Forever and Ever, Amen

Author : Grady Hendrix

The carriage stopped at the entrance to the NASA Space Propulsion Laboratories and the Grand Inquisitor of the State of Florida strode forth into the facility sending scientists scurrying like frightened chickens. They all knew why he was there: Dr. Stewart’s son.

“Take me to the boy,” the Inquisitor demanded, seizing a passing research assistant. At the security checkpoints the assistant whispered his Disarming Word to the locks and they opened, except for the one that didn’t. The Inquisitor tapped his foot while the assistant plucked a mouse from his Security Satchel, slit its throat and let its blood drip onto the keyhole. Satisfied, the electronic lock snapped open. The assistant babbled all the while.

“Only the fifth prodigy in forty years. It speaks to the orthodoxy of Propulsion Sciences,” he said through chattering teeth.

By now the Inquisitor could hear the boy’s voice: an obnoxious piping that made his ears itch.

“What makes our shuttles fly isn’t the goats we sacrifice before take-off, it’s internal combustion,” the brat was saying. “And we have the science for faster-than-light travel, I don’t know why everyone is so scared to develop it. Even I can work out the calculations.”

“Blasphemy!” roared the Grand Inquisitor.

The room froze, the scientists listening to the boy’s words turned pale.

“I am no blasphemer,” the fifteen-year-old puppy said. “I keep faith with God.”

The Inquisitor looked at the scientists, trying too hard not to study his face. He looked at the boy, too young to temper his knowledge with wisdom. He looked at himself reflected on a monitor screen, still excited to be playing the old game.

“People should know that the space shuttles fly not because our scientists accept Jesus Christ as their own personal savior but because of physics. Even a Hindoo could build a working space shuttle.”

“If there were any Hindoos left,” the Inquisitor said, still circling the boy.

“I have committed no sin,” the boy said.

“Oh, you have. But not blasphemy,” the Inquisitor said. “Pride. Look at these wise men around you. They know much of what you are saying, but they keep their own counsel.”

“Then why are they listening to me?” the boy asked. “Why have they let me preach science?”

“Because, they want to see what happens to you,” the Inquisitor said. “They’re curious to know if the punishment for faithlessness in our faith-based space program has lessened in recent years. I’m here to answer their question. This isn’t about you, my boy. You are merely a piece of paper on which I shall write my reply.”

Dr. Stewart’s wife had to stop attending the formal launch services for a while, at least until the remains of their only child, crucified on the chain link fence by the security gate, had decayed enough to be unrecognizable. But the following year, God blessed Dr. Lasseter with a son. In fifteen years, they would ask their question again. It was the scientific method. Hallelujah!

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The Last Art on Earth

Author : Janna Layton

Cassandra walked down Lilac Street, past the same WMG Corporation superstores and chain restaurants on every Lilac Street in every city. “When you’re in a WMG City, you’re home!” a billboard declared. As she approached, the scanner read her retina to gather information from the marketing database. The billboard then displayed products WMG’s computers determined she might like.

She ignored the images and continued towards Heartville, one of a few scattered “unincorporated towns” of independent eateries and artist studios where WMG couldn’t do business. Supposedly. She thought of the zine in her purse. It looked inconspicuous, but no doubt WMG could do inconspicuous. One article praised a Heartville coffeehouse. Did the author, who had lived in the town for years, truly love it, or was he a “cuckoo,” an undercover WMG employee hired to promote “cuckoo eggs,” unincorporated town establishments secretly owned by WMG? The idea was hypothetical; they had no proof it was being done. “Why would WMG bother?” people asked. But as small as the towns’ businesses were, they were businesses, and Cassandra was sure WMG’s thinking was, “Why not?”

Condos gave way to shacks in Heartville, clean beige paintjobs to impromptu murals. Cassandra used to feel revitalized when entering it. Here was a place, she had thought, where art was art, where she wasn’t being monitored to determine how she could contribute profits to a monopoly. But perhaps even this sanctuary had been taken.

Once she had seen graffiti stating, “The last art on Earth.” Was she the last artist, with her poetry? No, that was vain, she told herself. Surely there were others. Surely most artists in Heartville were what they said they were.

It was possible, she thought, that a cuckoo had written the graffiti to assure residents Heartville was still rebellious and pure, and art still an escape.

She stopped by Joe’s Organic Bakery for two cupcakes. The flyers denouncing big-business agriculture: a disguise? She couldn’t tell, not even when Joe smiled at her.

A few blocks later she stepped inside a gallery, uncertain if doing so was hopeful or masochistic at that point. She liked a painting of an indigo horse, but immediately wondered if a WMG study had concluded the image would appeal to her demographic. Which was the worse prospect: for such paranoid thoughts to stay with her always or for them to disappear? Was the last art on Earth gone already, or was it right here and she couldn’t enjoy it?

“You okay?”

Cassandra turned towards a girl at an easel. “Yeah.”

A paper sign said bartering was welcome.

“Is a cupcake from Joe’s worth a drawing?” she asked.

“Definitely,” the girl replied, grabbing a pen. “Tell me what you want.”

Cassandra handed her a cupcake and a piece of paper from her writing notebook. She wanted something that she knew came from somewhere sincere. Something that, even if this artist was a WMG employee trying to lower her defenses, was created in her own mind.

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Downer

Author : Andy Bolt

I am hopeful and afraid. I am hateful and compassionate. I am selfish and embarrassed. I’m Garret Garvy, an emotive Botch.

We were a small number of neurological guinea pigs for Johns Hopkins a few years back, participating in the Mechanical Smile Project, an experiment in emotion control. Not in the vague, uncontrolled way of the old prescription medications, but in a real, conscious, push-this-button-and-feel-that-way style of emotion control. It was a combination of heavy hormone stimulants and post-hypnotic suggestion, and it would have been revolutionary. You literally would never have had to be sad again. With the push of a bio-button, your life could have been non-stop ecstasy. It was the end of human suffering as we knew it, according to Meghan Wells, the frenzy-eyed young grad student who injected me with a bluish substance before asking me to count backwards from one hundred.

It didn’t work.

What it did was link, accidentally but inextricably, several of my neurochemical and hormonal processes. Virtually all of my emotions now come paired with another, and several of them aren’t all that compatible. Love and depression, for example.

I am standing in my self-cleaning kitchen, staring aimlessly into space, a plate of uneaten mush behind me. Happiness comes with panic, so I don’t eat anything with a pleasing taste anymore. I used to be pretty chunky. I’m twenty pounds underweight now. As I lean absently against my Stero-sink, my spine grate against porcelain. My polycotton smart shirt rubs against by elbows, and I concentrate on the sensation. It’s so neutral, neither pleasant nor painful. I have come to appreciate neutrality. Apathy comes paired with rage, so I have to care, but in a minimalist, nonspecific sort of way. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

It’s roughest on my fiancée. Mela shuffles into the kitchen, looking like a half-cooked slab of meat that has been left out for a few days. Her eyes are pink and barely opened, and the rest of her has taken on a faint grayish color. A few hundred reddish hairs are rebelling from her head, striking off in their own directions without regard for the collective will. She wears a purple bathrobe that is almost more hole than clothing. A jagged tear near her neck exposes the swell of her left breast. Sexual desire comes paired with grief. Not worth it.

“Nisse just needs some milk,” she murmurs, shuffling past me and kneeling in front of the fridge, where she begins rifling through bottles. Nisse’s our six-month old daughter and the only reason we’re still together. Mela takes care of her, mostly. She’s a good mother. I sit behind her, on the floor, and reach up to massage her shoulders. She sighs, shuddering at my touch.

“How do you feel?” she asks without turning around. I think about it for a moment before wrapping my arms around her stomach and pulling her into my lap. Pressing my lips to her ear, I whisper,

“I’m always depressed.”

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Time Enough for a Wedding

Author : Grady Hendrix

…and he suddenly wakes up with a start. The light was all wrong, a brief nap shouldn’t have taken this – 5:45! Oh, god. Oh, no. Why hadn’t his alarm clock gone off? Eric squeezed his forehead in his hands and made a high-pitched sound: he had slept through his own wedding. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have a secret laboratory underneath your house and you muck about with time travel.

“I’ll fix it,” he said out loud. “I’ll fix it.”

He leapt up and adjusted the time vest for just one more trip. He cinched the straps and hit the button and he was instantly unmoored in the Chronoverse, suddenly reduced to a unique set of free floating personality traits rushing backwards to…

Just a few hours ago! He looked at himself sleeping at his desk, head nestled in the crook of his elbow. He’d done it! He carefully set the alarm on his clock and got ready for his return trip. Is that what he looked like from behind? Well he certainly needed to shave the back of his neck more often. Then he was looking down the barrel of a gun. Several guns, in fact. Several guns being held by uniformed strangers.

“Come with us, Professor Tenser,” one of them said. “We’ll make this easy on you.”

“Who are you people?”

“Copyright Enforcement. You invented time travel, but we used your invention to travel back in time and invent it before you. You’re wearing a bootleg vest so we’re going to have to kill you.”

“You can’t kill me for a copyright violation.”

“Sure we can. Our lawyers went back and put it in the Constitution.”

Eric panicked and slapped the button on his vest, flinging himself randomly into time. The Copyright Cops followed. Down the corridors of history they ran: Medieval, Mesozoic, Middle Reformation, Great Awakening. Hiding behind Thomas Becket’s robes, crouching in a Catholic hiding hole, squatting behind the battlements of a castle. Eric was good at running but then he thought, “What if…?” and he set a different path.

Now waiting on the pink shores of a prehistoric sea, Coelacanths mating merrily in the deep, he sees a tiny fish, gills straining, taking its first crawl up onto land, chased by an angry trilobite. Eric had worked this problem out, spending almost a year in a looped millisecond so that no time at all had passed. He had pinpointed this little Rhipidistia as the earliest ancestor of the Copyright Cops who were on his tail. He smushed it with a rolled up magazine.

“There,” he said. “Now to get back to my wedding.”

Yanked into the present, he’s back in his lab, exhausted after his chase through time, but exhilarated as well. He sits at his workbench to get ready for the wedding but first, just a little nap. He puts his head down on his arms, he falls soundly asleep…

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The Forsaken

Author : Debbie Mac Rory

We have no choice, they said. We have to leave. We don’t know where we can go, or even if we can survive out there, but we can’t live here any longer. But there isn’t enough room here for all of us.

And then it became clear that the “we” and the “us” indicated in the news broadcasts, referred only to the healthy, the fertile, the educated among our peoples. Those who had been born without genetic abnormalities or physiological conditions which science should have long since cured.

The selection process was as short as the world government was able to make it, but it still stretched into months. Riots broke out worldwide, incited by those terrified of being left behind and those made bitter by tests results that rejected their chance of passage, even though they considered themselves healthy.

Paranoia took its place in the proceedings and only those who had a place ensured were allowed to prepare and load the ships. I suppose they believed that we, abandoned as we were, would yet try to poison the food, or infect their ventilation systems with some pathogenic substance. I know there were some that would have done so, and some that tried through the layers of security that surrounded the airbases. Most of them lost their lives on the lasers of the defensive grid.

When the ships had at last completed preparations, few were at full capacity. The medical AIs, calling on all the worlds collected knowledge, rejected all children under 12 in the belief that the exposure of such young bodies to the unshielded radiation outside the atmosphere would render them infertile, and useless as colony members. Even allowing for the families who opted to stay together on a now barren planet, or the parents who kissed their children goodbye, leaving them with crippled aunts or grandfathers too old to qualify, the numbers were far fewer than expected.

Most of the ships have left now, but the security grid around the airfields is still active. The children who were left come here most days to throw rocks against the fences, and watch the lasers turn them to dust. I still come to watch the last of the ships, assisting those others who try to hack into the abandoned bases so we can siphon the remaining power for ourselves.

The little girl with me clings tighter, burying her face in the cloth of my garments as the dust clouds raise from yet another launch. I adjust the gauze around my face with one hand so I can keep watching, while gently stroking the child’s hair with the other, to comfort her.

When finally the rockets flare has faded beyond what I could follow in the brightness of the noon-day sun I take the girls hand and turning, we walk together into the echoing streets.

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