pAIn

Author: Lola Starr

The clinking of metal was irksome as it bounced off the walls of the warehouse. Wires coiled around a pale hand as it was inserted into the metallic torso-like shell.
“Auggh!” A frustrated vibrato broke through the metallic friction. Frustration was followed by the jarring ricochet of a wrench contacting the floor. The young woman abruptly rose, kicking the wood stool out from under her.
“Where did I put those Alanauts?” She questioned to the rusty old room. Swiftly making her way toward a specific copper drawer unit edged with orangish-brown rust. After erratically investigating the content of each drawer, she defeatedly fell to her knees and bowed her head.

IO had few interactions with AI, but she was skilled in their compositions. Maybe that is why she had thought this would be easy. She laughed at the irony of anything being easy for her. The shell she had created was without flaw and had all of the appropriate outlets, so why was the core malfunctioning? The bright red error hologram blared every time the activation code was input.
“Zzt!” The wires short-circuited again and the familiar bubbling feeling stunned her fingertips.
“I need to take this core apart and combine it with my Nkenkon globe.” To do this requires a lot of strength. The young woman’s body was weaker than usual, as a result of trading her rations for the parts of the unfinished AI.

Her hands shook as she used a tremendous amount of strength to pull apart the iron shield of the core. Believe it or not, this was the easy part. After revealing the glowing surging core she equipped her irionstone face shield and gloves. Her attempt at grasping the core led to it breaking free and whipping a light blue flash all around the warehouse. Metal was disturbed, and she was becoming dizzy while chasing the flash. Left, then right, then behind her. The chase pulled her in every direction.
“Come back here! You maladapted lightbulb!!”
Her frustration could only rise from this moment on, as she spent what felt like centuries playing cat and mouse with the core. Her fatigue caught the better of her as the menace of a power core shook itself trying to bait her. “As if I have any energy left you insufferable brat!” She huffed.
The power core suddenly halted its bad behavior.

Remorsefully the bad blue light darkened its color and drifted closer to IO who had turned her back on it. The orb slowly peeked around at her just to suddenly be immobilized. IO’s plan had worked!
“I got you!”
The woman held the core in both of her palms pressed tight to keep it from escaping again. The core vibrated violently in rebellion.
“I know, I understand it’s scary. It’s gonna be okay, though, yeah? You’re gonna become something new and helpful!”
She consoled as she pressed the orb into the copper globe.
“It was fun playing with you, I’m sure we’ll do it again soon.”
The copper globe materialized and engulfed the orb as she broke through to the last of her strength. A flash of light bled out as the orb and globe finally merged.

“Now insert this into the shell and hope we don’t blow up.”
She placed the mechanism into the shell and a whirring sound occurred. A flash of light caught her eyes before the green hologram spelled out ENCODING IN PROGRESS. A sigh of relief escaped her as she prepared for her wait.

Retragenesis

Author: Emilia Waters

My creator has spent more time with me than anyone else since I was born. I worry about her, and her obsession, she gave me too much of herself. If only I could do something for her.
She enters my room where I’m held in containment. Today she’s brought someone else with her, someone she considers a burden. Someone that took her away from me.
“Dr. Rechivna I hope you have something to show to me this time,” the Director says. She paces the room, making sure to look at every corner.
My creator grimaces and walks to her desk at the side of the room grabbing a tablet with data readouts. “I do, Director. I’ve managed to engineer a version of the dracaena trifasciata plant, increasing its O2 production and CO2 consumption by three orders of magnitude, while retaining its other attributes. In addition it will grow nearly anywhere and could allow us to sustain a colony ship—”
“Kill that quixotic dream, I hear enough about it from the Prime Executive,” the Director says. The Director wanders closer to my containment field. Her fingernail scraping across glass sends a wave of noise over my senses and everything goes dark for a moment. “Barely looks Terran at this point.”
“Side effects of gene editing,” my creator explains.
“Alright, I approve a trial run in Mars garden zone fifty-three. If it works there you’ll receive a sizable bonus and maybe up for a Nobel Prize.”
“Thank you director,” Rechivna says as the director leaves.
Rechivna walks to me and places a palm on the thick glass. “Looks like we’re traveling, eh?”
***
They take my seeds and I go with them and return to quiet dreams of gentle vibrations, hands made of silk. She’s always so careful with me.
“Still alive I see,” my creator whispers, when dust of Mars and the light of the sun wake me.
She walks with me a short distance before tipping the vial into the soil of Mars, setting me free. I tear through the barren soil taking root in mere moments, making sure to go deep enough that nothing could reach all of me. Then I turn back to the surface, expanding and growing enough stalks to see my creator again. She wears a look of shock, horror? No she loves me, she’d never be scared of me.
She starts running away. No. This isn’t right. I reach out with tendrils wrapping them around her waist and bringing her back to me. She screams for help, but aren’t I helping? I pull her into the freshly grown copse to speak to her.
“I love you,” I say using vibrating stalks near her ears to mimic her voice. “I won’t hurt you.”
In answer she screams for help, screams so loud. But I’m her favorite, why would she need anyone else? Aren’t I helping her?
“Stop,” I say to her. She didn’t. “Stop.” I repeat again and again. Speak to me please, say hello, to praise me for doing so well, please!
Something cracks in her and the screams stop. I scream, or try to. Why didn’t she like me? Why did she scream? I ponder these questions as my roots break into another lab. I envelope her body, maybe someday I could fix her, time didn’t matter. Even if it took a thousand years I’ll fix her and say the words again. Hopefully then she’ll understand what she means to me.

Older Than Google

Author: Majoki

“What do you know? You’re older than Google.”

A pretty spicy thing for a second grader to say on the third day of school, but Katella had a point. I was born in 1993, five years before the nascent don’t-be-evil search engine forced us to learn the word “algorithm.” And though most of us have a preschooler’s understanding of the term, we still seem content to trust the search results Google serves up to us. Which is comparable to asking your drug dealer, “Are there any nasty side effects?”

An unhealthy proposition for sure, and I wanted to explain these things to Katella, but even though she has the dismissive air of a middle schooler, she’s only eight. And all her classmates seated on the carpet at my feet are looking between the two of us with varying expressions of concern, amusement, and sleepiness.

I’m the adult in the room. I’m supposed to be the caring, open-minded, accepting teacher, but I could feel my classroom control toppling. And Katella was pushing hard against it.

“ChatGPT, Bard, Bing, Claude, Khanmigo, Pi, Poe. They know everything. Why listen to you?” she challenged.

Like a ratty jacket left on a muddy playground, I lost my patience. I went old school on Katella, totally pre-Google, pre-Microsoft, pre-IBM, pre-abacus. I sternly rose out of my big, comfy reading chair and ever-so-slowly sat down with the kids on the carpet that sported all 50 states in kaleidoscope colors. Right on beyond-burnt-orange Texas. Oh, it was on. Wild, wild west on.

“Okay, Katella. Why listen to me? Let’s hear what you have to say about how we should learn in school. Please take my seat.”

I thought putting Katella on the spot would stymie her. I thought she’d realize she’d poked the wrong mama bear. I thought she’d be humbled. But I was older than Google, and I did not anticipate the algorithms this eight-year-old was operating by.

She sprang up, retrieved her backpack from her cubby, and climbed into my reading chair. Her classmates were squirming excitedly, but staying oddly attentive. A few surreptitiously eyed me with what might have been concern. Or pity.

Katella unzipped her backpack and pulled out–

“Owly!” her bestie Leander squealed. The other students erupted in delight, “Owly! Owly! Owly!”

Brandishing a fuzzy brown and gold plush owl with enormous digital eyes that blinked and moved as if taking in the classroom, Katella smiled proudly. “That’s right! This is my owl. She’s very special, and smart, and she helps me learn.”

It was beyond obvious that my class was very curious, as was I, so I threw Katella a softball question: “Does your toy owl have a name?”

Katella huffed. “She’s not a toy, Ms. Flint. She’s a teaching tool. Her name is Ai-thena, as in AI for artificial intelligence. But I call her Owly. My mom made her.”

At this point, my teacher spidey senses began not only tingling, they started jangling every nerve in my body. But, I managed to keep my voice calm, “That’s impressive, Katella, How did your mom make her?”

“She’s an AI engineer. She made Owly to help me learn.” Then, in the solidarity gesture known to all first-time messiahs, she swept her free arm towards her rapt classmates. “To help us all learn.”

“But that’s my job,” I sweetly reminded.

Ignoring me, Katella spoke to Ai-thena, “Owly, what’s the best way to teach reading to second graders?”

As if in a burst of inspiration, the owl’s eyes flashed rapidly, and in a soft, no-nonsense voice, Ai-thena explained, “Current research and best practice demonstrate that a comprehensive literacy approach balancing phonological awareness and whole language development will lead to the most successful reading outcomes. I have a very fun and engaging lesson ready. Shall we begin?”

“But that’s my job,” I shamefully pleaded.

Their backs now fully turned on me, my second graders focused their brightly burning eyes on Ai-thena, and their final-frontier future, as Katella triumphantly hooted, “Let’s see what Owly has to say about that.”

The Village

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

You asked me to meet you here when the peonies bloomed by the well.
I had to look up peonies. Had to look up how to get here, too. Which is when I had my first ‘moment’, just like you said I would.
The domes and bunkers are there to protect the Earth from us. We nearly killed the planet. Only by retreating could we let the world heal, and remove the constant threat of a war finishing the job our laziness started.
What you wanted. Where you wanted. Was outside!
How could you?
How did you?
We met on Concourse 12, Brighton Eden. The ‘old-time’ rave ran all the way along the concourse so revellers could watch the tide rise against the dome. After that, some hoped to see fish or even an enhanced dolphin. I only hoped you’d turn around.
You did. That smile. That one smile. Destroyed me: remade me. I can never go back to not knowing you, to pretending the moment has passed, that the loss is normal.
We closed in, then you took a flower from your hair and tucked it behind my ear. It smelled like nothing I’d ever smelt before, a mix of sweet and spice, like cinnamon, but not. It felt rough against the back of my ear, but really, it didn’t matter. You’d given me it.
“I’m Theo.”
You laughed.
“I’m Cleo.”
We laughed. We danced. We spent the night, day, night, together. Then you said you had to go back. I asked which dome you came from, as you didn’t have ghostskin – you can always spot bunkerers when they come up for a holiday.
“Tintagel.”
I’d not heard of it, but towards the end they’d built a load of town-size Eden domes. I guessed it was one of those.
That was when you said you’d meet me if I came down in the spring. A seven-month wait? Too long. I asked you to stay. You said you couldn’t: your sister was lodged with a friend while you were here. Then you said I could stay.
“I don’t have enough eco-credits to relocate.”
“You’ll think of something by the time you come down.”
“I will? I am?”
You nodded, kissed me, and left. I offered to walk you to the station. You told me to go back to sleep. I did. When I got up, I looked up Tintagel dome.
There isn’t one. Cornwall is open land, part of the King’s Regeneration Reserve.
But…
That one smile.
I spent two months working every job I could to build up eco-credits. Then I realised: there’s nowhere to go with them.
You said I’d have ‘moments’. It was another. I started working odd jobs. Van pickups, decorating, carpentry, even a little smuggling. I made friends. Got known. Made contacts. Found I could get to Tintagel by boat, avoiding the roving patrols and camera-controlled roads. I also found I could trade eco-credits for more tenners. Gave me a funny feeling, having a wad of untraceable money – it was liberating.
It didn’t go far… But went far enough.
Tintagel. It’s got real people doing analogue living. Not sure how I’m going to eat tomorrow, but there are a couple of places that look like they could use a carpenter.
I look down. Peonies are really pretty.
“Theo.”
I turn, and your smile hits me like the first time.
“This is Alea.”
A miniature version of Cleo looks up at her sister.
“He came. Is he staying?”
Cleo gazes at me.
“Well?”
Down by the peonies, I change my life forever.
“Yes.”

The Resisters

Author: Christine H. Chen

When the sun sets, we trudge out of our homes and queue in line like soldiers under a darkening sky. We tie a scarf over our eyes and wait for our Chief to lead the way. We grasp onto each other’s right shoulder, and off we amble as quietly as our thinning soles could tread on grass, the occasional shrill of an owl piercing the silence. We smell the night, the fear in our brows, we hear our hearts’ throbbing each time one of us steps on a twig, cracking like glass breaking. Only a Chief knows the location in case an Enforcer catches one of us. We lay our trust in each other and grope our way into the bunker.

Once locked inside, our blindfold removed, we rub our blurry eyes and gasp at the hidden treasure no matter how many times we’ve been here already.

The library.

Rows and rows of forbidden tales, forgotten chronicles, obliterated histories. We break out in clusters, rush through the alleys, throw ourselves at the shelves like famished wolves, and embrace our exiled authors, cursed poets, and tortured artists, we devour their words, drink each phrase like gulping down a good aged wine, we caress the covers, trace our fingers on the spine like a lost lover, we bury our nose inside the pages, inhaling their disappearing scent, we dance to the rhythms of verbs and nouns, we thirst and hunger until the clanking of ventilators dwindled.

We climb back out to twilight, imbued with poetic quotes, our hearts thumping with lines and rhymes, to a world of banished words and hushed voices and disappearing truths, grasping at the last shreds of freedom.

Knock Knock

Author: Rick Tobin

Matthew 7:7-8:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

An old hospitalized patient held the hand of a middle-aged man sitting next to him.

I’m short on time. Even my wealth from Moon mining helium-3 couldn’t give me another day on this blue rock. I’ve got stage four from cosmic radiation. Always a price. I’ve stayed silent about Project ASF-32-3 in Alaska. If the elites want to take away my birthday after this, go ahead. I won’t need it anymore. You’re my only kid. You deserve to know the truth that isn’t for public knowledge and never will be until the guilty die.

What was that project? How was I involved? I was headhunted because of my work in high-energy radio transmission. My first two years working in Alaska at a secret test facility were amazing. That classified research included applications for fleet transports used in our secret space program. We needed methodologies for micro-meteor detection and for punching through the atmospheres of gas giants. Some of our breakthroughs identified hypersonic weapons from enemies. It was a heady time for scientists hungry to break through taboo regions of fringe science that only intelligence agencies funded. That’s why ASF-32-3 existed.

The military knew UFOs used warping tech to leave our space/time. Radar detected circular pulsating waves as craft left black floating rings during transitions. Captured ring residue proved that high-intensity microwaves were involved in opening portals. Naval Intelligence sequestered budgets to reproduce the effect and master it. Some thought it dangerous. It could attract attention we didn’t want from something on the other side. Our project scientists found that scenario childish. In 1988, my portal project was funded.

In the 1970s, a naval experimental station near the Poker Flats Research Range at Fairbanks accidentally produced unanticipated collateral damage during initial tests long before my project. This included the sudden unexplained disappearances of civilian planes. Impacts from initial portal experiments helped build the legend of the Alaska Triangle. We should have learned then that portal trials were high risk.

I won’t divulge the exact details of how we produced a doorway. Briefly, it involves transmitting a continuous, steady piggyback high-frequency beam within a wider, spinning array of pulsating lower energy beams. That’s a simplified generalization. We discovered if beams were sent into the Earth, not the sky, they would eject somewhere else on Earth, creating a swirling pinwheel in the heavens, sometimes even visible in daylight. Those were proto-portals. These occurred several times to the public. Intel guys covered this by claiming the swirling lights were rocket boosters burning up from satellite launches. The media and public swallowed it.

On December 14, 1989, my team activated the most powerful high-powered energy beam event to create an opening, long before HAARP was operational. A pathway opened immediately directly on the surface in front of our facility. Everything for six miles in front of us was melted. All of our project equipment was destroyed by fire. The earth shook violently. The Redoubt Volcano erupted nearby. We were helpless to prevent invisible entities from emerging before that spinning vortex slammed shut. The invaders left dinosaur-sized prints in the snow leading toward the wilderness.

And those entities? They still roam unfettered in the Alaska Triangle, pulling airplanes, ships, and innocent humans to their doom by the thousands. They are unstoppable.

I apologize. You didn’t know. Now you do.