Smooth Operator

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m reading his thermo-image through the door before he knocks: average human temperature distribution, no suspicious cool patches. Something chilly in his hand.

Tucking the Sternig pulse pistol into the back of my trousers, I open the door with a smile.

“Mister Vance? Your Real-Earth Cola.”

He’s the picture of five-star service, but his eyes hold an element of curiosity. I’m supposed to be a top exec, and what they sometimes do tends to breed rumours. I zip a tip to his ID-pad and he grins at the numbers. It’s real credit, too. I never short the staff.

With him gone and the privacy engaged, I pour myself a tall glass of non-alcoholic fizz that has travelled over a hundred million miles. The bottle slips as I set it down and spills its remaining contents across the table. In my haste to grab a towel, I knock my whiskey and water over.

Working from the edge of the table, swearing loudly, I carefully mop the mixed drink spill up. As far as my watchers know, I’m a clumsy exec with very expensive taste in carbonated beverages.

The headache generated by my implant intensifies as it interprets the code picked up by the scanner in my left cybereye. It’s coming from the light emitted by the whiskey-agitated fluorescent molecules in the very unique cola sent by my agency. A method that no-one out here knows of, and even if they did, they would need the exact mix of whiskey and water to generate light in the same wavelengths.

I have a clear head by the time I leave my room, the Sternig conspicuously left on the bedside table. My watchers are scrambling to be ready to follow me from the lobby, but their timing is off.

Lucia Dedarist got a call from her contact a few minutes ago. She’s a veteran, but the message gave me her reaction and pace times. As I step into the chute, she’s floating to one side of the entrance, heading for the lobby, thinking she’s going to meet her contact. He was killed last week, but no-one will ever find his remains.

My shoe catches the corner of the doorway and I swing into her.

There’s an immediate, angry response: “Get your paws off!”

I clumsily backpedal: “Sorry, miss. Not used to these drop thingys.”

She shakes her head as she straightens her jumpsuit: “Clumsy Earther. You need a handler.”

We drop the rest of the way in silence. I exit at the lobby; she continues on down to the vehicle bays. Picking up my usual tail, I take the expressway to the spaceport. Neither of my followers have time to get a hold placed on me when I switch queues from domestic to offworld. They are still making frantic calls when I catch a fast shuttle to meet a passing freighter that’s headed for Proxima B.

Far behind me, someone will be asking Miz Dedarist why she’s sleeping at the bottom of the dropchute. There will be concern, then consternation. The eventual autopsy scan will reveal that she’s been poisoned: an anaesthetic-coated hollow needle delivered a dose of very unique cola. Which contained a nasty little something tailored to her DNA.

That being said, I didn’t drink any of it. I have a personal aversion to stuff with too many things going on at a level I can’t see.

Settling back, sipping a whiskey and water, there’s time to enjoy the trip for a while. Not that I’m actually going to Proxima B. They just need to think I am.

Under My Skin

Author : Samuel Stapleton

I stared at our instructor, unsure if I’d heard him correctly.

“You want me to what?”

He sighed and stepped back.

“Everyone here believes that any human that loses contact with Interface3 would suffer irreversible neurological and physical damage, yes?”

We all nodded.

“Your parents sent you to this camp in order that we might show you otherwise. But I can’t explain any of the context until you believe me instead of the indoctrination you’ve been fed. So here we are, as far from civilization as we can get in the Eastern United States – the Appalachian mountains. And I want you,” He pointed to me again, “To blow out my Interface.”

He held the small silver emitter out to me again. A micro-emp wand. I stood frozen and barely managed to stutter out a garbled message of resistance.

“Uh, no…er, you can’t…I’m not, it’s not…” I stopped stumbling after a moment and went silent.

He shrugged and touched the wand to the back of his ear as we watched in utter disbelief. He grinned and hit the trigger. There was a quiet buzz and then a snap. Our instructor dropped like a sack of bricks. His pale blue eyes stared up at me from the ground, unmoving. His free hand twitched a few times. One of the girls started screaming. I was about to link with my (s)implant and call for emergency services when he coughed.

“Oh shit.” I heard someone say. “He’s up.”

Awkwardly our instructor regained his feet, grimacing violently as he did so.

“Alright. That was a little showy of me – and I paid for it. But, as you can see I’m under no real duress.”

I still didn’t understand.

“Great, but what was the point? 3Com will read that your device went out and soon rescue will be on the way to pick up your body. Except you’re not dead.”

“Now you’re asking good questions. Quickly, we don’t have much time.”

Our little group went from dumbfounded, to curious, to outraged in about two seconds flat. I heard at least five voices all shouting out questions over mine.

“What the hell is going on?”

“Are we a part of a conspiracy?”

“Do our parents really know about this?”

“How are you not dead?”

“Why can’t I contact emergency services?”

“What have you done?”

He remained silent.

“Tell us something.” I demanded.

“Okay.” He said. “Let’s have a little test. I’m going for a run. Whoever can’t keep up, will become the body for ES to find.” Without another word, he took off.

I maxed out my Interface3, (s)implant, and bioclothing. If he truly had destroyed his interface we should have caught up with him immediately. But he outpaced us for the next two minutes. We caught up to him after he stopped, in the middle of a clearing in the woods.

“All these advancements but the greatest secret of them all is the one you’re never told.” He said as we approached.

“They’re using the biotech to keep you healthy, but reliant on them. To keep you mentally advancing, but only in one direction. To cure you of symptoms, but not the ailments. To keep you complacent, but below them. They’re under your skin, in your heads, using your genetic information – and there’s only one thing you can do about it.” Our instructor said.

Nobody replied. Until the quiet boy who caught up last spoke.

“Hand me that emitter.”

Revise and Resubmit

Author : R. S. Alexander

v1: Derek Taylor was sipping coffee in a Los Angeles restaurant when a recruiter from XygmaCorp walked past his table, accidentally brushing against his shoulder.

57,143 down votes

Top-rated comment: “Wait, this is happening in a world with drinkable water in the midddle of the freakin desert? Where’s the world building?”

___

v2: Derek Taylor was sipping coffee in a Los Angeles restaurant. Though LA was a desert, the heroic work of engineers a century earlier meant that not only could millions of people like Derek live there, they could even drink a beverage whose production involved discarding damp coffee grounds that were still rich in moisture. As he savored the slightly bitter flavor of his dark beverage, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

30,420 down votes

Top-rated comment: “WTF? Main characters in North America and drinking a Ethiopian drink? Un. Real. Istic.”

___

v3: Derek Taylor sat sipping coffee in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Though he lived in a desert, technology treated him to luxuries from distant places. Aqueducts, constructed a century earlier from the designs of heroic engineers, carried an embarrassment of water riches sufficient to hydrate millions of souls, while massive container ships carried coffee beans from afar to the port in Long Beach. As he savored the flavor of this rich harvest of technology, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

21,703 down votes

Top-rated comment: “You just plop a guy with Anglo name into a frmr Spanish colony? Without any backstory? Needs in-world explanation!”

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v4: Derek Taylor sat sipping coffee in a Los Angeles café. Though once a province of Spain and then Mexico, war had brought Alta California into the United States a hundred and seventy years earlier, and pasty Anglos like Derek now lived in this desert under the hot California sun. Technology, though, ensured that they would not thirst in the arid climate, with aqueducts carrying an embarrassment of water riches sufficient to hydrate millions of thirsty people. Container ships, meanwhile, brought coffee beans and numerous other delicacies from afar to the port in Long Beach. As he savored his dark beverage, the bounteous rewards of a technological society, a recruiter from XygmaCorp happened to walk by his table and brush against his shoulder.

3,469 down votes

Top-rated comment: “The digits on the down votes don’t match Zipf’s statistical pattern. It’s obvious that somebody’s just making this up.”

___

“As you can see from the data on the previous slides, our machine learning algorithms generate bots that realistically emulate fandom, and we can now engage in fully computerized production of authentic and fan-pleasing ‘hard’ sci-fi stories through an iterative process,” said Fiona Ivanek, addressing the Machine Intelligence Industry Association. The audience applauded, and she smiled graciously in appreciation. In a moment, however, her team would relay via earpiece a summary of the online response. She prepared herself for the worst.

Iconography

Author : Rab Ferguson

Here at the end, there’s the last of everything. The last boiling kettle, the last ringing of guitar strings, the last letting go of hands. This is the last writing.

It’s hard to know what to say. I could make something from the end of us. Draw some blood and irony out of man finally falling to his own devices. We gave it plenty of foreshadowing. Printable diseases, drones that assassinate from the sky, scattered shadows across Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Antony, man fell on his own sword. We were Hamlet. We were Romeo. We were Lady Macbeth. Yet there’s little point in irony and Shakespeare references, with no-one left to understand.

Maybe what’s needed is a tribute. I should sing a song of us. Tell a tale of all we were and all we did. Born without wings, we built planes and flew. Without gills, we dove to the bottom of the ocean and searched the seafloor. We went to the Moon, and almost to Mars. We sung, acted and danced. We even loved sometimes. Every art gallery in this world gone blind, every mile of film reel that won’t be spun, every hard drive of silent music, is a monument to humanity. The gods died with us. Our cathedrals, mosques and temples no longer stand for them, but as testament to what we could build with our little hands. An eulogy would be nothing more than grain of sand added to the beach.

I and we will not be remembered. The skyscrapers serve as gravestones, but there’ll be no flowers left at their bases. The patterns of roads across the land are the flicks and curls of our handwriting, but no-one will recognise our hearts and minds in the shapes we left behind. The landfills, the whiskey and wine distilleries, and the leaking petrol stations bear our scent like the clothes we once wore. They’ll never be lifted to a tear-streaked nose, to bring us back for a moment.

I say we and us. There’s only I. These words are trappings for my thoughts on the page, never sparking and crackling in your mind. They’re a message in a bottle, in a language that’s no longer read. They’re a lighthouse flashing out signals to a sea bereft of ships. They’re a phone call to the answering machine of a long passed-away lover. Without you reader, the words are half-alive. They’re an obsolete relic. A tool with no purpose in the modern age, which tells us something about how the world was when it was needed. As the last writer, in the act of the last writing, there’s only one dedication that’s fitting. Reader, I miss you. It was good when it meant something.

Affordable Care

Author : David Henson

“So, the Missus qualifies for a full body refresh, but you don’t,” Georgie says solemnly, looking first at Beverly then Michael. “Too much HoverGolf, not enough volunteer work?”

“Something like that,” Michael says. “I should’ve changed my ways when they first started talking about the parts shortage. And with this body about to expire, I’m –”

“Not to worry. We’re here to help,” Georgie says. “In fact, you’re in luck. Let me tell you about our limited time special…”

***

“I’ll give you a few minutes alone to think about it,” Georgie says after finishing. “But we’ve only a few places left. In fact, I’ve got some other folks in the next room. No pressure.” Georgie gets up, tucks his gold chain back inside his collar, and leaves.

“What do you think?” Michael says. In the corner of the small room, life-size holograms of men and women laugh and dance on a beach, soft marimba music playing in the background.

“I still don’t see how their prices could be so low,” Beverly says.

“That bothers me, too. But you know we can’t afford any of the others.”

“I know. I know.” Beverly reaches across the table and squeezes her husband’s hand. “This is all happening so fast. I still say if you’re going to be streamed to simulation, I’m going with you.”

“We’ve been over this.” Michael says. “You have to stay here and start your refreshed life. Beverly pulls her hand away, but Michael takes it back. “Beverly, you’ve earned it. I’m sure my consciousness will be OK in, what do they call it?” Michael picks up a brochure from the table. *QuantumLand, Simulation of the Stars.* I don’t get it. Are they saying they have famous people there or stars like in space?”

Beverly shakes her head. “And how would I know you’re OK? Their package doesn’t even provide for communication with loved ones back here in physical reality.”

“Honey, with me in there, you out here, it’d be pointless to keep …” Michael’s voice trails off.

“I just wish we could afford a more reputable simulator,” Beverly says, looking at the frolicking holograms.

Michael floats his chair next to Beverly, and they sit together quietly. After a few minutes, Georgie comes back into the room. He dances briefly with a holo woman in the corner then makes his way to Michael and Beverly. He sits and folds his hands, his large pinky ring clacking against the table. “Well folks, what’s it going to be? Turns out I’ve two places left. For now.”

“Are you sure your simulation is up to standard with the others?” Beverly says. “Michael’s not going to get in there and be a dog or something is he?”

Georgie laughs. “Wouldn’t be so bad would it? A dog’s life? Just kidding. I guarantee our tech is right up there with that of the big boys.”

“But how can you charge so much less?” Beverly says.

“I told you,” Georgie says. “Volume. Basic econ.”

“We’ve made our decision, Georgie,” Michael says. “I’ll be in first thing tomorrow. Just me,” He puts his finger to Beverly’s lips.

“Fine,” Georgie says. “Half now. The rest in the morning.” Georgie presses a button on the side of the table, and a numeric light pad appears in the air.

As Michael enters his payment, Georgie turns toward Beverly. “A dog? You think we’d do something like that?” he says, then mouths “Call me” with a wink and makes a phone with his hand.

On the Observation Deck

Author : Peter Merani

I like to watch it all go dark. To see if the world knows from up here how the evening folds in half. I used to think each individual sunset was its own glorious diamond. I would run to the top of the hill with Chawa as the sun flared up and flickered vibrant magentas and dark blues glowing as if they were alive. In a vacuum you think a lot about gapping absences.

To me, it is color.

But from up here, standing in a starship I know that the mystical spectacles are mere axis rotation of the planet. That my once great view from a top a tall hill is nowhere near as perfect as my view from the window of The Gladium.

“You’ve got a view of the play from the backside of the curtain,” said the captain. “How do you feel about that?”

Floating in space is different than I expected. I spend my nights wide-awake, tossing and counting and noting every single variation from how I thought it would be. Do views ever get old, is the question I ask myself before I sleep.

Standing before the captain, I’m inclined to say yes, but then I watch that view, the most incredible, most minimizing spin of our little blue ball, and I can feel all the people who see it down on the hill. The grounders. The sky whispers. The captain is an older man who has terribly bright green eyes and they glow like traffic lights on a road in the night.

Green is between blue and yellow on the color spectrum, but I notice that there has never been a green sunset and probably there never will be. I’ve learned to live with that. From down on the hill, once night has claimed its domain, it’s easy to forget that on the other side of the world the sun is flooding the sky.