Running On Empty

Author : Rae Walker

The field was nothing special, drying knee high grass and a few scrubby trees, but to Ed it looked like paradise. It pained him that the battle would tear apart these few acres, churning more land into waste, but the Smarts had reported burrowing in this location and any moment now at least forty Batteries would emerge crab-walking from the ground. Dirt would fall away from their steel bodies and they would attack fully charged, ready for battle. That’s what the Smarts had said without realizing it, holding their screens close to their faces so the blue light reflected off pale flesh, “At least forty -we don’t think more than sixty.”

Now Ed waited and watched for the attacks to begin. Forty. No more than sixty. Ed spat. His men were young and scared, skinny in oversized rubber suits that protected them from the massive electrical charges that remained the only effective weapon against the Batteries. Long ago, the land had given way to metallic grids. On those grids the Batteries were unstoppable, drawing energy from ports with every step, never tiring, never needing rest.

“Do you think our chances are good?” A private asked him, his face buried in the ground as though the Batteries’ scattershot rifles had already begun firing, “Gunny Howel?”

“We got to keep them from growing. That’s all that matters now. There’s no reclaiming, only defense.” Ed muttered, not hearing his subordinate’s plea, “Only defense.”

Ed imagined he could smell metal now. He could smell them burrowing to the point of attack, massive extension cords keeping them charged. They wouldn’t expend energy on the journey, unlike his worn troupes.

“Gunny Howel? Should we ready the bolts?” The private looked not much older than his son.

“Set’m up, but don’t switch them over until my say so.” Ed gritted his teeth and turned away. The bolt cannons had only two or three good shots in them, and if sixty was what came out of the ground then he would have to be careful, creative. Once those were gone they would be down to hand units and those didn’t do a scratch’s worth of damage.

Ed stared in the distance at the land they had lost. Even from here the grids glowed bright and uniform, laid down on land that had once been home. Most civilians now lived in the mountains, where his son was now. His wife was lost long ago and her body now lay beneath that distant neon mass.

The ground trembled. It would begin, in moments.

“First half forward! Drop!” Ed shouted. His men positioned themselves on their knees to send a spray of ammunition once the Batteries emerged. “Bolts ready!”

The Batteries burst from the ground, pouring out into the dying night like ants from a nest, forty, sixty, hundreds. Ed’s mouth went dry. He heard the private whimper beside him and an image of his son, safe in the mountains, leapt to his mind.

“FIRE!” Ed screamed as Batteries swarmed upon them.

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Deserted Island

Author : Alex Meggitt

The sun forces itself past my eyelids and wakes me up every morning. I lean over and make another notch in the tree next to the bed I’ve created. There are four hundred eighty three of them. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth as I get up, and I wander halfway to the shore for my bucket of purified water. I drink it in one large gulp and place it back on the ground. From there I begin to circle the small island, picking up the fewest pieces of driftwood necessary to make a fire and prepare more seawater.

The gentle wind picks up a slight hum that grows louder as I walk. It’s when I bend down to pick up a few stray berries growing along the edge of the thin woods that the sound becomes loud enough to be identified. As I turn, I can perceive a large black shape through the ringing sun.

The helicopter comes closer and closer. It hovers a few meters off the shoreline, its side door opens and a man in a black army uniform leans out, yelling something through a megaphone. I stand with my hand cupped over my eyes, staring at him and letting the wind blow my ragged clothing. The vehicle descends a bit, and I can make out the pilot looking from side to side. There’s no room for him to land comfortably anywhere on the island. The man in the back leans out again and says something else, but I still can’t tell what it is. He recedes from view once more, and a bright orange raft appears in the doorway. The raft begins to lower from the helicopter, two uniformed men holding on inside it. The man with the megaphone appears again and waves. I stare.

A dozen turrets burst out from where the sand meets the water. They fire simultaneously, burst after burst, each directly on target. Everything in front of me turns to a gray blur. My face is still warm from the rush of projectiles as the ashes of the helicopter and its crew are scattered in the wind, no longer perceivable to the human eye.

Driftwood still clutched in one hand, I walk back to fire pit and carefully arrange them to make an easy flame. I fill the pot with seawater and place it properly before going through the motions of starting the fire. As the water boils, I lean back in the sand and let my thoughts drift into the clear blue sky. There’s only one pristine beach left in the world, and it belongs to me.

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Loren's Triumph

Author : Adam Zabell

The now-empty desk stared back at Loren, equal parts accusation and despair. “So you’re really going to leave?”

“I don’t see as I have a choice, Bruce.” Loren had ignored the usual protocols and devised her own names for the AI appliances scattered about her lab. Sorry, ‘the lab’, she reminded herself. “Funding has dried up. And besides,” she added in the sotto voice that she’d discovered the microphones couldn’t pick up, “I’m not convinced I could work like this anymore.”

“But you were so close! I’m sure you only need another 20 nanoseconds of simulation time to prove that…”

Loren busied herself with powering down the mainframe and the hypervox manipulation gloves. “To prove nothing, Bruce. It’s just a simulation of what we think might be happening, based on theories that everybody knows are flawed at the classiquantum interface. It’s making Bohr into Newton’s bitch in Heisenberg’s backyard.” Bruce involuntarily flashed his trim the bright green of a suppressed laugh. “And even if I’m right, there’s no way I can prove it in a physical lab setting. You helped me work out the projected costs, remember?”

Insomuch as a desk can pout, Bruce pouted. “But the answer! The chance to know something revolutionary, doesn’t than mean anything to you anymore? You used to be so eager to come in each morning, stay late each night. What happened to that enthusiastic scientist?”

The gloves purred a sigh of love and understanding before they went away, the mainframe busied itself writing a sonnet of thanksgiving with the last of her cycles. Loren could feel the tears coming back. “It’s not the answer, but the questing. I wish I could explain how important that is.”

“Bullcrap! You spout platitudes to justify why failure is acceptable, and I don’t believe for an instant that you’re willing to pretend your science is mere philosophy.”

Her tears were an eyeblink from breaking free, watching every bright light and white hum fade away. “I’m not quitting, just choosing a new way to investigate. Tell you what, Bruce. If you promise not to look until after I’ve left, I’ll tell you about my last experiment.”

It was a hollow bargain, Bruce knew it. But for all the arguments and ancillary supporting evidence he could process, he was resigned to agree that this was the best he could ask for. As Loren slipped away, Bruce opened the file in his cache and read the single sentence. He cursed the empty room with a simultaneous roar of every expletive in every language, with grief and impotent rage for he knew the one answer he’d always wanted would remain forever out of his grasp.

“Is there a real heaven for an artificial mind?”

The Bedtime Story

Author : Jody Hart Lehrer

Jared begged his father for a bedtime story. Mr. Edgars sighed, and reached for the book that his precocious seven year old son was handing him.

Jared eagerly settled on his back on his bed.

“Immigrants from Another Galaxy” his father said, reading from the cover. This book was Jared’s favorite, about aliens fleeing to Earth from a planet the size of Delaware one million light years away. Instead of using the word “aliens” the author used the term “celestially challenged beings.”

“Earth-bound beings,” began Mr. Edgars “did not realize that life actually existed outside of their little planet until some visitors arrived in August of 2050.” Humans were called “Earth-bound” beings because they were “bound” to Earth and couldn’t survive in the hostile atmosphere of other planets.

Mr. Edgars read the first part of the book, that told of the arrival of what some authors have referred to as a “space ship” but that this author called an “interplanetary transporter.” The interplanetary transporter had made its first appearance on Earth somewhere outside of Phoenix, Arizona.

Clearing his throat, Mr. Edgars read “Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kluggman were sitting in front of their mobile home near Phoenix that day, sipping their birch beers.”

Mr. Edgars read on. “When an interplanetary transporter whizzed downward towards them like a monstrous man-hole cover, crashing through a mile of clotheslines connecting the mobile homes in the park, and finally coming to a rest in a big field nearby.”

Mr. Edgars smiled and continued. “Mr. Kluggman set down his birch beer bottle, but not before downing the last sip, and exclaimed as he wiped the spillage from his mouth with the back of his hand, ‘Damndest thing I ever did see, Agnes!”

Jared and his father paused to shout, with tumultuous glee, “Damndest thing I ever did see, Agnes!”

Mr. Edgars picked up without missing a beat. “At first, Earth-bound beings reacted with fear and suspicion. They locked up the celestially challenged beings and shot the ones they could not catch.”

The next chapter of the book told about how the celestially challenged beings looked exactly like Earth-bound beings- except for the tails – making it terribly difficult for Earth-bound beings to keep from shooting their own kind unless they shouted “drop your pants!”

Mr. Edgars read the remainder of the book, describing how eventually Earth-bound beings accepted celestially challenged beings as allies and even friends. Reading aloud, Mr. Edgars said “Finally, Earth-bound beings realized that celestially challenged beings could hold down jobs, attend schools, and be productive members of the community.”

Mr. Edgars smiled at his son, who was growing sleepy, put the book on Jared’s desk, and shut off the bedroom light. Bending down, he tucked the comforter around his son’s shoulder’s. The comforter has images of interplanetary transporters on it.

As Mr. Edgar’s prepared to stand up he noticed that he had forgotten something. Ever so gently, he tucked Jared’s tail under his comforter.

I Won't Let Her Kill Me!

Author : Michael “Freeman” Herbaugh

She was trying to KILL him! Well, he wasn’t going to stand for that. Sure he only existed on paper but that didn’t mean he had any less of a soul nor that he did not want to live same as everyone else. He had seen her kill off too many of his friends to let her just type him into oblivion. Segundino84 had been consumed by a planet, Jack had been killed out in the desert, Wilson was killed by some deep sea creature and just recently his partner Sarah had been sucked out an airlock. Well he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Every time she’d steer him toward a sun with no hope of surviving he would have to go back while she slept and add that he found an escape vector. If she had him sacrifice himself for a martian colony he would have to go back and not only delete that but re-write it so that not only did he survive but that he had also managed to save the colony from the ravages of the Blight.

He had managed to master the pages of his environment and save himself from the evil mistress who tried incessantly to destroy him. But now, now he was learning to control the environment in the mistress’ world as well. If it came down to him or her, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be him. The scissors would help, possibly. Or perhaps he could use the vacuum cleaner. Then it dawned on him. The microwave! Yes, that would do nicely. Death by reheated pizza–how poetic. Someone should write a story about that!