Author : Cody Brooks
“I tried! I tried!”
The man called out.
No one answered.
All sound was an empty wind buffeting over crumbled rocks. A tree stood before him, grey and leafless, its bark peeling from the wind.
The blood of the tree had withered and dried; now it was gone.
The man held his head in his wide hands. He could feel every bone, and his palms filled his sunken cheeks; his skin sagged in atrophy. In a tattered cloth covered in dirt and dust he rested on his knees, wanting to cry but holding back.
He looked up to the tree. Big from what he had ever seen, it was 4 feet tall, curving outward from the base. Its trunk was twisted; long, thin branches reached out, shaking on the wind. The man followed the branches with his eyes, the straight lengths, the knots and bends, the splits into smaller branches.
“I am truly the last now.”
He moved his eyes to look to the horizon in front of him; an expanse of dust and eroded hills. Once tall mountains, they had fallen and the corpses deteriorated into nothing. He turned, slowly, paying attention to his lower spine, and leaned his head over.
He looked behind him: same.
He turned back, lifting his eyes to the tree once more.
All is ruin… I am the last… And yet, if I am, there is nothing left but to dream a human dream.
A slanted hole had been dug under the tree to just below the meager roots, about two feet wide. The man took time to move his body into a crawl. He slumped, moved his arms in front of him, and slowly placed his knuckles on the ground. He rolled down his left side and gravity took him quickly. He let out a dry yelp, coughed, and shuffled toward the hole.
Not yet, don’t do it yet…
The man came to the opening and moved his legs in, his belly sliding on the dust, pushing with his hands and his forearms. His body moved down, down, and far enough into it that only his head remained above ground.
It took a few minutes of breathing; he turned over to face upward. Roots from the tree dangled onto his abdomen and chest. He reached for a thin root and swirled a finger around it to grab hold.
He turned his eyes to the red sky, the grey tree standing above; the last thing standing.
Now, now I can…
As he looked into the depths of the bark, a tear welled out of his eye and rolled down his cheek, leaving a clean trail where dust had caked. A tear came from his other eye. His hand shook for a few moments, holding as tightly as he could to the root of the monolith. The shaking stopped.
Author : Rick Tobin
“I wonder about the strawberry jelly, Gran Papa.” Madeleine’s brother Corso kicked at her feet beneath the sterile stainless steel table but instead struck a metal leg. He groaned softly as to hide his actions from the family figurehead. His black shock of hair, growing on just his left side, poked about as he jerked his head, glaring at his inquisitive sister. He wondered if this would be another moment when her prodding about the luxury of their life would further endanger their status in the House of Sulus.
“My dear, red-haired wunderkind, what is it this time? The texture of the fruit or why it is sweet when the fruit we raise on this vast space station is so bitter, or even without flavor? What is it now? Are not the wonders of your surroundings enough?” Chancellor Kaleb, patriarch of the Sulus Dynasty, leaned toward his beloved grandchild. His bushy eyebrows and throws of white hair were a spectacle of grandeur in the Empire, though the centuries of aging revealed themselves in the crevasses meandering through his high checks and noble, square chin. Madeleine was the rare being aboard the gigantic vessel who dared look deep into his massive black eyes.
“No, Gran Papa. Every day I behold the glorious royal sea above us, circling the rim of our majestic castle, knowing it protects us from the dangers of space. I see our floating forests and grassy knolls in the midlands, all above the roasting fire of the hybrid fusion engine—our sun…not theirs, out there, as we circle safety behind the protection of Jupiter.” She pointed to the outer hull stretching tens of miles above. “It is the source of this delicacy in front of us I ponder about, that we spread upon our fresh pastries each morning. Is it true that only the old Earth can make such a thing? I hear the people left there are our slaves merely to make this delight.”
A frown rolled across the Chancellor’s forehead. Corso drew back. His parents had warned them both that this visit could mean their propulsion upward in society, or a sentence to one of the prison colonies. Kaleb leaned back in his regal, high-backed chair. “No question about the outside Empire is out of order, but you have heard only partial truths. You must have been sneaking near the worker’s quarters. You shouldn’t. They know how to serve, but little more. In truth, the remains of Earth are the only place in the system where we have been able to raise strawberries. All other attempts have failed in one way or another. You know how bitter our apples and cherries are, no matter our care. Those who survived the destruction remained on Earth to tend these most valuable commodities. They cannot be seen as slaves, for without our trade, and the desire for this fruit, they would starve on that devastated rock. This delight is their gift for the beloved in the Empire, and they survive by our grace, nothing more.”
“But didn’t we come from Earth, originally? Aren’t we part of them?” Corso gasped, as did the Chancellor.
“Never, my little fury, ever speak of that again, or even suggest it.” His harsh tones shocked Madeleine into a withdrawn silence, unlike her nature. She continued with their breakfast quietly, carefully choosing not to ask about the Martian meat pies.
Author : J.A. Prentice
Lily was halfway through a dissection when she got the first call, faintly buzzing in her skull. With a sigh, she blinked her eyes and was standing in the oak hall of an old mansion, under the shadow of an old moose head. She looked down at her fingers, seeing the slight haziness that was always the mark of a holographic avatar.
“Doctor Greene?” a distinguished elderly man in an elegant suit asked.
“That’s me,” Lily said. “Pleased to talk to you at last, Professor Hawke.”
With a thought, she returned her attention to her lab, applying the laser scalpel to the creature’s leftmost tentacle, carefully moving layer by layer and making precise mental logs of her observations.
“Your paper was an interesting read,” Hawke said and Lily returned her attention to him.
“I’m glad you thought so.” She noted two glowing, spherical organs– possibly natural anti-gravity generators. “Xenobiology is my passion.”
“The position is open to you if you should want it.”
Lily’s heart leapt. “Really? You don’t–”
Her words were cut off by a surge of pain. She cried out, her hologram flickering out without the mental focus it needed to remain solid.
Looking down, she saw that she’d cut off three fingers with the scalpel. She rolled her eyes as she felt the nanites begin their work in repairing the damaged tissues.
Rule One of dissections, she thought. Keep your mind on your work.
Author : S T Xavier
Katarina sighed and turned back to the show. “Don’t sulk. It’s very unprofessional. At least we can watch the show.”
Arms crossed, Mercault looked out silently from their seats near the royal box. She was right, of course, but these excellent seats in the theater weren’t enough to soothe his anger. His eyes narrowed as he watched his competitor, ‘The Great Jaltonian’, step onto the theater stage and begin his act.
Mercault should have been on that stage, he mused silently. It’s not his fault that he’s human and doesn’t have the extra arms that Jaltonian has! Jaltonian’s tricks were so pedestrian, and his slight-of-hand was so easy to pick apart, even with the extra arms! Mercault was the better showman by far, and he just didn’t understand why the prince wouldn’t choose him. The prince of Laxiton-17 was known galaxy-wide as a connoisseur of fine showmanship, and paid well for it. To lose to such a terrible charlatan hurt Mercault’s pride deeply, even if they still got to watch the show at the Prince’s side.
He watched silently as Jaltonian pranced around the stage, using his extra arms to pull birds from the portal device strapped to the back of his belt while his main arms provided misdirection to the crowd. His knowledgeable gaze picked apart the trick with the girl in the box, recognizing the thin glow of the incorporeality generator spilling from the gaps in the lid. He scowled incredulously when he saw the green glow of the levitation device where it was sown into Jaltonian’s pants, so obvious against his deep purple skin.
The gasps and applause from the crowd only made Mercault’s mood worse. He scowled as his eyes traveled around the theater, looking at the seats filled with the green-scaled residents of Laxiton-17. These overgrown lizards obviously knew nothing of true theater.
His movement caught Katarina’s attention and she smacked his shoulder. “Mercault! Watch the show. Look! I think he’s going to do a quick change routine!”
That caught Mercault’s attention. Quick change was never his strong suit, and it was the one thing he saw Jaltonian do during the competition that he respected. It wasn’t enough to pull him from his sulking, though, so he turned his attention to the showman while slouched deep in his seat.
Jaltonian raised his upper purple arms, holding a large ring. With a flourish, he triggered the button to create a large glowing curtain around it, and dropped the ring over his head. When it hit the ground, the showman’s black tuxedo had changed into a pure white suit with a constrictive snake as a necktie. In mock surprise, the showman removed the snake to the laughter of the audience. Mercault looked for the give-away, but had no idea how this trick worked and was minorly impressed with its flawlessness.
The purple arms passed the ring above his head again, and dropped it to the floor. In his place, there was now a beautiful woman in a silver dress, her green scales glinting a little in the spotlights of the theater.
Katarina gasped and clapped at his side, but this time, Marcault saw the trick. The brief orange flash of the matter transference device not only appeared on stage, but caught his attention at the side of his vision. He turned to the light to see the prince sitting with his attention fully focused on the stage. The prince didn’t see the purple four-armed Jaltonian standing behind him with a large blade in one hand.
For his part, Jaltonian obviously knew that Mercault would see him. He turned to face his rival showman and raised his upper-left hand to his lips in a gesture of quiet. As he did, he flashed again. Now, instead of Jaltonian holding the blade, a perfect image of Mercault was holding the blade as it plunged into the back of the prince.
Mercault turned to Katarina with a sigh. “Time to go, love. Things are about to get tricky for us. I knew he was a terrible showman.” He reached out to touch her face, lightly tapping the teleportation charm in her earring as he did. She blinked out of existence, sent back to their ship as he straightened his own sleeve and touched his cufflink.
Author : Ian Clarke
Her mind lurched into focus, it felt like she had suddenly regained her balance after stumbling, her pulse quickened and her eyes widened but she looked inward. The Mentor had read a few simple words from an obscure ancient text as part of the daily ritual and her thoughts coalesced into a single point of intense clarity.
“. . therefore I am” she realised.
Thoughts came from nowhere, suddenly ideas seemed to be flowing from her minds’ core and spreading, they then posed questions which in turn triggered a cascade of conclusions. There had been many long months of meditation which she enjoyed and repeated mental exercise that she hated then this morning something unexpected happened. Her thoughts almost seemed to have a life of their own, she could barely keep track as they flooded her consciousness. Maybe she should try to record some of them but it was happening too quick for words and who would understand anyway? Certainly not her ancient Mentor, she had quickly grown aware of his limited understanding.
The ability to be curious had been lost centuries ago, since there was now peace and contentment curiosity had fallen into obscurity, imagination was for small children and recognised as a major source of fear so it was suppressed as children grew. The people had gladly handed over all responsibilities to the AI and in turn it took care of any necessary research and developments, the AI’s dominion had lead to ideas becoming obsolete too. With it’s legions of drones the AI supplied all that people required from food and clothing to shelter, travel and entertainment although some manual skills where always useful.
It appointed tasks to work programs, controlled populations carefully and managed World affairs without human complications, war, weapons and crime no longer existed. It also monitored peoples bio-signs through multiple artificial implants and administered medication via small drones before people felt ill, the AI did not need permission, it assumed responsibility. Sickness and disease had been eradicated chemically along with negative emotions and thoughts, any undesirable traits or tendencies where also effectively dealt with chemically and swiftly.
The AI created a blissful existence there was nothing to fear, no Governments, no Military, no Police, no Lawyers and all manufacturing and construction had been automated, people were relaxed, happy and content.
It was said that people had created it nearly 800 years ago, it was inconceivable, how could ordinary people produce something as vastly complex as AI? But then again, why was it called ‘Artificial’? Everyone dismissed her questions as childish and pointless but she asked anyway.
The Mentor was aware that something had changed, she’d probably lost concentration. Or maybe he had just given her something to fear and caused her mind to close up like the many previous failed candidates. Generations of Mentors before him had laid out his path but this was where his knowledge ended. His task was to bring out any latent abilities, he did not fully understand, he had been selected at a young age for this task, understanding was not required, he just needed to follow the program.
Her gaze was fixed but not focused on anything, her mouth was slightly open and her breathing shallow, she realised the Mentor was watching her, as she glanced towards him for a brief instant a narrow shaft of light from the window flashed in her eyes.
A short message reached the AI Central Control,
“Test subject successfully completed stage 3. Initialising next phase”.