Nothing But Time

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Edison wasn’t immediately aware that anything serious had happened. The room he was in, a specially lined, sealed containment bunker in a facility designed for these kinds of tests, was devoid of any feature that would change noticeably. At least, not noticeable at first.

His vision was blurred, and the apparatus he’d been setting up when the test-fire happened prematurely faded in and out of focus.

He sat, back pushed against the wall where the force of the explosion had left him, and waited for someone to come, but no one did.

He had to move.

As he levered himself up the wall, the paint beneath his fingers first curled and then flattened, changing tone ever so slightly as though withering and flaking from age and being replaced over and over as he watched.

Odd. His hand was in perfect focus. It wasn’t his vision then, as that was clearly unaffected, it was everything around him that was blurred. He stood stunned, and watched as the shuddering in the center of the room seemed to slow, and coalesce into a variety of different experiments, as each were setup and dismantled, over and over again. Streaks of light coming and going as technicians, presumably, brought equipment in and out of the room.

Something was seriously wrong.

He moved towards the door, and watched it continually vacillate between open and closed before his eyes. He could see beyond the heavy metal to the room beyond, but he dared not approach lest he be thrown away into the wall again, or worse, crushed between the door and its frame.

He was trapped.

Hours of awareness passed, and he could do nothing but watch the flow of time around him. At first, the timeline seemed to be progressing forward, and there were brief glimpses of faces he recognized, other scientists from the facility, and an excruciating moment where Etta stood shaking more violently than anything else just outside the door, looking right at, or more likely through him, as someone must have been explaining what had happened. Then things reversed, Etta backed away, slowly at first and then accelerating until the very fabric of the place changed, colours in the lab morphed in waves, flashing lights and bundles of fibre optic cables gave way to massive refrigerator sized computers with tape reels spinning on their faces, then bare walls and manacled silhouettes of people mouthing silent screams, then darkness, only to play back again, forward through time. To Etta.

He was unstuck on his timeline, being whipped on an elastic tether, between darkness, through silent screaming, to Etta, and back again.

Each time her face lingered in his vision for a moment longer. Was it a trick? Or was this madness losing velocity? Was he even, could he possibly be… alive? At the end of this? Sane?

His mind raced, thoughts climbing over thoughts in the confines of his skull as lifetimes played out backwards and forwards, and all he could do was watch.

Edison had no answers. Without Etta, without hope, he had nothing but time.

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Author : Arthur Carey

Sacagawea stepped off the damaged recharging grid. Battery life registered in the “failure imminent” range. Within hours, the robot would become an immobile piece of junk in a deserted space station pummeled by raging solar winds and debris.

The scientific team studying the impending death of Copernic 362, a dwarf star of 7.7 magnitude, had left hastily in an escape pod. It was their second forced evacuation after a violent flare-up on the dying star’s surface.

Sacagawea discovered Commander Mary Callis was no longer on the communications link. Nor were her four male subordinates, Slim, Roofie, Jones, and Rako.

Initially wary of serving under a woman, the men had come to like and trust Callis. She joined in the raucous camaraderie of poker games, winning without boasting and losing without complaint. On birthdays, she “discovered” hidden flasks of joy juice and whipped up cakes from limited meal resources.

When her own birthday came, the men surprised their commander with a pseudo female companion—the ship’s made-over general utility robot. They attached black plastic eyelashes above the robot’s view slits and painted the toes of its magnetic boots red, giving it a crude female appearance if not personality.

The robot was an AI model enhanced to perform tedious data analysis. Before the transformation, the crew had referred to it simply as “the bot.” But Callis renamed it Sacagawea after a famous Indian guide in the time long ago. She downloaded data files of women’s history, lifestyles, and preferences into the robot’s memory banks and addressed it as if it were a real person.

The robot reviewed its final instructions from Callis: “Saci, we’re leaving, at least for now. We’ll try to record some of what happens from a safe distance. Try to patch any oxygen leaks. Oh…and sprinkle the garden with whatever liquid nutrient is left in the distiller. If the explosion is another false alarm, we’ll be back within days.”

But the explosion hadn’t been a false alarm, only the prelude to a series of internal blasts that tore Copernic 362 apart.

The station’s lights flickered and died, leaving the interior lit only by sparks from fried electronics equipment and lights flashing beyond the viewports.

Sacagawea switched on a headlamp and waded through strewn laboratory records, broken furniture, and discarded clothing to the attached bubble that housed the bio-regenerative hydroponic system.

Four plastic troughs bristled with greenery. The plastic drip system lay in tatters, LEDs shattered. The robot drained the last of the nutrient from a recycling tank and sprinkled it over the three troughs containing carrots, potatoes, and red lettuce.

Sacagawea pulled two scraggly plants from the fourth trough. Wilted blossoms drooped from sharp-spiked branches. The robot scanned the objects. Classification: Genus, Rosa; Family, Rosaceae; Pigmentation: Crimson; Essence: Tea; Viability: Moribund.

The robot dropped the plants and prepared to grind them underfoot. Unlike vegetables that sustained human life, flowers weren’t eaten. Therefore, they had no function. Without function, there was no justification for their consumption of oxygen, water, and light.

As Sacagawea raised a metal boot, a microcontroller running at 80 MHz and performing 100 million operations per second activated. A visual and aromatic simulation of red, white, and yellow blossoms bobbing gently in the breeze beneath an azure sky flooded the memory nodes of the robot. Sacagawea paused to consider an unfamiliar concept.

What was regret?

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Author : Julian Miles, Staff Writer

We don’t have the technology to make the instruments to understand what they do, let alone resist. Every eleven months or so, grey column descends from space and encloses a city. Twelve hours later it lifts. The population is dissolved and non-organic surfaces are covered in a toxic sludge. All devices are flatlined and erased.
It’s eleven months since the last raid. Cities used to attempt evacuation, but the next grey column would be wide enough to encompass the bulk of the evacuee zones. Thankfully, people are very good at ignoring risks: earthquake, tornado, alien attack, it makes no difference. Shrugs are the response to direct queries. Well, shrugs and the stockpiling of weapons, to be accurate.

Just after dawn, I awoke to a twilit reality rent by screams and sirens. So I looked out the window and started sketching with permanent marker on plastic sheets.
I’ll add an approximate 12-hour count to my notes. For reference, it’s 01:00 and the sketches are done. Time to run.

02:00 The skies are filled – and I mean filled. Like a roiling, three-dimensional traffic jam comprised of vessels like Viking longboats. They are crewed by bare-chested, baton waving proto-gorillas dressed in knee-length black leggings and shiny boots.

03:00 When these raiders grab people, either in passing or by landing and rounding them up, they slap them with a stick. If it flashes red, they kill the victim. Any other colour and the person is flung onto the longship. When a victim arrives over the ship, they float down like they’re unconscious. Even if they were struggling when thrown, and even if they arrived way above the deck. When the longboat is two-dozen deep, stacked like fish frozen in a block of ice, it ascends.

04:00 Staying free takes a lot more effort than I expected. These bastards are very good at this.

05:00 For all the barbarous appearance, this is a ruthlessly efficient operation. The baton wielders are backed by fire teams. There is no hesitation. Any resistance and the baton team are out of there: the fire team razes the site. For tougher targets, the co-ordination with something high above is instantaneous. The response is not visible to me, but it melts everything in the target area.

07:00 Lorraine – a history lecturer – spotted some parallels: these are slave raids; could be out of a medieval European playbook. Pregnant women, young children and elderly or sick people are killed. Only those capable of surviving a long journey in harsh conditions are taken.

10:00 They just pulled out. Every ship rising in a single, co-ordinated pattern. Amazing to behold, for all that I want them all dead.

10:10 The EMP that just hit the ground was massive. I felt sick from the accompanying ULF wave.

10:15 The golden-hued gas turns a vibrant yellow in areas where it is particularly dense. I hear agonised screams that don’t last long.

10:30 The gas is the source of the residue. It’s nasty stuff: I’ve seen people in NBC suits keeling over.

10:40 I’m Kev. Lorraine and I are in taped containment suits inside the flash-sealed chest freezer at the back of the garage. We have oxygen for twenty-eight hours from 11:00. It would be great if you found us before I have to use the grenade as an alternative to suffocation. Of course, if we’re already dead, that damn gas is really insidious.

I don’t think there is a ‘fight’ option. Retaliate: seed every potential target with nukes on a two-hour count from column descent, with no ‘off’ option.
Good luck.

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Foot Soldiers in The Zone

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Aimee propped herself up against a transformer just outside the halo of the lone streetlight. A kilometer up the road in each direction, red and blue lights pulsed, parked cruisers discouraging vehicle traffic into this part of the city until sunrise.

It was nighttime in the Battle Zone, infantry only.

Dark fingers of ancient architecture reached skyward around her; some rooms to own, some to rent, by the week or by the hour, the Zone catered to all comers.

Aimee had work to do, and lighting a paper cigarette and letting the chemicals rush from her lungs to her brain, she started hunting.

As her system software awoke from idle, the darkened city street was sketched over in data; travel vectors of incoming foot traffic, personal ad bubbles stating willingness or intent. The gaudy flashing billboard signage of the street businesses were dialed down automatically, Aimee knew where everything was and, un-muted, the distraction annoyed her.

“Hey there,” a voice startled her, “what’s your hourly? I dig your kinky shit!”

She looked at The Voice, and checked to make sure there was nobody behind her. She wasn’t here for that kind of work, and she sure as hell wasn’t advertising.

“I’m not paying extra for coy, so don’t pull any crap.”

The sign over The Voice’s head showed a perfect credit score and no complaints, but no other details. The Voice was steady, male and sounded like he was used to getting what he wanted. Aimee resisted the urge to crush his larynx.

She risked a quick third person view from the camera above the bodega across the street.

Sure enough, there was a sex-for-hire bubble floating just behind her head advertising S&M and a variety of related services in bright pink neon.

“Just give me a second,” she waved at The Voice absently, zeroing in on the bubble’s geospatial coordinates and isolating its address. Short ping, low latency, nearby and on broadband. Probably someone who was watching her. The system software kicked into high gear, her heat sinks rippled into a standing wave up her spine beneath her shirt, warm air escaping at the collar.

Within seconds she matched the bodega’s point of view with a broadcast coming from higher up in the same building, locked the unfortunate asshat’s machine address and unleashed holy hellfire down the wire. There was a sudden flash of light from a third story window, a yelp and then the window went dark. Moments later the building shutdown completely, lights flipping off floor by floor until the bodega’s bright neon flickered and went out at the street.

She’d torched the perp’s equipment, but the building residents would ferret him out as the cause of the highrise crashing and likely throw him off the balcony.

Don’t fuck with broadband in the Zone.

“Bitch, are you for sale or what?”

Shadowy high-maintenance shit-for-brains. Right. The opportunity at hand.

“That’s what the sign says, doesn’t it sugar pie?” Saccharin sweet, and wholly disingenuous.

“Well, your sign’s gone now, so what’s your game?”

“I’m occupied now, aren’t I?” Aimee stepped forward, taking The Voice by the arm and steering him around the outside of the streetlight’s glare, staying in the shadow of his bulk.

As they walked up the street, Aimee’s system software crawled her mark, cracking open locks and splicing in code. In a few hours he’d wake up in a stairwell or an alley, unsure of whether he’d had a good time or not, but she’d have another roving access point, another pair of eyes and, if she ever needed it, a perfect credit score with no complaints.

Far ahead the blue and red lights strobed against the night sky.

Another night in the Zone.

Infantry only, and you’d best not come unarmed.

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Employee of the Month

Author : Travis Gregg

The two men sat in silence across from each other in their usual booth at the diner. Thomas was brooding, clearly upset about something and Stan had known him long enough to just let him stew. The two men had been friends since college and still tried to get together semi regularly despite jobs and wives and kids. Although nearly the same age, Thomas looked noticeably older. His hair was mostly gray and his shoulders sagged significantly.

“I always had a fantasy,” Thomas started, breaking the silence, “or at least a day dream I would indulge in, where I had a couple more copies of myself. Imagine the productivity, the things at work I could get done. I used to really enjoy owning a small business, but more times than I can count I have wished for a couple copies of myself. No more calling in sick for bullshit reasons, no more saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in front of the customer. With at least a couple more copies of myself things would really get done.”

Stan knew where Thomas was going with this. He’d heard bits and pieces from mutual friends but hadn’t gotten the full story.

Thomas continued, more talking to himself than anything. “When I saw the advertisement, the one that everyone saw, the one where you could get yourself or a loved one cloned, I knew it was for me. The company that was making the clones had never had a request for a 32 year old clone. Most of the time people wanted kids who couldn’t have them. Maybe an accident happened and they’d want someone a little older. The company had also never had an order for eight. I had to negotiate for weeks but a couple months later they showed up. I was only going to get two at first but why not go big. Got a quantity discount too.”

“The day the clones showed up I fired my entire staff. Every role, the warehouse guys, the accountant, the two sales guys. Everyone. Didn’t need them, I already knew how to do their jobs, and if I knew then my clones would too. For the first couple hours it was kind of awkward but we all got over it pretty quick. They were me after all, and then we got to work.”

“That seems pretty extreme. Some of those guys worked for you from the beginning,” Stan replied.

“The first month was the best we ever had,” Thomas continued, as if he hadn’t heard Stan. “Sales were up, complaints were down, and I didn’t have to worry about someone screwing up. A couple mistakes were made but I literally couldn’t have done any better personally so I couldn’t get too upset.”

“After that first month though, things slowed down a bit. A little less enthusiasm in the office, especially form the warehouse guys, was the start of it. We all agreed to shuffle the roles a bit. Obviously some positions were better than others and we were all capable. Spread it around a little bit.”

“A couple months after that, clones Four and Five started embezzling and clone Two stopped coming in entirely. Could I fire myself? That’s a pretty complicated question it turns out.”

“Six months after my brilliant idea we had a literal coup and for a time I was ousted. I got Six and Seven on my side, convinced Two to come back, and Three after some tense negotiations to form a majority but it’s tenuous at best. The next step is going to be litigation for sure and I’ll be suing myself for the next couple years if I’m lucky.”

“It turns out I make a terrible employee, in fact I’m the worst employee I’ve ever had.”

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