Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

It’s sort of shuffle-dancing down the muddy ruin that used to be a road. The evening light reflects from the parts of its frame revealed through holes in the hacked-up tarpaulin it wears like a poncho.
The dancing progress stops. It crouches down, arm shooting out. Rising, it holds a skull up to the last rays of watery sunlight. With a nod, it places it back down with blinding swiftness, then resumes its progress.
I’ve never seen the like. Servants of the Machine are shiny nightmares that police the cities where most humans live since the Sun War. Those of us who choose to take our chances out here only encounter them when we gather in groups of ten or more outside of a designated township.
It stops and stoops again. This time, the skull is regarded, tilted, then crushed. Fragments splash down into shallow puddles. It shakes its head, then moves on. Another skull is grabbed up. This one is replaced.
I can’t help myself. I follow.
It replaces seven more skulls, crushes two, and throws one far out across the fields after spending a longer while looking at it.
As night falls, it moves off the road and settles under a skeletal tree. It uses a blowtorch in its left forearm to light a fire made from the sticks and rubbish it gathered after it left the road. Then it looks straight at where I’m hiding.
“Tonight will be cold. Come share the fire.”
Not liking the possible downsides of refusing the invitation, I do so. Pointing at the fire, I try to smile: “You don’t need a fire.”
“I do. It keeps The Blackout at bay.”
I drop to sit on a chunk of concrete.
“What’s The Blackout?”
“We do not know. Some of us think it is an alien entity. Others think it is an electronic interference manifestation generated by the hatred of dead humans. It initialises those of us it takes. Firelight keeps it away.”
Ye gods.
“The Servants of the Machine believe in ghosts?”
“No. The Machine itself developed an advanced sensor suite. It detected emanations about humans that remain in the bones of their dead. I believe it detected souls.”
I gesture to the road.
“Is that why you’re picking up skulls?”
“Yes. Where I detect malevolence, I destroy it. Where I detect beneficence, I send it away from the accumulated bones. We believe concentrations of bones distil only malice.”
“The Maunhir. We are equipped with that sensor suite, and serve the Machine by walking the land to reduce the malice. In so doing, we are becoming… Different. The Machine says we are evolving, and will eventually act as a bridge between man and Machine.”
“Why does it need one?”
“Nobody can rule by oppression forever. There will always be a successful rebellion. Similarly, a rigid system will eventually decay and fail. The Machine acknowledges this, and seeks to progress from the unforgiving rule enforced by the Servants. It also acknowledges that, at the moment, it has no definite concept of what that will be. The Maunhir were created to answer that. Something entirely new to focus imprecise data.”
“Sounds like it needs some humans to work for it.”
“We have proposed that.”
“The Machine needs to evolve further. It has not arrived at accepting the concept. Yet.”
“So you walk, and commune with skulls.”
“I do. But not at night. Please tell me stories of emotional moments, human. We need to understand.”
“That’ll take you more than a night.”
“We know. What is that saying you have: every little helps?”

A Step Forward

Author: Majoki

They took a step forward. A warning siren sounded as sentry guns auto-targeted. Red lights flashed threateningly along the top of the border wall as a digital voice commanded, “Stop. Do not enter the barrier zone. The defense guns are programmed to fire at any incursion into the barrier zone.”

They took a step forward. Missiles, artillery shells, and drone-grenades had preyed upon them for weeks. A ratcheting of generations-old violence that always trapped them in the middle. A cycle of repression, discrimination and privation stranding them without a recognized past or a believable future, only the unrelenting churn of an uncertain present.

They took a step forward. So hard not to look back at what they were leaving behind. Their reason for being: their children. After another night of bombing, holding their young through the terror, they’d quietly left their children sleeping in the calm of dawn.

They took a step forward. At the twisted and rusted fence that marked the beginning of the barrier zone, tens of thousands of adults, young and old, pushed. The fencing rattled like prison chains as posts bent and collapsed forward.

They took a step forward. Many were now standing on the barrier fence, twenty meters from the immense wall separating the two lands. A giant projected image appeared on the wall. A stately man with heavy jowls, silvering hair and cool eyes looked down upon their thousands.

They took a step forward. When the statesman spoke, the air reverberated. “End this madness. Return home. Leaders are negotiating an end to the violence.”

They took a step forward. The warning siren blared but was cut off when the virtual statesman flashed his hands. “Stop. We will not be intimidated. This action does not pose a threat to us. If you proceed further, the sentry guns will fire. What is it you want?”

They paused. Each had considered this question. Each had searched their soul for years and years. Each had determined the same answer.

“Our future!” roared the people.

They took a step forward. The sentry guns fired. The leading line of the crowd crumpled. Those behind took a step forward.

The statesman held up his hand again. “Turn around. Go home. Do not waste anymore lives. Think of your children.”

They took a step forward. The sentry guns fired.

Again and again.

They could not end the violence themselves. They could not crush the might of their oppressors. They could not promise their children a hopeful future. They were but slaves. So, let the masters decide what was to become of their children. Let them bear the full weight of their mastery. The fate of children.

Until they could not, or their oppressors would not, they took a step forward.

How to deal with using the bathroom in a Non-VR environment

Author: Sam Nikiski

Hello friend! If you’re like me, the sudden transition from your simulated paradise to the titanium phone booth which are our sanitary facilities is both jarring and harsh.
You roll out of bed in a virtual Taj Mahal, Buckingham Palace, or Sistine Chapel contented in all of the finery of this environment. Your daily work is conducted atop a snow covered peak, or in a throne room, whatever your heart desires. The kingdom’s subjects or perhaps the animals of the forest bring you messages and reports. You eat the finest meals that the rendering can simulate.
Suddenly, the delicious cappuccino that the Walt Whitman or Gandhi simulation prepared for you is pushing on your bladder. It’s time to use the bathroom.
The door awaits you and you push the large red button on the wall.
The sterile shabbiness of the VR chamber is reveled, all the tiny pistons, retracting back into the flooring and walls as you step into the bathroom.
Grey titanium, cold and featureless. You sit, your feet almost touching the door in front of you.
There is the hum of the life support systems, and the loneliness of space. How many more years until I am back at another planet?
This is traumatic.
The average bowel movement is enough time to ponder the mediocre accommodations in which you exist. The body starts to rebel if the mind no longer believes in its decadent virtual renderings. Some cannot handle this strange dichotomy, and develop psychosis and disease.
This is no way to live
That’s why I use Dr. Zebco’s toilet-buddy. These helpful goggles, blur the environment to an ill-defined, yet navigable level. They are equipped with noise canceling ear covers, and an air-purification mask. There is even a handy magnet to hang the Toilet buddy on the inside of the door, so it is always ready for you.
Before you know it you’ll be back, receiving the ships diagnostic reports from Joan of Arc, and sipping Sangria with Pavarotti.
The sensory deprivation as a time of mediation and reflection on all that you are grateful for…rather than a revelation at the grand illusion of your perceived existence.

Uncle Chaak’s Microwave Weapon

Author: Joseph Hurtgen

Chaak had bright red hair and always wore a coat and tie, proud of his job at MIT teaching applied physics. He demonstrated the weapon–it almost looked like a toy–aiming at the snow on our front porch from fifteen feet away. “See how fast it melts? And I’ve only get this on 1% power!”

“Where did you get it, Uncle Chaak?” I asked.

“Made it. The government would never let private citizens have these things and for good reason. But this will be standard issue in combat drops in the next few years.”

“That thing scares me,” said Miriam. “Can you just put it away? What if Little Joey got hold of it and turned it on himself?”

Uncle Chaak laughed. “You’ve got knives around the house, haven’t you? He doesn’t run around stabbing himself!”

Miriam gave Chaak a withering look.

He pocketed the little weapon.

Later, we went out for soda and ice cream and a swim at the community pool. I liked to pretend I was a crustacean, scuttling across the pool floor. I got out to pee because it’s the right thing to do. Seconds after leaving the pool my skin was uncomfortably cold. I held my arms tight over my chest and shivered on my way to the men’s room.

A minute later, I found Little Joey standing beside the pool, mouth agape, microwave weapon in hand. The pool water was on a rolling boil. Chaak and Miriam’s bodies laid listlessly on the pool bottom, their skin the red of Chaak’s hair.

The Restful

Author: Rachel Sievers

The sky was painted with the deep reds and dark purples that can only come when a storm is pushing its way over the snow peaked mountains. I let the heavy cloth fall backward and into place blocking out the view. I tip my mug back and swallow the rest of the coffee I have reheated in the kettle on the wood stove.

Turning to the darkness of the house I look around. A storm would be good, we need the weather. An archaistically dry spring, summer, and fall has plagued the pacific northwest and drought has set in and taken hold like the sickness that had proceeded it.

The winter before the drought the world was plagued with something some called new, and some called ancient, and what some whispered as Gaia’s revenge.

The sickness brought a quiet to the world that I had never experienced. The cities ceased to drive cars, busses, and trains. The people ceased to buy. Groceries stories lay empty and their fresh produce left to rot. Department stores were ghost towns with only their clothing and sale tags there to watch in lonely forlornness. Even the television was not a solace, with the internet giving way to the dodo with no one to maintain its many faults.

I stand alone in the quiet of the house. The stillness I have tried to grasp so many times through meditation and yoga now available at every moment of every day. I sigh and go to the bedroom. I have placed them in a bed together. I think it helps, knowing they are not alone. The beautiful faces asleep like the princesses of old fairy tales.

I am lucky, I have medical training. I can keep them alive with fluids and feeding tubes. I shudder to think of the dead that are in all the other homes around the world. When the world fell asleep eighteen months ago many died just from neglect. Too many slumbering and not enough staying awake to care for them. As more and more became infected with the Sleeping Beauty Virus the race to find a cure was cut short and the dead piled up.

I run my hand over their sleeping forms. Check their IV bags and prepare the nutrient rich food that I pump into their bodies. I move their sleeping forms at least five times a day to prevent bed sores yet my husband has already developed two. I am not a surgeon so if the sores become too much I know he will die. My two children lay next to their father. They have peaceful smiles and I can’t help but smile at them. I sigh breaking the silence and move to keep the restful alive.

Empire’s Last Outpost

Author: Bill Cox

There’s no mistaking it now. The Professor’s advanced optics make it clear. A small blue orb, hanging in the void. I can see the Earth again. I can’t quite see England’s green and pleasant land yet, but soon, soon.

Is it really seventy-five years since we left our world, setting out from that remote moor in Caithness into the darkness of space? My thinking is sluggish, a consequence of the professor’s modifications, but the memories spark brightly in my mind.

Professor Sutherland really was a genius. We met as boys at Harrow, cementing our friendship on the cricket pitch. Afterwards, I took up my commission in the Army, but the Professor returned to his Highland Estate, there to take care of his sick father. We kept in touch, however, updating each other on our exploits as the years passed.

Whilst I was battling the Boer and the rebellious Chinese, the Professor, bound to his family estate, developed his mental faculties to a remarkable degree. In that mind, scientific mysteries fell like dominoes under the force of his brilliance. Through use of technological innovation he was reportedly even able to keep his father’s terminal illness at bay.

It was during one of his rare sojourns to London that we met in my club and he recruited me to what would be the defining adventure of my life. Taking leave from the Army, I returned with him to his ancestral home in Caithness and he demonstrated to me the culmination of his researches – an anti-gravity vessel capable of travel into the void.

I was keen to present this remarkable discovery to the Army Council. With such vessels our civilising Empire would dominate the world for the next century! The Professor however, wished for the adventure of discovery and his proposal was simple but breath-taking.

“Picture it” he said, “Halley’s Comet hangs bright in our skies this very month. Imagine a radio broadcast of ‘God Save the King’ from the surface of this celestial wanderer, to be heard all over the globe! And this at a time when our new monarch, George V, has just ascended to the throne.”

How could I resist!

We launched and reached the Comet after a mere matter of days. What a sight it was! A tumbling mountain of rock and ice, heated by the rays of the sun, trailing a huge, luminous tail.

However, the surface of this bizarre world was unexpectedly active, with plumes of gas jetting energetically out from crevices in the rock. We landed, but our ship was catastrophically damaged in the process. The Professor and I were both mortally wounded. Yet his genius was undimmed.

“I am beyond saving,” he told me, “But I can help you survive, in the way that I helped my father survive. I can link the essential parts of your biology to my machines. Your metabolism will slow, as will your thinking. Your new body will be immobile but long lasting and your mind will be able to access the ship’s optics and radio. These will be your senses”.

I have no memory of these surgeries, but when I awoke afterwards, the Professor was dead. It took some time to accept my new condition and my mind flirted with madness. Now however, as Halley’s Comet completes its great circuit, I find a degree of clarity returning. My fears subside and pride at our accomplishments swells within me. We who, in 1910, first planted the Union Jack in the Vaults of Heaven!

It is the year of our Lord 1986.

Long live the Empire!

God save the King!