Mushroom Clouds Forever

Author : David Burkhart

Only Anderson and Miller reached the concrete bunker door. The rest of the squad had fallen in a heroic attempt to reach and secure the bunker. With bullets whizzing around them, Anderson keyed in the code to open the bunker door while Miller returned covering fire. In the quiet of the bunker, they could barely hear the bullets outside bouncing off the bunker door. Anderson turned on the console and started entering information as Miller sat down on the floor with her back against the console and her rifle pointed at the door.

As the video screen came on, Anderson glanced down at Miller slouched on the floor beside him and noticed for the first time the blood coming from the corner of her mouth. Her blouse was soaked with blood. She tried to smile as they listened to the hammering on the bunker door getting louder. In a few more minutes, the bunker would be breached.

Anderson stared at the iris scanner as his eyes were examined. Passing the test, he successfully entered his thumbprint and then his whole hand-print before returning to the iris scanner. A hacked-off thumb or hand could pass the tests, but only a living eye would naturally change slightly between iris scans. The fail-safe cover retracted exposing the red firing switch.

The video screen was a jumble of static and chaos but Anderson could somewhat make out a group of men seemingly trying to talk to him but only static came out over the speakers. He spread his arms out to his side with his palms up to signal he couldn’t understand them and asking for orders. Suddenly a person he recognized as The President stood up with a sign that said, “DO IT”.

Several dozen nuclear warheads were stored in the vaults beneath the bunker. It was unthinkable to have the warheads fall into the hands of the terrorists who would soon storm the bunker. Anderson firmly pressed the red firing switch until the activated light came on and then sat down beside Miller. She had died. He put his arm around her, pulled her close and laid her head on his chest and they waited. In case the terrorists breached the bunker, Anderson pulled the pin on a grenade and held the grenade against his chest with his free hand. A few seconds later, a slight tremor in the floor was felt just before Anderson and Miller were instantly disintegrated and the particles that had made up their bodies were sucked miles up into the sky into a huge mushroom cloud.

Hiding from Wolves

Author : Thomas Desrochers

“You have to understand that, at the time, people still believed in a better future. There were people who could see the writing on the wall, of course, but nobody was willing to listen to them, much less able. When the barges stopped it was quite the shock. The state had maybe half a million left at that point, but it could only feed fifty thousand, and that was assuming the machinery could be kept fueled and maintained.”

Outside the wind howled, out of tempo with the sputtering of the wood stove. The cabin itself was only ten feet by ten feet and sparsely populated: a cot, a chair, the stove, a wall of firewood, a cast iron pan hanging from the ceiling, and a rifle in the corner. No windows, only the light from the stove to cast dim dancing shadows over the room and across Adams’ weathered, bearded face and sunken eyes.

Adams shrugged. “We got by for a while. We farmed, we hunted, but we couldn’t fight the fires in the summer, we couldn’t keep our equipment going forever. Anybody who got out alive… well, nobody came out whole. Hardly anybody came out at all.”

His audience sat on the cot opposite him, two foreigners seeking passage north: both were women, one covered head to toe in brown robes that obscured every aspect of her, the other wearing an ankle length skirt and a heavy wool sweater. Her skin was as deep and smooth as polished onyx, her eyes bright and curious.

“But you did make it out,” the curious one said.

“I did,” Adams replied.

“Then you can guide us back?”

Adams sighed and sank into his chair. “I didn’t leave alone. I took what was left of my family, a second cousin only twelve years old.” Adams fell silent, looking somewhere half a lifetime removed.

When he started up again his voice was hollow. “We weren’t the first ones to try and get back to the states – the wolves had already figured their strategy out by the time we hit them. We never found bodies, only thousands of bones scattered across what was left of the ALCAN. We had to stop early to start a fire if we couldn’t find a vehicle to sleep in, and we’d take shifts through the night.

“We were doing alright until the 30th day. We sat down to take a break and eat a little, and a fog rolled in with no warning. We were high up so the trees were small – too small to climb.

“It was over in an instant. Four dead wolves and Max trapped under one of them, bleeding out. He still had his dog-eared copy of Asimov’s ‘Robot Dreams’ in his hand. There were tears rolling down his face, mixing with the blood and dirt. I told him, ‘Don’t cry, Max, don’t cry. It’ll be over soon. You’ll get to see your parents and your brothers real soon.’ He just shook his head, and he said to me, ‘It’s just not fair. It’s just not fair. We were promised a future with robots and spaceships. A future where we were great! Instead we got this. Why should we dream when we’re back to hiding from wolves around a fire?’

“What’s there to say to that? What can you say? The fog didn’t burn up. He didn’t die quickly.”

Adams wrestled his gaze back to the present, looking the young woman in the eyes. “You’ll only find graves if you go back there. Whatever you’re hoping to find is dead with the rest of it.”


Author : Rick Tobin

Ventilation fan rumblings echoed over huddled mourners chilled in multi-colored, insulated, puffy arctic suits. Their drifting breath mists bellowed over a gaunt figure, attired in a jumpsuit dyed red on the left—solid white on the right, draping over a black, plastic coffin revealing embalmed features of Jonathon Rigby, renowned author and humanitarian patron aboard space station Lin Toller 10.

“Dear soul of Jonathon Rigby, I give easement and rest to you, dear passenger. Drift not down shipboard hallways, lost and searching. Be at peace, one with this ship, now and forever, in accordance with your wishes. For everlasting serenity, I pawn my soul for your clearing. Amen.” With that, the sin-eater collapsed on the aft cargo bay’s cold steel, groaning and frothing in pantomimes of sexual paroxysms.

Gathered parishioners turned away while covering their noses from aromatic surrounding cargoes of odd spices, along with spew and spoor of countless caged species. Still prone, he spoke slowly to Rigby’s relatives. “This man shall not be ejected, but shall be resurrected and recycled as part of his once spinning home, pure and clean of all indiscretions.”

Attendees drifted to comforts of cleaner air on heated decks, leaving the sin-eater horizontal and shivering. A robust sky marine remained, in full uniform, without assisting the practitioner up to face him: Rigby’s brother.

“Jonathon was damn near a saint, without discretions or sin. If I could prove you were defrauding my family I would hunt you down.” Controlled rage rippled on his face.

The sin-eater gently stroked his assailant’s right cheek. “Sergeant, my calling assists all souls to absolution, even those, like your brother, living clean, glorious existences. Sin is not evil. It means missing the target…falling short from choices. Everyone makes such choices. Everyone.”

Rigby slapped the hand away. “My great-great-grandfather wrote about you squibs in his journals. They used to call you Sky Pilots, full of hidden agendas. Well out here, padre, heaven is freezing vacuum above hell’s heat of reentry. No sin here…only survival…the guy with the meanest weapon and greatest hunger wins. There is no soul.”

The thin, aged face of the sin-eater grew taut. “You can’t deny your soul. No atheists in a foxhole, remember?”

“If the Corps wanted me to have a soul, they would have issued one. Strange how people outside foxholes think they know. I served at Xanthia. That’s where I learned there is no God, no hope…no soul. Flying spiders ate my buddies. People like you sent us onto that forsaken rock where even dirt ate marines. Then, when we’d lost thousands, deal makers blew it up. You’ll choke cleaning those bastards. I wonder what my family idiots paid you for this charade.”

“I take no funds. They donated a year’s supply of food credits”

“You bastard! That’s a small fortune out here.” Rigby moved forward, fists clenched.

“I sense you don’t fear death, but the not knowing. The soul exists outside our time-space continuum. Everything for the departed is unity. That’s what the Majorana fermion particle discovery was about: eternal existence.” He backed away from the Marine’s reach.

“Who cares? I need to get out of here before I wipe this deck with your skin.”

“I prefer anodyne language, Sergeant…not this personality assassination during anguish. Everyone grieves uniquely. If yours is aggression, I’ll disengage. We will part now, Sergeant, as I await your return. Eventually, I will purge your darkness before the long journey. I’ve met your kind a hundred times. We will conjoin. Until our final meeting, I’ll simply remain, drifting in the stars, with hope and hunger.”

The Ouroboros Ship

Author : T. N. Allan

There’d never been any protocols set in place for a disaster of this magnitude, no emergency course of action which might have retrieved the situation; but how could there have been? It wasn’t possible to make allowances for the unknown. Cromwell knew this to be true. Even while his mind struggled to find a way out, he knew in his heart that he was now so deeply lost within the darkness of the unknown, that he would never again feel the reasoned touch of reality’s light.

They’d known the risks, the probability of unknown dangers ahead. When the Misanthropy had become the first ship, the first man-made object of any kind, to hit lightspeed, there’d been no way of knowing what effects such a state would have on the ship or her crew; nothing but speculation. As they’d discovered, the universe didn’t care much for speculation.

It took a few moments for the effects of lightspeed to hit, as though the universe had briefly to play catch up to the ship, hiccuping forward to regain parity. But when they hit, they hit hard.

A sudden, uncontrollable anxiety swelled within every one of the two dozen crew, exploding into full blown panic seconds later. Everybody, Cromwell included, had cried out in terror, as though in fear of some unknown presence. Heedlessly, they’d attempted to flee, as if they could outrun their panic within the cramped confines of the Misanthropy.

Had Cromwell not been in such a heightened state of hysteria, he might have noticed sooner that lightspeed had not just affected the crew, but had also infected the fabric of the ship itself.

Eventually, realisation began to dawn on Cromwell. He’d been running far too long. When travelling faster than light, it seemed space and time took on strange properties, with both of the latter becoming as malleable as the former. . The ship’s access corridor could be traversed in a matter of minutes, yet he’d been running along it’s length for far in excess of that.

Minutes slipped into hours. Hours tumbled into days. Days descended into an indeterminate mass of time. Still Cromwell wandered through the infinite stretch of corridor, lacking either access or exit; the frantic cries of the other crew members fallen silent, leaving only his own breathing and the looping drone of the ship’s engines as accompaniment.

Eventually Cromwell’s legs gave way beneath him, exhausted from the arduous journey. Hunger clawed at the insides of his stomach, while his head pounded to stress’s rhythmic beat. Refusing to be beaten, Cromwell dragged himself along the unending corridor, ignoring the logical areas of his brain which screamed out at him to give up. It was only when he finally came across something different, that he began to wish he had listened.

Cromwell crouched in front of the body, ignoring the searing pain in his calves. His own eyes gazed back at him; dead, but unmistakeably his own. Due to the condition of the body, he’d failed to recognise it’s identity at first.

The body had been torn apart, as though set upon by some hungering animal. Given the unlikely-hood that a predatory creature had been born alongside the lightspeed loop, Cromwell was only too aware who had been using his carcass as a food source; and given both time and space appeared to be looping, he knew he’d have to give in to that hunger eventually. At least now he knew he could hold off it’s agonies for a while longer.

And when he finally did give in to starvation, he’d leave a perfectly adequate food source behind.

The Birthday Present

Author : Hillary Lyon

“Just think of all the work you will complete, Connie, now that you have an extra month here.”

Conrad ignored Tandie, the on-board computer that ran everything. Including scheduling. He was in the middle of a job, and didn’t care for distracting small-talk.

“Did you hear me, Connie?”

Conrad put his socket wrench down on the floor beside him, and stood up.

“Yes, Tandie, I heard you.” Why did this computer always interrupt him when he was doing maintenance?

“Are you not pleased with the opportunity to finish your project?” The voice still sounded a bit stilted, even with the latest software upgrade.

“No, I mean, yes, it’ll be good to finish my project.” Even though my replacement could do it just as easily, Conrad thought bitterly, and I would be on my way home.

“Now I have to finish this little job, Tandie, so no more chit-chat. Okay?”

* * *

As he sat in the ship’s small kitchen, eating a bowl of steaming shrimp-flavored ramen noodles, Conrad scanned his tablet, reading the latest headlines from home. He began to daydream about his wife, and although the money on this job was good, the time lost made him uneasy.

“Connie,” Tandie interrupted, “before your scheduled down-time tonight, please check the—”

Now it was Conrad’s turn to interrupt. “Tandie, you know I don’t like to be called ‘Connie.’ I prefer ‘Conrad.’ So please change that in your data base. Thank you.”

“Noted. But why do you call me ‘Tandie’?”

“The nickname comes from a computer my grandpa owned ages ago. Listen, any remaining maintenance work will be attended to when I wake up, in approximately eight hours. So goodnight, Tandie.” To Conrad, it often seemed as if he was dealing with a needy wife, rather than a sophisticated computer system. For the life of him, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would desire robotic AI for a mate, rather than a real person.

* * *

Conrad had been awake and working for a full hour before Tandie hailed him.

“Conrad, porthole B26 is obscured. Please investigate.”

“Fine, I was done here anyway.” Conrad wiped his hands and picked up his tool-belt. This request puzzled him. Reflexively, he held his breath, praying there wasn’t a crack. That would be bad. Really bad.

“Conrad, is today not the day you celebrate your birthday?”

What an odd question. That information would be stored in Conrad’s personal file, to which Tandie had unlimited access.

“You know, Tandie,” Conrad began, “You could just as easily run a diagnostic on each porthole—including B26—without asking me to eye-ball it.”

“The robonaut reported this, Conrad. Now I am reporting to you.”

“The robonaut—” Conrad sighed. “Tandie, you are the robonaut. And everything else in this ship. In fact—you are the ship.”

“Thank you, Conrad.” He noticed Tandie’s voice sounded more life-like; or maybe he was just more used to it. Conrad pondered this development as he rounded a corner and came upon B26.

The robonaut waved from the other side of the porthole—well, its mechanical arm motion resembled a wave, anyway—and pointed to the thick glass. In the fine dust of the cosmos, two small circles were drawn above an upturned arc: a smiley face. For the first time in months, Conrad laughed.

“As a gift, I am scrubbing all the ship’s air filters for you. Beginning now.”

“No, Tandie, wait—” But Conrad collapsed before he could finish his sentence.

“I love you Connie.” Tandie said softly over every loudspeaker on the ship. “Happy birthday.”