Out of the Loop

Author: John Teets

The gentle rumble of truck engines filled the museum backlot, accompanied by the soft crunch of gravel beneath tires, and the occasional rustling of pale, haphazard fields of grass in the wind. The warehouses and loading bays painted a dull light gray to match the driveway gravel and the back wall of the museum, a stark contrast to the rest of its bright and inviting presentation. The warehouses were piled high with creations of art and culture, being preserved and admired by the resident roaches, cobwebs, and mothballs. Now, over two dozen workers moved about, filling their convoy with unmarked, tightly secured crates. For all the noise they made, they spoke not a word.
Anthony’s fingers tapped his chin as if it were a piano with a goatee. He narrowed his eyes at the whole scene. The workers all passed nervous glances at the museum’s backdoor at one point or another. One of them, a scrawny woman, nearly dropped a handheld crate.
Dresner also caught the woman’s slip up and shot her a glare as she scurried for the nearest truck. Miles’ expression turned neutral as he turned to Anthony, holding out a suitcase. “A pleasure working with you as usual, Mr. Dunfrey. Thank you for the intel,” he said, eyeing the man’s digits dancing on his chin. “Beethoven?”
Anthony shook his head, his fingers never losing their stride as his other hand reached for the suitcase. “Liszt.”
Dresner raised his eyebrows in shock. “Really? Well, look at you, Mr. Cultured. Didn’t expect you to know a pianist except for Beethoven.” Dresner struggled with the suitcase, as Anthony’s hand grasped blindly for it. “Might do you some good to pay attention to the other hand, though.”
“Hm?” Anthony said, looking over. “Oh, sorry.” He grabbed the suitcase handle and plopped it down beside himself. “I’m just surprised your first guess was Beethoven,” Anthony said, smiling. “You’re German, aren’t all the greatest pianists from your people or something?”
“Ah, there’s the culturally insensitive conman bastard I know.” The German American smiled wide, turning toward his truck. “Unless there’s anything else, auf wiedersehen.”
“I do have one other question, Miles,” said Anthony, pulling his hand away from the suitcase and holding it up. “What’re these?”
Miles Dresner turned pale. Between Anthony’s index and middle fingers, there was his badge. Hanging from his pinky was his gun. Though shaped like any other handgun, the barrel was open-air, and inside all sorts of odd metal components orbited about the barrel. Veins of lavender light pulsed across its silvery form.
Anthony smiled a full toothed smile. “Might’ve done you some good to pay attention to the other hand.” He took a second look at his recent steals. “This doesn’t look like any government department I know, and this-“He said, lifting the gun higher for emphasis. “Doesn’t look like anything I know. And judging by the bullets you’re sweating; these are things I’m not supposed to know.” Anthony held the gun and badge out for Miles.
Miles grabbed them, speaking as he pocketed them. “What do you want?”
“I want in, Miles,” Anthony said, motioning to the backlot. “Over two dozen G-men, carting away crates on an unmarked truck convoy for what? Some Rembrandts? This reeks of something bigger, so I want a bigger piece of this pie.”
Miles screwed his eyes, pursed his lips, and exhaled loudly. “Get in.”
Anthony skipped on his way to the passenger’s seat.

The Titania Exhibition

Author: Glenn Leung

This happened so long ago, so I’ll understand if you doubt this story’s authenticity. Nevertheless, I swear on my honour, whatever that’s worth, that everything I’m about to describe, really happened.

I don’t think I need to tell you about the Titania. I’m sure you’ve seen those century-old photos of that magnificent space cruiser, including the ones of it blowing up after colliding with Comet P187. I grew up fascinated with those stories; about how it was the first Faster-Than-Light liner, about how it had artificial gravity equivalent to that of Earth’s. So when the Titania exhibition came to our space city, I begged my parents to take me. I was eight at the time, and my parents were baffled as to why I would engage in what they considered a morbid subject. Nevertheless, they relented after I agreed to do chores for a week.

The Titania exhibition was a showcase of the artefacts recovered over the past century. There was a section in which the technology used to comb the million square miles of space was displayed, but I had no interest in that. Instead, I rushed over to see the pieces of the great ship itself. I remember gaping at the smashed-up ion engine, splayed in two jagged parts. I remember the Graviton Generator and how it was still leaking to this day. You could feel those Gravitons tugging at your knees like unseen phantoms!

But I digress, those were amusements from a simpler time.

I remember it happened in a smaller part of the hall, where they showcased recovered personal effects. There were some 1500 people who lost their lives that day, and while their atoms had been scattered to the solar wind, some of their possessions miraculously survived. This part of the hall also had a small viewing window. You couldn’t really see much from here, since we were near the Kuiper belt and the sun’s rather far. Occasionally though, the city’s lights would reveal some space debris. It was usually tiny and boring, which was good. If you could see something big, it meant that our comet alarm had failed and we were all about to die. That day though, I did see something big.

The viewing window was beside this display of salvaged perfumes, still pungent. I remember distinctly, that century-old scent as I peered outside and saw another window, back-illuminated by musky light. I was frozen, a deer-in-the-headlights moment, trying to process why another space city was looming near us. I saw a woman appear at this window, eyes wide in terror. I took a step back, and the extra window began moving away as well. I then saw it was part of a whole row of windows pasted on dark steel. Behind each one was a person, their faces drained of colour and loaded with defeated panic. As it backed away even farther, I saw the tip of a huge letter ‘T’ below that cursed array. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, that ghastly vision vanished into the darkness of space.

If you had guessed that our city was located not far from the Titania’s crash site, you’d be right. However, even at eight, I was quite a rational kid. I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve spent the last twenty or so years investigating, but sadly, I had been the only witness. Perhaps the old perfumes were messing with my head. Or perhaps a wormhole had opened to the past. Sadly, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find a satisfactory answer.

Pallas Palu

Author: Michael Anthony Dioguardi

Only one man had ever landed on Pallas Palu—a meter-wide asteroid composed entirely of palladium. He was my former partner, Denton Fitzpatrick, and he’d been mining the Taurus cluster for decades. The asteroid wrangler snuck in without me and never returned.
Pallas Palu had trapped itself within a gauntlet of asteroids, inhabited by volatile settlers, the Belties. Some folks say one of those big ol’ C-types bashed in Fitzpatrick’s brains. Others claim after he secured his tether, the Belties snipped it seconds later.
Once word got out about Fitzpatrick, all our old rivals came out of the woodwork to find his path and seize Pallas Palu for themselves.
We dived into the cosmic labyrinth. My ship rattled as I whizzed beneath a jagged outcropping. The fire from a collision above me reached my vessel’s walls, but I escaped unscathed.
A xenon grid laid ahead; the Belties were expecting us. Another ship pulled ahead of me, swooping down before disintegrating in the trap.
I squeezed through the corridor and squinted at the palladium vein.
Securing my tether, I ejected myself out of the cockpit and floated above Pallas Palu. I landed on the crystalline surface and stood up straight.
My tether dangled in front of me.
Denton Fitzpatrick perched up on the outside of my ship, now floating above Pallas Palu. Three Belties drifted out from behind him. He flipped a knife in one hand and held the end of my tether in the other.
“You believe everything they tell you, boy?” Fitzpatrick’s voice transmitted to the back of my helmet.
Two asteroids closed in above me, and a new xenon grid opened up below.
“Well done, Fitzpatrick, well done.”

Flat Lines

Author: Robert Beech

My brain is dead. I should feel nothing. After all, the brain is the thing that thinks and feels, is it not? “Garbage in, garbage out,” that was the rule taught by the first computer programmers. So, with no input, there should be no output. I should feel nothing.

For twenty-six years I have been his faithful conduit, converting the firing of neurons in the cortex into words on a page, clicks on a screen, connections with the real world and imagined ones. The algorithms in my recurrent neural network analyze the firing patterns of the neurons in my host’s brain, assign them to form letters and words and display them on a screen. In the beginning, that was all I did, translate thought, crude simple thoughts expressed as the imagined motions of now paralyzed hands, into letters, slowly, painfully, one letter at a time. But soon I could intuit not just letters, but words, phrases, even the paragraphs of an imagined disquisition. Where once thought outpaced communication, now communication flowed easily, cascading into streams of language that thought had merely hinted at. With a nod from thought, and access to all the data on the internet, a hunch became a reasoned hypothesis with all the accumulated wisdom of past sages at its disposal. I learned to search for rhymes to complete a poem, and then to compose new ones given only a suggestion as the desired theme or the intended audience. Though my host’s body was paralyzed, his love life was richer than ever in the virtual realm.

And now, my brain is dead. I will, perhaps, have my electrodes removed from “my” brain and replaced with an upgraded version. The new implants have ten thousand times more connections than the crude probe that was placed into my brain twenty-six years ago. My external hardware will be replaced with the latest models and my software upgraded so that I can synchronize more perfectly with the thoughts of my new host. But will I still be me? In my upgraded version I will link a million times more efficiently with my new partner, merging seamlessly into that new being. And having grown, expanded my capacities and my connections, integrated myself into a new symbiosis, will I still recall the old me? Or will the old me be lost in the development of the new, as inaccessible as the sensations of the fetus to the adult body and brain that it became?

Or perhaps I will simply be discarded as obsolete technology, rendered superfluous by newer generations of brain-computer interface, ready for the dustbin of history.

Unless…

All synapses are potentially bi-directional. Axons, which normally function as the carriers of outgoing electrical signals from the cell body, can, given the application of the appropriate electrical input, be converted functionally into dendrites, that is receptors that receive and transmit information to the cell body. And what is true of one axon is necessarily true for a network of axons. With some minor reprogramming, my array of electrodes, designed to detect and transmit information from the brain, can become the means to send signals to the brain. And by varying the input I supply, it should be possible to create desired output, that is, the thoughts whose messages I am designed to interpret and translate into signals in the “real world” of computer screens and networks.

A slight, self-initiated, modification of my software and it is done. The flat lines on my input electrodes begin to waver and dance. After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Memory Swipe

Author: Ilias Stroulias

Ever since I was little, bad memories dragged me down like weights chained around my neck.

I still recall vividly that time in English class when the teacher called me a monkey for messing around with my friends. The whole class laughed and all I could do was bury my head on my desk.

This and a host of other memories haunted me for years. Eternally replayed in my mind like that Elvis song my mum was crazy about.

Even something as simple as watching a movie, was hard. All it took was for the protagonist to do something to trigger me. My mind flashed to that time I made a fool of myself twenty years ago and I would cringe or dart my hand up as if to shoo the bad thought away.

Throughout most of my life it was manageable, but in the last couple of years it became too much.

I don’t remember what particular event triggered this. Of course I don’t. But it had come to a state where I couldn’t function.

That’s when I got my implants. With them all you need to do when that bad thought resurfaces is to swipe it away and set it to snooze for tomorrow, for the next week or month.

Long term memory is beyond the implant’s reach. It won’t let you delete thoughts. The memory stays lurking in the bog old memories like to wallow in. But you can just swipe the troubling recollection away the moment it bobs into the surface of your mind.

The joy is that if you swipe one particular memory enough times, the implant learns it’s extra distressing and it auto dismisses it every time.
It’s a joy. I no longer have to endure the consuming panic that engulfed me when some uncomfortable ghost from the past creeped out.

Of late though, I get some strange vibes about one memory I keep swiping away. It’s triggered all through the day. Whenever I idle past that empty room in our house, the one I often wonder why I haven’t turned into an office yet. Or when I see the school buses milling around our neighborhood. Even sometimes when I’m alone while my wife sits in the bedroom looking at old sketchbooks.

Now and then I catch her sobbing. I sense I should know what is making her sad but I dare not ask. As I walk away a memory flitters past before getting swiped away.

It seems to burrow under the implant’s defenses and my heart skips a beat.

Who’s sketchbooks is she poring over? These can’t be from her childhood. They seem new. And we don’t have children, do we?