The Condition

Author : Mark Renney

Thomas was having a bad day. The bugs were everywhere, he was rife with them and he was writhing. He hated this – he knew how he looked. He had seen others like it, in a high level state and unable to control themselves and quite frankly he had thought it undignified.

No-one commented. They didn’t stop and stare. That had all stopped long ago. The jeering and the abuse, the low-level whispered disdain, the disbelief. Everyone suffered now and everyone understood. They were all too aware that tomorrow, or in just a few hours or merely minutes, it could/would be their turn.

Frantically trying not to scratch and claw at his body, Thomas was gesticulating wildly, Inwardly he was pulling away from himself and he wondered if he might be disappearing, moving in and out of the space he was occupying like an image on a screen, flashing on and off.

The more he thought about this the less outlandish it seemed. After all, the bugs weren’t real, they didn’t exist. Perhaps when he was suffering it wasn’t really him but a virtual incarnation somehow controlled by an external force.

There were so many theories about the cause of the condition it was impossible to keep up, to follow each and every train of thought. That the bugs were contained in the city was indisputable. Those out in the country didn’t suffer but despite this there had been no mass exodus. People had decided to stay and suffer, to live with it.

The media companies had been quick to defend against the idea that the bugs might be fallout from our digitalised addictions. They argued that life out in the sticks was just as immersive, that everyone, everywhere, had a tablet or a phone. But in the over-crowded city it was such an unholy mix. People constantly huddled over screens in an impenetrable clash. Thomas was convinced the bugs were the consequence of this, a digital flotsam as it were.

Thomas hadn’t ever suffered so badly. He had always managed somehow to cope but his levels hadn’t ever been this high. Always self-conscious of the writhing he was aware of just how desperately and manically he was squirming and gyrating but Thomas didn’t care how undignified it was or if anyone might be looking he just wanted it to stop.

And suddenly it did. It was almost as though someone had turned a switch and he was no longer there and no-one was watching or seemed to care.

Bass Ackwards

Author : David Henson

I turn around, push open the door to the clinic, then spin back around and march to Check-In.

“Ralf Pattersen,” I say to the guy at the desk. “That’s ‘Ralf’ with an ‘f’ and ‘Pattersen’ spelled ‘en.’ “

“Yes, Mr. Pattinson, how can I help you?”

I spell my name again. “Here for my corrective surgery.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I fling up my arms in exasperation.

“Hey, watch it,” I hear a lady behind me say.

“Looks like your arms are on backwards, Mr. ….”

“Pattersen. Ralf Pattersen. Can’t you people get anything straight?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ll help you. Let’s get your information into the computer.”

“You already have my information. From six months ago. When I was here, and you reattached my arms backwards.” I take a breath, try to calm down. “It should all be in there.” I turn around and tap the screen.

“Let’s just make sure everything’s up to date.”

I spend the next 15 minutes telling him my medical history and that of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. “Oh, and my dog had fleas once,” I finally say.

“I sense you’re frustrated, Mr. Parkinson. I’m here to help. Tell me how you lost your arms in the first place.”

I explain, again, about my rocketboard accident. “Just get them on properly this time. I’ve been living like this for half a year now.”

“Yes, I’m afraid we’ve had a bit of a waiting list. But now we’re going to take care of you.”

“I still don’t understand. How could they’ve been put on backwards?”

“Mr. Pattison, we pride ourselves on providing our patients with the highest quality medical services.”

I’m sorry I asked. I’ve heard this before.

“Among other precautions, our procedures are conducted under best-in-class antiseptic conditions.”

“You don’t need to—”

“Our expert team is never in the room with you. They work on your holographic likeness, and perfectly sterilized, precise robotic arms mimic the surgeon’s movements.”

That’s yesterday’s tech. Now here comes the excuse.

“On the day of your operation, there was a software glitch, and we had some mirror-imaging issues. Didn’t our post-op QA team go over this with you.”

“Yes, they did, but I still don’t —“

“Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of you, Mr. Pakistan. Let’s get you admitted.” He looks at the screen. “Oh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“This is 9 August. You were scheduled for 6 August.”

“That’s ridiculous.” I turn on my virtu-phone and pull up the notice they sent me. “See.”

“This is embarrassing,” he says. “We had an orientation glitch in our communications software. We caught most mistakes. But 6 and 9 … I’m afraid that one slipped through. I’m sure you understand.”

“I understand nothing.” I wheel around and slap the desk with both fists. “I demand to see a supervisor.” The woman next in line shrugs her shoulders. I turn back around. “I demand to see a supervisor.”

“I’m afraid they’re all busy providing outstanding service to other customers,” he says. “But we’ve efforted our waiting list. We can take you in about five months from today. We’ll send you a notice with specifics.”

“This was your mistake. I demand to go to the front of the line.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” He leans forward and whispers: “You could try Elite Medical on Fifth.”

No way I can afford that so I reluctantly agree to return in five months. As I’m going out, I approach a woman walking in backwards. She has a very angry look on her face.

Perfect Love

Author : Amy Sutphin

She was perfect in every way. Her soft blond curls framed her perfectly proportioned face and amber, almond eyes. Not a single blemish marred her perfect skin. Yes God had made her perfect above all others. Of course in her case, God was a 3D printer and her programmers were the Devil.

***

Skin sagged at the cuffs and collar of a carefully tailored tux. Wrinkles creasing his eyes and cheeks multiplied as he laughed at a middle-aged woman in a sleek black dress. The bartender poured a generous glass of whiskey, the expense of which could have fed a family of five. His attention gradually turned to her as she moved with in range of his failing eyesight. He squinted slightly as his gaze moved up her legs to her tight red dress, lingered on her chest and finally met her eyes. In five seconds a lifetime of cultivated finesse was reduced to the sophistication of a school boy. He hid it well, but he couldn’t fool her sensors. He offered her a seat. The bartender poured her an identical glass.

***

She lingered in the mirror, assuring every detail from her silk red lingerie to the slight tension in her left arm. She swept into the bedroom, pausing for exactly half a second and glided, slowly enough to make his heart pump. Her sensors indicated his hormones reached ideal levels. She crawled onto the bed, pressing against his left side, stroking his cheek with her left hand and pressing her lips against his. The sensors in her hand confirmed heart rate and hormone saturation. His love was pure, real. He believed it with all his heart. She pressed against him. Numbers appeared in her vision. His breathing was shallow, barely enough to provide the oxygen he needed. All sensors indicated the moment was ideal. His hand caressed her neck and slipped down her collar and slipped the strap of her garment off her shoulder.
She seized up, threw her head back and gasped.
“Minny!” his frail hands could not stop her as she fell over onto the floor, clutching her chest. Wide eyed and drooling she attempted to draw breath.
“Michael,” she breathed her last.

***

“And so I humbly offer my fortune to the Minny Foundation for heart disease.”
She watched from her small TV in the robotics lab as Michael handed a ceremonial over-sized check to the Ross brothers. In a few months, no one would remember the event. The Minny Foundation would go bankrupt. The Ross brothers would become someone else, and they would wake her from hibernation, a new program installed, a new target set.

Bear

Author : Vanessa Kittle

Something was wrong. Bear sniffed the air. There was no meat where meat should be. The sky was bright but there was no meat. The flocks of watchers were not watching. His stomach hurt. He sniffed the place where the greens came to bring meat. He pushed the place and it moved. He pushed harder, and got his muzzle in. He pushed with all his strength and he was through, into a new place he did not recognize. It was too small. He might be trapped.

He ran, crashing until he came to a better place. Here the ground was softer and wet. He would find his own meat. None of the smells were familiar. Where were the giant ones and their powerful calls?  Where were the screaming ones with their terrible smells? He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He ran towards it faster than he had ever run before. The meat was small and would not fill him, but it was still meat. He leaped, mouth wide, and grabbed the fleeing meat in his mouth. A sharp pain rushed through bear’s head. Tiny fires bit his nose. He roared in agony and dropped the tasteless meat.  It smelled like meat but it was not meat.

He looked up. There was a new smell. It was like the smell of the greens who brought his meat. He followed the scent and came to an open, bright place with soft earth under his paws. There were two watchers sitting on the ground. They were not green, but they smelled green, and they were eating meat. He charged towards them to get some.

The small one screamed and ran behind the larger. Bear reared up. He sniffed. The meat they were eating was not his meat, but their smell was good, too. Maybe they were his meat? Bear roared and raised his paw to strike. Suddenly, he froze. His paw would not move. His mouth would not move, nor would his legs.

The watchers were making the sounds of the greens that meant nothing to him. The small one picked something from the ground and threw it at him. Bear tried to move and roar but he could not.  Something hard struck him on the head. The small watcher made sounds like the screaming ones did back in his home.

And now a large rumbling and howling beast came towards him. Its giant mouth opened. The greens came from inside the beast. They leaned bear over until he fell to the ground. Then they carried him into the beast where they were all swallowed together.

When bear woke he was home. His meat was where it should be as the sky grew bright. He went to it and ate. His stomach felt better as he devoured the meat. It was the best he had ever tasted.

Out, Brief Candle

Author : Jeremy Koch

Little was known of Planet Bes save that it was a world of impenetrable darkness, and according to the chronometer in Simonova’s exoarmor, she had already been there for six days. Six days since the crash of the *Grigory*… six days alone. *I suppose that makes me the galaxy’s foremost authority on this world*, she thought as she watched the distress code transmit yet again. *What an honor.*

She turned her gaze to the edge of the pool of light in which she sat, cast on an ocean of blackness by the last of the scout ship’s floodlights, powered by her single functioning battery, and saw what she always saw: “inhabitants” of Bes, a collection of whitish, featureless ovoids balanced improbably upright, gleaming at the absolute edge of visibility, and along with them a weird forest of whirling, leathery triskelions whose revolutions produced a steady, sonorous droning. Simonova had been listening to this for six days.

“Maybe we should just kiss to break the tension,” Simonova commented into her helmet, sardonically addressing the bizarre formations. She didn’t exactly know if they were alive, but she knew there were more congregated at the edge of her swatch of light every time she checked though she never saw them move. They seemed unwilling to pass fully into the luminate area, content to gather in ominous silence except for the maddening rotations of the three-lobed wheels of flesh.

*How long do I have left?* Simonova wondered, but then cast aside the existential panic that tried to rise in favor of the ironclad cool of her combat training. *A soldier’s duty is to survive*, she reminded herself, and turned away from the lurking structures back toward the distress beacon’s signal indicator, which pulsed and receded as rapidly as a heartbeat. It transmitted, cooled down, cycled back up, transmitted again.

The floodlights went out.

Fear suffused her as she fumbled at her belt for her one galvanic candle; just as she found it, the ship’s lights surged back to life. She only dimly realized it at first through eyes squeezed tightly shut but when she opened them again, the luminous ring around the ship was much smaller, and weaker. The battery was dying, and the… entities had blazed forward and now loomed at the light’s new boundary, closely packed together in a sickly fence of rubbery white and full of unspoken menace; the triskelions’ gyration had picked up speed and their soughing roar filled the starless sky.

Simonova slowed her breathing and sought to suppress the quaking in her hands. She ran to the stuttering battery and then turned to the beacon’s now-dormant output panel and was horrified to realize her choice: the gradually failing battery could no longer support both systems. She mastered herself, and stared down at the candle in her hand. It would produce a fraction of the light, maybe not even enough to keep the encroaching entities at bay… but if the beacon stayed off, there was no chance at all of rescue.

The candle flared in her hand as she shook it; she rerouted battery power from the lights to the beacon, and was left in a flickering puddle of anemic yellow on the face of the black planet. She looked up and gasped sharply; the things were inches from her now, tottering grotesquely. She set the candle atop the beacon, its feeble luminance glinting off the spinning limbs of the mottled, pulpy gyres now crowding in around her, and stared into the endless night of the sky, her only hope to see an incoming brilliant pinprick of light.

A Jewel for Seshat

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They’re leaning on the Antares descent stage. Von is sipping a latte from a little café in Venice. Griddin is swigging real kumiss from a Mongolian bar in Gwanghui-dong. Their view flickers with the pulsations of the environment field that surrounds them.

“Did you have to stop the whole planet?” Von’s tone betrays exasperation.

“Have you seen the analyses of the place? Conflicts, paranoia-level detection systems, distrust everywhere.” Griddin grins: “Plus, conspiracy theorists querying everything, unaware they’re part of our cover and making it more difficult for us.”

“So? They’re a little edgy.”

“Phenomenal understatement. One inexplicable incident and every technotribe with an arsenal and a grudge is going to take a swing at whichever culprit they decide it would be advantageous to blame.”

“Oh, come on. That far from land, it’ll become a legend.”

“There are close ties between our target and the mythological record, some parts of which have attained religious significance. In many ways, a legendary event could be worse.”

Von sighs: “I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”

“The quantum lock is so big the suspension team is having to tap solar energetics to keep it stable. I’ve already got over eight thousand beings deployed under invisibility fields with tractor beams and temporal anomaly generators in case of resynchronisation failures; some of their air vehicles are ludicrously fragile.”

“Why now?”

“The adjacent trench-chain collision zone has already caused the plateau atop the seamount to tilt. This is the only intact Noan Archive ever found. We daren’t risk the slightest damage.”

“But, the whole planet?”

Griddin looks at Von: “The course of least harm. An event so inexplicably huge that most of the population will ignore it or create their own explanations.”

“How much trouble can our locals expect from the fraction of a percent who’re determined to find out what caused their reality to freeze for a while?”

“Nothing. I’ve instigated a complete reset. The persistent few will eventually conclude it was an alien exodus due to the simultaneous disappearances, for all that each missing person case will have sufficient circumstantial evidence to satisfy official investigations.”

“Which will make the re-infiltration exercise even more risky.”

Griddin raises his hand: “No, it won’t. Next time we’ll perform clean, targeted insertions. But only after the datasets gathered by decades of ad-hoc, opportunistic replacements are analysed. In the interim, we’ll simply observe.”

“Observe? My team-”

“Is going to get some well-deserved downtime. Now, speaking of observation, look.”

The blue of the ocean is disturbed by a colossal pentagonal antiprism rising from the depths. Vast waterfalls sparkle as it rises under the careful supervision of a four-hundred-unit gravity suppressor swarm.

Von chuckles: “From here, it looks like there should be an intergalactic jewel case floating just to the right of us.”

“And behind us, a pocket cut from a black hole for it to be tucked into.”

Von laughs: “And who would such a gift be for?”

Griddin turns pensive: “Seshat. Back when we first dropped in, she was a goddess of knowledge; one of their first. She should receive it, by way of apology for us failing to correct that male-centric cultural bias before it set hard.”

Griddin goes back to drinking fermented mares milk. Von considers a reply, then nods and returns to sipping his coffee. Before them, the stupendous ‘jewel’ exits Earth’s atmosphere, heading for rendezvous with a vessel the size of Deimos.