Spare Parts

Author : Joey To

Tris slowly opened his eyes. He let his head remain on the cold workbench for a second before sitting up and rolling his stiff shoulders. Wincing as he rubbed his neck, he squinted at the window: snowflakes fell and white glare flooded the room.

The control-cube laid in front of him, still connected to the diagnostic panel via leads. The monitor displayed multiple graphs and lines of code. But Tris eyed the blinking words in red: AI Protocol #776 Failed.

He sighed and shook his head.

“That is the second night in a row, Tristan.”
He turned to see Jamie at the door, her perfectly neat and straight long brown hair gleamed hard in the natural light. He smiled weakly and shrugged.
Jamie smiled back. “This is bad for you, your neck in particular.”

“I know,” Tris mumbled. “But I need to—”
He stopped himself when Jamie glanced at the dented photo frame in the corner. “Would you like breakfast?”

“Maybe when I get back from the shop.”

Barry frowned as he disconnected the cords to the control-cube. “Nothing’s wrong. Maybe it’s your coding?”

Tris stared blankly at the thing as the shop owner sighed and eyed the snow building up at the window sills. “I could swap it for another anyway.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” said Tris, picking up the cube. “It probably is just my program.”
As Tris headed for the door, Barry called out. “You’re my best customer and maybe it isn’t my place to say this but it’s time to forget it. Work on something else.”

Tris nodded, strode out the door and trudged toward his car.

Back at his workbench, Tris scoffed down the scrambled eggs.

“Is that my spare control-cube?” asked Jamie as she entered the room.

“A replacement.”

He was about to hit the Enter key to initialize another test when the sun emerged and he caught a glimpse of the picture frame as it reflected a beam. He gazed at the photo, barely recognizing himself in it. The little one with brown hair… he had almost forgotten her too.

Outside, the snow finally stopped falling when Jamie nodded at the picture. “She would be my age by now—in appearance I mean.”

“Maybe Barry’s right,” Tris muttered, glancing out the window.

Jamie tapped her neck with her finger, opening up a small port and switch, then smiled. “Maybe he is.”

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Thoughtful Gift

Author : Bob Newbell

The hunting party moved toward the caves at Es Skhul, about 20 kilometers south of Haifa, Israel. Of course, no one in the tribe would have recognized any of those geographic designations any more than they would have regarded the time as being 50,000 BC. The hunt had been comparatively successful. The party, which consisted of twelve men and three women, were anxious to rejoin the rest of the tribe.

One of the tribesmen grunted a series of guttural syllables that approximated the sentiment “The hunt went well. We will have to give thanks to the Light Raft.” The “Light Raft” was what the tribe called the Sun which they regarded as a luminous god that sailed across the sky.

“It is a star,” said the tribesman known as Argin. The word was foreign. It was not the word his tribe used for the lights that dotted the night sky.

“What?” his compatriot asked.

“Yes,” Argin replied. “We must give thanks.”

Argin fell silent. He was thoughtful and brooding, something his companions had noticed over the last few weeks. He used to be much more talkative, they’d noted. Now, he spoke little and usually said something strange when he did speak.

A star, Argin thought. That’s what the Light Raft is. But what does that mean? As he walked on, the answer to his question floated up from somewhere in the depths of his mind. It is a ball of fire, he thought. Or something hotter than fire. And so are the tiny lights in the night sky. They’re like the Light Raft but much farther away. And both they and the Light Raft are hot and bright because… He shuddered. He looked up at the Sun. He lacked the vocabulary to express what he comprehended. But in some vague sense he knew what nuclear fusion was.

He knew when his bizarre way of thinking had begun. It was after he’d encountered the other tribe. He had been out scouting on his own and had come upon them. At first, he didn’t know if they were people or animals. Their skin was hard and bluish. Their legs were jointed differently than his. Their raft had been damaged. Argin had the strength to lift some of the wreckage that the small, frail people of strange tribe could not. They were grateful for his help in repairing their–

“Starship,” he whispered.

Somehow, he understood, if imperfectly, that the world was a giant round rock moving around the Light Raft and that they had come from a similar rock moving around another Light Raft very far away. He knew that one of their shamans had touched his mind, reworked his brain. He knew that the strange tribe had been as his tribe is now a very, very long time ago.

Argin felt depressed. He was acutely aware of how simplistic and backward his people were. He felt ashamed and embarrassed that he himself wore an animal pelt and lived in a cave. He had ideas he couldn’t express. He had thoughts that he could share with no one because they simply couldn’t be made to understand. The other tribe thought they’d given him a gift but it was a curse. That night, his tribe sat around the fire and ate and talked and laughed while Argin looked up at the stars and wept.

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Jobs Worth

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Tom! Tom!”

I shake my head and massage my jaw as I sit up. The pretty woman crouched by me looks worried. Behind her I hear a struggle occurring. That has something to do with the pain in my jaw.

“Are you okay?”

Good question. I raise my hand for a pause and take stock. I’m in a nice suit, sitting on the grey carpet tiles of the floor next to an overturned chair. I glance at her name tag.

“I’m fine, Margaret.”

“Thank god for that! I thought he was going to kill you!”

He was? Fragmented memories return: Arthur Windemere, long-term claimant. He’d come in for a ‘New Year Restart’ review and – what?

“Give me a moment, Margaret. That shook me up a bit.”

I stand up and see a green-jacketed figure, presumably Arthur, being locked into restraints by a police officer while a pair of security officers hold him. He’s screaming all sorts of nonsense and they’re not trying to calm him down.

“Let me help you up.”

With Margaret’s assistance I manage to stand up and lean on my desk. He must have really clouted me one. A chap in a blue uniform hurries over to me.

“Okay, Tom, we’re going to go down to the medical centre and get you checked over.”

He escorts me out of the open-plan office, down a long corridor, into a white room where two nurses wait. I lie down as instructed and he proceeds to do a very thorough examination before looking me in the eye.

“How’s the head, Tom?”

“Things seem to be a bit jumbled –” I look at his name tag. “Andy.”

With a smile he whips out an injector and applies it to my neck. There’s a brief stinging sensation and a sudden warmth accompanies my mind settling.

My name is Tom. I am part of the Cleardown team. We go into the welfare centres and work with the stubborn cases, using our skillsets to identify and goad the temperamental ones into assault, drive the vulnerable to suicide and the needy back out onto the streets where nature will save us money before spring. I know every miniscule piece and combination of legislation to withhold welfare chips. Using that, I drag every claimant through a bureaucratic nightmare until they snap – or die. Dying is preferred: less datawork.

When they attack me in frustration they contravene the terms of their agreement with WFA (Welfare For All). Prosecution is inevitable and they will join labour units or get exiled to Titan. More importantly, they are removed from the ‘black triangle’ of foodpacks, freedata and hydrofare; thus ceasing to be a drain upon our society.

My predecessor was Steve and my successor will be Ulrich. We are designed to be fragile in certain ways, so it takes less than the usual amount of force to break us. The more severe the sentence, the better it is.

Andy escorts me back and Margaret has already tidied my work area.

“For a moment I thought we’d had another bad one like the bloke who used to sit here.”

“Bad?”

She looks at me, eyes misty with tears: “He got attacked and cracked his head on the desk. Poor Steve never had a chance.”

“You’re a caring woman, Margaret. This place needs more people like you.”

Her eyes narrow and then open wider as she smiles; having decided that I am sincere.

“You remind me of him.” She looks down, then back at me: “What are you doing after work?”

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Grommets for Hanging

Author : Jay Knioum

The buildings so tightly packed that the roofs became a city unto themselves, new roofs erected from detritus hauled up from the streets below, built by human versions of same. Old rooftop was floor space now, shingled and tar-papered carpet subfloor under layers of cardboard bedding and lean-tos and corrugated shacks thrown up against exhaust vents. The sun was blocked by endless tarpaulin of vinyl sheeting stitched with baling wire and shoestring and power cables from obsolete machines, held aloft by whatever the roof dwellers could prop up.

Cymbal was picking mushrooms under the blue light cast from noon sun filtered through the vinyl overhead. It had once hung on a commercial blimp advertising perfume, clear blue water in a crystal vial fashioned to look like intertwined lovers. Now the blue lovers were mildewed. Cymbal wiped dung from her gloves and hoisted her bag of harvest. It was lighter than she’d like.

She felt a furry brush at her ankle, and an impatient mreaow. Pud was old and blind, but knew the smell of the mushrooms, and knew Cymbal would always be by with a scrap from Cook’s buckets. She gritted her teeth, and tried not to think about that.

Cymbal knelt, dropped a few bits of boiled pigeon and a stale bread crust on the cardboard floor, where Pud sniffed around it, sniffed at it, finally chomped it down. He had something tied around his neck. She scratched his ear as she undid the knot.

Boot string, threaded through holes punched in bottle caps. Zany-Zuds! sang the unmistakable, red, spiralled logo. Even through the rust.

Cymbal hadn’t had a taste of it for many years. Not since the summer just before the war, when she’d last seen the trees with leaves on them. That’s when she and Mom came here. On the train. Where Cymbal met Pel.

Cymbal looked around. The roof was abandoned. They would be here soon. She already heard the boots kicking aside fast-deserted campsites and heavy hands pulling down shacks and tents, searching for contraband, usually. Not this time.

She thought about the permanent gap between Pel’s front teeth, his long neck, the way he ended every sentence with a little laugh. Even at the end of the train ride, when they put his sister into a different queue, gave her a different badge, shoved her into a different truck filled with people with the same different badge as her.

Boots nearby.

She thought of the way Pel liked to collect things. Bits of glass. Shoestrings. Bottle caps.

Pud nervously backed away, nostrils flared. Cymbal was relieved when he fled into a familiar-smelling bolthole.

She remembered Pel’s smell. The way he felt. The way they both felt, that time when it was the first time for them both, under a vinyl sky.

A pair of boots stopped near her.

“I’m the one you want,” she said. “I turned three days ago.” She pulled down her dung-stained shirt collar to show them her badge, burned there eight years ago, right there on the train platform. She was ten then.

The boots shuffled, hestiantly. “You people usually hide. Or run.”

She shrugged. “And you people usually rip everything up finding us. I just want you gone. So let’s go.”

They could have done a lot more than they did, or so the stories went. But the boots just surrounded her, a firm, gloved hand pushed her in the right direction, and she shuffled off in the middle of them, clutching her bag of mushrooms, and Pel’s parting gift hidden within.

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My Moon

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I used to be a very technical person. People can get to a level of reliance on their stealth tech that can end in their death.

Like the wide-eyed 20-year-old quivering around the shaft of my spear.

Her camsuit flickers like a broken wall display before becoming the sharkskin grey of an inactive unit.

Her struggles become more reflexive than conscious and she dies looking at me with the question in her eyes, “How did you know?”

The cheap bubble gum wafts out of her open mouth behind the slats of her face-shield. It helped me pinpoint her.

Sometimes the pros can get caught out in rookie mistakes caused by over confidence and a belief in invincibility brought on by too many victories.

I saw it happen to all of my friends when the government tried to expunge us. One by one, the hardest and smartest of my friends were taken out by weapons that fried their electronics or scrambled their communications.

We’d been the long knives of that organization. We’d killed a lot of people. We left no witnesses. And now that empire was killing the only witnesses left.

Us.

I carry no tech now. I had my biologicals reinstalled after I fled the capital, before I bought black market ferry passage to this deserted planetoid.

I am painted in the dark blue berry juice and mud that helps me disappear into the terrain here and masks my heat. I survive by killing and eating. I have been here for six months. I need nothing.

I had lulled myself into believing I’d have more time. That I’d fooled them. Or that they figured one last lonely soldier wouldn’t matter.

I push her body off the harpoon with my foot. It makes a wet, heavy sound hitting the ground. This rock’s blue scavenger insects are already making their way towards the body.

I wasn’t dead so she must have been alone, a recon scout or something, probably expecting to be bored.

It won’t be long until her absence is noted on the download box and they send out the word that they’ve found the defector.

I head back to my tree to enact the defenses.

This is my moon.

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