Not an Imaginary Figment

Author : KJ Hannah Greenberg

Charles lingered in the treetop. Not munitions or bribery had coaxed him from his lair. Charles defended his sanctuary with occasional conflagrations and, less frequently, with bad puns. Charles continued to sup on jerboae and lorikeets. He even succeeded in catching a kestrel. Meanwhile, news crews recorded his actions.

Although the neighborhood, minus a ferret or two, remained rapt by Charles’ conduct, Doris didn’t notice, so preoccupied was she with her mailbox. Closing the lid, Doris sighed. Whereas the postal service insisted on placing parcels beneath Doris’ letter bucket, and whereas it had lost jewelry and flour sent by dim relatives, it was the lack of Wilson ’s correspondence which agitated Doris .

Wilson , busy hitchhiking through the Middle East , had reiterated, electronically, that he had sent hundreds of tacit missives. Doris had received two dozen. In contrast, Doris, who disbelieved that Mom pilfered mailbox treasures, had written, daily. Letters could not be interesting to a parent who could eavesdrop on private calls or “just happened” to walk on intimate moments.

Charles spun within his arboreal fortress. Forgetting, due to hunger-imposed hypoglycemia, that tail thrashing broke branches and caused humans to scurry forward with all manners of camera lens, he also snuffed and snorted. The chimera needed to scream and to belch (bandicoots are hard to digest), but he stymied himself remembering the incident he caused at a nearby house. Doris ’ roof, next in his line of sight, didn’t seem any more fireproof, though its layered grass looked serviceable against inclement weather. So, Charles continued his moral gymnastics.

Doris left her mailbox. Mom chastised her for loving Wilson , especially whenever Doris ’ bed resounded in the kitchen below. Even a university degree, lambasted Mom, would be better than canoodling with Dr. Hichkins’ scion.

Doris shrugged her way home and returned to her bedroom to compose. She and Wilson could travel to New York City after she won the speculative fiction writing prize. Doris described a scaly mouth sucking on a lion-like paw.

Charles watched and snorted afresh. He knew himself to be no more a manifestation of someone else’s intrusive thoughts than in any other respect imaginary. A proper monster, hatched from a proper egg, Charles was neither fabrication nor delusional invention. His source was his venerated mother.

Charles twinged again as he scanned the garden. Something rustled among the spiny-headed rush and common wallaby grass. Maybe he could take a small swoop; he was very hungry.

Doris clicked to another screen. An editor liked Doris ’ contention that individuals ought to be measured against their own norms. That woman wanted Doris to email biographical data plus a photo for Doris ’ pending work.

Such data, though, would reveal Doris ’ sixteen years and would necessitate parental permissions. Mom hated Doris ’ mass media rhetoric, caring nothing for ethical dilemmas. To wit, Mom had threatened to cancel Doris’ cable access and to disallow Doris a private postbox. What’s more, Mom instructed the postmistress to preview Doris ’ mail.

Doris scowled at her computer. It was vital to evade demographic questions. She enjoyed publishing, but enjoyed electronic access to Wilson even more. Doris rescinded her submission.

In the interim, the fire brigade that destroyed Charles’ nest designed to destroy him. Charles tweaked his ears as an armed vehicle entered the hamlet on an auxiliary road.

The next morning, Doris forwent visiting her mailbox. Fretting made her sloppy. There’d be no envelope from Wilson , anyway.

Fretting made Charles sloppy, too. He shuddered within Doris ’ mail receptacle, reflecting on just how close the municipal buccaneers had been to finding him.


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John Smith

Author : Phillip English

Once the guests had arrived and were seated in the confines of the oak-panelled meeting room, the host for the evening rose to the lecturn, introduced himself, and began to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you may be aware of the theory that the people that look the most like us are the people that we tend to be attracted to. Men find women who have similar facial construction to themselves more attractive. I think there was even a Crime Drama episode that featured this as a plot device once.”

The gathering chuckled, more at the assumption that they watched public webdramas than the reference.

“What is not well known is that the same theory applies not only to sexual preferences, but social preferences as well. Statistically speaking, you are more likely to have the same tastes in music as someone who has the same facial features as yourself.”

A few people in the room scoffed slightly at this, but the speaker put up his hands imploringly and continued. “I know, I know, it sounds crazy. How can these factors possibly be correlated? We thought the same thing when we first started our surveys. But the strange coincidence of guys with jug-ears and blunt noses loving Led Zeppelin was just the beginning. We cross-referenced any number of parameters and had them come up with the same facial influence. Eating habits, exercise, your religion being influenced by whether your eyes are spaced evenly or not. We never expected to find anything like this, and we still aren’t sure if it’s something hidden in our genes, or a very subtle social ripple effect. But to be honest, the origins aren’t something we care about.”

The crowd was amused, but obviously waiting for the point. The speaker sensed this. “I can see we’ve got a very discerning crowd here, so let’s cut to the chase. What does this mean to you? Well, as some of you might have guessed given the administrative alumni that are present, the principle extends to political views as well. People are more likely to vote, believe in the principles of, and follow unbendingly someone who shares facial characteristics with themselves.” The speaker smiled at the mixture of bored and impatient nods in the crowd. He rose and moved to stand next to a door on the opposite side of the room, whispering to one of his security aides on the way.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have been working non-stop with the world’s most skilled plastic surgeons, facial recognition software specialists, genetic therapists, and data miners for the past five years on a top-secret project. The project was code-named ‘Narkissos’, and tonight I have the pleasure to introduce you to the result of that project.”

The speaker reached forward and opened the door to let a man through. The new man was wearing an exquisitely tailored suit, polished shoes, and dark glasses. As he removed the glasses with two manicured fingers, the crowd gasped.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man who is everyone.”


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Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

“What’s the status of the quarantine field, Mr. Conrad?” asked Captain Germex.

“As terminal as an event horizon, Captain,” replied the ship’s Science Officer.

Mazzaroth was the fifth planet of the bright star Alpha Boötis, a Class K1.5, orange-red gas giant. Although the luminary was only one and a half times more massive than Earth’s sun, its diameter was 26 times larger, about a quarter the size of Mercury’s orbit. Alpha Boötis was one of the rare Population II “old disc” stars. “Old disc” stars formed in the thick discs of dust clouds that orbit the galactic core a thousand light years above and/or below the galactic plane. These stars have highly inclined orbits around the galactic core, and periodically wander into our portion of the galactic plane, as Alpha Boötis was doing now. In addition, star systems formed in these “old disc” dust clouds have a different chemistry than Earth’s Population I star. They have significantly lower amounts of heavy elements, such as iron, nickel, copper, and gold. Consequently, their planets were smaller, and less dense, and their solar spectrums contained elevated levels of Z-beta radiation. Astrobiologists speculate that it was the Z-beta radiation that promoted the development of the abnormal indigenous life that was currently driving the colonists of Mazzaroth mad.

A month earlier, it was discovered that the settlements on Mazzaroth became infected with neural parasites. These parasites were single celled microorganisms that infiltrate the host’s brain, causing schizophrenia, delusional parasitosis, paranoia, and dysthymia, to name a few. The disease was extremely contagious and incurable. Once a settlement was infected, there was no option except complete extermination. The only concern beyond that was containment. Specifically, did the parasites have an opportunity to leave the planet? Review of Mazzaroth’s shipping logs revealed that only two starships picked up cargo or passengers from Mazzaroth in the last two months. Both ships were expeditiously intercepted, and quarantined, before they reached their destinations. After a few weeks, the passengers on the second ship to leave Mazzaroth developed dysthymia. The first ship appeared clean. This convinced doctors that the epidemic could be contained. As a precaution, the propulsion systems of both ships were destroyed and they were towed to a nearby star. Both ships were placed in decaying orbits that eventually caused them to plummet into the star’s fiery corona. Destruction of the “uncontaminated” first ship was considered a necessary safety precaution. “For the betterment of all mankind,” reported The Department of Galactic Health and Safety.

Captain Germex stared at Mazzaroth through the forward viewport. Once, this planet had supported over 250,000 inhabitants. Now, less than 80,000 were still alive, and they were no longer considered human. “Prepare to execute Operation Sterilize, Mr. Atwood,” ordered the captain. The Tactical Officer entered the appropriate codes into the computer, then looked up at the captain and nodded, to indicate that he was ready. With both regret and determination, the captain said “Fire all torpedoes.”

The modulation fields of the twelve engineered projectiles passed smoothly through the quarantine grid at roughly 60 degrees of separation. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, they all detonated. The concussion wave spread outward at more than 2,000 miles an hour. Mazzaroth’s atmosphere ignited into a global fireball that consumed the entire planet. For a few hours, the planet was nearly as bright as Earth’s sun.


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Multiple Sufficiency

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

As the relative calm of midnight in the projects was broken by a series of tightly spaced explosions, Tiberius knew he’d made a serious, and perhaps fatal mistake letting their prey separate him from his brother.

Tiberius shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet as he ran, water torn from puddles streaming out behind him. Weapon in hand, he followed the sound through an alley onto the next block, his breath measured, heart rate barely rising.

In the street to his left, a crumpled mass confirmed his fear. Gaius. Tiberius hugged the wall, slowing as he closed the distance. On the ground a few feet from his fallen brother lay a cluster of discarded alloy cylinders; casings from mechanical ignition rounds. They weren’t scanning for those, an error they wouldn’t repeat.

Gaius curled face down in a pool of his own blood. The hunted had shot him in the back; the work of a coward, or the very afraid. They’d almost had him, they were this close.

Tiberius knew they’d be alone now, the prey would have taken the opportunity to distance himself from here. For both, this was a time to regroup.

Gingerly lifting his brother from the asphalt and sitting behind him, Tiberius pulled Gaius to his chest. Steadying his head between his hands, he polled his fading synaptic field, lifting the entirety of his brother’s experience since last they’d synchronized. He felt the chase, the anticipation of confrontation, sudden searing pain through his back, and finally, death. As he felt his own heart rate plummet, he pulled back, letting his brother go.

Hoisting the limp mass of the fallen man over one broad shoulder, Tiberius began the long walk home. “He ain’t heavy,” Tiberius spoke out loud to no-one, and smiled.

Once in the relative safety of their loft, Tiberius lowered his brother gently into a cavity in the floor. Opening a series of valves he watched as fluid sluiced in through the open rim. While the cylinder filled, he wandered into the kitchen, retrieved several cartons of supplemental protein and carbohydrates, and drank them while locking down the room. Fire doors crawled down the walls; heavy insulated alloy barriers turning the small apartment into a vault. The network inside isolated itself; from the outside periodic news feed queries would maintain the impression of active occupation, and a grocery order to be placed in a few weeks would ensure there would be supplies when needed.

Preparations complete, Tiberius removed his clothing, showered away the dirt and blood of the hunt, then climbed down into a second cavity in the floor adjacent to that of his brother.

Through the glass, Tiberius watched the nanotech already breaking down Gaius’ corpse, exposing raw muscle and bone to the soup of proteins and enzymes surrounding him. Placing his own hands into contoured pads, he surrendered to the process. Fluid quickly filled the tank, and he barely shuddered as it flooded his lungs. The nanotech, gelling the fluid around him, oriented his brother’s still cooling hands into the identical contours mirrored on the other side of the glass. With a blueprint to follow, the deconstruction of Gaius focused, tearing down only what needed to be repaired, or rebuilt.

Tiberius allowed himself to drift into a meditative trance. In a few weeks, his brother would be whole again, his memories restored from their unique system of backup. They would share a meal, and then they would go hunting again. Now the contract was secondary, their primary motivator was much more personal.

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The Robot's Wish

Author : William Tracy

A luxurious coat of trees springs from the earth’s skin. The morning’s clouds have burned off, and the jungle canopy stretches to the horizon in every direction. A single towering industrial complex pierces the rolling sea of leaves.

The structures are girded by a labyrinth of pipes of myriad sizes and hues, crisscrossing and splitting and joining. The maze is punctuated by dire chemical hazard placards. The steel monoliths sparkle in the afternoon sun, altars to unknown gods.

A solitary robot trundles along a catwalk high above the forest floor. A twisting vine struggling to reclaim the structure for nature is crushed unseen by the lumbering machine.

Methodically following the radio beacons studding its path, the robot turns a bend and travels toward the center of the complex. It leaves the living forest for one of metal, where constellations of colored lights blink on and off. Ubiquitous embedded microcontrollers read their instructions from solid-state wafers, then sleep until their next jobs arrive.

Solenoids twitch open and shut, and a gasp of steam escapes a vent. The cloud is swept away by a tug of wind that sets the trees to whispering amongst themselves. The robot notes the change in atmospheric pressure with its internal barometer, but feels nothing.

It reaches its destination, and stops. Guided by barcodes burned into the structure, it mates a canister to a socket, forms a seal, and flushes fluid into the system. The pipes scream as precipitates dissolve and reagents flow again.

Its job done, the robot turns and descends a zig-zagging ramp spidering down from the sky. The sun slips away to roost in distant mountains. Its glow floods the jungle, and sets the sterile machinery alight. The robot’s infrared unit recalibrates to compensate, and it continues forward.

The robot reaches the ground, and returns the spent solvent canister to its hopper. The machine moves on. The feeble twilight—so fleeting in the tropics—comes and goes. Gleaming sequins appear in the sky, shy and self-conscious. They are drowned out by the abrupt onslaught of nauseous sodium vapor lamps sprouting from the buildings at regular intervals.

A jaguar leaps into the robot’s path. The machine stops, its infrared camera tracking the animal’s body heat. The cat snarls at the robot, but the robot cannot hear. The creature glides into the night, and the machine resumes its dogged march.

Now the jungle is alive with sound. Unseen beasts roar, scream, call, chirp, and sing. Oblivious, the robot moves to a tool bin. Servos whine as it peruses the implements one at a time, digesting the information from RFID tags. Finally, the robot mates a repair attachment to its arm. It turns to continue, then hesitates.

For a moment, the machine wishes it could see the sunset.


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