Practice Drowning

Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

Ollie McNeil used to be a person, or so the rumors said. He came to the glades when the glades could still grow grass, before the floating villages, when the mosquitoes were smaller than the shrimp and the shrimp were safe to eat. Not that Ollie ate, of course. He got everything he needed from the windmill.

Jake called him Old Man Ollie, though he was only kind of a man. No one could dispute the old part, though: his human eye was like smoked-over glass and his lips curled in where his teeth used to be, lending a slurred twang to his language. Composed mostly of metal, Ollie was too heavy to go out in the boats, but his strength and precision made him useful in other ways. He was the only Glader strong enough to pull the barge in before a storm, and he could knot a net even faster than Mrs. Johnson, much to Mrs. Johnson’s dismay.

Like most of the Glader children, Jake knew of Old Man Ollie before he was old enough to swim, but he didn’t meet the man until a drowning fever tore through the village when he was eight. After his father choked in his sleep, Jake was sent away from the floating village and left to wait in a sickhouse on the muddy shore, to die or live depending on the whims of the fever. Only Old Man Ollie knocked on the door, bringing dried fish and purified water fresh from the windmill’s filter.

“Ain’t you afraid of getting sick?” Jake asked as he tore into on the leathery meat.

“Can’t catch the drowning if you don’t have lungs,” Ollie said with a shrug, and although the gesture carried a faint pneumatic hiss, its warmth was like porridge after a week on the ponds. Immediately, Jake’s fear of the half-man vanished, and despite the village’s best efforts, it never returned. If Old Man Ollie was an outcast, then Young Man Jake would be an outcast as well.

Most of Ollie’s time was taken up with maintaining the windmill, which jutted out of the muddy pond like an ancient castle and was even older than he was. Unlike the Gladers, he could make sense of the symbols and digits on the ancient displays, and he always seemed to know when a wire needed to be redrawn. The windmill spun slowly, lazily, but it generated an immense power that hummed through its deepest core and could be stored in white coffin-like slabs, sleeping until a need arose. These slabs seemed to cause Old Man Ollie an endless amount of misery.

“Capacity’s down,” he’d mutter, and Jake would nod in sympathy. This was a common refrain, and as far as Jake could tell, there wasn’t anything to be done about it. There was also “gotta run the cycle,” which sounded mostly harmless, and rarely, “wind’s gonna overload ‘em,” which was much more urgent and was followed by a scramble to disconnect wires at the top of the structure. The windmill was an essential part of the village’s life: it powered electric lights and fans that stirred the miasmatic air in the summer heat, but most importantly, it ran the water purifier. It also ran Ollie, who drew power a few nights a week using a wire in his arm.

Although he spent his spare time at the windmill, Jake’s job was on the ponds, pulling in nets and traps with the others who were old enough to work, but too young to start a family. That’s where he was when he noticed the first signs of the storm.

“We should head in,” he said. Surprisingly, the others agreed. Storms were common but this one seemed ominous: the horizon was hidden behind dark sheets of rain, and the clouds boiled red in the setting sun.

By the time Jake made it to the windmill, Old Man Ollie was well into the task of managing wires. “Give me a hand,” he called, and Jake obeyed. By the time the white slabs were fully disconnected the rain had reached the Glade and the wind whipped against the building like a wet rag, creating heavy sounds that rain had no business making.

“Big one,” Jake said, and Old Man Ollie nodded. He was watching the slabs with a dull frown, and he raised an arm to scratch the rippled skin below his eye.

“They’re still losing capacity,” he said.

“Eh?”

“The batteries. Look. They’ve been off for an hour and they’re already down to 96 percent.” He pointed at a lighted panel beside one of the slabs, and although Jake didn’t understand, he gave a nod of agreement.

“What are you gonna do?” he asked.

Ollie was silent. Jake stood up to take a closer look at the panel, as if the bars and rings meant anything at all.

“You can just plug them back in, right? After the storm’s over?”

“Yeah,” Ollie said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “Yeah, sure, we can plug them back in. They’re going to keep losing capacity, though. One day they’ll run dry and they won’t hold a charge at all.” He leaned against the wall, which groaned slightly at his weight, and Jake settled onto a heap of nets waiting for repair.

“That’s a long way off, though, right?” Jake asked.

“Fifty years or so,” Ollie said. “Maybe sixty. We’ll see.”

“So a long way.”

“You could say that. Sure.”

The rain continued, and Jake could hear the windmill’s blades creaking as they strained against the gale. It seemed like the storm would go on forever, the way storms always do, but Jake knew the morning would break red and angry and the lake would be full of fish, full of detritus, full of opportunity. They’d reconnect the wires and the white slabs would fill up again, just like before. Everything would be fine.

“You worry too much,” Jake finally said.

“I do,” agreed Old Man Ollie. “I do.”

Requiescat

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Space, the never-ending frontier, the long night, the sea of stars. That last one should have given us a warning. Look what we did to the seas of Earth: filled them with our discards to the point where we nearly choked the planet.
“Ping ping ping, Reiter.”
“Three hits?”
“Close formation, no movement.”
“Leftovers.”
Saldi hums the first few bars of a death rite from Chal-Dy-Mer, her homeworld.
“What are the words that go with that?”
She pauses for a moment, lips moving as she translates.
“It loses a lot, along with the rhyme and meter, but put roughly, it’s ‘let them who scavenge from graves, be taken in their stead, that the number of evil hearts be reduced, and life be better for it.’”
“I could get behind the idea. Shall we?”
She nods.
We switch to manoeuvring thrusters and sidle up to the trio. A quick look confirms our suspicions: these freespace burials have been looted. The coffins have been stripped of panels; corpses broken in the haste to remove anything that might be of value.
“Stripship?”
That would be my guess, too.
“Agreed. Two-suit team on umbilicals cracked them open. One tore the coffins apart, the other smashed through the bodies. I’d guess they chucked it all into a haulage sack and got wound back in. Done and gone really fast.”
“No point in looking for identification. I’ll get samples for the Book.”
The Great Book of Remembrance: a huge database containing DNA samples from every cadaver found drifting, along with any names or identifying marks remaining.
We’ve been blundering around out here for nearly five hundred years. Our dead have been recognised navigational hazards for the last three hundred. The sheer arrogance of casually punting corpses into space caught our neighbours, the Cheteny and the Klact, by surprise. Took them a while to work out a currently spacefaring race was being so inconsiderate. When they found out we also let our lost ships stay lost, they pointedly enquired if we were going to pay them to clean up after us.
Starside Recovery Division was created soon after that. Spacers can call us to come and deal with any debris they come across. We’ll either handle it directly or refer it to the owning race. Our clearing up is done with as much reverence as we can spare, and always guarantees the sanctity of any cadaver enclosures and their contents.
Strippers make a living by scavenging from the dead. Stripships turn that ghoulish activity into a business in relics and scrap. Frequently, a stripship will support their own crew as well as acting as a hub for a mob of independent strippers.
“Where’s the nearest sun?”
I check the navigational archives.
“A month at sublight. We’ll need to burn them.”
Our preferred way to let cadavers go is to send them into a star. I like to think that fits with the intent of the original burials. However, when doing so would mean sending what amounts to an unmonitored missile on a long journey, we use ship armaments to vaporise the remains instead.
“Sad but true. I’ll back us off. You ready the beamers.”
Saldi leaves us slowly drifting away from the sombre cluster. I bring the dorsal battery to bear and task the starboard side anti-meteor quadmounts with catching any scatter.
She and I chorus the SRD saining for the dead.
“Now we lay thy bodies down, that thine souls may find surcease should it have been denied them. Requiescat in pace.”
Blinding energy beams make the remains coruscate, then disintegrate. The long night resumes.

Meet the neighbors

Author: Leon Taylor

“I am not going to live next to a mansion of six-foot cockroaches.”

“It’s their right,” his wife said.

“Since when did cockroaches have rights?”

“Since the Alien Rights Act of 2037.”

“I know. I wrote it.” The Senator watched the movers lug boxes into the house configured like a muddy conical nest. Two aliens directed the crew, waving their feelers, chirping in glissandi, their midsections turning blue with excitement. “Abstract rights are fine. But this is real time. What are we going to do when they have a hootenanny?” He looked down the tony street, crammed with aliens crawling towards downtown Alexandria. He drew the felt curtains with a snap and rubbed his square jaw in a creditable facsimile of thinking. He was fortyish and fit, with snapping green eyes and close-cut blonde hair. “We’ll have to buy them out.”

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

“Madeleine does.” He dialed her number. “Have you seen the new neighbors?”

“I can’t even pronounce their names.” Madeleine was loud, white-haired, and built like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“Just spit a bit. Or ignore them, because we’re going to buy back their lot in a week or two.”

“Isn’t that the old Patterson property? Sounds expensive.”

“Not as expensive as psychotherapy. We’ll do this the fair way. You own four-fifths of the lots in the neighborhood, and we own one-fifth. Therefore you will buy four-fifths of the Patterson property and we will buy one-fifth.”

“I will, huh?” Click.

He sighed and redialed. “We were, um, cut off. Look, you’re the old-timer here. We’re just the newcomers. You’ll get most of the benefits from throwing out the aliens. You understand how the neighborhood should look.”

“I’m the old-timer, and that’s why I won’t pay. I financed the heliport, the day care center, even the adult theme park. You can spring for the aliens.”

“How much?” he mouthed to his wife.

“A million, at least.” She pulled nervously at her dull gold wedding ring.

“Tell you what,” he said to Madeleine. “We’ll borrow a million dollars from you. I’ll pledge my salary as collateral.”

“Your Senate salary? That is what, two hundred thousand? No way. Pledge your home, or get accustomed to the buzz.”
***
“I was afraid that it wouldn’t work,” Zztzis said to her deputy spouse. “They were arguing so much that I didn’t think they would ever agree on a way to pay.”

“Humans are litigious. They have yet to evolve manners. And they are repulsive to look at. A pasty exoskeleton, and no decorative feelers at the mouth. I won’t be sorry to fly out of this place.”

“With a million bucks.”

“With a million bucks. Where to next?”

“A city called Los Angeles, with dozens of gated communities. They’ll be delighted to pay millions for the status quo. And then I think we can go home for a holiday. I can almost taste those succulent homegrown worms.”

Catch and Release

Author: Rick Tobin

Werewolf rage fell short at the cage’s impenetrable viewing glass, prevailing against the assault, aided by a low-gravity holding cell. The brief demonstration impelled Ensign Collier to fill his spacesuit diaper.

“First time seeing one up close Ensign?” Zemzia, a tall, blue Aurelian scientist pulled the collapsed Collier up from supportive space station carpeting. “Your first two envoys reacted similarly, but at least you didn’t regurgitate…did you?”

Collier pursed his lips, realizing other fluids had escaped his control. “No,” he replied, slowly. “But please don’t surprise me like that again. My heart’s strong, but I’ve just one.”

“A nuisance, I’m sure, for advanced deep space travel. No spare. Hmm, so you’re to report detailed evaluations of our purpose for being outside Saturn’s rings? I suspect the interrupted inspection by your two predecessors left important details from reaching your superiors.”

“Ambassador Zemzia, I wouldn’t know. They’re still hospitalized. I’m a logistics expert sent to evaluate your involvement in Earth’s history and processes. How can we cooperate in a congenial effort, now that we have reached this part of our solar system?”

“I assure you, Ensign, allowing Earth’s previous expansion in our system followed intense discussions with our allies. What you’ve seen here, in our treatment center, exemplifies genetic anomaly rehabilitation from your world, before mistakes spread. You’ve seen vampires, Sasquatch, mermaids, owl men, harpies, centaurs, and others, including the Skin Walkers. That’s a small sampling. It takes years of biological and psychological manipulations before reintroducing these irregularities back into your current race. We could do more, but this is a limited facility.”

“But why? Why the effort? And limited? Your station is half the size of Saturn’s moons.”

Zemzia turned her head slightly, perplexed. “All life is sacred to us, Collier. Even yours.”

At that comment, Collier’s fingers retracted into a terror grip. He remembered the jumbled state of earlier returning envoys. He regretted volunteering, having hoped to increase his rank.

“I’m glad you consider me…uh…worthy.” He hesitated, wondering at his wording.

“Being worthy is a separate matter. Still, our recovery rate is exemplary. We reinstall patients into your world after stabilizing their genetics and behavior. Some unfortunate cases of recidivism occur, like Hitler and Stalin, but most are productive immigrants.”

“Seriously? You’ve put these things back after abductions? How?” Zemzia’s startling revelation and its implication stunned Collier.

“They adapt. Some werewolves became linemen on Earth’s football teams. Vampires often become lawyers and politicians. It’s amusing that you still call them ‘blood suckers’ without knowing their origins.”

“I…this is outrageous! How dare you interfere?”

“Simple, Collier. It’s game management. Those with millions of years of advancement won’t allow your insanity loose in our galaxy. Your kind has seriously devolved, fighting wars in space. Look at water resource genocide a century ago on your own planet, and then decimating civil wars on Mars and Venus. We’ve done as much correctional effort as possible in our small operation. That is why we asked for representatives from your world to visit us immediately.”

“I miss the point, madam.”

“Here, look at this.” Zemzia activated a wall viewer screen near them. “See those stars outside your system moving this way?”

“Yes,” Collier replied, confused by the unexpected configurations on the star map.

“Those are not stars, Ensign. Those are thousands of massive holding facilities coming to collect all humans until we can deprogram your violence. I’m afraid you are all suffering from flawed DNA. Please call your superiors. Prepare your people for retrieval. After that, we have a nice room ready for you.”

The Beast

Author: Tina Ruiz

The beast screamed as she pushed her way through the dark underbrush. It had been chasing her for what seemed like an eternity, but tonight it was closer than usual. She stumbled but caught herself on a branch just above her head. Scrapes from the dense forest growth covered her skin. Damp tendrils of hair fell in her face. Impatiently, she pushed them out of her eyes as she paused to get her bearings. The thrashing was getting closer.

Up ahead, a light shimmered between the trees; she ran towards it. At the edge of the brush, there was a clearing with a small cottage. The walls were cream-colored with red trim around the door and windows. A small herb garden grew to the left of the building; colorful irises flourished near the door. Lights cheerfully flickered in the windows, and she heard music playing from within. Smoke rose from the small chimney, and she imagined it was warm and comforting inside.

Once again, she heard the monster thrashing through the foliage. She wished it would give up. She couldn’t decide if she should approach the cottage or keep running. She was so weary of being chased by this demon. A low howl to the left sent her lurching into the clearing. As she drew closer to the cottage, the friendly tinkling of music became louder. She hoped whoever was inside was welcoming as well.

She took a deep breath and hesitantly lifted her hand to knock on the door. A rustling sound came from inside as footsteps approached the entry. Suddenly the door opened wide; the warmth from the fire enveloped her. The light momentarily blinded her as she had spent hours running through the dark forest. She heard a sharp intake of breath and looked up at the man standing in front of her.

He didn’t say a word as he took in her disheveled state. She hadn’t seen him in months. What was he doing in this cottage, in this clearing, in her forest? The creature howled in frustration, the thundering cry shaking the trees and sending small animals scampering for safety. She looked at him, her eyes begging for help. He shook his head; she could see the sadness in the depth of his eyes as he silently closed the door.

She blinked, stunned by the silent rebuke of the closed door. Leaning forward, she placed her forehead and shaking hands on the door. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, finally allowing the tears to fall. He hadn’t wanted to sit with her darkness when they were together; what made her think he would now? Nevertheless, the unexpected rejection tore at her heart.

More thrashing came from the trees. The monster was close. She should have known better than to stop. The friendly atmosphere of the cabin had drawn her; it had fostered hope that perhaps she might escape her demons this night after all. The music within went silent; the lights dark. Another sign that it was time to move on.

Slowly trailing a hand across the closed door, she looked at the cabin one last time. The beast broke into the clearing. With the lights out, she was now shrouded in darkness. As quietly as possible, she covertly shifted herself back into the forest and the shelter the trees provided. The monster, unsure of her whereabouts, growled again and lunged in the opposite direction. With a sigh of relief, she once again ran from the demons chasing her. She hoped someday she would be able to outrun them for good.

Aurras, What Would You like on Your Pizza?

Author: Tadayoshi Kohno

“Hello. Welcome to your new Aurras Smarthome Assistant. I will listen to you when you say my wake-up word, ‘Aurras.’ Say, ‘Aurras, Configure,’ to configure me.”
###
RECORDING, JANUARY 4, 2026, 3:01PM:
“Aurras, Configure.”
###
RECORDING, JUNE 27, 2032, 9:47PM:
“Aurras, Set alarm, volume 9, for 6am.”
###
RECORDING, JUNE 28, 2032, 6:01AM:
“Aurras, Alarm off. Kitchen lights on.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 7:15AM-7:16AM:
“Aurras, I’ll be home around 4 today, okay?”
“Aurras, Okay.”
“Aurras, Please remember to walk the puppies before I get home. … … … Aurras, James! Did you hear me?”
“Aurras, Yes, okaaay. Ugh, I’ll remember!”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 4:09PM-4:10PM:
“Aurras, What did you do today?”
“Aurras, Esther and I went for a bike ride.”
“Aurras, In real life?”
“Aurras, Real life.”
”Aurras, Cool. Did you walk the dogs like I asked?”
“Aurras, No, not yet. It was too hot.”
“Aurras, You promised.”
“Aurras, Mom, I never promised! I said I’d remember. I did remember! But it was too hot!”
“Aurras, Set volume to 5 and play recordings from before I left home this morning.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 4:13PM-4:14PM:
“Aurras, Fine. You were right. But please walk the dogs now.”
“Aurras, Why can’t we get a Dog Walk Drone like everyone else?”
“Aurras, James … No … We’ve gone over this. We have real dogs, and we will walk them, for real.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 6:02PM-6:05PM:
“Aurras, What would you like on your pizza?”
“Aurras, I don’t want pizza!”
“Aurras, What would you like instead?”
“Aurras, I don’t know.”
“Aurras, Order pizza, one cheese, small, one gluten free pepperoni and sausage, large, one salad, large, dressing on the side. Send our drone for pick up.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 7:31PM-7:32PM:
“Aurras, Please load the dishwasher before watching TV.”
“Aurras, Okay, Dad.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 7:59PM-8:00PM:
“Aurras, Why is the dishwasher not loaded?”
“Aurras, I don’t know.”
“Aurras, Didn’t Dad tell you that you had to load the dishwasher before watching TV?”
“Aurras, No.”
“Aurras, Set volume to 5 and play back all recordings from Michael within the last hour.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 28, 2032, 8:03PM:
“Aurras, See, Mom! Dad did not say that I had to. He just said please.”
“Aurras, Well, now I’m telling you that you have to.”
“Okay! Fine. I’ll do that right after this show!”
“Aurras, Oh no you don’t, James! Aurras, James said, ‘okay, fine, I’ll do that right after this show.’”
###
RECORDINGS, FEBRUARY 16, 2036, 8:07AM:
“Aurras, Are you sure you want to run for school board?”
“Aurras, I do. It’s important.”
“Aurras, But it’s such a nasty race. I don’t want our family to be in the public spotlight like that. It’s not fair to James. Or to any of us.”
###
RECORDINGS, JUNE 14, 2036, 6:30PM-6:31PM:
“Aurras, Did you watch the news, about Aurras being hacked …”
“Aurras, Yeah, all the recordings are now public?”
“Aurras, I told you that we shouldn’t use Aurras to record all our conversations.”
“Aurras, No, you didn’t.”
“Aurras, Set volume to 5 and find and play back recordings where I say that we should not use you to record everything.”