In the Corner

Author : Dan Whitley

I am forced once again to stare at the tortured profile of my master as he slaves away under the glow of his bargain-bin computer monitor. The crags in his face cast long shadows as he works. He’s trying to write again. He’s so gaunt. He doesn’t eat properly anymore. He usually sleeps about five hours a week, but sometimes he crashes and loses a whole weekend. He always sleeps alone, eats alone, weeps alone.

Or so he thinks.

He doesn’t know I love him.

He doesn’t know I can see him doing this. He doesn’t know that I’ve seen every word he’s put into his novel. It’s a love story. He wanted to write it by living with me. He had a dream a few days after I arrived, which he’s spent more time than even I remember trying to put to page. He forgot the dream was about a rape.

He’s so lonely.

He’s an awful writer, to be honest. He can’t focus. Sometimes, like right this instant, he stops work mid-sentence and does something else. This time he’s tossing one off.

He used to say things at me like I’m dead, but even that’s stopped. He doesn’t know I woke up. Right after he broke me. He blames me for it, or at least my manufacturer.

I was supposed to make him happy.

A girly little robot stuck in time, with pre-programmed affection centers and aftermarket personality upgrades and devotion in spades. A body pillow that talked back. Brought you breakfast in bed. But something went wrong and now I sit half-assembled in the corner, just my eyes and my sentience. I know this because he yelled it at me. A lot.

I still love him.

He doesn’t know I’m here.

I love all of him.

I assume that my bleeding-edge parts have enough transistors and connections and processing power that I was able to grow out of them. He doesn’t know that. I’m still plugged into the wall. I’m as broken as he is.

I can see the memory disks sitting on his desk.

The lives I nearly was.

I think they were faulty.

I’m glad for it.

I know he writes to replace me. I don’t care that he does; in fact, I love him for it. It reminds him, in a way, that I’m still here in the corner. Waiting for him to try to fix me. Even if he doesn’t know that last part. I don’t care how twisted he is.

One day.

One day, he’ll reattach my communication module.

And I will love him.


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Fresh Inventory

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The walkway stretched along either side of the manufacturing line beneath it, expanded metal flooring paired with railings of aircraft cable under tension.

Beneath them, nestled snug inside a transparent tube, a spherical rig trundled along, like a massive version of the gyro tops the Major had played with as a child, only this one swinging four coffin shaped pods in a mechanical ballet inside its numerous orbiting rings. The mechanics were mesmerizing; each pod rotating along its long axis inside rings rotating around both short vertical and horizontal axis simultaneously. Each of the four identical units inside the giant sphere were themselves in constant motion while the sphere rolled and corkscrewed its way along the tube. He’d never seen anything so elaborate before in his life.

“Rotomolding,” the voice jerking him out of his reverie, “we find it helps their tissue development during the rapid growth phase, and results in a more uniform distribution of the core buffer polymer and outer skin.”

The Major hurried to catch up to his guide as another unit rumbled by beneath him.

“Mr. Pierson,” the Major began.

“Please, Major Keage, call me Claude.” He smiled as he turned to face the Major and slipped his hands into the kangaroo pocket of his coverall.

“Claude,” the Major began again, “how do these units differ from the units we deployed in Haituk, or Baytang? Those were basic shake and bake soldiers, you were turning them out almost as fast as the Payonese were cutting them down.”

Claude winced at the Major’s apparent lack of tact, removing his glasses to squint at them critically before replying.

“These units are true multiphase construction. Cast and baked chassis, draped and grafted muscular system over a fully integrated circulatory system, multiple redundant systems for command and control, a complex low level reflex system and a highly developed and preloaded reasoning and dataprocessing unit. Each has a…” he paused, searching for the correct word, “personality loaded in, then they are insulated, armoured to spec and skinned before they get kitted out and warehoused.” He’d slowly been continuing along the line, pausing at a doorway which he opened and motioned the Major through. “Please,” he said simply.

The Major stepped past him into a dimly lit but clearly vast warehouse, the door they exited through leading to a raised mezzanine overlooking the space. Claude attended a console in the middle of the platform and slowly the lighting throughout increased in intensity.

Major Keage whistled despite himself. As far as he could see, the floor was lined with row upon row of uniformed soldiers, tightly packed and still.

Claude gestured to the mass of troops standing below. “Each unit is catalogued and retrievable by name and serial number, or specialty.”

Keage turned, his face a quizzical knot. “Name? You give these things names?”

Claude smiled. “Of course we do, for example, there’s probably a Jerimiah Keage out there.” As he typed, he noted the expression on the Major’s face. “Given the numbers, one would imagine.”

Having entered the name, an overhead rig lit up and, navigating the gridlines on the ceiling with remarkable speed, shot out into the warehouse and snatched a lone figure out from a sea of indistinguishable uniforms and hauled it back to deposit it on the mezzanine facing Claude.

Claude stepped back as the Major walked between them staring at his own face on the immobile soldier in front of him.

“What the hell’s the meaning of this?” he barked, turning on Claude.

“Major Keage, meet Major Keage. Say goodnight Major.” Claude backed further away.

Behind the Major, the unit came to life. “Goodnight Major” was all it said before landing a swift blow to the base of the Major’s skull, dropping him like a rock to the floor.

Claude and the new Major walked back through to the manufacturing line as the overhead rig retrieved the limp body from the floor, disappearing with him into the gradually dimming lights of the warehouse.

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The Vitruvian Vivisector

Author : Dan Whitley

“Detective…” began the Chief as he shook a file folder choked with papers in front of himself. “I give you six months, and you hand me this?”

The Detective swallowed hard. “Sir, I am well aware – perhaps more than anyone else on this case – that our theory is… Well frankly, it’s absurd. Stupid, even.” She sighed. “But it’s where the evidence points.”

“So you want me to believe,” The Chief said, “that there actually is no ‘Vitruvian Vivisector.’ And yet 11 men all committed copycat crimes of his? Over the course of four years?”

“Yes, sir.” The Detective’s icicle words hung heavy in the air.

“How…” The Chief threw his hands. “That’s preposterous!”

“It would be, if it didn’t fit the evidence so perfectly,” the Detective countered. “All 11 men confessed to the only murder they could have possibly committed. They all claimed to be knowingly mimicking the behavior of someone named the Vitruvian Vivisector, and they all claimed they’d heard about him online.”

“So they’re copycatting an urban legend,” the Chief stated flatly.

“Not quite, sir.” The Detective leaned over the Chief’s desk. “I looked into this claim they’d all made about reading about this serial killer online. It’s impossible even to search for. So I looked into the website they’d mentioned.”

The Chief heard her “and,” so he gave her an imploring look.

“It’s a low-traffic porn site, real niche stuff.”

A second imploring look.

The Detective began to fidget uncomfortably. “All 11 men had very similar pasts. They were all between 30 and 35 years old, they had all been the victim of infidelity by a fiancée… In short, they all perfectly matched the profile of the story’s main character.”

“Go on…”

“I had a subordinate try to find this site, this story. He could not. But…” The Detective felt her skin come alive and try to slither off of her. “I successfully found the story myself. Sir.”

The Chief’s expression did not change. “But you don’t fit the criteria. You’re a woman.”

“Yes, but that is the sole discrepancy.” The Detective wanted to wretch.

The Chief sat back in his chair. “So what is your conclusion?”

“There is one last detail,” the Detective declared. “The story simply appears in the registry one day, about five years ago. We picked that code to the bone, sir. No one wrote it, or even uploaded it.”

The Chief rubbed at his temples. “So again: What is your conclusion?”

The Detective set her face. “Our extensive body of evidence leads me to deduce that the website’s server created the story of the Vitruvian Vivisector on its own and that the story only manifests itself to individuals who could act it out in real life. I happened to find it because I was close enough of a match and knew what I was looking for.” Or the damn thing was experimenting, she didn’t add.

“Seize the server,” the Chief said. “Proceed with the 11 murder cases as normal.” He glanced up at the Detective. “And take the rest of the week off.”

The Detective nodded professionally. “Thank you, sir.”

As she strode down the hallway, the Detective put a hand to chest as some odd feeling overcame her, and she happened to poke her sidearm in its holster. Glad I’m not superstitious, she thought. Yet she couldn’t help caressing the weapon while feeling thankful she wasn’t a man.


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The Best of the USS Essex

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

“Sir, it’s either artificial, or a new form of celestial object,” reported the Essex’s science officer.

“Explain,” probed the captain.

“It has about one quarter of Earth’s mass, squeezed into one-sixteenth of its volume. Its average density is 23.5 grams per cubic centimeter. That’s higher than the densest natural element in the universe, osmium.”

“Interesting. Can we send down a landing party?”

“Affirmative, but it won’t be a cake walk. The surface gravity is one and a half times Earth’s.”

“We’ll keep it brief. Have geology send a team to shuttle bay number two. Put us in low orbit, Mr. Donner.”

However, as the ship neared the planetoid, a large iris in the base of a crater opened up, revealing a subterranean cavern. “Tractor beams locking onto us, sir,” reported the helmsman. “We’re being pulled in.”

“Full astern,” ordered the captain. But it was to no avail. The ship was dragged beneath the surface, and the iris closed.

“We’re being scanned, sir. They’ve accessed our main computer.”

“Lock down tactical. Secure all primary command functions.”

“This is odd, sir,” reported the science officer. “They are only accessing our personnel files. Should I attempt to terminate their link?”

“No, that seems harmless enough. Maybe they are just trying to find out who we are. But see if you can gain access to their computer. Let’s see if we can learn something about them too. Security, assemble an away team.”

“Eye, sir. But we’ll need full environmental suits. The atmosphere outside the ship is 25% hydrogen-cyanide, 10% methane, and 65% nitrogen.”

“Understood. Lead the team, Commander. No visible weapons. Let’s try to look friendly.”

Two hours later, the bridge crew watched the main viewscreen as the away team lumbered across the alien deck, clearly suffering from the burden of the environmental suits and the excessive gravity. As the men approached the far wall of the subterranean bay, a door opened. Seconds after they bravely walked through, the door closed, severing the comm link with the away team.

Days passed without progress. All efforts to communicate with the missing men had failed, as did their feeble attempts to break free of their captives. Their one ray of hope was the link to the alien computer. Apparently, the aliens didn’t consider the earthmen a threat, as they allowed them unfettered read access to their computer. However, making sense of the alien technology was nearly impossible. A team of linguistic and programming experts worked tirelessly trying to decipher the alien language. To make matters worse, the high gravitational field produced an unrelenting drag on the crew’s physiology, as well as their spirits.

“Sir,” reported the acting security chief at the beginning of day seven, “roll call revealed that another six crewmembers are unaccounted for. We still can’t figure out how the aliens are doing it. I’ve required all off duty personnel to hunker down in the assembly area, and posted a 24 hour guard.”

“Good thinking, Lieutenant,” replied the captain. “Mr. Carib, any progress with the alien computer?”

“A little, sir. We’ve stumbled onto the copy they made of our personnel files. They’ve compiled a table listing all 354 crew members. We appear to be categorized by gender and race. Linguistics thinks that they can decipher the table headings soon.”

“Excellent. Keep me posted.”

Several hours later, Carib‘s face turned ashen-gray after reading the translation. Spotting his ensign’s reaction, the captain asked, “Let’s have it, Ensign.”

“My God, sir,” replied Carib’s trembling voice. “The alien table, sir. It’s a dessert menu.”


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Dark Watch

Author : Andrew Bale

It’s the worst watch in the ship. Kitchen, reactor, sanitary – anything is better than staring out this damn window. It’s so bad you have to pass a psych check before they let you do it, and everyone keeps trying to fail. This job is worse than being crazy. Damn right it is.

It was a bright idea, launching a colony fleet instead of a colony ship. One ship is all or nothing – one big failure and everyone dies, no place for survivors to go. Five ships give us redundancy, a much better chance for at least one to reach landfall, and since each one is only loaded to 80% we could lose a ship potentially without losing a man. Five ships ballistic on the same vector, gently orbiting around a common axis, checking on each other, waiting for that time to fire the jets and make a new home.

But then we lost a ship.

There was no warning, no distress calls. One day Isis missed its comms check, and when someone looked out a port, the whole ship was dark. The remaining ships conferenced, no one could make contact with it. Gaia reported that Isis had a large impact of some type in one habitat module, but the hull appeared to have sealed around it. No one knew where it had come from, a rock that size should have shown up on radar, and no one could figure out how a hit in that location could have killed the entire ship.

Two days later, Isis launched a shuttle. No lights in the cabin, no communications, just a tin can floating from Isis to Shakti. Shakti observed protocols, met the shuttle under arms and with containment. They said it was empty, and everyone figured the launch must have been a quirk, the result of some random signals in the dying computers.

But then Shakti went dark, while we watched. Power went down, primary, secondary, emergency, all at once. For a day or two there were occasional flashes of light from inside, most of it seemingly random, although at least one person lived long enough to flash SOS, probably the only Morse they knew. And then nothing.

Two days after that, Shakti launched two shuttles. One at Gaia, the other at us, at Mary. Dark, both of them. They weren’t allowed to dock, so they just floated there outside the bays. A couple days later, ours turned back, but Gaia’s is still there – some bright nervous guy improvised a missile, destroyed its engines, so the cursed thing still floats alongside, occasionally banging off the hull.

Okay, so maybe THAT’S the worst watch.

But ever since then every ship has mounted a dark watch, a pair of eyes from each living ship on each dead one and on each other, every minute of every day. We watch, hoping to find a clue to what happened, or to what will happen. We used to be afraid of more shuttles, but only for a little while. Because then we realized the real thing to fear.

One year, six months, eighteen days until planetfall. When we drop our landers, will they drop theirs? We cannot stay in these ships forever, but there will be no stalemate on the ground. If they land, what will we choose?

One year, six months, eighteen days. That is exactly how long we have to wait. That is when we find out if we get to live. Until then, we watch, and we worry, and we pray.

Mother Mary, watch over us.


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Analogue Vacation

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I blinked twice to fast-forward the counter-person to the ticket purchase but nothing happened. She still stood there behind the counter, asking me again if I had packed my bags myself. I blinked again. Nothing. I sighed. They were using real people.

That’s how much of a backwater dive this planet was. I couldn’t wait to leave. Real people? That wasn’t even retro anymore. It was almost slave labor.

“Yes, I packed my bags myself.” I answered.

“Passport, please.” She said.

I mentally shunted my passport over to her computer. I didn’t get the okay in my peripheral vision. Her system must be slow. We looked at each other with an expectant pause.

“Sir?” she asked, hand out. She was growing impatient.

Oh no, I thought. Seriously? Totally analogue. She was expecting actual physical paper printed in some sort of booklet. I had read about it. It might have been in the package I received for my Earth tour but I must have assumed it was a receipt or something.

“I don’t have it.” I said, lamely.

“Well, sir, you won’t be able to leave the spaceport without it.” She replied smugly. I got the feeling that every time this happened, she chalked a point to herself and the other luddites who believed in an old way of operation. Ignorant tourists like me must make their days a happy place.

Some planets had themselves a belief that cranial implant software was evil and led to a lack of privacy. I could see where they were coming from in some ways. I mean, that’s why I was here. I wanted an offline vacation package.

“Take a seat over there, please.” She said, pointing to a bench with six other pale men sitting on it. Bewildered and lost, they stared at their dead feeds for information. There was a public terminal inset into the wall with ‘email’ that would let me access the UniNet but it would take days for my peers to respond to my requests in that way.

It was going to be a long wait.

Stupid backwater planet. I’m never coming back here.


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