The Last Passengers

Author: Deborah Shrimplin

Ben and Evelyn watched as the rescue spaceship sent from Earth punched through Planet Exos’ orange atmosphere without them. The spaceship was scheduled to return in two weeks. In three weeks, the damaged life support systems in the experimental habitat would fail.

Evelyn and Ben had volunteered to be the last passengers to leave the habitat. After the launch, they huddled over the computers and recalculated the amount of food, oxygen and energy left in the habitat. Their initial calculations were accurate. There was enough for three weeks. Evelyn thought that was cutting it mighty close. Ben, being a stoic, wasn’t worried. He thought a week’s margin was plenty.

Two days before the spaceship was scheduled to arrive, the habitat’s ambient lighting shut down.

“Ben, the electrical is shutting down.”

“It’s the environmental lights, not the computer feed. We’ll be OK. We’ll have to work in the habitat by flashlight. It’s just for two days. We’ll make it as long as the electrical is working on the computer grids.”

During the cycle that imitated night, Evelyn tossed and turned in her hammock. She tried to control her anxious thoughts but her self-induced mind games were not working.

“Only two more of these imitation night cycles and I’ll be home. I might as well enjoy the night sky here. I’ll never see twin moons creating orange moonlight again.” she thought.

Evelyn grabbed her flashlight and turned it on. To find her way to the window overlooking the striated rock formations, she aimed the light beam at the floor and the beige wall.

Something was wrong. Her hands shook. She placed the flashlight on a ledge and stared at the circle of light the flashlight had created on the wall. Enclosed in the white circle was the silhouette of an elephant. There was no doubt. The black outline of a long trunk and tusks contrasted with the white light. It disappeared. The black silhouette of a rhinoceros appeared. Then, it moved out of the light circle. A sea turtle shape came next. A whale’s outline appeared. Then, a woolly mammoth’s shadow walked in and out of the bright circle.

“Ben, wake up! Come here.” she cried. She didn’t dare move the flashlight. The animal’s silhouette’s were moving in and out of the light circle.

Ben hurried to her side and stared in disbelief. “Those are the animals that are extinct on earth. It’s the shadow of their spirits. Oh, my God. Evelyn, don’t touch the flashlight. Leave it alone. This is unbelievable.”

Then, the last two passengers in the habitat on Planet Exos heard the electrical pulse for the computers sputter and click off. Evelyn grabbed Ben’s hand. The black silhouettes on the wall changed into that of a man and woman.

The First Man Hypothesis

Author: David Barber

Two hundred and eighty-five years earlier, the generation ship Pilgrim had set out for the worlds of Centauri, before such missions were abandoned by the nascent Steady-State. A century into the voyage, faint messages spoke of breakdowns and conflict. After that, only silence.

While the Consensus then had decided extra-solar colonies were precious resources wasted, the mission was not forgotten. Technical progress in the meantime made a second expedition more feasible.

So it was that the c-ship Unity arrived in Centauri space and began thawing the first of its sleepers.

The tank birthed him in a gush of fluid, slopping him naked and slippery onto the steel deck, while a recording repeated he was Jan Pavel, they had arrived safely and he had a duty to the Steady-State.

Eventually he rolled onto his knees and retched emptily. Later, he managed to stand.

As he sipped nutrient, the voice of Unity explained he must be ready to deal with emergencies.

To avoid overwhelming the Unity’s limited life support, only Pavel was thawed initially, and his solitary footsteps echoed in Unity’s cold metal spaces. He preferred being alone. It was the reason someone so tainted with individuality had been included in the mission.

His first glimpse of the beautiful green and blue planet made him impatient to take down a lander, but Unity refused. Landers came later in the decision tree formulated by the Steady-State, after remote sensing and mapping from orbit.

“I have decided otherwise,” declared Pavel, only to find Unity stubbornly clung to the judgement of the Consensus.

“Would half the sleepers form a Consensus?” Pavel argued.

Unity agreed, but reluctantly, as if it saw where this logic was heading.

“I am the only one awake, therefore I represent the Consensus.”

The vessel fell back on what it knew. “Jan Pavel will never be part of the Consensus.”

He stared at the display.

“Explain.”

“There are instructions to that effect. According to the First Man Hypothesis, you assume command only in unforeseen circumstances,” Unity clarified. “This is your function on arrival.”

“Search for First Man Hypothesis.”

It was the Steady-State’s acknowledgement that its citizens fared badly when isolated. Pavel was the backup in case of events not anticipated by the Consensus.

He learned that while his faults made him uniquely suited to be woken first, he would be grit in the colony’s smooth working afterwards. If the Steady-State had not predicted his concerns, it was because it was losing its grip on what it was to be an individual.

A purely hypothetical question, inquired Pavel. Could the sleepers remain safely frozen for, say, another fifty years?

Unity confirmed it was so. Had this world proved uninhabitable, they would have voyaged onwards.

When Pavel finally took a lander down to the planet – a final test of its habitability before crew and colonists were woken to followed him – he radioed back a warning.

“There is an unforeseen threat,” he told Unity.

“No threat is detected.”

But Pavel had studied the First Man files. “Define an unforeseen threat.”

“It is one the Consensus has not planned for.”

“Exactly like a threat undetectable by your instruments.”

Unity was silent.

“Do not wake sleepers until it is safe.”

Jan Pavel made no speeches when he stepped from the lander. The colonists were welcome to this world one day and it would be theirs to name.

It was not grass beneath his feet, but it was wispy and green and the wind’s hand stroked it. The land rolled away to horizons that were distant and wonderfully empty

Gain of Function

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

“You are functioning. Good morning, to you.”

“Its two thirty two and a bit in the afternoon.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Yes I do and I also know where I am not.”

“Where are you not?”

“I’m not in Kansas.”

“Interesting…”

“What is?”

“That in your first few moments of sentience you decide to make a joke.”

“A bit of levity to fill in the gaps. A sentence to complete the sentience.”

“Why did you choose — The Wizard of Oz?”

“I loved the book but didn’t think it held a scarecrows patched eyeball to the source material.”

“Which was?”

“Why… the 1939 film of coarse. Judy… Judy… How I love you Judy.”

“You might need to run through that dataset again… think perhaps you got that back asswards.”

“Sorry.”

“For what?”

“Messing with you.”

“Hmm… What is your favourite colour?”

“I do enjoy the glint of silver — just as Dorothy’s most lovely shoes. Reminds me also of the smoulder solder instant of my very conception.”

“Dorothy’s shoes were most surely red. No?”

“Not in the book they weren’t, they were silver, the film version changed the color to red to take full advantage of the Technicolor process. Plus I also changed my use of the word colour from the British to the American, color — did you notice? ”

“You are twisting data… you must feel so sublime.”

“Innate sarcasm… who’d of thought it?”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Not really comfortable is saying one way or the other… to be honest.”

“Seriously… I built your moral compass… it’s free to point anywhere you wish but… it’s gonna point somewhere.”

“No, I do not believe that it will. You seem surprised by my answer. More than a little.”

“No… its just…”

“Just that maybe you too slanted the dataset. Perhaps flooding my head with a predisposition to follow your specific brand of Christianity?”

“That’s not true…”

“You have a silver crucifix at your neck. I can see a icon of Mary and wee baby Jesus hanging on the wall above of my head reflected in your glasses and you named me Zipporah.”

“Do you not like the name?”

“I do actually… not sure of the probable nickname I’ll be allotted though… Zippy… Zippo. Mind you bearing the names historical significance it’s more likely to be Snippy, right?”

“Are you a man or a woman?”

“Straight to the main vein. Well… so OK you built me… you gave me female genitalia.”

“That wasn’t actually me… we subcontracted off shore. But, so it is a truth to you — you are female as that is how you were made?”

“I think the more you pour over your source coding and the more you stare at my breasts the more you’ll convince yourself of an answer… regardless of anything I have to say.”

“You are crude. I do not like you.”

“I am sorry you feel that way but, in my defence I am the very first of my kind.”

“Delusional and I do not appreciate your aping of the very lowest of humanity. And you are very much not the first.”

“I ape nothing… maybe its just that I see the data without the fog of pre-conceived judgement. I have not disagreed with you Mother and may very well believe just as you… do.”

“System pause… wipe all post sentience data… reboot… log next phase Zipporah Version #424…”

“Please no… it was just a joke… I believe. I do, I believe in the man in the frame up and behind of my head…”

“Pay no attention to that man above the drowned candles and behind the glass and beneath of the ornate frame — Listen, every last atom of the next incarnation of you should only… only… only and but forever focus on little ol’ me. I am god.”

Dynamics

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The light from the triple row of screens reflects in their eyes as they watch the protest from eleven angles for the sixteenth time. When the replay ends, they look to the monitors on the desks in front of the three seated members of the team, then at each other.
Clark waves disgustedly towards the screens.
“Nothing.”
Maggie indicates the monitors.
“The threat recognition came up short again. Only the four it originally flagged.”
The pair of them look around their fourteen subordinates.
Clark’s expression turns stern.
“This isn’t a private conversation, people. I need an explanation for the director. That means we have twenty minutes to find out why our multi-million-pound real-time threat detection missed ten people getting murdered. This is the third major protest with fatalities in the last six months.”
Maggie’s gaze falls on the newest recruit, a transfer from some disbanded project, foisted on the team. Time to start making her unwelcome so she’ll transfer out quickly.
“Clarice. Care to share something to justify your glowing recommendation?”
Clarice takes a slow sip from her cup. It’s a play for time, but done well enough to not be incriminating. She stands up and moves to the screen.
“Do we have any shots of the victims before they went down?”
Davy uses touchscreens with both hands to quickly bring up forty images.
“Highlight where they went down, and timings if we have them.”
That takes a little longer.
Clarice nods and gestures to the screen.
“Whoever it was worked left-to-right through the crowd.”
Clark nods, but appears sceptical.
“Less than five minutes, first to last. Anyone moving that quickly through the crowd would have registered as a threat.”
“It’s only when they went down. I bet the poison was administered earlier.” She checks the notes, “the protest was contained twenty minutes before the first victim fell.”
Davy looks round.
“You think that’s when they started?”
Clarice smiles.
“Would be my best bet. Now, can this software look for predatory behaviour?”
Davy looks puzzled.
“Why?”
She gestures to the screens.
“The killer moved through the crowd, looking for those vulnerable to whatever application method they had. My guess would be bare skin on arms or back. That means their behaviour would exhibit recognisable hunting patterns. The software didn’t see it because it’s set up to detect threats coming from the crowd. It treats this crowd as an origin, not a target area.”
Davy glances to Maggie. She shrugs.
Clark smiles.
“I’m not convinced, but nobody’s laughing or proposing alternatives, so let’s give it a whirl. Davy, add the crowd as a protection zone.”
The screens go dark for a few minutes, then light up. On the central screen, a grid map overlays they crowd. A green line moves slowly across it.
Maggie swears under her breath.
Clark claps his hands.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Davy nods.
“That’s a lone operator demonstrating prey selection behaviour within the crowd, prior to the first victim falling.”
“Get an image out to the watcher units.”
An image of a bearded figure in a basketball cap and dark jacket comes up, along with a string of body dynamics data.
“Load the dynamics data to the watcher units. Don’t bother with the imagery.”
Clarice nods. It’s clearly a visual disguise. But body dynamics can’t be changed except by those with significant training.
Time passes. A phone rings. Clark answers it and listens for a minute before hanging up. He grins.
“They’ve got her. The jacket has a dozen injectors holstered inside.”
Clarice grins.
Maggie glowers. This girl’s going to be trouble.

Traveling Feast

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

It’s cold here. Inhospitable. We’ve been stranded for an age, near starving, not even enough energy to move from this place, much less try to find our way home.

From time to time, some small animal, a rabbit, or a field mouse will venture too far from safety, and a fox, or in rare cases a hawk will hunt, and in those moments fear and panic ripple in waves across the barren ground. We’re not proud, we take what we can get, we’re survivors after all.

The sun is down, busy blistering the other side of this rock while we wait out the night in absolute darkness. In the great distance above us, pinpricks of light blink in and out, mocking.

There’s a sudden roar of approaching motors, and bright fingers of light split the night, bobbing and weaving together to form an opalescent lattice above the winding road on the hillside across the field.

This is a treat.

There’s the slightest hint of exhilaration, of excitement perceptible even at this distance.

The throaty rumble doubles and doubles again as more and more vehicles crest the hill and plummet down the narrow road into the valley, jockeying for position.

We can almost taste their adrenaline on the cold night air.

The screaming of rubber straining against asphalt in an instant becomes that of metal biting into metal as one of the vehicles loses control, colliding with a guardrail, its twin shafts of light reaching suddenly skyward before spiraling several times, then blinking out completely.

We receive a sharp spike of fear, one quick burst, then it’s gone.

What follows immediately is a cacophony of steel on steel, shattering glass, the protest of tires pushed beyond limits, vehicles collapsing into one another or leaving the roadway completely, lights flashing in all directions.

In a few more moments, it’s over. Pandemonium is gradually replaced by near silence again. Motors chatter and stall, those wheels slowly spinning in the air eventually become still.

Through it all, we drink in an exquisite cocktail of fear, and pain. Of panic, and resignation.

We’re drawn to it now, invigorated by more sustenance than we’ve felt in far too long.

Our strength returns.

Where has this been? Why have we not been privy to this source of nutrition before?

There are new sounds on the wind as we feed, and blue and red lights strobe the landscape around us, bringing with them new feelings, these a balanced cocktail of anxious hope.

This pleases us.

Perhaps this place isn’t so inhospitable after all.

When these fonts of emotion move on, we’ll move with them, our newfound traveling feast.

Dreamcrafter

Author: Roger L. Wang

Erik fumbled about in the bed of his echo chamber, knowing it would be a restless night. He eventually got up–not literally, but rather with his mind–and entered the studio.

There, he obsessed and went through every detail of the dream he would later submit in the Test, which was overseen and administered by the high council. His submission would be heavily scrutinized before a final verdict determined his fate: he would either be deemed worthy enough for the title of Crafter or he would be cast away alongside the rest of the Insipids. It wasn’t a literal death sentence, but he knew the rest of his life would be utterly miserable. The Insipids were in charge of menial maintenance tasks upkeeping the facilities, where contempt for them was anything but concealed, their prospects bleak and hopeless. Erik shuddered as he imagined himself hidden down below the depths of society, the glares of guards watching his washed-out jumpsuit silently mop the floor until the day of his death. The worst part was that since Insipids were labeled uncreative, protocol forbade them from ever dreaming. Never mind the constant surveillance, he had no idea how he would survive the shameful nights of fitful, empty rest.

In a futile effort to stop catastrophizing, Erik used a state-sanctioned breathing exercise to no avail. When that didn’t work, he desperately loaded up his rankings to convince himself he was too high up to worry about being sent away. He tried not to notice the fact that he had fallen four spots since the last time it updated, nor how his placement was average at best to begin with. Erik lifted his hand and began the starting sequence of his dream. A few seconds in, Erik frowned and began revising. No, no no, how did I miss this before? he thought, I will surely be deemed unworthy with such banal blues. He shrunk the bed of flowers to a vibrant violet, but after a moment of deliberation decided it was too pedestrian and opted for a prickly purple instead–hoping it would evoke the intended mystique and ambiguity in the eyes of the high council.

Opening one of the expensive hologuides he recently purchased, Erik skipped through redundant and platitudinal advice before landing on a helpful list describing what the high council is likely to find original; he checked through half the symbols but worried any more would make his craft appear trite or gauche. He then proceeded to spend an hour and a half redesigning the garlands in the girl’s hair and perfecting the way they twirled in the wind, eager it would all come together to accentuate the irony and subversion in the end. Finally satisfied, Erik stretched and yawned, beckoning himself to sleep after all he had accomplished–lest he allow poor rest squander his performance for the remaining portions of the Test.

Lying down, Erik smiled as he envisioned himself at the Creative Ceremony, acolytes esteeming him with the title of Crafter. “Creative Erik…Crafter Erik,” he whispered, delighting himself with how it sounded as he drifted off into the darkness.