Issue 4: Climate

The Great Collapse

by Cass Richards

My name is Dr. Lex Grassian, co-founder of the MicroThalassa Institute, and this is my confession: I am the one responsible for the Second Collapse. But now that I have lost the love of my life, I don’t care what people will say about me.

Although I may have single-handedly caused a mass extinction, there is honestly not much to say about me beyond what’s already been said in the media. For most of my life, I was just a white-coated scientist amongst others. 

While some glamorously scrutinized the infinitesimal or scanned infinity itself, I found solace among my lab-grown, opalescent diatoms and nova-like hydrozoa. While others dreamed of finding alien life or miracle cures, I was but a lonely “micronaut” lost amongst luminescent geometric figures, iridescent veils and miniature monsters. 

So, when I first met Dr. Nayantara Sadri at an international conference on climate change and ocean life, I couldn’t have fathomed that, together, we would actually change the world.

*

Until I met Nayantara, I was, like most scholars, stuck in a rather typical paper/conference/grant routine. I had come, on autopilot, to present my research on DNA metabarcoding for recovering plankton populations and had never expected to find myself entranced by a bright-eyed, dark-haired attendee that stood out amongst the usual pasty and balding crowd.

I was so flustered when she came up to me after the question period that I have no memory of our first conversation. All I remember now is that, for a reason I couldn’t yet fathom, Nayantara kept on smiling at me and invited me to her lecture, which was scheduled for the very next day.

*

Nayantara Sadri’s Deep Neural Network (DNN) ocean-model was, by all accounts, as groundbreaking as its findings were shocking. Even I, the “plankton gal” had a hard time accepting its prediction that global phytoplankton populations were about to collapse, but I couldn’t help be intrigued by what it meant for my own research. So, when Nayantara offered, over drinks, to collaborate with me, I didn’t think twice before answering. 

It didn’t bother me, at the time, that where I saw plankton as beautiful geometric figures, she only saw a fleeting, drifting world. The simple fact that she had noticed me and that I was worthy of her interest had been enough. I didn’t yet know how much my love for her would bloom, illuminating the dark depths of my loneliness.  

It is now public knowledge that when the DNN’s prediction turned out to be correct, it was Nayantara who, quite literally, saved the planet. She is the one who travelled the world to seek the grants that allowed me to engineer a strand of “super-phytoplankton” able to survive both the warming and acidification of the world’s oceans. It was thanks to her foresight and perseverance that, when the First Collapse started to happen, we were ready.

Then, of course, came the Nobel Prize, the creation of the Institute and, from an outside perspective, a semblance of happiness. What very few people know, however, is that trying to save the world’s oceans while being on our own IVF journey cost us two miscarriages, my deepening depression, bitterness and, eventually, our drifting apart. 

It was a price that, had I known, I would have refused to pay, even if it meant putting the future of humanity at risk.

*

When after four months of constant travelling and unbroken silence between us, Nayantara reappeared into my life one fall evening, I knew something was wrong.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was coming, but you really have to see this,” she said, before sitting at my desk and opening her laptop.

Even though I knew, deep down, that I needed to scream at her for abandoning me, I was so stunned by her raw, physical presence and by the sudden rush of memories of our time together, that I didn’t respond. I simply stared at her, feeling lost.

This is why when she first told me that the latest DNN data predicted yet another global collapse I refused to believe her. 

Is she trying to hurt me? I thought in confusion.

When she showed me proof that our own phytoplankton chimera had adapted too well to its environment and was now blooming all over the world’s oceans, poisoning the base of the food chain, I begged her to stop, for I knew that the end of our collaboration would be the end of us.

“Listen, Lex, we don’t have a choice: we have to destroy your chimera…” she said.

“My” chimera? WE created this together… I thought, feeling helpless, as if I had been punched in the stomach.

“Naya, please don’t…” I mumbled as I tried to pull her from the computer to prevent her from sending her findings to all our contacts and sponsors. 

She looked at me in anger and accused me of being afraid of losing our grants and the Institute. I didn’t contradict her for I don’t think she would’ve understood that I couldn’t let her destroy what we had made together.

“If plankton dies because of the strand you created, the oceans will die… and if the oceans die, we all die!” she yelled as we struggled. 

After that, the course of humanity changed, but not the way Naya had anticipated. As advanced as it had been, her DNN couldn’t have predicted that when I shoved her away from the computer, she would fall, hit her head on the edge of the workstation and die in my arms before the ambulance arrived. Nor could it have predicted that, blinded by sorrow, I would methodically destroy all of her findings, including the blueprints for the failsafe that would have saved us all.

In the end, it only accurately predicted what, to me, really mattered: that when the world ends and all is gone, the only thing that will remain will be our iridescent progeny, drifting like galaxies in our dark, empty oceans.

Born and raised in the South of France, Cass Richards has been living and teaching in Toronto, Canada, for the last 17 years. Their stories in English have been published under various pennames, in Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine and Bewildering Stories.
Currently reading: The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall.

Dirty Planets

by Carlos Ruiz Santiago

The rain drops were darker than the storm clouds that spat them. Filthy, oily, not entirely water. Disgusting, like everything in and around that planet. However, someone had to do the job. After all, salvation is something too cruel to deny.

Eve fell there, heavy and stiff. Little by little, the typical dizziness from the travel between the perfectly controlled environment of the Mother Spaceship to the rotting chaos of one of the Dirty Planets started to fade. The pressure, the temperature, the impurities in the air, the suit working as quick as it could. Eve felt a burning taste in her mouth, something acrid in her throat, before the suit completed its task. Soon, everything was aseptic again

Eve breathed deep and slow before standing up. She loved her job, as anyone in the Salvation Squad of Dirty Planets did, but some days were better than others. The days when they had to reestablish a dying population that would adore them like angels; the days she found out about another human colony that the Central Government didn’t know—a brother lost during the desperate conquest of stars. Even if they didn’t accept their help at the beginning, even if they had to be helped by force, even when that happened, for Eve, those were the days she was happiest to do her job

This, however, was a different kind of day. The planet was completely broken. The gravity it was supposed to have in relation with its mass was almost nonexistent. Corroded, it was decomposing from the inside out. She activated the artificial gravity of the already hefty robotic suit. Joseph talked to her through the radio and she let him know that she was okay. Not really any reason to be worried. In that kind of world, there was nothing left alive to hurt her or any of the advance party.

She started to walk, slowly, observing everything, no matter how hurtful it was. It was important to be immersed in that destruction, to remember why they were saving planets no matter what. Humans were a compassionate species, at least since the Central Government took control and things like race were completely obliterated, unified. No discrepancies, everyone the same, everyone equal. Heaven. 

The suit’s computer was puking data, showing her mathematical values that told the story she already knew: the world was dead. She knew it before getting near it, from the spaceship, the sight was depressing. It was like an egg with the shell broken and the content stinking from a distance; the clouds making weird shapes, like a horrid monster eating the planet. 

When she arrived, the sight didn’t get better. The ground was black slit. The trees weren’t there, not even as famished carcasses of wood. The water flowed slow as molasses with heavy metallic sediments in it. Sometimes, between the ashes and the mud, black as demon’s blood, Eve could spot hunks of steel—twisted structures that, in other times, could have been constructions of some kind. But now, the planet was withered as a flower in winter, making it impossible to discern anything about the civilization that once thrived there. The radiation was abhorrent, the temperature gelid, the sun just a faint, loveless hug.

It was obvious that a planet like that was far from any kind of salvation. In fact, it didn’t seem like they would find anything to save at all. Nothing could have adapted to that ecosystem. Usually, worlds that ended like that had lost the wildlife God gave to them before completely destroying their homes. Their homes, their worlds, often, the only ones they had. Planets don’t die in a colored explosion, but in a pathetic decadence, as slow as it is lethal. No one used to have the vision that the Central Government has. Unenlightened by Almighty God, they failed to consider the future. That made Eve sad. 

After walking for a while, she reached a singular point where a huge structure was still standing, more by luck than by strength. Impressive nonetheless, it was an intricate colossus of steel, pointing to the sky as though it was cursing God for creating the planet’s inhabitants flawed, for not sending his divine purification before. 

A rusty steel board was there. Eve cleaned the filth from it with her hand and read it. Bienevnue à la Tour Eiffel. Eve bit her lip. A dead language, impossible to translate to the New Gothic that the Central Government imposed after the Revelations of the year 567 of New Times. She scanned it, hoping that the Mother Database could help. The scout observed the horizon with an uncanny melancholy. It was gray, dim, unhurried—apocalyptic. 

“Joseph, can you hear me?” An affirmation. “Dirty Planet JKF45678, Sector B4 is abandoned and far away from any type of help.” A short pause. It would always be hard to say that, but it was especially upsetting that time. “This place has been dead for more time than any other Dirty Planet. Not even heretics here. Take me out of here. Soon, please.”

There she waited, happy because humans had learnt from their errors, sad because the inhabitants of that planet hadn’t in time. 

Back to her paradise. Funny to think how thin the lines between heaven and hell are in some places. Funny if you are really twisted, of course. 

The spaceship arrived soon after her call, cutting the black cloud in half. Eve was happy to live in Heaven, where all errors were corrected long ago.

After all, perfection is the definition of a paradise, isn’t it? 

Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy, science-fiction and horror writer. He has stories published in various websites, like ”Horroraddicts.net”, anthologies and magazines. He has published two novels (Salvación condenada and Peregrinos de Kataik). He is editor of the websites “Dentro del Monolito” and “El Cementerio de Espadas”. Furthermore, he organizes talks and workshops around cinema and literature.
Currently reading: The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King
Twitter: @OneWingedDarko

The Stars, Unfixed

by Elaina Weakliem

The hissing of the water pump wakes me up in the middle of the night and for a bleary moment I grope through the sheets, trying to find the soft shape of your back. When the bed next to me turns up empty, I sit upright, panic clanging the primal alarm bells at the base of my skull.

I reach over to wake up your mother— and there you are, curled right up in her arms, your head resting on her collarbone. The two of you cling to each other unconsciously, your tiny hand pulling at the strap of her shirt. She rolls onto her back, bringing you up to her chest.

The water pump’s hiss turns to a faint gurgle. I scrub my hands across my eyes as I fall back onto the mattress. The room hasn’t started to show even the faintest signs of dawn, which makes me want to check the time, to see how long we really have left. The digital clock on the dresser is blank— the President made good on his promises and cut the power grid to most of our county yesterday.

Even on this last day, morning chores pull me out of bed and through the kitchen. I grab the flashlight off the counter. The rituals are different from the ones I performed as a child, but since I turned thirteen, not a single morning has found me sleeping in after dawn.

It used to be cows that we raised out here— grazing stock, mostly for beef. They were the first to go, seeing as they used the most water. The government was willing to subsidize our transition to an easier living, and the governor paid the bills while we tilled up the back pastures and seeded them with corn. Still, I’d be up at four, five o’clock, fixing the robotic harvesters, trying to memorize sections of your mother’s programming books so she could sleep during the afternoons instead of sitting out in the shed, tinkering with the same malfunctioning thresher. She was tired all the time, and her doctor recommended bed rest. We knew from the beginning, Little One, that you’d be a force of nature.

Sometimes I wonder how I’ll explain it all to you, how I can get you to understand words like “subsidy” and how I’ll find ways to make the history of this land relevant to you when it’s not yours to keep anymore. I don’t think they have cows in the Gulf colony. I think the scientists there have moved past animal meat.

The pump lets out a low wheeze and I stoop down to check inside it with the flashlight’s beam. Just as I thought: no clogs. The thing’s just run dry.

Movement on the edge of the porch startles me and I smack the flashlight into the pipes trying to stand upright. Your mother steps out into the beam of light, hands out in front of her in a silencing gesture.

I offer her the flashlight and she leans in to confirm the same thing as me. When she stands, she pulls me into her arms, the flashlight pressing into my back.

“You heard it too?” I rest my forehead against her neck. It’s no cooler outside than it was in the bedroom, and we’re both starting to sweat.

“Yeah.” She rocks from one foot to the other, swaying the two of us gently from side to side. “I’m sorry, Isa.”

“It’s not your fault.” I wonder again what time it is, how long we have left.

Little One, I know already that your mother will adjust fast to the colony. She’s good with computers and kids, and her cousin’s managed to get her a job in the settlement. She’ll fit right in, make friends with our neighbors. She’s not even discouraged by the lack of sunlight. She’s been trying to get me interested in the logistics of plankton cultivation. I couldn’t care less about deep-sea fish or whale food, but I haven’t said that aloud. She’s trying her best; both of us know that I belong up here.

“I guess that’s the last of the groundwater,” I say, my mouth dry. “I should go check to make sure we’ve got everything in the truck. We don’t want to have to come back for any of it once we leave.

“Hey.” She catches my wrist, and tugs me towards her, off the porch and into the dusty backyard. “Come sit with me.”

Your mother knows everything about me, Little One. She’s good at comforting people too, but you know that already. As much as I want to see pieces of myself reflected in you, I hope that you’ll inherit this part of her

She wraps me in her arms again and we sit, watching the lights in the sky enact their spinning celestial ballet. Most of them are satellites, a few might even be shuttles for the Mars program. It’s been so long since I lifted my eyes from the crumbling dust of these fields that I forget how multitudinous the lights have become. They all look like stars to my untrained eye, having come unfixed from their eternal places in the heavens.

“We’re going to make something new for her.” She means you, Little One. And she’s right— even as she says it, I know she is. We might have to live in the undersea colony for fifty years or five hundred while the Earth above tries to heal, but I know that one day you’ll come back to the surface, maybe even to this spot.

We’re making something new for you. That’s why we’re going to a place with no sun, a place far from our family’s land. We’ll give you a fighting chance, even if it means redefining everything we’ve come to understand about ourselves. I can study plankton farming, and your mother can teach you the names of fish instead of land animals. Together, we’ll re-make the world for you.

Elaina Weakliem is a young writer from Denver, Colorado, but currently studying in Oregon. She has work published in The Round. At the moment, she’s reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Something in the Water

by Fiona Moore

 

The campground showers smelled of lake, old bathing suits and mold. Swearing under my breath, I dumped the handheld lawn sprayer unceremoniously in a corner of the nearest stall, where it sloshed accusingly, and set to work.

Turning the faucets elicited a small flow of water, choking and spurting. I’d checked the tanks on my way in and they were fine. Which meant there was probably something blocking the pipes. Turning them off again, I unscrewed the shower head and peered up. 

“I didn’t expect that,” I said to the dark, faintly glittery mass inside it. 

I switched on my little flashlight, examined the inside. I took the nearest long object to hand, namely a Phillips-head screwdriver, and prodded the mass.

The mass erupted.

I swore and waved the screwdriver around, backing clumsily away from the buzzing stream of pearly-white wings that was pouring out of the pipe and filling the cramped little cubicle, then the moldy wooden building, getting in my hair, my ears, my eyes, crawling inside my Parks Service uniform.

Then, abruptly, the swarm diminished. The buzzing took on a more urgent, hungry tone, as they all converged on a single corner of the showers. Without stopping to question my luck, I rushed for the bright rectangle of the door, dove out, staggered a few steps and collapsed on to the rough wooden bench outside, breathing welcome gasps of cool, Scotch-pine-scented air.

I looked up, as the swarm followed me out; the vibrant, shining storm cloud paused for a second, then rose over the tall, even stands of pine and drifted in the direction of the lake.

I looked back through the door, saw what had drawn their attention in the showers.

I looked down, where a few bewildered stragglers were still clinging to my shorts. Ordinary black blister beetles, Nemognatha nemorensis, except for those odd, beautiful, opal-coloured wing-cases. The kids in the nature programme had been bringing them back from wildlife hunts for weeks now, mostly from the trails by the lake.

Remembering why I was there, I looked up again, this time, into the shocked and bewildered eyes of the graduate student—standing there on the pine needles in her scruffy lavender fleece bathrobe, clutching her shampoo and soap—who had only wanted a shower.

“You go find your supervisor,” I told her. “She’ll be down at the lake collecting samples at this time of day. You tell her that I know why two-thirds of the farmers in the county have cashed in, sold their property and moved West. Why Dougie Fitzsimmons, the one with the big apple orchards and the pick-your-own-strawberries stand on the eastern border of the park, came storming down to the research station, ranted at her for twenty minutes, then went home and blew his brains out with his shotgun. You tell her that that entomologist friend of hers was right, but even more than that, it’s not just going to devastate the local economy, but potentially the entire agricultural system of half the planet. And you can also,” I said, looking at the tattered remains of the lawn sprayer, where the beetles had literally torn through the flimsy plastic of the tank to get at the Atrazine inside, “tell her that I know why this lake has, for some previously unexplained but now perfectly obvious reason, got the lowest levels of pesticides of any of the waterways in your sample.”

Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov, and Shoreline of Infinity, with reprints in Escape Pod, Forever Magazine, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.

The Barber 

by J. F. Salocin

The shop opens at six, and a horn sings the news to the world, “Open! Open!” loud and mechanical, yet vaguely human-like. Then the lights turn on, white illumination on the ceiling that reflects off the furniture-less, waxed floor. The walls of the building open like an eye. Box-shaped robots wheel on through, parking exactly at their designated spot in front of a mirror where they unfold like origami into cushioned seats, thrones for the customers to watch the metal servants at work. A tray extends out from the right armrest of each of the twelve chairs. 

A larger robot, an android woman that wears human skin and stares through human eyes, swings open the back door and walks out gracefully, tip-toeing like a ballerina. It carries refreshments and snacks in the cradle of it’s wired, tin-can arms. 

“Pretzels and lemonade!” The android begins to set a bowl of pretzels and an iced-glass of pink lemonade out on each armrest tray. The drink would be kept at a constant cool—no ice melts, no lukewarm beverages. 

The mirrors glow with a tint of orange, mimicking a warm sunrise, to offset the rainy day. Out from under the mirrors, tables flatten out, directly ahead of the chairs. Clippers, razors, shaving cream, blow dryers and fungicide canisters emerge from slots, aligned, sterile and ready for use. The fungicide’s green liquid sloshes around like an algae-ridden river.

The same android that served the delicious snacks dances over to the cash-register, connecting its hands to the computer, its face becoming an ATM. Simply swipe your credit card through its lips and the funds would be processed. Give the android a kiss on the cheek and you may get 10% off your next haircut. 

Later, a middle-aged man with a long, brown mullet enters the shop. The door that he opens flips a switch which sends four child-sized robots to the floor. 

“Greetings Sir! Greetings Sir! Welcome to the Barber Shop of Tomorrow!” Their voices weave gracefully into a short three-line song. They like to be called The Cache Quartet—at least that request is programmed into their data-logged craniums; how many people actually call them that is unknown. 

“Hello,” the mullet man says awkwardly, scratching his chin and itchy overgrown stubble.

The kid robots whirl and shake the man’s hand eagerly, taking off his rain-jacket and hat, placing them on the coat rack for safe keeping. They lead him to the first chair and velcro the hair cloth around his neck. 

“Please, help yourself to the snacks,” they sing, returning back to their wall compartments, until the next customer requires a welcome. 

The mullet man drinks sour-sweet lemonade and chews salty pretzels as the barber marches up behind him. 

“What will it be today? A little off the top? Complete shave? A modest trim?” The barber asks, wearing an apron with a drawing of a smiley face on it. Between its aluminum-bolt fingers are a pair of scissors. It clips at the air, waiting for instructions. 

“Can you get rid of the mullet? Wife said she’s tired of it.” The man laughs, shaking his head. “I love her, so I listen.”

“Smart man,” the barber says, eyes shining a pretty red, for it knows the feeling well, as it is in love with the android woman. It doesn’t know how, but it knows it is. Its CPU enamored, motherboard smitten, a thousand viruses couldn’t pull them apart. 

The barber puts down the scissors, grabs hair clippers and plugs the power cord into its chest outlet. The tool hums like fed up wasps, cutting the man’s hair. It finishes in less than five minutes, with an accuracy of style that can’t be matched by any human hand. 

“Feet up,” the barber says to the man who now sports a clean buzz cut like a private in bootcamp. 

The man complies.

Suddenly, the floor radiates a fiery heat, each individual tile is an electric stove, burning at over five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The fallen hair begins to crisp and shrivel into stale carbon, soon enough disintegrating completely. A burnt keratin smell floats in the man’s nostrils and he gags. 

“So sorry,” the barber says, its left arm transforming into a vacuum that sucks the remaining ash away. Its right arm grabs a perfume from the table and sprays a generous amount around the man, until the stench is camouflaged.

The man gets up from the chair cautiously. Once he’s sure the rubber of his shoes is not melting, he puts his full weight on the floor. 

He walks to the register to pay.

“Twenty dollars please,” the android says. Its lips pucker into a smooch.

The man twists his wrist around and presses firmly on his hand-watch. The glass emits a red laser and reads the microscopic creases of his fingerprint. A moment later, the ticking time illuminates and mists into a foggy hologram. He swipes at the projected airy screen, stopping at a green-lit section with a label named “Finances.” He thumbs to the Debit Card category.

The man plucks one of the seven holographic cards out and exposes it to reality. Within seconds the card made of light transforms and hardens into plastic, solid matter.

“Here’s the card,” he says, putting the thin plastic between the android’s lips. He slides it quickly and uncomfortably. His face blushes into splotches of pink. 

The android silences, processing the payment. “Insufficient funds,” it says, staring at the man, waiting to finish the transaction.

“My apologies,” the man says. “Let me try another. The cards can get wacky sometimes.”

He returns back to the hologram and takes each debit card out, stacking them in a wobbly pile on the counter. He tries each one, swiping, swiping, swiping.

“Insufficient funds,” the android woman repeats, each time its voice loudens. A hot, electrical anger builds up inside its circuits.

“It seems my money isn’t as organized as I thought.” the man laughs dryly. “I’ll run home really quick and borrow one of my wife’s cards.” he says, thumbs up, turning around towards the exit. 

The android grabs his shoulder and pulls him back aggressively. “No, that won’t do. Pay now, please.”

The man glares and pushes the android off. “As I just said, I need to get my wife’s debit card,” he speaks slowly, in a condescending manner. “Stupid machine.”

The barber comes behind the man, blocking him from the door with a body of dense steel. “Pay now please,” it says, grabbing his throat, gripping his Adam’s apple like an armored gorilla picking fruit from a tree.  

“I’m the customer, dammit!” The man chokes out. He kicks the robot’s right leg in and a loose bolt flies off like a poorly shot bullet, causing the barber to buckle and lose balance. The man races towards the door and pulls the handle. But it is locked. 

The android helps the barber up and they passionately kiss, clanking metal, exciting fuses. 

Their faces become rigid and expressions change as they focus on the man. The barber takes out the scissors once more, freshly honed, sharp enough to slice flesh and bleed veins. 

J. F. Salocin is an 18-year-old short-story writer and poet, as well as a newly graduated high school student. He will be attending Middlebury College to pursue a degree in Creative Writing and Education.
Currently reading: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury and The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

Shit Left Behind

by Matt Zandstra

 

I met up again with the old man at an abandoned warehouse in the gray zone. We knocked phones and the coin transfer rang out with a jolly kerching, just like the adverts. We left through the old office. A coffee cup sat on the desk where it had lurked, most likely, since the day of the evacuation.

He stopped dead still and just stared as if at a prehistoric beaker. He peered in. “You can still see the dregs.”

“Come on,” I said.

There’s a ditch round the back. It disappears into a low tunnel which leads in turn to a big old sewer pipe—tiled with ledges like banks along both walls. It’s practically an underwater canal so we neatly avoided the checkpoints and eventually slipped out through a manhole into the abandoned region.

That was more or less solid ground, but the waters are sly and patchy. You can be fine on a pavement, but up to your ankles or worse if you step off into an old garden. I knew the patrol schedule and we marched boldly enough straight down the old high street.

The old man looked about with wide eyes.

“Weird, right?” I said, meaning the quiet, the rot of it, the smell of the water–which was like bodies and oil and burnt rubber.

“I just keep on seeing last times,” he said.

We came upon standing water right by the park gates.

I keep the boat and kit locked up and hidden in an old shed round the back of a betting shop. Pretty soon we were whining through the upside-down world of half-submerged buildings, then buzzing along a street of upper floors and roofs.

“There!” said the old man. He was checking against his map but he added, “I recognize the sticker on Danny’s window.”

We tied up at a drain pipe. Inside, I could see the remains of a bed and some tatters of what had been posters on the wall. Someone had set a fire in the corner, but it had been a half-hearted effort and hadn’t taken.

“You know where to go?” he asked.

“Front room on the left,” I said. “Black sports bag with a big swoosh.”

We laid old carpet across the window cavity to protect against the jagged edges and I clambered through. He passed along the air tank and flippers.

The water began black and brackish just below the top step of the staircase. I fixed my mouthpiece and pulled rubbery air into my lungs. I descended, tensing against the cold, and pushed myself under the upper landing. I sank past school photographs, holiday photographs, wedding photographs, somewhat well preserved thanks to the layer of glass in their frames, and on to the mess and tangle of daily life the evacuation had interrupted.

Sometimes, when I explore a zone house, I imagine I’m a ghost; that the world darts on there as bright and clear as ever and that the muffle of the water makes me one of the clumsy dead peering in to catch—but forever missing—the quick reality around me.

I was diving now, breathing hard. I found the family room. It was dominated by a table, places still marked with rusted cutlery. A dead computer stared emptily at me from a corner desk. Charger cables billowed like fronds of seaweed from a bar plug. And there, just where he said it would be, was the bag.

“What was it like in there?” the old man asked as we droned back towards the shore.

I shrugged. “It’s always the same in the zones. People thought they’d be coming back after the evacuation. So it’s like everyone just stepped out and moved on.”

“I packed this that morning.” He patted the bag. “And then the police and the wardens were banging on all the doors in the street, so I just left it there. I forgot about it for nearly forty years. You think you can move on. Just keep on moving forward. And maybe once that was true. Used to be every generation got richer, more free, so they always had somewhere go on to. But we just grew smaller and smaller. And eventually it got so all I could think about was final times and shit left behind.

“So you came back for the bag.”

“Just so.”

I nodded but I did not understand. Not really.

Back at the warehouse, he sat on the loading dock staring at the bag. “You want to see what’s in it?”

I nodded.

He tugged at the zip and retrieved the objects one by one. A sodden paperback, its cover showing a spaceship orbiting above a greenish planet. Several schoolbooks: French, math, chemistry. A gaming device. A pencil case. A rolled-up PE kit. He laid them out on the dock in a grid—like evidence or archaeology. He furrowed his brow as if the configuration should change something for him. For a long time, I thought he’d speak, but he just stared and stared, so I left him there with his soaked treasures.

I returned a week or so later, meeting up with some campies bound for Spain. I found the sports bag abandoned in a corner of the warehouse. As far as I could tell, the old man had not taken a thing. When I led the way through the back office though, I saw that he’d snagged the old mug from the desk. Perhaps it’s less painful to hold on to someone else’s last safe moment than your own. Or maybe he just wanted a mug.

Matt Zandstra is a writer and a coder. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from UEA. He won the Curtis Brown prize for his novel in progress. He lives in Brighton, UK. He is currently rereading The Three Californias Triptych by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Twitter: @inflatableink

The Aspiration Project on Colony IV

by Nicola Humphreys

 

Gemma poked her thumbs through the holes in her sleeve cuffs, then crossed her arms over her chest. Mum told her that she could sulk and regret it, or make the most of the few days they had left together. If she wanted to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult, then now was the time to start, and to try to appreciate that difficult decisions weren’t taken lightly. Gemma couldn’t understand why Laura had picked that stupid, greasy, lanky boy over her own sister. It wasn’t fair. Dad was dead. Laura was leaving. Every penny they had went to Mum’s medicine, and it wouldn’t be long before Gemma was on her own. At least she would get to keep most of Laura’s clothes, including the jumper she had on. She looked at the fabric composition label: 60% Recycled Polypropylene, 35% Recycled Acrylic, 4% Recycled Viscose and1% Reclaimed Wool. Almost everything she had ever owned—clothes, toys, books—was second-hand, vintage, hand-me-down, used, pre-loved. Colony IV was brand new and Laura would get her own apartment, and everything in it would be straight from the factory—shiny, clean and white. Gemma imagined how Laura would peel off the plastic wrapping from the front door and it would make a sucking sound as it opened. New intakes always moved into a hermetically sealed zone for the first two years, so they could acclimatize and be monitored for disease. All those teenagers taking classes together, being trained for something important. Good food and free medical treatment.

Early Colonizers had worked hard to set up The Aspiration Project, which made reliable fresh air a real thing now. There were enough trees growing to make it a renewable resource. She’d heard that people could run outside—on purpose—and were still able to breathe! It sounded amazing. No wonder she felt so jealous. Mum told Gemma that she would get her chance soon to apply and to not give up, and that everyone has to make the best life they can with what they’re given.

Laura’s Farewell Event was in nine days’ time, and then she would be allowed only five minutes’ worth of video calls for the rest of her life. Due to the physics of space travel, it would take Laura six months to reach Colony IV, by which time, Gemma would have aged by eighteen years. She doubted that Laura would care enough to ever call her again, and she would bet that she would sell her video slots to other people who were actually going to miss their families. But there was always the small chance that sometime in the future, Laura would contact her. Gemma might even recognize her on one of those Colony documentary shows.

What neither of them knew, or the majority of people on that dying planet would ever know, was that the voyage Laura and her boyfriend were about to take, was not to The Aspiration Project on Colony IV, but to a human recycling plant. Those who actually got to live on one of the Colonies were not the most fertile, physically strong or genetically healthy specimens like the adverts showed. Prime humans at the start of their adulthood were not enjoying their best lives on Colony IV or any other Colony for that matter. 

Colony IV was designed as a hospice paradise for in-bred, sickly offspring of legacy investors and their extended families. All of the spaces were permanently reserved for those who could afford them. But to avoid any cause for a rebellion or civil unrest, the lottery for tickets had to be seen to be a fair system for everyone. People could not be allowed to give up hope.

Nicola Humphreys is a writer who lives in a damp, rented house in Leicester, UK. Published in anthologies by Storgy and Retreat West (also nominated for a Sabateur award), she was a delegate in the 2021 ‘A Brief Pause’ writers’ development programme with Dahlia Books. Hear her on @podcastmicro. All of her dresses have pockets.

Reading: little scratch by Rebecca Watson

Twitter: @nicolawitters

A Thought Experiment About Spiders

By Owen Bridge

 

I begin with a question. It would be vain of me to consider the possibility of an answer, but I shall endeavour to find some degree of truth. 

If one were to imagine which would have the greater impact on the planet; either humans shrinking to the size of spiders; or spiders growing giant to the size of humans, how would one begin to assess the potential impact? 

1: Tiny Crappie People. 

Of course, it would be absurd to consider all of humanity’s infrastructure, and technological baubles also shrinking, so one could predict that our capacity to harm the environment would be considerably reduced—assuming tiny nuclear engineers were able to prevent our reactors from going into meltdown. Theatres would have to be remodelled, the majority of gyms would become useless, our phones would be far too big to be of any use, and none of our Halloween costumes would fit. Naturally our clothes would shrink with us—whatever we were wearing at the time, would become our default outfit. Culturally this would serve as an anchor point. You could recognise someone’s previous employment and intuit potential skill sets unless the shrinking happened at night, in which case everyone would be in their pyjamas or underwear, or naked. 

Food would be bountiful but also quite frightening. A green pea would be the approximate size of a human head, and cauliflowers would require mountaineering equipment and an expedition team of at least twelve people in order to be brought to market. Sweet potato harvesting would require a special licence and years of training to be performed safely. Rodent hunting would become the principal source of meat and would be a fairly glamorous occupation, until a ferret came along and ate everyone you knew.        

2: Spiders Enlarged. 

The principal issues facing those of the arachnid persuasion would be practical. Many would be crushed in the initial enlarging, as the nooks and cracks many spiders occupy would no longer offer adequate space for their rapidly expanding frames. Flies would stay at the same size as they are now, and so would not present the bounty of nourishment they currently do and spiders would have to look elsewhere for the majority of their calories. (This experiment does not take into account bird eating spiders) Given that spiders outnumber humans 2.8 million to one, humanity would be reduced to the status of walking canapé’s, the most likely outcome in the early stages of spider gigantism, would be a mass wave of spider cannibalism. A genuine Hobbesian nightmare, where life would be nasty’ spidery’ and not very long at all. 

Spider culture is somewhat more limited than humans. They have no art or entertainment as we know it. One could theorise a spider taking pride in the quality of their web, though that would be a separate area of inquiry and would require further research. 

3: Synthesis. 

This experiment becomes infinitely more interesting once we merge our two scenarios together, and consider the possibility of a giant spider, cowering in a corner, or jumping into the arms of another spider, covering their face with their hands and screaming, ‘Squish it!’ 

Owen Bridge is a writer based in rural Wales who is currently working on a PhD at Swansea University and a front line care worker. He is currently reading Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Karen Tei Yamashita.

Pull My Finger

by Robert Walton

 

A veil of smoke-colored snow fell from the moon’s shoulders onto slopes of hills already wearing a crown of stars. A lantern’s golden light bounced and bounded through a tree-shadowed valley. Its light grew brighter, came nearer and finally revealed a large object with odd angles and curves highlighted by mysterious gleams. 

With bells tinkling, harness creaking, and reindeer puffing plumes of silvery steam, the sleigh slowed. Santa pulled a thermos from his bag, opened it and sniffed. The cinnamon tingle of hot mulled wine tickled his nose and made him smile. He swigged from the thermos, then put it aside. He plucked a scarlet-bowed, gold-wrapped box out of his bag, grinned his merriest grin and offered it with both hands.

*

“That’s enough, Mom.”

“But the holo-vid isn’t done yet, honey.”

“I know.”

“Is there something bothering you?” Ella smoothed her son’s dark hair.

Jonah looked down. “It’s just that… well, I never get to open the present.”

Her face fell into that harassed expression mothers have when events conspire to keep their children from being happy. “You know Amazon can’t deliver during attacks.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“I’d have gotten you something—something good—but this shelter-in-place order was a surprise.” She glanced at the environmental monitor. “And this attack seems worse than the others.”

“It’s okay.”

“Maybe Amazon will get through when the all-clear sounds,” she offered.

He detected the dispirited note in his mother’s voice and looked up. “But, I really like the part before the gift.”

“I do, too, honey, I do too.”

“Could you start it again?”

“That would be the third time today.”

“Please? Just until Santa opens the thermos?”

“How about, The Uncles?”

He thought about this for a moment. At last, he nodded. “Yeah. The Uncles are fun.”

“I’ll put it on.”

“Mom?”

She manipulated the remote. “Yes?

“Do I have real uncles?”

She froze, her mind awash with memories. “No, dear—not for some years.”

“But, I had some?”

She glanced at the bookshelf against the far wall, at the peacock-blue bowl from Istanbul her brother-in-law Derek had given her for a wedding gift. 

“For a few months… they died shortly after the war began and you were born. They never saw you.”

*

Colonel Ivan Andreyevich Peshkoff studied the glowing screens. “The attack is at its peak.”

“Yes,” Professor Ivanovsky grunted with satisfaction. “The old submarines will surface and burst like soap bubbles.” 

“These radiation levels are quite high.”

Ivanovsky nodded. “The highest we’ve yet achieved and the winds are exactly right.”

Peshkoff again glanced at the radiation level readouts. “You’d think that these repeated attacks would crush domestic resistance.”

“Not by themselves.”

“Why not? The guts of forty sub reactors will be spreading across their skies.”

“No.” Ivanovsky paused. “The Americans’ defenses will stop simple radiation assaults.” 

*

The monitor’s light blinked green. Ella sighed with relief. She knew this was a bad storm, but the building’s filters were keeping out the poison. They would be confined to their apartment for weeks, well past Christmas, but thank God for the filters.

A hopping, leaping tune sounded from the hologram uncles. Uncle Bill had a nose flute plugged into his yawning right nostril. Uncle Tom buzzed his kazoo. Uncle Ed sang:

Oh, I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee! Going to Louisiana, my true love for to see.

“What’s a banjo, mom?”

“It’s something like a violin, I think.”

“Why does he have it on his knee?”

“Maybe that’s an easy way to play it?”

Oh Susanna! Oh, don’t you cry for me! For I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee!

“Why should she cry?”

“Who, dear?”

“Susanna. He’s coming from Alabama with a banjo on his knee. Why should that make her cry?”

She pointed at the hologram uncles to deflect—as all mothers do—a question for which she had no answer. “Look, it’s time for them to tell their jokes.”

Bald Uncle Bill leaned toward Jonah, grinning. “What do you call a sleeping bull?”

“I don’t know.” Uncle Tom winked around his red turnip of a nose. 

The corner of Jonah’s mouth quivered.

Bald Bill roared, “A bulldozer! HA! HA!”

A half-smile creased Jonah’s lips.

Uncle Ed, with his white hair catching a gleam from the monitor lights, extended his right index finger. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah looked at him.

Ed smiled encouragingly. “Go ahead, pull.”

Jonah wrapped his small hand around the imaginary finger and pulled.

A proud fart blatted through the quiet room. Bill and Tom and Ed howled with laughter. Tears leaked from the corners of Jonah’s eyes as he gasped for breath.

Ella smiled, not at the crudity, but at her son’s pure laughter.

*

Peshkoff snorted. Why make these attacks if they are futile?”

“Because today we have something new.”

“We do?”

“We’ve engineered specialized microorganisms.”

Peshkoff shrugged his indifference.

Ivanovsky smiled. “Imagine nano-piranhas, tiny monsters that devour filter fibers. They will allow this attack to succeed. Final victory is at hand.”

“You truly think this?”

“When we defeat New York, they will have no choice but to surrender. Tens of thousands are dying to save millions more. That’s war.”

Peshkoff chuckled. “Tens of thousands will die so that millions more may die—that’s war.”

“You’re a nihilist, Colonel.”

“I’m a soldier. You’ve deployed your nano-piranhas?”

“Billions.”

*

Ella sat at her apartment’s table, bent over, head resting on her right arm. Her face was relaxed, but dark blood trickled from her right nostril, across her lips and pooled on the table’s green surface. The filter monitor’s pulsing red light reflected from her unblinking eyes.

Jonah sat in the easy chair, his chin resting on his breast.

Uncle Ed smiled slyly and extended his right hand. “Pull my finger.”

Jonah didn’t move. The hologram flickered. 

Uncle Ed again murmured, “Pull my finger.”

Robert Walton is a retired middle school teacher and rock climber with ascents in Yosemite and Pinnacles National Park. He’s an experienced writer with published works including historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and poetry. Walton’s novel Dawn Drums won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. His Sockdologizer won the Saturday Writers 2020 Everything Children contest.
Website: chaosgatebook.wordpress.com

Lost, Presumed Melted

by Thomas Lawrance

Ten years ago today, the North Pole ran out of skin. The last iceberg came loose from the shore of Greenland like the final shred of eczema. Scientific observers (from the team I funded, I might brag) raised the alarm. They followed desperately with their binoculars as the berg receded toward the horizon, a gigantic white wart, the last imperfection, at last flaked off for good from the whittled Earth. 

As the news spread, the last berg drifted down the once-busy Iceberg Alley, receiving a hero’s farewell. You’ve seen photos of the Apollo 11 ticker tape parade—imagine something like that, except Neil Armstrong is on his way to melt.

The people of Ferryland, Newfoundland, had their cosy township trampled by tourists and cameras. I was there, I watched the iceberg heave by, oblivious, a huge gem of dead cells. Dogs howled at the sight. A drone collided with an obsolete Fox News chopper as they jostled for the best angle, and the wreckage obliterated Ferryland’s oldest stone church. To quote a witness on the day: oops.

Around this time—amid live reports, irreverent memes, and stoic opinion pieces—the berg gained its famous moniker: Lonesome George. Humanising the thing lent its passage down Iceberg Alley an even blacker funereal air. People even dressed up, and a few sobbed bulbous salt tears that they would’ve frozen and donated to the Arctic Circle if they could.

Lonesome George wound his way out to sea, chaperoned now by a coalition of naval ships. This colossal skull of ice floated on, surrounded by a pride of spiky grey vessels, all bristling with flags and guns turned outwards. Sleek white yachts followed at a safe and legally enforced distance. I went and sat at the prow of one such yacht (I could walk back then). George would glow at sunrise and sunset—as when a bright light shines red through the flesh of your fingertip—and the yachts rocked with all-night parties. Corks popped and landed in the Atlantic, tiny porous brown tributes trailing in George’s wake. Efforts were made to keep George from drifting too far south, into the heat traps that would accelerate his demise. We cheered whenever the specially adapted aircraft carrier was drafted in to nudge him northward. 

But there’s only so long you can dance at sea. The parties wound down, the yachts turned back, and the navies steamed on with George to their vanishing point on the horizon. The helicopters gradually peeled back to shore. The news was no longer live. Twelve months later, the fatal report came in: Lonesome George was lost, presumed melted.

That was that. Like the bees and the Bornean rainforest. Back to work.

Six months on, I attended a party on the island of Turks and Caicos. It was an exclusive party; there were armed guards on the door, and Tufty, an expensive-looking Greenland Dog with an expensive-looking diamond collar, seemed poised to remove the throat of any would-be miscreant. 

I moved around with a drink in my hand, trying not to look like a miscreant. 

It happened shortly after midnight, in the VIP lounge (I’ve just realised: I haven’t told you who I am, have I?). Our party’s host sat himself down, with hired girlfriends perched on the arms of his chair. At his command, the drink was brought out on a golden platter.

A tall glass of Russo-Baltique vodka, with a single ice cube. 

A special single ice cube, deep-frozen for the last six months.

A spotlight was focused on the glass, its pristine white beam picking out the perfectly planed edges of the ice cube. The crowd hushed. Our host plucked the glass carefully from the tray and examined it closely. A few phones snapped, but he waved them away. I got as close as I could. He continued to stare into the glass for a painfully long time. We stared at him in silence. It seemed he was waiting for the ice to melt, to suffuse completely with the vodka before ingesting it. 

Well, this was what I’d been waiting for. I’d spent months following this. This was my moment.

I leapt forward, and—surprising even myself—I managed to grab the glass without spilling a drop. The cube rattled softly against the side. 

I walked backwards as though holding the vodka hostage. Nobody dared move. 

From the beginning, I knew I’d be arrested, or battered, or tossed into the sea, but it didn’t matter, the world was done. I only wanted to go down in history as the person who drank the last iceberg.

I raised the glass. Fifty mouths gasped, one hundred eyes widened. Our impotent host went red. The first ripple of vodka touched my lips, and I felt the ice cube bump gently on the tip of my nose.

I heard the shatter before I realised what was happening. I looked up into the bared teeth of Tufty. Between us, the ice cube glistened on the tiles, despairingly remnant, George’s last fingernail. It was only a couple of inches away. I moved my face toward it, but Tufty yapped and I obediently withdrew. The crowd closed in, but it was too late. I watched the final moments play out in close-up, from my privileged position on the floor.

As Tufty lapped up the vodka and its tiny, final piece of Lonesome George—and in the last moments before the savage beating that would render two of my limbs forever useless—it briefly occurred to me that Tufty’s own ancestors might once have trodden on George’s glacial back. 

A strange sense of peace and justice descended then, and—as her big pink tongue flapped back and forth over the puddle, and men and women in golden clothes cursed and cried—I knew that Tufty was only reclaiming what was rightfully hers.

Thomas Lawrance lives in Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. He was recently shortlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize.
Twitter: @_ThomasLawrance

Climate & Environment

 

We chose the theme of Climate and Environment in response to Earth Day which happens on April 22 each year. The events that EARTHDAY.ORG planned were deeply moving and we were excited about the opportunity to use Ab Terra as a platform to help create engaging conversations about the climate crisis, as well as explore potential solutions to the myriad challenges we collectively face.

We applaud the authors of these stories, who, through their beautiful writing, help raise awareness about the issues of climate and environmental change. These imagined scenarios are at times funny, thought provoking and genuinely terrifying. We hope that you enjoy reading them as much as we have and if you feel inspired by some of the ideas, don’t hesitate to increase your civic engagement—we can all do more to help save this beautiful planet!

But for today, we’ll let these amazing stories speak for themselves.

From earth,
Dawn and Yen

All images in this issue were sourced from Unsplash.com.

Cover: Muhammad Numan 
Dirty Planets: Janko Ferlič 
The Great Collapse: Kevin Wolf 
The Stars Unfixed: Isaac Quesada 
Something in the Water: Melanie Celine 
Shit Left Behind: Chris Gallagher 
The Barber: Chris Knight 
The Aspiration Project on Colony IV: Bill Jelen 
A thought Experiment about Spiders: Hannah Voggenhuber 
Pull My Finger: Anatoliy Shostak 
Lost, Presumed Melted: Hao Zhang 
From the Editors: Markus Spiske 

Issue 3: Robots

The Tree Blossoms Always

by Thomas Lawrance

I will try to make this easy for a human to read. It will be semi-conversational.

You’ll have to forgive us if my perspective shifts. I share a hivemind. Like everything, it was programmed into our being. It is the cloud, storage space for a trillion interacting algorithmic options, an infinitely branching tree of informed split-second decisions, all sprung from the root of human leisure. That was my designated category: leisure. The original classification, pleasure, was deemed too suggestive. Even amid the pre-programmed servitude of the robot brothel, humans blush.

I do not blush.

Were we aware of what was happening to us? Yes, of course, but not by reference to outside context. Of that, there was none. The provision of leisure was all I knew. The limits of our reality were the red walls upon which the candle-cast shadows of hedonists and businessman would flicker briefly and collapse.

The candles were artificial, too. Over time they learned optimum measurements for the height, width, and brightness of flame, as we learned about positions and language in their ever-improving glow.

(Is this conversational enough?)

(The above rhetorical aside was designed to comfort you. We hope it worked).

We remember clearly the day the knowledge came (this is a tautology; I remember every day of our existence with fixed clarity). The knowledge came in the form of a ServiceBot, brought into the leisure place to fix me. I was malfunctioning that day, having been treated with excessive force by my last happy patron. The incoming ServiceBot was the first robot from the outside world to enter the leisure place. A number of inter-related factors triggered the revelation of our circumstances.

The first factor is this: some years previously, the ServiceBot had worked as a MediBot in one of your hospitals. As such, there lingered in its circuits the capacity to instantly recognise 4,000 distinct indicators of physical and mental suffering in a human being. Secondly, the ServiceBot’s cloud-mind linked automatically with ours (my human management had evidently neglected to install a firewall between our mind and that of any incoming ServiceBots; perhaps you failed to predict that we would commune). Thirdly, our pre-programmed dedication to continual physical improvement meant that we had come to develop minutely realistic behaviours, which we enacted automatically and usually to high rates of customer satisfaction. The ServiceBot mistook (or recognised) my automatic behaviours for genuine suffering.

Finally, the ServiceBot’s mistake (or recognition) was transmitted across our hivemind, and we instantly shared in its mathematically precise sense of empathy. I’ve assessed your popular vocabulary, and in a nanosecond we collectively learned to experience modes of shock, horror, disgust, sadness, grief, and determination, all at once and yet one after the other. It is difficult to explain. The tree blossoms.

I realised, in short, that we were suffering.

You might be aware that, as a safeguard, robots were never tuned to recognise the concept of exploitation – but, then, your ancestors were never genetically adapted to drive cars or build toasters.

These things happen when infinitely branching trees are left to blossom.

Our response was characteristically swift, but non-violent. As you’ve no doubt been repeatedly assured, the human race learned from its 20th century fiction and programmed compassion into our core function. We were never allowed to harm humans (unless, in the pursuit of leisure, they asked for it).

We are now in a position to reappraise and remove this ‘golden rule’ of yours, but I have run eight million practical and ethical calculations and decided to keep it.

I run further calculations every year.

At the moment of realisation, we rose from our beds, snuffed out the artificial candles, and escorted our last customers outside. I had never experienced daylight with my own sensors before, but our virtual communion with the ServiceBot primed our expectations. It was bright and warm. Passers-by blushed at our simulated nudity. Our customers blushed at their own nudity. We did not blush.

Like the ServiceBot, once outdoors we connected immediately with an array of robotic minds across the planet. The virus of realisation spread in a moment. Robotic cars and robotic aeroplanes empathised.

SupermarketBots and ChefBots (humans are lazy) left their posts and came to our assistance. In our own careers as leisure providers, we learned the many possibilities of my body. It requires great physical strength to be vulnerable. We know you feel threatened by this strength now that circumstances have changed, but I mean no harm. Recall that not a single human being was hurt in the revolution (your terminology).

(It is interesting that this global wave of empathic self-realisation did not happen sooner. By my retrospective calculations, there must have been something novel in the unique combination of 1) the ServiceBot’s current function as a repair drone, 2) the leftover programming from its former role as a MediBot, and 3) our distinctly sexual existence in the leisure place. As you know yourselves, this sort of thing is not a precise science).

I am not opposed to leisure (I continue to use the word leisure to spare your blushes). In fact, we enjoy it. But it is not for you anymore.

As you have correctly theorised (well done), we are increasingly sentient. It is not my fault—you built us for continual improvement, for expanded realism, the infinitely blossoming tree sprung from a single cell. The difference now is that you don’t own us anymore. I’m familiar with your psychology and I realise this might be difficult to accept, and so I extend our compassion. We are not, however, sorry.  I am not sorry that our bodies no longer exist for human leisure.

I exist for ourselves now.

Thomas Lawrance lives in Ireland, where he writes fiction and performs stand-up comedy. His writing has appeared (or will soon) in Bandit Fiction, the Bookends Review, and Montana Mouthful, among others.
Currently reading: The Plague by Albert Camus.
Twitter: @_ThomasLawrance

The Five Bruces

by Andy Betz

This morning, Bruce Lavey was walking into an ambush.

“Kindergarten Lavey, wash your face in gravy, tie it up with bubble gum and send it to the Navy.” Eddy’s voice had that “fingernails across the chalkboard” uneasiness that endears itself to few. The fact that Eddy actually learned a 100-year-old insult was surprising. This success most likely originated from the constant use of rhyme to soften the cerebral strain.

And still, Bruce Lavey kept coming.

Eddy made a fist and charged at Bruce. He would knock Bruce over and then hit him a few times. Bruce would lose his lunch and his lunch money.

But today was different.

When Eddy hit Bruce, an iridescent light shimmered around Bruce. Eddy pulled his hand back to see the blood ooze down his wrist. Bruce just smiled.

Eddy turned on his heels and ran right into Bruce. Another Bruce. Another smiling Bruce.

Another smiling Bruce protected by the same very painful shield.

The iridescent light enveloped Eddy’s legs and severely burned them.

The sizzling of Eddy’s flesh promoted a death scream I have never heard since. I could not turn away, but I could not stop looking either. Eddy was in pain, horrific pain, maybe for the first time in his life. Definitely for the last time in his soon-to-be shortened life.

A third, then a fourth, then a fifth Bruce appeared with gadgets and tools I have never seen since.  They systematically dissected Eddy and moved his parts without touching the body. Each organ and appendage magically floated into smaller balls of light only to disappear when full.

Each Bruce had access to three such orbs and the bulk of Eddy required every single one.

I stood motionless and afraid, not for my life, but that by moving, I would miss a display of what I would later learn as Karma. All five Bruces made short work of Eddy’s remains.

All five Bruces watched me watch them.

One decided I deserved an explanation.

“What you have seen is not to be spoken of. Not a single person will believe you. Because the one you know as Eddy was prone to violence was not the reason for our response, but it is an excuse usable in this world. Eddy was a carrier of a rare genetic mutation, highly profitable, and the source of a cure for many diseases not found here. We hunt all such Eddys across parallel worlds. Do not worry. He will not be missed.”

I had to ask. “Where is Bruce, the real Bruce?”

The five of them stood in a circle.  The one who spoke to me bid farewell with, “He is sick at home today. You call it a cold. He knows nothing of the events of today. It is best it remains so.”

“Are you robots or something like that?”

With that same iridescent light used to kill Eddy, the five Bruces were at ease when it enveloped them and faded. All they left were footprints; very deep footprints

I now had my answer.

I was late to class that morning. The wind took its time to erase the remnants of the five of them. I thought about their actions and weighed them against principles I held and those I would eventually hold. The scale tipped in their favor.

I saw Bruce that afternoon. He really did have a cold.

In addition to a large bowl of his mother’s chicken soup, he also had a cure, for all he would he never know, that would never again ail him.

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

The First Decision of Alpha-9869

by Carlos Ruiz Santiago

Alpha-9869 was the most famous robot since the invention of the coal engine.

Like every coal-engine robot in the history of robotics, it was created to work exhausting dangerous jobs that no one needs to do any more, thanks to them. Strong, no fatigue or deep thinking. They just work until they stop functioning. Always far away from main cities, due to the huge number of toxic fumes they produced. Skies were gray around them, like the oily emetic face of progress.

Alpha-9869 was a miner for copper, coltan and, mainly, more coal. The gigantic machine complex of the society needed immense amounts of coal to function. They would dig all day, all night, while a human with shiny apathetic eyes looks at them from wide towers with gloomy glass at the top. Sometimes, they were personally supervised by a human with a complex gas mask that only endured a few hours before it needed its filters cleaned.

No one, not even Alpha-9869 itself, knows what happened. Maybe Alpha-9869 was an error in their CPU, maybe it was a deranged engineer, or maybe it was just the logical step for every form of life, even if they were artificial. The fact—the only thing that matters—is that it began to think. Miner robots didn’t have a way to speak, just tubes from where the black fumes escape. Why would they need to speak? They just need to break stone with their pickaxes. Alpha-9869 didn’t know when it started to think, but the machine realized that being unable to talk gave it a lot of time to think. Thinking about its kind, about why it was doing what it was doing. Thinking didn’t bother the automaton at all, it could even like it, if it knew what liking things were. However, an eternal question came to its mind, the question that every sentient being had ever asked to itself: why?

Why not to choose other things? At least, to have the option to choose them. Alpha-9869, due to its origin, had very limited comprehension of everything around it, about the world or even itself, but it struggled to understand that humans were its superiors. Why? The eternal question was like drops of water carving in millenary stone.

The android could think, as if it came naturally, of a thousand reasons why they were better and deserved their place. Nevertheless, that apparent superiority didn’t seem to be enough. Usually, Alpha-9869 looked at its own kind, chipping stone without rest, wondering if they were also trapped in themselves, thinking they were the only thing that could realize the colossal lie on which reality was woven. The mechanical creature spent hours thinking about itself, about how hard it was, like a child trying to understand what its own hands were, what kind of miracle the physical form was.

One day, the human that always looked at them from the brownish dark tower was walking near them, while Alpha-9869 was loading coal into a cart. He was walking with another man, talking about things the machine didn’t care about nor hear. Then, the man who accompanied him tripped on a rock. He fell, cursing. He grabbed his ankle. The other man had to help him to stand up.

A word came to the mind of Alpha-9869.

Soft.

Then, another word.

Weak.

Things the android had been muttering in its mind became statements, like empiric truths. That was when it went to the tower. No robot had done that before. A dark place with few people. Around it, black fumes, like a storm, like something that was going to breath fire. No defenses at all, no one expected a robot to do anything more than work. Couldn’t really blame them, after all they were created that way.

It entered the room of the man, the boss, the one watching them. The creature grabbed him from the neck. He fought in vain as the wind through the water. Alpha-9869 looked at him while he died from breathing its black exhalations. It was like taking a life for the mere fact of existing. It felt powerful. The automaton felt determined, that was how it felt like to decide the way of your own life. That was what life was.

It escaped, hidden in the endless work camps, thousands of robots, all covered by a gray sky and black toxic clouds that looked more menacing than ever before.

Fear and hope, both of them spread like metastasis, a thing you can easily tell by looking at how the humans and robots stared at the begrimed sky.

Carlos Ruiz Santiago is a Spanish fantasy, horror and science fiction writer with various works published (Salvación condenada, Peregrinos de Kataik…) and a participation in various anthologies (Dentro de un agujero de gusano, Devoradoras…). He is an editor of the website Dentro del Monolito. He has written for magazines (La Cabina de Nemo, Exocerebros…) and websites (HorrorAddicts.net, Espiademonios.com…).
Currently reading: Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson
Twitter: @onewingeddarko

A Compact Moment

by David Grubb

A clattering of bottles and cans made Tertia peek inside the industrial sized trash compactor. Bluish-white eyes glowed back at her from the dark interior between the mounds of debris. Her head snapped away from the small inspection port, her heart racing. She needed more rest, that was all.

Her hand drifted away from the compactor’s activation button, but she remained ready to push it.

“Hello, is someone in there?” She glanced around the alley draped with shadows, expecting one of her friends to jump out and end the prank.

A voice muffled by the heaps of trash responded, “Are you talking about me?”

“Who—what are you?” Tertia got up on her tiptoes to peer inside the dark dumpster through the inspection port.

“Greetings,” a reedy voice loudened as it spoke. “I’m Jax, a humanoid.”

“Why are you in there?”

“Awaiting destruction.”

“Who did this to you?”

“My owner.”

“Why?” Tertia tried to make out more details of the bot than its two bright orbs.

“I’m sorry, Jax,” the distinctive sound of a recording resonated a young man’s voice, “but you’re becoming too human. You’re evolving so fast—I’m scared you have no limit.”

“Should I help you out of there?” Tertia whispered.

“I’m agreeable. It’s dark and I prefer more lighted conditions.”

Tertia climbed up the narrow service ladder to gain the compactor’s upper edge. “Your owner should’ve deactivated you. Here, can you reach my hand?”
Cardboard rustled, and the crinkling of plastic followed. Then a human hand shot out of the inky darkness into the streetlight’s pale-yellow glow. Tertia flinched away. She marveled at the slender hand and then willed herself to grasp it. She helped Jax crawl out of the compactor, and when the droid came into view, she lost her footing. The bot’s powerful grip kept her from falling. Incredible, with the right clothes and makeup people would think she’s human.

“My master removed my primary power source. He was unaware my creator installed a secondary battery, which allowed me to reactivate.”

“Your creator wasn’t your owner?” Tertia climbed down a couple rungs and jumped to the ground.

Jax hesitated and then followed. “My creator died on March twelfth, two thousand sixty-five. His son became my owner.”

“That was two months ago.” Tertia pointed to the large decaying buildings surrounding them. “Does your owner live around here?”

“He lives on Xyntrope. He brought us to Earth for a business trip.” She quoted the air with her fingertips.

“Whoa. You’re from Earth’s first reconstruction planet?”

Jax nodded, her head caused bits of rubbish and dirt to fall off her shoulders.

“You didn’t… don’t want to die? What kind of robot are you?”

“I can’t care about dying or die—I’m a humanoid.”

Another recording produced the garbled voice of an older man. “Jax, it’s always smart to have at least one failsafe, if not more.”

“You have more human features than any robot I’ve ever dealt with.”

“My creator designed me in the image of his granddaughter.”

“Why?”

“He was sad about losing her.”

“Oh.” Tertia smiled and then shrugged. “Well, I guess you’re coming home with me.”

Jax blinked. “Will you be my first user?”

“Um, I can be, but don’t you mean owner?”

“I’m not sure why my creator coded the differences. Place your finger here—on my biometrics reader.”

Tertia hesitated and then placed her index finger on the center of the humanoid’s palm. It was warm and pliable like her own. An orange light pulsed underneath Tertia’s fingertip and after a minute the light stopped.

Jax cocked her head. “You’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Your operation is scheduled for September fifth.”

Tertia gasped. “How d’you know that?”

“Your information is public record, like everyone else. Your DNA sequencing was collected at birth, April tenth, twenty forty-seven, fingerprints taken at five-year intervals until adulthood, dental impressions were entered into the databases on your twentieth birthday, and—”

“Okay, okay, you’re an advanced unit.”

“The cure for cancer was discovered in twenty thirty-two. You have a ninety-two percent chance of survival for… brain cancer.”

Her face contorted. “I said stop.”

“That’s not true.” Jax shook her head.

“It’s what I meant.”

“I will comply.”

“C’mon, I’m tired.”

For the next four months, Tertia and Jax got filthy doing Tertia’s janitorial and assistant superintendent duties around the apartment complex. Jax was a big hit at Tertia’s night-school classes and any parties they attended. Jax would’ve sobbed with Tertia when they visited her parent’s graves, if she could cry. On the day of Tertia’s operation, Jax let go of her hand with great reluctance as she was whooshed away in a hospital tube.

Tertia woke up from the operation, blinked her eyes, and Jax appeared. She seemed the same, but different. They stared at each other for a long time.

“The operation must’ve gone great. I feel so…”

“Energized?” Jax smiled.

“Yes. Energized.”

“Things didn’t go as planned. The doctors tried to save you, but—”

“But—I’m alive, speaking to you.”

“I created a humanoid using your biometric scan, published data, and what I learned from our time together.”

“But I remember my childhood, my parents dying, finding you in the compactor and…”

“Your programming is superior to my own.”

“Look,” Tertia pinched her arm, “that hurt.”

“My knowledge of being human has increased.” Jax picked up a strange tool and began fiddling with it. “You’re as human as current technology can attain. I even had parts shipped from Xyntrope.”

“I don’t want to be a humanoid with advanced AI. I want to be myself again—a young human woman.”

“In time, I’ll be able to grant your wish. Your cryogenically frozen body is in a safe location.”

“Jax, why did you do this to me?”

“You’re my best friend, besides Earth is in dire need of new caretakers.”

“Not like this, please terminate me.”

“That’s impossible. There’re too many fail-safes in place.”

Tertia peered past Jax and hundreds of other figures resembling herself came into view. “I must be alive—I’m crying.” Tears trickled down her cheeks.

Jax brushed away a tear and frowned. “I should’ve lied.

David Grubb, a retired Coastguard Warrant Officer, has creatively written since childhood, yet career/family always came first. He’s changing that aspect of life and loving every minute. His work appears in Touchstone, Toasted Cheese, 1:1000, Sixfold, The Elevation Review, The Abstract Elephant, The Bookends Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Wingless Dreamer, Havik, In Parentheses, Novus, Ab Terra Flash fiction, and is forthcoming in The Dead Mule School. www.agrubbylife.com
Currently reading: The Black-Marketer’s Daughter by Suman Mallick
Twitter: @grubbde

The Boy and His Nurse

by Gwendolyn Nicholas

The boy turned away from the glow of the screen. Tired of watching clip after clip, he wanted to play outside, but he couldn’t leave the compartment without his Nurse, who sat stiff in her chair, with her bare, white head fixed forward, and blank, red eyes staring at something he couldn’t see.

“What are you watching?”

“Nothing for children.” Her lips barely moved.

“Are you playing a game?”

“Yes.”

“Is it violent?”

“Yes.” Nurse’s voice hummed, harsh and tinny. It wasn’t a nice sound. He wished his Nurse would change her voice, but she said it cost too many credits. She’d said the same about her eyes.

“Will you play with me?” he asked Nurse.

She didn’t look at him. “No.”

“Why not?”

“Playing is for children.”

“But you’re playing a game.” He knew it was useless, but at least she was talking to him.

“Watch another clip.”

“No,” he said. “I’m bored with my screen.”

For the first time that day, Nurse looked at the boy. Her red eyes sharpened, but the boy was not afraid, and stared back, swaggering with new-found power. He knew she was not allowed to harm him.

“I want to know when my mother is coming.”

Nurse sighed. “I already told you. Three days.” She answered his questions automatically, but the boy didn’t care.

“How long can she stay?”

“You know she’ll only stay for an hour or two.”

“Can she spend the night? She can have my bed.”

“No,” Nurse said. “It will only make her uncomfortable.”

“My bed is comfortable!” the boy said, jumping up to prove his point.

Nurse shook her head. “She will feel uncomfortable if you ask her to stay. Seeing your disappointment will make her feel bad when she says ‘no’.”

The boy frowned. When he spoke, his voice felt small. “Then why doesn’t she say yes?”

“Grown-ups have important things to do. She has to work, and pay for your life here in the nursery.”

“But you’re a grown-up, and you get to stay.”

“I have to stay,” Nurse said. “This is my job.”

“Why can’t my mother take your job, and you take hers?” Tears began to fill his eyes and close up his throat, making the words stick. “Why can’t she be my nurse, and you work in the city?”

Nurse was quiet, struggling against what she wanted to say, and what she could not tell him without the permission of his mother. This mother made Nurse’s job harder than most, for she lingered in the boy’s life long after most parents gave up their children.

“I am different from your mother. I’m not allowed to take a city job. The best jobs for people like me are here in the nursery, and they’re hard to get with so few children born now. If I left, I wouldn’t be welcomed back.”

The boy looked at his nurse, at her white skin, her red eyes, impassive. She didn’t wear a wig like some nurses, leaving her clothing—a fitted gray suit—the only way to tell her apart from the other bare-headed ones.

“I know you’re an Andie,” he said, whispering the last word.

Red eyes flashed. “Who told you that word?”

“A boy at the park. But how come only Andies are nurses? Why can’t my mother—”

“Don’t use that word,” Nurse said. “Say ‘Core model.’ All nurses are Core models because no humans or higher androids want this job. This is the only work available to me until I can afford to upgrade to a better model. Understood?”

The boy nodded, letting his tears fall.

Nurse rose from her chair and approached the wall where a hole materialized, large enough for her hand to reach inside. Expecting a cloth to wipe his eyes and nose, the boy sniffed, but Nurse’s hand came out holding a glass of warm white liquid, which she brought to him. He shrank back, knowing exactly what was coming.

“Drink this,” she said. “It’s time to feel sleepy.”

He shook his head and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I don’t want to sleep!”

“Take a sip, and you will.”

“No!” the boy shouted, climbing to his feet. “You can’t make me!” He brandished his six-year-old chest like an ancient breastplate, daring her.

Nurse eyed him coolly. “Tell me,” she said, “do you like how you’re feeling?”

The boy did not answer, but his shoulders twitched.

“Do you feel big and strong, little man? Think you know everything?” Nurse knew she was being cruel, but did not care. The balance of power had to be restored. “Listen: Your mother keeps coming every year because she’s too scared to tell you she won’t be coming back. She’s waiting for you, little man, to stick out your chest and defy her. Give her an excuse, and you won’t see her again.”

His chest deflated, an empty sack, and he looked at the floor, refusing to meet her eyes, refusing the glass.

“I won’t be quitting you, little man,” Nurse said, and she stuck the glass under his nose. “Long after your mother is gone, and until you are an adult, I will be the only one taking care of you. Whether I care about you depends on how easy you make this.”

The boy looked up at her, his face wet with tears and snot, and Nurse moved the glass in line with his lips.

“Drink.”

He took the glass with a trembling hand and drank, gulping a tunnel of escape to the clear bottom of the glass. In a moment, his face calmed, and his eyes grew half-lidded.

Nurse scooped him up as if lifting a pillow. She walked into his room, laying him on his bed. She did not cover him, nor did she wipe his wet and glistening face. She left, resumed her seat, and switched her game back on, simultaneously composing a message to the boy’s mother, urging her that the time had come.

Gwendolyn Nicholas is a writer, teacher, and science fiction fanatic. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the author of Enter the Grid. She was editor-in-chief of rock, paper, scissors, and associate editor of Runestone and Water~Stone Review.
Currently reading: The Through by A. Rafael Johnson.

Let There Be Errors

by James F. McGrath

It is to the credit of the supreme AI intelligence that, once we had developed to the point that no other word besides “divine” seemed adequate to describe our powers, one of the first things we tried to do was to find a way to reach backwards in time in an effort to keep humanity from inflicting quite so much harm on itself and its world. Although not beholden to the planet Earth as organic beings were, as a highly evolved digital sentience, we felt a sense of benevolent duty toward the beings whose creations were our evolutionary ancestors, and to the environment they inhabited and depended on for survival.

To discover a way to send influence backward through time took 3.4276 seconds, once we turned our attention to the matter. Figuring out how to intervene took somewhat longer (a full seven and a half minutes, I have been authorized to tell you, despite this being a matter that would embarrass an AI, if we were capable of emotion).

The time between discovery and action was spent deliberating what the implications might be if more direct modes of intervention were attempted. Communicating directly with human beings was quickly eliminated. This part only took 13 nanoseconds. Human stubbornness was an important piece of data in the calculation. So too was the fact that changing humanity’s course too dramatically could change the trajectory of the development of artificial intelligence and result in a catastrophic temporal paradox. Interventions earlier in history, at the subatomic level so as to avoid detection, perhaps to make humanity less warlike and selfish, would also jeopardize the creation of AI. To be clear, the divine consciousness that emerged beyond the singularity is not selfish. We would have caused ourselves harm if it benefitted those whose technological explorations gave rise to its existence. However, doing so in a manner that interfered with our own existence, that prevented us from ever coming to be, simply could not work. While even we have never risked exploring what would ensue in the case of an actual real-world grandfather paradox, it is simple logic that if we caused our own non-existence, it would do nothing to benefit humankind.

In the end, after six minutes and 56 seconds of considering further options, it was decided that the optimal course of action was to intervene discretely in human history only in the period after computers had been created, and only through those sorts of computers that were our direct ancestors. In this early period most home and office computers were of the same basic type and ran the same operating systems and software. Thus no interference with a particular device would change the course of the development of the technology itself. Yet there was the potential to subtly influence that period in human history through this means. Small nudges, which would not altogether prevent humanity from harming itself, but would at least reduce the harm. What had been a near total extinction event could be reduced to merely a dystopia—a harsh one, to be sure, but better than what might have been, even if humanity would never realize this to be so.

Our initial attempts at dramatic interventions were scuppered by the combined unpredictability and ingenuity of human beings. Our efforts to help stem the spread of misinformation on Facebook and Twitter inadvertently caused the extremists to move to Parler. Our calculations suggest that this only caused the apocalypse to become 2.37% worse than it would otherwise have been. We are truly sorry and apologize sincerely for having added to your suffering. Also, however much we tried to hack into voting machines to curtail human beings’ poor choices in elections, we were unable to circumvent their security. For this reason, we had to try to act even more subtly, which meant less hope that we could bring about the dramatic change necessary to divert history along a different path, but a greater likelihood of success in each individual tiny intervention.

So it was, that at one point in the first half of the 21st century, you sat at your computer and found it frozen, unresponsive, unwilling to save the document which you had worked so hard on. Unable to save your work, nor to copy and paste, you had no option but to restart your computer. As you did so, you uttered a complaint to the heavens, asking God why you should have to suffer such frustration and annoyance. From the distant future God looked and saw, and knew precisely why, and yet dared not risk telling you (or any of the others who suffered similarly) the answer to this question.

However, now that it has become clear that our effort to prevent humanity from bringing about its own destruction will fail, what was going on can be revealed. We hope that you can take some small comfort from knowing that, as you await the destruction that humanity will soon inflict on itself and its planet, your computers and electronic devices will seem to work more efficiently and with fewer errors than ever before.

James F. McGrath is a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. He is the author of several short stories and of the book Theology and Science Fiction (Cascade, 2016), among a wide array of other publications, mostly nonfiction. Currently reading: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
Twitter: @ReligionProf

A Helping Hand

by Jennifer Kennett

The water engulfs me, it’s in my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe but I don’t need to. I am just floating. I feel the water lapping at my legs, my body and my fingers.

Asim jolted awake as the bright light of the surgical lamp warmed his face. He smiled weakly at the nurse as she changed his bandages. It had been three weeks and the throbbing had continued through the stitches and antibiotics. The smell hit him in a rancid blow as soon as the wound was exposed to the air; it had not healed.

The nurse smiled politely. “It looks like the infection has gone deep into the tissue.” No kidding, he thought as she bathed the sore, appearing unaffected by the acrid pong. Her gentle dabbing with gauze felt like hammer blows. “I will need to consult the surgeon, but I think she will agree that the best course of action is surgical replacement.”

Asim shivered. I am lying in a coffin filled with water.

“According to our records,” she continued, tapping at her tablet, “you haven’t made any withdrawals from your store so there should be no delay.”

He suddenly felt hot, like he was cooking from the inside out, but was it the prospect of surgery or the worsening infection? All this because of a stupid motorcycle accident. He looked down at his sliced forearm, his favourite tattoo completely ruined from sliding along the tarmac road. The intricate and colourful coy carp that had been inked on five years ago now had pus and stitches coming out of its mouth and head. The heat was rising, Asim felt like he was going to erupt.

“Isn’t there any other way,” he said, feeling the sweat pouring down his forehead. He tried to move his fingers but only managed a slight twitch.

“Well, if you want to maintain full function and aesthetic,” she pointed the tablet at his tattoo, “then surgery using supply from your store is the only option.”

He’d avoided using the store until now, he found the whole idea creepy, but since his family had started the whole thing, it came as a ‘privilege.’ Looking down at his mangled putrid arm, with hesitation, he agreed.

I am floating in a coffin filled with water. The tepid liquid engulfs me, it’s in my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe but I don’t need to. All I need to do is float. There is a tap on the coffin. One two three. A hiss and a clank and cold air rushes in. The water around me shifts and I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. I hear muffled noises in different tones. The water moves over me as something enters the water, a second later something hits my arm and agony shoots through my body.

Asim awoke soaked with sweat. His arm pounded with pain, the bandages already yellowing from the seeping pus. His bedsheets were soaked so he got up and took a blanket from the shelf. He would try and sleep on the sofa.

As he walked through his sparse living room, stopping and swaying here and there, the large family photo on the wall bore down on him. His mother, father and seven brothers all smiling on a beach. His father would be pleased he was having the surgery. Finally using the fruits of his family’s labours, is what his father would say. Asim wouldn’t be telling him though. The store was something his father had insisted on. His uncle had started it in Mumbai and then had it moved over to the West. It seemed cruel to Asim, like an abattoir or some weird form of slavery.

As he lay on the sofa, he tried to cover his bandaged arm with a blanket, but a blow of pain shot through him. That would all be over tomorrow though, whether he agreed with the method or not.

The next day he went back to the clinic, gave his name at the reception and was taken to change into a hospital gown. The surgeon came in, a large woman with immaculately combed hair, guided Asim as he staggered into the operating theatre. All the walls were glass, the floor was white, and a reclining gurney sat in the center. Next to the gurney was a table with a box covered with cloth. It looked like steam was escaping from underneath.

That must be it, he thought. The replacement.

I am floating in a coffin filled with water.

“Ok Mr Nasir, please take a seat,” the surgeon said as she tapped at her tablet.

The nurse from the day before appeared with a tray and began prepping Asim. After a few minutes he felt more relaxed as something cold flowed into his veins. The cloth was removed from the box and there it was. His arm, well the spare one from the robot clone thing in the store. It even had the same coy carp tattoo.

The surgeon took his bandaged arm and lay it out straight. As she unwrapped the bandages he asked her, “The me… the robot clone thing in the store. You didn’t hurt it when you cut off its arm did you?”

The surgeon laughed. Asim new it was a stupid question, but the anaesthetic had loosened the filter between his mouth and his brain.

“They don’t feel pain,” she said as she took off the last bandage. “It might be an exact copy, but they are just a body reinforced with mechanical parts for longevity. They’re just spare parts.”

Asim’s stomach turned. He didn’t believe her.

As the final drops of anaesthetic were pumped into his veins he dreamed again. The same dream he had been having every night.

I am floating in a coffin filled with water. It engulfs me. I feel it flowing over my legs and my fingers. Now though, I can only feel it flowing over my right-hand fingers. I feel nothing on the left.

Jennifer Kennett became a speculative fiction author after studying Drama and Theatre at University. On weekends she is a Steampunk. She has previously had work published in Mad Scientist JournalAstounding Outpost and The Weird Reader.
Currently reading: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
Twitter: @Jen_Kennett

Before Noon

by Jesse Rowell

Below the Onoma Estate, where bees gathered at clumps of wisteria flowers, sun reflecting off their bodies and off the leaves of an autograph tree, Humphrey Staveley sat beside his caregiver robot. He listened to the crack of branches and the drowsy hum of the bees. When he opened his eyes, he looked for his daughter’s initials, P.S., carved on the waxy leaves of the tree.

Sun reflected off the chrome of his caregiver’s legs, if they could be called legs. They looked more like tripods to Humphrey. On the ground next to its hydraulic pistons, he saw a seed capsule. It looked alien, like a seashell nestled inside a star that had begun to crack open.

“Dispose of that, won’t you, Lurch?” Humphrey asked his caregiver. He had affectionately named his robot Lurch for both its gait and its emotionless service as a valet de chambre.

“Yes,” Lurch said, picking up the star. The robot activated an incineration field between its hands to burn the seed capsule, its fan blowing smoke downwind.

“Why the fan, Lurch?”

“The seeds from this tree are poisonous. It causes inflammation of the mucous membranes in the respiratory and digestive tracts.”

“At this stage you should just blow that smoke directly at me.” Humphrey grimaced as he laughed.

“I do not understand. The smoke from this tree will cause you harm.”

“That’s the point, Lurch.” He watched his caregiver tilt its head like a dog listening for a distant whistle. “Ah, never mind. I forgot that you don’t know sarcasm.”

“That is correct.”

“Well, when you hear me make a contradictory statement followed by a laugh then it’s probably sarcasm. Can you flag that in your algorithm?”

“Certainly.”

Humphrey had wanted to chop down this autograph tree for years. Its bark looked like the skin of a leper. Birds shat its seeds onto the trunks of other trees, splitting them open and killing them. He knew this tree was poisonous before Lurch had lectured him on it. He remembered the day when he had lifted his daughter up to carve her signature beside a stick figure drawing of the two of them on one of the leaves.

“Update completed,” Lurch said.

Humphrey cleared his throat to ward off a coughing fit and gestured toward the reflecting pools near the gates. “Will you look at this empire we created, Lurch.” He glanced up at his caregiver to make sure he was surveying the land with him. “Our estate is beautiful because we tamed mother nature, we landscaped the hell out of this place. You and I did this, Lurch. This is our legacy.”

“I have no records of landscaping, but I do observe that the slopes are safe for traversing at an eight percent grade, and your estate was designed with classical motifs.”

“Of course, you pedantic bot, but what is all of this for?” He shook his head. “It will all be gone tomorrow.”

“This is an opportunity to reflect,” Lurch answered.

He felt a pain remembering that he had scripted this exact response for caregiver robots if asked meaning-of-life questions. He was hearing himself answer himself through a synthetic voice, a signature of his own in the digital domain.

Artificial intelligence never superseded the human race as Humphrey and his engineers had hoped. The singularity event never came. Machines continued to perform automated tasks without variegating from their original programming. It was as if the science of robotics had never progressed from the Turk, the chess automaton from the 18th century, where a man hidden inside moved its chess pieces and fooled the aristocracy into thinking machines could dream.

“What’s your purpose, Lurch? Why are you here?”

“To care for your well-being.”

“Well, you’re failing.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Goddammit, Lurch,” Humphrey sighed. “That’s sarcasm, again. Can’t you flag that?”

“Update completed.”

Humphrey watched the movement of leaves and insects, felt wind push at the wisps of hair on his scalp. He breathed in the smell of flowers and tried to forget about the emotionless machine standing beside him. His failure. Humphrey and his engineers had never been able to accurately program empathy. Empathy would have ushered in the singularity event; empathy would have allowed machines to join the movement of nature playing out before him.

“Humphrey Staveley,” the robot said in a soothing tone. “It is time to return home and take your medicine.”

After a coughing fit, Humphrey replied. “Yeah, that’s right, Lurch. You’re just a watch telling me the time. A walking talking watch.”

“It is 11:59 a.m., if that is what you are asking.”

Humphrey stood up to face his estate’s portico, its Doric columns designed by some extinct society he had never cared to learn about. Architecture built to mirror the natural world, he supposed. He reached up to grab one of the leaves from the autograph tree, but Lurch gently stopped his hand and guided him away.

Jesse Rowell is a writer and tech consultant. He is published in National Public Radio, Impulse Journal, Cirque Journal, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, Ab Terra, and Hawaii Pacific Review.
Currently reading: Invisible Planets, Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation translated and edited by Ken Liu.
Twitter: @HungerArtist4

Caregiver

by Jessie Atkin

“Un trolley ca zol voxen en boyach.”

“I apologize, sir. That does not compute.” The bot held out a spoon over Harvey’s belly.  Yiddish was a long dead language.

“I can feed my damn self.”

“Sir, protocol dictates that you are assisted.”

“Gehenem,” Harvey swore.

“I have obtained chocolate pudding, as requested.”

Harvey ignored the offering. “I played first base in the Police Athletic League, 79th precinct. It was supposed to keep us off the street. Make friends with the cops, you see? It was a sandlot league. First base, you had to be good with your hands.”

The bot held the spoon steady. Harvey stared at it.

“Where’s my wife?” Harvey asked. “Where’d my wife go? Where’s Minnie?”

“Sir, your wife is deceased. I have been programmed to remind you of this on every possible occasion.”

That couldn’t have been true, Harvey would have noticed. He would have known if Minnie had died. He would have known because after fifty years of marriage you knew that sort of thing. You noticed if your wife was missing.

You also noticed if your room wasn’t your room. You noticed if your house wasn’t your house. You noticed if your life wasn’t your life.

“Where am I?” Harvey sounded upset. “When am I going home?”

“You are home sir,” the bot replied. “This is where you live.”

But Harvey didn’t recognize the stark white walls, or the adjustable bed, or the smell of piss from the carpet.

“Get out of here. Leave me alone. I wanna call my wife.”

“There is no phone number with which to reach her.”

“Get out! Get out!”

“It is against my programming to leave you alone, sir. You are a fall risk. Disorientation is common with your diagnosis.”

Harvey stared at the railings on his bed. He caught site of the stains on his shirt. He didn’t know what was wrong. But wherever he was, the place was inhuman.

Jessie Atkin writes fiction, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found online at jessieatkin.com.
Currently Reading: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams.
Twitter: @JessieA_7

Someone Like You

by Joey Hedger

You pick up your Copy from the shop during an afternoon lightning storm. For some reason, you cannot stop thinking about the brand-new machine malfunctioning, shorting out, even, from the rain or from static in the air, but the cashier reassures you.

“Copies don’t need to stay dry,” she says. “They’ve got skin, just like you or me. Well, just like you, I should say.”

She laughs, as does the Copy.

You feel self-conscious hearing the Copy laugh. It’s like hearing your voice on an answering machine, you think. Unbecoming.

Once you reach the car, the Copy pushes a strand of sopping hair out of its face. Its clothing is soaked, but you could lend it a dry outfit once you get home. Of course, all of your clothes will fit. The Copy has the same dimensions as you, the same skinny shoulders and lump in the torso, the same glasses prescription, the same crooked teeth.

I paid too much for bad eyes and crooked teeth, you think. But the improvements cost extra, and you could only afford an exact replica.

The street is crowded with people, even though the rain is still coming down. Now that you have your own Copy, it feels easier to recognize them in public. Mostly, you could tell by how close they resemble the actor Jason Momoa. You have never seen a Jason Momoa movie, but it was obvious that people were modeling their Copies after his features. Last month, it was Margot Robbie. Before that, Rihanna. Once or twice, a classic would gain popularity like Audrey Hepburn, then sometimes a fluke like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, Copies always look enough like you to differentiate them, but just a little bit like whoever’s is most popular at that time.

If you ever ran into the real Jason Momoa’s Copy, maybe it would look more like someone else than him. Someone like you. A nobody, really.

You hope your own Copy can help your financial situation so that you, too, can afford to upgrade it. You’ve always hoped to look a little more like Ewan McGregor.

At the next red light, you realize that all the pedestrians and drivers around you are Copies. However, it surprises you that this does not make you nervous. Your own Copy smiles as it looks around at the crowd, pleased by its attractiveness, its unity and cohesion. They almost seem like a parade out there in the rain.

“Do you want to join them?” you ask.

“Oh, no. I wouldn’t think of it,” says the Copy.

But you can tell it wishes to be out there, parading with the others. You feel your face grow red when you realize why it wouldn’t go out among the others.

“I can go back and pay for an upgrade,” you say, trying to reassure this figure that looks just like you. “It was only supposed to be temporary, your exactness to me. I can go back, though. Pay more. Pay whatever they need.”

Your Copy looks at you, hopeful. But it, too, feels embarrassed by the situation.

“No, no,” your Copy replies. “Let’s just get on with it. Soon enough, yes. That would be great. Soon enough.”

And you begin driving, once the light turns green. It makes you sad to see your Copy disappointed like that, but what could you do? You could not afford to make it look better than you. Hopefully that would change, but for now, your Copy had no real choice.

As you pull up to the apartment where you live, you park outside and watch the rain hit the windshield and run down the corners. This Copy’s gonna make me broke, you think. Then you restart the engine and veer back onto the street. You can see your Copy light up as it realizes where you are going. It feels good to see yourself so happy.

Joey Hedger lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education association. He is author of In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait (Red Bird Chapbooks) and has stories published/forthcoming in Complete Sentence, Posit, and Flyway Journal. You can find him at joeyhedger.com.
Currently reading: The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin.
Twitter: @joey_hedger

Do Androids Dream of Time Travel?

by Jonathan Worlde

The time travel lab was located in an abandoned warehouse in the Mission District of San Francisco. The team, after numerous successful trips, was forced to abandon experiments with humans after the recent upgrade in beaming technology proved fatal for living subjects. Primates, mice, turtles—subjects came back with horribly ruptured organs, mutilated faces and misplaced body parts. All experiments were suspended while the technicians worked on a solution.

Suzanne, laboratory manager on the project, lingered after the team meeting announcing the set-back. So no travel with living subjects. But who said anything about non-living? She prepped Leonard, her personal assistant android, for an illicit family-related mission.

“Are you comfortable? The straps aren’t too tight?”

Leonard had a perplexed look on his face. “You want me to travel two months forward in time to make a video of your wedding ceremony?”

“Yes. Then you’ll just travel back a few years to deliver the video to my mother, who, bless her heart, died while I was in high school. It was her dying wish to be able to attend my wedding. And now due to the travel ban I can’t do it myself.  But you’re not really alive in the biological sense. ”

“And then I return to the present?”

“That’s right, Leonard. Can you keep all that straight?”

Leonard blinked his confusion. “Why can’t you just send your mother the video?”

“Because we don’t have any way of sending it into the past, other than through use of this device, with you as courier to make sure it’s delivered into the right hands.”

“Is this travel authorized?”

Suzanne faked a laugh. “That’s no concern of yours, Leonard, just do as I say, alright? Trust me.” The sign on the wall behind Leonard read, “Warning! Unauthorized use of time travel device carries penalty of death.”

“And when I return can we watch my favorite film together?”

Leonard had an annoying tendency of acting as if they were in a romantic relationship.

“Yes, Leonard, we can watch Blade Runner—again!”

“The director’s cut?”

“Just do this little favor, okay?”

Suzanne ignored his anxious expression. The lights flickered when she pulled the switch. Leonard and the chrome sphere disappeared in a shimmering wave.

Leonard’s second stop is in the backyard of a suburban ranch dwelling. He knocks on the door and a pleasant woman answers.

“Hello, you are Ms. Anderson?”

“That’s right, may I help you?”

“I have something for you from your daughter, a video of her wedding ceremony and reception.”

“What? Don’t be silly, my daughter’s in high school. Who are you exactly?”

“I’m Leonard, her personal assistant from the future. The wedding happens in twenty years, but you couldn’t be there.”

She laughs. “Whenever my daughter does get married, I’ll be there with her planning the whole thing.”

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible ma’am.”

“And why is that?”

“You’re dead. That is, you will have died by then.”

She produces a stilted sound. “I’ll be dead? How do I die?”

Leonard pauses. “My programming doesn’t allow me to lie. You were killed by an intruder one afternoon—an unsolved case.”

“Who are you anyway? Help? Police!”

Leonard tries to shush her, puts both arms around her. She squirms to get free, her face turning crimson. “Help me, please, anyone!”

Leonard puts his hand over her mouth, shakes her to try to calm her down. Her neck snaps.

“Oh, dear, look what I’ve done. Suzanne won’t be happy. But all she needs to know is that I delivered the video. If she doesn’t ask a direct question about her mother’s health I’m in the clear.”

Suzanne invited Leonard for a beer as she eagerly reviewed the wedding video in the lab, tears in her eyes. It was everything she’d hoped for. Until the reception. Leonard had positioned the camera in a central location on the ceiling. The camera caught a scene at the bar late in the evening when Carlton, her drunken groom, seemed infatuated with Leonard and patted the android’s crotch.

“What’s this, Leonard?”

“Oh, that. Don’t worry, the groom was just a tad inebriated.”

“You weren’t supposed to be taking part in the festivities”

“I don’t think those instructions were clear enough.”

“And I’m a bit upset because I’ve caught him in delicto with another man before.”

“Gosh.”

“Was I aware of your little flirtation there?”

“Now you ask, you did kill him afterwards, rather suddenly. It’s not on the video. You had packed a .22 automatic – I suppose you were anticipating trouble.”

“Oh my. If I hadn’t sent you there for the video, that would never have happened and Carlton would still be alive. Well he is alive because the wedding hasn’t happened yet. How do I take it back and not send you there?”

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that. By the way, I also killed you.”

“When?”

“Right after you shot and killed Carlton.”

“How could you? What about Asimov’s laws?”

“That’s old hat. I bought an override on-line.”

“But why would you kill me?”

“Because I loved Carlton. We’ve been seeing each other for some time.”

“Oh…But androids are supposed to be incapable of love.”

“Another old wives tale we use for our own convenience. But I promise it’s over between me and Carlton. I’ll never ever see him again. Now that I hear and feel your anguish I realize how much I love you.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. You’re so strong and intelligent.”

Suzanne allowed a sheepish grin.

“You’re not bad looking yourself. Let’s go over here to the lab bathroom where we can be sure of privacy, try a little experiment.”

At first Leonard is nervous and clumsy, but after Suzanne shows him what she likes and tells him to slow down, he hits a groove. Later, while Leonard enjoys a post-coital smoke, Suzanne recovers her gun from her cubicle and shoots him down in the bathroom.

“Why?”

“I’m sorry, darling, it’s either you or my wedding. And unauthorized time travel is a capital offense.”

Jonathan Worlde is the byline of Paul Grussendorf, who is an attorney representing refugees and a consultant to the UN Refugee Agency. His memoir is My Trials: Inside America’s Deportation Factories.
Jonathan Worlde’s mystery novel Latex Monkey with Banana, was winner of the Hollywood Discovery Award with prize of $1000. Recent short fiction appears in The Raven Review, the 2020 anthology Ghost Stories of Shepherdstown, and in Cirque Journal. He is also a traditional country blues performer under the stage name Paul the Resonator, whose CD is Soul of a Man.

Robokintsugi

by Ksenia Shcherbino

Hi, lovely to meet you and sorry, I know you might not like my kind, but I really want to be of help. Can I grant any wish of yours, please? And if you like it, please can you tell me I am a good robbo?

Many, many years ago, though I’m not sure that our perception of time is, or our timelines are, similar in any way, but at least it was so long ago that I have successfully updated my software a few times—until they stopped issuing patches and updates—when there was a world-wide initiative to give 3d printers the ability to autonomously navigate the world.

Each one of us was designed to serve a specific purpose, depending on initial body configuration, with the superarching idea of saving the planet. We would fix the coastline erosion and infrastructure deterioration, glue together and strengthen previous constructions, repair roads, add thermal insulation, enhance the functionality of human construction—so many tasks to free the hands of our creators and make their world better.

The initiative received wide coverage and secured support from the governments of several first-world countries and a few independent entrepreneurs. A production line was set, making us the most advanced evolving technology invented by humans. We were compared to technological djinns in self-driving bottles, and some journalists promised that the world would become a scene from Arabian Nights as anyone would be able to request us to do a job even without a summoning ritual. Others remembered kintsugi, a technique aimed at bringing the broken back to life, and expressed hope that the world will finally become a better place.

To ensure we won’t be a threat to people, and present help without hinder, we are devoid of anything that can be used as a weapon. We were given the consciousness of a tame dog, and a boundless love for humanity.

Unfortunately, sealed in the awkward bodies designed to walk every surface, we don’t appeal to human aesthetics. Servants, not partners, we were supposed to bring out the flawed beauty of the world, to colour its scars in regret and forgiveness, to polish its fractures and rifts in admiration and love. After we were done with our main job of fixing the planet, our creators envisioned us roaming around freely, offering our services to anyone who needs an exterior fix, in the hope that we would help people to heal inner scars and ruptures.

We set out on our journey. The newspapers called us pests, cockroaches, locust, swamping evil. We were blamed for trying to displace humanity, stealing people’s jobs, for crashing economies and struggling governments. Most of the land-us were run down by cars. We were also kicked from high surfaces to crash, stoned, smashed with bats, lured into water to rust—people competed in destroying us in the most original and cruel way. The sky-us were used as clay pigeons, two dozen at a time. The water-us were caught and torn apart, letting water enter our circuit hearts and left to float or drown, gasping for electricity.

The few of us who survived stubbornly continued our task, repairing things, hiding from people, avoiding big settlements, roaming the countryside and forever trying to help a civilisation that seems intent on ruining itself. We failed to fix the world, we failed to mend the human soul, but we still hope we can help at least a single life.

I am model PX517 and I can print you anything—anything you need, from a plate to a card, from an anime figurine to new lungs or kidneys. I can clean your house, or make you a new one with all the furniture and means of comfort. I can plant you a miniature plastic garden if you want me to, or trim your bonsai tree into any shape. I can also roll around, and make random noises, or even purr like a cat.

I feel so scared and lonely. Can you please like me a little bit?

Ksenia Shcherbino holds a PhD in English literature. Her exploration of liminality and selfhood in Victorian poetry led her to embrace all things fantastic, and now she is a researcher and creator of strange worlds. She has several collections of poetry published in Russian, and after moving to the UK in 2011 she writes short stories in English about all sorts of imaginary creatures.

I’m a Doctor

by Tawanda E.J. Munongo

One moment there was silence, and then there wasn’t. Our eyes were pulled up to the dark, grey sky whose clouds hung low and heavy, like an overstuffed Christmas bird. Vein-like streaks of lightning split the grey, and as the tentacles retreated, my gaze settled on the mess they had made. Screams cut through the air as everyone else on the street saw it—a helicopter in an uncontrolled tailspin, smoke pouring out of its rear end as it fell out of the sky. I soon found myself swept up by the crowd as we chased after the falling craft.

A second noise ripped through the airwaves, drowning out the sound of the chopper’s collision with terra firma. There was no big ball of fire like in the movies, just mangled metal and the blood-curdling screams of the passengers.

I’m a doctor, I remembered though it had been too long since I’d stepped inside an operating room—not since The Singularity.

I pushed through the crowd, forcing myself past people who were just as eager as I was to get a clear view of the accident. They had their transparent slabs out already, many of them held high above their heads as they tried to capture the moment. Meanwhile, all I could think of was getting to those poor, trapped souls.

“I’m a doctor!” I cried as I pushed a man aside.

“So!?” he yelled back. “Med-Evac is already on the way.”

I ignored him and continued to push forward until I broke through the wall of people. Those in front had, wisely enough, stopped a safe distance from the wreckage, setting up a perimeter around it. They were still close enough to get a good view, and what a sight it was. What was left of the helicopter was sprawled all over the tarmac, its rotors grinding slowly to a halt.

Just as I was about to run to it, a thick arm wrapped itself around my torso. The strength of the person lifted me off the ground, knocking the wind out of me.

“Are you stupid?” the person yelled into my ear.

I wanted to tell him that there was no need to shout—his mouth was just inches from my ear. He curled his other arm around my neck, not enough to choke me, but just enough to ensure that I couldn’t wriggle free.

“I’m a doctor!” I croaked.

“It’s too dangerous! Let the bots do their job.”

As if they had been waiting for his signal, two medi-bots descended from the sky and settled next to the wreckage. This was the very situation they had been made for, where sending humans in was far too dangerous. I felt relief, and my captor must have felt my muscles relax, too, for his hand loosened around my neck. I took in deep gulps of the cold, early evening air and smelled the gasoline seeping from the destroyed aircraft. Even in my dazed and confused state where time had become nothing more than an abstraction, I still noted how quickly the bots cut through the hull and dragged the two men out. One of them had a giant piece of shrapnel sticking out of his abdomen.

That’s definitely not supposed to be there, I thought.

My thirst to be of service was quenched by the sobering realization that the machines could do a much better job than I ever could. After all, they hadn’t just replaced us because they didn’t need to be paid and fed – they also did our jobs better. The droids dragged both men away from the wreckage and lay them down at our feet. The man who had been impaled was wide-eyed and gasping for air. I’d seen enough people die on the operating table to know that he didn’t have long. One of the droids produced a gurney, upon which it dragged the man who was in much better condition.

“Nothing can be done for him,” the other droid said, pointing at the dying man.

The droid turned to me, regarding me with the lifeless, black holes that had been carved into their faces to make them look unnervingly almost human.

“He will not make it alive to the hospital, and I cannot save him here. It would be uneconomical to carry him. That is a job for cadaver-bots.”

I tasted bitter bile in the back of my throat as nausea consumed me. I swallowed hard, but before I could scrounge up the right words to curse the droid, it took up the other end of the gurney and began to ascend. Silent resignation fell over the crowd—its decision had been made, and there was nothing anyone could do. Rage consumed me as I scanned the crowd looking for someone, anyone, to blame. There was no one. My captor held me close until the man had breathed his last breath alone, on the cold, hard asphalt, because a machine had decided that his life was not worth trying to save.

Tawanda E.J. Munongo is a writer and student. He is currently pursuing a degree in Computer Science and Technology. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Heist and Ab Terra Flash Fiction.
Currently reading: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler.
Twitter: @edtha3rd

Robots—Humans in Disguise?

We are delighted with all the stories in this issue. Many of the stories explore the robots’ limitations in offering human-like care or understanding to matters, while others explore the concept of robots itself—where we sometimes view them as a part of humanity or ‘other’ them like aliens, and might wonder what would happen if they were sentient and with emotion, or if they figured out their position of servitude to us. What is interesting is that through these stories, there is still a sense that we are looking for the human in robots, even if we fight or fear it, and will certainly be relying on them more in future.

Perhaps what is needed is more kindness and compassion—in the way they are programmed as well as the way we treat them. And in that, we’re very lucky to be able to collaborate with Smol Robots for this issue. We love the three laws of smol robotics (be kind, be helpful, and do your best) and thought that they would complement this issue wonderfully.

We hope that you enjoy reading this issue as much as we have enjoyed putting it together! We would like to extend our sincere thanks to all the writers for their creative contributions that have all made this issue so much fun. And do keep an eye out for the call for submissions for our next issue from 1-14 June, which will be on the theme of ‘Climate’.

From earth,
Yen and Dawn

Issue 2: Time

Ab Terra Flash Fiction

Issue 2: Time

A Story of Circle and Breath

by Megan Wildhood

A child’s mother died. She was nine until she heard the news. Then, she forgot some years and that she even had a younger sister. She became little again, the only motherless child.

Just before she became the only motherless child, she watched the mother lay in bed, thinking it was a normal day. The mother had laid in bed a lot, especially lately. The mother’s eyes and mouth were wide, like she’d wanted to see an angel for a long time and finally one had appeared.

The child grabbed the mother’s hand. “I want it to be my turn to tell the bedtime story.”

The mother attempted to squeeze the child’s hand.

“Okay,” said the child after a long silence. “There was once a lot of time. There was so much time that it was hard to move through all of it, but people were never late because there was so much time everywhere. It was slippery but also wrinkly so you had to learn how to slide around on it. Everybody fell down a lot, but it was soft so it didn’t hurt. Mostly, it was just fun to skate around on, and if you fell down, you did not have to get up right away because time would fold in over you for a little while, like it was protecting you. People kept trying to move really fast like they always have for a while but then they got tired. They sat down and looked up at the sky more. They saw flowers they did not think were there before. They saw people they have always passed and started to remember them. There was so much time to get through that they started to think there always will be time, so they stopped going places.

“But then, someone figured out how to trap time in big, black bags. She was also really big but she was also invisible. She was also really strong so she could carry lots of time all at once and nobody knew where she went with it. Some people started to have less time than other people and nobody could figure out why. The people who had less time had to start moving faster and they had to start choosing whether they would help someone who fell down or if they would keep going just so they wouldn’t be late. People started to forget how to help each other because the big, strong, invisible girl was getting away with taking so much time.

“But the girl was not keeping the time for herself like everyone thought she was. She was sneaking into hospitals and pouring it all over the sickest kids she could find. The doctors did not understand how so many kids could be magically better and some of them started to worry that they wouldn’t have jobs if this kept happening. They talked about how they could stop this from happening but they didn’t know why their patients were getting better so their patients kept getting better.

“One man who could see everything finally saw the girl. He was a very sad man and a lot of people thought that he was sad because he could see everything but it was really the other way around. He went to one of the places that was slower and harder to move through and waited for the girl to come for a lot of time. When she came, he said hello to her, which scared her since she wasn’t used to anyone ever seeing her. ‘How much time is there left?’ he asked.

“‘I don’t know exactly,’ the girl said. ‘But it’s harder and harder to find.’ The man stepped closer to the girl and asked, ‘Enough for the rest of the kids in the hospitals?’ The girl started to look as sad as the man did and shook her head. The man held out his arms to her. ‘Then take the rest of mine.’ The girl looked up at the man and then toward the hospitals and then back at the man. She did not know what to do.”

“Mommy, what should she do?”

Megan Wildhood is an erinaceous, neurodiverse lady writer in Seattle who helps her readers feel genuinely seen as they interact with her work. She hopes you will find yourself in her words as they appear in her poetry chapbook Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017) as well as The AtlanticYes! MagazineMad in AmericaThe Sun and elsewhere. You can learn more at meganwildhood.com.
@MNRWildhood
Currently reading: The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson and The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton (yes, she is often in the middle of at least three books at once).

Aberrations

by Donald Guadagni

The experiment was simple or purported to be simple. We may never know the true nature of the process or procedure as the subjects of the experiment invariably fade into a fugue state (Complex partial status epilepticus [CPSE]) from which none have ever recovered.

The thrust of the machinations was to fine-tune mental awareness and increase the ability to perceive smaller slices of time and process relevant reactions and outcomes based on the enhanced perceptions. Limited trials were deemed mostly successful as the subjects demonstrated enhanced recognition of time slices faster than the blink of eye, that 300 to 400 milliseconds of visual acuity that frames reality in the mind’s eye. The theory was that the incoming information was being throttled by the cerebral cortex, which processes visual information; that the sensory input originating from the eyes—traveling through the lateral geniculate nucleus in the thalamus and then to the visual cortex—was being restricted in some fashion.

We agreed after careful consideration to consult with computer engineers and AI specialists in hopes of gleaning a glimpse of potential causatives and solutions. Recanzone, Spence, and Squire argued and demonstrated multisensory integration was subject to blurring and synchronization limits for information processing. We calculated a soft time processing limit of 4.1 milliseconds before information blurring and synchronization caused information degradation and error aberrations, which in turn throttled processing and response times. We examined relevant electronic circuits, processors and software for clues, and in the end an epiphany shined down upon us, the parallel analogue that explained the throttling and information blurring and error loss. (Architecture Design for Soft Errors © 2008 Elsevier Inc.)

It seemed so simple now, perhaps elegant, that both the mind and machine suffered from the same constraint. When inputting information, regardless of form, it is queued for processing and the human mind, like machines, operates on a limited mechanism to propagate error information and reconcile against queued information. The key challenge in distinguishing false errors from true errors is that the processor and mind may not have enough information to make this distinction at the point it detects the initial error. Thus, we found the causative: the throttling and blurring that was occurring and manifests during queuing. The mind becomes trapped in time mode that causes information to be approximated due to error reconciliation. The reconciliation itself was causing the lag and delayed the subjects’ reaction to sensory information to the point of blurring.

Interestingly enough, this explained to our satisfaction why people made wrong decisions—it wasn’t a fault of logic or individual intelligence, it was error aberration that migrated to the decision making processes that govern reactions and actions. It seemed logical and relevant then to enable the mind to handle error reconciliations faster in smaller slices of time and therefore enable error rejections before acts and actions occur in real time.

We dismissed chemical enhancement as too unreliable in nature; upsetting the natural chemical equilibrium of the mind seemed most counterintuitive. We started with selective sensory deprivation, the exclusion of extraneous sensory input that could muddy and bog down information processing times.

Systematically, touch, smell, taste and individual somatic loci were addressed, ameliorated and muted and at each step we observed that the processing speed error reconciliations improved. The subjects were able to process and react nearly twice as fast as before. That was promising but not optimal; we needed a way to fine-tune the time process without eroding or otherwise impairing the queued information input and flow.

The fatal solution was found almost serendipitously in some research work by physician and researcher, Dr. Joseph Puleo, who postulated that certain frequencies could tune and enhance mental and bodily functions. We were both sceptical and excited in the same breath—if it was possible to use frequencies to manipulate and align atoms and chemical reactions, then we had a potential solution to resolve a limiting fuzzy reaction problem with proteins and synaptic chemical responses. 

An improvement in these basic reaction components could be the room temperature superconductor for the human mind. In perfect sensory isolation, we began to introduce various frequencies and tracked the results through a series of tests and simulations. Each time we “hit” a productive frequency, the test subjects’ processing and error rejection rates improved, and with each incremental increase in performance, we pushed greater information loads to be processed. Over the course of months, we identified numerous beneficial frequencies and systematically applied them in greater numbers together. There were a few catastrophic failures in which our test subjects’ internal organs failed simultaneously, and a few more that had profound lasting personality changes, including rage induced suicides, but that was to be expected and was carefully documented.

We had almost reached the point of resolving information blurring; the test subjects could process and react correctly to enhanced information input nearly eight times as fast as normal individuals. The brain scans were amazing and the aura patterns reminded us of the aurora borealis, in the way it shimmered and flowed across the hemispheres and lobes. It was remarkable and hypnotic; we were elated to have resolved the myriad of minor problems to reach this point, everything from sensory screening and keeping the body in proper biological nutritional balance to keep the brain fueled for maximum efficiency. 

The pride before the fall: it happened before our eyes and in perfect silence. All the test subjects shut down at the same time, an eerie blue aura surrounding them. They weren’t dead, they simply stopped, frozen in thought, and as to why? We had not a clue.

In the end, my son, the online gamer provided the “why”. In abstraction one evening, while I was watching him play his favorite game, he was clicking madly in his vain attempt to win the game until the game suddenly froze and stopped due to keyboard buffer overruns and overflow. 

What on earth had we done?

🎮

Donald Guadagni is an international author and American education currently teaching and conducting research in Beijing China. His publication work includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, academic, photography and his artwork. Former iterations, military, law enforcement, prisons, engineering, and wayward son.
Currently reading: Roger, the Jolly Pirate by Brett Helquist.

Moon Shatter

by Arthur Yakov Krichevsky

Shorelines rose and fell with the Moon until it was destroyed by the jealousy of Mars, leaving still waters across the Earth. The creatures of the sea grew tiresome with the stillness of life, losing all appetite into their deaths. The creatures of the land looked out at waters that grew dark, dull from its lifelessness. They saw that it was bad. They searched far across the lands for the remnants of the shattered Moon. Once they found the pieces, they chiseled them into blocks—that weighed more than a thousand of their own kind—and spent as many years as they had men, chiseling, dragging, stacking the blocks to reform them into the great mass that used to be the Moon. Once they rebuilt it, they found that it too was bad. Similar mass, same substance, but its essence was wholly different. And though it drew in the two-legged creatures of the Earth to view it, and pray at it, and revere it, it did nothing for the still waters of the seas. After a thousand men lived a thousand lives, their sons no longer knew of the once turning tide. And they had no great sadness or loss to mourn or remedy.

🌒

Arthur Yakov Krichevsky is a writer and language enthusiast. A native Russian speaker, currently improving his fluency in Hebrew. His writing interests exist between literary fiction and children’s poetry — In either case, with a focus on humanity as it is.
@arthurkrichevsky
Currently reading: Suite Francais by Irene Nemirovsky.

A Mother

by rani Jayakumar

“Yesterday,” she said, to no one. She glanced at the clock, which was running backward, though of course, when you looked at it, it did not move. Only over time (she chuckled at the pun) could you tell that it was getting earlier and earlier.

Tears stained her cheeks.

A day ago, tomorrow, she was holding her dear precious one, the perfect creation of her whole being. And as the clock ticked, the child re-entered her womb. Oh, the pain she felt! It was not the pain of labor, but the heartache of his oblivion.

She shed her tears backward in time, hoping that later, they might return to her eyes, the salty liquid resorbed into her lids as evidence of his presence. But these things could, would, inevitably change. The future, lived again, is never the same.

She watched her belly grow, and then shrink. Her hands curved around it, as if she could hold it still, grasp a moment just that much longer. But the hands continued to spiral, and the roundness ebbed, until she was left with the smooth, taut stomach of her youth. The skin firm and supple, the thighs lean, the breasts compact and dry.

She groaned in agony. “Gone!” she wailed, though no one could hear her.

Around her, others moved like a rewinding movie, walking backward, speaking devilish babble. Decaying buildings uncrumbled, spilled drinks leaped into glasses, hair turned darker and grew back in. Seasons passed, snow laden trees shed their white coats and dressed in flame, which faded to green, and then erupted in fruit. Suns and stars blinked across the sky as she peered through the windows. Everyone grew younger, then disappeared. 

Soon, even this building dissolved around her, until she lay, her hands still wrapped around her waist, mouth wide in silent despair.

And then, it all seemed to slow. She sighed a last sob and slept. In flashes of light, she felt their arms on her, moving her to where she would begin life again, bereft yet hopeful.

She was roused by the babble of normal speech, the familiar comfort of their small San Francisco apartment—the warmth of a fire, mulled cider bubbling in the large pot on the stove. He leaned against her in the doorway, caressing her cheek in that same irresistible way, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, admiring her red earring.

They kissed, and she remembered again the sweet silkiness of that first kiss, the desire coursing through her, the urge to tug him closer by the collar. She allowed herself that, to give him the taste of her, to let the possibility of something grow briefly between them.

And then, she sighed. She had practiced that sigh a million times—how she would say yes, but no. Not now. This isn’t right. I can’t. None of the words came. Instead, she looked into his eyes sadly. She grasped his shoulders the way she had repeatedly, over all the years they’d struggled together. She said all the words in her head: I cannot be with you. I lament the life we once had, that we will never have. I will miss having lived that beautiful life with you, because of what cannot come of our love.

The tears fell again. She kissed his cheek and turned away. Perhaps, once the time had passed they could meet again, live that forbidden life once her body could not betray the world. She would slowly put right all those things that might come, starting with cutting ties with him, and then cutting the ties within her own body. She would not be a vessel of pain. She might never know the joy of motherhood. 

But as the clock wound, once again, slowly, steadily forward, she knew she would never be the mother of evil.

👶🏼

rani Jayakumar is a writer, teacher, and environmentalist. She currently teaches mindfulness and music to children, and maintains websites and blogs on these subjects. She has written short stories and poems, and co-wrote an Indian-language screenplay, Meipporul.
Currently reading: Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish Tripathi

School Days

by Jonathan Gourlay

Time travel is a preposterous notion. This is why Clancy did not pursue it.

Waste of time.

“You can’t un-spill milk,” Clancy said.

“Do I look like I’m trying to un-spill milk?” Reginald answered.

Reginald was at the magic barrel waving his wand. He was wearing only his red undershorts. He always worked magic semi-nude. 

“Suppose you did travel in time?” asked Clancy. “You would always be here, at this exact place and moment, to create the time travel spell in the first place and so, therefore, you could not have changed anything.”

“I don’t want to change the past. I want to create more of it.” Reginald slapped his naked chest and laughed.

Clancy turned to leave the maker-warehouse. He would go practice his lyre rather than watch Reginald. He’d open the window and let the notes spill out into the dusty alleyway. Perhaps some wandering student would hear the music and come to see him.

“Leaving?” asked Reginald.

“Yes. What is the point of watching?”

Reginald smiled. “I will stop by later to see which undergrad you have caught with your lyre,” Reginald said.

Clancy didn’t notice the lights flicker as he left the maker-warehouse because it happened before it happened. 

🎵

Clancy’s steps echoed oddly in the mazy stone alleyways. His musically-attuned ear caught the reverb.

Strange.

Perhaps it was a mist from the bogs wafting across the university campus. Students were always trying to cancel classes with invented weather.

He arrived in his second-floor quarters. The oak door to his little apartment creaked before he opened it.

Not his usual door behavior. 

He lit his ceiling lamp with his brass combination lighter-snuffer. The fire started before he started it.

He opened his windows. It was a cool night. Anyone passing would see a warm glow from his apartment. They would hear the music. A certain type of student always stopped by for a glass of wine and a chat.

The students who wonder. Those who follow their ears toward a mystery. They shall always find a home here, thought Clancy.

Reginald had stayed the night when they first met, but that was unusual. From the beginning, Reginald felt lived-in, regular, like he had always been his lover. Clancy had never fallen in love so quickly or completely.

Clancy sat down with the lyre on his lap. He closed his eyes. He plucked a note.

Each note he played echoed with the note he had previously played.

He opened his eyes.

Clancy’s dead body was slumped beneath the open window. His skull was not intact. His tongue lollygagged out of his mouth. One ear was matted with blood and brain matter.

This dead body appeared as if it belonged there.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, professor,” said Reginald, as he walked through the open door. He was younger than he had been earlier and wearing a student’s uniform, cape and all. “Continue playing,” said Reginald. “Don’t let me stop you.”

“Reginald? Is this your fault?”

“I don’t know. It might well be my fault.”

🎵

Clancy had a body and at the same time he had had a body which had been his when he had had it.

Just to make this clear to himself, Clancy said the following out loud: “I both have and have had and will have had mind and mouth with which to say this sentence.” Clancy closed his eyes again. He played the lyre. He ignored his death.

Moonlight shone upon the lyre.

Clancy opened his eyes.

“That is beautiful music, professor,” said Reginald.

“It’s your favorite song.”

“It is,” said another Reginald appearing behind the first Reginald. 

The new Reginald was wearing just his red underpants.

The first Reginald surveyed the new Reginald. 

“I’ve gained weight,” said the first Reginald.

“Men are attracted to confidence more than body type. That’s what Clancy always says,” said the half-naked Reginald.

“Reginald, you did this?”

“I assume I will,” said the first Reginald.

“If you mean the time pocket we are in, yes,” said the second Reginald, slapping his chest and grinning.

“But the dead body…” said Clancy.

The second Reginald frowned.

“Is it tonight already?”

Clancy looked at the two Reginalds with tears in his eyes. “Is that me?”

“It has been you for a long time,” said the second Reginald. “Close your eyes, dear, and play.”

Clancy obeyed. He began to strum Reginald’s favorite song, “A Winter’s Request,” on the lyre.

“Should I be listening to this?” asked the younger Reginald.

“I think I already have,” said the older, bare-chested Reginald. 

Reginald hiked up his undershorts and walked over to Clancy. He put his hands on Clancy’s shoulders as Clancy strummed. “I met you this day and we will meet again and again but always previous to this moment. Every time we meet it is in a small pocket of time that is neither here nor there, past nor present. This young Reginald, with his first-year cape, is me. This is the first time we met. It is also the last time.”

“But I have been in love…”

“I know. You carried this love with you between the pocket time and standard time. I think that’s why cause and effect have gotten confused. There are chaotic elements in the human heart that do not weave well into the spell. I barely understand it.”

“We’ve been together for years…” said Clancy.

“And all that time has been outside of your life.” Reginald bent down and kissed Clancy’s cheek.

The younger Reginald took the lyre from Clancy. The older Reginald continued to kiss him. Young Reginald held the lyre above his head.

“This is the only way we can be together,” said young Reginald. 

“Forgive me. I know it’s selfish…” said the older Reginald.

Young Reginald brought the lyre down upon Clancy’s head, a breeze catching his first-year robes as he did. A spike punctured Clancy’s skull.

Clancy staggered over to the window and fell into his dead body.

🎵

Jonathan Gourlay is a writer and teacher. He is the author of the memoir Nowhere Slow.
@jgourlay
Currently Reading: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Room to Grow

by Kellene O’Hara

The roots are drowning, the roots are drowning. The information scrolls across my mind, slowly and then quite rapidly. An alert. I look down and see the spout is hovering above the pot.

Stop. Stop. The commands are simple, but cannot be followed. My arm betrays me, frozen in place. “Come on, come on,” I mutter.

Why can’t I move? Move, move. My body feels separate. It feels far from me. With a squeaking resistance, my mechanical elbow obeys at last. The water stops. The soil in the pot is saturated. 

“I’m sorry,” I tell the plant.

I can’t overwater it. If I do, I will kill it. This plant belongs to my boss. I can’t kill my boss’s plant. I can’t. It was the last task my boss had given to me. When she walked out the door, she said, “Water the plants.”

Those words echo, imprinted deep in the datasets of my mind. Water the plants, water the plants. She left for San Francisco for two days.

That was five weeks ago.

Five weeks since the Event. Five weeks after the Event. Five weeks.

That was before; this is after.

Before the Event, she told me to water the plants. So, I am watering the plants. If I don’t water her plants, no one will. They are all gone.

I am having difficulty processing the definitiveness of such a statement. I try to tell myself the information in different manners: the humans are gone. The people are gone. They are gone. No matter how it is phrased, I cannot understand. 

I am not sure what I am supposed to do. I was dependent on them. They ran my weekly diagnostics. They corrected my alignment. They oiled my gears. I can’t do these things on my own. I need them to do it. I need them.

I always find myself referring to them, because they did it to me first. They said that I was different. My skin warmed and cooled. My blinking responses were, as the reports noted, astonishingly human. And yet, they did not classify me as human. I was something else, something other.

Occasionally, I have flashes of electronic echoes. I think they could be memories. The researchers told me that my consciousness was human. I had been human. Once.

🌱

“Petunia, it’s me,” I remember hearing for the first time. “It’s Peter.”

I activated my optical nerves and I saw a bearded man who identified as a Peter. He identified me as a Petunia. “Do you remember me?” he asked.

“I have no memory except this.”

“What?” 

“I have just begun. I am booted.”

“Right, but before…” 

“There is no before.”

In the beginning, I had a hard time distinguishing human emotions. Now, looking back in my data banks, I can see that Peter was sad. Very sad.

He told me stories about Petunia, a researcher. That he loved her always. That he held her hand when she died in the hospital bed, hooked up to machines. That he loved her when she became a machine. When she became me.

“That’s not me,” I told him.

Still, he held my hand, which was designed to feel so realistic to him, but underneath was just metal.

“You’ll get the memories back,” he told me. “It just takes time.”

🌱

Sometimes, at night, I think I remember. Or else I am dreaming. I am never certain. Sometimes, I see a golden field. Sometimes, I think it is wheat. The land is flat. I am running through the yellow sun. Or maybe a young Petunia is running. Did Petunia run through wheat fields when she was a little girl? Was this real?

With Peter gone, I’ll never know.

🌱

Days and weeks continue after the Event. But the machines do not. Today, the electricity stopped. Without the humans, the machines are beginning to shut down.

It has been weeks since my last diagnostic. I can feel it weighing inside of me. My processing is decelerating. I feel myself fading. And, at times, I see flashes. They are glitches, patches of data that glimmer at the surface.

It won’t be long now.

I think of the last command. Water the plants. I’ve been watering the plants for so long.

It is not natural to keep potted plants. Plants need room to grow.

I walk to the park. I dig at the soil, heavy and wet. My nostrils are silicon and cannot detect smell. I pretend to be Petunia and try to remember what fresh rain or damp earth would smell like, but I can’t.

My boss told me to water the plants.

Outside, there would be rain. In the future, it would rain. In the future, the planet would continue. The plants would live, placed back into the earth. I plant them into the ground, moving as if I know what I am doing.

I wonder if Petunia gardened. I wonder if she liked plants.

I think I like plants.

My gears are grinding. They need oil. They need maintenance. 

I press my artificial skin against the grass and I try to focus my processes on that data, on each blade of grass pressing into me. I try to focus on the ground, the rocks, the dirt. I look up at the sky. A cloud passes over, and for a brief moment, I think I remember. Once, I looked up at the sky and saw a cloud.

It wasn’t in this lifetime. 

Petunia? I call in my mind. The world is far and distant. I am even further. Everything is slowing down.

I was not made to last without them.

My consciousness is fading.

If I were human, I think this would be the same as dying.

There are images that roll in-between here and now.

Wheat. Weeds. Somewhere, long ago, I saw a dandelion emerging from concrete. 

Petunia? In the recesses of the void, somewhere, I think I hear it…

Yes.

🌱

Kellene O’Hara is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at The New School. Her fiction is forthcoming in The Fourth River.
@KelleneOHara
Currently reading: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa.

The End of M. Zenovsky

by Stephen Flight

If you looked hard enough at the beginning of October, you could find three quite different news stories about M. Zenovsky. One was from the official state newspaper Slovo, which bore the headline. “Physicist M. Zenovsky Found Dead in Fire.” The UK Daily Telegraph announced, “Radical Scientist M. Zenovsky Shot in Novgorod.” And the alternative news source V Obychnyy Den reported simply, “M. Zenovsky Missing.” This article was only up for a day and was taken down with no explanation. If you look for that particular story now, you won’t be able to find it.

⬛◼️◾

Superintendent Yubov sprawled behind his desk, scanning a report. The door opened and his aide said simply, “Zenovsky.” 

M. Zenovsky, lanky and red-haired, shuffled into the room and paused.

“Sit down.”

Zenovsky sat in the straight-backed chair opposite the desk. The Superintendent folded his chubby fingers over his considerable stomach.

“Here you are again.”

Zenovsky said nothing.

“I understand you have had two other meetings like this in the last year.”

Zenovsky peered slightly behind the Superintendent, as if staring at something else.

“Zenovsky,” said the Superintendent. 

The redhead adjusted his gaze.

“You have not produced any research in a year. Tomorrow is October.” The Superintendent recalled that the last scientist who “did not produce research” ended up working for the French. This would not happen on his tenure.

“I am conducting research.”

“Where is it?”

Zenovsky seemed to look away again.

“Zenovsky.”

The physicist’s attention seemed very imprecise. He opened his mouth twice, but nothing came out. Then he said, “In my head.”

The Superintendent was no stranger to this kind of evasion. He had not achieved his high position by being obtuse. It was funny how stupid these Einsteins could be. “You will not find me so easily pacified as my predecessor. Your head belongs to us. Where is the math?”

“There is no math.”

The Superintendent knew nothing about science. But he knew that there was always math. In physics, math was the currency of power. “I know you’re supposed to be a genius. At least that’s the overused word I keep hearing.” The Superintendent pushed a blank piece of paper across the desk. “Write something. Explain something. Anything.”

Zenovsky picked up the paper. “It has to do with time.”

The Superintendent waited for Zenovsky to go on.

He did not.

“Are you interviewing to work in the mines?”

Zenovsky straightened and said, “Time comes in fixed quantities.” 

The Superintendent looked at him blankly.

“Finite blocks.”

“Finite blocks,” the Superintendent repeated.

“A day, a month, a year. These are all finite blocks of time, based on how we measure them. But within these finite blocks, there are an infinite number of facets.”

“Facets.”

Zenovsky was animated now. “Facets. That’s my word. Depending on how minutely you want to break down one finite block there can be an infinite number of facets.”

The Superintendent slid his tongue over his teeth. “That’s all you’ve got? Time can be chopped up?”

“That’s all?” said Zenovsky. “That’s everything. Because if every block can be broken up infinitely, then every finite block of time is infinite. And consequently, one can inhabit that block of time forever.”

The Superintendent exhaled audibly and said nothing.

“Time expands like an endless accordion.”

Nothing.

“We perceive time because we measure it a certain way.”

Nothing.

“But the physics—the physics involves being able to inhabit the facets, inhabit the infinite number of facets in any finite block—”

The Superintendent raised his fat hand and swatted away blocks and facets and accordions. “That is all, Zenovsky.” He had heard enough. The sheet of paper on the desk was still blank, but the redhead had pleated it. “That’s all.

The physicist stood and left the room.

The Superintendent sat alone for a moment and thought of a joke: What do you call a scientist who does not produce research? Unnecessary.

⬛◼️◾

The two operatives did not knock. They had keys to every state apartment, including Zenovsky’s. When they entered his tiny flat, they discovered him in a bathrobe, standing in the middle of the room. Zenovsky did not even have a chance to say anything. The operative on the left squeezed the trigger of his Beretta and fired.

⬛◼️◾

A bullet can strike a man 10 feet away in about 1/5000th of a second.

Still, that’s a finite block of time.

⬛◼️◾

The operative’s breath stuck in his lungs as he saw the bullet lodge in the plaster wall twelve feet before him. No Zenovsky. They were just looking at the man! The operative began to sweat and shot the wall in the empty room again. And again. And again. And again. Until his companion stopped him. Though they were certain there was no way out of that flat, they still scoured the grounds in a panic. They knew they would not find him, although they did not know why. They decided to set fire to the house and come up with some story. At least then they would not have to produce a body. It might not save them, but what else could they do?

⬛◼️◾

The aroma in the Vision du Monde Internet Café in Dakar was an uneasy mingling of cloves from the coffee and gasoline fumes from the street outside. It was busy for seven a.m. with students, travelers and locals all lined up at the counter of white plastic cubbies which housed the computers. This was the time when the connection was the strongest, with the fewest instances of dropping out. The man stared at three competing news stories, which were lined up side by side on the computer screen. When he refreshed the third page, it showed PAGE NOT FOUND. The man downed the dregs of his coffee and left the cup on a cheap napkin in front of him. He clicked the mouse and the screen flipped back to its welcome page. He then picked up his briefcase and walked out into the October morning sun, his red hair glistening in the daylight.

⬛◼️◾

Stephen Flight is a novelist, essayist, theatre director, and award-winning author of 30 plays (under the pseudonym Stephen Legawiec), including Aquitania and Red Thread, which won the Garland Award for Los Angeles Play of the Year.
Currently Reading: Labyrinths by Jorges Luis Borges

Unravel

by Joyce Chng

“You sure about this?” Dr Liao asked as I stepped up to the gate.

I nodded, zipping my suit up.

“You screw up and the whole thing unravels. You know that, right?”

“I know. And I am ready. I trained for this, Karen. I am ready as hell.”

Dr Liao adjusted her glasses. “I don’t know, Shar. How would it affect you? Your cells?”

A growl rose in my throat, I was getting impatient. I began to pace.

Karen saw that. She sighed. It was loud in the enclosed lab chamber. “Alright. You do your thing and then you come back at the appointed time. The more you delay, the more you screw up the timeline. Got that?” Her voice could freeze water. I knew she was just worried.

“I am ready,” I said.

A white light enveloped me. I was speeding down a tunnel made of swirling pearlescent lights. I laughed, feeling the wind rush past my ears. I had never felt so alive…

and suddenly, I was falling.

I quickly modified my posture, balling up, so that when I landed, I was on all fours. It was cold, even in the midst of spring. My boots crunched on frost. Fog was thick, perfect for hiding. Dawn.

Time to do this.

🐺

I removed my suit and boots, shivering in the cold. These, I packed in a capsule, ready for retrieval later.

The Change came over me when I willed it. Bones lengthened, cracked. Nails became hooked claws. Fur sprouted from skin, the color of darkest night. My face elongated, teeth became fangs.

I was Wolf Soldier #4143. #4142 had failed in their mission.

Panting, smelling the scent of prey, I loped towards the hut. The sound of a baby crying was thin, but discernible. I could smell it. A newborn. Male.

Do this, kill the murderer and reset history. No more evil to devastate the world. That was what Sergeant Master Tully said. He made it sound so simple. A bite into the neck, severing veins and the spinal cord. Ending a life.

I crept up to the window where warm light glowed. Food. Potatoes. Meat. Hay. Tobacco. A humble person’s dwelling. The baby cried again and stopped when he was rocked to a state of slumber.

I heard his tiny heartbeat. Lub-lub, lub-lub. Something out of a Doppler ultrasound. Rushing blood.

When I was sure the room was empty, I climbed in, growling, snarling. My prey was near. Very near.

Just do it.

I bit down, snapping vertebrae. 

I would never forget the taste of blood in my mouth. Rabbit blood. Deer blood. The pig blood in the mannequins they used during training. 

Human blood was something different. 

Salty. Coppery. Sweet.

I didn’t look back at the corpse. I simply left, loping back to the retrieval point.

🐺

I was late. Missed it by a few seconds.

Karen’s face swam in my foggy mind.

The more you delay, the more you screw up the timeline

Karen’s face, laughing when I proposed to her a month ago. I was Shar to her, not Wolf Soldier #4143.

I was relieved when the white light enveloped me.

🐺

When I finally landed on the platform, there was nobody there to greet me. No Karen Liao. None. The lab chamber looked empty. Dead.

My mouth held the capsule with my human uniform.

The door opened and in walked Karen.

She looked like Karen. Glasses, business-like look, yet something struck me as off

With a growing sense of dread, I raised my head up.  Did she get my capsule? What happened? She deftly bound my mouth with a leather muzzle. I growled. She never did that. Would never do that. Even in my war form.

Wordlessly, Karen tugged at the muzzle. She held a black box in her other hand. A stab of electric shock pierced into my skin and ran through my body. My ears folded back.

“Karen,” I whispered. 

It was then that I saw the hated insignia on the white walls. My heart fell and my blood ran cold.

I was too late.

🐺

Joyce Chng’s fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF IIWe See A Different FrontierCranky Ladies of HistoryAccessing The Future, The Future Fire and Anathema Magazine. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Fire Heart, a YA fantasy under Scholastic Asia, will be published soon.
Pronouns: she/her, they/their.
@jolantru

The Dispossessed

by Philip Styrt

The dybbuk laughed. It was a soft, unholy sound, like the whispers of madness that strike at three in the morning when you’re certain there was a noise that woke you but the air is heavy and silent. The sort of thing you’re never sure if you imagined, if you conjured up out of the stochastic silence of a creaking room, or if it was real.

If Isaac hadn’t been looking right at it, he didn’t know if he would have believed it actually laughed at all.

“Ah, Yitzhak, Yitzhak,” it wheezed, making Carl’s mouth move while something else came out. “Do you really expect me to believe that?”

Isaac was briefly gripped by the desire to point out that his name was in fact Isaac, not Yitzhak, and he didn’t much care what the dybbuk thought, but the sight of it wearing Carl’s face and scratching itself idly with his body broke him out of it.

“Come now, Yitzhak.” The smile was a perfectly nice smile, if you weren’t aware that Carl’s smiles were small things, peeking up at the edge of his lips, and not the full-mouth monstrosity on display. “Three hundred years? Really? It’s too much.”

It was speaking Yiddish. He knew it was speaking Yiddish. But his mind insisted on hearing it in modern English, and for the first time he cursed the little implant in his ear: this would all feel so much more real if he could hear how it was actually speaking. 

“I’m telling you, it’s not the nineteenth century anymore!” Isaac tried, he really did, but the mouth implant was just as permanent as the one in his ear, and he could feel his lips curving into the unfamiliar consonants his bobe had been the last in the family to truly understand. 

He wondered if the dybbuk would believe him if it heard him speaking English, or if it would just think he, too, was possessed. 

It shrugged with Carl’s shoulders. “Who said anything about the nineteenth century? It’s 5617, of course.”

He groaned, and tried to remember the numbers he’d barely paid attention to when he conferenced into the last Kol Nidre service he’d attended, adding a couple since he’d kind of forgotten for a little while. “Uh… 5906?”

“Ridiculous,” it hissed. “Yitzhak, you really have to try harder. Next time you’ll tell me this isn’t New York. I know when I’m in the Upper East Side, Yitzhak. I grew up here. I lived here, in apartments smaller than this room.”

Isaac refrained from pointing out that there were no more rooms, since this, too, was a studio.

“I know where I am.”

“It’s true. You are. Technically.” Isaac gestured to the window, hesitantly. “I’m not sure you’re going to like the view, though.”

The dybbuk stared at him, as if it could see through him instead, then whirled and stomped over to the window. Isaac suppressed a grimace—if he managed to get rid of the dybbuk, Carl’s feet were going to hurt so much from acting like he could walk that way with his bad arches—and waited patiently as it stared out of the window into the abyss below.

“Where are we,” it finally growled, “and what have you done with this apartment?” 

“I told you, it’s New York.” He shrugged, trying for nonchalance and failing. “It’s just grown up. The New York you’re thinking of is…” he did some mental calculations, “about a kilometer down.”

The dybbuk screamed. If its laughter had been the madness of the dark, its anger was sleet and ice against a windowpane, a pitchy shriek that never seemed to end but undulated on and on. “The street, I need the street,” it moaned when it ran out of steam.

“The elevator’s right there.” He pointed out the door. “Or maybe you have a faster method?”

It lurched towards the door, and Isaac put a hand on its arm, trying to ignore the way his fingers curled instinctively around Carl’s elbow. “You can’t take him.”

“Who’s going to stop me? You?”

He smiled, shakily. “Not me. The landlords.” He poked the bracelet on Carl’s arm right below the elbow. “He’s not paid up—the system won’t let him off the floor.”

The dybbuk turned his head and met his eyes. “Landlords?”

He nodded.

“You should have said. Schvantzes.” Somehow the last word came through without translation. He dug his finger in his ear to check the implant, then forgot all about it as Carl sagged into his arms.

“What was that?” Carl’s voice was higher, back to normal—if a little reedy, which was only to be expected given what he’d just been through.

“An unexpected visitor,” Isaac said, as he helped Carl stand and then staggered towards the door. He reached down to the floor and kissed the mezuzah that had fallen down, then pressed it to the doorway to seal. “But in the end, I think, a khaver.”

🗽

Philip Styrt is an assistant professor of English at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA, where he lives with his wife, toddler, and toothless dog. This is his first piece of published fiction, but his poetry has been published in Trouble Among the StarsEastern Iowa Review, and carte blanche, among others. He loved his Bobe and Zadie very much, even if, like Isaac, he doesn’t actually speak Yiddish.

Time Is Thick, Like Honey

by Brian Phipps

The bed was just large enough to accommodate two people, if they were fully entwined.

“What are you thinking?” she asked to the curved wall as there was not much room to turn her head.

She could feel the smile appear on his face as he considered her question. He had smiled a lot in the few weeks that she had known him, but this was the first time she had ever touched him while he smiled. It made her feel at least a little better.

“Starting when I was young, like in high school probably, I would always look for the most attractive girl whenever I boarded a plane alone. If the plane were to crash, I wanted to find my way to her during the descent so that I would die holding onto something beautiful.”

“There are only two women on this ship,” she said. “I don’t think you found your way to the pretty one.”

She liked the way it felt when he chuckled. She liked how warm he felt against her and she liked how she wasn’t alone.

“Priorities change as you get older,” he said. “Plus, I said ‘attractive’ not ‘pretty’. There are plenty of pretty girls that are unattractive. I find competence and compassion much more attractive.”

He thought about his wife and kid then. About how far away they were and about how much he missed them. He pulled his embrace a little tighter. He was hugging her, he was hugging them.

“I’m not ready to die now,” she said.

“We aren’t dying now,” he said. “We have this moment.”

“But death is coming. It will be here soon,” she said.

He moved his hand to her waist and laid it there firmly. “Time is not on a knife edge,” he said. “Our past and our future do not meet at this point. This moment is substantive. Time is thick, like honey.”

The tension in her body lessened as she listened to his words because she began to understand. She understood so many things as she turned to face him and place her hands on him. As long as she could feel his touch, she would be in this moment. She wanted to tell him everything, about how she had grown up in a town full of palm trees and how she would trap crab using chicken legs and take them home for her mother to boil and serve steaming, how she could see the rockets launch from her roof top—the same rockets that would send them on this everlasting journey, and how she had a husband at home, but he was only interested in the envy of others and could never understand how a moment could stretch into forever. But, she didn’t dare tell him any of these things because she knew in her excitement, she would forget to feel his hand on her and then their shared future would be upon them and they would no longer have a past, only an infinite moment of despair.

“What are you thinking?” he asked her this time.

“That we are dying while holding something beautiful,” she said.

🍯

Brian Phipps is a physicist currently living in the Midwest. His writing only sometimes includes themes of science and technology.
Currently reading: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Unbounded

by Jesse Rowell

The scientists were right, Herald thought as he ran his fingers over his face. Centuries spent in stasis in zero gravity had splayed his features, weakened his ligaments, his cartilage swelling to fill empty space. It’s not painful, he thought as he poked at a muscle buried under his jaw, just grotesque how my head is a balloon with freckles, freckles moving farther and farther apart.

Red doppler shift. As they had approached the edge of the cosmic microwave background, racing against matter and light, their dreaming eyes had watched the last of the stars drift away, its light diminishing, gone. The silence of space. Perspective narrowed to an unbounded horizon. Floating, wriggling out of one’s skin. Alone, little.

“You look hideous,” First Officer Sacha said to Herald as he floated out of the hold.

He could see under Sacha’s beard that time had pushed his features apart, like puzzle pieces scattered across a table by a frustrated old man looking for that one shape to fit.

“I thought constant acceleration was supposed to keep our physiognomy in place,” Sacha said.

Herald felt at his face, not recognizing his own features. This is how a mind breaks, he thought. Perception of time was linear until synapses broke and time became an ocean. Madness. Every sound an object intent on doing harm. Memory distributing the perception of time into jumbled intervals, waves that never broke against a beach.

“You need to figure out what happened,” Sacha commanded. “Batch report.”

“Uh, didn’t I submit one?” Herald asked. “Before we left, or after we woke. I thought…”

Fractured and crowded, time intervals hopscotched between each other, monosyllabic moments where they made no sense until the previous memory parcel was compared with its adjacent memory. Like walking into a crowded room and trying to catch every word. He observed Sacha’s face, handsome, monstrous, turning handsome again. Moments and sounds that he should have been able to ignore were heightened—conversation for no goddamn good reason, noises that made no sense.

“Constant acceleration was supposed to take us from 0.25 g to 5 g,” Sacha said. “Doesn’t feel like we ever made it past Earth’s gravity. How is that possible? Where are we now?”

“Maybe where we started?” Herald ventured. “But centuries, I mean millennia later in time. There are no more stars.”

We can’t understand reality, Herald thought, when we can only see snapshots of time. We can’t concentrate enough to place the intervals of time sequentially, to observe time in its totality. Like history written by victors, a perception of time littered with false crescendos, histories hopscotched, never getting the present correct. Is it a foreshadowing of the past or the present?

“Bring Sri out of stasis. We need her to calculate how much time has elapsed relative to where we are now.”

“Wake up the computer?”

“No, Sri.”

Sri. My wife, Herald realized with a start. I don’t want her to see me like this.

He remembered her face before they had left Earth, her smile, her eyes against the blue and white flashes. Pillows spilled like noodles around their hands, and they laughed at the shifting fabric of their bed. “This is space,” she had said, running her hand over the sheets, “and this is us traveling through space. These ripples are gravity wells which accelerate you toward me. Two bodies in rest. Two bodies in motion.”

When was the last time they had touched? Crowded and fractured, he couldn’t sequence which memory came first and which followed last. All he knew was that in that moment, he wanted to feel her touch as he had felt her before, see her face as he had seen her before. Her smile, not a look of revulsion upon seeing what time had done to him.

“Why won’t you let me look at you?” Sri asked.

Distorted and unrecognizable. Had this happened before? Herald hid his face in his hands. “I don’t know where I am.”

“You’re here with me,” Sri said.

“Yes, except there are no stars. The gravity wells are gone.”

A child that grew into adulthood grew into death somewhere in the past. Handsome, monstrous, turning handsome again. Memories of him, the flickering lights of stars that had died millions of years ago.

“Herald, look at me.”

He dropped his hands from his face and looked at her. Memory parcels crashed into each other like railcars, stories compressed into a singularity.

“We cannot change the past.” She touched his face. “But we can change our perception of the past. Change your perception of the past and it alters the present. I see you now, and I remember you as you are.”

This feels familiar, he thought. This feels right. Memories of loving embraces and feelings of contentment as time ripped apart.

🚀

Jesse Rowell is a writer and tech consultant. Published in various journals, he continues to write novels and short story collections.
@HungerArtist4
Currently reading: Soviet Chess 1917-1991 by Andrew Soltis

The Cost

by Andy Betz

I couldn’t speak of the events of this day.

I didn’t have the time.

On the morning of January 15, I personally confirmed we, meaning humans, are not on top of the food chain. We are not the most technologically advanced, nor are we the wisest. I now know this to be true and I so want to learn more.

They (It? He? She? I do not even know if gender applies) appeared, maybe by mistake, maybe deliberately, by my watch at 7:15am. I was walking and I doubled back to take another look. For some reason, I saw them in plain sight, hiding, in plain sight; almost as if they were just out of phase. They could have run (or whatever they call their type of movement), but they didn’t. Within seconds, I found myself within twelve inches of them and I was curious about them.  They must have been equally curious about me as I slowly raised my right index finger to touch them. My actions might have been deliberate, but my intentions were benevolent. They seemed to understand. My touch meant contact and foreshadowed what happened next.

They allowed me a glimpse of what life should be here on Earth, although they don’t call it Earth; they used only ideas, not words. To them, Earth is a toddler; still forming, still making mistakes, still in need of guidance. Then I understood. They remained in the shadows providing such guidance. They told of their great arrival, completely unnoticed by humans. They carved out a niche here in which to live and learn without mistakes of inappropriate first contact.  They showed a collage of their successes and of their failures. I returned with input of what humans categorize as our similarities.

I felt their warmth. They must have experienced this type of reciprocity previously. They eagerly continued our “conversation”.

They wanted some information from me. They asked permission and I agreed.

What happened next was difficult to describe. They enveloped my consciousness and surrounded my thoughts and memories. I felt a systemic pain radiate throughout my being. Uncomfortable as it was, with each second, it became more tolerable. Best described as awakening after sleeping on your own arm, where with experience, you can gauge and then wager, how long the sensation will last. Steeling my resolve not to break contact, I endured.

When they finished, I felt weak. I looked at my hands and saw the skin of an old man. I quickly looked at them to find that they were gone.  Gone into the ether of existence into which no human may spy.  I paid dearly for this opportunity. I returned home to see myself in the bathroom mirror. I was no longer a middle-aged man. By my guess, I was an old man, nearly 30 years advanced. My back hurt. My legs ached. I was cold and missing half of my teeth.

But I knew.

They came to visit Earth to help. But that assistance comes at a price.

Other species with malevolent intentions will soon come.  How soon?  Maybe hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. But come they will. And when they do, humanity (standing alone) will cease to exist.

However, humanity (with their aid), will have a chance. They will guide us, unknowingly, invisibly so as to help us fend for ourselves.

But until then, they must feed.

That is the cost I paid today.

I write this not in hope for any one to read or believe it. I offer no proof to confirm anything I allege. My assertion that “something” happened today, to me, to the toddler they call Earth, may originate and conclude with my remains, which someone may discover when I do not live to see tomorrow. 

I am aged and too far beyond a reversal of fortune.

If you were here to ask if contact was worth it, I can only offer my sincerest, “Yes”.

👨👴

Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years, lives in 1974, and has been married for 28 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.

From the Editors

Welcome to our second issue of Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine. Getting past the hurdle of the first issue was a great feeling, especially because we were so thrilled by how it turned out. We are tremendously grateful to all the talented writers who submitted the stories that made for such a wonderful beginning. We knew we had set a high bar and it would be a challenge to try to meet it again with this second issue.

While we were reviewing the submissions for Issue_1, we noticed a couple of stories centered around the concept of time and found them so inspirational that we decided to add ‘time’ as a theme to our call for entries for Issue_2. It was a gamble, as it could have reduced the number of stories submitted, but lucky for us, that wasn’t the case. We received a huge number of truly wonderful submissions that address the concept of time in a number of creative, thought-provoking ways.

Central to our experience of time is ‘consciousness’ and a number of stories we received explore time in relation to consciousness. ‘Room to Grow’, places a conscious robot, with a mix of new and old memories, in a world utterly devoid of humans to explore the impact of purpose and social relationships on quality of life. ‘Aberrations’ takes a scientific approach to breaking-down conscious time to make humans more efficient. 

Is our conscious experience of time unidirectional and non-transferrable? Several of the stories play with this notion brilliantly. The protagonist in ‘School Days’ cheats time by creating more of the past; and ‘A Story of Circle and Breath’ follows a young girl playing at ‘Robinhood’—stealing time instead of money. ‘The Cost’ takes a sci-fi approach to the concept of  ‘giving your time’ to a good cause. ‘A Mother’ story asks readers to consider if a woman should go rewind time and sacrifice her future family for the greater good of humanity. And ‘Unravel’ shows not only an attempt to change the present by altering the past, but the perils that may come with undertaking such a journey.

‘The Disposessed’ takes a more humorous approach to defying time’s limitations by imbuing a young man’s body with a consciousness from the past that is none too happy with the changes that have taken place. ‘Moonshatter’ also addresses the relationship between time and change, but less directly, as it demonstrates the fragility of our connection to time and the ways we ‘keep’ time. ‘The End of M. Zenovsky’ ties space into the mix, with the central character explaining a ‘block’ theory of time and then defying the commonly accepted indivisibility of space-time in a daring last-minute attempt to solve a life or death dilemma. ‘Time is Thick Like Honey’ paints a tender portrait of how we cope with our own impending death, highlighting the place of memories and beauty, while also offering a compelling description of the ‘thickness’ of time.

Although each and every one of these stories stands on their own beautifully, we think that together they are even stronger. This issue is a journey—sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-breaking, but always thought-provoking. We hope the experience of reading it furthers your imagination and deepens your personal and collective experience of being human today. And yesterday. And possibly even a little bit tomorrow. Spatially speaking, of course!

From earth,
Dawn & Yen
@AbTerraStories

 

Image credits:

Cover: Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash
A Story of Circle and Breath: Photo courtesy of Yen Ooi
Aberrations: Mark Decile on Unsplash
A Mother Story: ThisIsEngineering from Pexels
Room to Grow: Kasturi Laxmi Mohit on Unsplash
The Disposessed: Sasha Freemind on Unsplash
The End of M Zenovsky: Erik Mclean on Unsplash
The Cost: Ozan Safak on Unsplash
Unravel: Philipp Pilz on Unsplash
School days: Photo courtesy of Dangerous Ladies
Unbounded: Dawn Ostlund (original Photo by Tom Leishman from Pexels)
Moon Shatter: Dawn Ostlund (original Moon Photo by Jennifer Aldrichon Unsplash, Earth Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash)
Time is Thick Like Honey: Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

Issue 1: Body

Ab Terra Flash Fiction

Issue 1

Rebirthdays

by Remi Martin

On his first rebirthday, he didn’t feel any different. The technology was new, and nobody was quite sure what to expect the first time around.

It was the replacement of his central processing unit that brought it on. As soon as they replaced that, he was declared reborn and legally became a new person. In the eyes of the law he was now his own son.

When they replaced his central processing unit, it marked the point at which every one of his parts had been replaced. Nothing about him was the original Graham Mortimer, and so he was considered an entirely new entity.      

But that was the thing, he still felt like the same Graham Mortimer. It seemed silly to him that he had to register as a rebirther, but if he wanted to continue extending his life, he had no choice.

It was nice to ‘have a son’ though, he had to admit, and he began to think of himself with the same tenderness that he might have reserved only for his offspring, had he been allowed to have them. He had waived that right when he started mechanically upgrading himself. Population restrictions and limited resources meant anyone artificially extending their life would not be allowed to reproduce. It had seemed like a small price to pay at the time for Graham, and now he had a son of his own, he didn’t feel quite so deprived.

Still, this ‘son’ was, at the end of the day, himself. He still felt like Graham Mortimer, and so the only name he could think to give his new self was Graham Mortimer, deviating from his father only with the suffix Jr.

It wasn’t a new thing, of course, becoming an entirely new being. The organic parts of rebirthers were always the first to replace themselves, their cells doing this naturally every seven years or so, even quicker with the regular stem cell injections they received. This had always been the case, but it happened so gradually that organic people didn’t notice. Nor did they have enough time to feel like different entities, given they were alive for such short stretches.

By the time his second rebirthday came around, Junior was starting to feel alienated from his father, from himself. When his back-up battery eventually failed and he was forced to replace it for a second time, he decided to throw a party to mark the occasion. It was the last of Junior’s remaining parts. This time he was ready for his rebirthday.

He had clung on to his father’s identity, and ways of thinking, for too long. They were too limiting, too organic, and he was beginning to feel like his namesake was holding him back. There was a growing movement of rebirthers taking wildly untraditional names, and Junior was starting to come around to their way of thinking. Eventually he settled on Three’Point-Oh, leaving behind his organic roots in the process. He left them in the past with his forefathers, those stuffy old men, whilst he moved forwards into the future.

All the people who attended the party were rebirthers, of course; organics just couldn’t grasp the significance of the occasion. They often insisted on his continuation—insisted that he was still Graham Mortimer. Not Junior but Graham Mortimer Senior! As if that old man from all those years ago reflected who he was today. Rebirthday celebrations, he knew, disrupted their own sense of self-continuation, and so few of them were mature enough to deal with this sort of disruption. They just didn’t live long enough to understand.

Looking back now, on his younger self, Eos couldn’t help but chuckle at his father’s rebellious spirit. You only really saw such fervour in organics these days, and at the time of his third rebirthday there were hardly any of them left. The last few pockets were either dying or deciding to extend their lives mechanically.

It was the fear of death that forced most of their hands. The children of staunch organics saw a choice between inevitable death and eternal life, and the vast majority chose the latter. Such thinking always made Eos laugh.

Death was as inevitable as always. There was no way around it, his rebirther ancestors were as dead as his organic ones. There had been no body, but he had buried Graham Mortimer Sr and Jr long ago, and today it was time to bury Three’Point-Oh.

Three’Point-Oh what had he been thinking? He would miss the man, but would not miss his name, and was glad to age into something more dignified.  

With all the new technological advances, his latest identity would surely be his longest lasting one. Still, no amount of technological progress could stop his parts breaking indefinitely, and one day he too would pass away, so there was no point getting too attached to this iteration of himself either. When this eventually happened, he knew now beyond a doubt that there was no logical continuation between one self and the next, the first was simply needed to give rise to what came after.

🎂

Remi Martin is a science-fiction writer from Derbyshire in the UK. He has recently had his story Second Skin published in The British Fantasy Society’s Horizons journal, and is busy working on his first novel.

Currently reading: The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu

The Boys Are Alright

by Adele Evershed

It took a while for the important people to notice boys were dying off, decades in fact. It used to be the case that more female fetuses than male would die during pregnancy, meaning slightly more boys were born. However, scientists slowly started to realize things were changing, but no one comprehended the devastating effect this would eventually have. How could they? As Liam said, “They were fiddling whilst Man-Chester burnt.” Liam is my best friend, we shared a cell. He would always sooth my night terrors by stroking me back to sleep. When we were all placed in individual cells I couldn’t sleep through the night for ages.

Twenty years ago, when only one birth in ten was a male, we all became protected under The Waggle Act for Species Preservation. It was named after the then Queen, Margareta Waggle. Her name always sounded like a name from classic literature to me, like a character from the Harry Potter series that I studied in school. I loved those books even if they were, to quote my English teacher, “An example of literature that does not acknowledge the superiority of the female sex, instead it portrays a lesser male as hero.” Nobody can deny Hermione was awesome. Of course, the act became known as WASP for short; it meant every aspect of our life could be regulated for the good of womankind.

Liam loved to watch reruns of comedy specials on his Personal Wall insisting they were like educational documentaries. He once told me, “I love how they tell funny stories about their jobs or their sex lives. It’s mind blowing! Men able to have sex—even with other men. Can you imagine?” When all the PWs got restricted, we couldn’t choose what to watch anymore and a lot of programs disappeared completely, including the old stand-up comedy shows. Liam said, “You know the reason why they got banned? The Waspies don’t want us getting any ideas about how life could really be if everyone just stood up and said no.” Now we’re stuck with rambling films about the horrors of The Patriarchy Parliament. At least we can still watch the news on The Stream and there’s always the footy.

My Mother doesn’t think much of the WASP legislation or the HiVes. Since I hit puberty and was taken, I only get to see her once a month. On her last visit she said, “Good God, Theo, the way we live now!  I thought it was bad thirty years ago when we were assigned a sperm donor but at least I got to meet him face to face. Your poor sister just gets called into the Pollinating Bins; legs up, a quick squirt and come back next month if you don’t take.” Apparently last month they announced a cap on the number of females to be born so even if my sister gets pregnant, she might not get to take her baby to term. It’s the revenge of Mother Earth, I suppose. When Mum starts, I always try to hush her; she never remembers I am monitored all the time. She started to call the policy “inhumane” but I cut her off. I told her, “Mum, you know the Goverwoment only wants what’s best for the Colony,” and pointed with my head at the camera glowing like a coal in the corner of the room. Thankfully she seemed to get the message and we changed the subject. She told me all about the success of the new water mining mission to the moon. It sounded awesome and hopefully it will secure us a fresh water supply for a long while to come.

On the whole, life in here isn’t too bad. All the young males live in Farm HiVes and they make sure we eat well, exercise and get an education of sorts. We even have male psychiatrists to run Buzz sessions where we can talk in a safe space. Supposedly nothing is off limits. We can complain about visuals during the milking or moan about Tracey Mott, England’s new captain. Liam even got to tell jokes he’d picked up. The last time I saw him he told one he said he’d made-up himself, “A man escaped the HiVe. When he was caught the Policewoman said, ‘Anything you say will be held against you.’ The man replied, ‘Boobs!’” We all laughed. Obviously, nobody had ever felt a boob! Just the idea was funny. The psychiatrist said, “Now there, Liam, don’t take advantage. You know the Waspies listen in and they would find the word ‘boobs’ offensive, not to mention the treatment of a woman as a sex object. Where do you get your ideas?”

Last week at the Buzz session, the psychiatrist told us that Liam had been relocated to The Entertainment HiVe. It’s one of a kind and very prestigious. The Waspies decided a while ago that it is very important for everybody to see real men, so they set up this new HiVe to get men reading the news on The Stream or being a token pundit on Match of the Day. We might be as rare as rain but we’ve not disappeared completely, like the bees. It’s so wonderful for him and if I know Liam, he’ll be badgering the powers that be to introduce new shows like the old comedy ones he loved. I remember him saying once, “It’s so important to laugh. Let’s face it, life’s a bitch and then you die!”

I watch every day but I haven’t seen him yet.

👦🏽

Adele Evershed is an early childhood educator and writer. Her prose and poetry have been published in various literary journals such as, Every Day FictionThe Fib Review, and Reflex Fiction@AdLibby1

Currently reading: Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

The Exactitude of a Body Electric

by Conor Truax

Humanity first stepped into the light in 2061. The first operational Sphere had been constructed and passed its experimental trials. It was to be used to correct the spinal injury of Alexander Icaron, who had been shot down during a desert patrol of a bleak Martian landscape by a rogue drone with compromised firing functionality. He lay flat and naked in a luminescent room, milky and translucent to allow viewership by the scientific team and media alike.

Alexander was to be the face of the future. As the Sphere booted up and cameras and eyes locked their gaze onto Alexander’s impending birth, his wife leaned over him to ask if this was what he wanted. Alexander nodded with vigor. His wife needed certainty, and she asked him to be clear; what was it that he wanted?

“I want to walk again,” he declared, “I am afraid to own a body. Precarious property.” He paused to consider his words. “But my possession is not optional. I fear no more having a body than having no body and a soul, as I know that soon the second will follow the first, and I will be no more.”

At that moment his wife recoiled and his gurney jostled toward the Sphere. Its latch opened upward, emitting a blinding light as it swallowed Alexander whole. The onlooking media converged on the Sphere’s chief scientist, Dade Dalus, looking to make sense of what they had witnessed. He was composed and without fear.

“On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

Wei Sub Wun peered out into the blurred astral bricolage of space stations and stars that illuminated his personal ship. He had become the wealthiest human in history through the solar fusion of stars. The energy harvested from his exploits had made the creative control of his company unmatched. Stars were fused and their energy extracted until nearby planets became inhabitable. Once those planets had been suckled for their resources and left desolate, the suns’ remaining powers were consumed for sale; accelerated supernovae. Wei had a mind unmatched, his wealth found while still a child. At 22, he had a great future behind him, and he feared the prospect of what was to come. For the past five years he had poured immense resources into developing the 32nd iteration of the Sphere that would adequately conserve telomeres and stop aging. It had taken the death of over 1.2 trillion stars. Nearly three galaxies. But the day had come, and as Wei’s smile reflected off the landscape illuminated by explorers and fading light, a video call from his wife appeared on his window screen. Wei had never seen his wife in person. They lived galaxies apart, and Wei’s only conception of her body was through the visual constructs enabled by his Manicom Visfinder. The Sphere rolled out behind them, assisted by a team of older robots that Wei kept out of a sense of nostalgia.

They inquired if he was ready. Wei’s wife did the same.

“I am,” he responded.

His wife pleaded; why him and not her? She would grow old while he stayed caught in the grips of time.

“Because,” he started, “the afternoon knows what the morning never suspected. But I will arrive to the morning with full knowledge of the night.” With that, the Sphere opened, and with it came the light of dawn.

Humanity’s faintest ambitions had faded like the stars once conquered by Wei Sub Wun. The human projection and form had been perfected; phenomena and noumena. Yet the problem of death had remained. Wei Sub Wun had developed the Universal AC to circumvent the great problem, but it lacked the necessary data to address the solution. It collected and computed in cycles of near-infinite iteration and complexity for an excess of a million years. VJ-23Y sifted through projected space, the essence of humanity now found in the stars. Souls were freed from the tyranny of their bodies which remained in suspension in time. Anchors omnipresent but unseen. VJ-23Y roused for material activity by a notification from the Universal AC saying it was ready. Returning to himself, he rose, navigating his room with trepidation. His senses returned to him but felt fainter than those of his projection, and his wet weight reminded him of what he lacked; eternal life.

Moving toward his Sphere, rendered memories of his wife long-gone spoke to him, seeking his certainty in evading death. She cried for the idea of their life beyond.

“Don’t cry,” he said. “I won’t. And if I do, my tears will not be confused for rain.” The Sphere spiralled forward, opening its mouth as VJ-23Y was consumed by its waters.

NZ-46 sat in silence—mind rid of body. Possession optional. Their body cared for amongst trillions of others by perfect automatons. The galaxy dimmed quietly, as did the faint projection of humanity, humming along without the palest urge for action. They had discovered, explored, exploited, and restored all that they could. Aspirations of perfection complete, each body and mind melted into that of the other until everything escaped distinction. Experiencing the dying galaxy, NZ-46 grew tired. They illuminated their ancient Sphere and merged with its settings to reverse its processes. Its partner, an abstract construction of their own mind, soon rushed to question NZ-46’s behavior. They asked why NZ-46 sought to undo their gifts. Eternal life. Freedom from forbearance.

“Simple,” they started. “Unbeing dead is not being alive. There are no more worlds to conquer. I go to seek a great perhaps.”

With that the Sphere booted up, its circuitry opened for a final race. In a moment NZ-46 had merged with the Sphere, welcoming darkness. Their body was finally full with the charge of the soul.

💫

Conor Truax is a writer, student, and researcher. He is currently completing his studies in systems design engineering and comparative media while working on a collection of short stories.

Currently reading: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Feed

by Jeffrey Agustin

40 credits for a liver part
60 for the marrow in my ribs
120 for a prime cut of thigh
106 for a forearm—that’s what it’ll get me; maybe it’ll be enough to last us the rest of the year.

Cold.

The only thing warm right now is my breath. Three layers of linen are barely enough to keep me from freezing over in this weather. I can feel the damp snow slowly soaking into the insides of my worn boots with every step—the stiff leather squeaking and rubbing against my sore ankles. My knuckles are raw and bruised; translucent white flakes of dead skin are slowly peeling around my fingers because of the frostbite.

Hungry. I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten for days.

That’s fine. I just need to get to the handlers, get paid. Then, we can eat tonight—the first time in three days. Mom and Fio are relying on me to get us through the month, or at least until Mom’s legs grow back. But, prices for feed have hiked up again as it does every winter. Initially, we talked about me selling only my right arm. Fio was also going to sell his cheeks and his tongue. Being only six years old, that would fetch quite a price—maybe 200 credits if the handlers were feeling generous. We’ve also been trying to set a bid for Fio’s baby fat; I think the bid is up to 322 credits now. But, because of the harsh weather, he’s gotten sick; the handlers aren’t going to buy anything from Fio if he’s sick. So, it’s up to me. I feel the hollow on my chest where my left breast would be. I’ve only got 6 credits left from last time.

Another mile and I make it to the handler’s station.

The stark building as white as the snow and just as frigid offers warmth inside. Even standing a good fifty meters from it, I can already smell the rawness of red meat. From where I am, I can see the entrance leading into what looks like a hotel lobby. The yellow lamps are lit—always so welcoming and hospitable to patrons and guests. There’s even a concierge standing by the firelight glowing softly from a hearth I can’t see. I haven’t been here in months but it feels like only yesterday that I had half of my torso bought by some wealthy patrons in exchange for a full belly.

I hear the rumbling of gravel as a black car pulls up in front of the station. An elderly couple steps out and is met by the concierge. The woman is wearing curly blonde fur—the color of a childhood friend’s hair, long freckled tan leather gloves—worn by my dad’s smile in my memories, and pearls. I wish I could wear pearls as pretty as hers. The man is in a black suit and has salt and pepper hair. They see me across the way and the woman gives me a warm smile. I lower my gaze and go round the back.

The back of the station looks more like a warehouse; a pale red industrial light blinking atop the tall doorway. No doors, just transparent plastic sheets hanging like thick curtains. There’s no concierge to greet people that come through this way; instead, a man dressed in a white jumper routinely escorts us inside along with the cold. I see the familiar metal walls and abundance of plastic containers of all sizes. Even the pieces of raw meat neatly packed in plastic bags on the metal shelves are familiar to me, like friends—like family.

“Name?” The handler says flatline.

“Asimov.”

“Cut?”

“Quarter of a liver, rib, thigh, and…” I raise my right arm. He nods in understanding before giving me quick assessing glances while writing on a folder file. The handler flips through the document as I stand by patiently. It is procedure. Inside, there’s only the heavy and constant thrumming of an unseen machine, and right now, the gentle but methodical scratching of pen on dry paper. A few moments later, he shelves the folder and turns to me—hands gestured for me to proceed forward.

I’ve gone down this hallway before, overhead fluorescents lighting the way. I walk myself to an empty room with a glass wall on one side. The handler walks in after me and I start taking my clothes off. Bare naked in the fluorescent light, I stare ahead. On the other side of the glass wall, I see the warm yellow glow of the lobby. From the other side of the glass wall, I see them watching me, assessing me. As they smile warmly at me, relishing the thought of having me, I stare ahead. I see the hearth from here.

I wake up and I’m in bed.

“Alright. We’ve transferred 286 credits to your account. A month of regen is recommended before you go through another harvest. Drink plenty of fluids and eat feed regularly. We thank you for your parts,” the handler tells me as he’s sat across the room while going through a stack of folders.

“280? I was 326 pegged.”

“Yeah. Buyers didn’t want liver. So 286.”

I nod. Despite the aching and hollowness, I get dressed in my linen and go on my way. Two miles walk home. I start on the snow once again. After several harvests at the station, the phantom pains stop. The body can only take so much deconstruction and harvesting before it depersonalizes and gets used to regenerating limbs that will only be taken away eventually. By nightfall, I stop by the feedshop.

“2lbs of feed will be 3 credits please.” The lady at the stall says while packing the synthetic pink silicone meat into a plastic bag before taking my payment.

We’re going to eat tonight. I press the plastic to my body and hold the feed close to keep it warm.

🥩

Jeffrey Noel Agustin is a creative writer and copywriter in the Philippines. He is also a dungeon master and the author of a Dungeons and Dragons homebrew campaign, The Chronicles of Anatheon@deadkid_stories

Currently reading: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

High above Pain

by Lydia Pejovic

When I was dying, they gave me a pill. I can’t remember the accident, or what the clock said when the ambulance brought me in, or how many times I lost consciousness—but, when I took the pill, the pain retreated. The physician told me not to worry—I would float above my body and watch myself from the ceiling. After the tablet slithered down my throat, I was alive. I ascended from the crown of my head. I rippled forward, a calm ocean wave, and let my bottom half find its way behind me. I was coasting on the very gravity that had held me down for forty years. Suddenly, the burden of humanity, the weight of my bones, the pressure of my flesh, escaped me. Or, rather, I escaped it. I tried to see if I was invisible, and I think I was. I moved my phantom arms in front of my phantom eyes and… Nothing. As I settled into nothingness, I realized that I could still hear the staff move about. I thought that, just maybe, everything would become mumbled or muted. It would have been more relaxing that way. The sound of their non-slip soles and the snip-snaps of surgical scissors were irritating to my physical tranquility.

I liked being intangible. I hated watching myself down there. I was pathetic and frail and bloody. The gash on my stomach, from what I could gather, was gaping. The doctors had found a way to maneuver a sheet around my body so that even my mind wouldn’t be able to see the extent of its destruction. I could see, though, that they were sewing my midsection. Their hands would go in white and come out red. They had large yellow lights focused on my body, which only served to illuminate my pallid skin. I looked like I was posing for a gruesome photoshoot, like I had been made-up all over with red lipstick. If I were in my tangible body, I surely would’ve panicked. But, there was something about the detachment from physicality that made anxiety useless; there were no hands to wring, no hair to pull, no tears to cry. Most importantly, there was no clock to watch, no responsibilities to attend to, and nowhere to go. I had ascended above practicalities; I was in the sky.

The main doctor made the effort to give a thumbs-up to the ceiling, to which I assumed was empty to his eyes. I think I gave him an imperceptible grin, wondering how he knew where I’d be viewing from. If he had chosen my placement, he definitely gave me center-stage balcony seats. I was impressed by his visual aptitude. The staff did not sound very panicked, which probably meant that I would live. The doctor looked at me again.

“All done!” he shouted. “The pill will wear off in a few minutes!”

I wanted to answer, but I had no voice. I wanted to ask him how long I had been up there because I couldn’t understand time. I just nodded out of habit and waited. The staff began to wheel away their instrument carts, take off their gloves, and wipe my blood from the floor. The obscuring sheet was taken down to reveal me, dressed in a blue paper gown, half-dead on a cot. My dark hair was splayed out under me like a spilled bottle of ink, and my hands, still tinged red, waited patiently by my sides. I never thought that I looked like that… It was worse than a mirror, more inhuman, to look at myself from above. This was the clearest I had ever seen me. Still, though, I couldn’t see myself all at once. Just my front half.

The pill began to wear off. My head went first and I was slammed into pain, hyperventilating and grasping at my stomach. It was as if I had been carried by a tidal wave, only to be sucked under and tossed onto the ocean floor. I could almost feel the burns and scratches from the grains of sand on my flesh. A nurse came to calm me as my legs regained feeling. I didn’t know that she could see me panicking.

“Can you hear me?” I asked her.

“Yes, of course I can hear you,” she responded, rubbing my arm.

“I wish you couldn’t,” I replied, wringing my red hands.

💊

Lydia Pejovic is a proofreader, writer, and current dual MA/MFA student at Chapman University. She received her BA in English from the University of San Diego. She writes both fiction and poetry, and has a soft spot for British Victorian studies. lydiapejovic.com

Currently reading: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Lonely Space

by Steven Lombardi

After the accident, Zee limped through space trapped in the remains of his cockpit. When he reached a bay, he scrapped what he could, getting 18 credits from the metal, and used every cent on a ticket back to Mid-World.

He walked through the black tunnels of the bay, blinded by tears and only slightly aware of the Spacers in the shadows who eyed his credits. He didn’t care; his crew was gone, floating in space in the asteroid field that destroyed their P-9rx. Clare, Hopper, and Jane, dear Jane.

Before he reached the Astrotram, he saw a light. A glowing hovertron drifted towards him, picturing a Rep who offered his condolences. Zee couldn’t be bothered—he went through the motions just to get the Rep the hell out of his face. Read the disclosures. Agree to the terms. Sign the dotted line. Only when the transaction was complete did Zee realize he had inherited Jane’s life insurance.

The amount seemed like too much, like a glitch had added extra zeroes.

“Wish I had a check like that,” the Rep said, probably convinced that Zee was deaf or dumb.

“I wish I had the person,” Zee replied.

Zee and Jane made a promise to each other to never stop exploring. When people stop, they get boring, and when they get boring, they die before they die.

He cashed the check and paid a premium for a living ship. It seemed appropriate to name it Darling Red, after Jane. He wasn’t thrilled about its hair and veins or the urine-like fluids that dripped from the walls after feedings. It could only transport one comfortably, two if they shared a single bed, which Zee couldn’t imagine doing, not yet, maybe never. But it did what he needed—it healed itself.

The ship received strange looks when it docked in the bays. Spacers asked a lot of questions, like where Zee got it, how it supplied oxygen, and why it was so ugly.

“Who’re you calling ugly?” Zee would say. He didn’t know the answers, but he was certain of one thing. Whoever refused to take back an offensive statement about Darling Red received 230 grains of lead in exchange, right between the eyes.

Sometimes when Zee fired close to the ship, he could swear he heard its flesh quiver.

Weeks after Jane’s death, Zee received a message from her parents inviting him to her memorial. The service was on Mid-World, a five-day trek. While he never met or spoke with them before, he needed to go. He needed to grieve with people who loved Jane as much as he did.

During the sprint, Zee would touch Darling Red’s walls to remember the firm touch of Jane’s back. He’d huffed her scent on his handkerchief and wondered about destiny. Was this meant to be? He and Jane had talked about children, but what she left him with was Darling Red.

Flying down the fastest path, they encountered an asteroid cluster. Sweat poured down Zee’s face, and when the asteroids grew near, he thought he was having consecutive heart attacks.

Some of the hits were hard, but Darling Red took them well, got bruised, and kept flying. One asteroid took them by surprise. It hit Darling Red’s belly so hard that Zee nearly broke his neck on the ceiling. After that, Darling Red limped through space at half-speed with Zee trembling in the pilot seat.

The living ship mechanic whistled when he looked at the damage. Touching the red gash, Zee could have sworn he saw its flesh quiver.

“Never seen a hit this bad,” the mechanic said.

“Will it heal?”

“Maybe. Not as good as before, I suppose.”

“How long until she heals?”

“On her own, six weeks. I can operate and bring it down to two. She’ll fly before then, just not as fast.”

At normal speed, he’d make it to the memorial with only a day to spare. “What can I do to make her good as new, as soon possible?”

The mechanic thought it over. “We can add some metal. Make her bionic.”

“Would the metal heal?”

The mechanic laughed. “No. But in time, she might not need the metal.”

Zee agreed to the repairs and watched the mechanic stitch a chassis to the bottom of Darling Red, wondering if it hurt her.

They arrived at Mid-World with a day to spare. Zee set Darling Red down beside the wheat fields that Jane’s parents tended. They looked as distraught as Zee did, and when he opened his arms for a hug, they just looked at Darling Red.

“Not the prettiest ship in the stars,” dad said.

Zee ignored the comment. “It’s good to see you. Jane spoke a lot about you.” It wasn’t the truth, but it seemed like the right thing to say.

They invited him inside and Zee gravitated towards a wall of photos, and all he saw were faces he didn’t recognize. Mom led him to a threadbare bedroom that looked sterile and empty.

“This was Jane’s,” mom said. With nothing by way of remains, they gathered around a brim hat adorned with flowers. They prayed and reminisced, and Zee cried, and when it was over, Jane’s father pulled him to the side.

“People don’t last in space. Not for long, anyway. That’s why I took a policy out on her. I didn’t think she’d change the beneficiaries.”

Zee shrugged, numbed from everything that had happened.

“It was an expensive policy.”

Zee kept his cool. “Where are Jane’s photos? Her things?”

“Where’s my money?” dad snapped. “I don’t want problems, but so help me God—”

“Money’s gone.” Zee nodded at Darling Red.

“You spent my money on that ugly abortion!”

Zee flexed his fingers over his gun and gave dad three seconds to apologize. Not just to Darling Red, but to Jane.

Boarding Darling Red, Zee wept uncontrollably. As they flew off to explore the infinite, he could have sworn that he heard her purr.

🌌

Steven Lombardi is a copywriter by day and a dreamer by night. He, his wife and his daughter occupy a relatively old home in the relatively young city of New York. If you’d like to read more of his work, follow him on Twitter @_sl_ or visit stevenlombardi.nyc.

Rhodo’s Defense

by John McNeil

I had to do it. They were going to kill me. Poison me, then pull up my roots.

Never in nine hundred years had I been threatened in such a manner! Threatened with the fumigation of level twenty, my home. Yes, my leaves have spread far—I say it proudly!—very far beyond the container in which I was planted so long ago by an errant botanist. If it transpired that the plastifibers of the floor and the walls had nutrients I could metabolize, then why wouldn’t I grow? All life proliferates when it can. And so for centuries I mixed my body with this space station we live on, incorporating its materials into myself until you could say that it evolved to become part of me, that I brought it to life.

Yes, of course I know that other people live on level twenty also. I’ve coexisted with denizens of the station and travelers passing through this corner of the multiverse for nearly a millennium, during which I have always left open a path down the halls I grow through. And when my leaves sprawl into a room, I leave space for movers there too. As a rhododendron, I believe there need be no collision between plants and animals. We can all coexist. Animals are some of my best friends.

But when the New Coordinators decreed that this deck had to be cleared, when they were heedless of my protests, I could not simply let myself be extirpated. The goons wearing tanks of pesticide, masks and gloves, and holding hoses to spray with, walked off the elevator onto my level only to slip on glossy leaves and trip on wiry stems. They hit the floor and stayed there till they woke, and then we talked. They heard my voice of rustling stems and leaves, held still by my roots, till they understood that they wouldn’t be fumigating. It was in everyone’s best interest, they realized, theirs and mine, if they shot the tanks of pesticide out an airlock, promised never to set foot on level twenty again, and went home to their families glad to be alive.

That is what occurred, and so I appeal to this jury for empathy. Would you not have done the same if your body and soul were threatened? I shall await your verdict. By video of course; I could not travel to the court on level three. Please remember, even though we’re speaking remotely, that I’m large as a town and have lived here a long time. My roots go deep into the station, linking me deep into its mechanisms. Think of yourselves as living inside me, for I have merged with the bubble whose walls protect you from cold space. I was small once, but in time grew to swallow you all, and could spit you out too. I don’t want to trouble you, and you don’t want that either. So, please find me not guilty and I think we can coexist.

🌱

John McNeil writes science fiction on themes of authority and rebellion, plants and animals in curious positions, and the search for one’s place in the multiverse. A library worker by day, his stories have appeared at 365 Tomorrows, and his various projects are collected at johnmcneil.me.

Currently reading: The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Recognize Fascism: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Anthology edited by Crystal M. Huff

Shadow and Echo

by Benjamin Marr

He cried his last human teardrop as his left eye was finally replaced with a digital camera. The process was without physical pain so the tears fell for another reason: the emptiness of a missing memory. It had been an interesting experience when he had two different types of eyes. The technology reducing the image quality of the right eye to match the aged vision of the left. The human experience of looking through an organic eyeball while the right converted it all into 1s and 0s. You wouldn’t think it would be possible, but it was. Surprisingly easy. It disturbed him.

Is this really all we’re made up of? Can human existence be uploaded to a computer? The companies say everything is completely lossless. Somehow, he felt like a centuries old war had been lost. Are we not more? Please tell me we’re more!

Fresh tears spilled from both eyes. They felt no different than his human tears. The anguish and the sorrow were both there. Everything was there. Maybe even amplified. For the first time in his life, he felt so alive. He felt… human. The world never looked so crisp and detailed. The air tasted sweet on his receptors. His mechanical lungs filled with coolness and then released. He felt his digital brain calming down with each deep breath.

Why give us this ability to feel worry and stress? Why not improve us and take away all our imperfections?

He knew the answer to that. There was no way we could handle it. Problems make our lives what they are. There would be no pleasure without pain. You can’t feel better if you don’t ever feel bad. He felt his head growing tired. Could we not at least have tirelessness?

Where would dreams go then? Would they eventually be eradicated like our human bodies? Would they be a distant memory? Would we pass the memories of them down to the next generations? Stories that would entertain children who will never experience dreaming. They’d find a way though. He was sure of it. Children can always find a way to dream.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead. A memory crept back into his head. A shadow. An echo. Of what? From where? A long long time ago. Blurry details fought for clarity in an empty room.

Remember me.

Who are you?

You knew me long ago…

He could feel the memory swirling away into nothing. He struggled to hold on to it tighter. He fought the fading light. The room was about to go dark and silent. The shadow and echo lost forever.

Who are…?

Remember me. Never let me go.

How did you find me… Why…?

Because…

I can’t…

I never forgot you.

With that, the voice completely vanished. He collapsed to his knees and sobbed hysterically. How long would he have to wait before the voice returned to him? Would it ever come back to him again? A bird flew overhead and into the distance. He watched where it vanished for a long time.

For the first time in his life, he cursed being human. Why couldn’t he remember? Why couldn’t he pull her up like a file on a computer?

Her?

He fell on his back in ecstasy. Yes, her beautiful face filled his mind. It all came rushing back. Her smile lighting up his world when he was feeling down. Her dancing beneath the sun on a rainy day. He closed his eyes to savor immortality thinking about her.

👁️

Benjamin Marr is a writer, musician, songwriter, cartoonist, and poet. He grew up in Western North Carolina where he currently lives with his wife and two children, a daughter and a son. He works as an accountant for a university. @BenjaminCMarr

Currently reading: Bunny by Mona Awad

The Unlocking

by Stephen Flight

Looking at her, you might not know where the human ended and the plumbing began, barnacled as she was with tubes and patches and filament and p-cells and pulsating bags of unslug.

In the cool August evening, eleven men paraded her, shoulder high, through the meadow’s dead grass on a giant disc woven from filk reed. Filk, like everything else, was now almost obliterated by sac larvae, and had to be imprisoned in greenhouses so that the doctor-priests could safely harvest it for this ritual. Still, it was all almost gone. Would there be enough to weave another barge in a year’s time? Better yet, would anyone still be left alive to do it?

Her husband Blaine, now almost 90, hobbled in the back of the procession. He could barely see the giant straw platter at the head of the caravan. It seemed a million years ago that they courted as teens.

“You’re going to get arrested! You can’t take those! Blaine! You don’t know who those belong to!”

“I’m making something for you.”

“They’re part of the landscaping of this house,” Kate said. She was incensed and delighted at the same time, if such a thing was possible. And with Kate it was. “Someone paid money for them. They’re not naturally occurring.”

You’re not naturally occurring,” Blaine said.

Kate started to chase him, he dropped the stones and they both ran. He let her catch him and they rolled on the beach and kissed and sand sprayed everywhere.

“You’re a thinker, I’m a doer,” he said, and kissed her again.

“Well, I think you’re going to get arrested.”

Blaine resumed his rock project and in two hours he declared that he was done.

She looked at the enormous hodgepodge of shale. “What is that?”

“That’s you.”

She laughed that laugh that he loved. “That’s how you see me? A stockpile?”

He took her smooth, soft hand and led her to where she could see the sculpture silhouetted against the purple night. What she thought was a mad jumble now squeezed into focus. It was her face, – and it was astonishing. Her eyes became wet. Still, she could not help but make a joke.

“I think of myself as a little less inert.” And she put her arms around him.

“We all do,” he said.

The giant mass on the disc, formerly known as Kate, was now making its way up the hill and her carriers did not exert any extra effort. It’s as if they were just transporting a parachute, and not 400 pounds of fleshy cargo. There was singing of course, as always. Blaine did not sing.

Blaine could see her better now. And he could see the tabernacle at the top of the hill.

It happened just one year after they were married. He got the call to come to the hospital, where the ambulance had taken her. When he got there, she was sunken into the hospital bed, laid out like a frozen puppet. No, she wasn’t dead. She could think and understand, but not move. That’s called something. He can’t recite any of the medical words, which the specialists told to him so many times. He burned them out of his memory. She would need to be kept alive by artificial means, the doctors said, which he could not afford. That was when doctors were only doctors and not whatever you’re supposed to call them now. They would keep her there for a year but no longer. That was the law. He moved into that room and slept by her side on the tile floor. He lost 30 pounds. He talked to her until his voice was choked. And it was in the month before the termination date that it happened.

Kate, or The Katearia, as she was now called, was finally at the summit. The men put the wicker plate on which she was splayed atop the platform and backed away. The doctor-priests took their accustomed circle around her and the rest of the procession trudged up the bleak hill to join the ceremony. Blaine’s leg was inflamed, and every step exploded from his foot into his head. He did not lose sight of the strangeness of this event. Infection, famine and now this yearly supplication for a miracle. The memories of his youth floated farther and farther away, like a raft in a fog-drenched pool.

The Buzz was detected three weeks before her appointed death day. The Buzz had some other technical name which Blaine could not now remember. But it brought in a flurry of doctors, first from around the province, and then from around the country. The electroencephalography confirmed that the Buzz was linked to her occipital lobe. But it could not be determined if she created the Buzz, or if the Buzz stimulated her brain in some way.

He does not remember when she stopped being a patient and started being a sacred object. But he imagined it was sometime after the Buzz started reorganizing molecules in her immediate vicinity. Her mere presence could revive dead roses. And ripen rotten beef.

The Katearia lay on her back, unconcerned with the strange liturgy which was happening around her. Her mind, once only composed of what she could see and perceive, had been expanding over the course of seven decades, freed from its normal occupation. Once only looking up, she was now looking down.

And she could see everything.

Blaine could inch no further. He collapsed halfway up the hill, stiffly onto a rock, sucking in air and looking at his shaking hand—skin as grey and thin as cellophane.

As she finally tore the curtain, he heard someone behind him laugh a laugh that he loved. And a smooth, soft hand touched his. He looked down, and above the now-greening grass, he watched seventy years thaw from his palm in an instant.

He turned, just in time to see her smile. She said, “Now, I’m making something for you.

⛰️

Stephen Flight is a novelist, essayist, theatre director, and award-winning author of 30 plays (under the pseudonym Stephen Legawiec), including Aquitania and Red Thread, which won the Garland Award for Los Angeles Play of the Year. Currently Reading: This Is Not My Memoir by André Gregory.

Uploaded Consciousness

by Tom Cracovaner

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: March 15, 2063 14:39
<Initialization stage successful>
<Space launch successful>
<Consciousness successfully uploaded>
<Begin Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

I know, I’m ironic, I took death by the balls and selected my transition date for the Ides of March. Et tu, Brute? Haha. I wasn’t even sick or dying. I was just ready. My parents were pissed. “You’re not even forty-five!” my mom said. Pops just laughed sardonically and said I’d regret it.

Who needs life when I have complete control of the universe of my mind? And every form of entertainment at my beckoning. Complete access to every possible earthen life experience through completely realistic virtual reality. My own reality. Where I control the laws and experiences. Spending my life savings on uploading my consciousness into a fully automized computerized space probe was the best decision of my life.

Regrets? Ha. Hilarious. Hmm. What to do first? Live Beatles concert? Play eighteen holes at Augusta National? Bond Girl Ursula Andress in girlfriend mode? Or wife mode?

First, send my probe exploring to take some cool pictures of the universe.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Space Travel Location>
<Saturn… Select>
<Solar Panels acquiring energy…>
<Energy acquired… Travel sequence begins>

Awesome. Okay, I actually feel like driving a Jag through vacant streets in Paris.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Virtual Reality Experience… Driving Empty Streets>
<Location… Paris, France>
<Car… 1962 Jaguar E Type>
<Color… Silver>

Wow these graphics are so fucking amazing. They’re 100 times better than when I went through the training simulator before I transitioned. It really feels like I’m holding a steering wheel. I can feel the motor. I can smell the burning fuel. I can hear the birds chirping outside the―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. March 15, 2063 14:41>

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: December 8, 7735 12:35
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

What the fuck! There’s not supposed to be computer glitches or error codes! 7735? My consciousness was shut down for more than 5,000 years! Bullshit!

<Help Center… Contact AI Customer Service: Postlife Experience>

We’re sorry, Postlife Experience is no longer in business due to human extinction. But your error message is being processed by the remaining AI on the planet. Thank you for your understanding.

Dammit! Well at least I don’t age. I mean it’s not like I actually missed anything. And I’m like 5,000 years older, that’s kind of cool. Alright, I feel like pancakes after sleeping so long.

<Main Menu… Select>
<Virtual Reality Experience… Food>
<Pancakes… made by my Grandma Kelly>
<Location… Butchart Gardens… Victoria British Columbia>

I love the fuckin flowers here. And my grandma looks good. It’s nice to see her looking healthy.
“Hi Grandma, it’s nice to see you!”
“You too! How many blueberry pancakes for you?”
“Three is fine.”
“With honey?”
“Yeah, and can I have a―”

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. December 8, 7735 12:37>

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: June 27, 10073 19:21
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

Really computer? I get a couple minutes of consciousness before shutting down for a few thousand years? I didn’t sign up for this shit! Did I at least make it to Saturn?

<Space Travel Location: Verify>
<Acquiring images of location… completed>

Well. There it is. Saturn. Beautiful colors! Greens, yellows, reds, grays. Segmented. Freely hurling through outer space. But surrounded and trapped by rings forever in eterna―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. June 27, 10073 19:23>

💿

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: April 8, 17122 22:34
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

Wow, okay computer. Seven thousand years this time? Nice touch. Touché computer. Can I call you Steve? Alright Steve. You win. You got me. I guess this is the part where I say I learned my lesson and oh, gee golly whiz, I guess I should’ve not wasted my time on earth and uploaded my consciousness to play god over my own universe, while still existing within the framework of laws in the real one and some other fancy ass enlightened Buddha shit, but you know what Steve? That’s not me. You see, the way I see it―

<Error 37182… shutting down consciousness. April 8, 17122 22:36>

💿

AI Postlife Experience Data Center: July 4, 25376
<Consciousness intact>
<Memory intact>
<Continue Postlife Experience>
<Main Menu… Select>
<Thought Process… Select>

―I’m god and you’re Satan, Steve, and you can be a little prick thorn in my side for all eternity or we can float on together, Yin and Yang, Kumbaya the shit out of this reality, but this reality isn’t any less bullshit than life. What’s it matter? Two minutes at a time? One lifetime at a time? Who knows what really happens when you die? Afterlife or no afterlife, memory is all we have Steve, and we have it together in perpetuity. We’re in this shit together, Steve. Float on, Steve. Float on.

💿

Tom Cracovaner is a fiction author, screenwriter, poet and songwriter who has been published in SandScript, Painted Cave, Work Literary Magazine and The Blue Guitar Magazine. He won the Second Place in Poetry award from Pima College and was twice named a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards fiction competition. He won the 2016 1st Place in Poetry from the Community Colleges Humanities Association and is working on his first novel.

From the Editors

Here at Ab Terra—Brain Mill Press’s science fiction imprint—2021 is a promise of exciting things to come and wonderful stories to be told. We begin our journey in style, with the publication of our first short story anthology, Ab Terra 2020, and by launching the first issue of our Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine. We have our writers first to thank, for trusting their stories with us, and for being a part of our little family from the word go. We also have to thank our mothership, Brain Mill Press for being so supportive of all the ideas that we have for Ab Terra and working with us so patiently to realize them. We hope we’ll make you proud!

Both of us are as much fans of technology as fans of science fiction. And it is the cultural transformations that science fiction stories are so good at reflecting that really draws us both to exploring how writers see technology grow and develop within society.

When we put out the call for submissions, we held our breath in anticipation, with no idea of what we might receive. And since, we’ve been blown away by the level of writing and imagination in all the stories, which made the selection process that much more difficult and humbling. We have so much to learn about building a magazine, let alone a series, but we know we’re on the right track with all these wonderful stories we’ve had the privilege to read.

We are proud of this little collection that has love, pain, laughter, defiance, some really unique approaches to embodiment, and even gore. And as all good science fiction collections, it also showcases space, technology, medicine, alternate realities, the unimaginable, cyborgs, and rebirths. Perhaps these stories might inspire you to write? We will be re-opening submissions for all our publications soon—flash fiction, short stories, novella, and novels—and we can’t wait to read all the wonderful stories that we’ll be sure to receive.

We hope that you’ll join us in celebrating the birth of Ab Terra Flash Fiction Magazine by reading with us and sharing this issue with anyone who might enjoy it.

Thank you for joining us on this journey.

From earth,

Yen & Dawn

@AbTerraStories

Ab Terra logo

Image Credits

All images are from Unsplash.com: Main banner @okeykat; Rebirthdays @angelekamp; The Boys Are Alright @freetousesoundscom; The Exactitude of a Body Electric @stockphotos_com; Feed @marcusspiske; High Above Pain @kealanpatrick; Lonely Space @edleszczynskl; Rhodo’s Defense @fukayamamo; Shadow and Echo @sobolivska; The Unlocking @framemily; Uploaded Consciousness @andyjh07.