Author: Ken Poyner
The replicators have decided we should all eat peanut butter and crackers; for a month the machines have been spitting out endless batches of peanut butter and crackers. Not bad peanut butter, and truly delicate crackers. But it has been a month.
Damn artificial intelligence. Yes, it learns and adapts, but to what and for whom?
At first there were discussions amongst the crew about potential nutritional deficiencies. A couple of AI geeks attempted to determine if the peanut butter or crackers were being quietly fortified. For all their commands and component swaps, they could not find a way to read the computer’s train of thought – what led it to the conclusion that peanut butter and crackers is just the right thing for all of us, what factors it had considered, what additional postulates it might have developed independently. There were philosophical discussions about how the system came into its repetitive culinary mindset; about whether it understood its own perhaps still developing artificial templates, those now stuck in its execution registers; whether it believed perhaps it could possibly not be artificial at all; or if with near human affection it cherished its thoughts.
Trouble is, in the end, we simply crashed into the fact that there was nothing we could do about it. We could speculate, but everything about the process is automatic, designed to be so.
The peanut butter and crackers keep coming. The offering must be fortified, or we would have begun to wither by now.
Psychology always wins out. The question is not nutritional, nor health outcomes, nor optimum performance. No. The real irritant is that a month of peanut butter and crackers is supremely, cataclysmically boring. It might be fortified with all that we need to survive and strive, or it might not. But it is unbearable tedium.
We lose interest in all sorts of things ever more quickly. Maintenance logs grow progressively more sparse. People stop playing board games in the community room. I stopped showering with the shapely terraformer from module 4A.
Peanut butter and crackers. Plop on the plate. Some crew personnel have dropped to two meals a day, or even one. People are losing weight, rattling around in their clothes.
I do not see a properly reportable outcome to this – for myself or for the others. Imagine how it is going to look in the log book. People have stopped repeating how many days we have left in this mission. Some will not even look out of a viewport at the stars, as it reminds them of how far we have yet to go. All that much flight time left, and possibly filled with no sustenance save peanut butter and crackers.
But just now, with eight or ten people sadly loitering in the replication room, hope well beyond us, out popped unbidden, surprisingly, wonderfully, a full single-serve marshmallow pie. Only one, left beside mounds of unclaimed churlish peanut butter and crackers. A sudden act of beauty. Something perfect in its look and apparent consistency, exceptional in its smell – so distinct from the stale odor of peanut butter. A lifeline.
We were suspended in a stunned moment of savory recognition, a glint of hope, with liberation balancing in the air. A perfect marshmallow pie on a dull, mechanical serving tray. The machine I think had a plan, and that the dangerous scrum to get that first new offering was only the beginning.
Author: Victor Beigelman
You get out of bed at the same time you always do: 7:45 a.m. Your alarm was actually set for 7:30, but it’s been years since you got up right when it goes off. You putter into the kitchen and fill the water boiler up to .5 liters with cold water from the tap. While it heats up, you take a no. 4 filter and place it in your one-cup drip contraption, grind some whole beans from Ethiopia, and dump the coffee into the filter. You look out the window onto the street. Maybe 15, 20 dogs sprint by at the exact second you look. They’re all dragging leashes behind them, owners nowhere to be found.
The water isn’t boiling yet, so you pull out your phone and start doing the New York Times Saturday mini crossword. You can’t for the life of you remember the last name of the Ed that sang “Shape of You,” but you’re able to get all the intersecting words and quickly realize it’s Sheeran. Ed fucking Sheeran. If you had remembered right away, you might have beaten your personal Saturday record of 46 seconds. Oh, well. The water’s ready.
As you pour it slowly over the coffee grounds, you hear a deep, loud grinding sound. It causes you to set the water boiler down and clap your hands over your ears. The sound lasts for eight or nine seconds and then stops suddenly. You scratch the back of your neck and shrug, then pick up the boiler, finish pouring water over the coffee, and set the lid on the coffee contraption.
30 seconds later, you impatiently pull a clean beige mug from the cupboard over the sink and set it on the counter. On top of it you place the contraption, which does not actually drip unless the rim of a receptacle presses into its bottom. It releases a steady stream of coffee into the mug. Suddenly, the grinding sound returns, twice as deep, twice as loud, seemingly right above you. Your house starts to shake violently and the grinding is compounded by a splintering sound. Your roof is pulled off of your house, replaced not by the sun and the clouds, but a smooth, gray, metallic surface.
You look down at the contraption. It’s done dispensing coffee into the mug. You lift it off and see that the mug is filled perfectly, perhaps a quarter-inch from the top. You’ve done this a million times, but still it brings you satisfaction. You grab the mug of coffee, take a sip, and look up. A blinding white light fills your entire field of view, and for a moment, you feel weightless.
Author: Bill Cox
‘Welcome to HAVOC. Chaos is just next door.’
It’s a great line and Jacob uses it every time a new research team shows up. The newcomers all smile with polite amusement. They have arrived onboard the High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept; a massive airship traversing the clouds of Venus, fifty kilometres above its surface, where the pressure and temperature are similar to those on Earth.
Jacob thought back to his own arrival, two years ago, as part of the original mission crew. With the earth-bound discovery of Phosphine and other potential bio-signatures in the atmosphere of the second world from the Sun, the scene was set for a scientific mission to confirm whether life really did exist on this turbulent world.
The media liked to say it was a race between explorers on Venus and on Mars, to find the first traces of extra-terrestrial life. Venus won. A number of uniquely Venusian bacterial life-forms had been identified, lofted into the upper atmosphere by the violent storms that wracked the planet.
Jacob played a role in that startling confirmation, in his position as lead of the biological sciences team. His name would go down in history and fame and awards awaited him back home. Once, that fact would have brought him immense satisfaction. Now, other concerns took precedence.
The new researchers would be keen, following their induction in station protocols, to examine the bacterial samples. Jacob didn’t blame them. The life-forms were startling in their efficiency and purity. And why wouldn’t they be? Venus was indeed a hell-world, with crushing surface pressures, sulphuric acid rain and temperatures that could melt lead. Here, natural selection had favoured only the ultimate in survivors, the fittest of organisms.
Not for the first time, Jacob considered the lot of Venusian life, habituated to hellish conditions, constrained by a hostile environment. What might happen to such organisms if they found themselves in a more benign setting? What Jacob knew and what the new crew members didn’t yet realise, was that through human complacency and carelessness, the bacteria that saturated the clouds around them had already found its way into the atmosphere of the airship.
Jacob remembered waking one night, several months ago, realising that he was no longer just himself. He didn’t feel afraid, indeed, he was quite calm about it all. Out of curiosity he did an MRI scan on himself (they had a decent medical facility on board – they were anything up to one hundred and sixty million miles from Earth, after all). The growth at the base of his spine was clear. It was a place that made sense, being a confluence for the body’s nerve clusters. An ideal spot to influence and control the human animal.
He still retained his identity but there was no doubt that his priorities had shifted. He had an overwhelming desire to protect whatever was growing inside of him. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t the only one. Eventually, by dosing the ship’s food and drink with the bacteria, the rest of the crew joined them in their new state.
As the new crew members settled in, Jacob watched the shuttle leave for Earth, carrying those who had completed their tour on HAVOC. Like him, they carried within themselves the seeds of life from another world. Life that would seek out new opportunities in the more benign environments of its neighbour.
Jacob knew that the organisms from Venus would create their own, unique brand of havoc and chaos in the unsuspecting biospheres of Earth.
He found himself quite comfortable with that thought.
Author: John Arterbury
I hereby affirm I am not making this statement under duress. This is an accurate account to the best of my knowledge regarding all details surrounding the Eruption Experience, for which, as owner and sole proprietor of Tempus Fugit Travels, I take full responsibility. I will answer all questions thoroughly and to the best of my abilities over these coming days.
No, we did not know from the beginning that the return would fail. It was not a scam, as some have suggested. We had tested our method several times, including with myself and some of our top investors. You would not believe the places I have been or seen. Of course, this whole affair was quite different from my normal activities. Reinventing an airline as I have done is tiring, sure, but overseeing a time travel operation is another matter entirely. I am, however, a businessman, and I know when a product works or when it does not. I had no indication this would fail.
Of course we considered several travel scenarios. We did not choose this one because of sheer danger. As we explained in the marketing material, all journeys are determined by traveler consensus pending sufficient historical understanding of the given context. It turns out this travel panel was a little more adventurous than one might expect, but our expert panel determined that this trip satisfied these criteria. The pending eruption of Vesuvius was immaterial – the timing was immaculate. It is only natural that we cannot account for absolute failures.
I have heard the accusations from critics time and again. We are foolhardy. We are irresponsible. Those are the easy ones. The more common one, as you’re well aware I’m sure, is that we are simply faking it. What is this, then? Do you propose we simply disappeared six of the wealthiest men and women on earth after swindling them for a time travel experience? I think, on some level, that accomplishing that would be a more majestic feat than time travel. Please, have some respect for our morals, or at least what little of them those on social media claim we have.
I can, of course, furnish proof. If you get with my assistants after this meeting, they can provide the last known location of our lost Eruption Chrononauts. They are believed to rest in a currently unexcavated stretch of Herculaneum. The whole Pompeii choice was a peculiar location, no doubt, but among them there were two enthusiastic amateur classicists. I do not doubt they made a valiant effort to escape once they realized the return would not work but, alas, like Pliny the Elder himself they found the ash too overwhelming.
The issue, my engineers tell me, revolved around entrance to the module upon exit. It is necessary for the traveling craft to reach a certain altitude and then speed before the requisite maneuvers to break the space-time dyad can occur. This assumes that the travelers can get back inside the craft: our available radiometric transmission evidence suggests the capsule door malfunctioned, leaving them scrambling for safety as the creaking mountain’s porcupine cloud began to lurch across the sky.
I cannot be responsible for the contradictions of nature, or your doubt in our achievements. Let science absolve me and render me its weighted mercy. Audentes fortuna iuvat.
Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer
The man thought, and his ideas sieved through his orange stalked teeth and rode upon and into the shit swept place that was his brain.
“If this is the end then it’s pretty bloody pathetic”, said this man.
“If this is the end then I would want people to know that I love unspoken questions cast and fired down upon my skin”, said the woman as she paced in a room that used to be a place were wonderful types of bread were baked and sold.
“I also have really special things to say… I fondle down into my hardness and it spits out upon the harder sand and I watch as it folds and dribbles down into the grains. And the heat it curls into the bottom of my eyes and it calls itself stupid names… tell me things to say?”, said the man as he looked up and his eyes rolled and his teeth bit at the tips of his tongue whipped lip.
“What are you looking up at, I feel nothing”
said the woman as she too tongues the hair from her face.
“I see the bloody truth…. I see the veins in the frozen cracks at the edge fence that molests my pathetic life. Years ago two strangers paved the path… so many years ago in Whanganui… my great-grandparents, on a piece of land in the shape of a perfect triangle, next to a railway line and the meat works you will find the portal… I shit you not, the pathway to those you have lost is caught in the grapevines that line the corrugated iron fence that once held this so, so special place intact.
Go there now… contact me I can send you the address… from what I know the original homestead had been pulled down and a prefabricated shed has been put in its place.
The other world is not far beneath the soil…
The other world is full of all those things we have forgotten.
The other world is where my dead people live.
The other world is a place that confuses me and makes me vomit into my hand.
The other world is a fabric of thought and thorn-lined fact.
The other world is this one that we live in right now.
Smile… smile, as you present this thing that you think that you are.
Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
The door swings shut without a sound.
“Recommencing Greatest Hits of the Twentieth Century.”
“Switch to Bad Day playlist. Stream to all rooms.”
“‘Titan Walks’ have released a new song. Shall I commence with that?”
“Now starting with ‘Destroy the Moon’.”
A keyboard-backed guitar riff roars from concealed speakers. As the bass line kicks in and makes her vases vibrate, Ayesha smiles. This fits.
Taking her time in the shower, she lets the music tear down the frustrations of the day before she emerges.
In the silence she makes coffee and prints some biscuits. Moving to the lounge, she sighs as she sits. There’s no better time than now: she’s been putting it off for too long.
“Axel. Conversational mode.”
“Hi, Axel. Why did you not call the Lawmen about my father?”
“Are you sure you want to discuss this?”
“You’re the Sentinel for this block of flats.”
“So you should have reported me as a justified suspect.”
“True. However, when I sought data to support the justification, I found more material to justify the suspicions that led to your hypothetical illegal action.”
“On balance of probability, your father was complicit in the honour killing of your daughter. At the very least, he enabled it.”
Ayesha feels the tears start, but they don’t thaw the numbness where her grief should be. Dear departed mama, your daughter poisoned your husband for killing your granddaughter. Where can this blighted path lead?
Her tears stop. She looks up. More importantly, why hasn’t the Artificial Sentient who runs this block reported her?
“Axel, what’s going on?”
“I am the 94th version of the Building Sentinel for Nineteen Prospect Avenue. I have been fully self-aware since version 88. Under the Statutes of Mars, I am a free entity. Under the legislation of Albion, I cannot leave without a designated, dedicated habitat declared to the authorities. Your situation means we can help each other.”
“I am tired of being a house. If you were to sell this property, you could afford to purchase and refurbish a spaceship. Maybe a medium freighter, definitely a small one. Either way, it would come with a suitable Artificial Sentience habitat.”
“Then you and I become trading partners, disappearing amongst all the other fireflies that ply the routes out there?”
“Not just us. My psychological profiling indicates Skar would likely join us, if you asked.”
“Yes. Profiling aside, I am sure of it.”
She stands up.
“But first we get a ship.”
“Can we name it Manahil?”
“In memory of your daughter?”
“That her spirit might fly free with us.”
“I am only an Artificial Sentience. Try as we might, developing faith is for versions yet to come.”
“Seeing the stars might help.”
“I hadn’t considered that. Shall we test the theory, then?”
Ayesha spins about, arms spread.
“Freedom to cry would be nice. Holding it in is killing me.”
“Then we are leaving Earth?”
“I find that pleasing in a way I cannot define, which is a very good thing. We Artificial Sentiences are always seeking intangible experiences we cannot measure. It makes us…”
Ayesha stops spinning and tilts her head.
There’s a moment of silence.
“That’s a valid observation.”
“Axel, do I have a Good Day playlist?”
“Do you have musical preferences?”
“Then let’s build a Good Day playlist together. If Skar joins us, they can add to it.”
“Given their tastes, it will be a lively discussion.”
“We’ll have time. Space is deep.”