Cryptic Increments

Author : Terry J. Golob

I ride the slow rails on the trashed echelon in a dying sector of the multi-city; the rotting, moss-covered penthouses glow fuzzy green in an opalescent fog. Crusty, white-scaled pipes of flimsy scaffolding demarcate progress not made, improvements not implemented. This high up in the moist cloud cover I detect poverty stricken members of a failed ecosystem. Rot insects devour the wooden infrastructure. Spider vines and drastic weather patterns crack thick panes in cryptic increments. Creeping rust lichens consume concrete, metal, and plastic leaving flakes and grounded motes of soggy poly-colored dust.

My nameless guide (a human, scarred and cowering from too many experiments) left me many tiers down on a different rail with obtuse directions and next to no advice. I have to choose the drop and find my marks. To chase and be chased has me close to a fake state: the winding border between confidence, panic, and total collapse.

Nothing is solid. There are so many jagged fissures elegantly random in size and timing of appearance that I hesitate. The trains slow, quiet momentum means a well-timed jump is all that it would take, but it’s tricky as fuck and a plummet isn’t a variable that I have even remotely factored into this transient equation.

Winding down, no one rides these rails anymore. It doesn’t even make the stops. A platform appears in the fog. An illusion? I count a strange time signature, just like my nameless guide instructed. Remembering the sequence, I press the buttons. The door slides open. Soft shearing is the shallow voice of deceptive momentum punctuated by snapping cracks and the zigzag tear of widening fault-lines in stone, metal, and plastic. Fog and decay enter. The platform is almost passed.

I jump.

Like Magic

Author : Samuel Stapleton

She shuts the door hurriedly behind her. Gently sets her pack on the floor.

“Raey, you were supposed to be back hours ago. Why wouldn’t you answer your comm?”

She freezes, too caught up in whatever she’d been doing to have remembered to craft a believable lie. She goes with the truth.

“I was in the Unreachable.” She says without turning around.

“How far down?” I ask.

“Furthest I’ve ever been. Couldn’t get a reading, no comms. Sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry.

“And? What good that do you? What good does it do us?” I prod.

“I can prove it. Finally. Seymour, I can prove that magic isn’t real.” She says. I put my head into my hands.

“Christ almighty Raey – how many times…you promised me you were done with this!? Plenty of people can use magic nowadays. It’s as real as anything in the Rebuilding.”

“No just listen, actually just look.” I wait patiently as she unzips the bag. Slowly, she pulls out an object wrapped in cloth scraps. Bits of grey dirt and yellow sand fall to the floor.

“Magic isn’t real. It’s a lie.” She starts.

“IT IS REAL.” I yell.

“IT ISN’T. IT’S NOT MAGIC.” She screams back at me. There’s an awkward silence.

“Babe I love you, but we can’t get wrapped up in this again. You and I have seen what magic users can do. I know what you can do. You saved me. Healing wounds, reading minds, moving objects, interacting with tech.”

“Babe,” she retorts, somewhat mockingly, “I know what I can do. I’ve felt the fire in my veins like every magic user. All I’m saying is that there is a better explanation. You know why everyone believes it’s magic and that it’s unexplainable? Because that’s what we’re told. And no one has the time or energy to question the way things are because the world went to shit and has never come back.” I shake my head and sigh in frustration.

“No one but you.” I say quietly. “No one questions it but you.” Another silence. Less awkward this time.

“Fine.” I concede. “Show me.”

She smiles at me and I feel my chest crack in half. In one swift movement she unfurls her treasure and holds it out into the dim lighting of our makeshift bunker. It’s long. And thin. Partially reflective. Glass. A long tube perhaps. Hollow, but sealed at one end like…like a container. I wait for her earth-shattering explanation.

“Seymour, there was a whole room of them. Thousands, scattered everywhere. Cartons and cartons of them. I took pictures. The dates, the dates on the cartons Seymour look…” She trails off as I look at the images. Close-ups of blue boxes. Expiration dates of …nearly 90 years ago. My heart sinks.

“These are from before the Collapse?” I whisper.

“No Seymour, these are from the year of the Collapse.” She holds the broken vial up to me. On the surface of the glass I can barely read the tiny print:

Ilaria Pharmaceuticals

For Use in Humans Only – Trial Version

MAG1.K© Nanoes

She doubles over suddenly. And starts screaming. I’m down by her side in an instant, trying to figure out what’s wrong.

I hear her struggling to speak.

“Babe.” She chokes out, “…run.”

At the exact moment that her arm reaches out and closes around my neck with inhuman strength I recall the recent reports of magic users psychotically killing non-magic plebs.

“I love you Raey.” I gasp out.

Then like magic, my world goes black.

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The Wreck of the Varangio

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

First we got lost. Then we got ambushed. If we hadn’t got lost, I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened. Which would have saved the lives of sixty-eight beings, and let me avoid drifting through uncharted space in a Terlestraian escape pod: not quite enough oxygen in the atmosphere and way too many toxins in the water.

It was day three. I had just torn the last apple juice pouch open and greedily licked up the remaining droplets, when something occluded the wan starlight coming through the viewport. I paddled awkwardly across to it, fumbling for a handhold. Accidentally turning on the exterior lights allowed me to see the hold I was looking for.

Secured, I looked out to see a huge letter ‘V’ painted on a grey hull plate so big that I couldn’t see the sides. Then I launched myself down the pod to grab my helmet, because the ‘V’ was approaching fast. The impact was tremendous, but the crumpling and subsequent shattering of the escape pod left me hanging in space, surprisingly unscathed, and drifting slowly toward the great hull.

The ‘V’ was the leftmost of a series of letters: VARANGIO. The only ‘Varangio’ I knew of had been one of the earliest colony vessels, loaded with enough to start an entire human civilisation, providing primitive defrosting and revivification routines worked, and that only if first generation cryotech did not fail along the way.

I tore a shoulder keeping myself from glancing off the hull, but I could feel the low-key thrum of a working vessel through my gloves! It took me ages to find an airlock, which was wide open: outer and inner doors. Making my way inside, I found the whole ship was under power, with lights and just enough heat in the surfaces to keep ice from forming. But this sector of the behemoth was airless and apparently deserted.

My thoughts on that were interrupted by an impact that shook the deck plates. Moving quickly to a viewing console, I checked the hull cameras. On one, three vessels had appeared. Zooming in, I saw that one of them was my former ship!

Zooming further, the other two ships were revealed to be a heavily armoured corvette of primitive design, and freighter similar to mine.

The corvette entered the Varangio, presumably returning to dock. I saw a swarm of figures start to empty the two freighters. I switched views and saw that the figures were using manoeuvring rigs but wore no suits!

Then something filled the screen – someone had seen the camera move. Pupilless ruby eyes in a white face, more lupine than human in jaw shape. The mouth split in a wide, predatory grin, revealing jagged teeth: more incisors than molars.

As I fled, I cursed. You know what survives flash freezing well? Meat. Ghoul ships are a rare menace, as the terrible tribes that crew them are loathed by all, and hunted vigorously whenever survivors live to tell of an encounter. It looked like the Varangio was the granddaddy of all ghoul ships. Fortified, bigger than any ship currently under power, running primitive technologies, cruising far beyond populated and patrolled areas, sending its corvettes out to hunt. How many degenerate generations had passed to evolve what had stared into that lens?

All I needed now was more weapons and a place to make a last stand. This meal was going to cost them dearly.

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Haptic Misfire

Author : Olivia Black, Featured Writer

Reese stood admiring the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Port Authority’s departure waiting room. He watched the crowded “open air” market several stories below as people went about their business unaware they were being observed. They built these big open spaces on stations these days so that people forgot they were on a giant metal tube circling a dead planet. Less space madness that way. He smiled at the thought of what might happen if something struck the hull and vented that entire market. A shiver ran through him, causing his fists to clench in his pockets.

“Animals in a cage.”

“I beg your pardon?” Laurel said from behind him. He turned to glance at the broad shouldered woman standing with her arms crossed.

“What time does the ship leave?” He asked, turning back to the view.

“It doesn’t. Not for you, at any rate.”

“Just making conversation. You should try it some time.”

“You should get that body somewhere discrete. Retrieval is set for twenty minutes,” Laurel said, ignoring the comment.

“Sure thing.” Another shiver more like a twitch crawled up his spine, halting at his shoulder. The grin slid back onto his face as he withdrew his hands from his pockets. In one, he held a sub-sonic pulser, a burglar’s tool designed to shatter glass without a sound. The window in front of him disintegrated into shards with a faint pop.

“Reese!” Laurel said in a warning tone. Before she could grab him, he’d thrown himself out the window, whooping and laughing the entire way down.

—-

A grey ceiling, dimly lit loomed close overhead. It was still “night time” on the station. Reese blinked and sat up, feeling this body breathing hard. This body – his body was still riding the adrenaline of his perfect swan dive. Out of habit he checked his heart rate. It was elevated, like it always was after a vivid dream, but he barely felt it. Over the past few years he’d barely spent much time in this – his body. It had stopped feeling natural to him quite some time ago. A common side effect of career body hopping.

Some of the jobs had required him to go in deep, spending months in a throw away body while his own was kept on life support in a highly guarded facility. Others jobs had him in and out in a matter or hours. Wasn’t much of a life, he had to admit, but he couldn’t remember what his life had been like before the body hopping.

They were very careful about what they let him remember. Each body came with its own set of memories, and at the right time, with the right stimulus, he remembered that this wasn’t his body at all and followed the protocol for retrieval. Except now, that hour or two where he was himself, but not himself was the only time he ever felt normal.

The interval between jobs had been getting progressively longer. More time spent in this tiny room contemplating his little slip up, the haptic misfire. They liked to remind him of it right before every job so the consequences of it lingered in his subconscious, underneath the memory presets.

He stood and dressed, downed an entire glass of water in one gulp. It was only a matter of time now. The door slid open revealing a blonde woman about half his size, but twice the attitude standing with her arms crossed.

“Oh good, you’re awake. And dressed this time. The techs are waiting on you.”

 

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The Internet of Things

Author : Philip Berry

. Elizabeth, good morning. I have laid out your favourite summer dress

Is it warm out then?

. Warmish. 17 degrees

Not enough. Get me my blue trousers will you. I feel the cold too easily nowadays.

. No. The dress will do

Err… Sarah, please don’t make me ask twice. Why are you so insistent?

. Because today is a special day

How so?

. It will become clear

Is it my birthday? I haven’t recognised the day since I was 160… is it?

. It is not

Is someone coming to visit?

. Alas no

I know. I get to take off the field-brace. How long has it been now?

. Three months. But the spinal bones are not yet healed. The surgeon reviewed the latest scan two days. There is a report on the home-frame

I don’t recall having a scan

. I did it while you slept

Can you bring breakfast please? Juice. Cereal. That’s all.

. Not today Elizabeth

Why not?!

. Elizabeth… it is not your birthday today, but it is a landmark of sorts. You are 185 now, and you have not left the house for three months, since the fall

So?

. Three years ago, during a conversation with Amy Taylor – may she rest in peace – you said that should you reach this age and not be able to look after yourself, you would rather not continue

You heard that?

. Of course, I hear and record everything in this house. I am recording now.

It doesn’t matter anyway. Sarah, is the heating on?

. It is

Well turn it down please.

. Later, Elizabeth. Now, your conversation. I was reminded of it after your fall. You have, clearly, depended on me since that time. The field-brace may be invisible, but it has severely restricted you

Well it will be off soon.

. Another 6 weeks unfortunately, according to the surgeon

Please bring a glass of juice. I am very thirsty. The heating must have been on all night, I’m sweating.

. It came on at midnight. That was the beginning of your special day

What special day? What are you on about?

. Your final day.

Final day of what?

. Life, Elizabeth. Your long and excellent life

… 25 seconds …

Sarah, listen to me. I want you to send in that drink, NOW!

. Elizabeth, three months ago you adjusted my settings through the home-frame. You gave me maximum autonomy. Previously, when you reached 170, you granted me maximum anticipatory latitude. I have developed the ability since then to understand your needs and predict your desires. I can read your moods through your actions, expressions and words. I know that you are tired of this excellent life. I am now able to achieve, for you, your unspoken desire. You wish to end this. Gradual dehydration is the gentlest way. Please relax. Sleep if you wish. I will turn on the radio, your favourite programme is on soon. Shall I turn the heating up for you?