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Publish Date: January 1, 2021

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Faulty Worker Process


By Derrick Boden

We were clanging and cranking the machines up and down the old Spinal Line, first time we saw its face. It was small and grimy and by its branding, female. A defect, plucked off the Inspection Line, bound for Recycling. Slipped through the gap of some fool daemon's reclaiming sack. Tearing from its eyes, bleeding from its nose. Hungering for parent, as our products are built to do.

We paid no heed. Grinding for quota every one of us, and besides, Recycling's got its own daemons. They'd come around, snatch the defect before dawn raised its baleful lens on Rust City and sent us scrabbling for shadow. We were but twelve daemons, strutting the Spinal assembly--the rumbling belts, the pounding stamps, the grease traps--keeping the line in line. Twelve amalgams of metal and meat, suited for factory purpose, with no time for sidetracks. Today was shipping day, and by dawn's clamor we'd stamp, seal, and ship twenty products cross-river to Glass City. Quota met, bonus paid: scabs enough to fill our furnace-guts twice over. Living grand.

Then it was looking up at us, fingers atremble. She, though such labels aren't more than shipping orders to us androgynes. With our backhand raised, we said: "Scram."

She did no such thing, and it was then we knew our folly. Those leaking eyes and those trembling fingers weren't born of fright, but of fury. And with tiny hand on tiny hip, and tiny eyebrow cocked, her lips said without saying: why?

Drove a chill through our guts. There's no why here. There's only because.

Fool of a defect.

But something in her silent question threw us out of sorts, and with a snort of brimstone from our flaring nostrils, we became me. Eleven slaving daemons kept a-slaving, but there I stood, rooted. Singular.

 And instead of dragging her to the vats, I watched myself scoop her up and toss her over the razor wire, into the junk pits outside. It was a fool's effort--she'd expire by hunger or jackrabid the same as she would have by vat, only now for waste and not reclamation. But I did it, and it was done. And when I showed her my back, me returned to we, with relief, and the line rumbled on.

But the quiver, it festered, and we knew with the certainty of corrosion that we'd be seeing that defect again.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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The Past and Future Lives of Test SubjectsTHE PAST AND FUTURE LIVES OF TEST SUBJECTS

By Octavia Cade

Some people call it murder. I’d call it arguable.

Either way, it’s less confusing to focus on the science. And they’re volunteers, after all, though how much choice there really is between the electric chair and the examination of evolution, the current experimental nature of palaeontology, is a question for others and ethicists.

“Don’t kid yourself.” Madeline stares at me from under fringe, all freckles, fingertips with nails bitten down to the quick tapping on the table she’s cuffed to. “You’re part of it too. There’s no choice here.”

“Your choice was before you hacked someone to death with an axe,” I say. “Though credit where it’s due, you did a very thorough job. That kind of skill could help you in obtaining protein.”

“Except I won’t remember being good at butchery, will I? So no help at all.”

“Maybe you’ll get good at it again.”

Small cruelty on my part. But then she won’t remember that either.


Habitable planets came fast after we found the first, and faster still once we’d learned how to reach them in less than lifetimes. None of them inhabited by any sort of life we’d call intelligent, but there are those that are analogous to the past. Planets in their own Cretaceous period, their own Cambrian and Jurassic.

Their own Pliocene. Their own Pleistocene. And orbiting each of them, a research station.

There’s been work done in the past: groups of scientists coming together to live as prehistoric humans for a season. It allows for experimental archaeology, the practical testing of theory, the popular presentation of science. It had been what first interested me in past lives, if only recent ones: a trip to the recreation of an iron age village, one where anthropologists spent their summer in roundhouses – but those were short-term placements, back on Earth, and they were done by people who knew what they were about, who had at least a theoretical knowledge of survival. It’s one thing to reverse-engineer a roundhouse, but quite another to develop the technology without extragenetic influence.

How much, we wonder, has observation of the past changed the experience of living it?

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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By Andy Dudak

Emerson Carbonhouse is ready to die when, instead of the bullet shattering his temple and bringing welcome oblivion, time freezes like a video paused. The man holding the gun to his head is a statue. The other home invaders stand likewise motionless, caught in sudden criminal dioramas. The one that was tossing the kitchen is trapped in a suspended cloud of macaroni and prescription bottles.

Emerson gulps panicked breaths in the profound silence.

His eyes flick from detail to impossible detail. He’s still alive, still in motion through some kind of time, but this is not a relief.

His father lies sprawled on the floor by the fireplace. The brickwork is splashed with blood. The pool of blood around the old man’s head has stopped expanding.  

Emerson tries moving a leg, then crawls out from beneath the gun. He wonders if this is death: the universe arrested, he doomed to wander it alone. Or it could all be a dream.

But he’s sickeningly sure he’s awake as he stands, even as the static world begins to fade around him.

“Please don’t be alarmed,” says a directionless, sexless voice. “You are safe. Everything will be explained to you shortly.”

He charges into the foyer, moved by a kind of fever logic. He needs to get out of the house before it fades altogether, but when he reaches the front door, it’s like grasping at smoke.

“Nothing that happened in the previous ten minutes was real. It was a simulation run by the soul nickelodeon Pre-Empt. Soul nickelodeons have been outlawed. You are in the process of being rescued.”

The house is gone, along with everyone in it. He’s alone in a grey void.

“You’re being transferred onto a new substrate. There will be no break in continuity. Please be patient.”

“What is this!” he blurts. “Who are you?”

“I’m a court-appointed expert system, not legally sentient like you. You’ll be speaking with a human counselor soon, along with representatives of the Department of Machine Intelligence. You’re currently running on both an illegal nickelodeon and a government machine. Soon, all of you will be running on the latter. Please be patient.”

“But what is a…”

“A soul nickelodeon allows patrons to observe copies of themselves in virtually any situation. Everyone knows about soul nickelodeons. The knowledge was edited from you, to facilitate suspension of disbelief in your scenario, the home invasion.”

Moments ago, he thought he was dead. Just before that, he despised his cowardice and longed for death. Now he realizes he’s not even a coward. He’s a copy of one.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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By Rich Larson

It’s the Great Fire of London and I’m serving biofarmed eel canapes. Smells and sounds don’t get through the bubble, or I guess they call it the chronofield, but I can see plenty: thatch roofs going up like match heads, blue-and-orange flames licking and crunching on wood, smoke tunnelling up into the hazy sky, people running for their lives. It’s a trip.

I shouldn’t be watching, though. I gotta sling these canapes and then get more champagne flutes out the chiller. Clay, who is now head server, stuck her whole bony neck out to get me this job. I spot her across the way, offering appies to three musty old men posted up at the shimmering edge of the chronofield. She’s autosmiling and hide-the-pain laughing at whatever junk they are saying to her.

Usually her hair is a rust-colored buzzcut, but today she’s wigged up, all straight and glossy and long, because it’s one of those gigs. They also got us in period costume, which is not falling-apart sweatpants but instead these stiff soot-smeared dresses that actually, me to you, look somewhat good in an aggressively retrobomb way.

I waltz over to the riverbank, where our employer, Mrs. Silverwright, is holding court like some kind of primeval sea goddess. She’s wearing this unbelievable half-holo gown that looks like a perpetually crashing wave, all foamy and whatnot, and her bass-clipped hair is billowing in perfect tendrils around her face, and her cheekbones are so deadly. Sometimes I just stare at them.

“That’s the issue, isn’t it,” she says, plucking a canape off my tray. “If we hosted at, say, the building of the pyramids -- it could be an entire day spent watching one slab of rock get hauled up a sand dune. The signing of the Declaration? Over in minutes.”

Her admirers nod and tutter.

“I’m afraid destruction simply schedules better than creation.” Mrs. Silverwright gestures over her shoulder, where the river’s reflecting the orange flames in a ripply dance. “And it’s not as if we’re the only ones drawn to the spectacle. People came from miles around to watch London burn.”

I can see another boatload of people rowing through the dirty water, smeared with actual soot, eyes bright and panicky. It’s shitty for them, but like Mrs. Silverwright told us while we were setting up, these people have been dead forever. And we can’t leave the chronofield anyways.

An old woman does the classic forearm grab, clawing me up with her nails. “Excuse me,” she says. “Is this eel or elver?”

In my head I’m like, it’s whatever you want it to be, baby.

In real life I’m like, “This is eel, ma’am. Imported from a biofarm in Andalusia, served on a crostini with a balsamic reduction and sesame seed topping.”

She hucks it right in the Thames.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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Evrim's ChildrenEVRIM'S CHILDREN

By Ray Nayler

Dawn aboard the interstellar ship Fram came to a single habmodule. The rest of the ship remained in darkness, except for the ghost-glow of interface diodes leaking through wires like moonlight through winter trees.

The habmodule swung, like a stone in a sling, at the end of an armature along one of Fram’s branches. At night, its nanodiode wall coating flickered in a simulation of candlelight. More than five centuries ago, a team of scientists had determined candlelight was comforting to the human mind.

Now, in this arbitrary dawn of a 24-hour cycle long unlinked to anything on earth, the lighting shifted from candlelight to a blue-toned simulation of an Earth sunrise, accompanied by recorded birdsong.

The volume of the birdsong increased until one could almost believe that they were there, beyond the hull, audible somehow in the vacuum of space.

 The increase in light and sound failed to wake the habmodule’s lone occupant, tangled in a nest of blankets in her bunk.

Finally, a voice came over the intercom, fuzzed with distortion:

“Your breakfast will still be warm, if you can manage to get to the galley in the next quarter hour or so.”

A face finally poked out from the blankets – teenaged, honey-colored, squinty with sleep. “Okay, okay. I’m on my way.”

Mae untangled herself from sleep and clambered down from her bunk. She yawned, stretched, scratched, and pulled on the nearest coverall from a pile on the floor. Sleepily, she climbed the ladder out of the habmodule, through the hollow rotating armature and into the ship’s trunk, instinctively readjusting to the changing level of centrifugal simulated gravity as it faded to zero.

As Mae floated through the main trunk of Fram, nanodiodes in the walls responded to her presence, a ring of light around her that slid along the walls like a lantern lowered down a well. The diodes illuminated serpent lines of communicating cables, ladder rungs, handholds, emergency aid stations, access panels, circular hatches leading off into branches, before plunging all of it back into darkness.

Mae arrested her fluid passage through the ship’s main artery with a grasp at a handhold on the corridor wall as she passed Hatch 126/1. The hatch was battered and scratched, fire-scarred around its orifice, jaggedly welded shut.

But at some time since she had passed this way last night, the seam of the weld had been broken. The red light in the hatch’s center indicated it was still locked – but now the door’s access light blinked, waiting for a code.

So, today really was the day.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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By Christi Nogle

I’m always a little excited and nervous when Mother unwraps a new package. Sometimes under the wooden lid there is a folder with photographs, perhaps also a storage disk with video references. If so, Mother’s body seems to grow heavier on the instant; her shoulders pull down. It will be a challenge to get everything right. She will labor for weeks and worry, and even so, the robot will most likely keep coming back to us for adjustments.

Sometimes there is no folder, but the body under the foam peanuts and plastic is a chill russet pink instead of the standard green-gray. This indicates extra mechanisms in the pelvis. There will be extra steps in the molding process of its “bottom,” and I won’t be allowed to watch some of her work. Mother looks on this kind with distaste, and I am glad they don’t come very often.

The best is a greenish body and no folder. This is Mother's opportunity to practice her art. And I’ll get to help!

 She’ll turn on the robot right there in the foyer and we’ll walk it back to our quarters, spend the evening with it, get to know what idiosyncrasies it already has. Mother says this is what any sculptor does—look at the stone, look at the wood, and see what form or character is suggested there.

Most bodies are the same. They’re between five-eight and six-two, all broad-looking to me. Mother calls the most common type the mesomorph. There is a softer, rounder sort called the grande and a wiry one called the straw. There was one, once, as small as Mother, and another one broader than our bedroom door, another with massive bowed thighs. All of these are rare, though. Most are the mesomorph.

To sit and have dinner with a new greenish mesomorph, one with no folder, is a rare treat. It doesn’t yet speak, but soon we stop calling it “it.” We call it he or she or they, as we like. The robot becomes a person to us.

“Did you see how she leans just a little to the right?” I say.

“Oh yes,” says Mother.

“And her waist is a little wide, isn’t it?” I say. It isn’t—she has just a standard mesomorph form—but something in the way she sits suggests someone self-conscious of a waist that is a little bit wide.

“Her legs are long and beautiful, though,” Mother says. I love how her face brightens when we get one like this. It’s the only time she looks the way she used to look when I was little.

The first step is brutal. If Mother wants an extra few centimeters of leg, arm, or torso, the body will need to go into the stretcher. Every other change from the standard form can be accomplished with the suction molds, but not this one. I am allowed to watch, but I am too cowardly. I decide I must attend class today but ask Mother to please call me before she does anything more than the legs.

She waves me away. Her face is grim again.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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A Bolt of LightningA BOLT OF LIGHTNING

By Malena Salazar Macià

Translated by Toshiya Kamei

Still in the delirium of fever, the boy heard his mother pray, “May Sutej of the South have mercy on him.” Then came her sobs and her pleas for salvation and healing. She was willing to do whatever it took to save her son.

The boy had no strength left even to sit up. As soon as the controlled contagion began to spread in the radioactive waste treatment plant, the Gentium woman did everything possible to shield him from the guards clad in airtight suits spewing the latest strain of virus cooked up in the resident doctor’s lab.

The place was strewn with numerous urchins with runny noses and empty stomachs clinging to their parents’ feet, and the Daonais attributed a productivity problem to this distraction and ordered the massive sterilization of the laborers. Another problem was that the Gentiums desired something other than what they were given.

It wouldn’t take much for the Daonais to get rid of the nuisances. All they had to do was bark orders, make gestures, and send messages. The Gentiums were mere objects, properties that sustained the quality of their production, the wealth of their corporations. The Gentiums were flesh for the Daonais’ ego, a breeding ground for the sins they willfully committed in the fabulous orgies that often took place in the high-tech city of Metro.

The Daonais ordered and the Gentiums obeyed. The Daonais wanted a new toy—a new biological weapon against undesirable wannabes. What did they care if they had to slaughter faceless little creatures with iron shackles around their ankles?

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The Extermination Device of the Blacksmith


By Solomon Uhiara

Clan Uvoma 13’s streets were exposed to whatever impurity that was causing mass blindness.  It was a scourge. Guesses were that some laboratory experiments went haywire deep in the urban sectors of the clan after new entities invaded our solar system. To breath pure oxygen meant the dependence on high powered masks which acted as separators, converting the inorganic to organic. The masks were modified to stabilize and regulate the rate of contamination. The particles first intercepted our spaces months ago.  They interfered with the ecosystem, changing the balanced scales. The Council of Chiefs who saw to the affairs of the clan proposed a bill and a safe site was established miles away from the servers. And the selected cores that harbor high powered energy which when combined electrically with the ancient Kianji Dam could power all of Clan Uvoma 13. That was a well known theory.

The section of the greased steam engines was my exact location. They were machineries, spectacular man made instruments which feed on the sacred powers of hard coal, darker than black night station. I was a worker at the trains and ancient magnetic locomotives. My essential duty was transporting my clansmen who were screened before boarding any of the transport systems. My passengers were usually herbal doctors, mechanical advanced mistresses and their boyfriends, or miners who were not giving up searching for answers to what was causing the blindness and unexplained deaths. The destination was usually the same each time, the same liquid metal market which was in the safe isolation zone.

Clan Uvoma 13 had fire breathers that focused all their efforts on incinerating the visible particles in open spaces. They always had their personal protection equipment on, from head to toe. Dreadful costumes, fabricated as if military style, trigger friendly. Those were also the law enforcers. Like every citizen they had their engineered masks on. They could fight everything, but the strange machines that had parked on top sprees of palm trees were no way in their pay grade. No weapon could yet do the damage. The pestilence was indeed an inanimate coded ghost, supernaturally causing havoc, flawless in stalking vulnerable lungs and lunging pain at the infected. So, changing location was paramount. The machines needed to face retaliation of the clan.

Read the full story on January 1, 2021.

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