Original Death

Author : Martin Spernau

This time it hurt. Which was rather odd.

He could remember losing body parts in battle before, but never had it hurt. He clearly recalled losing most of his right leg to a direct plasma hit on his way into the bunker at 23-0-9. That had only slowed his progress in killing each and every one of the rebels holding the bunker. He finished them all off – 23 in total – before collapsing. The extraction team had pulled him from under a pile of headless bodies and body parts. Just two days later he had been ready to storm the gates to 24-2-16.

He felt real pain where his hand had been.

They had designed this new body of his to be unstoppable. Any damage done to it could be repaired. All he needed to ensure was that it was his side that sent the extraction team. If this body made it out, he couldn’t be killed.

They had also designed it to feel no pain. He had a status display instead, loss of efficiency, mobility, in percent. The loss of his right hand should not have bothered him that much. He lost his sidearm and with it, his long ranged attack advantage, but he was configured to be a deadly machine in close combat. This body packed enough punch to finish this job barehanded if need be. The damage had already been dealt with; there was no blood or anything.

But this time there was pain. The pain was new.

And the pain did not stop. It did not register in his display, but it felt all too real just the same. Disbelieving, he held up the stump where his hand had been just moments before. It was now sprouting a long combat blade to replace his hand and sidearm.

His hand was gone, but it still hurt like mad. This body did not feel pain! It was not designed to.

The pain!

Confused, he stopped in mid stride, blackness filling his vision. He never noticed the bolt of superheated plasma that took his head off.

There was no pain this time.

###

“Lucky shot Private Kern! You saved our lives! You are a hero!”

“That was no lucky shot Sarge. It was just standing there looking at its hand”

“Still, your hit enabled us to take the Mech down. It would have had us all! Don’t be so humble!”

“Really Sarge, I don’t think it was my headshot that stopped it. It just stood there and stared at it’s missing hand. As if it was in agony…”

“Oh, come on! These things don’t feel pain.”

“Sarge, I’d like to check the vids of this encounter. I have a suspicion we might have found an O.D. here.”

“You mean the soldier they downloaded into this Mech originally died by losing his hand? Come on!”

“Well, it clearly seemed to be in pain and confusion, and as you said, these things don’t register pain through damage.”

“Hmmm! So you think it was experiencing a memory of its original’s death? Hmmm! Good thinking. Any other characteristics we might use to identify on the field?”

“It seemed to act right-handed although it was configured left handed. I think it was using that sidearm in its right hand with deadly efficiency. Maybe the download was a firearms specialist or sniper or something. All its kills at range were headshots. Oh! And it seemed to take an awful lot of care to make sure opponents were actually dead before moving on. I haven’t heard of many Mechs do that.”

“Figures – a download that makes sure there is nothing left to download when it kills. Ok. This is going into the Identification Database. Let’s see if they downloaded this one into more Mechs. If we can I.D. them in the field, we’ll at least know how to hurt them now!”

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Potential Loss

Author : Steven Perez

Ix looked out the main window, sighing as she viewed the once-vibrant blue world below her, now gray and barren. She wondered if the strange fate that befell this place could have been avoided, and was embarrassed to admit that she couldn’t think of any way that it could have been.

“Still mooning over that planet?” she heard Bela say from across the bridge.

Never turning, Ix said in a terse voice, “I’m not mooning. Just sad, is all. Those beings had such potential.”

Her partner made a snorting sound. “Yeah, potential. And how did they spend that potential? Blowing each other up. Polluting their home. Finding new and better ways to damage their own selves. The universe is better off with them gone to dust, if you ask me. A race like that would just end up causing more trouble that they’re worth.”

Now Ix did turn around. “And all those other species – did they deserve their fates, too?”

Bela fixed on her a level gaze and said, “That was their concern. That’s why we gave them the job, remember? That whole “fill the earth and subdue it” brief? And what did they do with their world? At every given opportunity, they pissed on the wonders we gave them and then blamed us for their own screw-ups. I’ve no sympathy at all for them. I mean, yeah, the dolphins were cute and I really liked designing that platypus, but look at it this way: we can recreate those species anywhere we choose, and without having those crazy humans around to muck it up.”

Ix waved her hands at the dead world. “So what do we do about maintenance on the recreated Earth, then? Someone has to be around to correct issues, and if it’s not going to be us there…”

Bela shrugged again. “HQ said that they were working on that; word is that they’ve developed a better human. I’ll be happy if they can just get us a model that won’t have a religious freak out every time we give them an order. I’m all in favor of the free will modules, but they obviously still need a lot of work.”

She passed her hand over the controls. “If we’re done here, I’ll send the command to let the luminary here go supernova. After that, we can head home. I can use the rest.”

Ix turned back to the dead Earth for the last time. She stared out the window for a while before finally nodding to Bela. She then turned to leave the bridge.

“I’m going to lie down for a bit. Let me know if you need anything.” Saying this, she left the bridge.

Bela shook her head. Her friend always did have a soft spot for these corporeal creatures, but she was taking this failure a little too personally. As she keyed the sequence to begin the supernova effect and set course for home, she made a mental note to recommend to her friend that they take a break before embarking on the next experiment. Maybe she’d feel better after a little time off. Ix was right about one thing, though: this lot did seem to have a great deal of potential once; they just never learned to get out of their own way. Sad, really, when one thought about it.

The great ship shuddered once and disappeared, leaving only a dead world in a little backwater part of the universe, soon to be wiped clean.

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The Language Barrier

Author : Michelle Pitman

The Janovian language is pure torture on the back of the throat, at least for those who haven’t learned it from birth. If we weren’t being paid for doing these language classes, I don’t think there’d be many of us left on the course.

The pay is good, too good for some really, judging by the amount of beer being consumed at the end of the day’s sessions.

We are learning it for a reason. The Stellar 13 Parliament recently engaged a number of us to begin diplomatic relations with the High Council of the Janovian Republic on Io II.

So not only am I learning this incredibly difficult language but I have to learn all the various diplomatic protocols that go with the language as well. There are even different bows and handshakes which one must master for different occasions.

For instance, when introducing friends to elders, one must always use the polite form, which is “Turrr-click-sa-vasick-ma-teeehhhhgghh” with the emphasis on the “gghh” at the back of the throat in a kind of sing song guttural vocalisation. And then, with that comes a slow and deliberate series of bows and hand greetings which one must follow in precise and accurate order for the proper introductions to be made.

There is this girl. She is Janovian. She has the high brow ridges, the dark golden skin and she is finely built – as slim as a waif – like most Janovians are built. She is some kind of linguistics expert or something. She shows up every day and just hangs at the back of the class making notes onto some kind of note pad. Then she goes straight to the tutor after each lesson and talks to them quietly. I try to listen in but I can never quite make out what she says because of her accent.

When she speaks in my tongue, she has this soft, deep quality to her voice. Most Janovians have very low voices and a lilting accent that mesmerises and soothes. It’s very pleasant listening to them speak in our tongue. I think they find it highly amusing when we speak in theirs though. We are somewhat squeaky by comparison.

She approached me once, not long ago and asked me in her lovely accent if I liked children. To the best of my ability I answered in halting Janovian that I indeed loved kids and expected to have a few myself some day. I remember the look in her eyes as her purple pupils contracted and immediately widened to fill the entire expanse of each eye until they both glowed with this dark purple light.

The colour seemed to infuse her face as well under her golden skin making it fluoresce slightly. She smiled at me then and bowing her head three times she turned and left, only to look back over her shoulder at me as if in complete wonder. I am still not certain what this was about but I’m sure it’s something significant.

And so now, I like to hang back messing about with my notes for as long as possible after class. She always gives me that same look she gave me that day, straight into my eyes, and it always feels like she has just cut open my heart with a searing blade.

Then she smiles at me with the smallest and sweetest smile in the universe. She unnerves and moves me and I often wonder why I feel so connected to her.

So I’m determined to get this Janovian language and protocol down to a fine art now.

I want to say hello to that girl again and ask her out for a drink. I’d also like to know what I said that day to her about kids that makes her look at me… like she owns me.

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Altitudal Lapse.

Author : S. Clough

Guy Daschien released the breath that he’d been holding. The seal between his helmet and collar snicked shut, and a little hiss announced that it had become airtight. He gripped each of his wrists in turn, pulling his gloves on tighter, making sure that the burrs caught on the fabric of the cuff. He knelt down, and likewise sealed his boots.

The chameleonfabric operated at a low level even without power, and so the suit took on an ethereal quality in the harsh light of the bay. A tracery of burnished orange lines dragged your attention up to the faceplate, as well as emphasizing Guy’s impressive height.

The faceplate was opaque. Depending on the light, it could shine anywhere between a smoked black and an infernal orange. Around the faceplate there was a crest like that of a lizard but rendered into metal, all sharp spines and stretched metalskin. The back of the helmet extended upwards from the reverse of his skull. The whole ensemble gave Guy a distinct, nonhuman aspect.

He walked towards the hatch. Now that the c-fabric was drawing power, he grew ever more translucent. Even the fearsome faceplate faded somewhat. He unlocked the hatch, and wrenched it open. Heaving the cover aside, he glanced down into the expanse of sky below the belly of the ship. Completely without ceremony, he jumped.

He fell. High above, the launchship silently motored away. Down below, a convoy of dirigibles formed a sparkling chain, their armoured envelopes glinting in the afternoon sun.

The range ticked down deceptively slowly. Forty meters above the slowly oscillating carapace of the last airship, the agrav panels in his suit sprang to life. Instantly, Guy’s descent slowed. Not by much, but as his fall ate into the distance, the panels ramped up the power. He stepped onto the upper surface of the envelope with barely a smattering of momentum. There was no-one on the observation platform. There was a weapon mounted on one of the railings. That was new.

Down through the hatch, into the cool, inner space of the armoured envelope. He ignored the walkway, and instead swung out into the webwork of internal supports. Twisting through, he worked his way towards the tapering rear of the envelope.

Just before the end of the space, he paused, and pressed his hand against the material of the envelope. Through it, he could feel the thrum of one new engine this bird was sporting. From a small pocket, he withdrew two small disks. These self-adhered to the wall. Slowly, he crossed the width of the envelope.

He took out a blade, punctured the envelope and opened a horizontal gash, and then a vertical one. He pushed through the envelope, braced himself, and gave the second engine a good solid kick. A second kick sent it flying. He let himself topple out after it. After seven heartbeats, he pressed the detonator. He twisted around against the buffeting wind to watch his handiwork.

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Sshh! Quiet!

Author : Catherine Preddle

Jericho sighed contentedly as he eased himself into the contoured leather recliner of the Virtual Library booth. He’d spent most of his lunch break scouring the Multi-Mall for an empty VL booth and was determined to make the most of the remaining half-hour. Slipping on the Virtuality Visor, he took a moment to savour the familiar click and slight electrical tingle as it jacked into the implants on either side of his head.

A new world sprang to life before his eyes. He was standing in a vast cavern of a building filled with shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling and off into the horizon as far as the “eye” could see. Each of the dark wooden shelves was crammed with books of every size, colour and condition. The odd torn dust jacket and brown issue ticket littered the floor. He imagined the smell of musty pages hanging in the air.

“Very authentic,” Jericho thought approvingly. There was even a crumbly old woman seated behind a mahogany enquiry desk in front of him, complete with ink pads and date stamps.

“Greetings, Sir. How can the Virtual Library serve you today?”

“I feel in the mood for something classical. Dickens, perhaps.”

“I’m afraid the Virtual Library is still in the process of encoding that author’s works, but if Sir wishes to access form Delta One, a reservation could be placed on your user record for a nominal fee.”

Jericho shook his head despondently, knowing just how long all that would take and how much it would cost. “How about Jane Austen?”

“That would be available in the chick lit section, Sir, of which you are currently not a member.”

Austen! Chick lit?! Jericho tried desperately once more to spend the rest of his lunch hour productively. An idea sparked in his brain; a literary treat that he hadn’t accessed in ages. “Have you got Shakespeare?”

“Accessing the database now, Sir. Yes. 20 minutes for the plays. 25 for the complete works, including the Sonnets.”

“Better make it the plays – I’m on lunch.”

“Of course, Sir. Download commencing …”

The image of the library flickered and died, replaced by pages of text flashing past so quickly they blurred in front of Jericho’s eyes. Just as he was immersing himself in the beautiful language, the download was rudely halted and the crusty librarian reappeared.

“A problem has been detected, Sir. Mindscans show you do not have the Archaic English upgrade required for this download. Transmission terminating …”

“Wait!” Jericho interrupted. “I don’t need the upgrade. I’ve studied Archaic English and understand –”

“…Virtual Library bylaws clearly state that users are responsible for ensuring their Mindware is optimized to receive requested downloads. This transmission has been registered as incomplete in your user record and the resulting fine must be settled within 60 seconds to avoid a Virtual Library ban.”

“What the …?” Jericho managed as his beloved Shakespeare faded and the VL booth came into sharp focus. “Stop!!”

The persona appeared once more and looked witheringly at him from over her half-moon spectacles.

“Insufficient funds detected. User banned. Any further attempts to access Library material will result in immediate detention.”

“Oh, for the love of –” He tore off the visor in frustration and threw it violently at the wall. “What do I have to do to read a good book around here?”

Jericho exited the booth at a run just as the sound of sirens filled the air along with a shrill disembodied voice.

“Virtual Library property damaged. Authorities notified. Virtual Library property damaged. Authorities …”

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