Foreign Tongue

Author: Madeline DeCoste

The silence is unbearable. So too is the darkness, so too is the light; all are absolute. The primordial and the pseudo-holy converge from all sides. Like warmth, like humanity, the stars and home are unreachable.

This is the wild, lonesome universe. This is outer space.

The astronaut’s radio has long since gone quiet. Even the strongest waves cannot come out this far. It was supposed to be an honor. The first manned voyage to OGLE-2014-BLG-0124L, the farthest known planet in the galaxy. It was a solo mission, the less weight the better, and he had been not-so-secretly delighted. Nobody to share the spotlight with, nobody to hog the glory. And then – a navigation miscalculation, a burned-out engine, a lost astronaut waiting to die. He cannot see the sun anymore, cannot pick his out of the millions surrounding him.

The astronaut drifts over to his radio for a last attempt, turning front flips and back flips and barrel rolls on his way. He has so few amusements in this cramped and sterile shuttle.

He says “Is there anyone there?”

He had meant to say something brave. He tries again.

“Is anybody listening?”

Nobody answers, not even a burst of static. He is alone, and the utterness of his isolation washes over him, high tide of his last ocean, and he sobs. The tears lift off of his young face and float suspended in the air. The harsh lights of his control panel shatter through them, sending fragments of rainbow scattering over his tomb.

His radio beeps with an incoming call. An incoming call when no living soul – no living thing, soul or no – should be within ten thousand light years of him.

He answers.

“Hello?”

There is a pause, and then the answer comes in no language spoken on Earth. It is melodic and primal and mournful. It is the wind whipping through rubble, a fire razing a prairie, a moon-soaked desert. It is whalesong and hawk-screech and fox-cries. It is the cry of a dying thing who will not die alone.

The song is incomprehensible and it means everything. The astronaut makes his way to the shuttle’s little window and peers out. He sees an alien ship, constructed of some purple-maroon material resembling sea glass. It is roughly conical, with three jet-plane-like wings protruding on either side. Pistons extend backward in the same incarnadine sea glass.

He cannot see the alien inside. Perhaps it is microscopic, or gaseous; perhaps the light works on it in different ways; perhaps the ship itself is the alien.

“I see you,” the astronaut says into his radio. “I see you.”

This will mean nothing to the alien, but it must be said. More song answers him. The astronaut’s life support is running out. The alien’s must be as well. And though neither can speak to each other, both are certain the other will not leave.

“Hi, friend,” the astronaut says. He is crying again, but he is smiling. The alien drifts closer and gently bumps his ship. They talk for hours, until the lights have gone out and air is hard to come by.

They will be holding hands when the universe takes them.

The Light of Creation

Author: Beck Dacus

I watched the luminous tails of thousands of ships decelerating into the Alpha Centauri system from all directions. A stray few of them fell prey to my frag mines, but most maneuvered or blasted their way through. *Good,* I thought. *Keep them cocky.* That, at least, wouldn’t be difficult: humanity was gone. As far as the Nombreva were concerned, they’d won. This was just cleanup.
I couldn’t help myself: I hailed the largest ship with the most powerful drive, the apparent leader of the fleet. Light lag made the response torturously slow.
“What’s this?” it guffawed. “Not every day you’re hailed by an automated defense system. Trying to negotiate your release?”
“Release to where? You wiped out my masters.”
“Funny— I was just about to remind you of that. Why are you still putting up a fight, robot? And such a pitiful one at that.”
I deployed a swarm of drones from a moon of the inner gas giant. The Nombreva swatted them away like gnats.
“Case in point!” it boasted.
“I’m an automated defense system. That’s what I do.”
“Quite right. Well, in that case, we’ll be sure to help you get your last payday.”
*You have no idea,* I thought. The ships were close enough to resolve now; I increased the magnification on my scopes and got a good look at their bristling guns, bright engine nacelles, and broad, sweeping radiator vanes.
*That’s right. Keep decelerating. Just a little slower….*
“You know, my former masters made some pretty incredible things. If I had to give a reason why I’m still fighting, I would say it’s because you want the galaxy to forget they ever existed. Not only have you killed every last one of them, but you’ve destroyed almost everything they’ve ever made.
“Of course, not as much as you think. Some of those things were just lying dormant.”
Engines sputtered across the system. Nombreva telescopes flitted between the stars, watching their light simultaneously dim as massive structures moved into place in front of them.
“Among them are the Dyson power transmitters they built around every star they settled. Powerful enough to send concentrated beams of laser light between star systems… and not so dormant after all.”
I watched as every ship in the system pivoted 180 degrees, switching from decelerating to accelerating orientation, and began burning out of the system.
“Oh, I wouldn’t bother. The light you’re seeing from those stars is years old, as is the light in the beams converging on this system. They aren’t powerful enough to vaporize you at this range, but they *will* saturate your radiators, and running your engines this hot will just kill you sooner. You’ll get out of the system eventually, but it’ll be as fried corpses with blown-out reactors.
“Which brings me back to my original point: these Dyson beams are just one example of the amazing things humans were able to accomplish in their time. But perhaps the most formidable bit of tech they put together…”
The whole system went awash with dozens of colors, light from at least as many different stars.
“…was me.”
“You’re insane,” the ship responded. “You’ll overheat too.”
“I know,” I said. That was no lie; I could feel my cryogen coolers working overtime across my various nodes. “But my job is done. I don’t need to wipe out every trace of you, because no one will remember you anyway. No one ever remembers destroyers.” The heat sucked the last energy out of my circuits.
“They remember creators.”

The Bicyclist

Author: John McNeil

A yellow bicycle leans on the sign at the trailhead. Its narrow tires are completely unsuitable for the trail. The sign says “Closed For the Season.” It’s November and there are several inches of snow on the ground. These are just foothills, not mountains, but still. The snow and ice get worse as you go up. What’s a bike doing there?

That’s what Morton Serm is wondering. Middle-aged, balding, Caucasian, he works for the Park District, works at the Visitor Center by the parking lot near the trailhead. Now, during the offseason, there aren’t many visitors.

There are tracks in the snow near the bike, he now notices. Not footprints, but tracks of some kind. Not animal tracks. Sixteen small perfect circles in two rows. They’re printed in the snow in a few places near the bike, near the sign, and going up the trail.

Morton looks back at the parking lot. His car is there. It’s already 3:00 pm, and the sun will go down soon. He’s on the clock till 4:30 pm, but if he left now no one would notice. Stacey had the day off, and no one else is working today. Visitors aren’t likely to stop by this close to sundown, in winter. The phone doesn’t ring much either. He could just drive home. Pretend he never saw the bike.

He sighs and starts walking up the trail, following the tracks. It must be some new winter activity I haven’t heard of, he thinks. Why would you wear shoes with round pegs on the bottom for hiking in the snow? Sort of like the opposite of snowshoeing? Peg shoeing? He can ask when he finds this person. After scolding them for ignoring the sign.

The bicyclist is sitting half-way up the hill. Its two eight-pegged feet are what’s puzzling Morton Serm. They are dangling from a boulder where the bicyclist is sitting, facing a clearing in the forest, having chosen this spot so the last rays of sunshine will fall on its face before the sunset. It is not human, not from Earth. Its hydraulic joints and fiber optic sinews bend and flex. Photovoltaic eyes drink every remaining drop of light before the fast begins at dusk. Up on a hill, it can eat for longer.

Morton Serm rounds a bend in the trail. He can see the bicyclist now. It is wearing loose clothing and its head is blurred by the sunlight. He can’t tell its gender or age. “The trail’s closed,” he calls out.

The bicyclist doesn’t look at him. Morton feels ignored and gets angry. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he shouts, striding closer.

Now the bicyclist turns to him. It prepared for this, learned what to ask a human of Earth: “Do you have a flashlight?”

The question confuses Morton. He stops. He says no. He left his phone in the car. The bicyclist turns to the sun again. Morton lunges forward, but trips and lands on the ground. The bicyclist leaps down from the boulder and pinches Morton’s head between the soles of its feet. “That’s all right,” it says. “You store enough charge for one night.”

The next morning Stacey arrives. Mort’s car is there, but he’s not, and the Center is locked. At the trailhead, there’s a bike and strange tracks. Two rows of eight circles. And footprints in the snow, going up the trail. They’re Morton’s, but why would he head up the closed trail? Stacey sets off after him. The bicyclist will be glad to meet her on a cloudy day.

Dwindling

Author: Lisa Jade

My battery’s running low.

I jiggle the connection to my hip, hearing a beep as it clicks into place. In a few hours, it’ll be light out – and I can sit at the window and gather some paltry amount of solar charge. It won’t be much, but with luck, it’ll be enough.

I lift my communicator to my lips and start listing names. Ethel35, James61, Millicent18. I say the names of every android who’s ventured into the ruined city over the past two years. It’s pure routine at this point; stating every name, just in case they’re listening. Just in case, by some miracle, there’s anyone left.

Nothing. I stare at the communicator for another hour, biting my lip. It’s been months of silence, but I still half-expect to hear another voice crackling down the line. I touch the side of the device softly, recalling the last voice I heard. Jemima8.

I stand, dragging the heavy battery pack behind me. The weight sends shivers of pain through my legs, pulling unpleasantly at my connectors. Androids weren’t meant to use battery packs. My body simply isn’t made for this.

The city is soundless. Like it has been for over two years. There was a time when it was bursting with life. A bustling metropolis, occupied by both Humans and Androids. The crumbling building around me was a Repair Centre, hidden far from the rest of the city. After all, it was considered ‘inappropriate’ to see an Android in a state of disrepair.

I cast my eyes over the darkened structures outside, tracing the lines of silent skyscrapers. To this day, I don’t know what happened to all the people. I’d arrived here after a minor charging issue, to be kept out of sight while awaiting a new battery, so I was absent for the catalyst. All I know is that within three weeks of being here, the whole city fell entirely silent.

The other Androids didn’t last long. Many ventured out to find their loved ones, never to return. Others tried to stick it out, but were too damaged to function without the repair supply chain. After several months, we all but stopped searching.

My battery pack beeps again and I curse under my breath, scowling at the hateful thing.

By the time my internal battery fully gave up, there were only a few of us left. They hooked me up to the last external pack we had – but it left me hindered, unable to move beyond the range of the Repair Centre.

Jemima8 was the last to leave. She’d pulled me close, vowing to find a replacement battery and bring it back for me. She assured me that everything would be alright, as long as we had each other.

That was ten months ago.

I stare into the city, tempted to grab the communicator again. Perhaps, if I just said all their names one more time…

Something hot pricks my eyes.

They’ll come back eventually, right? They have to.

I can’t possibly be alone out here.

My chest tightens. I bite back a sob.

I barely hear the crackle of the communicator.

Then, it comes again. I lift my head, staring at it. Disbelieving. I bring it to my lips.

“H-hello?”

There’s nobody out there, surely. My battery’s lower than ever, so it must be messing with me. Hell, maybe I’m losing my mind. Nothing would surprise me at this point.

So when the line crackles again, my whole body is ablaze with excitement.

“Hey,” says a strange, sickeningly familiar tone, “still need that battery?”

Retrieval

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The crawler sat heavily on massive tires in the only area of the hanger not lost in shadow. Its exterior bristled with scanning apparatus, and Baker knew from experience every cubic unit of interior space was packed with storage. The smell of diesel exhaust and carnage clung to it, off-gassing slowly into the cavernous expanse of the building.

On a cluster of hastily assembled tables beside the crawler sat banks of field processors, tethered to it with thick fibre lines. Nearby squatted the base unit for the field VR rig and beside that a pair of alloy frame and mesh loungers, their headjack lines coiled, waiting.

“We combed the zone for nearly two days. If there was an asset down in there, we’ve got their cerebral IP in the bank. It’s been defragging since eighteen hundred, and we’ve got a bunch of completes.”

The technician pointed Baker towards the VR rig. “If you want to jack in, we can start spinning them up for review.”

Baker nodded. He was tired – adrenalin, stimulants, and hope were the only thing keeping him together, but he had to know.

“Light me up.”

He straddled one of the loungers, leaned forward, and held the end of the datacable behind his head. The limp strands of fibre twitched to life, each straining to find purchase in the socket at the base of his skull. He let it pull itself close, and once the first tendrils engaged the entire bundle slithered from his grasp into his skull, jacking him fully into virtual.

The transition into the suite was rough. This was a primitive field hospital terminal, and each of the lives his squad had scraped out of the massacre would get spun up into an androgynous, grey body, their eyes molded shut with bandages to prevent them from seeing what or where they were. They would struggle with the sound of their voice, and if they tried to feel their own bodies, the struggle could get much, much worse.

For hours Baker paged through one retrieved asset after another, the virtual hours taking a fraction of that time in the real, but Baker’s body logged the fatigue in perceived time just the same. Many came in screaming and thrashing, irretrievable, and he spun them down and marked them for deletion. Most were confused, they’d been fighting what seemed to them only moments ago, and now they were… where? Dead? Alive, but incorporeal? Baker spun those down too, marking them for potential refurb and redeployment.

Then he found the needle in this hellish haystack.

They came up calm. Took a moment to explore the edges of the gurney they spawned in on with tentative fingertips. Felt the swath of bandages covering their eyes.

“I’d recognize this low rez medivac horseshit anywhere.” The voice was clear, focused.

“Do you know who you are?” Baker asked, hopeful.

The construct smiled the nearest approximation of a wry smile. “Of course I know who I am Baker, don’t you?” There was a pause as the VR rig matched their brainwaves with coded signature reference points and rerendered the commander’s avatar more accurately. “How long have I been down?”

“We lost you four days ago, took some manoeuvering to get a team in here.” Baker stood, forcing his weary body to attention. “Welcome back Sir. We’ve got a body in the tank waiting, the tech’s will start infilling any gaps in your recovery from your backup and prep for reinsertion.” He allowed a tired smile to find purchase. “I’ll see you in the real, real soon.”

Baker took a long look at her, magnificent even in low rez, and ejected, letting the cable slip lifeless from his neck.

The technician was hovering nearby.

“This is her?”

Baker nodded. “Get her back in a body, we’ve got a mission to finish.”

He lay back on the lounger, fatigue and relief washing over in waves. It would take most of the night to reconstitute her, but he could wait now, wait and sleep.

VacSinHate

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Opening clip: a heavily-built man sits on the tailgate of blue pickup truck. He’s smiling and unshaven, taking tiny sips from a red and white can of beer so quickly it doesn’t interrupt his speech.
“Well, it’s been difficult, that’s for sure. Never thought them libtards could fight worth a damn, but Lord, they proved us all wrong about that. Digging them out of the sanctuary cities hereabouts took weeks. Can’t say I held with the burnings and suchlike, but I do hold with our founders proclamation that we have to be forthright in heart and deed, even if a few of those deeds sit badly with some folk’s interpretation of the good book.”
A band starts playing somewhere beyond his truck. He glances back, then his attention returns.
“We’re not monsters or fanatics. The Free States of America are about individual rights and freedoms under the auspices of God. Can’t say or be fairer than that.”

Next clip: a thin woman leans against the wide shoulders of a bearded man in a torn T-shirt. She starts, then the sentences go back and forth between them.
“After our warnings were ignored,”
“we discussed online,”
“before the nets went down,”
“and decided to become the haven for those who wanted to evade the lies,”
“the surveillance,”
“and the manipulation.”
“Nobody tells us who lives,
“who dies,”
“what goes in our bodies,”
“or our minds.”
They smile.
“We’re part of the Independent States of America.”
“If you want a chance to live free of the enslaved dystopia the rest of the world has fallen into,”
“come fight alongside us.”

Followed by: an elderly woman gestures to the trees about them.
“When my son married a Lakota woman, we fought. Then he challenged me. I went to their reservation to prove him wrong. Instead I had an epiphany: realised what I was lacking. Never had much time for technology as it was presented, liked how it was used even less. Didn’t take long to find out a lot of folk felt the same way.
“When things started to unravel, we gathered ourselves, chose our ground, and stood for what the spirits wanted. If you hear the call of the wolf, the eagle, or the crow, come find the Tribal Nations of America. Fight with us to save the land.”

Then: a middle-aged man straightens his tie before pointing at the camera, his expression stern.
“You’ve got to understand that in trying to drain the swamp, he made himself a target. That he’s still with us is a sign. The Evangelical States of America will be his legacy. The corporations he permits to trade here are all certified by the Robertson Committee to be abiding by the Lord’s tenets. But we need soldiers for the Staunch Defenders. If you can’t fight, you can donate. We must always stand ready to protect our way of life.”

The screen shows a prairie sunset. A voiceover starts.
“These represent the major extremist factions in what was the USA. There are dozens more. Most are militant, some aggressively so. As I record this, overseas aid has once again been stopped, as having what is deemed to be unacceptable pigmentation, ornamentation, or clothing has caused aid workers to be attacked and, in some cases, killed.
“The people are still united. They still pledge allegiance. But only to those who hold the same views. All others are considered fools or enemies. In many cases, extermination of any who differ is seen as an acceptable solution.”
The sun sets.
The screen goes black.
A minute passes before closing credits appear.