Avalon Avatar

Author: Kate Runnels

Ara studied the Avatar for a moment, liking what she saw. It wasn’t enough like her to raise suspicions if anyone she knew played the game, but she would be comfortable playing in this body she had tweaked from the stock body given by the game developers.

Especially when she hooked into the game in the fully immersive world with the new sensory impressions. Not death, obviously, but so many other aspects from taste to the feel of wind and water and other sensations.

A clone you control in a world vastly different from the megacities of Earth. An escape from the pollution, continual terror attacks, food shortages, water shortages, and rampant crime on the street in every megacity.

Ara and countless other gamers had been waiting for years for this MMO RPG; the launch of Avalon. This resonated with her coming from London and seeing Stonehenge through protective glass. And many other English historical sights. She could touch grass, feel stone, pet a horse. And then she caught a glimpse of her real body in the reflection of an opaqued window. This wasn’t her true body, this weak flabby body, but that of her Avatar.

At first, after the release date, it was easy to leave the world of Avalon, but she did leave it, to go to her crap job. But for many, it became an addition. Even Ara succumbed, losing weight. Not even leaving the game to eat or shower or change. The world of the megacity was so grey and blah. Ara soon lost her job.

But she couldn’t stop. Like any addict, she needed that great and greater bit to feel anything- needing more to experience that rush from her first high.

Erik, a first responder, shook his head at his partner. “Another one, huh?”

“Do you play Avalon,” asked Michelle.

“No. What about her?”

“The brain gives a response similar to dreaming. She just won’t wake up.”

Erik scowled. “So what?”

“The game has become her reality now. This-” Michelle pointed to the rundown cramped apartment – “is her nightmare. We’ll process her like the rest and see if we can revive her. It’s a shame she has to hide in a game.”

Erik smiled. “She your type?”

Michelle shrugged without answering.

The Palace Gardens of Mhunghelvardh

Author: Sam Matey

Nnenna Inkar Uzoma, first human consul to the Empire of Mhunghelvardh, walked out of her spaceplane onto the dais and into a fantastical wonderland. The palace gardens of Mhunghelvardh spread out below her, kilometers of alien vegetation in every color. A few meters from her face, purple tentacle-vines were gently waving in the breeze, flicking out every few seconds to snatch one of the circling swarm of songbird-sized, fluorescent pink five-winged insect-like creatures. On the other side of the slabs of jet that formed a path through the garden, about twenty pulsating yellow organisms squatted low to the ground. They looked a little like brain coral, with their wrinkly network of fluid-filled crisscrossing crevices, and a little like toads, as they were covered in pustulous-looking warts filled with gray pus under a transparent lining. They appeared roughly circular from the top, with a diameter of about a meter. Four tiny, flexible tentacle-feet emerged from under their bodies, plunging deep into the reddish earth. Nnenna inhaled deeply: she detected a faintly floral and saccharine scent from the purple creature and an acrid, tar-like tang that she could almost taste from the bed of yellow ones.
“This is…incredible.” she managed, pausing to collect her thoughts while she heard her translator locket repeat her words in the guttural Shqir Pakh language. She looked at her Shqir Pakh guide, a senior Palace Guard named An!k’yrek. “May I touch them?”
“Hrel’uhkt/aa!k nhrukht.”
“Yes,” her translator locket said in perfect Globish. “But be careful. The purple one would eat your hand and the yellow ones would leave spermslime on your fingers.  Try this one.” An!k’yrek indicated a cantaloupe-sized gray bulb poised at the top of a long, thin red stalk.

Nnenna reached out and stroked the bulb, feeling its soft, velvety contours. To her shock, the bulb instantly turned itself inside out, revealing a shining turquoise interior, with a central dodecagonal structure that seemed to be woven from hundreds of tiny golden threads.
“What is it?” she murmured in awe. Her datalens could find no match for it in the Shqir’pakh’ik’la’druhn’no biome files, but humans still knew very little about the life-forms of this world. She’d only just set foot in Mhunghelvardh, and she was already on the verge of a new discovery!
“Hreg’oh!k.” “Listen.”
As Nnenna watched in wonder, the threads began to twitch and curl around each other, moving faster and faster until a humming began to emanate from the structure, an ethereal sound that was vaguely reminiscent of the tuning of a harp, the cry of a bird of prey, and the hiss of water on hot metal. It was utterly strange and harshly discordant, yet somehow the clashing sounds seemed to complement each other. It was the strangest and yet most beautiful sound Nnenna had ever heard. As she listened, a tear ran down her cheek.
“What is it?” she asked hoarsely.
“It is a Basin of Song,” An!k’yrek answered softly. “The rarest and most melodious of the Music-Globes family. Its singing season only comes twice in its 300-year lifespan. You are very fortunate to have been here to experience its melodies.”
Nnenna watched the Basin of Song curl back in on itself again and go silent.

Losing Saffy

Author: Kim Kneen

“It’s rare but sometimes Saplings simply fail to thrive.” Dr. Moran peels off her gloves and drops them into a bin labeled Hazardous Waste.

Moran hands me a leaflet entitled Recalls: your obligations and I stuff it into a pocket and bundle Saffy up in her coat. Desperate to get her away from Moran I do the buttons up wrong. Saffy is skewwhiff. Half-cocked. A scruffy scarecrow with blackberry eyes and fine flyaway hair. Spindly legs planted in yellow wellington boots she insists on wearing though it hasn’t rained for nineteen years.

I take Saffy’s hand and coax her to the exit. I can see Moran’s reflection in the glass pane of the door and I pause before trying the handle.

“She’s three years old,” I say.

“Unfortunate.” Moran replies, though she doesn’t even look up. “You have five minutes to say your goodbyes.”

#

I think back to the first time I saw my daughter.

The pick-up point was a grand, Georgian house seized by government six years into the dry spell.

Fertility was in rapid decline before the drought struck, so when it did, and the few babies born in the early years perished, women were advised not to conceive. Scientists had come up with a compromise. Substitute children for those who could afford it. Child-like creatures who could survive the arid conditions on earth. Hybrids: acceptably human but whose DNA was woven through with that of drought-resistant plants.

I’d chosen a reputable grower. Ethical. Expensive. I’d read all their literature, knew what to expect, but the first glimpse of my daughter still came as a shock.

My new baby lay in a transparent cot. Roots sprouted between her fingers and toes and grew down through layer after layer of enriched vermiculite.

A nurse was removing a series of wires from the cot. She opened a drawer and selected some scissors.

“The baby looks terribly thin,” I said.

The nurse replied, “I read on your notes you gave birth to a human child once.”

“Leah.” I whispered.

I’d cried out her name so many times over the years it had lost the power to move me. How could a flick of the tongue convey anything of who she once was and what she had meant to me?

The nurse held out the scissors, holding onto them far longer than necessary, causing me to look into her face.

“Try not to compare,” she said.

#

Moran’s security staff don’t let us leave and they usher us into a holding suite.

I sit Saffy down and ease off her welly boots, roll down her socks. The silvery veins that used to pulse beneath her skin have almost faded. Once I could trace them as high as her knees. Roots still sprout between her toes but crumble into dust when I touch them. My little girl is fading.

I don’t need to read Moran’s leaflet to know what the future holds for a Recall like Saffy. In this world of scarce resources every last scrap of her will be pulped and pressed for fuel, or shoe soles, or bedding for livestock.

I kneel at her feet: gather her into my arms. She twists my hair round her fingers. Once the sweet palm-flower scent of her skin had the power to perfume the sour stink of the air, but now she exudes wet earth and wood smoke, decay.

I’m reminded of a time when earth still had seasons. Of Autumn. Granite skies and raindrop bowed branches. The clutch of a long-lost child’s blackberry stained fingers.

Losing Saffy will break me.

Martians is Lazy

Author: David Henson

My daughter is marrying a goddam Martian. They’ll probably end up living with me and Edith ‘cause he’ll never hold down a steady job. Martians is lazy. Just ‘cause Mars was the first to be terraformed, they think they shouldn’t have to work, that everything should be given to them because of the hardships in the early days. That was a long time ago. Get over it.

“Edith, doesn’t Sally have that dress on yet?”

Of course, my daughter’s trying on the most expensive wedding gown in the shoppe. She’s worth it though. Sally’s a good daughter. Even if she’s marrying a goddam Martian. At least she didn’t fall for a Mercurian. Vainest bastards there ever was. As long as they got a perfect tan, they don’t care about nothing else.

“Edith! Sally? Get a hurry-on. We’ve still got to go make arrangements with the minister.” I suppose I’ll have to give him a big tip. I never knew a Venusian that wasn’t a money grubber.

The reception’s the thing though. Gonna cost a fortune. That’s ok. Nothing but the best for my little girl. We’re even having Europans do the catering. Great chefs, the whole lot of them. And the bartenders are Saturnian. If things get dull, they’ll know how to put on a show. Singing and dancing are in their blood. Never seen anything like it. Don’t want them mingling with the guests though. I wonder if we ought to have a bouncer? A few of Sally’s friends are Plutonians. Everybody knows they can’t hold their liquor. I’ll get somebody from Jupiter. They’re good fighters.

“There you are finally…. How do you look? You look beautiful, Sweetie. That Martian doesn’t deserve you…. Yes, Edith, I know the Martian has a name…. Sally, if that’s the dress you want, you can have it; we want you to be happy….Yes, I’m sure we can afford it. I’ve got a Neptunian stockbroker. You know how good they are with money.”

Speaking of wedding clothes, I’ll have to get my tux altered. Too bad the only good tailors are from Uranus. They’re all assholes.

I guess it won’t be so bad if Sally and the Martian live with us. At least Edith and I won’t have to leave earth to see them. Earthlings — us you can trust. Except for the left-handers. Shifty bastards.

Eviction Notice

Author: Thomas Tilton

Hard, mean knocks at the door. That would be Mr. Farcus, the landlord. Chuck was already two months behind on rent, and today was the fifth day of month three. Mr. Farcus was coming to collect.

“Just a minute!” Chuck said, opening his closet and digging through the pile of clothes.

Where the hell was it? The thing was insentient and as big as he was — it couldn’t have just wandered off or gotten misplaced.

He kept digging.

At last, he found it. He did a quick check of the face, made sure there weren’t any giveaway blemishes on the synthetic skin. Satisfied, Chuck switched the thing on by poking it sharply in the left eye.

Slightly weirded out to be talking to a replicant of himself, Chuck instructed the avatar. “Landlord, Mr. Farcus, here to collect. Do not have money. Deal with.”

The avatar stood, walked mechanically to the front door of the apartment, and opened it.

For the next fifteen minutes, Chuck listened to himself get berated by Mr. Farcus, told that he was “an irresponsible fool,” “no good,” a “freeloader,” and a “layabout.” As Chuck listened, he imagined those insults had quotation marks around them, which helped to make them sound untrue.

While Mr. Farcus was laying into him, Chuck’s avatar remained silent except for a few minimal encouragers such as “Uh-huh” and “Yes, you’re right, Mr. Farcus.” His expression was one of contrite weariness calculated to appeal to the landlord’s sympathies. Only his hand, gripping the doorknob so tightly the knob was changing shape, gave any indication that Chuck’s avatar was having any kind of unscripted emotional response. And Chuck couldn’t see that, hidden as he was behind the door.

Finally, Mr. Farcus had enough and headed back to his apartment, all the while assuring Chuck’s avatar that his days were numbered, Farcus was no bleeding-heart, and if Chuck couldn’t make rent by this Friday he had better find somewhere else to squat on Saturday.

Chuck’s avatar looked none the worse for wear.

What did Mr. Farcus know anyway? He was more than likely bluffing about the eviction. The crazy old man lived off his army pension and probably didn’t spend his days any more productively than Chuck spent his. At least Chuck had the avatar around to deal with the landlord when Farcus decided to show up in person.

He tussled the avatar’s hair affectionately. For a peculiar moment, Chuck thought he saw the thing wince.

No, couldn’t have been.

Chuck poked the thing in the eye again and watched himself collapse haphazardly to the floor. If that were real flesh and bone, Chuck’s double would have broken his ankle in the fall.

He kicked some throw pillows onto the thing — he didn’t like looking at his own face when he was just hanging out at home, it was too uncanny.