Wherehole

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Marcus followed June from the school after class, across the back field, up over the train tracks, and down the other side into the woods.

“Where are we going?” He struggled to keep up, his backpack catching on a branch as she forged on ahead with determined certainty.

“You’ll see”, was her reply, not missing a step.

They walked through the forest for nearly an hour, she seemingly certain of the way, though there was no trail Marcus could make out. June was always better at finding paths, and he couldn’t help worry a little about getting separated and not being able to find his way back.

“How much farther?” He huffed, the exertion starting to wear on him.

“Not long”, the non-committal reply.

He shrugged his backpack further up his shoulders and trudged on behind her the rest of the way in silence.

The trees cleared abruptly at the edge of a ravine, and they slid down the incline to a wide river bed. Water rushed from around a corner upstream to slow in a wider pool where they were standing, before disappearing around another bend a little further downstream.

“Here”, June instructed, “watch this.”

She gathered a few fist-sized rocks and climbed along the boulders and fallen logs that lined the river bank until she reached a flat rocky outcrop, where she dumped the rocks in a pile, then waited for Marcus to join her.

“See that dark spot on the water, there?” She pointed to a shady patch where the water was caught up in a pocket behind the outcrop they stood on, forming an eddy and turning back against the current. “Watch.”

She tossed a rock into the middle of the slowly revolving circle of water. It disappeared without a sound.

“Now look up there,” she pointed upstream as a rock fell from thin air into the river with an audible splash easily ten meters away from where she had dropped it.

Marcus stared for a long minute.

“I don’t get it. Do that again.”

He watched carefully as June picked up another fist-sized rock and dropped it into the eddy.

They both stared upriver together for a few moments before a rock fell again out of thin air into the middle of the river.

Marcus stood speechless. This was scratching a part of his brain that didn’t like being scratched.

When he turned around, June had stripped off her shoes, socks, and pants.

“I’m going through”, she announced, and without another word, and before he could protest, she jumped into the water, again without a sound, leaving not even a ripple.

Marcus stared upstream and waited. She should have appeared by now. The rocks had come through right away, hadn’t they?

••

June landed with a thump, not in the river, not even in water, but in a hole. She stood, slightly sore from the fall, and raised herself on tiptoes to see over the side.

A creature sat, hunkered down on all fours a few meters away, staring at her with wide, unblinking eyes, its lips peeling back in a vulgar smile around a mouthful of teeth.

Beside it was a pile of fist-sized rocks.

Behind her, a rock fell out of the air, landing with a thump in the hole where she stood.

The creature picked up a rock from its own pile, and with a sound almost like a chuckle tossed it into a hole in the ground at its feet.

Can’t Live With ‘Em

Author : Callum Wallace

“They’re disgusting.”

“Nah. I think they’re kind of cute.” Loden scratched her nose. “Besides, they’re useful.”

Donaal sniffed. “As a resource.”

One approached them now. Soft and pink in the bulky atmos-suit, thick lips spread over stained ivory in the mockery of a smile.

“Wuaay doo as Spak-Part?”

Donaal shook his head. Taking the jobs, trampling over everything, couldn’t even speak the language. He leant down, raised his voice, enunciating as though talking to an idiot.

“Follow the road. Blue signs. Blue.” A blank stare. Donaal sighed, pointed to the blue of his badge. “Bluuue. Follow bluuue,” he pointed down the busy road to the signs, clearly visible above the heads crowd, glowing a very clear blue in the gloom.

White eyes widened, the soft face thickened, revealing more of those ridiculous teeth. It waggled its head back and forth eagerly and waddled away.

“You shouldn’t get so upset. You know they can’t help it.” She pointed, laughing again at the ridiculous little shape as it strolled into the mass ahead.

He grunted, sparking a light and taking a deep drag of his smoke.

A sudden noise caused them to turn; two of the little bastards were fighting, one trying fervently to crack the protective dome of the other, slamming the plexi-glass against the floor.

They cocked their rifles and dashed over, easily shouldering the gawping onlookers aside. Donaal drew his leg back and kicked the assailant as hard as he could. He heard the air leave its lungs, saw the spray splash onto the inside of the little chap’s helmet.

Loden had easily hoisted the other to his feet and, for some reason, seemed to be trying to calm it down, speaking to it in fractured bursts of their language.

He clicked his earpiece. “Migrant assault, thoroughfare 2-B. Advise.”

Hiss of static. “Dispatch advises. Pacify and arrest. Hold in stasis, await jury squad.”

Donaal scowled, exhaling green smoke. He turned to Loden, who had released the chattering alien to scamper away. “I miss just giving them a proper kicking. Used to work in my day.”

She shrugged, stooping to check on the crumpled figure at her feet. She scooped him up easily, depositing him in a wide shoulder plate. “Can’t do that no more Don. ‘Hearts and minds’, y’know? Planetary says they’ll be citizens soon. And besides, they are useful. Cheap labour, too stupid to want more. Most of ’em are just pleased to be here.” She looked up at him, “Remember, before we came along they hadn’t even gotten out of their own star system.”

Donaal frowned, flicking his sulphurstick away. “Still don’t like ’em.”

“You don’t gotta like ’em Don. You just gotta not kill ’em”

“Might be best; you’ve seen what they can do. Petty, violent little shits.”

She smiled at him then, a proper smile. Her cheek horns split, spreading and lowering. “That’s where we come in.” She patted the badge on his chest plate. “Come on.”

They made their way towards the stasis cell, pushing through the stunted aliens masses.

One day they’ll realise, he thought. They’ll realise and they’ll rise up, and they’ll destroy us and everything we’ve built. Then they’ll turn on each other, like always, and they’ll destroy that too.

Humans.

Can’t live with ’em, and they can’t live without buggering things up for everyone else.

Donaal took another stick and lit it, taking a sackfull of sulphur smoke. Worried for the state of the galaxy he pushed through the crowds, crowds that seemed to get a little bigger, a little more foreign, a little more human, everyday.

Fuckin’ humans.

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Caught One

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

A breeze blows down the alley, sweeping past the small crowd, ruffling the blonde hair that lies across the tarmac like a discarded wig. Detective Blake wished it was just that, and not flowing locks attached to a beautiful corpse.

“Did anyone see her enter this alley?”

Blake turned his head to see his partner, Neville, striding towards him. He smiled as he replied: “Yes. They said she was on her phone.”

“Is the phone dead?”

“Erased.”

“Then ask again. Was she on her phone or looking at it?”

Blake walked down the alley to where the witnesses were being held. A few minutes later, he came back.

“Majority agree it was more likely she was looking at it than using it.”

“How long was she out of sight for?”

“A couple of minutes. Witnesses heard a scream, came over, looked, then called 999.”

“Any idea who she is or what she does?”

“We were thinking an intern at one of the hedge funds, given the difficulty we’re having getting her ID clarified.”

Neville nodded, crouching to examine the body and the immediate vicinity more closely.

“I gather we don’t have a corporate swipe card or similar?”

Blake sank slowly into a crouch, his knee exos whining.

Neville looked at the knee nearest to him: “Departmental politics over maintenance budgets again?”

“Yes. At least it’s only my knees.”

“Trying times. I’ll have a word. Can’t have the muscle of this partnership being anything less than intimidating.”

Blake chuckled: “Thanks. Now, how about some solving? You’ve been here over ten minutes.”

Neville grinned: “Tell me what you see, detective.”

Blake nodded: “Single white female, early twenties, top-of-the-line headware, fashionable but not haut couture clothing, last year’s FlexFone – flatlined – forty quid in legal scrip still in her purse. Killed by a trio of stab wounds under her left breast.”

Neville looked up at the walls of the alley: “Check the rooftops either side. One of them will show traces of gravtac boots – if we’re ridiculously lucky, they’ll be genuine issue and leave a tag. Meanwhile, get tech to track the activity on her phone. Sometime in the last week she received an update for Nochemor, or a Trojan that pretended to update her corporate ID while patching her install of that game. Either way, it didn’t come from official servers. Track the spoof update to its point of origin and we’ll have the loon who knifed her, or someone who knows the loon’s identity. But I reckon the loon is a colleague.”

Blake folded his arms: “Consider yourself applauded. Now explain.”

“She was playing Nochemor Strays. It’s an augmented reality expansion that allows you to follow clues to find virtual beasts or treasure caches in the real world, using the camera in your phone, or in your headware if you’re rich enough – she wasn’t. The murderer hacked her game and it led her to him. I’d guess the exploit came via her corporate ID, as faking a Nochemor game server is hellaciously difficult. After killing her, he used gravtac boots to rise out of sight before witnesses arrived, then headed back to work. You’ll find the phone was erased after she died – an afterthought, which is why I reckon the murderer returned to work. Oh, we also need to notify Nochemor’s creators, just to make sure.”

Blake nodded: “And cybercrimes. That patch is worth a fortune to perverts with a need.”

Neville grimaced: “Sadly true.”

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In the Dark Areas

Author : Olivia Black, Featured Writer

“Hey Ed? What’s this light mean?” Maureen said, tapping the bulb with her index finger. The panel she examined covered the entire wall with its indicators and switches. The whole thing was dead except for that one blinking red light.

“What light?” Ed’s scruffy head popped out of a hatch in the floor some feet away.

“This one,” she said, turning to scowl at him with one hand on her hip and her thumb jutting back at the panel.

“It’s just your eyes playing tricks on you,” Ed scoffed, returning down his hidey-hole.

“It is not.” Maureen stomped her foot and let out an exasperated growl. “Will you just come look?”

“Fine, but this whole area of the facility hasn’t had any juice for years,” he said smartly, coming over to stand next to Maureen and examine the little light.

“I don’t believe it.”

“Do you think this will be any help in proving my hypothesis?” She asked, biting her lip.

“You mean your theory that the place we’ve lived our whole lives, that our parents have lived their whole lives, is actually a spaceship? No, I don’t think one twinkling light will be much help,” he replied, tapping on the glass just to prove his point. As if in response, the pulsing quickened until the light shone solidly red.

“What did you do?” Maureen shoved Ed out of the way. She bent forward for a closer look, practically shoving her face up against the panel. Beside the light was a switch with something written on it that she couldn’t read. Without expecting much, she flipped it. In the distance they heard a loud squawk followed by what sounded like a woman’s voice, making both of them jump.

“What was that?” Ed said, swinging his lamp around nervously.

“Shh!” Maureen strained to hear, but couldn’t make out any words. “Come on.”

Grabbing Ed’s hand, she led him down a narrow corridor that dead-ended with an ancient hatch. The voice was much louder here, but still muffled by the thick metal.

“I guess that’s that,” Ed says, turning away.

“What do you mean? Let’s open it.”

“It’s sealed. Just like all the other hatches in the dark areas of the facility. You’ll need Phyllis’s boys to bring their gear and cut it open, and you know they won’t. Not after last time.” Ed continued walking back the way they came.

“Damn you, Ed!” Maureen balled her fists and then took a deep breath to get reign in her temper. That wasn’t fair. Ed still came on all her silly expeditions into the dark areas – even after the last time. She faced the hatch and put her hands on the release. Yanking on the stiff mechanism, there was a click and then a groan as the hatch swung open. Maureen gasped, her hands flying up to cover her mouth. Ed turned back to stare, eyes bulging.

Beyond the hatch was a window unlike any they’d ever seen before. And it was filled with an impossibly large expanse of stars, just like in footage from the archives.

“Exploration Vessel Franklin, do you read? Can anyone respond? Your ship has been lost for nearly a hundred years, but we’re still reading life signs. Is anyone receiving this? We’re here to bring you home.”

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The Social Integer

Author : Phil Berry

Fen Larsen entered the office of the Colonial Governor. He was too nervous to take a chair.

“A disaster, Larsen! The first outright social implosion to occur in the colonies for three hundred years. I want an explanation.”

“I can explain.”

“Proceed, please.”

“You assigned me a barren planet, Bailyn, four light years beyond our current inhabited zone. The bio-sculpting division vivified the oceans and fertilized the largest continent – this took three standard years. A central conurbation was designed and constructed, Karna. During this development period I searched for a population. I chose a distant, relatively overpopulated planet in the spiral arm, 27000 light years from the galactic centre. Previously, as you know, our practise was to identify the healthiest genetic material across a chosen donor planet, using traditional demographic tools together with invasive genome scanning technology.”

“You’re drifting into jargon…“

“But, as you know Sir, the colonies populated through these selection methods have not thrived.”

“Why didn’t they thrive, the old ones, in your opinion?” asked the Governor.

“After taking into account the emotionally destructive effect of mass, involuntary transportation, well… a failure of connection, a social failure, not a physical one. So I found a new way.”

“This… Social Integer?”

“Precisely. The donor planet I had in mind for Bailyn was notable for the rapid development of a new pattern of communication. Simple radio transmission, but channelled through compact units, handheld mostly. The inhabitants of the donor world recorded their impressions, their thoughts, reactions, every whim… they took pictures of their environment, their children, their parents, even their food, and sent the data all around the globe. We collected those data packets and applied statistical modelling. Some of the software developed on the planet did the work for us. Attached to the message data were various counts, the number of iterations, the number of interconnected individuals – friends, followers, contacts… the degree of interconnectedness.”

“They all did this? Was it mandatory?”

“No, but a large proportion. During the first seasonal cycle we recorded 1.4 billion users, almost a quarter of the whole population. Within that self-selected fraction I set a threshold – based on the Social Integer – contacts multiplied by total messages – to identify the most active cohort.”

“So what happened when they arrived?”

“The usual chaos. Early bonding, shelter seeking behaviour, group formation.”

“Then?”

“A misinterpretation. I equated activity on the social networks with the potential to build communities and innovate, the characteristics so lacking in our previous colonial experiments. I was wrong. They floundered, way beyond the usual settling-in period.”

“So what went wrong?”

“It was the substrate. The population. They couldn’t cross-germinate their ideas. The SI threshold had unwittingly resulted in a much younger cohort. Average age 25 – local years – compared to 39 in previous colonies. They didn’t synthesise information, didn’t reflect on it… no persistence. My conclusion – they were consumers of ideas rather than producers of ideas. It was all surface. Then the first famine swept the Eastern seaboard…”

“I know. We’ve spent 25% of our colonial budget on rescue flights and food drops!”

The Governor took something from a folder. A black rectangle, it’s surface as smooth and reflective as the table itself.

“This is a perfect recreation of one of the handheld units they carry on the donor planet. You will take it with you to the donor planet… and connect. You will attract followers and friends. You will learn the social value of this behaviour, tailor it to our needs, and bring it back to Bailyn. We will be monitoring your ‘account’ – as they say. Best of luck.”

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