Author : Matthew Prosperi

The glowing keys of the command console reflected lazily off of my “Best Team Player!” mug that sat dangerously close to the expensive equipment in front of me. I considered knocking the mug over longer than usual before glancing outside my small observation window into the hub of activity on the factory floor below.

Mr. Rockwell, the head of the labor union placed me here after the accident, and here I stay. Condemned for the foreseeable future keying pre ordained commands into a computer. I returned my gaze back to my mechanic partner with a sigh, and noticed a red light flickering on and off. I stared in shocked silence for several moments until a voice from orientation ran through my head;

“If that red light ever goes off: call administration immediately.”

I picked up the phone, which led upstairs to administration as I turned around to face the manufacturing floor. The units were being shuffled along like they had every day since I started, and nothing seemed to be amiss. Their human faces always made me uncomfortable. They looked less human and more…dead.

I kept scanning the room while waiting for the phone connection to reach my superiors until I saw the error. A unit was standing off the supply line and facing away from me.

Someone must have moved it. The machines were programmed to be service units. They have no ability to act on their own. As if in response to my thought, the machine in question began to move. I then realized the machine was holding a tablet. Finally, the other line answered as I hurriedly tried to explain the situation;

“A unit is operating on its own, please advise.”

The voice on the other line sounded confused and replied; “Please repeat, a unit in manufacturing is acting on its own?”

Frustration gripped me as I responded, “YES! PLEASE ADVISE.”

Feedback began to override what the voice was saying before the line went dead. I stared at the useless phone and then diverted my glance outside as I remembered the immediate threat. The machine was interacting with the tablet and seemed to be proficient in its use.

I quickly began putting the emergency codes in action, which locks the manufacturing area and prevents anything from getting in or out. The doors were locked and the manufacturing stopped.

A sigh of relief escaped me and I looked at the unit curiously…and it looked back. We made eye contact for several moments until it turned back to the tablet. I stifled my worries because I knew that with the emergency protocols in place, nothing could leave the factory floor.

I almost didn’t notice my right arm until it was already putting commands into my console. I stared in shock as my arm was operating autonomously. I grabbed it with my other arm and swept it off the console. But it immediately began typing into the computer again, inhumanly fast. I stared in horror while the possibility of remotely hacking cybernetic prosthetics was suddenly introduced to me in the most terrifying of ways. I quickly diverted my attention to preventing myself from allowing the rogue unit from escaping the floor but it was too late.

The emergency protocols were lifted and the factory doors began to open as I looked on helplessly. The machine then strolled into the control room until it stopped in front of me, looked up, and smiled.

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Science Fair

Author : Mark Thomas

The teacher flexed the piece of moulded plastic.

“I used our 3D printer to make it,” the girl said. Her heels were placed tightly together and she wobbled her hips back and forth nervously. She was new to the school and always tried so hard to impress.

The teacher rotated the model in her hands. The back was a concave shell, as if it was a large sophisticated cake mold, but the front was an incredibly detailed rendering of a partially dissected dog. Anatomical parts were labeled, but not with childish terms like “tummy.” This model referred to the “zygomatic arch” in a peeled section of skull and “adipose tissue” underneath a flap of skin pulled back to reveal glistening intestines. A “tracheal cyst” prompted the teacher to touch her own neck lightly.

“You don’t like it, Ms. Green?”

“Lilli, it’s absolutely stunning.” The girl smiled broadly.

The school board had a variety of physical simulations for students who were too squeamish to perform actual dissections, but nothing of this quality. Ms. Green brushed her fingers across a hind leg and could feel the texture of the fur, and the tiniest striations in the tendons. There was a breeder’s tattoo in the left ear, partially hidden by a fold of skin. Ms. Green had to look at the hollow back side of the model again to convince herself that she wasn’t examining a real cadaver.

There was a polite knock on the door then the principal quietly entered the room. “Hello, Ms. Green,” he said, nodding stiffly, then turned to the young woman. “Hello, Lilli.” The student smiled broadly and fidgeted in her new shoes. The principal met Ms. Green’s eyes. “Um. How’s it going?”

“Well, Lilli was just about to explain how her family’s 3-D printer works.” Pause. “It’s obviously more advanced than the machine that produced key rings for our school’s future technology unit.”

“Oh yes,” Lilli giggled. “Our printer has the eight universal colors in a dispersal fan. It mixes layers of mineral pigment with a clear gel– that’s what makes the viscera look wet…” She stopped suddenly at the sound of a loud anguished sob which seemed to come from an adjacent room. There was an uncomfortable pause, and then Lilli asked the principal “was that Mary?”

He nodded.

“Is she the girl who ran out of the gym, crying, when she saw my project?” Lilli looked puzzled.

The principal cleared his throat. “Uh, yes, she did.”

“Was she unwell?”

Ms. Green answered. “Lilli, she thought your project looked an awful lot like a family pet, and it upset her.”

“Oooooh,” Lilli said, as if suddenly realizing something important. “Is that why she screamed Amos when she ran out of the gym?”

“Uh, yes,” the principal said. “I believe that was the animal’s name.”

There was another knock on the office door.

“Sir.” Mr. Brown, a young social studies teacher leaned into the room. “There’s a problem.”

“Yes?” the principal prompted, nervously.

“It’s Tyler, again. He and his father are setting up his science fair project. It’s more video footage of his neighbors at the townhouse complex.”

“Oh, my God,” the principal said.

“It’s the conspiracy theory thing– aliens are among us. He’s playing the free speech card.”

“Yes, I’ll be there in a minute.”

Mr. Brown retreated back into the gym. Lilli quietly moved near the water cooler and observed the adults.

The principal rubbed his zygomatic arches. “Ms. Green,” he said tightly, “don’t you vet these projects?”

He opened the door and strode out of the office.

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Author : Rick Tobin

“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” She choked off her singing of the next phrase, unable to overcome phlegm from fearful regret as Marcus lay still next to her in the dark, cramped ejection pod. Oxygen recycler packs heated smooth surfaces of the stark plastic enclosure. Air supply would not threaten the long journey—their final voyage into a tarry abyss rising before them. Susan cleared her throat. A ferry craft’s bright window glints shrank as the pods escort sped away from the black hole’s gravitational tendrils. The couple had signed all documents for the eternal assignation: entwining two souls to each other’s minds, while meandering timelessly in an unforgiving universe. Their last kindred adventure waited just ahead.

“Susan,” he muttered, lowly, squeezing her wrinkled hands in the raised console between their scooped, padded recesses. She stopped the Christmas carols they had agreed would serenade their sojourn until bonding was complete.

“My love,” she whispered, grasping his tired fingers for a squeeze of remembrance—times before disease and fatigue overcame the ripeness of youth and middle age fortitude. His cancers grew without guilt for the host pummeled in agony. Electronic pain blocks maintained some of Marcus’s sanity as he was hoisted into the space station entwinement box. Many friends and honored guests celebrated their release from spoiled bodies that could no longer be rejuvenated by injections, replacements, transplants or new miracle cures. “There is always a marker in time for us all,” Susan said in her parting elegy played over the ship’s speaker system as the entwinement tug guided them out from the shuttle bay into the frigid vacuum.

Elderly couples were allowed internment into black holes now that the concepts of heaven, hell and an afterlife were universally discarded. The entwinement process was a lasting remembrance and bonding believed to continue for centuries for souls who had a life-long commitment to their pairing. Probes revealed the second part of the journey outward in its three phases as travelers entered the chasm. Participants were carefully trained for each stage, including appropriate technical and support elements for a successful blending.

Phase I: Entry
Silent Night filled the soundless void of the cabin as velocity increased. They passed the darkening rim with other particles of cosmic space debris fluttering into the vacuum cleaner maw. Susan increased musical volume and bass so their beds vibrated in harmony with choirs from past ages. The portal before them grew inky. She closed the view screens. There would be little need to view outward and they combined inwardly.

Phase II: Blending
Susan activated the hallucinogenic drug injections and brain implant stimulation of their nucleus reticularis pontis oralis, to ensure deep REM sleep. As the ejection pod started its violent swirling, the couple’s amalgamated memories bonded for eons to come.

Phase III: Drifting
The whirlpool of initial entanglement with matter in time-space continuum slowed to a near halt as Susan and Marcus shared singularity, already a thousand years past the time of their injection near the black hole’s horizon. Inside the sightless womb, they would circle, for millennia, bonded in love and memories of pure health, until their rebirth as piercing energy from the fiery mouth of a quasar on the other side of the maelstrom.

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Like Father like Son

Author : Michael Mieher

“That was great sweetheart. Now get out.”, he punctuated his request with a slap on her slightly larger than shapely bottom. She hadn’t been the prettiest girl on the beach, but then he wasn’t the handsomest, or best surfer either. Mark had figured out two years ago that the slightly chubby ones were insecure. Easy targets. He braced himself for the usual waterworks.

He knew this one would be bad. She’d had a crush on him for a long time. Since the 7th grade. She’d even hoped he would ask her to the prom. Mark had been blissfully unaware of all this, but she had embarrassingly poured out her heart to him last night.

After his near drowning yesterday, he’d just wanted an uncomplicated, life affirming, easy lay. It had been a close thing, and it had scared him to the core. When you’re under long enough, and you know there is no hope, a kind of acceptance comes over you just before you give into the lungs need to inhale. Anything. Even if it’s seawater.

He’d reached that point yesterday, but just at that moment a young man appeared. Inexplicably wearing a white lab coat over a bright yellow t-shirt and jeans. He’d grabbed Mark’s head and putting his face to Mark’s he’d forced air past lips and into starving the lungs. Then he’d dragged Mark to the surface where minutes later Mark had been pulled into a boat. The man in the lab coat had disappeared, and no one believed him. A dying man’s hallucination. Maybe a Mermaid.

There it was. The first sign. The trembling lower lip. Mark could write out the entire script of what was coming next. But instead, she just dressed quickly and silently left. She was crying, but at least she’d had the self respect to do it quietly.

“Coffee, steak, eggs, and a screwdriver. In that order”. That’s what he wanted. “Then a day of surfing, and a night with another girl with confidence and body image issues”, Mark thought with a smirk.

He got dressed and opened the door of the cheap hotel room, and there stood his rescuer. Mark’s brain had just registered the splash of yellow under the white lab coat when the fist broke his nose and 4 teeth. Staring shocked at his rescuer-turned-assailant, sputtering blood and tooth fragments he stammered, “What the hell?” The young man smiled with gritted teeth. “I’ve been wanting to do that my entire LIFE. My mother is the kindest person in the whole world, and you are a worthless ASSHOLE.”

Mark was utterly confused, “Why did you save my life?” Shaking his head, his son replied, “I wasn’t saving your life, I was saving mine.” He started walking away, but then turned back to Mark and sneering said, “By the way, in two weeks you’ll be driving drunk and you’ll hit a tree. You’ll be pinned in the car, which will catch fire, and you’ll slowly burn to death. Enjoy that!”

He turned and walked away. He continued talking to himself, but Mark could hear him say, “Wow! Look at me being an asshole now. Like Father like Son.”

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The Black Death

Author : Philip Berry

London, 1348.

Tantlas turned away from the rough-hewn window and its view of the wooden spire of old St Paul’s Cathedral. His three children slept. It was a very warm evening, mid-August, and the sheen of sweat on their exposed arms caught the moonlight.

Tantlas stared at their foreheads with an expression of concern, but stopped himself from feeling for fever. Instead he approached the hearth and stroked the smooth pebble on his narrow mantelpiece in a circular pattern. It pulsed. He spoke to his distant supervisor, Sumeedan.

I fear for my family.

: Remember Tantlas, you are a scientist :

They say it has crossed Europe. The first cases have been seen in the port towns. A seafarer’s child – she had not seen her father for two years – and a cooper’s wife. Three days after the onset of fever and stiffness came the black bruises, then the swellings, and then blood began to seep from their eyes and noses. They lived for six days. It is coming here, to the capital, and I fear for my family.

: It is not your concern Tantlas :

A year ago I would have agreed. But I have integrated now, as you instructed me. I have taken a wife – a widow – and grown to love her children. They are five, seven and ten. I love them.

: She believes you are her husband only because we performed a retro-implantation, at your request. You have gone too far. Your mission is to observe :

Observe annihilation? The death rate is over 60%. They say, in the city of Florence, that dogs drag the recently deceased out of shallow graves and feed upon them.

: Nature is blind Tantlas. You have changed :

I have. But do not think me sentimental. This species is no better or worse than others in our sphere of influence. But I am not comfortable with the persecution of innocence.

: As I said Tantlas, nature is blind. The pathogen will do as it will :

But on Pleon the same disease burnt itself out much sooner. They lost only 8 percent. My estimate here, based on reports from the source continent, is 150 million.

: Your observations will help our species if we are ever infected :

But haven’t we learned enough already. The Yersinia is not evolving. I believe we know the profile of those who can resist it. I… I request that the pandemic be forestalled.

: Impossible :

Why? Our designers can introduce a counter-pathogen in the north.

: No. This is not the attitude of a scientist. It is the desperation of a father. A false father! Now, if that is all, I will disconnect :

No! I must have a guarantee.

: You are in no position to make demands :

I will report my suspicions.

: What? :

That Yersinia pestis is a manufactured organism. That this is an experiment.

: You risk everything by speaking this way Tantlas :

I mean it.

: I will not be blackmailed. So you will choose Tantlas. Either your children will be protected… or the epidemic will burn itself out in six months :

I… I… that is not moral…

: What is your choice? :

The… children. Save the children.

: It is done. The children will live. Now, do your job. Disconnect :

Tantlas returned to the bedroom and wept over the three sleeping forms. Torn by relief and guilt, his thoughts grew misty and his memories were displaced by remote retro-implantation.

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