Author : Gavin King
The edges of my vision blurred blue.
I shook my head to clear the visual illusion away, but it just seemed to intensify, the padded walls of my room taking on a strange, mottled cerulean that dissipated when I looked directly at it.
Was this what the doctors and scientists called neurojack withdrawal? That was how it began, they said: strange visual artifacts. Then the auditory hallucinations. Then, psychosis, delirium, catatonia, flights of fancy… in other words, a total break from reality.
Hundreds of journalists and thousands of blog posts, thinking they were being oh-so-original, had commented on the irony that a flawed virtual reality technology would cause these exact neurological side effects. “Those jackheads,” they say, “They turned to technology to escape from reality and now they cannot return!”
They don’t know. Only the few people like me, those of us that had the surgery before the government banned it, know what the real reasons for our symptoms are. But we aren’t telling anyone.
They lock us up in psych wards because they don’t understand that what we have—the “madness”—is entirely self-inflicted. The neurojack showed me such endless potential for fantasy, but that wasn’t the point. Sure, at first I indulged in the normal milieu of virtual brothels, arena combat games, god simulations… the sorts of things that other neurojackers with a modicum of programming expertise will make for their own benefit and then give other people access to.
But after a while, like all of us, I turned inward. My virtual homespace, once a luxurious marble mansion with hundreds of artificially intelligent servants, stopped appealing to me. I changed it to a simulation of utter simplicity: floating, blocky shapes, suspended against an uninterrupted, 360-degree blue sky, with a few billowy clouds to make for perfect flying weather. I stopped visiting the dens of debauchery, I stopped using the “intoxicate” setting on the jack inputs. I just flew, and thought.
And when I heard about the first of the jackers going crazy, I knew why. When they came for me, took me away from my apartment to a padded cell with no Internet “for my protection”, I didn’t resist. I was finally at peace. And the jack had taught me that I no longer needed the aid of technology to be where I wanted to be.
I sat down on the hard mattress, found a comfortable position, and closed my eyes. The blue around the edges of my vision closed in, resolved into—I dropped into a meditative state, using the newly created neural pathways that the neurojack had helped me to forge—yes, an endless blue sky. And there were the puffy clouds, beckoning to me.
I held my arms out, heard the wind in my ears, and flew away.
Author : Adam Zabell
The Einsteins aren’t allowed to pilot the ships because they’ve all got some manic desire to fix the universe. Save Gandhi, kill Hitler, vote in Florida or Minnesota or Puerto Rico, stuff like that. There’s even one who wants to kill Lincoln. For the greater good, she says, which confuses me. But then, there’s a reason I’m a Pilot.
My dossier calls me “a creative but unoriginal thinker.” Plus, I take orders well. And I’m one of the favored pilots because I don’t mind the nightmares you get after skipping out of your place in time. For all their smarts, the Einsteins still can’t explain the nightmares. Hell, they can hardly explain how a ship stays in sync with the local geography. “The universe likes keeping her atoms where she left them,” is about the best I’ve heard when I manage to get them talking. Which isn’t often; the Socrateases don’t like us mixing.
The truth of the matter is that everybody has a Fix, even the Pilots. Why else would anybody volunteer for the Service? They know I read golden age sci-fi and they think my Fix is interstellar travel, so they won’t assign me to anything after 2500CE. I’ll never get to see Alpha Centauri, but that’s okay. Long as I keep my nose clean, they won’t dig deeper into my psyche, and it’s easy to be patient when you sail the timeline.
For six years I made sure that I stuck to script from injection to ejection, and that impeccable record means my handlers have gotten lazy. It also means I’ve gotten the flashiest of pre-space assignments: counter-assassination duty for Stalin. I spend a lot of time in the early-mid 1900CE, concentrating on the US and CCCP.
My contraband stays under the 200 gram tolerance and I stay unseen, or at least anonymous. Sure, my Fix doesn’t always work. I guess the authors who get my presents are at least as worried about paradox as the Socrateases who debate the missions. A lot of my trips to New York and Michigan during the 1930s don’t seem to have any effect. But I just left the 1975 serial “A Martian Named Smith” in 1958 Colorado. Checking my dossier, it says they won’t assign me to anything after 2200CE.
Author : Tim Crosby
I am weeping in the burned rubble that used to be my home, in the ash that used to be my hometown.
Every day I look for other survivors. I have not seen anyone else in over five weeks – and even that was just a fleeting glimpse of silhouettes in the distance.
I cry because, when the chrome monstrosities screamed down from the sky, I did nothing. As my town was razed, I hid. While my wife and child were slaughtered, I ran away.
The hulking metal thing still sits in the center of town, watching and waiting. It wakes up now less and less frequently, as the number of survivors dwindles. Every time it wakes up, I feel the pangs of guilt and failure.
That saying from before this apocalypse still holds: you need others. Not much else applies anymore, but that much is true. I find it hard to sleep at night, knowing there are other survivors out there.
I still come to this place of my failure because it’s at the top of a hill; it’s the best place to see others before they can see you. Yet sometimes I am overwhelmed by my own failure, and I cry. Like now.
There is a crunch of a boot on gravel behind me. I wipe my tears and turn to see another human. We lock eyes for a brief moment, then I stand.
The combat is short and fierce. We are both desperate. Though I am bloodied and bruised, I am victorious. As I raise the other survivor’s head – no, as I raise my trophy – I let out a long ululation.
I begin making my way to the monstrosity. When I show it my prize, my masters will let me inside.
Author : Jeff McGaha
John fumbled at the door, the alcohol hindering his coordination. His frustration, first directed at the keys, grew to include the lock, the door, the house and eventually Mary. His fury cresting, he pounded his fist into the door. “Mary…honey…open up. My goddamn key don’t work.” The beating of the door grew harsher and more insistent. The pummeling shook the whole house. John’s slurred words became louder and callous as his entry was denied. Dogs began to bark, but the neighbors didn’t involve themselves. They never did.
Mary sat silently on the couch. She shivered with fear. For nine years, this had been their routine. John would get drunk on a Friday night and Mary would have to wear sunglasses for a week. The same thing seemed to happen every few months. Mary was frightened, but prepared this time.
Finally, John kicked in the door. His face flushed with anger and whiskey. He spotted Mary quivering on the sofa. “You stupid bitch.” John strode to Mary in three steps, knocking over a lamp and coffee table in his path.
“St-,” was all that escaped Mary’s lips before John had his hand around her throat and began choking her. He was angry and going to kill her this time. Mary took her right hand and jammed her palm into John’s chest. He flew across the room and smashed into the wall. The house rumbled from the impact. With the wind knocked out of him, John rested on the ground gasping.
Mary’s nostrils flared and she wanted to cry, “You are never going to hurt me again. I’m leaving you. The door wouldn’t open because I had the locks changed. You’ll be receiving divorce papers on Monday.”
Still wheezing for air, John mumbled, “How – How did you do that?”
Mary just shook her head and shrugged, fighting back the tears. John, clutching at his chest, blinked a few times confused. Mary lowered her head and stared at the floor. Finally figuring it out, John gasped loudly, “Nooo. We can’t afford that. Where’d ya get the money?”
“Women Against Marital Brutality – they own a clinic where they can perform gene manipulation. I’ve been on their waiting list for three years. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
John nodded knowingly and pushed himself up using the wall, his breathing still difficult. He looked at Mary sadly, “Did – did ya have anything else done besides strengthenin’?”
John hesitated and then left. Mary shut the door behind him. The door frame was shattered and the locks were completely useless. Mary turned and leaned her back against the door. She slid down to the tiled floor and began to cry.
Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer
It was a rookie mistake. It was embarrassing that someone of my history and career would do something so basically stupid.
I liked working with primitives.
I remember living with the Inupiaqs, sharpening arrowheads with them, cutting holes in the ice.
I remember hanging out with the Aztecs, gilding turquoise masks for ceremonies.
Dozens of other societies. Always smiling. Working with one’s hands. If there was a constant so far in history, even as far down the line as where I’m from, it’s that a couple of people plan, a few more oversee, and then many, many pairs of hands get dirty with assembling and following directions.
I’m a historian from hundreds of years in the future. I come back in a body that’s designed for the target timeframe with a handle on the language and basically just hang out with the workers. They’re easy to put at ease and generally not too suspicious. I float around in their brains while they work.
This time I was in Kansas on a farm. I was a handyman who’d just drifted into town a few years previously. So far, I’d made a few friends. I was with one of them now.
Jack Kempler, a widower who was good with machines.
It was raining outside and Jack’s dogs, Strawberry and Chocolate, were asleep on the dirt by the door. It was a peaceful afternoon.
Jack and I were working on the machine, listening to the rain hit the roof, while I feigned inadequate knowledge of the machine’s basic principles.
I was very much at ease. Maybe that’s why I screwed up.
I was deep in Jack’s mind and I was recording. He was reflecting on his life and wishing he could put it back in order as easy as working on this machine. Underneath it all was a curious soul-crushing yearning for what might have happened on a different path.
I was deep in his mind, you have to understand, and he asked the question. I was relaxed and it felt like a conversation.
Without thinking, I answered.
I fluttered a deck of cards to him with my mind, showing him the nearest fifty lifestyles he could have had with the different choices that had been available to him around the main core of his life-thread. I even threw one in where he’d been born a woman. It was meant to be humorous.
Jack stiffened and dropped his wrench.
Too late, I realized what I’d done. I wasn’t having a conversation with a contemporary. I’d just stuffed fifty lives worth of information into a one-life brain with no augmented backup in the slightest. On a quantum level, there was enough room but the very nature of the molecules in his mind shuddered. Without a calibrator and adequate other-drives, he was lost.
Jack lay down on the ground and died with a sigh.
We had to bring in a replacement biomaton to restore this timeline. Luckily, Jack only had a few more years to live and a few more visits with his children to look after. Speaking from a causality standpoint, damage control was almost routine in his case.
So luck was on my side. That did not abate my professional shame or personal grief.
I now have what Jack’s temporal counterparts would call a ‘desk job’ upstream. I monitor timeframes and look for ripples. There’s talk of letting me have my license back once I pass a few more re-instatement tests but I’m not hopeful.
Author : Q.B. Fox
When we broke down, it left me with some time to kill, so I slipped into a little café near the port and bought a latte and a muffin. The breakfast rush had long gone and it was still too soon for an early lunch, so I was the only customer apart from a casually dressed fellow, sat against the wall and lost behind that day’s paper.
I idled away the minutes as the coffee cooled, breaking pieces off the muffin and staring dreamily out of the large windows at the beautiful people filling the sun drenched streets; amazingly perfect, colourfully dressed, beautiful people.
Of course, if you know nothing else about the place, and to be honest I knew very little more, you’d have heard about the accident. When was it? Five years ago? Ten?
Anyway, it was a funny thought, to think that all these perfect people had been made that way; remade that way, really.
It was so unexpected I jumped when he spoke. Perhaps I’d mumbled something of my thoughts out loud (I do that sometimes), perhaps he’d just guessed what I was thinking.
“You ever been to the aquarium, ever seen the reef exhibit?” he asked, a disembodied voice from behind the headlines.
I confessed I’d not seen anymore of the city than what I could see through this window.
“If you go during the day,” he explained, “and look into the tank, it’s filled with beautiful fish, all different colours and shapes and patterns, but each one as beautiful as the next.”
I crumbled a raisin out of the sponge, popped it in my mouth, turning to face him.
“But if you go in the evening,” he continued casually, half his attention apparently still focused on the news print, “they dim the lights, make it night time, and that’s when the ugly fish come out; grey and brown fish with bug eyes and pointy, sticky-out teeth; funny looking, bloated fish, with round bodies and stubby fins; freak show fish not meant to be out in the light of day.”
He paused; and I waited, waited to see where he was going.
“It’s not like those fish are put into the tank at night, they’re there all along, hiding in the crevices in the coral, waiting for it to be safe to go out.”
And then he did something that shocked me, made me see the whole world differently.
He lowered his paper.