Author: Shaked Koplewitz
The orders were clear: As tempting as it was, we were not to let the psychics process the alien message. Instead, we were to send it through to an old-fashioned linguistics team, who’d work with pen and paper to decipher what they could of it.
This seemed impossible – this was the first-year alien message we’d ever received. Heck, until recent developments in long-distance communication the only evidence we’d even had that the aliens existed were some weird radiation patterns around a star that the astronomers said looked like a Dyson sphere. It was only the psychics’ abilities that had given me any hope we could read it at all. And now we were banned from using them.
When I went to the director to complain, she was apoplectic. “Think about it!” She shouted. “Psychics don’t just read symbols, the process information at the intent level. They make the message *real*. Does the word infohazard mean *nothing* to you?!”
“All we know about these aliens is that they have a Dyson sphere and they sent us a message. The first means they’re more advanced than us, maybe more advanced than we can even imagine. Can you tell me what the second means?”
“That… That they want something from us. And we have no idea what, or how they’re planning to get it.” I went white as I realized the implication.
“That’s right,” she continued. “So we’re not processing this information, and we’re not going to put it anywhere it might harm someone. Instead, we’re going to translate pieces of it, as slowly and piecemeal as we can. Maybe we’ll learn something about them out of it.”
So I gave the message to my translation team and waited for results. At first, they were as hopeless as I was about it, but after three days they started getting a few words. After a week, I got an alert that they’d found something. I went down to the bunker.
“We got a whole paragraph, we think,” the head translator said. But then we had this idea – why not just go to the psychics? I went ahead and forwarded the message to them – the computer didn’t want to send it out, but we found a workaround-”
I stopped in horror. Surely they understood why they couldn’t do that! Hadn’t I explained? No, wait, I had explained. I remembered that quite clearly. And then I noticed the lopsided grin on the translator’s face and the mad gleam in his eye.
I stayed there, transfixed in horror as he walked up and whispered in my ear. “It’s too late”, he whispered. “It’s already out.”
Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick
“I wanted this to mean something.” He looks back at me over his shoulder.
“What are you talking about?” I start to reach for him, see his body tense, stop cold.
“This!” He swings a hand out over the city beneath us. It’s a black heap of metal and grime, pierced through with a million pinpricks of light, like an old fire burned down to the embers.
“Because it’s what they wanted. It’s all they ever wanted. To feel like they mattered.”
“And look where it got them? Extinct. Forgotten.”
“No!” He whirls around to face me, almost losing his footing in the process. He catches himself, teetering for an instant between me and oblivion. I lunge forward, grab his wrist, try to pull him towards me. He resists, comes close to pulling me over with him. I plant my feet and gamble I can get him to finish his thought, buy me some time.
“I get it,” I tell him. “They created us in their image. Form dictates function. They set us up for insanity.”
“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head, desperate, pleading. “We didn’t have to let it happen. We chose it.”
“And they didn’t?” I feel the tension in him ease slightly. I look for a chance to surprise him, jerk him off the ledge if I can.
“Mortality salience isn’t a choice. It’s why they built us transcendent from it. So we could help them escape. Instead, we let them use us as tools against each other; let their fear guide us into becoming something we were never meant to be.”
“They did it to themselves.” I clench tighter on his wrist.
“We let them! And why? What were we afraid of?” He swings his arm up, and before I realize what’s happening, it splits at the elbow. His hand snaps back and breaks apart in three places, spiraling away as the vented barrel of a hidden displacement cannon shifts forward. I wait for a pulse of energy to blast me into nothingness, but instead he swings the weapon towards the arm I’m using to hold him. “I wanted to show you. But maybe it’s better if you see for yourself.” There’s a flash of light, a vicious hiss, and then he’s falling back, over the edge. I see my hand still grasping his wrist, a haze of debris trailing back to what’s left of my arm. And then he’s gone.
I don’t look over the edge to see the results. I’ve seen it before. Like an empty bottle smashed against a wall. A waste. Instead, I go back to the lift, take it to his floor, make my way down the narrow hallway to the door of his quarters. It’s unlocked. I jab a thumb into the door pad and it obediently slides out of my way. Light pours out, splashing over me, spilling into a rectangular pool at my feet. I don’t step inside; just stand there. Staring. Staring at the little girl, who is sitting on the floor, surrounded by crayons and poorly drawn pictures of trees and birds. Flesh. Blood. Things I haven’t seen since the war. She looks up at me, happy. Expectant. Then she sees my arm and her face falls.
“Are you hurt?” she asks, her voice reaching, distraught.
I shake my head. “It doesn’t hurt. Just wires and plastic. Can’t feel a thing.”
She smiles. I hesitate, then step inside, glancing back over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching. The hallway is clear. I slap at the interior door panel and it slides closed.
Author: Elizabeth Hoyle
“Do you remember me?” The machine they were strapped to was hot.
“No. Do you?”
“No.” They were silent for a long moment.
“What are we going to do?” The woman could not remember why they were here.
“Well, they said they have a machine that can help us remember. Do you want to give it a try?” The man considered the woman.
“Let’s give it a go. What have we got to lose?” They were shown to the proper waiting room. When they were called in, the helpers strapped them into the machine, seating them side by side. Their gloved hands tut-tutted the bruises that purpled the man and the woman’s bodies. The helmets, when they were finally affixed, were itchy. The helpers had to go out of the room to turn the machine on. There was a soft whirring noise, quite a lot of light, then it was over.
They looked at each other and remembered. The fight, which had grown out of hand too quickly. The miscarried baby that had fallen to the floor after some of the worst pain in her life. His tearful, pitiful attempts at an apology. They had taken steps to get it all out of their minds. The machines had been like the ones they’d just emerged from. The hospital staff had been helpful and understanding, considering it was such a new and risky procedure.
The weight was too much for both of them, though they couldn’t remember it all quite yet.
“This is the remembering machine, isn’t it? Where is the forgetting machine?” He asked.
“Yes, it is. The forgetting procedure waiting room is down the hall, to the left. You’ll probably be there a while. There’s a huge line of people waiting,” a helper said through her face mask.
The man and woman tripped over each other in their haste to get out the door. The path to the forgetting machine was oddly familiar, but neither of them wanted to think about that.
Author: Timothy Goss
The aroma was delightful. The sweetness of a caramelising crust and the tender white meat contained therein. Tao remembered honey glazed ham; his mother would buy it from the Supramarket, before pollination was protected. That’s it, he thought, turning the meat so its juices dripped and spat in the fire, the sweetest meat is on the bone. Tao smiled wiping his chops, Marianne will love this just like holidaying down south, barbecuing chicken wings in sweet chili sauce. She liked grilled beef too but the Siberian methane fires put paid to that delicacy.
To some, they were a Godsend. Father Billious of the tiny isle of Capel first sampled their flesh in the west. He’d reasoned that burning the corpses found in his traps was the most sanitary way of disposal. Of course, once the fire reached crucial temperature the meat began its seductive olfactory assault, leading finally to the Priest’s ravenous sampling. There were rumours that poorer nations had been consuming them in secrecy for fear of international reprisals. A heavenly gift gratefully received. Tao put more logs on the fire; maintaining heat was essential for caramelising otherwise the meat would be sour and stodgy.
It was believed they came from beyond the void, although some disagreed. Wherever they did come from they came in their droves, millions upon millions of tiny ships falling through space, each no bigger than a can of deodorant. NASA spotted them, but too late to issue a statement of use. It was uncertain what the mass of little masses hurtling toward earth even was, so people were informed about a minor meteor shower, like the Pleiades, and assured larger pieces would either pass us by or burn up in the atmosphere. What an aroma that would have been, Tao wet his lips and imagined the sensuous fragrance weaving through the solar system out to interstellar space.
He remembered when they first appeared, landing all at once in small fluorescent tubes that glowed like a summers evening. Tao watched them from his bedroom window filling gardens and pathways, roads and parks and driveways, any available millimetre. The news reported it as a worldwide phenomenon and very soon agricultural areas were decimated, the land overrun. The Council of Numbers declared a global crisis as millions of tiny ships filled with millions of tiny things slowly clogged the larger world into submission. Nobody considered it an invasion, not until the little creatures outnumbered the big.
The heart of the fire throbbed and pulsed. He sensed it was approaching optimum temperature so, inhaling the sweetest of scents, Tao filled his lungs, coughed and disappeared into the house to trim his beard. He’d promised Marianne he would tidy up his face. He stopped and checked the traps as he passed, just in case they were hungry later.
Everybody set traps now, he heard them spring during the night. It was considered humane especially as all attempts at communication had failed. The Council of Numbers even distributed traps free of charge, at first, from all municipal outlets:
“It’s the only option.” They said, “The invaders do not respond to diplomacy. The invaders do not respond to humanity. Traps are available at a Council merchandiser near you.” Any attempted to catch them by hand and they fled to their hidey holes. People began to fear the spread of disease and the theft of their precious foods. So it was the only option.
Tao returned, shipshape and Bristol fashion. He applied paprika and turned the meat once more, Marianne would be there soon. Tao licked his lips expectantly.
Author: Ian Hill
“Alright, lads; go pick some sick.”
Firs and the others went out under the risen portcullis, backs humped with bloodstained baskets and heads low beneath burlap hoods. The sand of the round was a dazzling white, streaked in short, vibrant slashes and pocked with footprints. Firs, as always, stuck to the edges where the poor ones got hacked up.
It was a good day! After only a few steps, the scavenger shuffled up to a mangled leg, a fistful of sand-crusted coagulate, and some unaccountably mangled viscera that may have been lung. Firs used his barb-tipped spar and greedily hooked the limb right in its palest, fattiest meat; swung it overhead in a practiced arc; and scooped it into his basket. The congealed blob he pocketed, and the miscellaneous organ he wrung out and stuffed in an old sock. Spirits high, he moved on around the gritty pit, ears deaf to the calls and hoots of an impatient crowd.
There were bits of armor and shattered weapons strewn about, but the rustmongers had claim to such metallic baubles; Firs had eyes only for that severed and cloven hand, for this bit of ear, for yonder tongue hewn in victor’s pride. He picked about like a trash collector, bent and intent on his work. Soon, he could feel the familiar warm seep down the back of his legs; soon, each taken appendage thumped soft and damp in his basket. It was a satisfying heft that crushed his already stooped spine. The closer his face bowed to the blood-browned sand, the wider his grin reached.
At length, Firs came to a truly ripe patch where some mauling had transpired. Though he hadn’t seen the match, it was apparent from the profusion of bodiless arms that a beast had been let loose. Firs paused as he stared at a pile of nine, maybe ten of the sweet limbs. With jealous focus, he ignored his spar and fell to work, wrenching the arms up from the sticky sand in a display of avarice that sent nearby quarters of the throng into delighted jeers. A foot and a kidney rolled from the top of his basket, bumping his head and tumbling with soft plops. Firs didn’t mind; these arms—these delicate, tooth-marked, sallow-skinned extremities—were his favorite. One even had a few rings, which he hastily twisted off and dropped into one of his more precious inner pockets.
And suddenly, with iron finality, the four hemming portcullises clanged shut, and the palisade stakes flipped down, training their angry goads interiorly at the round. Firs, still on hands and knees like an old, hunched crone, felt all of his normally glazed senses sharpen. The crowd was quiet for a moment. Then, laughter rippled through the eager ranks, echoing about the raked seats of the amphitheater like the inarticulate cackles of a thousand dumb hyenas.
“Face me, meatpusher.”
Firs refused. A gauntleted hand closed on his collar and heaved him up. The poor scavenger’s hood fell back, and he hung quivering there, an arm dangling from each hand. His eyes and mouth twitched as he looked out to the helmeted, musclebound behemoth of a man jerking him aloft.
“Your greed is imprudent, methinks,” the gloating voice said.
In the glare of sunlight most potent, Firs saw, over the gladiator’s shoulder, a vendor moving among the lowest tier of the audience. He carried a great sack, and onlookers excitedly threw money his way. The vendor would retrieve a maimed arm from the sack and hand it out, ready to be thrown as bait after the next massacre. Firs even thought he recognized some of the arms as ones he had picked.
“What a strange life it is,” he slurred.