Author: Tim Ulrich
The doors opened and the small throng Joel was standing with, moved to board the lift. They shuffled into the car, jostling against each other as they settled into an impromptu formation for the brief, but cramped, journey up to the Centerline Station.
He reminisced; so short, it had only been seven months, but it was his most relaxing break in ages. Everything was slower here, and not just emotionally. To get its 0.4g, Layer 9 spun at little more than half the speed of his home Layer, 4. The best part had been that both Layers were governed by the same species. That meant the day cycle was the same (in hours if not rotations); there were minimal cultural and language differences; and, very pleasantly, he didn’t need any additional modifications to breathe the atmosphere. It had been nothing like that disastrous trip to Layer 2.
A chime and the sensation of his boots pulling him to the floor as the lift decelerated, brought him back to reality. There was a chuckle in the cabin as a rider near him outpaced the slowing floor and floated toward the ceiling. Startled, the passenger pulled themselves back down and sheepishly toggled their boots. Better late than never.
Disembarking, the passengers broke off in various directions. The locals mostly heading to jobs in the station, while the outbound travelers made their way to the already packed lines for Inspector review.
The Inspectors always creeped him out. They were fickle; enforcing undocumented rules in a manner so inconsistent that it baffled even the most astute scientists. The Inspectors’ seemingly limitless power over reality didn’t help either.
The bump of an unexpected weight in his pocket distracted him from watching his line’s Inspectors. He opened the catch and felt around. His fingertips found something.
Presenting an unknown object to the Inspectors was not an appealing thought. He looked ahead again and saw a “Quintessor” being addressed by the Inspectors. He was surprised. Always among the last of their species and, as a result, almost as powerful as the Inspectors, “Quintessors” were extremely rare. Before he could decide if pity or awe was a more appropriate feeling, fear resurfaced, and he refocused.
He wrapped his hand around a hard, smooth orb. It was warm, as though someone had been holding it tight before him though he had no idea who.
The Inspectors were now focused on a heavily augmented traveler from Layer 2. The less said about that abomination the better, but Joel was confident they were distracted. Sneaking a glance at the orb he felt fear boil to panic as he recognized an item he had only encountered in stories. Glyphs under the enamel glowed and changed. He couldn’t read the symbols, but there were fewer of them every moment.
With great effort, he pushed the questions of who, how, and why out of his mind to focus on the only one that mattered now. What do you do with an unwanted bomb?
He frantically looked for salvation and locked his eyes on the Inspectors who were now confiscating and vaporizing packages from a unit of Layer 5 clones.
He broke free of the line and sped, yelling, toward the Inspectors.
The official report indicated that the quarantine protocols, (including the severing of Layer 9 from the outside world), occurred when a solo attacker charged the Centerline Station Inspectors before detonating an unknown device which demolished a cubic kilometer of the station, in Layer 9’s largest documented explosion.
Author: Lance J. Mushung
I stepped onto the yellow and black transfer disk mounted on the gray deck of Delia Akeley and began bouncing like a child expecting candy. I’d be home in moments.
Mickie, the A.I. half of the crew, said through the speaker mounted on the bulkhead, “You may transfer now.”
“I hope my replacement enjoys the time with you as much as I did.”
“I hope you enjoy Earth of your future.”
Pioneer ships like Akeley traveled at high fractions of light speed to deliver transfer disks to habitable systems. Time dilation would make my six months onboard far longer back home.
In the blink of an eye I stood in the institutional-green disk room on Earth. A wall-sized screen showed a head with pale skin, green eyes, and curly auburn hair under a welcome home banner. It was me when I’d transferred to Akeley.
A holo of a dark-skinned dark-haired woman projected next to me. “Sharon McCrae, welcome. I am Isabel, the administrator of this facility. You have been gone 27 years, 137.52 days.”
I dipped my chin. “Thanks.” I resisted the urge to add it had only felt like six months, a quip Isabel probably heard all too often.
“Your billet is C237. A linker patch is on the desk. Place it on the back of your neck. It will link you to the Planet Wide Mesh and an online assistant will then bring you up-to-date.”
Once in C237, I sat by the desk and picked up a small square blue patch. I pressed it on my neck and closed my eyes. The assistant, an androgynous person with tan skin and close-cropped brown hair, appeared in my mind.
The assistant smiled. “Hello, Sharon. I am Claudia. A major advance in comm is people now have thought-controlled implants that replaced all handheld devices. The linker patch is like a low-fidelity implant. It puts you online with the PWM continuously and you can join the five senses of another person. Joining –.”
I interrupted her. “I can essentially be another person?”
“Please join me with someone sharing something exciting.”
I bounced up and down on the wooden seat of a raft negotiating a river’s rapids. Excited whoops from other passengers and the roar of water almost deafened me while rocks flew past. Although I savored the smell and taste of the water pelting my face, oncoming motion sickness convinced me to stop.
I said, “Another, please.”
A lovely nude Oriental woman was lying on blue silk sheets. I moved closer.
I yelled, “Exit.”
Claudia reappeared. “You are surprised.”
“That shouldn’t be shared.”
“You interrupted me before I explained anyone can join a person without the permission of that person.”
I remained silent as the unpleasant ramifications sank in.
She broke the silence after several seconds. “Should I continue the briefing?”
“Can I have any privacy?”
“Privacy as you think of it does not exist.”
“Must I have an implant?”
“The government implemented them as a crime control measure. Only an insignificant minority do not have one. Those people are considered lunatic fringe and the government isolates them.”
“Can you get me on another ship?”
“Isabel has an opening on the Daniel Boone in two days. Boone’s current velocity means that six-months ship time is approximately 51 years here.”
“I’ll take her.”
They’d tossed a life jacket to a drowning woman. I yanked off the linker and told myself some sanity would return to Earth in half a century.
Author: Rick Tobin
Rotting mangoes proffer disgusting flavors like burning spittle rising into a renovator’s mouth when alien wraiths hiss, rising from charred ruins fallen untold millennia before humanity’s existence. Dearth Crenshaw stood his ground as a maniacal, mystical slaver, without concern for his acolyte, Emmaus Progo. His protégé previously accompanied haunted clearings of thirteen worlds in readiness for human colonization, but repeatedly lost his bowel control when ectoplasmic spirits of species, still haunting their abandoned civilization, swirled in fury about them, tearing at their interloper space suits and souls.
Dearth’s hands spun the vicious atmosphere about him with invisible lines of force, entwining his attackers. The whispish harpies slashed back in agony, confused and forlorn as their fates were sealed by superior skills of a dark arts master.
“Now, Dearth? Use the wand?” Emmaus extended a six-foot silvery metal rod toward the billowing murk surrounding them.
“No! I hate that technology crutch.” Dearth guillotined the discussion as strings of undetectable magnetic fields encircled his captives, binding them and finally compelling their migration into a shimmering rope of energy speeding into an irregular orange crystal suspended loosely from his neck, outside his suit. Soon, the troubled ambiance was clear of psychic turmoil. Dearth’s gemstone glowed, pulsing life force from captivated new souls waiting his processing.
“I did not mean to interfere, master. I was afraid they might overcome us. I do not have your powers, so I must use what I have.” Emmaus tried to justify his interruption during battle as the hunters later discarded their battered space suits in a change bay aboard their ship.
“You’ve soiled yourself again, Emmaus. I had hoped for more progress after two years of apprenticeship.” Dearth turned, glaring at his offensive understudy.
“Maybe this is not my rightful destiny,” replied Emmaus. “I might try a different profession. With the thousands of new Earth colonies, surely there would be a better fit. Free will cries for better.”
“Free will! Where did you hear that term?” Dearth was suddenly insistent.
“I read some historical material in our ship’s library. Isn’t happiness really what we all deserve?”
Dearth’s fingers twisted quickly into an arcane hand mudra. Remains of Emmaus fell to the metal floor; his body desiccated into small piles of debris as a puff of soul rose to be encapsulated within the orange, glistening stone about Dearth’s neck. Dearth walked deliberately to a communications panel mid-ship.
“Dearth Crenshaw. Operation successful. 29465 is completely cleared for restitution. Send mining clones. I have fresh souls to activate them. Astral memories from this unknown race will pioneer a useful human outpost. There are copious resources in this world worthy of immediate exploitation. Note…send me a new assistant to implant. I will transfer this last one’s soul into a settler once new bodies arrive. I suggest acquiring a new helper soul from an earth-bound spirit taken from shambles of New York or Chicago. Forget the suburbs. I need a servant that is pliant and barely curious. Capture something drifting about a nursing home destroyed after the last asteroid strikes. I will wait, as required, for the supply ship. Please transmit my next target planet coordinates. For my control files, record that I have sealed more sections of Earth’s ancient mythologies on my ship that are heretical.”
Author: Suzanne Borchers
The back rows of mourners had risen to pay their respects and shuffled toward the old man lying in the casket. The front rows consisting of family and their close friends squirmed a bit waiting for the line to proceed past. Soft musical selections moved the line toward the exit. Averted eyes glanced to meet in condolence, while an occasional hug disrupted the line.
He lingered in the shadow along the back wall. He pushed himself forward to be the last in line before the first rows stood. Sooner than he expected, he faced the lifeless figure. Gazing on the wrinkled visage, his thoughts traveled backward in time.
The tape began when he first met the weeping boy. “I am your new stepfather. Would you like to work on an electronic project together?” The boy’s tears subsided as he placed his hand in the stepfather’s hand.
Days of instruction and mutual social learning with quiet laughter produced a machine to make feathered lures for their new adventure in fishing.
In the rough wooden rowboat, they threw their lines into murky waters that contained no fish but which brought intimate conversations and contentment to the stepfather and his stepson. Clouds passed overhead. The stepfather rowed, until years later when the stepson powered the oars.
His stepson left him behind and entered the academy to voyage beyond home and planet. The stepfather hugged him, and was surprised to not have the words to say goodbye—just a hug.
For years, during the short leaves, they sat together and the stepfather heard tales of romance and travel. The medical leave was the hardest one. Would his stepson be able to pursue his dream with only one arm? Would the implant work successfully? Each day, the stepfather nursed his stepson back from the brink of despair toward optimism. Finally, they shared a hug goodbye until the next leave.
Whispered conversations brought him back to the darkened room.
“How long do you think it will stand there?”
“Surely, now’s the time to junk it.”
“No longer useful.”
“Hasn’t been for years.”
“Why did they keep it around?”
“The old man insisted on it.”
“Well, great grandfather is dead and he doesn’t have anything to say about it anymore.”
“Can you believe it’s still standing there?”
“Almost like it could feel sadness.”
“That’s absolutely absurd.”
“We’ll stop by the recycling plant when we can finally get out of here.”
The stepfather focused his attention on his stepson. Was he truly an imposter? He was overwhelmed by emptiness. His electronics smoldered and burned. His shoulders shook as his memory saw the unlined face of the boy. He would never see his stepson again.
“Push it away from the coffin.”
“Turn it off first.”
“When it falls, kick it aside for discarding later.”
The stepfather heard. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore. He stepped away from his stepson and waited by the exit.
Author: Christopher Lee Buckner
The End of All Things Good
Alice-8000, a fancy name that meant nothing beyond the fact it made the android seem more advanced than it really was led the Johnson’s into their new room.
Speaking in an upbeat voice, Alice stated to the husband and wife, “And this is your room. While it is simple, as you can see it is also quite cozy; certainly, a better standard of living than you must be used to.”
Mr. Johnson snorted his contempt for the machine’s presumption, but decided against voicing a correction. His life hadn’t been amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but he was happy and content with his little piece of the world that he shared with Mrs. Johnson for the past eight years.
The room was simple, no larger than a typical hotel room at a modest resort one might find in Florida this time of year. Two beds sat in the center of the room, an old fashion statement that a man and wife did not share the same blankets. The second the machine was out of the room, he figured he would push the beds together, if they weren’t bolted to the floor. There was a nightstand between the beds and on it was a bright red phone.
“The phone, of course, is for internal use only. No signal can be reached beyond these walls, for yours and the rest of residences safety,” Alice said, seemly reading Mr. Johnson’s mind as he glanced at the phone.
On the opposite side of the beds were two nightstands with two identical lamps, each with a newly printed Bible placed along the edge. A neat desk, two chairs, a lime-green wallpaper, and mid-century yellow nylon carpet was on the floor. The only other room was a bathroom a few feet from the left bed, but it did not have a shower, just a sink and toilet.
Mrs. Johnson nearly leaped into her husband’s arms as she jerked violently, tightening her grip around his arms until his skin turned white.
“Oh, don’t be worried, Mrs. Johnson. I assure you, nothing outside can hurt you in here. We are well protected from any intruder that might attempt to gain entry,” Alice said.
“Are you certain? People are getting pretty desperate,” Mr. Johnson asked.
“Oh, I assure you, our illustrious benefactors made certain this domicile will keep you and your wife quite safe for the foreseeable future. Now, I will leave you two to your new home. I’m most certain you are overcome with joy and wish to get some rest. Dinner will be served at 5’oclock on the dot. Do try to not be late—the kitchen is serving apple pie tonight for dessert,” Alice said.
“What about our things?” Mr. Johnson asked.
“Oh. You will not be needing those anymore. Everything you could ever want will be provided for you,” Alice answered.
“We had family photos in our bags!” Mr. Johnson said.
Alice seemed to freeze for a moment, taken aback by his sudden outburst before finally returning to her typical cheery behavior.
“I’m sorry. If there was something of importance among your things, you should bring the subject to the attention of your unit liaison. Now if there aren’t other questions, I do have other guests that must be acquainted with their rooms.”
“What about –” Mr. Johnson tried to speak, but Alice ignored him as she left the room.
Another loud boom echoed in the distance, far, far above Mr. and Mrs. Johnson’s head, causing a flickering of dust to drift down from the ceiling.
Mrs. Johnson collapsed on the edge of the left bed, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Please dear. We don’t have the time for more crying,” Mr. Johnson said. He wanted to be more sympathetic, but just couldn’t bring himself to care right now, even for his wife.
“We should have stayed up there with our children and our family!” she shouted.
“You know we couldn’t. We were selected. Neither of us had any choice. If we hadn’t been… saved, we would be ash right now,” he said.
“The better for it, too!” she said.
Mr. Johnson didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said. So he threw his arms around his wife and allowed her sorrow to pour out, as tears rolled down the brown and yellowed stripped jumpsuit that had been given to him and his wife to wear.
In a low and loving voice, Mr. Johnson spoke to his wife, saying, “We’ll be all right. I don’t know how, but everything will be fine. I promise you, I can make this work for us, no matter how long it takes.”