Dance While The Sky Crashes Down

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

They met each other on the high wall that surrounded the empty city. It was truly empty now: even the soldiers had left, abandoning the surface, chasing the population underground, into bunkers or into the big groundstations in the desert.

He had a bag of food and drink, scavenged from shops and homes that had survived the evacuation intact. She looked like she’d just come from a party in the good end of town. She was wearing a long black dress, inset with reflective scraps so that it shimmered like the night sky, and she had a music box tucked under her arm.

When the evacuation order had come, they’d both separately judged that it would be pointless to run and hide. She was too proud, he was suspicious of the government. The cracks crazing across the sky drove them both to distraction.

The wall was as wide as a good road. The inside edge was a sheer drop, fifteen metres down into the leafy walldistricts. The outside edge was protected by a raised ledge about a metre high and the same wide.

He dropped his bag by the ledge, rummaged in it, and brought out a folded square of cloth. He spread it over the ledge: the edges draped over each side. He quickly unpacked a meal of bread, smoked meat and chopped vegetables that had been encased in clear plastic. Two tall metal beakers followed out of the pack. He poured wine into hers and water into his. Reflexively, he was deferring to her: she didn’t notice.

She sat delicately on the ledge opposite him, sipped his wine and took small bites of his meal. They didn’t say a word, but looked out from the city that had been their home, out into the desert that the walls had kept back. Every once in a while, one or the other of them would glance upwards at the sky, at the cracks which were perceptibly crawling across it.

The sun began to set. He produced several small lanterns from his bag and set them down on the wall, forming a wide circle of illumination. She placed her music box in the centre of that circle, and lightly tapped the top of it. And suddenly, they were not alone: the box grabbed photons out of the air, and reformed them, projecting four abstract figures. Blurry, unfocused musicians, each with a different instrument. For the first time since he’d seen her on the wall, he tried to speak, but found that he couldn’t. She pointed to the box and the phantom band, attempting to explain that the music box pre-emptively cancelled any other sounds. He didn’t understand, but shrugged and seemed to accept it.

The band struck up. She smiled, twirled and laughed silently, the lanternlight reflecting brilliantly from her dress. She hopped up onto the ledge, and beckoned him to follow. Slowly at first, but gathering courage and confidence with each measure the band played, they danced up and down the wall, within their pool of light.

The damage to the sky had reached a critical point, and fragments began to fall. They heard nothing, wrapped up in the music, the flash and whirl of it, the ever-quickening steps. A fragment crashed into the city, and they felt the shockwave. A moment of unsteadiness, but they carried on regardless: dancing under the light of a moon that neither of them had known was there.

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Crowbar Subtlety

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

I work on Opingtu. Two-and-a-bit AUs from civilisation, on a good day.

Lee thrust the crowbar into my hands, and set off down the corridor at a run. I swore, and ran after him. Me and Lee were as thick as thieves — always had been. Started when we were twelve, I think. Talking of thieves — that’s what Lee did with his spare time. Stole stuff. How he found merchandise to steal inside this godforsaken hollow rock and how he got it out are mysteries I never had the urge to plumb. I supposed he had a day job, too, and that’s how come he’d managed to follow me out here. It just never seemed to come up in conversation.

I was in slightly better shape than him, so caught up with him before he got too far from where I had been sitting. He had a second crowbar in a thin bag strapped across his back.

“What the hell?” I demanded, glaring at him. He just glanced back, and put on a new burst of speed. We raced by surprised faces and angry officers. Lee ignored them, and thus, so did I.

He led me into the prisoners sector.

We stopped by a door marked ‘512’. Lee punched a long sequence into the pad by the doorframe. The door itself didn’t have a handle — for security reasons, apparently — but after Lee had entered the code, it obligingly slid into the wall. He pushed me inside. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear running feet.

Once inside, the door slid shut, and the lights came on. The room held six stasis caskets. The ambient temperature had to be about ten degrees higher than the corridor — stasis support gear isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.

Behind me, Lee slapped the red panel next to the door. The steel-on-steel sound of the bolts grinding into position was perceptible. Once the door had stopped vibrating, he smashed the control panel with the end of his crowbar, gave it a twist, then jerked a tangle of wires out of the wall.

Such an action caused the door’s emergency subsystem to cut in. Which was designed to engage an additional lock, then shut down. Security reasons. It was a prison door, after all.

He pointed to the casket labelled with a roughly painted ‘Three’.

“Break it open.”

I stared at him. He stared back.

“In for a penny.” He shrugged.

“Remind me to kill you later.”

Our crowbars punctured the cheap aluminium of the outer casing, and we hauled it apart. It split open like an oversized drinks can. The coolant sheath beneath it was tough plastic, but we made short work of it.

Soon, me and Lee were standing in a rapidly-expanding puddle of light blue liquid, staring down at one of the prisoners.

The guy in the canister was just coming around, the effect of the stasis field interrupted. His face contorted as the pains hit: only then did I recognise him.

“Everyone said he was dead…”

Johnny Rukopashka got slowly his feet, and took the crowbar from Lee. It looked like a toy in his hands. He bared his metal teeth, and clapped Lee on the back. His claws left a tear in Lee’s shirt.

Johnny was a pirate. A gangster. Or more precisely, Johnny was eight feet of graft muscle and metal. Johnny had been declared dead, but his very — vibrant — presence convinced me that he certainly wasn’t amongst the deceased.

“This a rock, boys?

“Yeah. Opingtu.”

“No dreck. Now boys, you’re going to help me take over.”

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Systema Metropolis

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Staff Writer

It’s just like they try to teach you in biology.

Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Municipalis, Europa, Munchen, EDF, Umbra, Generatrum, Gigas.

The common or garden Generatrum Gigas. Very roughly, that’s ‘Giant Generator’. Self-replicating automata are absolutely great unless you impose severe limits on them. And make sure there’s no easy workarounds.

‘Europa’ may have been true once, but no longer. Municipalis don’t respect political borders: these things walk around the world. Not fast enough to stay in perpetual daylight, but fast enough to snatch eighteen hours or more of light a ‘day’.

And they’re damn tall. And some of the subspecies can float.

About the only people who gained anything purely positive from the whole evolutionary technology revolution were the damn taxonomists. Whole new species sprouting in a whole new kingdom of life. And sprouting far quicker than anyone anticipated.

The new breed of taxonomist are an aggressive bunch. For the first time in years there’s something new and fresh in the field. Now they’re all out in the world. They’re the new heroes: the new household names. Charles Maltz, first human to document the speciation of mineral extraction drones, as they evolved from general extraction to specific ores. Donald Powell, first human to enter the wreckage of Dungeness and find evidence of emergent radiotolerant forms of common municipalis. Kate Finnigan, first human to cross the pacific with a seagoing umbra solar platform. Alexei Khostov, first human to gain the trust and acceptance of an enclave of dimachaeri combat frames.

The oil is gone. Most metal, too. The machines are extracting the last of it from Africa. Taxonomists have already witnessed predatory forms attacking and breaking down slow-moving members of umbra and the other lumbering solar families. Entire mechanical ecosystems are appearing.

The most remarkable discovery has been a symbiotic relationship found on the african savannah. A solar platform allowed several small velite combat frames to draw power from it regularly in exchange for defense against the small, fast edo family predators that would try to disable and disassemble it for parts. The combat frames were obviously several generations into the relationship: when discovered, their catabolic furnaces were already atrophying, forcing them to continue protecting the solar platform.

The Royal Society is bringing together research from everyone it can contact: they’re preparing to publish a new book. Systema Metropolis: the Systema Naturae for the modern age. The project is one of the few positive, creative efforts that has occurred on a worldwide scale in years.

The world is slowly dying, choking on the pollution of twelve billion minds. The ennui of the world is dissapating now that there’s finally a new frontier. There is romance, there is excitement. There are heroes once again. For the first time in a long time, the future is not quite so bleak.

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Out West

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Staff Writer

Back when there wasn’t a war, Cohesion used to take me on drives. We usually went west, way out of town. After a few kilometres the world got weird: most people didn’t like it, but Cohesion said that it helped him think. Out of all the oddities, he held the theoretical trees as his favourite.

Cohesion was a haimix. Human-AI-Mix. Optical fibre looped out of his skull, and snaked down into the AI mind implanted in his chest. He said that it felt like schizophrenia, but that both minds were equally ‘himself’.

I remember the day he first showed me the trees. They’re tall and spindly, growing straight up into a sky that’s never clear of clouds.That sky was not quite purple and very nearly yellow, but never one or the other. ‘A nowhere sky’, he said, ‘and far more puzzling than the trees’. The trees were a result of corporate experiments with superpositioning. They were visible, but somehow absent — you could walk straight through them. They were translucent, and if you stared, you could see the sluggish motion of water and sugars through their trunks. The leaves were more solid than the trunks – if you waved your hand through those, they fell apart like centuries-old paper.

Cohesion explained that the trees were probably somewhere else too, that they grew here in a strange quantum state. That most of the time, if you tried to bifurcate something that one of the two copies would rapidly collapse, and the other would stabilise. But the corporations discovered a valley of stability. If eight copies were produced rapidly, they would continue to exist in a tentative equilibrium.

The copies weren’t really real, Cohesion said, but they somehow shared resources, as if each one was an eighth of a whole plant, stretched and padded into full size. Where one drew nitrates from the soil, the other copies would have their nitrate needs met. Cohesion told me that he’d mapped a few pairs of trees, but he had no idea where the others were. He thought that there might be another forest of them somewhere else, with the rest of the copies, but he said he didn’t have time to look. He gave me a little data chip with his findings on them.

I don’t know what happened to Cohesion after the war started. I kept on going out west, and I carried on Cohesion’s project. I spiked the roots of isolated trees with coloured dyes: fine pillars of bright water stood out like beacons, betraying other tree-fractions. On my most successful day, I found an entire tree: all eight versions. And at the bottom of the eighth tree, wrapped in a waterproof bag, I found another datachip. It’s contents were simple. A message from Cohesion. He claimed to have found a way to imprint data into the trees – specifically, that’s he had stored a file in the tree the datachip was under. You could imprint data on one tree, and it would be distributed – as the trees could gather nutrients and distribute them – but you could only extract the data if you found all eight parts of the tree.

It took me a week to get the equipment listed in Cohesion’s notes. But it was possible, even with the war restrictions. I held my breath as the file downloaded onto my laptop, the eight parts interleaving perfectly.

It was an AI backup file.

I loaded it.


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Origami Stars

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Staff Writer

“We’ve considered the simple stuff in previous sessions, and now all of you are comfortable with the basics of folding space, correct?”

The teacher saw some nods of assent from his class.

“Excellent. But this is the advanced class. I’m not just going to teach you to fold space — I’m going to teach you origami.”

He drew a sheet of plain, white paper from his desk, and held it up.

“I’m not trying to overextend my metaphor, don’t worry. A piece of paper really is the easiest way to show you the folds. That way you can all see the work in progress, and understand where all the folds are meant to go.”

As he spoke, the teacher’s hands were creasing and folding the paper. The eyes of his class were focused hard on those fine movements, most of them probably recording it in their cortex or otherwise. He soon finished, and held up a model of a twelve-pointed star between his thumb and forefinger.

“And this is where the metaphor breaks down. In your spacetime version, when you reach this step, you need to grab the center of the structure and do the tesseract twist, wrench it round by about half a rad. Then put the entire thing somewhere safe, and release.”

The teacher sat back in his chair, and closed his eyes. About a metre above the desk and it’s spread of paper and origami, the air began to distort. Light shifted crazily through the patch. The teacher’s face betrayed his enjoyment of the task.

He opened his eyes, and the miniature star above his desk ignited.

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