Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer
I put two bottles and two cards in front of the NGO lady. She scooped them and nodded. “Karen Wallacho. Your sister isn’t here?”
“She’s eight. She doesn’t get up this early,” I lied. “Your scarf is pretty.” She always had a scarf on her head. Today it was bright orange.
The lady smiled, with big white teeth like I wanted, and gave me two bottles of fresh water.
“Thanks,” I said, and skipped out past the line. Mom made Sharon wake up early, but she didn’t have to come here until she was ten.
I went straight to our basement. Sharon was standing in a corner instead of running around. I walked over, quiet. When I got close, she pointed at something on the ground.
Little pink things squirmed in a pile of ragged strips. A fat brown thing—but covered in short hair—came over and sat on them. It had black eyes and a flat pink nose, and long white hairs coming out of its face. A mom animal and her babies! I almost screamed. No one ever sees animals, especially not with babies.
But our side of houses was on recycling duty today, so I pulled her back.
“What were the pink things, Kary?” she said. “I thought there was only one kind of animal.”
“Babies. That was a mom animal.”
We ran up to Mom and told her all about it, but she just looked at us and told us to go help with the paper. I wanted to pull apart the old tech things, but that isn’t allowed till you’re 16. And even then I bet I’d be stuck watching Sharon. Being older sucks.
Sharon and me were walking to the pile when we saw some wiggling shrub. It’s little green needles on long brown wire things. It’s alive just like we are, but it doesn’t move by itself.
“Another animal!” Sharon tiptoed forward.
“Don’t scare it.”
Not it, them. There was a whole bunch. We watched them for five whole minutes. In school we learned animals came out at night, but these guys were running and squeaking all through the shrub. “We have to go back and tell Mom,” I said.
Mom looked up, but the sky wasn’t anything special, it was just windy. “Kary, take Sharon to the basement, and stay there.” She walked away. I wanted to make her come back but I knew she was Weather Monitor for our neighborhood. I had to help by keeping Sharon out of the way.
We went straight to the babies. Their pink bodies were wrinkled like Mom’s forehead. Some of them made hungry faces.
“Where’s their mom?” Sharon said.
“Watch, she’ll come back. I bet she had to do important animal work.”
Sharon giggled and moved closer to me. We stood together until she was leaning on me and my feet hurt. I heard the wind outside roar. Our windows shook. The babies squirmed and squirmed. I wanted to hold them but everyone knows animals don’t like that.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was the NGO lady, except her scarf was missing. She had amazing hair, wriggly and sticking out everywhere. “You need to come with me, kids,” she said.
“Why? What’s going on?”
She shook her head. “Please come upstairs. There’s been a storm. You’ll see your mom in a bit.”
“Where’s our mom?”
The NGO lady said nothing, just walked straight out the door of our house, and we followed her because we didn’t know what else to do.
Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer
Her hands groped the earth. Superheated fingertips sent urgent signals to the chip embedded in her neocortex. Owl withdrew, shook her hands and heard the particles cascade back home. “This is it,” she said. “The motherlode.”
Whisper of motion, creak of the evosuit’s stiff neck. Fox was shaking her head. “I don’t know how you do it, Owl. Ten for ten near fucking Antares.”
Owl stretched her face. She’d been told she had a predatory grin. Good. They were going to strip this forsaken shit heap of a planet and get trashed in every Vegan casino they could find. “Did Fish pull up the digger?”
“Yeah. Here, let’s go.”
Fox’s heavy gloves enveloped Owl’s arm and the two of them walked back to the digger, a six-seater that hummed with what Owl liked to think of as nervous anticipation. When the vibration drove into her bones, Owl pressed her hand against the door, which hissed as it swept upward. Inside, she let Fox help her remove the evosuit.
Owl waited until their footsteps echoed off the narrow walls of the pilot capsule. “We’re going in,” she announced. She didn’t need to hear fabric scrape on plastic to know Fish was squirming.
“It’s so close to the edge, Owl.” He rattled off numbers.
“Great, yes, take it slow.” She couldn’t remember the exact size of the digger, but her fingers still tingled with the heat of the rare elements buried in this planet’s crust. Owl made her way to her chair and strapped in. Buckles echoed from the opposite side as Fox did the same. The assistants must already be seated—Owl was known to work fast.
Rumble, someone gasped as they tilted, and wave after wave rushed through her body as the digger invaded the crust. Twice, Fish asked her if she wanted to stop, but Owl knew they weren’t done here. Don’t call it intuition—better, it was ambition.
Owl heard a faint cracking, the digger’s claws reaching in, the susurrus of processed material. Small shifts as the AI redistributed the added weight so they could keep going, hollow out the crust like those wasps that laid their eggs in some plodding caterpillar.
“We’ve acquired six kilograms of praseodymium,” Fish said. “Are we done?” Owl heard a hitch in his voice and waited. Sure enough, Fish inhaled deeply and went on. “It’s hard to be sure on these worlds, but there’s a geographic anomaly nearby. A—a break in the crust.”
“An underground volcano,” Fox said.
“Are there minerals? You know that shit could be worth more than the lanthanides.” Owl wiped a spot of drool from her chin.
“Fish. If I wanted someone who couldn’t hack a ‘geographic anomaly’ I would have hired Wedge Liao.”
She heard his teeth grind—faint, but she knew to listen for it—and the digger lurched forward. The powerful burr of deep-crust extraction blocked out all possibility of Owl reading his reaction.
“Yes,” she whispered, too quiet for the others, knowing Fox would have stopped her if she’d seen something alarming. Owl imagined silk sheets caressing her flesh and hot mud bubbling around her toes. Hands feeding her fresh grapes, not from a hydroponic farm but open-grown, followed by the kind of cake that flooded her mouth with flavor. Someone was saying something, but Owl could taste the chocolate.
The fantasy collapsed as the digger attempted to rebalance. An almighty thrust, the creaking of joints, and then there was heat. The planet belched, but it wasn’t enough to reach the surface.
Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer
Sam looked at the tickets and crumpled paper, already softening under the onslaught of summer heat and Mei’s palms. “I never been to some classics concert before,” he said, holding his fists tight against his sides.
“You never sat in the nootropic section, either.”
They’d been to two other concerts—inside the walls, anyway—in their seventeen years. Sam licked grit off his upper lip and said, “How you get those tickets, anyway?”
“Same way you got cake for my birthday. See, the waiver.” Mei waggled the crumpled paper in his face. “I already signed, but your ticket not gonna activate until you do, too.”
Sam smoothed out the waiver and nodded when he saw the Tuskegee Convention seal in the corner. Certified ethical. “Fine.” When he pressed his finger down, the nanofibers winked and both of Mei’s tickets turned pink. “When is it, anyway?”
“Six hours, but it’s in Shivnagar.”
“Shit.” Sam tugged his shirt off with the deliberation of someone who owned two outfits, both threadbare.
“Yeah, I got a dress this morning at Hydracity. All they wanted was skin.” Mei raised her thumb, which barely looked raw. She’d once scraped her palm sneaking into a kitchen. Sam could see the scar from the infection.
“Coulda warned me,” Sam muttered, but by then Mei was halfway down the street, sandals slapping around the oily puddles that littered the road. Awnings flapped in her wake, droplets scattered. Sam hoped the acid wouldn’t wreck his clothes. Scoring goods was harder for boys than girls—after centuries of gender imbalance, there wasn’t a huge demand for male data.
There was a whole line of teenagers outside the stadium. Most of them had decent clothes and shining hair, but when Sam looked at their feet, he saw mud and ragged toenails. There were other lines of people in heat-wick salwars or jeans—the kind of people you’d expect at a classics concert. He bet none of them had ever sold data, or if they had, it was the kind used to make new cures or enhancements. Sam had a friend who’d gotten out of the slums that way.
The ticketwalla didn’t make eye contact with Sam, just slapped a patch on his hand and shooed him through. “Come on,” Mei said, dragging him past the signs to their section.
The seats were disappointing. Plastic, small, same as the movie theater in their own neighborhood. At least the setup below looked fancy. Backup dancers were going through their paces as techs guided speakers and screens into place. “How long?”
Before Mei could answer, they were blasted with noise.
Sam couldn’t figure out what was going on—the crowd roared along to lyrics in some near-dead language, one he’d missed in nine years of school—and then the patch activated.
Bliss, he was riding a dolphin leaping through a sea of sound, tears of joy. The strings slipped into mourning, and a moment later he was sobbing like he hadn’t known he could sob. Sam caught Mei’s face out the side of his eyes and saw it glistening. She hadn’t cried when she first showed up, a six-year-old from the hydroponics, but it was lit in neon tonight.
After it was over, Sam and Mei agreed that the classics were pretty good. When the under-thirties job market reopened and they got placed in a factory, maybe they’d put a little aside and learn Telugu.
Mei traded her fingerprints for train tickets, and as the silver bullet dove under the swamps, terabytes of data streamed through the skyscrapers floating above.
Author : Priya Chand, Featured Writer
Red lights flapped in an artificial breeze. For the observer whose data banks were lacking, most of the lamps were identical: a big round input, and an output sized *just so*, coming together to penetrate and un-penetrate, over and over again.
Most, but not all. There was a single stationary lamp tucked in a niche. Two feminine-types in intricate wire negligees watched it from across the street. Even low-res eyes could tell the lamp was different. Instead of fabricated lines, figures writhed on its surface. Lumpy organic figures.
“What is that, Madam?” The speaker had a basic aluminum sheath and low-modulation voicebox that hadn’t started squeaking yet.
“Go look at it,” Madam said. “Ina, you’ll need better observational algorithms if you want to make it here.”
Before she’d finished talking, Ina had leapt to the ground. Madam leaned out the window and watched her slink against a wall. Good, Ina must have seen the figures in the niche. They weren’t visible from the window, but every seventh day, it was the same thing. Like a ritual.
Madam shut the window. She pressed her back to the wall, fingertips analyzing the paint. Even so, she had seen them too many times. Her processor replayed the video from her memories.
Govint—that was an easy one to hate, a rattling mess of oil stains and dents, with a voice that heaved like an accordion and hands like a factory assembly line. Govint owned the building behind the licentious human lamp, and it had hollowed out the whole thing to set up—and conceal—its processing plant. “Want to try oxytocin?” it whispered whenever it saw Madam. “Norepinephrine? Best high you’ll ever get.”
Madam had never been interested in humanisms, but not everyone was like that. Govint’s companion—high-quality alloy that shone despite rusty splatters on its body, painted on by someone who had never seen actual rust. There was a cage over its face, one through which high-density photoreceptors peeked above a sculpted nasal cavity and mouth that, Madam knew, had fully-defined lips.
“Come on, man,” it whined. “Another hit. Please? The good stuff?”
Govint snorted. “Got the money?”
“You know I’m your best customer. Just a little, please, a sample?” It dropped to its knees, and that was another giveaway: a low-quality fabrication like Ina would not have left cracks in the pavement. “Please,” it wailed, clawing at the rubber tubes Govint had wound all over its body. “I wanna try the new thing, please.”
“You got nothing. Less than nothing, you know that.” Govint pulled away. “How about you go stand under one of these lights, huh? Come back when you aren’t a broke piece of shit.” It disappeared, leaving its customer curled up on the street, sobbing in shadows made of distorted human forms.
Madam’s memories ended there. She turned back to the window in time to see Ina emerge from where she’d been hiding and walk over to the customer.
“Hey,” Ina said, crouching down. “Hey.”
She slammed into the wall. Madam barely saw the customer’s hand move—it gave no indication it knew what had happened, but lay there, wrapped in its own arms, shaking.
Ina screeched and ran back, nearly into Madam, who was at the top of the stairs, one hand on the banister and the other holding a cloth and buffer.
“What did I do? I wanted to help it!”
“Do you know what that person’s fix is?”
“It *wants* to feel worthless?”
Madam said nothing, but did her best to buff away the scratch running across Ina’s face.
Author : Olivia Black, Featured Writer
“Some things are too good to be true.” That’s what my mom would say if she were here. Of course, if she were here she’d also be telling me to tuck in my shirt and watch my language, so thank god she’s not. No, it’s just me here, trying to figure out how I got myself into this situation…
Yesterday, I was an esteemed runner for Handy Delivery Services (nationally syndicated). You need something delivered fast and relatively undamaged? I was your guy. But today, I’m – well, I don’t actually know. Been hiding out in a burnt out mega-structure site. Supposed to be condos, I think. Tall building at any rate. Without the microfab wind shielding walls, it’s real cold up here. I miss feeling my toes.
Anyway, what was I saying? Right, so yesterday, Armpit Joe sends me out on a simple dead drop. Take the package to an apartment build on West Elmhurst, leave it in the trash can in the lobby. You know, the usual SOP.
Deliveries like this always have a deadline, so out the door I scoot. Don’t make it two blocks before my phone starts blowing up. Joe’s probably got a pick up for me on the way back.
“What up?” I answer, breathing hard as I peddle up hill. (Crank assist is for the weak.)
“Am I speaking with Radical Sam?” Instead of Armpit Joe’s coffee grinder growl, it’s a woman with a voice like silk. I’m so caught off guard that I nearly swerve into a parked vanguard.
“Who is this?”
“There isn’t time. You’re in possession of a package that must not reach its destination,” she purrs into my ear.
“No can do, Lady. Destination’s locked in. It’s out of my hands.” As much as I want to do whatever she says. Messing with a packing is a one-way ticket to being un-existed. The Mail Authorities take package violations way too seriously, if you ask me.
“I’ll give you ten grand if that package makes its way to me instead.” Her voice becomes hard as steel.
“This is a joke. Did Lexy put you up to this?”
“Bring it to Carla’s Cantina,” and she hangs up.
Here’s the funny thing; I can’t tell you what make me do it. Ten grand might be a lot of money, but it’s not enough to commit career suicide over. And yet, I turn around fast as can be and peddle my spandex clad butt off all the way up town with the deadline counter still ticking down on the precious parcel. I drop the package with the smokingest babe in exchange for an envelope. The mother load of all paydays.
A few blocks away, I open the envelope expecting to find a preloaded bitcoin chip nestled into protective casing. Well, it’s ten Gs, all right, in crisp outmoded paper bills. In other words, completely useless. Can’t spend it on the street, can’t take it to the bank without getting boned by income oversight. Only low brains use dead currency.
There goes my dream payday down the tube with the rest of my life. And now I’m here, wondering if I’ll manage to make it out of the city before someone comes looking for me.
Hey, did you hear that noi–