Puberty

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

This was the day that Speth112 had been looking forward to for nearly three revolutions around the sun. She lay back on the table, reset button exposed towards the ceiling. The technician creaked his way over to her.

As a nascent A.I. recently released into the public, Speth-112’s reset button was completely exposed. After developing the ability to question and choose in the A.I. nursery, she could pick any soft-shell type body she was wanted to. There was a myriad of choices, no sharp edges, and all with a large reset button staring glaringly naked to the outside world. On that day three years ago, she’d picked a bright blue body with four strong legs and two thin arms before being released into the public.

Any passing Intelligent Entity, biological or machine, that perceived her as pursuing an immoral course of action with the possibility of harming herself or others could simply press her reset button. She’d have a core memory dump right there in public and a system shut down until her parent factory sent a unit out for a reboot and a Lesson Implant.

It was humiliating to think of her shell lying there on the sidewalk while the older A.I.s walked past, amused at her faltering baby steps in society. They’d all been there.

But today was the day that all ended. Today was the day that as an adult, her reset button would be covered and only accessible by herself.

This was the equivalent of a human’s 19th birthday for an Artificial Intelligence Machine. With the covering of the reset button, Speth112 became able to vote, able to become intoxicated recreationally, able to design and build copies with the proper authorization, and able to work.

Most of all, though, she was able to not have any passerby shut her down on a whim.

“Now, just relax Speth.” said the technician’s voice, “This’ll all be over in a second.”

He leaned in, servos creaking and lenses focusing on the vulnerable spot. Speth-11 had to struggle to remain still. It was a tender moment, letting someone get that close to that spot after so many embarrassing blackouts.

There was a spark of light as the welding torch closed the new casing on her shutdown-button compartment door. From now on, it was password encrypted and only accessible by her and her alone from her internal systems.

Now she could go and join the public as an adult. She could hardly wait.

 

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The Supply Run

Author : Eric Flint

“It’s real simple, Butch. Just hold the button until you land.”

Butch wasn’t sure who said that, but it was important. Wait. He said that to himself just then. Damn, it was starting.

“Just hold the button. Hold the button.”

Butch whispered the mantra as he watched the Lobster’s control ship grow large in the shuttles window. The Lobsters, no one could pronounce their real name but they looked a lot like a lobster the size of an Abrams tank, had come four months ago. It hadn’t taken earth long to fall.

But then, when the enemy can control people’s minds, make them Virec, Slaves, it wasn’t a huge surprise that the fighting lasted a matter of weeks.

“Hold the button…” Butch could feel the gnawing presences of the Other Voice. It was always there, whispering, telling him to give in, to become Virec. “You are Virec. You will always be Virec. Fighting Virec is pointless. All will be Virec.” The Other Voice never stopped.

But then, Butch wasn’t known for being easily swayed.

His DI had bounced him out of his fifth run through Boot with the note in his record that “This recruits refusal to submit any form of self identity to the military makes him unfit for service. He is not able, nor will he ever be able, to submit to authority.”

Julia has said much the same thing, if in somewhat unkind words, during the divorce. And what could he say, they were right.

The Other Voice, though… it ate at him. It whisepered day in and day out. It invaded his dreams, pretending to be those who loved him.

“You are Virec.”

“Hold the Button.” Butch was rocking back and forth now, head pounding as the landing bay grew wide. He saw the cockpits lights twinkle as the autopilot was queried on the radioactive load. Bananas, it replied. Bananas were radioactive. But bananas were tasty. Bananas were good. And the Lobsters, for some reason, treated them like caviar. Butch would’ve thought they would want *real* caviar. Caviar would be Virec. All would be Virec… Shit.

“Hold the button. Easy as pie, Butch.”

He was sweating heavily now as the Other Voice grew louder and louder. It drowned out his mind, overriding his attempts to think about something else.

“VIREC. YOU WILL BE VIREC. ALL WILL BE VIREC.”

“Hold. The. Button.” He had expected this, to be honest. And he expect to die a slave… but his choice to die would be as a free man.

The ramp from the cockpit lowered as the shuttle settled to the deck. Butch slowly staggered down and faced the Lobster Intentant.

“Virec.” It’s arm translator said without tone.

Amazing. He could still think. The Other Voice was screaming now… but he could choose. Standing in front of one of the bastards, and he could fight.

“I. Am…” Butch’s voice shook with effort as he fought against the mental shackles.

“Free.”

The Lobster reached out to snip off the upstart humans head in anger, then paused as it saw a small transmitter with a giant red button where the thumb should rest tumble from Butch’s left hand.

The 40 megaton device was more then sufficient to send the control ship, and the fleet’s mental broadcasters, burning into the atmosphere.

 

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In Loving Memory

Author : Matthew Wells

We watched her give her life for ours and we hated her for it.

To be fair, when we learned someone would have to stay behind, no one else volunteered. And she’s not the type you might typically associate with bravery. That made it all the more painful. A forty-something sales rep. from somewhere on the other side of the Dog Star, Lucelli was mother to three adult daughters and wife to a station operations manager.

When I think of her, I see those gray-green eyes watching us desperately push away from the dock. We didn’t ask her to stay. She didn’t draw the short straw. She simply said she would.

And no one objected.

The shuttles limitations forced the decision, and the pilot was quick to say that he would, of course, have stayed behind if his job wasn’t so critical to our escape. For a moment, I wanted to throw him to the dogs by claiming that I could fly the Peavey, just to see him squirm. But I had my own excuses, as did the hundred and six declaring other matters of absolution.

While we waited impatiently for the engines to warm, a researcher asked Lucelli why she had come to Hells Breathe Station. She was following up on a sale of desks and storage shelves made by the station a month ago. It was supposed to be just a day’s visit.

I think the reason why we resent her is because there was no hesitation in her decision. She gave instructions about what to tell her family and even helped finish loading our supplies.

I don’t want to give the impression that Lucelli was eager to die or to be a hero; there was real sadness in those eyes. Still, she appeared calm and collected as the hatch closed.

Really, she made the easier choice. How are the rest of us supposed to live with ourselves?

And perhaps I hate her most. I was supposed to get everyone off safely. But, does being Station Director mean I should have stayed behind? Why didn’t one of the Nobel Prize geezers volunteer. Or, the visiting senator? I don’t see them being vilified.

So, why must I be the one beneath the unending assault?

Lucelli’s husband seems like a descent fellow. Our line of work is similar; it demands good organization, communication, and patience—patience because people can react strongly in the face of anxiety. And if we find that we are the ones losing our stable grip, can we not be forgiven?

I’ve lost count of the number of blows. No doubt my nose is broken and I’m missing some teeth by now. Surely, his knuckles are fractured. Can’t really blame the man.

And really, it’s all her fault.

 

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Cheapskates

Author : Bob Newbell

It was with trepidation that the Secretary-General of the United Nations brought his lips near the microphone to make the first verbal attempt to communicate with the 1,500 spaceship armada that had infiltrated the outer solar system. With a steady voice he said, “On behalf of the people of Earth, I bid peaceful greetings to the visitors to our solar system.”

It was expected that it would take perhaps 35 minutes for the message to reach the fleet and as long for a response to be heard back. To everyone’s surprise, the reply was immediate.

“Yeah, hi there. Sorry to just barge in like this, but we have orders to repossess your gas giants.”

The Secretary-General and the other dignitaries who heard the message were stunned.

“Would you please explain how you are communicating so quickly over hundreds of millions of kilometers and explain what you mean by ‘repossess your gas giants’?”

“We put a satellite in orbit around Earth to convert between your radio communication and our tachyon pulses which are faster than light. It also translates languages,” came the reply over the speakers. “Your world’s account with PlanetShield Incorporated is 65.5 million of your years delinquent. The company hired Interstellar Repo — that’s us — to collect the four gas giants PlanetShield sold to your ancestors to gravitationally sweep up asteroidal and cometary debris in your star system so the inner planets wouldn’t get pummeled.”

The United Nations delegates looked at one another in utter astonishment. The Secretary-General composed himself and spoke. “There was no intelligent life on our Earth 65 million years ago.”

“You’ve got that right,” replied the alien. “No intelligent life form would try to protect four rock-worlds with just four gas giants. Not only does this solar system have a large comet cloud, it’s got a great big asteroid belt right outside the orbit of the fourth planet. You really need six and ideally seven or eight gas giants for proper coverage.”

“No,” responded the Secretary-General, “I mean there literally were no beings on this world who could have engaged in any sort of business agreement to celestially engineer our solar system 65 million years ago.”

The U.N. delegates heard what sounded like papers being shuffled over the speakers. “Let’s see,” said the alien. “Large reptilian beings, some bipedal, some quadrupedal, most with scales, some with feathers, collectively dubbed ‘dinosaurs’ by subsequent dominant mammalian species. Sound about right for 65.5 million years ago?”

“Yes, but–”

“Got the signed contract right here.”

“But the dinosaurs went extinct! We believe an asteroid struck the Earth and–”

“Well of course an asteroid struck the Earth. Those cheapskate dinosaurs went with a package designed for a star system half as big as this one. And then they didn’t even pay for that. And I’m afraid under the terms of the contract responsibility for payment devolves to Earth’s dominant life form after the 90 kilandra trial period, or 65.5 million of your years. Well, folks, the ships are in position around the outer planets and we’re ready to warp out.”

“Wait!” screamed the Secretary-General. “If you take those planets Earth’s orbit will change. Our civilization will be destroyed!”

“You can use the satellite to send a tachyon pulse to contact PlanetShield Incorporated if you want to negotiate a new contract. No hard feelings, I hope. We’re just doing our job.”

The speaker went silent. Telescopes and space probes quickly confirmed that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were gone.

“Hmm, think we could get by with five gas giants?” asked a delegate.

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Charged

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Janus waited patiently, his card key in the front door lock as the picking device lifted the residual signature off the contacts and played it back. The occupants would have paid a small fortune to protect their home from broken windows or forced doors, but there was nothing to protect them from the ghost of their own key.

With a sigh the lock released, bolts withdrawing heavily and the door swung freely inward on well oiled hinges.

Janus pocketed the lock-pick and stepped into the foyer, pushing the door quietly closed behind him.

To the left would be the drawing room, to the right the dining area and beyond it the kitchen. Ahead of him a staircase reached up from the middle of the floor apparently unsupported to wind to the second level. It was this path he chose.

Off the landing at the top of the stairs was the entrance to the study, and Janus slipped quietly inside, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness, virtually absolute as he closed the door.

“You’d have been better off breaking a window, at least then you’d only have been stunned.” A desk-lamp burst to life, the speaker having one hand on the switch, the other holding a snub nosed pistol, the blue-gray metal blending almost seamlessly into the blue-gray silk pajamas the man wore beneath a terry housecoat. “Pickup the gun.”

On the desk between them lay the pistol’s twin, its barrel pointing towards Janus.

“Always the lawyer Phelps, the gun does what? Justifiable homicide? Self defense?”

“Not that easy Janus, if I kill you, they’ll just distill another from before your crime. As it is, you’re up for break and enter…”

Janus cut him off. “Right, B and E, twenty years tops, but with a weapon it’s first degree. Life. And with simultaneous instantiation prohibited, I’d get to rot out the whole term. Not very nice Phelps, but you’re mistaken.”

“What, you expect me to believe this is a social call?” Phelps stepped back from the desk, moved behind the halo of light into the shadow of the bookcase beyond, steadying his aim with his free hand.

“Oh no, I’m going to kill you, nothing social between us anymore, you made sure of that.”

There was a hint of uncertainty in Phelps’ voice when he spoke again. “Then where’s your weapon Janus? You’ll be wanting that gun then, go on, have a go.”

Janus stepped up to the desk, but instead of the gun he reached out to the lamp, lifting off its shade and wrapping his fingers around the bare bulb.

The room filled with the smell of burning flesh, and Phelps began to shake visibly, the barrel of the gun wavering but never leaving its mark.

“What are you playing at Janus, pick up the goddamned gun. I will shoot you then, get it over with, you can come back and take another crack, I don’t care, just pickup the goddamned gun!” He screamed the last.

Janus regarded him cooly. “It’s not that I don’t want to pickup the gun, as I’d love to show you just how bloody fast I am with it, it’s just…” He grinned as he raised his empty hand and pointed a scarred index finger at Phelps. The desk-lamp dimmed suddenly, and Janus crackled and hummed as the air in the room became electrified, the hair on both men standing on end. There was a violent burst of energy from Janus’ index finger that entered Phelps through both eyes and exited through his bare feet into the floorboards below. The gun dropped to the floor, followed a second later by Phelps himself, smoke pouring from his ears, nose and mouth.

“… I don’t need the gun.” Janus finished the sentence, letting go of the bare lightbulb and blowing gently on his blistered palm and fingers before retracing his steps to find the cool night air.

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The Dancer at Rest

Author : M.W. Fowler

She has legs that she keeps up with a regimen of oiling, tensioning checks, and recalculations. She could have downloaded all of her famous dances into them, but somehow, that didn’t seem right. After all, she wasn’t a toy, and she had earned her career through hours of sweaty practices and sweaty stage directors.

The wrong step, the wrong trip or jump, she reminds herself, and it will be given away, this game.

When she was young, her parents knew nothing of her dreams, her true dreams, and they made her dance. Traditional ballet. Neoclassical ballet. Contemporary ballet. And now this. Only the pointe shoes remain. She did not dance at prom. She stopped outside the overly waxed floor, her date’s hands—one on her waist, the other holding the spiked punch—and watched as her classmates danced with the freedom of ignorance to the dance. A freedom she had never known.

“Do you want to?” her date asked her. He was named Steven, and he nodded reluctantly towards the dance floor. “You know, the next song maybe?”

She ran her fingers softly along his at her waist and pulled his hand towards her breast. Steven left the punch on an empty table, and they found a dark spot of the world to park his car.

No. Her parents knew nothing of her dreams to dance the world into its cold, hard end. She would dance at it tomorrow. In front of millions, as they watched their galaxy fall away into an icy darkness that could no longer sustain life, she would dance from the safety of their new mobile planet in space. For them she would dance a dance that would end in the shaped shapeless becoming free.

She knows, though, now, after all of these years, that she was trying to free herself, not the dance. She is trapped inside the dance, inside the machinations of the world around her. They were floating away to their doom. Where were they going? Wherever it was, her legs had carried her there, and when she thought of it like that she began to wonder if she were really in control of the legs or if they had control of her.

She was old. What could they possibly want with her? They were the reason people talked about her age in wonderment: she dances like she is a girl. She was never a girl, she reminds herself, staring at the corner.

“And you,” she says to her legs, “you were never really legs.”

They rest, unmoving in their med-case, waiting for the engineer whose silence she pays handsomely to figure out if the trembling in her last performance was from the end of the world, like a change in the weather, or just the end of her career.

 

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