The Mandolins

Author: David Henson

Susan Wiggins lost an arm at work today. That’s called “making a donation” since the Mandolins took over. We’ve averaged about a donation a month over the past year. I myself donated a finger a couple weeks ago. It’s no wonder. The machinery we use — to make components for their ships, we think — is razor sharp and barely visible. Randall Spindler made the ultimate donation a while back. What a mess.

Anyway, needing a drink more than ever after what happened to poor Wiggins, I stop by the pub on my way home. John Jenkins obviously has already had one too many. He staggers up, claps me on the back and says loudly “Welcome to the Fox & Hound, Steven my friend.” I see Bob Johnson immediately place a call. I’m sure he’s turning Jenkins in for failing to refer to the tavern by its new, assigned name. Poor Jenkins. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again after tonight. Johnson’s nothing but a rotten snitch. Better known as a change advocate these days.

After leaving the pub, I go to Clown Foods to pick up a six-pack and bag of chips for supper. The Mandolins use “clown” a lot — Clown Foods, Clown Pharmacy, Clown Shoe Repair. I guess they think putting “clown” in a name makes it a happier place. I’m sure they also know many humans find clowns a little creepy. Just another way to mess with our heads. The Mandolins are good at that.

I’m sure they don’t even really call themselves Mandolins. They probably think going by the name of a lyrical instrument sugarcoats the fact they’ve taken over our world. It doesn’t.

Back home I have a couple beers and half the chips. Checking my watch, I see it’s still a couple hours before imposition of Home Sweet Home time. I’d love to go see my sister, but Madge’s place is just over the line in the Fabulous Fun zone, and I’m not allowed to leave the Forever Smiles sector. At least we can talk by phone so I give her a call.

“Hi, Madge. How’s everything there? Roger? The girls?”

“Hi, Steven. We’re OK. For now. How are you holding up?”

“You know. Getting by. I—“

Soft music interrupts our call, and a melodic voice announces “You have depleted your allocation of freedom minutes for this month.” The music grows louder. I try to talk over it. The voice repeats the announcement more sternly, and the music becomes louder yet, shrill and off-key.

“I’ll talk to you next month, Madge,” I shout. The music is almost ear-piercing. “Hug the girls for me,” I scream and disconnect, silencing the phone.

It’s still early. I pace from room to room, trying to keep the emptiness of the house from swallowing me, trying not to think about the day the Mandolins declared my wife and son to be surplus delights and took them away on a magic carpet ride. Maybe I’ll go back to the Fox & Clown.

Unrestrained

Author: Mina

– Bravo-tango-delta-three-nine-zero-zulu, you are cleared to dock.
– Affirmative, docking sequence initiated.

K8 docked manually; it was against procedure, but nobody would have been able to tell with her level of precision. It was one of the small joys that Dr. Charles Lagarde was encouraging her to reclaim. She – the doctor insisted she think of herself using personal pronouns, and part of her had once been female – had been assigned to him by the military. The first bio-borg created not to be so unstable that it had to be destroyed. Over the last year, Charles had helped her to find control and had given her a compass by which to measure her new existence. He had also refused to call her K8, turning it into Kate.

Charles was humming as usual. As she finalised the docking procedure, she felt his hand on hers. Her tactile receptors sent a message, received as comfort and pleasure by her CPU – was that any different from what she would have felt before her transformation? She could not remember.

– Ça va, Kate?
– I am fine, Doctor.

He laughed:

– You would say that if half your leg had been shot off. Chérie, you are doing good work in good company – that is more than fine.

He grinned at her and she fought and lost the battle not to smile – a foreign but pleasing sensation that threatened to become a permanent state of affairs around him.

The work did feel worthwhile, transporting vital medical supplies to a small outpost. This was a brief refueling stop on their way. And their companionship seemed to be turning into something she did not fully understand but welcomed.

Charles bounced out of their small but state-of-the-art transporter to greet an old friend, Major Oliver Laine. They had combined the refueling stop with the monthly status report Lagarde made on her progress with “socialisation”. She carried out the usual landing checks, her CPU monitoring him out of habit. She felt his surprise, shock and, then, nothing. His mind was… gone.

She moved fast. The pulse weapon she was not supposed to have already in her hand. She reached the deck in less than five seconds and her optical sensors registered his crumpled, prone form.

The major looked up:

– A regrettable loss but he knew too much. There was also some concern that he was not the right influence. You were made to be a soldier, not a sister of mercy.

None of K8’s rage or pain showed on her face as she lifted the pulse weapon and terminated the major; it did not slow her speed as she sealed the hold so nobody could enter. She finished refueling and hacked the station’s systems. She also disabled all the supposedly foolproof checks in her CPU and neutralised the remote self-destruct nestled deep inside it.

She carried Charles into the transporter, laying him gently on his bunk. She would send his body into space, like sailors had once honoured their own at sea.

K8 did not react as the station exploded behind her departing vessel. Her restraint had been based on his ideals, his complete belief that all life was precious. She had respected his feelings in this, but now it was no longer necessary.

She had a medical delivery to complete and then she had a new purpose. They would terminate her in the end but, before that, she would take out as many of their military bases as she could. They had not valued his life; she need not value theirs.

Wish List

Author: Rick Tobin

Baylen continued with standard disease treatment questions for applicants, after verifying Sheila Barston’s financial capabilities. Baylen took on a wizened senior’s appearance for his younger, highly spirited clientele needing a thimble full of respect to buffer their anticipation. His holographic medical attending room was pleasant under a soft, blue simulated light at the same seventy-two degrees found throughout the space station.

“Please, only a few more inquiries before we schedule, Sheila. I realize this may seem an exciting opportunity, but it does require absolute assurance that we can match you with a condition, disorder or disease that truly meets your requirements. I understand this was a gift from friends for your upcoming birthday. Congratulations on reaching middle age, at least as we define it now. With continuing medical breakthroughs, ninety is just the new one-hundred.” Baylen’s added levity escaped his nervous client. Sheila’s fingers raced up and down selections of mortifying illnesses and discomforts from a floating digital display of the ship’s clinic menu.

“We only get to choose once in a lifetime…just one wish. It has to be the right one. Everyone talks about their experiences at our club. I’m the last to visit you. Oh, those long shudders about diphtheria, dysentery, malaria…and of course, the Black Plague. You know I’d pick that one, Dr. Baylen, but it is outside my price range. There is such emptiness in my life, I mean, to be interesting. Everything is so dull without these retro-adventures. And you assure that it is perfectly safe? Really safe?”

Sheila leaned her firm, healthy figure over the doctor’s desk, exposing her perky, bouncing octogenarian breasts through her flimsy silk jumpsuit. Her display distracted Baylen.

“Please, Miss Barston. That’s hardly appropriate. I’m over two hundred but I’m still alive. You needn’t be frisky to make a point. Of course, you will suffer, but only the memory will remain when we remove the disorder.”

“Well I just wondered,” she replied, sitting back in her overstuffed red chair. A brief frown rolled over her face before she returned to her assortment.

“There is a new item we haven’t posted yet that might just be the right fit for you. Only a few have signed up for this experience so I’m sure you would be a centerpiece of interest at whatever soirée you attended afterward.”

“Oh, could you? That sounds simply exciting. Can I afford it?”

“For you, Sheila, I’ll reduce the price for your birthday. How’s that?”

“Wonderful! Wonderful! Oh, I could just kiss you, Doctor.”

“No need, Sheila. Just follow the attendant. It will be a ten-day experience. You’ll be sharing a space with five males and one female through this process so you can agonize together. Of course, your entire exploit will be recorded in living overview so you can recall it in excruciating detail for decades.”

“I’m so excited. I’ll just never forget this.” Sheila danced to the artificial doorway and into an awaiting attendant’s direction.

Dr. Baylen’s nurse appeared in front of him. Her dry voice crackled from her hologram.

“Are you sure of your assessment, Doctor? She didn’t ask about the choice.”

“Yes, Helen, I’m sure it will fit her. I can’t believe five brothers from Ceres all signed at once. We must be overbooking. I think it’s time for retirement. I heard Alice Cringly got into this mix because she sued over her disappointing measles jaunt. She should be a terrific companion for Sheila as those seven go through condensed puberty. ”

Whiskey Neat

Author: Hari Navarro

I lay naked on the beach as the tide it nudges, teasing as it tucks me beneath its gossamer sheet before then retracting and sluicing itself back through the curves and crevasses of my body. A gentle wind peaks, whipping into a gust, one that scoops briny foam the settles shivering and yellow as teeth unwashed, from the black mirror shorelines timid and all but silent lap.

My name is Master Flight Surgeon Frances Kahui, 20, my work in off-planet nanotherapeutic oncology is without peer and I’ve always been beautiful. These words form not out of vanity, albeit arrogance was essential in my rise through the ranks, they manifest from truth.

Life has always been the easiest of fits. I cannot remember a time that I struggled, no problem too vexing no issue so unsettling it would cause me to question just why I was here. Life never toyed or set me to fall, never it did.

It’s true I qualified for intelligence enhancement upon enlistment, but that only served to complete a mind already primed and surging at the leash; ravenous as the spittle of ambition brewed and dripped from my chin.

My body is true – young legs that grew long and lithe, skin glowing as the first sun-struck blooms of peppery rust and eyes becoming swirls of warmth as if beneath the effortless glide of the chocolatiers sweep. Testament all to the nucleic strands that splay from my being; a fiery trace back through space and time, a hook of bone that anchors at a beach not so different from this upon which I now lay, the island – home of forebears.

Needless tacks thrown at my feet, that most archaic of notions, that one’s sex and appearance somehow relate to their ability to contribute. So turgid and dusty a thing, one I duly ignored but one that sadly still draws breath. It breathes, but in truth it is hoarse, carrying its own respirator and what more perfect hell than to live in a chamber brimming as it is with whiskey neat and the incessant clanking of testicles shriveled and grey.

I relegated my tender years to insignificance as I drew the very best from my team. Transposing my gift of bottomless optimism and insatiable curiosity as their own resolve it ebbed, so draining it is to surf the lonely currents of spaces endless hollow. But we got here and weep we did as we gazed down upon a globe so stunning in blue.

I have no idea why it happened, my ship cracking apart as it entered its final entry, but it did. I remember my face reddening with the prickle of joy, I remember clouds streaking as they raked apart and we cleaved ever downward, I remember the jolt and the death screech of steel as I am ripped away and I remember the gush of heat as my clothes are torn from my limbs and I spiral dead and scorched into the midnight sea.

I lay naked on the beach, bloated and bleached. My gut and chest cavity seething with gas; little comfort for the eel creature that swam through the puncture wound in my side and now lives in my stomach like a kitten curled before the heat of roaring hearth. My eyes swollen shut and my lip curled back, my feet and hands are gone.

The child’s toes crunch and curl into the sand, ten years old and set to become legend. With stick she pokes at my corpse, and I so bow to the first to find life outside of her own.

Eventually

Author: Ron Humble

The most deadly device ever conceived by the human mind has not been a weapon, but a word. It’s a word of mass destruction. Its danger lies not in the power to motivate foolish actions. On the contrary, it encourages passivity. The word is Eventually.

There is a millennia-old saying, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” The counterpoint to this wisdom is the simple, seemingly benign Eventually. There’s plenty of time. I have my whole life ahead of me. I’ll make amends or write that novel or start an exercise regimen. I’ll stop drinking too much or overeating or overspending. But thanks to Eventually, I don’t need to do it now, I can do it tomorrow or next year or next decade.

Then one day you realize you didn’t do any of those things you promised yourself you would. However, now it’s too late because you’re feeling the pangs of death. Your old friend, Eventually, stabbed you in the back.

Eventually would be bad enough if it only infected individuals, but it has caused a species-wide epidemic with its inducements to ignore problems and to pass the buck to the next generation. A prime example of such a problem involves the life cycle of a star, in particular, our sun.

As an astrophysicist, an important component of my job is viewing the universe from a big-picture perspective. When I peer at the light of a distant star, I see what that star was like millions or even billions of years ago and events which will occur over equal amounts of time.

It is, in a sense, unnatural for human beings to think in this way. We evolved to consider short-term possibilities for two main reasons: in primitive societies, community-wide changes are infrequent and our earliest hominid ancestors were lucky to reach thirty.

As a result, even with our cosmic perspectives regarding the stars, my colleagues and I, like everyone else, often neglect to apply this mode of thinking to our own lives and to the problems facing our planet. Thanks to Eventually, the big picture is abstract, far away, inapplicable to us, someone else’s problem. That is until it isn’t.

Humanity survived the ravages of climate change and a world war in the late twenty-first century to reach for the stars, launching vessels with eager settlers to colonize new worlds. We should have learned our lesson, but we filled the void of space with Eventually.

Ten thousand years ago, our forebears reached planet Erasmus, where humans have multiplied and covered its surface with our reasons and follies. We’ve rested in the understanding(actually held by few as most don’t concern themselves with what is happening beyond the atmosphere of their planet) that it will be almost five hundred million years before our sun would unleash a solar flare, which would threaten human survival on our world.

As such, we’d given no consideration to the event and made no preparations for our descendants. We’d left it up to them. However, as it became clear in recent years as we made more precise measurements of the sun, our calculations were about half a billion years off the mark.

So, our engineers have been scrambling, building ships to take as many of us as possible away from this planet before it’s engulfed by a conflagration. My family and I are fortunate to be among them.

Perhaps, we will once and for all throw Eventually to the fire and not take the future for granted, though I very much doubt it.