Just Testing

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Massive wings beat the ground as it tears chunks from Devon’s body, the blue glow of its eyes turned purple by smeared blood. We’re all using laryngophone comms so as not to attract it’s attention.
“That’s not my vulture.”
I glance toward Cat.
“Not anymore. Used to be. You can see faded roundels on the tail feathers.”
She nods: “A Calliapteran Model Four. Based on the Cinerous Vulture.”
“Calliapteran? Isn’t that the company who did those mad-dog hyenas?”
“Mad cat, you mean. That would be their Model Two. Seventy kilos of tailored nightmare built from the Spotted Hyena. If the rumours are true, the different strains of Calliapteran faunatech can work together. Imagine that flying horror with ground support.”
Miguel whispers from where he’s watching our six.
“Not funny you should mention that. I’ve got a trio of heat signatures, warm like faunatech, a quarter-click south. They’re problem-sized and coming this way.”
Cat rolls closer to me: “That’s not good. A lone Model Two could do for the lot of us.”
“What are they hunting out here? The front line’s in France. This is Spain.”
“This isn’t Spain. This is the Basque AC.” Miguel points south, “Spain’s over there.”
Cat makes a happy noise and snaps her fingers. Then she stands up and vaults over the edge of our comfy crater.
“Where the bloody hell are you going, Sergeant?”
“Had an idea, Cap. Worst case, you lot can bug out while they eat me. Model Twos always pack an appetite along with their nasty.”
Sam and Col slide into the crater.
“The fuck she goin’?”
Col punches Sam’s shoulder: “Use all the words, big man.”
“What I meant to ask was ‘where is Sergeant Catalin off to now?’”
I grin: “Fucked if I know.”
Miguel sounds astonished: “She’s standing right in front of that threesome and they’re sitting there like it’s some sort of obedience class. Not eating her, for sure. Her mic’s off but I think she’s talking to them.”
Command privilege: I open up a listening line on Cat’s comms. Sure enough, she’s talking, but it’s no language I’ve ever heard. A rare moment of genius drops in and I run a query on her family. It pays off: Cat’s mum was born in the Basque AC.
I waive her muted mode: “So, when did mumsie arrive in the Kingdom?”
“The year before they had to take ‘United’ off the front. She’s been in Scotia ever since dad died.”
Major-General Duncan Catalin is the most recent posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross. He’s the reason the Calais Crater doesn’t have a twin in Kent.
“These are some sort of territorial guardians, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They thought we were sent by factions who still consider the Declaration of Arnaga to be a betrayal. Seems there’s room for a lot of backstabbing while the war rages across Europe. Someone at Calliapteran made an offer. This reassigned faunatech is operated by a Basque subsidiary of Calliapteran. They’re not combatants: they’re testing ‘long-term autonomous patrol protocols and dynamic response scenarios’.”
Sounds a lot like hi-tech gun running with a coat of shiny bullshit to me.
“The hyenas told you that?”
“No, the nice people at the other end of their C&C comms did. They also offered a passably sincere apology and free passage out of the area.”
Arse-kicking revenge aside, surviving to whinge about not getting arse-kicking revenge – and how bloody dangerous the opposition was – is always a winner.
“Get them to stop the birdie eating Devon. We need to bag what’s left of him and get gone.”
“On it, Cap.”

The Forest

Author: Jennifer Breslin

He awoke on the pavement, lifted his head, and felt warm liquid pool in his eye. Must be blood. Six months of chemo and six months of radiotherapy had taken their toll. The blood-clots in his legs meant it was a slow, tortuous walk to the shop to get essentials. But he couldn’t live without his rum. This time the pain got the better of him and he had blacked out.

A car drove by. The car’s sensors scanned him. It gathered his exact GPS coordinates. It assessed whether he was a hazard. It deducted that he was stationary. In that second it was maximum 245mm above the ground and 150mm from the edge of the curb. It was not a hazard – the car drove on.
A bus approached along the quiet street. It scanned him. It assessed if he was a potential passenger. It gathered his exact GPS coordinates. He was 2500mm from the bus-stop and stationary. He was a not passenger – the bus drove on.

A slim woman with buds in her ears jogged passed him and didn’t register the fragile heap on the ground, as she focused on beating her friend’s distance record. Her Fitbit logged her exact GPS coordinates. It logged her heart rate, how many steps it took her to pass him, the time it took to pass him, and how many calories she lost.

As he leaned on his bloodied hands to push himself upright, a wave of nausea ran over him. A digital billboard nearby scanned him for age and gender. Its facial recognition malfunctioned because of the blood dripping from his forehead. Its algorithm suggested an advertisement for life insurance.
Five CCTV cameras had picked him up. Their microphones captured his language as he agonisingly stood upright. The wifi tracking attempted to connect to a smartphone but didn’t connect because he was a “luddite” – so his friends said. They recorded the precise time and exact GPS coordinates. They continuously pinged information from the street to six satellites whizzing around the globe, feeding them data on the weather, wind speed, wind direction, humidity, temperature, number of passers-by, and number of cars on the street. They couldn’t detect his face or gait. They were confused by blood. They sent an alert of a status yellow threat to the nearest police car.
He threw up. An alert was sent to council street cleaners that wastewater was on the street with the exact GPS coordinates.

A police car edged past. The cameras mapped his face and instantaneously collected all photographs of him that had been uploaded online. They cross-referenced them with their databases and found his address, national insurance number, and criminal record. They located his court case from ten years ago for speeding. He was not speeding now, so the police took the view that he was not a threat. They drove on.

At least his bottle of rum was intact. He made his way slowly, gingerly home.

If a tree falls in a forest of algorithms, they will hear it, but will they care?

Ice Men

Author: Tom Prentice

I shuffle onward, clutching my side. Blood splatters the snow and the ice. Red, white and blue.

They’ll be coming. They could follow a blood trail blindfolded if they had to. It’s how they were made.

It was Russia that made them, to fight their arctic war. Mountains of unadulterated dread, veiled head to toe in thick white fur. We stopped short of calling them werewolves. We’ve never had a sense of humor about them at all.

Snegs was the name that stuck. From the Russian for snowman.

The pain is dull, thanks to the cold. I stumble into the grotto, back the way I came. But I won’t reach help before they’re on me.

Damned Russians. They won their war but their toys refused to go back in the box. Snegs turned on their masters and then the rest of us. They nuked Greenland to alter the Atlantic currents. The ice is returning. Earth is theirs now, and they’ve taken control of the thermostat.

It’s funny. Mankind, just like these snegs, was born in the ice. I read about it, before all this. Before everyone’s career became war. A huge volcanic eruption, eons ago, triggered an encore of the ice age that wiped out all but a hardy handful of us: the cunning, bloodthirsty lunatics who would go on to annihilate all the other human species and dominate the planet, all the while fighting among ourselves.

Kindness had no place in the ice.

You can never hear them until they’re right on you. They stalk so silently in the snow. But I know they’re there. Call it instinct.

We’ve been searching for that lost kindness, I think, all this time. We built cultures that rewarded it, told stories that sanctified it, to remind ourselves each day to be kind.

Violence, though, has never needed a story. We’ve been writing that one every day, in blood and bone. It’s our nature.

The opening ekes into view. I fall to a crawl and scrape my face through the blown-in snow. Their coded chirps and whistles bounce around the walls like the soundtrack to a nightmare.

I wonder what we were like, before that long winter hewed us into the vicious beasts we became.

Out in the frigid sun, I slump against the snow dunes. Snegs spill from the mouth in swift soundless bounds and fix their rifles on their prize.

Boom. I detonate the charges. The fissure collapses, swallowing up the entire patrol like the Pharaoh’s army.

Deception, too, was something we learned in the ice, a thousand centuries ago.

The dust clears. Just one sneg this side of the rubble, whimpering pathetically. I yank up its bloody mane and slit its leathery throat.

They’ll inherit the Earth eventually, but not today.

When they do, I wonder if they’ll think about us. What we were like. Their forefathers that perished in the ice.

If we were kinder.

The King of Morgalith

Author: Ben Fitzgerald

Right on cue, Morgalith’s robotic guards escorted in the tax agent. The king was sitting on the other side of the throne room, and he bellowed to them as they entered: “Approach!”
The tax agent complied. He could see the king more clearly now, the mechanical townspeople assembled before him. The king was in full fantasy garb: a dark blue robe with the price tags poking out. He was smiling nervously, drumming his fingers on the arm of his throne.
“I trust your journey here was favorable?”
“Very,” the tax agent said, inwardly regretting his choice of career. “Now, if we could get down to business…”
“I’m glad,” the king said loudly. “The kingdom of Morgalith leads no traveler astray.”
“Well, as I said, I’m here for business. I sent you an email on the subject…”
The king quickly cut him off. “Because the kingdom shows its subjects great mercy. Unending, everlasting, unconditional…”
“You can’t get out of this, Mr. Smith…”
“I know no one with that name.”
“I think you know what this is about.”
“Oh, I most certainly do!” the king cried, standing up. His eyes darted desperately around the room. “This is… this is a plot. This is the work of the Nestaphinians, trying to delude us with fabricated promises of business. They will not stop until they have devoured every man, woman, and child in our kingdom. Well, Morgalith shall not allow them. We shall fight them until our dying breath. We shall raze their cities, plunder their lands. We shall never surrender, and Morgalith shall prevail!”
The robots went berserk. They started a chant– “Mor-ga-lith! Mor-ga-lith!”– and the king received it, basking in the awe of his subjects until the tax agent couldn’t stand it anymore:
“Mr. Smith!”
The robots went silent.
“Ever since you moved off-world, there have been numerous gaps in your financial history. Off the record construction costs, unaccounted spending on sentient robots… well, we’ve been forced to conduct an audit.”
The tax agent unbuckled his briefcase, pulling out a pen and clipboard. The king’s face was blank.
“Shall we get started, Mr. Smith?”
The king opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He sighed, resigned to his fate, and began:
“I had a bit of a mid-life crisis.”

Guns and Butter

Author: Travis Gregg

Jeff had to crank the handwheel for ages till the bolt reluctantly slid back and the 3″ thick steel door finally swung free.

His stores were empty, the larder was bare. He’d been saving the one last meal and had made a little feast of it last night. He probably shouldn’t have cut it so close, right up until he was out of food, but partly he was scared and partly he wanted to live out this vacation just a little while longer.

That’s what he’d been thinking of it as, a two-year holiday from the grind.

He’d had books stacked to the ceiling, and time enough to read. He’d good food, fine wine, all the shows and movies he’d meant to catch up on. Everything in redundancy too, even three pairs of reading glasses because he’d see that Twilight Zone episode.

All that was over now. He still had water and the generator still had some juice but things were breaking down in his bunker while outside things were being put back together. The short wave had started picking up signals three months ago and from what he could tell there were survivors who were not just getting by but were actually thriving.

He’d still have shelter too but his real dream was to finally cash in on his foresight. Besides food and water, he’d also stored up gold and jewels and enough cryptocurrency that he should be king of the whole damn place in no time.

Leaving his shelter, and careful to conceal the entrance, he headed off towards town. In the distance, he saw promising signs of activity, some smoke from what must have been cooking fires, and even some repaired buildings.

“What’s a bitcoin?” That was the third time Jeff had been asked that. The first two people he’d run into were happy to trade, and clearly had abundant food, but couldn’t understand what it was Jeff was trying to give them. Wary of a stranger, and the novelty wearing off quickly, the first two had sent him away. The third person though was tending what must have started out as a soccer complex but was now the largest vegetable garden he’d ever seen. Jeff tried his best to explain about crypto but about halfway through the man waved him off.

“Don’t care about that, makes no sense. What about those boots?”

“But I need these boots.”

“Well, I need these tomatoes. That’s how it works. You have something I want more than these tomatoes and then we trade.”

“What about gold?” he asked reluctantly.

Jeff had been holding that back. He also had some diamonds but there was no way he was parting with those for a few measly tomatoes.

“I can’t eat gold. I can’t sleep on gold. Gold won’t keep the rains out or keep me warm at night. Won’t keep my kids from getting sick.”

“But… it’s gold.”

“Yeah yeah. Go start knocking down doors over on the west side. Plenty of houses still. You’ll find all the gold you can carry and then some. If you do go over there though, and you find some honey or a sealed package of coffee, even that instant shit, you come see me. Then we can talk.”