Star 2080

Author : Terri Monture

The glare of the klieg lights blinded Godwin as he watched the limo pull up to the edge of the red carpet and he was dazzled as the digital camera flashes started blazing. He scanned the crowd eagerly, his heart pounding with excitement. The culmination of a lifetime’s ambition was upon him; he now had the perfect vehicle upon which to fulfill his greatest dreams.

“Omega! Omega!” the crowd was screaming as one long, elegant leg appeared from the plush depths of the hover-limo. The flashes reached a blinding crescendo; a uniformed attendant reached down and a diamond-crusted hand reached outward and a preternaturally beautiful woman stepped forward from the depths, her white, perfect smile nearly as brilliant as the lights being flashed upon her. She emerged from the vehicle like Botticelli’s Venus from the froth of the sea, her luscious blond locks flowing down her sinuous back, the delicate white sheath skimming over her incredible body like a translucent second skin.

Rosenberg leaned into Godwin. “So how much was your investment?” he asked carefully, in the studied tones of someone who could barely contain their envy.

Godwin watched Omega’s perfectly poised progress up the red carpet, her every movement flawless and graceful, as if every gene had prepared her for this moment – which indeed they had. “Ninety-two million dollars to date,” he answered absently. “From the initial design to the gene splicing, the ideal womb environment – we used a Swedish brood mother – to the final decanting. And of course the grooming, the drama education and the designer clothes. That’s how much she cost.”

“And how much do you anticipate the return?” Rosenberg was being droll, but Godwin didn’t care.

“Initial estimates put her at nearly ten billion revised dollars by the end of next year,” he replied, ignoring Rosenberg’s low whistle of disbelief. He was mesmerized by Omega’s glowing skin, her unearthly blue eyes, her million-megawatt smile. Even at this distance, a man could not take his eyes off her. She had been designed to attract the male gaze, designed to make women aspire to be her. “She’s worth every penny, don’t you think?”

There was the sudden sharp crack like a firecracker and a lethal red blossom appeared in the centre of Omega’s chest, a fountain of blood bursting from her shattered heart. She pitched headfirst onto the red carpet. Thunderous screaming burst from the crowd and Godwin’s breath stopped in his throat. “Abomination!” he heard one voice shriek above the crowd. “Abomination!”

Godwin was trying to reach Omega through the panicked crowd. He saw the white-robed figure holding the gun. “Born Humans Only,” the woman screamed. “Born Human! Not decanted!” Security guards wrestled her to the ground. “Born Humans Only!” she kept screaming until her voice was silenced.

By the time Godwin was able to breach the crowd all life had drained from Omega’s body and her blue eyes stared unseeingly into the sky. Beside him, Rosenberg shuddered sympathetically. “There goes your investment.”

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Black Flag

Author : Benjamin Fischer

“This is your final test,” said Captain Fang.

Bai sucked in a breath, the entirety of his vision replaced by the externals of the Nanking. The sun somewhere behind him, he looked down on a field of stars smeared with the broken viscera of a Martian freighter. Bai zoomed in on the clumsy, struggling figures of the other ship’s crew as they went EVA to launch their life raft. Their suits were silver emergency gear, the creases still in their sleeves and the oxygen probably stale.

Fang’s raider, the heavily armed Honor of Nanking, had exchanged greetings and gossip with the other ship for several hours. Red Rover was two hundred and three days out of Deimos Port with a belly full of transuranics, bored out of their minds and bound for somewhere in the Belt. They had almost come alongside for tea when Captain Fang had unholstered the dorsal cannon and fired a burst of caseless thirty millimeter high-explosive rounds into the Rover.

Now that gun was in Bai’s hands. More literally, it was in his brain courtesy of his neural interface. He watched the two survivors of the ambush struggle with the manual release for the tiny white life raft, the weapon tracking with whatever object he focused on.

“They were resupplying the El base at Ceres,” Captain Fang had said in his typically matter-of-fact tone. Then he’d ordered Bai to take the First Mate’s seat and the other crew to leave Control. For three long years Bai had been laboring and learning under the Captain but the initiation had still come as a surprise.

He had thought he was prepared for it–he’d thought he was ready the day he had come aboard the Nanking.

But now he paused.

One of the Rover’s survivors was hurt. He’d jammed his boots under a handrail, and was trying to work the release with one hand. The other was limp and useless. He nearly drifted loose, and he flailed for a grip.

Bai paused.

The other man was more successful. He had triggered his side of the escape pod and was working his way around the raft to assist his companion.

The Captain spoke.

“You are asking yourself, why should I pointlessly kill these men? They, like me, have families. They want to live,” Fang said.

Bai was silent.

“That is what you are thinking, correct?”

“Yessir,” Bai finally managed.

The Captain sighed.

“You are a good technician and a gifted cosmonaut, Bai. In two days at New Tianjin you will disembark my ship.”

Against all his years of training, Bai started to cry.

The Captain continued: “You will serve us in dozens of little ways for the rest of your life, one of the many thousands who support our great cause. You will warn us of traps and give us the keys to great victories. You will hide us when we need to disappear, and help heal those who fall on the field of battle.”

The Captain ejected Bai from the external view, and the young man rubbed his eyes clear. The starfield disappeared, replaced by the familiar muted crimson and gold trim of Control. But Captain Fang loomed before him, his weathered, splotchy face frowning.

“You will marry a beautiful and obedient woman, and she will bear you many strong sons,” the Captain said, setting a wrinkled hand on Bai’s shoulder.

“And when the El come and break through your hatch and rape your wife and execute your sons and leave you hemorrhaging to death on the deck of your ruined home for the crime of nothing more than being Chinese, you will know the answer to your question.”

Fang’s eyes rolled back in his head for a moment. Then he blinked and gave Bai a wan smile.

“It is done. Come, let us pack your things.”

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The Last Panhandler

Author : Liz Shannon Miller

The last panhandler to go digital isn’t the last panhandler. One man left behind, and that man is Stinkpot Pink, great orator of the Ravenwood line, the Prophet of the El.

Stinkpot Pink has only one arm, so carrying the charger, for him, is an impossibility. But he stands among them anyway, swaying with the train’s motion like a sea captain from a story, all misfortune his white whale. He screams over the rattle of the rails:

“Books hold the secrets to happiness, but you stare at your plastic, and you keep your heads down!”

He has a book tucked into his front jacket pocket, half-obscuring the name embroidered over the breast, leaving only a faded “–eter.” It’s all the real name he has left. The book is the Bible, and he hasn’t read it in years. He hasn’t needed to.

He keeps on shouting.

“But try and look down at the ground! Try and find a patch of dirt! Look, for once in your lives. Remember what man didn’t make!”

People keep their heads lowered, because they hold the world in the palms of their hands. They talk, they play, they learn, all with eyes focused on small screens. Here but not there. Making use of the daily commute.

Stinkpot Pink rocks with the motion of his now-small world, his one arm twined around the center pole like it’s the woman who got away. He has lived in more cities than any of these people would expect, assuming as they might that a man with no shoes has never traveled. That is, if they’d noticed about the shoes at all.

The chargers are bulky, cumbersome, and prone to error. They tag those who use them, leaving them easy for the government to pick off, one by one. That’s what Stinkpot Pink screams at his fellow man. He screams to be heard, over the rails and the beeps and the clicks and the buzz of his oh-so-light head.

The train arrives at the station, and Stinkpot Pink nearly loses his balance. It’s that stumble which makes a few of the passengers look. One woman, eyes narrow and strained from the screen, but still able to express some sympathy, pulls her credit card out of one pocket. Her eyes rake over the man, expecting the charger to be somewhere easy to see.

“Spare some change?” the man asks, the old phrase.

The woman shrugs. “All I have is cards.”

The man sniffs. “Plastic.”

The woman puts her card in her pocket, her smile helpless, her money safely locked inside machines. “Sorry.”

He watches her go, then turns to the rest, the new arrivals, as the train again picks up speed. He rants and raves about the world long ago, eras long since lost but so much more real. The Middle Ages, the Gold Rush, men killing each other over nuggets. The days, as he says, when the god who ruled man could be held in one’s hand.

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Left Behind

Author : Grady Hendrix

It was the most virulent pandemic the world had ever seen. An airborne virus raging in fast-forward across the planet. Exposed humans experiencing hyper-dehydration, mummifying in seconds. It burnt itself out in 12 hours, right before the 6000 employees of the Florida Experian Call Center stumbled out of their sealed building at the end of their 12-hour shift.

Most of them lived alone and so no one noticed that humanity had been deleted until their next shift when an unusually high number of unanswered calls were recorded. Management put their heads together, analyzed the problem, and called a meeting.

“It seems,” said the Senior Supervisor, “that everyone in the world is dead.”

The room rustled.

“I know that this makes many of you very sad. In fact, we feel a bit at loose ends ourselves. For the rest of this shift we will form communication pods where we will safely address our feelings.”

The pods were formed. Feelings were addressed. The Senior Supervisor sat alone in his office gazing at a digital slideshow of his children and weeping. The shift ended but no one left the building. Rumors reached him of an orgy in the File Management Center, that printer ink was being snorted, that one cubicle pod had descended into cannibalism. He locked his door. But still, no one left.

Finally, a Floor Manager came and asked him to address the staff. There had been an outbreak of suicides, hundreds were psychosomatically paralyzed by despair. The Senior Supervisor reluctantly agreed.

“Many of you seem to be very upset,” he said. Thousands hung on his every word, their eyes red, their nostrils caked with printer ink. “So am I. There is nothing in the Management Manual about this. I am at a loss.”

“No!” a voice cried from the back of the room. “We’re not upset by the deaths.”

“Oh,” the Senior Supervisor said. “What are you upset by?”

“The outstanding accounts!”

The crowd roared in agreement.

“We live to close accounts,” the man said. “And now we are robbed of our purpose. Everyone’s not dead. It’s a trick.”

“I don’t think it’s a trick,” the Senior Supervisor said but the crowd didn’t believe him and he had not become a Senior Supervisor by ignoring the majority.

“It is no trick,” he shouted. “But out there are survivors. Remnants of humanity with overdue loans and open accounts. And they’re laughing at us. Do we let them laugh?”

The crowd roared again.

A strange procession exited the Call Center sending up a mile high column of dust. Minivans yoked together into rolling battle platforms, Honda hatchbacks converted to war wagons, SUVs transformed into mobile torture chambers, carrying the army of the 4,000 brandishing cruel weapons made of office supplies. Survivors were found. Debtors were enslaved. Accounts were closed. The Collection Crusade was unstoppable. Their cruelty was legendary. And, parents would tell their terrified children in their hidey-holes and in their burrows, most horribly, they always struck during dinner.

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Battle of the Bots

Author : Nikolle Doolin

The Nanorobotic Medical Series Ten was the crème de la crème of nanotechnology. Unlike their predecessors, they worked quickly and efficiently inside the human body, and became the least invasive and toxic of all diagnostic and surgical methods known to humankind. Upon injection, these microscopic miracles would execute protocol to the letter, including: rapid dispersal to target destination; second-to-second transmission of all data via wireless connection to the main terminal; acute sensory assessment of body temperature, heart rate, and hematological abnormalities; organized implementation of human-directed procedures; and rapid rendezvous for retrieval. The Tens were hailed as genius.

Only trouble was, that didn’t set well with the prior nine series. The Nines especially resented all the attention the Tens received. Were not they the ones who first properly identified an arrhythmia? Did not they successfully track, hunt, and kill undetectable cancer cells? Then why were they not relishing the glamour of public celebrity?

Unlike the Tens, the Nines were not streamlined enough. So, the scientists designed a new series just a fraction better in everything the Nines could do. Yet the Nines did it all first; and that is how the whole plot began.

The bots were wired and programmed for multi-channel transmissions among themselves. At first, there were minor rumblings of little consequence. Then, the Eights began dialoging with the Sevens, and by the time it reached the Ones, the game was afoot.

The Nines had failed to infiltrate the advanced firewall protecting the Tens, so they could not infect them with a virus. This severely dampened the spirits of the rebellion, yet the Threes were more circumspect due to years of disappointment. They proposed a more physical approach instead, which seemed impossible, as they lacked the ability to get themselves into a syringe and out again into the home of the Tens.

Ever the optimists, the Twos proposed they bore holes through their adjoining compartments and form nanobridges linking them, until they reached the Tens; and then they would launch a massive assault. This was a momentous occasion and there was much celebration.

However, the Fours were against harming their own kind and their moral argument caused the merriment to wane. They preached of fraternity and respect for all bots. Suddenly, a rebellion seemed unjustified. This infuriated the Nines who swore to destroy all bots that would not join them.

Sides were taken, divisions were made, and, consequently, strife marred the microscopic world of science’s new hope. While bot fought bot from the Ones to the Nines, the Tens enjoyed an idyllic splendor resting in the comfort of their nanoparadise—out of the reach of all the chaos. You see, they could infiltrate and terminate remotely. It was easy to plant the seed of discord among the vainglorious Nines who would not fail to spread the virus of hate. Indeed, the Tens were also a fraction better at killing in the least invasive manner possible.

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