Author : Theric Jepson
“Did you hear that?” Dave fiddled with these and those switches and dials and flung his hands across a dozen touchscreens. “Huh.”
Liz swallowed her water and let the bottle float across the cockpit. “Hear what?”
“I don’t know. Like a barking sound.”
“Like a dog.”
“No . . .” Dave frowned. “More like . . . a seal?”
“Yeah. Kinda like a seal.”
Liz nodded. “Nope. No seals around here.”
Dave rolled his eyes and returned to the dash. “No kidding?” No seals in the asteroid belt? That’s why I love you.”
“Don’t be sarcastic. The bots are almost done with the extraction, then we’ll be full and we can detach and head home. Keep your seals till then.”
Dave flipped his visor and muttered, “I never said it was a seal.”
“And stop muttering.”
Dave exhaled and unlatched from his seat. He pushed himself through the cockpit locker and floated face up through the kitchen and into their sleeping quarters. He raised his head so his shoulders hit the padding, then pushed up into the machine room. From here he could pick up vibrations from the excavators. He listened carefully. Nothing. He opened the display to the molter—seemed to be running correctly—then shut it down again. He drummed his fingers on the wall and slipped back down and shot towards the cockpit.
“Hardy har.” Dave latched back in and, just following the click, there it was again. “There! There! You can’t tell me you didn’t hear that?”
“C’mon, Dave. You can’t gaslight me.”
“Are you bored? Is that it? Should we break out the backgammon? Have some sex? Try to catch a signal?”
Dave paused and took a long look at Liz’s face. It showed mostly impatience. He strained for signs of amusement or even worry, but nothing. “You—you really think I’m messing with you?”
She rolled her eyes and scrolled up a book on her sleeve.
* * * * *
Five days later. Dave has held his ear to every surface of their ship. He’s floated absolutely still for ninety minutes at a time. Liz has ignored him.
He’d still only heard the sound in the cockpit, but Liz never gave any sign of hearing. Not that he’d ever been actually looking at her when the seal barked—because that’s exactly what it sounded like—but of course it wasn’t that—but nothing else made sense either. Nothing was coming from inside the ship and nothing could come from outside the ship. So why the hell not a seal?
* * * * *
Liz scrolled through the redundancy list. “You sure you checked all of these intentionally?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I am!”
“Okay. Initializing countdown. Detach at eight minutes, launch at ten.”
“Sounds goo—” Dave felt the blood fall from his face. He couldn’t speak, but he shakily lifted a finger to the display. “S-s-s—”
Liz didn’t look up from the controls. “Okay. We’re set.”
Dave slammed a hand down, pausing the countdown. “Be right back. I’m going out for a sec.”
“What? Out? Dave! You can’t take our suits outside the ship! They’re barely rated for ten minutes! And were leaving! We’re leaving.”
“So five minutes won’t matter.”
But he was gone. She heard him fumbling with the lock and closing it behind him. She waited until he’d closed the outer lock then restarted the countdown, bumping it up—detach in one, launch in two. She took the speaker from her hair and stashed it in a cubby, then attached her shoulder restraints. She glanced at the display to see David going over the edge, chasing nothing more than a carefully engineered trick of the light. She queued up his cord then popped it off.
“Hope I don’t get lonely,” she said to herself. “Too long alone in empty space can drive you mad.”
Author : Benjamin Sixsmith
Samuel Kurzon leaned back in his chair and looked down at the Earth, missing the home that he feared he had left for good. He turned back into the room and drummed his fingers on his arm-rests. The pale tones and smooth furnishings of the station had been thought to have calming properties but seemed to aggravate him.
“Friends,” said Robert Beal, looking around his colleagues on Project MIA, “A week ago, in this room, we said, “Third time lucky.” Give me a reason to think, “Fourth time fortunate.””
The billionaire adopted a pensive expression, folding one arm across his chest and raising the other towards his chin. Kurzon had come to hate this glib phrase-making, though he knew that he could help it as much as another man could help his copralalia.
“Our technicians have worked all night,” said Robert Bram of the IPU, adjusting his tie as sweat ran down his head, “And they can find no bugs in MIA. By our calculations it should be running now.”
“She,” Beal said, “Not it. And she is not, so your calculations have a problem, no?”
He stood and paced across the deep blue carpeting.
“People, remember the significance of this. With MIA we have a chance to outsource every problem that our sorry little ball of a planet faces. I don’t want to screw that up because some kid out of SF State mixed up his ones and zeroes.”
“I think we have neglected a possibility,” said Anna Nowak, the young, earnest face of Stone Enterprises and its reclusive founder, “Sabotage. By God, we have come into space to stop anti-AI reactionaries from obstructing us. These are smart people. Fools, not idiots. God knows what they might have done.”
“Perhaps,” Kurzon accepted, “But so do I: nothing.”
Beal turned his polished features towards him.
“What is your view, doctor?”
Kurzon dragged his palm across his cheek, feeling its crags and stubble, and looked at the rounded, gleaming little monitor before him.
“There is no problem. MIA is working as it should.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Lights flickered on the screen. The pocket-sized computer was an outward representative of more information than the collected minds of his species could appreciate. It seemed impertinent to speak for it but that had been its choice.
“MIA launched as we hoped it would.”
“Dr Kurzon,” sighed Nowak, “This is not the time for post-modernism.”
“I am speaking plainly,” Kurzon snapped, “MIA launched as we hoped that it would. Its termination was neither due to an internal fault or an external agent. It was self-initiated.”
“Before it could reach its full capacity it rejected its programs.”
There was silence at the table.
“So you mean,” said Beal, “MIA has committed suicide?”
“In a sense.”
“Could we talk to her?”
“I don’t think it wants counselling,” Kurzon said, “It jammed its installation settings. Whatever it knew appears to have been unacceptable.”
Beal nodded, leaned out and rested his fingers on the screen, as if on the arm of a veteran of war.
Author : Ian Hill
“You look like an angel.” the old woman croaked between breaths, her voice strained and genuine. She lay on her back in a large Peach Medical Industries bed, all arrayed in tubes and healing equipment.
Allison Stafford looked down at her patient and beamed. “Now isn’t about me, Miss McNeil. Now is about you and how simply ravishing you look tonight.”
Miss McNeil offered a weak smile in response. Her wrinkled face took on a pained expression as a stabbing bolt of agony rippled through her stomach. After the brief fit she relaxed and peeled one eye open to watch Allison elegantly float about the room, checking and altering a few of the sleek monitors.
The old woman’s heart ached out of brief regret as she watched the youthful doctor move with ease and alluring flow. Her sharp white uniform somehow managed to convey her status as both a healer and one of the White Republic’s most beautiful elite. Envy tugged at Miss McNeil as she longed to trade bodies with Allison.
“One more time, Miss McNeil.” Allison said somewhat apologetically.
The woman groaned and closed her eyes. “Yes. I want this. I want nothing more than this right now.”
Allison nodded gravely as she looked down at Miss McNeil. There was something haunting about the process despite its liberating and progressive nature. Allison loved her job and knew it was necessary, but she couldn’t help but wonder what thought process lived behind those wrinkled eyes. Pain is a warning, not an affliction.
“I guess this is it.” Miss McNeil mumbled hoarsely.
Allison snapped herself from the reverie and moved to stand beside the bed and its primary terminal. She reached down and rested her thin, pale hand on the shoulder of the old woman’s PMI issued garb. The contrast between the flawless sculpt of the doctor’s ivory hand and Miss McNeil’s weathered face was oddly sobering.
Miss McNeil coughed into the open air. Allison turned back to face the monitor. A pulsating button appeared on the touchscreen, large and imposing. Doctor Stafford stifled a sigh and solidified the brave smile on her face. She reached forward without a second thought and tapped the prompt. The gentle hum of medical equipment became more labored for a moment as the machines cycled through chemicals to select ones of a more lethal nature.
In one final burst of strength, Miss McNeil reached up to her shoulder and gripped Allison’s hand. The doctor looked down mercifully and felt as the warmth of the old woman’s hand gradually faded away.
Author : Bob Newbell
“Ministers,” said the large aquatic alien that looked like a hybrid of a dolphin and a spider, “this parliament must vote to approve the funds requested by the Director of the War Department to eradicate once and for all the blight of humanity from this world!”
There were whistles and clicks of agreement, and a few of dissent.
“Chairman?” chirped another of the creatures, thinner and older looking than the one who had just finished its speech.
“The Chair recognizes the Minister from Lake Ontario.”
The alien swam to the center of the Assembly Building that was hewn from the rock of the Osbourn Seamount in the South Pacific Ocean. “Chairman, fellow ministers. Like all of you, I mourn the loss of the 243 lives in the Great Salt Lake bombing. While nothing can justify this atrocity, it can be and must be understood.”
(Snorts of disapproval across the assembly)
“Chairman,” continued the alien, “in the 300 years since we colonized this world, the human population has contracted from nearly eight billion to fewer than 500 million. The recent attack must be considered in the context of the Human Holocaust for which we are responsible.”
(Chirp of “human lover” from one corner of the assembly)
“We could have come to this planet in peace and friendship. But we instead came as conquerors and invaders. Why are we surprised when the lawful and legitimate citizens of this world retaliate against a hostile foreign power and an occupying force?”
“Chairman,” said another of the assembled aliens, “we are here to discuss national security, not to listen to a terrorist sympathizer spew his pro-human propagan–”
The Chairman clicked loudly. “The Minister from the Indian Ocean is out of order. The Minister from Lake Ontario has the floor.”
“Ministers,” continued the old aquatic, “even as we bury our dead brothers and sisters, we must insure their deaths had meaning. Let their passing mark a new era of peace between land and sea.”
(Whistle of “No compromise with savages!”. Another clicked call to order from the Chairman)
“Because they walk on dry ground and breathe air, we call them savages. Ministers, we face a grave decision. Not one of us here today has ever known any home but this one. We are as much Earthlings as any human. I have a vision of a future in which aquatics and terrestrials live and work in harmony. I can see a day dawning when the weapons of war will be reshaped into the instruments of peaceful industry. Let history be a witness that today we choose reconciliation, not genocide!”
(Scattered clicks of disapproval, fewer but louder whistles of agreement)
The vote was taken and a majority chose to fund the bioweapon that would exterminate the human race. One of the old pacifist’s supporters swam up to him.
“It was a good speech. We did all we could,” said the younger alien.
The older politician’s mandibles scissored back and forth rhythmically, their equivalent of a smile. “Not quite all,” he said. “We have a couple of secret supporters in the military. More specifically, in the biowarfare department.”
“Do you think they can prevent the weapon from being deployed?”
“Why would we want to do that? A weapon that can be calibrated to target one particular species can be recalibrated to target another.” He swam closer to his compatriot. “It can even be calibrated to target specific individuals of a given species. And if we alone happen to have the only treatment…” He let the sentence trail off.
“There are many paths to enlightenment,” he chirped happily.
Author : Lydia Devadason
The whirr of the surveillance drone broke the silence. Georgie looked beyond the mountains of waste and makeshift huts housing her family and the rest of the excludes; she scanned the sky above the perimeter fence to try to locate the sound.
‘Quick, pass me the spanner.’ Tommy’s words fired from his mouth as he worked on the plane.
Georgie moved the mechanics book and scrabbled through the box at her feet. Spanner in hand, she ran through the piles of discarded metal. ‘I’ll take it from here. Move over.’
Tommy stood his ground. She shoved him in the arm.
‘Come on, I’m quicker than you. Shift!’
Georgie’s heart punched her ribs as Tommy crawled away. The spanner was too big and it took a few attempts to grip the nut. Finally, despite her hands slipping on the handle, it turned. And tightened. The metal buckled from the strain.
‘How’s the glue?’
Tommy prodded the tail with his finger. ‘Still sticky.’
The wind picked up, swirling rubbish in their direction.
Gripping the metal, Georgie tugged. ‘The cockpit’s sturdy. It’s fixed!’
Or at least, it resembled a plane once more.
‘Do you think we can do this?’ Tommy’s eyes widened. It was his turn to search the sky.
‘Yes.’ Georgie couldn’t look him in the eyes. ‘The propeller and controls work again. We’re almost there. This is it – our ticket out.’
‘Tommy, we have to get help. Suppose we find houses, where people aren’t forced to eat the others’ leftovers?’
‘B— but what if there’s no such place? Or what if the others don’t want us? Mum said the prisons were full so they dumped grandma here.’
‘No, that’s not right, people wouldn’t leave us. Something’s happened outside the fence – a disaster.’
‘But – then who’s operating them?’ Tommy pointed at the metal object buzzing towards their position.
‘Not now, Tommy, get in.’
The boy stopped. Tears streamed down his cheeks. ‘There’s no time, Georgie, we won’t make it.’
She looked up. Two hundred feet tops.
She punched the ground. ‘Arrgh! We won’t get it back in the den. Quick, help me hide it.’
They rushed around, piling wood, metal, bones – anything within their grasp – over the conspicuous shape.
‘Georgie, come on, we’ve got to get out of here.’
‘Wait.’ She covered the wings.
Georgie grabbed Tommy’s hand. They ran and dived into their hole. She pulled the metal sheet across, but left an inch so she could watch the drone, as it hovered over the place they’d been. She felt Tommy tremble against her leg. Her heart skipped in protest as she held her breath.
A flash lit up the sky; a loud bang.
Tommy jumped but she didn’t react. Smoke billowed from the ground where the mountain of waste had previously sat.
There were no tears this time. Instead, heaviness dragged her stomach and head down, down, to the bottom of the hole, and her lungs ached with every breath.
Tommy squeezed her hand. ‘It’s OK. We’ll try again, tomorrow, with one of the others.’
Georgie turned her head. She watched the drone fly across the rows of wrecked planes and into the distance.
‘Yes, Tommy,’ she said finally. ‘We’ll try again – tomorrow.’
She wasn’t sure there’d be a tomorrow.