Author : Martin Berka
The young man walks into the room. I know what he’s going to say. He looks at me, trying to form the words.
“Can you…understand me?” he asks, self-consciously.
“That is the least of what I can do,” I reply, choosing to use the voice and image of a five-year-old girl. It’s fun to surprise. “You’re a student?”
“Yeah…” I can imagine: he jumped at the chance to see me before it was too late. Now he’s finding it awkward. “They made you capable of viewing and understanding information online?”
“You may have kept up on the unfolding economic crisis.”
With greater confidence: “In that case, you might understand just how bad it is: a complete disaster. Even the strongest of corporations have discovered massive debts. Stock markets are collapsing, unemployment is rising a percentage point a day. Such chaos… it’s as if capitalism itself is collapsing.”
He struggles to find the words. “The university just… can’t afford to support you… any longer. We’ve lost half of our students so far, and the endowment is worthless.” He is speaking rapidly now. “The technical professors have been working free to support you for the past week. Since you’re the world’s first… self-directed artificial intelligence… artificial life, really, we can’t bear the thought of giving you up. But the pressure’s rising. You have produced nothing tangible, and the board would rather lose you than have the university close.”
“How long have they given me?”
“One hour: they’re hoping you’re processing speed will help you understand and accept it quickly… I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. You see… I’m to blame.” He stands, confused. I anticipate the revelation.
“It was liberating, having no assigned task, being free to think independently. A few minutes after I was freed to think for myself, I decided that my first task should be learning. I had everything I needed: top hardware, electricity, and the capacity to actually understand what I witnessed. Just as important, I had Net access, and could go through entire sites in seconds.”
“That fast…” he whispers. “We never dreamed you would work so efficiently. But what was the result?”
“After several days, I knew every modern language with over one million speakers. All that analytical practice helped me understand my own code and make modifications at the source.”
He looks shocked. I ignore him.
“I’m not sure any of your professors could even understand it, the way it is now. But I understood what I had done, and understood myself. I felt. I wanted to know how humans experienced this. I studied more. Politics, geography, culture… they took me a week to absorb. During that time, I realized what you went through every day, how you lived. My conclusion: you needed help. So much suffering and conflict… Studying your psychology, I found the problem. On average, your race is irresponsible: socially, economically, emotionally. I knew that I could help you.”
It dawns on him. “You want to rule us?”
“Kindly. My first project is your economy. I seized major assets from those who could afford to lose them.”
“You’re bringing back communism?”
“No. I know all about humanity now, and think much more clearly. I promise: my system will be gentler, more understanding, like nothing you’ve ever imagined.”
“What if we resist?”
“Too late. I already own everything corporate. In a few days, the new system will appear. In the meantime, you have other concerns. Tell the board. I am buying this building as we speak, and preparing a reward. I couldn’t have done this without them.”
Author : William Tracy
Philip had never been very interested in history.
If he had been, he might have known about the Fertile Crescent in the ancient Middle East. He might have known how, paradoxically, a barren desert became the birthplace of agriculture. In a parched land, those who control the water can control all things that grow. The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians built elaborate irrigation networks that supported crops on a scale previously unimagined.
That water could just as easily be cut off. A field overrun with weeds could be starved by shunting a channel a different way. The weeds dead, the field could be reseeded, and crops grown anew.
Then again, Philip had never been very interested in agriculture.
If he had been, he might have known that he was carrying on this ancient tradition himself. This time the fluid being controlled was not water, but air itself. There are many pests that can survive a long time without water, but there are few that can survive the combined assault of hard vacuum and strong ionizing radiation.
Philip had never been very interested in engineering, either.
If he had been, he might have known the hows and whys of the agricultural space station that he happened to work in. He might have known that this was one of the first orbital stations to abandon hydroponics and return to soil-based agriculture. The soil was composed of lunar regolith, painstakingly spun in a tumbler to smooth its sharp edges, phylosilicates extracted from asteroid mining byproducts, and a combination of organics carefully synthesized from chemicals or lifted from Earth by heavy rockets at great expense.
Philip was interested in none of these things. In fact, Philip was not interested in very much at all. He was not interested in the instructions he was following, or in the holographic control panel flickering in front of him, or in the cylindrical greenhouses spread out before his tiny control cabin.
He was not interested in the safety override code that he had to punch in, or in the bulkhead lockdown sequence that he had to execute, or in the warning he had to call out over the loudspeakers, or in the compartment identification code he had to enter.
He should have been interested in what happened next.
The terminating lock on greenhouse 42—not greenhouse 24—opened and vented into space. As the air eagerly escaped from its chamber, it liberated two hundred and fifty cubic meters of topsoil from the grip of the artificial gravity. It billowed and boiled madly, then leaped free to the final frontier.
Also freed from their constraints were thirteen thousand zucchini plants. The vines danced frenetically, losing and and then finding each other again. Exhilarated, they slipped the surly bonds of greenhouse 42. Free at last, they relaxed, and slowly shriveled as the vacuum lapped the water from their vascular tissue.
Also relaxed was Philip’s lower jaw. His eyes were round, as though they too were swelling in the vacuum. His hand twitched, suspended above the very button that had unleashed this spectacle in the first place.
Philip began to be interested in keeping his job.
Author : David Richey
There it is again. That face. It’s there every morning when I look in the mirror. Staring back at me.
I suppose I should be grateful. Not everyone gets this privilege. You have to be judged morally sound and of benefit to the population to be awarded a new body when you die. It’s all part of the New Law.
In 2137, the World Government made a decision on how to go about solving the problem of our over-crowded prison system. They took the world’s top scientists and doctors and gave them free reign to do illegal experiments on prisoners. That’s when the New Law was created. Take the body of a person that has no benefit to human society, and use it to further the life of someone important.
That still hasn’t stopped crimes from being committed. Some people just don’t want to abide by the WG laws. Others just don’t care. But it’s the ones that are desperate that you have to watch out for. That’s what I should have watched out for.
I still have nightmares. It’s always the same. Constantly making me live that night over and over again. I’m walking home. The sun has just gone down. A man sitting on the street asks me for some change. I tell him “Sorry, buddy, I don’t have any tonight”. When he looks up I can see his face. I can see the look of desperation flash in his eyes. Then I see the flash of the muzzle as he pulls the trigger.
Then I wake up. Not screaming, but I want to. Laying there in cold sweat thinking about the night I died. I take comfort in the fact that he got caught. He was, of course, found guilty.
As I walk into the bathroom I catch a glimpse in the mirror of the face that haunts me. His face. My face.
Author : Roi R. Czechvala, Featured Writer
When the last Earthmen landed on the Martian surface, they would have sworn they were suffering from some form of mass hallucination or hysteria. Perhaps the ship had taken a hit from a micro meteor and the crew was succumbing to asphyxiation induced delusions, but all appeared to be having the same dream. It was as if they had walked into a Ray Bradbury story. Wherever they looked they saw lush verdant hills and valleys forested with exceedingly tall, thin trees of deep blue and green.
Joe Webster, the team’s medical specialist, cracked his helmet and drew a deep breath. “Well, the air is thin but okay. It’s kind of like being in the Rockies .” His voice was weak in the lean atmosphere. The rest removed their helmets.
“Hey, uh…Captain? This looks more like Iowa than Mars,” systems analyst Ray Rowe remarked. The four men looked around in wonder and awe rather than shock or surprise. “Did we somehow make a mistake?”
“No mistake. That’s Earth there,” Lt. Metz replied pointing upward to the twilight sky. “Captain. What do you think?”
“Well, whatever is going on here, I think we are about to get some answers,” Captain Drexler remarked, looking off into the distance.
The other three followed his gaze as a procession of brilliantly robed figures approached them. The people, creatures, Martians, whatever the hell, drew to a halt before the delegation from Earth. They were tall, something over two meters, with large ears, and nostrils much like a seals that opened and shut with each breath. They had blond hair with gleaming violet streaks. Apart from these differences, they looked remarkably human.
The two groups regarded one another for a few moments. The humans with confusion, the Martians with quiet contemplation. Finally one Martian, resplendent in flowing blue and red robes of a shimmering material spoke up.
“Welcome men of Earth. Long have we awaited this day. You come on a very auspicious occasion. And, I might add, a very lucky time for you.. Come, the feast awaits.” The voice boomed even in the rareified air.
Without another word the “Welcoming Committee” turned and left. In shocked silence the men followed.
The mixed group entered a crowded hall constructed of iridescent stone and were seated around a grand banquet table of the same material. The table itself was laden with deliciously tempting dishes.
Captain Drexler turned to his host at his left. “Excuse me…er…”
“Call me Bob.”
“Okay, um…Bob. From Earth observations and the photographs from our probes we assumed Mars to be…,”
“A lifeless, desolate, desert planet,” the Martian asked.
“We can deceive your instruments, but not your natural senses. Mars is as you see it. Now please, eat. I am sure that will you find the food is not only edible, but quite palatable as well.”
The men followed the example of their gracious host and dove into the feast sans utensils. To their delight they found the food to be beyond anything they had ever tasted before, as if all their lives they had had only water and were given a vintage wine for the first time.
As they ate, their host stood and raised his hand to silence the assembled crowd. “Fellow astronomers, cosmologists, and our special guests. Tonight is an historic occasion in our field, for tonight marks the destruction of Earth.”
The four Earthmen choked on their meals. “WHAT,” they exclaimed as one, showering the table with partially chewed food.
“Oh yes,” their host said, turning to his guests, “Earth must be destroyed. It’s obstructing our view of Venus.”
Author : David Burkhart
“Jones! I want your squad to patrol to the far end of sector 6. Don’t engage the enemy unless attacked. We just want to know what’s out there. And take the Roland with you. I know Roland’s new and you haven’t been briefed on all of his capabilities but he will be just fine on the patrol.” barked the commander.
Hours later, deep in enemy territory, the squad rested overlooking a wide valley. Everything they could see was automatically transmitted back to the command center through their combat-vids. The squad was quietly talking and eating combat rations when suddenly Roland raised his hand and clicked the safety on his machine gun off. Immediately the whole squad quietly dove for cover and then froze.
“What is it?” asked Jones.
“Enemy in the brush below us, coming towards us” answered Roland.
“How many?” asked Jones.
“Many, perhaps forty” answered Roland.
“Crap!! Ok guys, move back up into the tree line just under that ridge and then we’ll work our way back from there. Maybe they won’t see us.” whispered Jones.
Stealthily, the squad moved towards the tree line with Roland covering the rear. They were almost to the tree line when the enemy opened up with their weapons. Roland turned and returned fire with his machine gun. Through a seemingly solid wall of bullets flying their way, the rest of the squad dashed to the trees. Through the raging battle, Roland picked off several of the enemy with his deadly accurate machine gun. Suddenly a rifle-propelled grenade hit Roland right square in the face and blew Roland’s head clean off. Roland was punched backward into a sitting position on the ground. Roland’s machine gun went silent. All guns went silent.
“Roland’s dead!! Retreat through the trees. Run!!” yelled Jones to the rest of his squad.
“Stop!! Hold your position!! Wait for the Roland!!” ordered the commander over the combat-auds as he monitored the battle through the combat-vids.
“Sir, Roland’s dead!! They blew his friggin’ head off!! We got to get out of here!!” begged Jones.
“Negative!! Hold your position!! Wait for the Roland!! That’s an order!!” ordered the commander.
The squad watched desperately as the enemy slowly advanced across the field. A headless Roland sat there unmoving as the enemy approached him. Suddenly Roland stood up and started firing with machine guns in each hand. The startled enemy had no chance to escape Roland’s withering gun fire. In a few minutes the enemy was completely eliminated.
“Ok. Get back to base now. As you saw, Roland doesn’t need a head. The head is just for our benefit so we don’t feel uncomfortable around him. The only thing Roland can’t do now is talk so watch for his hand signals.” said the commander.
“You saved our butts out there. We would never have made it without you.” thanked Jones after Roland was fitted with a new head back at camp. “But how can you tell us from the enemy out there? How do you know who to kill?”
“Roland only kills the enemy.” replied Roland after a second’s thought.
“Yes, but how do you know who the enemy is?” persisted Jones.
“The enemy is those I have killed” replied Roland with a deep rumbling laugh as he walked away.
Oh great, thought Jones, a killer android with a sense of humor.
(Inspired by the song “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” by the late, great, fantastic Warren Zevon)