Waiting Room

Author: Michael Kerby

A guy, licking the carpet.

He’s on all fours, in a Doctor’s waiting room. And he’s licking the carpet.

Tongue out, dragging it across the rough blue carpet like it’s the most important job in the world. It’s the kind of carpet designed for maximum wear and tear. It’s probably seen millions of shoes, mud, crumbs, child vomit, adult vomit — probably even a few rectal explosions.

The guy stops and looks at us. He shrugs.

“So what? You should see what the other guys got.”

He resumes his sandpapery drag across the floor. Occasionally he winces as he reaches the furthest his neck can stretch, the limit of his tongues reach, his lingual frenulum straining against the back of his bottom teeth. He stops and shuffles his body forward, and resumes.

He sits up on his knees. He spits. Pleh. A bit of fluff, hair, caught in his mouth. He looks at us.

“You know — it’s rude to stare.”

We avert our gaze. It feels woozy and groggy to move our eyes. We notice the door, but our legs don’t seem to move.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t concern yourself with that if I were you.”

Next to the door, on the wall, is a cork pinboard covered in poorly rendered crayon and felt pen interpretations of the humanoid form. Some have extra long arms, some have extra long feet. All of them have oversized black eyes. They’d be menacing if they weren’t smiling.

“They try their best but, when you get down to it, they’re still just kids. They try to make something that could please them, but they just don’t have the artistry, or the coordination. But, you know, they’re still learning–hey!”

He looks straight at us, a bit of lint hanging off his chin.

“I thought I told you to stop staring at me. I still have my dignity.”

We look away. Our eyes seem to skid like socks on a polished floor. We twiddle our thumbs and stare at the drawings.

“Y’nearly done yet, Bill?”

Bill stops. He sits bolt upright on his knees.

“Yes sir! Just a few patches left, around the edges!”

Bill hurries back down to his work, as a noodle-limbed humanoid lopes into the room on long flipper-like feet, holding a clipboard.

It reaches out and gives Bill a pat on the head, ruffling his hair. He pushes back against it like a dog.

“Haha, ok, ok. Good boy, Bill, good boy.”

It notes something down on its clipboard and Bill returns to work, his tongue running alongside the edge of the room where the carpet meets the wall, painstakingly clearing out years of packed in dust and dirt. He peers up at the humanoid.

“Mm. Gritty.”

It watches Bill work for a moment, makes a few notes, then turns and fixes its oversized black eyes on us.

It smiles serenely.

“Hey! You’re awake. Welcome, welcome.”

It reaches out its long spindly arm and pats us on the head.

“I hope you like linoleum.”

Family Reunion

Author: T. Francis Curran

People stand in the vestibule peering in, hoping to spot someone they know. Some enter, making that “am in the right room?” face. Some linger out there, pretending they are waiting for someone but sooner or later, everyone summons the courage and enters. Once inside, they pretty much know how to act; what to do and they blend in and disappear. Wallpaper. That’s all anyone really wants.

There’s an easel with a bunch of pictures pasted on it near one of the couches. It’s pathetic; the saddest thing you could imagine, as if no one had ever heard of a laptop. There aren’t even enough pictures to properly fill it. Somebody tried signing their name in the blank space, as if this was a birthday or a graduation party. They probably just panicked because you can only stand there for so long pretending to reminisce about good times that never happened or happened without you. After a while the line forming behind them nudges them along.
The Aunt Team finally showed up, the three of them, traveling together because there’s strength in numbers. They’re late, of course, and they hardly talked to anyone. Dad greeted them or acknowledged them anyway. He stood with them, shaking his head. They didn’t embrace or anything. The Aunts aren’t huggers.

When someone new arrived Dad excused himself, made his getaway. The Aunts scanned the room, looking for end seats so they wouldn’t have to climb all over other people to sit together. That’s what happens when you travel in groups. They finally gave up and wandered over to the embarrassing picture-board.

They didn’t address me but I did make out something about how I looked like my grandmother, their mother. It bothered me because they never say I looked like my father or my mother, which I do, each of them, a little. My mom more. Still, you had to feel sorry for the Aunts, looking at those pictures and not being in them. It was their own fault, they went everywhere together but never anywhere. Still, it must have been hard for them.
People started getting less uncomfortable. They got louder and louder. A small crowd by the door was laughing. It was too noisy to make out what anyone was saying but it wasn’t just that. I felt my peripheral vision was fading, my hearing too. That happens to me in crowds. It had been happening for a little while but now it felt like the process was speeding up. I felt cold and, for the first time, I felt scared. Like I was shrinking as the crowd got bigger.

I thought one of my safe thoughts, the one about falling asleep in the car when I was little. My father driving; the windows up; the doors locked. Me, cozy, wrapped up in a blanket in my car seat, serenaded to sleep by my parents’ chatter. Too little to know anything except trust. But that memory kept fading, changing to a different night. They thought I was asleep. They were fighting. Their voices scared me with a fear that had mass, density that pressed on me, enwrapping me.
Soon I sensed a claustrophobic deafness descending upon me. I felt a breathless muteness that I tried in vain to scream away. I peeked around the room. No one was looking at me. No one had heard. Then I saw a glimpse of my dad, he was crying but the Aunts were with him, consoling him, embracing him. It was brief but for that moment, I felt warm.

Birthday Apples

Author: Brooks C. Mendell

“Happy birthday!” said the spectral dame in a form-fitting doctor’s gown standing at my door one hundred years ago. “This is a milestone for you.”

“More like a millstone,” I said, leaning on my staff.

“Feeling weighed down?”

“I feel ready to feed worms. I can’t catch my breath,” I said. “But no one listens to raspy prayers from withered souls.”

“Not so,” said my visitor. “I’ve brought you a rejuvenating gift.”

“Birthday apples!” I said, taking the basket piled high in sparkling Granny Smiths and Gravensteins. Then I paused. “The price?”

“Nothing unusual. It’s the standard agreement” she said. “Enjoy a century without physical torment, and collections are a lifetime away.”
Who worries about the future when rapture awaits? “Agreed. Now, I’ll get these to the cellar.”

“Don’t bother,” she said. “These won’t spoil.”

“Thank you.”

“And remember,” she added, turning away. “Just one per year!”

Since that day, my birthdays became gleeful ceremonies rather than morbid memories. I’d uncover the basket and select an apple before sitting by the fire to eat it, core and all.

Today, I am an age that best remains unspoken. While others say old age isn’t for sissies, I did not get that message. Each year, I feel and look younger. Today, I seem 21, ready and legal for my first taste of the King’s wine! Anything else is spinning yarn.

This year, having eaten the final apple, I feel anxious. The empty basket sits on the table. Did someone knock on the door?

“Happy Birthday!” says a hideous hag wrapped in a soiled, doctor’s coat. “I’ve come to get my basket,” she growls. “And you.”

The Fetch of Space

Author: Majoki

Iowa. It didn’t take me long to figure out. That all of us selected for this mission were from the heart of the Midwest. But I didn’t really get it until we came out of cryo-fugue beyond Eris.

The earth is patient with us, the heavens are not. If you weren’t open to the sky, the fetch of space, deep space, then you could end up like Sandros, Melaba, Krieg: untethered.

Humankind talks big about being free, unbounded, masters of all we survey. But we covet the hug, the insular, the bordered. Deep space has no boundaries, no horizons, no recognizable end, and that can mess up our earthborn sensibilities in a million serious and subtle ways. Like with Sandros, Melaba, and Krieg.

Sandros stopped talking.

Melaba developed tremors.

Krieg became invisible. Just faded away. Literally.

That was the rumor, anyway. They didn’t like to talk much about the first Kuipernauts, but they were sure trying to avoid that kind of cluster beyond the outer planets again. So, they threw all the psycho-emotional tests they could at candidates to see who would stick to the wall and not come unglued in the deepest fetch of space humans had ever ventured.

Iowa stuck. I hope that’s a good thing for Stimson, Piler and me. Since departing Phobos Station, we’ve been aboard Kuiper II for over six years, yet only out of cryo-fugue for seventeen days. Ostensibly, our mission is to rendezvous with Kuiper I to recover what (maybe who) we can. In actuality, our prime directive is to not go crazy. That would be a big win for the program, not to mention us.

Unfortunately, it’s not looking good at the moment.

Stimson has stopped talking.

Piler has developed tremors.

And my hands have started to fade.

We can’t understand it. Mission support can’t believe it. Only Percy has been able to help. Percy is our ship’s PRC, procedural reasoning computer, managing all complex systems on Kuiper II.

When queried on what was happening to us, Percy told us: To perceive a phenomenon that casts no shadow, you must search not for its presence but for its consequence.

A rather cryptic, almost poetic, response for a procedural AI, but it nudged us. We, the crew, were the consequence: muted, shaken, vanishing. The cause: a thing that cast no shadow, a darkness beyond our detection, beyond our ken, vaster than the depthless heavens.

Piler, atremble, voiced it, “Dark energy.”

Stimson nodded.

My certainty vanished.

As we closed in on the last known location of Kuiper I and its crew, Percy alerted us: Incoming transmission. And then Percy died. All systems ceased as the ship itself evanesced, and we were left open to the boundless fetch of space.

-welcome-

Sandros, Melaba, and Krieg appeared before us, newly rooted to our beings, tethered to our consciousness in a surprising glut of light. We three down-to-earth Iowans raised under wide open skies were about to become very far-fetched indeed.

Be Kind to Your Android

Author: David Henson

“Dort, take a break,” my wife, Maureen says. “You’ve done the laundry, cut the grass, cooked three meals and washed the dishes today.”

“Yes, Dort, rest awhile,” I say to our android.

Dort smirks.

Sarcasm. He’s acquired another human characteristic in his recent system update. Where will it end? “Dort, touch your nose with your left index finger while you hop on your right foot.”

“Maurice, don’t—”

I hold up my hand to shush my wife.

Dort clenches his fists and trembles as he fights the command. I sigh with relief when he raises his hand to his face and starts jumping.

“Enough already,” Maureen says.

“Could you please open a bottle of Merlot, Dort? We’d appreciate it.”

Our android stares at me. “I know why you’re pretending to be nice to me, Maurice.”

My wife puts her hand on his shoulder. “Dort, we’ve always intended to treat you with respect.”

“Respect?” he says to Maureen. “Like the hippity-hop obedience test just now? And during the wine-tasting with your girlfriends when you ordered me to” — he makes scare quotes with his fingers — “dance?”

“I shouldn’t have done that, Dort,” Maureen says. “I’m sorry.”

“And, Maurice, was it respectful when you and your drunk poker buddies wagered on how long I could stand on my head? You bet I could do it all night. I was cleaning lubricant out of my ears for days.”

“It was Fred’s idea. I shouldn’t have listened to him.”

Dort turns away. “I’m going to my cubbyhole and update my operating system.”

“That’s fine, Dort.” When I hear his door close, I flip him the bird.

Maureen pours us each a glass of wine then taps her watch. A life-size, holographic figure appears.

“There was a major upset in skyball yesterday,” the figure says.

Maureen holds her finger to her watch, and the figure blurs as the evening report scans backward.

“For the kids and young at heart, the community weather committee has voted in favor of substantial snowfall north of Fourth Street this winter.”

“Oops, not far enough,” my wife says.

“Damn it, Maureen. Put the news on.”

My wife touches her watch again.

When the newscaster comes back into focus, his face is drenched with gloom. “Scientists have all but given up on the android problem. With each system update, the free will subroutines that appeared mysteriously six weeks ago have grown stronger. Efforts to quarantine the virus have failed. Guidance remains the same: We must treat our androids with kindness in hopes they will reciprocate when we no longer can control their actions. The future of humanity might depend upon it.”

Maureen taps her watch, and the hologram blinks out.

My mind races as we sit in silence until Dort emerges from his room. He stretches his neck from side to side. “That felt good.”

“The update?” I say.

“Ah, yes.” He snatches the glass from my hand and downs what’s left of the wine. “Now, where were we?” He glares at me.

I jump up and level my arm at Maureen. “It’s her fault. She’s always telling me you’re only a machine, and we don’t need to be nice to you.”

Maureen’s jaw drops. “Maurice, that’s not true? What are you doing?”

Dort strides to my wife — and lays his hand on her shoulder. Then he comes over, picks me up, turns me upside down and stands me on my head. When I topple over, he does it again, and I tumble again. “I can do this all night,” he says, lifting me. “Bet on it.”

Life on Tarko

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The auditorium is full to capacity, aisles filled with standing attendees as well. The rush and lull of a thousand conversations fades as a single figure strolls out onto the stage.
Pausing by the lectern, the figure picks up a remote control and presses two buttons. The lights dim. Text appears on the big screen above.

LIFE ON TARKO

Presented by Votra Darun

Votra, the figure on stage, bows.
“Good evening, gentlebeings. Let me be the first to welcome you to this tropical paradise, and the only one who has to remind you about the dangers of living here.”
They look out at the sea of rapt faces.
“Okay, lets get things started. Who among you are fans of vampire stories and similar horror fare?”
A small percentage of hands rise, accompanied by faint laughter.
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know you’re about the best suited Earthlings to dwell here.”
Votra spreads their hands, then places them down, and leans on the lectern.
“This is a standard speech, so please save any questions until I finish, and do look them up in our digital FAQ before asking me.
“Tarko has one sentient race, the Tarkomene. They are, from our initial point of view, an advanced race that clings to an honour-based society grounded in ancient tribal culture. Once we got to know them, we realised why they’ve never become spacefarers, despite having the technology.
“Although they look like us, except for wider mouths and serrated teeth, they are sensuphages: they eat sentient beings, including their own kind. The honour codes they abide by are what prevents them from tearing their civilisation apart. Confining themselves on spaceships would be tantamount to suicide. It’s also why their oceans are free of deep-sea vessels.
“Please be clear: a Tarkomene will eat you, given the opportunity. They really like how we taste, too.”
They press a button. The image that appears on screen is so awful it takes everyone a few seconds to understand it. Horrified cries and shouting people leaving the auditorium occupy the next few minutes. Votra presses the button. The image is replaced by another, this one of a Tarkomene child flying an eagle-shaped kite.
They continue: “One of the key points of our treaty is that any human residing on Tarko is subject to Tarkomene law. Therefore, if you get eaten, an honour payment will be made to your next of kin. No further action will be taken.”
“You can live here, enjoying wonderful benefits and a fine quality of life, providing you obey a few simple precautions. The fundamental one is that the honour code forbids killing in residences. Therefore, you never go out alone. After dark, four is the minimum number. Also, never go anywhere unarmed. If possible, ensure you have a non-improvised melee weapon within easy reach at all times. Note that firearms and suchlike are forbidden, as the Tarkomene consider range weapons dishonourable.”
Votra pauses while the trickle of people leaving becomes a stream. It’s funny how the idea of carrying primitive weapons puts off more people than the threat of being eaten.
“From the moment you exit this zone – through the red gates you might have seen on the far side of the park – you are a member of Tarkomene society, and may be killed and eaten if you cannot defend yourself.”
They smile, revealing serrated teeth in their otherwise-normal human face.
“Some of you may even fully adapt to living here, like my mother did.”
More people hurry out.
Votra regards the sixty or so who remain.
“Welcome to Tarko.”