We received 423 international entries in this contest, and their creativity was exceptional. Contest judge Dr. Erin Macdonald gives her reasons for awarding the top three prizes:
First Prize: First Man by Mjke Wood
Second Prize: Mall by Else Fitzgerald
Third Prize: Domesticity Complex by Sasha de Buyl-Pisco
Judge: Dr. Erin Macdonald
Astrophysicist & Sci-Fi Lecturer
FIRST PRIZE: First Man by Mjke Wood
Judge’s comments: I thought this story was a great example of using science and the suspension of disbelief we often have to do in sci-fi set close-to-home to actually create tension for the reader. You know something is a little off, because the science is explained just enough to keep you questioning what is really going on. The imagery and setting was vivid enough that I continued to think about this story and picture it long after reading.
By Mjke Wood
The landing is gentle, a kiss and a roll. No wind. No drama. I step down off the lander, place a foot on the yellow surface, and pause.
“Astarte, this is Ishtar Base. Looking good. A balmy day here at the beach.”
“Good to hear, Ishtar Base. I have clear video feed. Go to it.”
Will anyone recall those words in years to come? No. It can never be the same; each ‘first’ diluted by the firsts that went before. The Moon, Phobos, Mars … Neil Armstrong had no idea how great a giant leap was his.
There’s a ticking clock. This mission to hell will be brief. Surface temperature 460C, hot enough to boil lead. Atmospheric pressure: ninety times Earth normal. Survival time measured in minutes: each one, precious.
“Astarte, the landing site is good … good for landing, less so for geology. Few rocks, just fine-grained regolith.”
I take a scoop and pour dust into the hopper. A banker, in case of early abort.
“Going to take a walk, Astarte. Visibility is poor, but I can see a ridge about half a klick east of my position.”
“Roger, Ishtar. Make it quick, I’m getting a couple of ambers from your tell-tales.”
“On my way, Astarte.”
It is a steady climb and the servos are on the fritz. We’re using Silicon Carbide circuitry, rated to 450C. It’s marginal, even with all the coolant, because on Venus there’s nowhere to dump the heat.
A quiet voice in my ear. “How’s it going, Peter?” Off-line we lose the officialese. We’re just Peter and Jen, pilot and commander, man and wife.
“It’s hard, Jen. Temperatures are brutal down here. The sand is so fine, like flour. Getting into everything.”
“You’re doing okay, Peter.”
A beep signifies online comms. “I have your video feed, Ishtar Base. Can see the ridge coming up. Trying for radar imagery to assist.”
“Roger, Astarte, I’m there and … oh. You getting this, Jen?”
“Is that a lake?”
“There are ripples.”
“I’m going down there. I’ll try for a sample.”
I take careful steps. Liquids shouldn’t exist at these surface temperatures. Molten rock is the likely candidate. Plenty of volcanic activity on Venus, that’s for sure.
“Astarte, the lake has a mirror surface. Not lava, metallic. I’m thinking zinc or lead, perhaps?”
“Can you take a sample?”
“I have a bottle, for dust. If I can … got it. Definitely metallic. Don’t know how long the bottle will retain integrity.”
“Okay, you need to be heading back. I’m getting a red on your primary cooling circuit, and … ”
“Astarte, I lost video for a moment. Am heading back to … video is down again. I’m blind, Astarte. Can you lead me in?”
“Follow the gradient, Peter. Keep moving. Red lining on secondary cooling now. Up the pace a little, yeah?”
My priority is sample return. My time here, always limited, is clearly over. I break into a trot. Dangerous but necessary. At least there are no … I trip and fall … rocks. The only lump on the entire plain.
Back on my feet. Left arm damaged but I have my rock.
“Which way, Jen?”
“Losing radar imaging, Peter. A weather system above the troposphere.”
I circle. I feel the slope, so I head down. Can’t be far, but my chances of locating the lander without imaging are slim. But I have audio.
“Blip the lander’s RCS thruster, Jen. I still have my ears.”
“Okay, I’m close.”
I feel around. Nothing.
To my right. I stumble and grope. I feel a presence. Jen’s hand in mine: disembodied, gentle, guiding.
I load the samples into the hopper by touch.
“I have a ‘Go’ for ascent, Ishtar Base!”
I step clear. Not long for me here, now. Return to orbit was always a long shot.
I’m punched in the chest as the thrusters fire. The ascent stage, climbing, leaving behind the hell fire of Venus … and me.
“Ascent is good, Peter.”
“Thanks, Jen. Don’t think *** long. I want *** enjoy every last moment *** but *** kind ** lonely down here. Jen?”
And a dreamlike caress on my neck. The warmth of Jen’s hand brushing my cheek as she lifts free the virtual reality helmet. I smile at her. Our free return orbit already leaving Venus far behind. The ascent stage will wait in orbit for the next cycler mission.
Jen and I? We’re on our way home.
SECOND PRIZE: Mall by Else Fitzgerald
Judge’s comments: Though I typically don’t like zombie-style apocalypse stories, this was so expertly written I was on the edge of my seat while reading. In such a short time, I was attached to the main character, felt like I knew his story and experienced real emotions. The imagery actually managed to frighten and unsettle me. Again, this stayed with me long after reading it.
By Else Fitzgerald
Jobie dreams in green. In the dark, he wakes choking on his breathing cloth, the dust filling his mouth, the cracks in his lips. He scrabbles in the black, fingers reaching for the torch, the moment before remembering that it’s gone too. He sits up in the gloom, heart rattling in his chest. He listens, hard, but there’s nothing. The silence is monstrous. But he can feel her in the air, the darkness heavy with his guilt.
‘Leave me alone.’
His voice is a hoarse croak, no one left to talk to now.
He works methodically, each store searched thoroughly, but he’s so slow now. His dragging footsteps leave scuffs in the dust where he walks, the dry air full of eddying clouds of it. He knows he’s running out of time. The upper levels had been easier, where the sunlight still reached, but as he climbs down the littered escalators the darkness opens up below. She’s everywhere down there in the black, flickering at the corners of his eyes, skulking in his shadows.
At the end of the day he returns to the restaurant, hauling the doors closed behind him and piling the chairs against it, the tables uselessly bolted in their places on the floor. He stretches out behind the counter in the kitchen on a thin nest of rags, pulling the dusty cloth off his mouth. Allows himself a few sips of stale water. He tears open a tiny sachet of ketchup from the pile, getting smaller every day. He’d come here first, out of the desert and into the shopping center, drawn by the familiar colors still bright in the grimy grey air. There was nothing left, even the fryers scoured of their oil by scavengers before. But Jobie stayed, laid down on the tiles amidst the bones, thinking of Davey. The boy had loved these restaurants; they’d taken him to the one near their home the last birthday before the End. Jobie couldn’t remember the taste of a hamburger, though he’d come in here half in hope. But mostly it had been the memory of them, all together.
When her crutches broke, he’d had to leave her. Davey’s weight across his back was already too much, wasted though he was. She couldn’t cry, there wasn’t moisture enough for that. She put her face against his, pulled the cloths from their mouths and kissed his dry lips. He couldn’t watch while she cut away one last piece to take, though later he would feed the boy and pray to be forgiven.
‘Take care of him.’
He’d wanted to promise, but there was too much dust in the air. He left her lying on the sand. He’d wished for his pistol, but there’d been only so many things he could carry, their son the last thing of all.
He wakes with the thin sunlight filtering in through the grimy glass, those familiar arches casting shadows over the floor. He feels his thin chest inflating against the tiles, his stomach hollow. He hauls himself up against the steel surface of the benches, propping himself against them, catching his breath. He’s choking on it more and more now, and there’s blood on the piece of cloth that can’t keep the dust out. When he’d laid the boy down for the last time, he’d thought of her. How much she’d been prepared to give. In the end, he couldn’t do it. He’d laid the boy down and walked away whole: sick with guilt, but whole. He crumples down onto the floor, body heaving with grief, and covers his face with his hands.
He feels her breath cold on his neck, her voice a hiss in his ear.
Here they come.
He opens his eyes. She’s there, crouched in the dark, her green eyes glowing, legs raw from the strips of flesh she’d cut away with her own hands. His empty stomach clenches, he feels the burn of acid in his throat. Scrunches his eyes shut.
‘Not real,’ he prays to himself.
There’s a howl out there in the shopping center, a human noise, and Jobie thinks of those dragging marks in the dust left by his own feet. Too late. He can hear them coming, see the light from their torches through the glass. The smashing against the door rattles his barricade of chairs: they’re made from the same cheap plastic as everything else in here and will not hold for long.
THIRD PRIZE: Domesticity Complex by Sasha de Buyl-Pisco
Judge’s comments: This was such a quirky story that it put a smile on my face. Going back through the stories, this one stood out as being really original and fun, with a great main character and a fantastic ending. It also managed to put a little “what if … ” bug going through my mind with respect to AI, which I appreciate.
By Sasha de Buyl-Pisco
Ryan works in artificial intelligence. At networking events, he introduces himself: ‘Hi, I’m Ryan. I work in artificial intelligence,’ with an eager handshake and sweaty palms.
‘You make robots? That’s so cool!’
‘It’s not as exciting as you think, I promise.’
People don’t understand that so much of their world already relies on tiny independently-minded circuits, sparks of life that program our day’s events, store our data, scan our systems for bugs. But Ryan doesn’t work with those.
Ryan doesn’t work with android animals, cyborg pacemakers or even intelligent data collection. His work is … niche. In the lunchroom, he avoids the other programmers. They call him ‘The Boyfriend’ behind his back.
At university, Ryan majored in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and wrote his doctoral thesis on the incorporation of emotional response into ‘white technology’. It was a radical concept but the theory behind it was solid, and though the academic world was sceptical of his ideas, people began to take note.
He’d barely even graduated when he got the call from Winterwell. His parents were so proud. ‘Headhunted!’ they said to their friends at potlucks and dinner parties ‘What an amazing start to a career.’ The Board at Winterwell told Ryan he was a shining beacon in his field of research, and that frankly, he was the only man for the job they had in mind.
In his first year, Ryan worked tirelessly to see his work brought to life. Most work on true AI relied on a fundamental set of laws, a failsafe preventing the AI from going rogue as it were. Ryan’s hypothesis was wholly different, and posited that if one were to create a truly conscious artificial intelligence, the same ideological and societal pressures we use to control humanity at large would in fact work equally well with a constructed consciousness. The logic was almost too simple.
The results outstripped anything he could have imagined. He started small, with whisks and blenders, a toaster, an electric can opener. Once the consciousness element had been introduced in each appliance, he inbuilt an overriding sense of shame into the central emotional matrix.
Gendering the appliances was the next logical step. Simple conditioning did more than programming ever could, and he soon found that these sentient shame-capable appliances were 163% more efficient and lasted for life, as their inbuilt shame complex and desire for approval would prevent any malfunctions or errors, even after the manufacturing guarantee had lapsed.
‘How do you do it?’ they asked, clinking champagne glasses after his first major breakthrough.
‘I can’t wait to take one home to show the old lady.’
‘This will save so much time for her. That’s my Valentine’s Day present sorted.’
When Ryan moved on to larger appliances; vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, dishwashers; the theorem worked for them all. Unfortunately, Winterwell soon realised that everlasting appliances weren’t what they were looking for after all, and Ryan and his appliances were ushered gently away from the production line.
It was only when they learned they wouldn’t be heading out into homes that Ryan realised that his theory, and his creations, were highly unstable. He was the only one there when the first toaster broke down in tears.
‘Is it because I’m not good enough? Why didn’t they want me?’
‘It wasn’t you guys, I swear, it’s them! They just can’t see how great you are!’ He couldn’t say it enough. His machines just didn’t believe him.
It wasn’t long before the entire department was in chaos. After burning a piecrust, the oven was inconsolable for days, but the washing machines were the toughest. One wrong word and the whole lab would flood. ‘Of course your Eco-wash cycle isn’t longer than other washing machines. It’s perfectly normal to have to run it again sometimes.’ Sometimes it felt like they didn’t even want his help.
Ryan tried to quit but someone had to stay on, for the machines. They need a familiar face, you see, someone they can trust, who won’t lie to them about the size of their cooling tubes or whether their spin cycle is too loud.
And so Ryan comes in every day and takes care of his creations. He turns them on and keeps them busy, running load after load of laundry, and cooking meal after meal. He tells them he loves them and reassures them. He brings them little surprises so they know he cares, and of course, it’s his job to pick the movie.
Some Things Just Don’t Change
By Greg Beatty
The leaves were crisp and colorful as David approached the church, leash in hand. It was just cool enough outside for him to really appreciate the warmth of the chapel, and David stretched luxuriously as he stepped inside.
Within, parishioners were lining up to present their pets to the priest. David took his place among them.
Religious sentiment waxed and waned, but there were few alive of any faith—even now in the twenty-second century—who didn’t warm to this sight. Held on the feast day of Saint Francis, the Blessing of the Pets sometimes brought non-believers to watch the host of loving cats and dogs and men and women get blessed, and the news services always covered it as a local interest story.
The priest moved methodically from one pet to the next, dripping moisture across their foreheads and muttering brief but heartfelt blessings upon each of them, acting as if they understood him, even when some of the cats batted at his robe or licked him. David liked that about the priest.
Finishing with the Irish Setter beside him, and wiping a smear of slime off his cassock, the priest turned to David. Smiling the same broad, green-toothed smile on David as he had on Rover, the priest extended his tentacle in a moist but sincere blessing. “And is your master a good Vegan?” he asked.
David nodded repeatedly. “He’s the best!” David said, lifting his leash above his head. “He let me come here all by myself!”
A sharp warbling of amusement rippled through Saint Paul’s, and David heard the Vegan High Hermaphrodite whisper, “They’re so cute when they act like they understand.”
“Aren’t they?” A carnevestite next to him trilled. “That’s why I come here every year. Tradition is important. Some things just don’t change, and we shouldn’t tinker with them.”
David wasn’t sure about that. He was only 53, and liked coming to the Blessing because he got to go out on the street without his master. Well, that and the juice and cookies after. But he also liked the picture that the priest showed on that day. Seeing St. Francis portrayed as a human, unlike all the other saints, helped David believe there was a place for everyone in God’s kingdom, even if they were just pets.
By Shae Moloney
It was early evening and a dog was barking in time with the car alarm that had been wailing for over ten minutes. Dusk had fallen and the sky was fading; the perfumed air hung hot and still. The barking echoing along the wide empty streets was warped and magnified, cutting through the thick silence. Despite the din, the neighborhood was patient, silent. Though each living-room window glowed a soft yellow there was no visible activity in any of the houses.
A police siren began, slow and distant. It was an unusual sound for the area but like the barking and the alarm, the neighborhood paid it no attention.
Grass grows quickly here and towering trees stand perfectly groomed and still as if waiting—always waiting. The roads are empty save for the identical cars lining its borders, parked parallel to the sidewalk. Each car stationed precisely one foot from the curb complying perfectly with traffic laws. The painted lines on the street look new, untouched, shining in the light cast by the street posts; street signs gleam brightly, looking fresh and clean and never disobeyed.
There was never any noise pollution except for the occasional stray bark or siren. This neighborhood was not in any flight path as no planes would dare fly over this suburban oasis. A passerby may survey the street and imagine children joyfully shouting in the summer months, jumping through sprinklers in brightly colored bathing suits as mothers baked cookies in the kitchen.
Houses sit proudly on each block surrounded by meticulously manicured lawns and beautifully kept gardens. The front doors with frosted glass, the windows with matching curtains, the trimmed verbena varieties lining the foundation—every house identical and splendid. There are no misplaced toys in the front yard and not one driveway held a boat or extra car in violation of strict neighborhood regulations.
It was impossible to look through a window with the blinds pulled so tight, but through the thin fabric were outlines of people that never moved. The figures remained stationary, presumably seated on furniture facing toward the place where a television might be perched. No children ever truly shouted in the streets and no fathers stood in the backyard grilling hamburgers and no mothers cheerfully greeted other mothers on their way to the grocery store.
This was no ordinary neighborhood.
Striding quickly down the street and around the last block one would see enormous hills spreading far as the eye can see. Solid and indistinguishable in the night, one would assume this quaint neighborhood was a gated community lying at the feet of some grassy foothills or situated snugly in a picturesque valley. But these were not ordinary land formations.
To walk from this neighborhood to any other block would require a traveler to step over decaying arms and legs, to avoid charred remains of the previous occupants of these well-kept homes. During the day, flies nearly block out the sun, swarming around the piles of corpses not yet fully reduced to bone.
The mayor had demanded a perfect town. Happening upon Groveland Street, officials made sweeping changes to the buildings, streets, and public spaces. With that came the elimination of every perceived outsider in the area. Spreading further, they realized that at a certain point all living things must be eliminated to ensure perfection and compliance. Individuals were messy, unpredictable. It was only a matter of time before some independent thinker cut down the wrong tree, painted their house the wrong color, bought some new trendy car. That would never do.
It had been done quicker and with less paperwork than the Mayor had expected. Pleased with the bureaucratic whitewashing of the official orders, he’d patted himself on the back after signing the last page. All imperfection should be eliminated, it had said, and so it would. So it would. Flowers and sweet-smelling bushes had been planted to cover the smell and the tallest trees were transplanted onto the streets. The result was beautiful, breathtaking, exquisite above all expectations. From the ashes rose a golden mecca of ideal living. It was the perfect town.
From the distance, a dog continued to bark long after the car alarm had stopped. A police siren grew closer as if tempted to cross the neighborhood’s streets. Taking the long way around, a single cruiser bypassed the block and continued on. The dog’s bark echoed across the vast hills, bouncing around until it was swallowed up by the darkness.
The Accidental Forever
By Richard H. Durisen
“It’s time to die again, Love.”
“The Sun has risen 279 times already?” I sigh.
My favorite lover nods. When I stand, she leads me arm in arm across the beach to where my friends, wearing ceremonial feathers, shells, and beads, have circled the sacred palm grove. As I lie down in the middle, I ask, “Tell me again what it is like for you.”
“Your body fades away. Everything stops—the wind and surf. Even the birds in the sky hang motionless. The silence is profound. Then you slowly reappear, open your eyes, and all becomes as it was.”
I awaken inside an organic pod, the pit in a gigantic fruit. My memory is a hall of mirrors—repeating images fading backward into mist. Between pod awakenings, I live on the tropical island, basking in sunshine, making love and music. The island memories are sliced at regular intervals by memories of this cloning pod on an interstellar ship. Other more ancient recollections mingle with these, useless as worn-out serial numbers—being a scientist, having a former life on Earth.
At each awakening, I remember pushing through the slimy opening of the pod to confront … myself.
So I push.
My self outside the pod is strapped on a couch in a shiny transparent bubble. His steel-blue eyes widen frantically as I appear. I remember that he will soon be flushed away. The microbots are oozing over his skin already, like a grey sweat, beginning the reclamation.
He speaks. “Listen. Focus. We’re on an interstellar seed ship, damaged by radiation from a supernova. The ship’s AI got fried. The ship was in early stages of growing from interstellar gas and dust. It had also just started cloning a crew from stored DNA. I, you were the first crewmember being cloned when the AI died. The system’s now on auto-function, stuck in a loop, re-cloning you, me, over and over. I wake up, just before you—the new me—leaves the pod. Then the ship tells me all this, but it doesn’t put it in your memory. It’s all part of the malfunction.”
“Yes,” I say, “I remember now. You always tell me this. The ship was still small when it got zapped. So when the new clone emerges, the ship scours away the old one, because it can keep only one of us alive.”
“Right. Good. Concentrate on threads of reality. Find a way out. Don’t go back to the island. It’s only a simulation, computational. The ship scoops up enough gas and dust to keep this insane cycle going indefinitely. We could’ve been flying through space like this for thousands, maybe millions of years. We’ve got to stop it.”
“Who’re the people on the island then?”
“They’re computational. Pseudo-realities. Real personalities stored in the ship’s database. But focus. Damn it. That’s irrelevant.” The self in the bubble is now slick with bots, eating away at him. He grimaces and screams and pulls against the straps.
“I’m counting on you!”
He howls. Then his skull caves in, and he’s silent. I’m glad the experience of dissolving is never transferred into my memories. It’s bad enough to remember watching it. Once fully liquefied, his remains, along with the bots, are drained from the bubble.
After suction and a drying blast of air, the bubble opens. There is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. For sustenance, I lie down on the form-fitted bed. The device straps me in and penetrates me with tubes and needles. It’s rough, but, when the narcotics kick in, I don’t mind. I’ll have to struggle against the drugs to figure out how to disable all this.
The bubble begins to play sounds of rustling palm leaves, crashing waves, and the cries of sea birds. I yearn for the island. What can I do without ship AI? If I break the cycle of re-cloning, I’m trapped in an interstellar coffin. I’ll die for real.
Maybe it’s external reality that’s irrelevant. Except for the regular horror of waking up to watch a used-up version of myself wash away like dirt, I can live on my tropical island.
I feel the bubble’s automatic software probe my thoughts, looking for guidance.
I request more drug enhancements and a trip back to paradise.
My favorite lover, with cat-like eyes and purple skin, is cradling me in her arms.
“Welcome back,” she purrs.
By Richard Adams
The reactor ran itself; that was the beauty of its design. It didn’t attempt to control the nuclear fusion reaction but merely utilised it. The reactor had enough fuel to burn in a stable state for at least another four billion years, but it wasn’t the fuel source that was the problem.
The reactor had been stable now for over four-and-a-half billion years, yet they had run out of raw materials, resources that were sorely needed to maintain the one thing that kept them alive. The reactor covered every inch of the sky; its spherical network not only absorbed the energy needed to run the entire city but also protected its people from the nuclear reaction that continuously raged on the outside.
Kichu knew that its failure was not only inevitable but imminent. Everyone looked to him to come up with a solution, some way to save them all. Every time he saw that pleading look in their eyes all he could think about was his simulations, the ones that resulted in a critical failure no matter what he tried to do differently.
Every simulation ended the same way; the reactor’s magnetic field fails and results in their instantaneous obliteration as the star’s core envelops them. Briefly, he had contemplated alternative options for his people’s survival but there were none. There was no way to stop the reaction; it was so massive that 99.99999% of the energy it produced wasn’t even recoverable. Instead it was hurtled out through space, providing heat and light just like a naturally formed star. It was pointless to think it could be turned off but Kichu wished it anyway, dreaming of seeing for himself the empty void of space that lay on the other side.
His ancestors had understood exactly what they were doing. They had known that the nuclear reaction would allow their society to live for a far greater period of time than they previously had on their home planet. They had even understood that it would eventually come to an end. Yet for the guarantee of billions of years of survival, without having to fear external forces, they had deemed it worthwhile. After all, no asteroid can penetrate this deep into the reaction, no black hole, supernova or erratic orbit was likely to have any effect.
This solar system, which his ancestors had created, held more than one chance at life. All manner of simple organisms, hardy enough to survive the extreme void of space, had been seeded amongst the early planetary bodies. However, Kichu had pored over the calculations himself and the odds of an intelligent life form being able to survive and evolve were infinitesimal.
Despite that he sometimes chose to ignore the odds, to instead follow the simulation to its most positive outcome. Where life not only thrived but had evolved intelligent beings that even resembled him. Yet this was not one of those times. Even if by some miracle other intelligent life did exist, it was little comfort to his people who were living out their last remaining hours already encased inside their own tomb.
Kichu chose to spend his final hours hooked up to the central computer. Becoming fully immersed within the virtual history lessons he had been taught as a child. Even though it had been hundreds of years ago he still remembered the lessons with great fondness.
As a voice narrated, Kichu watched the universe come into being, as the first stars burst into light following the big bang and their home planet formed. What Kichu loved more than anything else was the feeling that he was floating in space as he watched. That he was out in the open, free to go anywhere, to do anything. As he watched his ancestors come close to extinction and begin constructing their greatest ever achievement, he pleaded that they would stop. Don’t do it, he begged.
He cried as they journeyed into a barred spiral galaxy, into a newly born system that had enough gas and dust to be capable of forming a new star. He felt despair as the reactor first initiated, sealing the fate of the quintillion people who would come to live and die within it. For the last time he dared to dream what lay beyond, of the possibility that a planet, even now, revolved around them. A planet that thrived with life, taking sustenance from the very same reaction that was about to be the cause of his death.
Message on a Timeline
By Kim Russell
Selena hadn’t seen her brother for ten years. When he first moved to the other side of the universe, he kept in touch via the Universal Space Organisation, who forwarded correspondence daily, then weekly—until contact fizzled out altogether. So when a message appeared on her Facebook timeline, she had to read it more than once. It was hard to ignore her heart knocking against her rib cage.
The message was short: ‘Have been following you. Can’t wait to see you. Al ☺’
Her parents insisted on using his full name, Alan, but she called him Al. She was only six years old when he left. It had to be him. No one else called him Al.
The next message followed a few minutes later: ‘Are you alone?’ This time there was a picture attached, of Al looking exactly the same as when he stepped aboard the shuttle. It could be an old photograph, she thought, as she typed the word ‘Yes’ and pressed ENTER.
A further message pinged, asking if her laptop was hooked up to a larger screen.
‘No laptop,’ she replied, ‘only your old PC with a largish monitor. Will that do?’
A smiley face confirmed that he was happy. She didn’t have to wait long for the next message. It wasn’t a message; Al had posted a soundless video clip of himself on board what appeared to be a space station. She could see various equipment racks, switches and consoles. Al sat in the middle of them, without any kind of special clothing or personal equipment, facing her straight on and grinning. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the standard USO logo.
‘Can you see me OK?’ said the comment below the video clip. She ‘liked’ it, typed ‘Yes’ in the comment box and pressed ENTER.
Selena watched the video of Al giving a tour of the space station. She tried to be interested, feeling that somehow he could see her reactions. She smiled and nodded and typed questions.
Where was the toilet?
Al drifted across the habitable volume to a zero gravity toilet and demonstrated how it worked. Selena wasn’t impressed.
How did he cook and where was the food stored?
Al showed her another area that looked similar to the toilet, but had what appeared to be a fridge, microwave and supplies storage. Earth was much more civilised, she thought.
Where were the other astronauts?
The video ended. So did Al’s comments. Selena waited a few minutes before typing in: ‘Al, are you still there?’ She turned to pick up a cup of lukewarm coffee beside the computer and, out of the corner of her eye, she was sure she saw the cursor moving around the screen. When she turned back there was a question waiting for her: ‘Are all of your female friends on Facebook the same age as you?’
A bubble of queasy unease fizzed up in her gut and then sank again. It was Al, her brother. He was just interested. ‘Well, yes,’ she typed, ‘they’re mostly friends from school and college.’
A link appeared together with a comment: ‘Click on this.’ Selena’s finger hovered over the mouse—and then clicked. A live feed appeared on screen of Al on the space station, this time with three members of the team, all smiling and waving.
‘Hi, Selena! Pleased to see you at last. We’ve heard so much about you.’
‘Hi,’ she replied. They could have been there in the room with her; they were so clear and tangible.
Al introduced his colleagues as Steve, Günter and Max.
‘I’m the odd one out here,’ Al said. ‘I’m the only one with a sister.’
Selena touched the image of her brother on the screen. She still missed him.
Five minutes later, there was a tap on Selena’s bedroom door and a woman looked in. She had a snowstorm of hair and a crowd of lines deeply etched in her face.
‘Sweetheart, your father’s home and we’re about to … ’
The room was empty. The desk chair lay on its side on the floor. Maybe Selena had knocked it over in a hurry to wash her hands before dinner. Facebook was still open on the computer. Selena’s profile picture looked different—as if an old photograph of Al had been Photo-shopped onto it. On the right-hand side of the screen was a newsfeed: Outdated social network brings USO a step closer to colonisation of Earth Mark 2.
By Paul Gray
“Hello, Professor Hawking,” sighed Mortimer Trull, he of the US Treasury Funding Department and the chubby-yet-well-meaning features.
The other sat opposite, scrunched-up, wheelchair-bound, all strings cut, utterly inert save for the near-visible pulsations of the great brain.
Must be important, Trull mused dismally, for them to send along the Big Cheese …
He sat glum and silent whilst the great man blinded him with science. It seemed there’d been a breakthrough: CONTACT had been achieved and all SETI—the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence—(forsooth!) required to carry it through was … yes … another handout.
Trull leaned back and ran a trembling, meaty hand through the blond, burnt-out stubble atop his blotchy pate. These Quantum guys were the worst. These were the fellows who looked you in the eye and swore that atoms could be in two places at once, and that all they needed was a few hundred billion bucks more to find out how.
Still … what did HE know? He was from Missouri. Nevertheless …
“This message,” he mused.
“Yes. May I read it again?” He cleared his throat: “‘MAY WE HAVE OUR BALL BACK, PLEASE?’”
The Professor hummed mechanically. Devoid of body-language and expression, only the occasional flickering of the left eyelid—which Trull understood to be connected to the operation of the Professor’s ingenious voice-production apparatus—betrayed him as living.
“But … it’s garbage … isn’t it?!”
“Imagine,” droned the Professor, “some hitherto unsuspected race of intergalactic giants with a penchant for ball-games.”
“Imagine the size of the ball! Imagine a wayward hit that sends such an object far out beyond the stadium, out into the infinite gulfs of space, there to travel and travel—until finally, locked into stasis by the gravitational field of another galaxy, it comes to rest.”
“For a long time we have been puzzled by the nature of Pluto. It is not a planet. And now deep-space telescopy has revealed certain wrinkles upon its surface that we believe may denote … laces.”
“L – laces?”
“And so, in the light of this extraordinary development, and with a view to seizing double-fistedly the incalculable benefits inherent within it, SETI has authorised me to request … ”
“ … One hundred million dollars.”
“I see …” Trull’s mind whirled. “Yes … yes …” his mouth said. “Gee … Pluto … a ball … wow …who’da thought …” His hand … what was his hand doing? It was reaching unbidden for the official cheque-book. He saw the hand flip it open. And then his goggling eye momentarily met that of the man seated across the desk and beheld in it a flicker of something NOT connected to the operation of the voice-synthesiser. The realization that it had been a dart of triumph hit him like the kick of a mule. He actually gasped! The clouds cleared; the trance lifted. Keeping the simmering outrage tightly in check, he inclined his great cheap-suited bulk vengefully towards the spidery figure across the desk.
“I must congratulate you, Professor,” he began. “You nearly pulled the wool over them that time, didn’t you. Yep, you surely did. But then I’m only a farm boy from Missouri, aren’t I—a fact I’m sure you had taken into account. And the bit about Pluto being a giant baseball—not a soccer-ball, mind: genius! But the really clever bit …Tell me: was it you or somebody else who figured out that if you’re gonna tell a cock-and-bull story, who better to spin it than a man without physical reactions, expression, or even voice modulations, who thus cannot be detected in the lie!”
There came no response. The shrivelled homunculus sat immobile, save for a slight twitch beneath one eye. What was he thinking? God alone knew.
“Sorry, Professor,” Trull gloated, slamming shut the cheque-book. “Maybe you can find some Russkie billionaire who you can take all the way to the bank.”
“Oh, just one more thing.” He was almost merry now. “One thing I’ve always wondered: Can you get cuss-words on that voice-doo-hickey of yours?”
There came a lengthy pause during which Trull was inclined to think that the man opposite was considering the question deeply—that the idea had not occurred to him and he was now regarding it as a new and legitimate scientific challenge. The eyelid began to dance. Two minutes later, the reply came:
Tomorrow Just Kept Coming
By David J. Wing
Tomorrow just kept coming, a vicious cycle that never stopped, never stood still and the worlds kept on tumbling.
Their mantles, their crusts, their shattered insides inverted and dragged forth and into the void. She monitored from the safety of her deck, within the constraints of a metallic sphere, hurtling at speed, yet seemingly stationary.
Science, lost on the young and a torture to the old, only sought to confound and frustrate the rest. The readings pointed out the obvious, but it was the date that mattered or rather the data. The data would prove. The data would leave them with a chance.
For the fantastically minded, the image of a hundred stars and countless worlds hurtling by in fragments would tear at the soul; for Cara, her sensors merely acknowledged the change as an alteration in her colour spectrum. The lights and shades melded to become a series of altered shapes and hues, unrecorded until then.
That’s why they’d sent her and not a crew of men and women. Her inability to register emotions could be the only thing to save them. Had she cared to think, she might have pondered the fact that they sat safely, yet ultimately doomed, unless she succeeded; that they sent her, that she was expendable.
The swirl edged ever forward and grew with each mouthful, the stomach churning and the mouth groaning, or so one might imagine were one prone to do so.
The rotating singularity never sped up nor slowed down, it just ate.
Cara’s sensors blipped and scattered as the satellite—her home, fell closer. They’d sent signals repeatedly from the beginning, from their home into the collapsar. Whatever did they expect? And still they insisted and ever she sent the same inane, pointless message.
Cara continued to scour the horizon and then she saw it. Only for a fleeting moment, but it would come again; it would give her time, time.
The metallic object looked dented and devastated and yet it signalled. It signalled from the cusp of the event and again it came: static, stellar static crackling forth and begging for a rope.
With each rotation a fragment escaped, a Penrose extraction and it was building, building into a message the closer she came.
They’d be interested, back on their planet. The results, the data—shame, she allowed herself to think, a waste of time and resources.
She began to reach free fall. Her momentum had fallen from her minutes prior, but her sensors had failed to register the loss. The only thing that seemed to remain as the tidal-like effects pummelled and buckled her shell was the message.
It sat in her memory drive and as she listened; she heard her own voice, her own message, sent just now, relatively.
“Too late to send, just watch.”
In These Times
By Paul Many
Not so long ago, if the sun catches you out in its rays without a hardsuit?
You’re a gob of quivering meat stabbed to the sidewalk.
The rest of where we find ourselves in these times comes down to us through the Spins so you’ll have to sort it yourself.
According to them, long before the Clock began its tick and tock, was the era of the great machine they called BABBAGE. Close your eyes for a bit, stick your pointer finger under your chin and ponder up a world where nothing rusts, rots, ruins, decays, dies, decomposes or otherwise turns to crap.
You’ve got the World According to BABBAGE—the great machine that made sure that everything slid along as smooth as the skin on your sit-cheeks.
Then one day all the bright and shiny started to get dark and fuzzy. Maybe a button popped from your tunic, spun on its edge and laid itself down flat on the deck, or a handle came off your utility locker and sat there dumbly in your hand.
And then … It was like a dam broke … everything suddenly began to rot, corrode, crumble, crumple, dimple, ding, tumble, tinkle, clatter, crash, splat, as the invisible mendings—the ones that BABBAGE would quietly patch onto everything—simply didn’t happen any more. And nobody seemed to remember the how-to of getting anything fixed.
Next went the food crops, all dying off when a gory cold season dropped on us with nobody seeming to remember the how-to of getting anything to grow.
Worse yet, every so often, someone—up to then with Big Plans of Living Forever—collapsed, all bloated and blue-veiny on their doorstep, weeping out their innards like a skin bag of butcher waste.
So, as the Spins tell it, someone got volunteered to crawl up in there among BABBAGE’s pulsing hoses to see wtf. When his sorry carcass was hauled out, and the bucket of slop that he clung to was pried out of his hands and strained, they found—Wouldn’t you know it? The great machine had a dose of the wicked hungry pacuPACU virus.
The only thing left to do before everything totally turned to dirt was to flush BABBAGE out and start all over again. And so it was decreed: (A blast on the squawkbag). In the last feeble act of Universal Harmony, the pipe was rammed up where the sun never shines and the memory-cleansing was pumped into BABBAGE’s innards.
After, no one was able to make the marks they called wurd or the sounds they called mewsic come alive any more. Even worse, the netshield sealing the pocket of air around the Big Ball blew apart like a spider web in a tsunami, exposing everyone to the sun’s killer rays.
This all may be the Spins’ chinwagging, of course. And it means squat to me. But I pass this account on to you, some smack-smart machine thing of the future, exactly as it was spun to me. And maybe you of the glowing eyes and clacking brainbox can have some glimming
Why we got and where,
and how, and when, and wight,
for good, for ill, for ever
we glad forgave and then—
Gorrelp us all—
Forgite, forgite, forgite.
And now some good-news-film-at-eleven. According to the Spins: the BigBall, let alone for so long, has taken the time to mend, getting well enough so it’s now safe for anyone to stand—naked if they choose—out in the sun’s rays again.
As if to mark it, the Clock high above Grand Terminal has started to move. It takes one full circuit for the smaller of the two arms to work its way completely around its face—exactly how long it takes one lightside to pass on the day of the equinox. As the Spins would have it, time itself has now begun.
And it is now—during these first stirrings of the Clock—that Terminal, weary of skulking about only under cover of night, has turned us—warriors of the Bruj—loose in the full, bright sun.
Our task? To lean on the levers of the gangbangers in the surrounding burrows, squeezing out any dribbles of tecknowing left in them, leaving their blackened husks to dry and split.
It is in these times that it becomes possible to hear the distant beats of something the Spins called progress.
Ha’foot, strawfoot, ha’foot, straw.
We step to the beat and take up the march.
By Ruth Fox
We termed it ‘The Awakening’, but truthfully, the phenomenon could be better described as metamorphosis. It wasn’t as if the mobile phones of the world were dormant, sleeping, simply biding their time. Rather, they had been evolving, just as every life form on Earth has evolved. They just did it faster.
Tania Daly was the first victim—or rather, her iPhone 5s was. It’s believed that the phone call was to her mother, though some experts have disputed this. As Tania is now a patient of Mental Health Services, where she remains heavily sedated, we may never know the exact truth. However, an interview with a colleague of Tania’s revealed the following:
… My desk’s across from Tania, yeah?—and she’s saying ‘I have to work … Mum, you’re not listening!’ Her mum is a bitch, by the way. And then she gives this scream – Tania, not her bitch mum – like a full-on, horror-movie scream. Her phone is on the floor. It’s got fur, some kind of plastic growth. And it’s MOVING. Crawling forwards like a white hairy slug—
What the accounts do agree on is that the first call to Emergency Services was made at 9:13am, May 19th, 2016. It is transcribed here:
– Hey! Hey, uh, kind of this thing’s happened – everyone’s phone –
– I can direct you to a more suitable service for technical issues.
– No! The phones are FUCKED UP! One’s got antennae. Not like a bloody old brick-phone, that’s not what I mean. Like a fucking INSECT. They sprouted out the top, two wires with beads – like EYES.
– Sir, just to clarify, you’re talking about mobile phones?
– Yes. FUCK. I’m using the landline now, but – ah, sweet GOD-DAMN FUCK—
The switchboard was overloaded soon after, with calls coming from all over Melbourne. Paramedics were called to several major incidents. One woman fell off her balcony when her HTC One M9 grew metal teeth, snapping at her fingers as she reached for a glass of champagne. Another man tried to subdue his Lumia 950, which had scrambled out of his pocket and up his arm, ostensibly to escape a curious dog. The phone had hit him back with a fist made of circuit wire, puncturing the skin below his left clavicle.
A curfew was enforced, but it was unnecessary – people didn’t want to venture into the streets, which were slowly being taken over by these new life-forms.
It’s interesting looking back on those days. There was still a hope that things could go back. There were a few tense moments on the 24th May – the day the authorities had assured people was the point beyond which no phone battery could possibly last.
This deadline passed. Either the phones no longer needed the batteries, or – more likely – the batteries had become part of their physiognomy, like a biological heart. For further reading on this, I suggest Mannerisms and Mechanations: An Exploration of the Post-Mobile by Grace Lacey.
Was there a single trigger, or was it a result of cumulative causes? There are numerous studies into the Awakening, some more thorough than others. I refer to Dr Martin Laroche’s paper, ‘A Dissection’, in which he announced his gruesome findings after capturing and experimenting on several rogue Samsung Galaxy S6’s, shortly before he was tried under the ‘Mobile Protection Act’, introduced in early July, 2017.
It was this Act, along with others, that paved the way for peaceful coexistence with the mobile phones. They are not violent unless provoked, and at times exhibit signs of friendliness, goodwill, and even creativity. They can be heard singing at dusk; burbling, modulated sounds, slightly jarring, like a baby’s cry. Some people find it comforting, likening their evening trilling to the sound of crickets. Others still find their presence profoundly disturbing, however, particularly those with young children. For some reason, the phones are attracted to youngsters.
The children themselves don’t seem to mind. At night, they lean on windowsills and gaze with dreamy eyes at the phones, which are perched along the telephone wires, fluttering plastic wings. They open their mouths, these children, and let their youthful voices join the choir. Sometimes, a single phone will leave its perch and swoop down to a small, round-eyed boy or girl. The child will reach up, chubby fingers stretching to tap at icons on the flat, backlit underbellies. Perhaps the phones sense that these young minds will soon develop into the future race of humans with whom they’ll share the earth.
By Jesse Durovey
“You up for dinner and a movie tonight, Sam?” Victor said, his voice crackling in the headset.
Samantha Jones watched Victor Burlakov through the video feed and smiled. Victor was walking along the outer hull of the International Space Station, and his bulky space suit made it impossible to discern any of his features, but his deep voice and heavy Russian accent always filled Sam with warmth. She needed all of the warmth she could get out here, 250 miles from Earth’s surface. The blue planet looked so pristine and calm from orbit. It reminded her of a beautiful and frightening diorama—vivid, but devoid of love and laughter.
“What makes you think you know how to show a girl a good time?” she said into her headset.
“Why do you think they sent me up here? The ladies could not resist me in Russia.”
Sam laughed, happy that Victor was here with her—whatever the reason.
“All right, smartass, but you’re not in Russia anymore. Hurry up and fix that communications antenna and maybe I’ll let you pick the movie.”
Victor and Sam were the only two astronauts left on the ISS. The other four—two from the United States and two from Russia—had returned home on a scheduled supply run. What they hadn’t scheduled was the stroke one of the Russians suffered just before the anticipated return trip to the ISS. Sam had spent a month alone with Victor, and things had gotten complicated. She liked complicated, or at least she liked the look of Victor’s lithe, swimmer’s body between her dark thighs. His cloudy blue eyes held a world all their own—a world full of laughter.
She watched the monitor as Victor pulled the panel off the base of the communications array which handled the Internet and extra-station communications, amazed at the speed and efficiency with which he replaced the faulty circuits.
The computer by Sam’s elbow alerted her to an incoming message. She glanced at the header, expecting it to read “NASA,” but she was surprised to see a Department of Defense seal. There was even a classification in the subject line that she rarely saw: TOP SECRET//SCI. This classification indicated that only Americans with the proper security clearance—which right now was just Sam—were allowed to read it. She scanned the message, her lips moving silently.
“No … ” She said, with a hushed urgency. She read the message again, feeling the weight of the world pressing down on her despite the freefall of zero-gravity.
“Done. Let’s watch Doctor Zhivago,” Victor said.
Sam tried to think of a cheeky response but, instead, was forced to shield her eyes as a blaze of light stimulated her retinas, the overexposure flashing before her vision like some ghostly, chromatic echo.
Victor’s voice buzzed over her headset. “What the fuck was that?”
Sam’s gut felt like she had swallowed a vial of mercury. She stared out the large panel windows that overlooked her oblate spheroidal home of thirty-five years—not counting the last six months in space, anyway. The window captured a panoramic view of Europe, the Middle East, and the western half of Asia.
On the islands that made up the United Kingdom, a fierce nuclear weed had sprouted. It was hot, bulbous, and swelling with cataclysmic power. As she watched, two more blasts detonated in the vicinity of France and Germany—the flashes of light nearly simultaneous. She felt a bizarre tranquility as she watched it all unfold in high definition.
As more detonations sprang up, this time from within Russia’s boundaries, Sam pulled herself along the eggshell-colored interior of the space station toward the airlock. Victor had already started his trek back and would be trying to enter soon.
As she reached the airlock, her slender hand hovered over the lever that would open the aluminum door. She steeled herself, swallowed her gorge, and depressed the switch that locked the outer hatch from the inside.
She pulled herself back to the monitoring room and settled into her chair just as Victor reached the hatch. In the video monitor, she could see him struggle with the outer lever, banging futilely on the door. Sam pulled her headset off and let it rest in her lap.
Still, she could hear the crackling of Victor’s plaintive cries. “Sam? Sam!”
She turned to the port window and watched the world burn—her hot tears as silent as the war raging 250 miles away.
Angela Adkins, The Beginning and the End
Syed Zeeshan Ahmed, The Glitch
Kelvin Alaneme, Icon X
Joachim Emilio Antonio, The Angels of Babel
Richard Axtell, Gathering Dust
Ishola Ayodele, Black Snows and Ashes
Tom Barrett, Texture
Paul Barry, The Tiger
Anirban Basu, Dawn
Alex Beardshaw, S.l.M.
Mark Best, Interakt
Bruce Boston, Going Green in the Mutant Rain Forest
Fern Bryant, After the Party
Andrea Butler, From Pedigree
Susan Carey, The EE 2100
Barry Charman, The Attention-Seeking Missile
Phil Clements, The Sound Beyond
Jasmine Cruz, The God of New Humans
Julie Csisztu, Murgatroyd’s Mischief
John Currivan, Parallel Lies
Sarah Daily, Kindness Can Kill
Penny de Bont, Under Control
J.S. Deel, The Bisko Solution
Nduka Dike, THE TÉNÉRÉ FALL
AJ Eblamo, A Pound of Flesh
Alcuin Edwards, Little Miss Armageddon
Louise Fabiani, The Scrub
Beth Fisher, A Woman’s Special Nightmare
Stephen Gay, The Fabricant Paradox
Mel Goldberg, Unintended Consequence
Alan Gowing, In the Quiet
Michelle Greer, 59
James Gummery, Life Mission
Tinashe Gweshe, Time City
Marcin Grochowski, Theory of Colors
Ann S. Henderson, The Geniuses
Josh Herzog, Buddybot
Robin K. Hickson, The Maize
Alyson Hilbourne, Hologram Futures
Eleanor Horne, Heaven and Hell
Darine Hotait, I Come from Fluke
Ekaete Hunter, Hibernation
Caroline Hurley, Human Acquaintance
Hans Jenske, Outpost del Salado
Hunter Jin, The Human Spectrum
Camillus John, The Future of Auntie Wah-Tah
Peter Jordan, Time
Anand Kadam, Aftertaste of Memories
Mohammed Kasim, One Small Step
Anthony Keers, Memory Addiction
Reginald Kevin Keith, Entropy
Teddy Kimathi, The Invasion
Leslie Kung, Finally Home
K.J. Lane, Subject Number 5
Alice Lawrence, The Cost of War
Angel Leya, Humanoid
Myra Litton, The Interview
Robert Allen Lupton, Grapes of Humanity
Ajil S. M., T.T. Tenn
John MacLeod, Weather
Joshua Marcus, Essentiables TM
Cathal McCall, Sea of Nothingness
Deirdre McGrath, Bridge Swanson
Ken McGrath, Guardian of Domicile
Oona Miller, Fire Escape
Rob Miller, Maria 3
Damhnait Monaghan, Handle With Care
Mirabelle Morah, The Visit
Alan Morris, Solitude and the Star Sailor
Ian Morris, Hörenkatze
Nieve Nichol, Planet One
John O’Donnell, Just4U
John Paul O’Neill, Star Traveller
Jivashni Paramasivam, Vs. Love
Melissa Parthemore, Still Life
Irene Paterson, The Girthling
Alexandra Peel, Chronostasis
Leigh Perkin, Time Travel Meme
Robert Perret, Alas, Poor Yorick
Gordon Petry, The Weaker Sex
K. R. Powers, Ancient Heart
Allan Price, Heavy Construction
Ed Rather, The Shot
Amanda Reynolds, Nuclear Family
Channing Rider, Switching Off
Jonathan Robb, Just a Phone Call Away
David Robertson, Headlights
Tim Roberts, The Evil That Kids Do
Lucio Rodriguez, The Trouble With Time Travel
Mark Roman, Ch-Ch-Changes
Peter Sartucci, Dark Angel
Rich Sattanni, Frozen in Time
Clive Semmens, While There’s Life
Vinay Sequeira, The Meat Processing Plant
Jessie Seymour, Lost in the Stars
V.C. Sharma, Perfect Partner
Mark Sheehan, Time for Restraint
Fiona Sherlock, When Will Mammy Be Back?
Roger Smalling, Alien Clown
Eugene Soukharnikov, Human Resources
George Sulea, Circuitry
Djalal Tebib, The iMirror
Manus Boyle Tobin, The Texting Machine
Lilit Trinidad, Snapback
Jessica Tsuzuki, Micro
Bethany van Sterling, Sandoval
Sheri Velarde, Everything Has Its Price
Karen Venter, Demon’s Sunrise
Emerald Viado, Find Her Among the Lavender
Robert Walton, Rolling Waters
Carolyn Ward, The Sky Below
William Ward, No Peeking
Mark Warren, A Careless Afterthought
Juliet Wilson, The Tiger’s Tale
Jackie Zvoutete, My Lil Melanin Princess