Dispatch Runner

Author : Bob Newbell

A thin cloud of red dust trailed behind Orton’s motorcycle. I’m running out of time, he thought to himself as he rode across Cydonia Mensae. The temperature was already down to -40 degrees Celsius and continued steadily dropping. The sun would be setting in less than an hour and it wouldn’t be safe to be outside after dark. Even after almost two decades of economic malaise, political disintegration, and finally open warfare, Orton had a hard time believing how seriously the situation on Mars had deteriorated.

It hadn’t always been that way. After the Nanotech Revolution of the twenty-eighties, space travel finally became cheap, fast, and safe, and while habitats in Earth orbit and on the surface of the Moon had their appeal, Mars was the true frontier. The cycle from flags and footprints missions to destination for wealthy adventurers to scientific outposts to genuine communities had progressed quickly, catalyzed by inexpensive and reliable space technology and the promise of a new beginning.

Orton slowed his motorcycle to a crawl and looked behind him. No sign of pursuit, he thought. A sensor sweep would have been much more accurate and comprehensive, of course. But a scan would have given his position away instantly. Even with the motorcycle’s stealth devices operating, it was a miracle he had eluded detection this long. He could just make out the dome in the distance. It would be so easy to simply upload the information he was carrying. It would be equally easy for any number of rival factions to intercept, decode, and quickly act on that information. He thumbed the accelerator and made for the dome.

A United Mars, he thought as he cruised across the rough terrain. That had been the dream. A global republic? A confederation of domed city-states? A true and literal democracy? It was strange how the past’s vision of the future seemed so unforgivably naive. As the sun descended deeper into the horizon, Orton noticed tiny flashes in the distance. In the thin Martian air, nearly microscopic machines were surveilling and, when opportunity presented itself, attacking. All the major factions had fleets of these innumerable, artificially intelligent drones. The flashes were drones being destroyed by a rival’s countermeasures. This microscopic, airborne war raged round the clock, as the tiny, flying robots fought, were destroyed, and were replaced minutes later by new models with revisions and upgrades based on their predecessors’ failure. It was this front in the vast, internecine conflict and not the engagements of men and their bulky vehicles and weapons, some argued, that would determine the outcome of the war.

Arriving at last, Orton piloted the motorcycle into the dome’s narrow airlock and breathed a sigh of relief. In ten minutes time, the data he carried would be scrutinized by military intelligence. Would it make any difference? Time would tell. The interior door of the airlock opened with a click. Orton stepped through. The atmosphere was only marginally different from that outside the dome. He took off his respirator and inhaled tenuous air into lungs engineered to extract oxygen directly from carbon dioxide. He withdrew the translucent, nictitating membrane from his eyes and hurried to deliver his report.

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Condemned to Repeat History

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Shortly after 13:30 on 11 April 2112, the HMTS Temporal Voyager left Roches Point in Ireland. Its mission: to resolve some unanswered questions concerning the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

“Time flows like a river,” lectured Dr. Cassandra Simon to her lone passenger, Dexter Hollenbach, a reporter for London’s Daily Holograph. “You just can’t sit in the lab and say ‘I want to witness Abraham Lincoln’s assassination’. You have to set up the Temporalgraph within a few kilometers of Ford’s Theater. Even closer if you want to pick up audio. That’s why we need to start this temporal journey at Roches Point, it’s the last time that we knew the exact location of the Titanic.” The large monitor above the control panel showed an image of the Titanic weighing anchor on its way to the North Atlantic. “You see,” continued Simon, “despite the fact that there are 200 years separating us, if we can maintain identical spatial coordinates as the Titanic, the Temporalgraph can stay focused on her as she sails east. A sort of cat and mouse trek through time.”

“But you said we could hear conversations on the bridge,” noted Hollenbach. “That image is hundreds of meters above the funnels.”

“True,” conceded Simon. “That’s because navigation is being controlled by the computer, for now. It’s programmed to keep us close enough that we won’t lose the time-stream. When we get nearer the collision event, I’ll transfer navigation to my control so we can sync-up spatially. It takes intense concentration, so I don’t want to have to do it too long. Be patient Mister Hollenbach, you’ll get your story.

***

The chronometer read 23:25, 14 April 2112. “We’re ready, Mr. Hollenbach,” announced Simon. She reached across the navigation panel and pressed the manual override button. “Okay,” she said, “I have control. Now, let’s get onto the bridge.” As Simon simultaneously fine-tuned the navigation and temporalgraph controls, the image on the monitor zoomed downward past the forward funnel and penetrated into the bridge.

***
Captain Smith confronted his first officer, “Will, I say it’s too dangerous. Bring her to a complete stop. You can set the trans-Atlantic speed record next trip, when you’re in charge.”

“But Captain,” protested Murdoch, “the Titanic is unsinkable. Think of your reputation. The world is watching us.”

***
“Why is Murdoch pushing so hard?” asked Hollenbach.

“The 1912 Disaster Hearings discovered that Murdoch had bet 20,000 pounds that the Titanic would set the trans-Atlantic speed record on her maiden voyage,” replied Simon. “That was a fortune back then. But nobody thought he’d risk the safety of the ship over it.”

***
Captain Smith stood his ground. “I won’t risk the lives of…”

“Has old age softened you that much, Edward?” retorted Murdoch as he saw his life savings disappearing. “Or are you just a damn yellow bellied coward.”

“I am not a coward, and I won’t be mocked by the likes of you. I’m in command…”

“Save your excuses, Captain Smith. It’s probably better that King George knight me for bringing glory to the Kingdom, than some tired old man whose time has long passed.” Murdoch turned and left the bridge, shaking his head in disgust.

Captain Smith pondered Murdoch’s words for a minute, and then turned to his chief officer, “Full speed ahead, Mister Tingle.”

***
“That’s unbelievable,” said the astonished Simon. “Are all men that egotistical? Are they so wrapped up in their self-centered lives that they’re willing to risk…” Simon’s tirade was cut short when the HMTS Temporal Voyager slammed into an iceberg and sank within seconds.

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Dots in the Sky

Author : Drew Dunlap

My phone would vibrate approximately every fifteen to twenty minutes.

“Hey bro, there’s a celestial event going on,” said a friend. “Can you see it from your place?” asked another. “Heaven’s Veil is tonight!!!!!!!” buzzed a text. You get the picture.

Even my mother called. She asked me the normal round of questions, and scolded me for not calling her. Usual stuff. But then she started into the news report from last night that mentioned the stars aligning. I rolled my eyes, but didn’t let it carry through my voice. I feigned interest and, after promising to meet her for breakfast in two days, hung up the phone.

Dotty walked into the room, sat on the floor and stared up at me.

“Not you, too,” I pleaded.

“No, she doesn’t care about the alignment, but I think it’s kind of cool.” The voice came from the doorway behind Dotty. Karen swung Dotty’s leash casually as she leaned against the frame. “Besides, she could do for a walk, and so could you.”

I raised my hands in surrender.

“Fine, fine. Dotty wins. I have been beaten into submission. I will go out with all the amateur astronomers, ancient astrologers and asinine alien academes. But I refuse to gawk at a bunch of dots in the sky.”

I smiled mischievously, but Karen knew I was mostly serious. As a child I read a lot of Poe, which led me to a lot of Lovecraft. H.P. struck a chord with me, one that reverberated through my entire philosophical and religious existence.

The more we ventured among the stars, the more we inhabited other planets and moons, the farther our reach extended – the more obvious it became to me how terribly insignificant we are. Space stations and taxi shuttles did not make the human race any more profound. We were nothing but a virus to the natural universe.

I sound like a real pisser, but really I am not. I have a good job, a lovely wife, great friends and a sweet dog. I enjoy every morning that I wake up and I smile at night as I close my eyes for sleep. Being a cynic does not mean I have to be an asshole.

I smile and pat Dotty’s head before putting on her collar.

“Just don’t believe the zealots predicting the end of the world today, sweety.”

We made our way up the winding trail behind our house. This path was not only quiet, far away from the hover-tunnels and mass transit shuttles, but at the top of the rise we should be able to avoid most of the lights from below. I knew Karen wanted to see the planetary alignment. The things you do for love.

“It really is very pretty,” she finally said as we reached the top. Despite my previous bravado, I looked up. I had to admit she was right.

“It has a kind of greenish glow to the whole thing,” I observed. “I didn’t really expect …”

The words froze in my mouth as I noted a swirling pattern to the glow around the planets and the moon. The ground shook briefly as I noticed the patterns draw closer to the Earth. I tried to speak again, but all of the air had left my lungs. Dotty squealed and exploded at my feet, a red lump on a leash. I refused to look at Karen for I could not bear my last memory to be like that of Dotty.

My theory about mankind’s insignificance came to fruition. At least I felt no pain.

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The Space Fold Drive

Author : Bob Newbell

Dr. José Zhang gently rotated an 800 credit bottle of champagne in a bucket of ice. The price of champagne had skyrocketed in the last several weeks in anticipation of the completion of Project Hermes. Zhang’s colleague, Dr. Ian Bartlett, looked at the champagne with a skeptical eye. “You know there’s a good chance this isn’t going to work, José? I mean, there was no practical way to do any real field test. Nothing works right the first time, you know?”

Zhang smiled and said, “‘Your royal Highness, members of the Academy, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, it is with great honor I accept the Nobel Prize in Physics for the first successful space fold drive engine test in history. But with all due humility I must point out that without the constant naysaying and discouragement of my fellow scientist here, this project would have been completed a lot sooner.’ What do you think?”

Bartlett tried to suppress a smile and failed. He inspected the champagne. “Alright, if this works, we celebrate. If it fails, we drown our sorrows. We’re covered either way.”

Bartlett took a seat beside Zhang in the mission control room and watched the two countdowns on the screen. The first countdown indicated the time for activation of the space fold drive. The number was already T-plus seven minutes. The drive had already turned on seven minutes ago. The second countdown was at T-minus sixty seconds. The latter countdown denoted the time for telemetry to reach mission control from the ship which was eight light-minutes from Earth.

The Hermes ship’s space fold engine had two major components. One half of the engine, Hermes I, was in the ship in orbit around the Sun. The other half, Hermes II, was 26 trillion miles away in orbit around Alpha Centauri B. It had taken most of 100 years for the robotic vessel containing half the drive to traverse over four light-years using a conventional ion drive propulsion system. Once there, it sent back a laser pulse confirming it had arrived and was intact. Traveling at the speed of light, the signal took just over four years to reach Earth. A command signal was then sent back to the probe in response instructing it to activate its half of the engine at a certain date and time, specifically, today at precisely 1600 hours Coordinated Universal Time.

The plan was for both components of the space fold engine to activate at the exact same moment. If the theory was correct, as long as the vessels were at least 3.827 light-years apart, at the precise instant of simultaneous activation, a fold in the fabric of space would occur for exactly one Planck time unit, roughly 10 to the negative 43 seconds. In that infinitesimal span of time, the two vessels would swap places.

Zhang picked up the champagne bottle, removed the foil from the cork, and started untwisting the restraint wire. He wanted to pop the cork just after the space fold maneuver took place.

“Ten…nine…eight…,” the mission control crowd chanted in unison. Zhang looked at Bartlett, the latter’s brow furrowed with worry. “Pessimist,” Zhang said with a smile as he worked on the champagne bottle’s cork.

“Zero!”

Mission control was suddenly filled with screams not of joy but of horror. The space fold had worked. The Hermes II ship was now in Earth’s solar system, as was Alpha Centauri B! The new orange-yellow sun looked like an angry cyclopean eye. Zhang’s hands started to tremble uncontrollably. The cork popped.

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Face Down in Wonderland

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m splayed in the waterlogged grass, covered in mud and blood as the screams stop behind me. The white rabbit lied to us; I knew we should have stomped its furry ass. That damn Jabberwock has way too many sharp bits, the attitude of a wounded wolverine and a script stolen from every psycho film of the last decade or so.

We partied hard when the Employment Opt-Out Bill became law. A British idea that fitted the American way of life so much better. You signed on the dotted line, got yourself sterilised and from then on you got a few bucks a week from the state. Everything else you had to handle yourself. For a lot of people it was an improvement.

Leisure parks sprang up. They had food and booze outlets so we could hang out there. Hell, some people never went home. The whole thing got twisted when the media got involved, letting the workers relax by watching the Opt-Outs dice with death. They got round the salary clauses by only giving money as rewards.

Themed parks were the next step. You could try your luck at handling situations from your favourite movies: Horror became a craze. A real chance of dying but the rewards were worth it.

“Biillleeee. Oh, Biillleeee.”

That meant that the rest of my group of Alices were sleeping with the Queen of Hearts. Should have known that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was not going to be an afternoon’s hallucinatory fun when it was filed under ‘Survival Horror’. Oh well, we were legless and up for it. A thousand bucks for everyone who walks out, plus fifty bucks an hour for staying in the game. Which actually meant staying alive. Should have realised that as well, but we were too drunk to care.

The wall of the cottage explodes outwards and the spiky, winged lizard-thing strides out. I gather my feet under me and scuttle toward Janine’s backpack, hung on a branch before we entered. I hear the frustrated roar and thank my guardian angel for the fact that the creature has to pause for ad breaks.

My frantic hands tear the pack open and find the smokes and lighter on top. Then her clean T-shirt for the winner’s podium. My hand closes on a big bottle. I pull it out and twist the cap as the roaring ceases behind me. I rip the T-shirt frantically, becoming aware of a hungry stare from behind. Don’t ask me how, I’m too busy soaking a chunk of cheap cotton in Everclear. God bless Janny, her preference for strong booze and her willingness to screw anything to get the good stuff. I ram the soaked cloth into the neck of the bottle and spin round, flicking the lighter.

Ugly and spiky is a few feet off, taking its time. Good enough. I light the rag and scream at the Jabberwock. It screams right back and I let it have a litre of one-ninety proof in the mouth.

The whoosh as it goes up is followed by the thump of the bottle giving up the ghost. I feel pieces of glass cut me as I fall backwards, but it’s nothing compared to what’s happening to the flame-headed thing in front of me. God, it smells worse barbequed than it does when it’s breathing on you.

I roll over and see spotlights wobbling through the trees towards me. I’ve done it. Eleven hundred bucks for two hours and six dead friends. A bargain.

 

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Grey Ghost

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The grey ghost of no-longer-used subway tunnels echoed with heavy footsteps. Eyes the colour of brake lights swept the halls for any signs of intelligent life. The civilization that lived here was long gone.

The metal creature walking through the tunnel had to reconfigure to fit inside. It walked softly on seventeen legs. It had no name for itself. It was an extension of the star dwellers that fell through this atmosphere and found a richness of data to fill memory banks. The only thing better than a living civilization is a dead civilization, thought the creature. With a dead civilization one can take one’s time.

Not just cataloguing, not just recording. Cross-referencing. Extrapolating. That’s what the creature was doing. At its core was a neutronium half-dwarf star tightly wound around a pinprick of a black hole. The creature had thousands of this planets’s orbits to investigate the fallen buildings. It was left behind along with several others to record. One per continent.

It looked as if the indigenous life had tried to divorce itself from its origins on this planet. Structures that were at odds with their surroundings yet made from them. Rock cut into pieces and then stacked into square shapes to provide shelter. Everything changed. Everything translated.

Whatever destroyed them didn’t destroy the plant life and the insects or even the mammals. In the wake of whatever cataclysm claimed them, the natural order of this planet surged back.

Green moss covered everything on the surface. From space, the planet was two colours. Blue oceans and green continents. The creature has taken aerial surveillance of all of it before moving down to the surface.

Here, underground, in the old tunnels that must have been used for transportation, the life remains untouched like a tomb. Whatever functioning electrical conduits the creature walks close to light up like spirits at a séance. Video cameras, control panels, track-light switches, and security lights all glow and spark as the creature walks past.

Still no bodies indicating intelligent life. By the creature’s estimation, nothing recorded so far could have built this civilization. It’s found scattered bipedal life down here in the dark amongst the skittering, screeching quadrupeds, like they all gathered here at the end, as if there was a chance of safety underground. These bipedals have only the most rudimentary physical upgrades and none of the intelligence enhancers other races needed to create complex societal systems. They could not have built these buildings, vehicles or tunnels. They have no language. They only scream and hide when they see the creature.

The creature will walk and record and presume for millennia until its memory banks fill and it needs to head back into space and rendezvous with its central library. There is no rush. There is silence here broken only by dripping water and wind blowing through cracks.

It wants to find the creators. It wants to find the ones responsible.

So far nothing.

 

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