Author: Jamie Bainbridge-Wood
One- The Ghost is Another Machine
The point of this exercise is observation but I’m distracted, observing that Dwyer’s return will cause some surprise.
The house he has chosen sits at the top of a steep slope, between two snowy hills. The memories they gave me are out of date but the location makes sense, in that part of me that Dwyer and I share.
Dwyer’s wife is a good-looking woman. Handsome. I haven’t met many women but I think Doctor Pryce may have been one: a smell in the dark, different than the others, sensed dimly in the time before my assembly had been completed. The first step in a process. Much is still incomplete.
Dwyer’s religion is routine. He leaves and enters his house at similar times. So too, his wife. So too, his children. Upon entering his home, he makes similar noises to his wife and children and they make similar noises back. I know I would not be able to hear these within the limits of normal human hearing.
Even so, being here instead of in the dark, I am defined by barriers. They poured me into this, partition’s inner and outer ready formed. I have no memories before this.
The memories I do have, I share with Dwyer. The slide of his wife’s forefinger and thumb in a tender vice around his/my/our jaw as she reaches up for a kiss; the warmth he experiences for his children; our bitterness at being forced to a different life.
For me, the feelings are only memories. I wonder if this is a remove that Dwyer and I share. I wonder if I will ask him.
West rattles the small bones in my ear, an order to cease my observation. A response is not required. The camouflage that serves me well on the hill will make no difference in the house.
I discard it.
Two- Change Places
There are men that make machines. There are others that design the architecture to make them function. Of these camps, Dwyer belongs to the latter. His aims ran counter to my assemblers. He had been discovered. He had fled, beating a man into disability during his flight. This story, I overheard in the dark. I have no memory of this.
I let myself into the house, using the back door that Dwyer’s wife forgets to lock. The children are breathing above, asleep in their beds.
I am not to kill the children, I am not to kill the wife. Parameters, crystalline. I am promised completion.
At the foot of the stairs, my senses extend. I know them. I know which steps creak. My feet move in silent placement. For the first time, I know impatience.
On the landing, a light.
Dwyer’s wife finds him at his desk. She woke, heart pounding at a sound that bled into a dream. She finds him hunched over a tablet, flicking between panels with a finger and her heart stills. Dwyer, a smile already on his face, looks over his shoulder. “Bad dream?”
Returning the smile, she leaves the doorway
In a stand-up dresser in the corner of the study, a body with a broken neck is curled. Memories are lost forever, their absence a fracture in the new continuity.
Eyes distant, I look back down at the tablet.
Dwyer’s return will be a surprise.
Author: Alicia Cerra Waters
My mother came home from work that night with the corners of her mouth turned towards her chin. She took off her yellow fluorescent vest and hardhat, which was scarred with dirt and the colorless remains of the unionist sticker she’d scratched off, and put them on a kitchen chair. She held her hands under the sink and the water ran black.
I was lying on the living room floor in my pajamas. The TV was on the reality channel, and they were doing a special on lewd messages sent between bots and unsuspecting humans on Instabook. I watched her, waiting for the lecture. She always got mad when I used VR because it cost us double the bitcoin of standard res, but that day she barely noticed. A miniature, digital man was gesticulating wildly in the middle of our living room, saying, “Don’t do it, dude! Don’t do it!” The box of Syrupy Corn Pebbles was empty and golden crumbs from the plastic bag were ground into the carpet at my side. She didn’t seem to see any of it as she sat down at the table with a bottle of beer in one hand and the whiskey in the other.
“There was no school today,” I said. “The education center had a staffing shortage again, so they canceled classes.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat and used the lip of the kitchen table to pop open her beer.
“How was work?”
“We’re building another delinquent processing center,” she said. “Open the curtains.”
I went to the window and looked down the twenty stories to the ground. Where we lived used to be beautiful, at least that’s what my mother said. There used to be museums and parks in the city, which had turned into abandoned buildings and overgrown lots before I was old enough to see any of them.
Outside, the nearest overgrown lot was now a pit with rolls of barbed wire piled almost as high as the tenth floor of our building. I saw a banner with the name of my mother’s construction company affixed to a chain link fence surrounding the area.
“We have a contract to build three more of these things in this county alone. So you can keep the VR on as much as you want. We can afford it.”
“Does that mean we have enough money for me to go to a private education center? I know some kids who go to one, and they say their teachers almost never get disappeared.”
My mother put down her beer. “Who told you that teachers are getting disappeared?”
I shrugged. “It’s obvious. Everyone at school knows that’s where they went.”
She took a deep breath and stood. She unplugged the TV and took the battery out of both of our phones. Her eyes were drilling holes into me when she spoke. “Don’t you see what’s outside? Shut your mouth.”
She kept drinking, and the light shifted so that our apartment was an eerie blue. I got up and put a cup of instant dinner in the microwave and watched the cardboard box spin under the yellow light. “When do they get to come out?” I said. “The thought criminals.”
“When that empty pit across the street looks like a garden again.”
“They didn’t do anything,” I said. “How could this happen?”
“It’s happened hundred times before. Your teachers would have told you about it, but most of them are disappeared.”
Author: Steven Watson
“It’s not the end of the world.”
This was how Clara consoled herself: by affirming the exact opposite. For it was the end of the world. The earth was dying, and only a small mountainous corner remained habitable. A band of several hundred humans made it their home, but the altitude was such that no life could be born, and after fifty years only Clara was left.
Her pets would likely survive her. They were six-legged, with bulging eyes, and humans called them ‘zergs’. They had long dark-yellow bodies, not unlike slugs, and when they stood upright (which they could do only for several seconds at a time) they towered above any human.
Zergs did not generally consider humans prey, not because humans weren’t edible — which they were, despite their ill-health — but because they were a more powerful and, moreover, a more mobile species. Humans, therefore, kept the zergs as idle pets, much like pigs or sheep, and would sometimes farm them for food.
Several zergs encircled Clara. They were perfectly still — patient, even — though small hissing and whining sounds escaped their terrible mouths. Clara was dying and with her the human race.
The zergs’ preference for not eating humans only lasted up until the human’s death. They ate like snakes: slowly digesting the body whole. Occasionally a zerg attempted to eat someone nearing death, but another human would always stop them. For Clara, however, there was no one left to stop them. As she drifted in and out of consciousness she felt the greedy lips of a zerg attach to her forehead.
Inside the zerg, near what one might consider its belly, were hundreds of sharp teeth that ground the body it was digesting. It could have taken several minutes before Clara reached that stage, and in all likelihood, she would have suffocated by then.
But the zerg’s lips kept re-attaching, and never seemed to make it past her eyes. She was not aware of it, but the zergs were competing over her. One zerg would grip its lips onto Clara’s head, and another would stand up momentarily, then slam its body onto the feeder. It would then take its place and another would slam him. There were six zergs in total, and after one had scuttled away defeated, the remaining five seemed to find a compromise: two got the legs, another two got the arms, and one (the most dominant) got the head.
“Still,” Clara told herself, “it’s not the end of the world.”
Clara was nothing if not a fervent optimist. She thought a miracle to be more likely than a tragedy. She had still believed that she might birth a child, even after she had entered her dotage, and even after the last man had died. She did not identify the extinction of humans with the extinction of humanity. Some might call her a fool, but she remained happy; a more rational person would have been driven mad.
The most remarkable thing then happened — one might even confuse it for a miracle. The zerg sucking and drooling on her forehead had not yet reached her eyes, and so she could still see the sky. At first, the sky turned a crimson hue, then fiery pulses clouded it in kaleidoscopic colour. The pulses became regular and the sky quivered as if about to collapse. The heat became intolerable, and the zergs detached themselves from Clara and lay on their backs writhing in agony.
“Oh, dear me,” thought Clara, not altogether unhappily, “perhaps it is the end of the world.”
Author: Jes Sanders
“This is war now.” Murfree Tain blinked his retinal feed off and scowled at the cityscape sliding beneath him. He couldn’t bear watching his company’s stock dive any further.
His companion, Bill, clicked a Zendorphin dispenser that doled out one measured dose and held it out to Murfree, “We’re gonna get this new super AI, this ‘Project Senecio, and everything will work out. But I need you cool right now. Close the deal.”
Murfree snorted up the Zendorphin without making eye contact. “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”
The air car politely informed its passengers that they were arriving, and the public air dock of the QuanTech R&D tower slid up to meet them. Moments later, Murfree and Bill were entering Dr. Jao Ochoa’s office with handshakes and generous smiles.
“Excuse the mess. Please, sit.” The room was littered with half-completed constructions, nests of notes, towers of peer reviews. A young man came in, Spanish, like Doctor Ochoa and dressed in a sport coat to try to add some credibility to his too-short slacks and tennis shoes. “This is my son, Arturo.”
“Arturo,” the man-child confirmed. He fiddled with his fingers as if working some invisible abacus, and looked only at some non-existent point in space. “Magenta maybe,” he muttered, “Not violet, though..”
Murfree asked, “Is it appropriate for your son to be a party to sensitive meetings, such as this?”
Bill sensed the strain in his voice, and very quietly said, “Coool. Be cool.”
Doctor Ochoa shrugged, “If he makes you uncomfortable, you are free to leave.”
Murfree chewed the inside of his lip until he tasted blood.
One screen and station in the corner looked orderly and new and sleek.
“Is that the secret weapon?” Murfree asked. “Is that Senecio?”
Doctor Ochoa laughed lightly, “ That is the instrument, the hammer. But,” he pointed a finger up, “who holds the hammer, and to what end – these are the larger questions.”
Murfree leaned to the edge of the seat. “Can it really do everything I’ve heard? It can intuit an enemy’s moves and devise an unbeatable strategy?”
“That and more. Not only can Senecio defeat your enemy, Senecio can do so in the style of any past war. Want to march on a foreign shore in the manner of Patton? We can show you where to deploy your troops. Or maybe you want to corrupt another corporation’s ledger. We can infiltrate like 4Ten9. But,” Doctor Ochoa said, “only if we believe the ends better humanity.”
Arturo drew right up to Bill and examined him. “Hm. Orange. Orange.”
“Arturo, go get a soda.” Arturo obeyed and began drifting around the office.
“I will give you any amount of money you name.”
“So will any one of a thousand governments, companies or cartels.”
“AfriCorps is murdering us out there!, “Murfree barked. “They have tapped into a vein of pristine grey matter that we can’t begin to touch! I need your machine to take them down.”
Arturo grew agitated as Murfree’s tone escalated. “Magenta. Magenta. Violet!” He backed towards the sleek workstation.
“For God’s sake, get that idiot away from the Senecio!”
“Red! Red! Red!” Arturo exclaimed, and backed into the workstation, spilling his soda over the keyboard.
Doctor Ochoa moved to the office door and opened it, inviting his guests to leave. “Mister Tain,” he said, “Arturo is not an idiot; he is a savant. That machine isn’t our secret weapon. Arturo is. He sees everything in music and color: battle plans, economies, even people. And he can see through you, Mister Tain, can see that your aims are not in keeping with our principles. To him, you are red, when you should have been yellow. You lose, Mister Tain. You lose.”
Author: Janet Shell Anderson
I married for money, wasn’t much good at it. I used to hunt.
Last week, driving west from Valentine on 20, I noticed the roads were empty. Not a stock truck, horse van, pickup. Not an old rez beater, though we’re pretty far south of Pine Ridge. There’s not much population up here, but some. It was odd. I turned north at Merriman, crossed the state line. No one waited at my house. Divorce is lonely country.
Matthew and I got divorced last month, and the neighbors must have disapproved or something. I haven’t seen any around.
Well, they knew what I was.
Now I’m going south on Highway 81, just screwing around, left the outfit for a while, bored, and still, no traffic, unless you count plate-sized turtles sunning on the late-evening, still-warm blacktop, and five very stubborn pronghorns, young males that refuse to give me right of way. They stand there, all five of them flicking their tails, and look at me with eyes glassy as if they’d already been turned into trophies on some wall of some Twin Cities’ dentist.
They know I don’t hunt them.
I texted Matthew this morning because I thought we were going to split the money from the three mares we sold. He owes me a check, and he’s a good guy about things like that. Got nothing back from him.
He’ll pay me. It’s fair. I used to hunt in the big coastal cities. Mostly money. Not always. We’re all what we are.
The sky’s full of sunset, high strawberry cumulus, ruby-red cirrus above the arc of the Earth. Long shadows. It’s June. Late. Lavender sky overhead that will fade to a nameless color.
Pheasants whistle. Settling in for the night?
Odd there are no lights at the Wickmann house as I pass it. The big trees around their homestead have heavy shadows, night in there already, and all the birds gone to their nests. Not even one swallow slices through the windless sky.
On a whim, I cross the state line, drive to Merriman. I don’t really know anybody there but Grant, with his gold earring and too-good looking face. He might be at the gas station, somewhere playing cards, drinking at the casino up by Mission. I don’t know.
No lights on in the twenty houses. The gas station’s closed. Jacob Scott closes it down whenever he feels like it, which is whenever he’s going to the casino, so I figure he and Grant are there. The town looks odd. Dark.
A late hawk whistles down over the cottonwood trees by the little creek, dives on roadside prey. Rabbit? Probably.
A robodog, looking like the plastic articulated skeleton of a small bear, made of thin white pc pipe and plastic ties, with twenty legs and a blunt snout, digital, intelligent eyes, trots onto the highway, lifts its pale head, vocalizes. It sounds almost like a coyote but is much bigger. Matthew had one, but it was savaged by something, a cougar, we thought. The robos aren’t aggressive, can’t fight, even to save themselves.
Sunset’s lighted half the western sky now, rays of cerise, purple shoot up, Venus glitters over the dusky rose prairie.
The plastic creature comes to the door of my truck, puts its strange feet on the fender, wants to get in. I open the door.