Tag Archives: science fiction

Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Patrol 4 by Imogen Wiggins

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Another Sense, Eilish Hendry

My father once told me he knew something was wrong the moment I was born. He said I cried too loudly. They couldn’t take me anywhere: shopping malls, parks, the more people there were, the worse I became. I would scream and cry and fuss; nothing could make me relax. He said I emerged from the womb determined to spite him—that I had always hated him. But I didn’t, how could I? I was an infant. It took me years to accept that he would never love me. He’d decided against it the moment I uttered my first words because he could never understand them:

‘Too loud.’

The world was just too loud for me.

Eventually, I adjusted to larger groups of people. I didn’t really have a choice. When my kindergarten teacher said I had socialisation issues, my mother defended me. She insisted it was because I hadn’t been to preschool. If only it were that simple. It would take me a long time to learn that there were certain things I shouldn’t say out loud—things that would make people angry.

‘What do you mean you don’t like anyone, Ella? You just said you like Billy.’

‘What’s the point of silent reading if everyone’s still talking?’

‘Oh, Jeremy stole your chocolates, Miss. He’s laughing about it right now.’

My classmates called me a tattletale, my teacher labelled me a compulsive liar. But Mama refused to believe them; she pulled me from that school and found a new one. But the teacher there accused me of cheating. Soon, I was changing schools every six months. Somehow things just kept getting worse.

When I was eight, Daddy told Mama he was going to work, but he told me he was going to a hotel with Helen. I didn’t know who she was, so I asked him about her later and he got mad. He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about, but when I mentioned the name of the hotel he almost looked scared. He begged me not to tell. He told me that I wouldn’t understand, that my mother wouldn’t understand. He took me out for ice cream and that made Mama smile, so I thought it was okay.

I didn’t tell her the truth until he left us for good. Mama had no words when I finally admitted it, but by then she didn’t have any tears left either. Pretty soon after that, she told me we were going to a doctor. At first, I was happy. I thought the doctor was for her; I knew how sad she was, I knew what she smelt like, so I thought she was getting help.

‘No Sweetie, the doctor is for you.’

My father was a doctor, so I’d never been to anyone else, let alone a psychologist. I was sitting on a beanbag surrounded by stuffed animals, while Mama sat on a rickety chair, listing my problems for at least an hour.

‘She’s a very sweet girl, very smart… But I know something’s wrong. Her teachers’ say she plays games with them in class. She’ll say she can’t work out a problem but the moment they sit down with her she knows all the answers. She can’t go to school assemblies or the park. I thought it might be sensory overload, so I bought a few books. But it doesn’t seem to matter how loud a place, she just can’t handle it.’

‘That’s not true.’

‘Alexandra please, we’re here to be honest with the doctor. You know you don’t like—’

‘Mama I didn’t mean what you said. I meant what he said.’

‘Excuse me?’ the doctor said, face crinkled with confusion, ‘I didn’t say anything.’

‘Yes you did,’ I told him. ‘You said it’s Asperger’s. I read Mama’s book and I don’t think I have it.’

I still remember feeling like I was the only person in that room that was making sense. Mama seemed happy when I spoke up, not because she agreed with me, but because the doctor had just witnessed what she’d never been able to explain. It took three sessions for him to finally admit I was right. After that, he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. We went to see at least twelve more doctors, and a priest, before Mama finally gave up. She used to say that there had to be an explanation. She’d say it over and over like it was the only thing binding her to this Earth. She needed something—something to make me make sense.

One doctor was convinced I was schizophrenic, another said I was an autistic savant. They threw around every personality disorder they could think of from borderline to histrionic. They tried ADD and ADHD but nothing could explain me away. One doctor said I just had a wild imagination. He said that this is what happens to children raised by single mothers. Mama didn’t hear the bad word he called her, but I did. I hit him for that and we had to leave. But she needed answers, far more than I did. Every misdiagnosis made her shatter like the glass that surrounded her.

She needed someone to tell her that it wasn’t her fault. That I wasn’t her fault. But it was too late, too quickly it was too late.

It was loud that day. I could hear her in the next room, screaming for someone to answer her. I went to check on her and she was lying in bed, dry-eyed and staring at the ceiling like she had been for days. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, but she told me she was fine, she just needed some rest. I didn’t blame her, neither of us had slept in three days. She didn’t because she couldn’t, I hadn’t because she hadn’t. She promised me everything was going to be fine, but I could still hear her pain. I couldn’t ignore it; it hammered into my skull and my heart screamed like a wounded anvil. So, I checked on her a second time, then a third. I didn’t check a fourth… I should have checked a fourth. But instead, I stuffed my ears with tissue paper and prayed to every god in existence for it to be silent.

And then it was.

Everything felt cold and for the first time, it was peaceful. I could still hear the whispers of the world, but they were so far away. I cried because all of a sudden, I could breathe. That night, I slept more serenely then I ever had in my life. And when I woke up, it was still quiet. And that was beautiful. There was a part of me that thought that this was what control was. That maybe it had finally stopped. There was something that could make the world go quiet, I could be what my mother needed me to be. A normal child who didn’t need doctors, who could make friends. A girl who couldn’t hear what no one had said.

I ran to tell my mother the good news. To my surprise, she had slept peacefully too. All she needed was a bottle of pills.

My father didn’t take me in after the funeral—he refused. He told his new wife that he didn’t want me getting into her head or their baby’s. He had a new daughter now, so he set me up in a crappy apartment and never looked back. He paid my rent remotely and wouldn’t take my calls. He told me that as soon as I turned eighteen he wouldn’t be legally responsible for me anymore. At fourteen, he was counting down the days until he could be rid of me for good.

I can’t tell you how loud that apartment was. There were fifty people just on my floor and they all just seemed so busy. My neighbours were nice to me at first, they’d bring me leftovers and offer to help me with my homework. By then I had learnt to only respond when I could see someone’s lips moving. But it’s impossible to catalogue what someone has and hasn’t told you. I started to wonder if it was even right for me to hold back. I knew their pain, their struggles, their grief. Why should I let someone suffer in silence when words might make the world a little bit quieter?

The landlord came to see me, he told me to move out. The other tenants complained, he said. I was disturbing them, he said. I had never been more desperate in my life. I knew my father wouldn’t take my calls even if I was homeless. It was like there was something buried in my chest, something alive and thrashing. Maybe it only came into being in that moment or maybe it had always been there, threatening to burst free. That was the first time I saw true fear; it burned in my landlord’s eyes and his mind descended into howling chaos.

Yet somehow, I made it go quiet.

I told him I wasn’t leaving and he agreed. I told him that the people complaining about me should be evicted and they were. Suddenly, I had someone who was incapable of turning me away—who couldn’t tell me no, who couldn’t hurt me. That was all I’d ever wanted. For the first time, I had a voice in this screaming world and now one wasn’t enough. One of my teachers was next. Then a classmate, then a neighbour, then anyone who tried to silence me. I couldn’t win anyone over with affection or kindness. I had tried loving the world and it did nothing but break me to pieces.

The very thought spread through me like wildfire because I knew its source. I knew the one who had begun it, who had stolen my voice—It was time to take it back.

‘You’re going to tell me the truth, Father. I’m tired of your lies. You knew what I was and you prayed for it to destroy me.’

He stared back at me with those big brown eyes, the one’s strangers used to tell me I’d inherited. Seeing him look so trapped was a joy I had never expected. He was so flustered, so panicked. For once, I had the upper hand and it was a power I never knew I craved.

‘Alexandra, you need to leave now,’ he tried to sound confident, but his voice shook with every word, ‘My family will be home any moment. They know to call the police if they see you.’

I could hear his mind racing at a million miles a minute, desperate for me to accept his lies. He couldn’t figure out how I’d found his home, let alone how I’d made it inside. His eyes were locked on the safe on the wall, wondering if he could make it in time.

‘Your new wife and daughter went to the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s so sweet you bought a little summer home for them. It was Mama’s favourite place, remember?’

‘No, they’re at Cassie’s dance class,’ he spluttered, suppressing a gulp, ‘They’ll be right back—’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ I snarled in a voice I didn’t recognise before I walked over to his safe and began turning the knob, ‘You don’t think I can hear it? Your mind’s in a tailspin because you know no one is coming for you.’

The safe clicked open and from it, I pulled out his gun, ‘Lexi,’ he breathed, as all hopes of escape melted in front of him, ‘Put it down, let’s talk.’

‘Okay.’ I smiled, even as I began loading it with gloved fingers. ‘How about you tell me about Uncle Michel? We never got to talk about him.’

He repeated the only thing he had ever said about him, ‘my brother was sick.’

‘Sick? Sick? He was just like me and you know it.’

I could smell his sweat as I flicked off the safety, ‘I thought that he might be, but I didn’t know for sure. He—’

‘Hung himself, in a mental hospital. Was that what you were hoping I would do? Is that why you cut me off? So I would kill myself like your brother? Like my mother?’

‘Lexi—’

‘Stop calling me that, you gave up that right when you left.’

‘…Alexandra, just because I’d seen it before, doesn’t mean I knew what to do. I couldn’t help you, I felt like a failure, so I left and I’m sorry but—’

‘You let my mother think it was her fault,’ I hissed and the gun cocked with a sickening snap. ‘It was your genetics, you’re the reason I am what I am. It had nothing to do with her but you told her “it’s the mother’s responsibility to take care of the child,” while you busied yourself with your work and your affairs and your life outside of us.’

‘I couldn’t have known she—’

‘I don’t care! You don’t get it, do you? You still haven’t figured out what I am, have you?’

He spluttered and I couldn’t help but laugh, ‘I’m not a freak, I’m not a monster. I am evolution incarnate and I’m not alone. Mama’s last gift to me was making sure I knew that. You’re a doctor, maybe you’ve heard the stories? There was this guy in Yokohama, absolute sweetheart, called his grandmother every day but she’d been dead for three years so they locked him away.’

I stepped closer and he shuddered, ‘Did you hear about that fifteen-year-old in Siena? She was living twenty years in the future, there’s no telling the good she could’ve done. But instead, she was ridiculed until she ripped her all-seeing-eyes out.’

I grabbed his chin, wrenching it upwards until he was forced to look me right in the eyes. ‘Or the six-year-old, just over in Pittsburgh. He liked to make his teddies dance, but he didn’t need his hands to do it. You remember him, Daddy?’

I was standing so close to him now, that I could see the sweat being crushed in the wrinkles of his forehead, he was silent so I spoke again, ‘He starved to death… during his fifth exorcism.’

His mind became quieter and quieter, every thought grinding to a stop as I ensured he could do nothing more than to listen to me.

‘And what about me?’ I asked, before beginning to recite the explanation he had tried to rob me of, ‘Alexandra Priam, nineteen. Hyperthymesia. Telepathy. Mind Control.’

His breath quickened, his knees quivered, and for a moment I wondered if he was going to faint. ‘Wh-what?’

‘Didn’t know that last bit, did ya? Why do you think you haven’t run away? Why you haven’t called for help?’ a laugh escaped my throat, yet I didn’t know what I found so funny. ‘It’s because I removed the idea from your head. I mean, think of the possibilities, I could cure addiction in seconds, break apart toxic relationships, rewire criminals. I could hand my father a loaded gun and tell him to pull the trigger.’

‘Please… Please don’t…’

‘It’s my people’s destiny to replace your kind. What I want you to know, is that this is just the beginning. There’s a storm coming, we won’t be silenced. We won’t let people like you control us. It’s almost a shame you won’t live to see it because let me tell you, the new era of humanity is going to be beautiful.’

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The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

She had been looking at him all night. Quick, furtive glances from across the crowded bar before looking away again. Felix’s gaze jumped from patron to patron. He watched friends and co-workers laugh and chat. He spotted couples out on a date night and families coming together for a meal. But his gaze always returned to the dark-haired woman, and each time he caught her watching him.

She was about his age, and he found her intriguing. Though he wasn’t sure if that was just because of the attention she was paying him. She and five others—her friends, Felix assumed—filled a booth against the wall of the bar. Felix sat on a stool against the bar in the middle of the room, holding a drink.

It was a crowded Friday evening of city workers celebrating the end of another week. Felix sat alone, but he didn’t feel it. How could he amongst so much life? Spending time around people going about their lives was a reminder he too was alive.

His gaze moved back to the woman in the booth, and sure enough she was looking back at him. This time, however, she didn’t divert her attention when Felix’s eyes met hers. So intense was her stare that Felix wasn’t even sure she’d realised he was looking back at her. What about him was causing her to examine him so closely? Felix shrugged to himself and raised the glass in his hand toward her in greeting. The movement snapped her out of her trance, and she turned back to her friends.

Felix returned to watching the room, drinking the water in his glass—he wasn’t game enough to ever drink anything else—and picking at the salad in front of him. He turned to a movement in the corner of his eye and was surprised to see the woman walking from the booth to where he was sitting.

‘Sorry for staring, but I swear I know you from somewhere,’ she said, taking the empty seat next to him and leaning on the counter.

‘Felix Kingston,’ he introduced himself, ‘the only person in the world without a heart.’ The woman’s expression switched from surprised recognition to elation. It wasn’t the usual reaction Felix got to this statement.

‘Of course!’ sitting up straighter and moving a little closer. ‘I’ve read about you. Doctor Moretti’s famous patient. World’s first synthetic heart.’

‘It’s always nice to meet a fan,’ Felix said with a laugh.

‘I’m Sarai. Sarai Romero. Your doctor is a big inspiration, actually. His work on synthetic body parts is ground-breaking.’

‘Nice to meet you, Sarai. You’ve studied his work?’ Felix asked.

‘You could say that. The company I work at is currently developing an artificial lung, to improve the lives of people with lung diseases.’

‘I can’t say I’ve ever thought of this thing as an improvement. A regular heart doesn’t need its battery charged.’

‘I’d say being alive is an improvement to the alternative,’ Sarai smiled at Felix. She had such an energetic smile.

‘Can’t argue that,’ Felix conceded, smiling himself.

‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’ Sarai asked.

‘Oh. Thank you, uh, I don’t really drink though. I avoid alcohol,’ Felix said, indicating his glass of water.

‘Really? But your heart should be able to handle a bit of alcohol. Enough for a single drink at least. It is designed to react to impulses from the brain, so it will respond to any effect on heart rate or blood pressure,’ Sarai trailed off. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture.’

‘No, it’s fine. You probably know more about this thing in my chest than I do,’ Felix said, waving her apology away.

‘Did you know it basically makes you a cyborg?’ Sarai asked. Felix paused to think, then responded with a chuckle.

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

Sarai sat in a cafe, waiting for Felix to arrive. It was their third get together since meeting in the bar two weeks ago. It had started off with her wanting to know all he could tell her about his mechanical heart. He told her about the regular check-ups, how the silicon plate—silicon so as not to restrict his movement—covering his heart had to be removed each time.

In turn, he asked her about her own work and she expressed how eager she was to move onto her own projects. Her passion lied in augmentation. One day humanity could be using machines to enhance vision, hearing, strength, and possibly even intelligence. She wanted to be at the forefront of that movement.

Somewhere along the way Sarai had started to think of them as dates, though she wasn’t sure if Felix felt the same. He was easy to talk to, and even easier to laugh with. The last time they’d met the conversation had flowed seamlessly from her questions about his heart, to her work, then to their interests, ending in a friendly debate about chocolate of all things. There was a connection, but he’d never made any moves. Sarai found herself hoping he would, but was starting to think she might have to act first.

Sarai looked out the window, spotting Felix’s black, un-brushed hair above the heads of the pedestrians passing by. He stepped into the cafe and Sarai waved at him as he approached, taking the seat opposite her. Asking how his week had been, the conversation immediately turned to his heart as he described his most recent check-up. Some pumps were getting a bit worn, so Doctor Moretti had replaced them with new parts.

‘The ventricle pumps?’ Sarai asked for clarification. Felix nodded in confirmation, before continuing his recount.

She found herself staring at his chest, where she pictured the machine driving blood around his body. Doctor Moretti, the heart’s architect, was like a modern-day clock maker. An artisan creating a finely tuned device designed to perform with absolute precision.

‘My eyes are up here,’ Felix chuckled, waving for her attention.

‘Can I see it? Your heart?’ Sarai asked, her voice soft.

‘What? Here?’ Felix asked, surprise in his voice. Sarai looked up, remembering the cafe they were sitting in.

‘No, I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate,’ she said, then allowed a smile to curve her lips, ‘but my apartment is nearby.’

 

 

 

Felix stepped into Sarai’s apartment, as she held the door open for him. A couch sat in the middle of the room with a jacket thrown over the arm. Books were haphazardly arranged on a shelf, and an open DVD case sat next to the television. There was a wooden dining table covered in mechanical components and tools. Meals seemed to be taken at the sofa, as her breakfast bowl was still sitting on the ground.

Closing the door, Sarai stepped past Felix. She cleaned up the remains of her breakfast with an apology, and explained how she often took work home. With a smile as strong as a promise she told him to get comfortable, and she’d be right back after taking care of a few things. Felix watched her walk away, vanishing into the hallway at the other end of the room. He often found it difficult to pick up on signs, but he was beginning to think there was a slight chance she was interested in more than his heart.

Felix busied himself by looking at Sarai’s collection of books. The lower shelves had thick tomes on the human body. There were also a lesser number of texts on cybernetics. Only one text crossed both topics, and it was one Felix immediately recognised. It was authored by Doctor Moretti, and contained several chapters around Felix and the machine in his chest.

Footsteps behind him alerted Felix to Sarai’s return. She crossed the room, taking a seat on her couch and motioning for Felix to join her.

‘I could sign Doctor Moretti’s book for you. You’d be the envy of your colleagues,’ Felix joked as he took a seat beside her. Sarai shifted a little closer once he was seated.

‘Maybe not as much as you think. Most of my colleagues aren’t quite as passionate as me,’ Sarai’s eyes were focused on his while she spoke, but dropped down to his chest as she went quiet.

‘Do you want to see it now?’ Felix asked, receiving a nod from Sarai in response. He undid the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open. Felix didn’t look down. He knew what would be there: a flesh-coloured, silicon plate welded to his chest by a glue-like substance designed to hold it in place and stop skin growing over it. Instead, he watched Sarai’s reaction.

Sarai seemed like the sight of his chest had caused her to forget how to breathe. In fact, Felix thought it seemed like she wasn’t aware of anything else right now except for the machine in his chest. She reached out with a hand, stopping short of touching it. She looked up, as though suddenly remembering Felix was there.

‘May I?’ she asked, gesturing to her heart.

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

Sarai’s heart was thumping in her chest. She was expecting to feel the same from Felix as she rested her hand on his chest. The silicone was soft to the touch, yet so different to skin. But she felt no heartbeat.

She moved closer, leaning over him to press her head against his chest. She realised she hadn’t even stopped to see if Felix minded. He gave no protest. She listened to his heart, and knew she was listening to a sound unique to Felix.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, but it had rhythm. The sounds of pumps rising and lowering, pushing his blood around, entered her ears. There was a symphony of machine sounds as the various parts that kept his body functioning moved in unison. Felix was the future. He was beautiful.

Sarai placed her hand back against Felix’s chest, feeling the silicon plate give a little to her touch. There was a slight vibration travelling from his chest to her hand. His heart rate seemed to be increasing.

‘You’re nervous?’ she said, half questioning, as she looked up at him.

‘Or excited,’ Felix said with a smile. He took Sarai by surprise as he lowered his head, touching their lips together and drawing her into a kiss. Her shock was brief, and as his arms wrapped around her she returned the kiss. Her hand remained on his chest as the hum of his heart sang to her a melody.

With regret, but needing to catch her breath, Sarai pulled away from Felix. His hand came up to cover her one pressed against his chest. He clasped it tightly, pressing her hand hard against his chest. His grip was almost too strong.

‘I think my heart skipped a beat,’ he said, breathing hard.

‘Tell me about it,’ Sarai laughed, giddy at the closeness they’d just shared.

‘No, I—’ Felix cut off suddenly, his grip over her hand going limp. Sarai cried out in shock, moving out of the way as Felix crumpled to the side.

‘Felix!’ she called out. Sarai wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him, as if he was only sleeping. She ignored these instincts. Instead she laid him on his back and felt for his pulse, finding nothing. Finally, she put her hand over his chest, hoping for that distinctive, mechanical beat. The machine in his chest had stopped.

Sarai stood up, scrambling to her cluttered dining table. She knew she only had a few minutes at best. Time wasn’t on her side. As she grabbed the tools scattered over the table she gave a quiet thanks to her habit of bringing work home.

Kneeling by Felix’s side she tried to lift the silicon plate from his chest, but couldn’t budge it. The adhesive holding it in place was too strong. Taking a scalpel, she cut into the silicon. Each slice left her worried she’d cause further damage, but she couldn’t let that stop her. She might already be too late.

With a final cut, she peeled the silicon off Felix’s chest. The device sat within a metal-ceramic cavity of artificial bone, joining with his ribs. Plastic tubing connected with arteries. Sarai would have been mesmerised if the situation wasn’t so dire. Even so, she couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering.

Where the ventricles would be the machine instead had complex pumps. Like a ventricle, they were designed to pull blood from an artificial atrium, and then push the blood around the body. Sarai noticed one of them had stopped, and the other didn’t seem strong enough to move the blood on its own.

Glancing back at her table, Sarai wondered if she had a pump. She saw the prototype lung she was working on. Could that work? It didn’t have to be a permanent fix, enough to get the blood moving again. The lung was designed to act as a big pump.

Sarai hurried back to the table, grabbing the lung. She had to try.

 

 

 

Felix opened his eyes to a familiar, but unexpected ceiling. The ceiling that always greeted him after waking from check-ups on the machine in his chest. He had no memory of coming in for a check-up. It felt like his chest was still open as well. He lifted his head slightly, looking for his doctor, and an explanation.

His movement must have been noticed, as Doctor Moretti was quickly at his side. The doctor questioned how Felix was feeling, but was already checking Felix’s pulse and glancing at the mechanical heart.

‘What happened?’ Felix managed to ask. His voice felt like it hadn’t been used in days.

‘Ventricle pump jammed up, stopped the blood flowing,’ the doctor answered. ‘The second pump should have been enough to keep you on your feet until the faulty one could be replaced, but theory doesn’t always turn out in practice.’

Felix laid his head back against a pillow, taking in the doctor’s words. It was his biggest fear realised, the machine stopping without warning.

‘But,’ Doctor Moretti continued, ‘I am working on some new pumps. Should prevent this occurring again. Actually, I’ve got the young lady who brought you in assisting me. Her quick thinking saved your life. Jury-rigged an experimental lung-pump to your heart, just to get the blood flowing again. I’m impressed with her ingenuity.’

‘Sarai saved me? Is she here?’ Felix asked.

‘She’s just outside. Let me go get her,’ the doctor said, leaving Felix’s side.

The worst may have happened to Felix, but he was still here. He was still breathing and, despite his machine heart doing what he’d always feared it would, blood was still flowing through his body.

Felix heard the door to the room open, and he turned his head to the sound. Sarai stood there, framed in the doorway looking both pleased and relieved to see him. He gave her a small smile, and she hurried to his side, reaching for his hand.

Felix took Sarai’s hand in his, holding the woman who had mended his heart, and he knew he was alive.

 

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Intro to House-Ape Studies, Lachlan Marnoch

The spring sun was warm and the breeze carried a staccato orchestra of bird-sounds. Ardi and Selam were strolling to their lesson. The trees lining the path—host to a flock of foraging bush-parrots—oozed a delicious, fresh-leaved scent. Ardi reached over with her trunk and tore off a strip of bark. She chewed it slowly, relishing the sharp flavour.

Ardi and Selam lumbered towards the Lithium Building, joining the stream of mrithi. The stream thickened into a river, and filled the air with the mixed grumble of a student body. Mrithi from across the world thronged about them chatting, holding trunks, chewing stim-beans and charging to class, their heavy gait muffled by the springy turf. Further down by the lake, a female offered herself to a bull, who reared up behind on broad pillar-like legs to accept her offer.

‘Where are we going? Isn’t it in Lithium?’ Selam asked.

Ardi waved her trunk to signal ‘no’, replying:

‘Oestrus is scrambling your brain. The lecture’s in Argon.’

‘You didn’t tell me that,’ Seram moaned. ‘I never would’ve signed up.’

‘You got the same timetable I did. Not my fault you didn’t read it.’

‘I don’t have time to read.’

‘You’re a student.’

‘Exactly! Oh my god, look at those tusks,’ Selam gasped. A huge bull, with two overgrown prongs of ivory jutting past his trunk, was sauntering towards them. Selam lengthened her gait and raised her head.

Ardi gave her trunk an irritated flick. This was shaping up to be Selam’s third bull in four days. Okay, so if Ardi was in oestrus she’d be the one flirting outrageously. But still.

Selam caught the bull’s eye as he passed, letting out a low call:

‘Selam.’

He responded with a rumble that even Ardi had to admit was pretty sexy:

‘Karabo.’

Ardi could smell the testosterone rolling off him. He was in musth, alright. She sighed. Selam would never be able to focus now.

‘Come on, Selam. We are not going to be late for our first lecture.’

Ardi dragged Selam away, the latter rolling her eyes. The two of them were panting and flapping their ears by the time they reached the Argon building. An adjustable arm, with a small screen on the end, extended from each lectern. Ardi lowered hers to her eye, then pulled a triangular slate from her tusk-bag and set it on the lectern. Bumps and ridges bulged from the computer’s matte surface. The four fingers at the end of her trunk danced over them, and the protrusions withdrew and moved about in response. The lumpy marks at the edge of the slate formed the characters of the Phakathi alphabet, while the middle became smooth space for her to fill.

The room was filling up. Several of the students were mothers, each with a child clinging to her tail, tusk or trunk. One of them looked like a newborn, a week old at most, her four little legs working double-time to keep up with her mother’s stride. Ardi waved. The infant flared her ears and gave a shrill trumpet.

‘Adorable,’ gushed Selam, earning a thankful trunk-curl from his mother.

‘I really hope I have a daughter first,’ Selam whispered to Ardi.

Ardi shifted her feet. ‘I don’t mind either way.’

‘I should have guessed, you egalitarian. You want your kids to be smart though.’

‘Bulls can be smart.’

Selam snorted through her trunk. Just as she did, the teacher—clearly a male—climbed onto the podium. He was just Ardi’s type as well—short tail, round buttocks. Ardi pointed him out.

‘He must be smart enough.’

Selam looked up from her slate, ‘Oh, great. This is going to stink.’

Ardi was perfectly ready for the next round of fiery debate—even if she knew Selam was just tugging her tail—but as she opened her mouth the teacher raised his trunk for silence. This materialised just a bit more slowly than it probably should have. Male scientists were becoming more common (despite the best efforts of certain old-hat female scholars Ardi could name) but even so, he was unusually young—the grey skin on his forehead was smooth, and his tusks were short.

‘He’s so sexy,’ Ardi whispered to Selam.

‘What?’ Selam said. ‘Gross. He’s tiny. I’ll take a big beefy Ubude any day.’

Ardi smiled. Two could tug at tails. Tiny was a bit of an exaggeration—he looked about Ardi’s mass.

‘Welcome to Intro to House-Ape Studies.’

He had an odd accent, a continental mix with hints of his islander roots.

‘Scholar Ples couldn’t be here today. I’m Toumaï, her under-scholar, and I’ll fill in for now. Um… I’m going to jump right in.’

He tapped at the slate on his lectern. The eye-screens switched on to an image of a half-buried fossil skeleton, its empty eyes staring at the camera.

‘House-apes are an extinct species of bipedal primate. They disappeared during the last mass extinction, about ten million years ago.’ Toumaï raised and lowered his front legs in turn as he spoke.

‘75% of all animal species on the planet went missing at around that time—including all other apes. So, why do we care? What makes the house-ape so special?’

The next slide was an ancient tool, probably for digging.

‘In short, because they were like us. The house-apes were the only technological civilisation we know of besides our own. They had buildings, tools, complex language.’

He was actually kind of engaging once he got into it. Shisayo seemed to be his second language, but he was quite comfortable with it.

‘The house-apes evolved in Phakathi, alongside our own ancestors. Like us, they migrated outwards, displaced or interbred with their close relatives, and emerged as the dominant species.’

Now a world map; a circular projection of familiar landmasses with the South Pole at the centre. Green lines, overlaid like a continental skeleton, represented the mrithi exodus over the last hundred thousand years. Ardi had seen this map many times in her mrithi evolution class, but the red dots, declared by the legend to mark house-ape fossil sites, were a new feature. There were a lot of them.

‘House-ape bones are the single most common fossil on the planet. We’ve found them on every major landmass, including Ithiphu, which was completely icebound in their time. I was going to bring a skull with me to pass around, but I guess my bull-brain forgot.’

His voice, although not as deep as a larger bull, had an agreeable timbre to it.

‘The house-apes probably numbered higher than a billion, and the estimates go up to ten billion. They left a lasting impact on the planet—we’re still digging up their bronze and ceramics. Plastic micrograins, once assumed to be a natural mineral, are probably the degraded remains of their industrial products.’

His slide changed to something that looked like a four-legged copper spider. Alongside it was a crumbling vehicle, standing on a grey desert under a black sky.

‘Very recently—and you probably heard about this in transmission—one of our probes found their machines on the Moon! The Moon artefacts are the best-preserved in existence, and have already told us a lot more about the apes. We estimate they weighed about a hundredth what we do, making space exploration much more viable. The wheeled apparatus in that image seems to have accommodations for the animals themselves, which indicates that they travelled to the Moon in person—a step further than we’ve managed.’

Another slide-change, this time to a dig. Dozens of house-ape skeletons lay in neat rows. A scholar was posed next to one, pointing at one of the skulls with her trunk-fingers.

‘Many of the best house-ape sites are arranged like this, suggesting they buried their dead—perhaps ritually.’

Ardi suppressed a shudder. She’d been to her old Matriarch’s wake, her great-grandmother. They had taken her body to her favourite spot in the mountains, covered it with leaves, and left it to decompose naturally. Ardi wasn’t sure how they did it in the city, but burial sounded awful.

‘Not only did this preserve an exceptional number of them as fossils, it also hints at empathy and transmitted culture.’

‘Who caaaaaareees,’ Selam whispered.

‘Can you not?’ Ardi hissed back.

An infrasonic rumble, among the constant background of quiet vibrations from outside, carried Selam’s name through the floor. The voice sounded suspiciously like the bull Selam had made a pass at. She shifted on her feet and gazed towards the exit. Ardi clenched her trunk sternly.

‘Don’t you dare. I’m not lending you my notes again.’

Selam pouted.

‘Fine.’

‘…despite the similarities, they must also have been very different to us. Their dentition suggests they were omnivorous. They were probably apex predators—there are fossils of our precursor species, the largest land animal on the planet at the time, with marks from their weapons. Their garbage sites are associated with vast, vast numbers of animal bones—along with several species that show signs of rapid evolution by artificial selection. This means that not only did house-apes eat meat, but they bred animals specifically for that purpose, the same way we breed ungulates for hair and wool.’

As he talked, Ardi noticed that his bottom lip curled upwards in a way that was very cute.

‘As for why they disappeared, the sixth mass extinction remains a mystery in many ways. Some argue that climate was to blame—others suggest random cosmic misfortune, as befell the great-reptiles. But we still don’t know. I have my own thoughts on it all, but they’re outside the syllabus, and I don’t think Scholar Ples wants me to plant my rogue scientific notions in you.’
Ardi chuckled.

 

 

 

‘Finally!’ Selam gasped, a little too loudly, making straight for the exit. When she noticed Ardi wasn’t next to her, she turned back.

‘You coming?’

Ardi nodded her trunk towards Toumaï.

‘I’m going to talk to him.’

Selam touched her chin in a gesture of perplexed distaste.

‘Seriously? He’s a scientist! You might as well date a female.’

Ardi gave a dismissive wave.

‘Go find your bull, Selam.’

Ardi’s friend threw her trunk in the air and left.

‘That was fascinating!’ Ardi said, approaching Toumaï while he packed up. The wrinkly skin around his eyes crumpled.

‘Thank you! It was my first lecture.’

‘I’ve never seen a house-ape fossil up close, I was really looking forward to that,’ she lied. Her Matriarch owned a house-ape femur, Ardi’s favourite toy as a calf. She had broken it chasing her brother Daka around. The two of them, panicked, had buried the shards, not realising this might have been exactly what the bone’s original owner would have wanted.

‘I’m sure Scholar Ples will bring one in,’ she caught his eye, and he paused.

‘Or I could show it to you now! I don’t have any plans in the very immediate future.’

‘Really? I’d love that.’

There was a new couple by the lakeside as Ardi and Toumaï ambled back along the path. Ardi curled her trunk, amused—the pleased moans were Selam’s.

‘That was quick.’

‘Sorry?’ asked Toumaï.

‘Oh, nothing. Are house-apes your field?’ Ardi asked.

He tipped his trunk in the affirmative. ‘And you? Are you studying palaeontology?’

She indicated ‘no.’

‘It’s an interest subject. I’m studying genetics.’

‘Excellent. My father wishes he studied genetics, but things were different then.’

He’d said something odd, and it took her a few moments to put her trunk on it. ‘Wishes? Do you still know him?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, a little sheepish. ‘He raised me, together with my mother.’

‘Oh!’

He winced. She tried to back up, mortified.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean offence. I’m from the country, things are more conventional there. At least, that’s my excuse.’

He curled his trunk. ‘Don’t worry. What was your home like?’

‘Full nuclear family—matriarch, mother, aunts, older sisters, cousins. There were so many kids. I loved them all, but it was super crowded. I couldn’t wait to get out on my own.’

Ardi smacked herself on the forehead. She’d forgotten to transmit home last week. Mother wouldn’t be too fussed, she understood how busy it got, but Matriarch was always anxious to hear from her. Matriarch prided herself on keeping close tabs on the whole family, even arranging regular transmit-talks with those on other continents. Well, the females, anyway. Ardi was the only one who kept in touch with Daka, and her male cousins may as well have gone to live on the Moon.

They arrived at Toumaï’s workspace in the Carbon Building, a small cubicle among many—barely room for the two of them. Ardi took the opportunity to press casually against his side; his round belly was slimmer than her past mates. She liked it.

‘This is where they keep the male scholars!’ he joked, but most of those in the surrounding cubicles really were bulls. He rummaged through a box, his trunk emerging with a petrified house-ape skull. The mandible was fixed to the cranium with a wire hinge, forming a complete head. She took it from his trunk-tip. It felt more like stone than bone.

‘She might have been a palaeontologist, like you. Digging up great-reptiles,’ she said.

‘I’ve had the same thought. But actually, this is a male.’

He slipped the tip of his trunk, which had a mischievous crook to it, through the skull’s base. He made the jaw wave up and down with his fingers.

‘What’s your opinion on the deposition rate of limestone?’ the skull addressed her in a mock professorial tone.

Ardi gave a brief trumpet of laughter.

‘No rock talk, Mister House-Ape. I want to know more about you.’

‘Ask away.’

‘What happened to you? What caused the mass extinction?’

‘We did.’

Ardi’s eyes opened wide in surprise.

‘Do you really think so?’ she asked Toumaï, forgetting to address the fossil-puppet.

Toumaï passed the skull back, trunk uncurled.

‘Yes. I think the house-apes did more than die out.’

Ardi looked at him closely. His tusks were as pale as the Moon.

‘Tell me about it.’

‘Really? I’m sure it’s not terribly interesting.’

She tipped her trunk, now with the stone skull at the end. ‘It’s interesting to you.’

His trunk coiled with gratitude.

‘House-ape civilisation existed for an instant. In the fossil record, it’s not there, then it is, then it isn’t. About ten thousand years, out of the four billion this planet has been here. It might have been less, but we honestly can’t resolve a smaller timescale in the fossil record. One second they were a few packs in Phakathi. The next, there were billions of them. And then zero. At the same time, three-quarters of all living species went extinct. It would be an extraordinary coincidence if those events were unrelated.’

He paused, and Ardi gestured interest by splaying her trunk-fingers.

‘Like I said in the lecture, house-apes must have had a profound impact on the environment. The sheer extent of their garbage sites demonstrates how wasteful they could be. And as predators, they clearly weren’t averse to killing other animals. Plus, it seems like the arrival of a technological species will disrupt any ecosystem—we certainly have, wherever we’ve travelled, if perhaps not as deeply as house-apes. Just their existence, their behaviour, I think, was enough to endanger the biosphere. And in such large numbers, it never stood a chance.’

‘If they caused the extinctions, how did they die out themselves?’

He lifted his trunk. ‘Plague? Famine? Sterilisation? You would think at least some of them would have survived. But that’s an even deeper mystery.’

‘They could go to the Moon, but they couldn’t avoid destroying themselves or the planet?’

Toumaï gave another trunk-shrug. It was a habit she found annoying in general, but for some obscure reason, it was endearing in him. ‘Who are we to judge? We’re probably doing the exact same thing. Maybe to a lesser degree. Maybe not. We could be headed for the same fate, whatever that is.’

This was a troubling thought.

‘Don’t forget,’ he added, ‘if they didn’t disappear, we never would have evolved the way we did.’

Ardi made two rings with her fingers, gesturing thoughtfulness.

‘What if they didn’t die out? What if they left?’

He looked at her curiously.

She shrugged her trunk. ‘They travelled in space. Maybe they decided to stop the damage they were doing.’

‘Hmm. Could be.’

The thoughtful look on his face was enough to win her over. She put the skull down and twined her trunk with his. He started, then relaxed and gave a gentle squeeze back.

‘You can tell me more over lunch,’ Ardi said.

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Twenty Percent, Jasmine Aird

His body arcs through the air, slamming into the brick wall. I wince. The part of me that once felt pain is fairly certain that would hurt

‘Bitch,’ he says, spitting blood on the asphalt. He glares at me, something that might have been more menacing if his eyes weren’t puffy and blue.

He rises to his feet and manages—despite the state he’s in—to pull a knife from his boot. Why can’t they ever just stay down? He stumbles towards me, half falling, like the drunks I see leaving the Serpent’s Nest at 3 am. I take pity. I’ll make this quick. I bring my right fist up and pop him squarely on the nose. Metal bites bone. He slumps down, face landing in a puddle. This time he stays there.

I pull out my pistol and shoot him once in the back of the head.

He deserves this, I remind myself, as I attempt to scrape off a stray piece of brain matter, which is sticking like gum to the edge of my boot. He’s one of them—a Purist. They all deserve this.

As I stand over the man’s body, I catch my reflection in the puddle. At first, she looks almost normal: a tall woman in her twenties with choppy hair that falls to her chin. Then you notice something’s off, something’s different. Perhaps it’s the lack of pigmentation, freckles and body hair. Or maybe it’s the newly formed gash on her right arm stretching from elbow to wrist; the synthetic flesh peels away exposing the titanium alloy underneath. It’s a good thing he went for my right arm instead of my left. If he had cut my left arm then he would have drawn blood.

‘Well done Eve,’ Alfie’s voice chimes in my ear. If I turn the dial beneath my earlobe I can adjust his accent and language. Today he’s British, tomorrow he’ll probably be South African. These are the things I do for amusement.

‘Maybe this time I’ll get paid,’ I say, as I light up a smoke, a habit that Alfie disapproves of despite the fact that it cannot harm the synthetic tissue in my lungs.

‘I’m afraid that’s unlikely, as 80% of your body is composed of Genesis technology, you are only 20% human and are therefore classified by state law as property. Genesis is not in the habit of paying its property.’

‘I was being sarcastic, Alfie.’

‘I am not programmed to detect sarcasm. I do however know several jokes. Would you like to hear one?’

‘That won’t be necessary,’ I say, as I pull out a hipflask—another habit that Alfie disapproves of—and begin pouring the whisky over the body.

I close my eyes for a moment of silence. Like raising a glass or lighting a candle, this is my small way of paying tribute to the dead—whether they deserve it or not. Once, I might have crossed myself or bowed my head in prayer. But those days are over; I abandoned such beliefs shortly after my transmutation. It’s difficult to hold out for an afterlife when my current state of purgatory isn’t exactly heaven. So instead, I suck down the last draw of my cigarette, flick the lit end onto the corpse and turn away.

The alley falls behind me as I begin manoeuvring my way through a series of back streets. The night air brushes over me, raising hairs on my left arm—my human arm. There are no streetlights in this part of Eden, not that I need one. My cat eyes slip into UV vision, pouring over the alleyway, revealing its secrets, like the urine staining the vandalised brickwork and the semen spattered across the cement. I cringe. If I had a stomach it would be turning.

‘I’m sending you the coordinates for your next mission,’ Alfie says. ‘Your objective is to interrogate the merchant, Abel Zane. He’s a known Purist sympathiser. Genesis suspects he’s in league with your targets.’

‘Who’s the target?’

‘A Purist, who has recently been involved in the infiltration and destruction of a large shipment of Genesis tech. Your orders are to dispatch of the target.’

Dispatch. A small part of me, the part that’s still human, grows uneasy at these words. I swallow her down—along with a healthy nip from my flask—and nod my head.

‘And Eve, if you fail to complete this mission then according to Genesis protoc—’

‘You’ll pull my plug, I know, you tell me every time.’

I turn the corner onto the main drag. The City of Eden draws me in like a cigarette. My eyes are immersed in colour. The browns and greys of the alleyway peel away to reveal a world doused in LED light. High-rise buildings line each side of the street, their spires slice through the smog which hangs over the city like a bad cold you can’t shake. Billboards and digital signage layer the buildings like body armour. The flashing lights and whirling colours cloud even my enhanced vision. I feel a headache coming on. Yes, I still get those.

I begin walking down the street, wading my way through the sea of people. I’m not interested in what’s above, I’m interested in what lies beneath. The cacophony of the Night Bazaar cocoons me. Stall after stall is pitched on the pavement. Merchants stand to attention, exchanging goods for digits, hollering to anyone who passes. I see one woman examining a pile of crinkled silks and another man sizing up a heavy phase rifle. Illegal, yes, but who’s going to stop him? The police stroll by with their hands in their pockets; they don’t care what’s sold so long as the merchants give them their cut.

‘Eve, I urge you to take caution, recent data suggests that there is a strong presence of Purist sympathisers in this sector of Eden.’

‘You don’t say,’ I reply, as I notice a Genesis billboard above me. The fruit-bearing tree—which is Genesis’ corporate logo—has been vandalised. Splayed across the trunk, in blood-red letters, is the Purist motto:

 

 

 

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

 

 

 

Genesis will not be pleased—and neither am I. If I’m not careful, I’ll be nothing more than a burning pile of circuits and wires. I unroll my sleeves, pull my hood down over my head and continue walking.

I pass a spice merchant’s tent. The scents of sumac, saffron and garlic waft through the air. I wrinkle my nose—I still have one of those, though the sensory receptors in my nostrils more closely resemble a dog’s than they do a human. I spy a hooded pair of men standing in a darkened corner between stalls, dealing in who knows what illicit substance. The underbelly of Eden comes to life in the bazaar. Anything can be bought here—for the right price.

‘Love, who wants some love? Swallow this pill and you’ll be swooning!’ a man calls from his stall, as I turn into a quieter section of the markets. I stop and pretend to examine his goods. Bottled pills in every colour line his table, each promising a different emotion. And they say I’m the one who can’t feel.

‘How about some love for the lovely lady?’ the merchant asks, stroking his beard.

‘While I’m fresh out of love, that’s not what I’m in the market for, Abel,’ I say as I lower my hood.

‘Just as well,’ he sneers, realising what I am. His left hand disappears beneath the counter, probably in search of a weapon. ‘Your kind aren’t welcome here, mutt.’

‘Come now, that’s no way to make friends. All I want to do is talk, you have information I need.’

‘I said you’re not wel—’

‘And I said you have information.’ I reach out and wrap my fingers around his neck. If I squeeze tight enough his bones will pop. ‘Drop your weapon.’

He obeys, his left-hand reappearing above the counter.

‘Where are they?’

‘I don’t know wha—’

‘Where are they?’ I tighten my grip and his face turns red. A man from a nearby stall turns his head.

Abel’s mouth flattens into a hard line, an expression I recognise all too well. This one will be a tough nut to crack. I’ll have to try a different tactic. My eyes roll over the contents of his stall. Behind the counter—sandwiched between two bottles of neon green pills—is a picture frame.

‘She’s beautiful,’ I say, nodding towards the frame where a little girl, roughly five years of age, is spinning around in circles. ‘I bet she’s very dear to you.’

‘Okay, okay.’ He raises his palms up, pleading. I release him. That was easy.

He rubs his neck as he gives me the address. I lean in towards him, so close that I can smell his dinner on his breath. ‘Thanks for the tip-off. And remember, I know your face… and hers.’ Abel quivers as I turn away.

‘Now that I’ve given you what you want, can Genesis guarantee our safety?’ he calls after my retreating form.

‘I’m afraid not,’ I say, as I continue walking. ‘We don’t negotiate with Purists.’

I turn back onto the main drag, heading for the exit. I spot another cyborg as I’m walking. His legs move in stiff strides like a marching soldier, though he’s no fighter: his clothes are covered in plaster and dust. He’s probably a tradesman, a blue-collared worker. Maybe he injured himself once; had a bad fall or was hit by a bus. Then, some company swooped in and patched him up. Now he works for free, just like me. Though, judging by his parts—which are primitive at best—he’s no piece of Genesis tech, just a cheap knockoff. His head isn’t hooded either, so he’s easy to pick out of the crowd. And I’m not the only one who sees him.

‘Abomination!’ one woman screams.

‘Mongrel!’ another man spits.

I watch, from beneath my hood, as heads begin to turn and people start to notice him. They move forward, circling him, like a pack of wolves playing with its prey. He tries to push past them but it’s no use. They lunge at him: kicking, shoving and spitting. Even with his outdated parts he is stronger than them, not that it helps—he’s outnumbered.

I take a step forward.

‘I strongly advise against that,’ Alfie says. ‘If you were to proceed with that course of action I cannot foresee any possible outcome that would result in your survival.’

As much as I’d like to ignore this prediction, I obey, and step back, clenching my fists. I watch the cyborg struggle against the crowd; his outstretched fingers reach above them, grasping at the air as if he’s a drowning man who is trying to break the surface. Yet he only succeeds in being pulled further beneath.

‘I hate them, Alfie,’ I say, as one man draws a Hot Blade from his coat. He raises the weapon and slashes at the cyborg; the edge of the blade pulses with thermal energy as he brings it down, severing a metallic limb.

‘It would appear the feeling is mutual,’ Alfie says, as the man raises the prosthetic above his head, holding it up like a trophy.

The crowd cheers and rushes forward, following suit. They tear at the cyborg with anything they can get their hands on: knives, fingers and even teeth. Two officers stand off to the side of the rabble with their hands on their hips. They don’t move. They don’t intervene. They don’t have to. A cyborg is property, not a human. Property damage is punishable by corporate security, not the police. According to the law, no crime is being committed.

There’s nothing I can do here except stand aside and be useless, so I turn away and continue walking.

 

 

 

‘This is taking forever, Alfie,’ I say, as I drop my cigarette into the growing pile of butts that lay at my feet. ‘I should just go in.’

I’m hidden in the alcove of an old printing factory, which, like most of its kind, had shut down years before. Across the street, a number of shadows move behind a closed set of blinds. I can see them, but they can’t see me; I have the element of surprise. Now would be the perfect opportunity.

‘You overestimate your abilities, Eve. I am detecting a number of human beings present within the building. You have one target, not twenty.’

Movement stirs across from me. The doors open and a pair of men saunter out, heading for their vehicle. I recognise my target from the footage Alfie sent me; a tall man with shaggy blonde hair. The two men hop into their car, an old model that doesn’t fly. I guess Purists don’t get paid much either.

They start the engine and take off down the street. I follow their vehicle, which isn’t difficult—I had placed a tracker underneath the rear bumper while I was waiting. After several blocks, I arrive outside a dingy building, which looks—in polite terms—like a well-functioning crack house.

‘Eve, my data confirms that this property belongs to Abel Zane.’

‘The merchant?’ I say as I pull out my pistol. ‘I guess they found out we spoke.’

I cross the street and slip inside. Despite the building’s rough exterior, I’m standing in a typical family home, complete with children’s toys and school photos.

‘Please, don’t hurt us, it wasn’t my fault, they threatened my daughter!’

I race into the kitchen, where, I can see, Abel has been shot. He leans against the wall, holding his side, which is bleeding heavily. My target is standing over him, gun raised and ready for round two.

I’m about to intervene when I spot the other Purist reaching beneath the kitchen table. He yanks at the ankle of the little girl, who kicks him in the face with a fluoro pink boot. I raise my gun towards this man and shoot. He slumps down onto the tiles, leaving the girl alone.

My target’s attention snaps towards me, followed by his gun. He fires, which is a waste of time; the bullets bounce off my chest like oil from a hot pan. He fires again and again and again. I stand there and take it, like a boxer takes a punch, waiting for him to run out of ammo. He reaches the last bullet; it cuts through the air and slams into my left arm—my human arm. I cry out in pain, something I haven’t felt since I was human. I stare down at the torn flesh. That’s going to leave a mark.

I raise my gun and shoot. He hits the floor and stays there.

‘My target is dead, Alfie,’ I say, as I press down on my arm, applying pressure to the wound.

‘Genesis requires that you dispatch of all the Purists present.’

‘And the kid?’ I ask, holding my breath.

‘She is not a Purist.’

I exhale and walk across the room to stand over Abel’s slumped form. He glares at me as I raise my gun towards his head. He’s still holding his side, not that this helps—he’ll bleed out within minutes without proper medical attention. I glance at his daughter, who is peering at me from beneath the table, her face wet with tears. I could still let him go, for her sake, if not for his. Perhaps, if he somehow made it to the nearest hospital—and Genesis didn’t already have someone else there waiting for him—he might live. I would die, of course. My dear friend Alfie would have my plug pulled in seconds. But maybe this is bigger than that. Maybe this is bigger than me.

‘Damn you, mutt,’ he spits.

But then again, maybe not. A part of me screams. I swallow her down and pull the trigger.

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Self-Extinction – Emerson Cassidy


FADE IN:

EXT. DESERT – ASTRONOMICAL DAWN                           1

An open, dry desert plain. Small, dry shrubs that cling to the ground make up the only life in sight. It is dawn and the sky is just beginning to lighten. Stars disappear from the horizon as the faint, glistening light of the sun slowly creeps into the sky. Apart from a soft whistle of wind as it races across the plains, not a sound can be heard. We see an abandoned gas station. Rusted old cars and fuel tanks decorate the scene.

BRIAN, mid-twenties, male, lean physic. He is dressed in a cloak with black goggles and gloves as he looks at the desert.

 

BRIAN (V.O.)

Immortality is a joke… When you’re alone in a ruined world.

 We see broken bottles, food cans, keys and a smashed iPhone. An old newspaper titled “Our end has come!” flicks open in the breeze.

BRIAN (V.O.)

Hunted by what remains.

 

CRUNCH. A boot appears, crushing the iPhone.

UNKNOWN POV

 

The surrounding landscape whips past as the unknown POV leaps over rocks and vaults over the gas pump outside the station. Heavy huffing can be heard. The unknown POV leaps several meters into the air. The surrounding landscape whips past.

 

SPFX: Brian turns to face the pursuer and sees a beast!

 

Standing on four feet. It is armoured, with crimson eyes that shine. A growl cuts through the silence and we see Brian sail through the air, towards a rocky canyon.

Brian lands hard on the floor of the rocky canyon.

Effortlessly, Brian stands, feet firmly planted at shoulders width apart. The beast lands in front of Brian and charges. Brian punches towards the oncoming beast.

FLASH. A brilliant blue light erupts from Brian, whiting everything out with light. The beast shrieks in pain and white noise blankets everything.

CUT TO:

EXT. DESERT – ROCK LABYRINTH – NAUTICAL DAWN              2

Brian stands in the middle of the rocky labyrinth. Open ground, with tall rocky walls either side surround unsettled dust. The sky can just be seen past the limestone walls. Brian is alone, bent over one knee and facing the labyrinth’s exit – a tall, blue-sky passageway squished between rocky walls. Growls come from the distance. Brian looks up, eyes still glowing.

 

SPFX/ SFX: Dozens of shadows appear above the canyon. Some have longer arms or stand on four legs. They lower their heads as much larger one steps into view and roars loudly.

They move towards Brian. Brian closes his eyes and reaches down into his pant pocket, pulling out a small vial. He grips it tightly in his left hand, spreads his arms and gazes into the sky. Light from the sun breaks through the dust cloud as the sun rises.

SPFX/ SFX: The shadows suddenly halt, and then retreat, squealing like pigs.

Brian keeps his eyes closed as his body goes limp and he falls sideways into the dirt. Quietly, he starts laughing… and sobbing. He pushes himself up from the ground, howling in despair. The rising sun can only just be seen past the shelves of rock that blocks this view.

Brian’s howl travels through the air.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. DESERT, CANYON – MORNING                             3

Moving out of the labyrinth, we see abandoned buildings, houses and broken brick roads. ANNA, an 18-year-old girl in tattered and raggedy clothes, wide-eyed turns towards the sound as the howl fades. Her skin is sunburnt.

Brian kneels in the dirt of the canyon. Sitting between curved rocked formations and smooth limestone walls, the sky can only just be seen past the shelves of rock that block this view.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. DESERT, CANYON – NOON                                4

Anna walks slowly towards the rocky labyrinth, gripping tightly onto a long piece of wood. She gazes at the dust cloud before heading straight into it. Passing through the labyrinth’s entrance, Anna tightens her grip on her wooden staff. She squints and constantly checks her surroundings.

A silhouette appears. Anna tightens her grip on her wooden staff and steps slowly forwards. As she gets closer, she raises her staff, ready to swing. The silhouette comes into plain view. It is nothing but and oddly shaped rock.

Anna lets out a sigh of relief. She lowers her staff, her shoulders relax. A soft CRUNCH sounds behind Anna. Anna spins around, bringing her staff up again.

Brian ducks.

Anna’s staff just misses crashing into his head. Anna stands in a combat stance, staff out in front, ready to fight.

Brian raises his hands and his eyebrows.

 

 BRIAN

Hey. OK, just wait. I’m not trying to hurt you.

 

Anna holds her ground, answering him with a glare.

Brian takes slow, steady steps towards her.

Still holding his hands out. Anna swings again. Brian steps back.

 

BRIAN

Hey! I said I’m not going to hurt you.

 ANNA

You’re not gonna take me. I’m not dying by someone like you or those monsters.

 

Anna rushes at Brian with a series of swings.

Brian easily dodges each swing. He leaps back, putting more distance between him and Anna.

Anna raises her staff above her head, and charges at Brian with a war cry.

Brian catches the staff with his right hand, unflinching from the impact, he rips the staff out of her hands.

Anna stumbles, but she quickly regains her footing. She holds her ground, keeping her eyes fixed in a cold glare towards him.

Brian watches her, glancing at her clenched fists.

BRIAN

(sternly)

Now listen.

(slowly)

My name is Brian. I’m not trying to hurt you.

ANNA

Oh really.

(raising her tone of voice)

Then care to explain what that light was? There is no one else around here, and I can’t see what’s underneath that cloak.

 

Anna straightens her posture and takes a small step towards Brian.

 

ANNA

Are you another kind of monster?

 

Brian lowers his head. He clenches his left hand into a fist. He looks up and tosses the staff at Anna’s feet. He turns and walks away.

 

ANNA

ANSWER ME!

 

SPFX: Brian stops. He takes a deep breath. His eyes shine briefly.

 

Anna notices the shine, and slowly reaches down to pick up her staff.

Brian turns around.

Anna freezes.

Brian starts removing sections of his outfit; gloves, goggles and reveals his face and arms. SPFX: Blue marks cover every visible part of his body – like vines that have grown onto his body – and they are glowing.

 

BRIAN

I’m not like them.

 

Anna has a look of astonishment and confusion clear on her face.

 

BRIAN

But we were born in the same fashion.

CUT TO:

EXT. CANYON – LATE AFTERNOON                                  5

Anna and Brian sit opposite each other in the empty bottom of the canyon. The day’s light has begun to fade. A small fire rages between the two. Anna watches Brian with caution. She clenches her staff tightly in both hands. Brian drinks from a military water bottle. Brian offers the bottle to Anna. Anna glances at the bottle for a second, before her eyes dart back to Brian.

 

BRIAN

Like I said

(speaking slowly)

I’m not trying to hurt you.

 

Brian shakes the bottle. The water sloshes inside.

Anna snatches it from his hands.

She gulps down what liquid remains.

Her eyes never leave Brian. She throws the bottle back to him.

Brian catches the bottle and sets it down on the ground.

 

ANNA

You said you’re similar to them.

Anna leans closer to Brian

 

ANNA

What does that mean?

 

Brian takes a deep breath, and sits up straighter.

 

BRIAN

We were both created as a long time ago. In an effort to create immortality… By your kind.

 

Anna looks at Brian, confused.

Brian holds out his right hand. He nods at the glowing blue marks.

 

ANNA

Alright. By why are you different?

 

BRIAN

I was a success… mostly.

 

SPFX: Brian removes his cloak completely. The markings are thicker and more prominent the closer they are to his torso. This is because his torso is covered with black marks that form a vest of scars, covering his chest.

 

BRIAN

Most of humanity was experimented on. I don’t even know if there are others like me.

 

Anna moves in. She gently touches his chest.

Brian breathes in through his nose as though it hurts where her fingers touch. Brian pulls away.

 

Anna looks sad.

 

ANNA

They were people. Those creatures?

 

BRIAN

They were my friends. Now they’re beasts.

(His voice turns guttural)

When I fight them, all I can hear, see and feel is their agony.

 

Brian buries his head into his hands.

 

BRIAN

(softly, out of earshot)

It’s always there, always clawing into my head. It never stops. It doesn’t get quiet. It won’t ever stop.

 

Anna steps, slowly, towards Brian.

Brian suddenly jumps up. He quickly pulls his cloak back on. Brian turns and walks away from Anna.

Anna raises her hand to his shoulder. Brian shrugs off her hand.

 

ANNA

Anna.

BRIAN

What?

ANNA

That’s my name.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. CANYON – LATE AFTERNOON                                  6

 

Brian and Anna walk through the canyon. The brown stone lightly streaked with shades of red and burnt orange. As the afternoon sun becomes darker, the light shifts to purple.

Anna keeps pace behind Brian.

 

BRIAN

So… Do I get to hear your story?

 

ANNA

I was in hiding. Until your little light show caught my attention.

 

Brian slows his pace.

 

BRIAN

And before that?

 

ANNA

Not much to tell. I’ve been alone out here for a long as I can remember.

 

Brian turns to look at Anna, continuing to walk.

 

BRIAN

No parents?

 

ANNA

I’ve learned to take care of myself.

Anna swings her staff over her shoulder. While a small grin appears on her face.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. CANYON/ABANDONED GAS STATION – LATE AFTERNOON        7

 

Brian enters through the abandoned gas station doors and begins rooting around the shelves. He tosses aside magazines, boxes, and checks an empty cigarette carton before also tossing that to the floor too. Anna moves behind the desk and finds a hooded jacket. She puts it on.

 

ANNA

Where are you going? There’s not much around here.

 

Brian continues rummaging through the junk. He does not answer Anna.

ANNA

Hey! what are you looking for?

Where are you planning on going?!

 

BRIAN

To the mountains. It’s got to be better than this place.

 

Brian grasps at the pocket that holds his vial and sighs.

Anna looks at him. She opens her mouth to speak; her lips quiver as she hesitates.

 

ANNA

How do you know?

BRIAN

(spits)

I don’t! But anything is better than this.

 

Anna frowns.

 

Brian stands up, holding onto a road flare. He turns to walk back out the door. Anna eyes him suspiciously. He moves his arm to cover the markings on his right wrist. Brian stops just outside the gas station entry. Anna, still inside, watches Brian leave.

 

BRIAN

(loudly)

Let me show you something.

 

Anna doesn’t answer, but follows Brian outside.

Brian moves over to a small patch of earth and kneels down. He puts his hands together.

 

BRIAN

These powers had an original purpose, Instead of killing those beasts.

 

Anna watches him closely.

 

SPFX/CGI: Brian closes his eyes and holds his palms together. A small orb of light appears. His blue-vein markings glow. Brian lowers his palms to the ground. As soon as the light touches the ground, it dissipates. Light travels through the ground like a pulse. Anna’s eyes follow the points at which the light vanished. Small blades of grass begin to grow from the ground. Anna looks at her feet, eyes wide and mouth open. She glances up at the gas station roof. Rusted edges of the gas station now have vines growing up the edges.

 

ANNA

Impossible!

 

SPFX: Brian moves out of Anna’s eyesight. He looks at his fingertips, which are now turning a sickly black colour. His hands have begun to age. They are wrinkled, grey-skinned and frail. Brian clenches his fists. His markings flash and his hands look normal again.

Anna watches Brian from the corners of her eye. She turns her head away as he stands.

 

 

EXT. CANYON – DUSK                                        8

 

Brian and Anna walk through the canyon. The canyon walls are darker now.

 

SFX: The sounds of their footsteps can be clearly heard.

 

Brian kicks a small rock. The sounds echoes.

Anna walks closer to Brian then before. She glances behind them warily.

ANNA

So what are you? Some kind of god.

 

BRIAN

Pfft…

I’m no god.

(Looking at Anna)

I don’t know. Interpret it however you want.

 

ANNA

You’ve killed those beasts?

 

BRIAN

It affects them differently.

 

ANNA

What about your chest? What happened there?

 

BRIAN

Not entirely sure…

 

Brian stops and looks at her, his brow furrowed with irritation.

Anna raises her eyebrows.

Brian turns. He is not going to continue. He walks on in silence.

Anna looks at the back of Brian’s head, eyes narrowed…

 

SPFX: Brian stops and doubles over, retching. His eye glow, darker than before. His body tenses up. He moans quietly. His eyes stop glowing as he stands up straight. Anna looks at him with unease, gripping her staff tightly. She jumps, eyes leaving Brian as growls can be heard in the distance.

Brian and Anna both look into the sky, then at each other, expressions worried/fearful.

 

BRIAN

We have to find cover. Fast.

 

ANNA

Where? We’ve wandered too far out to head back

 

BRIAN

Come here. Trust Me.

 

SFX: Anna opens her mouth to protest but is interrupted by a loud snarl from the b.g.

 

BRIAN

COME ON!

 

Anna immediately steps to Brian’s side. He grabs her arm and without warning, throws her over his shoulders.

ANNA

Hey! What are you going to-

 

-Brian takes off, running with the speed of a car.

 

 

EXT. CANYON – NIGHTFALL                                       9

Brian bolts through the canyon with inhuman speed. Anna holds tightly onto his back. The night leaves the canyon a dark, midnight blue.

 

SFX/CGI: Shadows are everywhere. CRASH. Rocks break apart either side of Brian and Anna. Loud growls travel through the canyon. Anna lifts her head to look behind them.

 

CGI: Shadowy beasts erupt from the darkness behind them.

They burst up through the earth and smash through the rock wall. There are dozens of them. They bite and snarl at each other in an attempt to get ahead. More growling shadows can be heard from above Anna and Brian.

Brian jumps onto a rock, still holding Anna.

 

SFX: The rock breaks apart as he launches off, into air.

Brian and Anna fly through the air, past beasts that leap at them. One of the beastly shadows tears into Anna’s back.

Anna screams in agony despite keeping her grip on Brian.

Brian lands on the top of the canyons edge, out of reach of the beasts.

 

SFX: Shadows amass below.

 

Anna’s moans of pain drown out their sounds.

 

BRIAN

Damn it.

 

Brian lays Anna facedown onto the ground to check her wounds.

 

ANNA

I’m fine.

 

She tries to push herself up from the ground, but the pain proves too much. Her arms give way to her body weight and she falls down.

 

BRIAN

You’re hurt.

 

A loud roar is heard.

Brian moves over to the ledge.

 

SPFX: The alpha beast is moving past the now-placid crowd.

It looks up at Brian and shows it’s horrid and mangled teeth in a sadistic grin.

Brian swallows loudly.

 

SPFX: The beasts’ start to claw and scale up the rocky wall.

Brian picks up the now unconscious Anna like a princess, her head resting on his chest. He shakes his head at her condition and starts running across the top of the canyon, towards the ruins of a once sprawling city. His confident footsteps pound the ground.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. DESERT/CITY – NIGHT                                  10

 

Brian passes by a wrecked plane, a convenience store and piles of abandoned, rusted cars. He enters the city, following a path of cracked pavement that separates crumbled buildings. Brian stops in the middle of an overpass.

Brian looks quickly left and right. He gently places Anna on the ground. Brian grabs the vial from his pocket. It has a silvery liquid inside.

 

SPFX: A faint mist escapes from the vial as the cork is popped. Brian directs a silvery drop into one of Anna’s wounds. He quickly places his right hand on her back.

Brian’s blue markings glow. Anna starts to convulse and groan. She almost yells out, but Brian puts his hands over her mouth. His hands have aged again. His face now shows similar degrading features, becoming skeletal. Anna’s wounds heal. Her entire body regenerates itself; her sunburnt skin returns to its original, pale complexion, her red hair increases in saturation and her body becomes shapelier, curvier.

 

SFX: Roars echo from the distance.

Brian removes his hand from Anna’s mouth and he picks her up once again and starts running. Brian heads towards the closest building. He kicks the cracked glass of a window.

 

SFX: SMASH.

 

Brian ducks under the fallen, wooden pylons and steps carefully around piles of rubble.

 

SFX: Growls and snarls can be heard from outside. Brian continues to move through the building. CRACK. Brian stops in his tracks. He looks down. The floorboards creak loudly underneath his weight. A CRASH is heard from outside.

The shadowy beasts ram the outside of the weakened building with their combined weight. Some try to claw through the walls.

Anna wakes up. She yells incoherently at Brian, and starts to fight free from his grasp.

 

BRIAN

Don’t move. The floor–

 

SFX: CRUNCH. The floor breaks apart from underneath them and both are sent tumbling down into the darkness.

 

 

CUT TO:

INT. BASEMENT BUNKER – NIGHT                                  11

SPFX: Suddenly, a flash of red erupts from the darkness, illuminating the screen.

Brian struggles to his feet, holding the flare from earlier. Anna moves into the light.

 

ANNA

What happened to you?

 

BRIAN

(menacingly)

I saved your damn life. Now the voices are louder than ever…and they’re COMING!

 

Brian scurries about the room. Anna looks confused.

 

ANNA

WHAT HAPPENED!

 

Brian turns to her.

 

BRIAN

I gave you the gift. Now you’ll hear the voices. Only you won’t live until they consume your mind.

 

ANNA

What?

 

BRIAN

I’m going to kill them… and us.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. CITY/BUILDING                                        12

SPFX: Their building is being attacked. Dirt and debris fall from the rafters at the impact made by the beasts.

 

CGI: The beasts leave scratch marks against the stone, as they try to dig into the building. The large shadow leaps onto the building and digs its claws into the stone.

 

SMASH. It breaks through a window and starts pulling out various objects; rubble, desks and a table. It then moves inside, pulling itself over piles of rubble. It smashes the floor with both arms. The floor caves in. The shadowy beast proceeds to start smashing its way through the next floor, moving closer to Brian and Anna.

 

CUT TO:

INT. BASEMENT BUNKER – NIGHT                                  13

An old lantern, somehow still alight, illuminates the darkness of the bunker in which Brian and Anna now hide

 

SFX: Sounds are heard above a set of stairs, behind a door.

 

SPFX: The door bursts open, flinging Anna into the room. A faint red light illuminates from the direction she was tossed from. Brian walks in, his body is glowing a ruby red instead of bright blue.

Anna rises to her feet.

ANNA

(fearful)

You’re mad!

BRIAN

(yelling)

You don’t know what it’s like.

I’ve had to suffer this power for nearly two centuries. TWO CENTURIES of constant pain, endless voices, and having my sanity slip… day… by… day.

 

Brian falls to his knees. He pulls out the vial and stares at it crazily.

 

ANNA

Then why did you save me?

 

BRIAN

No one wants to die alone…

Anna rises to her feet, backing away from the crazed Brian.

 

SPFX: Anna’s hands glows, but she talks no notice.

Brian eyes her hands, a small grin spreading across his face.

 

ANNA

(desperately)

I’ve been alone for my whole life. I’m used to it!

 

BRIAN

Perhaps… But now we will stay and ignite these ruins with the powers I was punished with.

 

SPFX: Brian looks at the vial again. His markings glow faintly. He turns around and stretches his arms out – and grunts loudly. Brian looks down and sees a STEEL BEAM plunged through his chest. Anna twists the beam.

 

Brian falls to his knees, but doesn’t seem in pain.

Anna snatches the vial from his hand.

 

SFX: A roar shakes the darkness of the room.

 

SPFX: The red light still illuminating the doorway shows the shadow of the Alpha.

 

Anna looks at Brian with pity. Before she turns on her heel and escapes through the bunkers open air vent and into the darkness. Brian gazes after her.

 

BRIAN

One day you’ll see things my way.

Especially now that you possess it.

 

SPFX: The alpha approaches Brian. Its teeth gleam in the low light. The alpha’s crimson red eyes look into Brian’s.

Brian lets out a small smile before his eyes flash, and he screams at the top of his lungs.

 

CUT TO:

INT. BASEMENT BUNKER/BEAST TUNNELS – NIGHT               14

Anna runs blindly through a dark hallway. She trips over a wooden beam and falls into a hole, tumbling forward into a tunnel dug by the beasts. The tunnel is rough and the floor uneven. Bits of broken pipes and debris can just be seen poking out the tunnel walls. Anna rises, and keeps running.

 

SFX: Anna flinches at the sound of Brian’s inhuman scream.

 

SPFX: The light from an explosion appears behind her. Anna is swept up in the blast. Anna crosses her arm to shield herself from the explosion. A blue light glows. She moves her arms down. They are covered in glowing, blue markings. The yellow/white light from the blast fills the screen.

 

CUT TO:

EXT. DESERT – ASTRONOMICAL DAWN                           15

A pale white mist covers the ruins of the collapsed city.

 

SFX: A soft thump is heard from a pile of rubble.

 

SPFX: Anna bursts up from underneath the rubble. Her body is covered with the same markings that Brian had possessed.

She squints her eyes as they adjust to the light of day.

Anna stares at her arms with horror, before looking up and appraising her new surroundings. She turns, looking all around her, realizing that she is alone.

 

CGI: Anna looks down to the ground, where small green shoots are emerging from the rubble. Anna’s head slowly lifts up. The same growth is now reaching over the entirety of the destroyed city.

FADE TO BLACK

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Vainthrow, Nicolas Fuentes

The takeover was swift and precise. It only took three days for the Liberstats government to impose their rule over the citizens of Vainthrow. All it took was a firing of flares and the power fetish of one man, the ruthless dictator President Kithgo. October 28th of 2057 marked day one, the beginning of a new period for the city’s citizens. Vainthrow – a city marked by its obsession with technology, where street signs are holographic, and goods are distributed through self-service kiosks. Fronted by Kithgo, once a Lieutenant of the tactics division within the military, the Liberstats announced their plans for the city’s future. To ensure civility and compliance with the new regime, Kithgo deployed the disciplinarians to patrol the streets. They represented the regime’s most faithful adherents and were to occupy their thoughts with one sole aim – guard Kithgo’s revolution. Equipped with a precision rifle, Vainthrow’s citizens were coerced into compliance by the disciplinarians.

On the large digital screen attached to the skyscraper of Titan Industries, the pale face of the President appeared. In a repressed compliance, those being held captive in the plaza looked upward at the screen with looks of horror. Drones filmed the central plaza address to ensure that viewers at home would not miss this pivotal moment in Vainthrow’s history.

 

‘People of Vainthrow,

What you just witnessed was my fireworks display to you. A heartfelt welcome to you and the new era of civilisation we are about to embark on. In close alliance with science giant Titan Industries, we have developed a new system of living. It will alter you both physically and psychologically in a way that is, simply – better. Remain calm and follow the instructions. Let the disciplinarians be your guide…’

 

*

 

Richard is an elderly man. He lives life on his lonesome after his wife fell victim to a deadly brain tumour. Richard longed for an extension of his life, for he felt that his time had been misspent. He devoted his entire life to working as a risk analyst inthe finance department of Titan Industries. He would often clock sixty-hour working weeks, spending too much of his time inside the office at the expense of seeing his grandchildren grow up. On the day of the takeover, Richard was at home pruning the weeds of his home’s garden bed. The violent explosion startled him and caused him to drop his hedge clippers and turn his attention to the smoke trail rising in the distance. Grabbing his cane, Richard hobbled his way into their modest sized home and switched on the daily news on his television. On the screen, Richard set his eyes on the following address by Kithgow:

 

‘… A turn of events, my people of Vainthrow. The Liberstats have partnered with Titan Industries, the forerunner in scientific innovation. As we both only want to advance human welfare, we created a dual-system of sorts…’

 

Richard had a vague idea what this was about. During his employment at Titan, he had overheard conversations about controversial tests being conducted in the Labyrinth. While biological ethicists had expressed their concerns, the financial and political might of the Liberstats was far too strong for the dissenters.

 

‘…The transfiguration pods – these capsules give you the power to control your physical appearance. They are also designed to add anywhere between sixteen and nineteen years to your life. For your convenience, we have organised courtesy trams to the GRIDS, the sites where these pods are placed. Upon completing this mandatory transfiguration, all citizens will be distributed an iD-Chip, a handheld device that must be possessed at all times. Please proceed to the GRIDS immediately. Failure to do so will result in forced evacuation.’

- K

 

Richard stared at the television screen in disbelief. What had his city become? He had several questions, yet the state of limbo he was in delivered him no answers. He knew of the atrocities that Kithgo had committed in the past. Whether it was the Grand Massacre that took place during the War of 2042, or experimentation on the debilitated at the close of the war, stories of Kithgo’s war crimes were common folklore in Vainthrow. Staring on, Richard observed the imagery captured by the flying drones. The plaza was unidentifiable. The fountain which once rhythmically spurted out water at the plaza’s centre had been covered by smog. He vaguely made out faces of desperation as they stood helplessly at the behest of individuals dressed in a khaki green. To Richard, this entire event resembled a military coup. He looked onward at the screen to see the disciplinarians holding necks in headlocks and small children being dragged without care. Bodies were being ushered into semi-trailers and driven to a place unknown to him. The media outlets reported the following:

 

‘MASSACRE AT VAINTHROW: LIBERSTATS RULE BY FORCE’

 

*

 

Richard’s eyes awoke to see the GRID site. He had been smothered and taken there after a disciplinarian knocked at his home’s door. Surrounding him were people seemingly embracing the idea of transfiguration by the pod. The CPU, on the pod’s exterior, allowed people to choose their new appearance. Each veiled by a thick white tarp and manned by a Liberstats disciplinarian. Those that waited their turn were not permitted to see their neighbours during the process. They would wait in confinement bays, fed glug and water by the authorities and instructed to wait patiently, sometimes days. Upon leaving the pod, people were given their handheld iD-Chip and sent back to their homes via the trams. From there, citizens had to follow the instructions on the iD-Chip’s screen and continue living their days.

Richard was called to one of the pods. ‘Richard… Alright, old man, you get one shot. What’s it going to be?’ Dressed in the khaki colours and proudly displaying the freedom stars of the Liberstats, the disciplinarian talked down at Richard’s frail stature. Richard fixed his eyes on the CPU screen and attempted to make sense of the prompts. ‘Just press the features you want, old mutt. You telling me you don’t know tech?’ Ignoring the reproaches, Richard perused through the list of features he could select for himself. A large part of him was curious about the process, reasoning that at last there was some excitement in his otherwise empty life. HAIR: luscious golden locks, or perhaps a simple, slick back? His hair was silver and thinning so he could do with a younger look. TORSO: a broad set of athletic shoulders, that ought to do it. After finalising all the essentials, Richard arrived at the most important consideration – AGE LIKENESS. ‘Hurry up old timer! We’re on a tight schedule here, and you ain’t got any special privileges to be taking longer just because your hair is falling out’.

With caution, Richard typed 3-5 into the CPU and waited for the avatar of him to emerge on the screen. Projected on the CPU screen was a digital Richard, five decades younger and sporting a neat, slicked back hairdo. The squiggly indents on his forehead had disappeared, and his frame appeared reasonably muscled. While Richard felt deeply anguished by the political state of Vainthrow, a tiny fragment of his was thrilled with the prospect of added years. At this point, his curiosity had taken over, for he had not yet seen how people were emerging on the southern side. Standing behind a thick steel slab, Richard stripped himself of his clothes and placed them in a bucket labelled “CLOTHING DEPOSITS”. He lethargically carried his bony frame into the confined space of the pod. Numerous suction pads attached to dangling wires hung from the pod’s ceiling. On the pod’s back wall were fastened platinum shackles, one at the neckline and two presumably for the wrists. Lastly, there was a heavy leather belt that appeared to belong to the waist line. ‘Alright old man, you ready yet?’ Called the disciplinarian. Richard responded with a croaky affirmation. Richard was ordered to stand at the back wall. The disciplinarian affixed each suction pad to his body, one at each of his droopy nipples and one at the sternum. The belt was fastened tightly around his waist and, at disciplinarian’s press of a button, the neck shackle loosely pulled his throat to the wall. It wasn’t far off from a strangle hold. ‘We will meet again on the southern side, old man.’

 

*

 

‘Greetings, #471, welcome to your new life, a world of possibility. All you need to rememb — or – shall I say, do, is to follow the prompts on your viewfinder. Here is your ID-Chip, with compliments from President Kithgo and the Liberstats’. Richard was handed a handheld device with a screen. He noticed that the digits “471” were etched onto the plastic. He ignored a prompt on the screen to follow an introductory video, putting it aside for later. These GRID encampments were on the desolate outskirts of Vainthrow and all that Richard could see was the barren land on the horizon. They were a one-hour tram ride from the city centre which allowed for enough secrecy and continual surveillance. A faint call was heard in the distance to return to the tram station. Richard sluggishly followed the marked signs and returned to the arrival point, an area which he had no recollection of. Confusion immediately overcame him as he tried to make sense of his surroundings in a trance-like state. He felt blank, and it seemed that, at this point, that was all he was capable of feeling. As he entered the tram, he was met by the stares of unfamiliar people. Fellow human beings, but he had no label for them. It was as if he was processing information for the first time.

On the way back to the city centre, an announcement began to play through the loudspeaker inside the tram. Richard perplexed alongside the convoy of bodies left in waiting, listened attentively to the words spoken. ‘It is normal to feel dazed. This is new territory for you. Once you arrive home, get some rest. The turn of tomorrow will come and a new day awaits. Further instructions will appear on your iD-Chip.’ Richard looked down at his iD-Chip with its confusing list of functions and operations. The tram moved at its forty kilometres an hour as Richard sat idly staring out the tram window into nothingness. It seemed that everyone in the tram shared his confusion.

 

*

 

The tram re-entered the residential district of Vainthrow and began to disembark the Vainthrow citizens. Each seated passenger looked out the glass window as the disciplinarian led each passenger back into their home. The return journey from GRID was made in complete silence. In between curious glances at the unfamiliar outside, passengers fixed their sights on screens of their iD-Chips. Recurring footage of turmoil and suffering met them. There were moving images of yelping mothers crying out for their infants, as well as a frame of an elderly woman trapped in the firm grip of a disciplinarian. It was difficult to bear the images of these people squirming for their survival. The subtext reeled at the bottom of the viewfinder screen:

‘THE EMANCIPATION: LIBERSTATS’ FIGHT TO VICTORY’

Richard mused over the tragedy of it all. He could only hope that he would never have to encounter anything like it in his lifetime.

 

*

 

The tram pulled up on Richard’s Street. He was led back inside his family home by a Liberstats disciplinarian. He opened the front gate and walked down the narrow strip of asphalt that led to the front door. Still rattled by his surroundings, Richard asked the disciplinarian ‘Where are we and what are we doing here?’ The Liberstats guide told him not to worry and commanded him to enter the dwelling. He explained that the only thing that Richard ought to worry about is following the instructions on the iD-Chip’s viewfinder. ‘This is a prosperous time. Consider yourself fortunate, #471.’ Richard could not understand why he should feel this gratitude and, more importantly, what this iD-Chip even was. He entered the home and scanned the first room. His eyes met an impressive mahogany bookshelf positioned in the far left corner. Richard sluggishly moved over to the bookshelf to examine it. ‘#471, we recommend you rest your body. You ought to lie down and shut your eyes.’ The digits 4-7-1 echoed in Richard’s mind.

Images faced him as he approached the bookshelf. On the upper timber shelf lay a bundle of photos. Richard perused through them, processing the information contained therein. An image of an elegant lady, approximately in her mid-thirties, wearing a silky white gown. The silken fabric left a trail and extended behind her. It was the most beautiful image he had seen in his lifetime. She was clenching a bundle of flowers; a feature he had observed while walking into his home only moments ago. He wondered why she would pluck them from his front lawn. Beneath the image of the elegant figure lay another. He saw a man and a woman standing side by side, one with its arm extended around the shoulder of the other. They stared back at him with a joyful expression. Flipping the image on its back, its reverse side read:

 

Wilma and Richard – 50 Year Wedding Anniversary at Vainthrow Cottage

21st February 2057

 

Richard put both photos into his trouser pockets without the disciplinarian noticing him. His eyelids had become heavy and were beginning to close in on themselves. He determined the carpet to be a suitable resting spot and so without hesitation; #471 dozed off.

 

*

 

Awoken by the sound of the iD-Chip, #471 rose from a deep sleep cycle. An announcement came through the viewfinder and the face of President Kithgo propped up on the screen. ‘As you have hopefully read by now, it is government policy that you maintain a faithful record of the places you visit and the people you interact with. Use the camera inbuilt to the iD-Chip. Data collection makes us better.

An hour later, #471 ventured out of the unknown dwelling. The sun shone brightly, and the streets filled with others walking with their eyes immersed in their viewfinder. #471 remembered Kithgo’s instruction and took out the iD-Chip. The two photos he snatched earlier emerged as well. #471 withdrew them and curiously studied them. His eyes gazed at the two figures dressed in their formal attire, a male wearing a suit and tie with his arm around the shoulder of what appeared to be his wife. Something seemed strange in these images. Upon leaving the front walkway, as instructed, he switched on the iD-Chip’s camera to record his daily events. #471 pondered the photograph again. Wife…

He aimed the lens at the street and took a snapshot of the holographic street sign. Instantaneously, the iD-Chip assigned a default label to the photo:

 

No. 471: Memory #1

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>Delete File: Y/N?, Sheriden Goldie

Silver pulls the eyepatch away from her left eye. Her fingers press the skin around the metal protrusions, unable to rub in case her skin should pull away from the edges. She closes her one eye, stretches and feels the slight grind in her shoulders. Metal plates and screws pop over each other. She returns to the screen. Silver aligns her aug-eye’s interface over the display’s and selects ‘upload.’

Feeling behind her ear, Silver slides the memory card out of its slot. The patch of synthetic skin hangs loose, and she imagines she can feel the cool air touching a circuit. All phantom feeling, but she shivers anyway. The frame of the screen has a glowing port that she presses the card into. It zips closed, the download of data starts ticking over at the bottom of the screen. She cracks the plastic seal of a new memory card, and slots it in, pressing the synthetic skin back into place. There is a faint buzz and hiss, as the internal vacuum seals the opening.

A blue icon flashes at the edge of the screen. Silver taps the glass table top, and it opens. Mei’s avatar smiles from the corner of the message box.

Mei: You heading home yet or what?

Silver smiles, without parting her lips. Her fingers draw a circle on the table top, and a keyboard illuminates. Silver types.

Silver: Changing over memory cards, just waiting for the download to finish.

Mei replies with a thumbs up.

A second blue icon flashes. Silver frowns, tapping it open.

Rosalie: Has sent you a parcel.

Rosalie: Wish you were here…

Silver aligns her internal interface.

>Open parcel

>Data received

>Image file received.

>View now? Y/N

The image unfolds, spreading across her screen. Silver feels the lower edge of her eye quiver. The city sprawls behind Rosalie, hugging the base of the mountain. She is standing with her back to the camera, but her head is turned, the sunlight catching red hair and haloing her face. The tear falls hot and quick, and Silver’s hand darts out to catch it.

 

*

 

The phone vibrates on the table. The sound interrupts snores from under the blanket. Silver’s arm reaches for it. Long fingers catch an edge, spinning the phone away. She caterpillars to the edge of the bed, picking up the phone. It’s buzzing stops.

‘Hello?’ she says. Her aug-eye boots.

>Interface activating

>Date: 2567.05.07

>Time: 08:37

>Ready for input

She feels the buzzing through the base of her skull.

‘No, I’m in bed still, it’s my day off remember?’ Her sandpaper voice bounces off the walls. She sits up, swinging heavy legs over the edge of the bed. The blanket slides away, half onto the floor. She doesn’t pick it up.

‘What do you need me to come in for?’ Her fingers trace figure eights around her eyes, sweeping the sleepiness away. She presses her feet into the carpet. The blinds begin to rise as her augmented interface systems boot up. The sunlight creeps up the wall slowly. Silver mutters into the phone. She goes to the alcove that serves as a kitchenette. The coffee machine sputters.

‘Sorry, say that again… Couldn’t hear you…’ The coffee mug trembles in her hand.

>Biometric warning: Breathing – Erratic. Pulse – Increasing. Blood Pressure – Falling.

‘Do you know’ she pauses, waiting for the voice on the other end to finish. ‘Yes, of course, I’ll come in straight away.’

>Biometric systems: Increase fluid intake. Regulate breathing. Sit down.

Silver’s hand still trembles as the coffee drips into the mug. She focuses on the rhythm of her breath: inhale, exhale, repeat. The coffee burns her tongue, and the feeling of lightness behind her eyes begins to fade slowly.

 

Standing outside the precinct, Silver watches the passing traffic. Her aug-eye boxes and tracks the cacophony of movement. Her other eye is bloodshot. Silver slides up the optic cover and wipes the moisture away with an unsteady hand. The cover hides her tears from the other agents inside. She is glad of that. She slides the cover down. The ache in her stomach won’t let up. Her hands tremble, so she pushes them into her pockets. A dark car rolls to a stop.

The last time she had seen Rosalie, outside the hospice, they had fought Rosalie ripped a branch off a Japanese Maple and lunged wildly at Sliver. Stabbing for her face, neck, eyes. She had screamed to turn it off the whole time. The nurses pulled Rosalie away with sad nods. They saw this all the time. They left Silver standing in the garden until a dark car had driven her away. The branch of the Japanese Maple remained cast aside on the manicured lawn.

Silver is drawn back to the present as the car door swings open. Silver realizes it is now dark blue, not the black one she remembered.

‘Sil, is it true?’ Donna’s impeccably coiffed hair, chemically set into a wave, has a distinctly greyer tint than the last time Silver had seen it. Donna’s arms wrap around Silver’s shoulders. At the touch, Silver suddenly feels cold, but her biometrics remain stable.

‘They wouldn’t let me see her…’ She says. Silver’s eye fills with tears, seeping under the edge of the cover. Donna squeezes her shoulders and they walk inside.

 

The room is clean, but the walls were the sort of beige that reminds Silver of stained sheets. Donna sits next to her; a tissue box placed in front of her. Silver plucks one out and holds it under her eye.

‘She hasn’t called home for weeks,’ says Donna, speaking to some other unseen entity.

‘When was the last time you saw her?’ Silver asks.

‘Around June,’ says Donna. Silver waits for her to continue. ‘She came home for a while; continued her treatment remotely. She struggled. We struggled. She asked us not to visit anymore when she went back in.’ Her voice wavers.

‘She sent me a photo,’ says Silver, ‘yesterday. She was standing on a lookout.’

‘That must have been from when she came home. We tried to take her out, get her to see beauty again.’

Silver examines the table top in minute detail.

>Composition: Wood veneer. Polychip filler. Recycled metal frame.

>Structural integrity: 98%

>Projected product lifespan: 150 years

The swirls in the veneer are suddenly shadowed.

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Silver looks up at her boss. He is looking back at her, his aug-eye shifting in spirals. He sits in front of Donna, and starts to deliver the speech Silver had heard so many times before, but never from this side of the table. She doesn’t realise she is shaking until Donna touches her hand as they stand to leave. Her boss says, ‘I’ve approved your leave Sil, take some time to process this.’ She mouths words. A waved hand silences her protest.

She mouths words. A waved hand silences her protest.

Outside the precinct, Donna and Silver stand together, waiting for Donna’s car to return.

‘We knew she would die. We expected a call from the hospice. Not this, never like this…’ Says Donna. Silver’s aug-eye boxes and traces the paths of the traffic. It keeps her mind busy, distracted. Donna keeps talking about Rosalie. The disease had eaten away at her body. Leaving her hollow. Her organs were removed bit by bit, replaced by wheezing machines, augmented substitutes, or not at all. Donna sighed, and Silver could feel the aching relief seeping out of her.

‘I’m still going to miss her,’ says Silver.

‘Of course,’ says Donna, ‘call anytime.’ Silver knew she wouldn’t.

 

*

 

The quilted foam of the Sync bed is velvety under Silver’s exposed shoulders. The visor slides down over her face. Her aug-eye syncs up, the optic cover projects scrolling text.

>Archive File Retrieval Commencing

>3…

>2…

>1…

 

There is a shimmer as the visor becomes opaque. Silver lets the screen blur in and out of focus. A wave of nausea passes over, as the images whirl, mixing her own internal interface with the memory bank construct. Vertigo passes as the image stabilises, adjusting to her focus range and muscle triggers.

Her eye watches the visor’s projections of the building’s mainframe through the patch. Her aug-eye follows the paths that light up across the screen. The data-streams of the different departments, all flashing in a disharmonious pattern. She focuses on the archives. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. But her mind is already queuing up the commands through her interface.

>Case File Search: Rosalie Flanagan

>Result: 1 File Found

>Unpacking File…

The report streams out, and Silver feels the bile rise in her throat. The images sear themselves in her brain. The crumpled dress around the withered body. A bare-branched sapling tossed amongst the wind. Chipped dollar-store nail polish, pale fingers, lying curled on the dark road. Silver shivers, and feels the velvet ribs of the bed press against her skin. Her biometrics trigger again.

The visual recording of the investigating agent fasts forwards at a flickering pace. It flashes through the day. Silver lets it run while she reads the coroner’s report.

Cause of death: Asphyxiation

Time of death: 01:35 am

Notes: Victim was pedestrian. Brain chemistry suggests unstable mental state.

The video stream shivers and she is watching the road through a windshield. It skips past the sprawl, through the suburbs, into a driveway, a house. Silver watches the flickering lights of home, children, wife. It keeps all of it, every recording, every minute… The thought runs through her head, repeating. Since the install, since logging the cards…

Her mind is wandering, under watchful sensors, and she finds her own files scrolling across the visor. I shouldn’t. But she lets her mind reach. The data file opens, softly, like petals to the sun. Her rookie days. She was leaving work early. The video skips through and then there she is. Rosalie. Sun-kissed and carrying the rabbit bag she loved. Silver had called it childish, but the nurses had encouraged Rosalie to keep it. We were going to the movies, she thinks, recalling the feeling of Rosalie’s hand pulling her along. They had been happy that day.

Silver felt the edges of the memory caving in, could feel the archive recording, absorbing her feedback. A message rolls across the screen,

>Time to jack out.

She folds the soft edges back in, packing the happy face of Rosalie like an origami crane. Silver tags the memory, filing it away in the archive. She begins to withdraw, mentally pulling away. The archive fades out across the visor. She surfaces, taking a deep breath, the recirculated air tastes metallic at the back of her throat.

‘That was a serious dive, Sil,’ says Mei.

Silver slides the visor away from her face. She ignores Mei standing over the bed and goes to the coffee machine. ‘Keep going like that and you’ll begin to corrupt your memory files, you know?’ Mei’s voice echoes around the archive room. Silver focuses on the dark stream of coffee dribbling into the cup.

‘Mei, has anyone ever deleted their own files?’

‘Sure, sometimes. But you can only delete the parts that aren’t relevant to cases, so they have to be screened before deletion, get all the approvals, you know.’ Mei leans against the edge of the sync bed, arms crossed, while Silver nods her head.

‘Do the file deletions affect the brain  you know, the sync?’

‘Yeah, so we’ve heard, it’s not supposed to.’

‘But…’

‘But people delete files, then in about a month – gone. Completely un-retrievable.’

‘Completely?’

‘Yeah, we tested a group of agents. Zero memory bleeds after deletion. And no memories for them to corrupt.’

Silver picks up the coffee and sips. The steam warms her face, and she can feel the place where her cheek is damp. She wipes away the tear, smearing the sheen across her cheek.

Mei sighs, ‘If you changed both eyes, you wouldn’t have this problem.’

 

*

 

The city sprawls around the base of the mountain. Silver stands, leaning against the railing of the lookout. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and the light haze of the city is growing. A network of nodes, flashing lights, towers, and hubs. Silver’s eye adjusts to the light differential in increments. She feels the cool metal of the railing through her shirt. Here in the quiet stillness, she can feel the miniscule vibrations of her aug-eye. She traces a finger along the ridges of metal framework, all plugged in under the skin. She stares into the valley below. The wind that slides down the mountainside rustles the treetops. The optic processor in her aug-eye works overtime.

I can delete it all. I can forget. If I delete, delete… Rosalie.

>Opening data file…

The ellipses flash in sequence. Opening, unpacking, synthesising. Silver waits, her legs swinging back and forth.

>Files ready for review

A message pops up; Silver had to remain linked to the agency network to access the memory files.

Mei: You can just skim through them you know, then authorise the deletion.

Silver: Thanks, I’ll think about it.

Mei: No one would think badly of you, heaps of people do it, you know…

Silver: I’ll let you know.

Mei: No problem, talk later.

>Open files Y/N?

Silver slides down her optic cover, fixing it over her organic eye. The data begins to unpack, lining up in sequence. She picks one in the middle.

She is staring at Rosalie. The memory’s sense-net begins to overlay and dampen her physical senses. The cold air from the open window raises goosebumps on her skin. Rosalie’s eyes are bloodshot, and there is a dribble of clear mucus under her nose.

‘I hate it!’ she says, ‘why did they do that to you?’ she is running her hands up into her hair. The rise of her jumper exposing the pale belt of skin under the navel. ‘I can’t be here! Not with… that!’

Silver’s own voice cuts through, ‘I had to get the augmentation to move into the force, it wasn’t exactly negotiable!’

Hacking sobs follow. Silver remembers the anger, the heat in her chest. The sense-net enflames her cheeks.

‘I don’t want that!’ Her voice choked around the hacking sobs rising from her chest. She paced, gnawing at her fingertips. ‘What is that? I don’t know if it’s even you anymore!’

‘Of course, it’s me,’ says Silver, the feeling of her stomach falling away bled into her voice.

‘But who else is in there, Sil?’

Rosalie walked across the room. Her hands grabbed Silver’s face. Rosalie put her face close, eyes darting back and forth. Frantic. Searching. Silver slipped a hand up and slid up the optic cover.

‘It’s still me, Rose,’ she said, softly.

‘No, that’s not what I meant…’ More sniffs.

Silver feels the tear. Is that mine or the sense-net? She stops the playback. The overlay of senses lessens, but the tear still rolls down.

She remembers how that argument ended.

They had lain together, for hours, curled close. Silver shut down the aug-eye interface and Rosalie traced figure eights around her eyes. Rosalie had learnt not to press too hard. Skin split from the protrusions bled for days.

Silver felt the tingle in her cheeks as the memory faded out of her vision. It would take all of it. She thinks. It would take all of her part of me away. Her lips are dry, and she licks them, feeling the numbness in her gums, the tightness in her throat. She wonders if Mei is still monitoring her.

 

Download a PDF of ‘>Delete File: Y/N?’

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Robota, Alice Maher

The bots stared glassily ahead as dozens of off-duty humans milled about them.

‘The Sophisticated Models, or SMs, are self-decontaminating; I suppose that was important for OH&S back in the pleasure houses, and it’s just as useful here. We don’t care as much about the BASE models, but the SMs can clean all forty or so of them in only a few minutes, so we get that out of the way too.’ A plump woman who had introduced herself as ‘Quebec’ but never asked for Jin’s name, was showing him around the mining facility: his home for the next three-year rotation. Currently, she was leading him through the large hangar where the ‘mining tools’ were kept when not in use.

All the bots were second-hand. Even if Quebec hadn’t joked about the cost-saving prowess of the Mars Mining Initiative (MMI for short), Jin could still have guessed. It seemed like every factory and pleasure house on Earth shipped their outmoded bots up to Mars to be repurposed as a miner. The MMI must offer a price slightly higher than the scrap-merchants, but still low enough to be economical. Despite this clear desire to cut corners, Jin noticed that all of them, from the two squads of BASE Models (little more than expressionless crash-test dummies with a polycarbonate frame) to the thirty-three more human-looking SMs, were clothed. To be fair, it was an odd jumble of outfits that made the bots look shabbier than ever. All of it looked laundered and well-maintained, but was all still permanently stained Mars Red and Coal Black.
Jin side-stepped a small group of his fellow humans, who were crowding around an SM with a shirt that said “I BEAT JONA’S BURRITO CHALLENGE.” ‘Why clothe them at all if they’re just here to mine coal?’

Quebec laughed a little embarrassedly. ‘Well, initially we just clothed the SMs. They’re all anatomically correct, of course, and a lot of us workers found it…distracting, to see them working in such a state. So we got some old clothes sent out to make them decent.’

‘And the BASE models?’

‘Ah, well after covering up the other ones, it seemed proper to clothe everyone. The SMs looked too human, standing next to the BASE models with their faces and clothing, and the BASE models by comparison didn’t look human enough.” She shrugged as though embarrassed.

Earlier, Jin had been shown the main workstation, where the humans monitored the mine from the safety of the facility. A massive window overlooked the scarlet-black scar of its entrance. He had watched from on-high as the bots marched from the mine back to the facility. They had seemed creepy then, out on the Martian landscape, and they were downright unnerving up close.

At least Jin thought so. Everybody else seemed eager enough to be around them, inspecting them with more than just professional diligence. Quebec had practically dragged him down here once the shift ended, to show him ‘the best part of the tour.’ She stopped by a female SM that had drawn the largest crowd.

‘Quebec, that the new kid?’ one of the other workers asked.

Quebec nodded but didn’t make introductions. Would anyone ever care to learn his name?

‘He gonna draw lots for The Supervisor?’

‘Who?’ Jin glanced around for an authority figure.

The others laughed and Quebec gestured to the SM. ‘We call this one The Supervisor because she’s in the best shape, so we usually send her down with the transmitter.’ It was protocol that every time the bot team entered the mine, a communication device was sent with them.

The Supervisor had a delicate nose and straight black hair: like Jin, she was clearly of Japanese origin. But where his features were organic, the bot was too symmetrical, her complexion too flawless. Only the faded overalls looked like they changed over time, and this helped to soften the striking image. She (it?) was certainly beautiful, a classic pleasure model. After a moment Jin realised that was exactly why they were crowded around her.

Quebec confirmed his suspicions. ‘We draw lots to decide who goes first,’ she explained, and one man made a crude gesture.

Jin suddenly felt very young. He saw that other humans, less picky or less lucky, had activated different SMs and were leading them away to rooms beyond.

Before he could speak, Quebec reached up and felt around the nape of The Supervisor’s neck. There was a low hum like an old-fashioned computer booting up, then the bot blinked and looked around.

‘Hello everyone,’ she purred, and Jin yelped. It was common knowledge that pleasure bots could speak (unless ordered not to), but he hadn’t been prepared for how…human it sounded. He’d half expected the Morse code that had trilled over the loudspeakers earlier, when the bots were finishing their shift. Had that been The Supervisor?

The bot was staring at him, and her gaze was unselfconscious. Jin was reminded of a tiger he had seen at a museum in Osaka. Its eyes had been glass beads, its skinned pelt draped over a metal frame, but Jin had still half-expected it to spring at him. He knew he would be the first to look away now.

‘They’re just machines,’ Quebec said after a moment, also staring at him. Her human eyes were more animated, the windows to an actual soul with the actual capacity to harm him, if Quebec chose. But he still found it easier to look at her than at the bot.

Just Machines. Just machines with human faces and human voices. And even the BASE Models had human clothes. What did a bot know about Jona or his burritos? And pockets, too; bots had no use for them, but there they were, in every pair of jeans or battered coat that had once belonged to a real person.

The other workers were getting restless, and soon Jin was forgotten even by Quebec, who must have figured his first day had been informative enough. The Supervisor had also turned away from him, and was smiling demurely at the workers clamouring to ‘go first.’

Quebec found him later, after she and the others had had their fun. Jin could tell she wanted to talk about it, put the new kid’s concerns to rest before they festered. But he brushed her off, laughed, talked about anything else. Mechanical movements.

*

Jin soon learned to avoid the entire ground floor of the facility, where the storage hangar was located. Worker’s quarters were on the higher levels, near the main workstation and technical offices; but there were several old storerooms and such on the ground floor that the crew utilised during their downtime with the bots. Jin stayed up top, reading books and recording messages for his family back on Earth.

Nii-san,

So far this job has been easy enough. I mostly fetch and carry, and occasionally they make me do data entry. So far even you could do it!

I thought I would have a lot more to do with the mining itself, but no. Why try to oxygenate the mine for humans and risk blowing the whole thing up with a loose spark, when bots can do all the work? There are almost a hundred of them, and they don’t need air or even suits; so not only is it a less volatile environment for the coal, but it all works out far cheaper when none of us humans ever even leave the facility. Occasionally one of the bots will send a message over the transmitter- I’ve had to learn Morse code since arriving- but usually it’s almost boring for the people, stuck here in the facility.

Speaking of which, don’t tell Mama this, but the workers here use the bots for sex in their free time. I know that was probably their purpose once, but I still don’t think it’s right. Quebec told me not to think about it like the bots had feelings. ‘High-tech sex toys,’ she called them.

I saw them up close on my first day, and they’re way more realistic than I thought. Kenta told me he visited a pleasure house in Kabukicho once, and was with an SM. Atsuko too, she said her sister rented a male one for her graduation. They’re all beautiful of course, but they’re too real. They even have normal clothes, not just lingerie like in the catalogues. All the looks of a proper human, none of the feelings. I avoid them.

Sorry to bother you with stuff like this. Don’t tell Mama.

-Jin

*

Nii-san,

Today, I got sent down to the storage hangar with Salva, one of the engineers. I had to hold some tools and take some notes while she did her routine check-up of the motor functions of the bots. I asked her why she chose me to assist her, and she said it’s because I don’t use the bots. I don’t think she does either.

We had to strip each bot, to check it for damage. The SMs have particularly delicate outer shells. It’s still much stronger than human skin, but the crew are paranoid about any little tear on their ‘toys.’

For the SMs, Salva switched them on and asked them to strip down by themselves. That was almost worse than us doing it; like part of a routine. I just stared at my clipboard.

Salva even chatted with some of the bots as she inspected their naked bodies. I know it’s just a personality modification that allows them to ‘chat,’ but it’s still creepy. They’re so realistic, I don’t know how people can use them in the way they do. Sending them down the mines to work, taking them away for sex…it’s like slavery. I know I sound like those radicals with the megaphones who hand out posters at Roppongi. But I don’t believe they have real feelings or anything. I don’t think they need to have feelings for it to be wrong.

After we finished inspecting them, we collected up the laundry. This happens every few weeks. The first time, I started shaking out their pockets like I do with my own clothes. Then I realised there was no need. What would a bot ever put in there, after all? So now they’ll just stand there naked until the clothes come back clean tomorrow; no need for spares. No need for decency, at least not while the humans aren’t around. No need to empty out their pockets before throwing them in the wash.

They really are just machines.

*

Jin sat at a desk in the main workstation, the rickety one that he could claim as long as nobody more important wanted it. The other workers tapped languidly at their keyboards as they calculated batching numbers. The bots had been down in the mine doing the real work for about five hours.

Just as Jin thought about going and making a coffee, all the radios in the room sparked to life with a series of beeps. The echoes were too chaotic for Jin to make out the code right away, but after a second Gordin, the head batcher, played the transmission through the loudspeakers and shouted for everyone to shut up.

_._./._/…_/./../_.

It was repeated several times, with barely a pause between the final dit and the first dah.

CAVEINCAVEINCAVEIN…

Everyone started talking at once, over the top of the beeping.

‘Who’s got the transmitter down there?’

‘Message back for more information.’

‘I think it’s The Supervisor.’

‘She won’t give more information if you don’t ask for it.’

‘Ask her how many we’ve lost.’

‘Just tell them to get out of there!’

Gordin tapped out a short message on the straight key, and the transmission shut off. ‘I’ve told them to come back to the facility at once,’ he said, and then crossed the room to stare out the window. After a moment the others followed, clambering for a glimpse

Jin had been sitting close to the window, and was in a good position to see out. It took fifteen minutes of tense anticipation, but eventually the bots began to trickle out of the mouth of the mine. Usually they marched two-by-two, with carts full of coal trundling along between them. But now they staggered out in drips and drabs, dragging limbs that bent at unnatural angles. The first few were only about as dirty as they ever were, but most were covered head to foot in coal dust. They looked like shadows moving across the red rock.

‘Must’ve been buried,’ someone said. ‘Dug themselves out.’

Gordin swore. ‘Salva, I want you to check them out once they’re all in. They look pretty banged-up.’

After a while the procession of bots dwindled down to one every few minutes. Workers began to return to their desks and deal with the expected fallout from the cave-in. Salva kept watching, and Jin, who had no job to do and no desk now that everyone was actually busy, stayed with her.

The engineer grunted. ‘Damn things. There’ll be no end to their glitching now.’

Jin was about to reply when a klaxon drowned him out. He glanced around. The workers seemed as surprised as he.

‘Something in the mine?’ Quebec asked, and Gordin shook his head.

‘No, it’s in the facility. Fire crew to storage hangar, now!’

‘The bots,’ Jin breathed, and Salva fingered her radio.

‘Supervisor, come in Super,’ she called. Now that the bots were inside the facility where there was air, they could send spoken transmissions.

For a moment there was nothing but the klaxon and human chaos. Then there was a crackling noise and the too-human voice of The Supervisor.

‘Copy, Salva,’ she spoke placidly. ‘I’m afraid I cannot speak for long. There is a situation in the hangar.’

‘I know that!’ Salva snapped, ‘That’s what I’m calling about. What’s going on down there?’

‘There is a fire.’

‘How did it start?’

Silence. Then, ‘I am not sure. There seems to be a high concentration of coal dust in the air.’ After another pause, The Supervisor said, ‘I am sorry Salva, but the fire is damaging my outer shell. Emergency protocols are compelling us to leave the facility, to prevent further damage.’

The radio clicked again, and the voice was gone.

The indicator light for the depressurisation chamber lit up green. Only Jin and Salva noticed. Most of the others had left or were leaving, desperate to contain the fire.

‘One of the bots must have sparked and caught alight,’ Salva said, more to herself than Jin. She seemed uncertain, out of her depth. ‘It doesn’t add up.’

Jin wanted to give some reassuring comment, tell her a spark probably did just catch on a piece of clothing, and would be snuffed out the second the bots went outside. But then, what had The Supervisor said?

‘The pockets.’

‘Hmm?’ Salva glanced at him. ‘What’s that?’

‘The pockets. The tunnel collapsed and buried them. They dug out. They came back covered in coal dust.’

‘That still shouldn’t have been enough to-’

Jin interrupted, ‘But the pockets. They all have human clothes, but no understanding of what humans use clothes for. They don’t ever put anything in the pockets, so they never think to empty them out.’

He could tell by Salva’s face she understood. Several dozen sparking bots had just brought in several dozen pocketfuls of flammable dust to the oxygenated hangar. By now the fire would be unstoppable, and greedy to consume any fuel it could reach.

Even as that realisation clawed its way into Jin’s too-young heart, the bots marched naked back out on the surface of Mars. Instead of making their usual beeline for the mine, they halted, gazing up at the facility. They looked horrific: still blackened, still with mangled limbs, and now the added gruesomeness of burnt synthetic hair and skin, peeling back to reveal the circuitry below. They stood inert, no thoughts in their metal head of the souls trapped within the building, fifty five million kilometres from home.

They were just machines, after all.

 

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From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

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