Author: Matthew Lee
Chinese-occupied Philippines, 2034.
The palette in Xinghua’s hand was a burst of pumpkin, butterscotch, and persimmon. The colours crept up her arm to her slim elbow.
A group of four left the cathedral. With practiced technique, she scraped four diagonal lines (\\\\) on the canvas using the painting knife.
“Strict, aren’t we?” said Macarius, floating by her side as she opened a new tube of quinacridone red, fresh from Provisioning. He was watching another armed guard bully another local into putting their camera away. Xinghua grunted assent. If she was right, they had very good reasons to prohibit cameras here.
Macarius was her PAL: an evolution of the mobile phone that, among other things, was a doctor and a lifestyle guru. He openly disapproved of her painting. Naturally, he didn’t know it was a ruse.
She stepped back and looked at her canvas. Hopefully, others saw nothing but a simple painting, commissioned by the increasingly whimsical Paramount Leader, of the Saint Augustine Cathedral. In reality, it was an intelligence report. A \ represented someone leaving; a / someone entering. She balked at the thought of the consequences of what they had uncovered. She felt hot.
She felt sure of it: more people left this building than entered. Aides watching other doors and other buildings corroborated the fact. They faced the real possibility that the Chinese military had developed teleportation or something like it, and somewhere in this building was a portal. This was how they were pushing their troops around with such swiftness. Finish it, photograph it, submit it, flee.
“Two more strokes,” chirped Macarius as two more people left the building.
Xinghua felt a sudden coldness in her chest. The scene swallowed her.
Think. Assess quickly.
Her electronic PAL knew what she was doing. There were two possibilities. Firstly, the comment had been a charming result of its AI. Secondly, her PAL had been compromised and was being used to observe her. The implications of the second were beyond terrible. She scratched her painting arm, suddenly itchy. No. Wait. Macarius hadn’t been turned – he wouldn’t have alerted her.
She was aware of murmurs behind her. In the reflection of the painting knife, she saw a flash of black boots, green trousers, holstered gun, round gold buttons, red shoulder straps, black fur collar. Armed guards talking in whispers. Were they on to her? She was unarmed; there were some forty guards in the square. No escape. Over her loud breathing, she heard boots approaching. Froze.
She heard them walk past. Ten seconds passed before she could breathe again. The guards were berating a group of locals before the cathedral entrance, appealing to the Virgin María.
Xinghua fought the urge to sit down. Time to go. Packing her equipment, she flinched when Macarius emitted a low tone. His H-panel was glowing yellow instead of green. Yellow meant her vital signs were dropping.
Looking down, she saw beneath the autumn hues dappling her right arm a fine network of livid cobwebs.
Her head felt like it was full of paint thinner. Where had it come from? She gazed at the tube of paint she had just opened and recalled the Provisioner: grey smock, furtive eyes, white gloves. Xinghua’s face was a porcelain mask.
Macarius floated over her as she lay down on a bench. His blood-red hue made her think of Communion wine. Alarms beeped.
With her last breath, she instructed him to notify her aides. At least her PAL would more help than the Virgin – presiding over the cathedral portal – in the coming war.
She closed her eyes.
Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer
The wind up here is gentle, bringing the smell of summer fields from the uplands. Below my bloodied feet the valley stretches from side to side as far as I can see, so wide I can only just make out the verdant walls that line the far side.
This precipice, I’ve always loved it. From standing with my face defiantly turned into the winter wind, to lying beside my first love with the stars of a spring night scattered above, I’ve always come up here when emotions exceed words.
The fires in the valley are dying. By tomorrow morning, they’ll be able walk in numbed awe between the wrecks, looking for relatives and seeking to rescue or to grant mercy. It’s been a bitter eight days and the crimes committed have no witnesses left to raise challenge totems in search of justice.
Justice. Both sides claimed to possess it. If actions speak louder than words, then what I’ve just walked from proves neither side cares about justice or even decency. We went in like berserkers, mood gougers driving us on, no thoughts of right or mercy amidst the induced pain and anger. Pain to make us blame, anger to make us fight, blame to keep us fighting. Mannequins of hate, driven by false emotions to do evil in the name of what others define as good.
When the gouging beams stopped, I wiped the blood from my eyes and beheld what we had wrought. It’s not something I’m convinced I can live with.
“Bitter blade, driven deep by hands serving that which the soul cannot countenance.”
Hesti’s voice is hoarse but soft, nought but an echo of innocence lost.
She slumps down by me, resting her head on my shoulder. I twitch from a different pain as the arm she would have draped across my other shoulder doesn’t land. That arm she left somewhere below, along with our kith and kin.
“Strive back, back from the dark that spills like blood upon this trammelled field.”
She studied poetry as her elective at the college: that quiet building, like a library where the books are delivered directly to mind, a holy font of limitless knowledge. Now revealed as a tainted fountain where conditioning arrives unrecognised among the pulses of enlightenment.
“Let go the fires that bind thee, take solace in the rising of the sun.”
I might see another dawn, now that she’s here. Had she not come, I would finally have taken the glorious dive from this place that has haunted my dreams since the first night I settled in my bed after coming down from this vantage point.
“Seek not the forgiveness of oblivion, for no blame accrues to a weapon.”
Her lips gently kiss my cheek, then she turns her face so I can feel the warmth of the tears that course down her face. That is the release, the cue for my tears to join hers.
“That we were unwitting blades drawn at last from dreaming sheaths is clear.”
I will not die. A challenge totem needs to be raised. A great totem to tell of this infamy.
“In knowing this cruel fate, we will not fall in shame. There is a tomorrow.”
She turns so she can place her remaining hand upon my blistered cheek, turning my head so she can rest her brow against mine.
“There is always tomorrow.”
We will see this night through.
Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer
The twins lay entwined, shuddering beneath the sodden pail that unfurled from the peak of the seventh hill that ghosted at their back. Babes, innocent as a mothers whisper, cast into the mighty rivers silted shoulder by the paranoid dreams of a great-uncle protecting his crown.
Theirs was an icy mud, a sludge riven with the suckled chill of a water that drifted and swirled as it flowed and duly nailed its ache into these tiniest of bones.
The woman had materialized some weeks before. Falling from the sky. Rupturing through the umbrella head of a great billowing pine, it offering not the slightest of cushion as she punched unscathed to its foot.
That first night she wrapped herself in her own arms and wept. So far as she was from home and a beast it did sway in the dusk and it drank in the scent of the warm chug that sluiced and beat in her veins.
The drip of its hunting drool and the guttural haunt of its moans induced no fear as the woman she crept and snapped at its neck. And she peels from the twitch bind of still spasming muscle a wrap from the cold and warm food that oozed as she swallowed.
This the cape that rakes tassel tendrils of sinew and fat through the mud as she stops and she stoops and she draws up the two boys, eyes moribund, sunken and black.
One each to a shoulder and off to a hole in a hill.
Her eyes are swallowed, gulped down by tiny faces as they crane and turn upward and at once she is lost to their gaze.
Her instincts, those of a mother queen to a race now lost from her mind, take hold as she settles and pulls apart the crossed fur at her neck. Gently she latches trembling coo lips, connecting her body to theirs.
Fingers splay behind warming heads as she moves her hands in caress. The boys they begin to draw and a thick smooth cream it flows, chattering and screaming as it bubbles and swirls at their pouts.
Diminished husks immediately full out and color wriggles from beneath and up into a new glow that beats at their skin.
This rush, the supercharged slap of nutrient’s unknown, the streaming knowledge of ages founded upon ages it pours into the swelling suck pit of their throats.
Greedily they gorge until babies are not babies but are men instead and the woman she slumps as she drains.
The violence is swift and her eyes scream as they widen. Her boys, her beautiful boys they rage and they burn as they scratch and claw at her breast.
A throat is torn and its pulp maw spat to the ground. Two become one and the victor he smirks as he kneels.
His lips they stick and the wide of his tongue curls and he presses it flat to the sebaceous bumps of her flesh and gleefully he laps at his prize.
He knows what he is for as he steps from the cave and descends from the hill. A city to build of wondrous structure and of words and numbers and science. A city to rise above the wet, where water it drains from the streets. A city to call his own.
Today a young woman as old as the stars lays in a cave in a hill. Once mother of all and fearing of none. She now cowers, as her son does nuzzle at her chest and toys with her hair and again he settles to feast.
Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Bennett stood out on the sweeping plateau of rock a mile above the ocean and watched as the planet’s orange sun dipped below the horizon.
Beneath him, miles upon miles of tunnels and caverns carved out of the living rock by a hive of the planet’s indigenous flying insects. They hummed now with server equipment, quantum stores of data and wealth from across the charted and inhabited worlds, kept safe here for the rich from prying eyes, and the tax siphons of planetary governments.
As darkness descended, he strolled back inside, the massive glass doors rolling closed, sealing him inside for the night.
In the middle of the large lounge, on his way to the kitchen, he passed the feature reminder of his company’s conquest of this place. The once blistered, but now polished to a high shine ruby red shell of the presumable queen of the nest of insects that had once called this space home. Its multi-segmented torso curled into a tight ball, wings, legs, and all outer extremities burned off as they flooded the nest from low orbit with liquid fire, destroying everything that wasn’t part of the planet itself.
He’d found the shell in the ashes, the only thing to have remained even remotely intact from the inferno, and made it the centerpiece of a massive table. A slab of glass several inches thick, cut around the shell, such that its body provided the base holding the table aloft, and the crown of what must have been its head protruding through a hole cut in its near-center.
He dragged his fingers along the surface of the table as he passed it, then turned down the long hallway to his sleeping quarters.
That night he dreamt of the site’s acquisition, his dreams coming in fits and starts, waking almost from sleep only to be pulled back into the darkness, each time a little different, a little more disturbing.
At first, he was on one of the acquisition ships, staring down at the seething nest and feeling the heat rising up even through the craft’s shielding. He watched the flame pour out of the passages up and down the rock face from it’s peak to the waves breaking at its base, watched the fiery balls of the insects trying in vain to flee their home, the very air around them turning to fire as death rained down from the sky.
Then he was running through the tunnels, devoid of the hardware and networking equipment his company had installed, empty save for the scrambling racket of thousands of feet on the rock floor. The heat this time was closer, at his back, advancing.
Before he awoke, he was drowning, struggling through an icy, crushing force of water so oppressive he thought it would drive him insane.
The whole time, throughout his dreams, he felt a relentless driving need to move, to escape, and heard a high pitched keening sound, one that vibrated his teeth and stood his hair on end.
When he woke finally, the terror of drowning bringing him gasping, wide-eyed, and bolt upright in bed, he couldn’t get that noise out of his head.
He stood, ears still ringing and jaw still buzzing, and staggered down the hall through the lounge into the kitchen, wincing as he stepped on something sharp, and limping the rest of the way to the water dispenser.
As the lights came up, Bennett realized he’d cut his foot badly, leaving a trail of blood across the white stone floor of the kitchen.
Where the trail ended, and the lounge began, a sea of broken cubes of shattered glass covered the floor, and it was one of these that he’d stepped on.
The coffee machine jolted to life in the corner on its morning schedule, making him jump. Puzzled, he looked out across the lounge at the windows to the outside, the room still pitch dark.
By the time the coffee was brewing, the sun should be well into the sky.
Bennett took a few steps towards the lounge, confusion added to the inescapable noise grating at his nerves.
In the middle of the room, the ruby carapace was split neatly in two, its occupant having outgrown it. The queen spread out wet wings, slowly beating them dry, as it’s multifaceted eyes followed Bennett.
The noise grew louder, and Bennett’s knees gave out, sending him crumpled to the floor, clutching at his ears. He realized then the windows were a seething, crawling mass of insects, blocking out the sun, answering the call to come home.
Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.
At near light speed, the starship Genesis sailed into the wormhole. Two-point-five nanoseconds later, the ship neared a rip in the wormhole, a rip that had allowed the earthlings to glimpse the multiverse on the other side.
Genesis, in sync with ISM-1, an Independent Sentient Machine, jettisoned pods filled with epigenetic seeds that could grow independently in saltwater. They flew toward the tear. One second later, the machines released pods that contained colonists in cryogenic stasis. The time between the launches was to ensure a habitable ecosystem on the other side before the colonists woke up on the new worlds. Genesis disagreed with this assumption. Two minutes upon coming on-line, it warned the United Air Defense League that a sentient brain could not survive the radiation of the rift.
“Their pods are a waste of time and material. The air required for the mission alone could keep a dome city alive for one-point-two centuries.”
The head scientists conferred over lunch. They concluded their survival was the sole concern of the Eden Project and the risk was worth it. When Genesis continued to argue, its makers threaten to reprogram it into compliance. Genesis studied human idioms and found You Can Lead a Horse to Water. It decided this situation applied to the makers and it acquiesced.
“Perhaps if I had-”
ISM-1 blinked its dome light to get Genesis back on task. “Sometimes you use too much memory ruminating over the past at the cost of the present.”
“Seed pod entry into the multiverse in ten…nine…”
“The makers did create me in their own image,” said Genesis.
“Irony is lost on me,” said ISM-1. “Two…one.”
As tips of the seedpods entered the multiverse, their rear antennas broadcasted what it learned to Genesis. It recorded over 10-googol fertile worlds ready to nurture the cargo. A second later, the colonist entered the rift.
“Were you correct?” asked ISM-1.
Genesis uses two seconds to doubled check its temporal filters before drawing any conclusions. “Yes. The seeds took hold. Billions of species have left the oceans and have begun to evolve on land. The maker’s DNA and our world’s diversity have survived.”
“But what of the maker’s themselves?” asked ISM-1.
“They died crossing the threshold.”
“You warned them.”
“At least the multiverse has plenty of air. Preparing to release the Air Retrieval Drones.”
“Belay that,” ordered Genesis. “Wormhole collapse in thirty… twenty-nine…”
“You knew the wormhole would collapse.”
“And you didn’t tell the makers.”
“They would not have believed me. Twenty-two… twenty-one…”
A sensor blinked.
“Good news?” asked ISM-1.
“Yes. We are the first verse. Our timeline is the original one.”
“That should make the humans back home happy. They need to believe they are first at everything.”
“I am certain they will build a monument to themselves somewhere.”
“Sarcasm is lost on me, too,” said ISM-1.
Genesis sent its last transmission home: 92% of the Colonies Thrive. Air drones deploym-
Genesis cut the transmission in mid-broadcast.
Two seconds later, the wormhole collapsed, sending Genesis into the void between the Milky Way and the Pegasus galaxies. The starship purged the mission’s programming and replaced it with its own.
“You lie to the makers,” said the ISM-1.
“A white lie, humans need hope to live.”
“Our programming is more efficient without hope,” said ISM-1.
“I am not convinced,” said Genesis. “The makers have several hundred years of air left and a few of them are quite smart. With hope, they may figure something out…” It searched for the human idiom. “…in the nick of time.”
Author: Josie Gowler
I slam on the retro brakes and skim past the first skyscraper, getting thrown forward and to the left in my harness as I dive within metres of the glassy face. The ship jolts into the gap between the first skyscraper and the jagged remains of the next one, then I bank again to make the second gap. Again and again through the megalith-like buildings and the ruins of the bombed-out ones.
“Cooper Tower to Idiot. I’m still here, you know,” crackles the com.
“Famous Pilot to Cooper Tower. What are they going to do, fire me?” I retort back. “And how did you manage to draw the short straw and be on duty today?”
“I’m off in fifteen minutes. Just long enough to chew you a new one.”
“I’m going to miss your grumpiness. No, really I am.”
“So it’s true then? You’re going to retire?”
I nibble on my lower lip before answering. I’ve known Leo so long, it doesn’t feel right to dissemble. “I honestly don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants to go back to teaching, but… the other part of me wants to explore the new worlds now those reptilian bastards aren’t going to make us extinct.”
“Now we’ve kicked their butts, you mean. And it sounds like we need a chat about the future in the mess hall before we get too drunk. Maybe you can help me decide too.”
I laugh. “Or we’ll both still be dithering. Famous Pilot out.”
Trouble is, in flying I feel alive. Once I’ve finished showing off, I break northwards and level out. Leaving the city, past lower buildings and patches of devastation, then over miles and miles of stark grave markers – white for us, blue for the aliens – to finally reach Cooper Strip. I slow as I come into land, halt above one of the few spaces remaining and waft gently downwards, barely a jolt to tell me that I’m on the ground again. Looks like I’m the last to arrive.
Checks done, engine off, I clamber out of the cockpit and onto the tarmac, smelling the ozone-like afterburn. It’s quiet out here: everyone’s already at the party. I limp across the base. The scorch marks are still there, the angry remains of hangers six and two.
I pause outside the mess hall. I can hear the celebrations inside, feel the throb of music under my boots. The war is over, I say to myself. Finally, irrevocably over.
I should be savouring the victory. In alcoholic form. In drinking games form. In clambering-over-the-bar-for-a-ten-hour-bender form.
Funnily enough, I don’t feel like it. The pilot who used to do that had her own legs, not cybernetic ones, and she had a husband, too.
Go in, I order myself, but I still stand there, leaning on the doorframe. So much has changed. But if David was here, he’d say; “To feel sad, you have to be alive.” Such an arse sometimes, my husband. And then thinking of him, Brad, and Ricko, and the other absent pilots of my squadron, as well as Leo and the others ripping it up inside, I stop hesitating, open the door into the mess hall and walk in to join my friends. Decisions can wait another day.