Then, at 2:30. . . .

Author : Theric Jepson

A couple of chairs, a couch–sometimes a studio audience, sometimes not–the business hasn’t really changed in the last thirty years. The main thing is smile, ask a bunch of dumb questions,a bunch of easy questions, laugh readily, let them promote what they’re here to promote–and if it’s all gone well, end with a question that will let their eyes well up with tears. And, if you’re really lucky, the polish will slough and the audience will glimpse a human being. The stars keep coming because they’re sure they’ll win. The ratings keep coming because those watching know sometimes they don’t.

Today it’s an old popstar waging a doomed comeback. She had a string of hits in the mid2020s, but I didn’t remember any of them until I was researching the interview. The only tolerable tune is “Ain’t Nuthin’ but the Other Girl” so she’ll enter to that; she’ll wave, blow kisses, do a 45-year-old’s hip wiggle, shake my hand, kiss my cheek, sit down, and cross her legs. I’ll say, Wow! Great to see you! and we’ll be off to the races.

We’ll talk about the good old days, the hits, the tours, the tabloid romance with Terry Flowers. I’ll be sure to get her to laughingly recall the brief trend in stage stripping, how the fans would fly their pocketdrones to the stage after the act left and steal everything from set lists to beer-bottle shards to used tissue to scraped-up sweat smears. Then we’ll be off to what’s she been up to these past–gee whiz, has it really been 17 years since “Maiden Romance”? And then we’ll discuss the impetus to tour again and how the kids are gonna miss mom so much. How many kids do you have again?

That’s an important one. I’ll wax sappy about my own kids, talk about how for our third kid we cloned my wife. Then we’ll swing back to the old days. See this water bottle? They don’t make them like this anymore! No cobalt-60 strip to tear apart viruses; hard to believe we used to live in such a DNA-coated world. You left this particular bottle onstage after a show in Toronto, July 13, 2026. During the stage strip, it was recovered by a bright pink drone owned by 18-year-old fan Dianna Puhr. I wonder if you would like to meet Dianna’s daughter?

Enter 18-year-old Suzan Puhr, dressed in a modern version of the get-up this once-star wore during her infamous command performance for President Martinez and Kim Jong-un (1,790,183,767 views and counting). The audience will gasp. Even the aging popstar will connect the dots.

And, dammit, she will cry.

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Author : Dan Endres

She was identified by two letters. One capital “A” and one capital “G” stood side by side under her left eye in laser-imprinted ink. She had chestnut hair, green eyes and a healthy tan, but those two letters were what people recognized first. Her name was Angela, but to most of the population that was irrelevant. She was an AG. That’s what mattered.

AG wasn’t specific to her of course. There were plenty just like her of every race, religion, gender and orientation. AG stood for Alderman General, the hospital where she had been born. It was a fairly dull place to begin one’s life, (coming in somewhere between 98 and 92 on the hospital rankings from year to year) but she couldn’t complain. AG came with enough respect to find decent work, if not enough prestige to live the most comfortable life. Those were saved for the JH’s and SJ’s. Still, it could be worse. She could be brandless.

The brandless were the worst kind of people. Born in clinics too poor or backwards to have a proper designation or even worse, born in their parents’ homes, these ‘people’ barely qualified for the word. AGs weren’t rich, but even they knew better than to associate with the brandless. They were drains on the economy, vile, ignorant and decidedly untrustworthy. If there wasn’t such a pressing need for cheap labor, most brands agreed it’d be better to simply eliminate them from the population. Always coming back to that lens, Angela appreciated her modest life.

What she did not appreciate was this subcentennial ticket scratcher taking up the last fifteen minutes placing a simple order for a burger. He might not be brandless (he wouldn’t be ordering food if he were) but she knew before even seeing his face that he couldn’t be from one of the top one-hundred. His posture was horrendous, his hair cut into a vulgar purple Mohawk and… did she hear him right? Was he seriously trying to order tacos at a Patty Prince?

“Well can I get ‘em crunchy?” he asked the dim faced cashier, scratching the back of his head. She knew it. He was a ticket scratcher. For what must’ve been the hundredth time now, the woman behind the counter explained that Patty Prince did not serve tacos. Her voice was as plain and monotone now as it had been for the first explanation. She was probably subcentennial too.

Angela was just about to speak up when the subbie finally seemed to get the message. It didn’t really matter now though. By the time she got her own food she wouldn’t have time to eat it. Work resumed in less than ten minutes and it would take that long just to get back to the office. She could try to sneak a bite on the way back, but if she were caught, a public eating violation would spell the end of her career anyway. Fuming, she slipped out of line and stormed out through the glass doors of the Patty Prince. Brandless might be the lowest form of sentient life, but at least they knew their place.

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Author : chesterchatfield

“So then, you know what he does? He falls to his knees. His knees, like in happiness. I mean can you imagine? Lived on an island for six years alone- hasn’t said a single word since they rescued him, then, gets off the helicopter and at the very sight of L.A. – polluted, disgustin’, stinkin’ Los Angeles- at his first sight of civilization he falls to knees and says one word. Just one word. You wanna know what it was? Hallelujah. Hallelujah! He was praisin’ God! Ain’t that ironic? Beautiful tropic island vs. L.A.” The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Always thought it was a weird story.”

I nodded at the man, lost in my own thoughts. He was just another independent, one of several I had run into in the last several months. A matted beard made it hard to distinguish age, but old enough that he wouldn’t last long out here, skirting cities.

By the next morning, he’d disappeared. Wandering— maybe he’d get caught. Maybe they would Change him and he would never have to sleep on the cold, hard, ground again.

Family gone, lost in the wilderness, I just walked, heading towards civilization with no goal at all. I wished I’d invited that man to come with me. Maybe we could have been happy together.

I kept on hiking.

That night I dreamed my father came home from work and he was Changed. He was wearing a clean new blazer and his curly hair was straightened, parted symmetrically down the middle. He gently explained that he was now perfect and we had to be too. My brothers refused and they all started fighting until they were just a heap of bodies on the floor. My mother and I buried them, and she stared calmly down at their graves. Then she finally looked up at me with glassy eyes and whispered, “Hallelujah.”

I awoke in a cold sweat, trying to hold onto the dream as it slipped away. I opened my eyes to the newly risen sun.

After another two days I finally got a glimpse of light. City lights, revealing the valley where my relatives used to live. I hoped they were down there somewhere, perfect and happy.

I stood at the base of the very last hill, then trekked up slowly, stopping to rest just before the top, drawing out the time before I had to look out over the other side. I tried to imagine some Changed guards watching, waiting to catch a glimpse of me and send in the cavalry. Maybe I would sneak past them and become a hero; rescue the thousands of perfect people living in the city. Ha. Or maybe they didn’t give a rat’s ass if I wandered into their shiny city or starved out here in the cold.

I walked the last few steps backwards, facing the mountains. Then I turned and just stood, taking it all in.

For miles, there was only row after row of cookie-cutter houses. They each had one sleek black car parked in the driveway. In the distance rows and rows of dark buildings sat like silent sentinels. Same height and distance apart from the others, lined with symmetrical windows.

I shivered as I stood on my hill, observing everything from an elevated view.

I thought of that nameless old man’s story and reached up a hand to touch my rough, sunburned face.

“Hallelujah, indeed.”

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Author : Pavelle Wesser

“Stop that,” Steve blinked when Sue snapped his holograph with her new Series 807 Phat Phone.
“Calm down,” she pouted, her lips swollen from their latest Hooker’s Passion Red injection.
“I’m jittery, Sue. The technomed suggested I increase the meds in my morning coffee.”
“The sedatives or amphetamines?” Her blue Lucite eyes questioned.
“Use your brain, Sue.”
“There’s no reason to anymore,” she gazed now at his image floating between them. “I’m impressed by how quickly your holograph develops with this new phone.”
“I shouldn’t have gifted you that,” Steve scowled. “The radioactive component in those images ups your daily dosage.” Steve waved an artificially-enhanced hand through the air.
“Can I give you a sedative without adjusting the coffee maker settings, which I never figured out, anyway?”
“Sure, but you should have learned the settings by now; I gave it to you on the last pseudo-religious holiday.”
“I’ve been holding off telling you this,” Sue winced, “but the technodoc tell me my neurons and synapses are misfiring. I can actually smell my brain cells burning.”
“Really? Jeez, I assumed the smell was coming from the toaster,” Steve sighed, “I just hope you recognize me in a few years.”
He stared at her, noting how much she’d changed from before, with her face now stiff and bloated from the treatments and … What gibberish was she uttering into her Phat Phone?
“Hooma Balooma, Adiva Eureka,” her face lit up as his image whined, “Hasn’t my breakfast been heli-delivered yet?”
“Please stop,” Steve moaned.
“Fine then,” as she stood, his image evaporated. “I’m off to work. Our dinner is being engineered at the lab and will be delivered by courier. See you.”
As she sashayed out the door, Steve admired her slender-sucked waist and implant-induced butt. He’d been too slothful to preserve his youth and had blown off countless procedures. Just this week, he’d meant to get some wrinkles ironed out but …. As the pain returned, he massaged his chest. His should never have cancelled that cardio appointment, but there’d been the work deadline…
Before lunch, Sue checked her image in her compact. Her technodoc assured her she could obtain more elaborate features for the right price, ‘right’ being a debatable term. After lunch, she would power-walk in an armored suit through the streets. She had no illusions about how dangerous they were, given her position in a newly-defined social services sector under the auspices of Urban 275. Her job function was unclear, though she considered this irrelevant as long as the grant money kept rolling in. On her way out, she gave her breasts an injection of Bloatabec, though it was an effort for her robotic fingers to operate the syringe.
As she returned from lunch, a message was erupting through her voice box. “This is the division of medical inaction, jurisdiction 361, informing you that your husband has flat-lined. His post-mortem autopsy reveals he missed his cardio appointments, making him fully culpability for this outcome. We here at 361 offer heart-felt condolences. This concludes message number 556, which will be charged to your account. Good day.”
Sue sat down awkwardly on her inflated buttocks and placed her head into her artificially enhanced hands. To her credit, she tried very hard, but her recently-installed Lucite eyes were incapable of dispelling tears.


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Of Phoenixes and Men

Author : Serban Danciu

“You know Carmen, it is as if you had lost your soul since you became a Macro operator.”

“Is that so?” Replied Carmen bursting into laughter. “My dear, let me tell you something: I DON’T give a rat’s ass. Do you understand? You don’t? All right. When you’ll start pushing the buttons you will surely do.” The woman turned and grabbed the microphone:

“Gabriel, be a sport and open the gates for the Black Velvet. Let’s fry them a bit.”

“Roger that, initializing Velvet activation protocol.” Replied the weapons’ officer of the second deck.

She then turned and looked through the exterior window of the control room. As a red fog, milions of deaf phoenixes were floating in the space between the two planets.

“Wait to see them BURN”, growled the older woman as her eyes devilishly sparkled. She then slightly leaned her head and squinted while callibrating the effect field of the weapon. Her wrinkled finger reached for the button and pushed it.

From the second deck of the Mark132-Romulus defence station, thousands of Velvety Bodies sprang forth advancing towards the alien mass like an old theatre curtain.

“B-but why? Why burn them? I mean, they do no harm…they’re just sitting there, floating around”

“Ha! Silly girl, how do YOU know they do no harm to us? How? Do you remember how WE got burned at the First and the Second Contact? The universe doesn’t want us, kid. None of the races, neither Xantellar, nor those from Andromeda, nor anybody! Nobody wants us – remember that. It’s us against them. They hate us…they think we are gross, they think of us as animals, superficial beings… and they never miss an oportunity to make fun of us. All our spies at their congresses and all their intercepted comunications say the same thing.”

“ Yes, true, but phoenixes are not a race in itself, they are just…well…phoenixes…like a natural phenomenon and they’ve done no harm to us YET. They haven’t even been studied throughly enough. Maybe they are good, maybe they are even friendly…”

“Look…I used to be like you at first. You think you can solve everything with peace and harmony around but at some point you will see that the world is nothing like that. It is a dog-eat-dog world where everyone eats whatever and whoever he can in order to survive. Kindness, compassion…these are fairytales.” The lines on her old face curved into an expression full of contempt. NOT EVEN ONCE, that they had shown us any kindness whatsoever, listen to me, NOT EVEN ONCE. So why should WE be the tolerant ones. Screw them…”

She lit herself another cigarette.

In the background, milions of searing phoenixes were screaming their bitter telepathic shouts of desperation but in space nobody ever listens.

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