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"Science Fiction" means—to us—everything found in the science fiction section of a bookstore, or at a science fiction convention, or amongst the winners of the Hugo awards given by the World Science Fiction Society. This includes the genres of science fiction (or sci-fi), fantasy, slipstream, alternative history, and even stories with lighter speculative elements. We hope you enjoy the broad range that SF has to offer.

art by Melissa Mead


Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Cosmos Magazine, amongst other places. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at www.stephengaskell.com.

It had been two years since Zhen Dao had seen the sky.
Her family had leased her to one of Beijing's biggest gold farms when she was eight. Every day she would rise at dawn (she knew it was early for she always woke to a cockerel's cry from beyond the thin walls of the dormitory) get dressed in standard coveralls, eat a thin tasteless gruel in a bare mess hall, then head to the shop floor.
The place was always dim, the only light coming from the flatscreens that occupied the dozens of evenly spaced desks. It was neither too hot nor too cold, and the air never smelt of sweaty bodies even though kids like her spent their whole day there. Sometimes her mind played tricks on her, and she imagined strange sights in the corners. Déjà vu was common.
Zhen wanted not for food or drink or warmth, but she did miss the clouds--and her family, of course.
She glanced up from her screen, eyes blurred, the first dull pulse of another headache coming. She'd been playing the MMORPG Angolan Fields for a few weeks now, and the gentle browns and greens of the African landscape was starting to make her go loopy. Over the last two years, Zhen had excelled at her work, and the assignments she was given these days were very particular.
One client needed his cartographer character to chart--without detection--a rival guild's diamond mines on the outskirts of Luanda. Another needed to attain native competency in the Bantu language. Neither task was easy, and mistakes were costly: every failed assignment cost her half a day's wages, not to mention's Mr. Lau's cold anger.
The thought of her boss made her eye wander over to his office. It sat on one side of the shop floor, horizontal blinds hiding its innards, but Zhen knew there was a lightweight wooden door on its other side. As far as she knew, it was the only way into and out of the factory, to the--
"Always dreaming of the sky," said Gao, the boy to her left, shaking his head.
"What was it like?" Zhen whispered. A couple of months back, Gao had got beyond the wooden door during a failed escape attempt.
"Don't do it, Zhen."
"Why?" It wasn't as if she wanted to escape--her family needed the money she earned. She just wanted a peek at the real sky.
"Just don't do it."
Gao would never say anything more on the subject, and today was no exception. He used to be a practical joker--changing her hotkeys when she went for a break, writing silly messages in the screensaver--but something changed in him that day. Now he was always quiet and sullen.
"I'm taking a pee," she said, hibernating her character. "Don't mess with my game."
She didn't mean it. She missed the old Gao, hoped she'd find signs of his mischief when she got back.
Passing Mr. Lao's office, she noticed he'd left his door open. On the far side, light spilled through the margins of the door that led outside. Maybe it was a sunny day. She tried to remember the feel of sunlight, the sensation of almost looking into the sun, the shape of the clouds, but her mind was full of the pixelated forms.
She slowed up. The kids at the nearby desks were mesmerized by their games. Mr. Lau was nowhere to be seen. She was about to duck in, when she chickened out.
If Mr. Lau's still not around when I come back I'll do it, she told herself.
In the bathroom that never smelt bad, she peed, then washed her hands, all the while hoping she'd find Mr. Lau back in his office when she returned.
She didn't.
Before she chickened out again, she slipped in. At the far door, her small fingers lingered on the handle.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." It was Mr. Lau. He stood in the doorway to the factory floor, trim and alert. "But it's your choice."
"Am I in trouble?" Zhen asked, her insides curling.
Mr. Lau shook his head. He came in, closed the door.
"Will I lose wages?"
He shook his head again. "Go ahead. You might not like what you find though."
Was this some kind of trick? "I only want--"
"I know."
Zhen twisted the handle, pulled the door open. Brilliant white light blinded her. When her eyes adjusted, she saw. . . nothing. Only whiteness as far as the eye could see.
She didn't understand. There was something monstrous about the emptiness and her breaths came in shallow gulps. Mr. Lau, one hand clamping each shoulder, directed her back into the office. Without a word, he switched on his flatscreen.
On it she saw row upon row of crammed narrow beds, each occupied by a skeletal sleeping child. The view zoomed to one of the beds. Thick wraparound glasses with goggling, insectile lenses, and puffy earpieces dominated the girl's pale face. Data cables looped away from the mask, while clear tubes went to and from her body. She looked familiar.
"You know," Mr. Lau said, "in another life I'm a fat man with bad breath. And you, Zhen, you're wasting your life away."
Time dragged.
Zhen--and the girl--shuddered. "Why?"
"Why anything? Filthy yuan."
Zhen shook her head. "No, why give us a choice? Why have this door?"
Mr. Lau stroked his chin. "Illusions are vital."
Back at her desk, Zhen awoke her character.
She took him outside, then lifted his head to the digital sky.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 4th, 2010

Author Comments

In the so called "developed" world, we are now so pampered that we can pick skins for our cellphones, choose from a thousand types of chocolate, and even have our pets walked for us. My motivation for writing "Gamed" was to show that the lifestyle choices that we make in such a blasé fashion are often not "cost-free" transactions, but can have important consequences for someone else in another time or place. The most visceral example I could think of for this was the digital sweatshops that are now springing up in order to facilitate the playing of online video games. A little sprinkling of science-fiction dust and I had the story.

- Stephen Gaskell
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