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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Plasma Roulette

Author : Joseph S. Pete

The detective demanded to know why Kyle’s friend offed himself with the plasma blaster.

“He was playing Russian roulette,” Kyle stammered. “We had just seen it, in a movie.”

“What kind of movie?”

“An analogue movie, that he was streaming from some vintage hipster site.”

“What’s the difference between a plasma blaster and a revolver?”

Kyle clenched his jaw and stared hard. He opened his mouth, then judiciously closed it.

“What’s the difference between a plasma blaster and a revolver?”

Kyle stared vacantly at the opposite end of the table in the fluorescent-lit interrogation room.

“What’s the difference between low-tech and high-tech? What’s the difference between a revolver with a six-round cylinder that must be manually loaded with metal bullets and a plasma blaster that’s powered by an unending electrical channel of superheated, ionized gas? What’s the difference between an antique peashooter and a death pulse?”

“I.. I… “

“What’s the difference between an ancient dinosaur revolver with a spinning chamber that could hold six bullets or four or three or two or none, and a raygun you never need to reload?”

“We had just seen it, in the movie ‘The Deer Hunter.’ He wanted to try it out.”

“He wanted to try it out? He wanted to try it out? When would a raygun have an empty chamber? How dumb is your friend?”

The detective looked like his neck would explode in a rage aneurysm, that his temple would protrude like a balloon and then burst.

“You can’t play Russian roulette with a plasma blaster you stupid cretin dunce. Your friend is dead. He’s dead. Dead. I hope you’re happy. I hope you can live with this.”

The detective stormed out.

He had dismissed Kyle, written off his intelligence. Kyle made a dangerous gamble by playing dumb but it paid off. It paid off in spades. He had never felt such a shimmering thrill, never felt so alive.

He was there, he was alive.

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Paralysis

Author : Beck Dacus

“I assume you already know why the planet is called Trigger.” The tour guide had put too much faith in me.

“No, actually. I’ve been wondering.”

He let out a strained sigh. He then began to recite something scripted. At least I assume it was.

“From orbit you wouldn’t think that the planet had any animal life on it. Nothing appears to move on the surface. That was what our telescopes thought until we sent down a rover. It was immediately destroyed.”

This was a lot more fascinating that he was making it sound. “Really? It was because of some hidden animal life, wasn’t it?”

The guide was relieved someone could actually anticipate some of his mantra. “Yes, in fact. We discovered that later when we saw relentless movement all over the planet. It moved like a wave of activity across the whole surface of the planet. After several months, it calmed down.”

“Months!?”

“Yes. Many other people were surprised that such an energetic reaction could be sustained that long, too. It’s more surprising when you hear what it was.” He was allowing himself to get excited.

“They sent down another rover, this time monitoring what happened to it from orbit. The second it touched the ground, it triggered the sensors of several different animals (hence the name) which proceeded to destroy it. The movement of these animals set off the trigger of more animals nearby, and so on.”

“And so on?”

“Yes,” he said, reclaiming his annoyance.

“Across the whole planet?”

“Yes. It appears that all the world’s animals evolved the ambush strategy to hunting, and waited patiently for just one thing to move before pouncing. Then some began pouncing on each other, and so on. Except on rare occasions, the animal life on Trigger is paralyzed, waiting for one of the other animals to make the mistake of moving. It is hypothesized that stimulating this reaction too often could actually overwork the entire planet, even causing a mass extinction.”

“Wow! That was amazing. Thank you so much.” The guide could barely hide his enthusiasm to get away. I didn’t care. I thought about Trigger. About how a little, mischievous part of me just wanted to put one toe on the surface…

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