Author : Jim Stitzel

The bag of chips was all but empty, just a few crumbs left in the bottom. He shook the bag, bouncing it in his hand, so that the niblets would fall together in the corner. There were so few left – and he wasn’t one to waste anything – so he tilted the bag to look inside to see just how much of his snack remained. The chips in the bottom reflected off the bag’s silver interior, and he was torn between the decision to pinch out what was left with his fingers or to simply tip the bag back and dump the crumbs straight into his mouth. A seemingly simple decision, yet he felt his mind stutter, then freeze up as solidly as two pieces of metal welded together.

And there he remained.

* * *

The two programmers observed their immobile subject on the monitor.

“Brilliant bit of programming there, Bud. How exactly did you induce that response?” Thom asked.

Bud chuckled. “It was pretty simple, actually. The silver lining in the chip bag contains several thousand lines of scrolling code – invisible to the naked eye, of course,” he said with a wink. “The program running inside the bag forced our subject into a state of indecision, then compounded the response, effectively throwing his brain into an infinite loop. The program essentially prevents him from action because the decision-making process never ends.” He glanced at the monitor again. “By now the program’s subroutines have copied over to his brain and should be running all on their own there.”

Thom nodded and asked the next logical question. “So. How do we get him unstuck?”

There was no response from Bud. Thom looked at him and saw that his face had paled and his eyes were wide with shock. Thom felt his gut clench in a combination of panic and fear as he looked at the monitor again. The horrible truth of what they had done came to him suddenly.

There was no way to end the program because the program had no ‘kill’ command – let alone a way to execute it – and no way to ‘reboot’ the subject. Neither of them had thought of that when they started alpha testing their project.

Thom said the only thing that he could.


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I Pledge My Life

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Unsol remembered his twelfth birthday, remembered his fathers face alight with pride as he read aloud Unsol’s draft notice. ‘You’re going to be a pilot, Unsol.’ His father beamed ‘You’ll be the most valuable commodity in the Corps.’

Thirteen years they had invested in him, teaching him, leading him, shaping him. Days turned into years racing war craft through fields of stars and cavernous landscapes of dust and stone, sometimes hunting, sometimes the hunted as they prepared him for his future.

At twenty five he pledged his allegiance to the Corps. ‘I will gladly sacrifice my life to protect our Earth, I pledge my life to the Corps.’ The next day he pledged his love and honour to his new wife. The words ‘Semper Fi’ etched themselves upon the man. These were the happiest days in his memory.

Hot wired into the cockpit of his Slipstream, his every thought, every twitch of his wrist, each flick of a fingertip was translated into immediate motion; pitch, yaw, roll. He merely willed the craft to move, and kept his eye on his prey. A more perfect union of man and machine was simply beyond his comprehension. Pushing through the dust cloud above the surface to hug the craterous landscape, his squadron chased their elusive quarry through canyons and across wide open plains to the mountains. They could taste victory, but they had been careless, arrogant. Unsol’s last memory was of tearing metal, the rush of atmosphere and the smell of burning flesh.

It took twelve months to rebuild him, but after spending thirteen years creating him, reconstruction was an economic viability.

His wife had attended his funeral. There were Corpsmen firing rifles into the sky, and a squadron flew the missing man formation over the graveyard for each as their friends and families paid their last respects. The pilots watched the proceedings from their hospital beds. Each wife fathered a child, some right away, some not for months after. The Corps knew how rare pilot DNA was, so they helped facilitate the in-vitro as part of the bereavement benefit package. Unsol would never be seen by his wife, or his child. He was dead to them both, though he would still fly to protect them.

Security allowed him into the nursery wing after his son was born. Unsol stood in the hall, staring through the glass at a sea of tiny hands none of them would ever get to hold, smiling faces that would never smile for them. Unsol reached with phantom arms and felt new polymer hands connect with the glass, pickups extending reflexively from his palms, skittering on the smooth surface as they searched for an access point to interface with. He shuffled inside his legs, and felt the bulk of thighs and boots not entirely his own move him closer. The lights dimmed in the nursery, and the glass suddenly reflected back the white dome where his face should have been, fogging below the chin line where his air exchanger vented moist air forward. He could feel a tugging in his chest where his own heart once had been, and pain where he knew tears could no longer flow.

When Unsol agreed to sacrifice his life for the Corps, he had only meant that he was willing to die.

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Gone with the Solar Wind

Author : Patrica Stewart

The finals of the twenty-fourth biannual solar wind races were in their thirty-ninth day. The race course was a 15,000,000,000 mile Z-shaped trek within the Alpha Centuri system. The Alpha Centuri system was considered ideal for solar wind racing because it contained three stars. The light from each star provides the primary propulsion for one leg of the race. The ships start near Alpha Centuri A, the brightest star, and accelerate toward Alpha Centuri B, 23 AU away. At a distance of 2 AU from B, the ships leave the A-B plain, and maintain a constant distance from the red dwarf, Alpha Centauri C (aka, Proxima). After an additional 51 AU, the ships turn from their tangential course to “radial-away,” and sail for the finish line. Although the inertia re-vector compensators allows each ship to retain most of the speed they developed during previous legs, the winner of the race was usually the ship that could best collect the feeble light of Proxima (19,000 times fainter than Earth’s Sun).

Over the past fifteen months, the 64 one person ships had been reduced to two, the SS Asimov, and the SS Weinbaum. The Asimov, piloted by Horatio Clarke, was currently in first place as the two ships were within a 600 million miles of the finish line. The Weinbaum, piloted by Lee Midier, was attempting to block the Asimov’s light. ‘Blocking light’ was a standard racing maneuver for the trailing ship. Place your 532 square mile sail (over 50% larger than the city of New York) between the light source and the sail of the leading ship, and you get all the photons. You accelerate, they only coast. If you’re really good, or lucky, you could pass them before the finish line.

Both ships were currently ‘running with the photons,’ so the optimum sail shape was parabolic, like the mirror in a reflecting telescope. In an effort to keep free of Weinbaum’s shadow, Clarke initiated a variable corkscrew maneuver by reversing the polarity of a one square mile portion of his sail, at the 6:00 position, along the periphery. He then advanced the polarized area, sometimes clockwise, sometimes counter-clockwise, to keep his sail in full Proxima-light. Captain Clarke watched with pure enjoyment as the Weinbaum floundered repeatedly in its effort the match his variable course. Clarke activated the ship-to-ship comm unit. “Give up, Lee. I’m no midshipman. Try something else, like jettisoning some dead weight. I recommend you start with the Captain.”

Because the Weinbaum was 30,000,000 miles behind the Asimov, Clarke had to wait over five minutes to hear Lee’s radio reply. “We’re still two days out, Horatio. You have to sleep sometime.”

But neither man slept. The two ships continued their light duel for the next two days, but the Weinbaum was never able to overtake the Asimov. The Asimov won by a distance equal to the Earth-Mars close approach.

At the celebration banquet, Captain Clarke accepted the trophy for the seventh consecutive time, and announced his retirement from racing. A few hours later, as Clarke was preparing to leave the reception, Lee Midier confronted him. “You can’t retire, you old bastard. I almost beat you this time. You have to give me one more chance. If you go, who shall I race, what shall I do?”

With a half smirk on his face, Clarke stepped onto the transporter pad and said “Frankly, Midier, I don’t give a damn.” Then he dissolved away.

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The Wall

Author : Benjamin Fischer

“The Americans’ new weapon is unstoppable, sir.”

The Admiral grunted. “That’s a bold claim, Commander Caswell,” he said, shifting in his deep leather chair before the wall of screens. “Care to expand on that?”

“We weren’t able to detect it, not even when we risked using radar,” winced Caswell. His right arm was in a sling, and he coughed softly after every sentence.

“So it came out of nowhere and destroyed your ship.”

“No sir, we had some warning,” continued Caswell. “Not every hit is a kill, sir. It’s the accumulated damage that destroyed us.”

“When did you know you were in trouble?” asked the Admiral.

“Ten seconds, sir. The first hull breach occurred then.”

The Admiral leaned in. “And before that? Why didn’t you run?”

“Sir, we couldn’t. Maneuver and clear the orbit, a minute at best. And by then we were crippled.”

“Your XO said it sounded like rain.”

“Yes. He said that a few times before he died,” said Caswell.

“Well, does it?”

“Sir. I was born on Luna. I’ve only seen rain in the movies.”

The Admiral grunted. Caswell was a true child of Diana–an incredible spaceship driver but dumb as a brick when it came to anything worth knowing.

“Commander, what size were these projectiles?”

“They were this size, sir.”

Caswell held out something resembling an a pair of black dice with his good left hand. The Admiral squinted and the cameras on the far end of his connection zoomed in on the pitch black cubes until they filled his screens. Six perfectly milled sides, manufactured out of maybe carbon chains, maybe vitreous fibers, maybe rare earths–the details weren’t important. They were transparent to the very best fire control radars and next to impossible to spot with anything else in the sensor suite of a spaceship.

“They hit you with a missile loaded with those?” asked the Admiral.

“No sir. They’ve already seeded the entire orbit,” said Caswell.

The Admiral sat back in his chair.

“The entire orbit?”

“Yessir. And they’ve got ships ready to hit more orbits. The Fleet needs to-”

“Thank you, Commander,” said the Admiral. “You do all of us on Luna proud.” He waved his finger and another face replaced the wounded officer.

“Captain Lothar, get Commander Caswell to a corpsman. See to it that he is sedated so that his wounds heal faster.”

“Yessir,” said the Captain, and he was just as quickly replaced by a burly and red-faced civilian.

“Chairman Franco,” smiled the Admiral. “Sir, I have news from Low Earth Orbit.”

“Yes, Marcus. I have been awaiting your report,” said the large man in his screens. “The Americans–they are moving ahead?”


“This micrometeorite blockade. Is it all that Intel thinks it is?”

“Yes. I sent one of our strongest ships,” the Admiral responded. “It was unsuccessful.”

The Chairman mulled on this thought and then asked “Your intentions, Marcus?”

“If they want to build a wall, let them build a wall,” said the Admiral.

“Easy to say when one plans on helping them with the mortar,” the Chairman replied.

“I’ve told you, sir: the possibility remains that they might be able to slip missiles through that screen,” said the Admiral.

“And what of our abilities?” the Chairman said, raising an eyebrow.

The Admiral smiled. “Sir, we sit on top of the gravity well and throw rocks. Those things can dent our boulders all they like.”

The Chairman was silent again.

“Marcus,” he finally said, “Let our contribution join theirs.”

“Absolutely, sir,” said the Admiral, his weathered hands rolling a tiny black cube between them.

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Original Death

Author : Martin Spernau

This time it hurt. Which was rather odd.

He could remember losing body parts in battle before, but never had it hurt. He clearly recalled losing most of his right leg to a direct plasma hit on his way into the bunker at 23-0-9. That had only slowed his progress in killing each and every one of the rebels holding the bunker. He finished them all off – 23 in total – before collapsing. The extraction team had pulled him from under a pile of headless bodies and body parts. Just two days later he had been ready to storm the gates to 24-2-16.

He felt real pain where his hand had been.

They had designed this new body of his to be unstoppable. Any damage done to it could be repaired. All he needed to ensure was that it was his side that sent the extraction team. If this body made it out, he couldn’t be killed.

They had also designed it to feel no pain. He had a status display instead, loss of efficiency, mobility, in percent. The loss of his right hand should not have bothered him that much. He lost his sidearm and with it, his long ranged attack advantage, but he was configured to be a deadly machine in close combat. This body packed enough punch to finish this job barehanded if need be. The damage had already been dealt with; there was no blood or anything.

But this time there was pain. The pain was new.

And the pain did not stop. It did not register in his display, but it felt all too real just the same. Disbelieving, he held up the stump where his hand had been just moments before. It was now sprouting a long combat blade to replace his hand and sidearm.

His hand was gone, but it still hurt like mad. This body did not feel pain! It was not designed to.

The pain!

Confused, he stopped in mid stride, blackness filling his vision. He never noticed the bolt of superheated plasma that took his head off.

There was no pain this time.


“Lucky shot Private Kern! You saved our lives! You are a hero!”

“That was no lucky shot Sarge. It was just standing there looking at its hand”

“Still, your hit enabled us to take the Mech down. It would have had us all! Don’t be so humble!”

“Really Sarge, I don’t think it was my headshot that stopped it. It just stood there and stared at it’s missing hand. As if it was in agony…”

“Oh, come on! These things don’t feel pain.”

“Sarge, I’d like to check the vids of this encounter. I have a suspicion we might have found an O.D. here.”

“You mean the soldier they downloaded into this Mech originally died by losing his hand? Come on!”

“Well, it clearly seemed to be in pain and confusion, and as you said, these things don’t register pain through damage.”

“Hmmm! So you think it was experiencing a memory of its original’s death? Hmmm! Good thinking. Any other characteristics we might use to identify on the field?”

“It seemed to act right-handed although it was configured left handed. I think it was using that sidearm in its right hand with deadly efficiency. Maybe the download was a firearms specialist or sniper or something. All its kills at range were headshots. Oh! And it seemed to take an awful lot of care to make sure opponents were actually dead before moving on. I haven’t heard of many Mechs do that.”

“Figures – a download that makes sure there is nothing left to download when it kills. Ok. This is going into the Identification Database. Let’s see if they downloaded this one into more Mechs. If we can I.D. them in the field, we’ll at least know how to hurt them now!”

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Potential Loss

Author : Steven Perez

Ix looked out the main window, sighing as she viewed the once-vibrant blue world below her, now gray and barren. She wondered if the strange fate that befell this place could have been avoided, and was embarrassed to admit that she couldn’t think of any way that it could have been.

“Still mooning over that planet?” she heard Bela say from across the bridge.

Never turning, Ix said in a terse voice, “I’m not mooning. Just sad, is all. Those beings had such potential.”

Her partner made a snorting sound. “Yeah, potential. And how did they spend that potential? Blowing each other up. Polluting their home. Finding new and better ways to damage their own selves. The universe is better off with them gone to dust, if you ask me. A race like that would just end up causing more trouble that they’re worth.”

Now Ix did turn around. “And all those other species – did they deserve their fates, too?”

Bela fixed on her a level gaze and said, “That was their concern. That’s why we gave them the job, remember? That whole “fill the earth and subdue it” brief? And what did they do with their world? At every given opportunity, they pissed on the wonders we gave them and then blamed us for their own screw-ups. I’ve no sympathy at all for them. I mean, yeah, the dolphins were cute and I really liked designing that platypus, but look at it this way: we can recreate those species anywhere we choose, and without having those crazy humans around to muck it up.”

Ix waved her hands at the dead world. “So what do we do about maintenance on the recreated Earth, then? Someone has to be around to correct issues, and if it’s not going to be us there…”

Bela shrugged again. “HQ said that they were working on that; word is that they’ve developed a better human. I’ll be happy if they can just get us a model that won’t have a religious freak out every time we give them an order. I’m all in favor of the free will modules, but they obviously still need a lot of work.”

She passed her hand over the controls. “If we’re done here, I’ll send the command to let the luminary here go supernova. After that, we can head home. I can use the rest.”

Ix turned back to the dead Earth for the last time. She stared out the window for a while before finally nodding to Bela. She then turned to leave the bridge.

“I’m going to lie down for a bit. Let me know if you need anything.” Saying this, she left the bridge.

Bela shook her head. Her friend always did have a soft spot for these corporeal creatures, but she was taking this failure a little too personally. As she keyed the sequence to begin the supernova effect and set course for home, she made a mental note to recommend to her friend that they take a break before embarking on the next experiment. Maybe she’d feel better after a little time off. Ix was right about one thing, though: this lot did seem to have a great deal of potential once; they just never learned to get out of their own way. Sad, really, when one thought about it.

The great ship shuddered once and disappeared, leaving only a dead world in a little backwater part of the universe, soon to be wiped clean.

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