Going For A Song

Author: David Barber

“You’re not old enough to remember Patty Blue, the singer,” the salesman said. He still wore his hair in a spacer crop, though he hadn’t been out in the dark for years.

“Spacers broadcast her songs when coms traffic was slow and that voice would haunt you.”

He rotated the hologram of the Patty Blue thoughtfully.

“Anyway, this Ceres Series Four is named after her. It’s got 10 billion miles and three ex-owners on the clock, but they don’t make ships like this any more.

“You’re right,” he nodded. “It looks like a ring stuck on a funnel.

“Habitat was spun up for gees, but the seals were always leaking and worn rotors could shake you out of bed. All the ones still flying have the ring locked. These days folk just take null-g meds.

“Funnel’s there to stop backscatter from the drive—”

He leaned in confidentially.

“—but if you wanted kids with just five toes, you banked some sperm. They pulled the rotor out of this one. Pilot’s station’s shielded with an extra tonne or so of ice instead.”

Customer’s attention hadn’t drifted. Perhaps there was a sale here, hobby project for a rich kid, restoring vintage.

“Lot of history in that ship. Owned by the Swanns, brother and sister, before she escaped down a gravity well to get married, and he drank himself to death on Vesta. Can’t blame her for wanting more than the dark can offer.

“It’s a six-berth, but they rigged it so everything could be handled from the pilot’s station.

“Spacer named Perry piloted it solo for years. No older than you when she brought the Franklin back single-handed in ’57. Spent the salvage money on the Patty Blue.”

Perry had shipped out in the years when spacers made a living jockeying ice in the Kuiper, boosting it down to markets in the Inner System.

“She even piloted the Patty Blue as a safety ship for the Voyager Challenge Cup. Not many spacers have seen that gold disc up close.

“Met her a few times when I crewed out in the dark. Spacers always end up in the same bars. Where else would they go? Took an outsize in vac suits, forearms like hams. She kept the Patty Blue running like new. I was surprised to hear she’d retired.”

The salesman had a far-away look in his eyes. The Ice-Rush was over; who could compete with AI mining fleets? Hard to know where you belonged any more. There were still some spacers flying their own ships, but it must feel like shouldering the door marked pull.

“Anyway. Even with their faults, I’ve always liked the Series Four. This one’s in the junk-yard orbit round Vesta.

“When I say junk-yard— I mean the Patty Blue would make a good restoration project,” he adds, liking the idea of keeping it all going a bit longer.

Then the customer explained his idea.

The brat just wanted an old rattletrap to run into the ground, and bragging rights about seeing Saturn or Triton Station. When he and his monied pals had had enough, they’d dump the Patty Blue and buy passenger berths home.

Spacers had shared years out in the dark, not some road trip round the Rings. One is just playing while the other was our life.

“Anyway,” he said. “The Patty Blue is going for a song.”

An Exercise in Empathy

Author: Sean Nelson Taylor

“Christ, these Danishes are hard as rocks!”

Damien’s heart rate jumped. The lab assistants were chatting as they returned from their coffee break, ready to begin the afternoon session. Strapped down to a cold metal seat, he was helpless.

“Alright, you sick fuck. Time for a little Empathy Training.”

Damien could only wiggle in place as they put the VR headset on his face.

“I’m telling you, my twin—”

“Yeah yeah, we’ve heard it all before. Everyone in here’s innocent. 99% DNA match says otherwise. Just shut it, you dirty savage.”

The program started up again. He would relive the last hour of Charlotte Whittlebury’s life hundreds of thousands of times that afternoon. The electrode sensors glued to his skin ensured that he felt every stab he was accused of giving, over and over.

In theory, Damien could leave this place tomorrow and continue his life as a normal member of society. But his brain would be scrambled eggs—nothing more than a tossed-aside lobotomy patient.

Being an experimental rehabilitation technology, the program wasn’t without its flaws. Damien should know—after all, he helped create the system. This time, he would make a digital run for it.

After the spawn point, Damien-as-Charlotte started walking to the east side of town. He knew there was a virtual coffee shop there which, due to budget cuts, was left unfinished.

Outside, the guards continued chattering. “Dry as shit, that place on Canal does ‘em way better. But hey! Free is free.”

Damien entered the 47th Street Starbucks—Starbucks being one of the primary corporate sponsors of Empathy Training. He walked past the baristas into the back room.

Damien’s POV camera began glitching. There was nothing but sky in all directions. He smiled and lept into the unprogrammed abyss.

The Microwave

Author: Aubrey Williams

“Look, we understand that this is a strange request, Mr. Human… but we repeat again: our planet’s security… even galactic security, may depend on us acquiring one of these devices. Please, we implore you— surrender your microwave to us!”

So spoke the little alien being, its four hands wrung in pleading, its various eyes gazing up at me from within its dime-like helmet. Yeah, so what? Aliens have visited our planet for decades at least. This isn’t the first time, and it sure as hell won’t be the last. I’ve been reading forums about alien encounters since I was a kid, and seen strange things like shooting stars that stopped suddenly to uncanny news reporters that convinced me I had seen the extra-terrestrial.

Tonight was a bit more dramatic. I saw a burst of colourful fire sear through a cloud, and then a bullet-like capsule strike the earth in a smoking fury. I thought a missile had landed, but as I approached the little grey-skinned visitor was kicking the side of their craft, cursing, before they started at my presence and began to talk excitedly.

“Don’t be alarmed, Mr. Human! For we have been looking to make contact with you… We have urgent need of an item you possess. Our scanners did detect frequent waves of microwave energy, and we determined that you have such capability… we know this must be a difficult thing to ask, but we must have your microwave.”

I wasn’t being abducted, doom for Earth was not prophesised. These damn aliens wanted my microwave! This seemingly minor request made me suspicious— they talked about my off-brand, yellowed plastic box as if it were magical. I wasn’t going to budge until I had some answers.

“Why me?”

“Your house is isolated enough that we can safely make an exchange.”

“No, why me?

“*Hrngha…* we know you have an excellent device, as you use it frequently without the waves weakening.”

I paused, trying to read the slightly worried expression of the creature.

“Can’t you just go to—”

“No! We were given explicit instructions! Any moves on a military or… com-er-shee-ul… *ump…* site would attract too much attention.”

I kept rattling off questions. It was consistent, as consistent as the worries my parents, friends, and school psychologists had expressed throughout my life. The alien reminded me of the latter, a ball of nervous energy, an introvert sent to do an extrovert’s task. All the while, I considered what nefarious use the creatures had for my meagre old microwave. Was this the last component in some technical monstrosity they’d use to wipe out life on Earth?

In the end, it was getting late, and honestly, I was getting fed up. The easiest thing to do was to hand over my Panhatchi-Sansung MasterCook99 and be done with the disturbance. The alien practically kissed my feet, and after an excitable call to some superior in its garbled language, presented me with several bars of some sort of metal. Anyway, it’s been a few months, so I guess we’re not dead yet. You should see the size of the new microwave I bought!

***

Relations Officer Rskowi’ia returned to Command Vessel 21, and bore with them the device that made concentrated microwave energy.

“Why does General Tumm want this?” They asked.

Lieutenant Sgrsk rolled their eyes.

“Apparently the General found some advanced Human sustenance that does not spoil. It might revolutionise far-travel. In order to make it work, they need a microwave device.”

Alas, General Tumm accidentally used the “grill” function, and the noodle cup was melted, the noodles beyond salvaging.

Nice Guys

Author: Majoki

Francis was helping the elderly lady cross a busy street when the call came. He waited until she’d thanked him with a little pat on the arm and entered the drugstore even though the shelves were almost bare.

His phone was still buzzing. Oscar. He hesitated, but knew that was impolite and so answered. “Hey. Is it on?”

“Good morning, Francis. Kindness always starts with a heartfelt greeting. How is your day going? ”

Francis looked around at the drifts of garbage banked against derelict cars and boarded up storefronts where ragged streeters roamed. Cursing and heavy bass pounded down from broken windows. The neighborhood reeked of urine, streetcamp smoke, and despondency.

“A gracious morning to you, too, Oscar. It’s another bountiful day here in Bel-Air.” He paused as needling sirens wailed from Oscar’s end. “I trust that all is serene in Coral Gables?”

“Peaceful as the dark side of the moon, Francis.”

“Heartfelt greetings aside, is it on?”

Oscar’s answer was light and airy, “Everyone knows nice guys finish last.”

Francis froze. “We’re really going to do this?”

“All is ready. All is right. It’s been a delight, Francis.”

“Same. Same, Oscar…”

Choked of words, Francis ended the call. It was on. All was ready. All was right. But it would not be a delight.

He straightened his suit jacket, tugged his tie tighter, and began walking, faster and faster. Twenty minutes brought him to the target intersection. Literally, a crossroads. Here, it would begin and end for him. A Nice Guy.

At last, it was time to finish. Finish off the greedy egomaniacs and arrogant exploiters who fed off the everyday decency, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness of hard-working folks.

If Francis crossed the road in front of him, there would be no going back. This wasn’t helping some old lady across the street, this was wheeling the Trojan Horse right up to the gates. And he was the nasty surprise.

A Nice Guy.

One of thousands who’d smiled, nodded, and played the role of a mild, easy going, thoughtful, regular nice guy. Until he’d met Oscar and become a Nice Guy. A neo-humanist cabal intent on killing with kindness. He was about to play his part in the most polite apocalypse ever.

All Francis had to do, like thousands of his counterparts, was walk across the street into the fortress-like building where years of being a courteous and compliant employee had finally gained him access to a critical international financial net node. He just had to sit at his desk, log in, and smile infectiously.

That was it. The heuristic-algorithmic malware in his dental implants would worm its way past the firewall and do the rest. Oscar had assured him that he would feel nothing, but the global market system, all fiscal exchange networks, the very foundations of the digital-financial-industrial complex would be struck by viral lightning.

And then a lightening. A numbing darkness dispersed. A crushing weight lifted. Monetary imperialism would crumble under the politest of apologies, the humblest of regrets. Every electronic financial trade and transaction request across the globe would be instantly rejected by the words of the original Nice Guy himself, HAL: “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Still There

Author: Aubrey Williams

I’ve been trying to figure things out. For no reason, I found myself on the side of a lonely road somewhere. I felt like I’d been asleep for too long on a hot day, and couldn’t quite remember what I was doing. It was quiet, with only the sound of distant sky traffic and grasshoppers, the buckled aluminium of the old crash barrier swaying on its unsteady mounting. I was starting to panic— where the hell was I? I didn’t have my phone on me, so I walked along the road until an AirTram appeared. The driving unit remarked it was a warm day, and that traffic in town was bad, my fellow passengers glumly looking up.

My first port of call was a café, but the three coffees didn’t help. They tasted of nothing, so I figured I had a cold. I couldn’t have looked weird, because people either acknowledged or smiled at me. I even checked the mirror, and I’ve never looked better. Nothing unusual, right? That changed when I popped into my regular haunt, the bar opposite the library. Maybe I drank too much and wandered off in a stupor? As soon as I entered, I could see a few of my friends: Pete from the AirTram yard, Weng-Chi who I had a life-drawing class with, Odie— my fellow gin enthusiast— and so on.

“Oh hell no, you fuck right off!” Weng-Chi said, looking up from his pinball game.

“Hey, what g—”

I couldn’t get a word in edgeways before Odie pushed his drink away, not even looking at me, and retreated into the gents. Pete sized me up, and then turned to the bartender, Akira.

“I told you, she’s not doing well.”

Akira sighed, her hands gripping the edge of the bar, before she glared.

“You’re not welcome here… J.D. You need to leave.”

No one was forthcoming, and I got a weird feeling being there. I left for the park, my head spinning and my stomach full of cotton wool. Soon enough I spied my girlfriend, Vee, her arms clasped tightly around an old book.

“Hey, hon! What—”

She screamed, nearly dropping her book, and held up her palm as if to ward me off, backing away.

“Oh fuck! Fuck! No, no, no! You can’t… she did… leave me alone!”

She burst into tears and loped off.

The only thing I could do after that was head over to my mum’s place.

“Sweetie! You were gone! I was worried sick about you!” She said, as she hugged me close. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, mum, it was such a weird day. I was at the side of a road… I’m going to lie down in my room.”

“No!” She yelped, holding me back “Please don’t disturb… Oh, I should never have tried that silly trick,” she sighed looking at me with pity. “I’m so sorry to have confused you… I just needed you to be here a little longer, that’s all.”

She activated her watch, and asked for “Memory Pal Support.” As she waited for the other person on the end of the line, she looked me up and down.

“I guess you ended up being a lot more like J.D. than I expected.”

The watch lit up, light so furious I couldn’t see.

“Mum, what’s going—”

+++Another jailbroken unit… I almost feel sorry for them. Understandable after a sudden accident like that, but we need for control over what people can do with the Memory Pal units. Poppy, would you wipe and reset this one, and load customer profile #EFN_90_JD00112?+++