Unwitting Accomplice

Author: Alastair Millar

They could be watching him already.

He eyed the roboserver winding through the tables towards him. It was a bipedal, not rolling, model; the Ares Lounge had tone. The performers and escorts were human, even. No class or no money? Then you could slum it at Marvin’s downtown, with its androids and holos. Nobody would look for a subversive here, but he couldn’t let his guard down.

He had no idea who was collecting his drop. Operational security was a way of life for the Arean League; Mars Administration served the corporations, and didn’t recognise Earther concepts of privacy or subtlety. Get caught, and they couldn’t force what you didn’t know out of you.

The server bowed, approximating a smile, and deposited a carafe in front of him. Two glasses; management would prefer him to engage a companion. As it wandered off, he felt the pendant under his shirt vibrate; someone had triggered the payload transfer, and the nearfield microcircuits had slagged themselves. He’d keep it as a souvenir; it was useless for anything else now.

He was just pouring when a woman slid into the seat opposite.

“That glass for me, handsome?”

“I’m not here for company,” he said, keeping his eyes on the stage magician. Never encourage them.

“Nor am I, Danny. Strictly business. What’s left of your honour’s safe with me.”

That got his attention.

“Why, Detective Ames… what an unexpected pleasure. What brings Marsport’s finest to a humble establishment like this?”

She laughed. “Checking up on you, of course. Just because you’re not using corporate wires to bet on Earthside races any more doesn’t mean you’re off our radar.”

“C’mon, I paid the fine. I’d get a swift trip Downside if I stepped out of line now. And I’d never get used to the gravity again.”

“So I can check you for drugs, weapons and datachips, right?”. She laid a sleek sniffer on the table; nicer than Security’s standard issue, and probably more sensitive.

“Of course,” he said, taking a sip of the suddenly bitter wine. Rule one: never show fear. Please god the circs really had wiped.

She pressed a button and the scanner bulb pulsed for a few seconds.

“All clear. Well done.” She winked. “Always had a soft spot for you, glad you’re staying clean.”

“You know what,” he said, rising. “I just realised that I’d rather be somewhere else. No offence.”

“None taken, obviously.” She watched him head for the exit, and used the table screen to order a juice. No nerve-steadying booze on duty, alas. She’d logged their conversation for her boss, cover for being here, but couldn’t leave yet.

The server bowed, depositing a glass in front of her. As it left, her bracelet tingled as the nearfield downloaded a data packet. She wondered briefly who the source was; she’d pass it on at Marvin’s later. A strange kind of revolution when you didn’t know who you were working with, but a step towards freedom for Mars!

Special Delivery

Author: K.Hartless

Will it stay cloudy forever?” I release a pillow of breath through the slit in my box, try to imagine Jared’s expression, lost to me from behind cardboard folds. He’s brought me to the ravine for a reason, and I sniff the morning air as if searching for a clue. “Smells cloudy, anyways.” Dolly wheels squeal past, struggling to part sand. The chervil Parting Mirror rides atop the platform, a sultan of the olden days. Its arched surface is regally outlined by protective plastic. “Is there a Sealing today?”

“Don’t know, Ingrid.” Jared finally answers, shuffling his feet. “Why do you always ask this sort of nonsense, anyway?” I wonder what his scowl looks like. I imagine a bulldog’s wrinkle between his eyes. “And what’s more. I don’t really care. Not about the fog, not about the ceremony, none of it.” He exhales, a toxic mass forced from his lips joins with the smog of the city.

Sealings take place on Sundays. Any female ready for reproduction is invited to attend. Their parents decide when to bring them here to the edge of the ravine to peer into the Parting Mirror, bid farewell to their own reflections.

I remember my Sealing. I froze before the Parting Mirror, frantic to memorize myself, fearful I would be sealed for the rest of my days.

“Goodbye, lips,” I pouted then forced a smile, shifting rapidly between the two, in a panic. After all, I needed to know my own lips. I noticed how my top lip protruded just a bit more than my lower, and how I only had one dimple on the right side.

“Goodbye, eyes.” This was my hardest goodbye. It was through my eyes I expressed all unsaid. I remember my irises matched the cloudless sky and expanded like the horizon. Jared used to ask me before about my face, but that was in the early days.

“Look, Ingrid.” I turn to take in what he’s trying to show me, but this tiny slit was made for younger eyes, and in truth, he is mostly shadow these days. I hear him fumbling with something, but I can’t see what. “I can’t keep doing this. I don’t think you’re the right fit.” He places a small wooden ring in my palm and closes my fingers. The circle is warm, and smooth from cycles of wear.

“Sorry.” He moves to touch me, but I flinch. I’m inches from the edge, and he doesn’t want to be the reason I fall in. “Really, Ingrid, I am.”

“What are you sorry for? Leaving me in a paper prison to rot or being a selfish jailer for four long years?” There’s no answer.

“Know what, Jared? I don’t believe you’re sorry. Not for one second. There must be a new package that’s arrived. Something fresher, I imagine?”

I take his ring, arch back my arm, and sling it as far as I can. I imagine it cutting the fog, slicing its way through all the bully-like clouds to the bottom of the ravine where it sinks.

“Good luck, Ingrid. I do hope you find your person.” Jared’s voice is muffled, but his footsteps are crisp on the slick stones.

“Monster!” I yell after him, not caring how many boxes I turn. “I may be behind the cardboard, but you’re the one who can’t see the truth!

The last time I saw my parents’ faces, they stood together smiling as they completed the sacred ceremony, fitting the box around my head.

“You’re the perfect package, sweetie,” Dad whispered, sealing the thick cardboard into place.

“You’re sure to be unwrapped soon.” Mom cut the eye slits with precision to try and give me the perfect view.

I slide off my promise ring, toss it into the abyss after Jared’s. Was there a sea down there as we had been taught in primary or just a never-ending ravine? From within my mildewy box, I was no longer sure. The unknown deepens daily when you’re waiting to be someone’s special delivery.

Packing Up

Author: Eric Fomley

“What are you doing?” Sammie asks.
Bo is slicing through the artificial flesh on the back of her neck, folding the plastic material away and exposing the circuitry.
“I’m packing you up,” Bo says. His chin trembles and he chews the inside of his lower lip.
“Have I done something wrong?”
“No,” he whispers.
He reaches into his tool bag and produces a pouch of fine tipped tools.
“Please,” Sammie says, her synthesized voice quieter than Bo has ever heard, “if I’ve done something that has upset you I will change it going forward. My programming is adaptive based on your feedback.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” he says.
The bot turns to face him, brown artificial eyes meeting his. “I don’t want to be packed away. I want to help, especially now that Mrs. Anderson isn’t—”
“Please don’t. Turn around,” Bo chokes out.
Sammie turns.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Me too.”
Tears roll down Bo’s cheeks. His hands tremble. He pauses before he snips the wire to the power coupler, reconsidering his decision.
But he can’t.
He cuts the wire and Sammie crumples to the floor with an electronic moan, auto packing into a square no larger than a suitcase.
Bo looks down at her and lets out a ragged sigh. Maybe one day he’d unpack her again, power her on, and tell her he was sorry. But Sammie had always been his wife’s bot, and right now, she reminds him too much of her. A walking, talking reminder that his wife is gone forever.

Reds and Blues

Author: Samantha Kelly

Jac entered the cafeteria, tapping her ID bracelet against the sensor. She waited for the machine to calculate an ideally nutritious meal. Once it arrived, Jac took her tray and sat at the end of one of the tables. The other paramedics were in the middle of conversation and Jac knew it’d be a few more months on the job before she developed the same easy rapport. Instead she just listened as the conversation turned to the gala the night before, to celebrate ten years of MediCorp going public.
“The old man just loves the sound of his own voice.” Hector Serrano said, rolling his eyes. “Good champagne though, I’ll give him that.”
Jac possessed none of the same cynicism as her colleague. Quite the contrary, she had found Mr Nazari’s speech inspiring. That the rates of abuse to paramedics had decreased over 300%, thanks to the mech program? It was amazing news. But before she could say anything, the bell sounded to call the paramedics back to work.

Jac’s final patient of the night was Marie Taylor – a smoker and heavy drinker. She had enhancements, but older models, not well maintained. Currently in the latter stages of heart failure. Jac started chest compressions with hands that would never tire. Hands that were not her own, but that she controlled down to the twitch of a finger. She’d never had trouble with the mech, in the way other paramedics did. Piloting came naturally to her. But compressions weren’t going to be enough. Marie Taylor’s heart needed to be shocked. Jac pulled up the interface and switched the mech to its defibrillation mode. And nothing happened.

Normally, the toughened casing of the mech’s hands would light up an electric blue, to signify that the device was working. But there was no colour change. Jac pressed the hands to Marie Taylor’s chest, hoping it was just a problem with the indicator. Lightly at first, and then with increased pressure. Still nothing. Jac brought up a diagnostic menu, but everything seemed to be working correctly. Until a note came up on the assessment. ‘Insurance discontinued – untreatable.’ And then Jac could only watch until Marie Taylor was gone.

Her office appeared as Jac ripped the headset off, allowing it to fall to her desk with a thud. She focused her gaze on the potted geraniums her parents had given her to celebrate her first day, while breathing in and out for counts of four. And then Jac brought up the recording of her call on the monitor. She watched it over and over, hoping it would show something different. Marie Taylor had been in a dark zone when Jac was called, which meant the only light came from the reds and blues of the ambulance. It made things difficult to see, but not impossible. And what she saw was that nothing appeared to be amiss. Apart from the obvious, horrifying fact that she could not provide any treatment to the woman in front of her until she died, and that seemed to be intentional.

A search confirmed Jac’s worst fears. Marie Taylor was not the only patient deemed ‘untreatable.’ In the ten years since the mech program launched, thousands of patients had died due to lack of insurance. And where a human might be moved to treat them anyway, a mech could be programmed against that sort of sentimentality. Suddenly, Mr Nazari’s speech didn’t seem quite so inspirational. It sounded more like a cover up, Jac thought as she sat in her office in silence, allowing her next call to ring out.

In the Hothouse

Author: Rachel Medina

I admit I am not the most skilled gardener, but these flowers say the cruelest things. Not that I don’t deserve it. I know that I do. But, if these flowers die, that’s it. I’m dead, too.

It wasn’t easy to get this gig. You have to remember where you put the bodies. This is important because if there’s no body, there’s no soul. It doesn’t even have to be the entire body. I had a finger that worked, so you can get lucky. The scientists incinerate the flesh pieces and then mix the ashes into the pods with wood chips and other compost stuff. After that, it gets tricky.

You only have 24 hours to get the pods buried with the orchid flower roots. I prepped each container with the special soil and set the hothouse temperature just right. The scientists stressed that the pod had to go in with the root right away or it might not work. I paced at the door all day waiting for the shipment to arrive. The guard watched me, nervous. He thought I was going to escape! Why would I go through all this just to run? I snatched the pods from the delivery guy as soon as he got to the door and then I raced to the hothouse.

The scientist labeled each pod with the name and picture of who was inside. I thought that was a nice touch even though I remembered them all. Why wouldn’t I? I spoke to them while I worked, burying each one back in the dirt. I welcomed my lovelies and thanked them for this chance to make things right.

The directions showed that you have to rotate the pod in the soil every 12 hours. I set an alarm to remind me. I slept in the hothouse every night that first month even though my sleeping bag got wet and the ground was uncomfortable. This was the only way. I had to be diligent or I was a dead man.

I whooped and hollered so loud at the sight of the first tiny leaf breaking through the dirt that the guard raced in with his gun drawn! He didn’t smile when I showed him, just shook his head and left. He pretty much hates me.

The scientist warned that even in the hothouse orchids are delicate and difficult to grow. I think that’s why the government chose them. They didn’t want to make it easy for a guy like me. Once the leaves open, the flowers should soon appear. That is the critical moment. If the flower doesn’t have red streaks on its petals, that means that the process didn’t work. The soul won’t inhabit the orchid. I’m out, back to Death Row.

Luckily, each of my flowers bloomed with red streaks. One flower sprouted thorns after I spoke to it the first time. I guess I understand that. Another one has flower petals so pale that they look invisible, except for the jagged red streaks. I don’t know what happened to that one. The petals bloomed pink and beautiful, but as soon as I whispered to it the color drained out. Some of the flowers turn away from me no matter what I do. The biggest ones are also the loudest. I can’t get a word in sometimes! They scream and shout horrible things at me, which is weird because they look so pretty.