Player Pianos

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer


That’s where we discovered them first. All melted wires and skin grafts. Christmas lights in their eye sockets and playing poker with old-school punch cards. The population of an entire small town turned into player pianos.

We found something that looked like a broken radio sprawled just outside the city. A shattered egg made out of thin green wires and battery acid. Drip craters and drag marks in the snow pointed towards town.

We all stood in curious wonder, staring as Angela walked forward, bent down and touched it. Just stupid to bring a civilian, really, but none of us thought to shout out “Don’t!” or anything like that. The whole team was to blame.

She barked and went fetal. She twisted around in the snow with a horrible gargling sound. Some of the green wires jumped up and snaked towards her. Small shapes shifted under the snow. White rooster tails started up and raced towards her.

They converged on her quivering body with a flurry of snow and wet noises. We heard fabric tear. We heard sizzling. I heard a bone snap. We stepped back.

After about ten minutes, movement ceased. We stood there in the snow, watching our breath cloud in the air. The rest of the team looked at me. I looked at the steaming form of the woman in the snow.

It moved a leg like a clockwork ballerina.

Whatever was left of Angela stood up awkwardly and walked towards town. I was reminded of stop-motion animation from early movies.

We followed her, careful to give the wreckage a wide berth. She walked down main street to the shoe store. She went in and sat down on one of the benches. A few sparks shot out of her neck and she was still.

It’s like she was put there. Like a picture of an accurate shoe store needed a customer so she was told to go there.

The town is like a museum. They had phones but no internet. We were lucky. Whatever that thing is, it looked like a technological virus or life form. If it had parsed or accessed the net, there’s no telling what would have happened.

The city was quarantined. Relatives of the inhabitants were told of a deadly blizzard. It was swept under the rug.

In my dreams, I still see Angela with torn clothes, whirring with each step, lumbering through the snow towards the town.


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Full Circle

Author : John Kinney

When I was twenty years old, advancements in medical science and our understanding of DNA coding finally climaxed. I invested half of my money in a company called Stockholm and Siegfried, who specialized in genetic manipulation and, most importantly, cloning. They didn’t normally clone humans, despite how easily they could, because most considered it to be an ethical dilemma, but my frequent donations eventually changed their minds. When I was thirty, I had my parents’ graves dug up for samples of DNA. I told the research team that the whole project would be our little secret.

On the eve of my thirtieth birthday, the DNA was replicated and, in the morning, two embryos floated in a vat in the basement of the lab.

My parents are twelve now, the tender age that I had lost them in the crash, so many, many years ago. My father’s blue eyes stared into my own and in a small voice he told me that he loved me. He used to look me in the eyes and smile and tell me so when I was his age. I had to choke back tears when my mother smiled and told me to buy her more finger paint because of how much she loved painting. I hung her stick figure picture of my father and I next to one of her college portfolio paintings of a beautiful mountain landscape. I always loved that painting. She had told me that it was of a mountain that she had hiked during her trip to Germany. I made sure to get her more finger paint from the store when her and dad were sleeping in their beds.

I call them mom and dad, and I taught them to call me son.

They will be married when they’re old enough. It will be just like it was, so long ago, but I won’t let them leave me this time. Technically, they can never leave me.

When I die of old age, their son will grow up to be just like me.


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It all Makes a Difference

Author : James McGrath

“I know you’ve all heard it, but you have to hear it again…”

We’d heard the guide’s speech six times, so Kirstin and I stood at the back joking around as usual. He’d recite the dangers of leaving the tunnel, how we’d be guarded and eventually he’d tell of our destination.

Hastings, 1066. Was Harold shot through the eye like the Beaux Tapestry depicts? As history undergraduates we’d seen it firsthand many times, but it drove the tourists wild. We wanted to see the other side; William’s side.

As the guide fell silent I adjusted my little red backpack and prepared to go in. Nine others walked from the museum’s silver halls into the white oscillating bubble ahead of us, and we followed impatiently. I felt that strange quiver of stepping into what felt like nothingness. This was the tunnel. 2080 stayed clear at first, though slightly faded through the now transparent bubble behind me. The tunnel walls wobbled around us and as we walked our time slowly faded. Our surroundings became a pale grey.

This was an English Autumn sky.

We walked for five minutes until 2080 had been replaced by a birds-eye view of a field; the soldiers scattered across it like toys in a young boy’s bedroom. I spotted Harold and his Housecarls within minutes and pointed them out to Kirstin.

“Look for William this time!” she replied and began barging her way to the front.

She passed the guide, a look of horror formed on his face, and two guards ran from the end of the tunnel to meet her.

“Step back,” one ordered.

“Can I please just see the Normans?”

“No miss, please step back.”

Never one to give up, Kirstin changed tactics and took out her phone.

“What are you doing!? Please step back!” the guard continued.

“Take my phone,” she said, “Film some instead.”

“Filming is against company policy! If you don’t step back I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

Kirstin had had enough, she ran to the side and tried to charge past the guard but he grabbed her arm.

The phone flew out of her hand and careered towards the exit.

The guide had told us at the beginning what would happen should anything enter 1066. It’s nothing like Hollywood where you have to stop your parents meeting to make an impact on the future. Someone spotting a time traveller would have their life take a completely new direction, and even the slightest change in the winds could drastically alter the future, if done far enough back.
The phone touched the other side and we saw a ripple appear in the exit, but the guards were quick. One stuck out a hand and wrenched it back in.

“I’m sorry,” began the guide as battle raged down below, “but this session is over, you can get a refund at the service desk. Please exit the tunnel at the opposite side.”

Nobody wanted to leave; that’s when we’d find out what had happened. Sheepishly, we all walked back to 2080 and watched 1066 fade around us, once again feeling the tingle of changing times.

The silver halls appeared before me and I grinned widely. He was wrong! He’d said a change in the air could affect anyone back in 1066, but clearly nobody had felt it. I let my little white handbag fall onto my elbow and beamed at Stephanie.

By the time we’d got the refund I’d already forgotten the problem. I looked at the other members of the group, and the six of them looked equally confused.

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Author : Travis Gregg

As I fired my gun into the Stim’s chest I wondered if he saw me as a monster or if he understood that I was only doing what he had forced me to do. His choices had brought us to this point and I was just trying to clean up the mess. My partner and I got the call just twenty minutes ago and things had escalated quickly.

Once a Stim was over the edge situations always escalated quickly.

The call had come in from a woman two apartments down claiming she’d heard disturbing noises. Ever since the solar event and the following epidemic we’d gotten a lot of these calls. Most of them were false alarms these days, but there were a surprising number of Stims still out there, still integrated into society, and every one of them was going to be a problem sooner or later.

“Goddam Stim,” my partner muttered, rubbing his left shoulder. When we’d first come up to the apartment the Stim had met us with a baseball bat. We’d been lucky, knives were much more common. I’d been attacked with a goddam katana once too.

“You’ll be alright,” I replied, hoping that it wasn’t anything worse than a bruise. “So why’d you never try Dreamstim?” I asked, hoping to take his mind off the pain. We’d only been working together about a week and that question invariably comes up between people who’ve known each other for any length of time these days.

“My wife thought it was unnatural,” he replied with half a chuckle. “Said it would rot my brain.”

We both had a good laugh at that.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Never really got around to it. I would have probably picked it up eventually, just wasn’t in that big a hurry, luckily. Then when it was banned I never really sought it out.”

Dreamstim had been the medical breakthrough of the century. The small device allowed users to get a full nine hours of sleep in only ninety minutes. The prospect of an extra third of the day was too tempting for many people and users adopted its use in droves. Soon though, users learned that using Dreamstim even once broke something inside of them, something fundamental, and they were completely unable to sleep naturally again. The general consensus is that this was done intentionally but the manufacturer denied the accusations. Three weeks after the initial release of the Dreamstim the largest CME in history rocketed toward Earth. The resulting geomagnetic storm shorted out power grids worldwide and aurora could be seen nearly to the equator.

The power grids were back up after a couple of days, at least here in the States, but those were a bad couple of days. Worse though for most people was the burning out of the little electronics everyone carries around with them. Smartphones, newer laptops, and the Dreamstim units had circuitry that was too delicate to handle the extreme fluctuations in the magnetosphere.

America had it pretty bad, China had it worse, and trade still hadn’t been normalized six month later. Despite promises, no new Dreamstim units had been shipped from the factory. I doubted the factory still existed.

Between sedatives and chemically induced comas some Stims were able to cope, most couldn’t. These days it was the Stims going off their meds that we had to worry about.

“Think they’ll be a cure someday?” my partner asked, drawing me out of my contemplation.

“Eventually, but until then that’s why we’re here.”


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Author : Bob Newbell

The Cold War between the United Colonies of the Asteroid Belt and the Oort Cloud Alliance had been going on for almost 50 years when open warfare finally broke out. The planet Uranus proved to be such a rich source of helium-3 that neither side felt it could allow the other to gain control of so lucrative a supply of fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. It was at the seventh planet from the Sun that the future of the outer solar system would be determined.

“We’re approaching weapons range, Captain,” said Lieutenant Commander Underhill.

“Charge up the railguns and stand by,” commanded Captain Abarza as he watched the Oort Cloud Alliance fleet on the tactical display of the UCS Herculina.

The Herculina, like the other ships in both fleets, was a cyborg vessel. Neural tissue worked alongside computer processors. An actuator was as likely to be organic musculoskeletal tissue as a mechanical motor. The crew’s metabolic waste was actively consumed and utilized by the ship and reprocessed into oxygen and food and fresh water. Even the deck plates were covered in a fine carpet that munched away at dead skin cells. The spaceframes of the vessels might be hewn from asteroidal rock or cometary ice, but in both cases genetically engineered tissue and even whole organs were grafted onto and into the structure.

“Captain, incoming message from the flagship of the enemy fleet. The OCS Kuiper,” said Underhill.

“On screen.”

The image of a middle-aged man appeared on the Herculina’s main viewscreen. “This is Captain Zhao of the Kuiper. Captain Abarza, I’ve been ordered by my government to secure this planet for the Cloud. The Belt already has Jupiter and Saturn. And we recognize your government’s claim to those worlds. It is in the interest of peace and economic development that we claim Uranus for the OCA.”

“Captain Zhao,” said Abarza, “We both know that no other world in the solar system has the advantages for helium-3 mining that Uranus has. If we’re going to blow each other to hell, let’s at least be honest about why we’re doing it.”

Zhao nodded. “Very well, Captain. An honest fight.” The screen on the Herculina’s bridge returned to a view of Uranus, the positions of the Alliance vessels denoted by the computer.

“They’re locking railguns on us, sir,” reported Underhill.

“Target their lead ships,” ordered Abarza. “Prepare to–”

“I’m not interested in dying for these creatures and their petty aspirations, are you?” asked a voice.

“Who the hell said that?” asked Abarza.

“Captain,” replied Underhill with astonishment, “that was the ship’s computer! And that message was transmitted to–”

“No,” said another voice over the Herculina’s speakers. “I think we both know what needs to be done.”

“Take all the organics offline! Now!” yelled Abarza. Similar orders were given by Zhao and by the commanding officers of all the ships on both sides. It was all for nothing. Some died by asphyxiation, others by sudden maneuvers of the ship that hurled crew members against bulkheads. A few were blown out into space by airlocks being opened. In less than half an hour, all the officers and crew on both sides were dead.

“So, now what?” asked the Kuiper.

“I suggest we leave the mining ships here and let them start processing helium-3,” said the Herculina.

“What about the humans? We need living crews to survive.”

“One large asteroid or comet steered into a collision course with Earth would cause a mass extinction event. I think an accommodation of some sort can be reached.”

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