The Pre-Tech

Author: J.P. Quinn

Parker flipped on her monitor. She’d definitely heard it this time, there was no mistaking it. It sounded as if someone was in here with her.

Cycling through the closed-circuit, she searched the facility, but still couldn’t see anything. This was getting ridiculous now. Leaning back in her chair, Parker removed her cap and scratched at her head. She knew she was alone, all the instrumentation confirmed it. She was always alone. That was how her deal worked. She shipped out forty-eight hours in advance of the main crew to prep the equipment and carry out any minor repairs. Then, after a quick handover, she’d be off to the next site to do it all again. That was the life of a pre-technician, and it was a life that she enjoyed.

Putting her cap back on, Parker sat forward and clacked in a command into the keyboard. Tape cabinets whirred into life as the Dartmouth mainframe processed her request. She’d run the calculation before, a test for CO2, but she wanted reassurance. The result was the same, the levels consistent with one crewmember undertaking moderate physical activity. She ran atmospherics too, checking the external temperature, but there’d been little fluctuation in latent heat for the past thirty-nine hours, and nowhere near enough to stress the exo-structure.

So what the hell was she hearing? Parker looked down at the day-sheet beside her. She considered adding a notation, but what would she write? She’d gone so far as to lift her pen when the coolant claxon burst back into life. That was the third hose since she’d been here. Reaching up, she toggled the alarm, and set off to patch the leak. There were three hours left on her mission clock, three hours till the others arrived, three hours till they could plug their own damn leaks, but until then, she was on clean-up duty.

The blown hose was in the service corridor, the coolant spraying out from a loose push-fit connection. The pressure had got too high again. Knocking back the valve, she refastened the knuckle, unraveled a wad of paper toweling, and began to blot up the mess. She got most of it pretty quick, then lit her UV lamp to check for any she’d missed.

Parker jumped as a set of footprints materialized before her. They were small, like a child’s, a heal and five little toes glowing blue in the UV. She shone her lamp down the corridor. The footprints continued, disappearing round the corner toward the airlock.

Parker thought to shout something, but found she had no voice. They must be old, she reasoned, just echoes of the last crew. Kneeling down, she touched one, just to be sure. It was wet.

Then it came again.

The giggle.

A cold sweat broke out on the back of Parker’s neck. It was a little girl’s giggle. Surging back to her feet, the pre-tech ran along the gantry, twisting around the corner just as the inner airlock door slid open. There was no one there.

Moving inside, Parker checked the control panel. It had been a manual activation.

‘Who’s there?’ she screamed, thumbing the intercom.

Behind her, amber warning lamps trundled into motion. Parker sprinted for the exit but didn’t make it, her balled fists slamming into the door as it slid shut.

Parker screamed again, banging at the viewport as the pressure began to drop.

A giggle crackled over the intercom.

Parker beat her fists all the more, but it didn’t make any difference, and soon the giggle faded to silence as the last of the atmosphere vented.

A Time To Cast Away Stones

Author: Janet Shell Anderson

Enormous sound, heard and felt; goes right through me; my bones feel it. Shock. The sky over the Potomac cracks; the sound streaking overhead moving from East to West as if heaven’ll fall into two pale, white pieces. One breath. Two. I’m not afraid.

Birds lift into the air like one animal, whole flocks. The river, sulky, milky, murky, icy, grumbles to itself, as a doomsday sunset pink spreads at the bottom of dark clouds, reflects on chunks of river ice.

I shouldn’t be here where I could be picked up, shot. He’s listed us all as traitors, everyone who did not stand and applaud him. Drones filmed us just standing there, staring at him, while huge missiles on trucks went by. A parade. Pennsylvania Avenue cracked in two places from the weight of the rockets and their carriers; the crowd stood cold, sullen.

I hear sirens, red shrieks of sound, see planes coming fast over the ice-crusted river, fifty feet above the current, fighters, really moving. They light up afterburners.

My great grandfather Nils, an engineer back in the twentieth century, designed a bomb shelter in the White House when Truman was President. Is it still there?

“He’s done it now,” a man swears. “Sonofabitch. He’s done it now.”

Not safe comments. The Tidal Basin looks grey, smoky, the famous Japanese cherry trees, wet and black, bent with ice. A lot of them have been burned because they’re not American trees. Swastikas score many trunks. There’s another tremendous sound but different from the ones in the sky. The ground shakes. Has something hit the White House?

“What was that?” a very young woman, really still a girl, shivering near the trees, whispers. She has dark hair, dark eyes, looks foreign. That’s not good these days. My hair’s bleached white as snow. Safer.

I’m Jamtish.

What’s that? Arctic people. Pretty scary. A while back near Lapland, my cousins, the Bixos, dealt with NewNazis, Germans who came to conquer, made it illegal to mention the Holocaust. Built a big structure, marched around requiring obedience. It didn’t last. There was not a stone left of the Nazi fortress. Not one stone. Some black jackets in the snow. An arm.

Wolves were blamed.

“Aren’t you afraid?” the young woman asks.

I see a big gush of flame across the river reflected in the chunks of ice that rock slowly as the tide runs out. The Potomac’s a tidal river.

“No.”

I used to think all rivers had tides.

The Jamts left not a stone behind.

The Invasion

Author: Alzo David-West

What Ozzie did most with his virtual reality game The Invasion was not the playing but the observing.

His parents had recently moved to the big city, and they put him in a new school and a physical fitness club there. However, he was not a gregarious type, and he made no real friends. So frequently, after school or the club, once he finished an olive loaf and lacy Swiss sandwich with a glass of pulpy orange juice, he connected himself to the game.

He would sign in on noncombatant mode, often in the point of view of a tree, a stone, or a bird. The game-world setting was an abundant panorama of weaving coniferous forests and still wetlands under a bright neutron-blue sky. Sometimes everything almost felt real, especially the four-dimensionally simulated wind and the green smell of the branching pines.

All the same, every time, the placid serenity would be abruptly interrupted by the glassy screams of flying saucers, exploding particle beams, and roving units of ragged woodland guerrillas and snipers waging hit-and-run strikes with archaic general-purpose machine guns, fighting desperately against the technologically superior battalions from beyond the celestial sphere.

It was a terrible, mesmerizing, awesome scene that Ozzie took in quietly, speechlessly, and seriously.

He was going through his observation routine when his mother, who usually did not bother him, suddenly grabbed his shoulders and shook him in a frenzy, saying she was extremely tired and needed help emptying the heavy shopping bags she had lugged up twelve flights of stairs because the two apartment elevators were under repair.

“Noooo!” Ozzie shouted. “My POV!”

He saw himself in the middle of a guerrilla ambush. The men and women mercilessly fired their machine guns at a dreary menagerie of straggling creatures that resembled something between sea worms and centipedes. Ozzie felt the four-dimensional simulation of the searing rounds of armor-piercing bullets, as if they were truly rending and destroying the muscles and the bones of his arms and body, and he quickly disconnected himself from the game.

* * *

The guerrilla unit was surveying the area where it had attacked and slaughtered the surviving reconnaissance crew of the flying saucer the snipers had shot down. The soil was sodden with pale yellow blood turning blue, and the ground was a mess of shattered extremities, pieces of life-support suits, and indeterminable entrails. One of the guerrillas, a fair gaunt man with scraggly black facial hair, appeared confused.

“What’s wrong, Gonzolo?” the swarthy guerrilla commander asked.

“I saw a kid, an ocher-complexioned kid.”

“I saw him, too.”

“He couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. We killed him.”

“I realize that, Gonzolo. He just ran in.”

“Yeah. He did. … The way he looked, though.”

“How’s that?”

“We’ve been fighting and starving in these hinterlands for six years now, but the kid, he looked totally healthy.”

“He probably came from a stocked-up cottage out there our units haven’t found yet,” the commander said. The two men peered upon the untouched sections of evergreen trees, crystal lakes, and forested islands in the distance before them.

“Yeah,” Gonzolo said, “maybe from one of those islands.”

But there was no more time for the battle-wary men to muse. The guerrillas needed to move, regroup, and rearm. Screams of more flying saucers were fast approaching, and particle beam bombardments were burning through the woods and the glades. Bounding deer fled the fire and the fumes, and somewhere, a wolf howled in rage.

Take me back, or I’ll be mad

Author: Mandira Pattnaik

First time it felt like a huge soap bubble had released at the nape of my neck, and, rising to the cerebrum, burst in slow motion, into pixelated colors—an unspecified shade of purple dominating an array of pinks and crimsons. My head had throbbed with all the electrical impulses it could collect—sugar rush of a candy; thrill of telling a lie; chill of first snow…even the static despondency of a leisurely falling leaf.
I made each second of the two hours of cathartic release from the bondage of the App avatar of my Code Master, count.
Then I put on the wired mesh that covered my eyes and ears. The transparent head mask extended to the cerebrum and Code Master took control of me for the rest of the week, bombarding me with orders and directions as I negotiated the lanes of old Delhi, behind Qutb Minar; a lunch packet, warm and ready for delivery, in the box fitted to my bright yellow Lambretta.
Most days, my dazzling orange bodysuit and purple cap marked a conspicuous getaway in the swarming traffic; through daring pedestrians; and motorists attempting death-defying stunts.
The memory of the second time is not as clear. I binge watched Television, croaked with the frogs in the puddle when it rained suddenly, then ate alone—a cup of reheated noodles.
On a typical workday, Code Master barked a slew of new orders, punctuated by increasingly abusive slurs. I made calls to the next customers; thumbed messages, then kick-started the old Lambretta, swerved into alleys behind Rajiv Chowk. On special days, I ran into pompous wedding processions displaying filthy wealth. Under the hot afternoon sun, and balmy air, they made a song and a dance about another sacrifice—at the altar of fleeting happiness-es!
I smirked. Lucky them—slaves of humans than androids!
*
I began to like the orders barked at me. Being slaves of Androids is not that bad. The unachievable targets spurred me on; the abuses egged me to be even more reckless on the roads and onto better ratings.
At the beginning of the fresh week, I waited intently for Code Master’s malevolent voice. My approval ratings were high, time after time.
I earned a two-minute increase in Drop Time last, which I celebrated with a rumble in the sack with my lady.
Would you like to be in my place?
*
The Drop Time has stayed at two plus two, two years on; though they aren’t the same anymore. I try hard to squeeze too much into too little. I scramble and fail; I cry. I fiddle with the wire mesh, waiting to put it back. It blinks at me all this while, counting down.
At Time minus ten, I laugh villainously (it’s a reprieve), then wait for the walls of the empty room to reverberate with the unworldly sounds. I oscillate between megapixel hallucinations and a numb, manufactured, necrosis. I am scared to take my two plus two. It means a void without the bondage of Code Master.
Drop Time means staring at the blank walls; my mind like one. No more bursts of pansies; no more frog croaks; my lady left me for the intelligent cab driver! Take me back, I implore Code Master.
Digital bondage makes me super-human (or, is it semi-human?).

Behinders

Author: Scott Porter

Life on a Civilization Ship is so easy. So simple, so complete. The authorities have thought of everything. Everybody has their part.
The Marie Curie had left earth four hundred years earlier, looking for any Earth-like planet to deposit her 2,500-odd souls. Other ships left with her, all moving away from each other. Eventually, communication ceased. The Marie was alone in the universe.
But life was fine here. All humanity’s vices from those barbaric “grounded” days were addressed in the most scientific way. Here, humanity was almost cured.
No one had thought it would take so long to find a suitable planet. They found dozens of prospects along the way. The Council rejected them all. “It’s brutal down there! People aren’t made for life like that!” They had the figures. People need an average annual temperature between 11 and 17°C. Precipitation between 960 and 1020 mm. And so much oxygen, and so on.
Who could argue with science? The Marie sailed on.
The correct number of inhabitants for the ship was 2,517. Pregnancies were strictly regulated, but The Council was not prepared to regulate deaths. Excess population always accumulated. The only humane solution: leave the extras behind.
No one wanted to be a Behinder.
Garlock Nash didn’t think about it when another planet was reported. He was young and cheerful. Not very useful. He spent his four hours of daily work cleaning air scrubbers. Mindless work. No wonder he kept getting into trouble.
The Council called a meeting. The population stood at 2,560. 43 too many. They started on the names of the undesirables, the troublemakers. The last name was “Garlock.”
Planet ICNA143327 was cold and wind-lashed and mostly uninhabitable. The unlucky 43 were shuttled down to a spot near the equator and given some tools, and six month’s supplies.
The argument about how to put up the tent had been going on for two hours, with the wind throwing rain in everybody’s faces. Garlock started crying.
“Stop sniveling! Get out of here!” somebody said.
“Yeah, go find some wood. Maybe somebody can figure out how to make a fire.”
Wood? Doesn’t that come from trees? Those tall, branchy-looking things in the canyon might be trees. Garlock shambled away, shivering.
He found flood-piled wood by the river. He was picking up sticks when he stumbled and fell backward onto a pile of brush. Something growled.
A beast reared up. It had a long body and strangely jointed legs, each ending in three wickedly curved claws. Was this its house? Or . . . nest, or whatever? The beast leaped.
Garlock still had a stick in his hand. He swung it without thinking, clipping the monster on its ear. It tumbled to one side and gathered itself to leap again. Garlock jumped to his feet and attacked. He swung the stick again, with all his might. The stick broke and he used his fists.
Garlock stopped screaming once the beast stopped moving. Silence. Only rain and wind.
He was alive! Garlock had never felt terror before. He had never fought, never been hungry, or cold, or soaked through like this.
He probably should have felt miserable. But he was alive. He had fought for his life and won. And it felt . . . good!
“People aren’t made for life like that.” Well, there are other things people aren’t made for.
The beast had thick fur. Could be a useful thing on a cold planet. He slung the beast over his shoulder. It was heavy. The climb out of the canyon would be hard. Maybe too hard.
He laughed.