Cold Night in Edinburgh

Author : Iain Macleod

“Spare change please, pal?”
The couple walked on, oblivious to him. This used to happen in the old days too but for different reasons. Harry had been on the street for almost forty years, ever since the oil price crashed in the mid 2010s. He lost his job, his wife and his house in rapid succession. The streets were the lowest he could sink and when he hit bottom he could never quite get out of it.

“Any spare change, missus?”
The older woman walked by without acknowledging him. The slight glow in her eye told him everything he needed to know. She was chipped. Probably the full suite as well, audio, visual, guidance, the whole lot. Because why look at unsightly homeless people when the chip on your optic nerve could edit that information out and send a more palatable option to the brain to perceive. Harry wondered if he’d been replaced in her vision by a nice potted plant or maybe just edited out of the image completely.

“Any help appreciated!” he said to a man wearing a thick black coat and scarf. The man swerved around him unconsciously. Optic chip and guidance talking to each other to make sure that you didn’t accidentally walk into something that you couldn’t see. Harry new if he grabbed one of them the system would automatically kick in danger overrides and show his presence but that came with a host of problems, like the pissed off person who was unlikely to help or the cops that were automatically informed.

Harry shuddered against the cold wind and drew his ragged sleeping bag around him. Winter got pretty cold in Scotland, without donations he wouldn’t be able to get a bed in a hostel and would suffer like hell. It was already getting dark.

“Anything, even a few pence will help, mate” he said quietly as a group of teenagers moved around him.

He’d heard that some of the street folk had been dead for days before they stopped being filtered out of peoples vision. Apparently a corpse is worth seeing. Harry thought it would take a while for him, under his sleeping bag he could rot for days, maybe even a week before people noticed.

At this rate the homeless population would be gone in a few years. Nobody would notice.

“Spare change please, pal?”
Nothing. He sniffed and wrapped himself up as best he could. He was in for a long night.

Privacy, Please

Author : Jonathan DeCoteau

“Stupid quotes are only tweets in disguise.”
–unknown (but most likely someone who’s been unfriended)

Riley saw the invasive little bug flapping its electronic wings all about him as he stood at the urinal. Riley grabbed the tiny little machine in his left hand and crushed it. He took out his keys and scratched, scraped and shattered every camera lens he saw. Before he finished, the police drones were on him.

Riley was no stranger to police cameras. Ever since the advent of the InterFace, privacy was, by constitutional amendment, abolished. Cameras and microchips were everywhere. The technological advantages were myriad, yet, to Riley, technology meant nothing if a man couldn’t take one private pee.

Unfortunately for Riley, the police drones disagreed.

“Cease. Place your hands where we can see them,” the drones, tiny planes the size of eagles, said, circling.

Riley paused a moment to gather his thoughts. How could he explain himself? The simple fact of the matter was that it all started innocently enough—ubiquitous social media, timelines on Facebook, endless tweets—before the country knew it, everything was public.

“A man needs to take a tinkle every now and again,” Riley said, simply. “Privately.”

“You have no right to privacy,” one police drone told him. “You violate the right of the masses to record history as it’s happening.”

“My bathroom break is a piece of history?”

“Everything is history.”

“Officers?”

“Yes, citizen?”

“Piss off!”

The drones immediately descended upon Riley.

“You’re going to kill me for insisting on a little privacy?”

“Such is the will of the media.”

Arms came out of the bodies, protrusions that doubled as metallic clubs, beating Riley into a senseless embryonic heap.

“I’ll give you whatever likes I have. Just let me finish.”

“Finish?”

“My bathroom break,” Riley said. “Just let me pee in peace.”

The drones looked into Riley’s opaque brown eyes. “Agreed,” they said, flying to the other side of the door. “No cameras are allowed—for two minutes. Instead, we’ll record what we hear from the outside the door as Riley S. Thomas relieves himself so that the historical record will be complete.”

As acute as they were, the drones didn’t pick up on Riley’s movements as effectively as they should have. Over Riley’s flushing, they should have heard him maneuvering back the toilet to reveal a passage that led to a long-rumored, never substantiated underground railroad to the great unbugged country up north. It so happened that this supposedly nonexistent resistance also had underground passages not far off from this particular bathroom. All Riley has needed was a way to get the cameras off of him. And now, due to a bathroom break gone awry, he had found his way to all the privacy a man could desire. Riley placed the toilet back to where it was, dropped down into the connecting tunnel he had dug, and disappeared.

Wherever Riley went, and whatever happened to him—that’s private.

War Games

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m impressed: the manufacturer’s claim was true. C-NhD – Compressed Nhildentium – really does make a ship unbreakable.

“Sir, the worst casualty is Engineer Ruson: both legs broken. Apart from that: cuts and bruises.”

I treat Dral to my best expression of disbelief: “How?”

“It spun us, sir. Everyone was pinned to a solid surface. By sheer luck, the majority were backs to the impact.”

I’ll be drinking a half bottle of brandy with our guardian angel as soon as we get out of this.

“What’s our manoeuvring capability?”

“None, sir. We’re embedded in a cliff face.”

“Can we blast our way free?”

“It’s a two-kilometre drop, sir.”

“Use launch boosters?”

“Tubes are buried in the cliff, sir.”

I perform a mental orientation from that info.

“So, presuming we’ve lost both turrets, surviving weapons will only fire along the cliff face?”

“You presume correctly, sir.”

“Looks like we’re going to have a chance to enjoy the view, Dral.”

He stares out the viewport.

“A pity it’s too narrow to climb through, sir.”

“I like the way you skipped the gargantuan task of breaking supraglass.”

Ensign Clemming interrupts: “It’s coming back!”

Barkdanta is a vast planet. The Barkdantim are giants by our standards; their planet is sized to keep them humble. The vistas here are beyond spectacular. Cloud-decked mountains soaring kilometres into the skies, trees that make skyscrapers look feeble.

And ‘Battlegods’. We thought the Barkdantim were threatening us with mythical vengeance because they couldn’t face us. In fact, they were desperately warning us because their Battlegods cause havoc when roused to defend the planet.

I cannot describe the terror of seeing a mountain fall apart to reveal a being that can single-handedly snatch Bastion-class assault ships from the sky and smash them like Grecian guests break dining plates.

We’re part of a defeat that’ll go down in history. I had, briefly, thought we’d survive to read about it. As an immense hand grabs the hull and wiggles the ‘Vengeant’ free, I mentally raise a glass in farewell to our guardian angel. Thanks for trying.

The sensations of movement cease with a ‘thud’ that’s followed by a trio of deafening taps on the upper hull.

Dral peers out and then looks back at me, his face a mask of disbelief: “It’s pointing to the grounded side and making walking movements with its fingers!”

Well, I’ll be: “Abandon ship via any low-side egress!”

The bale-out scramble is a mix of adrenalin rush, mystification and relief. As we collapse, gasping, the Vengeant is lifted away from the plateau we’re now stranded on. The biggest being I have ever seen turns and swings the grasping arm under its opposite armpit, curling itself down into a crouch as it does so. Ye gods – I know that stance!

The Battlegod unwinds and launches the Vengeant toward a distant valley. I hear my crew hold their breaths.

Just as the spinning spaceship clips the far treetops, a huge being leaps from the left and catches it with an outstretched hand. Both disappear from view, a cloud of dust and debris rises, then the Vengeant is, unmistakably, triumphantly brandished aloft. Our attacker claps its hands and points toward the horizon to our right. Another Battlegod jogs into view, beckoning hand raised.

Dral turns to me: “I may need counselling after this.”

I grin at him: “I want our battlegod to step to the left. If he fumbles a catch, we’ll be the first fatalities of a frisbee game this century.”

“Don’t you mean ‘ever’?”

“Who knows how many landed here before us? These monsters have had practice.”

Unconditional Love

Author : J.D. Rice

I sit across the table from him, listening as he talks about work, about how frustrated he’s become with his newest project. His voice is even and firm, almost business-like, despite this being the first date night we’ve had in months. I nod my head and take a sip of wine, waiting for my turn to talk. I tell him what Susie’s teacher said about her report card, how she’s the best in the class. He smiles and says how proud he is of her. The silence hangs for a moment or two, before we start talking about how we don’t get out enough, how we really ought to do this more often. After another sips of wine, the quiet sets in.

We’re drifting apart again. We both feel it.

I confess my feelings to one of my girlfriends a few days later.

“You just need a little adjustment,” she says. “Just a minor change, and things will feel fresh again. Trust me.”

It’s the third adjustment we’ve had in two years. I’ve heard of people having as many as fifty in that time. The lines at the clinic are always so long, and the air is so cold tonight. We left the kids with the sitter. As flecks of snow slowly collect on our shoulders, he puts his arm around me, and I feel the warmth of his body like it’s something new. In just a few hours, I’ll feel like this all the time.

The procedure is less daunting this time. I’m less concerned about the sensors and pins, the probes that prickle slightly as they pierce my skull. The doctor smiles at me in a familiar way, telling me how well I’m doing, reminding me to stay calm as the changes take place. The truth is that it’s impossible to not stay calm. The drugs make sure of that.

I come out looking the same, thinking the same, even feeling the same, once the drugs wear off. We both do. But deep down we are different, different in the ways that only count when you’ve known each other as long as we have. Suddenly you prefer vanilla ice cream rather than chocolate. Or you wake up loving jazz. Or maybe you find yourself trying new things in bed. Your personality is changed in just the slightest way, and only those close to you, only those looking for that little change of pace, will notice.

We walk home hand in hand, ignoring the cold, excited to be living a new life. The children are asleep when we enter the house. The sitter leaves with her pay and, surprisingly, we do not make love as we have after the past two adjustments. Somehow, snuggling under the covers is what feels right. In a short time, I feel his breathing slow. Meanwhile, I lie in bed awake, content with the changes that have once again come upon me, content with the idea that they will soon be necessary once again. But most of all, I am content knowing that my husband will always love me, just the way I am.

The Wait Calculation

Author : Beck Dacus

I was told that, when I awoke, I should expect the thunder of battle to have already started. But when the doctor woke me, his face calm, if not bored, I heard only the low rumble of my fellow crewman babbling about something. I would soon learn what that “something” was.

“Welcome back, Sergeant Mansing,” he said.

“Heyo to roo troo docatorr,” I slurred, swirling back into consciousness.

“I’ve got big news for you. I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“I’m arredy dead, aren’t I?” I said, my speech returning.

“No, quite the opposite. The only people who are going to die in the next few months are idiots and unfortunate spacewalkers. We were beaten to our target.”

My recovering mind was shocked. “What!? But… we did the Wait Calculation! Nobody should’ve beat us here!”

“Nobody has. Their weapons have. We should’ve seen it coming, really. Come walk with me.” He helped me out of my freeze casket, allowing me to sit on the casket’s rim and rub my legs before tapping my knee with a little mallet to see if my reflexes still worked. Then I waddled to the window with him, holding onto his shoulder until I could hold myself up. What I saw almost made me fall over anyway.

Alardaana had been annihilated. Red seas of lava burbled on its surface, the comforting crest of an atmosphere at its limb completely absent. Even its moons looked like charcoal embers. “W-what happened?” I nearly whimpered.

“The computer analyzed the damage the moment it saw this through its telescopes, about a lightyear out. It wasn’t relativistic missiles, obviously. If that was enough to kill them, they wouldn’t need to send us here. No, this was far more sinister. Not only has the surface been sterilized by what was probably gamma radiation; the structure of the planet itself took a beating. The most likely explanation so far is a gravitational wave strike. You see, Mansing, that’s why the Wait Calculation lied to us. That only determines when interstellar explorers will overtake each other. Not armies. Not weapons.”

“But… but why didn’t it hit us? Wouldn’t it have plowed through us on its way here?”

“No way. We took an arcing path here to avoid any defenses they might’ve set up directly between our star and theirs. Guess there was more wisdom to that than we thought.”

“Oh my God. This is horrible!”

“More so than you might think. Further analysis of the scene indicated damage inflicted by bubbles in spacetime collapsing on impact with the former atmosphere, releasing immense amounts of energy. A warp bomb.”

“You mean they sent a weapon that can travel faster than light!?”

“Looks that way.”

“Well… why are we here then? Why didn’t we just turn around? And why’ve you waited till now to tell us this!?”

“No use in telling you earlier, if you think about it. And if we didn’t die in battle here, we were always going to use the resources in this system to refuel and resupply. Bringing all our fuel, water, food, and air for the whole trip would’ve been stupid. But we can’t ransack their supplies now; we’ll have to mine everything from asteroids.”

“I, uh… I’m not sure I want to go home. Not when there’s people there who can do this. Who *would* do this.”

“To be frank, we’re out of options, Sergeant. Do you have a better idea?” The doctor walked back to the freeze caskets. Opening one up, he peeked at the soldier inside, and said, “Hello, Ensign Trillar. I’ve got some bad news.”

A Winter Ramble to the Site of the Shapwell Ghyll Spacecraft

Author : Peter Haynes

It’s a long winding tramp from the Ship Inn (formerly the Coachman) to Shapwell Ghyll where the spacecraft rests. At what is widely accepted to be the route’s start, I watch walkers of the Nordic bent de-telescoping and chatting as the first rimy sleet begins to cut in.

They have just returned; we are yet to begin.

She meets me by the chain-linked concrete bollards, where the tarmac of the Pass Road breaks down into clumps. Oftentimes, Shapwell Pass is closed for snows or high winds so thrill seekers don’t get a fatal shove down the scree to their skittering doom. Not today. Bikers tear by, taking advantage of the open season, followed by a trundling old Ford — engine under mounting pressure — with the barely-glimpsed shapes of kids in the backseat, ear buds in.

We leave the roar of traffic behind and begin the many-mile trek to the downed ship. The path we follow tilts down and away into the grey, past a rolling shoulder of land shawled in layers of dwarf grass and gorse.

She talks about it as we go. As it sailed down, she says, it clipped the tops of ancient calderas and dragged a mass of stone with it to dam the valley. The prow (if prow is the right word – sometimes amiable discourse must take a back seat to watching my footing) now rests in a pool of loamy run-off from the ghyll itself.

I experience first-hand how some conspiracy of the Shapwell valleys obscure and open a rambler’s perspective. Not to mention that from further out, along or above, the ship might as well not exist. It abides in a constant mist of its own making.

Eventually, as promised, the light grey cloud is superseded by the slate-dark looming of the ship’s hull. It is as I have heard – the sheer bulk of the thing just is. That it is psychically apparent through its perpetual caul is the craft’s defining feature for those who have made the trip. Was it ovoid or square-sided? Impossible to tell. Too vast to take it all in, too shrouded to mark out edges. What we see is a shape defined by the rough-sided gorge in which it has come to rest. Some of its vastness spills out of the valley head to hang precipitous.

I am forced to look elsewhere.

“Over here,” she says, walking toward a short stump of concrete about knee-height, dotted with lichen and clumps of moss. A previous visitor has scraped the worst away to reveal carved words on its face:

2019 Manzoli-Kraber Award
Third Prize

“I suppose because of the walk,” I say, turning from the stele and the ship.

“Well, yeah. You have to want to see it,” she replies. “When you get here, you usually can’t see anything. Still.”

“Yeah. Impressive.” I’m beginning to feel nauseous.

“So there it is. Told you you’d make it.” She stamps from foot to foot for a moment. “Any blisters? Boots behaving?”

“No trouble at all. Should we be getting back?”

“Yeah. After you.”

I feel the ship pushing down all the way out of the valley, right up until we step from the mist. The sleet has turned to snow; simple weather reasserting is a great relief. My appetite returns. We’d better pick up the pace – the Coachman used to be one of those pubs that closed in the afternoons.