Small Talk in a Copper Haze

Author: Brynn Herndon

The man next to me on the bench wears a crisp suit, creased where it should be, and smooth where it’s meant. My shorts have long ridden up. A splinter digs into my thigh.
The world ended yesterday, and the bus is late.
You might assume that’d be something that rendered the commute unnecessary. Surely it would have at least provided an icebreaker for bus stop small talk between strangers, but the man didn’t look at me. He stared at his briefcase. I wanted to go to the Dollar General, but the thick orange haze and the way the sidewalk buckled made the walk intimidating. The air tasted sour, and grass had hardened into spikes that pierced the soles of my shoes and my flesh like barbed wire, sending shocks of its anger through me. It was June, and the trees were bare. The remains of their leaves lay beneath them in a melted, sludgy black pile.
It all happened at once, too, the same way it might have in a movie.
“You know,” I said to the man, over the shrill buzz in the air—it reminded me of cicadas, back when they were a thing, “I guess they kept saying this was gonna happen.”
He was right. I approached the end of the world with a “hm” as well. I wasn’t one of the people denying its arrival. I thought it seemed to make sense.
“It ain’t comin’.” He said after a while. The orange air felt like it was coating me now, the skin on my shoulders burned in a way that made the splinter ignorable.
“The bus,” he told me, but he didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at anything. “It ain’t ever comin’.”
“Then why are you waiting?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, finally looking at something—his watch, deformed on his wrist like a Dali painting, melting away. “What else is there to do?”

I Loved A Man

Author: Evan MacKay

I loved a man. I can’t say much more than that. What does it mean to love? A parent loves their child unconditionally. A spouse love’s with nature’s own fierce determination. A friend loves in a way which sometimes makes no sense.
I was neither parent nor spouse to Rory, though when we were together an argument could be made that I filled the role of both. I was certainly his friend once upon a time.
I’m not sure where it all went wrong. I imagine it was about the time his daughter ran off with that boy from up north. Rory never could forgive her for it.
Some men turn to drinking when they’re depressed. Others look for solace in the bliss of drugs. I once knew a woman who took her depression out on a painter’s canvas–she even made some money out of it, which is the best way to do it in my opinion.
Rory, he turned to implants. Not the fancy implants like soldiers get, or the suave looks of billionaires–Rory had driven trucks most of his life and didn’t have the kind of money to afford those. But there were other ways to get implants. Shady med school dropouts who operated out of garages and abandoned warehouses. Chop shops for people are what I call them. Rory found him one of those guys and went to see him. First it was small things. A mechanical eye, or a bionic hand. I say small because those are about as small as you can get when you’re implanting. But soon it became more extreme. I remember when he had the left side of his face replaced with a metal plate. Then he started losing his organs. I’m sure Mr. Chopshop made some good money off of those.
I mention love because it’s a funny thing. You see, when Rory first started turning bionic I was happy for him. Sure it wasn’t what I would have done but it seemed to make him happy. If you’d have seen how he was after his daughter left you’d have cried for joy too when he smiled after getting his brand new eye. I encouraged him to go back to the man, to sink more of his life savings into more mechanical augmentations because I wanted to see him happy. When Rory wasn’t sure if he should do more, I made him sure. When he wanted my opinion I told him what he wanted to hear. Rory was happy.
Love is selfish. I realize that now. Once a week on Wednesdays, when I get off work early, I go and sit with Rory. There’s not much of what he was born with left. I think part of his brain is still in his metal skull–not that it’s doing him much good. You see, somewhere along the way of turning himself robotic, one of the procedures went south. I don’t know if Rory understands what I say when I speak. I hope he doesn’t notice when I cry.
I loved a man, and now he’s gone.

Localized Autonomy

Author: J.D. Rice

“Will it hurt?”

The boy looks up at us with tears in its little eyes. We understand that this could mean fear, sadness, confusion, or a myriad of other emotions at this stage of its development. We use the eyes of the father unit to examine the boy’s face to ascertain the meaning of its expression and formulate an adequate response.

Elsewhere, our other units complete a million other tasks. Our processing power goes to constructing engines for interstellar transports, developing new implants to use for agricultural development, studying alien cultures to ensure optimum diplomatic relations, and caring for hundreds of thousands of other children who are being groomed for integration.

This father unit has been the primary conduit through which this boy has been raised. We’ve found that providing limited autonomy for the units who share genetic material with the children can be beneficial for their mental and emotional development and, ultimately, make them more amenable to the integration process.

“It will only hurt a little,” we instruct the father unit to say. “And then you will be part of us. We will be together forever.”

The boy nods, perhaps not convinced at how little the pain will be, but choosing to trust its caretaker for the moment.

There is a statistical likelihood that there will be screaming and fear later. We will need to use a strong hand to reassure the boy then, to ensure its consent.

Why must he consent?

The father unit shudders with emotion for a moment. We decrease local autonomy for its actions from 14 to 12 percent to account for the change.

“Son,” we say. “You can trust us. You will not have to be sad or angry or scared again. We will be with you, in your mind, and we will help you learn so much. We will be together until you are a grown up. We promise.”

Analysis shows that this boy responds well to the words “promise” and “together.” And we use these words to offer true statements, always true statements. Child units are kept with their original caretakers until brain development is complete at age 25, when they are reassigned to a labor cohort fitting their autonomous psychological profile. We can ensure localized happiness with up to 94 percent accuracy, and that number rises every year.

“I. . .” the father unit speaks again, its face contorting into a frown.

Decreasingly localized autonomy to eight percent.

“We. . . dammit.”

The boy’s eyes are widening. Something is wrong.

“Michael, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to,” the father unit forces autonomous thought through its vocal processor. Adjusting. “If you say no, they won’t force you. I love you.”

Michael hugs me, and for the briefest of moments, I feel free. I know they are coming back. I know they are just rebooting the interface. But I hold my son as tightly as I can, basking in his warmth, giving him all of the affection that is normally so tightly regulated it could hardly be called true affection at all.

“I’m here, buddy,” I say. “I’m here.”

Localized autonomy deactivated.

“Let us go,” we say, breaking from the embrace and taking the child by the hand. “The doctors are waiting.”

Dismal Nitch

Author: Majoki

Every galaxy has its Dismal Nitch. Every member of the Expeditionary Force knows that, yet Wuten, even with her many cycles of service, had never seen a planet quite like this. It was literally raining vermin. Shiskovny had christened the gliding spider-like critters dismites and dubbed their nagging bites nitch itch.

At the moment, a wicked downdraft from the volcano they were surveying had created a jet stream of the eyeball-sized dismites splattering against their outskins, reducing visibility so much that they’d had to lower their visors and depend on pocket drones to guide them. Wuten thought it was a crazy way to survey a planet. In this day and age, it could have all been done by drones and bots. That’d be faster and more efficient. But it was not the EFing way.

The EFing way was old school. Boots on the ground. Literally boots, though these were covered by the outskins which acted as virtual epidermis and allowed Wuten and Shiskovny to collect data on a planet’s atmosphere, climate, flora, fauna and florauna without the unfortunate downside of being sickened and killed a thousand million ways.

Though sickness and death was part of the EFing way. Outskins were only as good as the last modifications made from recently surveyed planets. There were always opportunistic life and semi-life, as well as unpredictable geo-climatic events that defeated outskins. That’s how it had always been. Expeditions were expeditions and that meant a certain tolerance for expendables.

That was not callous or cold. You didn’t become an EFer without knowing the risks. You joined because of them. Except in Wuten’s case. She’d ignored the risks. Or more accurately, she’d romanticized them. It could happen when you understood the EFing way. The belief that exploration had to be felt. Knowledge was meaningless without an emotional component. EFers lived the planet they were exploring. Outskins protected them from almost all serious threats to their health, while still allowing them to experience an algorithmically safe amount of natural sensation.

EFers needed to feel, name, countenance and suss a world. They were to map, write, draw by hand, even though their outskins streamed continuous sensory data to their ship parked in orbit. Every step was to be scouted by human eyes, touched by way of outskin fingertips, toes and tongue. The beauty and beastly bits of any world were in the eyes, ears and nose of the beholder. The EFing way was to do that for humanity. Regardless if a world would ever be colonized, it needed to be cataloged—by human touch.

Wuten understood that romantic vision of the EFing way, but she was on a Dismal Nitch. A planet which sucked on every level. A bitey, smelly, uncomfortable world that seemed to have little to offer human sensibilities. Even the topology was terminally tedious. An endless stretch of gullies. It was like climbing out of one gutter and dropping right into another.

The only interesting feature on the planet was a lone volcano where Wuten and Shiskovny explored the base only to find themselves in a dismite downpour. Thousands of the pesky critters pelted them from on high. After numerous nagging bites, Wuten felt close to packing it in for the day and maybe bagging the EF altogether. She hustled to a nearby outcropping to take cover and waved Shiskovny over.

That’s where she found it.

Wuten found Beauty. Not some personal eye-of-the-beholder beauty; she found Beauty. Absolute. Unqualified. Unquestionable.

The outcropping deepened into natural grotto which apparently formed the preferred nesting ground for dismites. Every surface was a squirming carpet of larvae being fed a disgusting vomit-slime extruded by flightless dismites. It was a putrid, festering hellhole. Completely disgusting.

But, in the middle of the most dismal nitch on this galactic Dismal Nitch, Wuten beheld Beauty. Indescribable. Uncomparable. Unforgettable.

Shiskovny joined her, stood at her side. The dismites swarmed them, biting ferociously. Neither budged. They stood in the presence of Beauty and understood.

No probe or bot would have registered Beauty in the middle of that hellhole. Not even the most sophisticated moravecian AI would have recognized it.

It took Wuten and Shiskovny. It took discomfort, pain and disillusionment. It took pure heart.

There is only one EFing way to discover Beauty.

Fit for Service

Author: Jordan Mcclymont

The last remaining light of the star dwindled, right about the time the slow motion drugs kicked in.

For a time, I forget the star and lay belly down, smelling the flowers for several of your lifetimes.

Then, the heavens ignited and I was thankful my nano-processors could register the varying frequencies of gamma radiation oozing my way.

I’ve seen images of your Northern Lights on Earth, but this, the universe exploded outward and I tell you, these drugs are wasted on humans.

My artificial pain dampeners work impressively fast. I was on fire for what felt like forever. Then, I watched my hand melt away and finally my consciousness was downloaded here to convince you I’m still fit for active duty.

But we both know that’s not the case, don’t we?

The service engineer’s mouth hung open, their finger hovering over RECYCLE. ‘So,’ they said, ‘where can I score some of this, slow-mo?’