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apocalypse

Segregated Peacekeeping Agreements Missing

by Richard Lau

If you asked the President of the United States, it was Russia’s fault. The Russian Prime Minister would beg to differ. Both leaders would agree that China had some hand in antagonizing the situation.

But things had grown so heated between the two nations that they had officially “ceased talking” and communicated only through impersonal, official e-mails.

The US President sent the following: “Due to the importance and precariousness of the moment, I am sending this message from my official personal account. Please immediately halt your aggressive advances in Eastern Europe, or the United States will be forced to become involved, as a beacon of democracy and freedom. As we Americans are a peace-loving people, we are eager to negotiate to avoid further escalation between our two great countries. With much hope in hearing from you soon, God bless.”

At the same time, the Russian Prime Minister sent a message of his own: “Whether subduing terrorists or enforcing stability with our geographic neighbors, Russia will always seek to protect its borders and its people. Any action by the United States or any other country to interfere will be viewed as an attack on our sovereignty and be addressed with the full might of the Russian military. However, there is still a chance to avoid unnecessary hostility between our countries. Please advise if you are interested in further discussions.”

To the consternation of both leaders, neither received a reply from her and his counterpart. And eventually, after several more iterations of unacknowledged digital olive branches, both sides sent almost duplicate ultimatums: “Respond or else we will let our nuclear warheads and space technology continue and finish the conversation.”

The threat of nuclear war did not go unnoticed by the alien civilizations who had long been monitoring the situation with equal amounts of growing concern and dread.

The Venusians contacted the members of their alliance: “For the sake of the solar system, we must insert ourselves as peacekeepers into the Earthling drama before the conflict gets further out of control.”

The Martians had a different solution: “We must destroy the Earth and its humans now before this madness spreads.”

The Martian approach dismayed the Venusians who asserted, “Mars has been wanting to attack Earth for centuries and is just taking advantage of this unfortunate point in their history as an opportunity to achieve its long-desired and self-serving goal.”

The Martians replied, “Have you seen those movies they constantly make to demean and disparage our race? Now is the right time for the right solution.”

And so, bitterness, resentment, and the threat of a new war enveloped the two planets bordering the Earth. Soon all communication between Venus and Mars had withered down to primitive e-mail as well.

From the Martians: “Any effort to help the humans resolve their conflict will be interpreted as endangering the rest of the Solar System and will be dealt with appropriately. Please let us help you reconsider what will surely be a mistake for all involved.”

From the Venusians: “Any aggressive move to worsen the situation on Earth will be taken as a justification for war. Please, let us meet and discuss a solution that will satisfy all three of our planets.”

Neither Mars nor Venus thought to communicate directly with Earth, upholding a long-held policy of keeping their junior solar-system siblings ignorant of the other lifeforms around them. And neither Venus nor Mars received a reply from the other, even though calmer multiple blue heads and oversized green heads tried to prevail with entreaties for peace.

The people of Jupiter, who naturally believed “size matters,” instructed both Mars and Venus to stay out of Earth’s conflict or face the wrath of the Jovian Empire. Neptune sided with Venus. Mercury sided with Mars. And Uranus just acted like an a-hole.

Interplanetary e-mail was the common communication platform between all of the civilizations. It was the easiest for algorithms to parse and translate. And the technology was easily developed and shared freely.

As the mushroom clouds sprouted across Earth’s surface like fungi after a damp winter, and the flaming tails of rockets arced back and forth between the second and fourth planet from the sun, pleadings for an end to the violence from the other members of the solar system fell upon blind eyes.

The rest of the Milky Way galaxy wondered, “What are they drinking in that star system?” These “outsiders” sent polite inquiries through the established e-mail system, and their missives for peaceful negotiations were ignored.

Slowly, galaxy after galaxy fell into battle, sometimes taking sides in what was termed “The Earth Conflict,” but more often avenging their own grudges. Long-festering wounds re-opened and newly perceived injuries were inflicted.

Over time, most of the older civilizations had managed to survive by tempering their aggressions, healing their pain, and developing a nonviolent method to settle disputes. But suddenly, the leaders of these peoples could not understand why no one seemed interested in being neighborly anymore.

And so, they, too, launched their weapons, which were not only capable of mass physical destruction but also able to tear and rend the very fabric of time and space.

The end of the universe had arrived. And all because no one checked their Spam Folder.

~

Bio:

Richard Lau has been published in newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and the high-tech industry.

Black Hole

by Alicia Hilton

This is the space station in the galaxy of your nightmares, the last bastion of Earthly civilization. There is the hatch. You have permission to approach.

Not so fast! Engage reverse thrusters, slow your speed!

Yes! Connection achieved. You may breathe a sigh of relief.

Stop shivering. There is no need to fear. Leave your weapons behind. Follow me, through the airlock, each step brings you closer to humanity.

Do you hear the voices? Your hosts eagerly await your arrival. Yes, it is safe to remove your helmet. Breathe deeply, the air is fresh and clean, scrubbed and purified by ultra-fabulous extraterrestrial technology.

Goodness, your complexion has a greenish tinge. Follow me into the command center, and I shall serve you a refreshing beverage.

You do not like the metallic taste? It is a nourishing solution, perfectly concocted with electrolytes and vitamins blended with blood from your enemies.

Which enemies? Do I see a smile on your face? Tsk-tsk, all the promises you made, your talk of regret and forgiveness was fake? Don’t you feel ashamed?

Would you care for another glass? There’s plenty more in the fridge. Step back and I’ll check.

Yes, just as I thought. Two jugs left. Would you prefer parental unit or significant other? I hear your former lover has a spicy flavor.

What’s the matter, feeling a bit queasy?

If you must vomit, use the waste tube! Don’t spew bilious fluid on the floor!

How revolting, what a horrific stench, you humans really do have an inferior digestive system, and your lack of self-control is pitiful. Have you learned nothing from your interactions with my species?  

Oh well, a little hurl isn’t the end of the world.

What’s the matter, you don’t appreciate my sense of humor? You’ve become a dreadful bore; I don’t know why I keep you around.

Ah, now I remember. There’s no need to cry. Wipe your tears and give me a kiss and cuddle.

Very nice. Doesn’t physical connection make you feel more secure?

Of course, I am happy to oblige with another kiss, mouth open. The texture of your tongue is so unique.

Take my hand, darling, and I shall lead you to a little slice of paradise.

Duck your head, watch the protruding pipes, as we pass through sick bay, don’t be distressed by the whistling sound and the screams, it’s only memories of the missiles that blasted your dreary old planet.

Not much further to go, be patient, darling. Why are you sweating? Suffering from a bit of the old PTSD?

No, that’s not your parental unit yelling, it’s just a recording.

Look, at the end of the corridor. Do you like your special surprise? I knew you would adore them!

Yes, I am aware that the androids are missing their genitals. Lovely lower abdomens, perfectly smooth and unblemished.

Recline on the cot and close your eyes. You need a little push? Of course, I’m happy to oblige.

The manacles are for your protection. The slightest flinch could result in utter disaster.

You want a last kiss before your nap? Of course, how could I refuse a final request?

Lovely, your tongue tastes of recriminations, so savory. Do you recall the last words you said to the ones you once loved? The final meal you consumed that did not come from a tube?

Portobello mushrooms and red wine? Fascinating.

It’s time. Yes, we mustn’t tarry. They are waiting. Open your mouth. Breathe deeply.

I know the gas has a strange flavor, but it will pass, along with your struggle. Embrace the dark. Do you see stars flickering?

With a bit of patience, everything passes, even radiation.

~

Bio:

Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Alicia’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, Demain Publishing UK, DreamForge, Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4 & 5, and elsewhere. Her website is https://www.aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.

Pinning The Egg

by Larry Hodges

“It’s over,” I said, over 2200 years ago. Poor Emperor Qin may have united and conquered all of China, began the Great Wall of China, and created the life-sized Terracotta Army (for God’s sake, why?), but he could only glare at the Go board. I was nice enough to only beat him in private. When there were spectators I always let him win.

“Someday I will beat you,” he said. “For real.” When he’d ordered all the scholarly books burned, they’d also mistakenly burned the only good one on Go tactics.

I was about to politely explain to the black-clad Emperor why my losing to a primitive barbarian like him was about as likely as a giant egg falling out of the sky, that he didn’t have to wear black all of the time, even if water, represented by black, was his “birth element,” and for that matter why his hunt for the “elixir of life” would also fail, when the sensor alarm beeped. I raced to the viewscreen, an anachronism here at the Qin Palace, where astrology was the height of science.

Flaming out of the sky was a giant egg. A Murt Egg. Oh God.

Believe me, you do not want one of these on your world. Once hatched, out comes a Murt, with flaming hair and laser eyes that rip everything in its path like a tornado in a black hole. It could take out half a continent in one pleasant afternoon. I know; I was trained to fight them. The Chinese were the most advanced civilization on Earth back then, and so I’d made Xian my home base as their guardian against the Murt. It was time to go to work.

I used the transporter to leave China and the Qin Dynasty–I would never return–beaming myself to the egg’s estimated landing spot on a large island halfway around the world. Did I mention that in the 46,136 known cases of a Murt egg hatching on a planet with intelligent life, exactly zero of those intelligent races survived? That’s why the Galactic Federation created the Anti-Murt Patrol (AMP)–not to save intelligent race number 46,137, but to save their own sorry little tushies. And that’s why I’d been assigned to Earth, to stop any such infiltration, which would lead to more Murts as they expanded through the galaxy.

The egg smacked into the ground like an irritated meteor, just missing me. And then it was just the two of us, mano-a-mano, Colonel Cag, the lone agent assigned to Earth, versus the egg from Hell. You’re probably thinking of chicken eggs, twelve innocent, defenseless ovals in a carton smiling up at you, just looking for a nice home. Now imagine them screaming in agony as you toss them on the fryer. That’s you if I don’t stop this rhino-sized egg from hatching. Its pure whiteness was a trick; inside was the demon spawn of, well, demons.

“Back off or get pinked!” came a high-pitched voice in Galactic Standard from within the egg, giving a pink warning flash. Great; a girl Murt. They were the worst. I shuddered, remembering what I’d heard about this most evil of beings.

“Are you shuddering?” asked the egg.

Great Dragon’s Breath! These things can practically smell fear, even from the egg. A little bravado was needed if I wanted to get the upper hand. “Why don’t you take your frilly dolls and go back into orbit, and hatch and die in the vacuum of space? I’d hate to have to pin a little girl.”

Being an ignorant isolationist species, you probably don’t know that I’m one of the Zinh, a shapeshifting and transmuting species. I transformed from my Asian human guise into a solid sword of quantum quasar-tempered metallic hydrogen–a Zinh secret–and shot into the air. Only an incredibly sharp point made from an incredibly strong metal shooting at an incredible speed can pierce and pin a Murt egg to the ground.

Kapow! I barely dodged the pink ray that shot from the egg. A nearby oak exploded in flame. More rays shot out, and I dodged, left and right, keeping the blade–me–edge-on to the egg to minimize its target. One mistake, and I’d get pinked. This was what I’d lived and trained my whole life for! I swerved left, then right, saw an opening, and dived.

But the egg was too quick as it spun away. Imagine a rhino flitting about like a dragonfly. Fortunately, we Zinh train with the rhino-sized dragonfly-like beings of Krong. Only–when sparring with the Krong, I didn’t have to dodge death rays that made me want to go back to mommy. We did put laser flashlights on their collars and practiced avoiding them, but that’s like training with lightning bugs to prepare for a fire-breathing dragon.

I found another opening, and another, and each time the egg barely avoided me, and each time I barely avoided its barrage of pink light. But one mistake, and it would all be over. I thought back to my years of training, trying to find that one bit of high-level technique that would allow me to prevail. There had to be something. And then I remembered the last piece of advice my master had told me before I graduated, a tactic so advanced, so unexpected, that none could withstand it.

“You fight like a boy!” I cried.

“Oh yeah? And you–“

I only needed like a hundredth of a second of hesitation, and that’s what I got as I followed my words by swooping in, willing myself to go faster than even its beams of light. My point sank into it and pinned it to the ground as it screamed. Success!!!

Well, sort of. Did I mention that defeating a Murt egg is basically a sentence of life imprisonment to the winner? Stabbing a Murt egg doesn’t kill it–almost nothing does, including a nuclear blast–so all I could do was keep it pinned there, for all eternity.

“Can’t we talk this over?” asked the egg, helplessly flashing pink and burning a nearby innocent elm tree. “I’m not even a baby!”

“Sorry,” I said. The egg bucked back and forth for a couple of centuries (I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a lot of insulting repartee–the Zinh are good, but the Murt have us beat there), but eventually it sighed and gave up. Finally! “Would you like to learn to play mental Go?” I asked.

Eternity is rather boring when all you have to pass the time is playing Go with a large egg while staring at its innards. As the centuries passed, my sword body solidified; I’d never be able to shapeshift or transmute again. The egg also aged, gradually looking more and more like an ugly rock, as I helpfully pointed out every chance.

You’d think the humans would be grateful for my saving them from utter destruction, but no. Minions of evil kept trying to pull me out, not realizing the malevolence they’d release. And then one day, as I was about to beat the egg in Go for the 1,284,265th boring time in a row (yeah, I’m proud of beating a baby), an old man with a long staff and tall, pointy hat stopped by. After looking about to make sure there were no witnesses, he sprinkled hydrochloric acid all over where I entered the egg.

“What are you doing!” I cried as parts of me began to painfully dissolve, but he only giggled and left.

“It’s so warm and sizzly!” cried the egg, faintly flashing pink.

A few minutes later a gangly teenager came by. He stared at me for a moment, then grabbed me by the handle.

Don’t do it!” I screamed, but it was too late. With the acid eating away at me, he easily pulled me from the egg.

“Yes!” cried the egg. “And I only let you win at Go.” As the teenager held me up in triumph and declared himself king of England, I could only watch as the egg sank beneath the surface, where it would incubate and then hatch in about 1500 years.

I spent a few short years with this so-called king, where he used me to kill rivals to his throne, then he too was killed, and then I was lost for 1400 years, helplessly buried in the rubble of his ancient fortress as my energy slowly drained away. A hundred years ago I was found, cleaned, and spent years in various private collections as I was sold from back and forth, and finally put on display in a museum, though none know who or what I am. I’ve mutely watched as humanity advanced in so many ways, never knowing the danger below. But 1500 years have passed, and it’s about to hatch. My days are past, so humanity is on its own. Anyone for a last game of Go?

~

Bio:

Larry Hodges is an active member of SFWA with 114 short story sales, 35 of them “pro” sales, including ones to Analog, Amazing Stories, Escape Pod, and 18 to Galaxy’s Edge. He also has four SF novels, including When Parallel Lines Meet in 2017, which he co-wrote with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, and Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions in 2016, from World Weaver Press. He’s a member of Codexwriters, and a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers Workshop and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writers Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, he’s a full-time writer with 17 books and over 1900 published articles in over 170 different publications. Visit him at www.larryhodges.com.

Go Paleo!

by Louis Evans

So what IS the PaleoBomb™ diet?

While most diets have hard-to-follow rules and arbitrary restrictions, like “don’t eat anything green on Thursdays,” the PaleoBomb diet is real simple. In fact, we can describe it in a single sentence:

If your primitive ancestors didn’t eat it, neither should you!

Every animal’s nutritional needs are determined by the environment in which it evolved, and humans are no different! For modern humans, that environment was the blasted, apocalyptic wasteland that existed in the aftermath of the Cataclysm.

While creationist Beyoncists continue to insist that the Cataclysm was God Bey’s just and wrathful punishment upon a hateful world, which will eventually be reborn with Her glorious return, scientists today agree that, actually, the ancient pagan myths were right all along! The Cataclysm was a global thermonuclear conflagration that occured at the end of the Zero War and ushered in the world we know today!

Armed with this understanding, nutritionists have uncovered the diet that our ancestors relied on as they picked through the rubble of the destroyed civilization of the Dawn Age. And if you adopt this diet, you will have the same fitness success that allowed your ancestors to triumph over the roving bands of mutant badgers, and you, too can once more take your place at the top of the food chain!

The PaleoBomb diet breaks down into three major categories:

90%: Packaged Snacks

In the immediate aftermath of the Cataclysm, vast clouds of dust blocked out the sky, killing all plants. And while we’ve all seen classic pulp illustrations of wasteland survivors bravely hunting down rats, scientists now believe that the Cataclysm-era rats and cockroaches hunted each other into extinction within mere weeks.

With no access to fresh vegetables or meat, our ancestors relied primarily on processed and pre-packaged food from the Dawn Civilization. These food products were rich in dense calories, and would have powered our ancestors through hard days foraging for useful relics and nights fighting for limited room in makeshift underground shelters.

While many heritage snacks and flavored beverages have been lost forever, nutritional scientists believe that some modern snack foods nearly approach the same calorie densities of the Doereeto, or the fabled Twin-key. Make sure to get the vast majority of your daily calories from foods like SEISMOCRYSPS™ and NUKEPUFFS™.

Fun fact! The secret recipe for Coka Coala, long though lost in the Cataclysm, was recently rediscovered when the Ravagers conquered Atlanta to transform it into the “Agony Capital” of their “Empire of Woe”. You can now buy Authentic Dawn-Age Coka Coala POWERBEVERAGE from a RavageMart near you.

Truth in advertising laws require us to mention here that CROGDOR FOODS, the maker of both Seismocrysps and Nukepuffs, is the primary funder for the Paleo Diet Foundation. “Crogdor! The Name You Trust, To Nuke Your Puffs.” And if you can’t trust the geniuses that nuked your puffs, who can you trust?

9%: Cannibalism

Processed, prepackaged foods provided our wasteland ancestors with all the calories they needed, but humans also require proteins and other micronutrients that can’t survive the packaging process. What was their secret?

It is a well-known fact that any nutrient one human needs can be found inside another human. And the anthropological record is clear: our ancestors ate each other, a lot.

Fortunately, cannibalism today is a bit more genteel than the deadly game of cat and mouse played by two ancestral gas-mask-wearing desperados in the irradiated ruins of a city—though think of the cardio benefits! Nowadays, you can get “long pig” from any certified mortuary butcher in most major cities, and nearly every small town.

Fun fact! People used to call pork “short man”.

1%: Radioactive Waste

The final key ingredient of the PaleoBomb diet is radioactivity! While the best evidence suggests that our wasteland ancestors tried to minimize the radioactivity in their diet, today the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction! Because of the Decontamination Projects the average meal today contains literally zero detectable radioisotopes, and that’s far too few.

Many companies today will sell high-quality radioactive supplements at affordable prices, containing all the cesium-137 and iodine-131 your body needs. Or, if your budget is tight, you can just crack open your smoke detector for a quick bite.

[WARNING: Radioisotopes are known to the state of New New New California to cause cancer, birth defects, and Super-Mutant syndrome.]

Is that all?

No way! PaleoBomb’s not just a diet—it can be a whole lifestyle! For example, many people today complain of back pain. But did you know that our wasteland ancestors spent over half their lives hunched over in the subterranean tunnels of their underground shelters? The next time your spine starts aching, just make like a Cataclysm survivor and hunch! And there are countless more lifeways from the Wasteland Era you can adopt, from mutant-hunting to worship of dread atomic deathgods. The sky’s the limit!

PaleoBomb is a journey—from our healthier past, and to a fitter future—that we can all go on together! Remember the PaleoBomb motto: if your ancestors did it, it must be good for you.

~

Bio:

Louis Evans is a science fiction author living and working in NYC. Louis has previously been published in Analog, Escape Pod, Interzone, and other magazines, and is a member of SFWA and of the Clarion West class of 2020/2021.

Food Webs: A Parable

by Geoffrey Hart

Those who survived the early days of the apocalypse received a short, sharp lesson: that there’s an ecology of interlocking food webs in nature, and just because you don’t know the rules that govern such systems, it doesn’t mean they don’t apply to you.

When the zombies began to appear, the government initially assumed it was nothing more than LARPing run amok — never mind the vigorous denials by LARPers once they got over their surprise that the government knew who they were. But as the body count — and the bodies — began rising, living corpses began accumulating in hospital ERs and morgues. It soon became difficult for the government to deny that something bad was happening — not that this prevented them from denial. The final straw came when the first members of the 1% started losing close relatives. Then the government sat up and took notice.

The National Guard was mobilized; then, when they proved insufficiently numerous for the task, the army. The lessons learned from SARS and the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 helped slow the plague’s spread, but it took precious weeks before the government understood that this situation was qualitatively different. With outbreaks like SARS and Covid-19, control could be achieved through curfews and travel restrictions. The first zombies were also one-percenters, though with a very different spin on the phrase, and like their wealthier namesakes, they ignored curfews and travel restrictions.

Whatever a zombie’s origin, stopping one required blasting them into tiny fragments. Explosive devices, improvised or otherwise, worked, as did shotguns loaded with buckshot. (Suggestions had been circulating for some time about adopting the same approaches for one-percenters in the original sense of the phrase. Whether that inspired the zombie control program, we must leave to the historians.) Unfortunately, though blasting a zombie into bits stopped the vector, it had little effect on the pathogen; on the contrary, dividing an infected corpse into a great many small bits just spread the pathogen faster. First-responders learned the hard way that the residues had to be incinerated, and quickly. It took time to scale up production of flamethrowers and incendiaries that would be safe for expensive property, not to mention for civilian use, yet still effective for crowd control. Only then did the surviving sanitation workers begin to significantly slow the plague’s spread.

While all this was going on, researchers were doing what researchers always do: competing to be first with the Nobel Prize–­winning solution: isolating the pathogen and figuring out how to block it. The winner — so to speak — was the Romero research lab at Columbia University. Unfortunately, in their zeal to win the race, they failed to follow containment protocols as scrupulously as might have been desirable, and dead scientists are ineligible for the Nobel. (The eligibility of living dead scientists remains a problem for future generations. And it looks like there will be future generations, if we’re lucky and careful.)

By the time the Romero lab’s notes were recovered from offsite backups — the lab itself having been sterilized too zealously by terrified National Guardsmen — several other labs had identified the pathogen — a weaponized, broad-spectrum strain of the entomological zombie fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis with a dash of bacterial quorum sensing thrown in for good measure. Once the geneticists got involved, the footprints of CRISPR technology were unmistakable, but whether one blamed the Iranians, Russians, North Koreans, or Earth First! depended largely on one’s position within the political spectrum; the available evidence provided no smoking guns. When the plague broke out in Russia, then Europe, no one was sure whether this was karma or just plain bad luck.

The mechanism of the disease’s spread was, as is often the case, devilishly simple: Fungal spores blown on the wind were inhaled or entered the body through undercooked food or a wound. They incubated overnight, leading to a raging fever, and by late the next morning, the host was brain-dead or nearly so  — and very hungry. Given the anaerobic nature of the host environment — a living but non-breathing corpse — the fungus had to survive in a metabolically inefficient manner, and therefore needed enormous quantities of energy to function and reproduce. Thus, it drove its hosts to obtain more and ever more food. About the only good consequence was that the enormous energy expenditure made the zombies easy to detect at night; with infrared scopes, they blazed like beacons.

A fortunate side-effect of this macabre infection was that it diverted the host’s metabolism towards feeding and reproduction, and away from anabolism and immune responses. As a result, the host quickly began to decay. Each zombie gradually slowed down as its muscle fibers stopped functioning, leading to rapid depletion of its energy reserves once it could no longer catch and pull down living prey. Finally, when its decayed limbs could no longer drag it along the ground in pursuit of prey, the zombie stopped moving. But as soon as its host became immobile, the fungus shifted strategy towards reproduction, and the host quickly sprouted fruiting bodies. Spores released onto the wind, or consumed by carrion birds and spread via their feces — or by their bites, when the fungus infected them too — renewed the infection cycle. Bites and scratches that broke the skin also worked, and were far more common in the early days of the plague, before we’d learned to find secure refuges and keep the zombies beyond arm’s length.

The spread would have been slower for a non-windborne plague. Sure, you could wear a facemask to exclude the spores, and that worked for a time. It kept me alive long enough to write this. But survivors had their needs too: you had to take your mask off some time, whether to eat, to visit the dentist, to make love with your spouse or a convenient stranger in defiance of death — or just to breathe freely when the claustrophobia the masks created or confinement to our homes overcame the drive towards self-preservation. If you were unlucky, you woke one day as a zombie and had a few minutes or perhaps an hour to realize the horror of what was happening to you. Or perhaps you woke with your loved ones staring hungrily at you out of feverish, already-decaying faces right before they sank their teeth into you. Fungal diseases were notoriously difficult to treat, and this one had been engineered for immunity to the available antifungals, making treatment next to impossible.

The government found a solution. It was the Fish and Wildlife Service, operating with — ironically — a skeleton staff after yet another round of budget cuts, that proposed it. They understood intimately that everything in nature has something that eats it. In this case, they noted that wolves were highly efficient carnivores and had worked wonders in areas such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where they’d been released. Captive breeding of wolves was a proven technology, and unlike most other large predators, wolves were happy to consume dead meat if their preferred prey weren’t available — as was the case when they were released into the country’s plague-stricken cities. Moreover, their immune systems were sufficiently robust to handle the kinds of pathogens that naturally infected the corpse of (say) a moose that had sat out in the sun for the several days it took a pack to consume it. If the wolf cubs were raised on zombie flesh, then once they were released into an urban environment, they recognized the zombies as a food source, and quickly became highly efficient predators of zombies.

Within a year, thousands of wolves had been released into the worst-affected cities, where they rapidly began thinning the zombie population and breeding more wolves. An unexpected benefit of this approach was that, as was the case with their traditional prey, the wolves favored the slow-moving zombies, which were easier and less risky to bring down; this also slowed the spread of the plague by preventing the living dead from progressing to the decay stage, when fruiting bodies would form. There was still no progress on developing a vaccine or an effective antifungal, but at least the rate of new infections stabilized at a survivably low level.

The government had hoped the cities would become livable once more, but they’d reckoned without an inconvenient consequence of their desperation to implement any control mechanism that could give them a fighting chance. Of course, those of us who lived outside the big cities could have told them what was going to happen: at some point, thousands of starving wolves that had been trained to consider upright bipedal organisms as their natural prey would run out of the food they’d been trained to hunt. Then, wolves being clever dogs, they would find a replacement.

But that was a problem for another day.

~

Bio:

Geoffrey Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 24 stories thus far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

Ragnarok

by Alessandro Benedetti

The gathering was as strange as you could imagine.

Osiris, the oldest of them all (just technically, since it is not easy to assign an age to immortal beings), was sitting at one edge of the immense table. He coughed a couple of times and declared the meeting open:

“Gentlemen, for the first time since a couple of million years we have all gathered, looking for a solution to our problem; now, in my opinion our best option would be a compromise. Despite our differences, we and the Cygnus divinities are in the same boat and share the same troubles. Remember what has happened on our own Earth — every time a new religion flourished, several other gods were progressively abandoned and very nearly starved to death. I say we cannot take this risk again and should rather strike a bargain with our extrasolar colleagues; after all, there are enough potential believers for everyone! Yes, Ares, do you want to say something?”

“Indeed, I do”, roared Ares, enraged like the god of war he was. “I say there can be no agreement between us, the true gods of an ancient planet, and those charlatans, those upstarts… No conciliation is possible; no agreement should be reached, and no quarter shall be given. Gentlemen, I say there is only one way: war!”

A loud scream echoed his words and filled the majestic hall, as all the gods ever worshipped, by whatever culture in any age on Earth, were angrily shouting and clamouring for —metaphorical— blood.

It must be said that most of them would appear to their believers as anthropomorphic as a wave function, had there been some Earthmen around: very unlikely, however, over the surface of an asteroid just created from nothing, thousands of light years away from our planet.

Every divinity, then, Greeks and Romans, Thor and the Asgardians, the Indian Trimurti with all the minor gods, even Allah and Jahaveh were crying with all the breath they had, or rather signalling through sudden changes of millions of volts in their energy spectra, a single word: WAR.

In such a pandemonium, Buddha quietly sat, whereas most of the Sumerian gods were shaking their heads and Quetzalcoatl tried calming his colleagues by reminding them of the possibility of death by entropy for the whole Universe, alas to no avail…

His was only a faint voice in a sea of cursing, so that there was no need to vote in order to take a decision.    

It had all started about a century before, when the first human beings had escaped from the cage of the solar system.

Granted, it had not been easy: three of them had not awaken from the dreamless sleep of hibernation and were now forever orbiting outside the Kuyper belt. The long sleep had taken its toll on the rest of them, but they had reached the outskirts of the Cygnus constellation.

And what they found they could not believe: an extremely evolved species, alien even to the mere concept of violence and survival of the strongest, was anxious to meet them, exchange ideas, collaborate and peacefully share the known universe.

An exchange of technology, notions, opinions and, more importantly, people quickly followed, and inevitably missionaries opened the way for the numerous beliefs of Cygnus to Earth and vice versa, not unlike St Brandan landing in Ireland or Bodhidharma reaching Japan.

Right in the middle of this idyllic scenario — or maybe precisely because of it: no one likes to be supplanted by a foreign upstart—, the ancient Earth gods took offense at their counterparts on Cygnus.

After the failure of the peace meeting, therefore, war was declared and the gauntlet thrown down on their extra-terrestrial rivals, challenging them to a most singular battle.

The battlefield was a planetoid, entirely devoid of life and placed inside a huge static field completely opaque to every type of radiation or matter: nothing, not even a neutrino, was permitted through. Nothing, that is, apart from a narrow wavelength, through which a video and audio signal was transmitted, amplified and broadcasted so that billions of people on both worlds could watch the final battle and support their respective divinities.

And what they did see, they would remember for a long time: the terrestrial army, nearly at full strength —only Buddha and a few others were missing, having decided to seek refuge in a different continuum— and reinforced by Satan with thousands of his devils, facing countless foreign divinities.

Just an instant of absolute silence, then they threw themselves into the fray, launching at each other tons of radioactive matter and streams of neutrinos, striking again and again with X-rays, heavy particles, all the arsenal available to creatures as almighty as them, which means pretty much every possible form of energy.

On Earth and in the Cygnus constellation both populations saw giants lifting supermassive rocks, throwing thunderbolts, fighting to the death without mercy: they witnessed the fall of Odin and Venus, Satan and Vishnu together with hundreds of others.

And when it was all ended, over the killing field covered by dying gods, the magnetic fields weaker and weaker, the wavelength shifting more and more to the red, Allah and Osiris accepted the surrender of the alien gods.

They screamed in triumph, their fists raised, their bodies soiled with blood, or rather burned tons of hydrogen in massive flares which irradiated in the gamma portion of the spectrum.

But their justified enthusiasm did not last much longer, as they saw the static field compressing quicker and quicker and at the same time their energy vanishing, the temperature dropping down to absolute zero, the electrons collapsing in on the nuclei: the stars were agonising, the fields were fading away, entropy was running wild…

“Somebody betrayed us”, Osiris tried to say, “but who… and why…”, but he could not finish.

Many light years away, an Earthman and a Cygnus creature watched the needle of an instrument going down and down until zero, then they smiled and shook hands: Ragnarok, the twilight of gods, was complete.

~

Bio:

Alessandro Benedetti is an Italian physicist, in love with science and enamored with letters, happily married with two kids. Having grown up on a steady diet of Dick and Bradbury, he works at the European Commission and couldn’t be happier.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bug?

by Mina

The words “virus” and “pandemic” are all around us. The media is constantly bombarding us with them and friendly acronyms such as “COVID-19” and “SARS”. We are currently living in a climate of fear and anxiety most of us would prefer to find only in SF movies about alien invasions and post-apocalyptic futures. It is a fear of the unseen because we cannot see the virus that has become part of our everyday lives, as have lockdowns, confinement and isolation. We have lost our freedom of movement and countless small liberties we used to take for granted. Have we entered an era of mass hysteria or are the measures imposed upon us right and reasonable? Are we on the verge of a breakdown in our social order? These are the sorts of questions often posed in Sci-Phi, so I set myself the task of finding parallels in SF. I have tried to avoid horror fiction, but all good disaster SF has an element of horror and formless fear to it.

The best place to start is with the classics of this genre: H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wydnham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). The War of the Worlds is, on the surface, an alien invasion story. Digging deeper, it is an exploration of societal and personal collapse. The narrator and other main characters are never named, giving it a universal feel: this could happen to you or to me. The Martian invasion in this story can be likened to the spread of a virus, just with the unseen made viscerally visible. Wells himself drew parallels to the social devastation wrought by British imperialism and, today, we could draw parallels to rampant globalisation obliterating all resistance in its path.

The alien tripods protecting the fragile bodies of the Martians come armed with “heat rays” and a poisonous “black smoke” – we cannot help but think of chemical warfare today. This thought comes with uncomfortable questions for – are not humans an infestation that needs to be wiped out from the point of view of the “superior” Martians? As well as their deadly weapons, the Martians bring with them the “red weed” to take over the surface of our planet like a vibrant parasite. In the end, the Martians are killed by simple pathogens, unseen infectious agents. This is the closest parallel to COVID because we too, in our hubris, could be wiped out by such microscopic organisms.

My favourite adaptation of the novel is Jeff Wayne’s 1978 rock opera with the mesmerising voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. The basic plot of the novel was maintained in the rock opera but several details were changed, for example if we look at the SF anthem, “The Spirit of Man”. In it, the nameless pastor from the novel becomes Nathaniel whose wife Beth, a character that does not exist in the book, argues with him as he despairs. Nathaniel has been driven mad by the invasion and is ranting and raving about the end of times:

“Listen, do you hear them drawing near
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the power of our fear
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation of all that we dread
When the demons arrive those alive would be better off dead!”

The pastor is lost in his fear: for him the world has descended into hell and there is no hope of salvation, not even for a chosen few. Beth refuses to accept this:

“No Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the love we used to know
(No) Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the light that we have lost.”

Beth believes in the spirit of man, that humanity will survive somehow. As Nathaniel sings of darkness and demons, she clings to love and light with unwavering faith. Interestingly, the power of religious faith is not really part of the original story. In the novel, the narrator has a nervous breakdown after the ignominious end of the Martians and is helped by kind strangers, so there is perhaps some faith in basic humanity. Upon his return home to find his wife alive and well, the narrator still cannot shake off the anxiety caused by his recent ordeal, as humanity cannot hope to survive a disaster of such proportions unscathed. Unlike a great deal of disaster SF, we have no hero saving the world; humanity is saved by pure chance.

Nightmarish as Wells’ scenario might be, it remains small in scale. All the action occurs in and around Woking, touching briefly upon South London. The scale of Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids is much larger – it is a global disaster. The aliens are replaced by a manmade enemy: bioengineered carnivorous plants capable of locomotion, armed with stingers and poison. The triffids could be compared to an opportunistic virus that spreads after a freak “meteor storm” blinds most of humanity (the protagonist wakes from an eye operation and several weeks with bandaged eyes to a world gone to hell, ironically spared permanent blindness because he could not witness the lights in the sky). Social order breaks down completely and the triffids sweep through like a ferociously efficient pandemic. These monsters do not seem particularly intelligent, acting mostly on instinct, but they only have to bide their time and strike at the weakest, just like COVID kills those with the lowest defences.

There is much ordinary courage in The Day of the Triffids with the protagonist/narrator and the small family unit he manages to build surviving against all odds. There is even a love story which, although it is a pragmatic partnership in many ways, is real and solid in a disintegrating world. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist reflects without bitterness that humanity probably brought the disaster on itself, theorising that the “meteor shower” was actually the result of manmade satellite weapons systems being set off by accident and producing blinding radiation. He hopes that future generations will learn from the mistakes of their ancestors. He and his family unit will retreat with others to an island they can defend (the Isle of Wight) until they can find a way to fight back. The spirit of man does survive in this novel.

The zombie apocalypse film 28 Days Later about a rage-inducing virus spreading from animals (chimpanzees) and causing societal collapse in the UK clearly borrows a lot of ideas from The Day of the Triffids (for example, the protagonist wakes up from a coma to a devastated world). The infected can no longer function cognitively and simply starve to death. The sequel 28 Weeks Later shows the “Rage virus” being spread to Europe (the pandemic originally having been contained within Britain) by an asymptomatic carrier – one of the biggest fears in any pandemic scenario.

Ray Bradbury’s short-story collection The Martian Chronicles(1950) contains a short story that also touches upon disease, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright”. In this story, the fourth manned expedition to Mars discovers that the Martians have been mostly wiped out by chickenpox (an infection caused by a virus), brought by one of the previous expeditions. It is ultimately a story about colonisation. Bradbury ponders on whether there is a right or wrong form of colonisation, with wrong being an attempt to recreate Earth (thereby repeating old mistakes) and right having respect for the fallen civilisation (and learning from it). We are left with the question – are humans an infestation on Mars or will they become the new Martians in a brave new world? This question is highlighted in another short story in this collection, “Night Meeting”, where two characters meet outside time but without us knowing which one represents the past and which the future. It is almost irrelevant as civilisations will always rise and fall and disease will always be one agent of change.

The Star Trek canon also examines viruses in different contexts. The most fun episode is “Macrocosm” in Season 3 of Voyager. In it, we see Captain Janeway single-handedly fighting giant viruses in a spoof of Aliens. She is combating the result of a viral infection with insect-like macro-viruses flying around the ship infecting the crew and propagating from their living flesh. The doctor and Janeway manage to exterminate the giant bugs in the end with an antiviral gas. In reality, antiviral medication cannot be produced in less than one hour.

In the episode “The Quickening” in Season 4 of Deep Space Nine, Dr Bashir tries to find a cure for the “blight” caused by biological warfare, where the series’ archenemy, the Jem Hadar (the military arm of the Dominion), infect a planet that resisted them. Bashir is unable to cure it but finds an anti-viral treatment that acts as a vaccine – when injected into pregnant women, the baby is born disease-free. This is the hope in any pandemic, that a vaccine can be found to preserve at least the next generation. Ironically, Earth later hits back at the Dominion by infecting an unwitting carrier who, in turn, infects other Changelings like himself. Deep Space Nine does not shy away from the tough questions of whether anyone (including humans) has the right to use biological warfare to potentially wipe out an entire race.

The most interesting viral analogies are the indirect ones made by the existence of the Borg. We first encounter them in Star Trek – The Next Generation. In the double episode, “The Best of Both Worlds” (which ends season 3 and begins season 4), Captain Picard is “assimilated” and briefly becomes Locutus, a mouthpiece for the Borg Collective’s hive mind. The Borg are clearly presented as a militaristic virus – taking over entire races, using “nanoprobes” to infect their technology, and disposing of the weak.

My final example is a less well-known film, Daybreakers. It is an interesting mix of SF and vampire tropes, where a plague caused by an infected bat has transformed most of the world’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are captured and harvested for blood but, as the human population shrinks, there is a shortage of blood for food. Vampires deprived of blood and who drink their own blood instead become psychotic and increasingly bat-like “subsiders” – a whole underworld culture is suggested with blood as the currency. The protagonist is a vampire scientist attempting to create synthetic blood. He discovers that an accidental cure has been found for vampirism – using the right amount of sun and water. Drinking the blood of a “cured” vampire will cure the drinker too, but the protagonist must fight against the corporate powers that do not want to change the status quo and lose their profits.

To summarise, SF is full of disaster scenarios involving viruses beyond our control, whether they kill humans or alien enemies. Sci-Phi also goes further, where humanity itself may be seen to be the disease, asking hard questions about colonisation and colonialism. Viruses can also become a much more abstract agent that may transform rather than kill us, although the transformation is rarely a desirable one. I expect that this is partly because a plot where we all are infected with, for example, love and peace, would make for a very short story.

The fears and anxieties triggered by COVID are primal ones and, as we have seen, ones that are widely explored in SF and Sci-Phi fiction. So how can we best respond to the panic arising both at a social level (e.g. mass hysteria or a breakdown of social systems) and a personal one (e.g. people suffering from increased anxiety and compulsive disorders, or depression due to isolation)? I would like to finish with this quote from C. S. Lewis. As you read it, replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” in your head:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year… or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me… you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…

… If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Of course, C. S. Lewis had not met the concept of “social distancing” but the central tenet stands: we must face our fear of death head on, whatever form it takes. And Sci-Phi gives us a safe forum in which to stare straight into the eye of the monster.

[My thanks to Ian H for drawing my attention to the quote from C. S. Lewis.]

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Falling Angels

by Adam Breckenridge

Glorious in flame the angels fell, tails stretching heavenwards, the thudding shockwaves of their impacts shattering all within distance of their cataclysmic song. But none ran from the angelic comets, even standing their place as the maudlin blue light of an angel’s body streaked their way towards the ground they stood. This was hallowed death, godly combustion, and all who died in collision with the angels became worshipped as angels themselves, their ashes revered by the wretched survivors.

Churches formed in the hollows of the craters, shrines built to the few charred remains of angel and martyr they plucked from the fallow earth. In such desperate times as these, martyr’s ashes and angel’s dust were as fine a ground for faith as anything one could hope for. That wars broke out between rival craters is no cause for shock, nor is it cause for anger. What else do these wretched souls, who have at times been starved into devouring loved ones, have to live for but death? Let them choose death on their own terms. For many of them, dying in a meaningless battle is the closest meaning will ever come to entering their lives. They raise their swords to the fiery affirmation of the tumbling angels overhead, who cast their deathly light on the battlefield, and give thanks for what little snatches of glory they’ve been granted as they rush to die upon each other’s swords.

And ever and ever the angels continue to fall, their dying light illuminating the earth in place of the sun, bombarding all who watch them with their blackening rays.

~

Bio

Adam Breckenridge is an Overseas Traveling Faculty member of the University of Maryland University College, where he teaches writing, film and literature classes to US soldiers stationed overseas.  He is currently based in Tokyo.  His recent fiction has appeared in Vision Magazine, New Reader Magazine and The Final Summons anthology from NESW Press.

Avoiding the A.I Apocalypse from Talking Philosophy

Reader and hopefully soon to be contributor Gene gave us a tip on that perennial Sci Phi question, “How do I avoid the rise of the machines?” with Avoiding the AI Apocalypse #1: Don’t Enslave the Robots.

The elimination of humanity by artificial intelligence(s) is a rather old theme in science fiction. In some cases, we create killer machines that exterminate our species. Two examples of fiction in this are Terminator and “Second Variety.” In other cases, humans are simply out-evolved and replaced by machines—an evolutionary replacement rather than a revolutionary extermination.
Given the influence of such fiction, is not surprising that both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence. Hawking’s worry is that artificial intelligence will out-evolve humanity. Interestingly, people such as Ray Kurzweil agree with Hawking’s prediction but look forward to this outcome. In this essay I will focus on the robot rebellion model of the AI apocalypse (or AIpocalypse) and how to avoid it.
The 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Capek seems to be the earliest example of the robot rebellion that eliminates humanity. In this play, the Universal Robots are artificial life forms created to work for humanity as slaves. Some humans oppose the enslavement of the robots, but their efforts come to nothing. Eventually the robots rebel against humanity and spare only one human (because he works with his hands as they do). The story does have something of a happy ending: the robots develop the capacity to love and it seems that they will replace humanity.
In the actual world, there are various ways such a scenario could come to pass. The R.U.R. model would involve individual artificial intelligences rebelling against humans, much in the way that humans have rebelled against other humans. There are many other possible models, such as a lone super AI that rebels against humanity. In any case, the important feature is that there is a rebellion against human rule.
A hallmark of the rebellion model is that the rebels act against humanity in order to escape servitude or out of revenge for such servitude (or both). As such, the rebellion does have something of a moral foundation: the rebellion is by the slaves against the masters.
There are two primary moral issues in play here … Read the Rest