Leaving Behind the Bright Lights

Author: E.M. McCarthy

I shop here.

There are better places to stop and shop, better prices, better inventory, but this place reminds me of the good old days, and they replicated the look of the old stores pretty well too. Same bright lights, same late hours, same rows of glass cases filled with pre-packaged foods.

As a kid, I’d stop by a convenience store and buy a can of soda pop, then on the way home, I’d pop the tab and drink it down, feet pounding the pavement, while sunlight streamed down onto my sweaty face. And I mean the real sweat, forced by heat from a strong sun.

A robo clerk stops by me, gives me an eye scan, then moves on. A bag of dried fruit is still out of my price range due to shipping costs. I settle for a pre-packaged meal, third time this week. We grow tomatoes native, so everyone eats sauce and noodles.

This particular store holds a special memory for me. It’s where I purchased my son. Right there in aisle three, I saw him in the newly installed embryo kiosk. I read his description detailing things like his eye color, his intelligence. There was something special about him. It was more than science. Looking through the glass, I fell in love with him. I knew that all I was missing here was a family.

I made the best decision of my life, to purchase him on the spot. The eight-month wait for him to arrive gave me time to file the appropriate paperwork. They don’t let just anyone have a kid. The usual questions had to be answered: job, education level, income, ability to pay. But, with a little luck and a large bribe, it worked out.

What’s missing here are the holidays. I know they don’t “do” holidays.

We need a holiday. It should be Christmas. Christmas has the joy we’re lacking. I can put up an LED image of a tree on our living room wall at least.

Manny would like that. He’s the right age for a train.

They’re selling trains on aisle seven. I need to think about it after seeing the cost. The computer program toy train is pretty realistic and the apartment is cramped.

I pay for my purchases using my phone, adjust my gloves, then push the button on my suit to close my helmet around my head before I venture through the two doors and leave the artificial atmosphere.

This store has no connector tunnel, so I walk outside. The charm of a brief walk to the shuttle ramp is something I cherish. Perhaps I’m old school, but all the indoor stuff gets old.

The night is dark. So dark I fear it. I leave behind the convenience store’s bright lights for the wilderness of Mars.

Then I see them, snowflakes floating in the air above the lighted store.

I replay a song inside my head about a silent night. For one moment, as I shut my eyes, it’s Christmas again.

A red glow from the space station forms above me. In the moment, I miss home. I miss the smell of leaves, the sight of trees. The next generation doesn’t even know what those are, or why they are important.

But I will tell my son. He’ll know. Maybe he’ll be the one to develop a method to grow a tree, and then he’ll see what Christmas can be again.

Delphine

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

The Major can taste the sweat as he walks through the brothel. He likes it and he rolls it in and sucks it beneath his tongue.

The door at the end of the corridor is open and a slue of framed photographs and bunched flower offerings dribble from its threshold and up to the foot of the bed.

A woman sits atop it, hunched, wires streaming from the crest of her head and up and into the ceiling above. Her blind gaze turns as he enters.

“Come”, she whispers, as if hissed through the pits of scrolling black static in her head.

“You are the broken one. The one they call Delphine?”

She says nothing as she watches the smoke rise and contort from the ash that hangs all but falling from between the gentle quake in her fingers.

“The oracle whore. I’m told you can see the future?”

“I see the present. Today always foretells tomorrow. After all these millennia and still you do not learn from your mistakes. Such pleasure you have at perpetually running back and into the flames”

“That’s it?”

“Simple”

“You know when I look at how sublimely beautiful you are I think of just how far we have advanced. Then you go and open your lame-ass fortune cookie spewing bitch mouth…”

She tongues the gape where her teeth have been ripped from their beds and prods the exposed steel strut of her jaw. Not so pretty now, he had said.

“OK, let me see if I got this right… you get yourself knocked around by a client. He messes up your pretty little plastic face. You refuse to be re-skinned and then you start to see things. Horrible things. Flashes of the future. But now you tell me its just some philosophical nonsense you glitched up in the hope that you can save all of mankind from itself?”

“I thought it worth a try”

“I wouldn’t have wasted my time but you have also mentioned Project Hannibal. Where did you hear this name?”

“From the client. But, as I’m sure you are well aware we sex drones are programmed to forget such superfluous details as just who the person was that we last made love to”

“Love?”, he smirks, “So how is it then that you remember Hannibal?”

“I guess I must have had the name knocked into me”, she draws on the cigarette and absently picks at and tears at the skin of her wrist.

“Why do you do that?”

“For the same reason you do Major, when the darkness gets thick and pulls you to the pit. I do it because I want to feel”, she says and his eyes lose themselves in her words.

There is a crunch of blue pixels and an image projects from his cuff.

“Say hello to your new grandson”, the Majors daughter beams through fresh sweat as she holds her newborn child to the camera.

“You are right Major. I am full of shit. It is all lies. But my intentions were good. Just thought a little apocalyptic scare might help is all…”

“Whore”, he spits as he leaves. But her words they trail and they follow.

“… Sleep well Major for it will not be you that destroys this world, though you will certainly come very, very close. But your grandson, Lucas isn’t it? He will slice this filthy orb in two”.

Black Rainbow

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I always remember the secret my great-grandfather told me: “Absinthe was never to blame, my dear. It’s what was added to the absinthe that caused problems. By accident or design, adulteration led to unexpected side effects.”
There’s a bottle of vintage absinthe on the table in front of me, next to the data store and my computer. It’s the last bottle from great-grandfather’s cellar. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.
Glancing out the window, I see flashing lights reflecting across the buildings. The eyes of a cat on a window ledge opposite reflect the kaleidoscopic display. A flicking tail is all that betrays annoyance at humans disturbing its nightly foray.
‘Adulteration leads to unexpected side effects.’ So true. Like adding an independent programmer to a dedicated team because they don’t have the skills necessary to enable the outrageous things they’ve created. I came highly recommended and reasonably priced. They tripled my rate and paid half in advance; too much, too soon. I arrived with the certainty I was never intended to spend the bounty, but addicted to the challenge and confident I could get out from under.
Sure enough, the programming was wonderful to do and behold. Intricate and innovative. Ground-breaking, in places.
Then Tokyo went dark. A million people died before infrastructure and services could be restored. I looked at what I’d created and mentally filled in the functions of the subroutine stubs with breaking a metropolis in mind. Allowing for a margin of error and inevitable paranoid interpretations, I became sure a scaled-up version of my ‘prototype’ was being used in the wild.
Survivors of the first night Rio de Janeiro went dark could only describe the holocaust that happened in biblical terms. I vomited myself dry, then sought and detected sufficient data traces to confirm my fear.
In too deep to get out, I chose to be honest and made an adjustment to the next release, along with spiking the backups and clones.
Berlin went dark for eight minutes before my revised coding halted the whole suite of programs, flashed up the postcode of my employer’s headquarters on every display still capable of holding an image, then deleted the suite and itself.
My apartment is on the seventeenth floor and my employer’s kill teams are on the fourteenth. Anti-terror units are on the eleventh, with armed personnel from assorted agencies on floors nine through five. Somewhere amongst the back markers is the help I called. At least they’ll be able to identify my corpse and fill in the details when the coming battle is over.
I use a hammer and chisel to crack the containment on the data store. Pouring myself a half-tumbler of absinthe, I take a pause with my other hand poised above the drink. With a smile, I tip the store. The liquid hits the absinthe without a splash and I watch as the suspended nanoparticle clusters form a beautiful black rainbow that spirals in the wake of the narrow silver spoon. Soon, six terabytes of unique programs and their support libraries are swirling prettily.
As the kill team starts work on my door, I pour a measure of champagne into the mix. I’m going to be a little late for a ‘Death in the Afternoon’. Hope Hemingway will forgive me.
The outer door gives way. I drink the glass without pause for air or second thoughts. A strange, cold energy assaults my senses. Not sure if it’s real or hallucination.
The inner door collapses. A shotgun-toting armoured form rushes in. I raise the empty glass toward my murderer.

Dodgy Homebrew Love

Author: Thomas Desrochers

The most popular topic of all was always

Love.

That was how neuro-sims came to the forefront of entertainment, you know. Plug in and a skilled corporate smartiste can have you feeling all that nervous giddiness your stomach borrows from your junk when you’re in

Love.

The magic, and danger, of neuro-sims is how fast they are: an hour in a neuro-sim is a minute in the real world. You can fall in love a thousand times over a weekend. Who needs family, or friends, or lovers, when they have

Love?

I’ll admit, I never went for the popular “most ‘lived’” titles. Back in the day homebrew neuro-sims outnumbered the professional productions 10:1 and there was content for whatever niche you like, ranging from the benign to the truly disturbed. That was how I ended up in possession of the last sim I ever tried.

I should start with this: the author disabled user over-rides.

There I was. The woman I love on the ground, seizing. She’s never done this before; I’m terrified. Jump, then, to the appointment where the doctor points out the brain tumor on the scan. Even as I drown in the mix of emotions – the dread, fear, and resolve – the sleeplessness and anxiety of the weeks since the seizure trickle in.

More jumping. Life, absorbed days at a time. Camping out in the chair by her bed after the first surgery, holding her hand and arguing with the nurses for more painkillers every time she wakes up screaming. The morning after discharge: she tries to make bacon and stares as it burns. I ask her why she doesn’t take it out, but she doesn’t know.

Another seizure at two in the morning. Six weeks of radiation therapy. Countless nights next to her unable to sleep, wondering when the next seizure might hit. Waking every morning to her indomitable spirit and a terrible unease in my gut.

Years pass.

A shock scan. The doctor can’t hide his reaction at how quickly it’s grown. A whole week spent arguing because she doesn’t understand basic things and I don’t yet understand that she doesn’t understand. I wake up at one in the morning to find her making coffee, getting ready for work that doesn’t start until eight.

She can’t work. Trouble using her hands, walking, eating. The weeks blur together – I honestly forget what I experienced and what I was made to remember experiencing. The ability to talk is wrung out of her like water from a rag, until she points at me Christmas morning and says the last thing she’ll ever say:

“Love.”

Every hour of every day spent taking care of her: she can’t talk, can’t eat, can’t use the bathroom, everything stripped away until I even have to smile for her. Hard work, long hours, punctuated by quiet mornings: the two of us in bed with the sun on our faces while we hold hands and just look at each other. She’s broken down piece by piece until all that’s left is her intense, burning will to live, and as the sun rises one morning her breathing slows until, with one last gasp, that too is crushed.

It took my body a week to recover from lying on the floor so long. I still think about it in the quiet moments of my life, that dodgy second-hand love. Being forced to never shy away from that awful reality hollowed me out.

It’s probably good someone stepped in and regulated the market, not that it gives me closure.

Unsettling, unsatisfying, nothing like a professional first kiss.

Love!

Q&(A?)

Author: Alex Z. Salinas

There was once a creature much like a man who lived on a planet all alone. He was carbon-based, drank water, and received nutrients from luscious plant life born from fertile soil. Because the creature was always left to his thoughts, and possessed what you’d call higher-order thinking abilities, he, in approximately 50 earth years, discovered the meaning of life. Yes, in roughly half a human lifetime by 21st century standards, he identified what it was his purpose was on that vast, lonely planet. His discovery filled him with joy. He-without-a-name—for there was no need for him to assume an identity—lived another 200 earth years in solitude, his mood only affected natural weather events and illnesses associated with change in temperature. Only once, on a rather warm night, did the creature have a nightmare. He dreamed of another him. In his nightmare, his twin was identical to him in every way except one, and he, recognizing this in the eyes of his twin, stood paralyzed in terror before his other. When he woke up, his skin hot and sweaty, he was relieved to find his world as it was. He soon forgot about his nightmare and went on with his life.

Upon his death, the discovery of the meaning of his life perished alongside with him. His body decayed into the fertile soil, and eventually, traces that he had ever existed ceased to exist.

***

There’s a planet impossibly distant from earth where hyperintelligent creatures with mirror-bodies roam. They communicate by absorbing light from their giant red sun, processing the energy into uniquely coded data, then transmitting it decoded to each other via reflection. This occurs soundlessly. The transmission of information—their language—also serves as their food source, supplying their bodies with necessary nutrients. The inherent flaw in these creatures’ design, as is true with two mirrors facing each other, is light reflected between them gets dissolved into oblivion. The particles scatter seemingly until they disappear. This means the creatures’ thoughts fragment and distort until their original content is lost entirely. Think “the telephone game.” Eventually, the mirror creatures, through the act of communication, are driven mad. As they age, they develop increasingly distrustful, violent, and suicidal ideas of their world. Since they require communication for nourishment, there’s no cure for their deadly madness. Life on their planet is brutal and unhappy. Brutally unhappy.

***

Humans and their love—love: the so-called boundless driver of their action. But what your kind has gained with love it has also lost in flesh, for you manipulate. Your proneness to attach to others—to philosophies, objects, and gods—seems to define your purpose. All leading to slaughter. I’ve noted your behavior mirrors the mirror creatures, in that dispersion of your language occurs daily. But unlike the mirror creatures, your communication is not a food source. Rather, it’s a choice. Luckily, for your sake, the mirror creatures don’t know about this.

So to answer your question, the meaning of life, as you can guess, boils down to a matter of space, angle, and insertion point. I’ve told you enough for you to draw your own conclusions, so be on your way.
But one last thing. The difference between prosperity and destruction, in your case, walks a tightrope. An infant’s breath can tip it over.

Whether you remain or not, I can’t tell. Either way, I’ll still be here.

A Man and Three Brothers

Author: Mark Joseph Kevlock

A man and three brothers knew the secrets of the world. Thus, they began a quest to unlearn them. They sought a place to pour out their secrets, where none would ever find them. They found a cave that ran deep and walked down its throat for many days. They heard strange sounds and the footfalls of the world above them. They tired not, nor did they speak.

Eventually, the cave opened upon a bigger cave. One of the brothers took measurements with his eyes. He held that gift. And many more. Too small, he indicated, in his thoughts. The others concurred.

They passed through landscapes of long-dead civilizations. They saw secrets in the walls, in the rocks. But they had enough of their own to carry and took no interest in gaining more.

The man led the way — not by choice, simply in accordance with the universal order of things. The man was the leader. He carried the most secrets, the greatest burden.

Water ran towards them and then away. Another of the three brothers lifted his ear to passages read eons ago, still alive on the currents, echoes awaiting a listener. He listened. Their bible proved to be a bible like his own bible: words repeated often enough to lose their meaning in the crevices between tongue and heart.

Their search continued.

The third brother lay nearest to the grave. He kept disintegration at bay through force of will: pictures of beautiful women who raced alongside his preserved youth. He held the wisdom of the moment, though seldom shared it.

Interchangeable thoughts leapt between them, lightnings across the inner sky.

The world got deeper and deeper. All across its surface, they had journeyed with secrets in tow and no place to put them. Was it fair for the world to end, every so often? Perhaps fish would rule the next imagining.

They called themselves Lagonians. Names gave weight to thoughts collected into matter. Eventually, only the thoughts remained.

Certain that they had traveled through the center of it all and failed to recognize it as such, the man and three brothers halted.

In order to begin anew, the universe must forget itself, burn its paintings, bury its books. Men were paintings of muscle with books for brains.

Light shone feebly ahead.

A man and three brothers moved toward it.

A machine sat before them, needing secrets for fuel. They had secrets.

The first brother tried to measure it with his gifts. He could not.

The second brother listened to its hum, but could not understand.

The third brother tried to die, but it would not let him.

The machine waited for the man, the leader. He tilted his head and a secret fell out.

Secret number one: Machines made the world. All matter is inorganic at its deepest level.

The man beat a fist to his skull and knocked another secret loose.

Secret number two: Willpower creates matter. Thoughts give birth to all.

The three brothers knew these secrets. Everyone knew these secrets. That was why the world had to end: it had no secrets left to reveal.

Might this machine be God?

The man fell to his knees and dropped a secret, accidentally.

Secret number three: No one ever dies… for no one has ever lived.

The machine ate secrets from each of them, all they had. This accomplished, it gave no further acknowledgment of their presence.

A man and three brothers departed.

They had forgotten the secrets of the world and could begin to make them up all over again.