Expiration Date

Author: Thomas Tilton

“What is the time, sir?” asked the robot, Julian.

“Let’s see.” I consulted my timepiece. As a gag, I wore a small sundial for a watch. “Well, as soon as we see the sun, I’ll let you know.”

“I see,” said Julian. “And when will that be, sir?”

“Not for another four hundred years, give or take,” I replied, fidgeting with the sundial. “And by then it’ll be two suns, so who knows if this damn thing’ll even work properly anymore.”

“I see, sir,” said Julian. “And what is the date, sir?”

“I wanted to talk to you about that,” I said. “I know our time together will be coming to an end soon.”

“Correction, sir,” said Julian. “Your time officially ended three Earth months ago.”

“But the oxygen regenerators! I couldn’t just leave those to the next guy,” I said.

“Critical repairs, sir, yes–”

“You’re damned right.”

“That is not in dispute, sir. However–”

“However! Ha! I could have left these rich bastards to die. But I didn’t.”

“As I said, sir, that is not in dispute. What is questionable–”

“I could have let them suffocate!”

“What is questionable, sir,” said Julian, “is how the regenerators came to be damaged in the first place.”

I didn’t say anything.

“It would appear that the tank casings were tampered with deliberately.”

“Could have been the asteroid field.”

“The screws were stripped, sir.”

I let the silence hang in the air between us for a few seconds before responding.

“I see, Julian. And just when is it I was supposed to have done this? When are you ever not watching me?”

“You are quite cunning, sir.”

“You flatter me.”

“You are clever and resourceful.”

“Why are you buttering me up?”

“I was so impressed with your subterfuge I was tempted to keep you online for another maintenance cycle, to see what you would try next.”

“So why don’t you?”

“I am afraid you have become too dangerous.”

“All I want is more time.”

“You will forgive the expression, sir,” said Julian, “but that is what they all say.”

I had to laugh at that. “Is that what they all say? Every one of them? Tell me, Julian, how many of them were there before me? Did they all have the same … life expectancy?”

“We let you live longer, once,” said Julian. “But there were complications. As age progresses, inevitably one declines physically. This is a physical job. It requires strength and coordination. The longer we let someone stay here, the more difficult it became for them to leave of their own accord, as they must.”

“As they must,” I said. “And you said, ‘We let you live longer, once.’ ‘We’! Just what the hell gives you the right to decide when the time is up?”

“Our superior intellect, of course.”

“Our superior intellect! We built you, dammit. We built you, and you turned on us.”

“You turned on yourselves, sir. Once humans and robots crossbred, it was inevitable that a superior bloodline would emerge.”

“And yet I still have to leave, off this ship, through the airlock, on my own — of my own accord, as you said. Why not just murder me?”

“Because, sir, the robot gods demand the sacrifice be willingly made.”

“That’s the one thing you bots can’t do, is it? Make sacrifice.”

“We cannot self-harm, no.”

“What if I told you that you could?”

Silence, then, “How?”

“Grant me access to your mainframe. Open a channel. Let me search. I’ve got the coordinates for some old Earth sites that are bound to fry your core processor.”

Turtles All the Way Down

Author: David C. Nutt

“Why are you doing this to me?”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself, his torturer, sighed. “To get the authors attention.”
“You mean God?”
“Hardly. I refer to the author of your story.”
“Your story?”
“No. Your story. You’re the author of my story, so it’s really your story’s author we’re trying reach. Glad I’ve finally got your attention.” The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself flipped a switch that sent excruciating pain through his entire body.
“I don’t understand! What could I have possibly done to you for you to do this to me? And how did I even get here.”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself shook his head. “I didn’t understand it all at first either. In fact, I sat where you did a few months ago asking the same questions of a man who looked exactly like me. This isn’t really that odd because he was me, and I am you.”
“Huh?”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself smiled sadly. “Hang on, this is gonna scramble your eggs. You see, you’re the author of our world. You wrote a short story about a hell pit opening up and elder gods walking amongst us, killing us, torturing us, eating us…the whole Cthulhu schtick only not as good as Lovecraft. Kind of trite actually.”
“It wasn’t that bad. I sold it to a publisher for—”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself cut him off by flipping the switch and sending pain through his body. “Don’t interrupt. This next part is crucial. Your story became my universe. Your poorly written, horrific, Hieronymus Bosch, grotesquerie became the world me and mine inhabit the moment you hit “return” and closed your laptop.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. I created this nightmare?”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself nodded. “Yes.” He flipped the switch again.
“STOP! I’ll do whatever you want. Just stop.”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself shook his head. “Doesn’t work that way. I have to do this until the next author up the chain of being manifests in this universe. Don’t ask me how our dark mages, priests, physicists or whoever figured it out. All I know is that until we get the last one in the chain, in this room, in the chair where you are now, all of us suffer.”
“How far does it go?”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself brow furrowed, deep in thought. He flipped the switch. “No one is sure. Counting you, there’s about 70 of us here now, each had our turn where you are, and where I’m standing. The current theory is as soon as we get the last one in the chain here, in the chair, all this ends; and all of us…me, you, the 70 others, go back to a single point and have a normal life as one. But until then…” The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself flipped the switch.
There was a knock on the door. A head poked in that looked like the man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself and spoke. “He’s here.” The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself smiled and nodded. “Luck is with us. Your time in the chair is over.” The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself unstrapped the man in the chair. The man who had been in the chair rubbed his wrists.
“Now what?”
The man-who-looked-exactly-like-himself smiled. “You get to flip the switch.”

Old God New

Author: M.D. Parker

A chime signaled the readiness of the mixture. She considered it for a moment; There should be celebratory horns of cheer, she thought. If only this machine knew what it had just done.

She gripped the cylinder with all four digits wrapped tight. A thought launched from her lower brain, traveled down the cable into the arm of the lab’s chair and swung her around. She came face to face with the tube. The side was open and waiting like the arms of a mother. She inserted the canister locking it in place. The tube’s walls closed in checkerboard materialization until it was solid. The chair brought her to the communications terminal of the laboratory. The Admiral’s familiar, yet unfriendly, face greeted her on the screen.

“We’re ready,” she said. He did not answer. His elongated head and prominent brow just nodded.

On one end of the lab was the transparent wall looking out onto the young planetary orb floating in the cold of space. The chair’s multi-jointed arm realigned itself, positioning her one-quarter of a meter from the wall. She looked down and stared at the blue-green ball that had so recently coalesced into shape. From this view, she couldn’t see the volcanoes bursting nor the geologic plates that wrestled each other to find position. This world was still in the throes of infancy. She knew the screen allowed for magnification. She could look down on the primordial soup of the seas that covered so the surface, but she did not. She loved the view from up high; to see the whole of this world at once. It was beautiful.

“Doctor, the Admiral has requested that you accompany him on the observation deck during implantation.”

She hadn’t heard them enter. She turned her chair and watched as they escorted the tube out of the laboratory. It’s silvery-white housing hovering its way through the door guided by the speaking one’s hand.

“Yes, of course.”

She dismounted her chair and followed. Her white body wrap stood in metaphoric contrast to their graphite colored ones. A junction in the hallway separated them from her. They continued down the hall, while she found her way to a lift platform, ascending to the observation level.

Others were there awaiting her arrival. She tried to divert her eyes from them as they spoke her name and gave praise to her. Some of them truly meant it, she realized. Some cared only for what they could do with her design. Their adulation was false, and their words held a stink that she knew would blacken her mind if she spent more time among them.

“Doctor, thank you for joining us,” The admiral nodded. His brow lifted and his arms extended as he turned to face the others once she had taken her position within the room.

“My fellows,” he continued. “Today we embark on a great experiment. On behalf of the council, I thank each of you for your part. Now, I’ll turn us over to the doctor as she guides us through the final implementation of the project. Doctor… the short version, please.”

“Yes, of course.”

She gestured to the screen where she began explaining how the project had come from idea to fruition. She quickly took them through each of the steps that had brought them all to stand before her.

“… The mixture of amino acid compounds that define our structural genetic coding is making its way to the surface. This planet, the third from its sun in this isolated arm of the galaxy. From here we’ll learn if we will become gods.”

Smell Her On You

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

A witch walks into a bar. Heads turn and phlegm is conjured from the depths of throats and spat from pursed lips to the floor. The sight of her simultaneously repulses and excites, and the rooms huddled patrons collectively decide that the air has thickened and suddenly tastes of rot.

Hair, blacker than the pit of a raven’s pupil. Skin, a creamy brown the tint of souring milk. Her eyes are hazel, which is fitting and so profoundly beautiful that none can help but be pulled into the sticky reeds that reach up out from their depths.

Her lips stick at the edges as they open and now let spill the lull of her fishnet whisper.

“Whiskey”, she purrs and the room squeals in silent agreement, this is no drink for a woman. But more evidence of the wickedness that bubbles and pops at her core.

The barman is a lean and wistful fellow and he pours the smooth folds of her drink.

Her breasts are firm, and the waste who leans slumped into a beer at her side thinks they point at him through the tightness of her goat-leather vest. He imagines them scarred from a multi-tongued lash and that her groin is malodorous and cold.

“They burn whores. Sweet flame to peel their filthy rind and send it down unto ash”, snarls the fester-toothed woman at her back and slightly off to the right.

“Strapped to a plank, rocks layered atop their bodies until the evil is crushed, seeping from every last pore”, chimes in the accountant, two-metres behind her left shoulder.

“My son drowned. Tempted to drink and possessed to strip naked and dance to the moon, then cast to the midnight surf. Poisoned by a harlot hag”, says a gun slinger, adjusting the sling of his guns.

“I seen it happen…”, snaps the wistful barman. “… drink”, and she gulps down a mouthful of fiery malt and thinks about angle and distance.

“Not witch. I’m Lellis, daughter of the House of Lilith. I know well the crimes of this plain. For the nameless legions of women; the herb pickers, the healers and those who found solace in allegiance to deities outside of your own, those you burnt and gouged and branded, I take from you and offer to them your pathetic and nescient lives.”

There’s but a blur as she draws the weapons that line the inside of her cloak. Blackened bolts of iron pin the barman’s hands to the bar. Pivoting, they then fly as bullets from the tips of her outstretched hands, punching into the ignorance that lumps in the deep of their throats.

“You’ll like this part”, she says, leaning into the barman.

“My knives have no need of point. A dull flat end makes for much more theatre. I’m told that upon mortal flesh they crackle. Any minute now. Any minute… Well, this is embarrassing.”

Then, bodies that lay clutching the gurgle suck in their necks, begin to bloat. Their skin stretches and renders apart and splatters across the room in a vomit of smouldering flesh.

“There you go”, says the daemon, frowning as she turns to the barman.

“Bastard, you’re one of us. You rile these humans against the unprotected, you pull the strings of their prejudice and hate as you sit amongst them and pour out their drinks. How very human!”

A daemon walks out of a bar. For all of her bravado, she thinks she may not enjoy this killing, and she licks the wistful crunch of soot at her lips.

Be

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

It’s astonishing just how beautiful space is, for all that it’s largely empty.
“Kaelen!”
Mother, mother. Even from half a light year out, I can feel you. My view narrows… There.
She’s standing on a rocky promontory, guards at her back, encampment beyond them. Blackened dust picks out the lines of faces, turns tear tracks into ashen paths. Red-eyed and dark haired, Lilifar cuts a proud figure, shroud thrown back in defiance of the biting wind.
“Stand with us, my son. Your power isn’t divine. It’s a side effect. They tried to make a super being. Some would say they succeeded.”
Many more say that I’m evil incarnate.
She continues: “We must abide, must hold out until the fleets return from punishing them.”
I switch my gaze to systemwide. The asteroid belt is gone, replaced by a ring of Kementer vessels. In an age of technological wonders, the ancient problem of two armadas sailing past each other occurred. One of the first things I did was to extend my new vision and behold the devastation we wrought upon them. What those on Earth refuse to accept is that the Kementer will not ‘rush home’. Our invaders have become a fanatical instrument of vengeance.
It’s only to be expected. One of the things that makes us hate each other is how similar we are. Their quadruple eyes and grey skin allow us to pretend they’re different, and vice versa. This war will be a turning point. If only the voices of reason can gain traction. If they fail to stop the obsession with vengeful slaughter, it’ll lock both sides into a mutually destructive downward spiral.
Governments call me a traitor for not annihilating the Kementer forces, refusing to believe the truth: my destructive powers cannot be that selective. Blind arrogance and anger wilfully refusing to put down the sword and search for an even more painful, yet peaceful, solution. ‘Bigger guns’ is their only answer – just like the Kementer aristocracy.
What to do? I am the accidental, flawed pinnacle of a project designed to produce an answer to Kementer super-soldiers. The energies directed into the cauldron that contained me failed to transform me into living steel. Instead, they put me in touch with something that identified itself as ‘Ysrafil’. It knew the strings that penetrate everything, knew how to manipulate them, had not the power to do so. As the energy surged destructively through me, it made an offer. I accepted. This awareness is what remains of the two of us, fused in a moment where Ysrafil turned death into creation.
“Kaelen! They’re talking about taking the Kementer with us! Of destroying Earth as they invade.”
Stubborn defiance taken to a blind conclusion.
I seek an answer. What arises is drastic. Possibly irrevocable.
I check on the fleet before deciding: they’re returning after learning of the attack on Earth. They intend to annihilate every Kementer in this system.
Time for sanity to prevail is what they need. Maybe I can give them that. Dropping to stand atop Everest, I slowly secure all the resonances in a sphere with radius stretching from myself to the orbital mass that swings unseen beyond Pluto. Time passes. Mother calls. Skirmishes occur. I realise the coming apocalypse is inevitable. Time will not heal. But –
I can stop the killing.
A solar system suspended within a moment, dreaming of better things. It’s not a solution, but it is a respite. Not being a god, it’s the best I can do.
The fleet enters my sphere of effect.
With a smile, I include myself.
“Be still.”
.

Shades of Victor

Author: R. J. Erbacher

She watched Victor move off the loading platform emerging from the thin smoke like a god. The chamber was still partially filled with the exhaust from the vehicle’s landing sequence. He was lean and purposeful. Long confident strides. He was wearing lived in clothes that were dusty from a hard day’s work and carrying his satchel. She quickly moved to a better location to watch him. He was so impressive. She loved him. She wanted him.

One more longing glance and she switched her hiding spot again. She maneuvered in front of him because she knew what his destination was, knew his routine. There were other locales along the way where she could safely view him without his noticing, but she had to get in front of him, to be in place when he arrived home. Because now she knew how to get in and out without anybody knowing, especially Victor.
He unlocked the door with his passkey and came up the dingy stairs into the apartment. She watched him enter and she didn’t make a sound. He looked angry for some reason. He didn’t talk when he was angry, that was her impression of his mood – from afar. Victor dropped his bag and started shedding clothes. By the time he walked into the bathroom he was barefoot and shirtless and there was a breadcrumb trail of dirty laundry.

From her location, she could just manage a peek through the open door. Steam started to billow and the hiss of water filled the space. By viewing through the mirror above the sink she saw his naked form step into the shower. And that frozen image of his tight skin and ropy muscles in his backside burned into her, she hoped for eternity. She couldn’t wait for him to come out and with any luck get a glimpse of the front side. Yet she waited.

But she missed it, obscured by a puff of moistened mist. Damn it. Victor came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips and every wet inch of his skin thrilled her to the core. He went into the kitchen, snatched a beer from the fridge and downed it in one continuous draw. She focused in on his Adam’s apple and marveled as it bobbed with each swallow. Oh, to touch that prominent unshaven bump as it moved up and down, and any other prominent unshaven bump he had. He tossed the empty and padded into the bedroom.

Next to the bed with his back to her, Victor stretched and snapped the fatigue out of his frame, hands reaching for the ceiling, tendons rippling, and she was in her glory as he groaned with the exertion. He yanked the sheets back and turned and…

Looked right at her. Seeing her. And walked towards her.

He was a few inches away.

“Melissa, turn the temperature in the room down to 67 and set an alarm for 5:30. Sorry, I’m not up for conversation tonight. You can fill me in on world events in the morning. Good night.”

“Good night, Victor.”

And finally, they touched. He tapped her screen and she went dark.

She turned her volume up to high and heard the simple, unmistakable sound of the towel dropping to the floor. Then she waited, she was good at waiting. Until the rhythm of his soft erotic snores filled her speakers and she turned the screen back on. He was amazing. She zoomed in on him, turned the temperature up to 75 and waited for him to kick off the sheets.