Author : Grace Franzen

In 1721 Mary Margaret Thornton is sitting in the shallows of the river when the dairy farmer’s son finds her. He rises often this early, on the breath of dawn, specifically of a purpose to find her before anyone else does. When he sees her in the water, current tugging languidly at her skirts and hair, he shudders to think what the other townsfolk would think of her. What they would do.

“I saw her again,” she says when he helps her out of the cold water, throws his coat around her. “They showed her to me. An angel who will make roads for us in the sky.”

He knows it’s useless to talk real sense to her. The only way to reach her is with her sense.

“And how can the dead know what hasn’t happened yet?” he points out. Mary Margaret Thornton’s face is a pleasant but distant one, never quite wakened from a dream. He sometimes wonders if he and the river and the townsfolk live only in her mind.

“The time and the light touch them not.” She spreads out cold white fingers from his coat, wiggles them lightly. “They cannot forget and cannot lie. And they have seen her.”

She smiles and pats his cheek. It’s a shuddering, enticing feeling whenever she looks at him, whenever she looks right through him.

“She is trying to come back to us,” she says. “My children shall give birth to angels.”

In 2721 Captain Priya El-Aleil is sitting in the chair of command, eyes closed, listening. Outside the great impenetrable windows the coldness of space drifts by, the massive explorer ship Kurosawa tied to no orbit and awaiting orders. Priya El-Aleil looks very different from Mary Margaret Thornton. The blood of giants, of stars, of comets and commanders courses through her, but right now it is the blood of Mary Margaret Thornton within her on which the captain depends. The Galactic Assembly is depending on that blood, depending on Priya El-Aleil, and she is depending on the dead. The dead will at last find what was lost.

The dead, she knows, will finally bring them back to Earth.

Ocean of Stars

Author : Alicia Cerra Waters

Don’t they understand that we have no room for them here? Think about it. We are on the only blue planet in a galaxy of gas giants and colossal boulders caught in orbit, most of which are about to be swallowed up by their swollen, burning suns. Anyone who doesn’t have a death wish and isn’t a complete idiot moved here a long time ago.

Well, why shouldn’t I say it? Is it my fault that those people didn’t do their homework before they settled on a planet that was about to go up in flames? They chose the places they lived. Seriously. It’s 2578. We have ways of figuring out which planets are going down and which ones are going to sustain us. And with no sustainable planet, there’s no future. If you’re old enough to remember earth, you know all about what happens when a planet dies. You remember the oceans drowning cities with poisoned water, you know all about the air giving people a goody bag full of cancers, and you know that if you wanted to get the hell off of that place you had to be strong and you had to be smart. Some people didn’t make it.

As for me, I’m not going to sit around and cry about what I saw. And let me tell you, it was a mess. People needed gas masks and special suits to go outside on the planet that gave them life. If you couldn’t afford the gear, well, that was it. You didn’t last long. I’ll spare you the gruesome details of what people who died that way looked like.

Those of us who worked hard enough could pay a space shuttle to take us away. But if you lived in a poor little country, forget it. You weren’t going anywhere unless a missionary or a bleeding heart liberal saved you because there was no way you would be able to afford the ride. Of course, people fought it. There were riots at so many shuttle launches; guards beat back masses of people who were diseased and thin and desperate, people who had nothing to lose. A few of the riots were successful, but they didn’t do any good. A lot of people were killed, and the passengers who were going to get off earth didn’t get their tickets refunded, oh no. If they couldn’t afford to pay again, tough. Those people who paid everything they had to leave earth turned into the rioters at the next shuttle launch, and if they were lucky that’s how they died. It would be better than another day on that miserable planet. But what does that matter now? Am I supposed to worry about it for the rest of my life?

I survived, and if those people stuck on the desert planets and rock planets can’t do the same, it’s not my problem. Those planets glow red in the night sky. They should have known not to land there, and now they’re paying the price. And don’t talk to me about everything those people never had. I don’t want to hear about their disadvantages anymore.

I’m here in the sunshine. I can breathe and drink clean water, and I wake up every day in a warm bed inside my big house. No one I know is unhappy. No one I know is living on a planet that’s about to be burned. Those places are far, far away. If anyone is screaming, I can’t hear them.

The Works of 1.6

Author : David Maskill

Look below: gravitational lensing but with added sugar.

Ocean currents were rendered hazy and golden. The whole planet was swathed in caramelised whorls of cloud turned syrup. Even the stars twinkled a little too excitedly.

“Have you been messing with my oxygen again?”

1.6 was probably defective. I’d considered resetting him to the factory default but, as is always the way, couldn’t quite bring myself to erase his personality. They take a long time to mature.

“Definitely not,” said 1.6, “Don’t you like what I’ve done?”

“What is it?” I asked, now starting to worry for the planet’s inhabitants.

“I’ve created an optical effect. It looks like treacle.”

“I hope you haven’t harmed anyone.” He’d never hurt anybody before but it pays to be certain about these things. AIs could be testy; the careless traveller has, on occasion, been known to find themselves ejected from their own spacecraft.

“It’s just an optical effect,” replied 1.6, “Don’t you like it?”

I must have looked fairly unimpressed.

“But you like treacle,” he said, without waiting for my reply, “You have it in your sandwiches.”

“Yes. I have it in sandwiches,” I admitted, “but not on planets.”

There was a pause– probably timed to the last millisecond.

“Do you not think it’s pretty?”

And there it was: this ‘treacle warp’ was yet another of his attempts at art. I sighed and then decided to finally tell him the stark truth of the matter:

“Listen. You can’t create art. I’m sorry, but there’s no way you can ever truly understand what art is or what it’s for– you don’t even have an aesthetics driver. Now stop with this nonsense and please concentrate on keeping us in orbit, or whatever else it is you’re supposed to be doing.”

You might think me cruel, but the dozy thing needed telling. How many philosophical discussions on the nature of beauty does one artificial intelligence need to have?

“I wasn’t aware that an aesthetics driver was available,” he replied, as calmly as ever, “Why haven’t you downloaded it?”

I would have answered but for the unexpected scene now unfolding beneath me. The syrupy whorls had blossomed into terrible rosettes of fire, scorching the atmosphere en masse. They set the planet alight with the toasty glow of a thermonuclear apocalypse.

“What are you doing?” I squealed, “Stop it!”

I carried on squealing, but the silent eruptions continued regardless.

“It’s just an optical effect,” said 1.6, “There is no need to panic.”

Of course it was just an optical effect.

“Why haven’t you downloaded an aesthetics driver for me?” he asked again.

“It’s expensive and you don’t need it.” In the back of my mind, I noted that the burning planet did seem to have an oddly psychedelic, even artistic, appeal.

“But if I had one, my optical effects would be art?”

I could not answer.

To be honest, I’d never understood what an aesthetics driver was actually supposed to do– most AIs already have some appreciation of aesthetics, as an emergent feature of their intelligence. In any case, this argument was fast becoming tiresome.

“Only humans can make art,” I declared, as if it were absurd to suggest otherwise.

“Don’t neural networks–”

“No. I’ve already told you. They cannibalise the works of humans. Look: you don’t need to be an artist. That’s not what you were made for.”


“Quiet now.”

In hindsight, perhaps a more diplomatic approach would have been advisable, but it was too late now. As I turned to leave, the warning sirens started blaring, and out I hurtled into the vacuum of space.

Under My Skin

Author : Samuel Stapleton

I stared at our instructor, unsure if I’d heard him correctly.

“You want me to what?”

He sighed and stepped back.

“Everyone here believes that any human that loses contact with Interface3 would suffer irreversible neurological and physical damage, yes?”

We all nodded.

“Your parents sent you to this camp in order that we might show you otherwise. But I can’t explain any of the context until you believe me instead of the indoctrination you’ve been fed. So here we are, as far from civilization as we can get in the Eastern United States – the Appalachian mountains. And I want you,” He pointed to me again, “To blow out my Interface.”

He held the small silver emitter out to me again. A micro-emp wand. I stood frozen and barely managed to stutter out a garbled message of resistance.

“Uh, no…er, you can’t…I’m not, it’s not…” I stopped stumbling after a moment and went silent.

He shrugged and touched the wand to the back of his ear as we watched in utter disbelief. He grinned and hit the trigger. There was a quiet buzz and then a snap. Our instructor dropped like a sack of bricks. His pale blue eyes stared up at me from the ground, unmoving. His free hand twitched a few times. One of the girls started screaming. I was about to link with my (s)implant and call for emergency services when he coughed.

“Oh shit.” I heard someone say. “He’s up.”

Awkwardly our instructor regained his feet, grimacing violently as he did so.

“Alright. That was a little showy of me – and I paid for it. But, as you can see I’m under no real duress.”

I still didn’t understand.

“Great, but what was the point? 3Com will read that your device went out and soon rescue will be on the way to pick up your body. Except you’re not dead.”

“Now you’re asking good questions. Quickly, we don’t have much time.”

Our little group went from dumbfounded, to curious, to outraged in about two seconds flat. I heard at least five voices all shouting out questions over mine.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Are we a part of a conspiracy?”

“Do our parents really know about this?”

“How are you not dead?”

“Why can’t I contact emergency services?”

“What have you done?”

He remained silent.

“Tell us something.” I demanded.

“Okay.” He said. “Let’s have a little test. I’m going for a run. Whoever can’t keep up, will become the body for ES to find.” Without another word, he took off.

I maxed out my Interface3, (s)implant, and bioclothing. If he truly had destroyed his interface we should have caught up with him immediately. But he outpaced us for the next two minutes. We caught up to him after he stopped, in the middle of a clearing in the woods.

“All these advancements but the greatest secret of them all is the one you’re never told.” He said as we approached.

“They’re using the biotech to keep you healthy, but reliant on them. To keep you mentally advancing, but only in one direction. To cure you of symptoms, but not the ailments. To keep you complacent, but below them. They’re under your skin, in your heads, using your genetic information – and there’s only one thing you can do about it.” Our instructor said.

Nobody replied. Until the quiet boy who caught up last spoke.

“Hand me that emitter.”

Revise and Resubmit

Author : R. S. Alexander

v1: Derek Taylor was sipping coffee in a Los Angeles restaurant when a recruiter from XygmaCorp walked past his table, accidentally brushing against his shoulder.

57,143 down votes

Top-rated comment: “Wait, this is happening in a world with drinkable water in the midddle of the freakin desert? Where’s the world building?”


v2: Derek Taylor was sipping coffee in a Los Angeles restaurant. Though LA was a desert, the heroic work of engineers a century earlier meant that not only could millions of people like Derek live there, they could even drink a beverage whose production involved discarding damp coffee grounds that were still rich in moisture. As he savored the slightly bitter flavor of his dark beverage, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

30,420 down votes

Top-rated comment: “WTF? Main characters in North America and drinking a Ethiopian drink? Un. Real. Istic.”


v3: Derek Taylor sat sipping coffee in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Though he lived in a desert, technology treated him to luxuries from distant places. Aqueducts, constructed a century earlier from the designs of heroic engineers, carried an embarrassment of water riches sufficient to hydrate millions of souls, while massive container ships carried coffee beans from afar to the port in Long Beach. As he savored the flavor of this rich harvest of technology, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

21,703 down votes

Top-rated comment: “You just plop a guy with Anglo name into a frmr Spanish colony? Without any backstory? Needs in-world explanation!”


v4: Derek Taylor sat sipping coffee in a Los Angeles café. Though once a province of Spain and then Mexico, war had brought Alta California into the United States a hundred and seventy years earlier, and pasty Anglos like Derek now lived in this desert under the hot California sun. Technology, though, ensured that they would not thirst in the arid climate, with aqueducts carrying an embarrassment of water riches sufficient to hydrate millions of thirsty people. Container ships, meanwhile, brought coffee beans and numerous other delicacies from afar to the port in Long Beach. As he savored his dark beverage, the bounteous rewards of a technological society, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

3,469 down votes

Top-rated comment: “The digits on the down votes don’t match Zipf’s statistical pattern. It’s obvious that somebody’s just making this up.”


“As you can see from the data on the previous slides, our machine learning algorithms generate bots that realistically emulate fandom, and we can now engage in fully computerized production of authentic and fan-pleasing ‘hard’ sci-fi stories through an iterative process,” said Fiona Ivanek, addressing the Machine Intelligence Industry Association. The audience applauded, and she smiled graciously in appreciation. In a moment, however, her team would relay via earpiece a summary of the online response. She prepared herself for the worst.