One Way

Author : Rosalie Kempthorne

“Are you quite sure you want to do this?” He was asked that question again.

And once again he answered “Yes.”

“This is a one-way trip.”

“Yes, I understand.” I know what I’m signing up for.

But not without signing yet again. Another form, crawling with fine-type, a cramped little box at the bottom for him to try to fit his signature. Rogan signed. There was no need to think about it, he’d already signed these documents five – no, six – times since he’d first been approved for the expedition. He’d had all the time he needed to reconsider his choice. Why would I? What the hell do I have keeping me here?

Somebody must have been satisfied, because the doors slid open and a hallway lit up – glowing green footprints on the floor showed him where to go.

When he reached the completion chamber, he saw that about half the pods were already occupied, the other half open, inviting their next guest inside. To the right of him a woman had just completed her cycle. Rogan didn’t mean to be rude, didn’t mean to stare so openly, but this was the first time he’d seen the process in real life.

She was wet with translucent gel, and still groggy, her hair knotted and plastered against the sides of her newly sculpted head. Her skin had turned golden, not really skin now but very fine scales. Gills stood out clearly against her neck. Third and fourth eyes were only just beginning to open. Heavy shoulders, stretched limbs – they’d be weird getting used to. But necessary. This form was ideally suited for survival on the planet’s surface – cheaper and less restrictive than a life spent in environmental suits.

The whole process took only a couple of hours.

It made sense.

It was all just so… permanent.

A company technician in a green, knee-length coat was waiting beside the pod, holding out another form for Rogan to sign.

“Are you sure you want to go ahead with completion?”

“Yes, I’m still sure.” He wondered if he’d grow to find them attractive: transformed women like the one he’d just seen. How long before the face he’d see in the mirror would start to seem like his own again? How long would it seem like an intruder in his life?

I’m sure, he thought to himself, I’m sure.

“This is a one-way trip,” the technician reminded him.

“Yes. Yes.” He scrawled a signature over the screen and waited for the pod to open. Two glowing footprints showed him where to stand; the green, fetal image of a human figure showed him where to lie, how to curl into the bright, fiber-glass womb. Well, this time, he thought, I’ll remember being born.

He resisted the instinct to close his eyes as a thick gel seeped into the chamber. It was warm and fizzing against his skin, then cool, as his skin adjusted. Once submerged, there was only brightness, over-white lights shining and refracting through gel, pinpoints of light impersonating stars, a sense of void, just outside the reach of his vision. As wires came out and found their target in the last few minutes of entirely human flesh, as a cool silence oozed down around him, Rogan felt perfectly calm at last. Whatever came from this he would be new, rewritten, repaired – in a genuine sense, reborn. He’d open four eyes and he’d see another universe.

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Author : Beck Dacus

“We noticed from orbit,” said the commander of the fleet form Quijote III, “that you have quite the renovation project going on here, and we have to commend you. Taking on a project of that scale is very admirable. And the foresight that involves! I think we could learn a thing or two from you.”

Earth’s emissary simply stared, slightly frightened at his own confusion. “I… well, I just… what?”

The alien commander stared back. “You know. The warming project. I think it’s very innovative.”

The chattering in the crowd behind them had stopped, the camera flashes becoming more infrequent. “I’m afraid I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” the representative said.

The commander gave what sounded like a series of low belches, the equivalent of a Quijotese chuckle. “Surely you’re aware of the carbon dioxide you’re emitting into the atmosphere, warming the climate and warding off the approaching Ice Age? You see, we don’t have the climate cycles allowing for such a catastrophic event on Quijote III, but I hope we would have come up with the same solution you did. Really remarkable move. You do know, don’t you?”

“Uh, yeah,” the now extremely nervous delegate said to the esteemed alien visitor. “I know.” He raised his communicator to his mouth, and asked his supervising officer, watching in the crowd somewhere, “What should I tell him?”

“Play along,” the officer said from the back of the crowd, sweating abundantly and tapping his foot in an anxious twitch. “Let him think we’re doing it on purpose. We can deal with the media later.”

After the emissary chuckled and subtly bragged about humanity’s little “engineering project,” the crowd roared angrily at the lie, shouting about the treachery of Earth’s government. The confused Quijotese official was led back to his space-to-surface shuttle and ushered back to his starship, sent away before it got too violent… and before he figured out what was going on.

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Author : Kristin Kirby

I caught him in my arms as the others ran for safety in the shelters. The fires began to die around us. I sat on the ground and held him while the sliver rays took their inevitable toll. An agonizing way to go, the rays. They moved fast and deadly through your insides–too fast and too many to remove or repair.

“Did it…work?” He could barely rasp out the words.

“Yes, you did it.” I swiped tears from my eyes so he wouldn’t see them. “Everyone made it.”

He nodded, relieved. The snow fell in light, cold whispers that melted to nothing. It made promises we all needed to believe: more seasons, more time.

“Remember…” he started, and then he was racked with coughing.

I grasped his hand. Mine shook badly. “Yes?”

“Remember our drive…in the mountains?”

I nodded. It had been last fall, a warm day with only the hint of chill. We’d met the month before, new recruits unsure of how bad the invasion would become.

On a day leave, our last, we’d changed into civilian clothes, run through the rain to his solar truck, then driven east toward the snowcapped mountains. Only an hour from the city, the highway had risen higher, the towns had become smaller, and the rain had stopped.

We’d seen a bald eagle high in a fir tree, and when we’d driven past, it had flown up, great, dark wings arching and white head dipping as it glided over the nearby river.

“Wouldn’t it be great to move up here,” he’d said. “See, this is something real, something you can touch. There’s an eagle. There’s the river. There are mountains. Concrete things, beautiful things. Not like death. That’s a concept. You can’t see it or touch it. It only becomes real in the absence of something.”

He hadn’t talked about it before–the impending war and what it might cost us. Driving on, he’d looked steadily at the road and become silent. I’d taken his hand and he’d squeezed mine back, and we’d found a motel, and when we had undressed and come together, his body had been warm and relaxed and strong.

“This is real,” he’d said, our eyes locked, his hand on my face.

By that evening when we’d returned to the barracks, our orders were waiting for us.

“I remember,” I said softly. I smiled and put my forehead against his cheek. So many things to say, and now they’d be lost. “I remember.”

I felt his face contract. A smile of love, I hoped, and not a grimace of pain from the sliver rays. I pulled away to look. It was neither–a twist of his mouth. Regret. Sorrow.

“Sorry for…being stupid,” he said.

“No, don’t. You saved–”

“We should’ve had a…lifetime.”

He coughed again, hard, blood at his lips. It would happen now. I would lose him.

I held his face and willed my hands to be steady. In the moment my eyes met his, we lived a thousand years. Ten thousand. Still not enough, but they would have to do.

“I’m here,” I said. “I won’t let go.”

I felt his warm skin. The rough sleeve of his uniform. The ground beneath us, safe for now. These were real, concrete things. You could touch them. Goodbye was a concept. It only became real in the absence of something. Of someone.

He closed his eyes. I sat with him. Bombs went off in the distance, but I heard only the whispers of the falling snow.

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Author : Carter Lee

Keith Samuels woke when the lights came on, and while it had been getting harder for the sallow-faced senior citizen to pull himself out of bed of late, this morning it proved impossible. It was only with supreme effort that he managed to turn on his side, allowing a slight respite from the huge weight that seemed to have settled onto his chest during the night. Having made that effort, Samuels found himself utterly spent, unable to hold onto consciousness for more than moments, and certainly never able to form coherent thoughts.

Like the flashes of an old camera bulb, scenes would appear with crystal clarity, only to fade and vanish. One of the screws, Gibson he thought, was peering into Samuels eyes while holding one hand to his forehead, the palm-flesh cool, soothing, then darkness. The feel and sound of men shifting, then lifting his bulky frame from steel bed to gurney, lights flashing by as it was rolled down the bare hallway, being moved again from gurney to hospital bed, fingers at his wrist, voices whispering ‘stroke’ and ‘weak heart’ and ‘just waiting’; These things flashed by like slides in front of his lolling, sagging consciousness. The last slide, right before his entire being unwove, was the feel of something being placed on his head…

Keith Samuels felt his eyes pop wide as painfully bright light bloomed before them. The weight had vanished from his chest, and he drew in a huge breath, involuntarily, and then expelled it as an ear-splitting shout. Samuels felt… amazing! It was like the slow accretion of years and aches had been stripped away from him, not just from his body, but from his mind as well. A sigh escaped from him, almost a moan, from the sybaritic pleasure of simply not feeling the pain that had formed the background of his physical existence for so long that he had forgotten that he could feel otherwise.

Samuels wanted to run, and leap, and shout, and never, never, never take the joy of being alive for granted again! For the first time in decades, he felt the thrill of sexual excitement roll through his body, just from the pure sensation he was experiencing.

He tried to stretch his limbs, wanting to extend them as far as he could, to move each joint and marvel at their perfect functioning… but he could barely move. Samuels began to struggle, pushing against whatever was holding his wrists and legs and chest, but he was held firm, and sudden fear began to well up, a scream, of terror this time, forming in his gut and building as it rose…

“Are you awake?”

The question boomed out from somewhere in front of him, somewhere behind the lights. The scream, fighting its way up his throat, dissipated before it reached his mouth, and exited his loose-hanging jaw as a shadow of itself, a mere confused whimper.

“Are you awake? Answer, please.”

“Y…yes…” Samuels said, in a reedy whisper.

“State your name.”

“My… I’m… Keith. Keith Samuels.”

“Keith Gordon Samuels?”

“Y… yes.” Samuels found himself nodding dumbly, or trying to, as his head seemed to be secured in place with a strap.

“Keith Gordon Samuels, inmate code SKG-118-2, you have been sentenced to six consecutive life sentences for 5 counts of murder in the first degree, 23 counts of attempted murder, 2 counts of committing acts of premeditated terror…” The voice droned on, and on, each new charge bringing a welter of memories and images into Samuels’ mind.

“You have finished your first life sentence, inmate SKG-118-2, with a total of 46 years added on to your sentence for bad behavior. You have had your memory matrix inserted into a clone of yourself to allow you to live out your next life sentence. Be advised, any attempts at self-termination, including any and all actions to cause anything but a natural death prior to your expected lifespan of 87 years, will result in the addition of an extra 25 years to your sentence for each attempt, successful or not. Do your understand?”

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Author : John Carroll

The killer whale that I had dubbed Aster and the robotic companion dolphins that he was chasing erupted into view, flashing across the length of the viewing window and back out of our field of vision so quickly that by the time Maria could squeak with surprise they were already gone again. I felt Elizabeth shiver involuntarily.

The sleek robots, guided by my mind, led Aster back into view. He noticed us then, drifting toward the screen and turning over several times. He began to paddle lazily back and forth across the fortified plastic wall. Kashvi thought that now he seemed more like a gigantic panda bear than the fierce column of predatory might we had witnessed moments before.

“Extremely charismatic, isn’t he?” I said. “It’s little wonder Orcas saturated the mythology of indigenous coastal cultures for centuries.”

Aster was very close now, close enough for us to see the thin surgical scar on his eyespot that proved he was a co-pilot.

“Many of our passengers were disturbed to think that Aster would be joining your ranks as a co-pilot,” I continued. “Many remain ignorant when it comes to the android/co-pilot relationship. It’s still widely believed that each co-pilot needs to understand the physics of the voyage. Of course, I did not select Aster for his mathematics credentials. In fact, he will probably play a relatively small role in this expedition compared to the four of you. But his brain lends an invaluable perspective.”

Behind Aster, his silvery playmates danced around each other in elegant helixes, waiting mindlessly for Aster to re-engage them.

“Orcas are human-like in a number of ways. Like a human, Aster is usually the most intelligent organism in the room. Orcas have culture, dialect, self-awareness, and wonderful problem solving skills. Like humans, Orcas are the undisputed rulers of their domain. It was not a challenge to integrate Aster into a computer system designed for human brains. But what attracted me to Aster were the parts of him that make him a wild animal. Up until the moment of his capture, survival for Aster was a repeated process of throwing himself headfirst into the apparatus of his ecosystem and wrestling the life force from another creature.”

Far back in the tank, a scarlet plume of fish guts splashed into the water, deposited by Aster’s automated feeding system, and billowed into a gory inverted mushroom cloud. Aster turned tail immediately and jetted away from us, the scent of lunch in his hypersensitive nostrils.

“Aster’s brain is on a wavelength that I, as an android, am only beginning to imagine,” I said, almost whispering. “My self-preservation programming is a hollow imitation of a survival instinct like Aster’s. To guide this ship to an adjacent universe with the same physical constants as our own, I know without doubt that I’ll need to call upon a mind more primal than my own vat-grown, code-laden brain. That’s where Aster will come in. In the face of extinction and loss of habitat, human beings have quickly learned that they need to return to that wavelength, to re-activate dormant instincts and fight brutally for their lives. The ship that we stand within now is a testament to that. I myself was born of this resurgent instinct. But you and I both have more to learn from Aster before this storm is past.”

I turned from the tank to face the four of them. Through Mark’s eyes I saw blue ripples dancing across my face.

Aster devoured his meal in the far distance.

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