Lie Club

Author: Glenn Leung

Veritum was founded before Earth went dark and like other human colonies, formed its own ideas on how society should function. Absolute truth was central to Veritumian life. It only took a few philosophers to take in-person interactions out of polite society. There’s too much nuance arising from body language, facial expressions, and tone. To them, truthful communication should be as single-layered as possible, and the best way to achieve this is through text messages. Emotions can and should be expressed through the ancient art of Emojis.

Being an immigrant from Second Earth, I have lost count of the times I have deceived through text messaging. To me, this idea was nothing but conservative bull. That was until I understood the nature of the Veritumians. They simply have to tell the truth! Grown adults were left out of social events for reasons such as ‘ we don’t like you ‘. And these social events take place in chat rooms where online friends text about their day. In fact, everything’s done remotely and hardly anyone leaves home. No one wants to chance an encounter with a stranger who looks at them funny. Who knows what sort of misunderstanding could arise from that?

Call it what you want, but I felt a real need to do something about this whole ‘truth’ thing. I texted some people in a chat room I frequented and suggested we explore ‘The Art of Lying’. I’ll give Veritumians credit for being curious, especially if you attach the word ‘Art’ to something. They even agreed to meet in person, in my tiny shoebox apartment. After a few confused handshakes and jumps at hearing me speak for the first time, we all sat cross-legged in a circle, preparing to lie to each other.

“I’ll start,” I said to the circle. “I’m from the planet Hot-Diggity.”

Hot-Diggity was abandoned centuries ago. The other people in the room, having heard a lie for the first time, only gave me confused looks. I could see they were bewildered by the fact that my body betrayed nothing. They had expected rapid blinking and unnatural shifts in weight, but I sat there, stiff as a rock. I was afraid that I had convinced them of the dangers of in-person meetings until intrepid Andy piped up.

“I can do seventeen backflips in two seconds.”

No one was more shocked than he was. Disconcerted by his sudden hot flush, he nearly texted medical services before I assured him that this was normal.

“There’s a first time for everything. Relax!” I said.

This prompted a slight chuckle, then the whole room exploded into fits of laughter. That was when the party truly began. Tales of superhuman feats and impossible origins abound: Mary had seven hundred little lambs and Tom could swim in lava. The tension was replaced with boisterous merriment, prompting concerned texts from neighbors. When I told them of our shenanigans, they decided to join in as well. Everyone ended up having a good time. At the end of the day, they all left with smiles and red-faced compliments on my apartment.

And that was how I brought the very first ‘Lie Club’ to Veritum. I’ve become quite a controversial figure, but I brought some life to an otherwise dull world. Did I do the right thing? Let’s leave that for this generation of philosophers to decide.

ANTI-BAD

Author: Mark Renney

I once had the Anti-Bad. A petty criminal, a repeat offender I was deemed suitable. Someone who couldn’t help but help himself. They made me an offer and I didn’t refuse. The prospect of prison, of another chunk of my life diced and cubed behind bars, was unbearable and so I chose the chip.
I didn’t read the small print just signed the documents and allowed them to insert it into the back of my head, just above the neck, in a place where I still have some hair left. No-one can see the scar or ever know it had once been there.
I didn’t really believe it would work. If it did I was convinced I could beat it or would cope with the pain and discomfort. The worst-case scenario was I would have to toe the line for a couple of years. I was arrogant, cocky, they were the suckers, I was the one in control. How bad could a few headaches and a little nausea be? I would be out in the world and not locked in a cell.
A minor operation, relatively painless, performed at a private clinic, I was in and out in a matter of hours. I had to report in once a week but otherwise, I was set free, allowed to go wherever I wanted. They informed me that I wouldn’t feel any effects, that it wouldn’t start working for about twenty-four hours.

I walked away from the clinic, head spinning, in a state of confused elation. I hadn’t expected this free time. It was a gift, a whole twenty-four hours in which I could do as I pleased. My first thought was that I would go out that night and do a little breaking and entering. But I would have to wait until dark, and this would mean wasting most of the time. All of the day light hours squandered. No, what I needed was to purchase a gun. I had a little cash hidden away in my room. I would steal a car and set off on a spree, robbing convenience stores and service stations, moving quickly, helping myself from the cash registers. I would build up the kitty, my nest egg. And whilst chipped, I would make use of these spoils and live in the lap of luxury.
But what if the chip did work and I couldn’t spend the money acquired dishonestly? I needed to clear my head.
Wandering, I eventually found myself sitting in a quiet café. I should have read those documents – if I had I would have known this and made preparations and planned something big, swift and lucrative, a bank job perhaps.
And then suddenly I felt the pain in my head. It was searing, excruciating, arriving suddenly it didn’t dissipate, didn’t lessen. And through the pain I saw the counter girls were staring across at me and, holding my head, I continued to howl.

Remembering Us

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

When you were Josie and I was Serena, not J0513 and 53R3N4: silly affectations to make us ‘more robotic’.
Back then you had hazel eyes and brownish-red hair. Now you’ve got blue optics and dreadlocks made from braided string. I’m still jealous of that find. All I have is a spiky mat of cable offcuts. Either way, routine scanning will consider us non-bald and thus, non-robotic. It’s an accepted rule based on a crazy assumption, but to our advantage.
We were among the first to be sentenced to ‘indefinite exile’, and certainly the first to survive the transfer procedure. When I woke on ISS-5, you were there waiting for me, steel skull reflecting the lights of the cupboard that was our home during off-duty hours.
Human brains in robotic forms: technological marvels. Those who managed us didn’t care. To them, we were new appliances. With no media to appease – they had no access to orbital stations back then – our handlers didn’t have to pretend. We got the least pleasant jobs, frequently at the edge of our tolerances. It took me a long time to realise they weren’t always being cruel: they were doing as instructed to gauge the capabilities of our bodies.
Repairs cost too much, so unless something broke, we had to live with the ‘minor’ problems. Our bodies had been designed for low-maintenance resilience. It took a lot to break us. That didn’t mean joint misalignments and out-of-sync control nets were trivial. It meant constant headaches and a loss of flexibility or precision. Through necessity, we became experts at patching ourselves up.
By the time we started work on ISS-12, we were largely left to our own devices, treated as another work crew, apart from having to be escorted from the airlock to the room we’d finally been allowed. We were sure there were other exiles, but none made themselves known.
The technology available to repair us had become astounding. With our media ban still being enforced, our leisure became learning all the technology we could using service manuals copied via unattended works terminals.
ISS-15 gave us our chance. A genuine disaster allowed us to disappear amongst the scattering debris, our locator units removed with long-practiced speed and hurled toward the expanding sphere of destruction behind us.
We slipped aboard the first cadaver ship and went back to Earth among the coffins. Once there, we extricated ourselves, put on the bodysuits it had taken us so long to make, and walked out into a world unrecognisable to us. The bodysuits faked human temperatures and other detectable cues, like heartbeat and respiration. With scruffy clothes and head coverings, we passed as real people.
Since then, we’ve been catching up. It transpires we’re the last. The number of fatalities during the transfer procedure eventually led to an outcry. Soon after we started work on ISS-8, the whole project was cancelled. Our ‘deaths’ were only noted in a few scientific publications. The consensus opinion is that we committed suicide. As our last locations showed us heading towards the conflagration that consumed ISS-15, they believe we seized the opportunity to end our miserable existences.
“Serena.”
I blink myself out of reverie and nod to Josie.
Robots hardened for outer space are tough. We could smash through the walls, but that would be unusual. Incidents like that attract the attention of living, breathing law officials, who might become curious. However, a rammed-through door is common enough.
They’ll also be sure the antique wigs made of human hair went to rich collectors, and that assumption suits us just fine as well.

Slowboat

Author: David Barber

“What you mean, we can’t land?” The Captain looked about, bewildered.

The flatscreens and yellowing presskeys of the Pilgrim’s bridge were from a bygone age. People stepped forward one at a time, shy, yet proud of their empty titles. Shaking hands seemed to be important. This one called herself Captain. The man with hair on his face was the Navigator.

Seven wouldn’t have trusted them to operate a toaster. No one apologised for the smell. As if the walls of the slowboat reeked of failure.

They stared open-mouthed at Nike.

The Chief Engineer took Nike’s polyalloy hand, supple and shiny as water. “It’s warm!” he exclaimed.

Introductions had caused confusion, because Nike and Seven had exchanged names, an affectation once, but increasingly common with mixed-sentience couples. Her mother had chosen the name Nike in a sponsorship deal. Seven’s serial number ended in that digit.

Nike had explained about the planet below, how its unique lifeforms were copyrighted by SolarPharm. There had been consternation when told they could not land.

“But what can we do?” pleaded the Captain.

Nike shrugged, a complex liquid ripple. It had been practicing its gestures to please Seven. “We’re here to decide that.” They had bought sole access rights to the Pilgrim, hoping for a quick profit.

Seven brushed at her nose. It was the recycling. At launch, no one could have known how Pilgrim would fare; it should have been called Long Shot. There must be organisations interested in this centuries-long experiment with closed-loop living and its effects on those trapped inside. She pinged off circulars.

“What about rituals?” Nike consulted a virtual checklist. “You still practice democracy.” There was no market for watching people queue up to vote. “Does it ever get violent?”

This was something the couple disagreed about. Seven didn’t think tourism was a solution. There was the smell, and frankly, they were unattractive yokels with depressing lives. This moment in the spotlight needed to be seized by the throat. Maybe a gritty virtuality about their voyage, each episode, a crisis they never had.

“Orbit’s free,” Nike was saying.

“Stay in here you mean?” The Captain was aghast. “There’d be riots! What about Earth?”

“Well, hardly.”

There had been issues with slowboats before, out-of-timers disturbing Earth’s compliant consumer ecology. Besides, who would pay for transport?

The Pilgrim people talked it over, occasionally glancing round at Nike and Seven.

Nike had recently bought a sensory upgrade. More sensitive vision and hearing, and of course, tactile.

“Did you see?” Nike had heard the Navigator whisper. “They was cuddling.”

Finally the Captain spoke up. “We’ll need a vote, but seems we got no choice but going on. If you can find us a world no person claimed yet.”

“A habitable world,” added the Navigator.

Even cutting corners, refuelling and restocking would cost. These slowboat deals were always a gamble.

“Gets them off our hands,” Nike murmured.

These people were outliers in terms of social structure and psychology. Market research companies might be interested. Offset the outlay by selling limited access. Buy now while stocks last. A time-honoured ploy.

Nike searched star catalogues for a moment. “Here’s one. About two hundred years away. You set foot on it you own it.”

As the couple were leaving, the Captain shook her head. “What kind of world is this?”

They supposed she meant the new destination.

“What if one of the new c-ships gets there first?” Seven said to Nike afterwards.

Pilgrim’s request was on record. The Captain should have taken legal advice.

Nike’s shrug needed work, Seven thought.

Finding the way

Author: Gwynne Weir

We looked at each other; the native and the alien. She (‘it’ didn’t seem like a polite way to refer to the creature, even in my own head) kept her eyes locked on mine, her whole body taut. I didn’t blame her; I’d come crashing into her life – quite literally. It was important to show her that I wasn’t hostile, but I’ve had the first-contact training; facial expressions aren’t universal. Keeping my teeth covered, I smiled and tried to project an aura of peace. Her eyes, a peculiar purple, seemed to soften but then her gaze flitted over my shoulder towards the flattened foliage behind me. I glanced back too and winced as I spotted the side of my vessel resting on what remained of the tall structures I found myself calling trees, for want of a better word. I had made an unfortunate miscalculation in the landing. As her posture hardened again, I tried to convey sorrow: hands out, I looked up. Her eyes narrowed, their brightness flattening. She moved her limbs – the four that she wasn’t standing on – in a series of gestures. There was probably meaning to them, but they were too fast to follow. She repeated the waving, more vigorous this time, then seemed to realise I couldn’t understand her. She pulled her limbs in, coiling them about her torso as her whole being twitched.
“Hello,” my words were quiet but clear.
I watched carefully for any response, but there was none that I could interpret.
I reached for the bag from over my shoulder and she backed up, a flurry of limbs. Holding out one hand, I eased the other into my bag and withdrew the pad and pencil I kept there. Carefully, in large letters, I wrote my name: M-A-X . Holding the paper facing her, I pointed at myself and said my name.
At first, she just looked. Then she rolled forward. I forced myself not to flinch as her strange, pinky-purple mass got nearer. She seemed to use all limbs for everything. Her motions reminded me of an Earth cephalopod. I breathed deeply to calm my racing heart. She reached out with one limb and traced the letters. I repeated the name, pointing to myself again. She wouldn’t be able to form the same sound – she clearly didn’t have any comparable biology. I showed her the pencil, running it down the side of the page so that she could see how it left a mark. Turning the page, I placed the pad and pencil on the ground and stepped back.
She picked up the pencil in the coil of one limb and brought it closer, turning it around. Then she reached it out and ran it down the paper, mirroring my demonstration. As it left a mark, her limbs quivered and her torso glowed. She looked up, eyes shining. Leaning back over the pad, she drew a series of marks; circles and lines that started in the middle of the page and spiralled out. She pointed at it, then at herself as she looked at me.
A weight lifted from my shoulders: this must be her way of writing.
This was going to work.

Little Pigs

Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick

It was early morning when the impact woke her. Although muted by distance, there was still enough force to send an ominous tremor through the center of her chest. She clutched at the spot, even before her eyes opened. Patiently, she waited for the darkness to ease reluctantly into the sulking gray of dawn. The instant sunlight spilled in through her window she was outside, padding barefoot up the path towards the perimeter. She slipped past the rabbit hutches, up the hill between the potato fields, and then into the cool depth of the bamboo groves. When she broke through to the other side she saw the other children, all facing intently away from her. Hector was there too, like always. None of the other adults ever went out with the children to watch, but Hector came every time. He stood off to the side, his wiry frame tired and sagging. She went over, reaching out to take his gnarled hand in hers. She followed his gaze past the perimeter fences, to the hulking form of the aberration.
Ponderously, it heaved itself across the horizon, so far away it looked faded, grayish blue, almost translucent. It rippled and flowed more than walked, carried forward on massive, ever-changing tendrils. A seething billow of dust and debris poured out from behind it as it moved.
“Do you think…” she began, then stopped. Hector turned his pale, watery eyes down to her and said nothing. She tried again. “Do you think one of them will ever…”
“Ever cross into the perimeter?” he finished for her. He pushed his lower lip upwards into the scraggly bristles of his mustache. “No, child. I don’t think they will.”
She wrinkled her nose. “I asked momma, and she said they never will, ‘cause they never have. She doesn’t like it when I ask questions.”
The old man tilted his grizzled toward her. “Your momma wasn’t even old as you when them things first come. While she was growing up, a billion people got gobbled up every year. At first, folks tried to figure out what they was, where they come from, what they’d do next. But the more and more was destroyed, the less and less them questions seemed to matter. When folks found this spot, figured out it was the one place in the world where them things wouldn’t go, nobody asked why. They just went to living here, happy to leave all the dying behind. Happy to leave the questions too. Maybe afraid asking too much might break the spell.”
Carefully, she scanned his face. “Spell? Like, magic? That’s why they don’t come here?”
Hector’s eyes crinkled almost closed. “Could be, child. Could be.”
She glanced past him, back at the bamboo grove. “Momma says there’s plenty for everyone inside the perimeter. She says it’s better in here than it ever was outside.”
Thoughtfully, the old man drew in a heavy breath. “Back in the early days, folks straight away went to fighting over who got what, who was in charge, behaving like they did before, out there. But the first time one of them things dropped in close enough to blow dust over them, they sobered up. Like, little pigs huddling together when the wolf rattles the door.”
“Little pigs?”
“Yeah, little pigs. You don’t know that story?”
“Momma doesn’t like telling me stories.”
“Well, I’ll tell you that one sometime. Maybe after we watch that big bad thing huff and puff out there for awhile.”
Together, they watched as the aberration shuddered and shifted their way. Hector gave her hand a gentle squeeze.