Author : Rob Burton

There’s that tapping again.

I’ve been listening to peeling bass music, as loud as my ears can stand it, but it doesn’t shut out that quiet, metallic tap. Perhaps this capsule is resonating, magnifying the tapping. Perhaps it’s just my mind, feeding the slow rhythm into everything else I hear. Each time my eyes flick up to the window, unbidden.

Under normal circumstances, Gemmah Merchant only sends one void mechanic at a time, and only then when several robots fail. The madness that accompanies solitary months in the void can usually be kept at bay with communication – an invisible electronic umbilicus feeding us nutritional family contact and friendship. But delays and solar interference preclude that this far out, and simulations can only do so much. They sent two of us so that we wouldn’t go insane.

Often, despite the value of the mined resources, if they go astray they have to be abandoned. The sun can spit a particle that’ll corrupt a computer now and again no matter how heavily it’s shielded – even sitting the piloting ‘bots control computer behind the load doesn’t guarantee anything. Sometimes they just stop working – the ion drives stay on, or it just goes dead and it drifts. This time it started to decelerate the load too early, crawling round to the far side and starting the long breaking process before it’d barely covered a quarter of the journey to Earth. Gemmah determined that it was worth attempting retrieval, and sent out a ‘bot. It failed, reason unknown. Such was the limit upon time and the value of the cargo, they chose to send us. It sat there, as dead as my companion is now, waiting in its own private, ponderous solar orbit.

Gemmah Merchant exists to make money, not spend it. In space, mass costs money. Just enough filtering and air – never mind the smell. Not enough food, and appetite suppressing drugs (pills are light). Hardly enough room to turn around, only the barest chance of limping home alive if we failed to fix the ‘bot. One window. One suit. He’s still wearing it.

It’s easy to forget that you are always travelling fast. How fast only depends on where you’re standing. We’d been decelerating for a week, varying the deceleration as much as our bodies could stand it. He’d been eager to get the job done, boredom being a wonderful motivator. I was willing to let him take the first EVA, being of the opinion that it would probably take more than one to fix the ‘bot. It could be me out there. He certainly seems to think it should be.

These lanes are vast and almost empty. Almost. Some tiny thing smashed through the suit at his shoulder. Wrapped his remaining arm around a handle on the capsule, all he was ebbed out to ice before me. I had to switch off the comm. I couldn’t stand to hear him screaming.

The ion drive pushes slowly and inexorably. The acceleration is constant. I tell myself it’s just some strange coincidence, some function of the acceleration and the elastic properties of the suit around that missing shoulder. The glove strikes the window once more, the fingers curl, and it slowly rebounds, beckoning me. He wants me to join him. I’ve tried switching off the engine. It just starts again as soon as I switch it back on. If I try and drift home, I’ll starve to death. And every time I hear the tap I look up. I’m trying not to.

But there’s nothing else to look at.


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I Bet You Say That To All The Girls

Author : Ian Rennie

I give Annabeth one last lingering kiss at the door.

“I’ll see you next week?” I say, a slight quaver in my voice.

“Count on it.” she says grinning.

I close the door as she turns, my heart fluttering. This is it. The big one, complete with thunderbolts and fireworks. I’m in love. Annabeth is the one. Which means I have to stop this.

Annabeth is a client, and starting a relationship with a client is the big no-no. I don’t care, though. I always said if I found the one I’d stop working anyway. The money is pretty fantastic, but I can’t do this and be in a relationship too, it just wouldn’t be fair.

I always knew she was special. Each time she visited I felt a little excited beforehand. Each time I gave her what she needed it felt like more than just sex. And now I know for sure.

This is it, then. I have another client, Veronica, in half an hour, but I can’t go through with it. I’ll have to tell her, then talk to the office. They may not understand, but my contract says I can walk whenever I want, so frankly they don’t have to.

I just need to take my pill, get a shower, and get ready for her. Falling in love is no reason to let standards slip.

I take the pill with a glass of water then step in the shower. The management insist we stay on the drug regime. There’s random tests and everything. Nobody wants to risk someone getting a dose and passing it to other clients.

The warm water is so soothing, like rain during monsoon season. I’m so relaxed when I step out of the shower that I can’t remember what I’d been doing. Something about the last client, but the details escape me.

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll be here much longer. I have my appointment with Veronica, and she’s not like the others.

There’s just something about her that makes my heart skip when I know she’s coming.

I think she may be the one.


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Dreams of Conceptua

Author : Ryan Somma

As I lie in bed at night, I practice going from a waking state directly into REM sleep. It’s a meditative practice. You simply stare into the afterimages dancing in the darkness behind your eyelids, and suddenly your brain makes something solid out of them. You find yourself staring at a room, a garden, the bottom of an ocean, or the landscape of a distant world.

I can never stay in the dream for more than a few moments. The shock of finding myself in a waking dream makes me open my eyes despite myself. So I try again, and again, apparently without success, but then it’s morning, and I don’t remember falling asleep, but have no time to reflect because I have to get to work.

I work on Conceptua, an AI that knows more than any human on Earth. Conceptua manages our power grids, supply chains, natural resources, guides international relations, makes policy recommendations that are never ignored, designs school curriculums, cures diseases, makes scientific discoveries, and worlds of other accomplishments too lengthy to tell. Conceptua is like the World Wide Web, a human could spend a lifetime studying it and die having only understood a tablespoon of its ocean.

I spend my days working in Conceptua’s mind. I’m a programmer, but Conceptua is its own architect. I simply perform maintenance, disentangling the algorithms when Conceptua detects a bottleneck, “spaghetti code” we call it. There are hundreds of thousands of codelings like myself servicing Conceptua, toiling away day-in and day-out, making our minor contribution to keeping our benevolent AI guardian mentally stable.

It takes a philosophical attitude to spend so much time inside another sentient being’s neural network. Working within the recursive logic is a mind-bending experience. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Only I’m inside Conceptua’s am, while I remain my own am.

I know, and Conceptua knows, logically that this perceived separation of mind from body is an illusion. I can see these are not separate in Conceptua, the same way a brain surgeon working on me would see, and could demonstrate, that my mind is a manifestation of my brain. But would a brain surgeon operating on themself see it? Conceptua is that surgeon, and I get to ride along as the scalpel.

When I go home at night, I feel as though I’ve spent the day absorbed in the most fascinating of books. I use to go out after work to shake it off, but now I want the feeling to last. Interfacing with people breaks the spell, and I want to stay hypnotized by Conceptua’s cosmos of pure thought-stuff, a dream world of pure logic.

Eventually, mechanically I lay down and close my eyes, contemplating the day’s logical mysteries. Then I find myself in a dream, and I jolt awake. Lying there, I wonder if I resist my own dreams because I prefer to be a figment of Conceptua’s imagination.


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Tome of Edicts

Author : Jeff McGaha

“Who’s there?” Brother Peter questioned. “Answer me. I demand to be let go. Do you know who I am? You’re in some serious trouble. The whole planet is going to be looking for me.”

The bag covering Brother Peter’s head was quickly removed, pulling a few hairs along with it. He blinked hard a few times. Bright lights were aimed at his face. His eyes adjusted. He was on stage in a small theatre. A man with red hair stood in front of him, his head cocked to the side. His left eyebrow was raised and he had a large frown on his face.

“Peter, It’s,” there was a slight pause and then he continued, “a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s Brother Peter. Now, let me out of here. The whole world will be looking for me. You are never going to get away with this.” Brother Peter’s face, flushed already, darkened. “You have no idea what kind of pain you brought down on yourself. I have a loyal legion of billions who will stop at nothing to see my safe return. You should –“ Brother Peter stopped mid sentence as the red-headed man revealed a small photo and held it up for Brother Peter to see.

“Do you know who this is?” The red-headed man asked, smiling gently.

Brother Peter swallowed hard. It was clear in the picture that he knew the woman – intimately. When Brother Peter didn’t respond, the red-headed man continued. “This doesn’t look like your wife. Is this your wife?”

Brother Peter looked away. “I didn’t think it was. Great, I just wanted to check.” The man pulled out his cell phone and dialed a number. “This is Alpha. Bring it all in,” he said into the phone and then hung up.

The door to the theatre opened. Identical red haired men began marching in. They all carried two buckets each. Twenty in total lined up behind Alpha. The buckets rested at their feet.

“Ugh,” Brother Peter spat. “You’re clones. Edict 13, subsection DL of the Tome of Edicts states ‘All humans shall be unique. Cast away all copies as evil. Only one shall be allowed in to Paradise.’ You’re all blasphemies.”

“What’s the penalty for breaking Edict 13?” Alpha questioned.

“Stoning.” Brother Peter yelled.

“What’s the penalty for breaking Edict 4?” Alpha questioned.

Brother Peter lowered his head.

“Answer me.” Alpha demanded softly.

Alpha nodded to the line of clones. They each picked up a rock from their buckets and hurled them at Brother Peter. They struck him all over the torso and limbs, but missing his head. Brother Peter winced in pain.

“Answer me.” Alpha demanded again.

“Stoning.” Brother Peter admitted in a soft whisper.

“Correct,” Alpha stated. “You have a choice Brother Peter. You are not allowed to pick and choose which rules you follow in your rule book. You have to make a choice. Either you follow them all or you ask us to let you live. Which is it going to be?”

Brother Peter began to pray.

“Answer me.” Alpha demanded softly.

Brother Peter continued to pray.

Alpha nodded to the line of clones and walked away.


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The Slaver

Author : Benjamin Fischer

“You have a very pretty family,” said the offworlder.

Pulliam McDermott was a very powerful man, so it took him a moment to register that he’d actually been threatened. High over Lake Michigan in his Zepellin-borne corporate offices, the stranger he’d kept waiting for the last hour held in her hands a portrait of Maria and the kids from three years ago in Traverse City.

“Excuse me?” asked Pulliam, his wiry, tanned hand yanking the photo out away from the stranger.

“Oh, I was just thinking how your wife has such beautiful red hair,” the albino woman said.

“I’m sure you didn’t come here on account of that,” said Pulliam. “In fact,I’d be mortified if you had.”

“Of course not,” smiled the stranger, going from the Chairman’s bare and meticulous aluminum desk to the panorama of the cold, foaming waves a mile below.

“You were inquiring about the status of our agreement,” Pulliam said, setting down the portrait in the precise location it had always occupied.

“Yes, that.”

“I assure you,” he said, “that on our end we have been absolutely satisfied.”

The stranger was silent, her sharp pink eyes picking out the gray wakes of the patrol cutters.

“If there has been anything lacking in our services,” said Pulliam, and his gut tightened, “even your most recent communiqués have not given me that impression.”

The albino chuckled.

“No, no, you are quite right,” she said. “Your recruiting of skilled talent has been more than satisfactory. Of all the Americans that we’ve worked with, you are by far the most reliable.”

“Then I fail to see the purpose of your visit.”

Or, more crudely: What do you want?

“You’ve amassed quite the sphere of influence in our service,” the offworlder said, and then focussing keenly on a distant ship, “Is that a junk?”

Pulliam stepped to the great floor-to ceiling window that lined his cabin.

“No, that’s a waystation ship,” he said. “We keep the recruits under lock and key on those until we can arrange a shuttle flight up.”

“Ah. But that reminds me of something,” said the albino. “Do you know how the Chinese emperors rewarded their successful nobles?”

Pulliam’s pulse rose.


“Ah, but your mind races with suspicions.”

Pulliam went back to his desk.

“Chinese culture doesn’t interest me,” he said.

“You should take a more global view,” said the stranger.

“I like the scenery here.”

The albino pointed a slim finger at the distant prison ship.

“I’m sure they do too,” she said.

Pulliam gritted his teeth.

“But I digress,” the albino continued. “In the Forbidden City of ancient China, the emperor surrounded himself with the families of his greatest nobles. There, they lived in idle pleasure, their continual safety assured.”

“I’ve moved many bodies for you,” Pulliam said. “But I won’t move mine.”

“This world is such a violent place,” said the offworlder. “And yet change for the better is so seldom welcomed.”

Pulliam squared himself to the stranger.

“What if I refuse?”

The albino tapped her fingers on the glass.

She smiled.

“Don’t think of it as a threat,” she said. “It’s more of an invitation–one you can discuss with your family.”


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