Terra Cocta

Author : Dez Thomas

Instinctively I closed my eyes: I didn’t want to record my death. My heart pounded in my chest.

I landed with a thud on the surface, expecting the scorching heat of the baked earth to surge through me.

My legs buckled and I felt the unforgiving ground push hard against my knees as I rolled forward, tumbling. Momentum carried me onto my feet and my instinct told me to run, fast; I had no idea where, anywhere. I was off balance and disorientated and yet somehow upright.

I tried opening my eyes, the searing light caused me to squint.

“Quick, over here!” It was a male voice to my left.

I leant sideways and staggered his way. A hand grabbed my arm and then brought me quickly under control. I was being restrained but I didn’t struggle.

“You’re alive, you’ve made it. Now stay still. We wait here till dark.”

The ground trembled like the planet was shifting on its axis, again. There was a time, not long ago when the darkness visited just once a day. Now it was happened every other hour and descended in an instant. Whenever light returned, its dawn heralded a savage wave of searing heat, burning and igniting everything caught in its glare.

It was a miracle I wasn’t dead already. I had survived the landing but death was still waiting for me.

A man whose name I would later learn released me from his vice like grip. I was tapped on the shoulder, my signal to move. There were others around me, the darkness covered us all like smoke. I could barely see as I stumbled my way along the still burning ground, trying to staying close to the others.

I could hear mutterings, the shuttles were coming. The solar storms whipping the planet from space formed a deadly gauntlet, and yet still there were some who bravely defied the risk. I once opposed them: the Strays. Now they were my rescuers.

Around me now it was pitch black, an iced wind had cast away the heat of the short day. We had stopped. I assumed this was the rendezvous point.

“What’s your sign?” said a male voice.

“Are you talking to me?” I said, my voice trying not to sound objectionable.

“Yes, if you want a seat on that thing?”

“H” I said.

I wasn’t going to lie. There was a time when I would have done. Today it no longer mattered. If I was to die that day, I might as well dump the truth behind.

No one said anything, for an eternity.

“He comes with us.” It was the same voice which saved me from the firestorm.

“What’s your number?” This time a female voice from behind me.

The wind was picking up, I could feel it buffeting against me, the effect was to herd us all closer together.

“506” I replied.

The blue lights of the shuttle dazzled us at it descended. It struggled in the whipped frenzy which surrounded our huddle. For a moment I feared it might crash as it battled to remain upright on landing.

I was ushered on board to a softly lit, warm cabin. I was leaving Terra Cocta as disorientated as I had arrived, except this way round it was on a soft leather seat. I had hope suddenly. There was still uncertainty and fear coursed through my veins. I was one of lucky ones, chosen perhaps or maybe just by random chance.

I sat back, my mind daring me to relax. It wasn’t over but at least I’d made it this far.

Number Seventy-Two

Author : Victoria Benstead-Hume

We made it to twenty-eight weeks before my neighbour reported me.

Twenty-nine and the doctor classed it tainted. As if that mattered.

Lace curtains lend a sheen of respectable domesticity to the surgery sat on the edge of the dead-zone. But no-one watching would be fooled. The overgrown hedges and singed grass, the stream of women coming and going, the guards stationed at the door signal what goes on behind.

Fat-bellied women crowd the room; dull pastels and faded florals, stained tablecloths with lowered heads. Eyes avoiding eyes. Avoiding admitting we are worse than murderers.

I shift on my seat. Nylon clings to the back of my knees. I crave the luxury of cotton.

Silence ticks on.

“Seventy-one.” The surgeon rubs his baggy eyes.

A woman passes, swamping me with the acid stench of fear.

“May I?” I whisper to the shadow beside me.

Never enough food but cigarettes to drown in. She shakes one loose. My ink-stamped hand trembles. I hold the cigarette as my mother did, fingers curled. We press lit against unlit. As I inhale, our eyes meet; my mirror. She looks down, at the number printed there and looks away.

Closed-door screams.

I dream about escape, about sticky fingers, about salmon leaping through clean streams, about the time before—But they are fairy tales.

A siren drowns out the sobbing as the door opens.

Next Stop Vegas

Author : Jack Strange

Funny, I never saw myself going into showbiz.

I started out as a lawyer, would you believe? It was a good living. I was paid well and saved up a good-sized pension pot.

But not good enough, as it happens.

Because when I realised I was coming to the end of my life, and tried to buy myself a place in a cryogenic deep-freezer, I didn’t have enough money to pay for it. Not for my entire body, anyway. I could only afford to have my head frozen. And that took everything I’d got. Every last cent.

Then, when finally technology had advanced enough for me to be brought back to life, the first thing the technician said to me was:

“Where’s your money? How much ya got?”

“What’s that?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“After you died, you were put into a deep-freezer, and that’s where you’ve been for half a century. I’ve just brought you back to life. Now I need to know if you can afford to pay to be kept alive.”

I was a little bit disorientated, but the realization of what had happened came to me quickly.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I said. “I paid to have my head frozen and be brought back to life.”

He crouched down so that his eyes were level with my own.

“Exactly,” he said. “And we’ve honoured your contract. We’ve frozen you and brought you back to life. But it costs an awful lot of money to keep you alive. So if you can’t pay for it, I’m going to have to pull the plug on you.”

“But – but – “

“No ifs or buts. That’s the deal. Unless – “

“Unless what?”

“Unless you have some special talent or knowledge you can use to earn money.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, but you’ve got ten seconds to come up with something.”

“I’m a lawyer.”

He shook his head and reached for a red button on a console.

“Wait, wait! I can sing!”

“Okay, try me.”

I gave him a verse of George Gershwin’s Summertime.

“That’s not bad,” he said. “We’ve got some more singing heads here. We could put you guys together and make you into a barber shop quartet. It’s never been done before. You’ll take the music world by storm.”

So they put the four of us resurrected heads onto a wheeled table with all the fluids and tubes that keep us alive on a shelf underneath the table top. We go everywhere together. I’m sick of it.

Must go now. Just had the curtain call. They’re about to wheel us onstage.

See you in Vegas next month.

Alien Exchange

Author : David C. Nutt

“What do you mean you’re not an alien?”

“Just that. I am not an alien. I am a herald from another dimension- another plane of existence-“

“Not from these parts, not a human, yup, you’re an alien.”

“No. I am not an extraterrestrial, well I am but,-

“Alien.”

“(Sigh.) OK. Look, I know you have come a long way as a race but I’m a pan dimensional being, not an extraterrestrial in the sense from another planet, as my version of Earth shares the same space-”

“Can’t. Two things can’t share the same space. It ain’t logical.”

“Before you cut me off I was going to say same space on a different level. Like levels in a building.”

“But we ain’t in a building, we’re outside.”

“Awww come on man! I’m trying to explain! OK, OK, new metaphor. The universe is like an onion. You guys are on one layer, me and mine are a couple of layers away.”

“Above or below?”

“Excuse me?”

“Where’s the layer? You above us or below us?”

“Look, it’s not like that really…it’s just a metaphor trying to describe….aw, crap. OK we’re from above you.”

“A’yuh. The layer above and not this layer so that would make you an alien.”

“(Sigh.) Right. I’m an alien. What I am-“

“A mighty fine looking alien at that.”

“Thanks. May I continue? Good. I am a herald-“

“Please to meet you Harold.”

“NOT HAROLD, HERALD! MESSENGER! ONE WHO-“

“No need to shout. I know what a herald is.”

“Good. Glad you understand at least that much.”

“A good deal more too, scout 0569R from the third quantum fold vector.”

“What?”

“A’yuh, you heard me. Know about your whole race. Know you are a bunch of pan-dimensional pirates. Arrogant little bastards too. Like thinkin’ just because we look like an agrarian society we haven’t stumbled on certain truths. Truths like in the multiverse there are loads of you pirate types dropping through your onion layers exploiting the weak and less evolved. Ever think folks like us skipped a few levels in evolution? Like, after our atomic age we had a radical development in our consciousness that unlocked near god-like powers?

“Wha-“

“OOO! Snap! Didn’t see that one comin’ did ya? Here’s another one you didn’t see comin’ either. While I’m chewing the fat with you, our council of elders have folded space in such a way that in your dimension, no matter how hard you try, not one of you damn pirates can leave your plane again. What’s more we’ll be keeping you all on a short leash for the next thousand millennia or so, until you fix all the damage you’ve done in the rest of the multiverse.”

“But I-“

“No you didn’t. Now, shut your mouth, take a deep breath, and come on inside and have some pie with me and the missus. It’s not every day I get to bring home a real, live, alien.”

Saturday’s Forecast:

Author : Thomas Desrochers

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, and I think I made the mistake of believing that the futures I was reading about were like weather forecasts of what was to come. It’s an easy mistake to make – look at the weather forecast and see sunny skies, you look forward to sunny skies; look at the future forecasts and see miracles, you look forward to miracles.

The problem is that Saturday rolls around and that hope that you kept tucked in your back pocket doesn’t mean a thing when it starts to rain. I’m sitting in the doctor’s office with Aesha, looking out the window at all that future shit flying around, and I just can’t understand what she’s saying.

Spreading.

Too large for surgery.

Too diffuse to even get a good look at.

Resisting treatment.

I remember learning about cancer in school. When I was young I had always thought of it as a single entity, like smallpox, playing by a set of rules that you can learn to kill it by. Turns out that’s about as true as saying New Jersey is a single being. There are over 120 kinds of brain cancer, and that’s one organ. Dive into one person’s cancer and it gets even worse, a mosaic of impatient, heterozygous cells that decided that they wanted to try out natural selection right now – no time to wait. Another student in the class asked the question everybody had on their mind: “Why haven’t we cured it yet?” The professor laughed. Cure cancer? That’s like asking why we haven’t cured viruses.

We work our asses off now just as we have been for almost a century. Better tools, better strategies, better optics. We step into that fight cocksure, thinking to ourselves:

‘Granny would have been jealous – this sure beats the hell out of mustard gas.’

And why not? It’s the future! How could we possibly lose?

I’m looking at the calendar glowing on the doctor’s wall: 5th of November, 2044. It’s a quarter to 5. The doctor’s desk is big and tidy, with an enormous holographic display to one side littered with papers, emails, and to-do’s. This is the science fiction of my childhood, and though the forecast called for miracles Aesha is dying. The doctor looks embarrassed when I ask what went wrong, mumbles something about how there’s always a small chance that nothing will work.

When modern medicine fails, when all that’s left to do is watch ourselves and our loved ones waste away, when our thoughts turn to epitaphs just like in Granny’s day – is that the future too?

Aesha takes me by the hand and we leave. The guilt is overwhelming. I’m not the one who’s dying – I’m the one who should be taking the lead, the one who should be strong.

She takes me aside in the hospital’s lobby, home to the world’s first anti-gravity fountain. Impressive once, but now it feels like a gaudy trinket slapped on a plague-doctor’s mask. She’s trying to talk to me but I can’t make out any of the words. All I can do is stare into her rich brown eyes and see the future, see everything she is wiped away and written over – and then she dies.

“Jon,” she says. “Jon. Talk to me.”

I try to find the words, any words, but I can’t. What is there to say?

Aesha can see it in my eyes, kisses me on the cheek. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s go home.”

We step outside into the humid evening; It begins to rain.