The Last Art on Earth

Author : Janna Layton

Cassandra walked down Lilac Street, past the same WMG Corporation superstores and chain restaurants on every Lilac Street in every city. “When you’re in a WMG City, you’re home!” a billboard declared. As she approached, the scanner read her retina to gather information from the marketing database. The billboard then displayed products WMG’s computers determined she might like.

She ignored the images and continued towards Heartville, one of a few scattered “unincorporated towns” of independent eateries and artist studios where WMG couldn’t do business. Supposedly. She thought of the zine in her purse. It looked inconspicuous, but no doubt WMG could do inconspicuous. One article praised a Heartville coffeehouse. Did the author, who had lived in the town for years, truly love it, or was he a “cuckoo,” an undercover WMG employee hired to promote “cuckoo eggs,” unincorporated town establishments secretly owned by WMG? The idea was hypothetical; they had no proof it was being done. “Why would WMG bother?” people asked. But as small as the towns’ businesses were, they were businesses, and Cassandra was sure WMG’s thinking was, “Why not?”

Condos gave way to shacks in Heartville, clean beige paintjobs to impromptu murals. Cassandra used to feel revitalized when entering it. Here was a place, she had thought, where art was art, where she wasn’t being monitored to determine how she could contribute profits to a monopoly. But perhaps even this sanctuary had been taken.

Once she had seen graffiti stating, “The last art on Earth.” Was she the last artist, with her poetry? No, that was vain, she told herself. Surely there were others. Surely most artists in Heartville were what they said they were.

It was possible, she thought, that a cuckoo had written the graffiti to assure residents Heartville was still rebellious and pure, and art still an escape.

She stopped by Joe’s Organic Bakery for two cupcakes. The flyers denouncing big-business agriculture: a disguise? She couldn’t tell, not even when Joe smiled at her.

A few blocks later she stepped inside a gallery, uncertain if doing so was hopeful or masochistic at that point. She liked a painting of an indigo horse, but immediately wondered if a WMG study had concluded the image would appeal to her demographic. Which was the worse prospect: for such paranoid thoughts to stay with her always or for them to disappear? Was the last art on Earth gone already, or was it right here and she couldn’t enjoy it?

“You okay?”

Cassandra turned towards a girl at an easel. “Yeah.”

A paper sign said bartering was welcome.

“Is a cupcake from Joe’s worth a drawing?” she asked.

“Definitely,” the girl replied, grabbing a pen. “Tell me what you want.”

Cassandra handed her a cupcake and a piece of paper from her writing notebook. She wanted something that she knew came from somewhere sincere. Something that, even if this artist was a WMG employee trying to lower her defenses, was created in her own mind.

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Author : Andy Bolt

I am hopeful and afraid. I am hateful and compassionate. I am selfish and embarrassed. I’m Garret Garvy, an emotive Botch.

We were a small number of neurological guinea pigs for Johns Hopkins a few years back, participating in the Mechanical Smile Project, an experiment in emotion control. Not in the vague, uncontrolled way of the old prescription medications, but in a real, conscious, push-this-button-and-feel-that-way style of emotion control. It was a combination of heavy hormone stimulants and post-hypnotic suggestion, and it would have been revolutionary. You literally would never have had to be sad again. With the push of a bio-button, your life could have been non-stop ecstasy. It was the end of human suffering as we knew it, according to Meghan Wells, the frenzy-eyed young grad student who injected me with a bluish substance before asking me to count backwards from one hundred.

It didn’t work.

What it did was link, accidentally but inextricably, several of my neurochemical and hormonal processes. Virtually all of my emotions now come paired with another, and several of them aren’t all that compatible. Love and depression, for example.

I am standing in my self-cleaning kitchen, staring aimlessly into space, a plate of uneaten mush behind me. Happiness comes with panic, so I don’t eat anything with a pleasing taste anymore. I used to be pretty chunky. I’m twenty pounds underweight now. As I lean absently against my Stero-sink, my spine grate against porcelain. My polycotton smart shirt rubs against by elbows, and I concentrate on the sensation. It’s so neutral, neither pleasant nor painful. I have come to appreciate neutrality. Apathy comes paired with rage, so I have to care, but in a minimalist, nonspecific sort of way. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

It’s roughest on my fiancée. Mela shuffles into the kitchen, looking like a half-cooked slab of meat that has been left out for a few days. Her eyes are pink and barely opened, and the rest of her has taken on a faint grayish color. A few hundred reddish hairs are rebelling from her head, striking off in their own directions without regard for the collective will. She wears a purple bathrobe that is almost more hole than clothing. A jagged tear near her neck exposes the swell of her left breast. Sexual desire comes paired with grief. Not worth it.

“Nisse just needs some milk,” she murmurs, shuffling past me and kneeling in front of the fridge, where she begins rifling through bottles. Nisse’s our six-month old daughter and the only reason we’re still together. Mela takes care of her, mostly. She’s a good mother. I sit behind her, on the floor, and reach up to massage her shoulders. She sighs, shuddering at my touch.

“How do you feel?” she asks without turning around. I think about it for a moment before wrapping my arms around her stomach and pulling her into my lap. Pressing my lips to her ear, I whisper,

“I’m always depressed.”

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Lieutenant Bensen’s neck snapped in my strong hands with a crack and a gurgle. Her surprised eyes goggled up at me as her body went limp. Corporal Manciewicz lay behind me in pieces already while the happy captain himself, mister high-and-mighty Captain Pankter, squatted terrified in front of me in the corner. He’d been crying and a high animal keening was squeaking out from between his clenched teeth. He had the light sweat, wild eyes, and electric stink of raw fear. I dove towards him like a wolf would jump on a rabbit. Like the others, I used my teeth and bare hands.

I look forward out of the bridge viewport and smile at the memory.

I get it all out on the holodeck. I think I may have actually killed this entire ship by now. I’ve killed the bridge crew dozens of times for sure. Probably half of the women on the ship have earned a place in my recreation at one time or another. A few of the men as well. The ones that were going out with any of the women I fancied.

I walk around with a smile on my face all the time. My lovers have told me that I even smile in my sleep. I’ll chuckle at odd times in conversations remembering the slaughter.

I don’t get in trouble. People don’t ask me questions about my behaviour. No one knows about my programs.

Any of the crew that whines ends up there, too. I can’t stand whiners. Or complainers. Or people that don’t have the sense god gave a goat to keep their own lives in order.

I’m the ship’s counselor, you see.

I need an outlet. This entire ship’s neuroses are funneled through me and my outwardly sunny disposition. I am one of the best ship’s counselors in the fleet.

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Natural Progression

Author : Todd Keisling, featured writer

Jimmy lost his pinky finger today. I can’t wait ’til I lose mine. Mommy says it’s gonna happen sooner or later. Sometimes I daydream about it—what it’d be like to lose my arm, my foot, my fingers and hands.

The kids at school, Billy Zemicks and Janna Clebold and Harvey Valencia, they came in last week missing an eye, a toe, an ear. Not all at the same time, of course, but pretty darn close. It was like they were the most popular people in school. Everybody wanted to see them, touch the places where their parts had been and ask what it felt like.

Jimmy was in the bathroom, having the Oralator brush his teeth for him when his pinky fell off. I asked him if it hurt. He said it didn’t, and then he spat into the sink. A couple of his teeth went down the drain.

Our teacher Mrs. Crabtree says it’s all part of our natural progression. What scientists a hundred years ago were calling evolution. Only backwards. It’s kinda hard to explain, but it’s got something to do with how we used to be monkeys, and how we grew into humans. We made wheels and fire and then we made computers and cars. Then we figured out a way for machines and inventions to do everything for us.

So I asked Jimmy if he was gonna celebrate, and he said, “Nah, I’m just gonna chill out in front of the tube.” I followed him to the living room where he sat down next to Mommy and Daddy. They were watching TV while the SofAid fed them. Jimmy told Mommy and Daddy about his pinky.

Mrs. Crabtree said, “Over millions of years, creatures can gain or lose abilities and appendages based on necessity and survival.” She told us all this while holding up a stump where her hand used to be.

When Jimmy told Mommy and Daddy about his finger, the SofAid connected him to the Network. Then it inserted a needle into his arm and began to feed him breakfast. Daddy said, “That’s great, son! You’re on your way to becoming a man.”

On TV, the news reporters said it was happening everywhere, and that it boggled all the scientists in the world. Evolution was supposed to happen after a long time, not right away. Not like this.

They said we should embrace this new wonder of humanity. They said, “Imagine, no longer feeling the need to sleep! Or eat! Or copulate!” We still needed to sleep and eat, of course, but they said it was always a possibility. That was one of the great things about evolution.

I still don’t know what copulate means, though. Maybe I won’t have to. It sounds gross.

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Time Enough for a Wedding

Author : Grady Hendrix

…and he suddenly wakes up with a start. The light was all wrong, a brief nap shouldn’t have taken this – 5:45! Oh, god. Oh, no. Why hadn’t his alarm clock gone off? Eric squeezed his forehead in his hands and made a high-pitched sound: he had slept through his own wedding. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have a secret laboratory underneath your house and you muck about with time travel.

“I’ll fix it,” he said out loud. “I’ll fix it.”

He leapt up and adjusted the time vest for just one more trip. He cinched the straps and hit the button and he was instantly unmoored in the Chronoverse, suddenly reduced to a unique set of free floating personality traits rushing backwards to…

Just a few hours ago! He looked at himself sleeping at his desk, head nestled in the crook of his elbow. He’d done it! He carefully set the alarm on his clock and got ready for his return trip. Is that what he looked like from behind? Well he certainly needed to shave the back of his neck more often. Then he was looking down the barrel of a gun. Several guns, in fact. Several guns being held by uniformed strangers.

“Come with us, Professor Tenser,” one of them said. “We’ll make this easy on you.”

“Who are you people?”

“Copyright Enforcement. You invented time travel, but we used your invention to travel back in time and invent it before you. You’re wearing a bootleg vest so we’re going to have to kill you.”

“You can’t kill me for a copyright violation.”

“Sure we can. Our lawyers went back and put it in the Constitution.”

Eric panicked and slapped the button on his vest, flinging himself randomly into time. The Copyright Cops followed. Down the corridors of history they ran: Medieval, Mesozoic, Middle Reformation, Great Awakening. Hiding behind Thomas Becket’s robes, crouching in a Catholic hiding hole, squatting behind the battlements of a castle. Eric was good at running but then he thought, “What if…?” and he set a different path.

Now waiting on the pink shores of a prehistoric sea, Coelacanths mating merrily in the deep, he sees a tiny fish, gills straining, taking its first crawl up onto land, chased by an angry trilobite. Eric had worked this problem out, spending almost a year in a looped millisecond so that no time at all had passed. He had pinpointed this little Rhipidistia as the earliest ancestor of the Copyright Cops who were on his tail. He smushed it with a rolled up magazine.

“There,” he said. “Now to get back to my wedding.”

Yanked into the present, he’s back in his lab, exhausted after his chase through time, but exhilarated as well. He sits at his workbench to get ready for the wedding but first, just a little nap. He puts his head down on his arms, he falls soundly asleep…

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