Level

Author : Paul Alex Gray

“See everyone’s got a level,” says Cassie, swigging more than a mouthful of lager. “You can go way over. But you’ll pay. We paid! Remember? You’d always swear ‘never again!’”

She smiles broadly and nods at my glass. I take the hint and swallow down as much as I can. I’m already too drunk.

“Ahh, but before long, you level out. That yearning comes back. A tickle in the throat. You’ll be ready again.”

Outside it’s blowing a gale, the rain smashing against the pub windows. I haven’t seen her in years. Haven’t even been to London in a decade.

Then I’d had that dream. Or what had surely been a dream.

I’m jet lagged as all hell. My movements don’t even seem real. Twenty-eight hours on a plane. The disapproving stare from June’s mum still burned in my memory. Why do you have to go now? Is it really that important?

Her dad was furious I was leaving so soon after the funeral. I think he still held me accountable somehow, even though the cops had cleared me. I was in Melbourne when she disappeared, a thousand k’s away.

“You know,” says Cassie “I had a huge crush on you back when we flatted together.”

Classic Cassie. She’s smiling with that lopsided grin the same I remember, except with longer lines around the edges now. She still has that elfin hair, now flecked with grey, like me. Eyes bright like gold.

“I guess… I wasn’t so good at picking up on things back then.” I mumble.

There’s a loutish cheer. The crowd here is mean. Why did she take me to this place? A little while back some blokes got into a brawl. I’m ten years too old and ten thousand k’s too far removed from this life to be here.

“All good Mark,” she smiles. “We’ll get her back.”

I notice a bloke has come up, he’s glaring over us. Stares me up and down, then sneers at Cassie. He’s about to say something when she slams her glass down.

“The fuck’s your problem?” she spits.

“Bit lippy there luv,” he growls. “Have to drop that if you wanna get with me.”

His mates laugh and he leans in, moving his face up to kiss her.

There’s a flash of movement. Something hot and bright bursts from Cassie and hits the bloke sending him flying across the room. He cracks his head on the pool table edge with a sickening sound.

“What the fuck!” yells his mate.

I’m an idiot for calling Cassie. For coming here. And yet… that dream. Too real. Too clear. A dream of June, locked inside a tower above a field that I could draw with my eyes closed. And Cassie… holding a sword, beckoning me to come with her.

Cassie finishes her beer and slams the glass on the table. She waves her arm and a thin line of light seeps from her finger. Only it stays where she moves, cutting a shimmering oval before us.

The crowd is surging, angry and spoiling for a fight. I can barely register them for what I see through Cassie’s oval of light. A field of corn under a blood red sky. A dark tower on a hill in the distance.

“Come on Romeo,” says Cassie, a glowing beam of fire in her hands. “Time to get your girl back.”

The Stars

Author : Riley Meachem

The stars in our sky are run on electrical wires. Shaped like logos and dyed the color of neon and glass. They come on the fronts and backs of cars, on huge billboards. There’s a sort of beauty to it, I suppose, knowing that your mountains were drawn by architects and city planners, that your grassy fields were purchased for sporting events. No, not beauty. A beauty off-shoot, a less popular cousin, some generic brand-name aestheticism. But it’s the only beauty I know.

I’ve lived here, as long as I can remember. When it was just five square miles set adrift out on the sea. When the skies weren’t always ablaze and children could run out on the streets, while shopkeepers and fishermen and workers of every kind went about their business. Where everyone knew each other. When we were just an odd social experiment– a city built on pontoons and set to move around the seas like a ship. Then, of course, things changed—as they always do.

People are wont to tell you change is always a good thing. Well it’s not. But it’s not a bad thing, either. Change is just change. It doesn’t care who or what it affects, what happens when it comes. Doesn’t bother moralizing or deciding whether or not to be good or evil. No, it’s just change. And it comes rambling forward without stopping.

I was too young to remember what it was really all about. Just that the first bomb fell in Pakistan, the next in some place called India. Then others joined in, fiery ICBM’s annihilating whole civilizations, their buildings and their memories. I cannot even remember most of the world before the bombs started to fall. All that’s left of them are the dust clouds that still linger in the skies.

Fallout swept over the land, killing crops and animals in places that had never so much as seen a missile silo. But our city in the sea grew. Morphed, perhaps, is a better word. People flocked here from all over, any survivors crawling, floating, swimming from the wastelands to this lone oasis. And we welcomed them. They brought business, built houses.

Then winter set in, but we just kept moving southward and southward. And then the fish started to die. Night set in as the sun was blocked out by the dust. And more people kept coming and we kept floating along, desperate to survive for some unknown reason. Living on where it’s always night, the air is always cold, and the water is always warm.

One by one the stars have started to go out, as fuel dwindles. The divers have had to go deeper and deeper to find food. We’ve started making farms with solar lamps. It’s really quite ingenious what this species can do when it isn’t busy killing itself. Plants that grow towards fake suns and stars that don’t exist.

And the funniest thing is, our impending doom doesn’t even bother me at all. It just seems so unimportant now.

I wonder why we bother going on in a world like this. I wonder what my role is in this puzzle that seems to be black and devoid of any image. And I cry, as I always do, as I stare out at the inkwell ocean meeting the jet stone sky, wondering when the blackness will overflow and wash all this away.
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Predictably Random

Author : Beck Dacus

I entered the war room, the data all pulled up on my reader. The e-whiteboard at the front told me that one of the colonels was trying to sell the idea of a space ark to the Admiral, telling him to devote materials to escaping the Solar System and trying to hide. The Admiral had a look of frustrated acceptance on the issue when I came to a stop and saluted.

“Admiral,” I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the Intelligence Division has urgent information from spy telescopes on the Jidehri reinforcements.”

He sighed, “Go ahead.”

“We’ve taken time to look at the star on the other side of the wormhole,” I began, my voice shaking a little, “as well as its immediate surroundings. We’ve managed to identify several planets on the other side. The hole isn’t aligned correctly to show us Mercury or Mars, but Venus, Earth and Jupiter have been resolved after we ran the images through some pattern-recognition software–”

“Hold on,” he said, holding up a hand. “You’ve lost me. It sounds like you’re saying you saw our Solar system through one of their wormholes.”

“That, uh, that is correct, sir,” I managed to utter. “The Intelligence Division has come to the conclusion that what we saw through these wormholes were our planets in other universes. We think that the Jidehri open them when the war in one universe doesn’t go their way, and then pass through to another universe where we, the enemy, are having worse luck. This essentially gives them control over probability, and allows them to devote less resources to lost causes while making their successes even greater.”

“So there have been countless universes where the Jidehri have just up and left. No resistance, no warning.”

“Right. And countless times, universes like ours have received more forces of conquest, leaving us with even less of a chance, prompting even more versions of the Jidehri fleet to come here and fight. It’s a positive feedback loop, and the way things are going now, it’s going to put this universe’s humanity in the ground.”

The war room was silent after my dramatic ending. The officers in the room looked with pale faces at the Admiral and I, partly in fear of the Jidehri, partly in fear of the Admiral’s reaction. Which happened to be a brightening of his eyes and a smile creeping across his face.

“My God! This, ladies and gentlemen, is the turning of the tables! If we put up enough resistance in the coming battle, the Jidehri will leave overnight! Send out a broadcast– I want to notify all of human space about this development.”

“But sir,” I returned, “we’re in a losing universe that, for just that reason, is going to keep on losing! I think we need to take Colonel Rinyan’s proposal of a last-ditch ark seriously. It may be our last option.”

The Admiral actually laughed at me. “Nonsense! If we make it just a little difficult for these damn things, they’ll scrap this war and move on. I wish I could help the next universe over, but the only thing we’re capable of doing is saving ourselves. And that sounds a lot more plausible all of a sudden. Rinyan, I’m afraid we’ll be using the resources you want for the ark on something a little more… militarily oriented. Get the Engineering Division to design some new battleships. This war ends in a fortnight, one way or the other.”

Humanities Downfall Will Always be Hubris

Author : Samuel Stapleton

Synthetic: a substance made by chemical processes, especially to imitate a natural product.

The data analysis was grim. Predicted system stability – 62%.

My small gathering of journey members stood off to one side. Tori spoke quietly.
“What’s the consensus?” She asked. I took a breath and looked up from the floor.
“Further analysis showed it’s only scored a stability rating of 62% for the next 2,500 years. It’s not good enough.”
A frustrated sigh emanated from the group of young professionals.
“We scrap this round of synthetic bodies, reupload to digital, and we should make the next system in just under 160 years. It’ll feel like a quick nap.”
They took it well, but disappointment lingered throughout the ship.

Tori came to see me in my quarters before we reuploaded.
“How is everyone scoring mentally with the news?” I asked.
“All well within norms. I actually came to see you because I need to report something.”
“Shoot.”
“I’ve been speaking with one of the younger members, Scott Yearsley. I’m afraid he’s broken more than a few protocols plus numerous ethical standards as well…”
“Give me the short version.”
“He brought an illegal upload. He’s one of our programmers. I don’t know how he did it but I know he’s not lying.”
I sat. Stunned.
“We have a stowaway?”
Tori nodded as my head began swimming with the implications.

“Scott. I have to level with you. Tori reported to me like she had to. It’s her job. This will go easier if you just explain what’s going on.”
He looked at me the way a cat might look at a beetle it is considering swatting down from the air.
“It wasn’t hard. I uploaded my girlfriend onto a separate network. Reprogrammed my allotted space to make it look like she was personal data files – mostly video – and then reuploaded her to the ship from a port before we left.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
“Scott we have no idea what kind of mental state she might be in from being stored. Humans go mad without proper monitoring and subconscious waking.”
“I’m not an idiot captain. I know I’m only 14 but I’m fluent in 22 coding languages and I almost earned my medical degree before we left. It took me like, 19 hours or so to build a self-housed mental watchdog for her. Like I said. She’s as safe as you or I when we’re in storage.”
“Well you’ve broken about 17 military laws and even more civil ones.”
He was silent.
“Yeah but you’re not going to delete another human being as per stowaway regulations. Those were meant to apply to physical stowaways. And I’m the best programmer aboard, it’s not even a close competition.”
He rested for a moment before carrying on.
“I mean I hate to make it seem like I’ve won but once we left Earth both she and I were free and clear. You’re better off doing nothing. It’s why I told Tori. My girlfriend isn’t hurting anyone and we can download her once we’re all settled and the mission has been a success. Or we’ll fail to find a stable system and she’ll vanish into eternity with us.”
I sighed. And wished I could have a stiff drink.
“Well. What’s her name? Tell me it’s not Juliet…” I said out of sarcastic spite.
I caught the flash from his perfectly white teeth as he smiled and spat out that single syllable.
“Eve.”
“Her name is Eve.”

Subtle.

Last Chance

Author : Leanne A. Styles

I reached across and tightened the strap on my kid sister’s tatty seatbelt. She grinned; through the breathing tubes, through the pain.

The shuttle we’d stolen had been recently decommissioned, but so far it was holding together pretty well as we hurtled towards our destination.

The poor had been exiled from Earth by the rich many years ago. I’d escaped the cesspool space station we’d been born on dozens of times to visit the wonders of the blue planet, but Tilley had always been too sick to come with me.

The parasites attacking her lungs were making her sicker than ever now. One week, tops, the medic had said. This was her last chance.

Through the hatch window, the haze of the atmosphere was approaching fast.

“Hold on, Tilley,” I said. “It’s about to get bumpy.”

We hit the fog. The shuttle shook violently and I braced my arms against the hatch, terrified it would blow and we’d be sucked out.

“How much longer?!” Tilley yelled over the racket.

“Nearly there!”

Moments later, the turbulence died and we were sailing through calm skies. I deployed the chute. The shuttle decelerated with a jolt, and swayed gently, descending to the water with a soft splash.

“How long do you think we’ll have?” Tilley asked as I helped her into her survival suit.

“A few hours ‒ if we’re lucky.”

We put on our life jackets, then I opened the hatch and we climbed out. Tilley gasped when she saw the towering cliff face rising out of the inky waves.

“What are they?” she asked, her eyes scanning the sky.

“Birds. ‘Gulls’, I think.”

“And where are we exactly?”

“Somewhere in what dad told me is the Atlantic Ocean.” I double-checked that her oxygen tank was watertight, and climbed down the ladder into the bitterly cold sea. “Hurry; no time to waste,” I said, reaching up to her.

To my horror, she jumped right in, disappearing beneath the waves before re-emerging coughing and spluttering.

“Are you alright?!” I said, grabbing her by her life jacket.

“Ye―ah.”

“Your tubes!”

“I’m… fine, Archer.” She started splashing and laughing.

“Come on,” I said, shaking my head and pulling her towards the rocks.

Laying side-by-side on a slimy ledge, we watched the birds launching off the cliff face. After what felt like a few hours, I looked over at Tilley.

Without looking back, she said, “I love you, Archer.”

But I didn’t reply. I’d been distracted by the distant drone of the search crafts. The patrols had spotted us on radar and were coming to arrest us. My stomach flipped at the thought of Tilley spending her last days in a detention centre, or worse, surviving the journey back to the space station and dying in solitary.

“Time’s up,” I said solemnly.

Nothing.

I looked over. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t moving.

I nudged her gently. “Tilley?”

She was gone. I burst into tears, burying my face in her chest.

The crafts were getting closer. If they found Tilley they’d only burn her and dump her somewhere horrid.

I couldn’t bear that.

As quickly and carefully as I could, I took off her life jacket, stuffed her survival suit with as many loose rocks as I could find, and slipped her into the water.

Her beautiful face disappeared into the depths just as the crafts roared over my head.

Six months in solitary awaited me, but it had been worth it to see my sister smile one last time.

To bring her home. To Earth. Where she belonged.