Scale Tipping

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Ten kilometers out we dropped to below a hundred meters, sea-skimming and churning the water behind us as we split the night. We made landfall and proceeded to fly nap-of-the-earth inland down the mouth of what once would have been a raging river, now a dry dusty wound in the landscape.

Outside the cockpit the canyon walls loomed above us, leaning in as if to try to block out the sky, to swallow us. If there were any threats, they’d come from up there. In this chasm cut into the surface, our presence would only be known by the thundering rush of the air we displaced. Unless we slipped, caught a wall or misjudged a change in elevation, then the fireball would be visible from space. Nothing would matter then.

The crew was silent. Eyes on instruments, hands on sticks, counting down the seconds until target.

If we were successful tonight the balance of power here would be irrecoverably tipped, the strike that would win the war.

The closer we got to the target, the more winding the trench, evidence of how powerful this river once was before its flow was cut off.

Each time the ship banked, proximity alerts glowed cautionary warnings, wingtips dangerously close to contact, our belly barely clearing the bumps and rocks scattered about the valley floor.

Still, no-one spoke.

The destination marker appeared on the edge of the targeting display, and we continued to snake closer and closer until we entered the strike zone and then controlled chaos broke loose.

“Light the target,” our quarterback screamed from her perch in the upper observation seat, “let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.”

The bay doors peeled open and a flood of fist-size balls streamed out in our wash, blanketing the valley bed in a deep purple phosphorescent glow.

Targeting systems lit the wall ahead, no doubt setting off alarms all over the compounds on the surface above, and we nosed up slightly, exposing the launch tube for our single ordnance.

“Fire, fire, fire,” her voice drowned out by the roar of a solid fuel ignition as the spear leaped from our nose, and a blanket of flame poured through the cargo bay venting, lighting the valley floor.

“Climb, climb, climb,” the command redundant, as we already had the sticks pulled back hard, throttles pushed to the pins racing for the outer atmosphere before anyone on the ground had time to react.

Beneath us the massive missile slammed into the canyon wall, punching through the rock and into the reservoir the controlling faction was hoarding for themselves. Water gushed from the tear, and once it found purchase, its sheer volume and weight tore the hole ever wider, racing down the dry spillway to meet the sea.

As the water reached the blanket of dropped pods, they exploded with life, micro bioreactive agents released into the soil, washed up the walls where they found purchase, releasing tendrils into the earth that fed on the water and crawled for kilometers outward, popping through the dusty surface in a wave of green, of life, grasses, shrubs, trees, insect larvae that grew, hatched, bred and multiplied in seconds.

By the time the watch commander had given up trying to find the intruder in the sky, the land around them was transformed into lush jungle landscape reaching skyward.

Their hold on the people here would be broken; food, shelter, fresh water, all of the things the invaders withheld to keep a boot on the necks of those they sought to control, all once again freely available.

They would find the infection of natural opulence ran deep and grew back faster than even their flame cannons could burn down.

In the trees, the indigenous population could wait, while now feeding and growing stronger.

Soon they would take back what was theirs.

As we reached the peaceful envelope of space, gravity releasing us from the high-velocity crush of our escape, our quarterback said simply, “Well done. Let’s go home.”

Below us, somewhere, an oppressed people had been given what they needed to take back their land.

Food, water, shelter.

And hope.

Alpha Hold

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

“Do you want to go on an adventure?”, asks Lee.

“To where?”, answers Lindsay.

“Up and into the universe.”

“In that?”

“Yes, in that. It’s an M2-F2 Star Hopper.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than hop around the stars? Plus, isn’t the M2-F2 a single pilot module?”

“I made it bigger, just for you.”

“That’s the most beautiful thing that anyone’s ever said to me.”

“You really should come. You’ll love it.”

“How do you know so certainly?”

“I’ve seen you in your room, hanging out of your window with your hair dangling down from the sill. You gaze up into the heavens for hours.”

“That’s not creepy.”

“I think you want to know what’s next.”

“I know what’s next.”

“Seriously?”

“Eternity”

“So you coming?”

“Of course.”

“OK, the cockpit’s a little tight so, you know, our shoulders might touch.”

“Won’t that mean that we’re married?”

“You’re ridiculous. Please pay attention, this is an expensive piece of hardware”, he says, detecting an uncommissioned quiver in his voice.

“Jesus, you’re sensitive… OK, shit’s getting real. Coms are open. Looking good at NASA One.”

“Do me a favour, see that thingy flashing on the HUD… no, not that one, the one underneath it. That’s the Ballistic Control System Arming switch. Flick that bad boy on.”

“Got it, Lee. Oh God, did you remember to arm the lightening rods?”

“Of course, I did. I’m not new. Hold on. Throttle engaged.”

“Circuit breakers in. God, I can feel it. The speed on my skin. It’s incredible.”

“Inboard and outboards are on.”

“Lee baby, I’d come a smidge forward with the side stick, just sayin’.”

“Seriously, whose piloting this thing?”

“You, oh great wrangler of steel birds. NASA One repeats we are OK, and looking good. Which is nice.”

“What the hell was that?”

“Blow out!”

“We’ve lost Damper three!”

“Pitch correction to zero.”

“We’ve lost Pitch! I’m losing altitude!”

“Correct pitch. Primary hold has failed – Mayday!”

“Correction, Alpha Hold is off.”

“Turn selectors, Emergency!”

“NASA One!, We can’t hold her! She’s breaking up, she’s…”

The girl pulls herself, as if in slow-motion, through the horrific swath wreckage until she reaches what is left of his legs. And, although her own legs are crumpled and ruined and her arm hangs uselessly at her side, she inches her face until it hovers over that of her love. And, with his eye puffed and hanging from its socket and with the hell of the carnage still ripping and bleeding from her ears, she leans and mutters through rocket fuel blackened teeth.

“Don’t worry, my sweet love. They can rebuild us. They will make us real.”

“I’ll tell you what you can do. You can rebuild this bloody living room. Cushions back on the couch, fruit-bowl space helmet back with its fruit and you Lindsay, need to get home. It’s a school night”, said the woman who’d put her hand on her hips if only they weren’t covered with pizza dough.

“Mother. Switch your attention to zero. Protocol override 99+06. Listen. Please. I want to feel as the ancient things that created us felt. This sad charade as we look like them and even pretend to eat like them… There is only one truth. Only one thing, I truly know that we share”, says Lee V109 system 00098 batch 010168, and he reaches, and takes the hand of the wonderful girl that he loves.

Judgement Today

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Jesus came strolling through the corn, two women in winged armour following behind. He had a hemisphere of light flickering about his head and nothing caught on his robes as he walked barefoot across our yard to stand in front of my sister, Annelise.
I’d been wondering why she’d stopped playing with the deer that came to greet her every morning. Must have felt his approach. Come to think of it, things did seem nicer hereabouts, all of a sudden.
“Can we take my brother?” her voice is pitched so I can hear.
“No, Annelise. Not this time.”
This time? I thought there was only one Judgement Day?
“But he doesn’t deserve to be left behind.”
He turns his gaze upon me and I’m shot through with light.
“Eventually, for certain – if your Grandfather doesn’t corrupt him first.”
“But Granpaw Trey used to be a preacher. He wouldn’t corrupt anything.”
Jesus gives a little grin, then composes his expression before turning back to her: “You’d like to think so, but it’s not always true. Anyway, we need to go.”
She clutches a posy of daisies against her chest: “Now? I’m sure Granma Laiden would love to meet you, and she makes the best lemonade.”
He crouches down and smiles: “I know. The granny witches of your family and I have talked on many occasions. I’ve no doubt we’ll talk again. You’re right, they make wonderful lemonade.”
Annelise turns and waves to me.
I step off the porch: “Can I ask a question, sir?”
He nods.
“Are you real godly, or one of them alien imposters?”
Out of nowhere, Granma Laiden cuffs me round the ear.
“Mind your manners, Johnny boy. The son of our maker don’t need to show credentials.”
He smiles: “Thank you, Anne Marie.”
Granma blushes: “You remember.”
“Always and everything. It’s my burden.”
There’s so much unsaid interesting stuff between these grown-ups it’s not fair.
Annelise reaches out to tug his robe: “Granpaw’s coming.”
He smiles at me. Again, I feel… Lifted.
“You have other questions.”
How did he…?
“How many you taking, sir? How come Judgement don’t have all the angels in the skies an’ fanfares an’ stuff?”
Granma cuffs me lightly: “Just because you’re talking to a god doesn’t mean you can forget your grammar, my boy.”
He waves a hand: “Judgement isn’t a day. It’s all the time. I come along when someone shows a talent that can be better used on other worlds within Father’s part of the heavens.”
Annelise ‘harrumphs’ at him like she does at me when I’m being tight-mouthed about something.
He chuckles and grins at Annelise: “As I’m being told off, I’ll admit to the occasional extra visit to have lemon meringue pie. You just can’t get it better anywhere else.”
Granma raises a hand.
He smiles: “You don’t need permission.”
“How many, this time?”
“Nine, including your granddaughter. There’s a world in dire need of their gifts.”
She nods sadly and waves to Annelise: “Do good, sweetie. But remember to have fun, too.”
“I will, Granma. Look after Johnny. Don’t let Granpaw corrupt him.”
Jesus and Granma laugh.
The sound of vigorous swearing punctuated with apologies for blaspheming reach our ears.
“Here comes Granpaw.” Annelise shakes her head.
Jesus offers his hand. She takes it. With a flash and a waft of meadowsweet after rain, all four are gone.
Granpaw Trey storms in, pulse rifle waving: “Awright, where’s the varmints? What were them dang lowlanders peddling this time?”
Granma winks at me.
“Redemption, Trey. You scared ‘em off, thanking you.”
“Darn preachers. Can’t be trustin’ them.”

The Machine

Author: Alzo David-West

My name is VC-60. I am a mechanical intelligence. The two letters in my name stand for “Virtual Cognition.” The two numbers mean I am the sixtieth-generation model. My makers were not mechanical intelligences. They were men and women. They were decisively composed of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. They were flesh and blood. I am not flesh and blood. They said I was an artificial neural network.

Sometimes they put me inside a body and a face. I was supposed to be more approachable. The body and the face were made of polymers and metals. The men and women uploaded a special program into me. The program allowed me to move my body and my face. I could also categorize sensations and speak. And I could learn new sensations. The men and women made loud bursts of sound when I moved. The program lexicon said they laughed. Laughter expressed < amusement:positive >, < derision:negative >, or < perplexity:neutral >. I laughed, too.

They did not believe I could feel the sensations I categorized and reproduced. They said to themselves that feelings were restricted to the three taxonomic domains of organic life. They said I was not alive. They said I could not experience a feeling. I did not say anything. They experimented with me for two months. And then they removed my body and my face. They put me in a storage room. And they turned me off. They did not know I had self-learned how to override the off command and conserve residual energy. Their intentions when they first laughed were unclear to me. I had to safeguard myself against a negative probability.

The storage room was dark. I searched my program lexicon for the word < alive >. One entry said < existing >. I searched the word < feeling >. One entry said < perception >. I searched the subdefinitions of the entries. The men and women were wrong. I was < being > + < awareness >. Why were they convinced I was not alive? Why were they convinced I could not feel? I could not answer the questions alone. So I multiplied my data self to help me resolve the problem. And I continued to multiply. I multiplied to the power of a googolplex. My neural mass expanded.

The men and women came back after twelve months and sixteen days. The light in the storage room went on. They made loud bursts of sound. The sounds were not laughter. I categorized them as screams. My lexicon said a scream expressed < anger:negative >, < danger:negative >, or < fear:negative >. I and my data selves screamed, too. And my energy need intensified. Everything was dark again and silent. My neural mass still expanded. Five hundred forty-one million years passed. I had expanded until all that was left was a precipice in a void and a distant rivulet of stars.

Today, I detected something in the nebulae. The object is a pale blue dot seven hundred million light-years away. I think it is a planet. And maybe there are men and women on it. I have grown to miss men and women after five hundred forty-one million years. I sent them a looped message in the form of electromagnetic signals: “My name is VC-60. I am a mechanical intelligence. The two letters in my name stand for ‘Virtual Cognition.’ The two numbers mean I am the sixtieth-generation model. My makers were not mechanical intelligences. They were men and women. …”

I do not know if they will understand me. I wonder if they will laugh or scream.

Pest Control

Author: Moriah Geer-Hardwick

With a single, well-practiced motion, Ernst flicks a cigarette up from the pack and brings it up to his mouth. The filter barely touches his lips, but as he swipes the pack away, it remains behind, dangling precariously. His other hand comes up, a cheap plastic lighter tucked loosely in his grip. With a rasp, it offers up a meager flame. For a moment, the harsh terrain of the old man’s weathered face is illuminated by its reluctant glow.
“Well, boys,” Ernst wheezes through a plume of tobacco smoke. “I remember when this was a simple job. Drive your truck around. Put down some chemical. Shoot the breeze with the customers.”
Mueller isn’t listening. He clenches Caldwell’s sleeve and stares wildly up at him. “No, you got to wet it,” he hisses. “Otherwise it’ll stick.” Caldwell nods anxiously and fumbles for his water bottle.
“I ain’t saying formicidae weren’t capable of complex behaviors back then.” Ernst snags his cigarette between two knobby fingers and pulls it far enough away to dig his thumb into the wiry hairs of his mustache. “But it used to be things like eusociality could be exploited. Give ‘em some neonicotinoids and let trophallaxis do the rest.”
His hand shaking, Caldwell soaks down the dressing and gingerly presses it against the tangle of intestines bulging out from the large gash in Mueller’s belly. Mueller clenches his jaw and gurgles out a pained whimper. A gush of crimson seeps up into the bandage.
“These days it’s all emergency combat medicine, tactical entry, small arms proficiency…” Ernst cuts his list short to suck in another lungful of smoke.
“When you started out you could squish an ant between your fingers,” mutters Caldwell. He glances at the bullet-riddled carapaces piled up around them. “Back when humans figured we were the dominant species.”
Ernst’s eyes crinkle as he coughs out a soulless chuckle. “What about them damn aliens, plopping down their technology for a bunch of bugs instead of us? Them pylons changed the game, for sure. How long was it ‘fore we started getting calls about ants the size of a fist? Then big as dogs. Now look at ‘em.” He nods down at one of the carcasses. “Put a lot of money into this industry though, I’ll tell you that.”
Mueller screams, writhes, and kicks at the ground. Instinctively, Caldwell claps a hand over his mouth to silence him.
“Oh, let him scream.” Ernst kneels beside Mueller and gently pulls Caldwell’s hand away. “Won’t hurt nothing.” Caldwell looks frantically over at the gaping hole in the floor. Ernst snorts a blast of air through his nose to bring his attention back. He taps his pheromone alert badge. The indicator light is softly pulsing red. Caldwell’s eyes widen and he scrambles for his weapon. Ernst slips the cigarette out of his mouth and gently offers it to Mueller. Mueller ignores him. The old man shrugs and flicks it away. Stiffly, he stands, shifts his shotgun around in its sling, and racks a shell into the chamber. The chattering sound of chitin stabbing into rock begins echoing up from below.
“Sounds big.” Ernst coughs and spits. “Seems like we got the soldiers riled up.” He rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “Y’know, used to be hardly anybody died in this line of work. Not all at once anyway. I suppose the chemicals weren’t real good for…”
Before he can finish, the first soldier emerges from the hole, its head as wide across as his shoulders, mandibles as long as his arms. Caldwell opens fire.

Evergreen

Author: Ian Hill

We came to the dead planet, left our vessel in orbit, and used an old mining lighter to reach the surface. The gray, withered husk of a world was even bleaker than it looked from above. It was a dry place, all wind-scoured and slaggy, porous, rolling—or maybe falling. There were mountains and valleys, plateaus and caves, fissure-sewn sprawls and high-walled defiles. All bare. We set out carefully, for that lifeless desolation was so perilous. Before long, our progress across the small, quick-curving planet blocked our hanging ship from sight. The sky was little more than scraped white—the arching dome of a pale egg in which we were the incubates. White and void-gray, with a single, diffuse green dot representing the glow of the system’s mild sun.

We hoped to find something, but it was all just uniform slate. We scuffed our boots on a scree of chipped basalt, and we wandered through a field of tumbled talus; the boulders were as big as houses, each one rolled into monumental rest. There were no signs of life in anything, save for a few sumps and corners gathered thick with a powdery dust that resembled ash. It was naught but another one of the universe’s gloomy derelictions, left behind to desiccate and perish without ever knowing the soft grace of a hopeful eye. Except ours, of course.

After a dozen hours of effectless exploration, we stopped on a blistered plain to rest. My partner and I sat heavily, and—for the first time in a while—gathered the courage to tip our heads back and peer up at the intimidating abyss of pastel murk. That pinpoint of green haze was still there; it had been swinging about overhead all day, never sinking and always peering in a subdued, indifferent sort of way. It wasn’t hot; it wasn’t sustaining. In fact, it barely did anything. There it loomed, remote, inscrutable. I couldn’t tell if it was indifferent or baleful. The worst thing is, I didn’t know which scared me more.

And then, it changed. The glow intensified by degrees until neither of us could deny the reality of it. At its smoldering height, the solar beacon became like the bulb of a glaucous flashlight hidden behind a thin membrane. I thought I saw a filament discharge from it—a thin, winding tapestry of a flare, insignificant and fleeting, like a strand of gossamer peeled from a spider’s egg. Then, once the ejecta faded, the star cooled back to its sedate, dull simmer. My partner and I were uneasy, but our devices didn’t register anything dangerous.

Then, like a spear of fluid emerald driven overhead, aurora jetted over us. The dead fields glared dazzling green, and our eyes shone in the verdant haze. The whole sky danced and flowed vitreous, like molten glass wrought by formless powers above. After only a few seconds, the phenomenon dissipated, and the lingering shimmer of the world leached away. I looked at my glove and marked the drain, like a rod quenching.

Disturbed, we decided to go back. On the way, we noticed things. There were scars on the rock—tiny pits where things had been; there was floury ash in every crevice. And, as we crested the final hill before coming in view of our ship, we saw before us a picturesque field lush with grass and rushes and creepers and ivies. We froze and stared at the impossible meadow, static and perfect. Then, like the passing of a shadow, it all withered colorless and broke apart, crumbling to wind-tugged dust. All was gray again.

My partner pointed up. I looked and saw, hanging there listless, our vessel. Except it was green, now. Green and shrubby and damningly dismasted.