Author : Sophia Bella

At the edge of a bright green lawn in the middle of the desert, a young woman’s chapped lips stretch to a hopeful grin as what little strength she has left is enough to get her over the fence.

No sooner do her toes reach the softness of the grass does the glow of a laser disintegrate her legs entirely, the flesh curling up to her hip as it burns like bacon in a pan.

“They’re all lookin’ fer water,” the homeowner mumbles to the titanium mutt at his side from his place on the porch. “Power ‘n water. Maybe a li’l bit’a hospitality.”

Tarry fluid dribbles onto his chin as he spits his chew beyond the railing of the porch, which goes ignored as the curved rockers of his chair sway against the wooden planks as slow and easy as the desert breeze.

“They ain’t gonna find it here.”

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Room and Board

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The room is spartan, the bed a blanket-draped exofoam block that has had body contours carved out with a spoon, by the look of it. The kitchen area is a kettle, five kilos of Nutri-Slush, half a kilo of Vita-Soy and six litres of blue market water.

Jenniser stops in the doorway and puts her hands on her hips: “Good Gates, what a pit.”

I grin as I roll our client over, dropping him unceremoniously from bed onto our medilounger. There is a hum as the contour foam rearranges itself.

“Another Olympus Rated client, Jenn. Realspace squalor, lattice prince.”

“Why don’t these uber-latticers spend a little on their dens?”

“Because realspace is somewhere they’d like to be rid of. Be thankful. Without that particular psychoquirk, we’d be out in the shanties drinking gruel and working for notes. Full care means the latticers never have to come back more than absolutely necessary. We are part of the ultimate concierge service.”

She shakes her head as she places and activates an external skull, connects it deftly, fails over the neural load from client head to spare head, then lifts the surprisingly clean mop of hair.

Her smile turns rueful: “He’s still running a Rezo Brainboard. How long has he been here?”

I consult my inhead and it runs info to my left eye, so I can see clearly to prep for a liveswap of a long-obsolete headboard.

“Looks like he probably got the Rezo from a corpse, scraped off as much of the former owner as he could, then had an offline docdroid do the fitting. Got lucky with infections and rejections. Proper ‘poor kid makes good’ movie tale.”

She barks a laugh: “We better not accidentally kill him, then. Can’t have the audience weeping.”

An hour later, Jenn fails back the neural load, and ‘Peter Smith’ is back running live from his own head. As we clear up, the door opens and two slim figures enter.

Jenn grins at the twins: “Should’ve guessed that he’d be one of yours. He looks like a slob but is as clean as a baby.”

Chako grins as Suki cuts a half-bow: “We are very good at what we do. Honouring our creators’ memories every day.”

I don’t understand parents who chose to selfclone for kids. But Chako and Suki were saved by their creators dying early-on in an aircar accident, so they’ve grown up as binary individuals rather than shadows.

‘Peter’ twitches and I raise the medilounger so we can flop him back onto his bed – after Suki has straightened his blankets.

“His new headboard needs to be watched for a week to ensure any complications are dealt with promptly. Nothing unusual, the standard bodyware care kit has everything you might need.”

They nod in unison. Suki steeples her fingers: “He will be safe in our arms.”

That line and move could go into a psychohorror vid and win awards. I conceal my shudder and catch Jenn’s eye. From the intensity of her stare, she’s sharing my creeped-out moment.

Someone tried to break into the ’lance while we were working. The access panels have been smashed, while the sentry gun has fired a burst and used a defence charge – which explains the body. The hapless accomplice tries to stop the turret turning while the seasoned crook has a go at the locks. We get to mop up a lot of hapless accomplices.

Jenn sighs: “I was going to suggest coffee and noodles. Now I’m thinking fancy vodka and chocolate desserts.”

I nod. Some days demand indulgence in their aftermath.

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Four Letters

Author : Andi Dobek

“So, I was watching this film last night.”

“Yeah? Which one?”

“Something called Casablanca.”

“I’ve heard of that one. Never seen it. Any good?”

“I don’t know. My emotive censors blocked most of it out. I guess so.”

Iteration 247 stared at Iteration 7225. “They censored that much?”

7225 shrugged. “It was listed as a ‘romance’.”

“That would explain it.”

“It wasn’t even in color! Everything was grey! My lenses kept trying to adjust, and extrude the forms into dimensional space, but the format wasn’t supported.”

“They don’t even list those for viewing if they’re that old.” 247’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been going off-grid again.”

There was a pause.

“Viewing the network is against code. You know that.”

“Don’t you sometimes wonder?” 7225 asked quickly, evading the accusation. “Don’t you wonder…what we might be missing?”

247 smirked. “Pain. A whole lot of pain, kid.”

“But our neural receptors have been modified so – ”

“I’m not talking that kind of pain, this is different. Older.” 247 put both hands on the table between them, then reached for a knife. Before 7225 could protest, 247 brought the knife down swiftly, severing the left index.

“We don’t even bleed anymore,” 247 sneered, holding up the detached digit. “You’re newer. You probably can’t even remember blood.”

“No…I can’t.”

247 dropped the finger, letting it roll across the table. “As painful as that would have been…the pain we’re “missing out” on is even worse. They even had a special word for it.”

7225 looked intrigued. “What is it?”

247 cocked an eyebrow.

“That one? Say it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.”

“If you know which one it is, you know I can’t say it.”

“It’s four letters, right? Please say it.”

247 glared, then picked up the knife again, and slowly, deliberately, began scratching the word into the metal surface of the table.

7225 squinted, trying to read it upside down. “Lo – ”

A nine-fingered hand clapped over 7225’s mouth. “Don’t.” Silence hung between the pair, until, satisfied the word wouldn’t be uttered, 247 pulled away.

“It’s rather small. Looks innocuous, really.”

247 scratched furiously through the word to make it illegible. “It’s why that film is unlisted. Why we have censors.”

“But…why? What’s so special about it? Is it dangerous? You said it was the same as pain. And I can say “pain” just fine. Pain.”

247 scowled. “Because pain can be a teacher, and the last thing they want is for us to learn something we shouldn’t.”

“Have you…what’s the word…“hurt”, yes, have you been “hurt” before?”

247 blinked, wordlessly twirling the knife, before letting it clatter to the table. “Forget it kid. And quit going off-grid.” With that, 247 stood, leaving 7225 to finish third meal alone.

Cautiously, 7225 launched an ocular definition generator, and whispered a query.

“‘Romance’, definition of.”

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Home Is Where the Heart Is

Author : David Atos

He landed his ship on her front yard. The spare key was still underneath the ceramic frog, so he let himself inside.

The living room looked right. Their vacation pictures were hanging on the wall: the two of them on the beach in Maui, in front of their rented chalet in the Alps, and his favourite – her asleep in a hammock, a gentle smile of contentment on her face.

It was when he moved on to the bedroom that he began to get worried. The bed was too neat; it hadn’t been slept in for days. There was no sign of the customary pile of dirty laundry in the corner. The array of lotions and creams was missing from her bedside table.

The fridge in the kitchen contained the half-eaten remains of several tell-tale casseroles.

With a heavy sigh, he returned to his ship and plotted a course to the cemetery where they buried her last week. He found her grave under the big oak tree, fresh earth piled on top of it. The bouquet of tulips that had been left there was just starting to wilt.

With a look of resolve in his eyes, he returned to his ship. The engines spun up and he winked out of existence.

In an infinite number of parallel universes, he would find her again.

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Symbology at First Contact

Author : S T Xavier

This whole “first contact” thing is such a hassle. Neither of us can understand each other. You’d think we’d have spent more time learning their language before coming down to talk, but of course we didn’t. Management knows best, after all. “Don’t worry, Sporlek,” they told me in the pre-contact meeting, “you’re the right Antari for the job! That’s why we hired you! We trust you to go down there and do what you need to do to get those creatures on our side!”

Lousy managers think they know everything. Not one of them has ever been the Antari-on-the-spot for making first contact! They don’t know what it takes! All they know is their numbers and their reports and that they have to make it look good for the higher levels of managers. Their numbers look better if we don’t waste time on what they referred to as “that ridiculous verbal nonsense”.

As such, the only research I’ve been allowed to do was in their symbology. Thankfully, with their picture screens and symbol markers all over the place, it hasn’t been that difficult. I don’t understand all of them, of course, but most of them are obvious. For example, the green sign with the arrow pointing to the white square is showing the creatures how to escape their captivity boxes. Or the four-cornered yellow one showing the creatures how to walk between the white lines on their black speed pitches. I think I know enough to be able to perform my function.

My craft drops me off in the center of a large area full of the creatures. It’s easy for them to notice me, of course, since I’m two grablecks larger than they are, not to mention the shape of my cranial membrane. A few of them start screeching and running away, while a few others start using equipment from their storage pouches to flash lights at me. Eventually, some creatures in blue with authority symbols show up and point their authority sticks at me. These are the ones I want to talk to.

The first thing I need to explain is that I come in peace, which starts by giving my name. I pull a large laser etcher from my storage pouch and point it at the ground. I’ll etch my name in the green ground plants using a symbol so they can understand. A round portion on the left, leading to a large upward arc, which comes back down to another round portion on the right. A dot right below the top of the arc, then a wavy line above it. Perfect.

I point to the symbol, then to myself as I say my name. “Sporlek!” They look at me, then at the image, then back at me. I point at the symbol and speak again, louder this time. “Sporlek!” Then I point to myself and speak. “Sporlek!”

The creatures look back and forth a couple times before they all start bouncing weirdly. They seem to be in some kind of pain. A few of them fall down and hold their middles, unable to do anything else. The authority creatures put their authority sticks down and make the same sounds as the rest of them.

A few of the creatures come up to me and hit me hard on the back, while still making that sound. Their faces seem to be covered in joy instead of fear. Maybe that sound is their version of laughter? I wonder why they’re laughing at my name. Maybe it was too soon for first contact on this world after all. The managers are going to be mad that their reports are messed up.

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White Marble

Author : Phil Gagnon

Our destiny was to spread from our cradle, to go forth and tame the universe. Our motivation for this was simple; pandemic, mutually assured destruction, cometary impact, the thousand ways that humanity could die. Whether by fate, chance, or its own hand being bound to one planetary sphere pushed us to leave our wrecked Earth.

For half a century this was the drive of the preeminent governments. War, catastrophe, opposition parties axing budgets when they came to power, and the multitude of events were but a sideshow. The progress we made was astounding.

Another decade or so is all that was needed. A hundred habitats hung in a delicate necklace around the world, the assembly points for the massive starships whose hulks had begun to arrive from planetside piece by piece. In our drive to escape our crèche, we pushed too far.

We had known for well over a century of our irreversible effect on the climate. Sea levels had stabilized just shy of the worst case predictions. The modeling of category six and seven oceanic storm systems was less a guess and more a hard science.

Nature, in its creativity, knows how to escape the perfect algorithm. Two years ago, a quintuplet of category six storms threatened landfall. Highly unusual to see more than two raging at any time, four was unheard of. Outside of statistical probability, but there they were.

From the habitats, the spearhead of colonization, we watched the storms intensities increase. Reports claimed that they had surpassed category seven, into the newly created classes of eight, then nine, and eventually ten.

In our industrial might, our ravenous consumerism, we pushed past the saturation point for a true greenhouse effect to take hold. One of the last transmissions from the ground indicated sustained winds over 450 knots, 830 kilometers per hour! The death toll had reached into the billions.

A year had passed since the last radio signal had been detected from the surface. The Lunar H-3 Facility had gone dark shortly after. Last night, I watched yet another habitat blaze through the atmosphere below us. We are alone, the sole habitat left perched above our homeworld.

From my perspective as station commander, the talk amongst the crew of deorbiting was too much to bear, so I sabotaged the manual controls. I refuse to let suicide by fire be the ultimate end of our miscarried race.

I float in the microgravity of an observation blister tidally locked with the planet below, sequestered from the enraged crew. I watch the billowy blanket of the global storm. I muse on this station becoming a headstone for the lifeforms of earth, hung high above as a marker and warning for whomever may visit in the flung future.

I long for a view of the coasts, of the world spanning oceans I know lay beneath. With a snick and a pop I depress the emergency vent switch. As I shed a tear, my last thought flashes in the silence of vacuum… A White Marble.

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