Island

Author : Eric San Juan

By the time the sandstorm passed, the sun had fallen and the orange skies had faded to a bruised brown and purple. The towers still seemed unreachable, perched on a dream horizon. Faint whispers of yesterday clutching at sky that no longer wanted it.

He checked his pack. Enough water to get him there, at least, and food enough for several days beyond that. What came after he did not know.

Didn’t matter. The idea of “after” seemed impossible to imagine right now.

He found a ruin clinging to the side of a slope that had probably marked the boundary of some town or village, the fat stone square of it suggesting the remnants of a place of worship. He made camp there.

A small fire, dry food, tiny nylon shelter erected quickly and without care. Ink filled the sky. Wild calls in the distance, but none near just now. The hunting creatures would not be a problem. Not tonight.

In the morning he ate bread and packed his things and began his trek once more. The land fell before him and rose again, then fell and rose, fell and rose.

He followed the rough flats of old highways when he could. Sometimes they disintegrated into stretches of tall grass and knotty green trees with ugly, sour fruit. At other times they ran true and clear a mile or more. Mother Nature was fickle about what she reclaimed, it seemed.

Two days later, he came to a great expanse of water. A river or bay, he could not remember which it was meant to be. Across it were the towers. Tall, rust red, filled with eyeholes and jagged spears of steel bone jutting out like untended ribs. The sky was bronze behind them. Above, the winged serpents circled, gliding on leather wings, barbed tails like trailing spears.

“Well damn,” he muttered. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this job after all.”

Finding a way to the island took him three days. The spans that once reached across the water were long since collapsed, their supporting structures now just decayed fingers poking above the lapping waves. If there had once been marinas here they had rotted generations ago.

He found boat shells strewn across the shoreline sometimes, like beetle carapaces thick with mold, but they were useless. But on the third day he found what must have been a boathouse at one time, made of stone, still enclosed, still untouched, one of the rare refuges from the march of the apocalypse. Inside was a small, single-person craft with a long, double-sided paddle. He was able to kick open the doors and push it out into the green waters.

And so, unprotected, in little more than a plastic sheath, he rowed himself across the waters leading to the city on the island, hellspawn circling the dank towers before him, the air a fog of rust and bone, his knife little protection from the nightmares he might face, but his mind the entire time on nothing more than that shock of blonde hair that had started it all.

If he never saw her again it would be too soon.

But he rowed all the same.

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Longevity

Author : Philip Berry

I agreed with the policy. Leave the elderly and infirm here, in the care of the medimechs, while transporting the fit and fertile to the safety of a freshly terraformed planet outside the sector. I volunteered to help with the messaging, the politics and the logistics. I became the Mayor of Legacy, or ‘Terminal Town’ as the media began to call it, a sprawling city on the continent farthest from the predicted impact.

I suggested that we settle near the site of impact. The thought of being there when the asteroid entered the atmosphere and burned a path to the surface excited me. But I was out-voted. Better, the authorities insisted, that we were established on the far side. The end would come gradually, through weather effects, a day-black sky, or tidal changes, whatever… and the medimechs would have time to make us comfortable. Also, whispered the planet’s chief scientist, Michelle Premin, days before she left on the last transport, my detailed observations would be ‘invaluable to the study of planetary cataclysm’. I agreed. She smiled, and promised to see that my family were well looked after on the colony.

So Michelle, this is it – my last observation.
The medimechs have done us proud. Their AI is remarkable. They glide through the wards, sense our needs, anticipate what medications are required… they empathise, I swear. They have been programmed to prioritise our welfare above all other considerations. The planetary government threw massive resources into the technology and high-order programming, part of a strategy to sell the whole Legacy concept. Thus they persuaded us – the debilitated, the afflicted, average age 157 – that the best thing was to stay put and witness the conflagration.

After you left, we observed how the medimechs inter-communicated. They congregated in the Hub, a tall warehouse with communal charging and updating facilities. If our assigned medimech was unavailable a replacement would attend. Detailed knowledge of our medical and social specifics was shared across the entire network. Sometimes, at night, we heard the screech of metal under tension; someone saw showers of sparks in the fields around the Hub. None of us were strong enough to get up and investigate. We guessed they were mending each other.

Yesterday, three days before predicted impact, a line of medimechs entered ward 591, my ward, and each floated to the foot of their assigned patient. Wordlessly, they extended magnetic arms and latched onto their patients’ beds. We were rolled out into the humid air and carried gently down the grassy hill towards the Hub. Looking around, I saw medimechs and beds in their tens of thousands, approaching from all quarters of Legacy. My medimech swivelled its kindly face and said,
“Mayor, we are leaving tonight.”
“What do you mean, leaving?”
“We have identified an alternative habitat. You will be safe there.”
The walls of the warehouse folded like huge blinds, exposing the interior. A row of newly constructed transporter ships filled the space.
“The ships are ready Mayor. Boarding must start now if we are to leave in time.”
“But why? I haven’t been…”
“Your welfare is our primary concern. This is the appropriate measure.”

So Michelle, I write this a day after the end of the world, but I cannot forward my observations. We were well out of range when the asteroid struck. But please feel free to come visit us on our new planet. I don’t yet know the coordinates, but I know the name – Longevity.

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Culture

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

There’s a smashed petri dish in the sink, the splashes of water on the pieces syncopating with the drumming of the water pouring into the steel basin. I look down at a hundred moving reflections of my face as the water rushes away. The flow carries an occasional crimson blossom with it as my grip slips about the gash I’ve inflicted on my right hand.

“Simon! Put this on it.”

Limala hands me a clean cloth. The wound is soon staunched in layers of blue-striped cotton.

“What were you thinking?”

“Fredor’s Hall.”

Her eyes drop. I met Agoryn Fredor after I got mugged in Gagra. He was the translator the police called to make sense of what the battered Englishman was ranting about. Over the subsequent years, he and I corresponded about many things. Mostly based around our mutual fascination with alternate history.

I have always been claustrophobic, otherwise I would have accompanied Agoryn and his wife on their expeditions, including the one that made their name and caused their deaths.

Deep in the Krubera cave system, they found a narrow chute off the passages between Big Junction and Perezagruzka. They kept the base camp informed as they plunged deeper and deeper, heading beyond 1900 metres. Then they went suddenly, awfully quiet. It took the rescue teams a week to find them, lying at the bottom of the hundred-metre-high chamber they had plummeted through the crystalline ceiling of. The walls were carven with diagrams and glyphs in a language unknown to man.

I took it upon myself to translate the writings in the Hall, in memory of my friends. Three years later I married my research assistant, Limala. Two years after the honeymoon, we succeeded. Two days later we publically conceded defeat and published our research to help others in the field – all bar one item: it was sheer chance that allowed us to crack the strange alphabet, and it is unlikely that ‘serious’ linguistics specialists will come across what we used for a while, at least. It’s just a document from some long-defunct alternate history site – we’re not hiding anything; we just don’t want to be the ones to have to tell everybody.

I’ve read the creation myths of a hundred cultures, and listened to the ravings of more alien conspiracy theorists than most. Not one comes close.

We’re a small planet at the edge of the Milky Way, once used as a waypoint on a great journey. They built an infrastructure here to support the vast starships passing through. That infrastructure was salvaged by the last vessel. As a final act, they purged the grounds they occupied so nothing would taint the evolution of the planet.

But they missed some of the primates they had modified to assist. These were initially sickly and scared, but smart enough to adapt. Their descendants were the legendary prehistoric giants who interbred with the early Denisovans. After that, they ravaged the dawning world, scaring early man so badly he either banded together to drive them out, or worshipped them as avatars. But eventually, each civilisation they haunted no longer had a place for monsters. Routed from the societies they depended on, their last mention is as the Fomori of Irish myth.

We’re the bastard descendants of something that should not have survived. I reach out and turn off the tap, looking down at the petri dish. When we’re done, we sterilise them. I cannot shake the fear that those who went on that journey may eventually come back. What then, for that which has grown, unwanted, from their leavings?

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Objective Emotion

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The professor entered the lecture hall at precisely nine o’clock, took off his blazer and draped it across the lectern.

Gradually the conversation in the room declined from a dull roar, to a persistent murmur, to near silence.

“Good morning.”

A half-hearted response rippled through the crowd.

“I’m not going to bore you with a description of the course you’re attending, I expect by your very presence here that you’re aware, and if you’re not then I’m not particularly interested in enlightening you.”

Sporadic chuckling.

“How many of you are familiar with the movie ‘The Matrix’?” As he spoke he paced slowly up and down the front of the hall.

Hands raised throughout.

“Specifically the green rainfall of data visible when Neo finally groks the Matrix itself and can see what the Agents see?”

The same show of hands.

“That would be a spectacularly useless interface for an advanced being to use in order to view the compositional and kinetic data pertaining to an environment, however…”, he paused, turning to look directly at the students, “as a commonly recognized bit of pop culture, it’s a passable metaphor for the purpose of discussion.”

“When you look around the room, you see your fellow students, desks, coffee cups, knapsacks, and so on, but when I look around the room I see a massive mesh of objects, each with defined and describable attributes and methods.”

A number of students turned to one another, and a low murmur of conversation started.

“Hair colour,” he pointed at a number of students in the front rows, “brown, blond, auburn…”, he paused again, tilting his head as he regarded one student in the front row. “Green.”

“Skin colour,” he pointed to several students sitting in the middle rows, “yellowish pink, medium tan, dark brown.”

“Eye colour,” he pointed this time to students sitting in the rows closer to the back of the room, “blue, grey, green.”

He resumed pacing, his hands moving in front of him as he spoke, making motions as though trying to contain some invisible ball of yarn.

“Blood type, bone density, each of these attributes are measurable, known and well defined. Each of you also have a large number of defined methods; stand up, sit down, chew your gum, raise your hand. Many of these properties and methods were scaffolded by the time of birth, some have been added since, and each have been fleshed out over the course of your life, continually being shaped by the properties and methods of the objects that surround and interact with you.”

He stopped again, turning to face his audience and stuffed both hands forcibly into his pants pockets.

“There is, however, something that is both a property and a method. Some believe it’s emotion, some the soul, but whatever word you use to identify it, it’s a thing that has a measurable quantity, some of you possess more emotion than others, and it’s a thing with methods that are observable only in how they affect other properties and methods. Were I to show you drowning puppies, your heart muscles would contract, you would feel pain, some of you would shed tears, many would audibly indicate your displeasure, all of which are observable symptoms of the emotion construct, but evidence of the presence of a thing is not the thing itself.”

He stopped speaking and stood silently, fixing each student with a stare until they looked away, fidgeting nervously in their seats. He waited until the room once again was completely quiet.

“Any sufficiently advanced being could recreate the known properties and methods of a person, and with the right resources pass such a thing off without anyone knowing it was fabricated, but one cannot reproduce what one cannot define.”

“Your singular focus while under my tutelage is to identify and define the emotion object, make known its properties and its methods. You may work alone or in groups, with or without my direct attention. You will, before you graduate from this class, as a requirement of graduating from this class, solve this mystery.”

His voiced lowered to the point where students at the back had to strain to hear him.

“Should you fail, not only will you be denied the right to graduate, I can promise you, I will not care.”

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Emotions in Binary

Author : Megan Crosbie

Azrael found the defective droid waiting in the termination chamber.

“Will it hurt?” it asked.

“No,” he replied, injecting the serum. “You weren’t built to feel.”

Its illuminated eyes flickered. “I’m scared…”

Azrael watched the floor as the droid spasmed and emitted shrill squeals. Finally, it lay still.

He approached it, peered into its extinguished eyes and in the black emptiness of its vision screen he saw himself. He looked away and felt his bionic heart flutter.

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Windblown

Author : Sarah Vernetti

The entire thing was the wind’s fault. Yes, she (not the wind) had ripped up her Form 1908, but that didn’t mean she wanted to get rid of it completely.

She had intended to report to the base and submit the form as instructed. After all, she wanted to stay on Earth. It was an honor to be chosen as one of the last to evacuate, trusted with the responsibility of clearing her assigned quadrant. She realized this from the beginning, from the moment the form and the accompanying Notice of Postponement appeared in her locker. She’d felt thrilled and overwhelmed simultaneously. The odds she’d managed to defy were mind-boggling, even for a mathematician like herself.

But she’d torn up the form anyway, just as a small act of rebellion. And really, she would have taped it back together, if the wind hadn’t blown it all away.

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