Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
The streetlights have been off for an hour. The rain has been constant for three. Through the sodden darkness comes a stranger, clad in earthy hues and righteousness.
I listen to him coming in. A mind is usually a noisy place, except in rare cases, or due to rigorous training. I’d say this intruder benefitted from both. He’s actually playing back the briefing in his head while his body moves with thoughtless, flawless stealth.
“You’ll be inserted just after full dark, with a window of sixty to ninety minutes. We know the target’s active security stands down from nightfall to dawn. The reasons for that are still unclear, but we believe some form of automated system takes over during that time.”
Fair guess, but wrong.
“Your suit gives you the profile of a small predator, so providing you don’t move like anything else, even layered motion detectors will be nullified. We’re sure there isn’t any form of pressure grid or similar, as overflights have revealed no expanses of metal big enough.”
Overflights? I’ll pass that titbit to sky-side security. They’ll be annoyed.
“Once inside the building, our intel indicates it was an average six-bedroom residence.”
‘Average’. Not a word I’d use for any home with six bedrooms.
“How it has been modified since is anyone’s guess, but given our inability to strike the target – or even come close – we have to presume baffled corridors, airlocks, maze rooms, and likely a number of lethal-effect traps too.”
Walking through their secure sites unharmed must be a challenge.
Elsie interrupts my eavesdropping with a telepathic comment.
*He’s good. I didn’t hear him open the door.*
*Yes. Definitely the best so far. Anton?*
*I don’t recognise his intrinsic pathways. I’ll need to dive him to get the details.*
Which lets Elsie and I off the hook for tonight.
*Is he far enough in to not hear the door relock?*
Anton gets in before I instruct Elsie to hold off on using her telekinesis.
*Better if he isn’t. A trained mind like his will be momentarily imbalanced by the unexpected event.*
*Lock the door, Elsie. All yours, Anton.*
The briefing playback stops dead as he hears the door lock behind him. I’ll give him credit, he’s an elite-plus operative. He immediately checks his vicinity, then starts running scenarios – interesting that they too are in briefing playback style.
Then Anton barges into his mind. I see the kaleidoscopic explosion of interrupted consciousness, then get out before the insanity starts.
The best way to identify attackers is how they attack. Well, according to Anton, that is. I’m betting that without being able to map the ‘shortcuts’ the mind develops in training, it’s an imprecise visual art. Problem with getting that deep into a mind is that the psychological damage from having someone else inside your head is ruinous.
I gently rouse one of the security detail.
*Sorry, Randy, but there’s a downed intruder in corridor three needing mercy.*
He wakes fully, rises and heads out, grabbing one of the silenced pistols racked above the door to the ready room.
Anton calls us.
*I had to keep him down until Randy shot him! Mental resilience like I’ve never encountered. He was ex-Delta recruited to a joint Lekem/GCHQ blacker-than-black outfit.*
*Who are Lekem?*
*Supposedly disbanded Israeli secret technology acquisition group.*
That’s grim but essential knowledge.
Elsie chips in.
Using psionics openly attracts all the wrong kinds of attention. We’d been hiding for years. Then she quietly recruited us into the clandestine psionic outfit that protects her inner cadre.
We’ve not failed her yet.
Author: Ruby Zehnder
“Eight…Nine…Ten… Ready or not, here I come,” Elaina called out.
The five-year-old started her search and destroy mission in the bedroom. She explored the closet. She looked under the bed. She even emptied the sock drawer.
I held my breath as she entered the bathroom. I knew she’d never find me in hyper-space. She was too young to know about these things.
She searched the shower. She looked in the hamper, which made me snicker. As if a sixty-five-year-old grandma would hide in such a stinky space given all the other possibilities. When she left the bathroom, I exhaled loudly. She hadn’t seen me hiding in the mirror.
Next, she searched the living room and found her mother right away, lying on the couch covered by a blanket. Her mother had made a bold choice, hiding in ordinary space. But, of course, it wasn’t clever enough to fool Elaina.
“I can’t find grandma,” Elaina complained to her mother. “Maybe, she’s dead.”
Her mother said nothing, knowing that I was close by.
“Don’t give up,” her mother encouraged. “Think… If you were grandma, where would you hide?”
Elaina stopped to consider this. She thought about the little talk that we had shared when Blackie died, and she was sad. She had asked me where her cat had gone.
“The same place the stars go during the day,” I had replied. “They are in plain view, but we can’t see them because the brightness of the sun hides them. Dimensions are like that. Some hide others. Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Elaina knew that her grandma never lied. Her mother fibbed to her all the time, but grandma — she always told the truth.
“If I were grandma, I’d hide where nobody would look for me,” Elaina said out loud, searching the room using her imagination instead of her eyes. “I’d hide here,” she shouted with excitement as she ran over to the bookcase and took down a Dr. Seuss book. She opened it eagerly, and there I was.
Author: Glenn Leung
Nylar saw it at the river, staring up from under the water. Warped by ripples, it looked confused and ugly. At least that’s what Nylar thought. Having lived in darkness all her life, she wasn’t sure how to connect the dots between appearance and concept. Yet something inside her, the instinct of ancestors who had lived before the long night, told her that this thing was more than just another creature. It was something that belonged to a world that had gotten much bigger.
She thought of her mother’s warning: The light brings terrors beyond imagination. When dawn first broke, many months ago, those who couldn’t retreat to the caves were overwhelmed by the cosmic vistas presented through their long-dormant sight. Nylar, a young soul gripped by curiosity, had braved those horror stories and left her dwelling with nothing but a rope-like blindfold. When she arrived at the river, the sound and smell of water relaxed her, and she got careless. After wriggling off her blindfold, she wished she had listened to her mother.
The creature continued to gaze into her eyes. Nylar waited for it to do something, but as long as she stood staring at it, it did the same. She wanted to look away, yet something about that hideous face locked her attention. Two tiny eyes punched into a leathery face, one bigger than the other. Lipless mouth agape, baring serrated teeth embedded in mushy gums. This visage was on a misshaped head perched on a slug-like body. Two tiny hands hung from its side on straw-thin stalks, too short to be of much use. Overcome by a nauseating sense of familiarity, she bent over to touch the water and was shocked by what happened next. The creature did the same, reaching up from below. What’s more, she saw that its hands looked identical to hers.
Nylar’s mother had told stories that had been passed down many generations, from before the long night. One of them was of the Mimic; a creature of the light that copied the appearance and actions of its victims. According to legend, this creature would keep copying until it escaped into the world, taking the victim’s place. It was one of the stories that Nylar had thought of at the first hint of dawn. A story that was quickly shoved away with the panicked evacuation.
Nylar didn’t believe she looked like that monster. She thought that perhaps it was a young one with undeveloped skills. Nevertheless, it was still unsettling. It would take too long to don the blindfold, so she raced back home with eyes squeezed shut while willing more speed into her foot. She called out to her mother the moment she smelled the musk of the cave, eager to dive back into her warm embrace. However, she opened her eyes too soon. Emerging from the darkness was the outline of the creature that she had encountered at the river. What’s more, it spoke with her mother’s voice! Overcome with fright, Nylar passed out.
When Nylar woke, her mother had to spend several hours assuring her that it had all been a bad dream. Many years from now, at the height of the long day, the scholars of her species will discover the Law of Reflection. They will even accept their appearance as normal. But until then, Nylar and her brethren will continue to live in fear of the mysteries of the light.
Author: Helen De Cruz
Happy thirty-first birthday, Krish!
I miss you.
I often dream you’re still alive. There’s been a mistake. We merely broke up. I scold you for being away so long.
“Sorry Sudha, I’ve been busy,” you say, “How’s our City project going?”
“Spectacularly well,” I reply.
In that brief moment between dream and waking, I am unsure whether you are alive or dead. I stretch out my arm, across your empty and cold side of the bed.
Now, I’m finally in our Gleaming City.
The boats rock softly as I walk down the quay and see golden domes shimmer in the distance, white and cobalt blue houses, interspersed with apricot trees, while seagulls gather around fishing sloops.
The people are young, old, of all genders and races, but invariably they look joyful. Being here is not just to play a game—it’s an expression of hope.
I was skeptical when you designed the agent-based model. In spite of many simulation runs, our agents waged no wars, suffered few pestilences, little global warming. So, I asked you, “What’s your secret? Don’t the agents have free will? Are they angels?”
You sat behind your desk, hands folded behind your head, your saxophone next to your laptop. “Nope. They are like us. It’s all down to the plumbing.”
“What plumbing?” I asked.
“Underlying all civilizations lies a vast intricate network of concepts— property, inheritance, who counts as a person. Think of it as plumbing: we don’t notice it’s there until it starts to go wrong. To improve society, you need to start with plumbing. Our leaders should be Philosopher-plumbers.”
The Gleaming City was our crucial test, a massive multiplayer online game set in a city by the sea.
I hadn’t tried the final product until today, your birthday.
I walk down to the harbor and hear ethereal sound of a faraway soprano sax: Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Your favorite piece. Is that you, Krish? How many times must you die in my imagination? Enthralled like a child hearing the pied piper’s tune, I follow the tune, navigating narrow winding streets.
There you are, leaning against a wall. You stop playing. “Hi Sudha, it’s been a while. Did you come to bring me a birthday present?”
I want to yell at you.
I want to hug you.
I don’t know what to say.
You look at me, expectantly. “I’ve been playing for hours on end every day so you’d be able to find me. Seriously. I can’t get out of breath, but I sure can get bored. Let’s take a little walk in our creation.”
We stroll about, not holding hands as I feel shy and you probably too. We marvel at our city, its gurgling fountains, its clever, goofy artworks, the gentle bustle of walkers and cyclists, the terraces where people sit and talk earnestly.
“The next step is to implement our model in the real world. This is only a proof of concept,” you say.
“I’m just a simple software engineer, I can’t just go about and tell people how to organize cities!” I object.
“It’s up to you now, Sudha. Remember, I’m dead. You will need to make our City a reality. The world is burning. The world needs this City.”
I say I can’t do it.
You say I must try.
I promise to try, my final promise to you, even if hope of success is remote.
I take off my VR headset and shake my head.
My dreaming that you’re alive is already a stretch. Then, to dream that I can change the world?
Author: David C. Nutt
“Whoa! I can’t believe I am actually sitting with Carter John, famous author, inventor, rock guitar god, and former vice-president of the USA!”
Carter John shifted in his chair uneasily. “Umm… yeah that’s me.” Carter John read the woman’s ID. “Vonni” was the name he saw.
All dreamy smiles Vonni put her head in her hands and leaned forward “What can we do for you today Mr. John?” By her tone alone he knew his cause was lost.
Carter cleared his throat. “Well, I know this might seem crazy… but I want a job.”
Vonni leaned back. She knitted her eyebrows together but still kept the voice used for pets and small children. “Now Mr. John, you know that can’t happen. You are permanently retired. In fact, by your IRS record I see you’ve worked well past your retirement age and are currently drawing no less than five, no six, pensions. You have no need to work.”
Carter became agitated “That’s just it, I do have a need to work. I want to work. Physically in my twenties, mentally acute and all I have to look forward to is nostalgia?”
Vonni shook her head “Now, now, you know the rules! All of you who have worked and contributed must make way for those just starting out. What chance would a fresh-out-of-school child of 22 have if they came up against Carter John for a job, hm? Even if it was menial labor they wouldn’t stand a chance. That’s why the nanite adjustment act of 2130 was passed- so it could give the up-and-coming generation a chance to compete-”
Carter interrupted, ”-but that’s just it! I am not allowed to compete at all! Hell, I’m not even allowed to donate my time or talent to charity.”
Vonni nodded her head. Carter supposed it was meant to be a gesture of sympathy, but it came off as condescending. “I wish I could sympathize, but I’m sure you’re set financially. Why don’t you spend time visiting your descendants… I’m sure you must have hundreds by now.”
Carter clenched his teeth “You can only spend so much time with your family.”
Vonni sighed “OK, let me be frank. No one is going to sympathize with your plight.”
“What about getting a slot on the work brigades for Mars?”
Vonni nodded. “You know it’s a one-way ticket right?”
Carter nodded. “I do.”
Vonni leaned in “And you know you have to divest all of your wealth and property, right?”
Carter nodded “I do.”
Vonni reached into a drawer and pulled out a sheath of papers. “Take these home, talk it over with whomever you have to, and be back here next Tuesday for in-processing.”
Carter eagerly accepted the packet. As he took the packet from the employment counselor he smiled. “You were waiting for me to suggest the Mars option.”
Vonni nodded. “We are prohibited by federal law to actively ‘recruit, influence, or suggest’ the Mars option to any citizen, especially citizens in your demographic. All you over 300’s get to it eventually, some quicker than others.”
Carter John chuckled. “Let me guess, the Mars option is almost all my so-called demographic.”
Vonni smiled “Almost exclusively.”
Carter John sighed “For the first time in nearly 200 years I won’t have to explain any references.”
Vonni smiled as Carter stood. They shook hands. “If it’s not too premature for me to say so, ‘Bon Voyage’.”
Carter John smiled and nodded and feeling younger than he had in centuries, said to no one in particular “Out with the old, in with the new.”
Author: Joseph Rosa
The old enchanter’s body dripped tangerine as black spots floated on his liquid skin like water lilies. The Leopard Warlock had long forgotten why he’d cast this appearance onto himself, morphing his body into a walking neon pond. His arm rippled as he tossed twigs onto the small fire and a goldfish blurped from his cheek, then resubmerged under the surface of his face. He removed his curled leather tophat to pick at the fraying. A tangle of black hair fell out as an ecosystem of crawling critters grumbled over being disturbed. The rare headpiece’s material had been stitched together from the hide of a seabull, complete with one horn tipping the end of its coil. A much scarcer and more aggressive member of the manatee species. The Sorcerer had bartered for it in the very market in which he made camp, only many decades prior. For the fine hat, he’d offered an elixir that caused the desired target to become impervious to embarrassment. Or had it been a knife in the shape of a rose that could sing? He couldn’t recall, it’d been so long ago. Now the market was barren, a collection of rotten wooden framing and tattered banners dangling from the interior. Sporadic sunrays breached parts of the fractured ceiling. The halls of columns still maintained most of the roof, which is why the dead market made for such a fine shelter. He was the only remaining anything, just him and the insects in his hair were gods of the nothing space. Yet the Warlock and his little fire were paled in comparison to the vastness of the empty corridors and abandoned shops.
Spitting sunflower seeds into the fire, he eased into a sitting sleep. For the most part, it had been a good day. He’d found enough food to get him back home. His seacove den called to him and the tide would soon be in. His feline eyes reflected the flames as he secured the brim of his hat, silencing a city of bustling bugs. He listened to the stillness of the deserted market and it stirred his nostalgia, having seen all kinds of magic in this now magicless world. His heart ached for the peak of his adventures in the distant past. The Eye hummed from his satchel and he groaned because he didn’t want to disappoint his mute sidekick anymore. There was nothing to see that it hadn’t already taken it. Yet still, it yelped, beckoning to be let out. He retrieved the glowing black sphere, resting it in the palm of his hand. In the center, a pupil frantically dilated and inflated, observing the somber surroundings. But there was nobody peddling their wares, or lively chatter of negotiation, or toasts made over deals done, or the encompassing sounds of buyers trying their eccentric new purchase, or the stirring and sizzling of the meal hall, or the giggling of children zapping each other with spark spells, or the popping of nightly fireworks, or the melody of courtyard bands. There was only silence and the maddening slow running water of the Leopard Warlock’s tangerine skin draining onto the floor.
Why? he ruminated, endlessly tormenting himself. Why had he banished himself to this purgatory? To this thin phantom realm where everyone else had disappeared, and why couldn’t he find his way back?