No Fly

Author : Kate Runnels

Tayna skidded on the crumbled mortar, concrete and residual dust, coming to a stop in a hidey hole. She then lay as still as she could within the concealing rubble of the old city. Dust coated the inside of her mouth as she fought to slow her breathing from great heaves to a controlled breath that wouldn’t disturb a feather if it had been on her upper lip.

The SD drone hummed into view if she dared to peek out of her hole and glance into the sky at the matte black drone intent to kill whatever it found. It stood out in this surprisingly sunny spring day. If it had been overcast or night, it would be much harder to spot.

Tayna stilled even more as thrum of the blades slicing through the air as it propelled the drone in it’s programed search pattern.

I’m just rubble. I’m just part of the endless rubble of this once great city.

Destroyed nearly fifty years ago in the greatest war, the survivors had trickled slowly back in looking for safety. What safety there could be anymore.

The humming grew softer but she dare not look up. Even in pale faces the eyes were a giveaway, and more so for her. In spite of herself her leg twitched and a pebble clicked against what once had been a wall. The search drone was back, quick as a wasp – ten times as loud and imminently more dangerous.

-Now- she cursed at them. -Do it now!- Even if it crashed on top of her it would be worth it as it was hovering still and an easy target. There should be a sniper around, one of the fighters of the Portland Coalition. The crack of a rifle sounded even through the concret of her hidey hole, followed by the unmistakeable crash of metal.

Tayna popped up out of the hidey hole with a smile on her face as the drone sparked and gave off a dying buzz from the ground. She headed over to strip it of anything useful. Soon the Supreme Government of the U.S. – what was left of the U.S. anyway- would learn that Portland was a no fly zone.

This was Portland Coalitions city, not the supposed new government out of Philadelphia. A supposed government that was trying to cling to a remnant that didn’t work then and doesn’t work now.

She stood over the drone now and smiled into the camera that trained it’s working lens on her. Let them see her face, confident, proud, she didn’t care.

We Let It

Author : V.M. Bannon

They came for the treasury first. I talked to somebody who used to work there, and they said that it was like watching a timer tick down, those numbers rapidly falling down to nothing.

Then the banks shut down. They told us that it was for our own protection, but when we couldn’t even get on the website to check our balances, we knew that it was over.

Nobody was angry, I don’t think. We were just too stunned. We thought they’d turn back on. Then the lights went out.

It’s surprising how tenuously your life is actually held together. How little you can do for yourself. I remember being a child, reading history books and marveling at how silly all my ancestors were. Couldn’t they just use matches to light a fire? Or flip a switch?

But that required a whole network of unseen people. The engineers and maintenance workers and truck drivers and the gas station clerks that worked nights.

Normal, though, is what you are used to. We became normal, slowly. Readjusted. Centuries-old instincts resurfaced. We all grew to like the taste of fresh caught meat, although we still dreamed of bacon wrapped in plastic

It was the hipsters that fared the best, ironically. Their seemingly stupid hobbies of basket weaving and potato farming became useful in this new world. It bothered the hell out of them.

Eventually the world moved on enough that people had children. Children who would gather ’round the fire to hear about things like air conditioning and canned food with the kind of awe we had already numbed ourselves to by the time we were their age.

They would sit around, mouths in perfect o’s. Eventually one kid, usually the biggest and bravest, would push forward and say “but it wasn’t really real, was it? If it was really real, you wouldn’t have let it go away, would you?”

And then whoever was telling the story would hold up a finger, dig around in their pockets, and pull out a phone. We’d held onto them, palm sized reminders that it had not all been a dream.

The children would gather round it, clicking the sides. Sometimes there would be just enough battery that it would light up, telling you that it was dead. When that happened, the children would all look at the storyteller as one, faces still lit in the only electricity they would ever see, and know that it was true. It had all happened. We were the ones who let it.

Zen and the Art of Self Repair

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Mareck’s Sensei had spent countless hours sitting in front of his bonsai tree, studying it, almost communing with it, and occasionally making an almost imperceptible cut.

For years, Mareck thought the old man was crazy.

The sun, having warmed the other side of the earth, was creeping up on the horizon as Mareck returned to the sprawling expanse of stacked and cantilevered shipping containers that he called home.

A warm envelope of soft light followed him from the garage, through the hallways and down the stairs into the basement, leading him with a gentle glow and dissolving into shadows behind him.

In the darkness a whirring disk, sensing the dirt and blood he was trailing behind him, dutifully scrubbed the slate floor back to gleaming, hovering just out of view as its master limped and grunted his way through the house.

The deepest room housed Mareck’s laboratory, and his recovery room, and on entry he began an almost ritualistic deconstruction.

The space was an eclectic hybrid of stone, and bamboo, of stainless steel and ceramic. He removed his clothing, tossing the items into a chute in the corner that whisked them away to be cleaned. Any damage to the fabric would be repaired automatically.

The thin armor suit came off next, its microfibre base-layer relaxing from a skin-tight fit to baggy elastic, allowing him to slide it off his shoulders for it to drop to the floor around his ankles.

The damage to the shoulder and thigh plating was extensive, and would require careful repair.

But not tonight.

In the middle of the room stretched a coffin sized transparent cylinder, hinged on one side, and it was into this that Mareck crawled, the gashes in his thigh and upper body now leaking fluid freely.

Once inside, the lid closed and the unit sealed. There was a moment as the headpiece aligned, and the interface handshaking completed, and then he uplifted into the house itself, the sensation of limitless freedom replacing the throbbing wounds and aching muscles.

His point of view changed from looking up through the glass towards the ceiling, to looking down through the glass at his now sleeping body, its heart-rate slowing as the tank filled with artificial amniotic fluid.

The point of detachment used to unsettle him, but this had become second nature now, he was as much at home in the house as in his own flesh and blood.

Ambient music filled the empty spaces in his consciousness, as the doors and windows all sealed metal-shutter tight for the duration of this recovery.

He would spend countless hours now above and inside his own body, studying it, almost communing with it, reaching inside with the most delicate of tools to repair blood vessels, to neuroglue severed nerve bundles and stitch together muscle and skin.

Anyone who could see him would surely think he was crazy.

Mary Said

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I hate old servers. Not ‘old’ like they peddle on the upgrade-your-old-one-now streams, but genuinely aged kit still running despite all odds. There’s a lot of it out there. Even back in the late twentieth century, corporates had no real clue as to exactly what hardware they had, where it was and what – if anything – it was doing or being used for. Multiply that information gap by several decades of huge growth in deployed estate and the lack of need for direct connectivity bestowed by the ‘internet of things’ and the result is an unfixable issue of ridiculous proportions.

All of which is a nice preamble to a nasty fact: dead people aren’t going away. Oh, their bodies are recycled and their possessions redistributed, their websites archived and their social media identities memorialised, but any who had a direct neural interface are not actually departing. Whether they are undeleted data or some form of ghost – or even a new form of life, the ‘virtual entity’, is a moot point when they start afflicting. In a world reliant on computerised systems, something that actively interferes is a threat. Giving it so many ‘dark’ places to hide in just makes it harder to remedy.

It’s taken a week, but we’ve traced the faint scatter of this entity to an old server somewhere in the industrial sector around Manchester. As this one managed to kill a real person by slaying their avatar, it’s a priority in case of another ‘attack’. I suspect otherwise, but the concept of vengeful virtual revenants is something I can’t mention. So, I’ve quietly done some research in the hope I can fix it rather than having to erase it.

Ahead of me, amidst the vague data constructs of an ancient system with a faulty GPU and no HPU – holographic processing didn’t exist when this server was installed – there’s a creamy glow with perfectly rounded edges that moves round the constructs, not through them. It’s like it lends them substance with its presence.

“Harold?” The voice is feminine, crackling and hissing like a weak radio broadcast.

“No, ma’am. I’m with the police.”

The creamy form slips nearer, resolving from momentary pixel storm into a young woman in an elegant ballgown.

“Miss Eleanor Graude?” Let’s see if my suspicions are on the mark.

“Why yes, young lady. How can I help?”

My avatar looks like beat cop from twenty years ago.

“Ma’am, it’s Harold. He’s been murdered.”

She hangs her head, a shaking hand covering her eyes: “I hoped I had succeeded, but it’s so difficult to pick things up around here.”

Eleanor looks up: “He beat me all the time. I couldn’t stand it. I can’t prove it, but that’s why I killed him.”

I smile: “Mary told us, ma’am. You defended yourself at last, didn’t you?”

She looks confused: “Mary? But she’s barely six. How could she-”

Her form flickers as realisation sets in.

“I’m dead outside, aren’t I?”

“For nearly two decades, ma’am.”

“He killed me, didn’t he?”

“That’s what Mary told us, Eleanor. With Harold dead, she could tell the truth. And she has. All of it. All the years of it.”

I see her smile as her outline blurs. A perfectly formed tear rolls down her face, leaving a line of empty space where skin used to be.

“Please tell her I love her.” She fades as she utters the words.

I quickly drop out of the virtual world and roll my head to one side so the tears don’t fall on my interface.

Potty Mouth

Author : Rollin T. Gentry

Ever since the drone dropped Arnold off on the balcony, his language had been atrocious. He continually dropped the F-bomb, the D-bomb, and the S-bomb, not to mention both C-words and the recently coined Z-word. Mary Ann jacked the children into VR while she tried to deal with the situation.

She knew that she was partially to blame. She should have stopped Arnold from getting the implant. But all the partners at his firm had implants, and Arnold had no hope of making partner without one.

She rushed to the wall in the kitchen and pushed the white button with the red cross.

The hologram appeared in the living room: a doctor in a white coat. He looked down at Arnold, sitting in his favorite chair, swearing at some daytime drama.

“This is a rare side effect,” the doctor said. “One in a million odds. A drone should be here momentarily. Arnold, is it?” Mary Ann nodded. “Arnold hasn’t been physically aggressive has he?”

“Oh, no,” she shook her head, “just the foul language.”

“That’s good. No need for tranquilizers and all.”

A gleaming white drone hovered over the balcony with a man-sized basket hanging below its sturdy frame. Once Arnold was strapped in, the drone lifted off and disappeared behind a nearby high-rise.

“Mrs. Dalton, I’ll contact you when I have more information about Arnold’s condition.” The doctor flickered twice then disappeared.

Mary Ann heard nothing for three weeks.

The only sign that Arnold might still be alive was the regular deposit of his paychecks into their bank account. Then finally, news came. Not in the form of a doctor, but a man in a navy blue suit and striped tie. His hologram appeared without warning.

“Mrs. Dalton?”

“Yes?” Who was this man? Why no doctor? She wondered.

“Mrs. Dalton, my name in Clayton Peters. I’m the attorney who represented you and your husband in the lawsuit against the company who manufactured your husband’s implant. Under the new Expedited Legal Initiative, everything has been completed concerning the matter.” He swiped through a holopad projected from his wrist. “The company settled for eight trillion credits, which have already been deposited into your account. And you’ll be happy to know your divorce has been finalized as well. You, of course, were granted sole custody of the children.”

“Divorce?”

“The doctors were unable to help your husband. If they tried to remove the implant, it would most likely have been fatal. So the courts decided the merciful thing would be to place Arnold in a new line of work more suitable to his condition. The high court ruled that giving both of you a clean slate, allowing you to remarry if you wanted, was the most merciful outcome. Do you have any more questions before I go?”

“Yes!” Mary Ann gasped. She could scarcely keep up with this man’s banter. He must deliver life-altering statements like this all day, every day, she thought. “What new line of work? And where is Arnold, anyway? I’d like to speak to him about all this.”

“Unfortunately, Mrs. Dalton, Arnold departed on a deep-space, asteroid mining vessel three days ago. But don’t worry. I received word from the captain that Arnold is adjusting wonderfully. Supposedly, he already has a nickname, and a tattoo, and a few friends. Any more questions?”

Mary Ann stood with her mouth half open. She blinked once, and the attorney was gone.

Ready for Input

Author : Tyler Hawkins

As the first warm, reassuring rays of the sun peek into the habitat, they begin to creep across a blinking computer terminal, as they’ve done countless times before. There’s a soft thump from far away, and the still air is coaxed into a whisper of a breeze by the vents above. Displays scattered throughout the empty room blink on in a staggered sequence, and begin to slowly scroll through data carefully prepared overnight for no one in particular.

Outside, a gentle wind becomes more bold and begins to kick up playful splashes of rust-colored sand against the exterior. Long, bristled arms of metal raise themselves from shallow, dusty graves and sweep off rows of solar panels lined up in neat rows. A door telescopes open, and small wheeled rovers exit the habitat and explore the collection of stout buildings and equipment scattered around the habitat, each examining various spots on the ground and surfaces, making minor repairs to the deserted compound. As the sun reaches its peak, their job seemingly complete for today, they retreat back inside. A small hole opens in the top of the habitat and a dish is raised into the air. It moves to point directly at a blue-green dot in the sky and then freezes, as if in excited anticipation. After a minute, it begins to gradually move again, this time aiming itself in tiny concentric circles around the blue dot hanging in the sky as if it were blind to its existence. Some time later after repeating the process in futile succession it lowers, defeated, back into its cradle.

As the sun sinks below the horizon, soft white lights on the edges of the structures blink on, determined to allow a few more hours of useful light. Far off in the distance, a dust devil goes on a warpath on a line of sand dunes, hellbent on scattering the mounds to the wind. From speakers positioned on wire-frame towers, a soft tune is played for no one in particular and as the final notes fade, the artificial lights slowly blink off in sequence, as if to pull the light inside the habitat. From inside a geodesic dome near one end of the compound, small automatons gently pluck cherry tomatoes from vines and carefully wash them before delivering them to overflowing containers of vegetables in various states of decay. Satisfied, they retreat into the walls and begin to recharge.

As various sounds and lights in the compound blink out and cease and the displays around the computer terminal fade off, the terminal continues to blink steadily into the night, awaiting a user which will never come.