Author : William Tracy, Featured Writer
A lone figure swung precariously from the side of a sky-scraping tower, painfully inching his way up a rope.
That tower and others stood in rows, crowding out the sky. Their sides gleamed silver, studded with large, black windows. The streets below were lit as much by flickering lamps as by the slivers of sunlight that scraped past the immense buildings. The dark streets teemed with bustling people clothed in rags. The occasional horseless carriage pushed through the crowd, horn squawking.
High above the metropolis, bloated dirigibles drifted lazily from one tower to the next. None paid heed to the tiny figure crawling up one of the great buildings, skulking in the shadows.
He smashed a steel-toed boot through a window. He rolled through the hole, and rose to a kneeling position. He paused, listening for the footsteps of golems—the dead reanimated galvanically to become the mindless servants of the powerful.
Satisfied that he was undetected, he moved swiftly through the halls and passageways toward his objective.
He opened a door to a teetering catwalk. In the vast chamber below him, rows of massive transformers and dynamos repeated on and on, bolts of electricity leaping from one to the next. A single steel column in the center of the room stretched from the floor to the ceiling, intersecting the catwalk. At that place was a knife switch. The lone figure walked forward and reached for the switch.
“I don’t think that you want to do that.” A sharply dressed man stood behind the lone figure, flanked by two golems bearing electricity guns. Two more golems emerged at the far end of the walkway, cutting off any escape.
“If you throw that switch, you will short-circuit the generators below you. The explosion could destroy the entire building.”
“Maybe that’s what I want.”
“Do you have any idea what I am doing here, and what is at stake?” The man in the suit searched the other’s eyes. “I am creating mankind’s ultimate invention. I am building a machine that will change history.”
“You are building a computer. A machine that can perform mathematics.”
“But it is so much more! I am building something unparalleled in human endeavor: A machine that can think! Can you imagine what this means? Our creations will do our work for us. Humanity will live by the fruits of its ingenuity, and we will create a new utopia.”
“Your machines will work for you, and replace us. You will have no more use for the poor, and will then destroy us.”
The man in the suit sneered. “The poor are not my fault. I built my wealth by my talents and my labors. I have given up my leisure, my health, and my family for it. It is mine for I have earned it.” He laughed without humor. “Why should the poor be entitled to what they have not earned? They have done nothing to deserve a better life for themselves.”
“I am doing something now.” He threw the switch.
Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Hans lay face down on the surgical table, completely immobilized and wide awake. His father’s rubber shoes moved in and out of his field of vision as the older man busied himself in preparation, his voice a constant hum of information in the otherwise empty room.
“We can’t effectively target inactive neural pathways, which is why you’re awake. You won’t feel anything, at least, I don’t think I did…” his father’s voice trailed off only for a moment. “If you do feel uncomfortable, be sure to speak up. We’ll want to make a note of when.”
His father double checked his handiwork, having laid out all the instruments he would need on a sterile back table nearby. Overhead hung a large spring-coiled umbilical of fibre optic cable truncated in a blunt two inch long conical tip. A second such cable snaked into the back of Hans Senior’s skull, following him as he moved about the room.
“The initial prototype is completely polarized,” he tapped the back of his head, “one way. The materials that the interface nodes fabricated from were by nature unidirectional.” Barely pausing between sentences he scrubbed the back of the boy’s neck with iodine before deftly slicing through the skin and subcutaneous layers with a scalpel.
“Still lucrative, even with its limitations. Reconnaissance personnel, witnesses, even the skin trade paid handsomely.”
From the table he plucked an insect like device of surgical steel and placed it over the incision. From it a myriad of tiny appendages unfolded, carefully holding aside the lacerated flesh before burrowing even deeper into the boys’ neck, then up into the base of his skull. At the required depth, it injected a thin catheter and, its task completed, simply stopped in place.
“Frustrating how long it took to solve the polarizing issue. So much time, lost.”
Hans Senior unpackaged a fibre cable socket with a long single organic strand trailing from it. Grasping it with a set of forceps, he fed the strand into the catheter.
“This will be so much better for you than it was for me.” No sooner had the strand contacted the tube, it began to pull itself in. Hans’ head flooded with sights, sounds, and smells that he hadn’t known in years. The strand divided and doubled back on itself, only to divide again, sending countless atom thin filaments off into Hans’ grey matter. His father held the endcap until the strand had reeled in all of its slack before carefully guiding it into the still waiting insectile appliance.
The tiny unit came back to life, grasping and aligning the jack with the flesh. It then glue stitched the inner layers to the device below the surface, and sutured the outer skin to its perforated outer edge.
Its job complete, the mechanism detached, and allowed itself to be picked up and set aside with the other bloodied instruments.
Hans felt the restraints relax, followed by a flood of sensation, not all of it pleasant.
“The pain should subside in a few days.” The older man helped his son into a sitting position before grasping the unattached cable from overhead and positioning it behind the boy’s head. There was a strobe of light and a magnetic snapping as the two ends oriented themselves and fitted together.
His father stood in front of him, and closed his eyes.
Hans felt a strange pressure in his head, then had a sudden awareness of why his father had pushed so hard to implant him now.
“You’re dying.” It wasn’t a question, the facts had been laid out for him.
“Yes. I’ve used up my life. I’ve learned so much, but there’s so much left undone.”
Hans felt the pressure again, followed by waves of knowledge. Not all of it was pleasant either.
Author : Ian Rennie
Hilton’s eyes opened, to his own mild surprise. Everything he saw was in dim monochrome, suggesting it was either really early or he was really tired. He was sitting in an armchair in a small office without the faintest clue how he had got here. The last thing he remembered was…
So he’d gone through with it. Evidently it hadn’t worked.
Before this train of throught could get much further, a smartly dressed businesswoman entered the room, flashing him the thinnest of courtesy smiles.
“Good morning, Mr Hilton. My name is Annabel Tseng, and I’m here about your debt.”
He opened his mouth to speak, and was cut off, in a magnificently rude display of politeness.
“It’s probably best if you don’t try to deny it. I’m here on behalf of your insurance company and Zybeco Body Leasing. You were three months behind on payments and you decided to settle your balance by driving your car and your body off a cliff. We recovered you from the crash site and put you in temporary acmommodation.”
Hilton looked down at himself, and understood another part of what had been bothering him. His skin, visible only in greyscale, wasn’t skin. It was some kind of polymer replacement. He was in a sim. As he was looking down at what he had become, Ms Tseng pulled out a softscreen sheet from a manila folder.
“At this moment, your debt to your insurers and Zybeco equals around four trillion yuan, plus a twenty five per cent defaulter’s penalty. Repayment can be made by cash, credit, or servitude. At present pay and interest rates, you will have your debt settled in just under fourteen years of work. You’re a talented programmer, and that makes you worth more to us alive than dead. Not the easiest option in the world, but you should have thought of that before you attempted to defraud the company.”
“It wasn’t like that”
Ms Tseng looked at him in mock-interest. His voice had sounded grating and artificial, words pumped through the cheapest voice-synth they could stick in this sim.
“Wasn’t it, Mr Hilton? Do tell.”
When he spoke, it all came out in a rush.
“Susan left me last month. I went into a spiral. Drink, pills, anything to put me into oblivion for as long as possible. I didn’t crash the car to default on my debts. I was praying for death.”
She laughed, and Hilton understood where he was. Humanity had found no hell, so they had built one for themselves.
“Mr Hilton, death is no excuse for laying off work.”
Author : James Marshall
Foray wondered why he didn’t just sit down and die. He was naked but for a pair of underpants, and his skin was stained red with the blood from hundreds of cuts and scratches. He was gaunt, and his hair and beard were long and itchy. The vines and thorns lashed at his body, grabbing on with their claws, dragging him back like needy children not wanting him to leave. He only stopped to pry them out when especially long stingers dug themselves into his naked, bloody skin and stopped his progress. Nothing hurt him anymore.
Foray’s ship had fought the enemy over this strategically important planet, inhabited by nothing of note but a species of dim-witted sub-humanoids and a few Terran missionaries, and had lost. The crash killed everyone on board but three. They didn’t have time to bury the dead. The enemy Searchers would arrive soon. Foray, Stavos, and Simmons had cut the implants from their palms and buried them deep in the pile of gore that was all that remained of the troopers in the Gpod, and then ran. Simmons’ hand became infected a few days later, and he got sick and quickly died. Then something out of the forest grabbed Stavos a few days later. It was funny, because the two of them had just been talking about the apparent lack of predators in the forest, when something came at him from their right and bit Stavos ‘ hip out. Foray turned around to see a large dog-like animal standing over Stavos, growling at him, almost daring him to try to save his friend. Stavos was under it, screaming loudly and beating the dog’s front legs. Foray backed off, hands up. “All yours,” he said, and when the dog turned its attention back to Stavos, he turned and ran, and didn’t stop until he was sick. That was weeks ago. He hadn’t seen any more dogs since then, but he assumed it was them he could hear howling at night.
It was difficult to be resigned to one’s death when the moment was postponed time and time again. When he was thirsty, he would come across a river. When he was hungry, he would find a dead monkey, or bird, and eat it. He was lucky, but he didn’t care. One day there would be no river, no monkey. His luck would run out and he would die. The creatures would eat him, clean his bones, and the floods would carry them away and leave nothing. He had fought for the Terrans for eight years, and being eaten by birds and bugs seemed a natural, even attractive death. He had seen confused men have their guts blown out and trampled into the mud as they watched. The enemy’s weapons suck men’s lungs out of their mouths like a pair of old, wet socks. Children mad with grief and fear, sitting trembling by the corpses of their parents, dead for days. He thought about those children a lot. This is what they would have wanted. Him dead.
He collapsed in the dark. He couldn’t walk anymore. He slept.
He awoke in the morning to see a face, a humanoid face, looking down at him, smiling. It was saying something. “Jesus?”
Foray blinked in the bright sun. “Huh?”
The humanoid’s face was dark green, with small, black eyes. “Jesus, yes? They say you come back one day.” The accent was thick, but it was English.
“Yes,” croaked Foray. He laughed as the strong humanoid helped him up. “Bless you, my child.”
Thank god for missionaries, he thought.
Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
Major Clanet’s head felt like it had split in half. He forced his eyes open and saw his android navigator standing above him. “What happened?” he asked.
The android extended a hand and helped the human to his feet. “We delivered the supplies to the station, and were returning to Earth. During reentry, there was a structural failure of the right hand glide wing. We began to tumble violently. You blacked out. Seconds before the shuttle exploded, aliens beamed us onto their spacecraft.”
“Aliens? What makes you think it was aliens?”
“Teleportation technology does not exist on Earth, so I concluded extraterrestrials were involved.”
“Right,” Clanet reluctantly acknowledged. “Well, when taken prisoner, our first duty is to escape. Are we still in space?”
“No. I believe the ship has landed.”
Clanet surveyed the small room. There were four walls; two curved and two straight. A convex wall contained a large door with a vertical handle near the right hand side. The opposite wall was concave, and contained a similar door, but the handle was horizontal and crossed the mid-height of the door. “Assuming the ship is cylindrical,” Clanet concluded, “the concave wall must contain the door to the outside.” He walked over to the door and pushed against the handle with all his strength, but nothing happened. “Damn, it’s locked. I guess we’ll have to go inboard, and fight our way out. We need to find some kind of weapon.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Major Clanet? The aliens saved our lives, there is no reason to assume that they intend to harm us.”
“First of all, they saved my life, you’re not alive. You’re just a sophisticated GPS unit. Secondly, I’m the one that does the thinking. That’s what humans do best.” Clanet strode over to the convex wall and grabbed the door’s vertical handle and pulled; first with one hand, then with two. The door didn’t budge. “Damn, both doors are locked.”
The android walked over to the door and placed his index finger on the vertical handle. “It has been my experience,” he lectured, “that human arrogance hampers your ability to reason. Your species assumes that your physiology is the pinnacle of evolution. Hence, you built robots in your image, even though there are more efficient design options. You also assume that aliens must look like you; with two legs, two arms, two hands, and opposable thumbs. Therefore, you conclude that a vertical handle must always be pulled.” The android gave a slight push with his finger and the door swung open.
The android entered first, followed by Clanet. The adjacent room was clearly the bridge. It contained approximately thirty robots of varying sizes and configurations. A few were scurrying about, but most were occupied at the numerous work stations. A tall, bobble-head robot, with four snake-like arms appeared to be directing activities from the center of the bridge. It finally noticed the two newcomers and quickly motored toward them on a pair of rapidly rotating tank treads. It agilely banked around several crisscrossing robots, and came to a screeching stop a few feet away. “Good, good, you appear to be functional. We are very pleased to make your greeting. We look forward to a great friendship between our two worlds.” The alien robot suddenly stopped its rambling and turned toward Major Clanet. Its optical scanner panned the human from head to toe. “Ah,” it said as he turned back toward the android, “I see that your companion is biological. Is it a servant, or a pet?”