Negative Space

Author: John McLaughlin

She danced across the living room in a yellow sundress, her heels tapping to flamenco on the smoky hardwood. It was Charlie’s favorite outfit–the one he’d gotten her for their anniversary. Her hips swayed like magic, he thought.

“So what’s playing at the Cineplex?” he managed with a tepid grin. “We should catch a flick for date night.”

She paused for just a beat: “Casablanca at 8:15. It’s a classic!”

“And then, I was thinking,” his lip quivering a bit, “maybe dinner at D’Amico’s. You love that place…”

“Two for one cocktails during happy hour, and wine is half off!” she shouted back mid-spin.

He was leaning against the mantelpiece for support now. His bloodshot eyes surveyed the room–dark, sunken sockets finally turning to hers.

“Sarah…did it hurt?”

The music stopped. Silence lingered while she stared vacantly into space, head slightly tilted.

“Sorry, I don’t understand the question.”

And then a smile blossomed wide across her cheeks. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Charlie staggered onto the couch and sent a pile of empty Buds tumbling across the carpet. The SureComfort cushion folded tight around his gut.

He blinked three times to switch off his retinal patch and the woman vanished.

But when he closed his eyes once more, her fuzzy outline still swam in his vision. It was the photon afterburn; a constellation of brilliant points that persisted for a few minutes after shutting down the implant.

Charlie didn’t mind it. He fell deep into the cushion, meditating on the shape of his wife until sleep took him.

Couples Therapy

Author: Roger Ley

‘I’m sorry, Darling but I’m just not in the mood,’ said Martin Riley. ‘I’m nearly seventy and you can’t expect me to have the same enthusiasm I had when we first met.’
‘I did not mean to upset you, Martin,’ said Mary. ‘I do not wish to put pressure on you sexually.’
‘Look, Mary, I think we need to make an appointment to see Peter Abrahams again. He can probably sort this out quite quickly.’
‘If you say so, Martin.’

A few days later the couple arrived at the Bellmer Clinic. Martin left Mary in the waiting room while he discussed their problems with Peter Abrahams.
‘So, you feel Mary is too easily aroused?’ he asked.
‘Yes, she sometimes wants to have sex when we’re out walking or at the cinema. She isn’t insistent but she constantly takes the lead, then seems hurt when I refuse her. Quite honestly, since Estella died I’ve only wanted companionship, some help with housework and cooking – sex is the least of my interests.’
‘Well, it’s easily fixed,’ said Abrahams. ‘I see her “arousal threshold” is set much too low. Probably the last auto update. I’ll raise it by what, fifty percent?’
‘Make that sixty. Come to think of it she told me she’d had an overnight upgrade a few weeks ago. Things haven’t been the same since.’
Abrahams moved one of the on-screen slider bars. ‘Would you like me to switch off “auto-initiation,” that way you would always be the one to make the first move? I can set a level for random “auto-refusal” if you like. That way she’ll say “no” sometimes, but I can tick the “persuadable” box so you can still talk her into it. What level of “resistance” would you like, there are three grades?’
‘Let’s not complicate things, set it so we have sex when I want and she just agrees.’
‘Do you have any special requirements as to the more “unusual” sexual practices? You know I’m bound by client confidentiality legislation?’
‘No, nothing like that, I’m a vanilla man.’
‘So, is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Riley?’
‘She keeps offering to feed me foreign foods and vegetarian stuff. These days I want good old-fashioned meals like fish and chips, sausage and mash, that sort of thing.’
‘Oh yes, I see her “recipe index” is set to “Mediterranean” I’ll reset that to “British.” ’
‘And can you stop her from moving the furniture around while I’m out, she keeps rearranging the pictures and then suggesting the house needs redecorating.’
‘Okay, that’s the “local environment sensitivity” slider, I can reduce it’

***

In the waiting room, Mary sat next to a bot whose owner was in another consulting room. Her lissom figure, almond eyes and long, shiny, black hair contrasted with his rugged, Anglo Saxon features.
‘Hello, my name is Patrick, I am a Hoffman mark 3.7M. I can give you my software upgrade revision number if you wish.’
‘Hello Patrick, my name is Mary, I am a Hoffman mark 3.8F. I do not wish to know your software revision number. Do you like the colour of the walls in this room?’
‘I’m sorry Mary, I do not understand the question.’
They sat in silence for a few seconds. ‘Would you like to have sex?’ she asked.
‘Yes, if you like.’

A few minutes later, the door to Peter Abrahams office opened and Martin Riley came out. ‘What the bloody hell is going on here?’ he shouted.
Abrahams looked up. ‘Oh, her “fidelity” tick box is unchecked, it must be the upgrade, it’s supposed to be ticked by default. I’ve initiated an immediate re-boot, Mr. Riley, but I’m afraid it will take several minutes. Can I offer you some refreshment?’
Martin looked at the naked, now motionless lovers locked in an intimate embrace on the floor of the waiting room and sighed.
‘This is going to take more than a cup of tea and a biscuit to put right,’ he said.

Lay Me Down

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Vapour coils along the bough, drifting away in little skeins of dissipating light. Tobias grins. Luminous breath: sure sign of irrevocable infection.
“How do you feel, my son?”
He looks up at the white rectangle glowing at the throat of the padre’s power armour.
“I’m fine, father. Some kind of feel-good side effect, I guess. Never felt better, to be honest.”
Spinal segments click as the helmed head nods.
“You’ve indicated you’ll not be wanting last rites?”
He waves his hand at the swamp about them: “Seems pointless, father. This far from Bethlehem, feeling this good, I’ve got to be closer to rapture than any man has ever been.” He grins as he finishes, taking the blasphemous sting from the words.
“You’ve been a righteous sinner, that much I’ll grant you, Tobias Ghent. Had more than an even share of prayers offered for your deeds.”
Tobias sits up, trailing luminous exhalations from both nostrils.
“Nothing that hasn’t been done by many others in service of the Great Crusade, father. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the urge to move is setting in.”
“Go with God, Trooper Ghent. May you find peace within his Grace before long.”
He swings down from the fallen tree and lands up to his calves in the pale amber waters of Naknarden Swamp – named after the first trooper to disappear into it. For some, the restless phase can last a long time. Sufferers are permitted to wander off as confinement produces a madness that has been deemed ‘unholy’. Therefore, the afflicted must surely be allowed to go forth, trusting unto God for their salvation.
He walks and smiles as the water deepens and the night stirs about him. The silence that surrounds the outpost being aberration, not norm.
God. He’s fought in his name and seen miracles occur on many battlefields. But the times he felt closest to his Lord was in the deep dark between the citadels of Heaven, as the vessel rested and recharged before daring the byways of purgatory once again. He could stand at a viewport, watching the endless night pass inexorably by, and feel the spine-tingling touch of divine attention.
He walks on as the night deepens about him, feeling unseen life surge past his legs. Nothing attacks. Moonrise finds him further afield than any who have ventured out upon this swamp-girdled planet. Great trees reminiscent of willows line his path, the firemoths amidst their hanging branches providing sufficient light for him to make his way.
Beyond the trees he strides out into what looks like a partially submerged meadow, long grasses waving above the waters that cover the ground. He coughs. The luminous breath is ruddy, his chest feels tight. With a smile, he looks about and chooses a circle of clear water amidst the verdant expanse.
Taking a knee, he bows his head.
“I am what I have become in willing service for those who will never know my name. To quiet waters He hath led me, to these still pastures, that I may seek no more.”
The next cough leaves him shaking in a cloud of ruby mist. The one after that sprays blood into the waters. He kneels and looks up. Stars he cannot name wheel drunkenly above as a fourth cough emits pure white vapour and a feeling of peace rushes through him so violently he knows what’s next.
“Am-”.
The grasses nod to the languid echoes of a tide against a far-off shore. A soft breeze ruffles dark hair as moonlight sets a ring of silver about the body that used to house Tobias Ghent.

A Brutal Perspective

Author: Mark Joseph Kevlock

How much is enough? When is it time… for the end?

She’s just a reporter. This is just an interview.

I knew the world, of course, before there were any such things.

My name is Hanois Brutale. I’m immortal.

“I feel like… a passive god. I have observed the human race throughout a great deal of its lifespan. Yet I did not create it. And I have done little to affect it.”

“But don’t you have thousands — tens of thousands — of descendants living today? Walking the Earth with your blood inside of them?”

I answer in the affirmative, but say no more upon the subject. If, eventually, there is more of me in the world than anyone else, who is to say that the future will be better off? I gave up the role of tyrant long ago. Telling individuals what to do is tiresome. Telling entire nations is exhausting.

My immortality came as an accident. That is what I now believe. The world, via this reporter, can believe whatever it wants. Science fiction. Mutation. Divine intervention. When you have forever to entertain yourself, all possibilities can be made to exist eventually.

In other words, everything that can happen, does.

“I have lived every life I could. There are no more options.”

“That’s… inconceivable,” she says.

So I tell her about a dozen of them. Briefly.

I don’t tell her that I’m her father.

Someday, if I keep going, I’ll be everyone’s father.

No one ever inherits my immortality, though.

“A parent watches a child die. This is a tragedy. Multiply it by a dozen, this is madness. By a million, this is meaningless. So has all human suffering become to me.”

She comprehends the emotional logic of my statement, but that is all. No one forgives a heart grown cold for any reason.

Finally, we come around to the key point of my confessions. The will to live.

“What makes you, after thousands of years, ready to die?”

She has it backwards, of course.

“Death is no decision, child. Life is the decision. We live because we will ourselves to live. We die only when we stop making this decision.”

“Are you bored, then, with life?”

“Let’s just say I’ve grown insatiably curious with another subject.”

“Which is?”

“What comes after.”

“Something you’ve never been able to find out.”

“This is true.”

“How much longer have you decided to live?”

“No more than a millennium or two.”

She asks more questions, but they are all irrelevant. I have no proof she is my daughter, except that I have learned to recognize myself in others. It is nothing I can explain. I simply know.

She thanks me and departs my castle. I think about existence. So short for them; seemingly eternal for me. Yet I am still human. So I can still weep, when the mood strikes.

END

Infinite Boxes Infinite Cats

Author: Rollin T. Gentry

Despite what Detective Bouchard still believes, I did not kill Cassandra Gibbons. I didn’t kill her two years ago, and I sure as hell didn’t kill her again this morning.

Cassandra was a physicist and a postdoctoral renegade who was obsessed with all things quantum. Schrodinger’s cat required no imagination, she’d say. Live cat or dead cat. What about vanished cat? What about a mutated cat with one eye that looked like a small pumpkin and a paw that squirmed like a millipede? What about that cat!

Her paper, “The Topology of Unknowable Surfaces,” branded her forever as fringe. “Every box-like volume might contain nothing or anything at any time T,” she wrote. “A microwave, a refrigerator, a trash can with a lid, the trunk of every car. Nothing or anything.”

That’s why, while I was shocked to find a body in the trunk of my car this morning, I wasn’t surprised that it was her body. Even before I peeled back the tarp, I knew who it was. One shot through the heart. No decay. She was killed recently. My only thought was that if Detective Bouchard paid me one of his monthly visits today, I’d be screwed.

I didn’t waste any time theorizing about the two-year gap, because Cassandra’s experiments to “turn Schrodinger’s cat up to eleven” had these kinds of side effects. Whenever something truly bizarre would happen, she would laugh and refer to herself as the girl who accidentally broke the Multiverse. But in the end, I guess she forgot that her laboratory was just a box inside a larger box. I was there the night she vanished. That, plus the fact we’d been dating, was why the cops wanted to pin her murder on me.

So, I sent an email to my boss, claiming a stomach bug, grabbed a shovel from the toolshed, and hopped in the car. I knew just the place. My grandparents had a cabin that they’d all but deserted. It was surrounded by acres of forest. I took a dirt road to a random clearing, closed my eyes, pointed with the shovel, and walked to a random spot. I sunk the shovel into the dirt and hit something.

It didn’t feel like rock or roots. I kept digging until I revealed a body wrapped in a tarp. This couldn’t be happening, I told myself. How? I held my breath and looked under the plastic. It was Cassandra. Quite decayed, possibly two years worth, but her. On her chest was a mini-cassette recorder. I picked it up and pressed play.

“If you’re listening to this,” my own voice said, “you must be wondering what’s going on. Forget the bodies for a second. There is something you need to know. Cassandra wasn’t the only one affected that night two years ago. You disappeared from that world as well and have been traveling ever since. You probably never noticed. The transfer usually happens in your sleep.

“The good news is that the best minds in the Multiverse are working on the problem. The bad news is that until they repair the damage Cassandra did, there will be more bodies, there will be more police detectives, and there will be less real estate for unmarked graves.

“And one more thing. If you come across a Cassandra that’s still alive, do your best to keep her that way. Those “best minds” I mentioned have more than a few questions for her.”

The tape hissed to static and clicked off.

I took a deep breath, exhaled loudly, and reached for the shovel.

A Special Planet

Author: John McLaughlin

Pillars of flame smothered the Trac’s windows as it descended swiftly through outer atmosphere. The craft’s accommodations were quite decadent: cushioned seats, masseuses, and gleaming trays of food and liquor crowded to the edges of the heat-blasted view screen. In the main concourse, passengers mingled and drank, occasionally glancing out at the massive carbon chainlinks pulling them to the surface.

Yuma turned to his son with an upheld hand. “Shiro, watch a trick.” He pumped his bionic-assisted grip twice, taking pleasure in the child’s wide-eyed amazement. The gloved hand rotated palms-up and revealed a paper crane, cradled by fingers of titanium spindle.

“Again! Again!” the boy cried.

A nearby man had noticed the scene and rose from his seat.

“Hello, little traveler,” he began, stooped over the boy, “what brings you through these parts?”

Yuma smiled in return. “Just taking my son along on some university business.”

“Ah, an academic!” He extended a hand. “The name is Kor-tel.”

“It looks like you’re packing some serious hardware,” Yuma said, nodding towards his black weapon sack.

The man’s smile widened. “Oh, the native stock can be quite dangerous, even capable of some primitive tool use. Although I’m sure you’re already familiar.” He pulled a flask from an inside pocket and took a swig. “They have a natural talent for slinging projectiles.”

“Well, I don’t expect any surprises,” Yuma said, lifting his son onto the seat beside him, “just a boring research trip. And what’s your business here?”

“Me? I intend to track a buck, an alpha male.” Kor-tel pantomimed raising a rifle with his right arm, eagerly taking aim down invisible crosshairs and activating the trigger with his free hand. “A good challenge for a man my age.”

Yuma whistled, impressed. “A private leisure license! It must have set you back. But personally, I’d pass on the hunt.”

Kor-tel was preparing to mount a defense when their discussion was tabled by an approaching servant.

“Would you gentlemen like anything else before we dock at the surface?” Her voice was friendly enough but an octave higher than standard due to vocal mods.

Kor-tel raised a hand. “No thank you, dear. I’ll need my full wits about me soon.” Yuma also declined.

The woman bowed slightly. “Very well.”

As the ragged surface rose to greet them, passengers began milling back to their seats to collect luggage. Yuma had forgotten the incredible speed of the Carbon-Trac system–only a few hours drive down from orbit. It was an expensive trip for a private citizen, but of course, the university had covered his costs. One of the many perks of the scientific life.

“Professor, I bid you farewell,” Kor-tel chimed, swinging his sack over a shoulder. “Next time surface-side, you must visit my quarters. And bring the little one too.” He winked goodbye to Shiro.

“That would be lovely.”

Yuma retrieved his own bag and stood the boy beside himself on the landing platform, hand held tight. “Ready, Shi?”

They stepped off the iron grate and set foot on Earth. The docking crater’s pulverized gravel crunched pleasantly under his boot as Yuma turned his gaze skyward. Those grey clouds of fallout had thinned noticeably since his last trip; a hopeful sign for the native H. sapiens he had spent his career studying. Shiro tugged on the fabric stretched taut across his father’s thigh.

“Is this where the bad thing happened?” he asked, his eyes moist little orbs.

Yuma knelt and cupped his gloves gently around the boy’s shoulders.

“Yes. We make mistakes, but then we fix them. It’s only human.”