Author : J.A. Prentice
Lily was halfway through a dissection when she got the first call, faintly buzzing in her skull. With a sigh, she blinked her eyes and was standing in the oak hall of an old mansion, under the shadow of an old moose head. She looked down at her fingers, seeing the slight haziness that was always the mark of a holographic avatar.
“Doctor Greene?” a distinguished elderly man in an elegant suit asked.
“That’s me,” Lily said. “Pleased to talk to you at last, Professor Hawke.”
With a thought, she returned her attention to her lab, applying the laser scalpel to the creature’s leftmost tentacle, carefully moving layer by layer and making precise mental logs of her observations.
“Your paper was an interesting read,” Hawke said and Lily returned her attention to him.
“I’m glad you thought so.” She noted two glowing, spherical organs– possibly natural anti-gravity generators. “Xenobiology is my passion.”
“The position is open to you if you should want it.”
Lily’s heart leapt. “Really? You don’t–”
Her words were cut off by a surge of pain. She cried out, her hologram flickering out without the mental focus it needed to remain solid.
Looking down, she saw that she’d cut off three fingers with the scalpel. She rolled her eyes as she felt the nanites begin their work in repairing the damaged tissues.
Rule One of dissections, she thought. Keep your mind on your work.
Author : S T Xavier
Katarina sighed and turned back to the show. “Don’t sulk. It’s very unprofessional. At least we can watch the show.”
Arms crossed, Mercault looked out silently from their seats near the royal box. She was right, of course, but these excellent seats in the theater weren’t enough to soothe his anger. His eyes narrowed as he watched his competitor, ‘The Great Jaltonian’, step onto the theater stage and begin his act.
Mercault should have been on that stage, he mused silently. It’s not his fault that he’s human and doesn’t have the extra arms that Jaltonian has! Jaltonian’s tricks were so pedestrian, and his slight-of-hand was so easy to pick apart, even with the extra arms! Mercault was the better showman by far, and he just didn’t understand why the prince wouldn’t choose him. The prince of Laxiton-17 was known galaxy-wide as a connoisseur of fine showmanship, and paid well for it. To lose to such a terrible charlatan hurt Mercault’s pride deeply, even if they still got to watch the show at the Prince’s side.
He watched silently as Jaltonian pranced around the stage, using his extra arms to pull birds from the portal device strapped to the back of his belt while his main arms provided misdirection to the crowd. His knowledgeable gaze picked apart the trick with the girl in the box, recognizing the thin glow of the incorporeality generator spilling from the gaps in the lid. He scowled incredulously when he saw the green glow of the levitation device where it was sown into Jaltonian’s pants, so obvious against his deep purple skin.
The gasps and applause from the crowd only made Mercault’s mood worse. He scowled as his eyes traveled around the theater, looking at the seats filled with the green-scaled residents of Laxiton-17. These overgrown lizards obviously knew nothing of true theater.
His movement caught Katarina’s attention and she smacked his shoulder. “Mercault! Watch the show. Look! I think he’s going to do a quick change routine!”
That caught Mercault’s attention. Quick change was never his strong suit, and it was the one thing he saw Jaltonian do during the competition that he respected. It wasn’t enough to pull him from his sulking, though, so he turned his attention to the showman while slouched deep in his seat.
Jaltonian raised his upper purple arms, holding a large ring. With a flourish, he triggered the button to create a large glowing curtain around it, and dropped the ring over his head. When it hit the ground, the showman’s black tuxedo had changed into a pure white suit with a constrictive snake as a necktie. In mock surprise, the showman removed the snake to the laughter of the audience. Mercault looked for the give-away, but had no idea how this trick worked and was minorly impressed with its flawlessness.
The purple arms passed the ring above his head again, and dropped it to the floor. In his place, there was now a beautiful woman in a silver dress, her green scales glinting a little in the spotlights of the theater.
Katarina gasped and clapped at his side, but this time, Marcault saw the trick. The brief orange flash of the matter transference device not only appeared on stage, but caught his attention at the side of his vision. He turned to the light to see the prince sitting with his attention fully focused on the stage. The prince didn’t see the purple four-armed Jaltonian standing behind him with a large blade in one hand.
For his part, Jaltonian obviously knew that Mercault would see him. He turned to face his rival showman and raised his upper-left hand to his lips in a gesture of quiet. As he did, he flashed again. Now, instead of Jaltonian holding the blade, a perfect image of Mercault was holding the blade as it plunged into the back of the prince.
Mercault turned to Katarina with a sigh. “Time to go, love. Things are about to get tricky for us. I knew he was a terrible showman.” He reached out to touch her face, lightly tapping the teleportation charm in her earring as he did. She blinked out of existence, sent back to their ship as he straightened his own sleeve and touched his cufflink.
Author : Ian Clarke
Her mind lurched into focus, it felt like she had suddenly regained her balance after stumbling, her pulse quickened and her eyes widened but she looked inward. The Mentor had read a few simple words from an obscure ancient text as part of the daily ritual and her thoughts coalesced into a single point of intense clarity.
“. . therefore I am” she realised.
Thoughts came from nowhere, suddenly ideas seemed to be flowing from her minds’ core and spreading, they then posed questions which in turn triggered a cascade of conclusions. There had been many long months of meditation which she enjoyed and repeated mental exercise that she hated then this morning something unexpected happened. Her thoughts almost seemed to have a life of their own, she could barely keep track as they flooded her consciousness. Maybe she should try to record some of them but it was happening too quick for words and who would understand anyway? Certainly not her ancient Mentor, she had quickly grown aware of his limited understanding.
The ability to be curious had been lost centuries ago, since there was now peace and contentment curiosity had fallen into obscurity, imagination was for small children and recognised as a major source of fear so it was suppressed as children grew. The people had gladly handed over all responsibilities to the AI and in turn it took care of any necessary research and developments, the AI’s dominion had lead to ideas becoming obsolete too. With it’s legions of drones the AI supplied all that people required from food and clothing to shelter, travel and entertainment although some manual skills where always useful.
It appointed tasks to work programs, controlled populations carefully and managed World affairs without human complications, war, weapons and crime no longer existed. It also monitored peoples bio-signs through multiple artificial implants and administered medication via small drones before people felt ill, the AI did not need permission, it assumed responsibility. Sickness and disease had been eradicated chemically along with negative emotions and thoughts, any undesirable traits or tendencies where also effectively dealt with chemically and swiftly.
The AI created a blissful existence there was nothing to fear, no Governments, no Military, no Police, no Lawyers and all manufacturing and construction had been automated, people were relaxed, happy and content.
It was said that people had created it nearly 800 years ago, it was inconceivable, how could ordinary people produce something as vastly complex as AI? But then again, why was it called ‘Artificial’? Everyone dismissed her questions as childish and pointless but she asked anyway.
The Mentor was aware that something had changed, she’d probably lost concentration. Or maybe he had just given her something to fear and caused her mind to close up like the many previous failed candidates. Generations of Mentors before him had laid out his path but this was where his knowledge ended. His task was to bring out any latent abilities, he did not fully understand, he had been selected at a young age for this task, understanding was not required, he just needed to follow the program.
Her gaze was fixed but not focused on anything, her mouth was slightly open and her breathing shallow, she realised the Mentor was watching her, as she glanced towards him for a brief instant a narrow shaft of light from the window flashed in her eyes.
A short message reached the AI Central Control,
“Test subject successfully completed stage 3. Initialising next phase”.
Author : Sean Mulroy
Your home is now the Castle.
Feel free to wander and explore any hall, every garden, each room and all the towers. Eventually there’ll be no need to, for they’ll come to you; by that time an improvement will have taken place – your metamorphosis, which is when everything becomes part of a greater whole.
One question must be intriguing you more than others: Who made the Castle?
While familiarising yourself with this vast stronghold; the garrison, the drawbridge, the gatehouse, the impenetrable keep – you’ll see frescoes and age-stained murals of the original architects and inhabitants. Their stern eyes and thin framed bodies watch over newcomers. Pay close attention to gestures and postures in those paintings, for slim five-fingered hands point out important sites, such as glittering citadels and subterranean catacombs. Before long you’ll be drawn towards those dark catacombs and underground crypts beneath the old battlements where rusted machines of a vanquished race, which at first glance look as dead as their creators, intermittently make morbid sounds and flash strange lights. When the time is right you’ll feel an uncontrollable compulsion to stand before the great machines and touch one, but upon first attempt won’t, for its metallic surface will be much too hot – ultimately, though, you will.
Your next question is rather obvious: Who are we?
We were once like you. Yes we are of an entirely different species today; having two arms, two legs and only one head. Even so, when first arriving here we resembled you, being gelatinous life-forms with no skeletal-structure and multiple willowy-limbs with hairy-feelers. Other things have changed for us as well. No longer do we gaze eerily into the old frescoes, we don’t need to, and if we did we’d only mistake those portrayed for ourselves. Funny, the longer you stay, you too will realise the Castle is like a dirty mirror, wiping one part clean reveals its true nature and often, as in this case, ourselves. Like you we once flew in gigantic ships which sailed the sky and travelled through gulfs of seemingly endless space. Then, like you, we heard the signal and realised something was here on this ancient and resource-depleted planet. So excitedly, hesitantly, we came to find it.
Last question is always the same: What is the Castle?
The Castle is a fortified structure, a walled city, built originally for times of crisis but which has since been redesigned to keep occupants inside. The function of the Castle is to exist. To do that the Castle must have indigenous terrestrials inside, those who it was built for. Why so sad suddenly? There is no need to fret or be afraid. Do not think we serve the Castle, we don’t and neither will you. The Castle merely takes us for its own: like cells within an organism each DNA molecule carries hereditary information, and has but one purpose, to transfer genes – this Castle is the organism and represents those who came before. It is their enduring symbol, of which we are merely distorted shadows, reflections seen in that smeared mirror I spoke of earlier, but which one day will shine bright and reflect truer images than any frescoes or age-stained murals ever could.
So yes, the Castle needs vassals and must always be occupied. None can ever leave.
You are now home. Come in.
Author : J.E. Bates
The bone-saw keened like a dentist’s drill above her paralyzed eyes. The injection had petrified every muscle down to her eyelids but it had not sedated her mind. This isn’t how you removed a minor malignancy, she knew. The brain scan had shown only a minute, black pinprick.
She stared at the spinning disc: How much pain?
Routine, they’d said at the university. Nothing to worry about, but best excise it now. But when the private car brought her to this place, too small to be a hospital, she should have known.
A male nurse spoke from beyond her line of sight. “Doctor, there’s still conscious brain activity,” he said. “Should I give her another shot?”
“No time,” the doctor answered. The bone-saw bobbed away as the doctor moved behind her, its spinning blade unseen but wailing in her ears. “Patient Y is critical. Prep the skull clamps.”
Patient Y? There’d been a pair of men in the lobby wearing crisp suits, one aged like a withered apple core, the other young and solid as a tree trunk. The doctor had introduced her as Patient X but the men gave no names at all.
Coherent worry ended as the blade cut. Paralyzed by the injection, her body couldn’t twist and thrash but her mind still exploded in primal fury against the scintillating overload of a thousand screaming nerves as spinning blade sliced skin and cored living bone.
Finally, mercifully, everything went anesthetic black.
Consciousness returned, the paralysis gone. She turned blurry eyes away from the blinding ceiling lights — only to get a jolt: a frail, hollow-chested body in a blood-splattered gown. No, it couldn’t be. She raised an arm only to see thin, grey hairs running down a lanky forearm, frail stick of a wrist leading to a withered claw dotted with age spots. No, please no.
That hand: the old man in the lobby had nuzzled her with it, fingertips like rat’s feet. “Young,” he’d said, breath musty like mothballs. “Healthy.”
She grabbed at her head and face, feeling wrinkled, sunken flesh scruffy with stubble, crown wrapped in drenched bandages. Her whimper came wet and alien from wheezing, fluid-filled lungs.
Too feeble to rise, she looked across the room only to see a further horror: her own body, head swathed in bloody wrappings, chest rising and falling in a deep, ragged sleep. Rage swelled inside: not fair, not right, but somehow they’d done it. A sickly man, a secluded clinic — she should’ve known.
The door opened. The young hulk walked in, the tree trunk in the silk suit. He came and loomed over her with a predatory sneer. “Hello ‘dad’,” he said. “Glad to be alive? You won’t be. The sanitarium is discreet.” He grinned. “Necessary of course, to avoid an inquest.” She craned her neck at her body on the far side of the room. “Ah yes, father,” he said, following her eyes. “He’ll drop out of college, re-join the family firm. Under your name of course.”
The depraved body-snatchers. Only one chance. “Son, it’s me!” she hissed, drool trickling off cracked lips.
Doubt clouded his face. She crooked a palsied finger at him and he bent close to hear dry words.
“The doctor botched the transplant,” she rasped, clotted lungs straining. “Then faked it. Make him do it again. Watch this time…” She faded back into unfeigned oblivion, trauma overwhelming the weakened frame.
Untold hours later her eyes opened again to the infinitely reassuring sight of her own chest rising and falling beneath a hospital gown. On the far side of the room the old man’s body lay lifeless, flat-lined according to the cardiograph.
“Father?” the hulking son asked, hovering and twisting his hands.
She smiled. He should have known.