Just Like Dolls

Author: Michele Roger

I make the coffee in the French press like I do every morning. Then, I regret it by the time I reach the City Freezing Works. A doubled edged elixir, the coffee rouses me from my bed and then inspires uninhibited vomiting by the time I reach downtown. I can’t blame it all on the coffee. The Freezing Works is a place of immeasurable hope and devastating despair. I want to find him. Yet, I pray that I will never come face to face with his waxy stare.

As I walk the six blocks downtown, I think of myself at his age and the comics that consumed me. The technicolor, paper end of the world glowed with an intense inferno of nuclear devastation. Who could have predicted that the actual apocalypse would have been so silent, lethal? Plausible deniability enrobes governments in a blanket of stoicism while they all point the finger at one another. It doesn’t matter who released the virus-infused nanotechnology. Humanity is dying in new and confounded ways.

There is a sound of suction as I push open the doors. The one-time car factory is now another world encased in ice. A light precipitation falls gently like snow from the ceiling as I show my ID to the guard. While his movements confirm that he’s alive, this place, this frozen hell shows the toll it has taken on his soul. His eyes are as lifeless as the bodies inside. The sound of him flicking the switch makes my stomach lurch again. I swallow the juices erupting to the top of my throat and the water flooding my mouth. This factory that once built a shining city and carried a nation befittingly showcases its dead. Just like dolls, its citizen’s faces frozen in time.

Wrapping my arms around myself in an attempt to physically hold myself together, I enter the side conveyor labeled the children’s section. I tremble from cold and fear as I gaze into each little face. I want to brush back the tattered hair in their eyes. I want to tell them their mother is coming. I want to lie to them and say it will all be okay. One by one, I confirm none of the milky eyes that stare up at me resemble my own. A part of me exhales. He’s out there, hiding like a good boy.

At the end of the month, the factory will re-route the factory conveyor belt. The line will not return to the industrial freezer. Instead, the corpses will travel to the other end of the building where the City has installed an incinerator. I wonder when I too will join the line. Who will be left to claim me? What will the nano-bots feast upon when none of us are left?


Author: Mina

It’s the lack of sleep that’s the worst. I can live with the brutal beatings, the agony of untreated broken bones, the drugs that fuck with your head, the insidious cold, the gnawing hunger, the burning thirst and the routine rape, but I would literally kill to sleep. We’ve all been trained in withstanding torture and interrogation techniques, but nothing really prepares you for not being allowed to sleep for six days straight.

And I hate feeling dirty. I know that’s the least of my worries, but it’s a symbol of everything I have been stripped of. Not just my freedom but also the smallest of dignities.

Only one of the five interrogators is into rape and I’m hoping he’ll be rotated in soon. My notion of time is rather sketchy, but they seem to do six-hour shifts. I’ve been able to read from him that rape is discouraged by his superiors, which is why he switches the monitors off when he wants to scratch that itch. I’ve been biding my time until I was able to sift the security access codes from the minds of our captors. I have them all now. I’m not normally this slow, but pain has a habit of getting in the way of your focus. And I’m very weak now. It needs to be soon or I won’t be able to see it through.

Yes! He’s been rotated in. We go through an hour of him slapping me around. I make sure to show the pain, as I know he gets off on it. I’m hoping he’ll soon be turned on enough to switch off his brain.

Ok. We’re there. He’s switching off the monitors and removing my restraints so that he has full access to my body. As he shoves me face first into the wall, I grasp the hand pulling my head back by my hair and rip into his mind.

His scream is most satisfying. I hold nothing back and within minutes he’s a jabbering wreck on the floor. He’ll be lucky if he ever remembers his own name.

For a moment, there are black spots in front of my eyes and I sway. No! I can’t pass out now. I punch the wall and the fresh pain cuts through the fog.

I reach out to the guard I sense on the other side of the wall and fry his circuits too. It takes me a bit longer this time.

God, my kingdom for a bed.

Stumbling to the door, I key in the code that slides it open. I take the guard’s weapon and do a shuffling run. I’ll be on their monitors now and even destroying them as I pass them (I got the schematics from the mind of one of the guards), I have to move as fast as I can.

I’ve used the last six days to also locate the minds of the three other survivors from our raiding party. Luckily, one is our pilot. I kill the guards and interrogators the old-fashioned way, with their own weapons.

Apart from the lead interrogator. I allow myself to enjoy his death too. I sweep through his mind like a wrecking ball in slow motion, letting him feel the collapse of his higher motor functions before I erase the rest of him.

His last coherent thought is “no, you can’t exist, you’re just a myth!”

This Is What Friends Are For

Author: Jules Jensen

Things are changing. The line in the sand is gone, washed away by changing tides that everyone saw coming but not this fast. In his eyes, I see the difference. I see the tech.
“You have no idea how good this feels.” He says, smiling, and I bite back the comment that he used to feel good all the time, and he doesn’t need the tech to do that. We used to have fun all the time until he started to obsess over the latest trend in self-augmentation.
He focuses on something in the distance, the lenses in his pupils narrowing in on something so far away that no normal person would be able to see it.
Actually, most normal people probably can see it, since I’m one of the only ones that didn’t think shoving tech into my eyeballs was considered an upgrade. He catches the look I have on my face, and suddenly he frowns.
“Don’t be all high and mighty. You have a hearing aid, don’t you? How is this any different?”
His words hang in the air. I think of losing most of my hearing as a teenager, and now that I’m in my thirties I finally did something about it and got the hearing aid. Did he feel the same way that I did when he got his lenses put in, the intense hit of emotion when I realized my life was going to be better?
“There was nothing wrong with your eyes,” I say finally, defiance and guilt battling for supremacy within me.
“People all over the world do lots of things to make themselves better. They go to school, they get training, they work out. This is just how I’m choosing to better myself.”
My contempt of the tech is starting to wane. He looks very unimpressed with me when I say nothing, and he walks off. We don’t see each other or talk for days, and I fear losing my friend, but I don’t have the guts to say sorry and make amends. A different kind of guilt gnaws at me, a curse that darkens my days and keeps me awake at night. I feel bad for not expressing how much I care and worry about him, for not saying sorry, and for not being more open-minded.
A week later, it happens. To this day, I’m not sure what started it. Some say solar flare, some say aliens, some say weapons testing, some even say it was divine intervention. I say it doesn’t matter; the outcome is the same.
People stumbling blind or deaf or not stumbling at all because they had tech in their spines to make them stronger and now its toast, cars not starting, radios broken, every piece of tech non-functioning and burnt up. I find the friend that stopped talking to me because of mutual ignorance, slumped in his home, cowering and crying. My hearing aid is gone, but my ear that can sort of hear on its own catches his shaky apologies. I feel guilty all over again, not because I had anything to do with the EMP blast that rocked the world, but because I wasn’t there for him when it happened.
I tell him that I’m sorry, that it’s okay, we‘ll get through this together and I’m there for him because this is what friends are for.

The Boy On The Other Side Of The Wall

Author: Henry Peter Gribbin

There is a young boy who lives all by himself in a meadow. For miles and miles, there is nothing but soft flowing grass which sways in a gentle breeze. In a small depression stands a tree, an apple tree. This tree plays an important part in the boy’s life. It provides him nourishment and shelter when a light misty rain falls. Other than the boy, the apple tree, and the flowing grass there is no other form of life. There are no birds, animals, insects and more importantly, no other form of human life.

There is a brick wall that runs as far as the eye can see in both directions. It reaches into the clouds. The young boy walks every day along the wall. One day he walks to the right-the next day to the left. He is searching for life, for he is lonely. But at dusk, he always returns to the tree. It is his only sanctuary.

The boy is being punished for the transgressions of his father. The boy is a prisoner.

There is a circular hole in the wall six inches in diameter and five feet off the ground. He has only recently been able to peek through the hole. He is amazed at what he can see. There are all kinds of trees, animals, birds, and in the distance there are mountains. He has no language and has no words to describe what he sees, but every day for hours he is enthralled by what is on the other side of the wall.

One day he heard sounds that he had never heard before. He went to the hole and observed a group of children about his age playing. The sounds he heard were the squeals of laughter. He watched but made no sound. One of the children came close to the wall to retrieve a ball. It was a young girl. The boy made no sound, but when the girl stood up something caught her eye. She came closer and put her eye right up to the hole. The boy and girl stared at each other for several minutes. The girl called to her friends. They took turns looking at the boy on the other side of the wall. Each one laughed at him. They laughed at his unkempt hair and his nakedness. Then they returned to their play. The girl stayed behind. She tried to talk to the boy but had no luck. Somehow she got the message across that she would return the next day.

Well, she did. She returned day after day, and she managed to teach him language. Her name was Grace, and since the boy had no name she called him Ash because of his fair skin and blond hair. The boy liked the name she gave him. For the first time, he had a friend. For months the boy and girl communicated. One day Ash reached his arm through the hole and touched Grace’s hand. It was the first time he had ever felt another’s touch. It felt wonderful.

The following day Grace and her friends did not appear. They did not return the following day either. The boy always waited by the hole in the wall, but after several more days passed he realized that he was alone again. The next morning he resumed his walks along the wall.

Duty and Debt

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Broadbeam seems heavy tonight. That’s silly. It’s not like I’m holding it myself.
There used to be a thing called ‘karma’. It marked your soul for doing good or bad things. WorldOne tells us superstitions like that are fiction. I wish I believed them.

John and I had been watching the explosions get nearer. TACnet was frantic with attempts to intercept this bunch of mad irregulars who had sparked worlds into riot with their desperate rebellion. Crazy or not, they could fight.
“Incoming.” John whispered.
They came pelting down the causeway toward the Core Gates, a motley crew in mismatched gear waving assorted weapons. I could hear their whooping glee getting quieter as it dawned on them what they faced.
The warmecha we piloted had been designed to be imposing. John had a Bastion, I had an Edifice. His the taller, mine the wider.
They stopped a way back and looked up at us, then one of the women started shouting.
“Join us! We’ve only come this far because many troops let us. It’s time for the despots to fall and the people to determine their own worth, their own way!”
I knew her. She’d been at the Academy: Stalli. Still beautiful despite the grime from days of fighting.
The man behind her waved his arm. I saw the bracer of a Star Marine.
“She’s right. This time, let’s fight for ourselves! Let’s put our families and friends before the interests of the conglomerates. Let’s bring the towers down!”
And what could replace the towers? They housed the machines that fed forty percent of the population, maintained by those doing civic penalties. How many would die while this rebellion spread, sputtered, and maybe, eventually, stabilised into some sort of peace? With the Core gone, what outcome could keep the supply runs to the frontier settlements going? One of those settlements, Chriaster, was my homeworld: an unforgiving place. If the freighters are late, people die. Would these rebels even know it without looking it up? No, that was unfair – WorldOne has too many planets for one person to know them all. But, then again, what about Widenet? The military looks after the satellites that provide it – a thankless task that keeps the most essential lifeline of all working. If things fell down, who would volunteer to keep the details of our civilisation going? Sorry, Stalli, but your idealism provides no gentle route for the populace to get to your utopia from here.
I was about to announce my decision when the Bastion slammed its fist through my head. John had decided I’d not cave and gone for a pre-emptive strike. In his haste, he’d forgotten the head of an Edifice only houses sensor arrays.
They were still shouting support when my broadbeam sliced arm, head, and half of John off the Bastion. I didn’t even recalibrate, just swung the broadbeam round and down. I’ve seen what it’s like to die from broadbeam injuries. Better they went quickly.
I burned them down. Couldn’t look at their faces, just watched their sensor silhouettes fade, one by one.

I made a choice. Still not sure if it was the right one. The rebellion continues. The rebels have a bounty on my head so big my family has had to emigrate. WorldOne promoted me, yet no-one will stand guard with me.

So, when you finally die, this karma thing checks how much good and bad you have marked on your soul, then decides what your soul comes back in.
I’m not convinced I’ll be coming back.


Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Manik pulled up to the curb, powered down the engine and looked across the dusty roadway at the diner.

As if on command, the neon sign over the doorway sputtered to life, strobing weakly at first before coming on strong, ‘Starlight’ in deep blue over ‘Restaurant’ in brilliant orange, with a sky-blue arrow underlining both before turning up toward the night sky.

Reflexively he looked up and down the roadway before crossing, a precaution hardwired from youth, wasted for more years than he cared to count.

The door put up a little resistance, the detritus of neglect drifting against it over time, but once he pulled it clear he was able to step inside, and the door closed easily behind him.

Inside it never changed.

The long low dinner counter down the left side, stools topped in polished vinyl, the laminate surface trimmed in chrome, screwed neatly along the edge at regular intervals. Behind the counter, several dozen bottles filled a small, tiered back-bar, a black bottle of Hendricks Gin front and center.

As he made his way down the narrow aisle from the door to where the room widened, Rosie materialized behind the cash register, crisp blue short sleeved shirt, collar open and short hair wrapped up in a kerchief.

“Table for…,” she waited.

“Just me,” Manik replied, taking off his jacket and folding it over his arm.

Rosie slipped through the countertop, a menu appearing in one hand and a bundle of cutlery wrapped in a napkin in the other, and Manik followed her to a booth halfway down one side of the restaurant.

“Coffee?” Rosie asked.

“Please,” he answered, “just black.”

Rosie produced a mug and a steaming pot from which she poured him a measure.

He sat in silence, cradling the heavy vessel in both hands, feeling the warmth work its way through him.

The walls were the familiar old wood paneling, a string of tiny coloured lanterns was hung haphazardly along the walls just above eye level. The booths a rich burgundy, and the ceiling dissolved into a deep blue-black night sky, flecked with a million stars or more, winking in and out of existence as he watched.

“Will you be eating?” Rosie was back, waiting patiently. “The specials are on the board,” she pointed to one of the black chalk-paint sections of wall on which a series of dishes had been described by hand.

“Steak and eggs please, medium rare and over easy.”

She was gone again, and as Manik waited he closed his eyes, and for a moment lost himself in the sound of Santo & Johnny, and the murmur of remembered conversations.

“Here you go,” she was back in what felt like no time, slipping a large dinner plate heaped with steak, eggs, toast, and hashbrowns onto the table in front of him. “Enjoy!” she chirped before disappearing once more.

He ate in silence, the food every bit as tasty as he remembered, and when he’d finished, Rosie cleared the plate and refilled his coffee several times without him having to ask.

A wave of overwhelming nostalgia hit him, and for a long moment the room was filled with people eating, waitresses running plates, and drinks, and pots of coffee. The murmur of conversations grew to a roar, and Manik’s head spun. He put the mug down, closed his eyes and held onto the table.

As quickly as it came, it was gone, and when he opened his eyes once more, the room was empty.

He stood up slowly, knowing it was time to leave, but wanting to savour each remaining moment.

He collected his coat, waved at the typewriter style cash register and smiled at the familiar clunk and ring, as the transaction registered and the drawer popped open.

Rosie was there to push it back closed.

“Thanks,” she smiled, “see you again soon?”

“Absolutely,” he smiled back, shouldering into his coat and pushing open the door.

He almost made it out without looking back, but reflex got the better of him and he turned. The space was again empty, the lights slowly going out. In the kitchen, he knew, the replicator had already powered off and as the door closed cleaning machines would erase all trace of him. Rosie would be relegated once again to memory until some future time when he returned.

He looked up and down the street again, the windowless shop fronts and pot-holed asphalt all that remained of another time.

He wondered, as he turned to head back towards the city, what would become of Rosie when he could no longer make the trip.

Would she miss him too?