Author : Todd Hammrich
My name is Jeffrey Donahume and I’m making this report in case anyone out there is listening. I am the pilot of Single Shot 5 of the one-way exploratory expeditions. I was on my way out of the system when, unfortunately, my ship was damaged entering the Oort Cloud. Most of my equipment was damaged but I was able to maneuver the ship to land on a strange asteroid my sensors detected right before impact. While my communications array is no longer reliable, I hope and pray that someone detects this transmission, because it will change the way we think about the Universe.
After a somewhat rough landing upon the asteroid I left the ship with my few handheld sensors, the ships more powerful ones being out of commission. The asteroid itself was roughly spherical, but had a strange surface feature I intended to examine more closely because it was registering as a heat source. Having landed fairly close to the anomaly, it was an easy walk from the shuttle. You may not believe me, but I nearly fainted when I came upon it, because it was a console of some sort. Not human in origin, but definitely of an advanced technical design. The heat source was emanating from what I could only identify as the interface, indicating to me that it was still active.
I approached it, intending to examine it closely with my instruments when I felt a strange sensation sweep through my body and then…I was somewhere else. And I remembered.
I was a single celled organism newly evolved from the primordial soup of some distant world. Millions of years passed away with nearly no change as I swam and divided in an ocean full of creatures just like me. Then I came into contact with another of my kind and something happened, we connected and joined. Our bodies didn’t merge, but our minds did, rudimentary as they were and we were…stronger, smarter, better. Soon we had an entire colony, replicating and growing, each separate, but together.
The ocean was full of colonies. Sometimes we merged, other times we fought most bitterly until one was consumed by the other, but all the while the colonies grew. Other forms of life never had a chance as they were ambushed, surrounded and eaten. After a few billion years there was only the colony and we were all one, covering the entire world, ocean and land, connected. Our intellect was massive and we learned how to adapt the materials and elements to our needs, how to change and adapt parts of the whole to serve different purposes and eventually, to change those elements of the world to replicate even more.
When the planet was consumed we looked to the heavens. The closest planets and moons were absorbed in the same manner an amoeba eats its prey. The colony spread out a thin tendril and consumed each. As we grew, our mind grew and we learned. For a time we drew energy from our star, consuming every other particle in the system, and when we had converted all to the colony’s needs, we took the star also, and moved on…
I don’t know how long the dream, or memory lasted, but billions of years must have gone by. Someone, as a warning, or maybe a lesson, made the artifact but I understood. I had seen. That was all very long ago. The colony has consumed all leaving only a few pockets to grow. Welcome to the Belly of the Beast.
Author : Benjamin Dunn
Little Tyler looked around nervously. Tim dragged him into the reception area by the hand, a scowl engraved on his face. He marched up to the reception desk, hoisted Tyler by the armpits, and sat him down in front of the receptionist.
“I want a refund,” said Tim. The receptionist’s eyes flashed red, and she continued staring into the middle distance. After a few minutes, her eyes turned green and she looked up at him, a well-practiced frown on her face.
“A refund, sir?”
“Yeah. My son’s a dimwit.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tim unlovingly shoved Tyler across the desk. Tyler looked up, confused, looking like he was going to start crying.
“He just stares off into space during his reading lesson, and when I went to get him his first neuro-implant, the doctor wouldn’t do it because he said he had an ‘abnormal brain.’” Tim started to raise his voice. “What the hell does that mean? I paid for a gifted child, and a gifted child’s what I’ve come here to get!” Tyler was crying now, his mouth a big toothless cavern. Tim ignored him.
“What is your child’s name?” asked the receptionist.
“Tyler Bernard Horton Conway.” The receptionist’s eyes went red again as her mind floated off into the main database. They were green again a moment later.
“Sir, I read here that, although you did order a gifted child, the warranty you purchased guarantees only normal-level brain function. Now, if he had somehow become mentally retarded, the warranty would cover you, but in this case, there’s nothing I can do.” Tim’s face went red and he pounded his fists on the desk.
“Look here!” he bellowed, and then turned to Tyler. “Stop crying, young man!” Tyler stopped immediately. He’d had enough harsh spankings to understand that his father meant business. “Tyler, what’s the capital of Argentina?” Tyler’s tear-streaked eyes looked up at his father, then flicked over to the receptionist. She stared at him blankly; she wasn’t in the business of getting friendly with products.
“Bwenos Awes,” said Tyler, sniffling. Tim’s face creased in disgust.
“You see how long that took him? The boy’s a moron! I want to talk to your superiors.” The receptionist barely suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Those eyes went red for a moment as she contacted them, and a moment later, a hologram of a sharply-dressed man appeared behind the desk.
“My name is Herman Coll. I’m head of the public relations department. How may I help you?” asked the hologram.
“Yes! My son is an idiot, and I specifically requested a child of above-average intelligence.” The hologram turned red, then blinked green.
“Sir, as Mrs. Richardson has already informed you, you purchased a warranty that guarantees only normal intelligence. If you wish to dispute that warranty, I can direct you to the correct people, but I should warn you: GeneTopia’s lawyers are well-engineered, and they have never lost a case.” Tim scowled at the hologram. Then he scowled down at his son, who was busy sucking his thumb. He turned to the hologram.
“Can I trade him in?” The hologram smiled.
“Certainly, sir. That’s GeneTopia policy: trade-ins always welcome.”
“Fine. Then take him back. I want a son who can think.” A representative in a black jumpsuit appeared from around the corner and led little Tyler away. Tyler cried and cried, screaming “Bwenos Aweeeees!” until he disappeared down the hallway.
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
The caravan of return vehicles lifted off the comet in rapid succession. Allen Culbert looked out the porthole and watched silently as the comet shrank into the distance. For the last nine months, the 1288 men and women of the Comet Deflection Team had worked twenty four hours a day cutting one ton blocks of ice from the quarries, feeding them into the mass drivers, and launching one into space every five seconds. Their mission was to deflect the comet’s orbit by a mere 120 miles, so that it would miss the Earth. As the retrorockets fired, Culbert began to think of the 52 men that volunteered to stay the extra week to give the comet one last nudge. Could their sacrifice make a difference? No one knew for sure. It was going to be very, very close. Culbert closed his eyes and began to pray.
Jonathan Amsterdam stood on the wooden deck of his Florida home and watched the southwestern sky. Although the comet was still thousands of miles away, it appeared four times larger than a full moon, and it was getting bigger by the minute. The news reports had said that the comet would miss the surface of the Earth by five miles, but would plow a trough through the atmosphere. They also said that tidal forces would split the comet into many pieces. Some pieces would be deflected into new orbits, and some may be captured by Earth’s gravity. A few would inevitably impact the planet. Hopefully, these would be small pieces. As Amsterdam watched, countless white streaks flashed across the sky as the microscopic debris of the comet’s coma rammed through the mesosphere. The near surface of the comet began to glow as atmospheric friction turned the ice to incandescent vapor.
As mass driver Delta launched the 3,985,291st block of ice into space, the 52 exhausted men collapsed for a well deserved rest. It would be a short, yet eternal, rest. As they neared the closest approach, the Earth filled the entire sky. Less than a minute earlier, Miguel Martínez had watched Mexico City pass overhead. He wished he could have jumped the narrow gap, to hug his wife and son one last time. Then the ground began to quake as fissures formed. The comet was ripping itself apart. The temperature began to climb rapidly as the surface of the comet tore through Earth’s upper atmosphere. The thrashing wind whipped the melting ice into a horizontal hurricane. The men quickly lost their feeble holds, and were ripped from the surface of the comet and vaporized in a fiery flash.
Madoka Shotoko sat cradled in her mothers lap on a park bench beneath the transparent dome in the center of the Ptolemaeus Moon Colony. They were on the sun-side of the Earth, and were still unsure if their homeworld had avoided the catastrophic collision. Then the crowd erupted into a frenzied cheer as the onlookers saw the comet skirt past the Earth by the smallest of margins. The Comet Movers had performed a miracle. Madoka watched tears run down her mother’s smiling face. Over the next few hours, the onlookers watched the comet fracture into six large cometoids, and countless smaller ones. Some of the smaller ones plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. Others arched out into new orbits. Considering the potential alternatives, the damage appeared to be minor. “Mommy,” asked the small girl, “how come that piece of the comet isn’t moving? It’s just getting bigger and bigger.”
Author : Jann Everard
“Isn’t that Giselle?” Laura nudged her husband.
“She looks amazing.” Jake flipped his sandy-colored bangs into place and unconsciously flexed the muscles at his shoulders.
Jake’s rapt attention to her teen-age nemesis across the auditorium made Laura’s face tighten. “Why would she come to the high school reunion?” she asked, petulant and narrow-eyed.
Jake put a hand on her back and steered her toward Giselle. “Let’s find out.”
Laura didn’t like his tone, but refused to show a chink in her armor. Not here. Not now.
Giselle Vanderlin had moved to the small town of Cliffwood with her exotic name, formidable intelligence and solid athleticism. In four years she’d put the high school on the map for everything from sports to science fairs.
But local beauty, Laura Spratt, had stepped up to the new competition. Soon the rivalry between the girls was well known and often flaunted in the local newspaper. Spratt captains HS volleyball team to victory. Vanderlin medals at track and field regionals. Spratt wins gold at district swim meet. Vanderlin qualifies for badminton nationals.
When Giselle beat out Laura at the prestigious university-sponsored science fair, Giselle appeared to have gained the upper hand. Far from the truth, a more private battle was playing out behind the scenes.
The battle to score Jake. Known as the town’s “catch,” both girls confused love with the desire to see his wealth and ambition permanently linked to their own.
Laura knew she had won decisively the day Jake said to her, “Giselle will never be as beautiful as you. Marry me.”
Triumphant, Laura swanned about.
Giselle left town.
Now Giselle kissed the air near Laura’s cheek. “Darling, you look… What is it, ten years?”
Giselle was radiant, stunning even, with a head-turning gorgeousness that had not been foreshadowed in her late teens. Laura stared at Giselle’s luminous skin, the youthful lines of her features.
Giselle’s eyes lingered on Jake.
Laura edged closer to her husband. “You work in New York, I hear.”
“Those old science fairs came in handy. I’m a cosmetic scientist.” Giselle named a prestigious firm. She rummaged in a snakeskin bag and held out a crystal decanter. Here’s my latest creation. It’s called Hauntingly Beautiful. Take it as a gift. I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the results in just two weeks.”
Later that evening, Laura pulled the shimmering bottle from her bag and stared in the mirror. The green vine of envy was twisting her features. She could not keep Giselle’s stunning transformation from her mind. She broke the bottle’s golden foil seal. If Giselle wanted to share her secret formula with Laura, she was not loath to turn it down.
For two weeks Laura slathered the lotion on her body. She worked its icy creaminess into her cheeks, her forehead, her neck. Within days, her skin took on a translucent beauty. Eager at the results, she smoothed the lotion into her breasts, stroked it down her thighs, massaged it into her abdomen.
At first, people said she looked different. Colleagues glanced twice as she passed. Then they stared blankly.
After two weeks, Laura felt transformed. When she brushed by Jake, he shivered.
As she waited for him, she heard the doorbell. Jake ushered Giselle into the living room.
Giselle reached out, wrapped her arms around Jake’s neck. “Did it work as promised?” she purred.
His lips moved to hers. “It’s as if she completely faded away.”
Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer
“Hit him again,” said Milly, “Let it go for six seconds this time.”
That smile played into her lips again, making me glad that it was this blubbering, fat loser in front of us that owed money and not me.
“Please!” he begged between ragged gasps, sweat pouring down the rolls of his face. “Just another two days! I swear I’ll get it to you!”
I flipped the switch.
He fished back onto the couch, arching. The wires from the Senz-Deck that I had brought for this torture tracked into the ‘trode-net headband we had forced him to wear. His hands were tied. They twitched against the duct tape on his wrists.
I watched the readouts of his heart and pulse rate as they slammed into the ceiling of the acceptable limits.
I was playing an ancient tape of a sprinter from the 2022 Olympics. The recording was of an athlete at the peak of physical health, a winner of hundreds of trophies before clinching the gold medal in Madrid. His name was Michael Shandal.
The man in front of us was so fat that he couldn’t leave his apartment. Something wrong with his thyroid, the medical report said.
In other words, not an athlete. If we let this tape of the sprinter spool for the full ten seconds with the physical safeguards off, this guy’s heart would explode with the effort of trying to match the strength on the tape.
He was in deep with us. Owed us thousands off the books. If we didn’t get the money from him soon, we’d have to make an example of him.
Six seconds. I studded the off switch.
His body sagged forward, wheezing and crying.
“So” said Milly, “What do you have say to that?” she said, stifling a chuckle. She scared me when she got like this. Like she had no leash and was happy about it.
“It’s in my bedroom,” said our victim, voice raspy with the effort of ravaged lungs, “under the mattress.”
Milly walked into the room. A minute later, she came back with a handful of credits. She nodded to me.
“What do we do with him?” I asked, nodding to the huge bastard on the couch.
She appeared to consider him, then me, and then the money in her hand.
“Go for the gold.” She said.
Fatboy screamed and I set the timer for a three minute loop before pressing play.
He didn’t last fifteen seconds.