Footprints

Author : Jim Wisniewski

They say the wind carries the souls of the dead, forever blowing to remind us of things past. At least, that’s what the kasht say, but then our worlds usually have less wind than Tun Ekshati. Most humans don’t believe it.

Marcus might. He’s been here long enough.

“You have to make them reconsider!”

We sit in the local equivalent of a bar, carved in rounding curves into the side of a rock face. Wind blowing through carefully shaped channels along the outer ledge plays a quiet, mournful note that changes with gusts and lulls. Kasht aesthetics dictate transience and minimalism. Dwellings are carved to look like natural hollows in the rock, structures built without metal requiring continual repair. Neglected for a few centuries, wind and sand would scour away even the largest community without a trace. It’s like they’re embarrassed they exist at all.

I shake my head. “Marcus, be reasonable. None of the Union admission criteria are met. The kasht aren’t independently spacefaring, have nothing valuable to trade and show little interest in contact with offworlders. We can’t justify the energy cost of maintaining the gate metric.”

I drain the last of my bowl of the locally favored drink, syrup-thick and heavy with vegetable fats. The proprietor flits over to clean off the floor between us, twittering praises to generous patrons in his own tongue as he works. Marcus, long since fluent, smiles and whistles a thank-you in response.

He’s clearly comfortable here. He ought to be, as the local xenoanthropologist for almost eighty standard years. His own cleft dwelling is virtually indistinguishable from a native’s. They’re just as clearly fond of him. They call him ikoberat-kinei, “Pillar-of-dawn,” because of his blond hair and after a mythic immortal from their folklore.

He faces me with a solemn look. “I’m worried that…” He pauses, hesitates. “This all seems like a soap bubble sometimes. I’m worried that if I’m not here to watch it, everything will disappear.” He gestures expansively, taking in the whole room. “What if I want to return?”

“You can take a slowboat. I’m truly sorry, Marcus, but the decision is made.” I gather my feet under me and stand; he follows suit. “They’re closing the gate as soon as we return.”

Marcus performs the traveler’s farewell ritual with the proprietor, and we pull on our facemasks as we approach the door. I step onto the sand, but he halts at the ornamented threshold. “No.”

“What?”

“I can’t do it. I’m staying here.”

“You…” I stop. I recognize the determination on his face, and I can’t force him to come, legally or physically. He’s bigger than me.

He has to know what he’s getting into. It’ll take a slowboat over a century to get back here. Maybe by then he’ll convince them to join the rest of the galaxy.

I just nod, and turn back towards the ship. As I walk, the wind erases each footprint as soon as it’s made.

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Birthdays

Author : Curtis C. Chen

When Stacy was twelve, she celebrated her father’s thirty-third birthday.

It wasn’t actually his birthday. It was two weeks before his birthday, but he was leaving on a mission in five days.

Stacy thought the party was boring. There were a lot of grown-ups there, drinking smelly drinks that looked like soda but tasted bitter when she stole a sip from her father’s plastic cup. He was talking to another grown-up at the time and didn’t notice.

“It’s only sixteen light-years,” he was saying. “We’re not sure how hard we can push the stardrive, but we also need to balance the relativistic effects.”

Stacy wandered into the kitchen to find her mother. She was standing over the sink, alone.

“Mommy?” Stacy said, tugging at her skirt.

Stacy’s mother turned to look at her. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks were wet.

“Time for bed,” she said.

When Stacy was sixty-five, she celebrated her father’s fortieth birthday.

She barely recognized the man who embraced her as the waitress maneuvered her wheelchair into the restaurant.

“My little girl,” he said, his eyes glistening.

They brought a plate of food that she wasn’t allergic to. She toasted him with apple juice. She felt tired halfway through dinner, but pinched her arm under the table to keep herself awake.

She stayed until all the other guests had left. There weren’t many of them. The waitress brought Stacy a glass of warm milk, and a cup of coffee for her father. The coffee smelled good.

They talked for nearly an hour. He asked about Stacy’s mother, about what had happened to his family over the last half century, how they’d lived without him. Stacy’s mother had remarried when they thought her father’s ship had been lost, destroyed during their initial acceleration out of the solar system.

“She never stopped loving you,” Stacy told her father. She showed him the family photo that her mother had kept until she died, and which Stacy still carried in her purse. He cried quietly.

When the restaurant closed, Stacy’s father helped her into a waiting taxicab. He noticed her coughing and asked about her health.

“I’m old,” she said, forcing a smile. She didn’t want to tell him about the cancer.

Four days later, Stacy got a call from the agency. They had found her father dead in his apartment. He had overdosed on ibuprofen, washed down with a bottle of whiskey. They said he hadn’t felt any pain.

The note read: “No parent should outlive his child.”

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Almost

Author : Kat Rose

Battle raged on around him, the constant sounds of gunfire ringing in his programmed earlike audio receptors. He, however, was oblivious to anything but the almost lifelike pain near where his navel would be, where the bullet had pierced his stark green casing.

For the first time in his battery powered life, he wished himself dead, unable to function, in electronic terms. The war was one-sided, and he knew he was on the losing side. His opponents were hell bent on destroying every robot created.

Once, before the human race realized they had made themselves disposable, robots and humans had gotten along, but after the new leaders had been elected, the entire human race had found that they were no longer necessary in this world and had been opposed to that fact.

RC926’s pupils grew large as a sort of shocking blue fluid leaked from around the bullet hole. As he lay himself down, the robot gave one last humanlike sigh, almost with emotion. Almost.

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It Takes All Kinds

Author : Daniel Nugent

“And I expect you to show all your work on the problem sets. Points will be deducted!” shouted Professor Smith as his class began to shuffle out of the lecture hall. He began collecting his papers and tri-parencies from the holo-video podium.

A man in an immaculate gray suit politely held the door open for the exiting class before briskly descending the stairs to the floor of the amphitheater. “Doctor Smith, I presume?” he asked, extending his french-cuffed hand. The Doctor took the man’s hand. “I’m Claude Robinson, from Zeus BioTechnology. We spoke earlier.”

Smith’s hand lingered for a moment as he looked at the contracting agent. “You’re early Mr Robinson. No matter, I’m on my way to my office.”

As they exited the dimly lit corridor that led to the classroom and approached the enervator, Mr Robinson spoke, “Do you enjoy teaching, Doctor Smith? It doesn’t seem to fit a man of your nature, from what I know of you.”

“Enjoy it? Not at all. How would you like to deal with whining, snot nosed children, day in and day out. Barely a one is intelligent enough to put their pants on properly, let alone even begin to understand genetic molecular manipulation,” he said as they stepped on, ripples flowing across the transparent gravitational field where their feet fell. “Though… there are some certain benefits,” Smith’s mind lingering on a certain co-ed.

“I have to say, I didn’t expect they’d send a Cyborg out to meet me, considering the nature of my work.”

Claude idly watched waves flow from where his fingers touched the wall of the enervator, the setting sun casting royal purple on the cityscape below. “Hardly any intent, Doctor Smith. I simply happened to have a congenital and rather deadly disease as a child. Zeus BioTechnology only cares about their employees to the extent that they perform their jobs in a superior fashion.”

“Hmmph,” Smith replied, shifting his weight against the wall.

“Might I enquire as to how you were able to tell?”

“Usually all I need is to shake a man’s hand… but yours was perfect. I noticed an odd reflection in your eye. It appears they still haven’t gotten the biosilicon retinas right.”

The enervator stopped and Smith led the other man to his office door. They entered and the halogen lamps flickered on. Smith walked through the cramped office, placed his bag on a stack of books, and turned back to face Robinson who had started tapping a thin card. The lights flickered again and he placed the card in his pocket.

“No doubt Zeus BioTechnology has to have the latest in dampening technology,” said Smith.

“The very latest, Doctor Smith. Any listening devices will think that we are discussing licensing your RNA retrovirus engineering toolset.”

“Hah, one of my lesser discoveries, at best. Even that nitwit McCoy could have created it,” he said, turning to face his office window. “When Zeus brings my new work to the public, we’ll all be rich beyond our wildest dreams. Immortality won’t come che-ACK!”

Smith was cut off as Robinson jabbed a syringe into his neck.

“What are you doing you metal domed ninny?! You’ve killed me!”

“Hardly, Doctor Smith. I’ve simply given you a hybrid viral-nanite Alzheimer’s injection. You’ll be mostly fine, though I believe that the University will begin paying your pension a bit sooner than anticipated,” Robinson said, setting the Doctor down in his chair whereupon he slumped forward on the desk. He rifled through a few drawers, taking several files and a bottle of Whiskey.

Placing the amber liquor on the desk with the cap off, Robinson turned towards the door. “Why are they so naive? Don’t they understand that we’d only be interested if Immortality was consumable?” he remarked to no one. He tapped his breast pocket once and exited the room.

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Ballroom

Author : Angela N. Hunt

“We’re flying.”

His voice is soft. Satisfied.

Her smile never wavers, nor her posture or the angle of her head to the angle of her swan white neck. But the hand in his squeezes for a half-second. Her feet keep perfect time with his as they glide across the floor, bars of the Blue Danube Waltz carrying them as effortless as their feet.

They slide into a perfect pause.

“Like doves,” she says quietly.

And they’re off again, whirling around each other in a tighter orbit than any binary star.

* * *

Caspurtina, the Residence’s sorceress, turned away from watching the dancers with a satisfied nod. Looked like she’d have her Dancers for the Mystery after all. With a flick of her wrist, she shook out the fingers of one elegant, manicured hand over the surface of a nearby nanoparticle-board table, one of many surrounding the dance floor, each displaying a different fractal star pattern. Starlight fell in brilliant sparkles from her fingertips. Wouldn’t do to have too much residual enchantments mucking up her next working.

The sparkles played havoc with the nano-surface, setting up a new and exciting fractal pattern not in the designer’s specs that then proceeded to make the surface of the table break out in a swath of tiny pansies. She’d have to have someone clean that up.

She took in the group of somber suited investors.

“As you can see, we have all the elements that we require for our gala,” Caspurtina said.

“Will there be a need of additional funds?” the banker from Tokyo inquired.

Caspurtina grinned, pure charm.

“Only if you wish to flatter me,” she replied and he bowed in amused return.

With that, the investors dispersed, off to find other entertainments for the evening.

Caspurtina took one more look at her chosen Dancers, though they didn’t know it yet, taking in the white feathered skirt floating against the sharp black of tuxedo pants, feet flashing like wings.

Really. What better way to summon the ghosts of Fred and Ginger for a command performance?

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