Best Served Cold

Author: Ben Coppin

The only thing protecting me from Titan’s vicious cold is my fourth generation spacesuit, the result of decades of experimentation, engineering and design work. Suit sales have been in decline lately, and my marketing people assure me that a forty-kilometre walk on the coldest inhabited rock in the Solar System is the best way to build consumer confidence.

I pull up my messages as I walk. Just one, from my Chief of Staff, Mary.

“Hello, Michael. I have something I need to say, and this seems like the perfect moment.”

Mary’s voice, usually friendly and warm, is strangely cool.

“I want you to understand how I see you, Michael. You’re so proud of your engineering prowess. But you’re sloppy. There’s always an army of flunkies behind you, picking up the pieces, keeping it all together.”

I’m briefly distracted by the pale clouds my breath is forming in my helmet.

“All these years, you never asked about my family, never wondered if I had one. If you had, I wonder if you’d have recognized my husband’s name? Oh, yes, I was married, once.”

My whole body is shivering now. What’s happening?

“Those first-generation suits. So much promise, but so flawed. Your over-confidence led you to put the lives of strangers on the line. And one of those strangers was my husband, Charlie.

“You’d be surprised how easy it was for me: getting that first job, slowly working my way up to Chief of Staff. And then I just had to wait for a chance like this. No-one looked twice at me, carrying that old suit, the one Charlie died in. And it took just a minute to switch it with your new, safe spacesuit.”

My breaths are icy shards. My head is swimming. I can’t remember why I’m here.

“Goodbye, Michael. I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but it hasn’t. Your hubris cost me my husband. And now it’ll take your life.”

I fall to my knees. Someone was talking, but I don’t remember who it was, what they were saying. Where am I? On another world, I think. I’m feeling sleepy. I should be afraid, but I have nothing to fear. My suit will keep me safe.

Dying Light

Author: Katlina Sommerberg

Snow piled over trees, rendering them unidentifiable lumps. In the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, it was early spring, but Charlotte thought of Christmas.

Over eggnog, Grandma always gave her lessons in writing Traditional Chinese, often with the stars and planets’ names. Grandma’s love for the stars propelled her North, intent on capturing the last beauty to arc across the sky.

After months of trying, tonight was her last in the Arctic Circle, and the last for the Northern Lights. Astronomers, professional and amateur alike, warned the interference in the magnetosphere would stop future auroras.

The world decided the next technological marvel mattered more.

Five airplanes crept across the sky, blinking against the black night. The only other lights came from satellites; even Venus remained lost in the void.

The aurora blanketed over the artificial stars, colors fading in and out like a dream. The deepest purple clashed against the lushest green, stretched from the heavens down to the trees.

She captured swirling magenta against fading greens, blue plumes threaded through like wispy veins, and more with everything from modern imaging equipment to retro cameras.

She alone documented the natural phenomenon’s death.

The Exhibition

Author: Mark Renney

People were talking about the exhibition and not just on the Net. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who knew someone who had visited and who had a story to tell. Someone who enthused excitedly about their experience and how the images that they had seen held a particular significance. Insisting, in fact, that the entire exhibition had been tailored specifically for them.

How could they know? This the question all the visitors asked. They had to wear a headset, of course, but even so ‘how could they know?’ This is what they shouted into the faces of the unbelievers, those who hadn’t yet visited, hadn’t yet made the pilgrimage. ‘How could they know?’

There wasn’t anything necessarily special about the images the visitors described. Nothing original or unique, they were a catalogue of the boring and the mundane; a turgid litany of still life’s, seascapes and sunsets, of cornfields and meadows with frolicking horses. And all of the images were well known, well, no actually that wasn’t strictly true. Many had been all but forgotten but all were recognised by the Art Establishment, were part of the Canon as it were. It would have been impressive if just one of the visitors had described something that their Aunt Edith had painted herself, rather than a print of The Haywain that had hung above the fireplace in her sitting room, but this hadn’t happened, not yet.

For each visitor, there was always one image that had extra special significance. Many claimed to have forgotten it and only when they saw it again did they remember. And it all came flooding back – the memories re-kindled were always positive as they were transported back to a particular time and place. A place where they had been happy and where they felt safe.

The Country was divided. There were the visitors and the unbelievers and the visitors had begun to dominate. Not surprising given that the exhibition was now almost everywhere. It was no longer necessary to travel to the capital as the blank canvasses now hung in all of the cities and in all of the towns. ‘Nowhere Too Small’ – this is what the organisers proclaimed. ‘Everywhere Matters.’

The visitors didn’t listen to the criticism and wouldn’t talk to the dissenters. Many had begun to re-visit, not because they experienced something new nor because they were able to resurrect other memories. No, it was always the same, a repetition and so still they continued to visit.

Up Above the World So High

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Unit KB428 XNG is going slowly tonight. Is there a problem? The habitual Thursday night stop at the supermarket was only 2.8 minutes longer than usual. Traffic is moving steadily. If the underspeed persists, I’ll have to notify traffic control.
Looks like Unit GN762 KKL is trying to balance my averages by going too fast for the traffic state, and for the speed limit – I’ll permit the latter for short distances, but not at the expense of the former. I make the call.
“Consignar Monit- Oh, hello Barn8. How’re things in LEO?”
“Hello, Susan No Numbers I Am Human. LEO is tidy because a detritus sweep passed through this morning.”
“I wish you could send one down my road.”
“We talked about this last time. I can’t do that. The recycling vessel would crash and make a bigger mess than you already have.”
“You’re funny.”
“I am?”
I add that to my profile. Psychologist Simms Oh I Am Number One will want to know.
“Yes.” She whispers: “Sometimes I wish you were a person.”
I know that whispering is to be considered ‘offline comment’, so I do not respond.
“Anyway, what do you have for me?”
“Unit GN762 KKL. 59 in a 48, measured over 400 metres and still offending, although averaging only 54 since the actionable offence occurred.”
“Oh dear. That car’s being driven by Ian Bagrhams. This’ll be his third violation this year.”
“Car? Driven?”
She makes a wordless sound of surprise. That’s a new one. I add it to my curiosities stack.
“Sorry, Barn8. Offline colloquialisms.”
I drop them from my reference stack.
“Susan No Numbers I Am Human, I believe Unit KB428 XNG is experiencing unforeseen technical difficulties. It has been moving much slower than average, and is now exhibiting potentially dangerous behaviour. It has just veered out of oncoming traffic for a second time.”
“Oh my. Good grief! Susan Travers has had a stroke! Barn8, action an immediate emergency halt on Unit KB428 XNG.”
It’s not often I’m allowed to intervene. Linking with the override module on Unit KB428 XNG, I see it’s a fully updated control suite. All I have to do is tell it to enter emergency handling mode, pull over, and then stop.
“Actioned. Unit KB428 XNG is now stationary, secured, and awaiting emergency services. Location co-ordinates have been forwarded to the closest Highway Emergency Unit with paramedical clearance.”
“Oh, thank you. How did you know to call paramedics?”
“Five years ago you asked me to route paramedics to Unit SV998 LGM. It had left the road. You mentioned the word ‘stroke’ in the description of medical emergency. I merely added the correlation ‘stroke requires paramedics’ to my reference stack.”
“Barn8, you’re a star. You can return to monitoring.”
I end the call.
Star? I have a correlation for that –
Twinkle, twinkle, little me.

The Decision

Author: R. J. Erbacher

I looked in the bathroom mirror but couldn’t see him. I saw just my reflection. My every-man, cleanshaven angular face. And the gold and lavender custom marble tiles of the wall behind me. The matching lavender Egyptian cotton towel draped over the heated drying rod. But not him.

It was getting harder to see him. The more space between the ‘decision’ and now…the fainter he became. Whereas in the beginning, he was right there. Every time I looked in the mirror, he was staring back at me. Exactly the same. Eventually, almost the same. Subtle differences that I could barely notice – but did. Then gradually, over time, more evident changes. The more he changed, the more I stayed the same; the harder it was to find him in the reflection.

I was afraid he had finally faded to gone. The gap bridging the decision and my current look-see into the mirror having elongated to the point of his dissolution. I lowered the Euro crystal light fixture to just above dim and squinted harder.

Nothing for several seconds, stretching to a half minute, then…

He was there. His face was pudgier than mine, three-day beard, more wrinkles around the eyes. Except those eyes were mine. And longer hair, unkempt, graying highlights at the temple. A nasty scabbed cut on one ear. In the mirror, the wall behind him was originally white square tiles that were now an unclean gray, two were cracked. The white matching towel was bunched on a hook and smudged with dirt. But he was there.

I stared. He stared back. I was irate with him. I always was. Because of the major divergence between us; my face was always a hard-emotionless line. And he was smiling.

Wolf Planet

Author: Jeremy Marks

“Are we seeing some wholesale return of the dead?” -Thomas Pynchon

When homo sapiens expired, at last, it was not by fire, nor by a virus, as the species’ own wits and prophets had predicted. Rather, it succumbed to boredom.

The last days of Earth’s supposedly sole sentient creatures took place on a denuded plain of their own making. No trees remained and the few remaining shrubs blew about like tumbleweeds from old sepia photographs of Kansas. Earth skies were often a dun grey due either to dust or monsoons. Former mountains had collapsed from mining, having either been decapitated or simply fracked to death.

The world had become flat.

Flat and dull. Flat chested but also flatulent. Earth was now routinely coughing up noisome gases, an accelerating pattern that commenced when homo sapiens developed a surprising infatuation with the smell of burning tar. And shortly before that tar ran out, formerly frozen stretches of the far northern regions of the planet began to liquefy in methane releases, a gas whose production they shared with a growing global population of cow butts, swarms of oil drinking vehicles, and archipelagos of “pig shit lakes” now dotting the landscape. The latter being a growing geographical phenomenon built to accommodate the waste disposal needs of a booming porcine population whose numbers vied with homo sapiens to top the census sheet.

In the midst of all this, the rest of the world died. And so it was that homo sapiens began to succumb to horrific boredom.

The reason was simple: there remained nothing to look at. The long-standing hologrammatic fixation of homo sapiens was broken by an absence of items to share across formerly vast clouds of digital projections. People would gather at their screens waiting for something to happen. The wait grew to immeasurable lengths. Between the grey ground, the steely sky, and the herds of pigs leaving pools and piles in every direction, nothing remained to offer titillation. Boredom unleashed a die off.

It began in the middle of the twenty-first century but the species received a temporary reprieve when the pigs became stricken with a virus that did not impact homo sapiens. In every direction, the creatures dropped and decayed and this novelty staved off the boredom epidemic. But soon after came small group die-offs of homo sapiens followed by mass expirations where crowds of the species simply dropped to the dirt. The reason for this sudden end was never clear to the victims themselves, it was speculated that the ever-increasing stink intensity was to blame. But in truth, boredom was the contagion.

– – –
About a decade later Canis lupus emerged, venturing forth from their lair

For some years they had stuck out their snouts and sniffed the air, trying to detect evidence of scents that surpassed smells they already knew: Canis lupus was seeking out the sweat of any remaining homo sapiens. But when the last salty hint of metabolic activity disappeared, out came the scouts. What they found was a vast mausoleum, a bone littered Earth. At first, they burned these relics where they lay but eventually they dug several large pits around the globe connected to their own underground waste chamber networks. In went the bones. It was unsentimental labor.

The return of Canis lupus would, needless to say, have startled any remaining homo sapiens since no member of that departed species ever knew where Canis lupus had gone. As early as the late nineteenth century the “wolf” had started to disappear from entire continents. And while hunters and poachers were often justly blamed, it had never been fully understood by homo sapiens what it was that “extinction” meant. Perhaps extinction was a place like Heaven? Or maybe death meant simply nothing. But the truth was, Canis lupus was sentient too and had retreated to a subterranean hiding place separate from the mines and pits that pocked more and more of Earth’s surface. In their underground chambers, Canis lupus waited out the last days of a species they knew had little time left.

What homo sapiens never learned was how sentience did not depend upon opposable thumbs as so many of their scientists had assumed. In truth, a fixation with tools, and screens, and machines-that-went-boom was a fatal flaw, irrational rationality to be avoided.

It turns out that what sentience meant is a recognized need for companionship. There had been a story, a homo sapiens story in fact which told of a man who had seen a vision of thundering bison herds disappearing through a hole directly into the Earth. Out of that same hole came a cattle herd. Canis lupus knew this story and elected to invite B. bison to join them. It was noted that along with B. bison would also come their feed plants while on the animal’s skin clung critters dependent upon its blood and fat, insects and mites that would nurture avian appetites. There would be a community.

From this beginning came the great theory of “the bison’s back,” a formula compatible with Canis Lupus’ survival plan. Walking out onto a denuded Earth, these pioneers took to terraforming their new Eden.