Sleeking

Author: Asher Wismer

Sleeking flashing light through every little hole.

Seventy holes. Counted them. Many times.

Nothing to see outside but silver Sleeking, never-ending explosions. Shell keeps me alive. Eddo’s Star is a low-impact system and there’s still nothing out there. Nothing.

Almost nothing.

One liter of water today. Plenty of water. Battery is fine. One liter.

Plenty.

Sleeking flashing gleaming light. I plugged one up once. It didn’t matter. Even this close to a star the Sleeking explosions never end. I see them in my dreams, when I’m sober enough to dream.

“…docking at Loomish. I repeat, my shell is low and I am docking at Loomish. I repeat–”

A shell. Another person!

Loomish station is on the other side of the system. No reason for me to go there, too dangerous anyway.

Ten cycles of power before the next flare. Flare means ten layers off my asteroid while the CPU resets. Ten layers… too many, too fast.

My asteroid moves, shell expanding to surround it. The Sleeking immediately assaults my every sense, bruised silver light surrounding and enveloping.

Higher impact now but my shell holds. It’s risky — hell, it’s absolutely suicide even if I make it to Loomish. Battery vanes extended as long as I can, until the endless explosions obscure the star, cutting off my external power.

“–Loomish now. My shell is weak but holding. I repeat, I can see Loomish now. My shell–”

There’s no single point of reference anymore. Anything still alive has an innate sense of the space immediately surrounding their shell, whether filled with ripping debris or near-enough to a strong gravity well to relax and let something large, like an asteroid, take the reduced hits.

Loomish station is somewhere near the Johta Hole. It wasn’t strong enough to pull in the star when it collapsed, and they built Loomish station to establish communication with the remaining galaxy.

Back when they thought there was still inhabited galaxy to communicate with.

My shell expands more, protecting the asteroid. Its layers are too thin for my liking.

“–docking now. I repeat, I am docking now. I repeat–”

I can feel the shell from here. It’s a good one, better than I expected, which is how it survived this long. I push through the Sleeking and it curves away from me, pouring silver and nightmare into the Johta Hole.

Loomish station, right in that little crevasse between the Sleeking and Johta Hole’s event horizon.

Ohhhhhh there’s the shell. It’s charging but I don’t care. Battery vanes pierce through the sweet spot, right where its user was, and my world becomes electric. Blood but not too much, radio killed, sparking debris, all flying horizontally into the gravity well.

Then the shell is on mine and it hurts and then everything is better and the silvery Sleeking nightmare seems almost transparent, as if I could see through the wall of chaos into the larger galaxy.

As if there’s still a galaxy to see. Time to go back. Loomish station is safe but I can’t stand the gravity for a long time. My star is better. My star is safer.

“…asteroid field near Eddo’s Star. Looks like twenty, thirty asteroids, thick enough for at least a hundred cycles each. If you receive this transmission, please follow me to an asteroid field near Eddo’s Star–”

My asteroids.

More shells.

But who, and from where? Transmitting to whom?

Battery vanes retracted, shell extended. My asteroids won’t last the cycles I need if vagrants move in.

My asteroids.

Mine.

Blind Date

Author: Abigail Hughes

“What did you think?”

“He’s nice.”

“Nice? The bar was ‘nice.’ This walk is ‘nice.’ Denver is perfect. When he told me he was single, I was absolutely floored! You don’t run into a guy like him often. Did you see the way he inhaled that live goat? That was incredible!”

“If you say so.”

“Don’t tell me you’re not interested.”

“Sorry.”

“Are you serious!?”

“Let’s talk about this later.”

“No way, we’re going to talk about it now, in the middle of the sidewalk, like adults! Denver is perfect for you!”

“Denver has twelve eyes and a gaping, toothy, hole in the center of his body.”

“I knew you were going to bring that up.”

“Yeah, it seems like something I should have known going into this.”

“He has such an electric personality, I didn’t think that it was important.”

“Electric!? Dude, we’re talking about him right now, in front of his face, and he’s not even blinking. Does he ever do anything other than roll his eyes back in his head and spew toxic waste?”

“It’s not his fault that the new plant opened a few blocks from his apartment.”

“I’m not suggesting that it is, I only meant-”

“Radioactive mutants can live totally normal and full lives. Raise families. Hold careers. Read minds. Lift over twenty times their weight. They’re just like you and I.”

“Except they’re rotten.”

“Rotting.”

“What’s the difference!? Alright, look. Denver, I had a great night. Thank you for your time. Uhh, I’m going to take that groan as some kind of affirmative response and order a ride home.”

“No you’re not! Wait here Denver, I’m going to have a word with my friend in private.”

“Let go of me! You know I hate being dragged around. Oh, great, you tore my sweatshirt. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“What’s this really about?”

“It can’t be that hard for you to believe that this is “really about” the fact that you thought I would be interested in dating someone so severely mutated.”
“We’re all mutated!”

“Yeah, a little! I have a few tentacles and you have an extra mouth. Our flesh isn’t literally melting off of the bone.”

“Jennifer had a tentacle too, didn’t she? Replaced it with a robotic arm when she turned eighteen. You helped pay for it with your Burger Planet job if I remember correctly.”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

“Yes it does. We both know that this is about Jennifer.”

“I’m leaving for real now.”

“She chose cybernetics, you didn’t, and she left. Big deal. It happens every day.”

“I’m not listening to you.”

“You were with her for five years. That’s a long time. It’s going to impact you.”
“Man, how hard is it to get a rideshare in this city?”

“You haven’t been the same since you two split up. The only time I have been able to contact you is on the Ether Box, and even then you don’t use your own avatar skin. You use Jens. It’s creepy.”

“Awesome, a driver is only three minutes away in a Red Hovercar.”
“You guys had a long, long, history, and that’s going to take forever to build with someone else – but it’s possible. In fact, it’s normal. It’s healthy! Nobody stays with their high school sweetheart, especially when one becomes a heartless android.”

“Do you see a Red Hovercar? Oh, there’s one! Wait, no, that’s just a Fire Bot.”
“Look at me! Jennifer is gone and the left side of her brain isn’t coming back. The minute she replaced it with a brain drive, she found you an objectively poor match. That’s just science, dude. No, don’t you dare start crying! I’m not going to let you ruin a good thing just because you can’t get your head out of your ink sack. If I did, I wouldn’t be a good friend.”

“Ah, here it is. I’m sorry, I’m just not ready. I’ll see you on the Ether- agh! Did you just push me!?”

“Only because I love you. Now stay down. If you make me kick my best friend in the face I’ll never forgive you. Robo-driver, Change the coordinates to Accutane Avenue and step on it!”

“Hold up, no! Come back! Oh, great. They’re gone. . . I guess I’ll walk home. Thanks for helping me up, Denver. You can, uh, let go of my hand now. Wait, what are you pushing out of your open stomach? That’s not – is that a miniature replica of organic rights activist Dr. Hobbs? For me? Wow. It’s gorgeous and, well, kind of sticky. It looks like it was made of ivory. Wait a minute, the goat! You made this out of that goat you ate at the bar! How did you know I was interested in organic activism? You were listening during dinner. Obviously, yeah. Ugh, I’ve been a real jerk tonight. Thank you, Denver. I had a great time. Wait, actually, you don’t have to let go of my hand. . . walk me home?”

The Boot

Author: Justin Anderson

He watches her tiny arms cast the line again. She’s already working the makeshift fishing rod with ease. She beams a proud smile up at him, one with all the warmth of a miniature sun. A foreign little star. He smiles back, and she continues fishing.

Ripples play across the water. A tug on her line elicits a happy squeal.

“Fesh! Fesh, Dabbee!”

She plants her feet, arches her back, and heaves with all of her tiny might. Triumph! A shimmering fish wriggles in the air on the end of her line. Rainbow trout. Impossible. The fish shakes and bounces, as much from her quivering arms as from its own struggle. Her feet shuffle with excitement as she waits for him.

He removes her catch from the hook, and her wide eyes watch the treasure plop into their tall reed basket. Done. That fish isn’t going anywhere.

“Daddy,” he corrects, touching his chest with his finger. “Dah. Dee.” She watches his lips, soundlessly mouthing the word along with him.

“Dah… dee.” she finally whispers.

“Good.” He tucks the rod under his arm, holding it steady to bait the hook again. The instant he takes his hand away from the reed pole, she squeaks and casts the line back into the water. She giggles happily as the warm sun plays all about them.

How old is she now? Years pass so strangely here.

“Daydee! Fesh, Daydee!”

Impossible. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear that was another rainbow trout. Anybody would.

Fish comes off the hook, goes into the woven basket. He manages a numb smile. She waits for him to place another worm on the hook.

How long have they been here today? Feels like hours, but the sun’s still hanging so high above the horizon.

“Fesh!” Another beautiful catch that isn’t quite a rainbow trout. Not here. Another hook, another cast. He stares off at the mountains. This place is just like home, and yet… he knows it can’t be. He closes his eyes and hears the trees rustling, insects buzzing, his daughter’s giggles.

The giggles stop.

“Dab! Dabbee!”

“Dad. Dee. Dad-dy,” he corrects, his eyes still closed. He won’t tend her fishing pole until she gets it right.

“Dad-dee.”

“Good.” He opens his eyes.

It’s heavy for her, but she’s doing her best to hoist her latest prize: a once-white boot smeared with green algae and brown mud.

The metal fasteners are corroded, but he knows them. Knows how to attach that boot to the rest of a white Mark 6 EVA-rated spacesuit. A spacesuit from a planet orbiting a similar but very, very distant star.

His hand scratches the self-inflicted scar on his shoulder, the one covering up a tattoo of his old unit.

“Good fesh, Daddee? Feshhh?”

“No,” he shakes his head, fighting to keep his voice calm. “Bad fish.”

Her eyes water. She’s scared, about to cry. The hanging white boot dribbles muck onto her little toes.

“It’s okay,” he says, taking the pole from her little hands. “Just a bad fish. Yuck.” He pantomimes eating the boot and then clutching his belly, tongue out in playful mock anguish.

Pole and boot and tears are quickly forgotten. She proudly strains to lift the basket of not-quite-rainbow trout. “Home!” she announces and begins marching.

“Right.” He nods and looks skyward… but levels his arm instead at their shack on the hillside. “Home.”

Eventually, another villager will find his ship. Can’t stay hidden here forever.

Once she’s looking away, he hurls the white boot back into the water, as far downstream as he can.

Jingle-jangle

Author: Andrew Dunn

I called her Jingle-jangle. I told Christiane she reminded me of the way it felt to hear the sound spare change made in my pocket whenever I was fading, and I found a machine that would take coins and give me a soda or candy bar. My hands were on the front pockets of her dungarees when I said it. I was stroking Christiane’s hips, thighs; she was giggling, straddling my waist and unbuttoning chambray. Christiane was sweeter than the scent of jasmine breezing in through the window, and we were hoping nobody heard us in the spare bedroom.

I loved Jingle-jangle.

I carried heresy in my pocket – a collection of coins minted years ago. Artifacts of better times. Coins nowadays are cardboard, bearing history on their fronts and complex designs on their backs. Steganography. Code is embedded in those designs so machines can complete a sale when the code validates, or call in drones when it doesn’t. Drones are everywhere.

Why cardboard? Fair question. We learned the hard way a bomb will turn pocketfuls of metal coins into shrapnel, so they were outlawed three years ago. The contents of my left front pocket? Barely enough to buy chewing gum at the vending machine’s price, but enough for a collector to give me a two-grand, or enough to put me away for a decade. It was risky business.

Collectors were paying big money for old coins, mules like me were hiding them in pockets behind leather wallets and cellphones. I got coins from all sorts of places. Buyers didn’t care where they came from, as long as I delivered.

Jingle-jangle would have hated me if she ever knew – she was my love, my competition. She thought I made money running 3-D printers at an artsy place downtown. I didn’t have the guts to tell her the truth.

I glimpsed Christiane through a seam in plywood nailed over an abandoned storefront. Deserted stores were good places to score old coins if you knew where to look, and Jingle-jangle knew. She was in there, orange hoodie loose on her lithe body, searching nooks and crannies dropped coins disappeared into years ago. Orange because she was an activist, part of a credentialed group that gathered old coins, and called in drones to spirt them away. Christiane was as proud of her work as I was ashamed of my own.

‘What if Christiane’s called for a drone?’ I couldn’t ignore the thought – not when the whir of propeller blades was growing louder than usual. Drones carried sensors that could hone in on things like artifact coins if enough of them were together in one spot, like my left front pocket.

I started jogging. I needed distance between me and Jingle-jangle, so the drone would find her and whatever she’d scrounged instead of me; so that if the drone’s sensors locked on me, the only girl I’d ever loved wouldn’t see me face down on pavement, busted.

The whirring was growing louder behind me. Ahead, a crowd was spilling from an underground train station on to the sidewalk as the drone activated its siren, an unnerving klaxon infomercials taught us to recognize – that wail meant explosives had been detected.

A hundred people panicked, some pushing their way back down into the subway, others darting down alleys and into building lobbies. I broke into a sprint.

‘If I can get a block down.’ It wasn’t strategy, it was desperation.

And then I was fading, ears ringing and body broken by shrapnel that jingle-jangled in my pocket, before I failed Christiane.

Last

Author: Ed Nobody

The last day goes by unfelt. No change. Time turned glacial under rubbled roads in thick tar, sticky black thick leaking sun of dead summer.

I didn’t breathe and felt nothing.

Wind stopped bothering; leaves not leaning, unswayed by final wind to grace God’s grey earth, before all turns rot-orange, stand-still, decay in place.

I’m flat ground, inert, weathered. No illness, ceasing, death felling each blade of bad grass past hollow trees and fields uncut, shaggy seeds split off fallen flat in mud, unkept, unloved—song of sick birds—wheel waiting to topple.

Can’t feel—breath stuck—blanked thoughts—dry sponge—brittle break—There! A hint of wind sweeping moldy panes dirty grey with grease and stains, bitter coffee tang, lukewarm tongue, morphing garlic gag swish mouth bitter bad and then blank.

A plain van streams a slippy-line swiiii then gone into more ghost lost to who knows where—
Fading.

My spoiled in ground corpse won’t be found in this fallow field, yielding last living cells to promise of new day—new smell, new chirping birds flitting through woods of willow, chirp drowsy and mellow, life once more before last end, don’t let go, heat turning to chill—
A small shiver up spine, ground’s or mine? Ah, ache, pain, reminds.

Tight vines cover lost parts—red death shroud covers broke bones, blood-blemished clods of dead clay, some resting place. Who cares? The earth, stopped turning, lies flat.

We once kept the will to fight, dreams of war, delusions bored and unaware of terror—forgot or didn’t know the worst this land has to offer—woke up with blood in gutter—
Then too late to matter.

There. Maybe sweat, stale weeds, low rumble grunt of aching tree to weep tree, shadows blot out sky greyed regret, poor souls not knowing what hit—en masse grumbles, sky-liquid liquor not quelling whine of wind—still there, waiting to whistle through empty streets when the earth breathes out—
Will it?

Grand visions traded for frustrations, gurgled constipations of desire, once wild blazing fire now feckless ember throbbing in leaky guts, whining bellyaches of thousand slaughtered men shakes through clouds, raining on my rotten body stirring wake from death dreams, sweet death uncoming, mute non-death stretching out pale white blades, taunting me with specters of what was.

No raging waves thrash within—flat horizon, sun not coming—all red shadow—lumber to land—scraping behind—Rabbit? Or wind giving last blow, shake of the limbs before it goes—
Or a rabbit that wants grass still green to root, cawing rooks happy harping, creatures scurry squirming, trying, no denial, no need to convince themselves the world’s more than a ghost-shadow, doubt—
But maybe, unknowing, works. Turn into a worm beating happy fat tail in dead mud. Dirt feeling. Wake up to dirt air, sooty smoke of clogged chimneys, dry rain, numb ground, still wind, nothing, nothing, nothing, no vast mirage, no pining, ignoring now’s gnawing, forgetting rusty rot eating through to the bone. Here and gone.