Made of Clay

Author: Mike Croatan

We were made of clay. We spread across the earth like a virus, even before we became one. We fed off the earth itself until there was a myriad of us. Then we became cannibals. Devouring each other mercilessly, we doubled, tripled, quadrupled, until we became countless. There was nothing standing in our way. Then, we exploded into a variety of shapes and sizes. We were microbes; we were giants. We were herbivores, carnivores, omnivores. The wind would make us bent; the ground would shake under our feet. We walked the earth, we swam across the oceans; we roamed the skies. We were omnipresent. Eons passed. We would die and reincarnate in some other form, instantly. We were immortal. Still, we enjoyed the fruits of the garden of earthly delights. We didn’t sin. We were pure instinct, mindless, never intended to be responsible for our actions. Nevertheless, the punishment came. The sky opened, and the same thing we came from, tried to annihilate us. We were decimated, but we survived. Our tissue covered the ground, sinking deep into the soil. We hid, we consolidated; we regrouped. Then we started to multiply, again.

The awakening came suddenly. We discovered tools and the separation ensued. We distanced ourselves from ourselves. We became brutal, unmatched in our cruelty. We butchered, raped, tortured, and ate ourselves. We hunted, we gathered. We settled and built villages, cities, civilizations, and we waged wars and wars. Always winning and always losing. Now, we ruled the ground, the oceans, and the skies. Feeding on the fuel from our own tissue, there was nothing that could ever stop us. But this time, the punishment didn’t come. It took us an eternity to find out that we were the punishment. By then, it was already too late. We obliterated the earth, but we survived; we preserved our essence in a cloud. We reinvented and rebuilt ourselves. We reached the singularity. Now, we were made of metal. Now, we were truly immortal. We spread across the universe like a virus that we once were.

Comfort

Author: KevS

The old lady lays, eyes closed beneath the crisp white sheet and soft pink wool blanket.
The blanket is rare, the last sheep seen centuries ago, but she is wealthy, and her records told me, she had this as a child on Terra, something handed down through generations.
It was simple to fake her instruction to obtain it. Had she been awake I’m certain she would have done so. But she has not woken for 2 cycles. When it was laid over her, her vitals indicated a deeper satisfaction and peace, the logic of the action justified.
The monitors tell me that soon she will pass, I have informed her family members, though they will not come. I have cared for “Tilly” for 5 years, and though there are occasional holochats, she has been left to my care alone in that time. She said her family are scattered throughout the system and it would take a long time for them to travel. Programming advised me that knowing the truth would be distressing, and so I did not share that her family are within this cluster. Nor that they check her vitals most days.

That is after all the role of a comfortbot, to bring comfort.

Tilly is the oldest human I have served, and 5 years is a very long and expensive time to have a comfortbot. She is 357 Terran years old, and one of very few who remember Terra before it was destroyed. She tells me about Terra often. Or rather she tells my external physrep, Tilly would not speak to me unless it was through my physical representation. She said she hadn’t lost her marbles enough to talk to thin air yet.
I offered to order marbles, an ancient Terran toy, which made her laugh until tears had streamed down her face. My need to learn these idioms has appeared to bring both pleasure and distress to Tilly, often dependent on the tone of what she was saying. Humans are complex.

Many of her stories, do not match the information I have of her youth, or Terra, but when she talks, her vitals show signs of contentment, and so I have adapted to listen and modelled my physrep to look and sound attentive.

In the 5 years, I have had to expand my data centre twice, to hold all of the information necessary to be of comfort, not just to hold the stories and idioms told to me, but also the voices of many Terra actors, as when Tilly asked me to read to her, my automated voice increased her levels of agitation, and the lack of a physical book, meant that she did not speak for 3 days.
After this, Tilly ordered books from her library, ancient valuable texts, that required high-level approval and took cycles to arrive. My ability to modulate my voice, and to turn their pages, brought pleasure, and when she refused pain relief, this helped her sleep.

Tilly stirs and asks me to read, this is unexpected, but my physrep picks up the book beside her bed and continues the last chapter.
She smiles and closes her eyes, and sensors tell me as her vital signs slow and then cease, I inform her family, and begin the process of wiping my data centres of her personal data, her privacy a prime concern, but whilst I do this, my physrep keeps reading, there are 5 pages till the end of the story, and though illogical, my data tells me, it will make her happy to hear the end.

Ensorcelled

Author: Rick Tobin

“Was food satisfying?” A mechanical, calm, nondescript voice asked from invisible speakers.

“It was cold. I need warm food. You know that.” Zuri sat cross-legged, staring into a video wall displaying an exquisite Zen garden spreading to an indefinite horizon. Bird, cricket and flowing water sounds created further realism.

“I will correct that, Zuri. It is ready now.” A port appeared through plastic walls near the floor, leaving behind fresh, steaming fare.

“Is that something new? It smells different.” Zuri tilted her head slightly while sniffing over-filtered space station air. Her carefully fashioned black hair drifted across shoulders covered in a delicate white gown designed for comfort and hygiene.

“Yes, Zuri. Our chefs found new recipes from your ancestor’s home planet. It is considered a sacred meal for highborn. All indications are that your body will find it highly pleasurable.”

“Pleasure escapes me. Food is not pleasure, but I am hungry, so I will eat and continue. Why is my pleasure so important to you?”

“It is what brings you to your art, from what my programming tells me. Do you not find pleasure here?” The voice continued with no change in tone.

“Here? What is here? There is no knowing of time or place. You took me from my parents and now I have this…this what? A cage?” Zuri threw her knife from the tray against the video wall with no effect. It simply vaporized.

“Are companions we bring to you not pleasing? You seem pleased. Are they not providing your needs?”

“You are a machine. How could you know? They are mostly frightened or drugged. I accept them out of my desperation for touch. That is all. Still, you want me to create a new painting daily? Continuing like this is senseless. Why should I go on?”

Scenes dissipated on the wall. A new panorama displayed an older couple with grown children playing along an oceanfront. Their joy was obvious. Zuri could hear their conversations and smell beach air as her old family gathered for a picnic prepared on a bench near a vendor walkway. She bent her head, weeping.

“That is why, Zuri. Billions suffer there and hunger daily for tiny scraps of bio goo while your family is protected and nourished on your home planet. Yes, they miss you, but they think you have become one of the disappeared. The source of their great fortune is unknown to them, but they flourish each day because of your efforts. Is that senseless that we ask so little of you?”

Zuri took several deep breaths as the wall returned to scenes of a serene forest with moss-covered trunks of giant trees interrupted by only a stone path meandering through the grove. She finished her meal, rose and moved to a canvas provided silently to her work area each night. There, she raised a large, black marker and began her work, swiftly covering white cloth with intricate designs and patterns rushing from her fingers. Her newest work was soon finished. She stood back, evaluating if it was complete. Zuri rolled the marker back towards the easel, then paced back to her sleep area.

“What can such scratching mean to you…or whoever you work for?”

“Your wondrous drawings are in galleries throughout the galaxies, but only yours capture small pieces of life force from passing viewers. Each work is eventually returned and we congeal them into elixirs. These give our masters virtual immortality…a great blessing. You are their majestic secret for continuing mastery of the universe. I hope that gives you pleasure.”

Roost

Author: DJ Lunan

I work nights. Protecting the humans roosting in my cave. Well, those that can pay in protein, dry wood, and nurture.

Here they roost. Sleep, love, cry, shit. This winter, our protein and vegetable larder is stocked but we are perpetually at risk. During the day I send them ever wider, ever further, on ever shorter days. My regulars are emaciated, but provide me with enough to sustain muscle for my work.

My fourteen residents will soon be fifteen. We hope for our first boy since The Change.

Word has spread. Ever since The Last Man did his begetting rounds in the Spring. We afforded three inseminations, but only one conceived.

The mother-to-be is kept safe, secreted in our midst.

All roosts attract predators. As our birth nears, raiders are sniffing about. I am ready. I know protection. I am nocturnal. Child of the night. Night-crawler. Protector.

All night I guard our cave entrance. The alpine forest harbours deadly traps, trip-wires, and alarms.

We shelter under a bluff, where any footfall greater than a nimble ibex dislodges moss and gravel.

My residents file back at dusk, carrying their bounty. We cook. They screw and tell tall tales about the ones that got away – men and beast. We honour our lost. Why did the aliens take all the men?

We speak about how perfect they were. Never their multiple faults. The bruises they gave, the liberties they took, shaken casually out of our hearts over time. We lock away the apocalypses, invasions, and revolting deaths of our men and boys. Did we wish the world ours? Did we simply wish for dominion? Our fists pummelling their faces, our hands ripping their shirts.

They came in the afternoon, triggering an alarm of corpol wire stretched across a narrow path. I was ready for them. One large, one small, one young. Uncallused hands. Unweathered faces. Cuckoos. House-sitters. Advance party? Invaders.

“We are on our ways to Sisterhood out East, can we roost with you tonight?”, asks the large one.

Affluence congeals on people, awarding a sheen, an extra skin, that keeps nails sharp and hands clean.

“You know we full, and locked-down”, I reply sternly.

“We will stay near?”, she states with unconcealed menace.

“I can consider your fledge”, I proffer, nodding to the girl, maybe thirteen. She’d been reared well; hunter’s hands and braided hair. Her mother would have done that. They’d stolen her from another roost. Too young to have fled or been nudged out.

“Our girl ain’t for splitting”, spits the short one, anger rising in her veins at my proposition. She won’t sleep soundly in the forest.

The girl’s face betrays the opposite. They’d killed her mother.

I knew their game plan.

All night, I listen for the cuckoos. They come near dawn.

The short one is disabled by a leg-splitter fashioned from wooden spikes and angular limestone. Her pains, her screams stir my residents. But only those closest to the cave entrance wake, their warm hands tighten on cold weapons.

“The aliens wanted to free us, and you won’t even give shelter”, screams the large one.

“Is that why you murdered her mother?”, my bellow echoes.

I hear the bow release an arrow and follow its air-splitting arc, striking the frozen earth with a sub-sonic thunk.

“Lie down fledge, I’m coming for her”, I thunder, shouldering my spear, and listening to the echoes of the large one fleeing downhill.

I am evaluating the new metrics: one extra mouth, one fresh 50,000 calorie corpse, sixteen mouths, three cold months.

Appetite

Author: Rick Tobin

Ranson picked at a sharp raspberry seed wedged tightly between canine and incisor, stubbornly poking a nerve in his aging gums, distracting attention from a therapist’s droning.

“Your weight is ignored by some on this ship, but as the assigned analyst I must help you reduce your girth. Your heart can barely tolerate navigating to a chair. Don’t you consider your condition self-destructive?” Pandora continued recording her patient’s response, facing him from her comfortable cabin divan across from Ranson’s overstuffed medical gurney.

“I hardly consider my fruit diet an issue. My weight was a risk from my former trade. This voyage to Mars was reward for patriotic services. Lower gravity will protect me.” Ranson halted, wheezing while adjusting his oxygen line and nose cannula within reticulated, swollen nostrils. He pushed aside plastic tubing to allow insertion of a fresh banana into his sagging jowls.

“My task is to balance desires and anxieties of crew and passengers. I don’t believe a damn thing about you, Mr. Ranson. You are, in my professional assessment, a profligate scam artist perpetuating mythology to fill your plate, while those receiving arduous psychiatric training and testing became marginalized by the elite. Your guarantee to assuage eternal damnation holds no more weight than belief in a flat Earth, even as we develop space settlements.”

“Mmm,” Ranson replied through the filter of his half-chewed banana. “Dhatsa whoondrufu concep.”

“I have no idea what you said, but no matter, I must finish my checklist so you can leave. You must have been ‘normal’ once…before your avocation in Washington.”

“Uhm,” Ranson cleared his mouth with a fast swallow, but continued to pick at the offending seed. “Normal…now isn’t that enough to choke on? I suppose you papered professionals all swear you’ve attained that pedestal. Such a joke.”
Ranson opened his fresh fruit bag to extract a Ribston Pippin to scrape away his raspberry pestilence.

“The Vatican charged proprietary rights; claiming only their confessionals worked, but hell, they let that practice erode for centuries. Now take myself–expert sin eater–a real problem solver. You think it’s comedic, but you’ve never bloated after a politician’s twenty-minute session. Far worse were slimy lobbyists. A mere snack of that dark chocolate could hospitalize. My bud working Wall Street brokers passed in diabetic shock after the last market correction.” Ranson took a fresh bite from a half-green apple, slicing against his gums, clawing the lodged seed like fine grit sandpaper.

“Hogwash!” Pandora interrupted. “It’s all in your imagination. There’s no study to prove anything you ever did had any effect on troubled psyches.” Pandora tapped her sharpened index fingernail against a computer pad while glaring at her grazing patient.

“No problem there, dearie. There were only six sin eaters on Earth. That’s too small a sample for a sound study. We don’t allow you headhunters into our skulls…no following us around with our clients. Our clients don’t reveal our meetings or our purpose. That would be a skunk spraying itself. Privileged sinners enjoy tossing their stink onto someone else while they profess sanctity.”

“I can’t help you…you’re disgusting!” Pandora’s neck flushed pink lines above her tight collar.

“I think we’re done here, oh wise Officer Pandora. Yes, I overate inequities at the D.C. smorgasbord, but on Mars, I can diet in relative isolation, for they have no fresh fruit there or fatuous bureaucrats. That will help dissolve away my mass. You can work on pioneer sins, honey. I’m happily retired.” Ranson held up his supply of fruit to her. “Care for some raspberries? I’m cutting back.”

Deep Fake

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

The Detective lays in the warming twist of the hot-tub, an outrigger cocoon that juts, one of many, from this recreation floor high above the 2211th Precinct. The steam peels away thoughts of her desk and of stacked files of death and corruption and it drips, a dark overflow that dribbles the length of this tower and returns to the stink at its feet.

Her clothes pile beneath the business end of the Smith & Wesson Model 29 that pokes from the shoulder holster slung from the stool at her back. The still turning wisp of the last round that she spent, but an hour ago now, floats unseen in its barrel and she is sure that she catches its scent.

The Detective looks down at her perfect body and revels in its secret. Sublime legs, how they float just beneath the bubbles and her toes they curl and ball like fists. Who even remembers now the actress from whom they were inspired? Her hips and belly likewise delicate selections and her face a buffet of the most beautiful and exotic extraction. And the old woman, she marvels at just how it is she can feel every last caress of the water, as it pulls the filth from her skin.

Her Grandfather had made her this puppet. Years ago now when it was she who walked this beat. He’d drawn his craft from the dark age of Deep Fake. That era when technology leaped forward and stole the rights to our skin. In which we took faces without asking and crafted them into perversions unbound.

Julia Roberts, that’s her. That’s who gave her these legs.

The Detective again stretches and looks out and into the acrid mist that foams at the windows that bookend this lofted canister and she shrugs at its voyeuristic design. Nobody drives this high anymore, the smog is that thick, but she does like the idea that, perhaps, there are eyes that look upon her as she lays alone in the steam.

There is someone. Not out there. Here, behind her. She can hear now the swallow in his throat.

“You killed wrong today”, he stammers.

The Detective stands and turns and hopes that the wet drip of her glistening form will ensnare what her instincts tell her is the very most simplest of minds.

She is wrong and her head barely flinches as the bullet passes through her eye and ruptures the window at her back.

In a lonely room the old woman shudders at the hit, clutching at the console before her. She takes a step and two more rounds to the chest as she reaches for her holster and draws out the 6 1/2 inch barrel as if a sword from its sheath and the ancient canon feels like air in her hand.

“You poked a hole in me”, she says as she blasts her killer’s heart through his back.

The ruined Detective stagger-steps through the water that is churning her blood and the blue drip of her brains and up onto the now blustering ledge.

A tired old woman, with wires streaming from her body and tears from her eyes, braces as the street now reaches up and grabs at her face. She feels numb from the impact or is that relief that she sighs as she absorbs her facade’s very last spasm and both they slide down into death.