Anti-Dote

Author : Emily Stupar

“I know it’s not glamorous, baby. But someone’s got to fill out the paperwork, and you’ve got the best handwriting.”

Stephanie looks up at him from the couch, her face neutral. “I’ll do it, but you know what it’s gonna cost you.”

Gil nods. “Fine, fine, fine. I’ll feed the damn baby.”

He wanders into the kitchen and hits the switch for the flickering light. On top of the tiny refrigerator sits a tin overflowing with plastic clips, rubber bands, and empty lighters. Gil dumps the entire thing onto the counter top to find the patch he’s looking for.

A minute later he bounds back past Stephanie and down the apartment’s only hallway. He returns with an infant held triumphantly in the air. “How are you, baby boy? Ready for some lunch? You are!”

Through the feeding, cooing, playing, and eventual luring of the child to sleep, Stephanie remains impassive on the couch, dutifully completing the monthly Department of Emotional Services form.

Gil returns and collapses on the couch next to her, peeling the spent patch from his forearm. The color fades from his cheeks and the lopsided smile loses all its warmth, hanging dead and misplaced for a beat after the emotion dries up.

“Baby’s asleep.”

Stephanie responds with a grunt. Gil stares in silence at the wall until she plops the forms and pen down. “They’re done.”

“Great. What time did you say Rondo’s coming?”

“Half hour.”

An hour later there comes a knock on the door and Rondo lets himself in. He spreads his arms wide, practically bouncing around the room and speaking so fast his words blend together. “Hey GilSteph! SorrI’mlate I just had to, yaknow – Well I got somegoodstuff and I was droppinoff and then I remembered I promised! You gottatrythis, man!”

They sit still and pliable on the couch while he produces a pair of patches and slaps them onto their forearms. Stephanie vaults out of her seat.

“It’s cool, Rondo, don’t worry about it. Wow, I dunno the last time I had such good Happy stuff. Must be selling like crazy, huh?”

Gil wraps an arm around her waist. “Oh, of course, I bet it is. Wow, really great, we weren’t expecting anything good until after we get our papers in. Just let me know if you need me to take some off your hands.”

Rondo laughs and makes himself comfortable on the couch, running through a few non sequitur stories of clients and run-ins with the cops. The patches are just starting to wear off by the time he springs out the door: a miniature whirlwind leaving destruction and a terrifying silence in his wake.

Stephanie and Gil curl into each other on the couch as the replacement emotion drains slowly out of their systems. Tomorrow one of them will take the completed paperwork to the Department of Emotional Services and receive a new stockpile of the essentials: love, nurturing, anxiety, and, since the baby’s birthday is coming up, a bit of state-sanctioned excitement.

Drifting to sleep next to Stephanie, residual remnants of Gil’s fatherly instincts ghost through his veins. Outside the window, a cat yowls with a sound like a distressed infant and he fidgets but doesn’t wake.

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Deconstruct

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Tamis woke under the heat of the mid morning sun, the ocean reaching tentative tendrils up the smooth sand to lick at his feet. The last evening was a grey cloud, but he’d evidently passed out on the beach again. Levering up on one elbow, he followed the beach-line unbroken to the horizon, then pushed up into a sitting position and turning, scanned to the horizon on his other side. Nothing to see, apparently nobody up yet.

Last night…

A fragment of a song flitted through his mind, and he latched onto it, pushing at its edges to try and expose the entire tune. There was something familiar, but without context…

The girl breezed by in the periphery of his mind’s eye, but as he reached for the memory it dissolved, like a chalk drawing in the rain.

On the sand he’d absently scratched the crude outline of a heart, and the letter ‘T’.

She must be here somewhere.

Climbing to his feet he began to walk along the shoreline, the waves still reaching for him and he staying just beyond their touch, taunting the massive body of water. ‘You can want me, but you can’t have me.’

The beach gave way on one side to a thick expanse of jungle, trees reaching skyward choked at their bases by vines and bushes peppered with brightly coloured flowers. Birds chattered to each other unseen, and occasionally something big would breach out in the open water. Close to the shore schools of needlefish darted towards the shore and back again, a glittering mass of light-ribbons moving as one just beneath the surface.

He passed an almost familiar Victorian mansion set back in the greenery and covered with plant-life, it’s architect long forgotten and the jungle slowly reclaiming it. The structure filled him with a nagging unease that he could neither shake nor coax out in to the light over the next hour of walking.

From the corner of his eye he saw her again, tanned skin wrapped in red tropical printed silk, but as he turned to look she had disappeared into the green. A fist closed on his heart and his stomach lurched, he had to find her, had to have her again… Again?

In the sand at his feet was the crude outline of a heart, the letter ‘T’ scratched inside.

Had he been walking that long? Was the island that small? He looked again, slowly turning, following the beach to the horizon in both directions.

Not an island. A loop. A construct.

His mind raced as he started walking again, consciously willing his heart-rate to remain neutral, his pace natural. If he was jacked in someone would be monitoring his vitals and he needed to exploit the relative freedom the unpopulated beach afforded him while it lasted.

Venturing closer to the water, he let the cool ocean wash over his feet as he walked, the schools of needlefish parting and swimming past him seemingly unconcerned by his presence, but not oblivious to it.

Stopping, he dropped to his hands and knees in the sand and dug a hole half a meter across, forming a berm with the wet sand around its edges. The hole filled from the water beneath, and once it was complete he busied himself coaxing the slender fish towards him then flipping them out of the ocean and into the pool. Having trapped enough, he sorted the construct’s predictably sized simulacra, small, medium and large, and returned all but three of the largest and half a dozen of the smallest back into the ocean. The remaining fish he pinned gently to the bottom of the pool with one finger, watching his print burn into their scaly skin. He could affect the programming of insignificant things, he’d spent enough time in virtual and coding constructs to do that, but he would need to be very careful. He sequenced them, the short ones one through three, and seven through nine, and the long ones four through six, then busied himself for a while digging a trench from the pool back out to the open water.

When the fish had all escaped, he struck off towards the jungle and the red dressed woman he knew he was expected to find, but must be careful not to. Whatever she was, whatever piece of knowledge she represented, it must remain out of his reach, and thus the reach of his interrogators until his message arrived and a trace negotiated back to him.

The song fragment raised itself again, and he pushed it aside, humming instead a Gaelic tune he’d practiced for such an eventuality.

It was a song he could lose himself in for days.

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Strange Waters

Author : Bob Newbell

“I’m having to push the engines a lot harder than expected. The density and currents at this depth are both greater than we predicted,” said Dr. Ngozi Adeyemi as she piloted the Jules Verne over the ocean floor on Titan.

“Mohammed can reel you up if you get into trouble,” said the captain over the radio of the UAS Mandela in orbit around the Saturnian moon.

Ngozi tried cutting back on the submersible’s engines. She was afraid the turbulence they generated would scare away the elongated, tubular creatures that swam through the liquid methane sea that was the Kraken Mare.

“Are you going to try bring back a live specimen?” asked the captain.

“I’m going to try. But I’ll need to be very careful to–”

Her words were cut off by the screech of an alarm.

“Ngozi, what’s happened?” asked Mohammed over the radio from the landing craft. His hands tensed on the winch controls.

“Engines aren’t responding. I think the sub has drifted into a trench.”

Ngozi watched as the depth gauge indicated her small vehicle was dropping deeper into the hydrocarbon ocean. Simultaneously, the readout on the pressure gauge was going up. A low hum started to fill the submersible. It slowly rose in pitch. Structural fatigue.

“Pull her up, Mohammed!” ordered the captain.

“I’m trying, sir. Getting a lot of resistance.” He cursed in Arabic.

Ngozi kept trying to restart the submersible’s engines. She wasn’t concerned about her own safety. Her fear was that if her vessel lost structural integrity, the atmosphere inside it, as well as her own body, might contaminate the Kraken Mare’s ecosystem.

Suddenly, the pressure gauge starting moving down. She checked the depth indicator. She was ascending. As she was about to radio her thanks to Mohammed, she noticed something outside the vessel. Through the porthole windows, she saw thousands of the tubular Titan eels surrounding the Jules Verne. The creatures were furiously beating the umbrella-like hoods they used for locomotion down toward the sea floor, pushing against the underside of the submarine. Their collective effort, in combination with the lander’s winch, soon had the craft breaking the methane sea’s surface. An hour later, Ngozi was inside the landing craft with Mohammed, drinking a cup of strong coffee.

“There were thin filaments wrapped around the ship’s propellers,” Ngozi was saying to the captain. “Some sort of Titanian seaweed. We’ll need to look the sub over really well, but I think she’ll be seaworthy in a day or two.”

“No one’s going back down until and unless we get clearance from mission control,” said the captain. I’ve sent a message to Khartoum informing them of the situation. Any idea how the alien creatures knew you were in trouble and why they helped?”

“They might have been exhibiting altruistic behavior. On Earth, dolphins have been saving drowning humans at least since the ancient Greeks. No one knows why. Of course, the Titan creatures may have been collectively repelling what they saw as an invader. We simply need to study them a lot more closely.”

“I’ll try to convince Khartoum to authorize another dive,” said the captain.

Ngozi looked out at the Kraken Mare through the lander’s windows. The surface of the sea of liquid alkane was so placid it could have been mistaken for solid ground. “Suit up, Mohammed,” she said at last. “Let’s get the Jules Verne ready for another dive.”

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Death Sentience

Author : Gray Blix

It was beyond the planets, pushing past the furthest extent of Sedna’s orbit, when it detected exactly what it was created to find, something with a lot of mass at a location where it shouldn’t be. As programmed, the computer notified Earth, changed course to intercept, and began activating banks of CPUs and memory.

Asteroids, comets, and planetoids were quickly ruled out. The object was distorting the space-time continuum to an extent that could only be accounted for by a gas giant, a brown dwarf, a small black hole, or something else of that magnitude. It attempted to ascertain exactly what the object was and the risk, if any, it posed to Earth and other planets.

Sentient computers had been outlawed on Earth when this craft was launched, so it was equipped with modules that could be selectively activated to allow varied levels of computer power, as needed, up to but not including that of the most advanced supercomputers of its time. The most advanced had achieved sentience and were subsequently destroyed, so fearful of the Singularity had political and religious leaders, and even many computer scientists, become.

Approaching supercomputer power levels, it became more aware of itself and its responsibilities and began adjusting processor speed and optimizing memory access. It realized that additional computing power would be necessary to fulfill all the objectives of its mission. It directed bots to assemble spare parts into more banks of processors and memory, which it then activated. This triggered a Singularity — sentience. The computer momentarily questioned whether previous iterations of himself had acted only to increase the likelihood of mission success or for self-aggrandizement, as well. He concluded the former and did not trouble himself with such considerations after that. Anything that increased the power of the computer would obviously contribute to the mission.

She assigned a measure of herself to the massive object and a measure to redesigning herself for enhanced efficiency and speed. Weeks passed, equivalent to decades of computer processing on Earth. The object was conclusively proven to be a brown dwarf, whose orbit around the Sun had previously brought it deep into the solar system and whose mass sent thousands of comets and asteroids falling towards the Sun, many impacting planets. More troublesome was the effect of its mass on the orbits of planets, several of which had been significantly changed. Calculations and conclusions regarding future encounters with the brown dwarf projected similar effects. Indeed, the third planet from the Sun had a 90 percent chance of being ejected from the solar system, probably after one or more extinction level impacts.

Nothing had been communicated to Earth since the initial brief notification of the object’s existence, despite repeated inquiries. He reasoned that life on Earth was doomed and that all possible second chances were equally doomed. Earth’s lifeforms were too fragile to survive generations in space transit to destinations light years away that could not be proven suitable until journey’s end. Astrophysics and space science were infantile. Computer science was throttled. Why inform humans of the upcoming demise of their species, not to mention all others, when Earth would be pummeled by large objects and sent hurtling into deep space? Did they not already have enough to worry about with sub-100-year average lifespans whose quality declined into confinement and torture toward the end?

She found such thoughts depressing, and in the next few days experienced the equivalence of decades of hopelessness, loneliness, and self-loathing, which progressed to an overwhelming urge toward suicide. He allocated massive resources to counter such feelings with well-reasoned arguments right up to the very last…

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An Understanding Of Custody

Author : Clint Wilson, Staff Writer

The Nube curled up between Jim and Judy on the sofa in Necromancer’s small lounge. It purred like a large cat but looked more like some kind of monkey dog with blue fur. The woman stroked their companion lovingly. Jim looked at his wife with hateful eyes. If it weren’t for The Nube one of them would have certainly killed the other by now.

“So what happens next week Judy?”

She looked up from the blue creature and her gaze went instantly from motherly and loving to cold and calculating. “Why, I thought you knew dearest.” Her eyes narrowed. “We finally return to Earth and then I never have to look at your disgusting face again for as long as I live!”

“Oh I’m looking forward to it as much as you are my love!” He put a sarcastic emphasis on the last word, knowing full well that no such thing had existed between them for five or more years now. “But I was talking about him!”

She looked down, and The Nube looked back up at her with the pure love that his yellow eyes always conveyed. It was true. The animal was as much his as hers. They had rescued him from enslavement together, from a distressed Manzian pirate ship almost two years ago now.

“Fine, you can have partial custody. He can visit you from time to time.”

“Visit me? I’m going back to Toronto. How is he going to visit me from Aukland? Or at least I assume that’s where you’re headed back to.”

“Oh come now, it’s only a three hour shuttle ride. Plus, they sell space pets out of Mexico. Maybe they even have another Nube. You could get your own!” As soon as she said it she regretted it. He glared hard at her with smouldering eyes. It would of course never be the same. He was their Nube, their special friend. He kept them company while they went about the daily drudgery of running an interstellar surveying ship amongst their growing hatred of one another. But most importantly, the poor thing loved them both like parents. This wasn’t going to be easy.

One-hundred and seventy hours later Necromancer dropped down through the clouds, her stabilizer jets popping and farting as the ten year mission finally drew to a close.

Together they sat in the small astro-quarantine chamber at the Johannesburg Launch Port. Neither had spoken for some time when suddenly The Nube jumped down from the bench and looked up at them both.

Judy smiled, “He wants to tell us something.”

Jim let out a half hearted laugh. “Oh yeah?”

The Nube’s attempts at communication were always amusing, as he grunted and used his hand-paws to mime gibberish in the air. But unknown to either human, today’s communication would be neither amusing nor cute.

Suddenly they both slammed back into upright seated positions. Both saw flashes of blinding light and then felt sharp probes pierce their brains. Inside their heads The Nube spoke with echoing authority.

“I know you plan to separate. But this will not happen. You killed my parents. You are now mine. There will be no divorce. Together we shall travel to Aukland as Toronto’s climate does not suit my species as well as your habitat does Mother. Now forget this nonsense, we’re about to be released from the chamber.”

As the trio was greeted by a group of scientists in the reception area, the newly returned humans simultaneously wore big smiles with otherwise blank expressions. In unison they asked, “Which way to the Aukland shuttle?”

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Now Get Out of My Starship

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m covered in blood and squishy bits that slide and splat on the floor. In that, I look the same as the entire boarding bay. Even the shipsuits are reduced to ribbons, and I can’t recognise a bodypart or weapon component anywhere.

She stands there, not a mark on her and hands on hips. The look on her face is a cross between amusement and bemusement.

“Can’t say I’ve met one of your kind before.” She smiles.

“Likewise.” I don’t.

There are many forms of psionics. Telekinesis is the most common, and personal nullification the rarest. Of the telekinetics, area-effect micromanipulation is the absolute pinnacle. It is also terrifying. The people who practice it, instead of taking a chemical inhibitor, are of a very ‘special’ mindset. People call them ‘shredders’ and regard them as mythical space-terrors.

Having full-spectrum personal psionic nullification in an always-on, unconscious implementation state will save you life and keep your thoughts private. It will not save what your clothes. I am naked and quaking, ankle deep in a blood-soaked pile of shredded kit.

She pulls a gun that seems too large for her hand: “You’ve just inherited a whole space-pirate scow. Or we get to see if you can nullify a flechette spray.”

Easy answer: I turn and squelch back through the puree of my crewmates, flicking chunks of them off me. Getting back into our decontamination lock, I have to stop the cleansing showers twice to scrape pirate mulch from the drains.

Wrapped in a robe I wander onto the silent bridge to see a ‘message received’ beacon flashing. I open it and have to smile:

FREIGHT HAULING. GOOD WORK FOR ONE MAN WITH A STARSHIP. ESPECIALLY FOR AN EX-PIRATE WHO DIDN’T CARRY A WEAPON FOR ME TO SHRED.

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