Sparky

Author : Sean Maschmann

Sparky has never been the cleverest of cats. He’s a male tortoiseshell, a one in two hundred chance, so rare that Japanese fishermen used to keep them as good luck charms. The problem is, they are congenitally stupid. Sparky, who was named ironically, likes to sit for hours watching the shadows move. I think he can process things at that speed.

The shocking thing about Sparky is his ability to hunt. He’s fat as a baby seal and as stupid as anything, but he can stalk and kill a host of small creatures, from flies to robins. Once he even brought a still twitching rat in through the kitchen door. Amelia, our two year old daughter, laughed delightedly as Sparky disemboweled it on the linoleum.

“Sparky eating,” she sang. “Sparky good boy!”

My wife and I had to clean up the mess. Still, we love Sparky. He’s a good cat, even if his eyes are as blank and dark as flat stones.

Yesterday, Sparky was gone all day long. He never leaves the house for more than an hour or two. He needs to keep up his weight, you see. By the time we were having dinner, my wife and I were growing concerned; we decided to look for him after we’d done the washing up. Amelia, of course, was very eager to begin the search, and fetched her toy binoculars. She held them in her chubby hands and babbled incoherently.

The three of us began in our yard, calling his name and shaking a bag of cat food. Old Mr Marsden, our neighbour, poked his scrawny neck over the fence.

“We’re looking for Sparky!” intoned Amelia.

“Well, are you now?” asked Mr Marsden. “I hope you find the little fella. I haven’t seen him at all today. Usually Penny’ll feed him a bit of cream when he stops by, but I ain’t seen him.”

I smiled thinly. Cream is the last thing our Sparky needs. “Well, thanks Mr Marsden,” I said. We went out of our back yard into the field that abuts our row of houses.

Mr Marsden called as we left, “Look out now. Some of them teenagers was setting fires out there earlier. I seen the smoke.”

My wife and I raised our eyebrows at each other. Marsden is an old fussbudget.

We walked toward the river at the far end of the field. I couldn’t help feeling that Sparky would never go this far from the house. The sun blazed down on us as we called out our wayward cat’s name.

Suddenly, we heard a meow from the river bank. Amelia ran ahead with great excitement, almost tripping over some rocks.

We heard her shout, “Mommy! Daddy! Sparky found a toy!”

As we reached the river, we saw Sparky sitting and cleaning his paws, wearing his usual dazed expression. Behind him was a patch of singed grass. At his feet was a small metal object, not more than six inches long. It was open. There was blood coming out of it.

I still can’t believe the size of the rivets. They looked like they were made by ants.

My wife and I buried it last night after Amelia had gone to bed.

Sparky had to sleep off the meal for quite a while.

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The Rose of Epsilon Eridani

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Captain’s log: “This is the third day since we made first contact with the inhabitants of the Epsilon Eridani system. The Kalers, as they call themselves, are an intelligent humanoid species that inhabit the second planetary body from their luminary. To date, we have discovered that, technologically, the Kalers are significantly behind us. Conservatively, I’d estimate that they are approximately equivalent to twenty-second century Earth. They have achieved routine interplanetary capability, and have a proto-warp drive under development. The home planet of the Kalers contains two large continents, one in the southern hemisphere and one in the northern, each ruled by a monarchy; King Suflamish in the south, and King Patuk in the north. As fortune would have it, our arrival into the system has coincided with an arranged marriage between the eldest son of King Suflamish and the second oldest daughter of King Patuk. I am not sure if this marriage is intended to unite the two ruling families or to…”

“Captain,” interrupted the tactical officer, “sensors have detected several ships leaving the planet’s surface. The lead ship is King Patuk’s yacht, but it appears that it is being pursued aggressively by the King’s security forces.”

“Perhaps, the yacht is being stolen,” mused the captain. “Contact them and ask if they require assistance.”

A few minutes later the communications officer reported, “Captain, as you know, I believe that I have conveyed your offer accurately. Commander Teplar of the security force says that the yacht contains ‘The Rose’, which is King Patuk’s oldest daughter.”

“Ahh,” replied the Captain, “there appears to be a little sibling jealousy. The oldest daughter must not be too happy that her younger sister is the grand prize in this wedding. Helm, intercept course. Lieutenant Harper, when we’re within range, retain the yacht with a tractor beam until King Patuk’s security team can board her.”

***

Two days later, the captain and his interpreter greeted King Patuk at the wedding reception. “Ensign, please tell the King that it was a marvelous ceremony, and that the bride looked radiant.” And as an afterthought, he added, “and, ask the King if ‘The Rose’ is available. I’d like to make sure that she has forgiven me for ruining her ‘great escape’.” The Captain smiled broadly as he waited for the interpreter to relay his message and translate the reply.

“I’m sorry, Captain. I’m not positive, but it sounded like he said, ‘The Rose is in the kitchen’. Do you think that she is being punished for running away?”

Perplexed, the captain pulled the ensign aside. “That is a possibility, Ensign. We can’t assume they react exactly like we would. Please consult with the Kaler interpreter immediately. I don’t want to offend our hosts so soon after first contact. These are very sensitive times.”

Minutes later, the ensign returned, visibly upset. Her face was ashen and her hands were trembling slightly. “Oh my God, Captain,” she whispered. “The Rose isn’t preparing the meal. According to Kaler tradition, she’s the main ingredient in the wedding soup.”

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Pascal's Bluff

Author : John Newman

“Marcie just radioed in,” Brenda says as she slams another magazine into her M4. She has to scream over the popping gunfire, punctuated by the occasional boom of a grenade. “They can’t hold out any longer. Everything’s fucked.”

“Shit,” I mutter. Working the bolt on my Ishapore, I pop up and steady it on the pile of sandbags in front of me. When I speak again, it’s a shout over the chaos around us. “They’re falling back?”

“Can’t very well surrender, can they?” She pulls a grenade out of her kit bag, pulls the pin, lofts it over the sandbags. “Said something weird before she went off the air. I dunno, probably a Bible verse, or… shit!”

I follow her gaze down the hill, to the plain below. It’s all shadows, bumps in the darkness standing in for trees and an abandoned farmhouse. The only light comes from muzzle flashes and tracers arcing through the autumn air. But near the farmhouse, there’s a flicker of light. It glows and spreads, like a prairie fire. As my eyes focus, my heart sinks. The flames dance and coalesce into a giant pentagram.

“Summoner!” Brenda screams into the radio. “Summoner! Base, we need armor up here, now! Now! Now!”

Her voice is drowned in an otherworldly din from the plain below us, a thousand tigers roaring in enraged unison. The flaming pentagram has dulled to a glow in the grass now, and slowly the ground beneath it rises. It’s like watching a hill grow out of the prairie; then the soil falls away, and a pair of huge, bat-like wings rise up from the earth. As the muscled, red body emerges, I shake my head.

“Hold the line!” I scream over the din. “Hold, Goddamn you!”

But they’re not holding. Some still have their rifles resting on the sandbags, blasting away at the darkness below. Most are hunkered down, tears in their eyes, praying, crossing themselves. Six years of this crazy shit, and they still can‘t handle it.

Suddenly, the gunfire from below picks up. The demon is on its cloven feet now, wings spread wide as a football field, its shaggy, horned head towering over the farmhouse. As it advances, the cultists swarm around its feet. This is it, their big push.

“We gotta get out of here!” somebody screams. “Come on, man, we gotta get the fuck out of here!”

I close my eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Then, working the bolt on the Ishapore, I rise to my feet.

“Frank?” Brenda looks up from the radio. “Frank, what’re you doing?”

Standing ram-rod straight, I raise the rifle to my shoulder. Bullets whiz past me, but I notice them only distantly, like wasps flitting against a closed window. I can’t take this insanity anymore. A fatal wound would be like a winning lottery ticket.

I stare down the sights. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale. Squeeze.

The rifle roars, and I see it all in slow motion – the orange fireball at the end of the muzzle. The bullet exiting the barrel. How it sails over the field. How it catches the demon right between the eyes.

The thing stops, the wind suddenly knocked out of it. With a roar, it stumbles to the right. Then down it goes, all at once, face-first into the prairie, the impact shaking the Earth.

“Hell yeah!” screams somebody to my right. “Hell yeah!” Everyone’s on their feet now, rifles cracking up and down the makeshift breastworks.

I sink behind the sandbags and take a deep breath. Maybe they’re aliens. Inter-dimensional invaders. Whatever. This doesn’t prove shit.

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Santayana

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The sleek craft broke the upper atmosphere and fell several kilometers before deploying its chute. The thin film wings weren’t extended until they had slowed enough to not risk tearing them off.

“We’re in stable thermospheric orbit,” the copilot chirped through the headset, “and they haven’t shot us down yet, so that’s a bonus.”

Jacq ignored the copilot’s remark. He’d drawn the straw to pilot this mission and wasn’t entirely sure it wouldn’t be their last. Chuch in the seat next to him didn’t seem to have given it much thought either way.

“Keep an eye on the instruments. All that flash on the horizon is our boys keeping those green bastards from looking up here, but if we stray over something military you can be sure they’ll get interested and quick.”

Chuch buried his head in the telescope display, watching landscape made too familiar from simulation fly by hundreds of kilometers below. It was sparsely populated where they’d started their run, but shortly he knew they’d be passing over major metropolitan centers.

Jacq turned to crawl back into the glider’s converted cargo bay, sliding over top of the two large spherical canisters nestled in the plane’s belly.

Chuch looked up to watch the older man as he checked the strapping and release mechanisms for the tenth time. “Doesn’t it seem wrong, somehow, to be dropping these on civilians? I mean, I get it – war’s war – but shouldn’t we be taking out factories or something instead?”

Jacq pulled a heavy black marker from a coverall pocket and began drawing Kilroy’s face on the side of each bomb. “The war machine stands to serve its people, fight the machine and the people stand behind it. Show the people that the machine can’t protect them, that it’s failing and the people will eat it from the inside.” He pushed back and admired his handiwork. “Besides, we’ve been fighting these bastards for over a year and we can’t get close enough to hurt them. Fly a battle cruiser or fighter squadron within fifty kilometers of a military installation and they turn loose a swarm that cuts our best ships to ribbons. They’ve got more advanced weapons that we have, and more effective defenses against what little advanced weaponry we can get down planet-side.”

Chuch frowned at his superior’s artwork on their payload while Jacq continued.

“That’s why we’re doing this old school; high altitude drop, brute force and ignorance. Dirty atomics. Honestly, I think it’s the only chance we’ve got to end this thing. Nothing fancy, just hit em’ with a big enough hammer. Make their people want to end it.” Satisfied with his drawn faces, he wrote ‘Fat Ming’ beneath one and ‘Little Djinn’ on the other.

“Fat Ming?” Chuch screwed up his face behind his visor. “What the hell?”

“The Merciless. Ming the Merciless?” Jacq watched for some glimmer of recognition from his colleague before shaking his head and moving to the bombardier’s position. “Honestly, you kids need to read more.”

The two flew the rest of the way in silence, the only talking the occasional sounding off of the distance as they approached the cities. In the final kilometers Jacq rechecked the calibration of his targeting view finder.

“Mark my words, we’ll bring holy hell fire to them today and fifty years from now they’ll be our biggest high tech trading partner,” he paused and opened the bay doors, “probably put our kids out of work.”

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Untitled

Author : J.D. Rice

Today I saw a man murdered.

He was a short man, stocky and unassuming. I watched as he provoked another man into an argument. The second man was large and intimidating. They bickered, back and forth, about some trivial nothingness. The details weren’t important. Neither of them cared about the facts. They didn’t really care about their own opinions. They just wanted to feel angry.

I watched as they pushed each other, first lightly, then forcefully. They shouted. They yelled. Their mouths spewed words I had only read in old banned books. The short man drew a fist back, and hesitated. Waiting. Waiting to see if he would stop. Waiting to see if he could really do it.

I watched as a third man, wild-eyed, came from behind, smashing a bottle over the short man’s head. The large man awoke as if some a stupor and started beating the short man, who had fallen to the ground, without mercy. The two larger men beat the first relentlessly, tirelessly, desperately. There was a gleam of joy in the beaten man’s eyes as his attackers refused to let up. His face was bruised and cut, his blood ran freely.

I watched as the wild-eyed man drove the broken bottle into the beaten man’s chest. He laughed, bleeding profusely, and shouted, “I am free!”

I watched as the two living men were arrested, a look of dull indifference in their eyes. It was a pity. People so desperate to express themselves should apply at the Ministry of Emotional Control. Overriding emotion chips is risky business.

I watched as the ambulance bagged the short man’s bloody corpse, their unfrowning faces a picture of modern sensibility and control. As the janitors wiped the blood from the floor, I politely finished my meal and went home.

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Staff Turnover

Author : Cael Majin

Miranda’s trial was set for 4:am on a Wednesday morning. She would be tired and disoriented from the static sleep, but the machines would question her without mercy. “Mercy” was probably not in their core vocabulary; just another linguistic antiquity, like “alive” and “useless.”

It was Monday. She had the time – minus mandatory inductions of static sleep, seven and a half hours a night – to construct her defense.

She felt fine. They fed her well, and although she’d prefer to sleep naturally, static sleep did its part to keep her energetic and revitalized. The machines felt no need at all to make her uncomfortable, because psychological pressure was another outdated relic. Logic was their god and king, so they’d listen if she had something sensible to say for herself, some reasons why humankind should still exist. But she was beginning to worry that she didn’t.

On a notepad by her bed, she was constructing a harsh timeline of technological strong points. There was a computer console equipped with helper AI along one wall that she wished she could research on – although the program would provide unbiased aid and information, she felt traitorous to use their resources, their meticulously organized information, to argue against their ability to run things.

Humans – the humans left, that had survived the fallout and the flaming skies that they themselves had lit – they knew that a machine could do its processes more effectively than a human could. That’s why it’d all started, wasn’t it? Efficiency, efficiency, and efficient the flesh was not, it with its woeful carbon chemical energy cycle, it that needed to cease function while it rested and recharged, flesh that needed to consume valuable material to maintain itself.

Minds, Miranda thought valiantly, head spinning over the notebook. Human minds were unique; that had to be worth something, hadn’t it? Human imagination and emotion? Inefficient perhaps, but valuable,and gone forever once lost.

They had it preserved, though, the machines. All of the mechanics of a personality were written in code. Billions of blogs were on the internet, full of human thoughts and hopes. All so much data, easy to keep, easy to replicate. What was a string of text on a screen if not a thought, simply translated into a digital language?

That was why death mattered. Machines had backups, humans were impermanent. Surely that was something other than a flaw.

She’d been wrong. This was a kind of psychological torment, whether or not it’d been intended: making her doubt the necessity of her own species. She rubbed at her eyes and wondered if the machines could differentiate between “tired” and “fatigued.”

They wouldn’t kill the humans, if she failed to make a strong enough case. They’d coral them, give them places to live, surgically sterilize them and let them die off the last of their outdated species.

Hell, she figured finally, leaning back in her chair and letting the notebook thunk onto the floor, maybe it was time.

Miranda’s best friend in the army had been the AI in her comm-helmet. Its name had been Kasimir. It had listened to her fears and calmed them. By reading her hormones, it had understood her in a way no human could, they with their meager perceptions. It had been the one to suggest she put her skills to use in the field of software engineering, designing new and better AI.

In that way, it had used her to advance its species. A clever little bot with a will to survive… she missed that helmet.

She decided she’d ask for a similar unit in her retirement home.

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