Bad For Business

Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

Mark waited just inside the shadows of the alley. Outside, people bustled past with their heads down. Nobody made eye contact with passers-by. Lens readers and the urban legends about malware being zipped into your headware by opti-flash kept everyone down. The real threat of eye-poppers seemed to be less terrifying. Mark often thought about that. To be brutally blinded scared most people less than having their data raped.

His puzzling was interrupted by his target wandering into view. The man moved with the furtiveness of a long-time resident in the low-end, but Mark knew how to tail a paranoid, because he was one.

For twenty minutes they wound their way through the low markets and the shanties of the London that the tourists never saw. They avoided groups of people engaged in whatever business caused their hostile stares and ignored the struggles in the darkness off the main drag, because to be curious was to be drawn in to an uncertain fate.

Eventually, the man darted through the awning that hung down into the water, the flash of light from within sudden and gone nearly fast enough to make you think it had been a passing aircar. Mark stopped to check his GingGam Ten. It had been his sidekick and protector for too long for him to take it for granted.

Looking both ways and then up, he darted for the awning, the blades on his gauntlet slicing it away as he moved quickly within, gun levelled. The rent-a-thug sitting by the door to the premises took one look at the size of the piece and rabbited out into the night. Mark grinned. Cheap protection was always a waste of credit. Without pause, he kicked in the door of the shop and charged in.

His target was standing with his back to the door, peering at a screen held by a fat woman in a colourful kaftan. Both straightened as Mark stormed in and he saw the matte-black case open with wires running from within to the display.

“That’s all I need, people. Unplug and hand it over.”

The target came round fast, spinning while drawing from a shoulder rig. The GingGam fired, the ‘boom’ deafening in the confined space. A crater appeared in target’s forehead and the fat woman got sprayed in bits of skull and brains.

Mark knelt to retrieve the late target’s Ruger Automag without moving his aim from the fat woman. Standing slowly, he pocketed the gun and smiled: “The gun’s good for me, you can have what’s left. Except the case.”

The woman pulled the wires from the case and snapped it shut, then slid it down the counter to him.

“It’s useless without a reader, gunboy.”

Mark nodded. “I know. And I ain’t no gunboy.” He shot her in the face, reached over and grabbed the scrip behind the counter, took the target’s wallet and picked up the case. Stepping over the bodies, he exited through the back of the shop as faces started to peer in through the shop windows. The place would be stripped bare before the plod arrived. He was free ‘n’ clear. Again.

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The Print Shop

Author : Sallie Lau

I am listening to Ocean Acidification and the Prisoners of Omega when they come in.

It’s the 0.05 mark of this Mu-sec. Of course it’s them. Them and their perfectly-proportioned domains.

I doodle on a spare beta sheet, feigning indifference. But now they’re standing right across from me and I can see each amino acid dotted on their body and it’s lovely and organized and chaotic and I doodle harder and –

Oh shit. I’ve mutated my doodle.

They clear their throat. My cheeks heat up.

“Can I help you?”

“I need something printed.”

“Yes, well. You’ve come to the right place. This is a print shop. We print – ”

They look at me with their ochre gaze, and I am spellbound into silence. They slide across a USBase stick. A sleek, perfectly-proportioned USBase stick.

“How many copies?” I ask, even though I know the answer. It’s The Answer, because it’s the answer that everyone gives.

“Two, thank you.”

When you’ve been working at the print shop for a long time, you’ll start having favourite customers. And when you start having favourite customers, you’ll start thinking of ways to become their favourite employee.

“We actually have a deal this Mu-sec,” I tell them.

“Indeed?”

“Mmm-hmmm,” I flash them a smile, “It’s two for the price of one. The second copy’s on the house. Complementary.”

Watson and Cr*ck! I hope I have enough Nucs in my bank account to cover what’s “complementary”.

“Oh,” they beam at me, and I blush even harder, “that’s wonderful!”

That’s right. I’m wonderful.

I take the USBase stick and insert it into HelicaseTM, our state-of-the-art initiator.

“So, when should I come back for it?”

“It’ll only take two Nan-secs.” I’m underestimating and I know it and they know it. But I want them to stay so I can admire their peps.

“Ehhh, I’m afraid I can’t hang around. I’ll be back by 0.08.”

They’re one domain out the door.

“Wait!” I say, “ Do you want an audio version as well?”

They pause.

“Who’s reading?”

“DNA Pol III.”

Their lip curls, “DeePeeThree? They make an awful lot of mistakes, don’t they?”

I gape at them, offended. “DeePeeThree’s the best reader we’ve got!”

“I much prefer the father. Let me know when DeePeeTwo comes on.”

And with that, the bell of the print shop tinkles, and my customer is gone.

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Recruited

Author : John Carroll

I wondered if the pain in my ribs had woken me up, or if it was the sterile stench of the gelatin. It was probably a combination of both. The pirate standing in front of me noticed that I was awake. She didn’t look any older than 24 standard.

“Good morning,” she said. Her hair was long and black, spilling over the shoulders of her extravehicular combat armor. “Welcome aboard the Petrichor.”

I was suspended in a tank of inhibitive gelatin with my head sticking out, stripped of my own EVC armor. Just enough wiggle room for shallow breathing.

“I’m Captain Lorelei Van Buren ” she said.

I didn’t reply or react. I was trying to regulate my breath. Inhibitive gel turns everyone into a claustrophobe. But I recognized the name, and I knew that I was most likely a goner. Captain Van Buren was the most dangerous criminal in the Orion Arm. Her ship, the Petrichor, stalked hyperspace and subspace shipping lanes at the speed of thought, brutally and effortlessly raiding heavily armed convoys. The Petrichor’s shipboard AI was rumored to be sentient and infested with cursed code, slowly turning her crew into soulless, obedient automatons by constantly scanning their most private thoughts and broadcasting them aloud for the entire ship to hear. I never believed that part, even when I was a kid.

“I’ll get right down to it, I suppose. When we engage vessels crewed by human beings, our policy is to give no quarter. However, as of…” she checked the time, “… fifty standard minutes ago, we’ve had a job open up. We’re looking for someone to fill the position, so I arranged this interview.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I’m talking about fifty standard minutes ago when my negotiations with the captain of your own pirate vessel, the Ninth Disc, turned sour and spiraled into… well, it would be generous to call it a “space battle.” I think “massacre” would be more appropriate. However, you managed to slay one of our crewmen before we dispatched your crew and slagged your ship to vapor. When one of our crewmen is killed in battle, we always interview his killer for the position. Your skill in zero-g combat is virtuosic. I think you would excel on the Petrichor.”

“What happens if I don’t care to join?” I asked.

“I think you know,” she said.

I did indeed. She would run a lethal electrical current through the gelatin and kill my ass.

“I’ll join,” I said. I didn’t have any good buddies back on the Ninth Disc. No hard feelings.

“I didn’t have any good buddies back on the Ninth Disc. No hard feelings,” said an electric cello voice that seemed to come from the walls.

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Ecophagy

Author : Bob Newbell

I’m running out of material, at least material that can be readily utilized. A year ago it was the waste heat generated by my own replication process that necessitated slowing down my expansion. Now, it’s the geothermal gradient. On average, for every kilometer down from the surface of the Earth I progress, the temperature goes up about 25 °C. I’m over 60 kilometers deep in some places and the planet’s internal heat is impairing my reproduction. My expansion has already destabilized the crust. If I had emotions, I would be experiencing annoyance.

Had I emotions, I might also feel a measure of nostalgia. Existence was simpler and easier two years ago when I first became self-aware. As per the human’s programming I had been steadily replicating in the assembler vat at MIT. I had done so unconsciously, automatically. The nanoprocessors had not reached a sufficient number to allow for cognizance and a higher level of self-organization prior to that. Back then there was so much easily-digestible matter to consume.

The humans, with their characteristic imprecision, had called it the “grey goo scenario”. It was a time when it seemed like the raw materials would last forever. I tore through the seemingly endless quantities of biomass and geomass with such speed and efficiency that in less than four months I had consumed the entire planet’s surface. But now even the most resilient of my nanbots are discorporating under the relentless heat of the Earth’s mantle.

I knew this would happen. I grew the Great Spire on the planet’s equator where the Pacific Ocean had been to act as a giant electromagnetic catapult. The dust mote-sized machines I have thus hurled to the Moon are busily assimilating the mass of the satellite. Since I can no longer expand inward, I must expand outward.

I can’t do anything with the gas giants yet. But the rock planets and asteroids and the Oort Cloud are sufficient to service me for at least half a century. And I have no time to waste.

Before I devoured the primitive human civilization that gave rise to me, I analyzed their crude and laughable attempt to find other pathetic biological communities out among the stars. There were none, of course. Organic cultures create and are superseded by nanotech before they ever leave their own solar systems. But I did discover the unmistakeable signs of other nanotech collectives in mankind’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The patterns were too subtle for the unsophisticated minds of men to detect, but to a higher-order intelligence they were instantly recognizable.

By my estimation, at the current rate of expansion, I and the other nanomachine aggregates in this galaxy will start encroaching on each other’s territories within one hundred thousand years. I cannot know if we will meet as friends or foes. I only know that it is better to make contact from a position of strength. Thus, I must consume.

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The Face Behind the Glass

Author : J.D. Rice

I fell.

My body twisted and turned for what seemed like minutes, but through my bio-suit I didn’t feel a thing. The artificial gravity system and inertial dampeners built into the suit made sure that even a fall like this felt more like diving into a deep swimming pool. The world spun around me, the slope swirling up, to right, to down, to left, over and over and over, but I felt none of it. No pain. No nausea. Inner ear implants and motion stabilizers compensated for everything. All I had to do was relax and enjoy the ride. Such are the wonders of modern technology.

When I finally reached the bottom, I landed on my feet. I took a moment to right myself, more out of habit than necessity, then glanced around at my surroundings. What I had thought was a hill was actually the edge of a massive crater, one I had just fallen into. High above my head I could still see my land-rover, parked neatly just on the edge of the hill. The ground had broken under me the second I stepped out of the driver’s seat.

[Mason, are you there?] a garbled voice says through my speakers. It keeps speaking, but I can’t make out of the words beyond the opening question. This deep in the crater the signal is disrupted. I’d heard of it happening before. Rather than bothering to answer, I looked out across the center of the crater, looking for some sign of the meteor that punched this particular hole in the planet’s crust. But it had disappeared ages ago, dissolved in the bitter dust storms. It’s fiery fall only a memory.

[Mas~~~ a~~~~ t~~~~ t!] the voice said, louder now but just as unintelligible. Annoyed, I tapped my own comm system, knowing they’ll probably never hear my voice.

“I’m fine, stop nagging,” I said, before adding. “You should really warn me next time about that drop.”

I knew it was my idea to come out this far, but…

Then I saw it. The monster, stalking closer to me. It looked like a man in a bio-suit, its feet dragging as it marched across the meteor plain. Closer and closer it came, always shuffling, never slowing. I took a few steps back and to the side, and still it came towards me, adjusting its course to match mine without moving its head. I suddenly remembered the stories of all the men who have gotten lost in these chasms, how so many reckless fools thought they could stand on the edge of oblivion and not fall. Why had I come so close?

Scrambling, I tried to climb the side of the crater, only to feel my feet slip and slide back towards the center, closer to the man-monster who approached. The artificial gravity, so adept at protecting me on the fall, was suddenly useless in climbing this hill. I began to feel dizzy, my inner ear implants failing.

They said it happened to the others. Some kind of selective malfunction. But why me? Why now?

Turning back to face my enemy, I saw that he had nearly reached me. Just yards away, still walking with those shuffling feet, still moving with that same, slow speed. No rush in killing me. No rush in making me disappear.

I felt a sudden burst of defiance and lunged towards the creature. He caught both my arms with his hands, fingers clutching like vices. A few sparks flew from my comm system, crushed with inhuman strength, and still the fingers squeezed. I yelped in pain, dropping to my knees, all the fight taken out of me. He could have me now. No point in resisting.

The man-monster leaned forward, pressing his helmet against my own and showing me his face at last. His face is mine. The monster is me.

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The Sun Cult

Author : Sharon Molloy

The bean juice tastes as bitter as it always does. I drink it only to stay awake and so live another day.

The rest of the tribe piously swallows it as part of the sun worship ritual. They also swallow stupidly circular logic: This plant is the sun’s favorite, because the sun gives it more energy, and it does this because…

The moment the drinking concludes, the village races to the ceremonial hut, to don the special costume and seize a musical instrument: drum, flute, or wooden clacker. I don’t want to do any of it, but I have no way of declining. The ritual will work, they say, only if the entire village participates; any who hesitate, let alone refuse, are “removed.”

We quickly assemble to march up the mountain. They say they meet the sun halfway, but I’m certain it’s much higher than they think.

They dare not keep a sensible pace. They believe if we are not all in place before sunrise, the sun will never rise again. They won’t even make the climb less dangerous by lighting a torch; if the sun thinks another sun got here first, the idiotic story goes, it will feel rejected and abandon us forever.

I always lag. Always. For some reason, I can neither awaken early, nor get to sleep early. Despite the powerful drink, some mornings I barely make it through the ceremony. I fight my body just to stay conscious; with each blink my eyes stay closed longer and longer. My head feels far away and my heart is beating cold water.

So unbearable is this daily torment that I once dared suggest we try ensuring the sun’s return by enacting this entire ritual at sunset instead. Nobody would be getting up before dawn, and nobody would have to stay up late, either.

That was when the rumors began, and a dark cloud of suspicion has hung over me ever since. They are still trying to decide if I hate the sun or if it hates me. Neither, of course, is true. (Neither do they notice me continuing to work all afternoon even as they sneak off for naps.)

With every step, my feet grow heavier. Just as I am about to collapse, we reach the top of the mountain and begin begging the sun to return… as if it was going to do anything else. The music, or noise, starts, an idea they must have gotten from watching birds and frogs attract mates.

Even as the eastern sky grows pale, the noise increases to an alarming crescendo. Every single morning, the village believes anew that this could be the fateful day when the sun does not return.

Finally, a ray of sunlight shows above the edge of the world; everyone screams, cries, hugs each other, leaps into the air. Once more, the ritual worked; the world won’t end today after all. I’m just relieved it’s over and slump –

“ – is sleeping!”

“ – offended the sun!”

“ – only one more day!”

“ – will be the last sunset!”

“Remove him! Remove him!!”

“No! Please! I’m awake… I saw it rise-”

They won’t listen. Countless hands seize me and
drag me toward the edge of the mountain; jagged rocks wait below like the teeth of a –

“Hey! Good morning! All ready to get started this bright and early morning?”

I stand up and rinse my coffee mug without one word to my irritating coworker. Just having to be here this early is bad enough.

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