Foot Soldiers in The Zone

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Aimee propped herself up against a transformer just outside the halo of the lone streetlight. A kilometer up the road in each direction, red and blue lights pulsed, parked cruisers discouraging vehicle traffic into this part of the city until sunrise.

It was nighttime in the Battle Zone, infantry only.

Dark fingers of ancient architecture reached skyward around her; some rooms to own, some to rent, by the week or by the hour, the Zone catered to all comers.

Aimee had work to do, and lighting a paper cigarette and letting the chemicals rush from her lungs to her brain, she started hunting.

As her system software awoke from idle, the darkened city street was sketched over in data; travel vectors of incoming foot traffic, personal ad bubbles stating willingness or intent. The gaudy flashing billboard signage of the street businesses were dialed down automatically, Aimee knew where everything was and, un-muted, the distraction annoyed her.

“Hey there,” a voice startled her, “what’s your hourly? I dig your kinky shit!”

She looked at The Voice, and checked to make sure there was nobody behind her. She wasn’t here for that kind of work, and she sure as hell wasn’t advertising.

“I’m not paying extra for coy, so don’t pull any crap.”

The sign over The Voice’s head showed a perfect credit score and no complaints, but no other details. The Voice was steady, male and sounded like he was used to getting what he wanted. Aimee resisted the urge to crush his larynx.

She risked a quick third person view from the camera above the bodega across the street.

Sure enough, there was a sex-for-hire bubble floating just behind her head advertising S&M and a variety of related services in bright pink neon.

“Just give me a second,” she waved at The Voice absently, zeroing in on the bubble’s geospatial coordinates and isolating its address. Short ping, low latency, nearby and on broadband. Probably someone who was watching her. The system software kicked into high gear, her heat sinks rippled into a standing wave up her spine beneath her shirt, warm air escaping at the collar.

Within seconds she matched the bodega’s point of view with a broadcast coming from higher up in the same building, locked the unfortunate asshat’s machine address and unleashed holy hellfire down the wire. There was a sudden flash of light from a third story window, a yelp and then the window went dark. Moments later the building shutdown completely, lights flipping off floor by floor until the bodega’s bright neon flickered and went out at the street.

She’d torched the perp’s equipment, but the building residents would ferret him out as the cause of the highrise crashing and likely throw him off the balcony.

Don’t fuck with broadband in the Zone.

“Bitch, are you for sale or what?”

Shadowy high-maintenance shit-for-brains. Right. The opportunity at hand.

“That’s what the sign says, doesn’t it sugar pie?” Saccharin sweet, and wholly disingenuous.

“Well, your sign’s gone now, so what’s your game?”

“I’m occupied now, aren’t I?” Aimee stepped forward, taking The Voice by the arm and steering him around the outside of the streetlight’s glare, staying in the shadow of his bulk.

As they walked up the street, Aimee’s system software crawled her mark, cracking open locks and splicing in code. In a few hours he’d wake up in a stairwell or an alley, unsure of whether he’d had a good time or not, but she’d have another roving access point, another pair of eyes and, if she ever needed it, a perfect credit score with no complaints.

Far ahead the blue and red lights strobed against the night sky.

Another night in the Zone.

Infantry only, and you’d best not come unarmed.

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Cheap Eggs

Author : Callum Wallace

“A spray bottle?”

“That’s right,” she smiled merrily, pulling her gloves further up her arms. “To make it easier to apply.”

I stared, deadpan. “A spray.”

She nodded. “Have you tried pouring a bath of this stuff? It’s difficult to test the effects on larger animals. And the small ones just dissolve.”

My stomach danced unhappily at the thought. Kept my face straight. “How small? Like a frog?”

The smile faltered for a moment. “No, I said small. Bacteria, amoebas. Small.”

I looked down at the spray bottle, so innocent in the clinical light. All that was missing was a little label declaring it killed 99.9% of germs, with a hint of lemon.

“That’s alright then.”

I moved to take it, but she snatched it away.

“Probably best if I handle it, Sir, wouldn’t want any accidental discharge would we?”

I nodded. ”When will it be ready?”

“Depends on what you do with it.” I roll my hand to prompt her. “Well, for local area usage it would yield perhaps a ninety percent mortality rate.
“Buildings like schools, churches, office blocks and so on would have a lower rate at first, but as the chemical worms its way through the glass and brick, the rate would quickly increase.”

“A timescale, please.”

She drummed on the bottle. “Approximately twenty-four months, give or take. We’re still testing the effects on living tissue, as you—“

I cut her off, the eggs from the cheap flight breakfast still churning from her last vivid description. “That plastic,” I indicated the squeezable spray bottle she coddled, “is already immune to the chemical, correct?”

She glanced down, then nodded.

“And how easy to produce is that particular plastic?”

She blinked. “Exceedingly difficult, I’d imagine. It’s a complex string of polymers and—“

“A timescale, please.”

Her smile faded completely now. I felt a tug at the heartstrings, fighting with the queasy grumble in my gut, but didn’t show it. She mumbled under downcast eyes. “Four months, maybe less.”

I patted the slick plastic over her shoulder.
“That’s good. Continue your tests. Start even bigger. Cats, dogs, apes.” A greasy lurch threatens to betray me, but I stifle it. “Then begin human trials.” I swallow. “Children first.”

She looked up, eyes twinkling. “Already? That’s very good news! Human safety trials were projected for next year, at best.”

I smile again. “Well, I’m pushing things forward. I have faith. I’ll send you the amended timescale once the board agrees on the precise application of your chemical.”

She beamed at me. “Care for another demonstration? I’m sure bio has some mice—”

“No, no, that’s quite alright. One was enough, thank you.”

I take my leave hurriedly.

In the corridor my breakfast emerges into the obligatory rubber plant found in every large-scale organisation’s buildings, and I’m sweating. I wipe vomit from my suit and adjust the corporate name badge.

Modern business was getting so hard. Used to be corporations sold weapons to the highest bidder, cut costs on public services, and all the other wholesome activities big money attracts, the kind of evil everyone knew about and couldn’t have cared less regardless.

Now we’re melting kids, and I’ve got vomit on my suit.

And what’s with this airplane food?

Damned cheap eggs.

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The Blue Hour

Author : Tyra Tanner

It is the blue hour.

That space between twilight and full dark when night’s silhouettes press flat against the horizon. Pines stretch their jagged limbs blackly above eye level, like a claw-marked rip in the canvas of the coming night.

Sometimes, at this hour, I find myself wandering the forgotten roads near the observatory tower, its darkened windows and barred gates reminder of what was lost.

Sitting on the curb, I watch the stars emerge. One. Two. Three. Ten. The blue hour descends into darkness, night consuming it in a giant swallow, so that all at once, the sky is full of stars.

I imagine them, then.

Pretend I can see their star out of the thousands, millions, billions in the sky.

It would be a little above the horizon, somewhere to the right, and my eyes would scan, scan, until I would find it, there, glowing slightly blue, because it was so large and hot and ready to burst at the seams.

600 lightyears away.

But it’s not there.

Not anymore.

The star was how we found them, though. The others.

It was on the list of those ripe for supernova.

A small detour in my day’s agenda led me to tweak the VLT in the observatory tower to take note of the orbiting bodies that would be affected by the star’s demise.

Even as I jotted the planets down on a list, noting the predicted path of galactic destruction, I didn’t immediately recognize what I was seeing. It was only after multiple shots and comparisons that I knew what lay before my eyes.


The planet was smaller than Earth, farther from its star, and full of life.

From mighty trees that dwarfed the Redwoods to turbulent oceans that crashed against the shores, to sunbaked dunes that swallowed miles of land, the planet teemed with energy and movement.

And perhaps most interesting were the tall structures, sloping yet firm, that suggested a tool-making species walked the land.

357 days I had watched them.

That’s when the star exploded, taking the planet and all of its neighbors with it.

The clearest image we were able to retrieve before their demise suggested a six-limbed creature, tall and wide. I wish I could have seen its eyes, but the planet was too far, the telescope too weak.

What bothers me the most, when I wander outside of the closed observatory, the funding ceased after the others died and we lost hope of contact, was that they didn’t die recently. They died 600 years ago. That’s how long it took for the light to reach us and tell us their story.

But for 357 days, we weren’t alone in the universe. We were viewers from afar, witnesses of the limitless power of chemical composition to form intelligent life. They’ll never know I walk the blue hour and mourn them.

In the silence that pervades the night, I slip my old key from my pocket, enter the observatory grounds, and jog up the hill to the tower. On the balcony rim, I turn on my flashlight, my finger tapping against the switch, a simple morse code that brightens the metal dome behind me in flashes and spurts.

‘We wait for night,’ I tap. ‘From dawn to dusk, species to species. We are here. We are here. We are here.’

I can’t help but hope that someone is watching us right now.

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Paradox Lost

Author : Bob Newbell

“You’re gone, aren’t you, Pete?” I ask my beloved dog who now stares up at me without recognition. His breathing is fast and deep. There are flecks of blood around his mouth. I’ve been coughing up blood, too. So has every surviving member of the human race, I imagine. I caress Pete and tell him I love him.

I return to the rare and antiquated pen and paper. Computers no longer function reliably. It’s questionable whether my record will physically survive. And in the unlikely event it does, who will remain to read it? I resume writing nonetheless:

I wonder if Joseph Weishan is still alive. If he is, what could we do to him? Imprisonment? Torture? Execution? What punishment could balance the scales of justice in retribution for the ultimate crime? If there were still judges and juries and courts, what penalty would they impose for the first, last, and only case of cosmicide, the killing of the universe?

It was on January 18, 2271 that Joseph Weishan murdered his parents nearly two years before he was born. He’d used the equipment at the Temporal Studies Institute in Indianapolis to travel back and commit his crime, reappearing in the present a moment later before leaving the Institute and eluding the authorities.

Initially, the effects from this flagrant violation of causality were more curious than alarming. Joseph Weishan’s parents were found in their home very much alive and well. But fifteen miles away, the graves of the Weishans complete with headstones documenting the date of their demise were discovered in a local cemetery. The bodies were exhumed and subjected to forensic analysis including DNA testing. The cadavers were the younger deceased bodies of the very same man and woman who were still alive.

The Weishans themselves reported confusing memories, recalling the lethal attack by the man who their son came to resemble as he aged, but inexplicably also remembering their lives continuing uneventfully despite their having been “killed”.

In the weeks that followed, as the world’s scientists puzzled over the effects of the temporal paradox, astronomers and astrophysicists witnessed the stellar spectra change. Every observable star including the Sun showed an inexplicable and unprecedented shift in their absorption line characteristics. At the same time, a global pandemic developed. All living organisms on Earth from humans down to bacteria began to show cellular deterioration. Medical science had neither an explanation nor a cure.

Eventually, scientists recognized what was happening: The physical constants of the universe had subtly changed. The speed of light is now very slightly faster than it had been prior to Joseph Weishan’s parricide. The weak nuclear force has become infinitesimally stronger. Chemistry — including biochemistry — doesn’t work quite the way it did. Reality itself has been broken.

I suddenly find myself on the floor. My muscles ache and I have apparently urinated on myself. Tonic-clonic seizure. Late stage of the disease. The human central nervous system wasn’t designed for this revised universe. Pete lies next to me, dead.

A final thought occurs to me: Fermi’s paradox. Why are there no signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe? Where is everybody? Could it be that when a civilization becomes advanced enough for time travel, someone causes a temporal paradox and makes the universe hostile to that type of life? Are we perhaps just the latest species to paradox itself out of existence? Darkness and silence are the only answers I receive.

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A Party

Author : John Carroll

I wade deeper into the syrupy present as the drug saturates my blood. It is a hallucinogen. The deck party envelopes me like a parrot’s wings. The air becomes delicious. Through the interactive viewscreen of this observation deck that extends outward from our glittering orbital city, Jupiter can be seen hanging in space like a bloated satyr lounging grotesquely on a black hammock. I devour genetically modified lobster imported from Europa’s vast subsurface ocean. Deafening music rattles my sternum.

The music becomes dissonant and arhythmic. For hundreds of seconds, the impetus of our dance still jerks our limbs through space, and then the parrot’s wings cease their fluttering. This is not arhythmic music. An alarm is shrieking.

The city’s supercomputer overrides my personal computer and throws a video message in front of my eyes. Even when I close them, the vid plays against the wet blackness of my eyelids.

On Europa, Jupiter’s prison moon, prisoners harvest the bounty of the underocean and send that harvest to our glittering city. Enormous, terrifyingly powerful drilling lasers carve access tunnels through Europa’s surface. The prisoners in Faust District have commandeered their drilling laser. I am watching all of this happen in real time through Faust District’s camera feed. The laser is pointed skyward. Slain guards lie entombed in their own visored interdiction suits. A blinding pillar of energy leaps from the laser’s maw, slicing through Europa’s artificial atmosphere and out into space.

I have to turn off my computer completely to stop the video. I have never turned off my computer before. The loss of its whisper is like a blow to the stomach. I turn it back on and the video has stopped. The parrot shrieks and beats its wings with hurricane force. I retch. I whirl and run to the viewscreen. My numb hands swipe ineffectively at the complex interface like wooden planks. After hundreds of seconds I get the view I want. It is the view from the starboard side of the city. The side facing Europa. I see the laser beam bearing down upon us like a golden snake. In seconds we will be vaporized at the speed of death. In seconds I will be ready to die.

I wink my left eye twice and the supercomputer inside me sinks its tendrils deep into my brain, releasing a host of chemicals. The machinations of my mind accelerate to inhuman speeds. My perception of time slows to a crawl. From the sea of blissful smiles surrounding me, I can tell that many of my fellow partygoers have chosen this option as well.

I experience another one hundred years of life in four seconds as I stand before the viewscreen and wait for the laser. The hallucinogen courses through my veins for the rest of my life. For a while I watch my own vaporization with fascination. The laser devours me atom by atom at a glacial pace. It doesn’t hurt to lose one atom at a time. Eventually I retreat inside my computer and spend all of my time in the Net. I interact with other computer-enabled citizens who managed to activate slow-time with a few seconds to spare. We create a virtual city identical to our own and construct virtual avatars thrice as beautiful as our real bodies within the Net and live out the remainder of our lives there. Then, four seconds later, one hundred years later, the laser consumes us. We all die with a smirk.

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