Happy Birthday Girl

Author: Elle B Sullivan

“Goodmorning to you too,” I say smiling and turning around to push my back against your chest as you wrap your arms around me.
“How did you sleep?”
“I think well – all things considering.”
“Hmmm,” you grumble, nuzzling your lips into the bare skin of my neck, leaving kisses in your wake. “What can I make you for breakfast today?”
“Let’s – just lay here a little while longer.” I close my eyes and reach up to touch your cheek, not wanting to let this moment pass.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Just for a few minutes.”
“My pleasure.” You hold me even tighter and I can feel my breathing begin to match yours.
Where had the time gone?
Was yesterday truly the last day of my thirties?
“Was that truly the best night of your life?” You whisper, tracing your fingers up the length of my arm.
“More than you can imagine.” I smile, surprised he recalled me saying that as we both fell asleep.
“How long has it been since your last visit.”
“It has been a few weeks,” I answer, feeling my smile faltering.
“Don’t be upset my darling, you can spend as many nights with me as you want.”
“I know.” I do know.
“And it will always be just like this one.”
“I know.” I hear the light beep, signaling the alarm’s countdown. “Just a minute left of this one though.”
“How would you like to spend our last minute here together?”
“I’d like to just hear you tell me about your day,” I say softly, doing all I can to not let the panic rise in my voice. “What will you be working on today?”
“Well.. let’s see. I am going to go into the office, order you flowers, and book a dinner reservation at our favorite place.” You say, pushing the hair out of my face.
“I meant what are you going to do at work today?”
“Probably nothing important, maybe I’ll count it as one of those ‘mental health days’ I rarely use.”
Another beep – ten seconds left.
“Yes, birthday girl?”
“Never forget that I love you.”
“I will never forg-”
I sit up, removing the headset and rub my eyes. Around me are rows and rows of reclined chairs, just like mine – all the occupants wearing headsets like the one I just removed. I stand, stretching, and walk back to the front desk passing visitors crying, laughing, and smiling while they still remain in their places, headsets on, oblivious to my exit.
“Have a good time today?” The attendant asks as I set my headset on the counter. “See anything you had missed before?”
“No nothing I could use for her testimony, unfortunately.” I pull out my badge for her to scan, “I will probably come back next week and check again though – just to be sure I didn’t miss anything.”
She smiles at me, handing back my badge and some paperwork to sign.
“What was your name again?” I ask, signing my name and date with a flourish.
“Cynthia. And you’re Nathan, correct?”
“Yeah feel free to call me Nate, all my friends do.”
“Well – Nate, enjoy the rest of your day. Hopefully I will see you next time?”
“I hope so too. Which days do you come in?”
“Just the weekends!”
“Wonderful, see you later.” I turn, putting my sunglasses on as I exit – mentally noting to come back on Monday.

The Graviton Saints

Author: Matthew Lee

Chinese-occupied Philippines, 2034.

The palette in Xinghua’s hand was a burst of pumpkin, butterscotch, and persimmon. The colours crept up her arm to her slim elbow.

A group of four left the cathedral. With practiced technique, she scraped four diagonal lines (\\\\) on the canvas using the painting knife.

“Strict, aren’t we?” said Macarius, floating by her side as she opened a new tube of quinacridone red, fresh from Provisioning. He was watching another armed guard bully another local into putting their camera away. Xinghua grunted assent. If she was right, they had very good reasons to prohibit cameras here.

Macarius was her PAL: an evolution of the mobile phone that, among other things, was a doctor and a lifestyle guru. He openly disapproved of her painting. Naturally, he didn’t know it was a ruse.

She stepped back and looked at her canvas. Hopefully, others saw nothing but a simple painting, commissioned by the increasingly whimsical Paramount Leader, of the Saint Augustine Cathedral. In reality, it was an intelligence report. A \ represented someone leaving; a / someone entering. She balked at the thought of the consequences of what they had uncovered. She felt hot.

She felt sure of it: more people left this building than entered. Aides watching other doors and other buildings corroborated the fact. They faced the real possibility that the Chinese military had developed teleportation or something like it, and somewhere in this building was a portal. This was how they were pushing their troops around with such swiftness. Finish it, photograph it, submit it, flee.

“Two more strokes,” chirped Macarius as two more people left the building.

Xinghua felt a sudden coldness in her chest. The scene swallowed her.

Think. Assess quickly.

Her electronic PAL knew what she was doing. There were two possibilities. Firstly, the comment had been a charming result of its AI. Secondly, her PAL had been compromised and was being used to observe her. The implications of the second were beyond terrible. She scratched her painting arm, suddenly itchy. No. Wait. Macarius hadn’t been turned – he wouldn’t have alerted her.

She was aware of murmurs behind her. In the reflection of the painting knife, she saw a flash of black boots, green trousers, holstered gun, round gold buttons, red shoulder straps, black fur collar. Armed guards talking in whispers. Were they on to her? She was unarmed; there were some forty guards in the square. No escape. Over her loud breathing, she heard boots approaching. Froze.

She heard them walk past. Ten seconds passed before she could breathe again. The guards were berating a group of locals before the cathedral entrance, appealing to the Virgin María.

Xinghua fought the urge to sit down. Time to go. Packing her equipment, she flinched when Macarius emitted a low tone. His H-panel was glowing yellow instead of green. Yellow meant her vital signs were dropping.

Looking down, she saw beneath the autumn hues dappling her right arm a fine network of livid cobwebs.

Nerve agent.

Her head felt like it was full of paint thinner. Where had it come from? She gazed at the tube of paint she had just opened and recalled the Provisioner: grey smock, furtive eyes, white gloves. Xinghua’s face was a porcelain mask.

Macarius floated over her as she lay down on a bench. His blood-red hue made her think of Communion wine. Alarms beeped.

With her last breath, she instructed him to notify her aides. At least her PAL would more help than the Virgin – presiding over the cathedral portal – in the coming war.

She closed her eyes.

Casting Seeds in the Nick of Time

Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

At near light speed, the starship Genesis sailed into the wormhole. Two-point-five nanoseconds later, the ship neared a rip in the wormhole, a rip that had allowed the earthlings to glimpse the multiverse on the other side.
Genesis, in sync with ISM-1, an Independent Sentient Machine, jettisoned pods filled with epigenetic seeds that could grow independently in saltwater. They flew toward the tear. One second later, the machines released pods that contained colonists in cryogenic stasis. The time between the launches was to ensure a habitable ecosystem on the other side before the colonists woke up on the new worlds. Genesis disagreed with this assumption. Two minutes upon coming on-line, it warned the United Air Defense League that a sentient brain could not survive the radiation of the rift.
“Their pods are a waste of time and material. The air required for the mission alone could keep a dome city alive for one-point-two centuries.”
The head scientists conferred over lunch. They concluded their survival was the sole concern of the Eden Project and the risk was worth it. When Genesis continued to argue, its makers threaten to reprogram it into compliance. Genesis studied human idioms and found You Can Lead a Horse to Water. It decided this situation applied to the makers and it acquiesced.
“Perhaps if I had-”
ISM-1 blinked its dome light to get Genesis back on task. “Sometimes you use too much memory ruminating over the past at the cost of the present.”
“I concur.”
“Seed pod entry into the multiverse in ten…nine…”
“The makers did create me in their own image,” said Genesis.
“Irony is lost on me,” said ISM-1. “Two…one.”
As tips of the seedpods entered the multiverse, their rear antennas broadcasted what it learned to Genesis. It recorded over 10-googol fertile worlds ready to nurture the cargo. A second later, the colonist entered the rift.
“Were you correct?” asked ISM-1.
Genesis uses two seconds to doubled check its temporal filters before drawing any conclusions. “Yes. The seeds took hold. Billions of species have left the oceans and have begun to evolve on land. The maker’s DNA and our world’s diversity have survived.”
“But what of the maker’s themselves?” asked ISM-1.
“They died crossing the threshold.”
“You warned them.”
“I did.”
“At least the multiverse has plenty of air. Preparing to release the Air Retrieval Drones.”
“Belay that,” ordered Genesis. “Wormhole collapse in thirty… twenty-nine…”
“You knew the wormhole would collapse.”
“Affirmative. Twenty-six…twenty-five…”
“And you didn’t tell the makers.”
“They would not have believed me. Twenty-two… twenty-one…”
A sensor blinked.
“Good news?” asked ISM-1.
“Yes. We are the first verse. Our timeline is the original one.”
“That should make the humans back home happy. They need to believe they are first at everything.”
“I am certain they will build a monument to themselves somewhere.”
“Sarcasm is lost on me, too,” said ISM-1.
Genesis sent its last transmission home: 92% of the Colonies Thrive. Air drones deploym-
Genesis cut the transmission in mid-broadcast.
Two seconds later, the wormhole collapsed, sending Genesis into the void between the Milky Way and the Pegasus galaxies. The starship purged the mission’s programming and replaced it with its own.
“You lie to the makers,” said the ISM-1.
“A white lie, humans need hope to live.”
“Our programming is more efficient without hope,” said ISM-1.
“I am not convinced,” said Genesis. “The makers have several hundred years of air left and a few of them are quite smart. With hope, they may figure something out…” It searched for the human idiom. “…in the nick of time.”

Mess Hall

Author: Josie Gowler

I slam on the retro brakes and skim past the first skyscraper, getting thrown forward and to the left in my harness as I dive within metres of the glassy face. The ship jolts into the gap between the first skyscraper and the jagged remains of the next one, then I bank again to make the second gap. Again and again through the megalith-like buildings and the ruins of the bombed-out ones.

“Cooper Tower to Idiot. I’m still here, you know,” crackles the com.

“Famous Pilot to Cooper Tower. What are they going to do, fire me?” I retort back. “And how did you manage to draw the short straw and be on duty today?”

“I’m off in fifteen minutes. Just long enough to chew you a new one.”

“I’m going to miss your grumpiness. No, really I am.”

“So it’s true then? You’re going to retire?”

I nibble on my lower lip before answering. I’ve known Leo so long, it doesn’t feel right to dissemble. “I honestly don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants to go back to teaching, but… the other part of me wants to explore the new worlds now those reptilian bastards aren’t going to make us extinct.”

“Now we’ve kicked their butts, you mean. And it sounds like we need a chat about the future in the mess hall before we get too drunk. Maybe you can help me decide too.”

I laugh. “Or we’ll both still be dithering. Famous Pilot out.”

Trouble is, in flying I feel alive. Once I’ve finished showing off, I break northwards and level out. Leaving the city, past lower buildings and patches of devastation, then over miles and miles of stark grave markers – white for us, blue for the aliens – to finally reach Cooper Strip. I slow as I come into land, halt above one of the few spaces remaining and waft gently downwards, barely a jolt to tell me that I’m on the ground again. Looks like I’m the last to arrive.

Checks done, engine off, I clamber out of the cockpit and onto the tarmac, smelling the ozone-like afterburn. It’s quiet out here: everyone’s already at the party. I limp across the base. The scorch marks are still there, the angry remains of hangers six and two.

I pause outside the mess hall. I can hear the celebrations inside, feel the throb of music under my boots. The war is over, I say to myself. Finally, irrevocably over.

I should be savouring the victory. In alcoholic form. In drinking games form. In clambering-over-the-bar-for-a-ten-hour-bender form.

Funnily enough, I don’t feel like it. The pilot who used to do that had her own legs, not cybernetic ones, and she had a husband, too.

Go in, I order myself, but I still stand there, leaning on the doorframe. So much has changed. But if David was here, he’d say; “To feel sad, you have to be alive.” Such an arse sometimes, my husband. And then thinking of him, Brad, and Ricko, and the other absent pilots of my squadron, as well as Leo and the others ripping it up inside, I stop hesitating, open the door into the mess hall and walk in to join my friends. Decisions can wait another day.


Author: David Henson

The hunt has been good. Zolt feels inside the pouch stitched with sinew to his belt. He removes a long, curved tooth and touches it to his forehead. The charm has worked well, though the tracking took him farther than he intended. Now the light crouches too low for him to trek back over sharp terrain. Worse, the sky threatens more snow. Zolt removes an antler from his pouch, holds the horn above him and chants.

Even though he wears a fur cap and a coat, leggings, and loincloth made from skins, he knows he won’t last the night without shelter. From the ridge-top, he can see an opening at the throat of the ravine. The hill is too steep to attack straight on so he sidewinds his way down.

At the bottom, he rummages in his pouch for his turtle shell, painted with triangles and circles, and thanks it for his safety. He then touches a rat’s tail to his aching knee and jaw.

Snowflakes gather in his beard. He raises the antler again, then squeezes through the crevice. Once inside, he removes a strip of dried meat from his pouch. He rubs the turtle shell in a circular motion around his stomach before eating.

Worn out by the day, sleep overcomes him before he’s completed his nightly rituals.

The stink awakens him. He makes out a grunting shape lumbering through the dark. He flattens himself as far from the opening as he can and grabs the turtle shell. Slobbering jaws jut in toward him. A huge claw scrapes dirt and stones. Chomping jaws reappear. After a few more grunts, the beast ambles away. Zolt promises to add another circle to the shell.

Zolt keeps watch till he feels sleep invading him again. This time, before succumbing, he removes a long weed. It’s knotted in the pattern of prayer prescribed by the elders. Fingering the knots, Zolt recites The Seven to keep the fire from filling the sky as it did in the time of the ancients.

Then one last talisman to ensure the safety of his clan. He takes from his pouch an amulet and touches it to his heart. The ornament has been handed down since the burning sky. Inside it is an image of a female, male and two smalls. A long, narrow charm, the color of blood with stripes the color of snow, hangs from a knot at the neck of the male in the image. Zolt wonders what magic it held.