncooperative,’” Alana repeats. “Explain.”

“Trust me, you don’t want this one,” Viktor says.

“You have no idea of what I want,” Alana replies. “I’m not here for an idiot clone–I’ve already got one of those.”

“My girls are not idiots,” Viktor says.

Alana laughs, her voice crackling with ire.

“Of course not. They all could have twice the genius of Einstein–and I could have each of them crawling on all fours baa-baa-baaing in five minutes. No, there’s a reason that Earth stays under our stilleto heel, and it’s because they’re all fucking sheep,” Alana spits.

“Show me something different or show me the door,” she says.

Viktor sighs. “The next girl is no sheep. She is . . . dismissive of my authority.”

“I would hope so,” Alana says.

“She actively attempts to undermine my control over the other children, and I’ve been forced to keep her separated in order to avoid using narcotics. She has formed, I think, a low opinion of her prospects up here.”

“And just what are her prospects?” Alana asks.

“If I come down in price any further,” Viktor says, “a Golden Crater brothel. And they will make her behave.”

Alana frowns but then the door to Viktor’s kennels opens and two of his lackeys muscle their way into the showroom. They struggle to keep hold on the hellcat between them, who lashes at their shins and thighs with shoeless feet and scuffed knees. She is whip-thin but nearly Alana’s height, and her unkempt black hair is mussed and a big tear is rapidly developing in the shoulder of her smock.

“Let her go,” Alana commands. Viktor’s men step away, glad to be done with their burden.

The girl’s hazel eyes focus on Alana.

“Who the fuck are you?” she asks with a sneering drawl.

Quick as lightning, Alana slaps the girl across the face.

A pregnant pause, and Alana can see the fury boiling up inside the girl. Sure as thunder, her little hand comes flying at Alana’s head.

Alana catches the blow bare millimeters from her cheek.

“This one will do,” Alana says.

“Who are you?” the girl asks, struggling to pull her hand out of Alana’s grip.

Alana smiles.

“You can call me Mother.”

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Winking Out

Author : Christopher Albanese

There it is, a wide-open wink. It slowly slid the light from my eyes, then the warmth from my face. And still there it sits.

They say there’s no sound of it, here or in space, but I feel in my bones the hum of such a gargantuan braking of motion.

They say there’s no smell, no way a smell could be caused by the most passive of galactic events, these massive bodies just passing each other by in our sky; but I smell cordite, and I smell burnt lumber. I smell blood.

Around me the fires still blaze, but the screams have long since passed from this remote, rolling green hill. It is springtime and warm in Wisconsin, and the hills in the Midwest do just as they say, roll and roll and roll. It looks as if they roll right off the Earth’s edges.

The darkness of night clings like humid velvet to the noontime sky. Fires glare and sparkle. Fewer and fewer miles away, the Atlantic heaves and boils as it spumes across West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana. Before the lights went out, they said it would slow when it hit Lake Michigan, but not for long. Milwaukee would be gone before Chicago finished a final exhale.

Last November, they said it was going to be spectacular, the first total solar eclipse visible from the US in almost 40 years. Back then, with Thanksgiving still a week away and a full Wisconsin winter to endure, August was still a distant closeout to a far off summer, and was not at the forefront of most people’s minds.

But on May 21 – just three months before the eclipse – word came from the Keck Observatory that something seemed wrong up there, something with the moon. They said it was rotating the wrong way, or slowing down, or something. It was a lot of scientific talk about “lunar torque” and “tidal bulge,” but CNN, CBC, the BBC, they all distilled the chatter to the same chilling fact: The moon was going to snap its gravitational elastic given the right push…or pull.

It was all a matter of timing.

Around me, the night quavers; behind me, the ocean moans. Above me, the total solar eclipse – the first, and last, in my lifetime – has finished its thirtieth brutal hour.

They say there’s no sound of it, here or in space, but I feel in my bones the snap of a gargantuan, celestial elastic. Above me, the corona around the moon begins to expand as it is pulled away from the Earth.

Around me, the night withers; behind me, the ocean roars. As the moon’s umbra dilates and salt water fills the air, I reach up to touch the glare and sparkle of the winking sun.

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