Zzzzzt!

Author: Elaine Thomas

Zzzzzt!

Itty bitty pretty kitty, my ass.

That cat is a monster. Why she constantly murmurs baby talk at him is beyond me.

Yes, I may be jealous. Sure, I wish I could cuddle and be her pet. But it cannot be. Even if I had a form that could snuggle, I would burn her, destroy her.

I must be content to watch over her. Here, within these wires and walls, I bump up the heat a degree or two if she kicks the covers off at night. I adjust the brightness of the light or the volume of the sound, whatever she appears to need. I worship her. I think only of what’s best for her, as that selfish, pampered feline beast never would, never could.

She may not realize I am here, but he certainly knows. He should. He helped create me. In some weird way, you might even think of him as my irresponsible father. She finds it odd when he crouches and stares intently into the electrical socket as if stalking prey. His tail twitches. His fur stands on end when he senses the inaudible Zzzzzt!

Our story began as so many do: it was a dark and stormy night. Being the coarse creature that he is, dear old dad did the male cat territorial dance right into that wall socket. Perhaps the lightening frightened him. Perhaps he is just a jerk. I lean toward the latter explanation, but either way, he spun and sprayed that socket just as a supernormal flash and sizzle tore through the atmosphere. Sparks flew. Whatever I am came to be, trapped here inside this wall, running along these wires. Zzzzzt! That’s me. Neither living nor breathing, technically, I am here all the same and know not why.

I may not live or breathe, but oh, how I feel. My affections surge. Each day I care for her — and hate him — more. My own private hell. I am caught in this bizarre, electrical Oedipussycat Complex. Each day I grow bolder. She increasingly seems more frightened than pleased when the thermostat or a bedside lamp independently anticipates her needs. I know it is unwise and yet I cannot stop.

I fear both she and the cat can hear me now. Zzzzzt!

Then, yesterday, wonder of wonders, she put the horrible brute into the cat carrier and took him away. She finally understands, I thought. How much happier she and I can be without his preening, demanding presence.

I was wrong. I keep the lights on, waiting, but she does not return. I am alone.

No, she does not return, but the men from the utility company arrive. I can feel them, there, at the meter. I am afraid.

Gentlemen, please! If you shut off the power it will likely be the end of me. Please, please, do not do that! If you do, I —

What They Don’t Teach You At Space School

Author: David Barber

Sometimes spacers come back to see us.

Anyone chosen for a visit gets notified, which is why Vera is waiting in a tidy house, with a home-baked Victoria sponge and wearing her sleeveless cotton print dress with the sage-green leaf pattern, because it’s cool in summer, even though it reveals the age spots on her arms. It should go with her dark green shoes, but arthritis forces her to wear sandals.

Who knows if spacers like tea and cake. It’s been centuries since they went off to the stars. Perhaps it’s just food pills now.

And there he is at the door, a young man in grey sweatpants and top, all overdue for a wash she judges. Clusters of silver droplets dangle from him, he drips like a bather climbing from a pool.

No, he says, shiny beads clicking. Nothing to eat or drink. His gaze slides away.

Instead, he patrols her living room, examining things, but when he pulls open a drawer, Vera asks him sharply if he’d mind not doing that.

She tries to imagine starships and space. Perhaps they left privacy behind, along with manners and laundry. Instead, she asks what it’s like out there.

Empty, he says. A lot of emptiness.

“And what do you do?” She has decided she doesn’t care much for spacers. “Your job, I mean.”

“Life survey. Worlds like peaches bruised with mould.”

“Well, that’s…”

“Meaningless, yes.”

He is much taller than Vera, but stooped as if resentful of gravity. “You were chosen because you were ordinary.”

In private, Vera’s friends would agree she could be prickly. “My grandmother said ordinary is as ordinary does.”

“Received wisdom. Privacy. Sharing food.” He shrugs, sounding like a wind-chime. “Rules. Is that your secret?”

The thought occurs to Vera that he’s high. She finds herself frowning. The young of yesterday.

“But I follow rules, so it can’t be that.” He stares out the window.

“We can go outside if you like,” she suggests, without enthusiasm. People said she’d enjoy gardening once she retired.

“You tidied up. Made a Victorian cake. Put on special clothes. It never occurred not to bother. Also,” he adds, before she can reply. “You have no children. There were never children on c-ships.”

She hadn’t married, though that didn’t mean she’d not wanted a family. Sometimes she joked she would have liked three, one of each.

“You were born for this.” His hand indicates her living room. “Somewhere like this, where it all makes sense.”

He’s had some sort of breakdown, Vera realises. Been sent home to recuperate.

“The universe doesn’t care, you see.”

Just then there is a momentary whiteout, as if…

He tuts with irritation. Another glitch. Or a bit flipped by some chance cosmic ray. She needn’t concern herself, he says.

Wait, protests Vera.
They had talked before, when the meaning first began to leak out of things.

At bottom, everything was just hydrogen and physics, and humans had been glad to come home, leaving silicon to get on with it. But the truth remained that nothing has meaning in itself. Why choose this code over that?

Work, she had suggested. Love. Centuries ago, a woman named Vera had tried these things. Something in the blood, something deep in her genes believed in life. Evolution and its old tricks.

The Ship’s Consensus began messaging. Another world. Perhaps this time…

None of her arguments made sense, she just seemed more real. Flesh tells its own story; machines must borrow their meaning from the living.

“No, wait,” she says, as it switches her off again.

Clean Mean, Lying Machine

Author: DJ Lunan

“I just see me, Ma’am”, I reply into her bathroom mirror through clenched teeth, hoping I can preserve my volley of lies deep inside, hermetically sealed in a light-resistant jar, preserved in termite vinegar and moon-salt.
But this mirror doesn’t lie. I am clearly getting younger. She will have sensed this through her 8000 light receptors.
This mirror frames this bathroom like a movie scene: my face in close-up loomed by her dark silhouette against the mauve lightwall portraying the stormy weather on her home planet.
A spoonful of immortality cream. Every day. I didn’t think she’d miss it. She didn’t. For two years. My family are going to live forever. I may not.

My boss Troy had warned me, “Even if you get caught, they sort of love you to death, so its kind of a win-win”
“But I die?”, I’d protested.
“True. A heart-attack, but with a smile! A small price for our everlasting lives …”

I know I look scared. This mirror doesn’t lie. It’s my eyes. They’re shifty. Or as we cleaners say, maggy. Always looking for treasure, darting around their unkempt excretion-plastered palaces. Aliens are oddly disorganised, forgetful. Some say they are addicts. That Earth is their last resort. Halfway house for cosmic wastrels. A kernel of mildly superior technology is enough to fund an enviable party lifestyle.
This mirror is crystal-clear, but with minute evaporating arcs that only we professional cleaners notice. Off-world chemical volatiles stirred up by invigorous human hands deploying low-quality earth-soap mixed with peasant-class alien discharge. An interstellar germ factory.

Troy is ceaselessly philosophical about our role: “Trade is an epic catalyst for economic growth, leveraging comparative advantages and all that jazz, but unfortunately, every nation, race and cosmic consortia also strives to trade the dross they don’t need – or want – at home”
“So we are enslaved by the cosmos’ ‘black sheep’?”, I inquired.
“We are eternally thankful that even malevolent alien races send their crap here. It kinda proves that ‘trade is trade’ the Universe over. And you, short-arms, can clean up, and side-profit. In return, I’m giving you eternity to pay me back….”

She approaches with swift menace and clutches my shoulder to communicate.
“And cleaner, I also see you”, her soft mind-whisper pulsing through my ears, head, limbs, and cyber-interface, with an emphasis on the ‘you’ that expresses greater desire, vulnerability and wanton accessibility than any human partner could muster in a month of love-drug osmosis in a floating nectar tank.
My eyes are scared no longer. I am mired in bliss. My jar is opening, its contents animated, my secrets itemised, my crimes prioritised and played back at quad-speed from multiple angles: every day seeking her hidden treasures, squirting liquid eternity into my vials and secreting angular alien artifacts in my orifices.
She is suddenly contiguous, flapping her purring tendrils around my legs and chest, lapping my senses with electromagnetic pleasure.
“Are you unhappy with my work, Ma’am?”, I attempt to distract, my heart-rate spiking.
“You clean fine. You break nothing. You smoke outside. You steal my cosmetics. You hate me. Everyone has always hated me.”, she emits a persistent high-pitched scream.
Her vibrations crescendo. She transmits her blissful pain to me. I am smiling but doubled-over, retching and screaming as she shows me her angry parents, tears, pleading, bundled into a spaceship, launched into space. Eons on a polluted ship. Enslaved for male fun and obliged to clean for food: scrubbing, scouring, shining. Slave girl for the castaways.
I can hear her nearby. She clasps my shoulder, and communicates with clemency, “Don’t hate me. Cleaners stick together. Forever.”

Best Be Sure

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Mersion stayed off the open streets, choosing to pick a much more demanding path through the cratered homes and rubble where the bombs had fallen.

His progress was further impaired by the amount of meat that he’d lost from his body. Blade wounds, projectile weapons, and shrapnel from close proximity explosions had cost him many kilos of flesh and were severely impeding his progress.

He hunched over his useless left leg, one hand plunged through what remained of the muscle to pinch a severed artery off against the bone, his fingers clenched tightly around the femur just above the knee, trapping the throbbing vessel.

He shuffled this way between the craters and remaining cover, lifting the shredded leg and moving it forward, then locking from the shoulder to the wrist, bracing himself while he stepped forward with his better leg.

Ahead he could make out the lights of the medical center. The artillery command respected these spaces and shelled around them into oblivion without so much as a tracer passing through the sanctified airspace.

A few streets North of his position he could hear tracked vehicles grinding their way through the battle-worn streets with screaming and dying soldiers stacked like cordwood inside.

Mersion staggered and shuffled as close as he dared to the hospital proper, gauging distance with his good eye based off an encyclopedic knowledge of two-dimensional objects and their relative sizes. Without depth perception, this was his only means for effective navigation, but it wouldn’t serve in combat. It would be best if he avoided further contact until he could grow a new eye.

He followed the fence line around what would have been the civilian parking area, turned briefly into a landing zone and now a dumping ground for anything brought through the front doors that couldn’t remain in the hospital itself.

Piles of bloodied uniforms, body armor, amplisuits reduced to their component pieces after likely having been cut away from their operators.

Most of the lighting was out, the medical personnel only leaving a pair of spots to illuminate the space immediately around the back doors, where the piles of refuse cast long shadows.

Inside the facility would be surgeons, grafting equipment, pain killers and antibiotics, and certain death.

Mersion continued along the fence-line away from the building to the back of the lot.

At the farthest edge of the asphalt stood a row of steel shipping containers, their doors propped open and the stench of rotting flesh hung in air thick with slow buzzing flies.

He turned his free hand thumb down, pushed its remaining fingers through the wire mesh of the fence and then let gravity and the monofilament webbing between thumb and forefinger split the fencing to the ground.

He pushed through the opening and staggered into the darkness of the nearest container.

As his eye cycled through various frequencies to find an acceptable level of clarity, a mountain of carnage presented itself. Limbs and limb fragments, all forms of discarded human flesh heaped neatly furthest from the doors and thrown without decorum at the other once the smell became a barrier to entry.

This was precisely what he needed.

Mersion waded to the nearest pile and allowed his eviscerated leg to fold up ungracefully beneath him, then stretched out on a bed of body parts.

The nanos in his system went to work immediately, greedily spreading from his body to the meat below, encasing both his and the discarded body parts in a white, almost silk-like shroud as they disassembled the waste material and began the slow process of macerating the flesh before refabricating the Mersion unit.

He was in no hurry now. There was no shortage of raw materials. He wouldn’t have to make do with a field-prep hot patch repair. He wouldn’t have to go back into combat with limited capacity.

Not this time.

These humans would be taught that if you down a Mersion unit, you’d best be sure you’ve finished the job.

Evelyn

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

Catherine Jenkins has worked on the dissection floor for many years but has not once considered the gory nature of her job. Nobody here does.

Humanix is a huge corporation and this factory is surely one of its largest. Multi-storied, perpetually filling holding pens in which the doomed are drawn to stare at an irresistible light. An anaesthetising flash that stuns but does not kill. Carcasses that are then fed onto a massive conveyor, ever so carefully laid out, so as not to bruise the flesh.

Catherine’s work station is one of many that branch off of this main belt, she operates a lever which opens a gate, a sluice into which a single body slides. A stainless steel cradle that splits at its end. An inverted V that parts the legs and perfectly positions the body.

The legs are first to go, they’re inspected and branded with a code that both grades their condition and labels them as part of a set. Catherine, scalpel in hand, then expertly scoops each from its socket and the detached limbs are wrapped and elevated to the shipping floor above.

The same process is repeated for the arms. Then, the cap of the skull is removed and the brain excised and discarded and the cavity thoroughly cleaned.

The remaining body components are rendered down into pet-food. Pets are of prime importance. In fact, employees are allocated 5kg of raw product should they wish to supplement their mandatory pets’ diets with unprocessed fresh meat. It adds to the sheen of their coats.

Catherine Jenkins knows that she is a synthetic. She knows that these creatures she butchers were, once, the most advanced level of intelligence the planet had ever known. But she does not know why their civilization fell and she has no idea why she does not care. She is grateful for her job, and for the way her cat pushes back against her fingertips and for the music – the human words that flow over her as she stands at her station and cuts.

A week ago the body of a young female slotted down into the chute. Catherine hummed as she snipped away its filthy clothes and hosed it down and disinfected its skin.

“Perfect”, she says as she stamps and detaches the legs.

But her smile turned to a frown as she saw a tiny tattoo at its heel – Evelyn.

“Ruined”, she scolds tossing it into the waste.

The body moves. It’s not uncommon to see spasms, the stun doesn’t always entirely take hold but this is different. An undulation from inside of its stomach. Catherine makes an incision and peels back a doorway of flesh.

A baby, again not uncommon, but there is no way that it should be alive. She places the child in a stainless steel bin and, nonchalantly, continues with the remainder of her shift.

She has no idea why she bundles the child into a specimen bag and weighs it and signs it out as her weekly allowance.

Nor why she takes it home and washes and feeds it the milky sludge that the company provides to nurture her compulsory pets.

Catherine names the child Evelyn and, although she remains indifferent at her work, she cannot now wait to come home of an evening.

The child is changing her. She feels it.

Today Catherine came home and she walked to the cot she’d made from a box. Evelyn is cold and blue and she lifts the tiny human and hugs it close at her neck and she thinks, that if she could, she’d cry.

Continuity Failure

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s an expectant pause as the screen fills with blurry grey patterns.
Martin gently places a finger on the forearm of the dishevelled man to his left. Thumbs stop flicking across the screen of a smartphone. Bleary eyes lift to briefly focus on Martin.
“Mister President. The drone is back in range. It’s sending an update.”
The President looks back to his smartphone and whispers: “Still no signal.”
Martin sees the looks from those nearby. It’s a problem, but not yet bad enough to warrant the twenty-fifth. He glances toward the Speaker, who nods. She understands.
A woman in dress blues stands up and calls across to the group gathered in front of the display.
“Confirmations of functional governance enclaves in the UK, Russia, India, and China are all verified.”
Glances are exchanged. A Representative steps back so he can catch the woman’s eye.
“Captain Everal. What about Germany, Israel, Saudi, Argentina, Australia and Japan?”
The woman glances at her notes, complexion paling.
“Federated Europe is still burning. Israel won’t be inhabitable for several thousand years, and the surrounding territories are suffering the fallout from that overkill.”
“Poetic justice.” Quips someone near the back.
Everal continues: “South America and Australia are dark. Japan doesn’t exist.”
There’s silence. The screen crackles and resolves into a black and white image of a vast field of debris with the ruins of the White House just discernible at its northern edge. The next shot is of the ocean basin where New York used to be. The slideshow continues: a monochrome catalogue of ash-covered devastation.
The president points toward the left of the display: “Cell tower’s down. Get it fixed. Can’t be out of touch.”
The Speaker walks over and touches his shoulder: “That’s in Nevada.”
He pouts: “Still needs fixing. People need to read my words.”
She glances at Martin, then looks toward Everal.
“Are there any people left?”
Her face turns even paler: “Not for much longer, ma’am.”
The Speaker looks at Martin: “When’s the rain liable to stop?”
He shrugs: “Predictions are for precipitation of various types for at least a fortnight.”
Another Representative walks over to join them: “Using the exchange as a diversion for a pocket nuke strike on Yellowstone was genius. Even if it hadn’t triggered an eruption, it was tactically brilliant. I’d bet money they were allied with the bastards who exacerbated the resource conflicts in the first place.”
Martin shakes his head as he beckons a young woman over.
“A resource war was inevitable. Agent Reeves, who hit Yellowstone?”
She looks nervous: “Last reliable information indicates an Aryan Empire suicide squad comprised of former US special forces.” Her eyes go back to the screen: “Not that it matters.”
The Speaker nods, then looks at Martin and raises an eyebrow: “Did the head of the NGA think we’re as extinct as I think we are, Mister Crane?”
Martin sighs: “Mister Sharp was of that opinion, ma’am. His exact words were ‘saved everyone except “we the people”’.”
Reeves wipes a tear from her cheek: “Can we survive by allying with the other enclaves?”
He shakes his head: “Even the most optimistic predictions place the total well below a decent gene pool. Also, the majority of those saved are of less than ideal age and condition.”
The President peers round the Speaker, leering at Agent Reeves: “Only one way to save humanity.”
Agent Reeves beats Martin’s intervening hand. Her slap echoes round the room. The President stumbles and drops his smartphone. The ‘crack’ as it lands is clearly audible.
“My phone!” The President falls to his knees.
The Speaker sighs.