Shedding

Author : Kieron Walquist

As of this moment, I am a ten-year-old Eskimo, lying on the beach in the frigid rain, stone-cold and lifeless. However, that could all change in an instant.

My father, for now, is a humpback whale, circling the shallow waters that lap upon the shore, crying out to me in a mournful song to lie still. But I defy him.

My mother, whom very recently has become a weeping willow tree rooted in a nearby field that hugs the charcoal dunes, sways her long, limber branches toward me, forever reaching yet never receiving. Faintly, I can hear her voice through the whispering of leaves, carried by the arctic chill. Yet I ignore her.

The hovercrafts patrol the twilight sky, seeking for expired forms, like me, amidst this dying, terrifyingly beautiful world—to resurrect and reform those once broken into whatever kind of living entity they so choose; their searchlights scan for my location, my body, but I am somehow mysteriously camouflaged among the waves of crashing water and dazzling sand that they pass by overhead and I go unnoticed. I don’t mind—they should find the others who are lifeless and fix them instead.

But that’s just the thing. People no longer die here on Earth. We are altered; morphed, transformed—however you want to word it, into something else than what we previously had inhabited. Their word for it: Shedding. Like a snake sheds its skin. The serpent doesn’t die, just grows anew. The procedure is a little like re-birthing, if you will; only we don’t fully experience death, just a nebulous passing. The Creator wanted it like this, molding us in the beginning to become interchangeable, limitless, so that we could partake in the infinite possibilities The Creator had in store for us.

It’s not like dying. I have to believe in that, somehow.

I’ve been through many Sheddings before; I have been many things. Months ago, I was an albatross; ivory in plumage, colossal in wingspan, oblong in face and webbed in the feet. I think back on that lifecycle often. I used to soar above the clouds, throw my fragile birdsong to the ocean, nest under my children and feel them rumble beneath me in greeting.

Then, I had shed that existence away and took up a different host.

For a while, I was a mountain. That lifecycle was unpleasant. I endure the sporadic and harsh effects of weather—rain, snow, quakes, gales and strikes of lightning—unprotected. I allowed animals and birds to use my body as housing. Then, there was the pain; excruciating aches and spasms where chunks and pieces of my being would separate without warning and fall off. The view of being a mountain was spectacular, I’ll admit, but that was really the only perk.

But after a while, I altered once more, this time awakening as fire. I scorched the grass and smoked the sky as I danced effortlessly across the way. Uncontrollably at times; I’d blistered and baked every beautiful thing I touched without meaning to.

Then I became a human: a little boy. And for just a short while—like a blink of an eye, really. I didn’t want to give this body up, despite my parent’s insistence. Not just yet. Because, you see, Shedding, to me, really did feel like dying, and I had died enough already; had changed enough already. And if I kept on changing, than who am I, really?

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Cows

Author : Gary Will Kreie

“Hi, Dusty.”

“Howdy, Richard.”

“How’s the cattle business, Dusty?”

“Business is good, Richard.”

“Have you been riding the fences?”

“We don’t use fences anymore, Richard. Open range now.”

“How do you keep your cows from wandering off, Dusty?”

“Moogle glass.”

“What?”

“The cows wear glasses.”

“Really, Dusty?”

“Really, Richard.”

“You mean, like, sunglasses? And big floppy beach hats, Dusty?”

“Funny. We use special goggles strapped to my cows’ heads with built-in image control, navigation, and communication, Richard.”

“Interesting. Let me guess. You program the latitudes and longitudes of your old fence lines right into the glasses. Is that right Dusty?”

“Right, Richard. We control everything they see. Normally, the glasses are clear, but when my cows get close to the old fence line, the glasses show ’em a simulated cliff edge.”

“So at the old fence line, your cows think they are standing on the edge of a cliff. You use the cows’ own fear of heights to keep them from crossing that line. Is that how it works, Dusty?”

“Yep. We trick ’em into thinkin’ they live on top of a large mesa with high vertical cliffs all the way around.”

“That is funny. Cows are stupid. Keep it up, Dusty, because my humans really like eating your beef.”

“So how you doin’ with your humans, anyway, Richard?”

“They can be a handful.”

“How do you keep your humans from wanderin’ off? Fences?”

“No.”

“Glasses?”

“No.”

“I give up. What?”

“My humans get all their information online. We own online access, Dusty. We control everything they see.”

“OK.”

“Sometimes we tinker with, uh, conventional wisdom, Dusty. History. Facts.”

“So?”

“So we rewrote some ancient science history and old science books that are now all online.”
“So?”

“We changed them all to say that the ground is round.”

“You mean, like a ball, Richard?”

“Right, Dusty.”

“Well, Richard, aren’t your humans smart enough to figure out that they would fall off of a ball?”

“We took care of that by pretending some guy found an invisible force a long time ago that pulls everyone toward the ball center. That’s what the internet and all the scanned and reprinted books say now.”

“So, you’ve tricked your humans into thinkin’ they live on the surface of this giant ball. Right, Richard?”

“Yes.”

“So they won’t try to leave.”

“Yes.”

“You’re jokin’. Right, Richard?”

Richard looked back at Dusty with a serious expression and swiveled his head left and right slightly.

And Dusty just could not stop laughing.

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Preload

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Thirtyseven sat on the edge of his bed, kicked off his shoes and fell heavily into his pillow, not bothering to peel off the white coveralls he normally couldn’t wait to get out of. He was exhausted.

He lay staring at the ceiling, the last few hours of the day still fresh in his mind, although today blended seamlessly into yesterday, and last week, and a month ago. Or more. He’d lost track.

Each day played out pretty much the same, he awoke in the same grey six by nine room, showered, dressed and ate the breakfast that was delivered to him, then he made his way to the simulator. Here he learned how to ride motorcycles, slalom cars, canyon race executive jets, operate forklifts, tractor trailers, maglifts and exo-skel loaders. He’d logged countless hours in freighters, cruise liners and speedboats, gliders and heavy cargo planes, jump-packs and helicopters with countless different rotor configurations.

He had no idea what they were training him for, or even who they were, he never saw anyone, just heard voices, took direction, followed wayfinder systems made of lit arrows on the walls and floors. He simply did what he was told, and learned whatever they were teaching.

He’d stopped trying to remember what he’d done before, when this had started and how he came to be here. He wasn’t entirely convinced that Thirtyseven was really his name, but he had no recollection of another one, and that’s what the voices called him. Any time he tried to think too far back he felt nauseous, anxious and lost, and he didn’t like feeling like that. Instead he focused on being an apt pupil. If it could be ridden, driven or piloted, he’d likely spent hours in the simulator on or in it, in between meals, naps, bloodwork and being poked by machines with needles.

Something was coming. He blinked, and then sleep came on like a freight train. Had he stayed awake long enough to realize, he might have recalled driving one of those as well.

Outside Karl Liesen paused at thirty seven’s door, checked to make sure he’d been rendered unconscious, and reviewed his chart. A disembodied voice interrupted his reading.

“Sir, thirty seven is scheduled for deprogramming, can you sign off on him?”

Liesen waved at the chart displayed on the wall several times until the authorization page was in view to which he applied a palm briefly, waited for the page to glow green with the recognition of his prints, and then tapped to confirm and close.

“Proceed”, Karl started walking back to his office, “make sure you get a clean scraping, and then composite thirty seven with twenty six and forty one, we’ve got a new recruit in staging that I’d like to layer up and see what he can do.”

“Yes sir, is that the marine we picked up in the projects?” The voice followed Karl as he walked.

“No, I’m thinking the twenty something with the mohawk from the men’s shelter. The marine I want cleaned out for weapons training,” he paused at a terminal, pulling up the man’s record. They’d found him in an alley digging food from a dumpster in the rain, he’d been an easy catch considering his background. “He’s got small and medium arms training already, so when you wipe him, be careful to be crisp around the edges, I’d like to leverage what he already knows.”

“Understood sir.” The voice paused while Karl closed the terminal and resumed walking. “Sir, what do you want doing with thirty seven when we’re done, we’ve wiped and reloaded him three times already, he’s losing neuro-plasticity.

Karl arrived as his office and stood at the door for a moment, thinking.

“Once you know you’ve got a clean scrape, put him on heroin and PCP for the next twenty four hours, then turn him loose at the cloverleaf after dark. I’m sure he’ll find some sort of vehicle he’d like to play with.”

He didn’t wait for an answer before entering his office, it was late and he needed a drink.

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Promises to A Future Self

Author : Thomas Desrochers

Jean steps out onto his sunlit balcony and sits down at the glass table. He sweeps the surface off with his hand and then lays down a piece of creamy stationery. Pen in hand, he begins to write:

[Anna,]

He pauses, glances down into the street. There’s a flock of birds at the cafe across the street, leaning over the coffees couched in their delicate hands and gossiping. A breeze dances down the street and pulls at their feathers, flashing greens and blues and blacks in the early morning.

[There was something I wanted to tell you before you left, but I never had a chance to.]

Jean glances up at the sky. A massive cargo lifter is rising into the sky in the north, the dozens of hefty carbon balloons pumping out gas to create vacuum and achieve lift. Wine, most likely, headed across the sea to Canada.

[At my great-grandmother’s funeral I had to say farewell to the people who took care of her in her old age, including her nurse Maria. Maria was an elderly woman who suffered through my terrible Spanish with a smile and at times helped to raise me, and she was incredibly patient – a valuable trait to have when dealing with my great-grandmother.]

Two children run laughing down the street, a small terrier biting at their heels. Jean looks down at his reflection in the glass, then takes a pull from the bottle he’s brought out with him.

[After the funeral I said goodbye to Maria, and told her I would miss her. She grasped my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “Jean, this isn’t a final goodbye. Sometimes in life we have to leave behind people and places that we love, but the truth is that life moves in great circles too large for us to see. As surely as our bodies will return to the dirt we’ll see each other again.” Her words brought me great comfort.]

Jean looks up from the letter, face drawn. He sets the pen down on the table, then reaches up with a finger to brush against the tender spikes of new feathers growing in on his cheeks. Pain shoots through his face, down to the bone. Even as he starts to feel the numbness from the first drink he takes a second, his breath bubbling into the bottle, mixing with the alcohol. He stares down at the letter for a moment, then picks up the pen again.

[It has been twenty years since I last saw Maria at that funeral, and I have attended a great many funerals since. I received a notification this morning that Maria is dead. She died alone, and it was weeks before her body was found. There was no funeral for her.]

The flock at the cafe leaves, each retreating back to their own lives. Jean takes another drink.

[I had always believed that I would see Maria again. It was always in the back of my head to visit her, and I naively believed that advances in medicine meant a future in which there would be infinite time to spend with those we love.]

A third drink. Below, the street swims.

[I see now that time is finite, death is always ours, and every moment of our lives is the future.]

The cargo lifter is distant now, high above the peaks of downtown Paris.

[I hope that this letter reaches Titan and finds you well.]

[I miss you.]

Jean lays the pen down, stands up, goes inside. The late morning sun creeps across the walls, unstoppable.

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Tentative de l'Impossible

Author : Sommer Nectarhoff

He knew what she would look like before she was created. He had always known.

“Yes, I’ve always known.” He smiled into her closed eyes as he raised his brush to add a few eyelashes to one of her eyelids.

They said that he would be unable to do it. They said that he was mad.

Mad? No, he was an artist.

“I am an artist.”

The tip of the paintbrush floated in the air and left little strokes of paint hanging before him that were held aloft by the tenacity of his imagination. He dabbed a little bit of pink around the right nipple to add some texture to her areola.

He touched his finger to the left nipple. It was cold and slightly hard. The paint had dried.

The artist circled his painting. When he was at her back he stopped and looked closely at her neck.

“You are too perfect, my darling.”

He took his knife and mixed a chestnut brown on the palette. He took a clean brush and dipped it into the paint before adding a few freckles to her neck.

He circled the naked woman again.

Once. Twice.

The brush dipped again to the palette and he added some shade above her navel and then put his materials on the work table before sitting down on his stool, where he gazed at the painting for some time.

She was tall, but a few inches shorter than he was. Her lips were a bright and bloody red, her cheeks a softer hue.

He stood and took a pin from the table. He held it in his left hand and pricked his right thumb.

A few drops of blood emerged from the tiny hole in his skin. He set the pin back down and raised his thumb. He pressed the blood to her bloody red lips.

“I love you.”

And then he leaned forward and closed his eyes. He wrapped his arms around her naked body and kissed her.

Warmth began to flow through her body. Her heart fluttered against his chest.

He took a step back and watched as she stirred.

She opened her eyes. Her irises were an icy blue.

“Mad? No, I am an artist.”

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You Will Be Home Before the Leaves Have Fallen From the Trees

Author : Eugene Brennan

The humans stared at the slogan scrawled across the prep room wall. Sergeant Drake kicked some metal scraps out of the way, switched on his quad beam, and scanned the graffiti.

“It’s a quote from the First World War,” said Captain Chang. “From Kaiser Wilhelm II to his troops as they—”

“I don’t care what it is.”

“Of course, General.”

“I want it gone in five minutes.”

“Yes, General Skott.”

Drake’s quad beam cast a red glare from one corner of the room to the other, then he shut down the quad beam and transmitted the results to Military Control. But what difference would it make? One robot was the same as another.

At the top of the steel staircase, General Skott stood in the doorway, gazing down at the lines of grey robots which were ready to be shipped to War Zone D. The robots had been fabricated and assembled in two days, software updating had taken a further three, but ten hours from now they would be on the front line, fighting for the Alliance. And, on the opposite side, the same grey robots with the same software, but for the Federation.

Two small cleaning bots lingered by the door but the General took no notice. He pulled up the collars of his green army overcoat and looked along the rows of cold-faced robots. Robots and babies, they all looked the same to him.

“The CCTV images showed us that the robot is regular infantry. That’s all we can say for sure,” Captain Chang said.

The General didn’t turn towards Chang, just nodded, and stared down at the infantry robots marching, line after line, to the Troopships. They were eight feet tall, dull metallic grey, with dark impassive eyes. Their titanium feet pounded against the concrete floors and they gripped Quork lasers in large claw-like fingers. But one robot had corrupted software. One robot, who would never come home, who would be a mangle of metal and circuits in less than 24 hours, who would never see a falling leaf, had graffitied the wall.

But it only takes one, thought the General, stuffing his hands inside his coat pockets. Then it spreads to two. Three. A hundred. A thousand.

“Has this happened before, General Skott?” asked Captain Chang. “With robots, I mean. If—”

Some men grow tall with war but others, like the General, the more they learn of robot wars, the more they shrink into their overcoats. He remembered the first time he’d seen a regiment of one million robots massing outside the city, the first time he’d seen a one-million-strong metal horde storming the enemy lines. Of course, they couldn’t kill humans, just robot against robot, but—

“General?”

Through the glass-domed ceiling General Skott watched the Troopships, like thousands of glowing fireflies, flitting away into the sky.

“General?”

In one month the leaves would be falling from the trees.

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