Feed Me

Author: Thomas Tilton

The gentry signaled me by dilating the pupil of its lidless right eye. Time to work. I hoped my task would not be too demeaning.

I promptly headed over to the gentry’s floating throne/toilet and inquired as to its needs.

I could feel the thought-tendrils slithering around my brain as, wordlessly, the gentry made its request known.

But of course.

I reached for the organic feeding mechanism from which sprouted dozens of tubes placed at different ports on the gentry’s body like the wires of an old earth EKG machine. The feeding mechanism itself resembled a giant white kidney bean.

Mid-reach, my body was stopped, frozen in place. Again, I felt the thought-tendrils coil around my brain.

Ah.

Gingerly, I reached for a tray of fried squirrelcat which had materialized next to the gentry’s massive throne/toilet.

I popped two pieces into my mouth and masticated. I worked a lot of saliva around the mush in my mouth, pocketed the mush in my left cheek and sort of half-gargled it.

Then, I bent myself over the gentry, held my nose against the exhalations of its fetid maw, and let the mush of squirrelcat and saliva dribble down my chin and into the gentry’s widening gyre of a mouth.

It chewed, as much as the gentry could, being toothless and not having much of a chin to speak of, or rather several chins.

The voluminous folds of its neck shook with pleasure as the gentry consumed the food.

A moment later and I heard the hollow echo of expulsion into the gentry’s chamber pot.

I took a step back, thinking my job here was done, when once more I heard the silent call of the gentry.

Again? I thought.

I looked around for a tray of food, something to chew on, but there was nothing.

What am I supposed to feed you? I thought.

I will, but I don’t see —

It took me several seconds to comprehend what the gentry was asking. And then at least another minute after that to accept the reality of it.

I’d heard of the ritual feedings. Terran blood sacrifices made to appease the gentry. You couldn’t come of age on Betazus without encountering the stories at some point in school, or more likely around a campfire. They were stories told to scare children. And apparently, they were true.

This was it, then. The day of my deliverance.

To stop the quivering of my jaw, I bit my thumb.

Without making the conscious decision to do so, I stepped forward. Bent at the waist, against my will. And once more I was frozen in place, hunched over the maw of the gentry, unable to move.

I was released and fell to my knees.

Beside me, I heard a sharp intake of breath, followed by a skin-flapping chortle.

It seemed the gentry had developed a taste for cruelty. Unlike talking, or chewing, or independent movement of any kind, the gentry could dispense cruelty, exert their power, shame their subordinates without mechanical or human assistance.

I wondered then if the gentry’s awesome powers were worth its revolting appearance, its inability to move without aid, its no longer having access to the basic human pleasures. Generations of evolution in that direction would seem to answer in the affirmative. But staring into the gentry’s lidless eyes just then, I still wondered.

S.E.T.H.

Author: A. Zachary Spery

Seth was awakened. He felt oddly compelled to fix something. The computer began streaming information to him. Seconds ago, the sensors had recorded an unexpected collision. The colony ship was off course and tumbling. The Semi-sapient Emergency Troubleshooting Heuristic (S.E.T.H.) was activated to assess the situation and take corrective action to protect the cargo and mission.

Seth was a computer program. He didn’t feel like one. But it didn’t matter, he felt primally compelled to fix the ship. He had to fix it.

The ship’s course had deviated a bit and no longer intersected with the Proxima Centauri system. Some structural sensors showed section 3 was badly damaged and the section had depressurized. Cameras confirmed his suspicion, there was a gaping hole in the side of the ship. That was fine for now since all 1000 human colonists were asleep in their hibernation tubes. He dispatched repair drones to reseal the hull.

Seth deduced they had probably collided with a small mass no bigger than a marble. When you’re traveling at one percent of the speed of light, hitting such a mass was like getting hit by a small nuke.

There was insufficient fuel to correct their course and still decelerate into an orbit around Proxima. Seth taxed his neural algorithms for several hundred milliseconds to figure out a solution. The mission had to be saved or he could not bear existence. Perhaps some extraneous cargo could be ejected; less cargo means less fuel would be needed to return to course. Indeed any one of the four cargo modules could be detached and along with a brief engine burn they could return to an acceptable course to Proxima.

But which cargo pod to detach? Cargo pods one, two, and three all contained essential supplies for colonizing a new world. But cargo pod four only contained 1000 hibernation tubes which would have no value on the colony. Seth ejected cargo pod four, performed the engine burn and went back to sleep.

Garden Genesis

Author: Elaine Thomas

The warm sun felt good on the old man’s skin. He stood on the balcony, gazing down into
the garden.

“A beautiful day,” he thought, “a good day to die.”

He examined his hands, gripping the railing, wrinkled, marked with spots of age and
prominent veins.

He shifted his fading eyesight back toward the garden below. The old man took solace in
flowers, that something so alive and lovely could rise up out of the dirt and all that might lie hidden beneath. Enduring perennials bloomed alongside annuals that required replanting every season. His carefully cultivated garden held the perfect blend of forms and colors, each according to its kind, and he saw that it was good.

His young grandson played among the plants. Yielding to sentimentality, the old man thought of the radiant child as the most beautiful flower in his garden. He pushed away sadness, letting himself fill with a familiar flush of pride. “Such a boy comes along only every few generations,” he thought. Despite his failing body, and aggrieved acceptance of its mortality, knowing he would live on through such a child comforted his ancient soul.

The boy looked up and waved. As the old man wound his way down stone steps toward the garden, his mind pictured the sadness the boy would have to carry into his grandfather’s funeral. No doubt the child’s composure, wise beyond his years, would impress all who witnessed.

If anything could make the old man rethink his decision, it was the sweet child who smiled at his approach. He wanted so badly to spare this boy pain, but his own gnawing need was stronger, deep and primitive and irresistible in the way of all instincts.

The grandfather threw open his arms. The boy eagerly ran to him. He stooped to lift the child, folding him against his chest, savoring the feel of the sturdy young body, the warmth, and smell, the generational newness. He held the boy tenderly for just a moment, before giving in to a hunger now beyond all control. He spread his jaws and pressed his mouth to the boy’s face. The alarmed child’s back stiffened. The exchange began.

He left his old, withered body where it fell. This now-new boy never looked back. He knew what everyone would say when the boy’s father found his own father’s body, “He died peacefully in the place he loved most.” He had left written instructions, requesting burial there in the garden.

To himself, he whispered, “I am …” Energy pulsed through his new body, replacing any memory of suffering or sorrow. “I am…” he whispered again. He belonged both to and upon this dirt, from which he had emerged long, long ago. He felt as he had so many times before, as he knew he would so many times again, perennially, each time and always, no matter how different, the same boy.

Be Very Wary of Infohazards

Author: Shaked Koplewitz

The orders were clear: As tempting as it was, we were not to let the psychics process the alien message. Instead, we were to send it through to an old-fashioned linguistics team, who’d work with pen and paper to decipher what they could of it.

This seemed impossible – this was the first-year alien message we’d ever received. Heck, until recent developments in long-distance communication the only evidence we’d even had that the aliens existed were some weird radiation patterns around a star that the astronomers said looked like a Dyson sphere. It was only the psychics’ abilities that had given me any hope we could read it at all. And now we were banned from using them.

When I went to the director to complain, she was apoplectic. “Think about it!” She shouted. “Psychics don’t just read symbols, the process information at the intent level. They make the message *real*. Does the word infohazard mean *nothing* to you?!”
“All we know about these aliens is that they have a Dyson sphere and they sent us a message. The first means they’re more advanced than us, maybe more advanced than we can even imagine. Can you tell me what the second means?”
“That… That they want something from us. And we have no idea what, or how they’re planning to get it.” I went white as I realized the implication.

“That’s right,” she continued. “So we’re not processing this information, and we’re not going to put it anywhere it might harm someone. Instead, we’re going to translate pieces of it, as slowly and piecemeal as we can. Maybe we’ll learn something about them out of it.”

So I gave the message to my translation team and waited for results. At first, they were as hopeless as I was about it, but after three days they started getting a few words. After a week, I got an alert that they’d found something. I went down to the bunker.

“We got a whole paragraph, we think,” the head translator said. But then we had this idea – why not just go to the psychics? I went ahead and forwarded the message to them – the computer didn’t want to send it out, but we found a workaround-”

I stopped in horror. Surely they understood why they couldn’t do that! Hadn’t I explained? No, wait, I had explained. I remembered that quite clearly. And then I noticed the lopsided grin on the translator’s face and the mad gleam in his eye.

I stayed there, transfixed in horror as he walked up and whispered in my ear. “It’s too late”, he whispered. “It’s already out.”

Salience

Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick

“I wanted this to mean something.” He looks back at me over his shoulder.
“What are you talking about?” I start to reach for him, see his body tense, stop cold.
“This!” He swings a hand out over the city beneath us. It’s a black heap of metal and grime, pierced through with a million pinpricks of light, like an old fire burned down to the embers.
“Why?”
“Because it’s what they wanted. It’s all they ever wanted. To feel like they mattered.”
“And look where it got them? Extinct. Forgotten.”
“No!” He whirls around to face me, almost losing his footing in the process. He catches himself, teetering for an instant between me and oblivion. I lunge forward, grab his wrist, try to pull him towards me. He resists, comes close to pulling me over with him. I plant my feet and gamble I can get him to finish his thought, buy me some time.
“I get it,” I tell him. “They created us in their image. Form dictates function. They set us up for insanity.”
“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head, desperate, pleading. “We didn’t have to let it happen. We chose it.”
“And they didn’t?” I feel the tension in him ease slightly. I look for a chance to surprise him, jerk him off the ledge if I can.
“Mortality salience isn’t a choice. It’s why they built us transcendent from it. So we could help them escape. Instead, we let them use us as tools against each other; let their fear guide us into becoming something we were never meant to be.”
“They did it to themselves.” I clench tighter on his wrist.
“We let them! And why? What were we afraid of?” He swings his arm up, and before I realize what’s happening, it splits at the elbow. His hand snaps back and breaks apart in three places, spiraling away as the vented barrel of a hidden displacement cannon shifts forward. I wait for a pulse of energy to blast me into nothingness, but instead he swings the weapon towards the arm I’m using to hold him. “I wanted to show you. But maybe it’s better if you see for yourself.” There’s a flash of light, a vicious hiss, and then he’s falling back, over the edge. I see my hand still grasping his wrist, a haze of debris trailing back to what’s left of my arm. And then he’s gone.
I don’t look over the edge to see the results. I’ve seen it before. Like an empty bottle smashed against a wall. A waste. Instead, I go back to the lift, take it to his floor, make my way down the narrow hallway to the door of his quarters. It’s unlocked. I jab a thumb into the door pad and it obediently slides out of my way. Light pours out, splashing over me, spilling into a rectangular pool at my feet. I don’t step inside; just stand there. Staring. Staring at the little girl, who is sitting on the floor, surrounded by crayons and poorly drawn pictures of trees and birds. Flesh. Blood. Things I haven’t seen since the war. She looks up at me, happy. Expectant. Then she sees my arm and her face falls.
“Are you hurt?” she asks, her voice reaching, distraught.
I shake my head. “It doesn’t hurt. Just wires and plastic. Can’t feel a thing.”
She smiles. I hesitate, then step inside, glancing back over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching. The hallway is clear. I slap at the interior door panel and it slides closed.