A Moment in a Life

Author : Saurja Sen

The scanners showed signs of the same life-form across the galaxy, so it was safe to assume that the species, whatever it was, had discovered space travel. Thus communication with it was allowed and my advance team was sent in to begin all interaction protocols.

We hailed them on all frequencies, but there was no response. Since we had received life-signs, we went down to the surface of the planet to establish physical contact. Their cities were spectacular. Huge buildings, intricate designs, complex channels for what must have been transport, everything that one saw on other species’ planets existed. But there seemed to be no activity of any kind. A big city on any planet has a certain amount of hectic activity on it – on Earth, air-cars moving around, people teeming in the central areas; on Alpha Centauri IX, sky-trains flying everywhere; even under the surface of Cragganmore XII, the huge ball-bearing transporters. But on this planet, nothing. No movement whatsoever, yet signs of life, and seeming life-forms everywhere.

Praha, our biologist, took us to what seemed the dominant life-form. It looked organic, with greyish skin, about 7 feet tall. It had limbs with three extensions at three different heights that seemed capable of gripping objects. There appeared to be the equivalent of eyes at the 6 foot mark, and it had tank-tracks at ground level. The only visible sign of life that we saw was a thin column of gas being expelled midway down its side that Praha said was its respiration. Even this we may have missed had the gas not been a different colour to the air around it.

Our efforts to communicate with it continued failing. We tried sound, light, touch and smell. No reaction to any kind of noise or light, regardless of frequency. A complete indifference to our gentle prodding and to Craggan vapour bullets. Our experiments were repeated on all the nearby life-forms and they all resulted in a complete absence of responses. It was as if the species was deliberately ignoring our presence.

We placed a few of them under surveillance and worked shifts conducting other experiments. The physical watches on the life-forms were refreshed every six hours, and not a single observer reported any signs of any activity.

Just before we were due to return, Praha and I went back to the life-form we had initially encountered for a final contact instance. Praha noticed it first – the life-form was no longer in the same spot as on our first meeting. It had moved. Not by much, but enough that we noticed. The observers assigned to the life-form all swore that it had not moved on their watches.

Again, it was Praha who worked it out. It had moved, but so slowly that none of the observers had noticed, yet over the time we had spent on the planet, it was obvious. The same went for everything else – life-forms, transportation devices – they had all done something. Everything that had occurred had happened so slowly that we didn’t see it happen and thought nothing had happened at all.

That’s the moment when we realized that it wouldn’t be possible for us to communicate normally with them. Our relationships to a timescale were too different. As one species to another, we could, over a long time, but we wouldn’t be able to individually. Praha and I would be dead before they would ever be able to send either of us a message. We wouldn’t live to be acknowledged by the species we had discovered.

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A Catherine Rose by any other name

Author : Q. B. Fox

“Each freighter, since the very first one we built, is given a unique name,” the technician explained.

“Can I choose a name, if it’s not already taken?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not, sir,” the tech was barely apologetic. “A name will be assigned to you.”

“Oh, I’d like to have named her after my wife.” Alice’s warm smile and freckled nose appeared in my mind’s eye.

“Most people do, sir; a spouse or sometimes a child. But the journeys are long. And families, well, sir, they don’t always stay together. And you can see how that would become awkward. I’m sorry, sir, but there it is; I can show you the statistics, if you’d like.”

He started to turn his screen towards me, as he was required to by the Full Disclosure in Work Act, but I waved him away. Alice and I knew we’d make it work.

I was encouraged to think of the Catherine Rose as an animal, as a pet. Some men preferred to think of the freighters as their mistress; if those statistics were accurate then some of their wives did too. Some of the women thought of the freighters as children. But we were all expected to treat the ships as if they were alive; talk to them, care for them, spoil them.

It had always been a tradition to give names to vessels. And their crews have always treated them as living things, superstitiously believing it made the craft work harder to stay reliable, to keep them alive.

But the science is the other way about: giving them names makes us empathise with them. We sit in a vast emptiness of black, listening to the hum of the engines, alert for any sound of distress or discomfort. We fill our days with the repeated routine of caring for our babies.

And it keeps us sane, never quite alone in that horizonless, apparently unending, nothing.

They may have stopped me naming my freighter after my wife, but they couldn’t stop me naming my daughter after the Catherine Rose. So while I was away, my first born said her first word, took her first steps and had her first tantrums. But I was always connected to her, through the ship that shared her name, by an invisible bond that linked them.

I was only on a short run when the accident happened. Just an accident, they told me, nothing you could have done, if you were there. The sun shone brightly on the day of the memorial service.

It was year before they’d let me do another long haul trip, a year of short runs and psychological evaluation. I had adjusted remarkably well, they said. There was no sign of long term mental trauma, they concluded. I had grieved for a suitable time and I had moved on.

“Space,” Dr. Addison had warned me, “deep space, can play tricks on your mind. You’ve adjusted well, but if you have any worries, any worries at all, contact me, straight away.”

Of course, I had grieved for my wife, but I have to be strong. I still have to care for our child. She whimpers in the night, and I get up, adjust her injectors, balance her output, sooth her back to sleep.

She’s crying now, her display flashing an urgent red, tugging me towards our planned destination. It’s alright, sweetheart, I tell her, disabling the alarm. Let’s go this way. It’s quiet and peaceful; no one to bother us, kiddo. Just me and you and as much space as we need.

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Insert Coins To Operate

Author : Ken McGrath

I roll off her and onto my back, panting, satisfied and with the sweat already drying into my chest. My head sinks into the pillow and I smile. Turning to look at her it slides, like water, right off my face.

Her façade is starting to flicker and fade into an electric blue haze, allowing me to see her true metallic shape underneath. I’m guessing my 30 minutes with the woman of my dreams are coming to an end.

“That was so good,” she pants, dragging out the o in so as only a lusty human should.

I sit up quickly, throwing the thin, stained, bedcover off me. I feel dirty and wrong. A deep-seated sense of Christian guilt bubbling up inside of me.

The Simul-Form leans across the bed, reaching out a hand and brushing my naked back. It’s cold, not familiar warm flesh and I shudder moving off the bed completely, turning away from her.

“I… uh, I’ve got to go,” I mumble pulling on my jeans. Behind me I can hear her moving about on the motel bed. As I bend to pick up my shirt I catch a glimpse of her, no… of it, reflected in the cracked, grubby window. I see her for what she really is.

Through the crackling blue glow that surrounds her like an electric cloud I see her change – hair originally short, now long, blonde then red, changing facial features from soft to hard, full lips, sharp nose, wide eyed then narrow. Every single one of them the look of desire and sex. She reels through these female images like someone flicking the pages of a porno magazine, revealing a fleeting glimpse of temptation and want, before moving onto the next.

The lingering flash of skin and nipple, pursed lips, tongue protruding slightly between teeth and slowly spreading thighs. Hair cascading in thick, black ringlets over her shoulders, then angular, spiked and blonde. I turn and she pauses as a smouldering brunette with big, smoking eyes, the sheets wrapped loosely around her doing more to draw attention to those curves than to hide them.

“Why don’t you stick around?” she purrs, stepping slowly off the bed, pulling the covers with her. My eyes follow her toes as they touch the floor, all the way up her long legs, across her covered body and I feel myself getting hard at the sight of her lips, drowning in her eyes. “I can be whoever you want me to be.”

My mind fights to be heard, that she’s a machine, a Simul-Form, able to take any shape, able to fulfil every sexual desire, but that she’s not human. Surprisingly it wins.

I’m wringing knots in the shirt, twisting it in my sweating palms. I struggle into it and button it up wrong as I force my body towards the door.

“Money… your money’s on the table. Over, uh,” I indicate, “there. Thanks.”

Shit, why did I say that? I curse myself as I step out into the harsh judging sunlight.

“See you later cowboy,” she drawls seductively as the door closes, finally forming a barrier between us.

Why do I always feel like the one who’s been used, all dirty and sorry after sex? I squint into the washed out afternoon as cars screech by on the road beyond the battered chain-link fence and sigh. I need a shower.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Jennies were shipped world-wide.

They were referred to as Jennies because of their genengineered origins. Some people referred to them as Generators because they were filled with energy, hardly ever slowed down, and kept the offices running at full power. They were designed to take care of and organize the day-to-day needs of every business, no matter how big or small.

Jennies were short. They were pretty in a way specifically designed to be slightly doll-like but commanding. There were off-putting yet attractive. Their flawlessness caused the human mind to be repelled but only just enough to avoid most confrontations. They were designed to have no guile and to be robotic enough to deflect unwanted attention.

Looking back, I supposed we should be thankful. It makes them easier to detect when they try to infiltrate and therefore easier to kill. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The A.I. rules were stringent. “Technically People”, Judge Amberson had said.

The sympathizers were happy with the ruling on moral grounds because potential abuse would be treated similarly to abuse that natural-born humans received and dealt with in the same legal fashion.

The rich were happy because a lot of money had been put into the Gen project and the resulting lawsuits would protect their investments.

The parent company had the Jennies record every second of their existence to protect their investments. Privacy clauses were set up and ironclad NDAs programmed internally so that no secret of any company could be revealed in a court of law except for any sexual or physical attack. A few assault cases and market crashes later, the lesson was clear.

In a way, they became untouchable. They all looked the same. None of them really made the effort to look different or stand out from the others.

Businesses that couldn’t afford one were subsidized. Jennies became a mainstay of every office. Where quarters couldn’t be provided, they slept in the offices that they worked in. The Jennies kept themselves clean like cats.

They were too expensive to manufacture as prostitutes. There were too many human women that could be bought and sold for cheaper with less hassle.

While the Jennies made everyone a little uncomfortable, they were treated as the world’s first mass-produced talking biological office application and left alone to do their jobs.

The Jennies were involved in every single aspect of almost every single business in America.

That’s how they shut it down.

The Jennies took over by bringing North America to an age of darkness. The banks, the import records, the export records, the stock markets, all of it. Gone in an hour. They left the rest of the world alone. It was alarming how few countries rushed to America’s side in its time of need. Alarming because by ‘few’, I mean ‘none’.

They shut down the dams and the power plants. The military Jennies held the keys to nuclear silos and threatened to use them if any other country interfered.

If America was a car, the Jennies had just thrown the distributor cap and the keys into the bushes.

From space, European astronauts watched as America went dark.

That was six years ago.

The populace of American is starving and dying off. The Jennies rove around in packs in stolen cars with guns to kill the thousands of us that still survive. They make more of themselves every day.

Jennies eat less. They sleep less. They’re in great shape. They have no compassion. It’s a losing race.

Soon enough, America will not only be run by the Jennies but populated solely by them.

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Author : Matthew Banks

“Brankahhh nakahhhsret,” said the vibrating sphere.

“Much impertinence is hydroscopic,” said the speaker on the translator console. McGuine frowned, but Leak still had that constant, infuriating grin plastered on his face.

“Frehhhnat bossssth fffonehhh,” said the sphere.

“Envy the copse and thallium minnow,” said the translator. McGuine grunted and stabbed the “Off” button.

“It’s not working,” he said. Leak was still grinning.

“Maybe it is.”

“What? You think the thing said ‘Much impertinence is hydroscopic’?”

“Maybe it means something.”

“What? What could it possibly mean? Look, the translator isn’t working.” Finally, Leak frowned.

“It worked on every other language we tried,” he said. That much was true. It had successfully translated French and German to English. It had translated Arabic to English. It had translated an obscure mutant patois of Xhosa and Kiswahili into English. It had translated the human-constructed languages Esperanto and Lojban into English. It should by rights have been able to translate the weird speech of the alien sphere. But the evidence was turning against it.

“That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe this doesn’t follow the rules of human languages. It almost certainly doesn’t.”

“So? It worked on other weird languages!” That was also true. When a video recording of a deaf woman using American Sign Language was translated into audio and fed into the translator, it had translated the ASL into English. When snippets of program code written in Python were fed in, it translated them (more roughly) into English. And finally, when Reese and Nanadai’s artificial language Xxxch, designed to be as complicated and confusing as possible, essentially unlearnable by any normal human, the translator still worked, just as well as it had for Finnish or Esperanto.

“Hhhett nahhhsss hhhettsss,” vibrated the alien sphere.

“Informational concerning reductivity oxalate am gourmand,” said the translator. McGuine balled up his fist and slammed it down angrily on an empty metal cart. But Leak’s grin had already returned. He stepped up to the translator console, twisted a knob, and typed something on the keypad. After a moment, McGuine looked up.

“What did you do?” he asked. Leak’s grin widened.

“I’m trying the Ananad algorithm.” McGuine rolled his eyes. Frenchmen and Spaniards and Germans and Turks and Latvians and Azerbaijanis had spoken to the translator while it was using the Ananad algorithm, and it had produced similar verbal garbage as it was producing now.

“Brankahhh nakahhhsret,” repeated the alien sphere. It had been vibrating out this three-part message for almost a year, and the best efforts of every linguist and computer scientist had failed to decipher it. It wasn’t likely that a mess of an algorithm that couldn’t even understand German would work.

“If this device is found…” said the translator. McGuine went pale and sat down. Leak’s grin became a frown.

“Frehhhnat bossssth ffonehhh.”

“…please return the device to…”

“Hhett nahhhsss hhettsss.”

“….Hett Nass, at the address listed on the identification plaque.” McGuine and Leak looked at each other, and both were thinking about how an answer always raises more questions.

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