The Banquet

Author: Matthew Scott

The article that started it all appeared in Progress in General and Special Relativity. Andrey Ivanov’s Development of the artificial cosmic string as a method of time travel was as welcome to Theodore as a sudden geomagnetic reversal was to a migrating tern. Ivanov, his nemesis, had beaten him to a discovery yet again.

There was only one thing to do. Diving into his pantry, he prepared a celebratory banquet fit for a king. Piles of crackers and sandwiches smeared in soft cheese and sashimi rose into the rafters and out of sight, and on a table next to his easy chair stood a roast turkey the size of a boulder, stuffed with rosemary and doused in a rich port gravy infused with sage and lemon. A second table groaned under the weight of an assortment of canapés, and at the centre of it all towered a cylindrical black forest gateaux with a radius of several feet. Cherries were arranged on its apex like a stone circle, while waves of fresh cream washed over its edges and down to the floor. Satisfied, Theodore settled in his easy chair and waited.

At 9 o’clock that evening, exactly on cue, the doorbell rang. Dismayed, Theodore went to the door, finding not Ivanov but a small waif from the local village. He did not have time to open his mouth before one waif became several, which became a hundred and then several thousands, pouring through his front door like water from a jug. The waifs gorged on the crackers, canapés, and cake, and as they gorged yet more piled into his home from the back door, carrying napkins and empty boxes, which they began to fill with slabs of black forest gateaux and turkey drumsticks the size of grandfather clocks.

Yet more came down his two flights of stairs, leapt into the air, and tucked their legs into his chandeliers, sweeping up sandwiches in their arms as they swung violently above his living room floor. Others fought brutally over the most luscious cuts of turkey, while some gulped gravy out of his finest crystal goblets like a poisoned man drinks an antidote. Soon the turkey was no more, and the remnants of his black forest gateaux dripped mercilessly onto Theodore’s easy chair. As soon as they had arrived, the waifs had gone, having done to Theodore’s banquet what locusts do to farmland.

Perplexed, Theodore dutifully waited until midnight before retiring to bed. At least he had been proved right. The next morning he wrote the letter that would close his experiment, and turned his thoughts to the curt rejoinder he would later send to Progress in General and Special Relativity, asking for the retraction of Ivanov’s paper. He waded through mounds of dirty cutlery to his front door, and proceeded to the post box in the middle of town. He slipped the letter into the box and began the short walk home.

The courier robot was waiting for him when he returned. It handed Theodore an envelope. Inside, dated some three weeks prior, was a handwritten letter. Dear Theodore, my much-maligned friend! It read. Please accept my apologies that I could not attend your banquet in person. However, I extended your invitation to the waifs and strays in this galaxy and the next. I hope they were sufficiently courteous and appreciative of your food! Regards, Ivanov.

Theodore folded the paper once, then a second time, and then crumpled it into a ball before throwing it to the ground, hard. His nemesis had received the letter inviting him to the banquet yesterday after all.

Titans of Industry

Author: Becky Neher

Something enormous strode through the double doors of the dilapidated, rust-begrimed warehouse. Not quite whale, not quite elephant, not quite ogre, but nevertheless a creature hefty, fleshy, and odorous. Sporting purple and magenta beads glittering around a blubbery neck, swishing side to side with the dainty lumber of their wearer. Followed by an impressive halting of momentum just inside an entryway that only previously looked the opposite of cramped.

The elephant-like snout let fly a wet, windy, motor-igniting-right-at-your-ear snuffle, throttling everyone to attention.

This sun-eclipsing quadruped was my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, Mrs. Beleever, and she owned this warehouse.

Actually, she owned several warehouses, ours receiving products, materials, machines, scraps, sketches, blueprints, and junk other warehouses failed to utilize, but which looked to inexpert head honchos including Mrs. Beleever like still-promising stuff.

My own high-productivity output hailed from the Make-the-Future-Real room.

Specifically, I was a Gadget Sorter.

Which was pretty much what it sounded like.

After grouping doodads and doodad-parts into what according to my best albeit wild guesses were their ultimate purposes, matching them up with potentially (but possibly not at all) relevant diagrams and so forth, I packaged and delivered them to agents of PerfectSource or Always-a-Product, with whom Mrs. Beleever and her cohort had decades-long contracts, to be extended indefinitely into the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future, made possible by something called Being Well-Connected.

Having cleared the room of all sound, the behemoth deposited her own. Earplants in us non-jumbo species modulated the subsonic rumble to an audible frequency.

“Wee underlings”–my whole body shook–“an announcement.” No shit. “Remember your lunch breaks must not exceed ten minutes. Your shifts start and end precisely on the hour. Sloppiness earns a pay dock. Time to tighten ship. Oh, and happy birthday to my dear wonderful husband and COO, Gorrup, wind beneath my feet. Dismissed.”

Mrs. Beleever then backed out of the overstuffed, floor-cracked, multiple codes-violating edifice, industrial lights rattling in their sockets, people braced against pillars.

Someone next to me grumbled that there were people with knowledge and experience with putting things together, folks who actually knew what they were doing, creating stuff that actually worked, and who could function in a productive and competent fashion, if only resources weren’t monopolized by these hulking extra-Earth interlopers, beings lacking all seriousness, all substance, really under-the-rug sweepers, and that if it weren’t for them human society would be a wonderful and amazing place for everyone.

I took down the last of my diet SuperSudz with a loud straw-sucking slurp that somewhat unfortunately bothered no one due to the lingering ringing in everyone’s ears.

I then went back to my thingamajig organizing.

To be honest, I don’t know what all this has to do with the rest of the story, which is about hovercraft and teleporting and neural uploads (the real kinds though, not the fake ones you normally read about).

The real story starts later that evening, back at my apartment. Where for days I’ve seen ants crawling on the floorboards. Not a line, not an army. Just one or two here or there. Solo explorers.

Back at Tolerable Lodgings ant headquarters, no reports on what these mini trailblazers find.

The Z-GNOME Project

Author: Majoki

A little problem, she’d reported. Fatima was a master of understatement. In some ways, Jorge felt she’d deserved to be eaten by his monstrous spawn.

Though, it probably wasn’t the time to be reflecting on Fatima’s missteps. Explosions still rocked the installation. Acrid smoke was filling the lab, and Jorge’s left hand was so badly burned the bones were visible. It throbbed painfully in alarming rhythm to the pounding on the barricaded door where the vicious things were trying to get in to devour him. Their creator.

Jorge should have been concentrating on how to save himself, but, as he sat on the floor leaning against the desk that he’d shoved against the door under furious assault, he couldn’t put aside the literally gnawing question of what had turned his micro soldiers into zombies.

Was it the final cellular enhancement process? An atavistic retrovirus? Something to do with the genetic re-rendering in the incubation vats? Or the hemlock? To know that answer, Jorge prayed, might somehow lessen the disappointment of being savaged by their ferocious little teeth.

The GNOMES had been so promising. When he’d been brought into the initial briefings on the project, he’d been skeptical. Creating tiny genetically modified soldiers to be used for special ops struck him as incredibly unethical. But, he’d been won over by the sheer scale and wicked audacity of the scheme.

In a half-crazed world, where savage regional conflict regularly erupted with only middle school cafeteria provocation, we needed a half-crazed solution. It was time to bite the bad guys below the kneecaps. A tactical shift from predator drones to predator GNOMES.

Jorge had come up with the acronym himself: General Noncom Operative Micro Enhanced Soldiers. Not quite Tennyson, but it caught on with the techs in the lab. And the generals soon grimaced with satisfaction when they toured their multi-billion dollar investments twitching in the milky brew of the incubation vats.

It was so easy for Jorge to reflect on the glory of those first GNOMES. Sturdy, stocky, pliable, completely obedient micro soldiers. A half meter tall with the ability to tactically deploy for three weeks without the need of food or sleep. Perfect for espionage and sabotage.

They’d turned out just as planned, until they ate Fatima.

That had been a complicated day. Fatima calling him in the morning from the training field to say she was having a little problem. And two hours later, he was directed to the obstacle course to be shown his bloody-mouthed GNOMES and his half devoured chief lab technician.

Jorge still shuddered at the thought of the mountains of paperwork Fatima’s “little problem” had created. It took him two weeks to convince the brass that it was not a fault in their genetic recoding. It had been an oversight in feeding the GNOMES. As part of their stamina testing, they’d gone almost a month without a meal. On a scientific level, their devouring Fatima was quite understandable, almost predictable.

Then they ate Fatima’s replacement. Jorge wasn’t able to placate the top brass. They insisted he euthanize all GNOMES. Jorge fought to salvage his pet project, but the generals prevailed, and he’d personally administered a lethal hemlock cocktail to his micro-mutants. It killed them all.

But not for long. Within a day all the GNOMES reanimated, noticeably paler and ranker, and all his lab technicians disappeared.

At that juncture, the top brass locked down the installation, trapping Jorge and giving him plenty of time to reflect. So strange. Zombiefication posed all kinds of theoretical and practical pitfalls. Jorge could’ve worked a thousand lifetimes and never intentionally created zombies such as these. But here they were. That much was clear. Very clear. Just a few feet away, his GNOMES were clamoring to get through the lab door and feast on his baffled brain.

With such a mystery hanging over his head, Jorge did not want to die. His options were indeed limited, but he could still think like a scientist. Control for variables. Reason out a solution. Create a workaround.

The hemlock? He considered it, though half-heartedly. Still, it was an option. He had a flask of the cocktail in his desk drawer. It would eliminate one variable. One personally painful possibility.

As he struggled to open the drawer with his good hand, he felt the desk and himself incrementally slide as the pounding increased on the lab door. The GNOMES were relentless problem solvers. Maybe they would solve their own riddle.

Jorge found the flask, fumbled it open and stared down its mouth, just as one of his GNOMES wriggled through the door. Pale and proud it approached, its coldly concentrated eyes locked on his. It stomped on his burned hand, hopped astride his trembling torso, snatched the flask of hemlock and bared its sharp, precision teeth.

Such a little problem, the creator admitted.

The Axe Forgets, The Tree Does Not

Author: David Barber

The final part of the plan involved capturing a Jirt Princess.

Morgan led one assault team, a band of Earthers who took terrible losses before the Jirt security swarm was destroyed.

A last Jirt warrior blocked the way down into the palace. Evolution had selected the soldier caste for single combat with armoured opponents. This one was a nightmare of spikes, pincers and serrated blades.

It staggered as bullets sparkled on its isolation field, but each time it returned fire, another of the human fighters died.

Morgan dragged a captured Jirt weapon. He had only the sketchiest notion how to use it. He wiped spattered blood from his face and yelled for his people to keep down.

Whether the energy yield was set low or high he could not tell, but when he fired, the Jirt convulsed into fragments.

The Earthers cheered and charged inside. Jirt workers fled but it was a slaughter.


The Naal were frail, flightless avians who used songs instead of names. Morgan called this one Plato, because he talked a lot and was a useless soldier.

Plato had cautiously led the Naal assault. They were still exchanging shots with Jirt drones when the Earthers arrived.

Afterwards, Plato counted how few humans remained.

“The Princess was captured trying to escape,” said the Naal. “But she is unwilling to negotiate.”

Morgan cursed when he saw the Jirt still wore her isolation field.

“She will not turn it off.” That bobbing of the head was a Naal shrug. “Jirt say we seethe with pollution.”

The Princess loomed over Morgan. “Can you understand me?” he demanded.

“I have a translator. The Queen is coming. Release me and I will petition Her to make your deaths quick.”

With the Jirt weapon set to the lowest yield, Morgan burned off a leg and the Princess shrieked like a whistling kettle.

“Did you need to do that?” Plato whispered.

Morgan studied the Naal. Centuries of Jirt rule had made them submissive and accustomed to defeat.

“Observe,” Morgan told the Princess. A screen showed the vast Jirt Hiveship entering orbit above them.

The Naal pleaded with him to wait, but Morgan had already sent the signal.

“But many of our kinds work on that ship.”

“They know what sacrifice is.”

Abruptly the Hiveship detonated.

“A smuggled fusion device. They underestimate us.”

All around, Naal were touching their faces to the floor.

“What’s happening?”

“We mourn our people, and yours.”

“The Queen!” The Jirt Princess chattered her mouthparts. “What have you done?”

Morgan smiled bitterly. “You are alive because the Naal think you will negotiate.”

“Other Queens will come to claim this star system. Negotiate with them.”

“This is being repeated everywhere that humans can reach,” Morgan cried triumphantly.

Later, Plato spoke with the Princess. “Your Highness, you have no one to advise you—”

The Naal glanced around. The humans were busy elsewhere.

“They cannot defeat you, but you destroyed their homeworld. They will never forgive.”

The Princess remained silent. Morgan had ordered her chained by one leg. Perhaps forgiveness was just a Naal concept.

“We accepted conquest, but these humans—”

“Yet you betray us.”

Plato made the gesture of contrition. “We thought to curb their excesses, but…”

But you are both utterly alien, the Naal might have said. Incomprehension on all sides.

“Nothing will bring Earth back. Instead they sustain themselves by a notion they call revenge. The bombs, the killing, it will never stop. Unless—”

The Naal had more to say, but the Jirt Princess had turned her translator off.

Author: Rainbow Heartshine

“Internet porn is succubi terraforming. Is what you’re telling me with this.”

“We embrace all kinks and fetishes that can be worked out with love,” Dylan typed as if in response to himself, though he couldn’t really say it was either ‘typing’, or him doing it, even though it was his body twitching and fidgeting the sensors in his outfit to tell his phone his keystrokes without having to do anything as crass as taking it out or poking at buttons on its screen.

“…but as you can see, sexy demons who want you to emit lots of yummy sexual energy are quite overrepresented,” the being manipulating him so subtly went on.

This would look insane, if someone looked at his text logs, talking to himself this way, especially since most of the conversation so far was what you’d expect from an ’emosynthesizing person’, as the being said the proper technical term was, but insane didn’t let you know your both know coworkers’ backup passwords and type them with the correct haptic profile so you could be shown everyone else in the company was having an equally interesting “lunch hour” (this being why he could be sure doing all this literally-horny “resarch” wouldn’t result in a talk with HR).

Of course, it was the code they’d spent all morning “typing” that was scary. He hadn’t been able to follow most of it, but if it was what he was thinking, and they could access the production servers as easily as his coworkers’ chatlogs…

“It’s funny you should think of the term Human Resources,” the being typed in response to his thoughts, “but don’t be scared. Sadness doesn’t taste very good, and depression puts out the light we’re trying to feed on. You’ll have the best of care. Look at this now.”

ESP BODILY RESPONSES did seem like an obvious thing to search for next, but the results were a lot more academic than he was expecting. All the stories were apocryphal, of course, but almost every “medium” reported some form of—

“Okay wait,” he blurted. “VV said the idea of the Fidgetboard came to him in a dream—“

“Very yes!,” came the reply with a weird feeling he was starting to recognize as the psychic perception of the being’s giggling. ”Making you twitch and jump is as easy as breathing for us, and we can be very coordinated, if you only practice the neural pathways that make it possible a little.”

“Fidgetboards have been standard for a decade, though. Why only now?”

“I think you know the answer to that, sweetie,” the being answered with a scary gentleness.

Dylan did, as he tried to think of where in the building—or city—he would find a phone that still had a touchscreen.

“it’s very helpful. You all practice all day long! It makes it so easy, we can do just about anything, even mimic haptic profiles.”

“People will just take their sensors off—“

His voice cut off.

“I think you know the answer to that too, sweetie,” the demon typed.

Dylan gulped, though he couldn’t say it was him doing it.