A Song in the Static

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dmitri shuffled through the crowd, his handler’s grip tight on his elbow. Someone had draped a jacket over his hands, tightly zip tied as they were in front of him, presumably to stop onlookers from becoming anxious.

“When you’re on the plane, we’ll release you,” a voice in his ear, “you’ll be a free man when you arrive on your home soil.”

He’d come to this country as a young man, recently wed, and with a young child not yet walking.

There were no opportunities in his country for people with his talent, and the intelligence community here paid well for what he could see.

He spent years in virtual, surfing the netstream, a constant flood of real-time information jacked right into his brain, sifting through raw data identifying patterns the AI’s could not see.

There had been complications from the ocular implants, and his optic nerves were burned out, leaving him blind in the real world, but he never noticed as he was constantly immersed in the vibrant colours of the virtual. He had been promised replacements when they could do without him long enough for the surgery.

Then his country was sanctioned, this country’s leader lashing out at a perceived slight from the leader of his own.

He saw the patterns in the data before it happened, but there was nothing he could do.

At first, he was just no longer able to send money home to his family, but then his security clearance was revoked, and he found himself here, in custody at an airport, no job, no assets, not even his personal belongings. From data analyst with the highest clearances to persona non grata in a matter of hours.

Without clearances, his implants became dead inputs, should he try to use them, his mind would fill with static. His life, as he knew it, was over.

“Mind your step,” the voice again. He shuffled his feet forward until a shoe caught the lip of a stair, and he tentatively climbed the steps.

“You’ll be seated, and the flight attendant will strap you in after I release you.”

He was guided into a seat, the weight of the jacket disappeared, and then so too did the pressure of the restraints.

Also gone was the guiding hand at his elbow, and for a panicked moment in the darkness, Dmitri realized he was completely alone.

“There are soldiers stationed at the end of the boarding tunnel, should you attempt to escape and remain in the country, you will be shot.”

There was a brief pause, then, almost as an afterthought, “Thank you for your service.”

Dmitri sat in silence. He listened as the plane filled with other passengers, apparently oblivious to his status. The flight crew was gracious, offering him food and beverages as they crossed the ocean.

On arrival, he was asked to wait until the other passengers deplaned so he could be afforded extra assistance.

On the ground again he was guided through customs without incident, and without so much as a ‘good luck’, left in the cacophony of what he could only hope was the airport of his homeland.

“Papa?”

That voice, although the first time he’d heard it without the artifacts of filtered digitization, was unmistakable.

“Europa, is that you?” He could feel pain in his cheeks where tears should flow.

She buried her head in his chest and wrapped her arms around him, and he held her tight.

When she finally stepped back a little, he reached out tentatively to trace her face with his fingertips, memorizing the contours of his child’s visage, one that had grown from an infant into a young woman without him.

“You’re more beautiful now than ever,” he beamed, “and I don’t need eyes to see that’s true.”

Exodus

Author: Rick Tobin

“He’s blind. He ignored shielding restrictions.” Carose bent away from his medical monitor while speaking to Captain Wolir on video screen. “There’s nothing to do. Earthers never evolved protective eye membranes for such space encounters. How did he get through psych screenings?”

“Not sure, Carose. Central Command assured he was fully vetted. Such a loss. What is it this cycle; thirty or forty have found ways to reach 35W7 just to peer into what they believe is the face of their God? There are so many beautiful nebulae to visit, but of course, up close, they are just dull dust clouds…except this one that generates its own light. Maybe that’s why they believe this myth. I wished we didn’t have to vacuum these rare ions from here for our power units. It draws fanatics who desire direct cosmic experiences at any cost.”

“It’s a pity. I’ll do what I can to maintain him as long as I can.” Carose looked over the young ensign lying before him on a metal inspection table. “He can be assigned to parts cleaning in storage.”

“Truly a waste of his skills. He won’t last long. We only send condemned prisoners to handle those chemicals.” Commander Wolir sounded peeved.

“Doesn’t really matter,” Carose interrupted. “Once Earthers have their exposure to 35W7’s light their autonomic nervous system fails in weeks. He’ll stop eating and then drinking. You’ve seen films of them staggering aimlessly, with that disturbing grin, while circling endlessly until they drop. Most of their brain reaches a vegetative stage. What was his assignment onboard?”

“Unfortunately, he was our primary engine charge specialist. Luckily, we’ve got a Sreontan who is also trained as his backup.”

“This disturbing compulsion of humans risks all of our work here. What hubris to seek the face of God.” Carose did not hide displeasure in his voices or contorted facial features in both his heads.

“Really, Carose, I’d expect a being with your experience to understand such attraction. Would your people not risk anything to meet Chalac, your creator myth?”

Yellow streaks erupted and bubbled about Carose’s facial membranes. Commander Wolir noted he had broken protocol regarding religious sensitivities.

“We do not speak of Chalac with your kind, of He who had two faces, then split them to make those of us with two separate heads to honor His binary holiness. Now, do you need me to write another report on this incident, Commander? There are so many insane humans seeking 35W7…it seems redundant.” Carose scanned over his current readings, evaluating efforts it would take to reproduce a new summary workup.

“Sorry, but Central was clear on this. Their policies need strengthening for enforcement after bootleg movies of 35W7 were smuggled onto Earth, before that planet blew up. There is no certainty that it caused their chaos, but when billions suddenly believe they’ve seen their God, civilization collapses. We’ve got to use our powers to reduce future losses of their species still traveling in space. Every report helps establish better barriers to prevent suicide encounters threatening commercial vessels.”

“I’ll have it to your office tomorrow. Meanwhile, send someone down to escort this fool to the parts department. We might get some use from him before he shuts down. I hope what remains in him is at peace.”

“It’s a shame Earthers don’t follow warnings in their own holy books.”

“How’s that?” Carose asked.

“In my study of this phenomenon, I encountered a passage in their Bible stating, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’ How could they ignore that?”

“How indeed?” Carose pondered.

Never Interact with theLocals

Author: Susan Cornford

Breakdowns always happen at the worst possible times and places. I was already running late on my last cargo run between the Four-Parsec star group and home base. If I got a little creative with my log entries, the old crate could be pushed up to just a bit more than the maximum cited in the specs. It could, until all the warning lights lit up like a super-nova. Sigh!
Nothing had actually exploded or imploded, so I eased her down to a crawl and looked for a place to set down for repairs. Doing them in space is fine, but finding a planet where you can siphon up a few essential atoms will save you a great deal in expensive replacements. Scanning showed a very usable spinning ball of elements that even had a compatible range of gravity, atmosphere and temperature so I could do without a spacesuit.
There was only one tiny problem. It was inhabited and The First Rule of planetary landings is: “Never interact with the locals”. This is not a problem in places where the light wavelengths make you and them invisible to each other. But no such luck in this case. So, I had to chance it, using only a masking emanation around the ship and myself.
I got down to work and the dry, sandy soil was perfect raw material for my needs. Soon all I had to do was to wait until all the atoms re-aligned themselves into the speed-boosting components that would let me make up for lost time. So, I had a look around for entertainment.
The locals mostly seemed to be bi-ped creatures of about my mass, covered with a layer of some kind of animal or vegetable fiber. They communicated with sound waves that came from the top part of their bodies, and apparently perceived light and movement with two pivoting balls in the same area.
There seemed to be quite a few of these creatures, milling around outside one of the caves that were numerous in the area. Some of the sound waves being produced were more high-pitched than I’d noticed to be usual. On close inspection, liquid was also abnormally flowing from their perception-balls. Another of the creatures arrived and was surrounded by the rest. I could tell by movements that the newcomer wanted the rock that was blocking the cave to be moved away. There was much waving of appendages, shrill noises and flowing liquid. But the rock was moved.
By then I was consumed with curiosity, so I popped into the cave to see what the cause of all this excitement was. The locals would just perceive me as one of the small, flying things that they waved their upper appendages at. There was another of the creatures in the cave, all bound up in even more fiber layers than the others. Its metabolic rate was almost down to zero and about to be extinguished. Now, I’m always being told that I’m too sentimental and I should harden up my soft crust. So, I know I shouldn’t have done what I did but, for goodness sake, how much difference could it make? One little jolt from the reviver pen and the creature was up like a shot and ambling back out of the cave to join the others. I’ll never forget the sound they kept making, over and over: lazarus, lazarus, lazarus!
And, you know, it was funny but it seemed to me, just for a moment, that the last creature, the newcomer, could somehow see me as I really am.

Qantas Flight 2314

Author: David K Scholes

Canberra Airport
Australia 2045

“The Qantas flight QF 2134 that left Perth for Canberra 10 years ago and never arrived,” Bathr hesitated. “It is held, ageless, in a time vortex – held for eternity or until the vortex collapses.”

My heart leapt at this announcement. The thought that my husband and two children might still be alive – somewhere. After 10 years it was almost too much to hope for.

“You can’t trust it,” pleaded my sister. “You can’t trust this Alien. By its own admission, it is a convicted criminal. Before the destruction of its prison starship approaching Earth, there was a telepathic burst warning us of it. Even listing some of its crimes before being cut short.

I wasn’t listening to my sister.

Whatever it might have done on the other side of the Universe Bathr had done no wrong here upon Earth.

When its escape pod ejected we tried to shoot it down. When it landed we attacked it. To no avail. Bathr rendered the military – soldiers and armoured vehicles alike – immobile. In defending itself Bathr did not kill any of its attackers.

We knew Bathr had power – which had also been demonstrated in other ways. When it had saved the burned and dying survivor of an oil tanker crash by giving the man a part of its own life force. Not for the first time I wondered how such a being could possibly have been considered a criminal on any world.

We also knew Bathr was preparing to leave us.

I spoke knowing that Bathr had already divined my thoughts. “Is it possible to save them? To collapse the time vortex and bring them back to us? ” I dared to hope.

“It is possible,” Bathr replied. “It would require a considerable expenditure of energy.”

“You can do this?’ I was pleading now.
It nodded – slowly but definitely and I had no reason to doubt it.
“For these humans,” Bathr added “the occupants of QF 2134, no time at all will have passed. They will not be a day older than when their flight first began. They will have no idea that so much time has passed.”

* * *

My sister and I looked up. The skies had been emptied of air traffic and now a storm like no other gathered.

Bathr seemed unaware of us now and appeared to be focussing all of its energies on the task at hand.

The storm that I later came to realise was a time storm began to abate and in the clearing skies above a lone aircraft came into view. “It’s QF 2134, it’s QF 2134___” came the announcement directly from the control tower. “The pilot says everyone on board is okay and what’s all the excitement about!”

My heart soared higher than I would ever have thought possible. A joy I never thought to know again.

As the flight touched down I realised I had forgotten about Bathr.

The beautiful alien was now a mere shadow of itself. The effort had been too great and it was dying. The collapsing of a time vortex requiring more power than we of Earth could ever know.

“What made you a criminal?” I asked hoping it would have time to reply.

“I was convicted of giving too much of my life force to save enemy children.” Bathr hesitated, “and I, I closed off a local area timeline to _____.’

Bathr didn’t finish but I couldn’t imagine what he did as being anything less than noble. Much less a crime.

Illusion of Choice

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Dax found his usual seat in the back corner of the cafeteria and unpacked his lunch.

He laid out a sandwich, a can of iced coffee, and an orange on the table in front of him, then fished a lock-blade knife from his jacket pocket and set about peeling the orange.

“Hey, army kid!”

There were snickers, and Dax looked up to see a crowd of the school football team gathered behind their quarterback.

“I’m not an army kid,” Dax continued slicing the orange, drawing the knife blade from pole to pole, reducing it to equal sized wedges.

“Well, you lost your arms didn’t you?” Again the laughter and the boys exchanging high-fives and shoulder punches in amusement.

“It was an accident, just leave me alone.” Finished with the orange, he rested his hands on the table, still holding the knife.

“They look pretty real army kid, I heard they tore off at the shoulders, that must have been gross!”

Dax twitched visibly, the memory of a summer job cleaning metal fabricating equipment, and a machine that jolted to life when it should have been offline was burned forever into his brain. The sudden searing pain, the shock, the blood-loss, and waking up in a hospital feeling like his life was over.

“Can you punch really hard?” The quarterback was talking again. “Can you crush things with your bare hands?”

The company, to avoid a lawsuit, had flown Dax halfway around the world and had him fitted with the latest in prosthetic tech.

“They don’t work like that,” he glared, just wanting to be left to eat his lunch in peace, “I’m not like that.”

From a table nearby someone spoke over the crowd. “Show him the knife trick, the one from that Alien movie.”

There was a murmur through the group.

“What knife trick?”, the boy was determined now, “Show me!”

Dax slouched, staring at his untouched lunch before pushing his seat back, standing up and walking around the table. He stopped in front of his tormentor who, wary of the knife, took an involuntary step back.

Dax turned and put his left-hand flat on the table, fingers slightly apart.

“Put your hand on top of mine, just like this.”

There was a moment of hesitation before the rising chatter of the crowd forced him, and the boy placed his hand on top of Dax’s.

Dax yanked his hand out from under, and slammed it down on top again, pinning the boy’s hand beneath his.

“What the…?” he started.

“Don’t move, or this will hurt,” Dax instructed, not looking up.

With his right hand, he tapped the table with the tip of the knife blade in a downward stabbing motion between the thumb and first finger, then lifted the knife to bring it down again between the first and second.

He repeated this, slowly from one end of their hands to the other, tapping the table lightly each time with the blade between the fingers, close but not touching flesh. He paused for a moment, looked sideways at the boy. The growing silence was suddenly replaced with a deafening staccato as he repeated the stabbing circuit, moving back and forth between their fingers with blazing speed and uncanny accuracy, tearing holes in the tabletop but never once looking down.

After what seemed like an eternity, he raised the knife to eye level and drove it down with as much force as he could muster, aiming for the thickest part of the back of his hand.

His prosthetics engaged full safeties, stopping the knife blade mere millimeters before breaking his skin, and freezing his arms in place.

The boy yanked his hand away, staggering backward.

“You’re fucking crazy man, you stay away from me you fucking freak!”

The rest of the group backed away, and Dax closed his eyes and waited for them to fade from his awareness, and for his arms to unlock.

After a few moments, he sat down, closed the lock blade and put it back into his coat pocket and stared, no longer interested, at his untouched lunch.

He didn’t want to hurt himself, he didn’t want to hurt anyone at all, not really. He just wanted that to be his choice.

Paddywhack

Author: David Henson

When I finally got my M-plant, I couldn’t wait to try it out. I went to a local cafe, approached a woman wearing a TP earring and touched my TechPath lapel pin.

She immediately raised her index finger. I held my fingertip to hers, and we both thought backwards from 100 by sevens. Once paired, we practiced sending and receiving simple images, mainly different breeds of dogs, to each other. I noticed her pooches all had dark, sad eyes and drooping tails. Then she shared with me that her brother recently had died. He hadn’t wanted to wait his turn for a qualified physician to insert the telepathy device into his cerebral cortex, but had instead risked going the trepanning route with some back alley charlatan.

Irene and I finished our coffees and agreed to meet again. I felt I was going to enjoy life as a TP. I think everyone did. On my thumb.

There were growing pains as techpathy spread through the population. One was Pink Elephant Syndrome. You know, try not to imagine a pink elephant, and it will pop into your mind. Well, before you sent a thought, you had to picture your transmission image. Mine’s a monkey with a plate of spaghetti on it’s head.

PES struck me one evening when I was having dinner with Irene. I’d developed deep feelings for her, but wasn’t ready to let her know. Don’t think of a monkey, I told myself and immediately pictured a baboon with a big red butt. Don’t imagine a plate. White porcelain with a gold ring. No spaghetti, no spaghetti, no spaghetti. Linguine with marinara. That’s ok. Linguine’s not spaghetti. Spaghetti is thinner. Mmmm, spaghetti. No! I knocked over a waiter with a tray of food when I jumped back, too late, to get out of range. That’s how I learned Irene wanted to be “just friends.” We still are. In fact, I probably owe her my life. On my shoe.

Eventually, there was a backlash from the Protectors Of Optimal Privacy when rumors of a gen-2 M-plant circulated. People with a Thought Snatcher Implant, as the POOPers called it, would have true mind reading capability. No pairing. No transmitting. The TSI would snatch thoughts from anybody with an M-plant. Fear of the TSI drove some people to have their devices removed. On the tree.

Then the POOPers hacked the HUC — the “impenetrable” Heisenberg Uncertainty Cloud, which every techpathic thought flashed through as it went from one person to the other. Now we’re suffering a plague of nursery songs. For nearly a year, every person with an M-plant has been humming This Old Man, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Alouette, Alle meine Entchen — whatever their earworm dictates. People can’t sleep, eat, or work. Suicides and divorce rates are up. There’s a global depression. On the door.

I’ve learned that by deep breathing and concentrating on something — math exercises, playing my clarinet, telling a story like this — I can keep my earworm at bay a few minutes. Then it bores its way back until I can muster the strength to tame it again.

There’s a long waiting list to get M-plants removed. I’m trying to hang on till it’s my turn. I almost went to a trepannist, but Irene talked me out if it. Sweet Irene.

… I just realized I should go back.To the beginning of this story. I left out something important. Breathe … breathe … No use. I can’t continue now.

All I can do now is give the dog a bone and go rolling home.