The City on a Hill

Author: Leon Taylor

“Tonight’s the night,” Devon said to his robot. “Conditions are perfect. Cool, dry weather and a long night.” Of course, he was talking to himself. The robot could not speak or do anything but deliver to its human the daily kasha meal, stored in its boxlike body, at the end of the 20-hour workday. The alien captors provided the box-bots so that the humans would mine rare metals rather than forage for food.

As the sun set, Devon watched the guards file noisily out of the concentration camp. The invisible electrical fence surrounding the camp, Devon knew from months of nightly observations, would remain open for twenty seconds. He sprinted for the exit, groaning with effort, running on the sides of his splayed feet. His pasty skin reddened and bled. He gripped the foot-long knife that he had held back two days ago when he had returned his mining tools as always to the guards. The other human prisoners paid no attention to his breakout.

The last guard, a pot-bellied baldish human, bellowed at Devon. But the eight-foot-tall alien commandant made him lower his laser rifle. “No point in killing a strong young worker. He’ll be back soon enough. Sic the Pinscher.” The aliens had bred Dobermans as guard dogs for the strength of their bite, the equal of 600 pounds of weight.

The slathering, snarling dog raced a hundred yards beyond the camp and lunged onto Devon’s back, sinking its teeth into his right shoulder. They rolled down a muddy ravine, the ash-black muscular dog as large as the stunted human, until Devon could break away long enough to plunge his knife into the Doberman’s belly. The dog yelped and retreated. Bloodied and bruised, Devon hobbled into the silent scented forest. Now he just needed to find the city on a hill.

He knew, from his parents in whispered conversations, and they from theirs, that it lay in the direction of the rising sun: A sparkling castle, beyond the reach of the alien invaders who ruled the netherlands; a castle where a human was free to live, love, and think. You could learn to read novels and write your own. You could listen to the long intoxicating songs called symphonies. Men and women could mingle freely, not just in the gloomy pairings dictated in Mating Week. Everyone knew that the city was just outside the forest. Devon limped down the rocky path, propelled by crescendos of pain. A quarter-mile behind him, the dog picked up the trail of blood.

After a few hours, Devon paused and gathered acorns off the trail to appease his gnawing hunger. The dog hid in the bushes, keeping the human within sight. Exhausted and still starving, Devon resumed his hike at a snail’s pace.

At daybreak, Devon reached the young birches and weedy meadows at the eastern edge of the forest. A mile away, the grassy mounds seemed to radiate in the spreading rays of the sun, as if illuminating the fabled city. Devon contemplated the vista and thanked God. Someday hundreds, thousands, would surely follow his lead. He prepared a bed of leaves and lay down for just a moment, to relax his muscles. In an instant, he fell asleep. By the time that he detected the charging dog, he was muscle-bound, unable to move.

In the tall yellow weeds at the end of the path, the box-bot, still carrying the oatmeal dinner, watched as the Doberman, despite its training, ripped out Davon’s throat. The robot stood stock still, as if in shock and grief.

Sandman’s Song

Author: Rick Tobin

“Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.”

“Here come those irritating anal-probe bastards in their black helicopters.” Theodore pointed his bison-penis walking cane at the crystal blue horizon holding three floating dots moving swiftly towards the couple standing before their ram-earth cottage surrounded by yard-tall pedestals of new, black soil supporting lush cactus on solid earthen podiums. “At least there’s no sand to blow in my face this landing. Glad our garden’s in a greenhouse.”

“You’re still holding grudges, Teddy. You know military types freak when they lose control, still believing you have secrets to stop Sandmen.” Amelia’s Millennial, petite body hid behind Theodore’s aged, tall, lanky frame as waves of propeller wash rolled over the Mojave Desert floor. They waited for disembarking government visitors to walk to them.

“Hanson, you seem well. That’s surprising with COPD meds gone.” The thirty-something, black colonel rubbed his forehead as he pulled his filter mask back between questions to clearly understand Hanson’s responses.

“Getting tough outside for you normals, Mace? I never felt better. Still got hearing aids, but you’ve got nausea, tinnitus, blurred vision, and headaches. What’s the oxygen up to now, fifty percent? I’m betting that flight out was a bitch. We haven’t seen planes in a year. What’s your fuel source that doesn’t explode?”

“Nuclear. Radiation’s a bear but cut the crap, Hanson. You were the first contact. We heard the groans underground for years until those circular, pulsing, pink cocoons emerged, with silicone worms squeezing out first into your desert. You must know something that stops them. Hell, man, you’ve lived around them the longest.”

Hanson shook his head side to side. Amelia crept forward, grasping his arm. “Colonel, after two years using all your weapons, you have no idea?” Hanson paused. “I’ve seen lightning bounce off them. Give up. Sandmen don’t care about us. You’ve already evacuated your elite below ground inside the cave cities and tunnels of our ancestors, as these worms devour our sands. You won’t slow them from flooding the atmosphere with oxygen waste products, multiplying their herds over land and sea. Still, look what these invaders left–deep, rich, plentiful, mineral-rich soil.”

Hanson bent down, lifting a handful of earth. “Everything grows in it. And rain, my God, what they’ve brought through climate change. Our oceans grow as coastal areas subside and deserts become Edens. Unfortunately, you can’t breathe in these gases or save the great seaside cities. You’ve become choking troglodytes. We won’t. This air blesses those with inherited breathing disorders.”

“A warning, buddy. They could become gray goo, like relentless nanobots. Imagine Earth covered in piles of silicone worms. You and others like you won’t make it on the surface.”

“Wrong, Colonel Mace. They’ve never harmed a single living organism. I’ve listened to their hum and trilling songs, as their red glows guide them on blowing-sand pathways. They scare some animals, but they’ve never hurt one ant or blade of grass. We’re the only species that’s impacted. We can’t adapt fast enough…well, you can’t.” Hanson smiled as the officer exhibited increasing signs of pain foreign to Hanson and Amelia. “Our genetically flawed kind will survive and thrive.”

“Like your healthy daughter?” Mace sneered at Amelia.

Hanson took a deep breath. “Amelia was a chronic asthmatic abandoned by a LA clinic as you forced only healthy people underground. She made her way here, alone. We have no information or help for you…so leave, before you can’t. Oh, and Amelia’s not my daughter.”

Expanse

Author: Jakob Angerer

The blank landscape of pale dust and rocks, contrasting against the encompassing expanse of darkness above, was almost dreamlike. She felt like a god surveying her living canvas. The potential within the nothingness laid out before her was so astounding that she momentarily forgot about the destroyed base. That was, until she caught sight of it in the distance, the remains glinting in the light- silently mocking her failure.

She was jolted back to reality by a voice that could have come from the rocks themselves and she turned around to see the man responsible for the destruction standing not four feet away, his face stony and expressionless. He was no longer recognisable as her second in command, his entire being radiated a strange unfamiliarity, an otherness she could not tap into.

“I told you all along that you should never have come here.” His eyes, once brown and warm, were now completely black, flecked with tiny, coloured lights. They appeared like a pair of windows into some sort of galaxy contained inside his head.

“Earth was tired. We needed to start again.” She manoeuvred cautiously away from the cliff edge, mindful of his advantageous position.

“Your species had your chance.” He hissed. “You don’t deserve another.”

“That may be so. But don’t you think we should try? Knowing what we do, we could make this a paradise.”

Suddenly, he pounced with lightning-fast agility and seized her by the shoulders. She grasped his wrists instinctively as he threw her on her back with her head hanging over the cliff edge. He brought his face just inches from hers and pushed her further toward the edge until he was the only thing stopping her from falling.

“That’s what you said when you found Earth.” He growled, the countless lights in his eyes twinkling.

She did not loosen her grip of his wrists, even when she felt herself tumbling with his body close to hers. She stared at the starry pools just inches from her own and in a moment that should have been owed to pure panic, she was comforted by his presence. The fact that she would be accompanied into the afterlife by another heart quelled the swirling fear that lasted only seconds outside of her consciousness.

She did not let go even when they hit the rocks below. And neither of them roused from their slumber as the dust buried them together.

The Somnambulist

Author: Brian Etta

“Time travel is real I tell ya…I just took the long way ‘round” Frank intoned. He’d been talking with a group of 12 to 15 year olds physically located in Mumbai, San Francisco and New Zealand, who combined, formed this cloud based classroom. Things had come far he thought. He would know, he was the first human to live to 200.

In his time, the nascent technologies that would allow this world of 2200 were gaining a foothold. The permutations and combinations by which remote learning, neural implants, connectivity and so many other fields bred, interbred and produced best of breed, all got started during the pandemic of 2020. At the time, he was 20, clueless and hapless, and destined for greatness.

To “enter” class, one didn’t need a computer, indeed desktops, notebooks and the like hadn’t existed for over 100 years except in the Smithsonian or some history boffin’s basement. The word itself wasn’t to be found in dictionaries except ones specializing in anachronistic terms. Computers were to 2200 what victrolas were to the 21st century, except less useful.

Using biological devices grown in utero, meshing and developing with the gestating foetus, children were born aware of the larger world and the world at large. So much so that modern humans were less egocentric as a result of breeding and birthing allowing children to realise their own ego boundaries and separate / togetherness. Really, they were born with less need for ego dissolution making self actualization attainable and early in life. Tech effectively altered the trajectory of individual development with children often reaching brahmin like levels unattainable to the most realised 21ˢᵗ century human.

Frank always griped about the kids of today, no matter the “day”, from his middle age in 2050 through the 2100’s up to his 200ᵗʰ year. He was merely following the script all humans were born following and when cued complained about the “youth of today”. Born in 2000 he and his peers, millennials / Gen Z, caught the same flack from “real” adults in the 2020’s. Ah, the cycle of life!

Fielding a host of “What was it like” questions for a marathon 5 hour session would fund his next “time hop”. Immortality now came down to economics not technology…either you had cash and lived or you didn’t and consequently wouldn’t. He intended the former, having pondered Hamlet like the proposition, “To be or not to be”. Using every technological intervention economically available afforded him the youth and vitality to sit through a 5 hour Q&A.

His reputation counter had inched upwards through his talk. At 5000 his implant alerted him the chronmat, Somnambulant, approved him for the next leg of his trip.

He was going to sleep his way to his next destination, the year 2300.

Jiminy Cricket

Author: David Barber

This wasn’t Frankie’s usual catch-up with his shrink, this was his annual review. If he could convince them he’d learned his lesson, they’d remove his conscience.

Turned out it wasn’t the usual guy, but a woman in her mid-thirties, good-looking, but frosty. He knew the sort.

Careful, his jiminy warned.

He’d always had a thing for clever women. He waited, but there was no comment. Nothing wrong with that it seemed, though Frankie couldn’t see the difference himself.

“I’m Dr Copeland.”

She gave him a wintery smile, then glanced at a screen, at the data being downloaded from his jiminy.

AdMit is an easy way to make money. Just let the adverts run. It’s a great gift. Or just treat yourself. From the people who brought you SubLim. Terms & Conditions Apply.

“…coping with your artificial conscience, Mr Franklin?” the woman was saying.

“Well,” he began carefully. He’d learned the hard way that his sentence…

It’s not a sentence, interrupted his jiminy.

…his therapy, could be extended indefinitely if behavioural targets weren’t met. And it paid for itself with ads.

“Like when I came in, I thought, she’s a looker and jiminy slapped me down.” He gave her his best smile. “But hey, I still think you’re an attractive woman. Trick is to discriminate between advice and prohibition.”

“An answer straight from the manual.”

He gave himself a pat on the back.

“So, describe a situation where you found yourself in conflict with your artificial conscience.”

That woman, he thought, before he could stop himself.

“I see from your data you’ve thought of an example.”

“Other night, in a bar,” he said reluctantly. He knew he should fake something up, but his mind had gone blank.

“She was giving me the eye, and I thought…” He began to feel dizzy.

“But when I went over, she just brushed me off. I mean, why would she do that?”

“And how did that make you feel?”

He could taste bile at the back of his throat.

“Ah, excuse me a moment. The sunlight.” She got up and stretched to adjust the blinds. He hadn’t expected her to be wearing such a tight skirt.

“So enticement, then rejection. Though surely any woman has the right to say no?”

“I see what you’re doing,” he said thickly, his head pounding. “Seeing if I lose it.”

“And do you think a woman should be punished if she doesn’t like you?”

The roaring in his ears grew.

You know the answer to that one, prompted jiminy.

“You’ve also expressed negative opinions about your artificial conscience.” She consulted her screen. “In your first review session, you said, It’s like being in chains.”

He wanted to wipe that sanctimonious look from her face. All he had to do was grab her and…

She studied him, then tapped out some notes.

Slowly the jiminy relaxed its grip on his muscles. The rage was somewhere else, burning up someone else.

“This isn’t right,” he said, helplessly, tears blurring his vision.

“We’ll keep on with the therapy for another year,” she announced.

She turned off her screen and fixed him with a gaze that didn’t seem at all professional.

“Those women you attacked, Mr Franklin. Didn’t they have rights?”

The Silence

Author: Alzo David-West

A vacuum sound like a whirlwind was booming through the shattered corridor of the third level of an orbital satellite. Sparks and debris shards were suspended in its artificial magnetic field. The single occupant, Morioka, was missing.

Commander Reynolds, whose three-person rescue vessel had investigated the location, was interrogating the last individual known to have made contact.

“You’ve got to understand,” Reynolds said, “you were the only other person there.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Ampersand responded in self-defense.

“Our forensic scans picked up your suit’s molecular traces on what was left of the first two levels of the satellite, where the autonomous engines and the AI computers were. And coincidentally, the collision happened, completely destroying the third level. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit suspicious?”

“If you mean I tampered with the system so that it couldn’t detect the oncoming asteroid, so that she’d be killed, you’re wrong. I’m a space-crime psychologist. I don’t know anything about satellite computers.”

“We have here eight messages from you on her bracelet communicator,” Reynolds began, “sent for a year and a half. The bracelet was the only thing of hers left—on the second level—after the catastrophic collision occurred. Now, why would she leave something so essential behind unless you had somehow been uncomfortable to her?”

“I’ve no idea,” Ampersand retorted. “Besides, if you really read everything, you’d know she politely answered the second message, and then, with her permission, I visited to introduce myself and tell her about my work. When I tried to keep in touch, she never reciprocated.”

“Silence can provoke hatred and, sometimes, … murder.”

“Hatred for what? I’ve a lovely wife and three beautiful small children, and I’m referenced in my field. Why ever would I want to throw everything away because of one unfriendly person?”

“Maybe you’re a little too used to people paying attention to you.”

“Actually, I’m known to maintain a modest profile.”

“Tell me what happened when you went there.”

“Well,” Ampersand exhaled, “we’d scheduled the meeting a few weeks after I was stationed at the satellite here in the adjacent sector. Her profile was in the regional database, and she was also a space psychologist, not in my area. She responded to my second message. I arrived by autonomous shuttle craft, and we mutually discussed our research in her laboratory, for maybe half an hour. The meeting was cordial and pleasant. She was cheerful, jokey, even smiling. Curiously, though, the one picture she had in the room was of herself. After I left, I occasionally sent updates and visit requests, but she didn’t message me back. And now, I hear she’s missing, perhaps even dead.”

“Another question: Why’d you make the second trip?”

“I was on vacation, leisurely passing through. My shuttle craft never stopped at her satellite. You can check the travel memory yourself.”

“We did, Mr. Ampersand. You’re right. From what we gather, the missing was a recluse. And an unfortunate accident happened at an unfortunate moment. We’re sorry to have taken up your time. There’re no further questions.”

***

An autonomous shuttle craft slowed in the dark enfoldment around Orbital Satellite Chiho. The craft hatch opened, and a form in a life-support suit floated out. A handheld air-pressure gun propelled the figure toward the silent monolith. The form raised the outer sun visor of the suit helmet. In the man eyes, a seething, senseless hatred burned like scorching graves.