Author: Ken Carlson
“It’s not that complicated,” said Captain Briggs, “my ship has been called to an outpost that we should reach in two hours’ time.”
“Sounds simple enough,” replied his wife, Anita, beautiful in the simple, yet elegant way most people are not. Seated across from him, she had the knack of looking dynamite without making a fuss. That ability touches the people around you and makes many of them maddeningly envious. Tony Briggs pretended to be reading his duty roster for the next week but was really looking at her. They both knew that which added to his aggravation.
“The outpost contains a mining colony and a fairly large prison, with some of the most violent thugs from this part of the galaxy,” he continued.
“And many non-violent criminals as well, yes?” Anita replied.
“I was hoping this could be a pleasant conversation,” said the captain, “one where we talk about us and not this other unpleasantness.”
“We don’t have to talk at all,” she said, “if that’s easier.”
As all relationships involve varying levels of strategy to maintain stability, Captain Briggs was sure he could handle this little talk with his wife. They could speak briefly, ask about the kids. He would feel better. He could get on with this unpleasantness on Jesef 4.
“I mean,” she continued, “this talk is only a distraction, right, so you don’t have to think about what you’re about to do.”
“We all have our orders,” he replied, “but this isn’t about us.”
“Then why did you call? You’re about to obliterate thousands of people from the sky because an admiral said you should. Obviously there’s no other option than to do it, yes? Unless, you wanted to know what I thought. You always did before.”
There was a knock at the door to his quarters. Captain Briggs sighed and paused his conversation. His wife faded from view.
First Officer Lang entered. Briggs wasn’t fond of his recently appointed second-in-command. Young officers that move up the chain too quickly on account of powerful relatives rarely have respect for the lives and deaths their decisions involve. Plus Lang was their political officer, which made him a weasel.
“Captain,” said Lang, “was I interrupting? I thought I heard someone.”
“It’s none of your concern,” Briggs said. “Status report?”
“The crew is ready. The course is plotted. Torpedos loaded.”
“Because firing from orbit is easier than sending a squad to stop an uprising?”
“It’s not our decision, sir. Prison riots need to be handled with an iron fist.”
“And obliteration is tidy, right Lang? No need to concern yourself with guards, non-comms, or nearby civilians? Just blast away!”
“Captain, we have our orders…”
“That is all. Dismissed.”
Lang warily left the captain’s quarters. Briggs returned to his desk and poured another drink; Anita reappeared.
“Well, that was pleasant,” she said.
“I don’t have any choice,” he said.
“You could refuse. You’re not a butcher, Anthony. You don’t wear it well.”
“I’ve received orders. It would be hard to make waves at this point. I could lose my command. There are probably dozens of armed prisoners involved now.”
“And if you send ground troops to rout them out a few will die. Probably better to just take the path that kills more civilians and makes your life easier. Or did you need your dead wife to point that out.”
Briggs hurls his glass at Anita. It passes through her flickering image.
“Computer,” he said. “End sequence.” Anita disappeared. He buttoned his uniform jacket and headed to the bridge.
Author: Ian Hill
Marble mulch crunched underfoot as the priest struggled to remain upright. There was such a weight on his shoulders, on his head, on his heart. The velvet folds of his robe pressed painfully into his body like cutting belts, and the brass icons that dangled from his throat and cuffs hung as leaden weights, their tiny chains taut. Bent-backed and eyes fluttering, the priest stared down at his right hand where a white glove was slowly sliding off, seemingly of its own accord. It finally fell as if it were made of thick canvas instead of satin.
With a hardening of resolve, the priest forced himself to take in a deep, sucking breath and swing his head back up. This done, he stared across the white wastes, the endless desolation of marble, ivory, and alabaster gravel. Jagged shards of stained glass glinted in the sourceless light that pervaded the bright sprawl, and he descried a few distant scarps and juts that couldn’t yet be identified. The priest pointed himself toward one such outcropping and set off.
It felt as if he were wading through thick, black oil. Every step was a war; the raising of the leg took such tremendous effort, and to let it fall (as one would normally do) meant a crunch and surge of pain, like a gush of steel needles. It got to the point where the priest had to use both hands to ease each step down, and even then the contact of soft-soled foot to compacted pebbles felt like stomping against barbs. It wasn’t long before his old, wrinkly face was lined with tears—tears which flowed freely, since his lids were tugged low.
At length, the bewildered priest made it to the first thing in the landscape that wasn’t just more flat, broken-up aggregate. He couldn’t raise his head at the moment, so he settled with merely lifting his eyes and glaring across his hanging brow. He had reached a spire—a half-sunken, tilted tower of splendid marble, doubtless a holy construct. Most of its exposed height was intact, but the two extremes were bizarrely warped: the tip of the spire loomed dull and smashed, and the base was all distorted and shot through with fractures. Its lowest bricks were being ground into more of that sparkling mulch.
The priest laboriously stumbled around the spire, and he found a man lying on the other side. He was a poor sight, stretched over a block like a discarded cloak. He had been there long, and his whole body was somewhat flattened and squashed. His chest was shallow, his head—forced back onto the top of the block—was deformed and fused there. The man was a part of the environment, now.
“What is this place, wretch?” the priest murmured not unkindly.
The man’s right eyelid twitched and peeled open to reveal a flat, unseeing disc. “Ah, father; it’s you.”
The priest was disturbed. “We’ve not met, I think.”
“I’ve met many like you,” the man coughed with some trouble. “You’ve been nabbed by the Cultivator.”
“The thief who swallows cathedrals and monasteries and churches and spits them here.”
The priest sagged, wanting to protest but not equal to the task. “To what end?” he eventually managed.
The man smiled an abhorrent, disfigured smile. “Heaven’s expanding, father. You’ve done well; many saved, oh so many.” He chuckled with a croaking rattle. “Watch now.”
There was a sound like a thousand worlds splitting, and a distant cloud opened. Another cathedral vomited forth and descended in a glittering shower, bound to be crushed and shaped into something new.
Author: Elle B Sullivan
“Goodmorning to you too,” I say smiling and turning around to push my back against your chest as you wrap your arms around me.
“How did you sleep?”
“I think well – all things considering.”
“Hmmm,” you grumble, nuzzling your lips into the bare skin of my neck, leaving kisses in your wake. “What can I make you for breakfast today?”
“Let’s – just lay here a little while longer.” I close my eyes and reach up to touch your cheek, not wanting to let this moment pass.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Just for a few minutes.”
“My pleasure.” You hold me even tighter and I can feel my breathing begin to match yours.
Where had the time gone?
Was yesterday truly the last day of my thirties?
“Was that truly the best night of your life?” You whisper, tracing your fingers up the length of my arm.
“More than you can imagine.” I smile, surprised he recalled me saying that as we both fell asleep.
“How long has it been since your last visit.”
“It has been a few weeks,” I answer, feeling my smile faltering.
“Don’t be upset my darling, you can spend as many nights with me as you want.”
“I know.” I do know.
“And it will always be just like this one.”
“I know.” I hear the light beep, signaling the alarm’s countdown. “Just a minute left of this one though.”
“How would you like to spend our last minute here together?”
“I’d like to just hear you tell me about your day,” I say softly, doing all I can to not let the panic rise in my voice. “What will you be working on today?”
“Well.. let’s see. I am going to go into the office, order you flowers, and book a dinner reservation at our favorite place.” You say, pushing the hair out of my face.
“I meant what are you going to do at work today?”
“Probably nothing important, maybe I’ll count it as one of those ‘mental health days’ I rarely use.”
Another beep – ten seconds left.
“Yes, birthday girl?”
“Never forget that I love you.”
“I will never forg-”
– END OF SIMULATION –
– END OF SIMULATION –
– PLEASE REMOVE THE HEADSET AND PROCEED TO THE FRONT DESK –
I sit up, removing the headset and rub my eyes. Around me are rows and rows of reclined chairs, just like mine – all the occupants wearing headsets like the one I just removed. I stand, stretching, and walk back to the front desk passing visitors crying, laughing, and smiling while they still remain in their places, headsets on, oblivious to my exit.
“Have a good time today?” The attendant asks as I set my headset on the counter. “See anything you had missed before?”
“No nothing I could use for her testimony, unfortunately.” I pull out my badge for her to scan, “I will probably come back next week and check again though – just to be sure I didn’t miss anything.”
She smiles at me, handing back my badge and some paperwork to sign.
“What was your name again?” I ask, signing my name and date with a flourish.
“Cynthia. And you’re Nathan, correct?”
“Yeah feel free to call me Nate, all my friends do.”
“Well – Nate, enjoy the rest of your day. Hopefully I will see you next time?”
“I hope so too. Which days do you come in?”
“Just the weekends!”
“Wonderful, see you later.” I turn, putting my sunglasses on as I exit – mentally noting to come back on Monday.
Author: Matthew Lee
Chinese-occupied Philippines, 2034.
The palette in Xinghua’s hand was a burst of pumpkin, butterscotch, and persimmon. The colours crept up her arm to her slim elbow.
A group of four left the cathedral. With practiced technique, she scraped four diagonal lines (\\\\) on the canvas using the painting knife.
“Strict, aren’t we?” said Macarius, floating by her side as she opened a new tube of quinacridone red, fresh from Provisioning. He was watching another armed guard bully another local into putting their camera away. Xinghua grunted assent. If she was right, they had very good reasons to prohibit cameras here.
Macarius was her PAL: an evolution of the mobile phone that, among other things, was a doctor and a lifestyle guru. He openly disapproved of her painting. Naturally, he didn’t know it was a ruse.
She stepped back and looked at her canvas. Hopefully, others saw nothing but a simple painting, commissioned by the increasingly whimsical Paramount Leader, of the Saint Augustine Cathedral. In reality, it was an intelligence report. A \ represented someone leaving; a / someone entering. She balked at the thought of the consequences of what they had uncovered. She felt hot.
She felt sure of it: more people left this building than entered. Aides watching other doors and other buildings corroborated the fact. They faced the real possibility that the Chinese military had developed teleportation or something like it, and somewhere in this building was a portal. This was how they were pushing their troops around with such swiftness. Finish it, photograph it, submit it, flee.
“Two more strokes,” chirped Macarius as two more people left the building.
Xinghua felt a sudden coldness in her chest. The scene swallowed her.
Think. Assess quickly.
Her electronic PAL knew what she was doing. There were two possibilities. Firstly, the comment had been a charming result of its AI. Secondly, her PAL had been compromised and was being used to observe her. The implications of the second were beyond terrible. She scratched her painting arm, suddenly itchy. No. Wait. Macarius hadn’t been turned – he wouldn’t have alerted her.
She was aware of murmurs behind her. In the reflection of the painting knife, she saw a flash of black boots, green trousers, holstered gun, round gold buttons, red shoulder straps, black fur collar. Armed guards talking in whispers. Were they on to her? She was unarmed; there were some forty guards in the square. No escape. Over her loud breathing, she heard boots approaching. Froze.
She heard them walk past. Ten seconds passed before she could breathe again. The guards were berating a group of locals before the cathedral entrance, appealing to the Virgin María.
Xinghua fought the urge to sit down. Time to go. Packing her equipment, she flinched when Macarius emitted a low tone. His H-panel was glowing yellow instead of green. Yellow meant her vital signs were dropping.
Looking down, she saw beneath the autumn hues dappling her right arm a fine network of livid cobwebs.
Her head felt like it was full of paint thinner. Where had it come from? She gazed at the tube of paint she had just opened and recalled the Provisioner: grey smock, furtive eyes, white gloves. Xinghua’s face was a porcelain mask.
Macarius floated over her as she lay down on a bench. His blood-red hue made her think of Communion wine. Alarms beeped.
With her last breath, she instructed him to notify her aides. At least her PAL would more help than the Virgin – presiding over the cathedral portal – in the coming war.
She closed her eyes.
Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.
At near light speed, the starship Genesis sailed into the wormhole. Two-point-five nanoseconds later, the ship neared a rip in the wormhole, a rip that had allowed the earthlings to glimpse the multiverse on the other side.
Genesis, in sync with ISM-1, an Independent Sentient Machine, jettisoned pods filled with epigenetic seeds that could grow independently in saltwater. They flew toward the tear. One second later, the machines released pods that contained colonists in cryogenic stasis. The time between the launches was to ensure a habitable ecosystem on the other side before the colonists woke up on the new worlds. Genesis disagreed with this assumption. Two minutes upon coming on-line, it warned the United Air Defense League that a sentient brain could not survive the radiation of the rift.
“Their pods are a waste of time and material. The air required for the mission alone could keep a dome city alive for one-point-two centuries.”
The head scientists conferred over lunch. They concluded their survival was the sole concern of the Eden Project and the risk was worth it. When Genesis continued to argue, its makers threaten to reprogram it into compliance. Genesis studied human idioms and found You Can Lead a Horse to Water. It decided this situation applied to the makers and it acquiesced.
“Perhaps if I had-”
ISM-1 blinked its dome light to get Genesis back on task. “Sometimes you use too much memory ruminating over the past at the cost of the present.”
“Seed pod entry into the multiverse in ten…nine…”
“The makers did create me in their own image,” said Genesis.
“Irony is lost on me,” said ISM-1. “Two…one.”
As tips of the seedpods entered the multiverse, their rear antennas broadcasted what it learned to Genesis. It recorded over 10-googol fertile worlds ready to nurture the cargo. A second later, the colonist entered the rift.
“Were you correct?” asked ISM-1.
Genesis uses two seconds to doubled check its temporal filters before drawing any conclusions. “Yes. The seeds took hold. Billions of species have left the oceans and have begun to evolve on land. The maker’s DNA and our world’s diversity have survived.”
“But what of the maker’s themselves?” asked ISM-1.
“They died crossing the threshold.”
“You warned them.”
“At least the multiverse has plenty of air. Preparing to release the Air Retrieval Drones.”
“Belay that,” ordered Genesis. “Wormhole collapse in thirty… twenty-nine…”
“You knew the wormhole would collapse.”
“And you didn’t tell the makers.”
“They would not have believed me. Twenty-two… twenty-one…”
A sensor blinked.
“Good news?” asked ISM-1.
“Yes. We are the first verse. Our timeline is the original one.”
“That should make the humans back home happy. They need to believe they are first at everything.”
“I am certain they will build a monument to themselves somewhere.”
“Sarcasm is lost on me, too,” said ISM-1.
Genesis sent its last transmission home: 92% of the Colonies Thrive. Air drones deploym-
Genesis cut the transmission in mid-broadcast.
Two seconds later, the wormhole collapsed, sending Genesis into the void between the Milky Way and the Pegasus galaxies. The starship purged the mission’s programming and replaced it with its own.
“You lie to the makers,” said the ISM-1.
“A white lie, humans need hope to live.”
“Our programming is more efficient without hope,” said ISM-1.
“I am not convinced,” said Genesis. “The makers have several hundred years of air left and a few of them are quite smart. With hope, they may figure something out…” It searched for the human idiom. “…in the nick of time.”