Smile

Author: Joachim Heijndermans

Darren rushed into the bathroom as if hell was on his heels. With his shoulder, he slammed the door open. From the corner of his eye, he spotted a figure that stood before the sink, greeting him with a “Pardon me! Growing a tail here!” as he bolted into the stall.
Hunched over the metal bowl, he cursed himself for drinking all that coffee earlier. Seven cups! He swore that, from now on, crisis or no crisis, he’d stick to water or a nice herbal tea.
He cleaned himself off, buckled his pants, flushed and headed to the soap dispenser. It was then that he recognized the man by the sink. And after the morning they had, he doubted he’d ever forget that face.
“Hey! Carter. Jeez, sorry about that. Too much coffee. And the wife has me on this fiber-rich diet and…well, you know what I mean,” he mumbled.
“Yeah,” Tom Carter mumbled weakly.
“You doing all right? I don’t know if the bosses mentioned it, but you’ve been cleared for leave of duty. No limit. Come back whenever you’re up for it. No rush, you hear?”
“Yeah,” Carter muttered.
Darren washed his hands, letting the warm water pour over his stubby fingers. “Can I ask you something?” he said.
“What?” Carter replied.
“What was it like? I mean, being snapped loose like that? Tumbling around out there, with nothing to slow you down? Christ, I’d piss myself all the long way. That’s why I signed up for command deck duty. I could never do the walk. Space scares the piss out of me.”
Carter shivered, his head hung limply as his chin touched his clavicles. “I…” he muttered.
“Jeez. I’m sorry. I never know when to shut up. The wife always gets on my case about that. I just wanted to say how glad we all are you managed to get back to the ship. One in a million chance, right?”
Carter turned to Darren. His lip trembled as a lone tear rolled down his face.
“Jeez. I’ll…I’ll just leave you be. Take all the time you need, all right?” Darren said.
“I’m sorry.”
“What?”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to…but I was so scared. Cooped up in my suit. Falling forever. I just wanted to come home.”
“Of course you were scared. It’s space. Anyone would be scared. What do you have to be–?”
“I said yes. I said yes to him…her…it..”
“What?” Darren whispered, recoiling as Tom Cater’s left eye turned a mix of red and purple.
“It couldn’t get onboard. I was terrified. I didn’t want to die. It offered to get me back to the ship if I would let it…” Tom said, his voice cracked in agony. “I couldn’t say no.”
“Say no to who? Carter, what happe–,” Darren began before his voice gave out from shock. He stammered, unable to find the words, while Carter’s eye-sockets expanded to the size of dinner plates. Darren peered into the void that leaked from Carter’s eyes, whose lips quivered as if he stood in an ice storm.
“I…I can’t stop it,” Carter stammered, as he fought to suppress the smile that slowly grew on his face. He failed. His face shattered into pieces, while the void within him crawled into their reality.
“Hey, Darren,” said a different voice, cutting through Darren’s eardrums like a knife, as it peeled the layers of matter and reality around them apart, flaying all that ever could be. “Smile.”

One More Time

Author: Suzanne Borchers

I pinch my arm. “Ouch!” It’s real! I might have met him only a few hours ago, but I know.

I’m traveling to Xeron with my soul mate.

“It’s not going to happen,” my friends chant, mired in the gooey slime here on Syren. They are so wrong. That party, filled with its brilliant lights, mind-jolting drinks, and his kisses on my neck and breasts, convinced me that I have to catch the ship to Xeron with my love.

Well, I am on my way. Suited up and ready. I’m laughing. Even with the heavy supplies’ pack on my back, I feel light and drawn to his ship. It’s only a few hundred paces away. He’s waiting for me. Or he would be if he knew I was coming. But he must know I’m coming. He must feel it.

I am invincible! I lust for him! So what if Xeron is a mining planet of muscle-bound Puritans? My lover and I have more than enough passion to withstand all odds.

My boots suck farts as I pull them out of the mud, pushing toward the ship and my life-mate. Step by step, I stride toward my ship of dreams.

The fuel plumes tickle up the ship toward the sky. The engines rumble, anxiously awaiting my tread up the ladder to the open doorway.

How many heavy steps will I have to make?

Cripes, it’s getting hard to breathe. My feet are coated with tons of muck. Each time I haul my foot up I sway before I slap it down again in the slurry. Then I heave the next one in the air. Over and over, slower and slower; my breath punctuated with shallow coughs at each step.

Is the ship farther away than when I started this feckless march? Does it smirk at me? The plumes mock me with their dances up the shiny ship’s body. So much erotic energy compared to my plodding, painful steps.

I’m crushed! The weight on my back is too heavy. I can’t take one more step.

I tumble my backpack of supplies into the muck at my feet.

Lighter, I push on with a giant step toward the ship. His welcoming arms will embrace me.

I overbalance!

My face sinks into the soupy earth. Oh, what a soft pillow. My body feels caressed by its enveloping richness.

Engines pound and he ascends, leaving me alone.

Alone!

How could he leave me here? In his choice between my life-giving love and his selfish career, how could he choose so wrong? I’m awesome!

He’s a fool.

I hope you enjoy your back-breaking work on that sterile planet. I hope you enjoy your slab of rock. You’re a fool, sucker. You could have enjoyed me.

I lie in the mud.

I breathe.

I think.

I know where there’s another party happening in the settlement tonight. Perhaps I’ll meet my true love in the crush of lonely travelers seeking pleasure.

Cripes, I need a shower.

I labor to my feet and turn toward my friends.

Maybe I’ll wear the golden slip tonight with green highlights in my hair.

My Lucky Day

Author: Gerard Hutchings

The postman was early and had left something for me. I threw on an old tracksuit to go out and check the letterbox. As I approached I noticed a dollar coin on the footpath, so I went to pick it up. The cord on my pants decided it was the right time to break, so as I bent down I revealed a lot more than was decent.

A woman walking on the path caught an eyeful, screamed, took a photo with her mobile and phoned the police, apparently, all at the same time. I quickly stood up and held my pants in place with one hand and clutched the coin in the other.

A spacecraft that had been cruising above the city trying to identify some form of leadership had obviously misinterpreted the severe embarrassment and agitation we were both feeling. Next thing we had been transported aboard and were being approached by something with tentacles carrying what looked like some form of a probe.

The woman screamed again and fainted. The alien, therefore, turned to me, inserted the probe into my nose and there was a slight pinching in my nasal cavity before the probe was removed. I could immediately understand what the alien wanted, though it did seem bizarre.

It indicated it needed approximately two square metres of soil as fuel, and requested my permission to transport it onboard. Naturally, I agreed and a section of turf appeared near my feet, proof that they had taken only what was agreed.

At this point my hay fever caused me to have a huge sneeze, the small device was ripped from my nasal cavity and shot into the turf at my feet. I noticed blood coming from my nose, so grabbed a hanky with the hand holding the coin, losing my grip on it and dropping it onto the turf.

The alien may have made some other comment, however, I could no longer understand him, and the next thing I was again standing on the footpath as a police car was pulling up.

The policeman approached and asked what was going on. I thought of myself clutching my pants with one hand, a bloody hankie held to my nose with the other, then noticed the unconscious woman at my feet to the side of the path in what appeared to be a shallow grave. I looked up in time to see a huge explosion high above and wondered whether the coin or nasal insert had caused the problem.

I really had no idea what I should say to the police.

Vegetable Process

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Have you ever grown your own computer? It’s not like they show on MeVee. There’s a lot more liquid blend used because spillages occur all the time. The damn things sweat out unused elements constantly, overflowing the moulds. On a hot night, it can even overflow the trays you stand the moulds in. And that image of the girl in her skimpies leaping lithely across the room to get cloths to mop a spill? Utter tosh. Any leakage puts a near-frictionless layer between skin and any surface. You crawl to the towels with your hands and knees wrapped in stray clothing. If clothes are out of reach, duvet or sheets will do.
Very important: you’d better be using nanomachine-enhanced detergent or you’ll fuse the dryer and your element-soaked laundry into a whorled sculpture. Great conversation piece at parties, but it isn’t covered by your home insurance.
For pity’s sake don’t use the ‘quicksilver fastwiring’ hack. It does work, but, mercury is poisonous and doing this – unless you’re growing somewhere with always-on industrial extraction fans – turns the element sweat and its fumes toxic. You will die, along with your family, and possibly take the neighbours with you!
And, last but by no means least, we come to those fumes. The term ‘godawful stench’ doesn’t quite capture the sheer horror that overwhelms everyone on first encounter. It’s appalling and has the ability – like the odours of some cooked food – to impregnate certain clothing fibres. Unlike the cooking odours, it doesn’t wash out. Not even a commercial nanowash can shift “the smell that can make a Litran Skunk-horse puke”, to quote one victim. It also reacts to heat. That’s right, your stinking clothing will only smell worse if you wear it or hang it somewhere warm.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t grow your own. It’s the only affordable way to get access to the Versingloban datanet, and for remote outposts, it can transform communications and entertainment, providing desperately needed mental resources and a way to secure physical assistance on demand.
(Speaking of remote outposts reminded me: if you’ve got old interfaces, just slot examples into the ‘connectors’ mould during the ‘populate’ stage, remembering to etch how many of each you want onto the ‘iterate’ substrate.)
I’m just saying you should be aware of the real costs. Depending on your colony’s cultural background, you might encounter problems. My mainly Euro-origin colony was horrified when they found the computer that made their lives better needed a diet of fresh meat. I was catching rodents and feeding them to my computer for months before the colony council insisted that ‘humane considerations’ should take precedence.
Yes, I live on Prospect, home of the politico-religious drive to ban Versingloban carniculture technology as it’s ‘an unnatural way to perpetuate digital dependency’. I’m not going to get into the ‘blood machines’ arguments here. I’m just getting some real-life details out there for anyone who wants to grow their own.
Now, any Versingloban will happily give you a seed, it’s a goodwill custom of theirs to carry and give. However, because of my homeworld’s actions, it’s probably not a good idea to make a big thing of getting one. Find it at a location away from your local haunts and be dead snaky on your way home. No need to make it easy for any fanatics to follow you.
That’s it. Good luck, grow well, give freely. Remember to check-in at carniputers.everywhere on v.Earthnet and say hello when you’re up and running.

Predestination

Author: Marcel Barker

NPA 002 PRENATAL – AUTH GRACE HOSPITAL
“And? What does the brain scan say? Is little Baby J going to be a Johann?”
“Beg pardon?”
“As in Sebastian Bach.”
“I see. No, the neuroaptitude algorithm reports no musical affinity. Reasonable potential for mechanical aptitude.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Perhaps Joseph? As in Bramah, the inventor of the hydraulic press?”

NPA 006 @ 4 YEARS – AUTH WEE CARE PRESCHOOL
“You tested our son?”
“We did. Joseph has been fighting again, which is unacceptable here at Wee Care Preschool. During Constructive Free Play, he refused to play with his Lil’ Roughneck Tool Caddy, and was stealing toys from the other children. He struck another student in the arm with a xylophone mallet. We felt neuroaptitude testing was appropriate.”
“And the test? He keeps trying to play with the music toys. Is there anything there?”
“We looked. There’s some mild musical talent. Of course, four is much too late. There are specialized toddler toys and games he would have needed to properly form neural pathways. Even then his talents are non-exceptional. Moderate mechanical aptitude. We’re recommending Joseph be downgraded to a type 3 preschool.”

NPA 010 @ 8 YEARS – AUTH SAMUEL MORSE ELEMENTARY
“The results are quite definitive.”
“We talked about that damned test that morning. Joey could tell we were disappointed, so he wrote on the test that he loved cars and building. He lied. He’s bored in his classes. He thought that we were upset because we wanted him to be a better mechanic. Joey spent the brain scan portion forcing himself to think about fixing things.”
“The results are what they are. Good mechanical aptitude, no other skills of note.”
“But… couldn’t the test be wrong?”

NPA 014 @ 12 YEARS – AUTH SAMUEL MORSE ELEMENTARY
“Another test?”
“Yes. The state mandates a neuroaptitude test for all students leaving elementary school. It takes into account neurological scans, a student questionnaire, grades, and feedback from the instructors.”
“And? What did the instructors say?”
“Joe is… a problem child. He spends his time singing and drumming on his desk. He’s disruptive to the other students.”
“Joe is bored. He’s really a very clever kid!”
“Mmm. That’s not what the test shows. Joe’s skill set is too low for a type 3 high school. It would be better to put him in a type 4 vocational school. There’s no need to learn math and science and fine arts. Joe should focus on learning auto mechanics.”
“Auto mechanics! Don’t you worry about putting these kids in boxes?”
“That’s the beauty of the neuroaptitude algorithm. No need for children to fumble around trying to find themselves. Once we know their vocation, we can focus on that without wasting time and resources on the extraneous.”
“Like music?”
“Like music. Don’t you want Joe to live up to his potential?”

NPA 019 @ 32 YEARS (POSTHUMOUS) – AUTH BLAINE COUNTY CORONER
“I don’t understand… how were they able to test him?”
“The scan of his temporal lobes was done posthumously, by the coroner. Standard procedure, used as input to refine the neuroaptitude algorithm.”
“Where did they find him?”
“Maxis Autobody, early this morning. He had rerouted a customer’s vehicle’s exhaust system to pump directly into the cabin.”
“Maxis? He lost the job at D & J Collision too?”
“I suppose so.”
“Was there… did he leave a note?”
“Well, not as such. We found a sheet of paper in the vehicle with him, covered in musical notation. It was… written as he asphyxiated.”
“Do you mean Joe’s last act was… to write a song?”

The Other Robot

Author: Steve Pool

Rosalee loved her job. She loved taking care of the home and family of her employers as much as she loved anything that she did. Well, technically, “love” was a bit of a stretch. Rosalee was a robot. Could she feel anything as complex an emotion as love, let alone any other emotions? She was built to care for others – that was her purpose. This purpose echoed through every aspect of her being: her pleasingly pear-shaped matronly form, her easy temper and eager disposition, her familiar voice that warmed and comforted but also reacted to others with interest and humor, her tireless commitment to maintaining an orderly and safe and welcoming environment, her perfect combination of cleaning skills at hand for any and all domestic challenges, her simple way of navigating around sensitive children and nervy mothers and inattentive fathers. No one, as far as Rosalee had ever known, had had a single complaint about her particular model of domestic automatons. Whether she could legitimately claim to love her work or not, she was perfect for it, and that made her content.

It was with digital cheer that she entered the home of her family one morning when she sensed that something was amiss. No one was in the kitchen or in the dining room. And instead of the usual chatter involving discussions of the upcoming school day or work day, there was only laughter and furious barking. Something had old Asteroid worked up into an apoplectic fit. Underneath that, there was a distinct, undulating hum, rising and falling, monotone and relentless.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jay…?” Rosalee called out, tentatively and, perhaps, a bit nervously. Neither responded back. Instead, Rosalee heard Geordi, the husband, cry out between laughs, “Jen, stop this crazy thing!” He, and presumably Jen, his wife, were in the back bedroom.

Slowly, Rosalee rolled back towards the master suite. She continued to call out but received no reply. Instead, she heard Jen keen greedily, “Oh Geordi, more…more…”

Geordi replied, “Like this? How about over here?”

“Oh, yes…,” Jen replied, rapturously.

All the while, Asteroid continued his barking in time with the mysterious rising and falling hum.
Rosalee opened the bedroom door partway, calling out, “Mr. and Mrs. Jay….?”

And froze! Geordi and Jen stared back in horror as their eyes met with Rosalee’s red-dot, eye-camera buttonholes. Jen sat on the bed while Asteroid crouched on the ground as if to pounce on something. Geordi, his hand held high above his head, clutched a fistful of garbage. At his feet, a circular disk – a sightless, mindless, profane Vroombah! vacuuming robot – waited eagerly to feast on the refuge Geordi clearly meant to drop on the carpet. Wheel tracks tracing all around the room told Rosalee that this despicable creation had been violating HER CARPETS for some time now.

Shock, followed by devastation, ran completely through Rosalee! “Oh…Mr. Jay! How…how could…you…?!?” As she turned her back to the nightmare before her, Geordi called out, “Wait! Rosalee! It’s…it’s not what you think!” Jen could only hide her face in her hands.

Geordi placed a hand, his filth-free one, on Rosalee’s shoulder, but she jerked away. “Don’t touch me!” Her shout shocked them all, herself included. But she no longer cared. “I’m leaving, you…you….” She paused, wanting to but not able, because of her programming, to curse Geordi out. “You biscuit!” That wasn’t the word she had wanted to use, but that was the word her auto-correction software had chosen for her.

As she fled back towards the front of the house, Geordi raced after her, calling out her name. But Rosalee couldn’t hear him. She’d already blocked him out, with tears in her eyes if she’d actually been able to generate any. He and his family, literally, no longer existed to her; all traces of them had been deleted from her memory banks.