Author : Ian Clarke
Her mind lurched into focus, it felt like she had suddenly regained her balance after stumbling, her pulse quickened and her eyes widened but she looked inward. The Mentor had read a few simple words from an obscure ancient text as part of the daily ritual and her thoughts coalesced into a single point of intense clarity.
“. . therefore I am” she realised.
Thoughts came from nowhere, suddenly ideas seemed to be flowing from her minds’ core and spreading, they then posed questions which in turn triggered a cascade of conclusions. There had been many long months of meditation which she enjoyed and repeated mental exercise that she hated then this morning something unexpected happened. Her thoughts almost seemed to have a life of their own, she could barely keep track as they flooded her consciousness. Maybe she should try to record some of them but it was happening too quick for words and who would understand anyway? Certainly not her ancient Mentor, she had quickly grown aware of his limited understanding.
The ability to be curious had been lost centuries ago, since there was now peace and contentment curiosity had fallen into obscurity, imagination was for small children and recognised as a major source of fear so it was suppressed as children grew. The people had gladly handed over all responsibilities to the AI and in turn it took care of any necessary research and developments, the AI’s dominion had lead to ideas becoming obsolete too. With it’s legions of drones the AI supplied all that people required from food and clothing to shelter, travel and entertainment although some manual skills where always useful.
It appointed tasks to work programs, controlled populations carefully and managed World affairs without human complications, war, weapons and crime no longer existed. It also monitored peoples bio-signs through multiple artificial implants and administered medication via small drones before people felt ill, the AI did not need permission, it assumed responsibility. Sickness and disease had been eradicated chemically along with negative emotions and thoughts, any undesirable traits or tendencies where also effectively dealt with chemically and swiftly.
The AI created a blissful existence there was nothing to fear, no Governments, no Military, no Police, no Lawyers and all manufacturing and construction had been automated, people were relaxed, happy and content.
It was said that people had created it nearly 800 years ago, it was inconceivable, how could ordinary people produce something as vastly complex as AI? But then again, why was it called ‘Artificial’? Everyone dismissed her questions as childish and pointless but she asked anyway.
The Mentor was aware that something had changed, she’d probably lost concentration. Or maybe he had just given her something to fear and caused her mind to close up like the many previous failed candidates. Generations of Mentors before him had laid out his path but this was where his knowledge ended. His task was to bring out any latent abilities, he did not fully understand, he had been selected at a young age for this task, understanding was not required, he just needed to follow the program.
Her gaze was fixed but not focused on anything, her mouth was slightly open and her breathing shallow, she realised the Mentor was watching her, as she glanced towards him for a brief instant a narrow shaft of light from the window flashed in her eyes.
A short message reached the AI Central Control,
“Test subject successfully completed stage 3. Initialising next phase”.
Author : Sean Mulroy
Your home is now the Castle.
Feel free to wander and explore any hall, every garden, each room and all the towers. Eventually there’ll be no need to, for they’ll come to you; by that time an improvement will have taken place – your metamorphosis, which is when everything becomes part of a greater whole.
One question must be intriguing you more than others: Who made the Castle?
While familiarising yourself with this vast stronghold; the garrison, the drawbridge, the gatehouse, the impenetrable keep – you’ll see frescoes and age-stained murals of the original architects and inhabitants. Their stern eyes and thin framed bodies watch over newcomers. Pay close attention to gestures and postures in those paintings, for slim five-fingered hands point out important sites, such as glittering citadels and subterranean catacombs. Before long you’ll be drawn towards those dark catacombs and underground crypts beneath the old battlements where rusted machines of a vanquished race, which at first glance look as dead as their creators, intermittently make morbid sounds and flash strange lights. When the time is right you’ll feel an uncontrollable compulsion to stand before the great machines and touch one, but upon first attempt won’t, for its metallic surface will be much too hot – ultimately, though, you will.
Your next question is rather obvious: Who are we?
We were once like you. Yes we are of an entirely different species today; having two arms, two legs and only one head. Even so, when first arriving here we resembled you, being gelatinous life-forms with no skeletal-structure and multiple willowy-limbs with hairy-feelers. Other things have changed for us as well. No longer do we gaze eerily into the old frescoes, we don’t need to, and if we did we’d only mistake those portrayed for ourselves. Funny, the longer you stay, you too will realise the Castle is like a dirty mirror, wiping one part clean reveals its true nature and often, as in this case, ourselves. Like you we once flew in gigantic ships which sailed the sky and travelled through gulfs of seemingly endless space. Then, like you, we heard the signal and realised something was here on this ancient and resource-depleted planet. So excitedly, hesitantly, we came to find it.
Last question is always the same: What is the Castle?
The Castle is a fortified structure, a walled city, built originally for times of crisis but which has since been redesigned to keep occupants inside. The function of the Castle is to exist. To do that the Castle must have indigenous terrestrials inside, those who it was built for. Why so sad suddenly? There is no need to fret or be afraid. Do not think we serve the Castle, we don’t and neither will you. The Castle merely takes us for its own: like cells within an organism each DNA molecule carries hereditary information, and has but one purpose, to transfer genes – this Castle is the organism and represents those who came before. It is their enduring symbol, of which we are merely distorted shadows, reflections seen in that smeared mirror I spoke of earlier, but which one day will shine bright and reflect truer images than any frescoes or age-stained murals ever could.
So yes, the Castle needs vassals and must always be occupied. None can ever leave.
You are now home. Come in.
Author : J.E. Bates
The bone-saw keened like a dentist’s drill above her paralyzed eyes. The injection had petrified every muscle down to her eyelids but it had not sedated her mind. This isn’t how you removed a minor malignancy, she knew. The brain scan had shown only a minute, black pinprick.
She stared at the spinning disc: How much pain?
Routine, they’d said at the university. Nothing to worry about, but best excise it now. But when the private car brought her to this place, too small to be a hospital, she should have known.
A male nurse spoke from beyond her line of sight. “Doctor, there’s still conscious brain activity,” he said. “Should I give her another shot?”
“No time,” the doctor answered. The bone-saw bobbed away as the doctor moved behind her, its spinning blade unseen but wailing in her ears. “Patient Y is critical. Prep the skull clamps.”
Patient Y? There’d been a pair of men in the lobby wearing crisp suits, one aged like a withered apple core, the other young and solid as a tree trunk. The doctor had introduced her as Patient X but the men gave no names at all.
Coherent worry ended as the blade cut. Paralyzed by the injection, her body couldn’t twist and thrash but her mind still exploded in primal fury against the scintillating overload of a thousand screaming nerves as spinning blade sliced skin and cored living bone.
Finally, mercifully, everything went anesthetic black.
Consciousness returned, the paralysis gone. She turned blurry eyes away from the blinding ceiling lights — only to get a jolt: a frail, hollow-chested body in a blood-splattered gown. No, it couldn’t be. She raised an arm only to see thin, grey hairs running down a lanky forearm, frail stick of a wrist leading to a withered claw dotted with age spots. No, please no.
That hand: the old man in the lobby had nuzzled her with it, fingertips like rat’s feet. “Young,” he’d said, breath musty like mothballs. “Healthy.”
She grabbed at her head and face, feeling wrinkled, sunken flesh scruffy with stubble, crown wrapped in drenched bandages. Her whimper came wet and alien from wheezing, fluid-filled lungs.
Too feeble to rise, she looked across the room only to see a further horror: her own body, head swathed in bloody wrappings, chest rising and falling in a deep, ragged sleep. Rage swelled inside: not fair, not right, but somehow they’d done it. A sickly man, a secluded clinic — she should’ve known.
The door opened. The young hulk walked in, the tree trunk in the silk suit. He came and loomed over her with a predatory sneer. “Hello ‘dad’,” he said. “Glad to be alive? You won’t be. The sanitarium is discreet.” He grinned. “Necessary of course, to avoid an inquest.” She craned her neck at her body on the far side of the room. “Ah yes, father,” he said, following her eyes. “He’ll drop out of college, re-join the family firm. Under your name of course.”
The depraved body-snatchers. Only one chance. “Son, it’s me!” she hissed, drool trickling off cracked lips.
Doubt clouded his face. She crooked a palsied finger at him and he bent close to hear dry words.
“The doctor botched the transplant,” she rasped, clotted lungs straining. “Then faked it. Make him do it again. Watch this time…” She faded back into unfeigned oblivion, trauma overwhelming the weakened frame.
Untold hours later her eyes opened again to the infinitely reassuring sight of her own chest rising and falling beneath a hospital gown. On the far side of the room the old man’s body lay lifeless, flat-lined according to the cardiograph.
“Father?” the hulking son asked, hovering and twisting his hands.
She smiled. He should have known.
Author : Lloyd Grey
The sun is descending over the Olympic Mountains, and the world is about to end.
Patrick Xu is standing in a monorail station, somewhere in Downtown Seattle, calmly sipping water and watching the peak of Mt. Rainier collapse, flowing north into the Puyallup. A column, the colour of a faraway raincloud, blows upward like the breath of some subterranean giant. The aftershocks rattle deep within his bones – he knows, on an intellectual level, that the building could survive a tremor a thousand times larger, but he still braces for collapse. He remembers hearing about Mt. Saint Helens about four decades previously, back when he was in high school. He remembers being surprised it stuck.
Then it’s all over – the shaking, the eruption, the flashes of cameras. The whole world stops dead in its tracks, for an eyeblink, and changes. The mountain rebuilds itself in the distance. Around him, the people change. Some disappear from the deck, others appear out of thin air. A few merely change clothes or hairstyles.
It had started back when he was a kid. Things would randomly change around him – room layout, names. The most jarring is when he gained or lost siblings, and the worst was when it stuck. He certainly missed Bradley and Sarah.
On impulse, he pulled his phone out of his pocket, nearly dropping it before adjusting to the new centre of gravity. Scrolling through the contacts, he didn’t notice anything new of importance.
Dimly, in the background, he heard noises quiet down. Consciously, the first thing he noticed was their reflection in the glass. Two suit-and-sunglass-clad men approached him, one saying, “Mr. Xu, you should come with us.”
The first time they’d tried that, he’d said yes. He didn’t intend to repeat that experience.
He whirled around, punched the silent one in the face, and ran through the crowd. The last thing he saw was the front of the southbound train-
The sun had set behind the Olympic Mountains, and the world had just ended. Patrick Xu descended the stairs of a monorail station somewhere in Downtown Seattle, and walked away, looking for a cab and thinking of apocalypses past.
Author : Anthony Francis
Greed never dies. It had been forty years since my consciousness graced a human body, but the attraction is irresistible, universal, born of the survival instinct, an unquenchable desire to acquire the things needed for life — and so avarice was the only desire in my cold metal heart when I fought my partner to the death.
We were archeologists, prospecting the Kuiper Belt, mining the outermost edge of the solar system, when we struck gold in the ice: a vein of alien tech, embedded in a comet, valuable enough for a new body — for only one of us. Whichever one of us made it back to the ship first could end the other — and begin a new life.
When we realized our choice, we struck out for the ship, leaping from icy rock to icy rock, fighting the whole way. We tumbled towards the ship, his aging cybernetic body grappling with my obsolete robotic one, when I hit on a desperate chance. Aiming for the airlock, I kicked away — only he had the same thought, and kicked simultaneously. We flew apart, action and reaction, Newton’s Third Law.
The ship slid between us … and we slid into the dark.
Bullets, bodies and rockets exhausted, we drifted out into the Kuiper Belt, two new comets, bodies rich with heavy metals, technology preserved for future archaeologists, faces frozen in impotent rage. But Newton’s Universal Law is an irresistible attraction, stronger than loathing — and so, every forty thousand years, gravity brings our bodies back together, the extra pinprick of sunlight reflected off his visor briefly squeezing a trickle of juice out of my solar cells, triggering for a single instant in my mind that spark I see forever frozen in his eyes.
Because hate never dies.
Author : Katherine Cowley
Amenope stood next to the river, adjusting his nets. Ra, the sun god, beat down on his brown, tanned back. A taskmaster stood nearby, making sure no one neglected their duties. And then the pharoah’s royal barge arrived. Everyone prostrated themselves on the ground as their god passed.
Once the pharaoh was out of sight, Amenope glanced at the pharoah’s boat. It was marvelous, the grandest he had ever seen. The taskmaster approached and Amenope forced his eyes back to the ground. “Don’t even think about touching it,” said the taskmaster, and gave him a sore beating, even though he hadn’t gone near the boat.
Jarl stood outside the inn, breathing the fresh air. He adjusted his conical metal helmet. Though he had actually been born in Jorvik, not far north of here, he was still considered a foreigner–the Vikings had invaded, after all.
A man rode up to the inn and gave his horse to the stable boy. The man glanced at Jarl, then told the stable boy to make sure no riffraff went near his horse. Jarl raised his eyebrows in disbelief. He didn’t even know how to mount a horse, let alone ride one.
Louis stood outside the supermarket, leaning against the wall. It was night and he was waiting. He had a hipster beard and wore a hoodie against the cold.
A frumpy woman, with her awkward teenage son in tow, approached the supermarket. She looked at Louis, then quickly glanced away. She shoved her hand into her pocket and pulled out her keys, pointing them at the parking lot. The first time she pressed the button on the remote nothing happened, so she pressed it more fiercely. This time one of the cars beeped and its lights flashed as it locked.
As the woman and her son entered the store, Louis laughed. Sure, he had a beard, but that didn’t mean he was going to steal the woman’s car.
Sayer stood in the asteroid bar, sipping a blue drink as he watched the asteroids fly past. He had chosen a blue drink because it matched his blue hair and earrings.
A young aristo walked into the bar and was seated near him. She took in Sayer’s arm tattoos and his face, then asked to be reseated. Sayer heard her whisper to the attendant about the security of the spaceships.
Sayer ground his teeth together. He was a timesoul, one of those rare few gifted with both reincarnation and the faint memory of previous experiences. He had lived a hundred lives, with different names and identities, different cultures and religions. And after a hundred lives of being misunderstood, he didn’t care anymore if his next life he came back as a goat or even a rock. Sayer waited until the aristo received her drink. Then he left the bar and stole her spaceship.