The Cave Witch

Author : J.R. Blackwell, Staff Writer

The witch is bony, skeletal, his spine in a permanent curve. His liver spotted hands tap on his rubber console, fast like shuffling cards. He cackles with glee, casting his code-spells. The only light in his little cave under the mountain is the luminescent blue screen that glows on his wrinkled face.

He dives through the world that exists in tanks above his mountain, looking in though his screen, like a peeping tom with a tiny window. In the clean, silver facility at the top of the mountain bodies hang motionless in giant tanks filled with a gel that applies gentle pressure from all sides.

His daughter tried to get him to join her in the dream world. She called it a more perfect alternative. He knew what it really was: a prison. He pokes at his handheld device and initiates a program that gives everyone with red hair lice. Cackling, the witch puts down his handheld and toddles over to his larder. He will have to go out soon, set some traps or try to scavenge canned food.

Outside his cave, there is a moan. The witch walks outside, leaning on his stick. Naked, sprawled among the rocks is a young man. He is covered with a thin layer of grit stuck to goo that is stuck to flesh. His fingers are bloody and his long stringy hair is matted to his face. The young man looks up at the witch.

“Please,” he says, squinting at the sun.

“Fish plopped out of the tank?” The witch cackles.

The young man’s face falls on the ground. “I . . . came to study with you.”

“Script kitty.” He cackles at his own joke but stops as he realizes he is the only one laughing. Laughing on his own never felt lonely, but with someone else, his jokes are flat. He looks at the blood under the nails of the young man. “How did you get down the mountain?”

“I crawled. I’m, I can’t . . . “ The young man faints.

The witch drags the naked, gooey man inside and pours water on his face. The young man wakes up sputtering.

“I’m calling your factory bots,” says the witch, his fingers flicking over the handheld.

“No! Please,” the young man begs. “I know that you can hack into the world. I want to learn from you, here, in the real world. I want to understand the magic of code.” The young man shivers. “I crawled here. I want to make code dance.”

The witch sat in front of the young man. “You are too weak.”

“I know,” said the young man.

“You could never survive on your own out here,” muttered the witch.

“I’m willing to learn,” said the young man. “Teach me.”

The witch raised a bushy eyebrow. “You are also very naked.”

“No one knows the code anymore. Someone has to learn, for the good of our community. If something should truly break, someone needs to know how to fix it. Help me.”

The witch crossed his arms and looked at his console. One button, and the bots would come to collect the lost naked man and dump him right back into his virtual world. The witch put down the console and spread a blanket over the young man.

“What’s you’re name, boy?”


“Jeff, tomorrow we start by finding food. Also, never say you will make code “dance” again, or I will bash your toes with a heavy rock.”

“Yes Master,” said Jeff, smiling as he fell into a heavy sleep.

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Crowbar Subtlety

Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

I work on Opingtu. Two-and-a-bit AUs from civilisation, on a good day.

Lee thrust the crowbar into my hands, and set off down the corridor at a run. I swore, and ran after him. Me and Lee were as thick as thieves — always had been. Started when we were twelve, I think. Talking of thieves — that’s what Lee did with his spare time. Stole stuff. How he found merchandise to steal inside this godforsaken hollow rock and how he got it out are mysteries I never had the urge to plumb. I supposed he had a day job, too, and that’s how come he’d managed to follow me out here. It just never seemed to come up in conversation.

I was in slightly better shape than him, so caught up with him before he got too far from where I had been sitting. He had a second crowbar in a thin bag strapped across his back.

“What the hell?” I demanded, glaring at him. He just glanced back, and put on a new burst of speed. We raced by surprised faces and angry officers. Lee ignored them, and thus, so did I.

He led me into the prisoners sector.

We stopped by a door marked ‘512’. Lee punched a long sequence into the pad by the doorframe. The door itself didn’t have a handle — for security reasons, apparently — but after Lee had entered the code, it obligingly slid into the wall. He pushed me inside. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear running feet.

Once inside, the door slid shut, and the lights came on. The room held six stasis caskets. The ambient temperature had to be about ten degrees higher than the corridor — stasis support gear isn’t exactly environmentally friendly.

Behind me, Lee slapped the red panel next to the door. The steel-on-steel sound of the bolts grinding into position was perceptible. Once the door had stopped vibrating, he smashed the control panel with the end of his crowbar, gave it a twist, then jerked a tangle of wires out of the wall.

Such an action caused the door’s emergency subsystem to cut in. Which was designed to engage an additional lock, then shut down. Security reasons. It was a prison door, after all.

He pointed to the casket labelled with a roughly painted ‘Three’.

“Break it open.”

I stared at him. He stared back.

“In for a penny.” He shrugged.

“Remind me to kill you later.”

Our crowbars punctured the cheap aluminium of the outer casing, and we hauled it apart. It split open like an oversized drinks can. The coolant sheath beneath it was tough plastic, but we made short work of it.

Soon, me and Lee were standing in a rapidly-expanding puddle of light blue liquid, staring down at one of the prisoners.

The guy in the canister was just coming around, the effect of the stasis field interrupted. His face contorted as the pains hit: only then did I recognise him.

“Everyone said he was dead…”

Johnny Rukopashka got slowly his feet, and took the crowbar from Lee. It looked like a toy in his hands. He bared his metal teeth, and clapped Lee on the back. His claws left a tear in Lee’s shirt.

Johnny was a pirate. A gangster. Or more precisely, Johnny was eight feet of graft muscle and metal. Johnny had been declared dead, but his very — vibrant — presence convinced me that he certainly wasn’t amongst the deceased.

“This a rock, boys?

“Yeah. Opingtu.”

“No dreck. Now boys, you’re going to help me take over.”

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Off Key

Author : Andy Bolt

It started when a song got stuck in Jola Ndenga’s head. She had just gotten the new aMix mp12 player, the one that could store a theoretically infinite number of sub-quantum sound files and injected just under your cochlea. They had just become available at Charon Station, and she had been amped to get her hands on one. Even though C1 was supposed to be the blistering edge in scientific research, the United Inner Rim’s top priority, she had spent most of her time out here watching space-faring rocks and trying to resist the urge to stick her head in the neutron remuter. Truth was, there was not much use for a xenobiologist on Charon. Someone from the initial survey team had reported a possible site for microbial bacteria, but that had amounted to nothing. At least now, she had maniacally decided, her suicide-inducing levels of boredom could be set to a pleasing soundtrack.

She had been aural-loading the new Virulent Photons album – thirty-four tracks of twelve second bursts of intergalactic noise mixed over a calypso backbeat – when her transmitter began playing the song. She had never heard it before. Indeed, she had never heard anything quite like it before. When the newsites would come asking later, she would describe it as a combination of meringue, plasmatronica, and a third type of music that she was unable to fully identify.

At the time, however, she simply became very nervous. The aMix was still a relatively new technology, and there was a post-urban legend flying around about a beta tester for the Grape corporation. Supposedly, she was still in cryogenic suspension after an early model had become inextricably integrated with her central nervous system and driven her psychotic with round the clock renditions of Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb.”

So Jola greeted her own malfunction with some alarm, half-prepared to gouge out her own eardrum with a pinpoint cooking laser. She approached Ryx Marcomb, the station’s biotech engineer, and Willix Frog, the knowledge-specific medical clone, with great haste.

“Alien music is burrowing through my skull,” she told them. “Help.”

Willix offered to operate instantly and found that the magnetic scalpel did its job cleanly. Within twenty minutes of the problem’s first discovery, Willix, Ryx, and Jola were staring at a slightly bloody, centimeter square aMix chip under a broad-beam microlight. Ryx had jury-rigged a nanophone and a bag of Willix’s emergency transplant tissue to play back the still repeating song at an audible level.

“You know this song?” Ryx asked, flipping his gaze between the chip and Jola.

“No one knows this song,” Willix answered, offering his colleagues a look at his handheld sonic spectrometer. “˜It doesn’t conform to any extant musical style. Half of these lower tones are infrasonic and wouldn’t even be audible to the human ear. And this,” he continued, gesturing at a garbled looking wavelength, “isn’t even a sound in the conventional sense of the word. It’s a permutation of a sound wave that the computer can’t even begin to analyze.”

Ryx raised an eyebrow. “New life communication signal?”

Jola glanced at the pad. “Don’t think so.” She took it from an obliging Willix. Within a moment, she had overlayed the spectranalysis and one of Willix’s medical files.

She displayed it to her colleagues. Onscreen was a translation of the sound waves into a rough approximation of a DNA sequence, and the helix seemed to hum.

“The song IS the life.”

And inside the aMix, the alien song breathed its musical breath.

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Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Circa 2086, the war with the Epsilon Eridani System was currently on hold, as leaders from both worlds were attempting to negotiate a truce. However, most of Earth’s military advisors were against a truce, because the Earth Alliance was clearly winning the war. Our technology was far superior to theirs. It was best, they said, to destroy the Eridani’s ability to wage war while we had the advantage, rather than give them the opportunity to regroup and strengthen. What the Eridani lacked in technology, they made up for in aggressiveness. They would be back if they were not destroyed. But soldiers only fight the wars; politicians start and end them.

While the negotiations ebbed on, the Earth Alliance continued to patrol the solar system. The stealth scout ship Casper was assigned the volume of space between Earth and Venus from zero degrees to minus thirty degrees. Normally, a pretty quiet sector. The Eridani almost always attacked Earth from above the ecliptic, most likely because their star was located in the northern hemisphere. They were considered aggressive, but not very imaginative. While the two-man crew of the Casper patrolled their sector, their proximity alarm sounded. “Hey, Commander, look. It’s an Eridani ship. What’s it doing in here?”

“Good question Lieutenant. Let’s follow it and find out. Keep the cloak engaged.” They tailed the Eridani ship to a small asteroid. The Eridani had constructed several large ion drive impulse engines in one quadrant of the asteroid. “What data do we have on this rock, Lieutenant?”

After consulting the ship’s computer, “It’s called 2340 Hathor. It’s an Aten Type asteroid. It’s approximately 5.3 kilometers in diameters, a mass of 200 trillion kilograms, and average orbital velocity of 30.7 kilometers per second. Oh, damn. It’s scheduled to make a close approach to Earth on October 21, 2086. That’s in two months. Do you think those bastards are going to attempt to change its orbit so that it hits Earth, even while they negotiate a peace treaty?”

“Apparently, Lieutenant. Notify Earth and request instructions.”

Two hours later, Earth responded. The celestial mechanics concluded that based to the photographs of the ion engines, a burn of 18 hours was required to produce an intersect orbit. If the full burn was completed, Earth would not have time to alter the new orbit before impact. A battlecruiser was being dispatched, but wouldn’t reach their coordinates for three days. Their orders were to continue monitoring the asteroid, but if the Eridani ignited the engines before the battlecruiser arrived, they were to attempt sabotage, at whatever cost.

The engines ignited the following day. “Well, lieutenant, our moment of truth has arrived. I’ve been thinking of options. Unfortunately, the only sure fire way to stop them is to park next to their fuel tanks and overload our reactor. What do you say?”

“Well, sir, I have three kids on Earth. I’d prefer to have them die of old age, rather than by a comet impact. I say, let’s do it.”

On Earth, Steven Patterson was walking his dog just before sunrise. As he looked into the western sky, he saw a bright star appear near the horizon. It was nearly ten times brighter than Venus, but faded quickly. “What the hell was that?” he wondered aloud.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I am miles underwater. I’m the only human competing.

I’m riding a ten-foot cretaceous seahorse named Cheval. I pronounce it ‘shovel’ as a private joke. No one here would understand the mispronunciation.

There are representatives here from sixteen planets. Mostly aquatics but there are two air breathers like me. A hindbrain Mohr-nex with 288 as an identification marker. It’s riding a bio-rocket jellyfish ringpulser. The other one’s a silicate rocksliver named CPR. We talked a little before the race. It’s riding a ramjet mollusk with cold, blue eyes.

There’s even an avian from a gaseous tiny-giant. It has beefed up muscles to ‘fly’ in the cold, pressure-rich water. It doesn’t have a mount. It’s going it alone. In the absence of a mount, it’ll end up a slave if it loses. We’re all racing for mount ownership here. I admire its courage but it doesn’t have a chance. There’s an insane glint to its one red eye that makes me doubt my assumption for a second.

My articulated pressurized scuba suit is working fine. The stats are all lit up like Christmas lights on the inside of my faceplate, showing blues and greens. An overlay of the caverns is pulsing stationary with topographical lines. I’m hoping that my human tech will be more accurate that the other racer’s means of navigation; the sonar from whale-face, for instance. I have no idea if it’s more precise than my radar.

I lean forward and with my black servoglove, I pat Cheval just above the ear-hole. He flexes his massive tail and swishes his equine head. He’s eager to get on with it.

The huge transporter building behind us lights up the dark water around us. The beings laying wagers are little figures in the windows. They’re the super-rich that can afford ringside. There are millions of others watching on the telly and d-sense around the system.

The aquatics are all more suited to this environment but no one racer present has raced this course before. This equalizes the playing field. The rules are simple and brutal. No weapons are allowed but your mount is allowed to employ whatever naturally occurring offensive or defensive capabilities that it possesses.

The electrified hallowfish that last year’s winner is riding gives us all a chill. We remember the stats of that race. Last year’s winner sits proud and straight in his saddle above the hallowfish. He’s striped like a zebra and glows with bioluminescence. His eyes are huge and glowing. His mouth is a shattered nail bucket of teeth. There’s an anticipatory cloud of fang-poison floating in a halo around his mount’s head

I’m hoping speed and maneuverability will win the race.

The glowing balls of angler fish in front of us change colour.

On your marks.

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Author : Dee Harding

I have it in my hands, but I don’t understand it. Mirah peers over my shoulder, grins in my periphery, and pokes at it. The amber clouds react to the gravity of her digit instantly, particles drifting into a new configuration of spin. As she removes the finger, it spirals back into something like its original shape, spitting out loops of fire and tiny shrapnel as it goes.

“Where did you find it?”

I’m motionless with awe, listening to its low rumbling growl and very much aware of the plume that keeps it afloat. I’m afraid that I’ll drop it. I’m afraid that it will burn through my hands.

“The Monks. The Physic Monks.”

She says this carelessly, idly, as if the fact is not important, staring at the thing in front of me all the while.

“The Monks? The Physic Monks? The same Monks who split atoms for ritual? The same Monks who keep a pet black-hole on the Mountain? The same Monks who will murder us if they know we have…whatever… it is?”

“In the Mountain, and they call it a tamed Singularity.”

Mirah is suddenly an expert on these things, on the monks who worship Shiva and live on the Mountain. All the rest of us know is that they idolise creation and destruction, that they make bombs too small to see, and then wipe them away. Somewhere in their temple is a wheel, a torus, which pulls strange matter into the world. Suddenly the thing in my hands is sinister. Suddenly it has the capacity to not just burn me, but unmake me, as if I never was. Fear and wonder orbit its shrouded centre amid a multitude of glowing embers.

“Think of it as a glorified lock-pick.” She says, “Think of it as a key. That’s what it’s for.”

I’ve never been able to leave well enough alone. I always ask the inevitable question.

“But, what is it?”

Mirah smiles the widest smile I’ve seen on anyone, ever, and points upward. She points at nothing. There is no moon tonight, there are no clouds, no aircraft since the coming of the Second Dark. There is nothing in the clear night sky but the distant light of a thousand galaxies, each drifting slowly in its own mystical configuration.

The 365 Tomorrows Free Podcast: Voices of Tomorrow
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