Ugly

Author: G. Allen Wilbanks

“Mama, why is that man so ugly?”
“Hush, child,” the mother chastised her son. “That is rude, and quite a mean thing to say.”
“But Mama,” the boy protested.
“That man is a hero!” the woman proclaimed, loudly enough that if the man had heard her son’s cruel question, he would certainly hear her response to the unkind statement. “He looks like that because of the war. Without people like that man, you would not even be here right now.”
“The human war, Mama?”
The woman nodded. “Yes. The humans. You weren’t born yet, so you don’t understand how bad it was. The humans found us and attacked our homes. There were so many more of them than us, and they had weapons you wouldn’t begin to believe.”
“I know about the humans. They tell us in school. But why does he look like that?”
“We were losing, child. We could not match the horrors that humans turned on us. That man, and a thousand men and women like him, let surgeons change their appearance so they looked like the enemy. They went to the human homeworld to live. While soldiers here fought a lost cause, people like him fought the enemy from the inside, using propaganda and misinformation. They fragmented the human factions and turned them against one another so they could no longer focus on attacking us.”
“Propa-? What is that?”
“It doesn’t matter. The humans turned their weapons on each other and destroyed themselves. They can no longer threaten us, and it is due to brave volunteers like that man.”
The woman waved at the soldier. “Thank you for everything you did for us!” she called out.
The man turned toward her; a twisted, broken smile tried to form on his lips in reply. Despite her best intentions, the woman flinched at the expression. He was truly, quite ugly.
The man dropped his gaze to the child at her side. The boy did not look away. Instead, he peered back at the soldier with the unwavering curiosity managed only by the very young and the very curious.
“Thank you,” said the child, imitating the words of his mother, though he had no understanding of why he said them.

Will-o’-the-Wisp

Author: Beck Dacus

Morris’s gun bobbed as he walked, a glint of moonlight catching his eye with each step. His progress was slow; leaves, sticks, and stones crunched under his feet, sucking the energy from his stride. He dared not use a flashlight this far from camp— it was safer to wander by moonlight and listen to the Geiger-counter-like crackle coming through his earpiece from the Zenobox bouncing on his hip.

The Zenobox was a curious quantum-mechanical novelty that happened to have revolutionary consequences for warfare. Twelve dim green LEDs on the housing, in two rows of six, blinked on and off depending on the spin direction of just as many electrons encased within. The electrons weren’t in one definite state or the other until they were “measured”; the LEDs, entangled with them, weren’t either. But if someone looked at the box and the lights on it, their wave function would collapse, along with those of the electrons. The box registered this as an audible click, telling the wearer that they were being watched.

Of course, being a quantum-mechanical device, the Zenobox spoke in probabilities; it could only give a certain chance that you weren’t alone. The use of twelve electrons pushed this uncertainty down to a manageable level, but random spikes would still waft through the earpiece from time to time. Some of the guys in Morris’s squad had tested it out, sealing themselves in bathroom stalls with all the lights off, but there was no way to get rid of the “chirps.” On boring days, his squadmates would weave tales attributing the chirps to passing ghosts, or people in other universes catching a glimpse of you in the corner of their eye. Morris just laughed along, never giving the stories any stock.

Until one night, wandering the forest alone, the hiss from his Zenobox became steadily louder.

He waited for the buzz to cower back down to random static, but it rose with every passing second. When he could no longer ignore it, he whirled around, sighting down his rifle, looking for the deep maroon of enemy armor. Still, the noise crept up, even as he turned, his Zenobox passing in and out of every possible line of sight. How is that possible? he said to himself. And how is the reading gradually increasing? A person can either see me or they can’t— there’s no in-between. Something’s not right here. Some kind of faulty, experimental perception-masking tech?

Morris was out of ideas. He called out, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…” But instead of hearing the end of the classic quote that would have indicated friendlies, he heard an echo of his own voice. I didn’t say it that loud, he thought. What the hell is going on!?

The Zenobox signal reached a crescendo in his ear, but he still couldn’t see anything. In a panic, he turned on his flashlight, trying to point it in every direction at once. Then he saw twelve green LEDs, four on and eight off, sitting on the belt of an armed man, who at that same instant turned around.

It was himself. It was Morris.

And then he was gone, the original Morris once again alone in the forest. He tried to catch his breath and regain his sanity, questioning if he really saw what he thought he did. But it was real; he had no doubt. It was himself, with his own Zenobox on his hip; unlike his own right arm, however, his doppelganger’s was some kind of prosthetic.

And his armor was an unmistakable red.

Notes for Leaving Earth

Author: Dr. Ross Clare

The craft is the size of a small country, a monument to the colossal space-missiles of classic science fiction. The humans aboard hope that, as was always the case with those rockets of the imagination, this ship will achieve the impossible and leave Earth forever.

At first, the craft was totally silent.

Then strike the first notes of the orchestra in the nosecone, the frontrunners of the leaderless community aboard. The sombre sound of thick strings on spruce-and-maple instruments larger than their wielders, followed by the gentle momentum of violins and the airy drone of the woodwind section, join forces to set a near-imperceptible rumble into the steel bones of the craft.

Mission Control seize their cue with a raving enthusiasm. Their fingers dance madly across keys on the devices before them. The tools they manipulate whine into frenetic action, producing a speedy, tinny rhythm of electric bup-bup-bups. Monitors whirr to life in response, bottle-green text marching to the beat across deep black backgrounds, and so the ship’s navigation is set – anywhere but here.

This unlikely crossover between timeless and otherworldly sounds is steadied by the ageless buzz of metal smacking against timber now emanating from the deck below. The unpretentious, heart-breaking, raw, quiet sounds of Old Blind Dead Charley Wilson and his Free Crew Band put the craft at ease even as it judders to life, calming and soothing their metal home in a manner akin to the release of liquid coolant.

Hearing this, those with bubble-gum pink skirts and handsome feathery hair leap into spirited action in the sector beneath. The sickly-sweet whizz and jangle of a falsetto Princess and a crooning Prince – upbeat tunes, derided by some, giving hope and joy to others – perform a social function, letting the thousands aboard know that the mission has begun. There is no turning back now, but don’t worry about it. Optimism is key! Remember to love each other, baby.

The pulsing cadence of the ship’s machinery, engendered by the myriad sounds produced by its crew, now tapers off and becomes steady, allowing the women and men on the next floor down to spit their words to its rhythm. Violent, true, aggressive, and beautiful, their voices ride the crescent of the music and hit each beat effortlessly, all style and substance, firing poetics toward the failed society they have all but been forced to shun. The very stability and cohesion of the community aboard would be imperilled without their righteous expressions.

Right beside them, their contemporaries take up sticks, strings, and mics, and issue forth a head-pounding commotion. The snarls and wails and krangs and thumps coalesce to complement one another, to balance each other out until an anthem is formed. The lyrics, shouted out from scrunched-up faces pregnant with attitude, take aim at the failed regime they all hunger to escape. Along with their partners on these lower decks, their crashing melodies let all within the craft know that none are above scrutiny. We all leave this planet free, equal, as one collective soul.

The latter two sounds meet briefly to form a ‘nu’ one, but this is only a passing phase.

Finally, in the bowels of the ship, the perpetually misunderstood thunder into their own singular noise. The creative force that inspires all on board is assaulted and, as a result, fed exponentially by these warlike experimentations with sound. Individuals clothed in jet-black attire roar like wild beasts into the propulsion system they stand atop. Drums like machine guns, the ethereal growls of distortion of a pitch lower, deeper, more primordial than the core of the dying Earth cause the ship’s thrusters to explode into action, a deafening cacophony of chemical reaction to match the human-made sounds of organic catastrophe.

All is set. The conductor of the orchestra at the very head of the craft hears, feels the co-operation of the sounds, the communion of melodic output. Harmony! Tears form in the eyes of one of the violin-players.
The conductor raises her baton to the point in the centre of the nosecone interior. All forces generated aboard lead to this very spot, and to this very moment.

As soon as she lifts her arm, the ship responds. The gigantic feet of the craft pull away from the surface of Earth, steadily but with purpose. The experiment has worked, the collaboration has succeeded.

The ship and its crew rise above, without looking back.

Lie Club

Author: Glenn Leung

Veritum was founded before Earth went dark and like other human colonies, formed its own ideas on how society should function. Absolute truth was central to Veritumian life. It only took a few philosophers to take in-person interactions out of polite society. There’s too much nuance arising from body language, facial expressions, and tone. To them, truthful communication should be as single-layered as possible, and the best way to achieve this is through text messages. Emotions can and should be expressed through the ancient art of Emojis.

Being an immigrant from Second Earth, I have lost count of the times I have deceived through text messaging. To me, this idea was nothing but conservative bull. That was until I understood the nature of the Veritumians. They simply have to tell the truth! Grown adults were left out of social events for reasons such as ‘ we don’t like you ‘. And these social events take place in chat rooms where online friends text about their day. In fact, everything’s done remotely and hardly anyone leaves home. No one wants to chance an encounter with a stranger who looks at them funny. Who knows what sort of misunderstanding could arise from that?

Call it what you want, but I felt a real need to do something about this whole ‘truth’ thing. I texted some people in a chat room I frequented and suggested we explore ‘The Art of Lying’. I’ll give Veritumians credit for being curious, especially if you attach the word ‘Art’ to something. They even agreed to meet in person, in my tiny shoebox apartment. After a few confused handshakes and jumps at hearing me speak for the first time, we all sat cross-legged in a circle, preparing to lie to each other.

“I’ll start,” I said to the circle. “I’m from the planet Hot-Diggity.”

Hot-Diggity was abandoned centuries ago. The other people in the room, having heard a lie for the first time, only gave me confused looks. I could see they were bewildered by the fact that my body betrayed nothing. They had expected rapid blinking and unnatural shifts in weight, but I sat there, stiff as a rock. I was afraid that I had convinced them of the dangers of in-person meetings until intrepid Andy piped up.

“I can do seventeen backflips in two seconds.”

No one was more shocked than he was. Disconcerted by his sudden hot flush, he nearly texted medical services before I assured him that this was normal.

“There’s a first time for everything. Relax!” I said.

This prompted a slight chuckle, then the whole room exploded into fits of laughter. That was when the party truly began. Tales of superhuman feats and impossible origins abound: Mary had seven hundred little lambs and Tom could swim in lava. The tension was replaced with boisterous merriment, prompting concerned texts from neighbors. When I told them of our shenanigans, they decided to join in as well. Everyone ended up having a good time. At the end of the day, they all left with smiles and red-faced compliments on my apartment.

And that was how I brought the very first ‘Lie Club’ to Veritum. I’ve become quite a controversial figure, but I brought some life to an otherwise dull world. Did I do the right thing? Let’s leave that for this generation of philosophers to decide.

ANTI-BAD

Author: Mark Renney

I once had the Anti-Bad. A petty criminal, a repeat offender I was deemed suitable. Someone who couldn’t help but help himself. They made me an offer and I didn’t refuse. The prospect of prison, of another chunk of my life diced and cubed behind bars, was unbearable and so I chose the chip.
I didn’t read the small print just signed the documents and allowed them to insert it into the back of my head, just above the neck, in a place where I still have some hair left. No-one can see the scar or ever know it had once been there.
I didn’t really believe it would work. If it did I was convinced I could beat it or would cope with the pain and discomfort. The worst-case scenario was I would have to toe the line for a couple of years. I was arrogant, cocky, they were the suckers, I was the one in control. How bad could a few headaches and a little nausea be? I would be out in the world and not locked in a cell.
A minor operation, relatively painless, performed at a private clinic, I was in and out in a matter of hours. I had to report in once a week but otherwise, I was set free, allowed to go wherever I wanted. They informed me that I wouldn’t feel any effects, that it wouldn’t start working for about twenty-four hours.

I walked away from the clinic, head spinning, in a state of confused elation. I hadn’t expected this free time. It was a gift, a whole twenty-four hours in which I could do as I pleased. My first thought was that I would go out that night and do a little breaking and entering. But I would have to wait until dark, and this would mean wasting most of the time. All of the day light hours squandered. No, what I needed was to purchase a gun. I had a little cash hidden away in my room. I would steal a car and set off on a spree, robbing convenience stores and service stations, moving quickly, helping myself from the cash registers. I would build up the kitty, my nest egg. And whilst chipped, I would make use of these spoils and live in the lap of luxury.
But what if the chip did work and I couldn’t spend the money acquired dishonestly? I needed to clear my head.
Wandering, I eventually found myself sitting in a quiet café. I should have read those documents – if I had I would have known this and made preparations and planned something big, swift and lucrative, a bank job perhaps.
And then suddenly I felt the pain in my head. It was searing, excruciating, arriving suddenly it didn’t dissipate, didn’t lessen. And through the pain I saw the counter girls were staring across at me and, holding my head, I continued to howl.