The Long Wait

Author : Jordan Altman

Weightlessly floating in the blue liquid of my suspended animation pod, a queasy feeling stirred in my stomach. The tubes down my throat feeding me air, water, and food didn’t help; although I will admit the worst of it was the flashing red letters on the display in front of me. It read ‘Malfunction: Anaesthetic Failure’. As I pounded on the protective plastic layer of my pod, I tried to scream, but the tubes prevented me from doing so. Shifting my head to find a way out of my tomb, I noticed another computer screen, this one read ‘Current Travel Day 12’. If I’m to remember correctly in my haze of panic, the trip to Mars was to take 6 months or 187 days.

With time ticking by, I slept not. Instead, I was awake for every second in the tight confines of my space casket. As I tried in vain to get out, my index and ring fingers broke from the excessive thrashing, and all my finger nails were peeled back from scratching at the thick plastic. The pod mocked me as I made no dent in its shell, but instead suffered its endless torture.

After the first few days, my fear was eclipsed by my anger. Hatred burned towards the engineers who trapped me in this box, loathing seared for the doctors whose anaesthetic failed to keep me sedated, and odium scorched for myself at my helplessness.

30 days in, I could no longer take the torture and tried to kill myself. The invasive tube down my throat would not come out as it was secured to a mask around my face. With no way to drown, or even hold my breath, I felt useless as I learnt how ending my life was impossible.

I found God after countless weeks, then a month and a half later, I swore him off and tried again to kill myself in vain.

I am willing to admit how I’m probably not of a sound mind anymore, but as day 187 glowed in the computer screen, I broke down in gratitude. This was my 67th breakdown, but first of a positive nature… so that was a blessing. What wasn’t a blessing, was an hour later when the screen flashed a new message. ‘Landing Impossible Due To Storm. Return Trip Initiated’.

Breakdown 68!

Malia Read the Paper and Then Again

Author : Daniel S. Helman

Malia read the paper and then again. It was hard to believe. “Really?” you thought. “They’re offering money for that?” It was midweek, and you’d managed to accompany your brother to the store, where he picked up yesterday’s news for half price.

Behind the lists of loved ones, the ones who you prayed and hoped weren’t dead, the tens and hundreds of names with messages like “Ama, come to Uncle Atta’s house. That’s where we are. We’re safe except for Nisan, who died,” and the very sad pictures, that you’d hold in your mind, bathed in light, trying to send a thought or feeling that someone cared—that’s where Malia found it.

Within borders that were decorated with figs and pomegranates, enclosed in elegant swirling lines, was a short notice: “Contest. Cash prize. Answer the following question: What is the basis for calculus? Include at least 15 worked problems. Send answers to …” and then it gave an address that was in the country’s capital, on one of the main streets, a name that you’d recognize. It was odd. What, for heaven’s sake, had anyone the right to hope for, after war? Was it really ok to think of the joys of getting new books, of the paper tablets with those narrow lines, smelling oddly of the gum used in the binding, of new pens, the cheapest kind, but still new?

And Malia wondered what to do. Calculus is a mystery, sure. But there were ways of finding out. It was more a question of time, and not knowing where you’d be in a few days. What would your father decide, and what new unwelcome grief would come—these were the questions now, as life had become one of chores and uncertainties. You hope that your auntie will contact her sons and let them know where you are, so they can bring some extra food, maybe a package. You worry about getting everything done before curfew that needs a hand.

Mostly, Malia wondered about the name on the notice. What was the “Office for Future Growth in Human Affairs?” It sounded like an NGO. Should you trust them? Probably not. But … it is for learning, and there is money.

Fifty four days later, and you and Ham are on the way to pick up a package. It’s only been ten days since the intensity of the work broke. It was almost too much. But the deadline was so soon. Infinitessimals and deltas aside, you’d rather not worry too much about the fifteen. Were they any good? Did it make sense to compare rise and run to the cycles of the moon? Was it ok to include some things that you’d basically copied? At least the work had been intense, and a distraction.

The letter in the package that was addressed to Malia contained a congratulatory note and enough money for your family to buy you food for two months. And this NGO’s strategy had worked. They were able to put money in the hands of ordinary people. They had succeeded where all the world’s governments had failed. And they did it through learning. There was a chance for peace.

Bioinfinity

Author : Beck Dacus

Six feet from the cave entrance, we all turned on our flashlights and moved toward the mouth. The only way to get down was a steep flight of natural rock stairs, giving us footholds while also threatening to impale us. The only way I could tell that I had my team with me was their little circles of milky light illuminating the few square feet in front of them.

“Now’s the time to put on your masks,” Commander Devina announced. “We don’t have a canary, and I don’t think anyone wants to die choking in a cave on some moon no one’s ever heard of.”

Devina didn’t want a response. We all slung the little breathers off our belts, pulled the straps behind our heads, and moved on without sparing a thought. Though we were protected, I could barely see Aster holding his air sampler in his hand, ready to tell us if the atmosphere became toxic. Never knew what could seep out of cracks and fissures in rocks on an alien world, where geology had gone completely differently.

“Rachen,” Devina said. “Is your Geiger clicking?”

“You’d be hearing it if it was, Commander,” he said irritably.

Our walk continued, Aster monitoring gas, Rachen keeping an eye out for radioactivity, and Seled scanning the walkway in infrared in case there were any geothermal surprises. Or lifeforms.

It was boring. We tried to look around, find interesting things on the walls and ceilings, but the floor was riddled with jagged stones, so we needed to keep our lights on our feet most of the time. Rihayla learned that the hard way once, taking a nasty fall and bruising her thigh. There was a lot less sightseeing after that.

“Whoa!” I said, stopping the group. My flashlight had wandered away from the path, and was now fixed on what looked like an eight-foot-cubed marble run. I instinctively pulled out my spectrometer and quickly ran the beam over the part closest to me. “The readout is showing a lot of carbon, calcium, water, stuff like that. This thing’s organic.”

Everyone had moved closer, all out flashlights focusing on the… whatever it was. Small orbs rolled around on rails, skipping over ramps, whipping around curves, and passing through tunnels. The balls moved cyclically, doing the same routine again and again. We watched for around five minutes straight, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Then Rihayla had an epiphany.

“Oh my God. It’s a perpetual motion machine.”

Aster looked at her in disbelief. The rest of us just stared, clueless. “What?” Devina asked.

“It’s a machine that can move forever without any addition of energy. Humans have tried to do it for centuries, and we thought we succeeded multiple times, but we never could. It’s supposed to violate, like, every law of thermodynamics. This is insane! Who built this?”

Aster looked thoughtful for a moment, then looked up. “Gaelen. You said it’s organic, right?”

“Yeah….”

“I… I think it’s an organism. I think it’s a creature that *evolved* perpetual motion.”

“It makes sense now,” Seled said in amazement. “It had millions or billions of years to figure out how to do it. Oh, we should have known that if it was possible, nature would have found out how, somewhere. This will change everything.”

They all heard a clicking noise, and turned to see me with my flashlight under my armpit, holding two guns.

“Yes it will. Thanks to me.”

I had plenty of bullets to go around.

Our E-ternal Loved Ones

Author : Rollin T. Gentry

Jay poked his head through the open doorway and glanced around.

Standard fare: coffee pot in the back, whiteboard up front, A-is-for-Apple, Z-is-for-Zebra signs all over the walls. If not for the small poster on the outside of the door, he might have mistaken this for an AA meeting, or maybe anger management. But no, tonight was “Loving Our E-ternal Loved Ones”.

He was in the right place.

As he took a seat in the circle, Jay found his client, Marcy, sitting opposite him. The man sitting next to her, a middle-aged man wearing a white shirt and striped tie, was finishing up a rant about the injustices of uploads in general and his real-piece-of-work father specifically.

“Goddammit,” the man said, pounding a fist on his knee, “it’s not fair. If ever there was a bum that needed to be six feet under, and for good, it was my old man.” Jay tuned out at this point, reviewing the last message he’d received from Marcy. He’d heard it all before. The people that came to these meetings all had the same story, more or less.

“And then,” the man continued, “just when his day of reckoning comes, just when that fat bastard’s ticker finally goes out, my mother — saint that she is — runs to the local E-ternal branch office, puts the house up as collateral, and has him uploaded. Now, she expects me to sit across the dinner table from this … this holographic monstrosity and act like everything is wonderful, like he never did a thing wrong his whole life.”

When the meeting adjourned, Marcy made her way over. “So, what now?”

“There’s an empty room down the hall. After you.” He motioned toward the door.

In the empty classroom, both stood with their phones out, and Marcy asked, “So, how does this work?”

“It’s all very simple,” Jay said. He swiped and tapped his phone. “You should be seeing something on your screen now. Services rendered: Full retirement of one Carl Jenkins. Double check his social, please.” She nodded and tapped. “OK. Deletion of all active instances, plus all on-site and off-site backups. And you purchased a sim to be run during shutdown, correct? Something traditional?”

“Yeah.” Marcy looked unsure. “How long does it last? Real-time, I mean. Your ad said it feels like forever?”

“My sim guy says it’s the closest thing to a real, medieval-style Hell on the market. It’s a little trick with CPU cycles. Five minutes real-time feels like millions of years inside the sim. And I told you about the sim viewer, didn’t I?” Marcy nodded.

Jay’s phone beeped. The transaction was complete. “Well, I suppose I’ll leave you to it then.”

As he slid out the door, Marcy called out, “Hey, turn off the lights.” He flipped the switch. Her furrowed brow glowed pink in the light of the big red button. He eased the door closed.

Jay had known clients who pressed that button and simply walked away.

But that wasn’t Marcy.

Jay had seen the rage simmering behind her eyes the first time they video conferenced two weeks ago.

She was going to pause, rewind, and replay eternity over and over until her batteries and her Uncle Carl were thoroughly and properly dead.

But in the end, she’d get satisfaction. They always did.

Murder on Macarus Beach

Author : Casey Cooke

All robots had been programmed to fear the ocean. A few level fours, who had also been programmed with risk-taking protocols, would walk right to the edge of it. But even they, eventually, would succumb and back away. Level sixes – caregivers to infants programmed for additional caution – would routinely refuse to bathe their charges in the bathtub and opt for sinks instead, but this side-effect was deemed acceptable.

However, robots were expected to attend their charges on the beach regardless of fear. And, on this day, in the middle of high-summer, they flooded the sand. Some stood with umbrellas, some unfolded blankets, and some prepared drinks or light snacks. Others played with children: perfecting sandcastles, digging symmetrical holes, and smiling as they were partially buried in the sand. A careful few stood ready with a dry towel for their swimming charges. These robots were nearest the water, moving a few steps forward and a few steps back, always mindful of the tide.

At the top of the dunes, a young girl and her robot hopped off the transporter pad while their family surveyed the beach. Before they could be stopped, they both ran – as fast as their legs could go – to the water. The robot, a level four they’d named Sylveen, was far faster than the six-year-old; she hollered out to the child, “catch me if you can!”

Sylveen ran passed the drink-givers and the sandcastle-makers and the towel-holders until she was waist deep in the water.

As she turned to wave, her sensors warned her that her feet were slipping, so she tried to dig them deeper into the sand below the sea. But that wasn’t the cause. The electromagnetic currents that kept the molecules of the ocean from turning toxic once again now pulled at her circuits and plating. They were safe to biologics, but not her heavy-metals frame.

Still giving drinks and making castles and holding towels, all the robots on the beach watched as Sylveen’s body contorted, twisted and drifted away. And all the robots heard the girl, who had not yet learned that robots were replaceable, sob to her mother, “I… I didn’t know. I… just re-programmed her to be brave.”