By Peter McMillan
I'd been on station for two months and didn't have a good feeling about it. It's very different from Earth and even the ship that brought me here. My tour with Space Corps is for two years and I'm not liking my chances of settling in. I'm here, under the radar, so to speak, to investigate longstanding allegations of abuse and mistreatment.
We sleep in pods arranged like the long, flat safety deposit boxes you find in old-fashioned Earth banks. Just large enough to flex your muscles but not enough to turn over. It doesn't matter though because we all take meds to help us sleep, and there is next to no waking time in the pods.
We eat all our meals in the canteen, which is standing room only. Along the walls, the canteen is outfitted with dozens of tubes. We connect these to our upper abdominal ports. The feeding takes 15 minutes. There is no variety, just a uniform mixture of basic nutrients. Here too it doesn't matter since we bypass taste, smell, and texture. I learned this after trying several different tubes.
Sometimes when you get a tube it will still be dripping and you have to drain it and sterilize it. That's happened to me several times. Some people are so careless and what little bit of personal space there is they violate. It's not so much that there is the danger of infection—so we're told. It's the very idea of ingesting someone else's backflow, which is thoroughly disgusting!
The other bodily functions are managed through the lower abdominal port, which requires the same attention to personal space and sanitariness. The facilities are adjacent to the canteen and are equipped with larger plastic hoses that are supposed to be sterilized after each use. Just to be on the safe side, I sterilize the hose before and after use, no matter how long the lineup.
Physical contact is prohibited and every effort is made to ensure that it won't happen accidentally or intentionally. At our workstations, we're suited up and strapped in for 15 hours. You can't even tap your neighbour on the shoulder to ask a question. The range of motion won't permit it. Nonverbal communication is not allowed. You have to go through the chat line to communicate, and it's constantly monitored.
Chats are public, so sometimes people use code, but this is risky. The penalty for being caught is one month solitary detention in the Space Chamber where there is no light, no sounds or smells, and perpetual weightlessness. People are never the same when they return. I got to know the guy from pod 11471-AF before they sent him away. He was a vegetable when he got back, but he didn't stay long before they packed him off to Terra Chamber, a dead end for nonconformists.
One night I couldn't sleep. I hadn't deliberately refused the meds but I think they must have given me something else. I kept having paranoid thoughts that 11471-AF had informed on me. It also felt like bugs were crawling on me, and I couldn't reach them to scratch. I worried that the ingestion and excretion tubes were contaminated and that all sorts of nasty germs were affecting my body and my brain.
Without warning and with no explanation, I was pulled out of my pod and rushed to the Magistrate's Chamber.
“Mr. 14319-ZB, you know this is a Stage 5 classified station and everything that goes on here is top secret and that conspiring against the station's authority is a criminal offense?” asked the magistrate.
“Yes sir,” I answered.
“Mr. 14319-ZB, where are your notes?”
It was my notes they were after, not realizing that I possess an eidetic memory—a prerequisite for my line of work—which I meticulously layer with unrelated and misdirecting memories.
“I haven't taken any notes. I don't have access—“
“You've been observed meeting with 11471-AF and others in the tube stations. What do you have to say about that?”
“I befriended 11471-AF because we're from the same Earth city, Providence.”
“Now sir, no doubt you've heard what has happened to 11471-AF. Unless you cooperate—”
“I am … I'm trying—“
“Then what did you do with your notes? Your cooperation may be taken into consideration during sentencing, but—“
“OK, I used the chat line, but the reason your experts haven't been able to find my notes is that I encrypted them with an auto-delete feature.”
“Your saying, then, that the chats, er, the notes have been deleted? But we have real-time backups.”
“And each time you access my chats from a backup, the auto-delete feature activates.”
“So you're saying there's no way to access your notes?”
“That's right. Even I can't get to them because of the encrypted fail-safe that triggers the delete function.”
“Well, we'll see about that. Let's help you try to remember.”
That's when they severed my head and stuck my brain in a vat of chemicals.
I hadn't seen that coming.
“Now Mr. 14319-ZB, how did you encrypt your chats? What algorithm did you use?
The magistrate turned the questioning over to a cryptographer. Each time I was evasive I received a multi-sensory shock. Several hours into the interrogation, they switched to a different strategy. After making a number of recalibrations, they directly probed my memory center. All they learned was that my memories were inaccessible and interwoven with vivid recollections of urine- and feces-contaminated hoses and vomit-filled feeding tubes.
Now disembodied, it was clear I'd never return to Earth, and it didn't appear likely that any of my findings would ever make it back either. Essentially, my mission was a failure. However, if my record is discovered one day, it will be a damning indictment of the station's human rights violations. But from here in the vat, it seems that discovery will never be made.
- - -
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Whistling In The Wasteland Winds
By E.S. Wynn
Dust plumes on the horizon. Sun-Hands sends up a cry, loud and trilling. Cracked binoculars fall away from her quick eyes, disappear into a pouch at her side. Lips as dark, as weathered as ancient leather crease around a broken smile. "Black Legion!" She shouts over her shoulder. "West Route!"
Immediately, there is a stirring in the camp. Anxious, excited, Sun-Hands pumps the pedals on her bike with one powerful thigh. Behind her, men and women swathed in filthy shreds of leather, rug and rope mount their own bikes, pop kickstands back against lightweight aluminum frames. There's no waiting– in seconds, the bikes are singing through the flying sand, Sun-Hands leading the charge, setting a rhythm with the pulse of her pounding pedals. A crossbow of piano wire and particleboard as ancient and weathered as she is slaps against the cross of her handlebars, rattles as she slams a cracked cooler full of short, sharpened rebar lengths next to it, loads the bow with quick, deft movements. To her left and right, two others sail up beside her on stripped-down mountain bikes, ready their own weapons with grins under dusty hoods cut from nylon area rugs.
The convoy comes into view before the burn even begins to set in. Sun-Hands calls out the order, gestures sharp and direct. "Three electrics! Four frames! Intel spot-on!"
"Let's just hope it stays that way!" The woman on Sun-Hands's right shouts back, rips off her hood, squints fierce, indigo eyes against flying sand as wind whips out and unfurls her mane of midnight hair like a banner. Two quick gestures, firm as her tone. "Corv and Knives. You're with me." The woman shoots a sharp smile at Sun-Hands. "We'll take the electrics. You take care of the frames."
"Tiger!" Sun-Hands shouts, but the younger woman is already gone, slamming pedals, sailing off through the sand with Corv and Knives trailing her, the trio aiming to cut off the convoy, or slide up alongside the boxy, four-wheeled electrics before they can accelerate away. "Dammit!" Only the barest drop in speed. Sun-Hands shouts to the eleven raiders still riding behind and beside her. "Sticks! Pictures! Go after Tiger! Make sure she doesn't get herself killed! The rest of you, follow me!"
Someone sends up another trilling war cry behind her. The others catch it, echo it, draw her into it. Her grin is as sharp, as feral as Tiger's.
Cutting a line to the right, Sun-Hands throws every ounce of power she has into her pedals, goes screaming straight at the convoy. "Not gonna best me yet," the old woman growls.
Leaning into their frames, Sticks and Pictures hurl themselves after Tiger, chase the streamer of her midnight mane through the grit and haze. Seven seconds, eight, and the familiar crack of gunfire splits the sky. Sun-Hands's eyes widen.
Intel didn't say anything about guns.
It's almost enough to slow the elder, make her think twice. Almost. Greed kicks fresh adrenalin into her veins. Greed, hunger, and the knowledge that whatever the convoy is carrying must be valuable to justify guns. Real smoke and fire guns!
Sun-Hands doesn't waver when Corv hits the sand, his bike splintering, flying apart under the speed of impact. Tiger throws up a war cry that gets lost in the dust, and then Sun-Hands sees the younger woman leaning in close against the bars of her frame, lining up a shot with her own makeshift crossbow. One second. Two. The wire sings, slings a chunk of rebar through the air.
The shot is sharp, precise. It slides in right between the frames where the lead electric's windshield would be. Sun-Hands grins. Tiger's sting is keen. The lead electric goes wild on the road, and in the space of a breath, it spins out in the sand, flips over, rolls end-over-end until it comes to a crunching stop. The four frames and the other electrics slow to cut around their fallen. It's enough. In another breath, Sun-Hands is on them, loosing her own bolt, raising her hands and standing on the pedals of her bike as a volley of rebar goes screaming past her, turns the two remaining electrics into pincushions.
The Black Legionnaires on frames turn out to be hired guns. They don't stick around, don't put up a fight. Even before the last electric grinds to a stop, they scatter into the sands, throw their thighs into their sudden escape, shaved and waxed heads flashing in the sun. Sun-Hands rallies her own with a standing victory cry, and as the fourteen frames following her orders sail in to circle around the fallen electrics, she sees one of her boys slide to a stop, throwing up a curtain of sand as he looses another length of rebar, plugs a grunting face just as it rises from the wreckage.
A gesture, a shrill whistle. Sun-Hands coasts to a stop, dismounts a dozen paces from the mangled mass of the lead electric. Tiger jogs her own frame through the sand, kicks down the stand and leaves it as she strides up to stand beside Sun-Hands. There's blood on the crunched frame of the electric's passenger-side door. No movement inside.
Sun-Hands squint-grins at Tiger, catches the other woman's indigo eyes just for a breath, then glances down the line at the other two electrics. The others come to a stop an instant later, step off their frames, flip up their goggles, some drawing knives, a few snapping makeshift rebar crossbows free from their handlebars. Silently, they stalk the shadows inside the boxy electrics, keen to any movement, but none comes.
There's a crunch. Sun-Hands looks back toward the lead electric, her eyes sharp, wary, hand going immediately to her knife. Tiger meets her stare evenly, then yanks something from the shadows of the vehicle's crumpled cab.
“My kill,” Tiger says, holding up a dusty, lever-action rifle. Cracking it open at the breech, she squints inside the chamber, blows the dust out of it with one quick burst, then looks back to Sun-Hands. “By rights, I get first salvage.”
“As it has always been,” Sun-Hands says. She's jealous, but she offers a smile and a nod anyway, hides anything else by turning back to the others, making a sharp gesture. “Not much time.” She barks her orders. “Strip the cells, water, guns, anything. We divide everything at dusk.”
“You're getting slow, old woman,” Tiger says. Sun-Hands ignores the remark, focuses on the burn in her thighs, watches as the others rip into the electrics, scurry inside and yank free everything they can get hands on. Bundles of wires, a clattering soup cup with a dozen twenty-two rounds in the bottom. Pictures finds something wrapped in foil, shouts, then thinks better of it and crams it into his mouth. Three others tackle him as he tries to run for his bike, plant him face-down in the dirt. There's screaming, thrashing, the snapping of teeth, then coughing. Nimble hands extract the foil-wrapped food, then toss it to Sun-Hands. Without looking at it, the old woman pushes it into her pack. As the closest thing they have to a leader, the others trust her to keep it until dusk.
“And your intel was off, same as last time,” Tiger adds. She's closer now, Sun-Hands notes. Five paces, maybe six. Still, the old woman doesn't turn. In the space of a few breaths, the frames are sagging on their tires, heavily-laden. There's a squeal as rough hands start to pull lengths of sharpened rebar from the aluminum doors and sides of the electrics. A backpack full of recovered handguns sits open in the sand, clangs as Knives tosses another into the sack. When Sun-Hands turns again, Tiger is looking right at her, eyes full of fight.
“You're not ready to lead us yet, daughter,” Sun-Hands shifts into a swaggering stance, one hip cocked. Tiger meets her eyes only for a moment more, then looks away. It's all the old woman can do not to grin. “Your brashness cost us a man today. Corv. Corv took a bullet for you.”
“Bullet wasn't meant for me,” Tiger's flashing eyes fix with her mother's again. “Bullet was meant for Corv. Aim was true. Just not his lucky day.”
“Can't think that way if you want to lead,” Sun-Hands shakes her head. “Take every bullet as meant for you. Just others who pay the price. Corv trusted you. He's dead for that.”
Tiger looks away again, scowling. The edges of a grin pull at the older woman's lips as she turns back towards the others. Knives, Sticks, Pictures and all the rest. The pace has slowed. The bikes are heavy. There isn't much more to be picked from the carcasses of the Black Legion electrics. The haul is good, mostly food and water, a sack full of guns. No point in waiting. The four men on frames have had enough time to call in reinforcements. If anyone's coming, better to bug-out soon rather than pick around for scraps. A breath, considering, and then Sun-Hands notes the thin haze of dust plumes on the horizon, maybe a mile down the West Route. Minutes, maybe less.
“Give it time, Tiger.” She offers, words coming with a soft smile, just above a whisper. “Learn. Stay alive. You'll be leading this pack soon enough.”
Tiger doesn't say anything, only looks at her mother, seems to study the older woman's deeply tanned, age-lined face. Sun-Hands doesn't wait, only nods, swings herself onto her bike, turns back to the others.
“Saddle up!” Sun-Hands shouts. Beside her, Tiger slings her trophy, pulls her hood back over her eyes, pops the kickstand on her bike. “South! Tight line! Follow me!”
Thighs flex, shift bikes one hundred eighty degrees. When the pulse comes, it comes quick, feet pushing pedals, flinging frames to singing speed in seconds. Tiger falls in behind her mother, and then in the space of a breath, the rest jam in, following close, riding the lines Sun-Hands cuts through the sand.
By the time the Black Legionnaires arrive, those who follow Sun-Hands are already gone. Gone, like ghosts, whistling in the wasteland winds.
- - -
This story appears as part of E.S. Wynn's 62nd book, Gold Hills, Rust Valley: 20 Tales From Apocalyptic California.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Ground Team Report
By David K Scholes
“The ground teams are late,” said my Deputy Commander “the first of them should have been back by now. Shall we break communications silence sir?”
“Not yet,” I responded. “Give them another half planetary axis rotation. We’ve seen enough to know this is an unusual world.”
Waiting up here heavily cloaked and in high orbit was always difficult. Yet none of the ground teams had breached communication silence. Suggesting there had been no emergencies.
Two hundred individuals had gone down. For an intended duration of 60 planetary axis rotations. Spread across twelve megalopolises and several major regional areas.
We were not idle while we waited. Quietly, unobtrusively we monitored just about everything there was to monitor. Though long experience taught us that this passive observation had to be supplemented by what we learned from the ground teams.
When they came back up it was in dribs and drabs rather than the normal highly coordinated flow.
Off hand I couldn’t remember such tired, dispirited, bedraggled and befuddled looking ground teams in all my space faring experience. It rather looked as though this world had gotten the better of them. Though thankfully no one had been killed and there were no major injuries. Also it didn’t look as though we had been discovered.
I pored over the collective written report first. Some of it we knew from our passive observations. Though there were other things. Things we had not gleaned from our observations on high. I guess there’s nothing like actually being on the spot rather than remote observation.
I digested the full report and only then met with the ground team leaders and others for a verbal briefing.
The verbal briefing revealed passions not entirely evident in the more clinical written reports. As they sometimes do.
“I’ve never seen a race so self obsessed,” offered one team leader.
“Every one is trying to be more famous than their neighbour,” said another.
"They are obsessed with self images, taking them at every opportunity,” added another team leader
“There’s also an unhealthy obsession with vacuous celebrity,” added another.
The comments went on.
One team leader described just transiting down a popular thoroughfare in a major megalopolis. “Almost every individual was self obsessed listening to unusual sound emitting devices or watching/listening to audio-visual devices. They were just oblivious of what was going on around them. Minor collisions between transiters were not uncommon but would have been much worse but for some crude form of body radar worn by most transiters.”
I realised that the group was only getting started.
“My team witnessed several major incidents involving loss of life. Many aliens congregated in large numbers about the incidents not to help but just to ghoulishly observe.”
“The general non responsiveness to individuals in distress was very high,” offered another team leader “granted some would help but many appeared to derive pleasure from the misfortune of others.”
“The extent of gratuitous violence is beyond anything in our past experience.”
“When they give the appearance of caring it seems to be just for show.”
The ground team leaders continued relentlessly.
“As revolting as all these things are to any who live under the universal moral code are they not just idiosyncratic traits peculiar to this world,” I interjected. “We’ve surely seen worse?”
The group fell briefly silent.
“It’s getting worse,” someone piped up. “We used time camera analysis to view attitudes of decades ago. The self obsession, the gratuitous violence, the lack of caring, the ghoulish observation. It’s getting harder and harder to find any residual goodness.”
“I suppose the really important thing is how these unusual values, inconsistent with the universal moral code, impact on this civilization. Are they or will they impede its development?”
“So far they haven’t,” said our Chief Research Officer “yet psycho/socio/economic projections show that on the current decline in moral values it will start to impact. Quite soon. They could even fall below minimum tier 3 levels!”
“Well no one wants that. Least of all the locals.” I was thinking hard hoping the ground teams had done something they shouldn’t.
“I take it there was no interference in the affairs of this world?” I asked. .
Things went very quiet.
“For the most part we complied with the non intervention protocols,” the overall leader of the ground teams replied.
“For the most part?" I asked
“Well, just one small thing,” the overall leader continued”we left a copy of the universal moral code where it could be found, by one of the local dignitaries. Actually the Secretary General of their United Nations.”
For the formal record I feigned outrage at the breach of protocol. Yet inwardly I felt relief. This was the best thing we could have done for them in all the circumstances. Yet would they be able to make anything of this great moral compass we had left them?
“We have sowed the seed,” I said. “We’ll have to come back to see if it bears any fruit,”
- - -
The author has written over 140 speculative fiction short stories, many of which appear in his seven published collections of short stories. He has also published two science fiction novellas (all on Amazon). He has been a regular contributor to the Antipodean SF and Beam Me Up Pod cast sci-fi sites and more recently Farther Stars Than These site. He has also been published on 365 Tomorrows, Bewildering Stories, the WiFiles and the former Golden Visions magazine. He is currently working on a new science fiction novella.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
By Joseph J. Patchen
The trees are dying in the stiff brown grass. The air is still and dry. Each step I take reduces what is underneath to powder and dust.
A small patch of moisture mournfully hangs on a stone and mortar wall. The stain just lingers. For some reason and I cannot explain why, the slick just lingers amidst the intense heat and constant sunshine. It’s been that way for almost a month.
It will be the last ghost of a dying planet.
Johanssen blew his brains out in front of that spot when he heard; when it was confirmed the sun was coming for us all. The amoebic outline of his blood and matter glistens against the rock. It entices and it captivates.
No matter how much I wish, I dare not touch it.
I’m in a bubble and alone.
I have to stay here.
I’m the last in every sense.
I flew missions from these pads over twenty years ago. And while I would love to say nothing has changed; it all has. Sure the people were friendly and respectful. But it was a matter of their pre-occupation with this assembly line rescue.
My colleagues and I were supposed to be saviors of this earth. We were supposed to shuttle survivors to larger crafts waiting above the atmosphere. The evacuation plan was rational and calculated. The re-occupation to a farther star was daring and necessary but we underestimated the time and the radiation generated from the flares.
Now these hallways and walkways are empty save for the bleached bones and leathery patches of skin that are seared and melted onto the terminal planet.
Everyone is dead. I’ve tried to find others. They are all dead. It seems…
Ironically it is incompetence that breathes life into me. My lack of ability to grasp the technological and scientific innovations of this age has allowed me to stand last. My lack to comprehend has forced me to study and train longer hours. I should have stepped aside. I have been training overtime. I have lived in this suit as a daily routine simply to understand it…
And because of it, the radiation hasn’t completely poisoned me.
The lie I live that I am a professional, that I am a so-called hero has shackled me and assigned others to death. I should have never accepted this command. I wasn’t worthy to handle this mission; years of depression and self destruction following my heyday have whittled away my abilities and intellect.
I am a hot-shot gone cold.
But what weighs heaviest on my soul is that any penance I can devise for my folly will have no redemption. I have truly sinned. I have delayed the mission and my pride has forced me to live in this Hell.
Following my first day, I couldn’t sleep. Food didn’t hold any fascination or importance. I just trained. I just worked. The excuse was I was just ‘rusty’. The truth is I had just lost ‘it’.
Bureaucratically I fell through the cracks while my colleagues began formulating the mission even taking survivors to the rescue ships above.
My work ethic was erroneously praised. I was stumbling between fear and confusion and the erosion age brings to one’s mind and heart. But as soon as death kicked down the door I wished I was in its wake.
But I am too much of a coward to die that way; to die slowly and painfully.
Oh I want to die. I see no reason to continue. For days I have wandered these launch pads and prayed for God’s vengeance to touch me. But my own obsessions and short comings have blocked the smallest caress. God doesn’t want me. He’s forcing me to plummet further.
The emptiness I feel cannot be filled by tears. I know now it can only be satiated by my blood.
So all is at the ready; my mission is clear. My mission will be done. I will fly today. I will fly my rocket toward the star that hungers so. I will fly my craft into the light and demand entry into the kingdom to come.
- - -
I am a writer of weird stories.
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