Shades of Gray

Author : Renee Leyburn

I dream things before they happen to me. I dreamed the day I will die. From what I hear tell, the foresight is a side effect of the genetic selection and enhancement process that was used when my parents decided to have a child. I don’t know all the delicate ins and outs, all I know is that I’m not allowed in casinos, that I have to wear a special armband everywhere I go so that I can be identified, and that I’m viciously aware of how I will meet my demise.

So much for luck. So much for “you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.”

Some people call this thing a gift. I call it a disease. When I was a boy I thought that I was normal. I thought that everybody was like me. When I hit puberty and the dreams started coming more often, began to be more far-reaching, people started to treat me differently. The future is inescapable and people don’t want to hear about the bad things that are going to happen to them. They want to go on with their lives, dumbly unaware, pretending like they are happy.

There aren’t that many more like me, but there are enough that lately there’s been quite a lot of talk about the need to fix the “flaw” in the genetic enhancement process that created us. They don’t want types like me to get too common. Never mind that the exact same process created them and it’s just a fluke that their futures assault me in my sleep instead of the other way around. Never mind that I never asked for this. Never mind that their future is already what it is, whether they hear about it from someone or not.

Never mind that most of the things I see are not even supposed to be about anybody else. They’re just about me. It’s all about me. It’s all about how my life will go, no matter what I do. It’s all about how this is out of my hands. Last night it was all about how in a moment five hooded men are going to break down the door to my apartment and purge the world of whatever influence they think I have. So much for luck. So much for the gift.

So much for the good of humanity.


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Musket Drill

Author : Rob Burton

Pour. Spit. Ram. Withdraw. Prime. Cock.

I had really hoped people were better than this.

Aim. Fire.

It’s just a game.

I heard somewhere once that the military used to recruit gamers to be snipers. They’d voluntarily honed their skills since childhood, and could be calm and dispassionate under fire. I can believe that. My hands move fluidly now, too quick to worry about the heat as the drill marches through my head. The words are voiced by some archetypal sergeant. I can almost see the moustache.

Aim. Fire.

The man falls down, an entry wound in his hip like a juicy red apple.

I was a human rights lawyer. I knew the terrible things people were capable of. I just didn’t think it was our natural state. I didn’t want Hobbes to be right. Yet here I am, at a castle gate, making everyone’s life nasty, brutish and short.

Aim. Fire.

When it all switched off we were bemused. Then there was looting, rioting, arson, rape. Blood like the pavements had just rusted. The guns showed themselves for a few days, before the ammunition ran out. I think that killed nearly as many as the knives.

Aim. Fire. His arm still grips the ladder when it falls.

I quickly realised, hiding with the weeping weak, that the simple provision of high walls was enough to keep us alive whilst the world went mad. It’s always the young men. Even before the collapse, as a man you were more likely to die between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five than any other ten-year period of your life.

Aim. Fire. Missed.

So, for all our advances, and all the many places in this great city, we ended up here. The terrible truth is that medieval stuff just works. Forty of us here, access to the river, a safe place to store food, fuel and medicine. Also enough to make us a target. A young man tells me that he thinks the earth’s magnetic field flipped. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it was a computer virus, or nanobots. It doesn’t matter.

Aim. Fire.

Of course, it was a museum, full of things we’d thought we were done with. One of the old men from the home was a chemist. I don’t know how he made this powder, but it was worth every moment of those terrifying midnight scavenging runs. I was nervous when we first fired the musket, shocked when I found out I was the best shot. It turns out that shooting grouse with my grandfather and playing countless hours of ‘longshot’ wasn’t such a waste of time after all.

Aim. Fire. A head pops. It’s just a game.

Except that it isn’t. Maybe it’ll calm down, after some time. Maybe it’s fatty food and television deprivation, or the closing of the world down from global feeds to your field of vision, or worse, some horrible echo of expected behaviour, reinforced by countless films and stories, the same cultural hangover that helps me do this. The longer this lasts, though, this daily grind, the more I doubt it. The more this seems like our natural state.

Pour. Spit. Ram. Prime. Cock. Aim. Fire.

And there goes the ramrod. It didn’t even hit anyone.

So now we die.

A young mother dashes up to me. She’s brandishing a spare ramrod, a prize from another exhibit. With sudden clarity, I wish that she hadn’t found it. Will it be the same tomorrow, as it was yesterday? Can I face it?

Pour. Spit. Ram. Withdraw. Prime. Cock. Aim. Fire.


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The Light Of Lesser Suns

Author : Glenn Blakeslee

He became part of the Grand Flyby Mission midway through the third decade of his life, as a junior designer on the Flight Data Subsystem team.

He found himself at the leading edge of spacecraft design, and worked with the members of his team to build a robust device capable of data-handling functions for a long-term project.

He went to the Cape for the liftoff, was amazed to see the spacecraft climb on a column of flame. He met a girl on a Florida beach, and a year later married her.

The next years were heady times, as the spacecraft arrowed its way to the outer planets: Jupiter and her moons were imaged, and Saturn and her rings fell to the instruments aboard the spacecraft. He lived as fast as the data coming in, speeding the crowding freeways of LA in his sports car and drinking more than usual. He had an affair, which his wife did not discover.

The spacecraft’s mission was extended, and he found himself no longer a junior engineer but in charge of a team. The FDS was his baby, he the hands-down expert. The spacecraft was the first to perform a flyby of Uranus, and the first to photograph Neptune.

In the fifth decade of his life, he found himself settling down. His fast car had long ago been traded for a family-style sedan. He spent hours at work designing methods for upgrading the spacecraft, and when he and his team succeeded the job of the spacecraft changed again, to a long-duration interstellar mission. His wife learned of his dalliance a decade earlier and, bored and facing an empty nest, divorced him.

Some of the instruments on the spacecraft —those with no use in the sparser stretches of the solar system— were shut down, and though the incoming data never ceased it did slow. He found his staff reduced, which was expected. He found his life had settled into a slow rhythm —collecting data from the far-off spacecraft, sending updates across the expanse, sleeping and eating.

One year after the spacecraft crossed the termination shock —the inexorable slowing of the solar wind— he suffered a heart attack. He took time off but kept charge of his small team. With doctors orders he was back on the job, but charged with shutting down two more of the spacecraft’s systems. Three years later he retired.

He kept a firm hand on the spacecraft’s systems as a part-time consultant. With only two instruments still collecting data, the mission had collapsed to a terminal phase. They held a party when the spacecraft entered heliopause, and it reminded him of the good old days, when the spacecraft was running fast through the outer planets and the data stream held discovery after discovery. Now past the edge of the solar system, the spacecraft would coast quietly forever.

It became apparent to him that he and the spacecraft had led parallel lives, from a fast and fiery launch to a slow cold end.

Late in his eighth decade he found that his time in the sun had created a defect in his skin which, in the darkness and solitude of his late age, would probably end his life. So, too, the spacecraft: its time in the sun had ended, the reactors that powered it all but discharged. But it sped on, and so might he.

The rapid telemetry of his heart would slow, the data stream of his brain would trickle to a stop —but he knew, somehow, that he and the spacecraft would ride together, into the light of lesser suns.


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Terminal Cancer

Author : Jasen Taylor

The large, solid steel table in the center of the sterile conference chamber was three inches thick but still did not weigh as much as the spirits of the twelve individuals seated around it. They had put this meeting off for as long as they could, but it now appeared there was only one course of action left open to them.

A course of action that the tallest of them, seated at the head of the table, still took umbrage with.

“I’m still not convinced that we have exhausted every treatment option available to us.”

“Well, what would it take to convince you?”, asked a voice three seats down. “Our last and best treatment for this patient has failed. We simply don’t have any way of curing the damage that has been done.”

“But cell migration…”

“Has failed. Repeatedly, I might add.” This brought a chorus of agreement from the others around the table. “Many times we have tried to isolate the damaged cells so the healthy population can grow and flourish,but the corruption has spread to the point where the patient’s system is damaged both from within and without.”

A loud voice at the other end of the table added, “There are many pockets of cells which are continually fighting for dominance over the other cells. At first, this was a slow process. The cells could only affect those closest to them and we thought we could reverse the process by introducing several reagents to halt the flow of corruption, but now these cells have gained in strength and are spreading their infection at an exponentially increasing rate and now have the capability of attacking the body as a whole. They can strike anywhere, anytime.

The tallest of them, realizing he was fighting a losing battle, said, “But there is still a potential for change. The patient’s cellular landscape is in a constant state of flux. Is this not the reason we have waited so long to determine the patient’s outcome?”

“But your argument is now the dominant reason shaping our decision. This state of flux is a cellular juggernaut, spiraling out of control. There is no way now to reverse the process. Several times it seemed a breakthrough had been made. A rogue cell or group of cells would break off and begin to promote harmony among the cellular ranks, but would always be eradicated or indoctrinated back into the cellular decay from which it sprang. Now the decay has reached the bloodstream, poisoning the system from deep within and promoting the feverish warmth which now plagues the entire body. There can be no going back now. All hope is lost. The plug must be pulled.”



And so the chant was taken up around the table, every one seated agreeing in turn, until finally it was time for the tall one to weigh in.

“It just seems a shame to erase all that potential for excellence. I had such high hopes for this one.”

“Your regrets are echoed in all our hearts. However, it must be done in order to protect the surrounding patients from the cellular degeneration of their neighbor.”

The tall one sighed.

“I recommend we discontinue the use of colonization as a viable treatment option in the future.”

As the others got up to leave, the tall one opened up the folder in front of him, labeled INTER-GALACTIC PLANETARY DE-CONTAMINATION SQUAD. He signed off on the action that would silence six billion cells.

Time of Death – 2008

Patient’s Name – Earth


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Author : Paul Bort

Telic didn’t know what to do next. The barn was gone. Not gone with splinters everywhere, hinting that there was once a barn. This was gone like it had been edited out. Nothing left but dirt.

The sun was setting, and the cows were wandering back, the first few lowing in confusion.

It wasn’t a big farm. A few dozen cows, twice as many chickens, and a family of German Shepherds who maintained order. Now it was an even smaller farm, lacking what had been its largest building.

He turned to look at the farmhouse, hoping it was still there, and secretly fearing it would not be. Reassured by its lack of absence, a memory clicked, and he remembered his grandfather telling stories about the war. Everyone called it the “Reality War”, because calling it “World War Five” or “Interplanetary War One” didn’t quite cover it.

Yes, it had affected everyone on Earth, plus the lunar and martian colonies. But it wasn’t a war of tanks and missles. It was a war of technology. Computer virii seemed harmless enough until 2,000 people died when the life support on their dome on Mare Crisium went spastic. Half of them cooked, the other half froze. Once the temperatures reached either 50C or -50C, the system lowered the air pressure to 50 Pascals.

Then came the nanotech. Microscopic, general-purpose assemblers. Powered by low-dose microwaves, they were like a miracle. They worked better as air pressure decreased, so the first big use was going to be expanding our presence on Mars.

200 cubic meters of them were packed onto a rocket. During the count down, an alarm sounded. An access hatch at the top of the payload area was open. At the same time, a TV satellite started transmitting power and instructions to the nanobots. In hours, the entire launch facility was gone.

The war had begun. No one knew (or at least no one said) who was behind each attack. For all the news said, it could be rival internet gangs.

The war ended a few years later with millions of casualties and a newfound respect for computer security experts. The UN unanimously agreed that using software to kill people was just as offensive as using nuclear weapons. There would be no forgiveness for next time.

Despite the difficulty in determining who had launched which attacks throughout the war, this somehow worked. Life got back to normal.

Some people wanted to get away from technology, including Telic’s grandfather. He had been an accountant all his life, and was hired by the US government as part of a team that generated economic forecasts for various attack scenarios. By the time the war was over, he was tired of seeing the damage done, even if it was mostly on paper.

So he bought this farm in Northern California and settled down.

Recalling the history brought clarity, and Telic knew what his next step should be. Slowly walking back to the house, he plugged in and fired up the old hardened laptop his grandfather had left in a box marked “Justin Case”. No one named Justin had come by looking for it, so like many things in disused corners of a farmhouse, it sat there until needed.

The laptop finished booting, and one of the folders on the desktop was named “nano”. After a few minutes of reading, Telic knew a lot more about the war. Which side he was on, and where he was headed with a small package and an old microwave oven.


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