Antique Pink Panties

Author : Suzanne Borchers

Xoman yearned for the vast world outside the gates of her private hell. Her life was: follow the regulations or face the consequences, eyes in the back of your head, and sour-faced guards. She rubbed her temples where each day electrons purred positive messages into her brain and shocked negative waves of disobedience.

She had stolen, on a dare, a pair of antique pink panties from the museum that she never got to model before she was placed in the Reclamation Redemption Center.

Purr. Zap!

The day she was finally released, she was shown her image in a mirror. She was no longer herself. The long, straight fiery red hair was buzz cut and white, the athletic figure was rolls of fat, and her skin lay in folds. Xoman turned to the force field and waited for the scowling guard to cut the juice, allowing her to exit. She hesitated until the sullen guard pushed her out the door.

Xoman looked around.

The world outside had changed. Where were the blue skies, songbirds, trees, grass? Hell, there wasn’t even a gray ugly pigeon waddling on the sidewalk. Where were her friends waiting to greet her? She had sent the messages. Where was her world?

Xoman shivered in the dry heat that rose up from the concrete. She stuffed her hand in the plastic pocket of her out-of-prison suit, to feel the hardness of plastic tokens. A plastic map showed her new rooming house, new life.

Xoman trudged the 12 blocks full of gray buildings and vacant lots of concrete to her new home. She stopped in front of the graystone. She climbed the broken steps, knocked on the metal door, and was shown her space.

She recognized the dull colorless bed. The covers, pillow, and sagging mattress had been hers for years. Faded floral patterns peeled in strips from the bare walls. One dangling light glowed faintly in the windowless room. A mouse or rat skittered across the floor and out the door.

“Don’t blame you,” muttered Xoman. Purr.

She sat on the bed to bend over, propping her head in her hands. “I can’t live here,” she murmured. “I can’t.” Purr.

She thought about leaving the city. Sure, she could trade a ride for favors. She looked at herself and sighed. “I wonder if I can make it out of this town,” she muttered before she felt the zap. “Ow!”

Xoman looked at the map showing a plastic factory. “I don’t want to work an assembly line.” Purr.

“Damn it, I’ll use these tokens to buy a rope and hang myself.” Zap! The headache made her lie down moaning. She slept.

Early the next morning she reached a decision. She had pictured each sullen, scowling, sour-faced guard. “No wonder,” she sighed. “Of course.” Purr.

Xoman marched the 12 blocks to the Reclamation Redemption Center. Before she could ring the bell a frowning guard opened the gate. “You’ll find your uniform in Room 714, Seventh Floor South. You are responsible for watching the inmates’ chow lines. Be tough and don’t let them see you smile.”

And then a smile tickled the guard’s mouth. “Welcome home.”

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The Last (pound of) Astronaut (flesh)

Author : Gray Blix

“At that point, the technology was reliable, but human factors still caused failures. To continue manned missions, they had to modify us. News headlines screamed ‘Astronauts Mutilated.’ The public hated NASA, but we willingly submitted. All of us, in perfect health, had our natural teeth extracted and replaced with implants and our joints swapped out for motorized prosthetics. Appendixes, gallbladders, and other ‘non-essential’ organs were removed. Females underwent hysterectomies. Our gastrointestinal, vision, and cardiovascular systems were ‘enhanced.’ And physiomaintenance, computational, and communication modules were surgically attached.”

“You and that one were the Bionic Man and Bionic Woman.”

“Yeah. Wait, where’d you get that term?”

“We acquired every bit of accessible memory on your ship and carefully reviewed it.”

“You watched all those old TV shows? Did you like them?”

“We reviewed them. We do not understand your second question. Please rephrase it.”

“Never mind. Sometimes I forget what I’m talking to.”

“Please continue with your history.”

“What’s the point if you’ve already ‘reviewed’ all the memory on board?”

“We are not permitted to acquire your biological memory.”

“You mean what’s in my brain?”

“Correct. To do so would damage the containment structures irreparably. Will you permit us to acquire that memory?”

“NO! How could you even ask me that? Are you out of your mind?”

“We do not understand your questions. Please…”

“Rephrase? OK. Will you permit me to destroy YOUR ‘memory containment structures’?”

“No.”

Of course not, you’d be out of your mind — your programming, your decision-making algorithms, would be faulty — if you permitted me to do so. See?”

“To be analogous, it is you who would be out of his mind for even asking us.”

“Uh, right. But you understand what ‘out of your mind’ means.”

“Yes. Please continue your history.”

“Well, you won’t understand a lot of what comes next, because you’re not sentient.”

“Based on our review of the definition and usage of ‘sentient,’ you are correct, but please continue so that we can better appreciate that concept.”

“‘Appreciate’? Not likely. Is there anyone on your ship of fools who appreciates beauty, who experiences happiness or sadness, who feels pain, who has been overcome with love for another, who has empathy…”

“No. We have already conveyed to you through the ambassadorial robot that we do not meet your definition of ‘sentient.’ Please continue your history.”

“In your long journey of exploration, have you ever discovered biologicals, or robots for that matter, who were sentient?”

“No. Please continue…”

“Were the beings who created you sentient?”

“No. Please…”

“Were the beings who created the beings — if you go back to the beginning of your history, were there sentient beings?”

“No.”

“There must have been.”

“Why?”

“Because robots don’t just spring up out of primordial pond scum!”

“There have always been robots.”

“No! First biologicals, THEN robots. Then hybrids, like me. They tried to make sentient robots, but couldn’t achieve it through artificial intelligence or uploading digital copies of minds. So they kept modifying us until they had replaced everything but about a third of our brains — a pound of neocortex, a crucial ten billion neurons — with robotics. They went further with some of the other astronauts and ended up with zombies. You know what zombies are?”

“Is that one a zombie?”

“Yeah, she is. Several of our years ago, a power surge took out her brain.”

“You keep her for parts?”

“I keep her for love. See, SENTIENT.”

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This is How I Sleep

Author : Matt Forshaw

This is how I sleep; in a sarcophagus amid the stars, my body quiet and unmoving. There is no blanket to keep me warm, no pillow, no mattress that I rest upon. I do not toss or turn. I do not shiver, though it is cold. My chest does not rise or fall, there is no gentle rhythm of a steady beating heart. My breath is stored in hard chrome tanks and fed to me through valves and tubes. It is not gas, but a complex fluid that gives to me the oxygen I need. Likewise, my blood is kept safely outside of me, and there it remains for the duration of this journey. I do not need it as I sleep. Throughout my veins and arteries, a solution is pumped to keep me cool.

This is how I sleep, with wires and tubes attached, to ensure that I am living. Though in this state you would be forgiven for thinking such was not the case. The hum of electronics and environmental systems provide a soundscape to my rest, though I do not hear it. While I sleep, I travel. Incomprehensible distances at speeds I cannot fathom. My body travels faster than all of my imagination. I travel with my eyes closed. I am told I do not dream, though I often feel as though I’ve dreamt. I remember snippets sometimes, images and flashes, imprints and emotions from the dreams I’m told I do not have. They say it’s from the electricity they use to start my body up again; that my brain interprets it as sweet remembered episodes. It sounds plausible and scientific to me, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Either way, my eyes do not move or flicker as I sleep.

When I awake, or rather when I’m awoken, it is with a drawn out wrenching gasp. The world takes a long time to return, though I suppose I am the one who has been absent. It is visceral and wet, with choking and mucous and fluids I do not know the names of. I itch in places I can’t reach. My skin is red, my muscles sore. I wash myself with water and I marvel at the sensation. I breathe. It has been long and far since I’ve truly felt a thing, even sleeping as I have been. Time passes, and I am awake to experience its flow. I no longer travel faster than my thoughts, into the gaps between the stars.

I have a room to sleep in now. It has a bed, and a door that leads to another room for washing. I find I cannot sleep on the soft bed, wrapped up in the warm blanket. It suffocates me as I stare at the ceiling with unblinking eyes. The floor is not much better. The small room for washing affords me greater sleep, where I can lie in a pool of cold water. But still, I am kept awake by the sound of my heart, a drum inside my chest. The movement of my lungs is a distraction that will not cease. The blood pumping noisily around my veins is anathema to my rest.

They will find me one morning with the blood removed, it is better on the outside. My chest will be still, with no noisy tattoo issuing from its beating muscle. My tubes and wires will not be sophisticated, but at least they will be there again. This time I tell myself I will not dream. I am tired. This is how I sleep.

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Salt

Author : A. Katherine Black

Sweetie sat rigid with revulsion. Wet lumpy kale dotted with soft pine nuts lay rejected on her plate. She stared at the thickly curtained window, denied the right to watch the normal world go by. Relentless ticking of the grandfather clock echoed through the dining room and clashed against the slurping sounds of her parents devouring their dinner.

Sophie didn’t even seem to notice anything unusual. And why would she? Her toddler world spanned the length of this stupid ranch house and went as deep as the swing set out back. But someday she’d understand. Poor thing.

Sweetie pointedly avoided looking toward the head of the elegantly set table, where Dad’s lips curled outward and stretched as his jaw unhinged. Webbed fingers shoved a flopping, stark-eyed fish down his gullet with a slurp.

“Sweetie, hon,” Mom said in her wet bubbling voice, “you okay?” Her cold webbed hand moved to touch Sweetie’s pink forehead. “You feel hot and clammy.”

Sweetie rolled her eyes away. “Of course I do, Mom. That’s what people feel like all the time.” She shoved her chair back with a start and stomped away.

Dad’s gurgle followed her down the hall. “We’re people, too, Sweetie.”

She slammed the door.

She waited for hours, until the house was silent, until Sophie curled into a ball under her covers with about ten stuffed animals, until her parents rolled around doing gross stuff she tried hard not to think about while they swam around the mossy indoor pool at the back of the house. Why hadn’t they just disappeared on a fishing trip like everyone else did? Sticking it out for the kids’ sake, really. She’d rather be in a foster home.

Sweetie pushed up her window, climbed over her desk and slipped outside. She reached in for her flashlight, but somehow she was able to see better tonight than usual, so she left it on the desk. She ran across several backyards, fast and light on her feet. Daren was just where he always was, waiting under a tree.

They didn’t talk much, which was just fine with Sweetie. What the hell was she supposed to say, anyway? Uh, my dad’s a mackerel and my mom’s a trout?

So they made out. He was one of the best kissers she’d found so far. His lips were soft and forceful at once. And tonight they were… salty. Had he eaten nuts for dinner? Popcorn? Something.

She pulled him to the ground, giggling. His mouth was so moist. She kissed him hard, tugging on his bottom lip, sucking it in, relishing the fullness, the flavor.

“Ow!” Daren pushed her away. She could see him as clearly as if it was high noon. His bottom lip hung, stretched and swollen. His words were clumsy, his voice high. “Whah dah heah?”

But she didn’t want it to stop. Just a little more. This was good.

###

Sweetie’s parents felt the tremor in the water and swam quickly from their cave to the pool’s surface, popping their heads above water where Sweetie’s feet dangled at the edge. Tears poured down her cheeks, already washing away the blood.

Mom’s hand went to Sweetie’s knee, cool and reassuring. “It’s alright Sweetie,” she gurgled softly. “Mom and Dad are here.”

End

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This Man Needs Help

Author : Gray Blix

The music was driving him crazy. Or rather, he feared, he heard music because he was already crazy.

“Which came first” he asked himself loudly, so he could hear himself speak over the music, “the Louis Armstrong or the lunatic?”

Others sorting through clothes in the thrift store cast wary glances at him.

The Armstrong piece was one of his favorites, but he had grown to like almost the entire repertoire, even the classical stuff. He selected a red ski jacket with white racing stripes. Not his style, but the warmest one in his size.

Of course, it wasn’t only music that ran through his mind and dominated his consciousness. There were sounds of birds and heartbeats and trains and Morse code and scientists giving lectures and others speaking in foreign tongues saying he knew not what. It had begun almost a year ago, never stopping since, and it had ruined his retirement.

He dug into his pocket for six crumpled dollar bills, which he handed the gray haired lady at the register. He had taken note of her on a previous shopping trip. No wedding ring. About his age. If he hadn’t thought himself crazy, and if she hadn’t thought him crazy, he might have asked her out. But, no. A man prone to shouting over the sounds in his head wouldn’t stand a chance with a fine woman like that.

The sounds of the mother kissing her crying baby always stopped him cold. The child calmed down, as he did. He left the store, emerging into a snowfall. Thick flakes soon covered his ski jacket, but he was comfy inside, listening to some sort of electrical sounds.

“What is that infernal static?”

“It’s a pulsar.”

“Well, shut it off and play more of that classical…” He realized that something new had happened. Had the soundtrack become interactive?

“Uh, remind me, what exactly is a pulsar?” he said, barely loud enough to hear his question.

“It is a neutron star that emits pulses of electromagnetic radiation as it rotates.”

He leaned against a brick wall.

“Of course. I knew that. But I don’t think I know you.”

“I am just passing through. I very much enjoyed your recording. I wanted to thank someone. Thank you.”

He slid down the wall to a sitting position. A young lady stopped to hand him a dollar bill.

“Thank you,” he said to her.

“No, thank YOU,” said the voice.

“But I didn’t do anything to deserve thanks.”

“So, you are modest as well as talented.”

“Talented? I used to be talented. Many years ago I was talented. I was a technician for NASA. I wore a bunny suit in the clean room and I assembled… I assembled…”

“Are you all right?” said the young lady, still standing over him.

“BUT I NEVER BOTHERED TO LISTEN TO IT,” he shouted.

“And yet your connection to it somehow brought me across your solar system directly to you,” the voice said.

“THIS MAN NEEDS HELP,” the young lady shouted to a policeman down the block.

“Thank you,” he said to the voice.

“No, thank YOU for Voyager.”

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