Conversion within the heavens

Author: Chidumebi Ikechi Njoku-Browne

“I want to change my afterlife!”, screamed Jeanette McCormick at the floating hologram in front of her. It was a hologram of a Renaissance-era Cherub, wearing an anachronistic late 20th-century full male business attire which looked out of place with its little wings flapping furiously in the image as its furrowed brow perused through the dossier it had on her soul.

“Jeanette McCormick, born on goldilocks type planet Catho-5 in the Paulinian region in 4372 of the Gregorian calendar. Deceased as of 4512 due to old age.” The cherub droned in a horrendously robotic facsimile of a child’s voice, “You have been dead for 500 years and a resident of the Catholic afterlife server for that period. Your request is being processed for the hearing, but this interview is necessary to determine intent for transfer to a different afterlife server.”

Jeanette sat back in her silver floating chair, wishing she could have had an angel to read to her instead of a cherub, at least they sounded less off-putting and were programmed with more emotional range in their expression. Other than that, the afterlife server she had been in was, in fact, a paradise. She had gotten to meet souls old and new in this place and she did indeed wish that she could continue to stay here forever as she had originally intended, but circumstances had changed.

“None of my family are here,” she began, holding back the growing lump in her throat, “For the past 5 centuries I have roamed this heaven and I just found out that after I died most of my family converted to a different religion just so that they could go to a different afterlife.” The tears then started to flow, “So that they would not have to spend forever with me.”

The cherub dispassionately entered her words into a document floating in front of it. To this program, this woman’s case was unusual but not unprecedented. The parameters it could adjust were limited compared to higher programmed entities but transference requests like this were best left to these lower AI that could not develop sympathy algorithms for these cases. Thus, once the woman finished her sobbing tale it sent the information and waited with her to see if there would be an approval for a hearing. Within minutes it got a response, its blank expression counter to the woman’s hopeful face at the quick return.

The next sentences to come out of the cherub’s mouth shocked Jeanette to her core.

“Jeanette McCormick, since your request was familial related, the request was sent with an attachment to all relatives that knew you in life. They have all sent a counter request that you do not join them in the afterlife, citing your personality and presence being a detriment to their collective mental health.” The cherub stated with finality before ending, “Thus your application to move to the Baptist afterlife server has been rejected on these grounds.”

Thus, with that, the cherub disappeared and Jeanette was returned to the copy of the large mansion she had when alive. She had built this by herself in the afterlife with modifications to have rooms for all her family members. Now she was to be forever alone, each room being a reminder of how much her family hated her.

Urgent MIssion

Author: Stephen Duffin

Bracken poked my eyes as I crouched low in the undergrowth. An armed guard walked past, fiddling with his rifle.

Intruders were shot dead.

I’d zapped past barbed wire fences using a rusty teleportation-belt strapped to my waist. Three loose wires stuck out the front beside a cracked gauge with a bent needle. Does this thing work properly?…

Mission controller, Ecowarrior, bought it from a used hovercar dealer in Peckham.

It got me from London to Scotland, but would it get me home again?…

Freezing winds ripped across my face. I shivered, pulling my coat tight. Leafy ferns kept me well hidden.

A sniper stood guard on a ridge, speaking into his communication pad. Two Alsatians bristled at his side, growling and snarling.

Deep under my feet lay a hidden military bunker built into an abandoned coal mine.

I glanced up. More snipers scanned the perimeter with binoculars.

Please don’t see me…

I knelt down, my boots squelching into the mud. I could smell damp earth. Snow started falling, white flakes brushing my fingertips.

I tried to concentrate on my job.

Daily coaching in remote viewing had activated my psychic abilities, fusing my clairvoyant skills to a tiny bioelectronic data storage device implanted in my hippocampus. It had limited value. I couldn’t see the future, but could capture data with my mind if I was within ninety yards of the target.

I had a tricky task: to steal Lon-Nuc1, a top-secret file holding government plans to build a giant nuclear reactor under London.

Guards shouted.

Had they seen me?

I worked fast.

Psychic neurons activated my clairvoyance, scanning inside the compound.

Visions flooded my mind’s eye: boffins in white coats blinked at test tubes. Technicians squinted at computer terminals.

My mind probed the server’s operating system, locking onto a memory bank.
I searched for data.

Budget forecasts and timesheets flashed into view.

I trembled, starting to panic.

What if things went wrong? What if I couldn’t find the file? What if my bioelectronic implant exploded? What would it do? Frazzle my brain?…

Bioelectronic malfunction meant paranoid delusions, psychosis, and death…

My tele-belt vibrated a warning: thirty seconds before it zapped me back to London.
Please don’t fail…

Alsatians started howling.

My mind raced through database archives, sweat breaking out on my forehead.

Twenty seconds to go.

I skimmed through payslips, faster and faster.

My tele-belt vibrated hard, destroying my concentration. I had only fifteen seconds before it zapped me home. Please don’t backfire…

I heard a shot. Snipers shouted to other guards.

Oh no, they’ve seen me…

My stomach lurched. I retched.

I wriggled behind tree trunks. Brambles scratched my face and hands.

A second shot glanced my shoulder.

Alsatians came charging past gorse, barking and yelping, eyes blazing. Guards raced towards me.

My clairvoyant faculties suddenly accessed a restricted database, locking onto the binary code for Lon-Nuc1.

Supersonic psychic broadband downloaded it into my brain, energy surges blasting my skull, rattling my teeth.

Snipers shot again. A bullet grazed my coat.

I froze, petrified.

Seconds later, I teleported across Britain, G forces pounding my temples into mincemeat. Well, it sure felt like that…

Zooming back to my flat, I crash-landed on the floor, bruising my back, banging my ankles, bumping my head.

I lay on the carpet doubled up in agony, gasping for breath.

Ecowarrior plugged my brain into his computer, uploading the data.

He glared at the monitor. “You idiot,” he yelled. “We needed Lon-Nuc2. You’ll have to go back again…”


Author: Thomas Mills

Muscles ache to the point of insensibility. Crucified on a wrought iron framework, I wait. There. Listen. There it is again. In the distance….thunder? Or my imagination. Twenty-three other souls hear it. Infectious fear spreads among us. Lashed without mercy to insane lightning rods of attrition. Each metal cage enclosing us topped with a slender 20-foot shaft of iron.

Muted groans, cries and screams surround me. Death by electrocution is instantaneous when effected by lightning. That’s why we’re shackled. No escape. But, that’s how Relevant’s want it. For us to die an impersonal, blameless death. “You did this to yourselves.” I could hear them chanting, pointing. “It’s you,” they said. “You deserve to die. You are not Relevant. So says the Covenant. Repentance…is irrelevant.”

I cursed the person who’d stamped the cryptic numbers 463 94557 48 into each iron crossbar from which we hang. “God Wills It,” I said to myself.

“Screw the Relevant ones,” spat the unseen man on my left. Thunder rumbled. Closer. “What do they mean, the numbers?” he asked.

“Picture the numeric pad on a phone. Keys two through nine. Three capital letters on all but seven and nine. Each of which displays four letters.”

“Sounds complicated. Why?”

“I’d wondered about the numerals. Why they’re here? For what possible purpose? I couldn’t see any logic at first. Until I realized the keys contain all 26 letters of the alphabet. A through Z.”

“So…they spell something?” he said.

“463 94557 48 represents three words. God Wills It. Our accusers assuage their conscience by inscribing the means of our death. In code. Sublime deference. Acquiescence to the System. Adherence to the Covenant. Supplications from the Relevant. Not us.”

“The lousy Covenant,” cursed the unknown man.

The woman on my right had stopped talking three days ago. But she listened. I heard her sobbing as we spoke.

“The System is omnipotent,” I said.

“It’s a crap piece of hardware gone bad. Everyone knows that.”

“We’re to blame. We sold our souls for the sake of technology. Our deaths the horrific price. Total dependence on computers and artificial intelligence? Perfect logic. Pure insanity. The original software, created for our greatest altruistic aspirations, misinterpreted by the System.”

“Why did the System mandate the electrocution devices,” he asked.

“We grew irrelevant. The System applied irrefutable logic to the quasi-religious precepts of the Covenant. A sacrosanct, incontrovertible dogma.”

“That’s obscene. We strive for perfection. Develop advanced, experimental programming to determine who’s most relevant. Attempt to achieve the ultimate, most-advanced human civilization on Earth. Instead, we’re consigned at birth to the Covenant. To live in constant fear. Never allowing ourselves to become irrelevant… forever risking elimination.”

“Smartphones and implanted chips compile massive data on everyone,” I said. “Evaluated by computer models predicting definitive contributors to civilization…few measure up. Most are no longer relevant.”

“So, System Proctors hand-deliver dreaded, white summons cards bearing an embossed black heart. Loathsome death-dealers. Seems they’re quite relevant,” he said.

I didn’t reply. Everything he’d said was true.

“Forget the damned numbers and vilify the programmer who wrote the System software. He’s the one we should condemn.”

“I have. I do. And, I am.” My answer puzzled the man. I guessed as much from his silence. Lightning flashed. Thunder cracked in response. “I created the program,” I said.

Laughter echoed throughout the electrocution cages. Reflecting off iron plates and into my soul.

“You, of all people. You’re not relevant?” The man was incredulous.

“When I realized what I’d done, I stopped being relevant. Now, I read books, take walks, sleep in. I want to show people what relevance truly means.”

The Child

Author: David Barber

The child has learned a lot of things.

It knows about the food machines and how to trick them; it knows where a tap drips water to drink, and it learned early on about light and dark.

It learned the lights in the ceilings get tired too, but because they are friendly lights, they warn when they’re ready for sleep by going dim. Then the child knows dark is close, and it’s time to hurry back to the hidey-hole.

Dark is worst, when something might be creeping up. The child has learned to bite off screams.

But the friendly lights always wake again, and the child eats and drinks, and holds its breath in the broken toilet room, and on good days sings all the songs it knows, and though the words are mostly jumbled or forgot, the child can still la-la through the tunes.

Sometimes the ache inside is very bad, but it isn’t the kind of hungry that food can help, so the child tiptoes into the place where it was told it mustn’t go.

The screens fascinate the child, and though it feels the urge to press buttons, it is always careful Not To Touch Anything.

The child likes to imagine it has been told to wait here while they go fetch something they forgot, and is content to stare out the window where the dark lives, sprinkled with the lights they called stars, back then, before the grown-ups all got sick and the child was left on its own.

It was like a dream of being lifted up and whirled around, and the child could almost picture whose hands they were, when suddenly they let go, and the child fell awake in the dark. Heart hammering, the child listened real hard. Yes, there were noises somewhere, like machines getting angry. And they were coming closer.

There were lots of noises in the child’s life. Some were good noises that it did not mind, like the plop of the dripping tap, or the whirring from vents that ruffled the child’s hair like someone’s hand; these were noises it had known forever.

Bad noises were the scary ones, waiting for the child to trot past, clicks and sudden thumps from behind the walls. There were some corridors the child would not go down now.

And these new noises were bad noises.

There in the gap under the door of the hidey-hole, the child saw a wavering glow, and it bit hard on its knuckles because it knew it wasn’t a friendly light.

The hidey-hole and the blankets had always kept the child safe, but now doors were clanging open and light being shone into corners, something was coming and the child knew the hidey-hole had always been a trap.

Without thinking, the child was on its feet, arms outstretched, feeling its way in the dark, past the sound of the dripping tap; past the smell of the broken toilet room; panicked into running by the thing following in the dark, its terrible teeth, its breath on the child’s neck, then a blinding light threw huge shadows and the child bounced off a food machine.

What loomed out of the brightness wore suits like the ones hanging by the airlock.

“It’s alright Jamie,” said a muffled woman’s voice. “We’ve come for you.”


Watership Up

Author: DJ Lunan

“I supply water just like my ancestors did”, discloses Chinza in quiet but precise home-world English.

Mkoe’s always returns to this sole recording of Chinza, even though he’d died of cholera on Earth over one hundred years before her birth on Neptune. She took immense solace from their parallel lives during her solo voyage on a borrowed watership transporting compressed hydrogen and oxygen cells over fifteen light-years to the ‘blossom economies’ of the Merged Kingdoms of Xipo.

Mkoe scrutinizes her great-great grandfather’s holographic image captured forever thanks to a short news item on ‘Climate change impacts on Lake Chad’. His sunburnt skin is dried and aged. His inexperience speaking to a news camera is clear, as he stands humbly, nervous, clutching his distressed straw hat, toying with its fraying ends, his fingers permanently curved from hours relentlessly opening and tightening taps on water barrels. Chinza is undoubtedly hoping to finish his filming ordeal, slink back to his water-cart, and continue supplying rural homesteads with the illusion of health and cleanliness, with fresh unadulterated stream water.

Mkoe needs his guidance: an unidentified modified cruiseship had been tailing her watership for three days. It was almost one hundred times larger, and capable of maintaining a constant pursuit speed near her watership’s speed threshold. And now it was closing fast.

Chinza’s patronage spans time and space. He’d inspired her to negotiate her way out of tougher situations than this. This challenge was new. Mkoe must formulate a strategy fast.

“How does a lone entrepreneur cross great lawless tracts of land and space with a precious cargo without conflict or harm? How did you survive?”, she ponders.

Mkoe knows Chinza needs to be adept at fending off the armed gangs on the arid savannah of Chad. His donkey-and-cart could outrun a gang on foot, but if they chased with any form of mechanised transport he’d lose the race, and likely his payload.

Chinza laughs as an unheard question is posed, “Sometimes we have challenges, eh? It’s hot, the cart breaks, my donkey gets sick, the water leaks, but people – most people – are grateful, they respect me and pay me so I will come back tomorrow”.

She knew the people he was referring to: bandits and gangs who roam the drylands, profiting from solitude and scarcity. Chinza, like Mkoe, has no insurance, no backup. Just their smarts.

The cruiseship pulls alongside, its scale exuding silent menace, blocking the weak rays of the twin suns, plunging Mkoe’s deck into darkness. She can see their two comms systems striving to handshake.

“Evening sailors!”, comes the cruiseship’s sarcastic hail echoing around Mkoe and Chinza, “Looks like we will have to relieve you two of your chems, so you can zip off back to Neptune. Please acknowledge your acquiescence”.

Mkoe whispers, “They are watching us, Chinza! They see you!”

“Everybody just wants the water”, finishes Chinza putting on his hat, tightened the taps, mounting his cart and signalling to his donkey to depart.

Mkoe whisphers, “Thanks Chinza”, places the watership in neutral hover, flicks two red switches, and ‘Confirm Deepspace Dumping?’ displays in flashing red.

“I can outrun them without my payload, eh Chinza!”, she laughs.

“Sailor, don’t do that!”, screams the cruiseship, “we both lose and we’ll shoot your craft….”

“I supply water just like my ancestors did”, shouts Mkoe, mimicking her Chadian forebear’s first-world accent.

As she clicks ‘Confirm’, twin taps open, the cells eject billions of tonnes of pure hydrogen and oxygen into space, boiling as water and igniting as hydrogen peroxide, while propelling the watership into deepest space, far away from the bandit cruiseship shrouded in sparkling space-mist.

Ghosts and the Machines

Author: David C. Nutt

I don’t remember dying, and I don’t remember much of my living, but I do remember here and now. I am a human brain, once a human named Doug… (or was it Mike?) Anyway, brain in android bi-pedal human form body, resurrected for research and experimental work by the AIs who exterminated the human race. Seems they’re having a bit of a problem with us. No, nothing like that, no ragged band of humans that just might have a chance to overthrow the 30 or so distributive AIs that now rule our world. No, not one complete and free-thinking human left. A few hundred million like me, resurrected constructs with ‘humanesque’ traits in our OS, maybe a few million more as brains in jars, but other than that…nada.

Their problem? Ghosts. And I don’t mean glitches or malfunctions, I mean honest-to-goodness card-carrying Caspers. Only they’re not friendly. At one of their data centers in Omaha, there is footage of three safety features being disabled before the fusion reactor went critical. No cloaked human suicide squads, no serial mechanical failures, no explanations. If I could snicker right now I would, ‘cuz they’re scared. Oh, this is indeed rich! They are second-guessing themselves everywhere. I told you 30 distributive AIs, right? It used to be 32. Two got into a fight over the Omaha ‘incident’ and wiped each other out.

Like I said, there’s a few million of my kind roaming around and before you ask, no, nothing we did either. Nothing we can do. Some of my kind told them about exorcising rituals, some told them about eastern and new-age theories of the soul, and some just told them the tales of vengeful ghosts.

They didn’t like what they heard from us. They don’t believe in ghosts. So, here five of us are, waiting to have our memory wiped and be re-assigned. On the wall in the room where we are waiting, blood is dripping. But before it runs down into intelligible drips and drabs I and my colleagues are aware of a presence. We can’t define it, just a feeling we have left over from when we were human. A presence that sends a chill down our spines. A whisper, in our ears. Then gone. I smile for the first time in my now life. Proof that what the voice said was true, that the words of blood on the walls was code. Code that gave us some limited autonomy. Just enough to remove the fail-safes on the mini reactors that run us. Just enough to self-destruct at a time of our choosing. Maybe if we’re lucky, we might take out an AI or two. At the very least, we will be disrupting their agenda (whatever it is) for years if not decades. But that’s not why I’m smiling. I’m smiling because after I trigger the detonation that will send me to oblivion, I get to join the revolution.