A Sky Empty but for the Sun

Author : JC Crumpton

The brown-haired man raised his eyelids that felt swollen and heavy to a sky filled with a burning light as it bore pain angrily into the back of his head. A deep crack split the right side of his bottom lip, forcing him to wince and shrink from the pain when he tested it with the tip of his finger. But the fact that he had entirely no recollection of his name momentarily frightened him and forced a shiver to run through his body.

He sat up, pushing his hands against the gravel on the dirt road. The pieces of rock bit into his palms, and a warm breeze began to build until it blew several strands of hair across his eyes. He couldn’t remember why, but he knew that the last time this had happened to him was just before he had met his second wife. And for some reason, that thought relaxed him enough that he felt buoyant and almost exhilarated.

White, chalky powder dusted off his hands when he ran his fingers through his hair and then smoothed it away from his forehead. A quick search of his pockets for some sort of identification turned up nothing other than sixty-five cents in change and the numbered stub of a raffle ticket. After he absently reached for a pack of cigarettes that weren’t there, he realized that he must smoke, or did at one time. The thought made his pulse race, pounding a drum beat in both temples as he stood up and brushed the dirt from his knees.

When he tucked his shirt deeper into his pants, he noticed the crest on his breast pocket—Tommy Hilfiger—and decided that his first name would be Thomas. His watch read 3:16 in the afternoon, the black leather band fitting a little loosely. And he knew that his last name would be Movado.

The fact that his current predicament no longer caused him any anxiety bothered him most. It felt almost natural, planned even, as if he had intentionally perpetuated his own lack of detailed memory. No sense of panic caused his stomach to roil uncontrollably or forced him to swallow back rising heartburn. His heart beat a little quickly more for the want of nicotine than for any concern about his situation—one that would have been considered worrisome by any normal standard. After his initial panic, his thought patterns had become more methodical and structured.

He took the white, silk handkerchief from his back right pocket and quickly buffed his Lorenzo Banfi shoes, rubbing the cloth over it until he had removed all of the yellow dirt. A particularly caked on piece of mud on the inside of his left arch took a glob of spit and a dedicated scratch with his fingernail to dispatch it. But it proved not to be too difficult, and he tossed the handkerchief in the brown grass of the nearby field.

The sun glared down from straight overhead, and he shaded his eyes with his right hand as he looked down the gravel road. A plume of dust lifted off the road where it came over a distant hill at the horizon, approaching quickly as he watched. He started walking, grinning at the prospects presented him by his new name and reset life. A quick glance down revealed a streak of dried blood on the back of his left hand. Everything was going to be perfect this time—if he could only get the blood off his hand before the car arrived.

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The Last Puppy

Author : James C.G. Shirk

CANINE STUDIES INSTITUTE HQ

(Abr. Final Project Report)

Status: One survivor Breed: Retriever (mixed)

Name: Pita Sex: Male

Age: 5 Weeks Pathology: Infected w/CCDV

Prognosis: Terminal within two weeks.

End of Report

Submitted by: Dr. Anthony Tolson, Director CSI, Mars Colony proper. Date: 10/22/2145

“What do we do now?” Dr. Hillary Kurtz asked. Her gloved hands, sticking through the enclosure’s side port access, trembled as the puppy suckled the bottle of enriched milk.

“There’s nothing left to do,” I replied. Anger clawed at my gut, begging for release. “Damn it! We did everything to protect them from the virus. We spent years in research; we formulated every conceivable anti-viral; we put them in controlled enclosures to prevent disease-carrying contact, and when all that didn’t work, we moved the last surviving dogs here to be clear of any earthly pathogens…and for what! The whole attempt has been an abject failure. My failure.”

“Don’t take it personally,” Kurtz said, putting aside the bottle and wiping mucus from Pita’s eyes. “Species have gone extinct before, hundreds of thousands of them. Viruses adapt, sometimes beyond our ability to contain them. The virulent ones can get buried in the species DNA. There’s nothing we can do about that.”

I nodded. “But nothing like that has ever happened to a creature so close to man,” I said, “and to have failed–. It’s just too much.”

“Sometimes God’s plan is unfathomable,” Kurtz said hopefully. She was a devout believer; I, not so much.

“If so, He must be mad at man,” I replied, perhaps a little too curtly.

She turned her attention back to feeding the puppy. “Why do you say that?” she asked.

“Religion and science don’t mix well,” I said. “Perhaps all our technical achievements displeased your God, and it was his hand that took the one thing from man that is irreplaceable in order to teach us a lesson.”

“You’re an idiot,” she grumbled.

Pita stopped nursing at the bottle and burped contentedly. The recorders surrounding him gathered data, analyzing everything, including the presence of the virus in his system.

Not that it mattered now.

I pushed back the enclosure’s protective covering and reached inside with my bare hands; no need for precautions any more. I petted his head and scratched his milk-filled, pink belly. His blue puppy-eyes glazed over at my touch, and he licked appreciatively at my fingers. “Mankind will be less without them,” I moaned.

An alarm went off behind me. I rushed to the monitoring console to examine the readouts. Something had happened to Pita, something extraordinary.

“What is it?” Kurtz yelled over the din.

I slammed the monitor button, killing the noise. “I don’t believe it! The virus is dying. At this rate, it will be completely out of his system in minutes.”

“How can that be?” Kurtz said.

I shook my head, wondering. Why so late? Why did this happen when there was just one animal left? And then it struck me.

Viruses mutate.

God’s hand? Man’s hand? My hand? Pita just received the first unprotected contact from a human in years. Some insignificant thing on my fingers found its way into Pita’s system when he licked me. That had to be it! Irony upon irony. The disease had only endured, because we denied dogs the one thing they ever wanted from us. Human contact.

“What now?” Kurtz asked for the second time today.

I smiled. “We clone.”

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Gifted

Author : Michael F. da Silva

It started with a minor skirmish in a conflict between minor universes. A third-world war on a cosmic scale. Those universes were already unfathomably older than this one at any pace. An absolute zero trooper was wounded trying to avoid a hunter-killer squad in high orbit above a small backwater.

The trooper was hopelessly outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. Distracted trying to select a dimension where the physics would play to his favour, he was shot through his fifteenth segment. The warrior’s tertiary frontal lobe lost hold of a psycho reactive nano-tool before he could make his escape.

So it came to be that a star streaked across the night sky and fell to the Earth. Following the beacon of flames, a curious native found the artefact and, summoning the courage to pick it up, kept it to himself and tried to discern its meaning.

The tribal elders thought it unwise to keep such a thing. The other tribesmen feared it would bring nothing but ill fortune but the warrior, headstrong as only the young and boastful can be, refused to climb the mountain and offer it back to the gods. They must have many such things and would not miss one they threw away so carelessly.

After hours of useless arguing the elders cast him out so that he would not bring ruin on them all. His pride became hatred for the weak old men.

Many months passed after that and many years passed after those. His beard grew long and his understanding of the orb grew by steady inklings. He did not perish for lack of food or disease or the weight of decades. The orb favoured him and protected him. This he knew. He became a legend to frighten young children into their beds and a tale of warning not to stray too far past the tree line.

At night, the orb would float over him to keep him safe and warm. He would reach at it with his fingers but would only really touch it if he extended himself through his mind’s eye.

One night it changed. The pulsating blue aura that was at once there and somehow remained unseen grew like morning light over water.

‘Select primary function’ it demanded of his mind in his mother’s voice.

Suddenly frightened by a voice from beyond the funeral pyre, the aged traveller could think of nothing else than to protect himself. The orb began to pulsate and realign itself. It took the shape of a defensive implement of familiar use to him, despite the gleaming gold metallic surfaces and the visible energy field resonating from its centre. Now it was a shield fastened to a short leaf-bladed spear.

Years of rancorous isolation meant that after a short period of reflection, the aged outcast could not be expected to reach any other conclusion than that this was a sign from on high.

It must be a gift from the gods, he thought. He would become a conqueror-king.

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More or Less

Author : Jason Frank

She asked for more.

I asked something like, “More? More? It’s all yours already. Look around. Everything, every single thing is yours. The couch decided to settle into a shape that complements your rear, not mine; the curtains, you painted on them, they must be yours; that shelf, it has to be yours since it’s overflowing with knickknacks from your home world; the refrigerator isn’t full of anything I can eat without wincing; even my dog likes you better; the shirt off my back, looks better on you anyway (you did add a sleeve); the air we’re breathing has more sulfur in it than I require (or desire); the house, the sum total of all this, must then be yours. So I’m sorry if I don’t have anything else I can give you right at this very second, okay?

She said a bit more of the tea we were drinking would suffice.

I said… I didn’t say anything. I felt… how could I feel? Nothing I said was technically untrue but the way it came out was wrong, all wrong. I sent my gaze to the floor while I took her cup and kept it down there all the way into the kitchen. I turned the burner back on under the cooled kettle and leaned against the wall. I had to ask myself if I were seriously cracking up. Could it have been the strain of our interplanetary love, the gravity of all those celestial bodies between our home worlds? Could the various pressures have been greater than I thought? I looked out the window so the pot would boil somewhere on this side of eternity.

This wasn’t about her at all. It was about Kat(e)rina. What was it about that woman? The pretentious parenthesis in her name was an early indication that I should hate her, a notion repeatedly supported by her frequent social missteps. Was there anyone in the Center she hadn’t offended? Her social skills were on par with those of a four month old, eyeless Miltumbriate (an analogy that also went some way towards illuminating her fashion sense).

But… there was something about her, something so… human. I mean, sure, I was usually the only Earthtard in my social circle, but that was an inevitable consequence of being accomplished, right? Kat(e)rina represented basically everything that I, and pretty much everyone else, hated about humans.

The kettle was warming to the touch. Was I having a quarter life crisis ten years later than everyone else? It seemed at least possible if not particularly plausible. I hadn’t, after all, done many foolish things thus far in my life. Could all the bad decisions and incorrect impulses I pushed down over the years be building up pressure, forcing their way back to the surface? I was over thinking this like everything else. So what, some stupid girl got a job at the Center and now I was acting stupid. It was nothing. It would pass. Out the window, it looked like the neighbors were all going into seventh stage Vubialt molt together. That was going to be messy.

The kettle was just getting ready to scream when I took it off and refilled our cups. I had a long and complex apology ahead of me so I figured I needed to start pretty soon. She’d probably understand. She knew I was under a lot of pressure at the center and I’m pretty sure she was aware we were at a decisive point in our relationship. This blowup would be forgiven. Something I’d never expect from Kat(e)rina… that bitch.

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Conventional Warfare

Author : Ian Rennie

“I look ridiculous.”

“You look fine.”

“What is this garment made of, anyway?”

“A stretchy polymer filled with some kind of foam. It simulates the effect of muscles on your thorax.”

“Why would I want to have muscles on my thorax?”

“Because that’s where the mammals have them.”

Metr and Edlai walked, talking in voices too high for the collected mammals to hear. Around them walked alines, mechanoids and cybernetic creatures of every shade and stripe, none of them real.

Well, almost none.

“Why do we have to have this meeting here anyway?”

Metr hissed softly in exasperation and turned to face his friend,looking him directly in his slit-pupilled eyes.

“We’re having it here because this is neutral ground, as neutral as it gets. Between us and the Vaex, there’s about a hundred systems, only one of them has a breathable atmosphere, and that’s where we’re meeting. Neither of us has an advantage here.”

“I understand that, but why meet at this ludicrous carnival?”

Metr had wondered this himself, until he had seen video of the event. Hundreds of mammals in costumes, simulating a variety of weird races that they had dreamed up with no knowledge of the rest of the galaxy. With this range of shapes and faces, nothing humanoid would get a second glance.

“So,” said Edlai after the pause had started to stretch, “Do you think this will work?”

“The alternative to this working is the kind of war that rewrites the sky. Unless they’re insane and we’re insane, this will work.”

Metr said the words with a confidence that he didn’t feel. Nobody present, and very few still alive, could remember how the Vaek and the Na’taa had gained such antipathy towards each other. The source of the grudge was variously thought to be mineral rights in a variety of systems, trading deals gone bad, or just the overarching fact that insectoids and reptillians liked each other even less than they liked mammals. And now they were going to have to forge peace, or throw a third of the galactic disk into a slow and murderous war.

“Are you all right?”

Slowly, Metr became aware that he had stopped, and was staring into the distance.

“I’m fine,” he lied, “I just need a little air. You go on without me.”

Edlai moved away, leaving Metr looking out over the hall of mammals in their costumes. They were innovents, playing childish games of make believe. Their civilization had got little further than their own moon, and yet if things went badly, their planet could be snuffed out without them ever knowing why.

A drunken mammal bumped into him, nearly spilling a plastic cup of something.

“Whoa, sorry mate,” The mammal said, “Hey, nice costume. Star Wars?”

Metr shook his reptillian head.

“I hope not.”

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