Next, please!

Author: Philip G. Hostetler

“Many have failed but perhaps you will succeed.”, said Torjen,
“The trans-galactic download is paramount to the ascension beyond space-time and admittance into the Multiverse Associates. You, you…”
Torjen looked inquisitively at his tablet, a list of names and metaphysical capacity ratings shone back at him, this one’s was low,
“Ah… Brouften. You could be the very one to usher us into the Multiverse Associates, provided you can contain the data from many worlds, many species. It says here your Xenolinguistics are unparalleled, an impressive 18,333 alien languages you understand and 11,393 practices of these world’s relative physics.” Brouften nodded and spoke,
“Yes sir, I’m confident I will be a worthy receptacle of the Associate’s downloads.”
“Good! Very good, Brouften. Then come, sit here at the Metanode.” Brouften walked into the single cell room, all full of pride and confident apprehension, he sat at the Metanode in a kneeling posture, a biomechanical neural injector violently clamped into his prefrontal cortex and began pumping him full data. The data of tens of thousands of civilizations coursed through his consciousness; all the pain, pleasure, glory and defeat of tens of thousands of Goldilocks worlds trying to make a home in his consciousness.

But it couldn’t, his mind was too feeble, his confidence too great. His brains liquified and began pouring down his esophagus, dying of brain death and asphyxiation.

Torjen looked down at Brouften’s corpse with procedural dismay.
“What a shame.” He thought,
“Bring in the custodial bots.”, he said over the P.A. The bots emerged into the single cell and removed the body. They cleaned all the brains, blood and bile that leaked from Brouften and vacated the cell. Torjen walked outside of the cell and looked at the cue of thousands of trans-galactic hard drive volunteers and ushered the next in line into the cell.

“Next, please! Many have failed but perhaps you will succeed, ah…” Torjen looked down at his tablet.

A blue dot, a white dot

Author: Michael Anthony Dioguardi

I can’t see! I can’t fucking see!
No! Don’t crumble, stop! Christ, my tether is threadbare. I have to dig my feet in. I can’t get my hand out of this biner. Oh shit! More wind! Armstrong! Armstrong! No! he’s gone.
I don’t want to die! My tripod is still holding, for now. Mic’s still busted — just fuzz and static.
I can see a bit ahead. Stanton, she’s still fighting with her cable. She’s flat on the ground. Is she — she’s readjusting her cable, oh dear God! I can see another cyclone spiraling up towards us. No! Her body trampolines above my head into the ether. My visor is so full of rusted soot — I’ve lost sight of her already. It’s starting to crack.
It’s me and Mooney up here. Mooney’s behind me; he’s off his feet. He’s struggling to regrip his tether. His tripod is unearthing. He’s the size of an ant now, shrinking down the infinite vastness of the mountain.
There’s nothing in front of me except for the rushing of brown particles. A trillion needles sink into my suit. I swear I can taste the foreign soil through my visor. My intestines are flooding my legs with their anxiety-filled acid. My head’s throbbing. My jaw is chattering against my tongue. I can feel the wrinkles on my face perspire.
This is it. This is how our mission will end.
I wonder what they will say about us? I wonder how my family will feel? Our bodies will likely not be found for years. Not until the next expedition, if that ever happens.
They said it would be easy. It would be a straight walk up. At the top, you wouldn’t even realize you were on an incline. That’s how big it is — the tallest mountain in the solar system. What a load of shit.
I feel another gust coming. I can see the swirl in the crater behind me. The lightning pierces through the rusted smoke and illuminates the horizon. There’s an aperture in the clouds.
Such a marvelous sight.
My feet are completely buried. I guess this is how Opportunity felt all those years back. Dust ran through his robotic veins and seized his mechanical heart.
My tether’s about had it. The crack in my visor is growing. The canal of tears running down my cheeks twinkles in its reflection.
The sky is stunning.
I can’t hold much longer.
There’s a blue dot out there on the horizon. It’s not alone. There’s a white dot behind it — so bright, so beautiful.
I can’t —

False Face

Author: Shon-Lueiss Harris

What was a dank alleyway disappeared. Gone, cut straight to black. The pungent stench of urine the only sign Michael hadn’t died suddenly. That and the hands grasping him, both forcing him to follow.

At some point, Michael dropped his coffee. Spilled into the ever-present pool of piss, blood and whatever else accumulated in the alleys. He wasn’t fully awake yet. Failed to pay attention, to count his steps or note the direction of each turn. Not a great first impression.

“Have a seat,” someone offered. A man. Oddly polite for having bagged him just moments ago.

Michael found the chair with his foot then sat down. Surprised they provided a cushioned seat, less so at them binding his arms and legs.

“Bright light.” They pulled the bag off his head. “Know why you’re here?”

“Guessing I picked the wrong horse.”

Somebody in the back laughed. He couldn’t see them through the tears and those awful lights. Another sound silenced them. That cheery pop of acrylic heels on cement. Then pigeons squawking and a voice like whiskey, “Fuck the horses. It’s your next pick that matters.”

There went the guy in the back again, laughing. At least somebody was having a good time.

“Might do better if you told me what the hell’s going on,” Michael snapped.

“Stop playing dumb. We can talk here.”

Michael blinked away the tears to find a pale blur of a woman with light red hair. “Is it really you?”

“We got your message.” Red ashed the cigarette pinched between her index finger and thumb. Blew smoke into his face. Light and fragrant like lavender and clove.

“Thought I made a mistake reaching out. Lot of interceptors in the city, ” Michael admitted, eyes flicking around the room.

Red smiled. Big and forced, only until he smiled back. “We have different problems here. Is that why you left Seattle?”

“Partially.”

“And what was your other reason?” Red pressed. Eyes narrowed, waiting.

Michael looked away. “I worked for the Department.” His arms and legs squirmed in the chair. “ My wife was one of you. Protesting against us. Didn’t know until she was killed.”

“You couldn’t stay after that,” she sighed. Michael thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy. “So you had a change of heart and chose to defect. You want to continue where she left off. Is that right?”

Laughing again, the same guy. Michael’s expression twisted. “What’s so fucking funny?”

“How did you reach out to us?” Red asked, ignoring the outburst.

Michael’s eyes began to twitch.

“Dammit, Steve.”

Hands raised in surrender, Steve controlled his laughter. “It’s not my fault the Department replaced me with a shitty writer. That background belongs in a soap.”

Red scowled at Steve before turning back to Michael. The twitching escalated. Every muscle near the center of his face tensed. Dark lines formed in the shape of an X. Along the bridge of his nose, the skin peeled off the smooth plastic and metal face underneath. Red stamped out her cigarette and calmly drew a taser.

Her lips curled into a sad smile. “If it’s any consolation, your wife wasn’t real. You aren’t either.”

Michael felt confused, then the shock. His arms and legs shook horribly as the electricity rushed through him. Then he was gone, cut to black.

“Steve, reprogram it and see what you can do about the face. Be quick. I want our new friend here back at the Department before they start to wonder.”

The Mallard

Author: Phil Manning

My mother was a strange woman. Not strange as in, lock the children in the closet, more, strange how easily she seemed to be able to pick up new information, new things and make them work for her. She could learn almost anything but she could never fully understand how her two sons ticked.

My brother and I were always fighting, I know the cliché, but this was war, as if the very nature of each other’s existence pushed like the opposite poles of magnetic fields. Our wars were Shakespearean, biblical. Epic. No father, just mother and our war.

My mother would use adventures to cool us down, we could only go to X, Y, Z if we didn’t fight for an allotted time. We used a different word for peace, mallard. Mallard is a type of duck, the type of duck that we found dead at the side of a lake. My brother and I pushed the corpse into the water and it became our word for peace. So, if our mother, in desperation, would offer to take us to the library or the park or the bike shop, we would look at each other and decide whether the mallard would like to go, if we both nodded and spoke the word, we would hold our peace until after the adventure. If only one spoke, or neither, if the deal didn’t seem sweet enough, the war would continue and the violence of an unspoken mallard was the worst of all.

I remember the day my mother first used a computer, I still wonder how close we were to losing her. My brother and I had watched a Kung-Fu movie, we had strapped pillows to our chests with duct tape and were practicing our running sidekicks across the lounge room. No major violence, not yet, but it was escalating. The shouted threat of no trip to the library had us both mutter mallard and return the pillows to our beds. We walked to our local library. We liked to borrow books with monsters or spaceships or sex. Whatever we could get away with.

The library had received a computer the week before. I don’t think my mother had ever even seen a computer. My childhood was before the time of mobile devices and personal computers. My mother was drawn to the bone-white box the moment she walked through the library doors. People had to book time for the computer but for some reason, that day, that time, there was a free slot. My brother and I ran off to see what we could see, my mother sat in front of the screen.

I’ve never been sure how much time passed. It seemed like hours but time always seems like a strange concept to a child. I do remember the glow on my mother’s face when we went to check on her. The screen was running by itself, lines and lines of green luminous text and my mother seemed…faded. We tried to get her attention but she didn’t seem to notice us. As we watched she seemed to reflect more of the green lines and seemed to fade even further.

I’m not sure who pushed the other first but the pushing began and I shoved my brother hard toward my mother. He seemed to fall through her and into the computer. His body hit the box hard enough to turn the screen. The screen went black. My mother let out a sound, a sound that made the hair stand up on my arms. It was a moan, a wail, but it seemed metallic. When she stood she seemed solid again.

We didn’t seem to fight as much after that day, we used the mallard more and more. I’m not sure my mother ever understood what made us fight, but I’m glad we did, and I’m glad it was something she couldn’t understand.

This?

Author: Richard Leise

A knock on the door. In the way of doctors, the door opens before Justin or Jenifer can answer. The wail of a woman moaning sweeps down the hallway and into their room. The sound swells to a scream, but her words are indistinguishable, each syllable crushed by a choking sob. The doctor smiles, unconcerned. A moment later, a nurse enters. She carries a manila folder clipped closed with a pen. She shuts the door behind her.

Instead of a woman, the screaming brings the doctor’s features into sharper focus. In some near or distant future, this man will be considered a hero or a villain, his actions, his participation in The Program, judged heinous or brilliant. History often enjoys the glory of perspective, a sort of ordering imposed upon chaos. Justin is too close to this particular point in history to predict which.

“Please,” the doctor says. He doesn’t take his eyes from Justin as the nurse sets the manila envelope upon the foot of the bed.

What does “Please” mean?

Smiling, the woman asks Jenifer how she’s doing. She doesn’t stop talking as she approaches Jenifer, and, speaking now to the child, lifts the boy. She leaves the room.

The woman down the hall is still screaming, but she has tired herself, considerably. She sounds more human. The nurse pulls the door closed. The suite is silent. Jenifer pushes herself backward until she is sitting. She smiles. Her eyes are fixed and bright.

The doctor steps to the foot of the bed. He retrieves the folder. He thumbs a corner of his mouth. Light flashes as the television pops to life. The doctor turns. The TV cuts off and into darkness. Shaking his head, he again faces Jenifer and reads through a sheet of paper. Nodding, he says, “What’s your name again?”

“And that’s with two ‘n’s’”?

“Maiden name?”

The doctor nods. He taps a piece of paper, “And you were born Eight One?”

He shrugs. “Last four of your soc?”

“What’s going on,” Justin says. He steps towards the doctor.

The doctor holds the folder like a bible. His glasses rest upon the end of his nose. He traces his finger as if following a particular passage, and, satisfied, closes the folder and pockets the pen. He speaks as if into a microphone.

“It goes without saying that things happen.”

Justin makes to speak, but Jenifer raises a hand. “Make him say it. All of it. Whatever they have done? Whatever supposedly happened? We’ll get more if we’re silent.”

The doctor pushes his glasses atop the bridge of his nose and cocks his head. He looks at Justin. He shrugs. He turns his body and addresses Jenifer.

“Those involved apologize, Mrs. Dressler. I certainly can’t do anything more. He bites his bottom lip. “We’ll bring you your boy shortly.”

The doctor crosses the room and places a hand upon the door. He nods. “As promised, Mrs. Dressler, your child will be delivered shortly.”

He leaves. The woman is no longer screaming. They hear her crying before the door seals shut.

Justin. Jenifer. They know what happened. What’s impossible to construct? Meaning. Life—as in what it takes to live—has never been easier. Living—as in what it means to exist—has never been more complicated. Before, your mother could die, and you were given a ghost. Now, a woman has a child, and she is given what?
This?

More than ever before language, just as it illuminates, exposes our weaknesses, and highlights our inability to grasp what might once have been considered intuitively.
Jenifer sighs.