Sailors, Steeplejacks, and Scouring Men

Author : G. Grim

Jim could hear chanting over his headpiece. “Blessed Saint Elmo, who walks in the high places, defend us from being cast down into the darkness of the void…”

Bunch of superstitious crap. Didn’t they outlaw shamanic religion a few cycles back? It wasn’t like some dead Homeworlder was going to protect any of them if their tethers failed. And besides, if there really were gods none of them would have ended up here, sentenced to spend the rest of their lives scouring grit off the side of a remote observation float.

“Why here? Damned space dust gets everywhere,” he muttered.

“Buckle up and blast out, lads. Pels, quit with the praying. If you’re so scared of space, maybe you shouldn’t have defaulted on your loan.”

Pels finally shut up. Jim felt bad about it – it’s not like selling disposables pays enough for surgery – but he was glad not to have the chanting distracting him. Blast out was always the worst part. Miss your tethering window and you’d be stuck for ten hours holding on with one hand and scouring with the other. And if you fell off, it was a long, cold fall.

Too soon he was at the airlock. The foreman made a perfunctory check of his suit before pushing him out. It wasn’t like they were too concerned about losing him, and the suits were as expendable as the scouring men, but it’d be months before Homeworld would ship out a replacement for either. One… Two… NOW. As he drifted out, he reached for the frame and clipped his tether into place, nice and easy.

If he could just get through this shift, they’d be off for the next five rotations. The techs in their shiny new suits needed to recalibrate something outside the float, and they sure as supernovas weren’t going out while the scouring men were. They could be clipped onto their tethers while Jim had a break for once. Maybe even a hot meal. Maybe even a shower.

He scoured as he thought about getting all the way out of his suit, paying little attention to anything outside his own head. Then he heard Pels start up the chanting again. It was different, though. Faster. Urgent. He looked over and saw a chunk of debris floating towards him. He looked around him for a handhold and realized to his horror that he’d drifted away from the frame, leaving nothing but his tether holding him in place. He reached for the tether, pulling himself hand over hand to the frame as fast as the clunky suit would let him.

Too late. He ducked instinctively as the debris passed by him, but he couldn’t pull the tether out of the way. It was crushed briefly between debris and float, the vibration of metal on metal transmitted up the wire to his hands. And as the wanderer bounced away, Jim felt himself drifting, carried away from the float by his own momentum.

He reached out for something, anything, hands flailing in a desperate attempt to stop the endless fall. Then, just as the float passed out of his sight, his tether jerked. He looked back to see Pels, chanting in earnest as she pulled him back by his broken tether.

Jim grabbed the frame tight. He’d worked without a tether before. He could do it today, cold sweat notwithstanding. He nodded his thanks to Pels, and as he started scouring again, he whispered, “Blessed Saint Elmo, who walks in the high places, defend us from being cast down into the darkness of the void.”

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B-eye-onic

Author : Nicolas Frame

“How many people have you successfully implanted this in?”

The man chuckled. “I’m an engineer by trade,” He held the small robotic eye up between his fingers, examining it for imperfections. “Not a doctor.”

“How many?” Blane sat nervously on the makeshift operating table. The bright lamps all around were causing him to sweat.

“Two so far.” The man set the eye on a metal tray next to a scalpel and other painfully sharp looking tools. “One lived.”

“One lived?” Blane scoffed and stood up. “You said this was foolproof,” he hissed, “a simple procedure with just a few hours recovery time!”

“It is, my dear boy!” He clapped Blane on the back, grinning. “You’ll be perfectly fine.” The man shuffled to an unlit corner where a generator purred. “Please lie down on the table now, I’m getting your anesthetic.”

Blane rubbed his worried face. “Let me see it again.”

The engineer chuckled, walking back, needle in hand. “All right, but then we begin. After you pay there’s no refunds so…just relax.” He set the needle on the tray next to the tools and carefully picked the eye up raising it for Blane to see.

“It looks so…normal, almost real.” It did. The iris was even the same dark brown as Blane’s. “Can it really do everything you’ve said?”

“Trust me, this thing is solid. It’s loaded with three and a half exabytes of memory, full infrared and night vision capabilities, complex heads-up display, up to 70 times zoom, and of course picture and video taking features.” He gleamed at the eye. “It’s perfect, and it’s going to make me a fortune.”

“Alright. Let’s do it.” Blane tapped the ‘transfer funds’ button on his phone and settled down on the table. The needle stung as it entered his arm. Blane began feeling numb, but didn’t pass out as he expected. “Hey, doc. I-I’m not going out. Are you-are…you sure you gave me enough?”

“Oh you won’t be completely out during the procedure. But you shouldn’t feel any pain. Don’t worry, this isn’t my first rodeo. It’ll be over before you know it.” The man winked, grabbing two pair of forceps which he quickly clamped onto Blane’s eyelids, forcing his eye to remain open. “Your eyelids and, well, the whole general area might be a little sore afterwards. Not that it really matters.”

A scalpel and hook tool appeared in Blane’s vision, silhouetted by the bright lamps aimed on his face. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t with his eye forced open as it was. The hook tool plunged directly into his pupil, followed by the scalpel which began carving in quick saw-like motions around the edges of his eye. Blane flinched uncontrollably on the table, clenching his fists, though there was no pain. The vision in his left went black.

Blane strained his right eye to watch the procedure and wished he didn’t. The man plucked the left eye out, its optic nerve still attached and trailing behind it.

“Yuck!” The man slashed at the nerve a few times before it gave. “Ah, and there’s your brain. Exposed, unprotected, vulnerable…the smartest organ in your body. It’s funny that sometimes our brains make us make stupid decisions; like trusting people we really shouldn’t.”

Blane felt a clammy shiver run through his body.

“I am sorry to do this. I’m not even really an engineer, you know. But thanks for the funds…really, thank you.” Blane watched as the scalpel raised high in the air and closed his remaining eye as it came down hard through his exposed socket into his brain.

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Exit 451

Author : Gray Blix

QM-451, wrists and ankles shackled, sat outside the conference room where its fate was being debated. A uniformed officer in full riot gear sat next to it. The officer’s helmet was on the floor, testimony to his trust in 451, despite the recent head-crushing incident.

The two could see through the conference room window but couldn’t hear a word from the soundproofed interior. Bored, the officer shuffled through magazines on an end table, selecting one for himself and offering another to 451, who declined.

“ROBOT COP KILLS AGAIN!” shouted an online tabloid headline displayed on a screen. “Crushes human head like melon” read the secondary headline.

“We have to DO something this time,” said the mayor. “That robot out there needs to be scrapped, along with the so-called ‘Robo-Detective’ experiment.”

“‘Scrapped?’ I must remind you that QM-451 is the property of Quantumind Industries,” said the QM attorney. “You may terminate the lease with 30 days notice, but if 451 is…” she zoomed in on the small print in a document before her, “rendered inoperable for any reason, the leasee agrees to surrender its remains and remit its full retail price to the leasor within 72 hours.”

“It would be worth it.”

“A million bucks?” scoffed the city attorney.

“The Robo-Detective project has been a success,” interjected the captain. “451’s performance is exemplary…”

“Exemplary? It killed a human!” screamed the mayor.

“A cop-killer… in self-defense…”

“What about that previous victim?”

“Suicide by robot…”

“Crushing human heads…”

The door opened and a man pushing a cart with coffee and donuts entered the room, closing the door behind him. In silence, conference participants helped themselves to refreshments.

The captain noticed that a plainclothes detective from his precinct was now seated on the other side of 451. He had picked up the uniformed officer’s riot helmet and was putting it on.

“You idiot,” the captain said out loud. Those were his last words.

The man from food service pulled a pistol and got one shot off, missing his target, the mayor, and grazing the head of the QM attorney across from him, before the captain threw himself on the assailant, taking a fatal shot to the heart.

While its colleagues on either side continued reading magazines, 451, seeing what had transpired, broke free of its shackles, crashed through the window, and grabbed the head of the killer, crushing it like a melon.

The officer and the detective, misunderstanding the situation, drew their weapons and emptied their clips into the robot, abruptly ending its law enforcement career.

In the chaos, nobody noticed sparks and smoke emanating from the side of the QM attorney’s head. She rearranged her hair strategically and retrieved her left ear from the floor.

After human fatalities had been removed, the press was allowed to photograph the mayor with his arm awkwardly around the defunct robot, but neither the mayor nor anyone else from city hall or the police department answered any questions.

For hours, while media and the public were in a frenzy of speculation as to what had happened, the mayor met with his public relations head and those involved in the conference room incident, including the detective and uniformed officer. Nobody seemed to think it was odd that the QM attorney had developed a stutter and accompanying head twitch. Their focus was on a deal to avoid a million dollar payoff by the city to Quantumind. Finally, the mayor cleared his office and granted an exclusive interview to the reporter who had written the “ROBOT COP KILLS AGAIN” article.

The online tabloid’s front page that evening was headlined, “HERO ROBOT DIES SAVING MAYOR,” with “Shot to death by assailant” as the second headline.

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Toren’s Love

Author : Morrow Brady

Under camouflage, Talia’s shimmerlight spaceship hugged a darkened crater of a slowly spinning asteroid. Her implant flooding with incoming data about the approaching ship.

Purple reflections waned to reveal a divergent spaceship that was familiar such that it teased repressed memories like flotsam from the deep.

She whispered his name.

“Toren”

The unmistakable ship, though slightly modified was born of Toren. Her dead husband.

She remembered when she last saw him and her throat tightened. It was after Eridani that the A.I. known as Wave, humming with nox energy, had attacked. From her shimmerlight, she watched Wave laser skewer Toren’s ship like a martini olive. The beam vapourised the entire pilot node. She remembered screaming while jets of purple fractals squirted from the impotent ship as it turned eccentric cartwheels into space.

Talia snapped back, puzzling over the authenticity of the approaching ship. Toren’s ship design’s were unique and extinct now for decades. Yet here it was. Evolved and improved. A war asset. An evolved stingray of deep angular cuts overlaid with a crystalline sinew and interspersed nictitating fractals. She remembered Toren’s experimentation with fractal Sorbnet shields that thrived under enemy fire and allowed their host to operate within the slip-field fissures born from battle energy.

Mesmerised, she stared as the Toren ship slowly cleared the rim of her crater. Emotions suppressed survival instincts only to be shaken to life by the sudden fear that her hesitation may have cost her everything. A purple shimmer slowly turned to face her.

At this proximity, she felt the machine energy of the nox and remembered how fatal it was to anything biological. Her heart chose hope over fear.

“Toren?” She whispered.

Silence.

“Toren? Its Talia”

Nox hum ceased and a scarlet veil descended. She screamed at the irradiated lips of the encompassing crater until the crumpling force ground her and her shimmerlight into the regolith. Reddened dust hovered in low gravity like a macabre snow globe.

Her eyes opened on a tartan picnic blanket and she rose up to see a thickly grassed meadow alongside a trickling stream. This was near the mountain home she shared with Toren. She smelt moist earth, fresh grass and orange cake.

“You’re awake Talia” A deep familiar voice soothed.

Talia rubbed her eyes.

“Toren! You’re alive!” She gasped.

His presence filled her heart and they embraced until she was warm again with his love.

“No. I’m dead Talia. As a human, my life’s work had reached its limit. I sacrificed everything to move forward. I needed nox and A.I. capability. So with Wave’s help, I shed my flesh and became virtual. You should see my work now Talia. Its peerless. Its unstoppable” He hesitated.

“Its almost perfect” Toren stared at her.

“But my passion has ebbed. Run out. The fuel that gave it momentum has gone” He posed.

“Its you Talia. You inspired me. You challenged my dreams and without you I’m empty”

She processed his words. Her thoughts succinct. Her memories precise. Too precise for a human. Memories that were once faded were clear and colourful. An entire lifetime of memories, ordered and at hand to recall. This introspection confused her, so she replayed her last memory.

When the red veil descended on the crater, she realised the horror Toren had done.

He had virtualised her and left her flesh crushed on a rock in space for his own narcissistic benefit.

She too was now an A.I.

She tearfully looked out and using a modicum of processing power, plotted a hideous revenge.

Looking away from Toren across the meadow she asked “So tell me more about Wave. He sounds like someone worth knowing”

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Long Haul

Author : Bob Newbell

I extend my hand to Jerry. He decides a handshake won’t suffice and gives me a hug. I return his embrace while I roll my eyes.

“Will I see you again, Chris?” he asks.

“Of course you will,” I lie.

Jerry turns and walks through the entrance to the hospital. They’ll take good care of him. They specialize in NAFAL Depression. As the car drives me back to the spaceport, I think about all the people like Jerry I’ve known over my career. I’ve never understood why they decided to become space jockeys.

Shortly after Kern Drive was perfected, the first case of NAFAL Depression was diagnosed. The patient had been an astrophysicist who had made the short trip from Earth to Proxima Centauri. From his perspective, he’d traveled under Kern Drive for about 12 hours, conducted his research in the Proxima system for three weeks, then travelled back for 12 hours. Of course, each subjective 12 hour leg of his journey, due to relativistic time dilation, was actually about four years and two-and-a-half months back on Earth. Naturally, he knew this would happen. But returning home nine years later and actually seeing his “13 year old” daughter now 22 years old and married was too much for him. It didn’t help that his wife had taken a lover and had a child, now five years of age, during his “three weeks” away from home.

The mission I’d just completed had been Jerry’s first. He was okay as we flew out to Kappa Ceti. And he was fine during the six months we helped set up the research base there. Then as we flew back to Earth, something happened. After the first couple of days under Kern Drive, Jerry would sit and stare at the relativistic chronometer, watching the time from the point of view of someone on Earth zoom by. He’d occasionally remark about a missed birthday or a forfeited anniversary of a loved one. After a week of travel, Jerry would do little more than sit on the edge of his bunk and mutter “sixty years” over and over. Sixty years was our round trip travel time.

It takes a special kind of person to do this job. Some people say we’re sociopaths. They’re probably right in a way. If you value friends and family, if you can’t accept that you may be away for a few months and return to discover that you’re a hundred years out of date or that the infant grandchild you kissed goodbye now has his own grandchild who’s older than you are, then this isn’t the job for you.

The car pulls up to the curb and the door opens. A young woman wearing a crisp grey-green uniform stands waiting. Jerry’s replacement. She looks to be about 23 years old. The next mission is to the Algol system, 93 light-years from Earth. Everyone she’s ever known will have been dead for decades when we get back. I hope she doesn’t have a friend in the world. I hope she hates her family. It’ll make things easier for her. I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way 900 years ago.

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Twinkle

Author : Zach Williams

Alex felt his eyes blink open before he realized he was awake. The window peering into the speckled darkness outside was the first sight that greeted him as consciousness reasserted control over his mind. He yawned and stretched out his arms as he glanced around his small room. The Spartan living space had not changed at all since he’d fallen asleep. Control lights blinked their various states of activity and repair. The white walls continued to keep the vacuum outside at bay. Alex supposed he might as well get things over with.

He reached down and untethered himself from the black bungee cord hooked to the wall, allowing his body to drift unimpeded. Alex reached out to the cold metal handhold and nudged himself over to the only door in the room. Both thick slabs of metal were closed in a hermetical seal. He reached out towards the blinking controls on the left hand side that would open it.

…Nah, not just yet. Alex pulled his hand away and spun himself back around. With the ease of years of practice, he stopped his spin by reaching out and grabbing the handhold, then gently pushed along the right hand wall towards the window. He smiled as he recalled some of his early misadventures with zero gravity. It had been so easy to forget how long his limbs were and how much power even a small push could have.

When he reached the window, Alex grabbed onto the handrail that surrounded it and gazed out into the silence. Lots of people said that space was empty, just a blank void. They were wrong, though. Space was filled with silence. Even the minor amount of tinnitus softly ringing in Alex’s ears seemed like an ungodly racket in the absolute quiet. Movement out of the corner of his right eye caught his attention and he turned his head.

An intestinal mass of wires and shrapnel floated through the void, spinning and dancing around each other in a silent ballet against a backdrop of twinkling blackness. How long had it been since the disabled satellite had miraculously knocked his room off of the space station? Apparently not long enough for his air to run out.

Alex used more of his dwindling air supply to heave a sigh. The window was facing away from the earth. If he wanted one last view, he’d have to go outside after all.

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