An Undertaker’s Funeral

Author: Matt Cowan

It is not unheard of for a subject in Our care to die: We look after so many, and the rigours of interstellar travel affect each species differently.

When it happens, We always try to follow local custom, to ensure the remains are disposed of in the correct manner. We may think and act as the Herd, but We understand that others do not.

Which leads me to the subject We have just laid to rest.

Our research showed that We were studying an undertaker of this particular species, an irony that has impressed itself upon me many times over the past few days. Saying that, how they dispose of their dead is unique in the cosmos.

I had to get special dispensation from the Central Herd in order to follow the deceased’s custom to the letter. It was not easy, but they relented at last when I presented the mounds of evidence We had accrued during Our studies.

The next difficulty was in finding someone to administer such a rite. Our usual undertaker refused on religious grounds, so it fell to me to perform the preparation of the remains.

I had to skin it first of all, which is far harder than it sounds. Our kind has never had to do anything so physically repulsive before. I believe the knowledge that I did this has changed my standing in the Herd, for the worse.

That wasn’t the hardest part, though. That was the removal of the internal organs. If I had not constantly reminded myself of the objective scientific worth of this creature, and the need to dispose of its remains in the correct fashion, I would not have finished.

Next came the cutting. I had to slice the body into two large racks, then into smaller pieces, separating the ribs from the flanks and the rump.

I do not want to talk about this.

Finally, the burial. The ritual called for a transparent coffin, something that is not uncommon among some of the more morbid species We’ve had stay with Us. I placed all the different parts of the body into their designated positions.

It was hard to see the individual it had been: all I saw was meat.

The last part of the custom was the most alien to Us, even me. This involved sticking little metal signs into each body part and selling slices of them to those who came to the service. The idea that the Undertaker should earn for his or her craft makes sense. But, slicing up pieces of the body and wrapping them in wax paper for the bereaved to – We assume – take home to a smaller shrine, or for a smaller, more intimate service, beggars the belief of even the most fervent faithful among the Herd.

It is possible that We have gotten this entirely wrong, though any other theories that have been put forward are far too vicious and distasteful to be given any credence.

I have done everything within my ability to make sure the body of the subject was treated with the same reverence and care that it would have had on its home planet.

I just sold the last few slices to one of the Herd who, like the rest, was unsure how to react. I believe he will do what I intend to: bury what little he has of the subject, so that its flesh will beget new life.

May it rest in peace.

Reapacking

Author: John McLaughlin

Dr. Jan Gorlick retrieved a new Synthetic from the docking bay, guiding the naked man by the hand as they ambled slowly to the center of the lab. There, he tapped two keys in succession and his console beeped. Coolant escaped from the chamber before them as its translucent perma-plastique door swung open along its hinge.

“Peter, go ahead and step inside. Please watch your head.”

The Synthetic mounted one large step and turned his catatonic gaze on Gorlick.

“Thank you, Peter. We can now begin the procedure.”

The Synthetic’s forearms were gripped by two black handles at waist height, triggering the mechanism that would–in under two minutes–leave him a disembodied collection of bar-coded organs.

Gorlick hated this part, he truly did. His team would ask him with a pained expression, why must the Synthetics remain conscious during the procedure? He could not answer this with certainty, despite his many late hours pouring through the literature on neuromechs, lab-grown organoids, synthetic neural networks. There seemed to be a funny glitch in the procedure, no doubt about it, the result of which the Reapacking could be performed only on a semi-conscious subject.

The chamber door sealed with a click and a finely misted disinfectant sprayed from chrome jets mounted in the corners. In less than an instant a microblade incision formed along the Synthetic’s midside, revealing a patch of glistening pink muscle starting just beneath the pectorals and running to the lower abdomen. Even in the glazed semi-trance of a fugue state, Peter’s eyes popped from his skull.

Gorlick thumbed through an issue of TIME at his console.

Two sterile metallic arms worked with amazing speed to unfasten and sort the lab-grown organs. The GroTech large intestines were separated from the colon and sucked through a side portal into saline solution; the small intestines soon followed. All the while, a plastique trough collected the fluid that poured from Peter’s body cavities and splashed the chamber walls.

In the final 27 seconds–the most critical for future re-use of the Synthetic–Peter’s head was separated in full from the spinal column, trailing splayed bundles of neural sheath that would soon be interfaced with a new torso. The exposed stump was quickly submerged in nutrient-rich Smart Broth, another proud creation of Dr. Gorlick’s.

A cheerful beep signaled the end of the procedure and Gorlick glanced up from his magazine, just in time to see the Synthetic’s hollowed torso descend slowly to the level below.

“Dr. Gorlick–so sorry I’m late, terrible traffic. Never happen again.”

A pale young man in a lab coat appeared beside the console, sweating and barely able to stand upright.

“William, are you quite sure that you’re well?” Gorlick asked with a note of concern. “You look sick.”

“Oh yes, just overslept, very late night is all.”

“Let’s not repeat this. Go ahead and prepare the next chamber. I’ll need your help processing a few more units before we break for lunch.”

Gorlick turned to close Chamber One when a hard shove on the back threw him inside; the door vacuum-sealed shut as he turned to right himself.

William’s face was distorted by the plastique, a rictus grin slightly out of focus.

“What are you doing? Open this door right now.”

Gorlick’s heart rate now made speaking difficult; the carbon dioxide levels in the chamber didn’t help either. At that moment he noticed a deep pink groove running the circumference of William’s neck. A grim realization drenched him along with the jet-sprayed mist. The Reapacker user manual was indeed correct: the disinfectant left a bitter taste.

Donation

Author: Martin Berka

Alma sobbed over the bed, oscillating between wails and shrieks until the exasperated surgeon ushered her to his small office at the back of the ICU. He offered her a seat, eased the door closed to spare his assistants’ ringing ears, and maneuvered a box of facial tissues across the cluttered desk. Alma hurried through a dozen – it had not been entirely an act, and this was her one chance.

“I know this is difficult –”

“She will be good as new by the time a treaty is signed.”

Dr. Manos managed to convert his instinctive laugh into a cough, hidden behind a russet palm. Seeing Alma’s interest in his scarred wrists, he pointedly busied himself with sanitizer and a pair of neoprene gloves. She fidgeted with a handful of tissues in her lap.

“The brain damage is serious and those limbs will not grow back. Her directives –”

“Specify donation if she cannot fully recover. She will.” Alma had witnessed them, though only at Andrea’s insistence.

Manos was getting up, shaking his head. “And what are directive to you?” Alma blurted out. “The public knows you as the self-delivered poster child of modern transplantology. You are the hope of every wounded soldier, the brass’s favorite. Yet the more you save, the more they demand. More potential recipients, worse injuries, fewer suitable donors. So here and there, you have made cold, rational decisions.”

“Nothing outside the regulations. I assure you that all the forms are in order, properly stored and witnessed.”

“As will mine be when you report that nothing could be done to save me.” Alma stood, revealing the bloody wad of tissues clenched between her wrists, and the blade. “And that your only chance to save either of us was a whole-body isograft, never seen before or since. What else is there left for you, Doctor?”

Judging by the lighter blue of one iris, she certainly doubted there was much left of him. New man, new name, but still that same old ambition built on a murky past. The ambition won out, and he hurriedly gestured towards the door.

“Are you really so determined to die for her?” he asked.

“For her and for me. I’ve had too much time to myself since she deployed. I never want to be parted from her again.”

And then he held the door open so Alma could walk out and suddenly collapse by the bedside, alerting the unit to the depths of her grief.

Beyond shock, mourning, desolation, and the stress of her (medical) discharge and return to (peacetime) duty, Andrea gradually came to terms with subtle differences. Odd scars, reflexes, and fingerprints were common enough in her field, due to a particularly skilled pair of hands. Less so, the uninvited memories and associations, traces of a second mind that still echoed with an unfamiliar obsession:

Unity.

One Century Deep

Author: Lisa Jade

It always takes a few moments to remember where I am.

As I wake from a fitful sleep, my eyes fixed on the inside of the tank, it comes back to me. What this place is. What I agreed to.

What life is like now.

When the System boots up there’s a kick of electricity in my gut, and a sharp jolt as the computer finalises the connection. It traces its way through my body, tracking my decreased heart rate and low breathing.

Then, there’s the pain. The sensation is incredible; like someone scraping the inside of my skull with a hot needle. Initially, I tried convincing myself that it was temporary and that I’d grow used to it over time. It didn’t happen. Instead, the pain clouds my mind, fogging my vision, making it hard to think.

Some days, I grow lucid enough to scream. It’s not that I intend to; it just happens. Any distress is quickly followed by a low mechanical sound and a needle prick in my neck, which somehow makes me fall silent again.

Today, I’m not screaming. My vision has come clear, too. It’s rare that those coincide. I shift slightly, surprised to find that I can even move my head a little.

Figures stand beside me in the tank, each one pale and skeletal. I imagine that I must look like that, too. Barely human. I try to remember how I used to look. Red-faced, plump, with a mass of red-brown curls. Freckles on my nose. I always hated them. Perhaps they’re still there somewhere, beneath my blanched, colourless skin.

Kyra had freckles. Her eyes were brown like mine, her hair strawberry blonde. There was a gap between her front teeth that showed every time she smiled.

My chest tightens at the vague memory, but I fight to quell it. Leaving home was the best thing I could have done. A thing of dignity.

Agony zaps up my spine, and I think it louder. Dignity.

Earth had no time left. Too much smog in the air. Too much plastic in the oceans. No settlement planets to move to. Just a bunch of hairless apes standing atop a dying rock.

We’ve been soaring through space for about a century now – ten dozen humans frozen in time, kept alive by computers and drugs. The ship is meant to find a new planet for us to rebuild the human race. But not everyone could go.

Was Kyra my sister? Friend? Lover? Why can’t I remember?

Suddenly, it’s too much. The tightness in my chest, the scraping in my skull. The sensation of something hot behind my eyes. Can people cry after a century in half-stasis?

In the distance, I hear beeps. The ship is scanning again, trying desperately to find somewhere suitable to land. I try to remember how long we’ve got before the fuel runs out entirely and we’re left to drift – but I can’t.

Over a hundred years, my memories have eroded. I remember flashes, faces, names. Occasionally I’ll remember something fully, but it never stays for long.

Who was that girl? The one with the tooth gap?

Another wave of pain. I hype myself up again. This is the ultimate dignity. I’m one of the select few chosen to save humanity. We’ll all be heroes someday. When we find a new home and rebuild. We’ll be the stuff of legends.

I close my eyes against the agony and wait for the drugs to kick in.

A Light in the Black

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a dark atmosphere here on the hill, which is a sad achievement: with modern lighting and the city sparkling below, the Governor’s place is usually the brightest spot.
Until Maleshi brought the ruckus to the docks and Grunhilde took it personally. The mother of thieves versus the smuggler lord.
“Denton, you making up articles again?”
I turn and smile: “It’s my living, Governor. I’m always thinking about making articles.”
“Well, this won’t be one.” He seems dead serious.
Which means there’s a better tale to be had: “Then give me a story that makes it worth my while not to tell the galaxy about how a corrupt police chief suborned a planetary council to allow the criminal he obeyed to run our spaceports for personal gain.”
William appears too genteel to be a Governor. He should be cultivating roses or teaching history to scions of nobility.
“I know that look. You’ve told me the story behind it. I hate roses and spoilt brats. Looking like a fop is part of the repertoire. Get over it.”
I cut him a little curtsy: “We’re back to ‘tell me a better tale’.”
He huffs: “I give you a decent story and you forget your designs on me and outing Chief Retnagnir before we complete the case against him?”
“To cover both, it’ll have to be an epic.”
“Winonna Rogers.”
“Bandit queen of this sector, until she disappeared.”
“Classically trained pianist, horticulturalist, and the mother of my estranged children.”
That I did not see coming.
“Your children?”
“Son and daughter. So devoted to one another it was worrying. Of course, in their teens that devotion occasionally flared into hateful arguments. One would storm out, Winonna would intercede, there would be sullen silence for a couple of days, then they’d be amigos again.”
I suspect this not leading to a happy place.
“My son tore it all up. Being bandit-raised most of the time, I had tried to immunise him to the poisonous aspects of their culture. It didn’t take. Nineteen and full of machismo, he came down hard on his sister for being ‘unladylike’. For the first time, Winonna took a side. He stormed out. As usual, she waited a few hours, then sought him out. I guess he thought his mama had betrayed him.”
He looks at me and I can see tears in his eyes.
“The love of my life was killed by our son. Our daughter vowed revenge.”
This’ll get readers.
I’m not sure I like myself right now.
“No-one knows you have scion or had a lady. Why tell me, especially over a silly threat?”
“Those kids are beyond my reach. Maybe your article can get that far, if you add the impact their war is having on the common people.” He looks out across the city as another plume of smoke rises: “People their father has taken an oath to help yet is powerless to do so while his children quarrel using other people’s lives.”
Oh, no.
He looks back to me, tears spilling down his cheeks: “My children call themselves Maleshi Blood and Grunhilde Storm. Both are younger than thirty. I dread what they could become.” He waves his hand toward the city, where fires mark battles every day, and whispers: “Look at what they do.”
William, dear William.
“You realise one or both might turn on you?”
“Yes.”
“Why now?”
“Their deeds are getting darker. Something must change to break this cycle. So, write as well as you always do. Publish without regret.”
He smiles.
“Shine a light, Miss Denton. Show them what they cannot see.”

The Other Side of Madness

Author: Mina

No corporeal mind could comprehend the Cloud in their base form. Looking directly at them was like looking at the Milky Way but from a vantage point many light years closer to the centre than the Earth could claim to be (hence the unoriginal designation for these entities). Human fiction would call them shapeshifters although the Cloud themselves considered that a vast oversimplification. However, since humans were at least a couple of centuries away from meaningful contact with any other off-planet species, the Cloud felt no need to clarify the issue.

In any case, human ignorance allowed them to continue observing select test subjects. There were interstellar treaties banning such observation, but the red tape involved in investigating any such breaches in an obscure arm of the galaxy meant that no real notice was taken of the Cloud’s activities. They were currently attempting to understand the nature of “desire”. The humans called it “sex” or “making love” but what made it particularly interesting was that it seemed to go beyond a physical or even emotional act in certain cases. It created waves on a plane the humans themselves seemed totally unaware of. For a race as advanced as the Cloud, this primitive but intriguing issue did serve to lighten chronic boredom.

They had a very promising test subject at the moment: a woman who had attempted suicide after the death of her husband. They had saved her life and one of the Cloud had taken the physical form of her non-extant husband. The woman had mostly accepted the simulacrum, even if she occasionally seemed to question her sanity. The simulacrum proceeded to perform regular sex acts with the test subject and all was proceeding satisfactorily until an unexpected hitch was encountered.

****

– Pasha (despite their advanced state of being, the Cloud had once been a very hierarchical species and such titles had remained even after they had become anachronistic), the Agha involved in the experiment is proving intractable.
– What exactly is the issue, First Kiaya?
– They are refusing to have the test subject terminated now that our observations are complete.
– But she would have died anyway had we not interfered.
– Yes Excellency, but the Agha insists they have become attached to the creature. They wish not only for the woman to be spared but also to remain on Earth for the remainder of her natural lifespan. They are threatening to cite a breach of the Non-Interference Treaties to the High Council if we do not allow this.
– It is most irregular but I suppose we can allow it. Make sure the Agha understands they are responsible for avoiding any… what is that human expression… fuck-ups. And that they are stuck in this forsaken backwater until the creature dies of natural causes.

****

– Are you sure we have to move and change name, Daniel?
– Yes, Rosie. We need a new beginning.
– Daniel… Sometimes, I know I’m crazy… Part of me feels like you can’t be Daniel. Not because I remember you dying, but because you really love me. The old Daniel, he didn’t, he kept cheating on me. He didn’t hold me as if I were precious like you do. He didn’t talk with me for hours or make me feel warm and safe… And I don’t remember you having blue eyes.
– But you said it was your favourite colour? Don’t worry, it’s normal to be confused after everything you’ve been through.
– I just worry you’ll leave me because I must be crazy.
– Never happening, love. Let’s just plan to be crazy together.