Author: John McLaughlin
“Christ, this place is a dump.”
Paul Braun glanced around the offices of Organic Transport, Columbus branch. Dust-streaked fliers pepper the walls:
Fifty-Thousand Credit Reward for Water Smugglers…
“Food Rioters To Be Shot On Sight,” says UN Commissioner…
A single clerk stood behind the counter, fidgeting nervously. “Good morning, sir,” the man greeted. He reached automatically for a brochure, the OT logo casting red flickers across his face. “How about an overview?”
“Yes, I think I’ll need one,” Paul said, fingering his sandy beard.
The man unfurled one leaflet for review, a list of transport options three feet in length. For the discerning refugee, a Platinum Organics plan was hard to beat: sentry guarded full-body transport through fifty years of spaceflight; thawing and reanimation at destination; and nano-repairs for any damaged goods. Paul didn’t even waste a glance at those.
Unfazed, he jumped ahead to the skimpiest Basic option: one and a half kilos of biomass, whatever you could fit in the canister. Just enough room for a brain and some spinal fluid to keep it happy. For an additional fee, the brain would be transplanted into a cloned body at destination.
Perfect. Paul had just enough to cover three Basics.
He opened his wallet to pluck out a credit chip, his last one, and shoved it into the clerk’s waiting hand.
A moment passed. The man frowned, knitting caterpillar eyebrows. “Mr. Braun, I’m afraid we can accept only one cephalon.”
“One brain, sir.”
“How’s that possible?” Paul demanded.
“It appears that BC Ranger will be the last Basic cargo haul out of North America,” the clerk said, “and totally filled to capacity. In fact, I’ll be onboard as well.”
He smiled, punched another key. “You’re quite lucky. This spot opened up just yesterday. Passenger accident–antifreeze failure during the cooldown phase.”
“What good does one spot do me?” Paul grated. “There’s myself and my two daughters.”
“Ah-h-h.” The man dropped his gaze. “I’m sorry but there’s a strict first come, first serve policy. Only a limited amount of tissue can be supported by the coolant system, you see.”
“There must be a way,” Paul mumbled to himself, voice trailing into silence. “Emma and Janice…”
Something came to him just then, a flicker of memory from a high school lecture–the classic case of split personalities. He could hear Mr. Sorrano pontificating: It is a curious fact of human psychology, that an entirely distinct persona can inhabit each hemisphere of the brain…
Paul stands in the immense shadow of the cargo liner, squints up at its frame. The few blackbirds left in the sky are drawing slow circles.
When the Ranger’s fusion jet finally kicks in, he turns and winds a path back through the empty lot.
He imagines the human diaspora hurtling towards interstellar space–an expanding sphere of fireflies fleeing a broken homeworld. There would be chaos; war and privation were almost ensured. Whatever fate brought next, the girls would need each other to survive.
He smiled. The bio-canister had been small indeed; small, but with room enough for its precious cargo. Two lifetimes woven through fourteen hundred grams.
Paul steals a last glance at the ship as it burns an arc over the horizon. One thought gave him solace: At least I know you’ll stick together.
Author: Mark Joseph Kevlock
The metaphysical archive didn’t have as many visitors as it used to. Satch understood that. Still, he treated each one with all the kindness he could muster. The past was important to keep alive.
Round about six-thirty on Saturday night, a young couple came in. Nervous and fumbling in their attitudes toward one another, they must’ve been on only their third or fourth date, Satch could tell.
“A pleasant good evenin’ ta’ you,” he ushered them into the lobby and took their coats. “Welcome to the North American substation J2, of the metaphysical archive of planet Earth and its inhabitants. My name is Satchel Johnson. What can I show ya’?”
“This is Ellen. I’m Tom,” the young man said. “We’d like to start off with a personal tour.”
“Sure thing,” Satch said. “We’ll get you to the screening room right away. Just need your full names, dates of birth, and DNA profiles.”
Satch scanned their I.D. cards into the system and went up to the control booth. Ellen and Tom sat down holding hands in the darkened personal theatre and shared a kiss.
“Ready?” Tom asked his date.
“Sure,” Ellen replied.
“Okay, let’s start with the moment I decided to be conceived…”
Up in the booth, Satch located the appropriate recording and ran it for the youngsters.
Tom lent narration to the footage.
“There I am without form in the void. You can tell that my soul-self had grown restless with the lack of physicality.”
“You had such a cute soul,” Ellen commented.
“Watch now, here it comes,” Tom said. “There! There I go into Earthly reality, right into that egg inside my mother.”
“That was adorable,” Ellen said.
Tom shouted additional directions to Satch in the booth: “Okay, could you fast forward nine months, please?” Then to his date: “I want to show you the moment I decided to be born.”
Ellen squeezed Tom’s hand. “Lucky for me you did,” she said, playfully.
Satch grew a smile on his old face. Forty years and nothing changed. Young men still courted potential brides with revelations of vulnerability shared.
Tom toured Ellen through his birth footage and several key moments from his life afterward.
“What shall we view next?” he asked.
“How about the dawn of Man?” Ellen chose. “I haven’t seen that since I was six years old.”
“Comin’ right up,” Satch told them. He didn’t have to search for this footage; it was among the most popular in the archive. Satch marveled again at Humanity’s good fortune, that the Lagonians happened to be traveling past our planet at just the right moment to capture such monumental events as part of their galactic research.
“Look at that primordial soup,” Ellen said. “I’ve never seen a color like that!”
“Wait, there’s the spark!” Tom pointed across the interactive landscape. “The first thought created by what would someday become a human being — just a flash of electricity, that’s it.”
“And everything after has led to us,” Ellen gave herself over to a long, passionate kiss.
Satch grinned, over the wonderful self-centeredness of youth. He closed up the archive after ten, sensing that no other customers would visit tonight. He remembered when the concept was new: Man’s fascination with the notion that each of us created our own reality. Now it had become merely accepted fact. But for those who still felt the wonder of it all, Satch would be there, tonight and every night.
Author: Ian Hill
Affin slipped and slid over the lumpy white slopes. Her hair hung clotted with curdy chunks, and irritating crescents of tallow lingered under her fingernails; most of her skin was hidden under smeared wax; her clothes were heavy with clinging runoff. After so much climbing and stumbling, she finally rested and looked back at her sister, who was struggling over greasy wavelets of semi-hardened suet a few meters away.
“They must have used a lot of candles, huh?” Affin called, perching on a rounded knob and crossing her legs.
Pari, one arm outstretched for balance, clambered over a molded timber that had been caught in the sluggish seep years ago. Her long hair swayed heavily in front of her face, and when she tossed it back the weight nearly jerked her over. She was like an all-white specter navigating a surreal, flowing landscape with layers and bumps and licks and flows, all oozed and clodded and whimsical like the congealed ice cream slopes of a child’s dream.
Affin winced as she carved stinging wax from under her nails. “With all the nighttime studying they were doing, you’d think they would have invented a less wasteful light source.”
Pari heaved herself onto a wind-scraped shelf of tallow and ground her eye sockets clean with her wrists. Blinking, she peered down the oily heights they had scaled. The landslide of wax swept lower and lower, like a river of thickened milk, before spilling out and spreading into the foggy fields from whence she and her sister had come.
“Welp,” Affin jumped up and turned her attention forward, up the remainder of the steep, caked-over incline. “Better be going, huh?”
“A minute,” Pari croaked. The inside of her mouth was white, and she winced at the soapy taste.
Affin looked at her pitiful sister and sighed. The former was excited to reach that looming, pinnacled tower whose southern flank vomited molten spillage and whose northern flank blew off equal quantities of handwritten papers. What wonders she would find on those sheets—the recorded thoughts and discoveries of a community of lofty thinkers who, as the waxen wasteland attested, spent so long shut up in their high, windowless chamber, considering, writing. She could see the gray turret now, rising solemnly over its mounded heaps of grossly discharged wax. No warm light came from the coagulate-rimmed vent.
“What’s this?” Pari asked.
Affin turned at her sister’s voice and found her holding a half-charred scrap of parchment in sticky fingers. Affin’s eyes widened and she rushed over.
“Could it be from the tower?” Pari wondered.
Affin snatched the paper and greedily held it up. It was globbed with wax, and, curiously, much of it had burnt away, but she could still make out one passage. She read, “No great breakthroughs have transpired since the mishap. It seems the boys are disheartened. ‘Tis a shame what happened—a mean, crippling shame. We fritter away most of our time at the northern chute, inhaling the crisp fumes of a million million burnt pages. Ah, what cruelty. To think so much and never realize the fool’s game we played until, as was inevitable, one of our candles fell from a table and rolled the wrong way. A single little flame in the wrong place, and poof, our efforts but ashes. A true shame.”
Pari looked at her sister, aghast.
Affin stood still for a while, crumpling and uncrumpling the scrap in her hands. Her expression was unreadable. Then, with a slow exhale, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Oh well. The air in there was probably funny anyway.” She helped her sister up. “Let’s go home.”
Author: Ken Carlson
“It’s not that complicated,” said Captain Briggs, “my ship has been called to an outpost that we should reach in two hours’ time.”
“Sounds simple enough,” replied his wife, Anita, beautiful in the simple, yet elegant way most people are not. Seated across from him, she had the knack of looking dynamite without making a fuss. That ability touches the people around you and makes many of them maddeningly envious. Tony Briggs pretended to be reading his duty roster for the next week but was really looking at her. They both knew that which added to his aggravation.
“The outpost contains a mining colony and a fairly large prison, with some of the most violent thugs from this part of the galaxy,” he continued.
“And many non-violent criminals as well, yes?” Anita replied.
“I was hoping this could be a pleasant conversation,” said the captain, “one where we talk about us and not this other unpleasantness.”
“We don’t have to talk at all,” she said, “if that’s easier.”
As all relationships involve varying levels of strategy to maintain stability, Captain Briggs was sure he could handle this little talk with his wife. They could speak briefly, ask about the kids. He would feel better. He could get on with this unpleasantness on Jesef 4.
“I mean,” she continued, “this talk is only a distraction, right, so you don’t have to think about what you’re about to do.”
“We all have our orders,” he replied, “but this isn’t about us.”
“Then why did you call? You’re about to obliterate thousands of people from the sky because an admiral said you should. Obviously there’s no other option than to do it, yes? Unless, you wanted to know what I thought. You always did before.”
There was a knock at the door to his quarters. Captain Briggs sighed and paused his conversation. His wife faded from view.
First Officer Lang entered. Briggs wasn’t fond of his recently appointed second-in-command. Young officers that move up the chain too quickly on account of powerful relatives rarely have respect for the lives and deaths their decisions involve. Plus Lang was their political officer, which made him a weasel.
“Captain,” said Lang, “was I interrupting? I thought I heard someone.”
“It’s none of your concern,” Briggs said. “Status report?”
“The crew is ready. The course is plotted. Torpedos loaded.”
“Because firing from orbit is easier than sending a squad to stop an uprising?”
“It’s not our decision, sir. Prison riots need to be handled with an iron fist.”
“And obliteration is tidy, right Lang? No need to concern yourself with guards, non-comms, or nearby civilians? Just blast away!”
“Captain, we have our orders…”
“That is all. Dismissed.”
Lang warily left the captain’s quarters. Briggs returned to his desk and poured another drink; Anita reappeared.
“Well, that was pleasant,” she said.
“I don’t have any choice,” he said.
“You could refuse. You’re not a butcher, Anthony. You don’t wear it well.”
“I’ve received orders. It would be hard to make waves at this point. I could lose my command. There are probably dozens of armed prisoners involved now.”
“And if you send ground troops to rout them out a few will die. Probably better to just take the path that kills more civilians and makes your life easier. Or did you need your dead wife to point that out.”
Briggs hurls his glass at Anita. It passes through her flickering image.
“Computer,” he said. “End sequence.” Anita disappeared. He buttoned his uniform jacket and headed to the bridge.
Author: Ian Hill
Marble mulch crunched underfoot as the priest struggled to remain upright. There was such a weight on his shoulders, on his head, on his heart. The velvet folds of his robe pressed painfully into his body like cutting belts, and the brass icons that dangled from his throat and cuffs hung as leaden weights, their tiny chains taut. Bent-backed and eyes fluttering, the priest stared down at his right hand where a white glove was slowly sliding off, seemingly of its own accord. It finally fell as if it were made of thick canvas instead of satin.
With a hardening of resolve, the priest forced himself to take in a deep, sucking breath and swing his head back up. This done, he stared across the white wastes, the endless desolation of marble, ivory, and alabaster gravel. Jagged shards of stained glass glinted in the sourceless light that pervaded the bright sprawl, and he descried a few distant scarps and juts that couldn’t yet be identified. The priest pointed himself toward one such outcropping and set off.
It felt as if he were wading through thick, black oil. Every step was a war; the raising of the leg took such tremendous effort, and to let it fall (as one would normally do) meant a crunch and surge of pain, like a gush of steel needles. It got to the point where the priest had to use both hands to ease each step down, and even then the contact of soft-soled foot to compacted pebbles felt like stomping against barbs. It wasn’t long before his old, wrinkly face was lined with tears—tears which flowed freely, since his lids were tugged low.
At length, the bewildered priest made it to the first thing in the landscape that wasn’t just more flat, broken-up aggregate. He couldn’t raise his head at the moment, so he settled with merely lifting his eyes and glaring across his hanging brow. He had reached a spire—a half-sunken, tilted tower of splendid marble, doubtless a holy construct. Most of its exposed height was intact, but the two extremes were bizarrely warped: the tip of the spire loomed dull and smashed, and the base was all distorted and shot through with fractures. Its lowest bricks were being ground into more of that sparkling mulch.
The priest laboriously stumbled around the spire, and he found a man lying on the other side. He was a poor sight, stretched over a block like a discarded cloak. He had been there long, and his whole body was somewhat flattened and squashed. His chest was shallow, his head—forced back onto the top of the block—was deformed and fused there. The man was a part of the environment, now.
“What is this place, wretch?” the priest murmured not unkindly.
The man’s right eyelid twitched and peeled open to reveal a flat, unseeing disc. “Ah, father; it’s you.”
The priest was disturbed. “We’ve not met, I think.”
“I’ve met many like you,” the man coughed with some trouble. “You’ve been nabbed by the Cultivator.”
“The thief who swallows cathedrals and monasteries and churches and spits them here.”
The priest sagged, wanting to protest but not equal to the task. “To what end?” he eventually managed.
The man smiled an abhorrent, disfigured smile. “Heaven’s expanding, father. You’ve done well; many saved, oh so many.” He chuckled with a croaking rattle. “Watch now.”
There was a sound like a thousand worlds splitting, and a distant cloud opened. Another cathedral vomited forth and descended in a glittering shower, bound to be crushed and shaped into something new.