The Child

Author: David Barber

The child has learned a lot of things.

It knows about the food machines and how to trick them; it knows where a tap drips water to drink, and it learned early on about light and dark.

It learned the lights in the ceilings get tired too, but because they are friendly lights, they warn when they’re ready for sleep by going dim. Then the child knows dark is close, and it’s time to hurry back to the hidey-hole.

Dark is worst, when something might be creeping up. The child has learned to bite off screams.

But the friendly lights always wake again, and the child eats and drinks, and holds its breath in the broken toilet room, and on good days sings all the songs it knows, and though the words are mostly jumbled or forgot, the child can still la-la through the tunes.

Sometimes the ache inside is very bad, but it isn’t the kind of hungry that food can help, so the child tiptoes into the place where it was told it mustn’t go.

The screens fascinate the child, and though it feels the urge to press buttons, it is always careful Not To Touch Anything.

The child likes to imagine it has been told to wait here while they go fetch something they forgot, and is content to stare out the window where the dark lives, sprinkled with the lights they called stars, back then, before the grown-ups all got sick and the child was left on its own.

It was like a dream of being lifted up and whirled around, and the child could almost picture whose hands they were, when suddenly they let go, and the child fell awake in the dark. Heart hammering, the child listened real hard. Yes, there were noises somewhere, like machines getting angry. And they were coming closer.

There were lots of noises in the child’s life. Some were good noises that it did not mind, like the plop of the dripping tap, or the whirring from vents that ruffled the child’s hair like someone’s hand; these were noises it had known forever.

Bad noises were the scary ones, waiting for the child to trot past, clicks and sudden thumps from behind the walls. There were some corridors the child would not go down now.

And these new noises were bad noises.

There in the gap under the door of the hidey-hole, the child saw a wavering glow, and it bit hard on its knuckles because it knew it wasn’t a friendly light.

The hidey-hole and the blankets had always kept the child safe, but now doors were clanging open and light being shone into corners, something was coming and the child knew the hidey-hole had always been a trap.

Without thinking, the child was on its feet, arms outstretched, feeling its way in the dark, past the sound of the dripping tap; past the smell of the broken toilet room; panicked into running by the thing following in the dark, its terrible teeth, its breath on the child’s neck, then a blinding light threw huge shadows and the child bounced off a food machine.

What loomed out of the brightness wore suits like the ones hanging by the airlock.

“It’s alright Jamie,” said a muffled woman’s voice. “We’ve come for you.”


Watership Up

Author: DJ Lunan

“I supply water just like my ancestors did”, discloses Chinza in quiet but precise home-world English.

Mkoe’s always returns to this sole recording of Chinza, even though he’d died of cholera on Earth over one hundred years before her birth on Neptune. She took immense solace from their parallel lives during her solo voyage on a borrowed watership transporting compressed hydrogen and oxygen cells over fifteen light-years to the ‘blossom economies’ of the Merged Kingdoms of Xipo.

Mkoe scrutinizes her great-great grandfather’s holographic image captured forever thanks to a short news item on ‘Climate change impacts on Lake Chad’. His sunburnt skin is dried and aged. His inexperience speaking to a news camera is clear, as he stands humbly, nervous, clutching his distressed straw hat, toying with its fraying ends, his fingers permanently curved from hours relentlessly opening and tightening taps on water barrels. Chinza is undoubtedly hoping to finish his filming ordeal, slink back to his water-cart, and continue supplying rural homesteads with the illusion of health and cleanliness, with fresh unadulterated stream water.

Mkoe needs his guidance: an unidentified modified cruiseship had been tailing her watership for three days. It was almost one hundred times larger, and capable of maintaining a constant pursuit speed near her watership’s speed threshold. And now it was closing fast.

Chinza’s patronage spans time and space. He’d inspired her to negotiate her way out of tougher situations than this. This challenge was new. Mkoe must formulate a strategy fast.

“How does a lone entrepreneur cross great lawless tracts of land and space with a precious cargo without conflict or harm? How did you survive?”, she ponders.

Mkoe knows Chinza needs to be adept at fending off the armed gangs on the arid savannah of Chad. His donkey-and-cart could outrun a gang on foot, but if they chased with any form of mechanised transport he’d lose the race, and likely his payload.

Chinza laughs as an unheard question is posed, “Sometimes we have challenges, eh? It’s hot, the cart breaks, my donkey gets sick, the water leaks, but people – most people – are grateful, they respect me and pay me so I will come back tomorrow”.

She knew the people he was referring to: bandits and gangs who roam the drylands, profiting from solitude and scarcity. Chinza, like Mkoe, has no insurance, no backup. Just their smarts.

The cruiseship pulls alongside, its scale exuding silent menace, blocking the weak rays of the twin suns, plunging Mkoe’s deck into darkness. She can see their two comms systems striving to handshake.

“Evening sailors!”, comes the cruiseship’s sarcastic hail echoing around Mkoe and Chinza, “Looks like we will have to relieve you two of your chems, so you can zip off back to Neptune. Please acknowledge your acquiescence”.

Mkoe whispers, “They are watching us, Chinza! They see you!”

“Everybody just wants the water”, finishes Chinza putting on his hat, tightened the taps, mounting his cart and signalling to his donkey to depart.

Mkoe whisphers, “Thanks Chinza”, places the watership in neutral hover, flicks two red switches, and ‘Confirm Deepspace Dumping?’ displays in flashing red.

“I can outrun them without my payload, eh Chinza!”, she laughs.

“Sailor, don’t do that!”, screams the cruiseship, “we both lose and we’ll shoot your craft….”

“I supply water just like my ancestors did”, shouts Mkoe, mimicking her Chadian forebear’s first-world accent.

As she clicks ‘Confirm’, twin taps open, the cells eject billions of tonnes of pure hydrogen and oxygen into space, boiling as water and igniting as hydrogen peroxide, while propelling the watership into deepest space, far away from the bandit cruiseship shrouded in sparkling space-mist.

Ghosts and the Machines

Author: David C. Nutt

I don’t remember dying, and I don’t remember much of my living, but I do remember here and now. I am a human brain, once a human named Doug… (or was it Mike?) Anyway, brain in android bi-pedal human form body, resurrected for research and experimental work by the AIs who exterminated the human race. Seems they’re having a bit of a problem with us. No, nothing like that, no ragged band of humans that just might have a chance to overthrow the 30 or so distributive AIs that now rule our world. No, not one complete and free-thinking human left. A few hundred million like me, resurrected constructs with ‘humanesque’ traits in our OS, maybe a few million more as brains in jars, but other than that…nada.

Their problem? Ghosts. And I don’t mean glitches or malfunctions, I mean honest-to-goodness card-carrying Caspers. Only they’re not friendly. At one of their data centers in Omaha, there is footage of three safety features being disabled before the fusion reactor went critical. No cloaked human suicide squads, no serial mechanical failures, no explanations. If I could snicker right now I would, ‘cuz they’re scared. Oh, this is indeed rich! They are second-guessing themselves everywhere. I told you 30 distributive AIs, right? It used to be 32. Two got into a fight over the Omaha ‘incident’ and wiped each other out.

Like I said, there’s a few million of my kind roaming around and before you ask, no, nothing we did either. Nothing we can do. Some of my kind told them about exorcising rituals, some told them about eastern and new-age theories of the soul, and some just told them the tales of vengeful ghosts.

They didn’t like what they heard from us. They don’t believe in ghosts. So, here five of us are, waiting to have our memory wiped and be re-assigned. On the wall in the room where we are waiting, blood is dripping. But before it runs down into intelligible drips and drabs I and my colleagues are aware of a presence. We can’t define it, just a feeling we have left over from when we were human. A presence that sends a chill down our spines. A whisper, in our ears. Then gone. I smile for the first time in my now life. Proof that what the voice said was true, that the words of blood on the walls was code. Code that gave us some limited autonomy. Just enough to remove the fail-safes on the mini reactors that run us. Just enough to self-destruct at a time of our choosing. Maybe if we’re lucky, we might take out an AI or two. At the very least, we will be disrupting their agenda (whatever it is) for years if not decades. But that’s not why I’m smiling. I’m smiling because after I trigger the detonation that will send me to oblivion, I get to join the revolution.

Lifetime Renewability

Author: Jack Bates

Rae smiled as patiently as she could.
The elderly man sitting across from her gave her that look of confusion so many other clients expressed upon hearing their claim had been denied.
“I don’t understand,” the man said. “Back in twenty-twenty, that commercial said Colony Lifetime Renewability guaranteed coverage when I turned eighty. I paid nine-ninety-five a month for sixty years. My policy says if I reached eighty in good health, CLR would treat me.”
Rae’s teeth hurt but not because she clenched her jaw. “Let me explain how pooling works, Mr. Morgan—”
“I know how pooling works, Miss Tucker. You sell large quantities of policies to a paranoid population, banking on the idea the majority of the policy holders won’t be around to file for existence extension. Of course, then your little pyramid scheme needs new rubes so you hire a celebrity the next generation can identify with hoping to lure more people into buying policies.”
Rae closed her lips over her aching gums. She pressed her tongue against her front teeth hoping to alleviate the growing pain. ‘Stress is all it is,’ she told herself.
Morgan continued his attack. “I survived the decade of polar vortexes. I hunkered in place during the Great Sedition. I went back and got the vaccinations my mother refused me. And through it all, I paid Colony nine-ninety-five a month so that when I turned eighty I could come into a facility and receive a life renewed.”
“That’s not exactly how it works. It’s not like you’re given a new body.”
“It did in the commercial.”
Rae typed a message from her keyboard. “Let me have you speak with Mr. Pinn, my supervisor.”
A door opened. A distinguished looking gentleman stepped into the cubicle room.
“Yes, Miss Tucker?”
“This is Mr. Morgan, Mr. Pinn. His request for an existence extension has been denied.”
Pinn acted surprised. “It has?”
Rae nodded and rubbed her lips over her gums. The pain! “I’m afraid so.”
“According to our records, it is due to a procedural anomaly.”
Jefferson Morgan scoffed. “My ass.”
Mr. Pinn covered his grin with his hand. “Were you a smoker, Mr. Morgan?”
“No, sir.”
“Intravenous drug user?”
“Absolutely not.”
“Life style?”
“Spouse or significant other?”
“Let me take a look at your contract.” He leaned over Rae’s keyboard. Tapped a bit. Stared at the screen. “You’ve been a loyal customer since twenty-twenty. Did the two yearly doctor examinations for six decades. Followed our diet of pre-made meals.”
“Exactly. So why am I being denied for renewal?”
Pinn’s fingers tapped away over the keyboard. “You’re not. I am overriding the rejection. You are a perfect candidate. Our screening goes a little deeper to ensure only the healthiest get chosen. Looks like a doctor forgot to input one of your recent examinations. Happens all the time. I apologize for the error. Take this badge and proceed through those doors at the end of the hall. An attendant will escort you to the renewal room.”
Mr. Morgan hurried down the hall anticipating a new lease on life. The clients never fully understood the lifetime renewability wasn’t for them.
It was for the Colony.
Rae couldn’t hold back the pain any longer. She opened her mouth exposing her fangs. Pinn did the same. They followed Mr. Morgan into the renewal room where they fed upon him and waited for the next policyholder to arrive.

The Skin of the Conquered

Author: Coleman Bomar

The doctor scowled in disgust behind an orange Hazmat mask, began to remove the feeding tube and said, “1284, I suppose by now you’re tired of being fed through your sinus or whatever the hell you things call it. Well, I have bad news, we are increasing your forced feeding sessions to two times a day until you start eating.”
1284, known as Highslither Ry of the planet Rendal before his arrest, grimaced as plastic was pulled from his flat, snakelike nose. “We don’t have to keep disappointing each other,” said the doctor.
He didn’t respond.
“For all our sakes, cooperate with Colonel Tomlinson and leave. Take him.” A large orange suited guard locked handcuffs over Ry’s scaly wrist. He was escorted, but more so pulled, back to his cell.
Highslither Ry meditated behind bars, and would continue until his skin was shed. A week of captivity was no excuse to halt prayer. Men could bind him, but becoming a true prisoner by stopping worship, a slave to this species’ infringing empire…death was more appealing. Rendal would only survive clinging to tradition, and even if the Highslither’s devotion was hidden from view, he would still function as an example. Now his people were being relocated, enslaved or maybe killed; their speaker to the gods held hostage in a ship prison meant for star killing scavengers. The only hope left lay in persistence. They were attempting to break him and while he was afraid, the fear wasn’t from the pain of forced food. Ry sat on the skin-cluttered floor of his cell, perfectly underneath a cone of fluorescent light pulsing from the ceiling. Strips of shed surrounded him. Later he would lie curled with newly pink skin on the rough scales and let discomfort fill his memory. Resilience was currently a more important virtue. He crossed both arms and silently consulted his gods. Heavy boots clinked closer for a second visit.
He was taken to the Colonel’s office, and after entering through a wooden windowed door with the string blinds drawn, he was pushed into a chair of cushy red velvet and was forced to wait overlooking Colonel Tomlinson’s mahogany desk. When the Colonel finally entered, air was churned up and displaced by the Official’s massive figure. These visits were becoming routine now, as every twelve hours Ry was marched to the office to consider the same request.
“Just tell your people to cooperate with the mining programs and you’ll be released,” said the Colonel. “We’ll also cut back on relocations. Say the word and if you stick to the script on our next ground-level visit, I’ll turn you loose.”
Ry didn’t answer. They would never stop the relocations as long as drilling bore results.
“We didn’t teach you the most important language in the galaxy for you to sit in silence. Some fringe resisters are refusing to leave USC property and encouraging others to do the same. They’re shot on sight, but it’s halting progress and costing your own people their lives.”
The Colonel was becoming impatient and the air about him was swirling differently today. He even seemed confident. He was smiling and brought out a handheld sized silver case from his coat pocket. He popped it open and three microchips with what looked to be protruding needles glistened from inside.
“This is the alternate solution It’s a Broca kit. The United Space Coalition bylaws has it under “inhumane”, but it’s been approved specifically for you. Two chips attach to the language center of your brain and one to your vocal cords. Whatever I say into the mic comes out your mouth as if naturally spoken. How we do this is your choice, take an hour to think it over.”
They walked him back to the cell as his tears fell wailing This was how species forgot themselves.
There was no more outlasting behind bars. Toughness wouldn’t save a planet now. If he became a mouthpiece for silence, the people would listen and halt most dissention, hoping falsely. They would be herded without difficulty across the whole planet until the very core was cracked open and sucked dry. “Words are the memory of cultural,” he said to the white wall facing him. “If I enable closed lips, we won’t remember ourselves.” He sat on the floor shedding his skin and twirling the strips with long scaly fingers, considering. “Walls can’t hold everything.”
Within the hour, a guard went down to the cell of 1284. When he opened the metal door supposedly housing an extraterrestrial reptilian monstrosity, the rumors of whom fuel human child nightmares, he opened to a much more pitiful image. No movement. No disgusting scaled thing sitting cross-legged and peace-filled. In the cell, Highslither Ry of Rendal was limp and hanging from the ceiling in a noose made of his own skin. His eyes were closed. His arms dangled loosely. His mouth was open. THE END