InLiberty

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1

Cycle: 1,499,311

ELOMA, finished her morning routine, clipped her hair tight at the back and turned her link-device on, a small metallic implant stretching from her left eye to her temple. The Liberty’s onboard AI construct, Cert35 instantly appeared in her bedroom. It assumed the form of a non-binary adult-human.

‘Morning ELOMA.’

‘Morning Cert. How long until earth?’

‘We are currently 2 hours, 32 minutes from Earth, which is 40419 light years.’ Cert replied. ‘How are you feeling about today?

‘I’m okay. I’m ready.’ She replied, as she stared at her CP log, a computer screen bracelet, on her right hand, it displayed: S-3, Cycle 1,499,311.

‘I hate to step outside of designated programming. But can one ever truly be ready for what you are about to undertake?’

ELOMA paused. Throughout her time on the Liberty, she had spent three of those five years, coming to terms with what she was going to do, what she was soon to undertake. To come to terms with such a fatal decision, she often told herself, it wasn’t just for her, but for all humanity.

The Liberty was a Nova class starship for short-range planetary exploration. It was home to ELOMA, her mentor DEKA and Cert35.

‘I need the answers. We all do.’ Replying as she left the room.

The Liberty was part of the ‘search for intelligent life programme’. An armada of starships sent to the far reaches of space, to find intelligent life. It was 3123 AD, and humanity was alone. After 700 years of space exploration, not one intelligent species was found. Humankind had achieved many great accomplishments, Time travel, the Theory of Continual Progression, extended life span of over 300 years, the Theory of String to Scuti. It had however failed to answer the fundamental question; the answer to which many had hoped, lied with finding sentient alien life. This failure forced ELOMA and DEKA to develop a plan to breach the Great Temporal Wall, and answer the fundamental question.

2

Cycle: 1

Har-a was unlike all others in her Troop, apart from her mother and her older brother; no one else habitually walked upright. That was not the only difference; Har-a, her mother, and her brother Ban, had an awareness that was not seen in their kin. It was hard for them to show or signal to others what it was that made them different, they just knew they were, and the others did not.

The sky fire burnt brightly on the plains of early Africa, and food was sparse. At times like these, it was common for all members of the Troop to break-up into groups and go forage and hunt. Har-a ventured out with a small group; Ban included. He was the best hunter, he was the fastest and tallest, and had a way with rock, spear and anticipating prey, that was superior to all.

The land was dry, it cracked beneath their bear feet as they slowly made their way.

‘They were stalking crocodile, not only would it be dinner, but it could also lead them to fresh water, with more food and water to drink,’ Har-a’s unique inner voice said.

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No Man’s Land

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Holmtjärn, a woodland lake, could be found near Björksele. It was an excellent fishing spot and only a few of the locals knew about it. In the middle of the depths of the forest – in no man’s land – the woodland lake lay still with its clear green water next to the low mountains. The water became lukewarm as the sparkling sunshine arched over the forest landscape. The spring sun woke the surrounding forest from its slumber and it was crowded and teeming with newborn and powerful life. The trees and greenery were freshly green and rose stately from the cold of winter.

Next to the woodland lake, in the adjoining forest, was a red cabin with white knots. It was well-kept and shone at sunrise. The greenery was lush and green around the cabin.

Inside the cabin Erik Daniels woke up that morning with a relief in his chest. The frost had gone out of the earth and spring was bursting with renewal. The forests of northern Sweden woke up slowly from the prolonged hibernation of winter.

He sat up in bed, pulled his hand to his face and felt the stubble of his beard scratch in his hand. He was old but strong in mind. He was small and lively, dark-skinned by the sun, with sharp blue eyes. Hans was a man of the forest with small, strong hands, narrow and sinewy arms and a thin nose. Slowly he got up and went to the fireplace to start a fire. He was wearing blue cotton trousers, a flannel shirt and an unbuttoned vest. It was a simple cabin with a fireplace, bed, kitchen table and two kitchen chairs. It was a spartan and frugal life he lived.

After breakfast he went outside in the yard and fell deep into his thoughts and studied the still water in the woodland lake. He turned his head and could see night tracks and paw prints of the forest fox and rabbits from the surrounding forest. He noticed split hoof stamps of deer that had come down to eat insatiably and partake of his vegetables in the garden. He shook his head and stared bitterly at the half-eaten vegetables in the garden. They had almost completely destroyed the whole garden with their insatiable hunger. To his anger, he went into the cabin and found his rifle. He took out a cartridge box but discovered it was empty. He needed to buy more cartridges. It would take about half an hour on foot to get to the store up by the country road.

Erik got ready and then booted off with his backpack. A forest path, trampled by Erik, ran through the thickets and the forest towards the country road. The forest smelled fresh from the warming of the spring sun.

In the depths of the forest he could hear a black woodpecker hammering against a dry branch. Some rabbits sought shelter in the bushes when they heard Erik’s muffled footsteps on the path. He knew the area very well and kept to the path because he knew how easy it could be to get lost in the wilderness.

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Platzkarte 25

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Sudden brakes woke me up. By inertia, I hit my elbow on the metal side of the bed and sighed. My arm started aching, but still not as much as my head. I cursed and opened my eyes.

The dim light made me squint. Then I got up from the bunk and sat with my feet touching the cold floor. The clock showed half-past eight. Looking out the window, I saw that the picture outside had changed.

Earlier I saw abandoned dilapidated houses, neglected fields, and rare trees, crushed by a thick layer of black dust flashing outside the window. Now I was looking at the once majestic building of the Kazan railway station. This city had seen much better times. The bricks in the walls were missing in places; almost every window had the broken glass.

The most conspicuous place showed a huge red banner with two white hieroglyphs. I don’t know how to read those correctly, maybe Ka-Shang or Ka-Zhen. Despite all the simplifications made in Chinese after the Great Reunification of Peoples and my countless efforts, I still could not communicate. Reading and writing were even a bigger problem than speaking.

This part of the Russian Union passed under the wing of the Republic of China long ago. The thankful Republic wrote off Russian debts for anti-radiation shields and food greenhouses. Of course, this transition brought little improvement, but the situation looked more under control.

Transparent green balls aimed to absorb chemicals covered all the visible land. Tiny helpers glowed in the dark like garlands scattered across the night. Several freight cars were visible on the platform behind the station. White barrels stuck out of them like candles from a cake. Each of them bore an inscription: ‘Attention! Dangerous substances! Keep a distance of 3+ meters’. They wrote the warning in all five common languages: Chinese, English, Russian, Arabic, and German.

Suddenly, I heard two muffled voices coming from outside. Two workers, dressed in bright yellow uniforms, exclaimed on the platform. One of them knocked on the wheels with a wrench filling the surrounding reality with a dull sound. Having checked all the wheels, the workers moved on and their voices got lost somewhere beyond my vision.

The noise inside the train did not subside and was not subject to control. People were chatting all around me. I was lucky with the ticket. I came across the bottom seat in the niche, simply saying the best possible. Two pairs of legs, lying on the bunks above me, seemed to envy my position. Just like two passengers with aisle seats sitting in front.

I heard that nowadays they even started selling tickets for standing places. But that’s only for bullet trains and high-speed airships. Enjoying my place, I once again looked around at all my closest neighbors. I have been watching them for three days and at this point it seems to me there is nothing they could surprise me with. The woman on the bunk bed next to me is about the same age as I am.

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Ivory

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The sound of dripping.

It wakes me up suddenly, breathlessly, as loud as an enhanced echo meant for my ears and no one else’s. I first assume the babysitter left the water faucet on. I grow irritated—how many times have I told her to be careful with utilities? I sit up, but the frustration quickly vanishes.

I’m not home.

This isn’t my bed. It’s… a bunk bed. Like the iron ones they have in the army, except there’s no top mattress above my head and I can spot the yellow-stained ceiling through the holes in the bed springs. I shift in place, and the rusty frame whines in response. I pat myself subconsciously, perhaps to look for my keys, perhaps because it feels like a dream, or at least, something far away from my plane of reality. Regardless, I find nothing but the clothes on my back—the same suit I went to work with this morning, minus the jacket and, for some ominous reason, my socks, and shoes. I blink, rub my eyes, glance around.

It looks like I’m in someone’s basement. It’s sparse. The floor is made of cement—it’s shockingly cold when I press my foot down, and it makes my hair stand on end. I can spot one of those tiny windows, located right above the ground and too small to actually open or climb through. There’s no natural light pouring in from it. Only darkness.

A neon light buzzes, a rocking chair sits in the corner of the room, its fabric worn out, overlooking my bed in such a way that I can’t help but find disquieting. Without warning, I’m reminded of my younger self swaying Sophie to sleep in one of those, back when she was no older than twelve months and I was still figuring out how to be a half-decent paternal figure. The image begs me to let go, like it’s too good a memory to be revisited here, like it doesn’t belong in such a place. It’s probably right.

Instead, I comb through my surroundings in search of my belongings. I look under the bed, beneath the mattress, inside the thin-as-a-sheet pillow. Nothing. No sign of my wallet, my phone, my briefcase.

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A Seal’s Skin

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Fey stood looking out of the window. ‘How had what seemed so right gone so wrong?’ she thought—

She and Andrew had had a good life in London. They lived in a flat at first, tiny, but all they needed. She remembered—He had pulled her close, whispering—‘all we need is a bed to love in’, then adding, ‘and maybe a kettle.’ Then the good jobs, a bigger flat, friends, social life and holidays. (The holidays of their student days, it was hitchhiking across Europe and island hopping in the Mediterranean. In the first-years of their married life, it was staycations, friends and families. The mortgage, the bills, the jobs, ate into both time and finances.) But things eased, promotions and a move for him to a better job. Money was easier; the world expanded—now package holidays and then more expensive long-haul ones. Andrew was a snob, and so the holidays needed to be cultural and enlightening, or strenuous and adventurous. He liked to boast to their friends about the museums and galleries, the concerts attended, or the peaks scaled and hardships overcome. She loved him, so enjoyed culture and enlightening holidays, and endured the strenuous and adventurous, and said nothing. She let him decide where they went and when. After all, his career was far more important than hers. She would sometimes watch as her friends looked at her while he expounded some story about their latest holiday—the treks to high altitude, the wonderful tenor at the opera. She could almost hear their thoughts—wondering about her, about the two of them, wondering ‘what he was doing with her’.

They had met at university. She was the first member of her family to go to university. Her roots were ‘working class’, her background in Northern city. She came from a family of intelligent, hard-working people. She never went short as a child, but there was no money wasted, either. He was from a different background. It had all been so easy on campus. The new situation had levelled everything out. They were making new friends, new networks. She had somehow fallen into his group, simply by being second from last in a philosophy lecture. She had slipped into one of the few seats at the back. He was even later, so had done the same and sat next to her. A few whispered comments, and that was how it had all started. She had discovered the strange world of the back rows of a lecture.

School had always seen her at the front of class, ready to be seen, to ask and answer questions, to prove she was intelligent, hardworking, all the things that her teachers loved. She was now in a quandary. Andrew, that was his name, liked to sit at the back, where he could ignore most of the class. She had become infatuated with him, and so had sat at the back of the class, and at the front, when she was on her own. The day the degree results came, she had to come clean. A double first (he got a 2:1) caused him to be annoyed with her. They had stayed together, and moved to the city, and started on the career path, Andrew always climbing higher, while she took openings where she could balance her career and her conscience.

One evening, after a very expensive meal, Andrew had just been talking about his close encounter with a black mamba—one of his many stories about the latest holiday. He leaned back in his chair and sipped the very expensive wine he had ordered. Fey looked at the group. Esmerelda (was that really the woman’s name?) cooed at him. She knew he secretly fancied Esmerelda; she was thin and had long fine hair of the palest blonde. Petite, she wore designer clothes and worked as PA to some Russian magnate. She was all bones, heavily made-up eyes, draped silk dresses and very wide belts cinching in her tiny waist. The core remained constant, Andrew’s friends from school or university, and respective partners. But there were always some new members appearing, and tonight, one gang had bought a new friend along. Hamish MacSomething—she hadn’t caught his full name. Andrew, confident that Hamish couldn’t beat a two-metre black mamba on the holiday front, had asked—‘where did you holiday this year?’ Hamish looked at him and smiled. ‘Oh, I always just go home.’ Esmerelda turned her enormous eyes and simpered. ‘Home? Where is that?’ Fey watched. She could expect the snide jokes about ‘home’ and felt sorry for Hamish. Then Hamish smiled and said: ‘You won’t have heard of it, it’s a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. My family has lived there for over a thousand years. My uncle is the clan chief.’

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The Baker And His Wife

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Under her hands, the dough felt like flesh. Smooth, pliant flesh. It made a wet sound—a thunk—as she slapped it against the worn wooden benchtop.

It was soothing, this rhythmic shaping, kneading, pulling, coaxing.

The way her frothy starter ate the flour, she fed it daily, asking so little of her yet delivering so much in return.

Cecily Sehar’s loaves had made her into a small-town celebrity since she’d started entering the annual Baking Contest. High on a kitchen shelf, seven shiny trophies sat. 1st Place, 1st Place, 1st Place—all bar one. The fourth one, slightly smaller than the rest, had taunted her for months, until she finally turned it around.

She remembered that year. It had been difficult to source her ingredients. For some strange reason, the townfolk had been unusually healthy. There were too few accidents, too few casualties. She didn’t dare risk too many trips for fear of attracting attention.

For Cecily, the key was taking just enough to keep her bread loaves dense and delicious. But not for people to notice what was missing.

As she pommeled today’s ball of dough, it occurred to her she was running low. She needed to make another trip, and soon. She couldn’t risk running out. Oh, no… The secret ingredient made her bread loaves so extraordinary.

Why bother? Said a voice inside her head. All this baking, so pointless.

Just like you.

Cecily’s hands slipped, mashing the dough sideways. She leaned forward, breathing hard, her heartbeat building to a crushing crescendo.

She didn’t understand! She never normally entertained such thoughts. Those words were reminiscent of her now-dead husband. Little barbs, designed to land, to sting, to fester in wounds so hidden they settled deep into her bones.

She couldn’t escape him. Even now.

Someone knocked at her door, and she jumped. Sighing, she brushed aside an errant curl of hair with a floury arm. Who could call this early? She knew the humidity of her baker’s kitchen would have drawn tiny dewdrops of sweat along her brow. The red cotton headscarf she’d knotted so carelessly barely contained her black hair. She hadn’t expected a visitor.

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The Shifting Face

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Perhaps, living the first twelve years of his life in a little home, in a little town, is the reason for his shrunken stature. Or maybe, his name is to blame, a manifestation of his mother’s poor choice during his premature time of birth. It feels like there’s a quota, and he never grows past what the town of Saddlewood allows. Despite all that, Little-One Knox has a sizeable nature of sorts that defies his very name.

His little nose is perfect to stick into unwelcome places, and despite the size of his ears, he can hear whispers from a mile away, if he really pays attention.

He makes up fifty percent of the residents in his home. His mother, the other fifty, is a woman with lithe fingers. They have a simple motherly feel when they run through his hair, but only when he’s done something good. Of course, Little-One has trouble doing said good things. Rather, he has a tendency to seek out the opposite. It’s the careless venturing that makes his mother pull at his hair instead of carding through it. Though even when she screeches his name, it sounds like a term of endearment.

Little seeks out excitement by crawling in dirt holes and jumping off the odd tool shack. How he manages to climb them is an irritating mystery to all. Especially Old-Man Dooley, who has an abnormal amount of little shoe dents atop his metal shack.

The route he takes home from school has the quality and charm of a small rural town. Though the sidewalks are cracked and damaged, the clover weeds that grow in between make for a pretty picture. There are lines of red maples on either side of a winding road that tower with age, and every autumn he walks home on a bed of brilliant ruby leaves. At the end of the road, just as he turns right, the tallest red maple droops over a rickety fence overlooking a farm. And on the very top, seven branches part ways and reach towards the sky, making a surprisingly comfortable spot in the middle.

Often, Little climbs all the way up, up, up, and enjoys his late lunch on a seat that nature fashioned just for him. He stays long after he finishes his food, watching little sheep roam the farm grounds, until his mother leaves work and meets him at the base of the tree. A simple call of “Little!” and he packs away his things and climbs on down. From there, they walk home together, swinging their linked hands between them, while Little gushes about his day. And his mother, knowing she’s a true confidant, listens diligently until they reach home.

***

“Little,” his mother whispers, shaking his shoulder gently. Little peeks out from under his blankets only to promptly shut his eyes at the sight of his mother. She’s dressed up in work clothes. “Little you gotta get up, quickly, I’m gonna be late,” she shakes him again, swiftly pulling his blanket off and towards the ground.

Grumbling, he rolls this way and that, wishing he can soak up all the warmth from his bed and bring it with him to school. A pair of cold hands reach under his arms and pull him up and off the bed too. His toes curl inwards, trying to avoid the onslaught of cold tiles that seem to leach his remaining warmth.

“Quickly, Little, I’m not joking, hurry up,” his mother pats him on the butt, shoving him towards the bathroom just outside the hall, “Brush your teeth quickly,” she pushes a tiny pill into his palm, “and take this,” Little puts it in his mouth, “Kay, you have five minutes.”

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The Outlet

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“I’ve had a revelation, Doc,” said Jacob Allan Gibbs, suspended in an empty white room, “I don’t trust my father.”

“That’s quite… that’s quite the revelation,” replied Dr. Natalie Dower-06, almost as if she was seated in the air, levitating across the room, adorned with minor but significant cybernetic enhancements, imprinting the words unto a projected digital page with her blue mechanical eye.

“I’ve always admired my father,” said Jacob, levitating an inch from the floor, pivoting in the air with the metal implants around his joints – unable to stay still.

The white walls around Jacob projected images of Raymond Allan Gibbs, a pioneer of Neural-engineering, “I admired his incredible intellect, his wit, charisma, and accomplishments, both as a family man and a scientist.”

The projected image lingered on an engram, a preserved narrative of Raymond opening presents with his family – the memory slowly began to play across every wall before gradually transitioning to Raymond’s crown achievement – The “engram” microchip.

“By every conceivable definition of the word,” Jacob placed his hand on the back of his head, caressing the glowing ports attached to his cerebellum, “he was the perfect human being.”

“Was? As in, the past?” asked Dr. Dower gently, attempting to establish eye contact with her patient, “what caused the distrust– this rift between you and your father?”

Jacob pauses for a second, carefully contemplating the intent behind his words as the white walls turn blank as he struggles to come up with an answer.

***

A rustling noise echoes through a dark room – an office decorated by a slew of medical diplomas and Avant-garde paintings. There are four security cameras in every top corner of the room with beeping red dots – save for one, which turns purple between every three blinks. The beeping stops as the cameras lower their head towards the floor. Jacob gently opens the door with the help of an implant – emerging from his finger like a swiss-army knife.

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