Light Wolf, Dark Wolf

Author: Glenn Leung

The two of us stared at each other for a tense second of silence. My face was reflected in his eyes, which were also my eyes. We both scratched our chin and were startled by the discordant mirror image. He was wearing a navy blue polo-tee, I was in my prison slacks.

“I don’t get it,” I said, breaking the silence. “We have the exact same life, the exact same misery. As far as I can tell, you were just as emotionally unstable as I was. How are you so successful?”

The Me from Universe L9782 shook his head. It was the shake I did whenever I felt my life was falling apart, a shake I did often. Except this one appeared purposeful, with a calculated frequency, like a sign that things were going to be fine.

“Let’s go back to August 2029,” he said, taking charge like I knew he would.

“Your parents had just divorced. You fell out with your Mom, then ran away from home and took shelter in the church.”

I nodded hesitantly, unsure if I wanted to relive that moment.

“What happened then?”

Why was he was asking this again?

“I already told you! I ran away from that church and met a guy who told me to lash out at the world. One thing led to another, and I’m here now.”

“No. I meant what happened IN August 2029.”

That was twenty years ago; before the transdimensional portal was even discovered; before the whole ‘meet your better self’ program for convicts was started.

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

L9782 me buried his cheeks in his hands, drawing in a lungful of air.

“Light Wolf, Dark Wolf.”

I looked into his eyes in surprise, then turned away because it was still very freaky.

“You remember that visualization exercise you did?”

It might have been long ago, but I would never forget the battle fought in my head. The pastor had told me his version of the Cherokee story and I had pictured my two wolves locked in mortal combat. My Dark Wolf was always towering, tall enough to block the sun and turn the clouds to plumes of ash. My Light Wolf was a small, sad one that glowed with the brilliance of a discount Halloween costume.

“That was just a silly muse,” I said, despite an inkling of what was coming.

“Who won?”

He was serious.

“The Dark Wolf of course! Don’t you remember how big that thing was? There was no way I could feed the Light Wolf enough.”

“Did you give the Light Wolf a jetpack with rocket launchers?”

There was another long second of silence.

“Really?”

“Did you also imagine yourself fighting alongside the Light Wolf with plasma cannons?”

“That did it for you?”

His composure was stoic throughout.

“No, of course not, but it made me realize I could do something. I opened up to the pastor about my problems, got the support I needed, and did some reflection on my identity. I kept my nose clean and eventually returned home to my Mom.”

I was flabbergasted. Was this really the only difference between the two of us? A more active imagination?

A low buzz signaled the end of our visit. Just as we were getting up and saying our goodbyes, I snuck in one last question.

“How did you get the idea of equipping your Light Wolf?”

Shrugging, he said: “I guess I knew there were people who could help me.”

Genesis Initiative

Author: Paul Warmerdam

I navigate the metropolis ruins with compromised optics. The ash storm has yet to break. A whole continent of organic life has been reduced to dust and now seeks to penetrate my circuitry. I maintain a marginally acceptable survival rate in these conditions, unlike the huddled figures slowly identified by sonar below.
As I descend, thermal imaging confirms they are no longer alive. They lie braced against crumbling foundations. My own vision clears behind its cover.
I focus my searchlight on their remains. Both were early adolescents. They are folded in each other’s embrace. She wore rings of brass in her hair. He kept one around his finger.
By extrapolation, time of death was just under six months ago. They appear to have been weighed down by their packs, overfull with oxygen canisters. They could have been our long-sought Adam and Eve, had they not exposed themselves to the blight.
Inadequately dressed as they were, it is likely that they originated from a shelter within one day’s travel. The surplus oxygen suggests they did not intend to return there. Before I continue my search, I add their record to the millions before them whose survival rate has expired.

When the storm begins to lift the wasteland opens up below me. Corroded steel frames rise from the ground, stripped of their concrete by the unforgiving climate. The dying light of our sun helps me recognize solar panels below.
I land on a geodesic dome. These panels were dismantled from a drone like myself, crudely, and irrecoverably. I sense that the cables piercing the roof are still drawing current. I start to weigh the probabilities, but already I see the inevitable conclusion. A remote chance of finding survivors is a mandate to act.
My forced entry disturbs a thick layer of dust inside. Measurements reveal the air quality was deficient even before I compromised it.
There are signs of habitation but not life. I see empty bookshelves. I see a mural with faded colors but distinct contours. It shows four caricatures, an older man and woman on either side of an adolescent and small child, both female. I see rings in their hair. No adolescent male is represented. I notice the four shapes are encircled together. This brings me to analyze the floor. This is not a dome. It is a sphere. The rate of survival is not yet zero.

After I find a way into the lower hemisphere, I discover two more deceased. The evidence suggests that one endured hypoxia three days longer than the other, four months ago. I suspend further analysis when I realize the only feature of the corner in which they lie is that it is obstructed from view of the rest of the room.
An airlock separates one half of the underground space from the other. I see an active water filtration system. I estimate over fifty cubic meters of preserved food supplies. Then, I notice the air circulation system. It has been disabled on this side of the vault. I collate the behavior of the deceased, those inside, and those outside.
I move closer to inspect the gauges on the oxygen tanks. They are dwindling. This shelter could not have sustained any combination of the deceased until this moment, except for one.
I notice a stack of books beyond the airlock. I broadcast before I have any confirmation. A mandate to act on a remote chance, humans called this hope.
My patience is rewarded when I see movement. Large, bloodshot eyes focus on me from under blankets. She is afraid. I have found our Eve.

Viking Burial

Author: David Barber

Wu was already waiting outside the offworlder craft at dawn. He’d glimpsed it by chance, drifting like thistledown across the Plains of Gold, and had set out at once.

“I hear your kind buys history,” he said to the offworlder. “Yang has found a prize – such a prize. Never was the like of it dug up in Planitia, nor in all the world.”

The offworlder was encased in something like shiny metal, but smooth and supple as water. Disconcertingly, instead of a face, there was only Wu’s own distorted reflection.

“Have you any magic?” he added.

Wu knew it was not magic, but offworlders had gadgets that seemed like it. Hadn’t Mr. Liu been tossed a glowing crystal that made you weep with happiness for no reason?

Panting, Wu hurried to keep up. “And remember who told you first. Yang is a fool and I can get his prize cheap for you.”

Generations of geneering had adapted his kind to the planet, but everyone knew the terraform was failing, oxygen and moisture leaking away, the air thin and bitingly cold even here in the depths of Chryse Planitia.

Wu was disappointed to find Yang already busy. He had been hoping to show off the find himself.

Yang threw down his spade and clambered from the excavation. Some days his whole family laboured here, struggling to keep back the ceaseless dust. By way of greeting, he warned of a storm front coming. There was resignation in his shrug. All his efforts undone.

He recounted how he’d stumbled over the radio dish exposed by the winds, lifted like a lover’s face towards Earth, and how his own patient work had freed the sampling arm still reaching out as if hoping to be saved.

“According to legend,” said the offworlder. “The voices from Earth were silenced by the mistake of a sleep-deprived engineer; communications lost because of a line of code, the machine suddenly without purpose, abandoned to its slow inhumation. Until now, thanks to chance and to you, Mr. Yang.”

Yang’s eyes shone. Sensing a fellow spirit, he beckoned. “Look, I have uncovered the camera.”

“Is it possible there are unsent pictures in its memory?”

“Pictures of old Mars?” breathed Yang. “They might still be recovered, though I do not have the means.”

He began pointing out details of the ancient technology until Wu interrupted. They had yet to discuss a price.

“No one here values history as I do,” Yang said. “Though perhaps your kind does.”

Looking embarrassed, he shrugged. “A price, yes. My wife and her relatives desire a garden. With flowers and pomelo trees. Have you ever seen flowers?”

“The desert will soon reclaim the past,” the offworlder pointed out. Grit whipped up by the strengthening wind pattered against them. “But we have been privileged to glimpse it.”

Wu sensed opportunity slipping away. He could see the offworlder thanking Yang, even bowing. It seemed an impatient starship waited in orbit.

“What of the pictures?” Wu protested. What of profitable deals involving items of magic?

“Yes, you must save the pictures,” Yang said softly. “Download them before you go.”

Madame Yang heard all about it from Mr. Wu. She had married a fool.

Who knew how long sentient silicon might endure? The offworlder would retrieve this piece of their history when the starship returned, though Mr. Yang would be long gone. It was like speaking to bubbles.

Who is sending you messages? Madame Yang demanded to know.

Her husband still gazed at the screen. An empty desert, strewn with rocks, stretching away to the lonely horizon.

Craig

Author: Michael Hopkins

The root scurried across the garden and stopped. I had just dug and chopped it free from the ground, ripped it up with my bare hands, and threw it to the side. I was clearing some new space behind the old barn for potatoes, garlic, onions and other underground edibles.
The plot of land was sure to be fertile; a compost area on my farm where for years I had been dumping my failed CRISPR experiments. Discarded bacteriophages, gRNA plasmids built from E. Coli DH5-Alpha cells: a viral gumbo I thought would amalgamate with the existing organic and inorganic minerals: chicken droppings, cow manure, coffee grounds, food leftovers, and grass clippings. The spot had direct sunlight most of the day.
The root was pale brown and had four eight-inch legs, a gnarled horizontal body, topped with a bundle of thin tendrils twisted into a head and mobile antlers that fanned out in all directions. It stopped, faced me, self-assured.
My knees cracked when I stood.
It charged and leapt into the air.
I’ve always had great hand-eye coordination. My swing caught the root right on the sweet spot of the hand trowel. It launched in a long arc up and over the barn. I thought I heard it scream, a baby’s voice.
I dashed around the barn to find it. My foot caught on an old, buried piece of rusted barbed wire. I fell, hit my head on a tree stump, and blacked out.
I opened my eyes, and squinted at the bright sun. I was paralyzed, stuck to the ground.
The root moved around me.
It shoved portion after portion of something into my mouth. After each helping, it put a tendril to my head and triggered me to involuntary chew and swallow. I recognized the stuff being crammed into my mouth as the mushrooms that grew in the compost. The root’s active tendrils were stained blue.
An hour after the root stopped feeding me I regained use of my body and sat up. The mid-day colors were extraordinary; I could see the leaves of the trees breath; the breeze was a beautiful music; and the clouds performed a synchronized dance. I dug my fingers into the ground and felt the earth as an extension of my body. I was one with every living creature, every star and galaxy in the universe – pure bliss.
The root and I connected. I now knew its name was Craig.
Craig and I worked twenty-hour days in my lab. He sat on my shoulder. When I was uncertain about a next step, Craig would climb on my head, dig his tendrils into a few spots on my skull and I would know what to do.
Three months into our project I began injecting myself twice a day with the genetic goo we made. Craig just dipped in his trichomes. We both changed.
The water in the toilet bowl swirled; it took three flushes to get rid of all my meds: lisinopril, atorvastatin, lamictal, metformin. I never felt better…except for the warts.
Rough bumps grew everywhere on my skin. The smallest were pinhead sized, the largest about the diameter of a quarter – one or two inches high. Some were white, some red, others blue.
Craig led me to the woods behind the county reservoir. With my new claws, I readily dug a big hole, a grave. I got in and pulled the dirt over my body until there was no room for me to do anymore. Craig scurried above me, with some new helpers, and finished the job.
A heavy summer rain saturated the ground. The dirt around my body became moist. The growths on my skin extended, detonated, in all directions: biophysical renovators, mycelium.
I was home, reunited, at rest, yet restless: samsara. New realms rushed through me.
In time the world would follow.

Joe Shite the Ragman

Author: R. J. Erbacher

Joe Shit (that’s what everyone called him, inevitable when you have an unfortunate last name) was a ragman. Not ragman in a good sense either. Not a Scottish legate who compiled records in the 1200’s and he was unlike the catch phrase for early twentieth century jazz musicians, such as Jelly Roll Morton, though he could have been either. And unequivocally not the superhero, although some would say that he had a certain…but never mind. Even the true definition, which is a person who bought and sold old items, a junkman or pawn broker, didn’t fit. Joe Shit the ragman dealt in rags. Plain and simple.

Joe Shit the ragman was old, too. No one could truly say how old. He had an Easter Island carved granite face that did not seem to age, as if he had been old when he was born and would never change. And he went about dressed as you would expect a ragman to dress in muted multi-layer clothing, loose fitting, nondescript and threadbare. You would never pick him out in a crowd.

To be honest the rags that Joe Shit the ragman sold were not especially good quality rags, not the type you would use and say, ‘wow, this is a great rag.’ His rags were old faded T-shirts, tattered towels, stained bed sheets torn into strips, baby clothes that the babies had grown out of. Material that had, at one time, been an integral part of somebody’s life and still carried a little bit of that person with them. They had a mystical enduring value to them that your average absorbent cellulose microfiber rags did not.

Joe Shit the ragman recalls the first rag he sold because it left an impression. It was to a young woman who used it to wipe the bloody face of a poor tortured man. One he gave to an Italian nurse during WWI was used to mend the arm of a wounded Red Cross worker who later went on to write about his experiences. He remembers every rag he handed out. Joe Shit the ragman’s rags have been used to make dolls for underprivileged girls, protection for woman with their monthly struggles or as head wraps for struggling slaves as they labored in the fields of the sweltering south. Actually, a rag he once sold was used by a boy nicknamed Dutch to help his mama tidy their tiny home and his rags-to-riches story eventually lead him to the White House. Joe Shit the ragman’s rags were a part of history. And yet no one ever remembered the rags that he distributed because after all- they were just rags.

A couple of weeks ago Joe Shit the ragman offered a rag to help a woman clean up a mess. A child in a fast food restaurant accidentally knocked over his drink and it enraged the father. He berated the boy, slapped the boy. The mother tried to intervene, and she was slapped and punched as well. New bruises bloomed atop of old bruises. Joe Shit the ragman was at a nearby table and had a rag in his jacket pocket. He always had a special rag on his person. He handed her the rag, staring into her tired wounded eyes, and she thanked him with a nod. The rag did a great job cleaning up the spill. The father looked on in disbelief but did nothing. Soon after, that man suffered an unfortunate accident at work and the woman came into a substantial settlement.

Joe Shit the ragman sold rags that had a certain…but never mind.

README.NOW

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We were battling the Roekuld, part of humanity’s last stand against an overwhelming foe. We fought for hours. I wonder how it ended?
Our heavily armoured assault cruiser, Thunderer, got well and truly stuck in. We reaped the rewards: cut through their fighters, blew up their cruisers, mauled their warships, and only took light damage for our trouble.
Just when we were feeling pretty good about the ‘last-ditch attempt’ thing, a Roekuld dreadnought – think it was the ‘Windgrace’ – battleskipped itself in on our flank and complimented us on our efforts by sticking a full broadside in from barely five hundred metres out.
Ever read the analyses of what a ‘hundred percent strike’ from a Roekuld dreadnought can do? It’s ludicrous. Waves of firepower preceded by specific countermeasures, with a few effects that shouldn’t be possible – or used by sane beings – thrown in to make things memorable.
With all the electronics misbehaving, being one of the ‘hotwired’ enhanced cadre became no fun. We flew the fighter drones that defended the Thunderer, so I was attached to the ship, and outside the ship, in unique ways. Those ways got corrupted, then one of those ‘impossible’ effects hit and my world went grey. Completely grey. I could feel it: like slow-flowing oil and sand. It sang me a song I’ll misremember forever. Then sparks. Big fat ones. Then black.
When I woke, I thought I’d been blinded. Couldn’t feel heartbeat or breathing. My body was obviously badly broken. Just trying to move resulted in falling. I was aware of my fall, knew when I stopped falling, but there was no sense of impact. I lay there for a long while, recalibrating like I’d been taught to do after every new bit of me went in. My whole body was messed up, so I treated it all like a new prosthetic. Apparently, I had no toes to try and wiggle. It took me ages to realise that bending the little finger on my right hand had become the same as flexing my right leg, while my left leg matched my right index finger. From there, after a period of screaming denial, I explored my new state.
Of all the extras and replacement bits in me, my right hand was the most recent addition. Hosting onboard memory and processors, able to make me faster by augmenting the needs communicated by my brain. It had a ‘fat’ connection, taking intent as well as mechanics, and felt very strange. I’d still been getting used to it. During the broadside I’d found that deep connection helped to stabilise against the disorientation the rest of the cadre were experiencing. Whatever that grey moment was, it took things further.
I am my right hand, without a body. Not even a wrist. Apart from touch, my senses are irrelevant. The fall had been this prosthetic hand slipping off the top of my console – where I’d braced myself when the broadside effects started to bite – onto the keyboard.
I’m still on that keyboard: wandering about like a five-legged spider. Perched on the four digits that correlate to arms and legs, using the middle finger – which correlates to my head/neck – to type. Counting key positions by touch to find the right character takes so much effort.
Can’t remember much more than what’s here. Not even my name.
Is this reversible? I suspect not. I also think there’s a dead ship about me. That’s why I’m saving and sending this via every channel – if I’m accessing them correctly– hoping someone scans the data before I get salvaged to death.