Inevitable As Fate

Author: David Barber

Hemmings made his living from hunting trips. It was his way to study clients as if they were big game themselves. Take this Fournier-Clément couple for instance.

Madame had glanced into her tent, found it spartan and clean, then busied herself with her gun.

Hubby had toured the camp complaining. There was no signal, no air-con and the toilet arrangements were primitive.

Hemmings confirmed there were rogue mechanoids in these wastelands, also artificial men, if you knew where to look.

“Have you hunted before?” he asked Madame, watching her in the driving mirror.

“Not for some years,” she said distantly. There was never any time now. She was poised and cool even in this heat.

“And you, Monsieur?”

“Just the target range.”

Rounding a bluff, they came across mechanicals and Hemmings singled out a yellow autonomic digger.

Hubby began booting up his weapon. It could hit targets a mile away without his help.

“We shoot on manual,” said Hemmings. This was also his way.

Madame rounded on her husband. “Perhaps you’d prefer an air strike.”

They approached on foot, with Hemmings to one side, allowing him a clear shot if needed. In a low voice, he listed vulnerable spots.

Instead, Hubby hit tyres, a headlamp and the bucket before the machine charged. It bounced towards them at surprising speed and the man dropped his gun and fled.

Hemmings fired the same instant as Madame, and both their AP rounds struck the mechanoid’s sensor cluster. Blinded, it slewed to a halt, engine revving like a panting beast.

“Good shooting,” he said to her, as he went to finish it off.

They ate dinner pretending nothing had happened, and Hubby began drinking. At first Hemmings felt sorry for him, then contempt. He still drank the man’s whiskey though.

The man appealed to him. “That business today—”

Madame interrupted. “Just stay in camp tomorrow.”

“It could happen to anyone on their first hunt,” shrugged Hemmings, though the woman had coolly taken her shot.

“Will we see one of those artificial fellows?”

“Fair chance.”

“Then I’ll show you,” said Hubby thickly.

Hemmings was bored with marital discord. The woman must have had her reasons for marrying him.

“Going for a smoke,” he said. Later she joined him, as he guessed she would.

She waved away a cigarette. “He wasn’t always like this,” she began, and Hemmings listened with half an ear. That night she came to his tent.

Next morning they set out after artificial men. Hemmings supposed the couple had some arrangement. Still, he should have shown her the door. Stupid of him.

“They’re smarter than mechanoids,” he explained. “They keep out of sight. But I know a place.”

It was not Hemmings’ way to talk so much, but a cuckolded husband sat behind him with a loaded gun.

Their prey seemed to know the rocky overhang shielded them from surveillance. An artificial man helped another to its feet. This one stumbled and swayed.

Hubby stepped forward and took aim.

The artificial man moved to shield its damaged fellow and raised a metal hand, making noises that might once have been speech.

Madame grew impatient. “What are you waiting for?”

Monsieur Fournier-Clément lowered his gun. “Let’s just go back.”

“You really are a useless man.”

She shoved him aside and raised her own weapon.

Hemmings recalled that he stood to the left, as was his way, and so witnessed everything: the husband pushed, his stumble and recovery, then the shot, inevitable as fate, blasting through his wife.

Definitely an accident, Hemmings confirmed later. A tragic accident.

The Black Dog

Author: Timothy Goss

They’ve lost the Dog, it was en route to Vega station.

“What happened?” Councillor Lauder drools while foam bubbles form at the corners of his mouth. His red face turns beetroot in the afternoon light.

The vessel was dragged from the stream into the interstellar medium. Council Rangers were dispatched immediately but were unable to locate a trace. It is unknown if this was a deliberate breach or an untimely accident

“There are no accidents.” Somebody squeaks from the back.

“Any news on the cargo?” Councillor Saul asks. His eyes flit nervously about the room.

The ship and its manifest are missing. Council Rangers received reports of Oort cloud buccaneers in the vicinity but the vessel’s Zanix beacon was none operational.

“Unless she drifts into the local lanes we might never find her.” Captain Cofi adds dishearteningly.

Officially The Black Dog is carrying eight crew, ten passengers, and a hull full of feed and accessories to enhance production of those mining beyond the void.

“Indeed.” Sharattt almost smiles, he knows the dog is really full of Formula 364.

The Council must consult.

Dr. Forester smiles before taking a seat. He is a small man, early fifties with lazy grey hair that hangs from his head like a dead rosebush. He once had buds and thorns but they have withered in time for his golden days. Is it the Council he represents? He wears a coverall bearing their logo – EC1342 – it’s imprinted on everything, including the Doc. I turn off the fire and sit in a dressing gown and kung-fu pants. He says he’s here to measure my progress. But I don’t know where here is, the fleas have abandoned the dog. Out of the portholesz I see nothing, no land, no sky, no space, no thing – nothing. I have never considered what nothing truly represents.

I try to remember what happened? When it happened? Where did it happen, and Why?

Dr. Forester holds my wrist, he is caressing the skin but it’s tender and I wince.

“Is that painful?” he asks and repeats the action. I wince a second time.

“Yes, it hurts.” I want to say, but I have no words for him and nothingness spreads throughout my body. It’s a consequence of space and time, Doc Forester says and nods reassuringly, I, however, am not reassured and don’t respond.

Someone mentions the clean-up crew, but only as a cruel joke. Everybody’s heard the rumours, “F-364 makes us obsolete.” they whine, as there is nothing to clean up – F-364 is the ultimate detergent, wiping away any mess in seconds.

The Council reconvenes at the HUB site in the valley of Mexico, they’ve ingested the Hub-Bud and can see beyond the void and into the space between spaces – between this and that. The Black Dog is their focus, and the holes it has caused in space and time. It’s a mess on an interstellar scale, a smudge in the night sky growing more relevant, like a missing pixel in the vastness of a cinema screen.

The unity of HUB-Buddies is birthed in the gut. Some drink a vile tea, but most ingest by mouth, like cowboys chewing tobacco, they chew and spit out the rough husks, swallowing the hallucinogenic juices. The effect is the same, but the journey is very different for everyone, and Buddies that fall never come back.

F-364 leaks in the system are endemic, the Council knows this and unity is their answer. Nobody knows if it will succeed, our trust is in the unity of the HUB. We hold our breath as the nothingness spreads.

Kurt’s Last Snow

Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

Why wo ee? why wo ee? an’ wo ee an’ wo ee?

All day long, the droid kept entering and exiting the room. It opened the curtains at dawn and levitated Kurt while he slept. It turned his body, fluffed his pillows, and lowered the room temperature in anticipation of the sun’s arrival. It was an attentive droid, but Kurt didn’t notice it, for Kurt was always asleep.

“What is he thinking, mom?” Kurt’s grandson asked.

“He’s remembering his remarkable life,” the boy’s mother said.

“Is the droid his friend?”

“Men don’t make friends with droids,” she replied as the droid handed her a cocktail. She sat by her father’s bedside and sipped it, puckering her lips. “A woman would have made a better one,” she said but kept drinking.

Kurt’s grandson went to the window and stared at the trees. He saw a forest that beggared belief. There were baobabs fifteen feet wide and eucalyptus three hundred feet high. Fruit bats the size of small aircraft flew overhead, and the boy could hear through the thick window glass the sounds of howling monkeys and croaking frogs that sounded like they could have swallowed a human whole.

For hours, the boy stared out the window at this remarkable wilderness that looked nothing like the steel, tin, and plastic world he knew. Sometimes he would turn to his mother and say, “Did you see? Did you see that mummy?” And his mother, with cocktail-glazed eyes, would mumble, “Yes. Yes. Yes” before falling asleep.

Kurt meanwhile travelled through the forest outside his bedroom window. As he went, he invented the trees and creatures that held his grandson spellbound. With a little device in hand, Kurt wrote the code that produced two and three-toed sloths and toucans with beaks the size of shofars. He coded a spider the size of a dinner plate which stood at the base of a eucalyptus holding half a dozen koalas tripping on its psychotropic leaves. His grandson shivered at the spider but couldn’t take his eyes off it. When he turned to alert his mother, she was passed out.

Kurt had been building his forest for months. But he didn’t know this because there was no day or night in his sleep. Kurt’s original intention was to make a forest the size of Lichtenstein, a kingdom he wanted to visit but had never seen. So, he kept creating until he had a forest that covered sixty-two square miles (160 square kilometers), the precise dimensions of his beloved unitary-parliamentary semi-constitutional monarchy.

But Kurt felt his ambitions growing. When his forest reached the intended dimensions, he still could not stop coding. He decided to keep going until something bade him stop.

Kurt knew his grandson was watching what he was doing. Before he had fallen asleep, Kurt had seen the boy just once. But now his work was all about the boy. “My little Lichtenstein,” he said. “This forest is for you.”

At one point during the long day of the boy’s window vigil, the droid brought him a cocktail. It had watched him watching Kurt’s handiwork and felt the child deserved a reward for such devotion.

The boy accepted the drink and the droid withdrew to a corner of the room to watch the cocktail take effect on the child. For several minutes nothing happened, but then the boy saw something startling. In the middle of the forest an old man appeared. He was carrying a small device and with every step he took, a tree appeared. And after a tree, some strange creature would materialize, animals he had never before seen.

And so, the boy assumed his grandfather was God.

From deep in his forest, Kurt turned and waved at the boy who had appeared in a floating window only a few hundred feet away. His grandson’s mouth was agape; his eye widened, and his face flushed with excitement and wonder. Kurt chuckled and thought, “That droid’s given him a drink. It makes my daughter sleep but sends the boy on a trip.”

“Watch this, Little Lichtenstein!” Kurt called out. And he made it snow.

“Do you know what this is?” he shouted toward the window. “Do you know what this white stuff is that is falling from the sky?” The question was a test. Kurt wanted to know whether his daughter was giving the boy the education he deserved. Kurt had always said that education was the sine qua non of life, and he had also known that his own flesh and blood had never understood what that meant. “You need to dream things that never were!” he always told her.

“Tell me what this is!” Kurt ordered. But the look on his grandson’s face made it clear he had no idea what he was witnessing.

It was just as Kurt had thought. He knew that his stay in his forest had to end. Sure, the droid could attend to his body, but what about the boy? It was clear his mother had neglected him. So, Kurt shut down the device in his hand, and his beloved forest disappeared.

To his grandson, the world beyond the window suddenly turned into an impenetrable darkness. All he saw was a blackness that, the longer he stared at it, the more it seemed it would come through the glass and swallow him

But before the boy could deliver himself to his fright, he heard a voice behind him say, “Son, it’s time you met me, your grandfather.” The boy turned and saw a droid in the doorway. His grandfather was lying in bed with his eyes open, but the voice belonged to that machine.

The Faithful

Author: Bill Cox

When I was eight years old, my step-dad put me in the hospital. One punch was all it took, but that punch eventually knocked me all the way through the social care system and out onto the streets. Funny to think that it might also have saved my life.

Being homeless, you get used to the religious types desperate to redeem themselves by redeeming you. If I’m honest, I can’t stand these Holy Willies, but as they often have hot food, I’m prepared to nod my head to their nonsense if that’s the price of a decent meal.

So, my hunger finds me in a soup kitchen run by the latest lot of kooky cultists, who are called the Celestial Brotherhood, if you can believe that. One of the glassy-eyed chosen hands me a plate of food but says “Please wait until Grace is said before eating.”

Eventually one of the true believers stands up to give the blessing, which is just as well as my belly is rumbling up a storm. He raises his hands and starts speaking. The funny thing is I’m not quite sure what he says. I can hear the words but they don’t seem to make sense. Suddenly, as he carries on, it’s as if I can physically see what he’s talking about, like a full-on religious vision. I kid you not. But instead of angels and demons I can see space and planets and somewhere called Tau Ceti. I even see an actual alien (a Celestial, I presume) and can feel the purity and the power radiating off of it. It seems to look at me directly and I feel, well, I feel whole for the first time in my life.

It takes me a minute to realise that the guy has stopped speaking. Tears are rolling down my cheeks. The old woman sitting across from me has what I can only describe as a beatific smile on her face.

Everybody is still, then, as if by unspoken command, they all stand and start silently walking to the far end of the hall. I’m still sitting but can feel something working away in my mind, wriggling like a worm, trying to eat my thoughts and excrete something else out, an idea as big as the galaxy but with a piece missing. It strikes me that my tinnitus, a legacy of my step-dad’s assault, means that I didn’t hear absolutely every word of the blessing. And that feels important.

I shake the stupor off, get up, push past the Brothers on the door and out onto the street. I don’t look back.

I’ve given that experience a lot of thought over the past few days. We have this streak of irrationality within us, a desire to believe, to have faith. What if there really were aliens out there and instead of them attacking our cities with space lasers and nuclear bombs, they attacked our minds with an idea, a spiritual concept tailored for maximum appeal. Like a virus, it could start small, converting those on the periphery of society, those that nobody notices or cares about. It would replicate over time, until eventually everyone in the world believes in the benevolent Celestials. Then, as one, we’ll turn our faces up towards the sky and down they will come in their spaceships, the new and unopposed masters of the world.

My advice to you? If someone asks if you’ve heard the good news about our Celestial Brothers, run for your life. In the meantime, if you’ve any spare change…

Marvin, Out of Whack

Author: Hillary Lyon

“Ugh, what did I eat last night?” Marvin groaned, patting his belly. It protruded, solid and round, like a bowling ball. A pot-belly! Tracy, his girlfriend, wouldn’t be pleased. If Tracy bailed, he’d have to get a real job—until the next generous girlfriend came along.

He rubbed his temples, replaying last night’s events—what little he remembered. He’d gone to the corner bar, and met—Nikki the Naughty Animatronic Stripper.

Rifling through the pockets of last night’s clothes, he found receipts: one for the bar, and one from a nearby no-tell motel famous locally for renting rooms-by-the-hour, where Nikki perfected her “acts.”

Marvin microwaved a cup of tea and on inhaling its scented vapor, remembered—steam, like a hot shower in tiny motel bathroom. And in that motel, somebody—Nikki?—jabbed him in the back with an icy needle. He ran to the bathroom to look in the mirror. He in found a greenly glowing oval scab; worse, there was a network of fine lines radiating from it, criss-crossing his back. He poked the scab, the lines pulsed, and he yelped in pain as those pulses sent electric shocks through his limbs, leaving him momentarily paralyzed.

Now he remembered, when he left the bar, pow! He was taken by intergalactic aliens. Once Tracy saw the glowing scab with its throbbing web, she’d believe him.

Marvin glanced at the analog clock on the wall. Soon she’d be home, and he was still in his pj’s. He was, throwing on clean clothes, when he heard Tracy unlock the front door.

Marvin rushed to her.

“What’s wrong?”  Tracy asked, concerned. Then she saw his pot-belly.  ”Well, somebody’s leaking hydraulic fluid.” She thumped his bloated stomach; it sounded metallic and sloshy.

Confused, Marvin scoffed. Hydraulic fluid? Was she insane?

Tracy turned him around to examine his back.

“Your skin sensors are distressed. Have any unsettling thoughts today?”

“I was abducted by silvery aliens—taken to a seedy motel, jabbed with a needle-sharp probe then abandoned in a . . .”

“Steamy shower?”

“Yes! How did you—”

“You’re programmed to enjoy hot showers, hot tubs, steam rooms, et cetera.”

“Programmed? They injected me with a paralyzing radioactive toxin—you saw my back!”

“Marvin, when your innards are out of whack, you get bizarre. Let’s see if your inny is now an outy.”

She pulled up his t-shirt, then gently pushed his protruding belly-button. Her finger went deep into his stomach. Inside his abdomen, he heard a hiss, then a muffled series of beeps. Tracy turned him around, popped off the green scab, then shoved her finger into the glowing hole.

Marvin’s head cleared. He laughed.

Tracy led him to the large closet in the hallway next to the bedroom. Opening the door, she gestured to the comfy recliner inside. Exhausted, Marvin plopped down. As she hooked him up to the console beside the chair, she chided:

“You’re not supposed to actually eat or drink anything; it clogs up your works, giving you crazy ideas, painful sensations, and false memories. Plus, makes you worthless for days. Now I have to do the household chores myself. If you do this again, I’ll complain to your manufacturer.”

Smiling sheepishly, Marvin shut his eyes.

Tracy pressed the re-boot button and closed the door. As the machine inside the closet hummed, she walked to the bedroom and kicked off her shoes. The humming made the floor vibrate slightly, sending a rhythmic thrill from her bare feet all the way up her legs—and beyond.

Damn, she’d have to call her real-life boyfriend for company tonight.

Silent Sam

Author: Rick Tobin

“Come in, Hanson. Close the door. What’s up?” A worn senior manager, with tie askew over his crumpled white shirt, sat hunched while peering at three connected computer screens.

His visitor took deep breaths, removing his horn-rimmed glasses, twirling them for effect before sliding his lanky frame into the Director’s tall-backed leather chair facing the massive mahogany desk.

“Jack, we’ve got a problem. I need support.”

“Huh,” Mason grunted, focusing on his screens. “C’mon Phil. Don’t come in late on Friday throwing bullshit. Christ’s sake, you’re the public information officer. What’s so important it can’t wait till after the holiday?”

“This one’s under the radar, Jack. I need your full attention. This is black box stuff.”

The Director stopped, turning toward the PIO. He pulled his lips tight.

“Mr. Hanson,” Mason spoke slowly, with emphasis. “We don’t use that phrase unless the sky is falling.”

Phillip Hanson sat upright, fiddling with a file folder. “We got this FOIA. It just came in. It’s from the Times. They’re sniffing around about Silent Sam.”

“What!” Mason yelled back. “Let me see that. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“I couldn’t risk sending it in-house or calling.”

“So you brought a damn hard copy? What if you croaked on the way over? Your dad would’ve had a conniption fit.” Mason grabbed the folder and flipped open the top-secret cover sheet. He grunted hard again, this time turning his head askew. “Your job was to stop snoops poking at our envelope. Were you sleeping?”

Hanson’s neck turned bright red as he put his glasses back over his bulbous nose.

“Okay, I’ll take that. This journalist came out of Cornell. He was doing a piece on Sagan for an anniversary issue when he got the scent on Project A119. I swear I’ve got all the NDAs from everybody who worked on the Moon nuking project. We told the public it was canceled. It was slammed shut and no one, until now, has dug into it.”

“Where did he get this stuff about the Moon and Mars? Do we have a leak?”

Hanson leaned over the desk, looking deep into his mentor’s glare. “I farmed every e-mail. The Agency checked every employee and contractor working on the LCross Mission. There’s nothing. I don’t know how this kid knows. Maybe he’s an amateur remote viewer. Hell, there’s no trail. If anyone knew we nuked that alien base on the dark side in ’09, there was no sign. We covered it with the story about crashing some piece of junk on our side, saying it was about searching for water. Luckily, the PRC never made a fuss about the crater after they mapped it.”

“Skip the history lesson, Mason. Remember, I was Assistant Director then. We worked the Chicoms. But how did this rat figure out about the massive bombardment we did on Mars in March and April in 2012? Damn pesky amateurs saw the plumes, but even top Pentagon brass were left out. Musk knows, but hell, he was part of the terraforming planning. He got his payback in 2010. If this gets out, that we already started the process, without the President, Congress, or the idiot public knowing…it’ll be a shit storm.”

“Ideas? I’m fresh out.” Hanson sighed.

“Get the kid in here.” Mason ordered.

“Seriously?” Hanson replied, his voice an octave higher.

“We’ve bought reporters before. Call the networks. Find a juicy spot on camera. You can’t imagine these journalists’ egos. And if that doesn’t work…”

Hanson gulped, “I know the protocol. He’d better damn well bite. Traffic can be dangerous in New York.”