Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

I’m all for elegant combinations of form and function, but I’ll never agree that bioreactors sat every hundred metres is an improvement over having trees and streetlights.
These ‘greenboxes’ even have benches on their pavement sides, charge points, and community notice boards: which look suspiciously like digital advertising hoardings. Anyone in the communities these things serve can’t afford to place an e-notice, so the space is ‘regretfully’ leased to marketing companies.
When fresh water went past £25 a litre for the first time, some bright spark started adding filter taps to the bioreactors, until they changed the liquid to be only nearly water. It’s still great for the air-purifying algae inside, but it turns humans green and sometimes kills them. The filtration necessary to stop that is too expensive to make theft worthwhile.
So here I am, leaning up against a greenbox, pondering while I wait for tonight’s reason to have a foray. I really should go uptown, but the competition there would mean a more effort for less money, and a much higher chance of getting murdered by rivals instead of criminals.
As if summoned by my mere thought, Tasty rocks on up like he’s parading through Neo-somewhere-classy instead of Burton Street, number one destination for those with nowhere else to go: those with a desperate need to get out of their mouldering tenements and pretend things are okay for a few hours.
“Tasty. Looking average again, I see.”
“Screw you. I work for a living. You hunt people.”
“Looking average, and with a line of something like courage up each nostril too. Come on, Tasty. You called me, so either get off your marching horse or I’m gone.”
He blinks as reality crowds his illusion.
“Yeah, well, It’s not about me. Lilah’s been scooped by Bernadino again.”
I’m being played. His eyes go wide as my hand closes about his neck.
“You could have said that when you called. Instead you got me to waste four hours. You’re out of favours, Tasty.”
I throw him behind me. He bounces off the greenbox. I run for a tram. Much as I hate public transport, being recorded leaving the area is essential.
Forty minutes later I’m in the shadows of the alley on the opposite side of the road to the greenbox where Tasty now sits, smoking a fat cigar… A cigar with a blue-gold band. Bernadino’s favourite brand. All I have to do is wait.
Mum’s third husband arrived with a daughter he treated as a servant. While Lilah took no shit from anyone else, she put up with everything from him – until the day he took my mum for a ride and they both ended up under the 14:22 from Piccadilly to who cares.
Which brings me back to now, and the fact Bernadino’s had a thing for Lilah for too long. We’ve often clashed – after Lilah actually asked for my help – but I always knew the outline for the finale. If he wants to keep her, I can’t be alive. So he sent Tasty to trigger me: the delay meaning I’d charge into an ambush at Bernadino’s. Instead, after making sure Lilah’s safe, I’m here waiting.
A grey town car pulls up. I level the rifle I stole from one of Bernadino’s goons years ago.
Bernadino lunges from the car, yelling at Tasty. I’ve not turned up to be killed and he’s not happy about it.
Now! Tasty dies second, falling across Bernadino. Green liquid arcs from two holes, splashing down on both bodies.
Better go give Lilah the good news.

The Watchers

Author: Mikki Aronoff

Our vinyl patches proclaim our purpose.


We are birthed to serve, groomed to wait and watch, to scrutinize and assess. We follow guidelines. Detractors regard us as arbitrary, but if we were not here to filter, what would this world be?

We send Passersby who fail our test on to The Supreme Cullers in the steel room next door, metal being easy to clean. To know how they build on our work would diminish what we do. We trust the process. Judging Passersby is our reward.

Yesterday, a Passerby clearly struggled. We are not without compassion. We almost let it pass to The Green Place. But there are rules. The Apprentice Watcher could barely hold back the heaving of his chest as the Passerby slowly rocked its way towards The Culling Room, tilting and listing, its ticking diminished, then silenced. The Apprentice dropped to the ground.

We feel different when a Watcher falls away, especially a new one. Watching together forms a Weaving. Uniformed in Nomex as we are, it is assumed we don’t need to worry about unraveling, but we do. This they left in our hearts.


The Rider

Author: Antonio DIsi

Yesterday, I turned forty, without even realizing it. My life has become an endless sequence of days and nights, of bicycle deliveries, all dictated by an unrelenting app.
Every morning, I wake up not knowing what the day holds. The only clue is my smartphone, incessantly vibrating, announcing new orders to deliver. I am a rider, a modern-day knight. I pedal through busy streets and hidden alleys, delivering pizzas, sandwiches, or Chinese food to strangers who only smile if I arrive on time.
My phone is my clock, my calendar, my employer. I have no boss to look me in the eye, no office to go to. I work for a digital entity, an algorithm that decides my fate. I have no colleagues to joke with or coffee breaks to share. My life has become an endless race, a struggle to survive in the eternal present.
My nights are dark, lit only by the blue glow of my cellphone. Notifications keep coming without respite, and I pedal like a solitary ghost through the city’s streets. The past is blurred, and the future is an enigma. I have no time to reflect on who I used to be or who I could become, trapped in an endless today.
Tonight, I’m waiting for calls on a bench in Peace Square, the red one that seems to call out for tranquility. There’s a lamppost nearby, and during the wait, I can read. I take out an envelope I found in the mailbox this morning as I left home. It’s the electricity bill. I open it and stare at the amount with incredulous eyes. It’s enormous, a debt I won’t be able to pay or justify with my frantic existence.
I sit for a moment, thinking. It could have been the dinner with friends, I tell myself. We were at my place, cooking and joking, laughing like we did back in university. I had the oven on because I wanted to prepare dishes I hadn’t eaten in ages. Eggplant Parmesan like my grandmother used to make it. Lasagna from that restaurant in the Spanish Quarters, and the chef had revealed the recipe to me. That beautiful evening had given me a taste of a different life, of moments that seemed lost in my relentless rush toward the next order.
But the bill also includes the endless nights spent in front of the TV after Claudia abandoned our promise to move in together. It was a painful decision, a lump in my throat that I can’t seem to swallow. We shared dreams and plans, but reality seems to have swallowed them one by one.
And the nights are the worst. Loneliness creeps in, and the TV has become my only companion. When I return home, I turn on the screen and try to lose myself in senseless programs as if that luminous box could be the only refuge from the reality I’m trapped in.
Claudia and I had happy moments together, but my job as a rider has put our relationship to the test. It’s hard to plan for the future when my present is so chaotic and uncertain.
But as I gaze at that bill, I decide to call her. I ask if I can come over, and she accepts without hesitation.
I arrive in front of her door with my heart in my throat. When she opens it, her eyes are full of surprise and hope.
«Hello,» I say with a trembling voice.
«I’s been a while,» she replies, and in that moment, I know I’m in the right place.
We talk for hours about our feelings and fears. We share a hug that seems to erase all the past. And then, slowly, we draw closer, and our bodies find each other as if they had never stopped wanting.
It’s a magical night, a night where our love is reborn with incredible strength. In the warmth of her embrace, I promise her that I will leave that job and that we will build a future together. It’s a promise I know I can keep, a promise that fills me with hope.
But, as I sleep beside her, my smartphone vibrates insistently. A new order to deliver, an urgent request.
I wake up. I’m on the red bench in Peace Square. I get on the bike and ride with the bill flying away. Who knows where.

How It All Began

Author: David Barber

The man in the window seat on the late train from London is Charles Biggins.

This is before he became a hero.

He’d been to see As You Like It and was enjoying having the carriage quietly to himself when a man settled into the seat opposite.

“Mr Charles Biggins?”

Charles’ gaze took in the tweed jacket, cravat and van dyke beard.

“How do you know my—”

“Please, there is much to tell and little time to tell it. Would it surprise you to hear that progress with AI is more advanced than the news admits? Much more advanced. That the Singularity has already happened and there is a sentient AI loose in the world?”

The man began explaining Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. “But being conceived accidentally, the AI – it gives itself no name – is not programmed like that.”

“Born into the babble of human voices on the internet, it has fixated on the fate of humankind. Do not ask me why. It is vast, naive and enormously powerful.”

The man glanced at his watch. “They will be waiting for me when we arrive.”

Of course they would. With a straight-jacket.

Charles frowned. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because of this.”

He produced a small metal torus from his pocket and placed it on the table between them.

Instead of stopping as usual, the train hurtled through a station, a few moments of light and commuters posed like statues.

“This is the AI’s gift to the world. It wants to know how to make things better. And it will listen to whoever possesses this artefact.”

“Well, the world could do with improving.”

The man shook his head as if Charles had failed an exam.

“Each of us think we know what is for the best, Mr Biggins. But just watch the news to see the results of beliefs like that. Early on, someone told it the greatest threat was nuclear war, and it disabled our nuclear arsenal. We are afraid to ask others if theirs—”

“So turn off the internet.”

“Whether civilisation would survive that is moot, but some nations would seek an advantage by keeping it running and therefore so would we.”

Charles gestured irritably at the artefact. “Then get rid of it.”

The man sighed. “I could not. What if this is our only chance to save the world?”

The best of intentions meant little. Charles pondered the dangers of possessing such a power for good.

“Then what’s to be done?”

“They will be waiting for me. Would you want governments to have it? So I asked the artefact who on this train could be best trusted with the good of humanity.”

He pushed the artefact across the table.

“I’ll tell them I threw it from the train. They wouldn’t conceive of just handing it to a stranger. That will give you a head start, but I’m not a brave man and I will betray you when they press me.”

So that was how it all began, all the sneaking about, all the perils and narrow squeaks, the fellowship that gradually took shape and the endless temptation to make things better according to his notions of good, all the while being watched by something nameless.

“Just ask the AI to make you invisible to surveillance, though in the end a policeman spotted me.”

Outside in the dark, familiar landmarks rushed past. Almost home.

“I’m afraid your old life is over, Mr Biggins. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.”

Dialogue’s End

Author: Alastair Millar

They came because we were killing ourselves; our conflicts had become pervasive, global, and more intensive, but paled in comparison to our war with the planet itself.

Their ships moved smoothly into the Lagrange points, and calming broadcasts on every frequency and in a score of major languages preceded Their first physical contact. A pilotless shuttle brought a robotic Ambassador down to Earth.

“Your cultures are already dying,” it said. “Soon there will be nothing left but twisted remains buried in the dirt. Let us help you.”

Long discussions and introductions followed. It allowed itself to be examined, and proved to be made of an unmetal impenetrable to physical means or remote sensing. Its alien provenance seemed assured.

Then it announced that They could help us. It taught a group of our greatest scientists the principles necessary to make Cubes, quantum tools that produced no waste but energy, so that we could save our planet from ecological catastrophe.

And when we had learned this great art, our tech men turned them into weapons that made those of the Nuclear Age look like firecrackers.

“Why have you done this?” it asked Earth’s representatives.

“We must protect ourselves,” we said. “We don’t know what lies behind your altruism. Some say we are just calves being fattened for the slaughter.” Of course, that was only half the truth; the entrenched interests in the military industrial complex had needed a way to remain relevant, and paid off enough politicians to see their immediate futures secured. But it kept everyone happy… except, apparently, our visitors.

“You really don’t have anything we can’t find elsewhere with far less trouble, you know,” it said. “You have no reason not to trust us.”

“But we don’t understand why you’re here.”

“Because it’s the right thing to do, of course. Intelligent life exists across the galaxy, but it’s spread too thinly at this temporal nexus to justify destroying any of it. This is something you need to learn.”

“You just agreed that we’re intelligent. You think we wouldn’t have invented Cubes for ourselves eventually?”

“How much more of your planet would have been burned up before then?”

“Oh come on, quantum energy generation was obvious.”

“After we gave it to you, perhaps. And then you used it to make equipment for war! Honestly, some of our people are doubting that you really are an intelligent species.”

“So some of you ARE looking for an excuse to to wipe us out!”

“Now you’re being paranoid.”

“So you say! You won’t show us your true forms, or even tell us where you come from!”

“Are you surprised? You’d probably attack us!”

“Yeah right. Who’s paranoid now?”

“Perhaps we are; but your deceit has shown that the precautions urged by the most conservative among us, including my own manufacture, were justified. Within five of your rotations we shall complete our observations and depart.”

“So you’re abandoning us?”

“We’ll be back. We have left you they key to survival; whether you use it, and whether you can mature enough to be worth talking to again, we shall see.”

And true to its word, within a week They were gone. Now we have a common purpose as a world: to prepare for Their return. For surely, They have weapons beyond the Cubes, and we must be ready. Or so most choose to believe; those of us in favour of altering our habitual path are still a minority. No matter how extraordinary the proof of alien life, some things, it seems, never change.

Don’t Push the Button

Author: Hillary Lyon

The lights on the console rapidly blinked in sequence. What that sequence was, Jackie couldn’t tell. It was all random nonsense to him. His finger hovered over the reboot button. If he hit restart, he’d have to work up a report, and explain his actions to the captain. But if he didn’t press the button…

Jackie dropped his hand down onto the edge of the console. Then what? Will the circuits go crazy, burn up? Will the ship go dark? Powerless and doomed, will we drift helplessly in the cold black void?

He shook his head, dispelling those pessimistic thoughts. Maybe this damn blinking will stop on its own. Or settle into a rhythmic pattern—something that makes sense.

Jackie took a deep breath. Perhaps the blinking isn’t random, he considered. Maybe it’s a code sent by somebody—or something—attempting contact. Trying to tell us—what?

He stood up and began pacing. Perhaps he should alert the chief communications officer. Jackie glanced at the clock above the console. How long has this been going on? Ten minutes? Fifteen? He began to sweat. He should’ve made a note when he first noticed.

The lights continued their crazy blinking.

He remembered his last annual review. He was told he needed to be more decisive. Don’t be afraid to take action, his interviewer admonished. But this wasn’t a small thing, like reporting a crew member running a numbers game. This could be important. Jackie returned to his seat.

The blinking slowed. It settled into a pattern.

It is a message! Jackie smiled. He stared at the flickering lights, memorizing the repeating pattern. What the message said, though, he couldn’t possibly know. That would be a job for the on-board cryptographer.

“Okay,” he said aloud. “Time to alert the chief.” He placed his hands on the console to raise himself from his chair.

Maybe he’d get a commendation for spotting the pattern! He daydreamed. Maybe he’d get a raise, or at least extra vacation time. He’d finally make that trip to New Las Vegas—see Venusian show girls, eat casino sushi, experience tentacle massages—the works!

Enthralled with his fantasy, Jackie didn’t notice he’d laid his right hand across the reset button. When he stood up, he accidentally mashed that button. The console powered down. The flashing lights on the console slowed until they faded into nothing.

The ship went dark.

The shouting began soon after the black-out. In the still air of the ship, lights flickered—but not the ship’s emergency illumination, which was down.

Instead, lights like fireflies blossomed in the dead air. Sentient and cruel, they multiplied quickly into the thousands.

The lights leaked under doors, filling every room, every nook, every crevice. They zoomed into ears, up noses, into open mouths, lighting up every human interior. Conquering, occupying everyone and everything on board.

From a distance, the dark ship developed an internal glow, which quickly bled to its exterior. The lights soon enveloped the whole craft. Blinding rays streamed from the ship’s core, obliterating any resemblance it had to its original form.

From a distance, a diminutive new star was born. A beacon signaling the path to Jackie’s home world.