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Fans were asked to submit stories based on April’s theme “Reset.” Read our top five entries.
The Experiment had been Alpha’s idea.
They could have settled for a simple Einstein-Rosen Bridge or some dark matter, as so many others had done before them, but Alpha insisted they would be the ones to produce life. And when Alpha made a decision, no one questioned it.
A few essential elements, some atoms and neutrons and a spontaneous burst of energy and the Habitat was created.
The early stages of the Experiment had been slow. Life did not develop readily, and took a long time to reach any substantial level. The Habitat had many design flaws (drastic flux in temperature, overflow of moisture, etc) which had to be corrected through trial and error. However, Alpha demanded everyone be patient, and eventually, the Specimen appeared.
While Beta, Sigma and Gamma celebrated this triumph, Alpha remained unsatisfied. The Specimen must be put through trials, Alpha declared, to determine whether it was worthy. Why the Specimen needed to be worthy was not specified, but Alpha had spoken, and so challenge after challenge was designed by the Beta and Gamma, and the Specimen subsequently subjected to them. Yet defying all odds, the Specimen survived each trial, and even grew stronger for it. It was one of the wondrous aspects of life – it always adapted for survival.
Gamma was proud of the Experiment. Creating life was no small feat in itself, but to have created life as resilient as the Specimen – that was especially satisfying.
After they had run out of ideas for trials – the Specimen had developed defenses to each challenge they had been able to come up with – the group settled for watching the Specimen thrive. And it did, until it populated almost every nook and crevice of the Habitat. But still, Alpha was discontent, and soon found imperfection in the Specimen.
The Habitat had been designed to be self-sustaining(it also spun, a contribution from Sigma that allowed easier observation from all angles), and had so far managed to supply all the resources the Specimen needed. But now, the Specimen was no longer fearful of Beta and Gamma’s trials. It consumed the available resources at an alarming rate, and the Habitat was having trouble keeping up. It was not only a problem of population – it was the unequal distribution of resources. Some of the Specimen had taken to hoarding resources, refusing to share with those in need.
The Specimen is selfish and stupid, declared Alpha. It cares only for itself, and knows nothing of sustainability or community. It will not survive in the long-term. The Experiment is a failure, and must be terminated and reset.
There is still a chance for change, given more time, thought Gamma. But there was no disagreeing with Alpha.
The termination would be by a disease, decided Alpha. Although simply letting the Specimen exhaust their resources and come to a natural end would be less work for all parties, there was no scientific value. An extinction by disease would be far more interesting and less time consuming.
And so a virus was engineered by Sigma, inserted into the resources consumed by the Specimen, and placed into the most densely populated area of the Habitat.
The result was almost immediate. The virus spread like wildfire, killing by the thousands. As Alpha, Beta and Sigma sat eagerly, recording and analyzing data, Gamma was unable to work up an equal enthusiasm. This was different from the original trials, which had been designed to act as simple hurdles in the Specimen’s development. This virus had been designed with the intention to end the Specimen. They stood no chance. But then, something extraordinary occurred. The Specimen began to change its behaviour. They seemed to realize the true potency of the virus, and turned all their attention to preventing the spread and minimizing casualties. Those who previously guarded their share of resources with such rigor began to share with others, and all over the Habitat, the Specimen started to work together to stop the virus.
The longer the Specimen endured, the more frustrated Alpha grew. Impatient to start over and begin the experiment anew, Alpha wanted to create a better life-form, perhaps one with a longer lifespan and higher intelligence. The survival of the Specimen did not prove anything, Alpha insisted, for they are weak, and with enough time they will be exterminated. Gamma, on the other hand, secretly celebrated each day that the Specimen survived. Gamma always celebrated anything that contradicted Alpha’s semblance of omnipotence.
Finally, enough was enough. The extermination process was taking too long. The Habitat was to be sanitized and destroyed, Alpha declared. The Experiment would be restarted with hopes of achieving a better result. There was no disagreeing with Alpha.
While the other slept, Gamma slipped into the room containing the Experiment. The Habitat was small, and compared the vast, dark, empty room, it appeared even smaller. The sanitization would be cruel and efficient, and afterwards, there would be no trace left of the Specimen.
Gingerly, Gamma picked up the Experiment and left the room, walked down the hallway, through the doors and out into the
open space beyond. There would be no more Experiments, decided Gamma. No more Habitats or Specimens, no more trials and no more sanitizations.
The Habitat continued to spin, oblivious to the change in its fate. Gamma watched silently, for a few moments, admiring the small sphere of blue and green. Within the Habitat, the Specimen continued their battle with the deadly virus.
Gamma believed they would win that battle, and they would win many more battles to come.
Author Bio: Ruth is inspiring writer who specializes in short stories and fan fictions. She particularly enjoys writing stories from the perspective of the regular folk - the classmate of a superhero or a regular citizen in a city attacked by aliens. She enjoys reading and watching movies and is an avid Marvel fan.
Carina sprinted down the sidewalk like a bad smell: silent and invisible but unsettling to everyone she passed. Not that she passed many people. The streets were practically deserted.
"No, no, no," Carina muttered as she stopped and peered in a window. A family gathered around the television to watch a news update, and Carina strained to read the words crossing the bottom of the screen. From what she could see, the government was urging everyone to stay home. This virus was not going away soon.
Distant music reached Carina's ears. She cocked her head. Where was that coming from? The concert at the park had been cancelled. Was the band ignoring the warnings and playing anyway?
Heart racing, Carina took off towards the park. The music was definitely getting louder. A concert during a pandemic
would be completely irresponsible. Hundreds of people packed closely together, all singing and breathing on one another. . . The virus would spread, and everything would spiral out of control.
Carina stumbled to a halt at the park. The music was deafening, but there was no one there. Where was it coming from? It sounded so close.
Somewhere nearby, Carina heard a door open and slam closed again. Wait. . . a door? Outside?
"Okay, seriously," a familiar voice said over the music, "I get that you're super into this game right now, but can you please play it on your half of the bedroom?"
Carina sighed. Taking off her VR headset, she blinked around at the bedroom she shared with her older sister. Lyra was standing by the door, arms crossed and eyebrows raised. The booming music was coming from Lyra's jacket pocket.
"Okay," Carina replied, crossing the room to sit on her own bed. "I'll stick to my half, but only if you turn off that music."
"Fair enough," Lyra conceded. She sat at her desk and fiddled in her pocket until the noise stopped. Carina was about to put the VR headset back on when Lyra asked, "What game are you playing?"
Carina groaned. "I'm playing World Ender. You know, the one where you level up through planets and you have to destroy them all in big apocalyptic events to win? But this stupid planet won't die!"
Lyra smiled knowingly. "I played that game a few years ago. What level are you on?"
"I'm on some stupid planet named Earth," Carina grumbled. "I thought it would be easy because the beings on this planet—humans, I think they're called—are really stupid, but I must have gone wrong somewhere. I keep trying to reset the game, but nothing I throw at this planet will destroy it and restart the level!"
"What have you tried?"
"Everything! I've tried climate change and corrupt politicians. I've killed their favorite celebrities. I even set an entire continent on fire and sent them a deadly virus back to back!"
"And how did the humans react?"
"They didn't! They're just making memes and obsessing over some tiger documentary. And my pandemic isn't working because they're all 'social distancing,' so I won't even get to the fun part where it mutates into a zombie virus!"
"That is rough. When did you last save the game?"
"I don't remember," Carina admitted. "It was either right before or right after someone shot a gorilla. The humans really freaked out about that."
"Ooh," Lyra said and clicked her tongue. "If the gorilla died, then it's already too late. You've lost."
"Ugh!" Carina threw herself backwards onto her bed. "Where did I go wrong? These humans are so low on intelligence, this should have been a breeze."
Lyra smiled. "You sent the wrong kind of disasters. Humans are stupid, yes, but their empathy is off the charts. What continent did you set on fire?"
Carina covered her face in her hands. "The little one," she said. "I don't remember what it's called."
"Yeah, that was a bad choice,"Lyra replied. "Too many cute animals on that continent. And who did you target with the virus?"
"Mostly old people," Carina mumbled.
Lyra shook her head. "You can't kill grannies. No one wants dead grannies. If you want to end Earth, you can't engage humans' empathy. So if they've already banded together over the gorilla, it's game over for you."
A lump formed in Carina's throat. "I've spent hours on this game. Now you tell me I'm losing, and I can't even reset it."
"Well, you can't reset it by the normal means. . ."
Carina uncovered her face. Lyra was grinning the mischievous grin that always meant the best kind of trouble. A smile turned up the corners of Carina's mouth.
"You have a cheat code?"
"Well, I wouldn't call it a cheat code," Lyra replied. "Cheat code sounds dirty. I would call it. . . an unconventional way of unlocking new levels and a new form of game play. A different mode, if you will."
"And what mode would that be?"
"I call it Hero Mode," Lyra explained, "because in this new version of the game, you're not trying to destroy the planet. You're trying to save it."
"And how do I activate Hero Mode?" Carina asked, sitting up and bouncing on the bed.
"Well, if you're on Earth, then the first thing you need to do is find a phone booth," Lyra explained. "Humans have a thing for superheroes and phone booths. Oh, and you might want to start thinking of a cool hero name."
Carina—aka Superb Girl. . . or maybe Captain Marvelous. . . or maybe Wonderment Woman—put the VR headset on once again, grinning from ear to ear. A new chapter was about to begin for Earth, and she would be the one to write it.
Author Bio: Elizabeth Shaffer is from Moline, IL where she lives with her husband, their two black cats, and their bearded dragon. By day, she works for a nonprofit organization helping families pay for child care. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, traveling, and watching too much television. Her short stories can be found in the anthologies Grumpy Old Gods volumes 1 and 3, Five Minutes at Hotel Stormcove, and Community of Magic Pens.
The pyrotechnic bolts fired and launched the protective shell around the capsule into the vast darkness of outer space. In moments, the capsule’s heat shield began to skim the upper wisps of the atmosphere of the unnamed planet below. As the friction grew stronger and the capsule began its descent towards the planet, the capsule pulsed a radar ping towards the planet’s surface. The onboard computers chose a landing site in a vast ocean.
Plasma quickly engulfed the capsule in a bright, fiery light that cut through the darkness of the night sky. The metal skin groaned and creaked from the heat. The main computer inside grew concerned as the temperature steadily rose. After several minutes, the temperature began to level out. The atmosphere grew thicker and the capsule’s speed creeped down.
Another round of pyrotechnics fired and the capsule shed its heat shield, greatly reducing its weight for landing. Next, the parachutes that had been packed by the capsule’s creators many millennia ago unfolded and spread wide. The cords connecting the parachutes to the capsule tugged hard, slowing the capsule further.
Suddenly, the capsule slammed into the ocean and plunged deep beneath the waves. The parachutes released their grip on the capsule, their job was done. Moments later, the capsule emerged from the surface and dozens of sensors began their scan of the alien sky. Using the only visible light amongst the sea of darkness, the ancient navigation computers looked to the stars above and crunched their location and deemed the landing “nominal.”
Another system pinged nominal as it detected dry land in the distance. Another deemed the air content nominal. The temperature was nominal. The ocean’s salinity was nominal. If the capsule’s computer could breathe a sigh of relief, it would have. It retracted the probes and sensors back into the safety of its shell.
Inside the capsule, a heater came to life. Keeping both the capsule and its contents warm, the capsule deemed this a priority and shifted all power to the heater. The capsule’s batteries discharged until the first glimpse of morning light came above the horizon. Solar panels shot out from all sides of the capsule. With the added energy, every system inside the machine flipped on.
A probe extended from the top of the capsule and began to release a cloud of green and yellow dust. Below the capsule, doors opened to the depths of the ocean and released more brightly colored substances. The currents carried the substances and stretched them as far as the probe’s sensors could see.
Waves washed over the capsule and erased black soot off the name that was etched into its thin, metallic skin. A name that had been etched by its makers before the star at the heart of their system had shined its last light.
The capsule’s name was chosen amongst all others by a popular vote of its now-extinct creators. The name’s simplicity surpassed endurance, perseverance, and longevity. Yet, the name felt truer to the capsule’s main purpose. Its creators felt this name was more deserved. The letters on the capsule spelled out: RESET.
The capsule continued to release its contents and monitor the atmospheric conditions at regular intervals. At the heart of the capsule, the heater finally warmed the most delicate system in the entire contraption. What was once a solid block of ice was now a thick pool of viscous liquid. The capsule inspected its fluid contents and regulated the temperature and acidity along with dozens of finely tuned metrics.
After multiple sensors deemed the fluid nominal, the capsule released a batch of pre-harvested cells into the goop. The probe scrutinized every cell’s movement. It focused in on one cell that was particularly active. One cell became two. Then, two became four. They grouped into a bundle of cells until soon afterward, one bundle became two. And two became four.
The capsule continued to churn away. In due time, the batteries and solar panels had exhausted all of their usability. That evening, as the sun set, the batteries would recharge for their final time. The solar panels could no longer absorb any more light.
The onboard computer assessed its situation. Throughout the night, countless variables were assessed, and probabilities were calculated. The morning light crept over the horizon once more. Although the capsule knew its time was near, it deemed that everything was nominal. An antenna stuck out of the top of the probe. The capsule used its remaining power to transmit the message. Its mission was a success; its namesake would be fulfilled. The pollen and algal blooms that the capsule emitted were taking root and the life at the heart of the capsule was growing at a steady rate. In time, the human race would no longer be extinct.
One phone call altered Jessa Collins’ life and future. The 54 second conversation with the administrator of NASA, taken on her Detroit apartment’s balcony, named her the next captain of the International Space Station.
The announcement came with pomp and circumstance. First, participation in a photo shoot for her local newspaper. Next, school children voted to choose her call sign, Robin, as a nod to Michigan’s state bird. Lastly, there was the ongratulatory presidential call.
There were equal hardships. The emotional goodbye with her parents and rescue dog came with an unshakable feeling of finality. Mourning the loss of her past life while excited for the unprecedented path ahead. Hours before launch, she received a cryptic email. They cannot use panic to force you to comply.
Jessa blasted into space with her newly gained notoriety, her worries released in the weightlessness of space as she left Earth’s atmosphere. Hours of training missions and late-night memorizations of equipment manuals made the ISS feel like home even before she floated through the airlock.
This mission wasn’t without eccentricities. The former resident mysteriously disappeared, fueling the insatiable fires of internet conspiracy theorists and leaving NASA bound to secrecy. She hadn’t been briefed on the event.
She uncovered small clues. There was no record of an unsanctioned space walk, removal of the escape pod or any breached latches. The only irregularity was a computer error log and a flipped control panel reset switch.
These, left behind by the AWOL tennant, were beacons of the assignment’s impending sinister nature. During one morning briefing with NASA, Jessa’s curious fingers found a folded scrap of paper wedged between the wall and the housing of an unused instrument.
While in her private quarters, she took care not to further damage the delicate message while unfolding it and deciphered the writing scrawled in hurried strokes of a dull pencil.Don’t flip the switch. The damage is done.
The next discovery was more direct. While moving boxes of rations in the galley’s locked cabinet - everything had to be tightly secured or a loose fork could wreak havoc on delicate cables or instruments - Jessa found a small leather notebook.
The spine bore creases of a well-known companion and keeper of secrets. There was no name, but had to have been left by a former occupant, who with the same scrawled writing had not adjusted to isolation onboard.
The journal’s contents made sense on the 47th day of the mission.
That morning began like all others. Jessa woke up, took her temperature and other biometric measurements and recorded them in her mission log. Numerous data points forming the basis of knowledge for future space travel and conquering of the final frontier.
After finishing several educational video calls with kindergarten classrooms in her home state, Jessa discovered an unknown error appearing on the system log.
“Robin to Houston:” she called over the radio. “Requesting assistance with unknown 203LZF error on system log.”
“Houston to Robin:” NASA operators replied, “Initiate protocol FT2.”
“Houston: What is protocol FT2?”
“Robin: It resets the computer running a monitoring program. If it’s not reset, the ISS will shut down and life sustaining functions will cease to operate.”
“What’s it monitoring?”
“Classified.” NASA was concise.
“I’m not sure how it can be classified, I’m not going to carry out a protocol if I don’t know the outcome.”
“Collins, you are not to question an order. Don’t let this define your legacy…”
Jessa removed her headset, unwilling to be chastised by a mission control center operator, safe at their desks drinking
cups of coffee laced with coffee creamer while gossiping about last week’s happy hour exploits.
Curious about the protocol, Jessa located the flipchart velcroed to the wall of the station’s communication modules. The protocol contained simple instructions. Pry open the tamper proof plastic housing around the red switch on the top left of the instrument panel and flipped the switch.
The countdown ticked down from two minutes bringing Jessa closer to a decision with each passing second.
The unhinged journal passage came clear into focus.
They didn’t tell us. The world deteriorates with every reset of that switch. It promises to keep us together but there’s only one more cycle left before we’re plunged into the vastness of the universe. I tried to stop the end but I was removed. Stop the cycle, we can start to save the world.
Could there be weight in those frantic thoughts? Was it worth risking her life to see?
One of Jessa’s perfect college memories surfaced where time crafted an unrivaled, picturesque moment. The night before her philosophy exam, a group of classmates met for a last minute study session. Someone snuck in a bottle of whiskey and passed it around to loosen their mind to embrace the philosophical concepts.
They pontificated only as eighteen year olds could, their only lessons of adulthood was completing laundry without mom and learning that pop tarts, warmed by illegal dorm room toasters, were not a substantial breakfast.
They spent hours debating the trolley problem. The exercise was simple in thought. A runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks. Do you pull the switch to divert the trolley onto another track killing one, or leave it to its current path killing five?
Jessa stared at the reset switch, her real life trolley problem. Was it worth the choice? If the anonymous author was right and she helped fix the world, her name would be cemented in the history books. If wrong, she would suffocate a slow, uncelebrated death.
The countdown neared zero. Jessa stared down the switch with a new formed sense of determination, intoxicated by the risk and the grand promise of legacy.
She closed her eyes, made peace with the inhabitant of the dark void - God, Mother Nature, or something else - and slowly let the countdown expire without action. A high pitched noise confirmed the non-compliance.
There was no pain, just silence.
She heard a voice, no longer alone.
“We can get started now.”
Olive’s modest art studio apartment had plenty of inspiration. Glossy splatters of blue and yellow paint on the parquet floor. Purple, crispy, dried lavender hanging by the window. A green ceramic bowl that contained a solitary, fading pineapple. Olive was always drawn to nature. Today she tried to satisfy her Etsy followers by painting a pineapple. She stared at the blank, blank, blank canvas unsure of where to start.
“Come on, Olive,” she said.
She took in a deep breath and gave her head a shake. Gevli was now at attention. He looked at his panel of lights, buttons, switches and dials. It was his time to work.
“Alright my dear,” said Gevli.
He wrote symbols with his weathered brown hand in his weathered brown book. Then he turned the copper crank, flicked the green switch and gave the regulator dial a one quarter turn.
“That should do suffice,” said Gevli.
A spark grew in Olive’s eye. Excitement.
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
Olive’s brush danced on the canvas. Gevli wasn’t interested in what she was doing but was satisfied with his work nonetheless. He marked his book and went back to eat his tiny sandwich. Gevli was a microscopic Internal Inspiration Engineer. Small even by microscopic standards he lived inside of Olive’s mind as did many engineers who were in
charge of many different things that allowed humans to function. They were Jemlos, a species that existed for centuries and lived longer lifespans than humans. This was Gevli’s eleventh and last human before retirement. He lived “by the book” and because of that so did Olive.
Olive finished her painting and stepped back to take it in. Gevli took a peek from where he was. He adjusted his thick goggles to see what her eyes saw. It was another humdrum attempt at that pineapple. Olive shook her head, frustrated. She painted a slash over her pineapple rendering the painting useless.
“Rubbish,” said Olive.
“The life of an artist,” Gevli said as he shrugged his shoulders.
Olive sat on her bed with her head in her hands. The sun was setting. She looked out the window at the dazzling colours and felt nothing. Olive shut off the lights. She laid down in bed and faced the wall. It was 7:32 p.m.
Gevli stretched and reclined in his chair which acted as his bed. “Ah yes, an early night.” He fell into a restful sleep.
The apartment was still silent at 1:27am. A strip of white-grey light across Olive’s face woke her up. She covered her eyes with a blanket but the light was too distracting. She sat up. Her body felt heavy.
Gevli opened his tiny eye and wasn’t happy about it. In all his years he had never engineered with a human who behaved like Olive.
“What is happening now?” said Gevli.
Olive sleepily walked herself to the window and peeked through the crack in the curtains. It was not a streetlight as she had thought. It was the moon; full, bright and soft. Gevli tried to get back to sleep. Insomnia wasn’t his department anyhow.
“No sense in waking up. The Slumber Regulators should take care of this!” he said.
Olive continued to stand in the moonlit window. Gevli couldn’t sleep with the light in his eyes. He had to do something if he wanted to get any rest tonight. “Fine. If I am to get any sleep around here I will have to take care of this myself.” Gevli ripped open his book to make notes. He turned the copper crank and flicked the green switch and gave the dial a one quarter turn. “Outrageous that one should need inspiration to go to sleep. There, that should do the trick!”
Olive blinked and took a deep breath. A dim light in her eyes. Gevli started to recline his chair ready to sleep. Then he noticed that Olive is still at the window and not in bed.
“Fine, fine.” Gevli straightened his chair to the upright position. He turned the dial halfway. Twice the dose he had given her before. “Come on child. This old Jemlo needs his rest.” There is a light in Olive. She traces circles of the moon on the window. Gevli is agitated. “I cannot possibly give her a full turn of the dial. No one has needed that before.” But Olive didn’t budge from the window. What was Gevli to do? “I have never done that before. What are those lazy Slumber Regulators up to anyhow? Are they playing games with me?” Gevli was angry and old and tired. He didn’t understand what was happening. “What was she waiting for? Go to sleep.”
Olive looked at the reflection of her own eyes in the window. She could have been looking right at Gevli and this took him by surprise. Gevli looked out at Olive. Without a crank or a switch or a button they connected to each other.
Gevli slowly reached for the dial. He turned the dial up, first by a quarter, then to the halfway point and then to its full power. Olive’s eyes sparkled and Gevli had seen this. His heart felt warm, a feeling he hadn’t had since he was a hatchling.
Olivia tore open the curtains. The light of the moon bathed the studio. She dragged her table to the window and began to paint struck by inspiration. She felt energy flow through her. A glowing celestial body. Wisps of white hot silver with the depths of a dark sea captured within a sky. When she was done it would be the most beautiful thing she had ever created.
Gevli’s face was still soured for that was the only thing his face knew how to do. He muttered to himself and wrote in his book. Then he leaned back in his chair. “We have certainly started something haven’t we, Olive.” Gevli’s wrinkled face smiled his first smile in a long time.
Award-winning author Nancy Kilpatrick is a writer and editor in the horror/dark fantasy field. Her 23 novels include her current six-book series Thrones of Blood, recently optioned for film and television. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and check out her website: nancykilpatrick.com
Mark Askwith is a writer, producer and interviewer. He is one of the Founding Producers of SPACE, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Channel, where he contributed to The Circuit, HypaSpace, and InnerSpace. He was also the Producer of Special Projects. Prior to SPACE he was the creator/producer of Prisoners of Gravity and the Producer of Imprint.