The Ascent of Man

Author : Bob Newbell

The Landreb fleet didn’t travel across space. It simply appeared suddenly and without warning in low Earth orbit. One of the fifty starships fired an energy beam that obliterated an uninhabited islet in the Dodecanese Island chain mere moments after the vessels appeared in orbit. Less than a minute later, the following message was heard in dozens of languages on every radio and television frequency:

“Leaders of Earth, we are the Landreb. We are prepared to lay waste to the entire surface of your planet. Your only chance to avoid this fate is for the heads of state of the countries comprising the United Nations Security Council to meet with our representative at the United Nations building in New York City in precisely 72 Earth hours.”

I was part of the Secret Service detail assigned to the President. The Landreb representative entered the room on four stubby limbs. Its head towered two yards above its body. Think of a giraffe whose legs had been swapped with those of a German Shepard; that was this thing’s rough outline. It shambled across the room in an ungainly encounter suit. It seemed weighed down by Earth’s gravity. There were no introductions or other pleasantries.

“We,” the thing said in what sounded like English but was somehow being simultaneously spoken in the native languages of each of the world leaders, “are at war with a species we call the Soontet. The rivalry between our race and theirs is old and deep and there can be no peace until one side or the other is annihilated. Your world holds the key to the survival and victory of the Landreb race.

“Deny us what we demand, and your world will be destroyed. Comply, and we will give you technology it would take your species centuries to develop. For the survival of our civilization as well as your own, you will turn over to us this entire planet’s supply of Sanderson’s Old Fashioned Mustard.”

The dignitaries looked at each other with confusion. The President raised his hand and started to speak. The alien whirled on the American before he could utter a word.

“The yellow!” the Landreb insisted. “Not the spicy brown! Soontet physiology is resistant to the spicy brown mustard. And no competing brands! Our bioweapons researchers insist it must be Sanderson’s!” We had no choice but to capitulate.

And so the global economy shifted almost entirely to the production of Sanderson’s Old Fashioned Mustard. Sanderson Condiments, Inc. became the world’s most valuable company even as protesters picketed their factories and corporate offices, calling their executives and employees war criminals for being complicit in genocide.

After three years, the Landreb announced that the war was over. The weaponized hot dog and pretzel accompaniment had destroyed the Soontet. The Landreb kept their word about sharing their technology. Disease has been mostly eradicated. The planets of the solar system are now dotted with colonies that are on their way to becoming cities. We have journeyed outside the solar system. And we have encountered other intelligent species. Many regard humanity as a race of genocidal maniacs because of our role in the Soontet extinction. To others, we are a laughingstock, having become an interstellar civilization thanks to a third rate table condiment. And the pervasive sense of shame that has become the norm of human culture, the notion that one’s race is both monster and fool, has never diminished in the strange and morose years that have passed since we have made our way to the stars.

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Into the Void

Author : Ian Hill

“Please, I don’t want to be here. Just- just help.”

The voice was distorted and compressed, only decipherable after being ran through an extensive quality recover system.

“I need- I need to leave. I don’t want this.”

The message went on for about a minute, a minute of this pitiful man pleading for a savior from some obscure corner of the universe. The message itself had been effectively packaged and sent out, transmitted by some sort of long range device that was calibrated to fall in line with most modern equipment.

The first receivers, a contingent of far flung Keitl defense platform operators, decoded the message and listened in discomfort. They glanced back and forth at each other uneasily, wincing every time the reduced man issued forth a piercing wail. Once the eerie distress signal was over they all stood in silence around their small space station’s primary computer, internally deliberating on what to do.

Procedure was clear. Any border defense soldiers were told to remain at their postings no matter what kind of external stimuli they were faced with. However, this message chilled them to the core. It came from a largely empty area and was so genuine and charged with terror. Some of the Keitl wanted to know what was causing this trauma, others merely wanted an excuse to leave their selfsame environment for a brief respite.

Eventually, the group of eight decided to temporarily shift the platform to automated controls and set off toward the message’s point of origin via an emergency pod. They all gathered their sparse equipment that encompassed everything from mandatory side arms to single use white phosphor flares to clear-faced gasmasks.

Soon, the small crew had climbed aboard the cramped pod. The navigation officer input the message’s coordinates and the bullet-shaped chunk of reinforced metal shot out from its magnetic cradle, off into the void beyond. The journey was uncomfortable and jarring, but after only a few hours the impromptu ship ignited its reverse thrusters and automatically docked in one of the asteroid’s seemingly abandoned bays.

The Keitl soldiers crept out of their tiny vessel, firearms gripped tightly in their gloved hands. The asteroid base was decrepit and covered in a layer of frosty dust. Everything was cold, icy vapors issued up from the metal decking with every step forward. The utilitarian architecture was built around what appeared to be a natural cave that tunneled through the lumpy asteroid’s core.

As the crew slowly moved forward through the rusty maze of frozen metal they stuck to the shadows and made sure every room was clear before progressing. The Keitl were effective, naturally militant people that did things right the first time.

Before long they had reached the dead zone. All the lights were destroyed and the lack of life support was painfully apparent. The soldiers lit flares and tossed them forward at equal intervals, covering every dark corner with blinding white light. Making progress became exponentially slower, but they refused to split up.

After a few minutes one of the women of the group spoke up. A device at her side indicated that they were growing closer to the message’s point of origin. Systematically, they searched through all the surrounding rooms until they reached a large round area with a basin-like floor. The smooth decking was an inverted cone with a drain set in the middle of the concave point.

The eight peered around the eerie room as the woman with the beeping device strode around, listening intently to the pulsating chirp. Eventually, she came to stop at a single point.

“This is where it came from.” she said softly, bending down to peer at the iron shackles that were chained to the ground mere feet from her.

“There’s no one here, let’s uh- let’s go.” one of the soldiers said, turning to push open the heavy door that led out into the corridor beyond. It didn’t budge.

Predictably, the eight frantically searched for a way out. They kicked at the door, felt along the walls, but soon realized that they were stuck. Their heated conversation degraded into pleas for help, high pitched shouts that echoed throughout the abandoned asteroid station ominously.

Somewhere in the dark there was a soft clicking noise as another message was sent out into the void.


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Author : Roger Dale Trexler

They knew that it was the end.

They saw the mushroom cloud grow out of the ground, a bright, blinding light providing the seed. They knew about seeds; they were farmers who grew corn and soybeans and milo. They were simple people who did not understand the hatred that brought the bombs. They cared little about politics; they just wanted to live peaceful and nurture their land.

As the chaos began, they congregated in a pole barn they used as a civic center in their small town. There were over a hundred of them, men, women and children.

They were all afraid.

They didn’t understand when they started to get sick. They pulled their hair out in large clumps. They coughed up blood and vomited frequently. The cattle died in the fields; the crops wilted and returned to the ground.

They watched as a blanket of gray covered the sky.

They cried.

When the first ones died, they buried them in the snow-covered ground. They said a eulogy over the graves with a lot of them yelling “Oh, why Lord?” and “Please spare us from this burden!” to the dark, sunless sky.

They started eating the dead when the food ran out. They cooked the flesh over an open fire, telling the children it was beef or venison to make them eat. They needed to keep up their strength, after all.

They ate the children when they died.

And they kept on dying.

None of them could stop the dying.

It seemed only fitting that, in the end, a man and a woman sat alone and stared at each other from across the campfire. They cried. When they had the energy, they made love by the fire. Like Adam and Eve at the beginning to time, they were the Adam and Eve at the end of time.

When the last body was eaten, they dug up the frozen corpses they had buried and ate them.

The corpses were worm-riddled, but they ate them anyway.

They cried.

They made love again.

And, on that last day, as they lay there in each other’s arms, they realized that one of them would soon have to eat the other to survive.

But then what?

They knew what they had to do.

They could not eat each other. They loved one another.

He placed the pistol against her temple. He was crying so hard that he could hardly pull the trigger. But, he did. Blood and brains sprayed out over the fire, igniting as they passed through the flames. It was beautiful.

Her body fell back onto the blanket they had made love on.

He stood over her corpse, sobbing. He put the gun to his forehead.

He wanted to pull the trigger.

He wanted to.

But, he could not.

There was still food to be eaten.

And, with one less mouth to feed, it would last awhile.


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Daily Dose

Author : David Kavanaugh

“But I don’t want to!” she whined in her little voice. “Why do I have to? It’s. So. Boring! I hate it there.”

“I know, baby, I know,” said her mother. “But it’s good for you. Just for a few minutes. Understand? Then you can come back in.”


If only she knew how to override her mother’s software and hide in a corner of some glitchware, but she hadn’t been able to figure out how to, and her big brother wouldn’t tell her.

So, arms crossed, she went. Her glittering view of starlight and carousels and unicorns and all things that the little five-year-old loved faded away with a ding, and she found herself back in her physical body. She was sitting in the tub while the carebot rinsed out her hair.

“Welcome back, bunny. Had fun? It’s good to see you,” said the tinkling, maternal tones of the carebot.

“I hate you!” she grunted back, swatting at the rubbery hands and climbing out of the tub. Her body felt awkward and unfamiliar, as if the muscles longed just as much as she did for her consciousness to resync with the software, and the body to return to autopilot.

The carebot began to dry her with a towel, but she pushed that away too.

“It’s itchy!”

She stood, dripping, before the mirror, staring into the eyes in the glass. The eyes were brown and small, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that they belonged to a stranger. She thought they looked terribly ugly, and much preferred the large and lustrous violet eyes of her avatar. Her avatar had bubblegum pink hair that fell over her shoulders in a splash of bouncy curls, but in the mirror, she saw only the sopping, brunette rat’s nest and matching, bushy eyebrows.

“I hate real life,” she said in a soft, defeated voice.

A robot hand patted her reassuringly on the arm. “I understand, bunny. But the recommended daily dosage of reality for a five-year-old female is at least…”

“I know!” she grunted, stomping the floor. “I already know that. You are so stupid!”

She marched from the room, through the drafty hall and into her bedroom. She leapt, twisting midair so that she landed sitting on the edge of the bed. She tightened her jaw, crossed her arms, and sat resolute and still. She would not give her mother or the carebot the satisfaction of seeing her have fun in this place, with its repulsive imperfections, its dust and smells and blaring contrast of light and shadow.

Why did she have to come here, anyway? What good could possibly come from the pangs of hunger or the bitter touch of hot and cold? What benefit could there be in possessing these flimsy, ape arms that banged on the corners of walls and sprouted bruises of black and green?

She knew, better than any of them, where one found happiness. She knew the shape of heaven, written in quantum code and splayed out in a digital paradise that knew no bounds.

And so she sat, and stared, and waited for bliss to return with its usual, jingling dial tone.

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Shelf Life

Author : James Zahardis

Inside a low-rent apartment a wall-pocket hums, then illuminates. An aerosolized admixture of stimulants and bio-stabilizers wafts toward Alron Chattobee’s face, awakening him:

“Tatti! Forty days down the drain!” he thinks, reaching for the red button above his chest.

The shatterproof window opens and the shelf of the wall-pocket slides into the bedroom void. Alron slowly sits up; the room around him is still and dark.


The room remains dark. Alron turns toward the wall-pocket; it is dimmer than usual.

“No Power! Running on batteries–if they died I–we–could’ve…” he thinks, recalling his five-year-old daughter, Darlx, shelved in her room. Alron struggles off the shelf; his legs buckle as he stands. He wishes he could afford infusions of anti-atrophy nanobots.

Alron reaches Darlx’s bedroom and sighs seeing the glow of her wall-pocket, seeing the puff of aerosol. She awakens, groggily, presses the red button, and slides out.

“Daddy, why’s it dark?”

“Don’t know, honey. Let’s look outside.”

Alron draws the blinds to the bedroom window and looks out at Iowa City on a midsummer day. The upscale towers on the horizon, with their spires and balustrades, normally teeming and fulgent with perm-Animates–elite who can afford the surfeit of remaining unshelved–are dull, lifeless. And the grimy streets outside the window are dull and lifeless as well.

“I need to see what’s going on.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Just a sec,” Alron says, walking to the kitchen.

“Mumbai Mallows and a pop!” he says, returning with a box of cereal and a soft drink.

Darlx beams.

“Now wait here,” Alron says, starting to the front door. “Janeq will find this funny when she’s unshelved–first time I get Darlx since our divorce and this…” he thinks.

The streets are barren except for several worker-automatons, their alloy limbs frozen in portentous poses. Alron walks a score of blocks then hears a cough.

A man sits on the patio of a second story apartment.

“Hey pal, what the hell’s goin’ on?!” Alron asks.

A haggard man leans over the railing.

“Haven’t you heard?”

“Just unshelved…”

“Shiva’s coming!”

“Don’t take Upanishads too literally, pal!”

“No! Shiva the wandering planetoid–shot around the sun last week–scientists said it would miss. THEY WERE WRONG!!”

“Why don’t they stop it?!”

“They tried! Launched nukes–something with its atmosphere–they incinerated before impact! Then they tried that old movie trick–drill, bury nukes–it worked…sort of–”

“–Sort of?!”

“Now the fragments are coming at us! Most perms launched for Mars–every ship’s gone! Everyone else is hiding in subbasements or wherever–Doesn’t matter! Each fragment’s a planet-killer! And there are fourteen! FOURTEEN!!’

“How long?”

“An hour–tops…”

“I’ve gotta get back to my daughter,” Alron says weakly.

“Hold up!” cries the haggard man, “I’ve got enough–catch!” He tosses a plastic bottle to Alron.

“What’s this?”

“Nocturnoqyll. My wife works–worked–at Memorial. Listen: one for sleep; three for coma; five–well, you know…works fast…”

Alron runs, like he’s running in a nightmare, as if caught between the poles of a powerful magnet. A boom reverberates high above. He looks up. A blackbird flies overhead, upside down.

He reaches his apartment. “Minutes–less…” he thinks.

Darlx eats cereal out of the box. “What was that boom, Daddy?”

“Faraway thunder, honey.”

Alron gets on his knees before his daughter, uncaps the pill bottle, pours its contents, five tablets, into his palm. He hands Darlx her soft drink off the floor.

“What’s that?”

“Vitamins. They’re good for you.”


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