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An Atlas to Time, Space, and Bonfires

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. 

If you purchase this book without a cover you should be aware that this book may have been stolen property and reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the author. In such case neither the author, or distributor has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

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Copyright © 2017 by Stephen William Landry

[email protected]

All stories are copyright by individual authors. 

Cover art by Kristina Sötje with typography by Stephen Landry

Interior Art by Stephen Landry, Tori Newton, and Stephen Huda

Edited by Stephen Landry (Exodus edited by Alessa Halliwell, The Gemini Affrair edited by Medron Pryde, Errant Sky edited by D.C. Daines)

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database, retrieval system, or torrent web service, without the prior written permission of the author.  

Introduction:

Save Sci-Fi began as a 15 year old’s overly optimistic attempt to make a difference and emulate the early Star Trek fandom’s success in convincing NBC to renew the show they loved for a third season.  It was an era of cancellations left and right, with cooking and wrestling replacing sci-fi in primetime slots, chock-full of reality TV shows.  Since the beginning, in August of 2011, Save Sci-Fi has been centrally based on Facebook, growing in size every year.  Since then, Save Sci-Fi has become global, with team members in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia, and supporters spread around the globe.  

Eventually, as Science Fiction once again began to grow, Save Sci-Fi transitioned to the goal of supporting new science fiction, both independent and professional.  Save Sci-Fi began to reach out, making connections between independent producers and resources they needed.  We created a network of content creators and social media figures, and did our best to help science fiction flourish, especially when new creators needed help.  

In the beginning of 2017, we at Save Sci-Fi decided it was time to dip our toes into the water, and create original content of our own.  The result is this anthology, An Atlas to Time, Space, and Bonfires.  In the creation of this anthology, we reached out to our network of contacts and our supporters to get as many short stories as possible.  We then read through all of the submitted stories, and narrowed the list down to the 21 best, at which point our artists and editors then went to work preparing the art and ensuring the quality of every story.  

This Anthology has been a passion project for all of us, and we hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we have enjoyed making it.

~ Michael Daugherty, Founder

[EXODUS PART 1
**]The Armstrong Luna Research Station 

Written By David Bax 

Edited by Alessa Halliwell

“It is shown how, within the framework of general relativity and without the introduction of wormholes, it is possible to modify a spacetime in a way that allows a spaceship to travel with an arbitrarily large speed.”

Miguel Alcubierre, “The warp drive: hyper-fast travel within general relativity.”

The Luna Stations Project was the planned construction of 15 subsurface structures in the bottom of large craters scattered around the moon. The stations were part of an effort to colonize the lunar surface and construction began in 2056. These initial stations were designed to house a few hundred people that would mine out living space underground. Each station was designed to produce everything the inhabitants would need. Before the colonists could arrive, however, the two largest corporations, one based in China and the other in India, went to war in 2062.

Construction on stations 12 through 15 were quickly abandoned as the war spiraled out of control, dragging with it almost every nation and large corporation in the world. For the next 22 years, the nations of the world fought until finally in 2084 an armistice was signed, between Russia-China Pact and The International Alliance of Nations.

The resources previously consumed by war were once again aimed at the stars. The Luna Station project was abandoned, and of the 4 remaining operational stations, 3 were turned into Luna Hotels, with the last being re-tasked as a scientific research station. It was renamed from Luna 3 to the Armstrong Luna Research Station.

The Armstrong Luna Research Station was a small bio-dome that sat in the middle of Fermi Crater on the dark side of the moon. Semi-Spherical in shape, it was mostly buried under the surface with only a small round window pointing outward. It had a hangar bay on each side of the station and a combination runway and launch pad nearby to allow easy take-off and landing. Inside was a 2 story tall circular building with a courtyard garden in the middle and a windowed dome above that looked out toward the stars. It was created by excavating the surface of the moon and was powered by solar panels in Luna Stationary Orbit above the surface. This allowed it to be powered all year round. It could house over 200 inhabitants, with an emergency bunker in the basement that could hold over 1000 people. At that time, there were only 4 active research projects on the station, one using the underground particle accelerator, two using the Ultra Deep Space Telescopes, and one researching a new type of propulsion drive.

Phil, a 2 meter tall, skinny, 35 year old, English man with a medium sized beard paced restlessly, looking at the screen behind him. The computer was telling him the simulation was complete, and it had a stable field. The problem was they couldn’t seem to generate a stable field in the lab.

“I must be missing something” he muttered, frustrated at his lack of progress. “It’s staring me right in the face and I can’t see it.”

He walked over to his window and looked out over the courtyard garden. The view hadn’t changed in the 2 years since he’d arrived, and in that time he had made little progress toward creating enough of the particle of negative energy needed to stabilize the outside of the field. He had tentatively named it the M particle. His team had grown from himself, a physicist, and his engineer, Claire Wilson, to encompass almost 30% of the people on the station. Each person was the leading expert in their chosen field and contributed to the project in different ways, though they all relied on Phil to coordinate and make the final decisions.

The artificial lights started to fade.

“Is it that late already?” he thought out loud as he opened the airtight door to his room. He stepped out onto the adjoining balcony and glanced down at the small pond below. The bushes around it glinted in the low light and he followed the curve of the handrail around the building as he made his way to the mess hall. He was worried about what he was going to tell the team. In only a few weeks the funding would be up for review and in the last 6 months they hadn’t made enough progress to justify an extension of the project. The test drive had been built and all of the parameters had been met bar one, the M particle field wasn’t stable.

As he walked the empty halls lost in thought the lights dimmed overhead revealing the universe before him through the small window of the dome. He stopped for a moment to gaze out at them. So close, and yet so far away.

“How’s progress comin’?” Claire said in her deep southern drawl, pulling him from his thoughts. Phil jumped, looking down; he hadn’t noticed her lying on the bench. Claire was 55 but only just starting to show it. She was short than Phil at 165 cm tall, and had a more stocky build. She was splayed out on the smooth surface with her slightly grey, auburn hair hanging over the side, taking up enough space for three people.

“We’re missing something. I know it’s right in front of us. I can taste it but I can’t see it.” Phil said, looking back up at the sky, as if the answer was written on the dome itself.
“M particle field?” Claire teased, pulling herself into a sitting position.
“Yeah.” He sighed. “The drive should be generating enough of them, the simulations finished, and even accounting for scaling issues, we should be generating enough for a stable field.” Phil forced an exhausted smile and met her piercing blue eyes.
“Well my team built it exactly as you designed it.” Claire said.
“I know, and yet it still isn’t generating them. The simulations say it should be, the modeling said it should be, and yet every time we try and use it nothing happens.” Phil closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He could feel the beginning of a headache pushing behind his eyes.
They were both silent for several moments.

“All we can do is dream. And then grab it with both hands and drag it into reality. The answer is there, we will find it.” Claire said quietly, looking at Phil for affirmation.

Phil didn’t need to force the smile that found it’s way to his lips. “Yeah, but not today.” He paused for a moment, weighing his next sentence. He knew it was necessary to succeed.

“I think we need to bring the whole station in on this.”
“Are you sure?” Concern furrowed Claire’s brow. Phil had always been reluctant to let more than his most trusted advisors in on the complete project, everyone had their place and contributed but few knew the full picture.
“Yeah, tomorrow we hold a briefing. Get everyone on the station to attend. Let’s see if a fresh set of eyes will help” Phil instructed before gesturing to the mess hall. “Late dinner?” “Sure” Claire stood and walked with him to the mess hall.

The next day Phil walked confidently into the noisy presentation room full of scientists. He nodded in acknowledgment to the scattered greetings as he made his way to the podium situated on the far side from the entrance. He set his notes down and took a moment to gather himself before launching into his presentation.

“Good morning. Thank you all for coming”
A hush fell over the room. Phil pressed a button on his remote and the screen behind him turned on.
“What I am about to show you is one of the best held secrets in the world. By signing the non-disclosure agreement to be on this station, you understand revealing any information I share with you will come with very harsh penalties. Those who do not want to risk that can leave the room now”
Nobody made a move for the door.
“As of this morning the International Alliance of Nations has allowed me to inform everyone present, that this station will be shifting priorities for a short time. We have been tasked with mass producing the M particle. It’s a particle with negative energy and the last step in getting the Alcubierre operational.”
There was a lot of shuffling as the implications dawned on them. Most knew what Phil was famous for, being the first to demonstrate the existence of the m-particle experimentally, but didn’t know what he had been working on. Phil pressed the button again and the data from the simulations and modeling become visible on the screen.

“Here you see the formula to generate the m-particle. According to the simulations, the modeling is accurate. Scaling has also be accounted for.” Phil said as everyone studied the complex data on the screen. He pressed the button again and the image changed to the schematic of the drive itself. “This is the layout of the drive Claire’s team has put together. In all simulations it works. But we don’t think the drive is generating enough of the required particles. I would like all physicists to double and triple check the modeling, and refine the simulations. I’d also like all engineers to go over the plans for the drive with a fine tooth comb. We are missing something, and we need a fresh set of eyes to spot it. Your current tasks and projects should, of course take priority, all we are asking is a little of your time.” Claire stood up, “the seats in this room are occupied by the best minds the International Alliance has to offer, and if we are to reach further than our species ever has before, we need a collective intelligence to do so.”

The room erupted in chatter as the scientists took a few minutes to discuss their decisions with each other while a few took their leave. Phil and Claire exchanged a look as they waited for the response.

After several minutes Phil called them back to silence.
“I’m… (he gestured at Claire) we’re not asking you to drop everything, or anything for that matter, just confirm everything is right and see if you notice anything we have overlooked.” He scanned the room for support. “You can go back to your work stations if you want. You know where to find me if you want to look over any of the data”

Phil walked out of the room with Claire in tow.

The remaining scientists broke off into groups and over the next three weeks different specialists looked over specific sections of the design. New screens were installed and the detailed complicated calculations were examined. The theory of relativity was broken down, examined, and every single detail of the simulations checked and refined. In the hangar bay, the test device, was being disassembled. Screens all around the room displayed every circuit, every screw, every minor detail of the device. People moved from screen to screen, examining it. Slowly they pulled the device apart and reassembled it.

Finally, the simulations were finished, the engine was rebuilt and found to be in perfect working order, and the field was theoretically deconstructed and determined stable.

No matter what was tried, the drive couldn’t create a stable negative energy field in the lab. Which meant the problem was coming from somewhere else.

Several nights later Phil sat in the courtyard looking up at the dome roof, watching a new shipment of supplies coming in to land, it had just detached from the delivery unit. He observed the ship’s thrusters move the lander around in the microgravity of the…

“That’s it!” He leapt to his feet and ran through the station to his lab. Turning on the view screen he looked over the calculations. It seemed so obvious now he fell back into his chair and burst out laughing.

Dr. Roberts, a man of Indian descent, about 6 foot tall and always smiling, had seen Phil run to his office. He opened the door and peered in, noticing Phil in his chair. For a moment he was unsure if he was laughing or crying.

“You okay?” He asked.

       

“Microgravity!” Phil said, still laughing.

“What?” Dr. Roberts said.
“The field won’t stabilize down here.” He rubbed his eyes, a huge grin plastered his face. “The gravity causes the negative particles to fly away from the surface, preventing it from stabilizing.”
Dr. Roberts stood silent in the doorway. “Holy shit… how did we not realize?”
“Because we are too smart for our own good. We couldn’t see the simplest reason when it was right in front of us the whole time” He took a deep breath and stood up. “Gather the teams. We need to prep for a launch.”

One week later Phil stood in the presentation room, now called the control room. Every screen was displaying something different; flight telemetry, system status, and all the other vital information needed for launch. Claire stood beside him eyeing the main view screen which was displaying the probe. Her excitement mirrored his. They both had a huge stake in the success of the test. The probe itself looked almost like a 5m long bullet, rounded tip cylindrical in shape, but with one noticeable difference, it had two rings around it, one at the front, one near the back.

“Lagrange point achieved. Ready to power drive” Elías De La Pena said.

“Okay, we only need a quick test, jump it for one minute, and then bring it back” Phil instructed.
“Plotting course, entering parameters now” Saša Zaykov said.
“Now would be a good time for a rousing speech, I spent most of last night trying to think of one, and I got nothing” Phil joked nervously. His career would be in jeopardy if this failed. “As we look into the void of the future, we never know how our actions will ripple out and affect the universe around us, may our future be bright with the hopes and dreams of those that follow us” Claire assisted.
Phil turned to look at her and smiled a coy smile. “Final system check” he said.
“Structural in the green, sensors in the green” Elías De La Pena wiped sweat from his brow.
“Course plotted. A-Drive in the green. Particle field is stable” Saša Zaykov said.
“We are good to go” Claire looked at Phil for the go.
“Commence final countdown” Phil ordered.

Outside the control room, in the courtyard garden stood the majority of the other scientists. The interior lights had been dimmed to allow the star light to be visible. They watched through the dome as a tiny silver speck, with blinking red and green lights, floated in the star field surrounding it. A screen on the wall counted down in bright lettering.

5…
4…
3…
2…
1…
Launch…
Above their heads the little blinking lights shifted a deep red and vanished. In the control room all screens went blank. Now the waiting game. It shouldn’t have been more than a minute before the probe reappeared but to Phil, with his eyes squeezed shut, it felt like an eternity. Every sound resonated as he waited, holding his breath.
This could end him .The lights buzzed overhead.
A lifetime of work . The vents hissed.
Who would hire him? The computer cooling fans whirred noisily.
He would be forgotten . A pencil rolled and clattered to the ground.
It was as if time were standing still…

A loud gasp broke the silence. The probe had returned and was sending telemetry. The screens lit up and pages of data scrolled past. The people outside in the courtyard cheered. They had seen a bright flash followed by a blue object turning white again.

Phil felt something he hadn’t since he was a child. Hope. Wonder. Things were now possible that hadn’t been a moment ago. He felt his throat tighten and his nose pinched as moisture gathered in his eyes. He cleared his throat, buying himself a moment to push back the primal roar of elation he felt kicking in his chest.

“That’s one jump done.” Phil said to no one in particular. “Now it’s time to examine the data.” “No, now’s the time to celebrate, tomorrow’s the time to look over the data.” Elías De La Pena said.

Phil just wanted to look over the data, there would be plenty of time to celebrate in the future and in that moment, he held the single most important discovery of the century within his grasp.

“Tewake, retrieve the probe, I need to examine it” Phil ordered.

“Roger that.” Peter Tewake confirmed in a heavy New Zealander accent. He set out to recover the probe.
“I’ll make sure the data is all backed up.” Claire set to work preserving his lifeline. She turned and put her hand on Phils shoulder, “You head down to the mess hall, I’ll be there in a second.”
He paused and looked at her for a second, “You’re right, tonight we celebrate, but tomorrow we need to hunker down and do over this data”

Everyone left the room and headed to the mess. Phil was the second last one out, he fully intended to excuse himself early and take a peek at the data once he was sure his absence wouldn’t be noted. He stopped in the courtyard and looked up through the dome. The tiny blinking light was still visible as the retrieval shuttle ascended.

“We did it.” He whispered to himself. “We can reach the stars.” A giant grin plastered his face as he followed the excited group toward the mess hall.

[*EXODUS PART 2 *]

Into the Fire

“Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) with strong magnetic fields are typically associated with significant Solar Energetic Particle events, high solar wind speed and solar flare events. Successful prediction of the arrival time of a CME at Earth is required to maximize the time available for satellite, infrastructure, and space travel programs to take protective action against the coming flux of high-energy particles.”

- Matthew E. Murphy ‘Statistical Study of Interplanetary Coronal Mass Ejections with Strong Magnetic Fields’

Phil walked into the control room the next day with bloodshot eyes. He felt as if his head would explode at any moment. On the main screen was the data collected by the probe. Around the outside of the room sat several people going over the probe’s data. Phil rang up the navigational data. Looking at the star patterns he realized they had made Mars’ orbit in a little over a minute.

“We hit at least twelve times the speed of light.” He breathed. “Holy…”
“Should we go public?” Dr. Roberts asked, glancing at a nearby screen
“I’m not even sure we should tell I.A.N.” Phil answered. He slowly moved around the room taking in all the data he could see. “We need to run a lot more tests first.”
“Agreed.” Claire affirmed. “It seems the probe was undamaged, but I would like to run some diagnostics first.”
“Go over it and then let me know when you’re ready for another flight.” Phil said
“Already?” Claire wasn’t completely surprised.
“I want to do at least five more jumps before we go to I.A.N.” Phil said.
“Five? We struggled to do one.” Dr. Roberts interjected.
“I want to make sure that it works consistently, and we have enough data so that when we do go public, we can be sure it’s viable.” Phil explained.
Claire stood and moved toward the door. “Well, I’ll gather the team and have a report for you as soon as I can.”
“Thanks Claire, I just want to get make sure there’s nothing we overlooked.” Phil said as she left the room.
“Break up the data into sections and hand it out to the teams to look over. I’m going to look over navigation, and see if we can find a better way of controlling how the field moves.” Phil instructed.
“Okay.” Dr. Roberts answered as he sifted through the data.
“I’ll be in my office if you need me” Phil left them to their tasks.

Two weeks later the Control Room was full of people chattering excitedly. The second test was set to begin.

“Peter confirms the probe is in position.” Saša Zaykov said.
“Running final diagnostics.” Elías De La Pena stated.

“Plotting course, entering parameters now.” Saša Zaykov dictated.

“Good, lets hope the second flight is a good as the first.” Phil felt his stomach begin to churn. It was common in his field for inconsistent success despite the promise of initial trials. “Structural in the green, sensors in the green.” Elías De La Pena called out.
“Course plotted. A-Drive in the green. Particle field is stable.”
The final checks were complete.
A siren blasted through the halls of the station. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up, waiting for information. Saša Zaykov punched a few buttons.
“Tyson-Young network warning of a category 4 flare building.” Saša Zaykov said nervously.
“Shut everything down and get to the bunker!” Phil ordered.
“What about the probe?” Elías De La Pena asked.
“No time to recover it.” Phil felt like he had been kicked in the gut. “Leave it, we will have to make another.” Phil had already begun calculating the time it would take to build another and how long until he would be able to publish his findings as he ushered everyone from the room.

Phil quickly checked the rooms along the way to the bunker. He did a headcount to ensure everyone was inside before he sealed the door. He closed his eyes and could see small flashes of light. The particles were energetic enough to penetrate the surface, water barrier and the bunker lining. The geiger counter on the wall showed a small increase in radiation. Nothing life threatening but they would need to be examined by Doctors Free and Jones who sat at the back of the bunker looking more than concerned as the geiger counter slowly crept up.

It was a common enough occurrence, going to the bunker, either as a drill or in the rare case of an actual CME. Either way they were fairly safe.

Almost an hour passed before the siren stopped, the vault was opened and the all clear given. Everyone returned to their station, with those off duty told to check in with the doctors and those on duty told to check in at the end of their shift. It was all fairly routine.

Phil was the last out of the bunker. He headed towards the control room but stopped in the courtyard. He looked up but couldn’t see the blinking lights from the probe.

“Has it been damaged?” He thought to himself.
When he entered the control room, he joined the others as they looked at the screens. All the screens were blaring warnings with the words ‘Signal lost’ in almost every window. He stared at them confused.

“The probe should still be there, it’s shielding should have protected it.” He thought out loud. “Report” Phil ordered.

“Readings show that the signal was lost at the height of the CME.” Elías De La Pena said. 

“We are looking into station sensors now to try and work out what happened.”

“Can Tewake fly out and visually confirm?” Phil asked.

“Sensors indicate it’s not there, we are trying to locate it.” Elías De La Pena answered.

Phil sat down, and looked at the screens. “Did he lose his only probe after only one test flight? No. Impossible. What would that mean to the project?” He pondered.
“I have something.” Elías De La Pena said tentatively.
“Yes?” Phil looked at him expectantly.
“It seems it might have jumped.” Elías De La Pena said looking uneasy.
“Really?” Phil asked confused. “It was in standby mode, it shouldn’t have been able to jump.” “I can confirm local sensors did pick up a minor gravimetric disturbance consistent with a jump at about the time contact was lost.” Saša Zaykov said.
“Well, shouldn’t it bounce back to us at the end of it’s flight path.” Phil asked.
“Yes. But since we never finished transmitting the data, we don’t know where it will jump to, and even if it can jump back.” Elías De La Pena explained.
“Okay.” Phil said, rubbing his brow “Let’s just wait and see. I’m going to get checked over by the doctors, contact me if anything changes.”

A week later there was still no sign of the probe. Presuming it lost, Claire worked with her team in the hangar building a second A-drive. Phil was in his office going over the data from the first jump to try and identify what might have gone wrong during the mass ejection. Dr. Roberts sat in the control room, he was monitoring communication channels used by the probe when the computer pinged.

“Huh?” Dr. Roberts said, spinning his chair around and looking at the screen next to him. Elías De La Pena moved around to have a look. A small blinking dot was on the screen
“We are receiving a signal.” Elías De La Pena said.
“Checking ping.” Dr. Roberts said.

“140 seconds.” Elías De La Pena added.

“Get Phil.” Dr. Roberts ordered. “I’ll start the data transfer.”
Elías De La Pena rushed off to find Phil. Dr. Roberts pressed a few buttons and a data buffer appeared on the screen. The progress bar began to move slowly as Phil entered the room in a rush, Elías De La Pena following close behind.
“We have contact with probe 1” Dr. Roberts said
“Where is it? Do we have visual contact? Is there an uplink?” Phil asked looking at the screens.
“Its point one four astronomical units away, no visual contact, and we have a 140 second ping.” Dr. Roberts said, answering Phils questions as quick as he can.
“Can we pinpoint it’s location?” Phil said.
“According to the instruments, it exited FTL right where it left from.” Dr. Roberts said, putting the mapping data up on the main screen.
“So it’s right where we used to be.” Phil said smiling “Request priority access to the James Webb Space Telescope Network for visual confirmation of it’s condition if possible.”
Elías De La Pena  jumps on a console and sends the request.
“Where did it go?” Phil said bringing up the navigation screen
Numbers blink across the screen. He looked at it confused
“This can’t be accurate.” Phil said, standing back.
Dr Roberts looks at the screen. “Thats impossible.” he exclaimed in shock.

On the screen is the location of several known pulsars. This is the basis for the navigation system for the probe. Pulsars rotate at a set speed and have a relatively fixed location. When the probe isn’t in FTL it can identify them and map its own relative position. On the screen it showed the probes course. It had moved 32.5 light years in just over a day.

“The M fields should have destabilized after only a few minutes.” Phil said.

“Looking at the data here, it shows the field fluctuated when hit by the coronal mass ejection, several sensors were overloaded. It seems the drive activated at this time.” Dr Roberts explains.
“It’s back?” Claire said shocked. Standing near the back of the room, looking at the screen. No one had noticed her enter.
“Downloads fragmented, accessing the data we have. It appears to be corrupted due to a damaged transmitter.” Dr. Roberts said.
“We need to recover it, do a visual inspection, access the data manually. What just happened shouldn’t be possible” Claire said.
“Agreed, but it’s .14AU away. We can’t send Pete out to get it, it’s too far.” Phil said
The room fell into silence as everyone tried to come up with a solution to the problem. “Probe 2. We send it out to Probe 1. Once it’s close enough we should be able to bring it back inside the same warp bubble.” Claire suggests.
“That won’t be easy” Dr. Roberts said.
“We just did the impossible once, we can do it again.” Phil says, sounding inspired “Claire, get your team to add some thrusters and a magnetic grapple to Probe 2. We will work out the safest intercept course to take to recover Probe 1.”

Claire left the room and headed to the hangar bay. Dr. Roberts and Phil started mapping out the course needed to FTL near Probe 1 and then fly in at sublight, grapple it, and then fly back. Three days later, Probe 2 sat in the lagrange point above the moon. Course plotted.

“System link is established, we should be able to FTL to within 5km of Probe 1, and then go into manual drive for docking.” Saša Zaykov said.

“Powering drive, ready for jump.” Elías De La Pena said.
“Will this work?” Claire asked.

“Only chance we have.” Phil said.

“Jumping in 3, 2, 1.” Elías De La Pena said.
Probe 2 in orbit appears to visibly stretch, turns red and vanishes, a second later it reappears near Probe 1.
“Tracking reestablished, Probe 2 is 5.1km away from Probe 1.” Saša Zaykov said.
“Bring it in, nice and slowly” Phil said.
Elías De La Pena started pressing buttons on the main console, and 70 seconds later, Probe 2 jumped to life. The small thrusters on the outside of Probe 2s hull pushed it forwards, towards Probe 1.
“We have thrust, moving forwards at 1m/s. Eta to contact 90 minutes.” Elías De La Pena  said.
“James Webb Space Telescope Network has visual lock on the probes. Sending through the live feed now.” Saša Zaykov said.
On the screen in front of them two tiny blinking green dots flash. They were slowly moving together.
“We have priority control over the telescope network for probe recovery.” Saša Zaykov adds.

As time went by, the two blinking dots slowly moved closer as the probes approached each other. The telescopes zoomed in giving a clearer image. The shiny new Probe 2 slowly approached the visibly damaged Probe 1.

“On final approach, slowing to one meter per minute.” Elías De La Pena said.

“Compensating for drift, aiming tether, firing…” Saša Zaykov said “We have lock, bring them in together”
On screen the cable connecting the two probes tightened and drew Probe 1 over to Probe 2. “Plotting return course, increasing bubble size.” Dr. Roberts said.
“We don’t need the James Webb Space Telescope Network observing anymore, turn them away from this position.” Phil said, BN2 pressed a few buttons and the image started to pan away from the probes.
“Calculations complete, we are ready to bring it home.” Dr. Roberts said.
“Transmitting data to Probe 2.” Saša Zaykov said.
“Tewake you in recovery position?” Phil asked into the radio.
“Roger that, in orbit awaiting arrival of the Probes.” Pete’s voice crackled back through the radio.
“Transfer completed, we are ready to jump.” Saša Zaykov said.
“Bring them home.” Phil said
In orbit, Pete watched as a bright flash of light and then both of the probes leave FTL a short distance away. “We have confirmation of return of probes, bringing them down.”
Back in the control room an audible sigh of relief was heard.
“Thanks Pete, we will wait for you in the hangar bay.” Phil said into the radio, his relief clearly audible.

20 minutes later everyone watched as Pete brought in the two probes. Claire and Phil run over to Probe 1 and opened the side access panel plugging in a small tablet.

“The data appears to be all here.” Claire said, tapping the screen, “It’ll just take a few minutes to back it up and transfer it to our servers.”

“Good. Once you are done, give Probe 1 a full inspection. We need to make sure it’s still in working order.” Phil said as he left the room.

Phil walks into the control room with Dr Roberts, Elías De La Pena and Saša Zaykov looking over the data. On the screen was a time log of drive power. There was two noticeable spikes, one at the very beginning, and one a lot later.

“We need to look at the data for the timecode +5 days, 16hrs.” Phil said

The line on the screen zooms in to the second spike. It climbs off the scales as suddenly as it appears. The four of them look at it confused.

“What could have maxed all the sensors like that?” Saša Zaykov said.
“Nothing I can think of” Elías De La Pena said, the others look at him “What? You asked the question” “We need to analyse the data best we can, and look at all the options.” Phil said.

“I got an idea. With the way the probe warps space time, the gravity well in front might have captured some evidence and carried it back. Once the drive deactivated then it would have been set free, and we might have detected it.” Dr. Roberts said.

“Elías De La Pena Check with I.A.N., see if they detected anything from the area near the probe.” Phil said. He turned to Dr. Roberts “Get everyone who is available in here to go over these numbers with us, it’s going to be a long few days.”
The group then broke off into their own separate assignments.

[*EXODUS PART 3 *]

The Council

[“Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”
__]- Charter of the United Nations

Bhikkhuni Andra sat at her desk in the International Alliance of Nations Headquarters. She is a 51 year old Hindu woman born into a poor family. She lost most of her family to the war, and now looks for ways to bring, and keep the peace in the aftermath. The phone rang on her desk.

“Hello, this is Bhikkhuni” She said.

“This is Dr Phil Mason, ma’am, we need to get a meeting with the I.A.N. leaders.” Phil’s voice said through the phone
“Did you succeed?”
“Yes, but we have more important news, Claire and I are on the way to the Xu Fu orbital platform. We can be in New Delhi within the week, once we clear Chinese Customs that is.” “Can you not do a live broadcast from the Lunar Station?”
“No ma’am, this is far too important. We need to talk in person, and i need the full council present to discuss what we have found, it’s time sensitive.”
“Okay, I will call an emergency session on Friday morning.”
“We will do our best to be there in time”
“Safe travels” She said as she hung up the phone.

In orbit Claire and Phil sat in a large shuttle racing back towards Earth. It had 107 passengers from the Lunar hotels onboard. Phil looked out the window at the stars and Earth. In the distance lights above the atmosphere could be seen blinking. It’s the Xu Fu Orbital Platform. The last of four space docks built before and during the war. It serves as a waypoint for lunar travel, and easy access to orbit to repair and launch satellites. It was anchored to the ground by the last remaining space elevator, the Zheng He Connection. At over 100km long, with four lifting platforms, that can carry up to 700 tonnes of material each from the surface base to the Xu Fu Orbital Platform in just over 5 hours.

“This is your captain speaking, we are about to make our first deceleration burn to bring us into docking alignment with Xu Fu.” The Captain’s voice blared over the intercom “We need all passengers to return to their seats and fasten your belts. This will be a 5G burn for 2 minutes, so please be prepared for that. Flight attendants, please check everything is secured before the burn in five minutes.” The message then repeated in Mandarin and French.Phil looked at Claire. “I hate this part.” She chuckled.

“What?” he asked.
“Nothing.”

“No seriously what?” he asked.

“You can go to the moon, and spend the better part of two years there, and you can’t handle a few Gs” she teased.
“We just need to check you’re locked in?” a flight attendant asked.
They both raised their hands to show their belts are locked. The flight attendant moved on to the next row.
The minutes passed slowly until the G warning light blinked.
“This is your captain, please brace for lateral Gs as we turn to prepare for deceleration maneuvers.” The captain’s voice said over the intercom
A few moments later the shuttle began to shake as it started to turn, Phil watched as the Earth shift outside the window until it was no longer visible from his side. The window auto-tinted quickly as the sun came into view.
“Please lean back in your seats and prepare for deceleration maneuvers.” The captain’s voice said over the intercom.
A few seconds passed and then the full force of deceleration could be felt. All the passengers and the flight attendants were thrust into the back of their chairs as the main engine burned, slowing them from 11 km/s to 5 km/s.
“Attention passengers and crew, the first burn is now complete, feel free to move about the cabin area again.” The captain’s voice said over the intercom.

“Glad that’s over.” Phil said, relieved.

“Well, that’s one burn down, in a few hours there will be three more, as we swing behind the Earth, and then one last massive to that will allow us to reach docking speeds of 1200 km/h, from there it’s all thrusters.” Claire explained..
Phil gave her the “I really don’t want to know” look.
“What?” Claire grinned..

The next day, Phil and Claire float through the shuttle’s airlock into Xu Fu station. Phil looked at Claire as she held a vomit bag.

“You give me shit about not liking high G burns but you can’t handle Zero G?” Phil asked, teasing her back.

“Shut up, or you will wear it.” Claire said waving the bag at him.

In front of them was a group of Chinese men directing the floating passengers into the chairs on lift 3. Phil helped Claire float over and locked her in place. When everyone was secured in their seats, the platform started to lower down. In front of the passengers was a window looking out over the Earth. As they lowered the blue line of the atmosphere got larger and larger, after a few hours they touched down on the ground. Several people in uniforms entered the lift helping the passengers back to their feet.
Phil, more than most, found it harder to stand. “I don’t remember being this heavy.” He said to Claire.

“Didn’t you do the exercises to keep muscle tone up while you were in the station?” Claire asked to the stumbling Phil.

“Of course I did, but after so long I had forgotten what 1G felt like.” He explained..
“Do you need help Sir?” A flight attendant asked.

“No, I’m fine, just give me a few minutes.” Phil said.

Claire laughed as he stumbled around the room a little.
“Well, to be fair, you are the standing record holder for longest stay on the Lunar Surface.” Claire teased him.
He smiled “Yeah, because I hate the transit each way.”
“Sir this way please.” A Chinese official guided him off the platform. Claire grabbed his arm to steady him, and they walked over to the customs processing line.
Behind him, workers moved onto the platform to clean and and prepare it for another group headed into orbit.

“Welcome to China Dr Mason, we hope your Luna visit was good.” a Chinese official said looking at his travel papers.

“Yes it was fine.” Phil replied.
“Anything to declare?” The official asked.

“No sir, just want to get to the international terminal as quick as we can.” Phil replied. “Good, lean forward please.” The official said.

Phil leaned forward and his retina was scanned.
“Identification confirmed, welcome to China Dr. Mason.” The official repeated, waving him through.

Phil stepped through the barrier and waited for Claire.

Claire stepped forward and handed over her passport.
“Welcome to China Mrs Wilson, how was your stay in Orbit? Was it good?” the same Chinese official said looking at her travel papers.
“Sure.” Claire replied.
“Anything to declare?” The official asked
“Nothing I can think of.” Claire replied.
“Good, lean forward please.” The official said.
Claire leaned forward and her retina was scanned.
“Identification confirmed, welcome to China Mrs Wilson” The official said.
Claire joined Phil on the other side of the barrier.
They walked together down the hall towards the international terminal.
“Dr. Mason please report to gate 4.” The airports PA blared.
Phil and Claire looked at each other.
“Dr. Mason please report to gate 4.” The airports PA blared again.
“I got a bad feeling about this.” Claire said looking at him.
“Take your ticket and fly to New Delhi, I will meet you there.” Phil said, as he passed Claire her ticket and a small data storage device. Claire noticed the device but said nothing.
“Go, I will be okay.” Phil said.

Claire hugged him. “Good luck.” she said, and she turned and headed to their flight.

Phil walked alone down an empty terminal. He looked around and saw no planes on any jet bridge. Movement behind him, he turned. Chinese security grabbed him and moved him into a hallway. Inside the hallway a man in a suit waited, the security released Phil and moved to block the exits.

“Dr. Mason, I am Deng Bai, Minister of Intelligence.” The Chinese man in a suit said. “We need to have a quick talk.”
“About what?” Phil asked.
“We have been monitoring your progress towards the A-drive.” Deng said. “We know that you got it to work.”

“I don’t know what…” Phil started.

“Please do not play coy. We intercepted several transmissions. We know you are on an urgent trip to the International Alliance council, we want to know why.” Deng demanded.
“As I was saying I don’t know what you are talking about. I am on holiday. I want to visit some family in New Delhi.” Phil replied.
“Wrong answer.” Deng said signaling to his men. They moved forward and punched Phil several times, knocking him to the ground where they started to kick him.
“Tell me what I want to know and we will let you go.” Deng demanded.
“I am part of the International Alliance, I am trying to protect the world. I cannot tell you more than that at the moment, you have my word, please, let me go.” Phil begged, covering his face with his hands..
Deng stopped his men. Phil bloodied and bruised looked at the ground. Deng bent down and grabbed his chin, turning his face towards him. He stared into Phil’s eyes.
“Dr. Mason, You can tell me, or you can stay in a cell until you do, either way I will find out.” Deng said.
Phil looked away. There was no way out, and time was running out already.
“We got the drive to work. We got to mars orbit in seconds. But on the second test there was a major problem identified with the drive. I need to get to New Delhi and stop the production or it could result in a major catastrophic incident that could cause the deaths of millions” Deng looked at him closely.
“Why could you not tell them that from the station?” Deng said, skeptical.
“They knew about the drive design, they were going to make more. I couldn’t let them do it. Now let me go so I can stop them from building more.” Phil demanded.
Deng stood back up, looking down at Phil. “Search him.” he said.
The two men checked all of Phil’s pockets and paperwork.
“Nothing sir.” one of them replied.
“Remember Dr Mason, China is the only one with a space elevator and dock left. If you ever want to make it back to the research station, you shouldn’t lie to us.” Deng warned. He waved his hand and the two men picked Phil up and dragged him back onto the platform, throwing him to the ground.
Phil looked around, no one. He made his way to the bathroom, and cleaned himself up the best he could. He then made his way back to the platform to meet up with Claire.
“What happened to you?” Claire asked concerned.
“Just a friendly Chinese welcoming party.” Phil replied.
“Do you still have it?” he asked. “Yeah.”
“Keep it safe, show no one.”
They sat and waited for their flight to board. The rest of the flight was uneventful.

They landed in New Delhi Thursday evening, and made their way to the Council chambers on Friday morning. On the bench sat the six founding members of the International Alliance of Nations, Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Indonesia and Korea. In the chamber space behind the main podium sat members from the other 34 countries involved in the Alliance. Phil walked into the room and took it all in. It’s was big space. He walked over to the podium.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have asked you all be present for this briefing as it will affect all nations on this planet, and as the largest gathering of nations I feel this is the best place to reveal this.” He started.

“Several months ago, my team and I managed to launch the first ever FTL capable probe. We completed the launch without a problem, and are still going through the data we recovered from that initial jump.”

“So the Alcubierre Drive works?” Bhikkhuni asked.

“Yes ma’am the A-Drive does.” Phil responded. “We got to mars orbit in a little over a minute.”
“A-Drive?” Tana Rakena, the New Zealand representative asked.
“Easier to say.” Phil responded smiling.
“Ah.” Tana said.
“Anyway, the interesting thing happened during the second jump. We were alerted by the Tyson-Young network of a category 4 coronal mass ejection. The problem was the probe was in orbit and couldn’t be recovered in time. We retreated to the bunkers and returned to find it gone. It should have reappeared in minutes, but it took a week before it returned. When it did it was heavily damaged. It took us several days to recover it and access the data from it’s’ trip. It had jumped 32.5 light years in a little over a day. Far beyond what it should have been capable of.” Phil continued.
“Congratulations Dr. Mason, we can finally reach the stars.” Bhikkhuni said.
“Unfortunately, that’s where the good news stops.” Phil said looking serious. “It took us several days of going over the data to conclude that the probe only returned because it was hit with a massive energy burst. Something so powerful it redlined all our sensors.”
People in the room start to shift and move around.
“There’s only one thing we know of capable of this. A gamma ray burst.” Phil said. “We trained the telescopes in the direction of the burst and found two low mass neutron stars, in a decaying orbit around a third larger mass neutron star. Remember looking at stars is literally looking back in time. It’s taken almost 200 years for that light to reach us, and that means those stars have already collided.”
“What does that mean for us?” Tana asked.
“Well it’s not good. We have run simulations several times, but when the collision happens. It creates a massive gamma ray burst out of the magnetic pole that appears to be aimed right where we will be 30 years from now. It’s more than powerful enough to strip away the O-zone and expose the surface to hard radiation. Almost nothing will survive.” Phil paused for a second. The room is deathly silent.
“We can’t shield ourselves from this thing, we can’t hide in the outer solar system or dig deep underground and wait for Earth to recover, our only chance it to leave this solar system as quickly as we can, and try to get outside of it’s line of fire.” Phil said.
“How will we move 7 billion people?” Bhikkhuni asked.
“We can’t. We can maybe save a thousand, two on the extreme end.” Phil said.

“So we have to decide who lives and dies?” Tana asked, the rest of the room was still in stunned silence.

“We thought about that. A ship with donated eggs and sperm would allow a large enough genetic variety to colonize another world, we just don’t have a candidate world yet. We are working on the designs for the ship. Claire…” He motioned to her. “…and her team has been working non-stop to get the designs ready. Now we can’t use the FTL drive, because we can’t generate anywhere near enough M particles to stabilize a scaled up warp bubble, so we would need to escape at sub light speeds. Based on our modeling, we would need to reach .25c in order to avoid it hitting us. And that means we would need to accelerate at 10m/s for almost 3 months to reach that speed. The problem is we have nothing capable of generating that level of thrust with the current engines that are available for large space transport vessels. Deep space travel is impossible until we can solve this issue. What I ask is you gather as many scientists as you can, to either find a way to create more M particles, or a way to accelerate a ship at 10m/s for 3 months so that the vestiges of humanity can escape the danger zone.“ Phil said.

“I don’t know what to say…” Bhikkhuni said “We need to discuss this internally and come to a conclusion”
“Time is very limited, if we are to survive, every minute counts. It may be 30 years until this thing hits us, but we need to leave orbit as quickly as possible to guarantee survival. We will need resources from every nation on the planet has in order to do this. We will have to develop new materials for the hull to protect against interstellar radiation. We will need a new engine to move the ship. But most of all, we will need to turn to the Chinese to let us use their elevator.” Phil said.

The room broke into murmuring as the delegates talked amongst themselves concerned. “What about rebuilding the Indian or the American one?” Tana asked.

“We simply don’t have the time or resources to do that.” Phil responded.
“China will not allow us access to their station to build this.” Tana said.

“We don’t have a choice. We can put our differences aside and work together or we go extinct, those are the only options.” Phil said.

“Thank you Dr. Mason, you have given us a lot to think about.” Bhikkhuni said.
“Thank you for your time” Phil said, stepping down from the podium, he walked over to Claire.

“That went well.” She said.

“This is only the beginning of the long road ahead if we are to survive. Contact your teams on the station, see how they are going with the ship design. But be careful, the Chinese will be listening.” Phil said.
“Will do, but first we need a drink.” Claire said as they leave.
Inside the delegates prepared to discuss the recent news. “Lock the doors, cut the communication signal, this is a closed session from now on. We need to work out what we are going to do.” Bhikkhuni said.
The guards closed and locked the doors behind Phil and Claire.

[*EXODUS PART 4 *]

Enemy of my Enemy…

[“So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”
__]- Sun Tzu “The Art of War”

The closed session went on for days. Phil watched the news as reporter after reporter speculated about what was going on inside. None of them had a clue about how serious it was. Over the coming weeks dozens of scientists would be called, from all over the world, to explain different parts of the problem. Every plan was viewed and reviewed, and bogged down in bureaucracy. Phil and all other briefed members of the scientific community knew time was very limited. The problem came down to convincing those who did not believe, who did not want to believe.

Early on some members refused to listen, assuming Phil was making it up so that he could reach the stars. It wasn’t a secret that this is something he desired above all else. These doubters were put to rest when other scientific members from the lunar station were called in to give evidence.
Several members from different religious groups made the argument that their god would protect us from this disaster. Reminded that they didn’t prevent the billion people lost in the previous war they removed themselves from the chambers. Their nations would not be helping in this effort.
Some nations wanted to enact alternate plans, believing they could dig deep enough to avoid the worst of the radiation, either on Earth or the moon. The problem with these plans is that they would have to stay there for tens of millions of years while the atmosphere recovered, if it ever recovered. This didn’t change their minds and several other nations withdrew from the chambers to enact their plans.
This left the Alliance in a bad position. In order to enact the escape plan they needed the resources of the majority of the nations in the alliance to do so. With over half the members refusing to help, the ability to create a starship was in serious doubt.

“You can’t do this.” Claire said, begging Phil to stay in New Delhi.

“I don’t have a choice.” He said, hopping into a taxi.
“It’s treason.” The fear in her eyes was obvious.
“I know…” Phil said looking down towards his feet. “If they need me again, tell them I’m going to visit my family in Bristol.”

He closed the door and the Taxi pulled away from the stop. A short time later he arrived at the airport where he boarded a plane headed for the United Kingdom. Upon landing at Heathrow, he transferred to another plane headed for China. After several hours in the air he finally reached the international airport. Exhausted, he immediately made for the Great Hall of People where he was stopped by security. They took him aside where he asked to speak to Deng Bai. Without a word the security team escorted him to an interrogation room in the lower floor of the building. Several hours passed until Deng Bai entered.

“Dr Mason, I did not expect to be seeing you again.” Deng said.

“I come here out of desperation, to help your people, and mine.” Phil said.
“Oh?”
“I need your help.”
“Really?”
“Can we talk in private, off the record?”
“Everything is on the record here.”
Phil looked down at his shoes, he’d come this far… “About what I told you last time, I wasn’t 100% honest.” Phil began “We have detected a gamma ray burst headed for Earth.”
“How?”
“That doesn’t matter, get your scientists to verify these coordinates.” Phil handed over a piece of paper. “You will see three neutron stars on a collision course. When they collide they will send a massive gamma ray burst in this direction. There is a very good chance it will wipe out all life as we know it.”
Deng looked at Phil concerned “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, in order for us to survive as a species, I.A.N., China and Russia need to put their differences aside and work together.” Phil said.
“If only it was that easy, Dr Mason. The International Alliance killed a lot of our people. We are not going to trust them any time soon.”
“There was a lot of blood spilled on both sides, and there will be a lot more spilled if you don’t help me convince your leaders to work with mine.”
“What do you mean?”
“In order to build the ship capable of escaping in time we need to use your space elevator. And the Alliance is gearing up to use force to take control of it.”
Deng stood silent for a moment staring down at Phil. “An act of aggression like that would lead to another war.”
“Yes, more pointless bloodshed. I want your help to avoid that. Together we can build a ship capable of taking over a thousand people out of this system to safety.”
“Where are the plans for this ship you talk about?”
“I.A.N. has them. And you won’t get access to them unless you allow access to the elevator.” Deng looked at Phil one last time. “I am still not convinced you can be trusted, but I will take this to my leaders. You will have to stay in China for now, I will see to your accommodation. But be warned, if anything you have told me is false, there will be consequences. You have no citizen rights here.”
Deng left the room as two soldiers entered to escort Phil to a high rise hotel room.

Back in New Delhi, Claire was in another meeting with Bhikkhuni. Word had just reached them that China was mobilizing its military to border regions. As a response I.A.N. had done the same.

“We can’t go to war with China again.” Claire begged Bhikkhuni.

“China is mobilizing, if we do not do the same, we will be caught off guard.” She responded. “But we don’t want another war.”
“If you are correct, and we need to build this ship, then we need their elevator. And China isn’t going to just allow us to make a massive ship in orbit.”
“What if you are wrong? What if we tell them everything and get them to help us?” Claire asked.
“Help us? China? Do you have any idea how much they charge us to take a supply run into orbit? Over 10 times the price of the non Aligned countries.”
“We need their help.” Claire pleaded.
Bhikkhuni stopped and looked at Claire, desperate to avoid another war.
“We do not go to war lightly, and if they give us access to the elevator, then we will not have a problem. But at the moment, they are stone walling us. If time is of the essence, as Phil has said over and over, then we need to start building now.” Bhikkhuni said seriously.
“We are still designing it. Now is the time to get them on our side. Tell them what we know, offer them a ship of their own once the design phase is done. I don’t know. What I do know is if we go to war we will never stand a chance of survival. Stand down the troops, show them there is another way.” Claire offered..
Bhikkhuni looked her over then out the window. “We can’t do that.”

Back in China, Deng was in office of The Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China, Han Jintao.

“You told me I.A.N. is preparing to invade us, now you are asking me to not mobilise. China cannot withstand a direct attack from I.A.N. without a first strike.” Han said.

“They know they cannot win quickly, or easily. That is why they signed the armistice with us.” Deng responded. “If we push them into a war neither of us want, then we will not be able to survive.”
“You have not convinced the National People’s Congress of this extra-terrestrial threat, you cannot convince me either.”

“Our people do not want a war, and neither do the people of I.A.N., if we stand down now, we can still keep control of the situation. Do not make the same mistakes those in the past did.”
Han pressed his intercom, “Escort Deng out of the building.”

Two soldiers immediately entered and escorted Deng outside. He returned to Phil’s hotel room.

“I tried to talk him down, but he is determined to hold our ground. The only chance we have of avoiding this is if I.A.N. stands down first.” Deng said.

“I just got off the phone with Claire, that’s not going to happen.” Phil replied.
“Then I guess we are going to war.” Deng looked disappointed.

“There is one other way…” Phil said, “And it probably won’t end well.”
Outside a podium was placed at the top of the hotel stairs. Different media groups gathered below, setting up cameras and other equipment. In New Delhi, the screens change to breaking news coming out of China. Bhikkhuni was surprised to see Phil walk up to the podium.

“My name is Doctor Phillip Mason. I am a citizen of the International Alliance of Nations, and I come before you with some important news. Several months ago, on The Armstrong Luna Research Station my team detected something incredible. Three Neutron Stars are on a collision course with each other. They are located over 200 light years away, and based on our calculations, they would have collided already. The result of this collision would have been a massive Gamma Ray Burst. My team reported this to the International Alliance Council. They decided, instead of taking the action needed, they would instead fight amongst themselves. Out of desperation I turned to China to help. Their response was to mobilize their military. I am asking for both sides to stand down, and work together against this common threat. It won’t matter who has the bigger bombs, when the air we breath is going to be stripped away. We have 30 years before the Gamma Ray Burst hits us. We need to unite, and work together to prevent the extinction of our species. I am calling on all nations around the world, put your differences aside, and help us build a fleet of ships capable of taking us out into the stars, and to our safety.”

The gathered crowd fell silent. In New Delhi Claire smiled inwardly, knowing the full weight of Phil’s decision. Bhikkhuni flopped down into her chair. She sat in silence as the beginning of the endless phone calls sang their tune. She ignored them and slowly moved over to the window. She looked out over New Delhi, wondering how long it will take the news to spread, and what effect that will have.

In China the gathered reporters started asking questions.

“How do you know this?” A reporter asked.
“We have been tracking the neutron stars for several months. The objects are located in the constellation Ursa Minor.” Phil Replied.
“What can we do to stop it?” Another question thrown from the crowd.
“At the moment, we have a plan in place, but it will take the whole planet working together as a unified force to execute it.” Phil responded.
“What is the plan?”
“At the moment, I am not at liberty to say” Phil said.
Deng stepped forward and ended the press conference. Questions were still being screamed at Phil as he was escorted by Deng away from the area. Media coverage cut to pundits speculating. Scientists were invited on to explain different parts of the crisis.

[*EXODUS PART 5 *]

The Ark

[“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
__]― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Phil walked the decks of The First Ark, known as the Wilson Ark, taking in the curved rooms as they slowly spun to generate gravity. Moving from the outermost deck where hydroponics and the seed storage were located to the inner decks where research and living quarters were located. Lastly, in the core Phil found the hangar deck, the main control room and engineering.

“It’s a good ship.” Phil said to Captain Saša Zaykov.

“It’s a shame Claire isn’t here to see it.” Saša Zaykov said. “I am thankful to Captain the one named in her honour.”
“Yeah…” Phil looked away. “She would have been so proud of what we have accomplished.” He quickly changed the subject trying to push the memories surrounding Claire’s traumatic passing from taking over his vision. “Are all the bio samples onboard?”
“Yes, we have a full seed bank, as well as sperm and egg samples from over a million people.” Saša Zaykov beamed.
“Good to hear. How about the crew?” Phil asked.
“They’re young and inexperienced, but they’re ready” Saša Zaykov answered.
“It’s going to be a long journey, one possibly without end.” Phil smiled sadly, pondering the end of his own journey. “It is a little bit daunting isn’t it?”
“First FTL capable starships ever created by man. Of course it is.” Saša Zaykov responded. “Captain, it’s time for the press conference” A man on the hangar deck interrupted.
“Still can’t believe you’re not coming with us.” Saša Zaykovsaid.
“I am far too old to waste the resources on.” Phil chuckled as he climbed into the transport shuttle. “The future is for the young.”
“But without you this wouldn’t have been possible.”Saša Zaykov already knew he couldn’t convince him. They had discussed this many times over the last 25 years.
Phil paused a moment and studied Saša Zaykov. It had been over 30 years since they had met on the The Armstrong Luna Research Station. Each had grown in their own way and now Saša Zaykov stood before him a middle aged man, not just older, but wiser than even Phil had been at that age.

“Let’s get over to Xu Fu, shall we?” Phil set the directions on the shuttle.

The shuttle maneuvered into the hangar bay airlock with the precision only a computer could handle. The inner door closed behind them and once the pressure was leveled, the outer door opened.
“Not in my wildest dreams, did I think we could make seven of these ships.” The sight of the fleet filled Phil with pride, as they floated past them to the docking point on the station. The hulls were cylindrical in design, almost like a submarine, but with two large rings around the bow and stern. They were made with a Boron Nitride skeleton, with Aluminum Titanium Scandium composite skin, designed to resist any impact. It was coated in an Aerogel Multifoil Composite, designed to protect against radiation, and resist large amounts of heat. Looking closely he could see the small lasers located on the hull to deflect asteroids and other objects that get too close. The shuttle moved over and docked next to several other identical shuttles. Phil and Captain Saša Zaykovdisembarked onto the platform.

Phil floated up onto the podium. Behind him, outside the window, the seven massive ships loomed motionless. All were identical in every respect but under the control of different nations. They were all just under 900m long and 125m wide. In front of a gathering crowd Phil tapped the microphone and a hush fell over the platform.

“It’s been so many years since we discovered the gamma ray burst and fought to have a ship built to save us all. Over the years I have watched old enemies unite, and work together for a joint vision of survival. On these ships, The Arks, we have placed all our knowledge, hopes and dreams. Each ship is fully self sustaining, and will be leaving to explore the stars. One day they will find a new home, to colonize, grow and develop. Until that day they leave us behind, vulnerable, to the approaching threat. But if there is one thing the past 25 years has taught me, humans are strong. We are resilient, and with these ships we will survive. We look to the stars not as the objects trying to silence us, but as the objects that spread our dreams, far across all of space-time. We built Seven Arks, in the beginning, I thought we might be able to build one. And now we wish them bon voyage, as they leave to greater places. Captain Saša Zaykov would you join me up here please.”
Saša Zaykov, looking shocked, moved from the row of seven captains up to the main podium next to Phil. Phil moved out from behind the podium holding seven boxes
“In these boxes, we have a sample of dirt from your home nation’s soil. It will be a reminder of the world you left behind, and be a guiding star to the worlds you will find and make your own.”
Phil handed the boxes to Saša Zaykov. With a salute Saša Zaykov moved over to each of the other captains and gave them their box.
“Now we send these Captains, and their ships, off into the deep void of space. We salute you.”
Phil saluted the captains who in turn stood at attention and returned the salute.
“Captains, you may board your ships and prepare for flight.”
The Captains turned, Saša Zaykov looked at Phil one last time and they exchanged a knowing look. This was goodbye. Phil nodded and Saša Zaykov entered his respective shuttle along with the other captains. Phil could see light reflecting off tears in his eyes before the hatch closed and the shuttle began its ascent to the Ark.
The shuttle didn’t take long to cross the void to the large ships.
Voices ring out over the PA of the station.

“This is Ark One, Wilson Ark, disengaging docking clamps. Powering thrusters. We have cleared mooring points. Moving to predetermined position.”
Wilson Ark, the first of two I.A.N. controlled Arks, separated from the main station, and using small thrusters, almost invisible to the naked eye, moved away from the platform. They needed to be 100km away before they could fire their main drive.

“Ark Two, Alcubierre Ark, we are right behind you Wilson. We will follow you until point charlie, Sun Tzu, watch your flank, you are very close to Xuanzang.”
The Alcubierre Ark, the second of two I.A.N. Arks followed the Wilson Ark toward their launch point. Moving to separate at the last minute to allow space for the M-particle fields.

“Ark Three, Sun Tzu Ark, roger that Alcubierre, adjusting course. Headed for point delta.” Alarms could be heard coming from the Sun Tzu as sensors detected it less than 100 meters away from Battuta. As the first Chinese Ark, it was known that it was going to travel with Xuanzang to a common destination, the only two ships to do that. The Sun Tzu fired two large thrusters, pushing it away from The Battuta.

“Ark Four, Battuta Ark, powering up now. Sun Tzu, that was a tad close.”
The Battuta Ark was only Ark crewed by people from the Middle-East. They had been granted one Ark for their help in collecting materials needed for the hulls of the ships.

“Ark Five, Xuanzang Ark, we are finalising check lists before disengaging.”
The Xuanzang, the second Chinese Ark, separated from it’s mooring position and moved over near Sun Tzu.

“Ark Six, Heroditus Ark, moving into position.”
The Heroditus was crewed by people from the old European Union. It was classed as their last lifeboat. It was planning on going the opposite direction to all the other Arks.

“Ark Seven, Elías De La Pena Ark, powering thrusters.”
This was the final Ark completed, in honor of Elías De La Pena who helped get the Alcubierre drive working. It was planning on leaving the system, only to return and check on Earth. it’s role was to help the survivors if there was any, continue into the future.

“Safe Travels Ark Project.” Phil whispered.

Outside the large hulks began to distort in shape as the m-particle fields stabilized around the ships. One after the other the ships distorted red and vanished as they were pushed away from Earth slightly faster than the speed of light.

On the platform Phil looked on as they left, the station shook violently under the gravitational wake of the drives. Reporters were yelling questions at him but he knew it was only a matter of time before the gamma ray burst hit. He closed his eyes, and let the noise wash over him and fade away. He slowly opened his eyes.

Outside the window sat the ruined hulk of a ship, partially built before it was destroyed by those opposed to it’s creation. The podium and press were gone, nothing more than manifestations of a grief stricken mind.

Phil looked down at the Earth, his vision blurred and distorted through the tears. A heavy weight pressed into his chest as he watched explosions from a new war, visible everywhere he looked.

“Why..?” He choked. “We had a chance to survive…” He coughed and fluid dribbled from his nose. “It was a dream, of unison, of surviving… and now…”
He looked to the stars one last time and saw Ursa Minor begin to brighten. He fought back the utter terror he felt at losing everything, screaming wouldn’t help him. The potential of the entire human race would be obliterated because of the petty nature of those in power.

The sickening waves of overwhelming loss forced Phil to his knees, he had done all he could, he had given everything of himself and it just wasn’t enough. He detached the magnetic boots and allowed himself to float free. He sobbed uncontrollably in his suit as the sky grew brighter. He grieved for his entire species, of those who had lived, suffered, created, and died to bring humans to where they stood now, he grieved for those who would never know the joy and wonder of simply being .

He didn’t feel the beam hit him. It was so powerful it atomized him as he drifted. A lifetime of memories, love, frustration, and success were gone in a moment. The Xu Fu station started to glow on the outside.

Those on or near the surface were alive long enough to see the light, but not long enough to realize what it was. The ozone was the first thing to go, in a split second it was almost depleted, then the hard radiation bombarded the surface cooking anything above ground. Those in the bunkers underground didn’t fair any better. Static charge built up in the electrical grid, causing their power supplies to overloaded. This meant the air filtration systems failed and they were left to suffocate in the pitch black tombs they had build for themselves.

Our tendency to distrust those different to us, had torn us apart, leaving nothing but a vacant baked rock for the handful of microbes that survived.

The End.

About the Author

Greetings Earthlings! – My name is David, and while I am far from the most elegant writers around, this being my first published work, I did find the act of writing a lot of fun. I started watching sci-fi at a fairly young age. One of my earliest memories is with my Dad watching Stargate SG-1 on the TV. After all, it had Macgyver in it, how could I miss it. As the years went past I moved away from home, and into the big city. There, alone, I rediscovered Stargate and the fandom. I worked on a mod called Stargate Empire At War for several years before starting to work on my own projects.

  I didn’t write the story with an end in mind, I had an idea for a escaping fleet being chased by the survivors of Earth, angry at their abandonment, but in the end the characters drove the story down an unplanned path. If you’ve read the story you know what the path is.
p.   I feel Exodus took mostly from movies like Arrival, and Interstellar, on the harder end of the sci-fi spectrum. I don’t know why I find those stories more attractive as of late, but I tried to get that same essence of reality, where possible, into my story. I hope that came across to you.
Needless to say, I’m hoping this is the first step into a larger field for me to play in. I have several other concepts that I’m going to be playing with in coming stories, Near Earth Asteroid deflection in the 60’s or 70’s for one.

   

If you liked this story then check out my editor’s book series Shadows the Alexis Night Series. She really turned this scribbling into a great story, I seriously cannot thank her enough.

  If you want to see more of my work, go to Save Sci-Fi and send us a message, I’m always floating about somewhere!

[*Special Thanks *]

Alan Hunt

Alex Halliwell

Brodie North

David Byster

Grant McAlpine

Sasa Zaykov

Warren Finch

One’s True Self Too

By D.C. Daines

Chest tight, breath raspy… pain! It is, is debilitating. Blackness tries creeping in and I welcome it, allowing my eyelids to slowly close. I try gulping, letting the saliva-wet my dry throat, only to stop as my throat constricts and the razor blades dig into it. The sides of my neck throb, glands I think I’ve heard them called in a past life. Yet I’ve never felt pain like this, never before, been sick. Never before… Closing my eyes tighter, I want it to be over. The searing agony as my body spasms from the shock. Electricity courses through me and I twitch involuntarily. Knives in my chest again as my cracked ribs dig in further, foamy blood dribbles from my mouth as I twitch again. Muscles tense, my arm rigid, my wrist is sparking in unison with something around my, my…

“Insert health stimulant… Health levels critical. Manually insert health stimulant.” The metallic voice originating from my forearm stimulated a memory, a feeling of loss, of pain, yet of power. Dampness formed upon on my cheek in response, the electric shock hitting me again, my back arching, my chest cracking as I pull in my stomach, muscles rippling as my body tries to rebuild. Another shock and I pull myself into a ball again, my mind fried with a new shock.

“Sir, he cannot take any more of this abuse. Maybe we should stop for the day?” A nervous pause, his voice cracking slightly as he fondled the switch, the thudding, click, click, click as it was gently caressed and then my fingers clenched into fists, my nails piercing my palms, teeth biting into my lip, the saltiness of my blood refreshing on my tongue, then the roaring click, breaking his silence before the charge. My hands unclenched, tearing at the collar around my neck as its current burnt my raw flesh. Muscles rippled, biceps, triceps, and my fingers, all pulling in unison to rip the collar from my neck and its hold from my life.

“Sir?”

Click, Click, Click, Click, a blue aura and sparks filled my vision, my mind and my soul as I pulled my arms in tighter, the metallic voice screaming at me as it came closer.

“Insert health… Manual. Manual stimulant activated.” Euphoria for a second, warmth flowing through my wrist, fingers, coursing through my arm. I could see her. Her eyes pleading with me as I stood for barely second, yet it seemed like a lifetime. Her figure swaying gently in the breeze, her paws upon the balcony ledge. Her eyes flashed at me, anger, betrayal, then acknowledgment. What had I done? Why had I done it, who was she?  My chest heaved as the warmth flowed through it; coughing, my hands cupped over my mouth as I retched, the blood released from the back of my throat now in my hand and no longer foaming. Between deep, deep breaths, my chest started to relax, my eyes closed, my fangs retracting slowly as my tongue pulled itself back in and the words flowed almost silently onto my breath as they escaped my mouth. 

“Run… Run… Run…”

“Alive! I said, Alive!” The words resonated in my head with familiarity as I curled up, showing no sign of the fact that I could hear everything that was being said. “It must be alive to hunt her.” That pause again and an involuntary clenching of my hands… No click… No subsequent shock. “Yes, you hear me monster.” The hairs on the back of my neck bristled up, shudders down my spine, his minty breath in my ear, the mint trying to hide the pungent sterile smell of him from me. He slicked his hand through his gelled hair. A growl grew from inside my belly, my fangs elongating, piercing the flesh of my lips as I clenched my hands further. Drip, Drip, Drip, droplets of blood hit the metallic floor, resonating in my head, my eyes, burning, hackles getting longer, ears pricking up. Primal instincts, nothing else mattered, survival was all I desired as my claws raked at his face, my fangs tore at his throat and my world became a shower of sparks yet again. Twitching uncontrollably, my side tearing upon the grated floor, I watched, his superiority and smugness were thrown in my face as he raised himself slowly, looking into my tearing eyes as he hissed in a vindictive tone, “I will break you, you will obey. You will hunt her, and she will be put down like the mutt she is.” 

                  ***

“Cough, cough!” blood trickled out the side of my mouth again, pain from newly broken ribs trying to rip my vision from the majestic beast before me. Its large eyes looked at me with nothing more than an animal instinct; yet there was something more to it, lunging again, it feigned. I leaped left, only to be swatted by a huge claw. His large mass, twice mine, swatted me again in midair, twisting himself to land on all fours upon my shattered body. He looked at me inquiringly, his head turning from side to side as his paw raised. His breath was harsh upon my face, panting, not out of breath but in unison as his huge chest raised and lowered. Muscles rippled, saliva dripped from the pink lips around his maw and into my mouth. Gagging at the taste of rotten flesh I tried to force my way from the hold, one slash from that huge paw and I was done for. 

Click, click, click. “Tracker!” The sterile voice matched the sterile smell. “Alive!” The man-beast upon me acknowledged its master with a bow of its head, its shoulders lowering, tail between it legs as it skulked off. Wiping the blood from my lip, I raised myself onto my elbows, the pain of my ribs forcing another grimace onto my face. Checking my chest, I could see a dozen puncture wounds and several dozen scars. I traced them from one side of my chest to the other, my eyes studying this foreign form. I was no longer familiar with my own skin. One nipple was gone, a ghastly scar in its place, making way for the many more scars now riddled across my body. Bones creaked, aching from head to toe I forced myself to my feet, muscly arms propping my broken frame up. “We need to speed things up.” I could see that sterile man talking to a man in white. The mans features nothing like the others, shorter, greyer, glasses hanging from his pointy nose. He looked ancient, yet moved nimbly like the beast that had just bested me in every way. Familiarity hit me again as he pulled a needle from his coat, the smell of it stirring primal urges in me and triggering my own voice within my head.

“Nah man, I don’t want to.” My voice resonated in my head, then a softer, smaller voice whispered to me.

“You need to see my love. See what I see, feel what I feel.” I shivered uncontrollably as I felt her caress on my neck, my shoulder, my arm… The pain was trying to rip me from her voice. A primal howl echoed as the wolf awoke, gauging at my body and my soul, becoming one with its ancestors. A finger fell upon my lips as I tried to scream. “You will see what I see, you will feel what I feel, you will be one with me, and then you will see, I am not insane. They are real! We are real. We are forever. We are unique. You are mine for all time!” She looked at me, her eyes pleading as she drifted further away, our hands slipping apart, her gaze falling upon the gap now before us as she flew across the rooftops. My chest exploded again, the pain agonizing as I took the beasts blow, blocking him from my love, the woman… the she-wolf, now carrying our children. Red, everything became red, flashes of red, lightning red. The howls intensified as the light became more frequent, and the pains in my chest increased.

“Alive, I said alive, Seeker.” The minty chunks sprayed my face as the sterile man forced his hands onto my chest, trying to stem the flow of blood pulsing from some part of me. 

“Insert Heal…

“Too late,” I whispered into the minty breath as the pulses of electricity and howls blocked out the metallic voice from my arm.

“Foreign substance detected, desist! MHU task force on route.” Chirped my arm. As I squinted at it, it came into view. It glinted at me, almost winking; a metal canister attached around my wrist, a display flashing warnings and several color panels lit up. I smiled as my vision started blurring again, my arm outstretched, held by the white coated fellow, a needle sticking out of the Medical Health Unit attached to my wrist. I squinted again, my fingers were growing, no, my nails were growing out of my flesh. It tickled as it happened, my fur tickling the rest of me as it worked its way through my skin, forming patches on my chest.

“I’ll be na part of this.” Came the desperate whisper.

“You are the one that started this, my dear Doctor” came the mint reply.

“I told tham than and I tall ya now, wa ware dyin, wa needed a cure wh-“

“My dear Doctor, you have given us much more than that, you have given us extended life.”

“At what cost to ya and tham? Thay have lost thair ancastors, thair haritage, wa have lost our souls.”

“Who needs a soul when you are going to hell? Hey, my dear Doctor?” Minty mused.

“Ha’s awake.” The Doctor said with a nod of his head. My eyes, previously opened to slits gawked open as my jaw dropped. The Doctor was deformed beyond recognition on one side of his face. The scars looked a thousand years old, all wrinkled and warped, his sharp nose half caved in and top lip shredded. His eye, just wasn’t there, a metallic implant in its place catching the light and winking at me as he stared back. “Yar boy,” his impaired speech made sense now as he talked through those curtains of lips, “one should ba careful what one wishas far. One might just gat it!” Winking all the while, he limped to me, one leg dragging upon the metal grating as though metal upon metal, the sound making me cringe and cover my ears in agony. I tried not to look as he stopped to get his breath, then started again, hobbled over what looked like a white cane, matching his coat. How was this the same man that had been so agile and saved my life only… hours… days … or weeks before. I tried not to stare or to show the horror in my eyes as he drew a gigantic syringe, the sound of it upon his coat pocket a whisper as the metallic scraping started up again rhythmically to be followed by the click of the cane. He bent over me, his face in mine, the cane in front and the syringe inserted into a slot in the top of the MHU. “Na dan’t move boy, this want hurt a bit.” The smile was wicked through those shredded lips, the smell of rotting flesh forcing my empty stomach to expel acid over his boots as he pulled a white liquid into the syringe.

“Careful of the beast, dear Doctor, he may just bite.” That minty smell did nothing to stop the churning in my gut, the feeling as though my essence was being taken and I had no option but to obey, cowering like an animal. “Plus, we have a team to do that, no need to DIRTY” the word dripped from his tongue in malice, “your hands on such a menial task.” The Doctor looked up, his good eye focusing on Minty before turning to me and patting me on the head. 

“Good boy.” He then clicked the cane on the ground, drawing my attention to it as a whirring sound escaped from his wrist. I needed to see what was happening but could not take my eyes from the cane. The top of it was rounded, with a groove in the middle, the bottom, a smaller version of the top. Small dark imperfections dotted the surfaces, the cane curving in the middle slightly. With a sigh, the syringe tinkled to the ground, the whirring getting louder, as though pumping something. The Doctor lifted my chin, my jaw gaping again, winking, he closed it, then he tapped the cane to the floor twice, clicked his heels together and strolled off, twirling his cane as he went.

                  ***          

Testing my body, I allowed my neck to roll around, cracking as it went, though I winced at the sharp pain as the collar pressed into the burnt flesh. My chest was mostly healed, a few sections yet to scar properly. Air was cool to my lungs as I inhaled and exhaled in an almost unhindered way. A small pain shot through my chest as a bone chip pressed in, slowly dissipating to a dull pinch as my body attacked its own decay. Clenching my fists, I could feel the power within, the beast wanting to get out. Hunching over, I stretched, cracking bones echoing within my skull. Fingers folded over themselves as I cracked even those. I sniffed, the gentle breeze blowing under the door, the smell in the air, the scent; familiar, yet a distant memory. Then minty words made their way under the door, flowing on the light, stretching across towards me, “I want him alive, he is to be the new Seeker. We must break him dear Doctor and what better way than hunting his own kind?”

“Yar far too impatient. Wa broke them two thasand yaars ago. Wa nat about to fall to a faw randam turnings-“

“Random, Random, Random,” the tone rose on each word, and I could hear those minty chunks hitting the Doctor in the face as he turned, “there is nothing random about a drug that inhibits our MHU’s. Nothing Random about the turning of two children who’s surnames are ‘Ware’ and ‘Wolf!’” I could sense minty using his fingers to emphasize the names. “There is nothing random about us landing on this god forsaken rock, conquering the beasts and enslaving their children in order to prolong our failing lives. There is nothing Random about you designing and using their essence to…” He trailed on for what seemed an eternity, finishing in a fist thumping fit that shook the table propped against the wall in the other room. “Leave us babysitting the children while others, ones that were lesser than us, we, the mighty, the warriors. Leaving us here, while they go explore, go conquer, go down in the histories.”

“Ah, but ya are forgetting, without ya canstant supply of thair essance, wa would have diad out a thasand yaars ago.”

“Enough talk, turn him dear Doctor, turn him against the ones he loves so we can eradicate the monsters.”

Moving into the corner, I cowered, not the damn drug again, not now, not here, not ever. “No!” I screamed as the Doctor headed towards me. Footsteps came closer, my mind screamed in unison with my words and flinging my arms out I caught him across the arm with a half-formed claw. I Froze, the look in his eye terrifying as he brought the cane upon my head, my arms still up, trying to defend the blows as each came down, a word with each. “I kalled yaur ancasters, I called yaur parents and now ya gonna watch as I kalled your love.” With the last blow, the blood in my eyes burned red, my head thumping in agony, yet my mind screamed in clarity as I grabbed the bone cane. Images burned in my second sight as I gripped harder, blood oozing onto the broken top of the cane as I crushed it within my grasp. I saw the pack, their tails wagging, their noses high in the night sky as they howled to the moon. Their playful frolicking stopped only to chase down their pray, to feed their young. Their young pranced around, playing in the caves, the fire warming the caverns they called home. I could feel the complacency, the lack of care, the love as they bonded in the light, a small rat being thrown from one to another. They were neither human nor wolf, dog nor monster. They just were, an evolution of this beautiful planet. Keepers of this realm. Looking deep into the Doctors eye I growled,, Not a gentle growl, nor a warning, but a growl that signified centuries of pride, of living with the planet, of living with our own. His arm raised, a red light beaming from his eye. He walked more confident now, his gait more human like, but his arm a mass of shredded flesh and wires. Shaking his arm, he called to the young, bidding them to his will.

A growl rose from the darkness, the corner in which a pup stumbled from. The growl was pure power, the resonating sound causing the Doctor to stumble as it burst his eardrums. His hands went up, but too late, his face shredded, the she-wolf before him, her body between the young and him, licking the blood from her paw. He raised something from his side, a long, silver rod. A flash, a yelp, and she was down, the Doctor kneeling before her. Her eyes pleaded, turning to her cubs he understood, yet he knew it must be done. Patting her gently he spoke though the shredded lips, tears welling in his only eye. “Wa mast do it ta survive. Wa are dying. Ya Ya yaung will save as, ya will save as.” Bowing his head, he placed a hand below her chin, her pale complexion angelic in the fire light, the light going out in her eyes with a snap. He picked her up, this Doctor of the distant past and walked to the fire, the children, the cubs all growling from the depths of their chests as he approached. As he knelt, he laid her upon his knee, his hand stroking her blond hair from her cheek. A tear dropped to the fire, his hefty hand upon her leg as he rolled her in, then with one decisive movement, he ripped her leg from its socket, brandishing it above his head, howling to the heavens as the cubs dropped to their paws in submission.

My mind cleared, clarity as I had never felt before as I tore the bone from his hand, the Doctor of the now. He was our oppressor, our slaver and he was mine. Shudders of power ran through me as I stretched and flexed my enhanced back muscles, my claws elongating with my fingers. The pain washed over me at once, arms bulged, hair grew, senses heightened and I was upon him, the Doctor just out of reach as my jaws clasped around Minty’s neck. He gurgled, his feet and hands kicking, his hand reaching for a metallic rod by his side as my jaws tightened, my hands gripped, his arms like jelly and a pop as his limbs were torn free. Metal clinked as his arms clanked to the floor, a metallic glint catching my eye from where there should be bone.

Fog, I swayed as the blood lust took my mind back, the fire burning high, the smell of burning flesh attacking my nostrils. Skulking forward a cub stood strong, proud and tall. Something familiar glinted in those eyes, a look like… The Tracker… as a boot forced him to the ground and he crashed into my chest in the same instance, colliding in a mass of brilliant sparks. My body soured, limbs uncoordinated as I slammed into the bars of the cage to flop upon the grills of the ground. Scrambling, my feet betrayed me, my bladder failing me as my body told me to flee. I turned, my head throbbing, blood still in my eyes, the Trackers own eyes looking upon me as he came in for the kill. Closing my eyes, I waited, the growl deafening as it bounced off the walls. I could feel the Doctors movement falter as he stumbled backward, his fingers slipping on the switch, click, clatter. The box dropped to the floor, the collars igniting in a mass of sparks as The Tracker wrapped his jaw around my throat, his fangs piercing with a force so strong there was no escape.

I allowed my senses to run free, my mind fading into the blackness as the growl started again, the faint breeze carrying the familiar scent to me again. I heard the shuffling of the Doctor’s feet as he grasped at his severed stump where his hand had been. The growling grew louder as the paws patted the metal deck towards him. He saw her, the she-beast he had slain, her mane flowing in the slight breeze, her hackles up as she encroached on his space. A paw came down, his hand up, then both down, his hand with a clink as the meta bones clattered onto the deck. “NAAAAAAA!” he cried before his stomach was relieved of its innards in one mighty swipe. Blackness enveloped me, a chuckle resonating in my pierced throat at the sounds of my love, my she-beast, the one they had wanted me to hunt. She had found me, she had come to my rescue. He had hunted them, and now she dined on their innards, and hopefully their souls…

“Insert health stimulant… Health levels critical!”                   

The End.

About the Author

D.C. Daines

It’s not a man’s thoughts that make him evil. 

It’s what he does with those thoughts…

Thank you for taking the time to enter my thoughts and My World.

The world of “The Star Crystal” was something that I did not make up. Rather it came to me in a time of need. After many years working in the same job, I turned up to work, got myself stuck in a drum heating oven. Just imagine a massive, double-door steel box. Freaked out with mass claustrophobia and phoned my partner in crime. I can still remember those words, “I know that we have only been here for fifteen minutes, but I really need to go for a break.”

Now, I am not sure what triggered that moment in time. Was it the fact that I had just turned 34, or that I was having a really bad morning? I am sure there were many other factors that led me to that fateful day and the birth of the voice from the prologue! I do say birth, as I have never written what I wanted my characters to say! I have transcribed for them to the best of my ability while they speak and act within my mind, both in my dreams and waking thoughts… This is also the way I write their stories, well lives, as I truly believe I live with them and am merely a Storyteller. A role that I am more than happy to take up…

Writing was always a passion for me. I can always remember having a pen and pad around especially during school holidays. Well, a pen, a pad and a bow and arrow. I have many stories written from the heart, all of which will never leave those pages or grace the world of published novels. My dream and my abilities were lives apart. Fortunately for me, my abilities, or was it my life experiences finally caught up with what my heart wanted to do. Writing is my passion; Story telling is in my soul…

Web page   http://www.thestarcrystal.com/

Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/TheStarCrystal/

[++]

[+  +]-  D.C. Daines

Lorconned

by Heather Leonard

  “EXTERMINATE!” Gracie side-stepped the enormous Dalek as it came barreling down the center aisle of LorCon, the science fiction and comic convention she was attending. She rolled her brown eyes in annoyance and tugged the floor map out of the back pocket of her jeans. Where the heck was the gaming area this year?

  Ugh. It was on the other side of the main convention floor. Gracie wadded up the map, shoved it into her pocket, and stalked off into the thick throng of people. The crowd was larger than usual this year and slowed her down. Not for the first time, Gracie wished she had the power of the giant Fezzik from the film The Princess Bride. “Everybody move!” she quoted under her breath. The crowds, however, did not magically part for her.

  She felt claustrophobic after a few minutes and stepped into a large booth space on the edge of the slow moving mass of people. “Want to enter to win a fun trip?” a cheery voice bubbled in her ear. “See new sights? Meet interesting people? Who knows, maybe save the world?”

  Gracie turned and found herself looking up at a tall, blonde woman with a prominent chin-cleft. The lady thrust a clipboard at Gracie and shot her a warm, inviting smile. “Come on, it doesn’t cost anything!”

  “A free trip?” Gracie asked. Well, she certainly could use a vacation from grad school and her job as a barista. Lord knows, she couldn’t afford a vacation on her piddly salary. It had taken months just to save up the money to attend LorCon as it was. A vacation would be nice.

  “Yep, completely free!” the lady chirped and waggled the clipboard at her in an enticing way. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get away from it all?”

“Yeah, it would.” Gracie grabbed the pen that was attached to the clipboard and filled out the information card. She scribbled her signature at the bottom, ignoring the massive amount of minuscule fine print that was crammed into the bottom of the paper.

  “Thanks!” the blonde woman crowed, hugging the clipboard to her chest when Gracie was done. Gracie thought it strange that woman was so pleased just to get her information. “Oh, and we don’t sell your information or anything, in case you were wondering. We use it for our own purposes.”

“Right,” Grace replied and edged back to the crowd. The woman was smiling at her and she had bright white teeth that were a little too perfect. “I’m just…have a nice day.”

“You too!” the lady called. “We’ll be seeing you soon, Gracie!”

Gracie doubted it. She knew the chances of winning one of those drawings was one in a million. Besides, she was starting to wonder if she shouldn’t have entered the contest.

One month later…

Gracie woke up and stared in astonishment at the white ceiling above her head. What did I have to drink last night and where the hell am I? she thought. She sat up in a hurry, swung her legs over the side of the bed, and with a cry of surprise, tumbled off the top bunk into a heap on the metal grating of the floor. A grumbling sound caught her attention and she turned her head to see an older woman in the lower bunk roll over and start to snore. Gracie scrambled to her feet and glanced around, a sense of fear rising inside her.

She had no clue where she was. This was a bedroom with two bunk beds built into the wall. Two gunmetal-grey lockers occupied one wall and a polished metal desk with two stools occupied the opposite wall. Behind her was a door with a mirror on the back. Gracie stared at her reflection. She was dressed in an unfamiliar outfit: chocolate brown fitted trousers, forest green high-necked asymmetrical tunic that buttoned down the left side, cream colored undershirt, and brown boots. Bright blue piping ran down the off-centered closure past dark brown buttons. There was a patch insignia on the right side of her tunic. The letters “LE” were inscribed over a picture of the earth, with the bottom of the L forming the middle bar of the letter E. Despite her trepidation, Gracie thought the outfit complimented her light brown skin and her short, petite figure. It was a far cry from her usual ripped jeans and loose tank tops, though her black hair was drawn up into its usual ponytail. 

Gracie saw that her unknown roommate in the bed wore the same outfit. She studied the strange snoring woman for a moment. She looked about fifty. The lady was tall and a bit on the heavy side. A good portion of her short curly hair had already gone gray. Gracie wondered if the woman was also a stranger here…wherever here was.

Deciding not to wake her sleeping companion, she opened the door taking care to be as quiet as possible and stepped into a short hallway. A glance to her left revealed a hatch and the opposite wall held a door similar to the one she tugged closed behind her. The walls were sparkling white, so much that it was almost blinding. She felt a soft rumbling beneath her boots and a background hum of engines, like on an airplane. There were no windows, though, so she couldn’t be on an aircraft. A boat, she thought. Wonderful. Seasickness, here I come. 

Gracie took two steps down the hall and emerged into a common area. The room was octagonal in shape. To the left was a small room with a closed door. Gracie opened it and discovered it was a tiny bathroom complete with a shower. Next to it was a small kitchen. Galley, Gracie corrected herself. The right wall held two built-in benches that followed the angles of the walls. A square table sat in front of the benches and there was a strange black dais in the middle, about the size of a hockey puck. Next to the benches, opposite the galley was a square white couch. Above it were a bunch of displays and blinking lights. The rest of the ship had smooth white metal walls, but the wall above the couch looked like it had built in cabinets that held supplies.

At the far end of the room was a sparkly white curtain. Gracie figured that it led to the deck stairs and she strode across the room, yanked the curtain aside, and gasped aloud at what she saw.

The ceiling of the next room was entirely transparent and filled with multicolored lines that streaked past the ship. Gracie had watched enough science fiction to know that she was in space and not on the ocean. “What the mother lovin’ fricken chicken is going on here?!” she bellowed as she stumbled forward into what she knew had to be the bridge of the spacecraft. Four seats filled the angular five-sided cockpit, two at the front and two just behind. Control panels ran along all the walls and were covered in large buttons and levers. The center front of the ship held a larger black dais similar to the one she’d spotted on the table in the common area. This one was the size of a dinner plate.

There was control yoke on the left at the very front of the ship. She’d always been good at flying simulations and reached out a hand to touch the yoke when she heard a male voice say, “Dude!” from behind her.

Gracie straightened and turned. An Asian teenager dressed in the same uniform as hers stood in the doorway, holding back the curtain with one hand. “‘Sup?” he asked, nodding at her, and then looking around at the flashing stars. “Weird. We’re in space, bro.”

“Seems so,” she confirmed. “Um…you wouldn’t happen to know where we are and how we got here, do you?”

“Nope,” the kid replied as he pushed his shaggy black hair back with his other hand. “All I know is that I gotta drop some kids off at the pool if you get my drift.”

Gracie screwed her face up in a disgusted expression and pointed at the door to the bathroom over his shoulder. He turned to look and dropped the curtain. “Thanks…uh…”

“Gracie.”

“Tu Pham, but everyone calls me Pham.” He scurried across the ship and into the bathroom. 

She stepped back into the common room after him just as the door to her room opened and her roommate stumbled out, looking terrified. When she spotted Gracie, she lumbered towards her and bellowed, “Where the hell am I?”

“I don’t know!” Gracie responded, taking a few steps back. 

“Liar!” The woman stopped short in front of her, huffing and puffing. Her blue eyes were wide with fear and she whipped her head around, taking in the sight of the common room. 

“I’m not lying!” Gracie replied, irritation mounting in her voice at the false accusation. “I woke up here, just like you did. So did Pham.”

“Pham? Who’s Pham?” the woman snapped.

“I’m Pham,” said the teen as he slammed the bathroom door behind him. “Might not wanna go in there for a bit. Didn’t see any air freshener, woo!” He waved his hand under his nose. “Who’re you, bro?”

“I’m not your ‘bro,’ young man,” the woman sneered. “And my name is Mrs. Jensen.” She wrinkled her nose at him and crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “I laid down for a nap and woke up here. Where are we?”

“Spaceship!” Pham replied and Mrs. Jensen shot a patronizing glare at him.

“Don’t be ridiculous, child.”

Gracie’s irritation with the brusque woman grew rather fast. “We are in space,” she declared in a condescending tone as she stepped backward and whipped the cockpit curtain back. “Have a look for yourself if you don’t believe us.”

Mrs. Jensen let out a heavy sigh and looked past Gracie, then hollered in shock, covering her mouth with her hands. She backpedaled and plopped down hard on the couch. “I must be dreaming,” she said after a long moment, shaking her head in disbelief. “Space? I was in Waukegan.”

Gracie was about to reply when their fourth companion joined them, dressed in the same uniform. He was a tall, thin African-American man in his mid-forties. Closely cropped graying hair covered his head and he had a mustache. He wore glasses with black plastic frames. The man stopped in the doorway and looked around at all of them with a quiet, appraising gaze. He seemed to come to some kind of conclusion and he nodded to himself before asking, “I take it the rest of you also have no idea what you’re doing here? Who invited us to this party?”

Pham grinned and opened his mouth to answer, but a perky voice that declared, “That would be me!” cut him off.

They all turned to look at the source of the voice. A twelve-inch high woman stood on the small dais, giving all of them a bright optimistic grin and waggling her perfectly manicured fingers at them. She had a prominent chin cleft and her blonde hair was swept up into a neat bun. The woman wore a uniform similar to the rest of them, except her tunic, was blue instead of green. 

Gracie recognized her immediately. “It’s you!” she declared, “from the convention!” She was surprised when her companions all muttered sounds of similar recognition.

“Yeah, you look like that lady who signed me up for some kind of trip,” the African American man said.

“Sorry, nope. That wasn’t me!” The little blonde woman shook her head. “I’ve never met any of you before in my short digital life.” She made a “come here” gesture at them as they stared at her in surprise. “Well, come on!” she coaxed. “Stop looking at me like that! Humans, honestly. Look, I’m the ship’s computer.” She frowned when none of them moved. “I’m also the captain of this vessel, so hop to it and get your butts over here, right now!” She stabbed at the table top with one minuscule pointed finger.

The four strangers glanced around at each other and came to a silent agreement: I’ll go closer to the psychotic Barbie doll if you do. Mrs. Jensen hoisted herself off the couch and crept closer to the tiny woman along with the rest of the crew until they stood in a semi-circle around the table.

“That’s better!” the small blonde captain sang, the frown disappearing from her face.

“Ship’s computer? Are you, like, a hologram or something?” Pham asked.

“Bright lad!” the captain praised. “Yes, I’m HALCION, which means Heuristic Artificial Lorcon Command Interface Onboard Navigator, which is a mouthful if you ask me, but I didn’t program myself!” She giggled at her own joke. “Just call me Hal for short.”

Gracie found herself exchanging glances with the unnamed older black guy. He shook his head. “No way,” Gracie answered. “I’m not calling the ship’s computer Hal. That’s just asking for us to get blown out the airlock to the tune of ‘Daisy, Daisy.’”

“Huh?” the holographic captain looked confused, not understanding Gracie’s reference. She shrugged in resignation. “Fine, not Hal. How about Captain Halci?” None of the humans disagreed and she pulled a stack of holographic cards out from her back pocket. “Right, then let’s get started. Roll call!” she chirped.

“Wait!” Mrs. Jensen interrupted. “I demand you tell us how we got here and what’s going on!”

Halci gave her a look and Gracie was surprised when the formidable older lady actually took a step back, seeming cowed. “I will explain everything,” Halci said in a patient-but-not-patient tone. “First I have to make sure we got the right people.”

“What do you mean ‘the right people?’” Pham asked, but shut up when the tiny captain turned to look at him. 

Halci sucked in a deep breath as if already annoyed with her human charges and read, “Stanley Roberts. Forty-seven years old from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gym teacher. Collects comic books and superhero action figures. Recently divorced, am I right?”

The black man gave an embarrassed cough and held up his hand. “That would be me.”

Halci glanced down at her card. “Right, you’re my operations officer.”

Stanley gasped. “you are what?” Halci ignored him and flipped to the next card. “Tu Pham? ”

“Pham, captain lady, sir!” the teen saluted. 

Halci chuckled at Pham’s exuberance and saluted him back. “Just Captain or Halci will do.” She held up the card and squinted. “Sixteen years old from St. Paul, Minnesota. National Junior Science Olympiad winner and into…furries?” Halci looked confused. “What are furries?”

Mrs. Jensen snickered and Stanley busted out laughing as Pham squirmed, looking uncomfortable. He turned bright red and Gracie felt bad for him, even as she struggled to contain her own laughter. “It’s…uh…he dresses up in animal costumes,” she explained.

Gracie wasn’t sure the look that Pham gave her was one of thanks or aggravation. “Thanks,” he mumbled under his breath.

“Just trying to help.”

Halci raised her eyebrows. “Right,” she drawled. “Pham, you’re my science officer,” 

“Ooh!” he answered, perking up a little and bouncing in his seat.

Captain Halci flipped to the next card and glanced at Mrs. Jensen. “Sylvia Jensen. Waukegan, Illinois. Fifty-seven years old. Widowed. Retired ballroom dance teacher, but still owns the studio. Five-time national champion science fiction trivia competition. You have a photographic memory, too. Very rare.”

“What of it?” snapped Mrs. Jensen. “That’s not a crime. I won those tournaments fair and square.”

“I wasn’t implying that you didn’t,” Halci’s voice was cool. “I was just stating facts. There’s no reason to be so defensive. At any rate, you’re my tactical officer.”

Mrs. Jensen was silent and only glared at the tiny captain. Gracie wondered why the woman was so tetchy. How long had her husband been deceased? Why was she so sensitive about her photographic memory and her trivia wins? Had someone accused her of cheating?

Her thoughts were interrupted when Halci announced her name. “And Graciela Maria Magdalena Cristina Hernandez Rios.” She shook the card and laughed. “Hoo, that’s a mouthful of a name!”

Gracie rolled her eyes. “Clearly, you have not been programmed with cultural sensitivity, Halci. Just call me Gracie.”

“Gracie,” Halci repeated and smiled at her. “Twenty-five years old from Minneapolis, Minnesota…”

“Neighbors!” Pham busted out and held out his fist. “Minnesota, represent!”

Gracie bumped fists with him as Halci shot an irritated look in his direction. “Graduate history student, part-time barista. Passion for video games. You’re my helmsman.”

Gracie was stunned and crossed her arms. “Why me? I’m not even a real pilot. I can’t fly a spaceship!”

Her protestation seemed to touch off a spark with the rest of the crew because they all started complaining to Halci at once, demanding to know why they were there, and Mrs. Jensen declaring in her booming voice that she wanted to go home now and slamming her hand down on the table. Captain Halci jumped and held up her hands in a placating gesture as Stanley bellowed, “And what’s all this talk about a spaceship?” 

Pham grabbed him by the sleeve and tugged him over to the curtain. Stanley shoved the fabric aside, took one look at the cockpit, and then let out a string of vile obscenities that quieted Mrs. Jensen and Gracie. A moment of silence descended upon them, broken only by Pham’s hysterical laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. 

Halci waited until he subsided into tiny giggles and turned up the volume on her voice. “Everyone! Sit down, please, and I will explain!” The small crew looked at one another, then shuffled over to the benches and sat around the table. Halci waved one of her hands and a small command chair appeared on her dais. She settled down into the chair and crossed one leg over the other. Halci steepled her fingers and gave each one of them an appraising look. It was like having a Barbie doll judge you. “Right.” Halcion took a deep, cleansing breath as if she were collecting herself. “Are we calm, humans? Are we ready to listen?”

Mrs. Jensen opened her mouth, but Gracie nudged her hard with her elbow. She wanted to hear what the tiny captain had to say. The older woman glared at her but shut her mouth.

“A few millennia ago,” Halci began, “a people named the Lorcons were forced to abandon their homes when their planet was conquered by a species called the Clooda. The Lorcons fled many light years and star systems before they discovered earth, which was much like their home planet. They were disappointed to discover that earth was already populated, though. The Lorcons moved on, only to find that there were no other planets on which they could settle. Resources were depleted and the Lorcons grew desperate. They had just enough fuel and supplies to return to earth and were forced to settle down here and integrate themselves with human society.”

“Wait,” Stanley interrupted. “You’re telling me that aliens have been living on earth for the last several centuries?”

“Since what you call the Bronze Age, yep,” Halci confirmed. The crew glanced around at each other and Mrs. Jensen snorted in derision, but Halci held up her hand. “I know what you’re about to say, Sylvia, that you think you’d be able to tell if aliens were living among you. The fact is that you cannot. Lorcons are physically identical to humans, except for one feature.”

“And what’s that?” Mrs. Jensen asked.

Halci pointed to her chin. “Their chins. I’m designed in their image.”

“So Lorcons have butt chins?” Pham asked before giggling again. “That’s how you tell the difference?” 

“They prefer ‘chin cleft,’” Halci corrected. “But yes, though it’s not a defining trait because they’ve interbred with humans over the centuries. Some humans have the chin cleft and are unaware of their ancestry, but purebred Lorcons all have distinctive chin clefts.”

“Ok, so what does that have to do with us?” asked Gracie.

“A lot,” answered Halci. “Lorcons deployed a series of sensor buoys on our journey here. Two years ago, they discovered that the Clooda is on the move and they are headed for earth. If we don’t stop them in their tracks before they get here, they will destroy all life on the planet and take it for themselves.”

“So earth is in peril,” Stanley reiterated. 

“Yes,” the captain nodded.

“And they’ve tapped us to help?” Pham added.

Halci nodded again.

“Are you insane?” Mrs. Jensen asked, throwing her hands in the air. “We’re just a bunch of ordinary people. We don’t know how to stop an invading alien species…”

“If you’d let me finish!” Halci shrieked and they all winced. She’d turned up the volume on her voice again and it was painful to their ears. Halci stood and started pacing the dais, her hands clasped behind her back. “There are only ten thousand purebred Lorcons left on earth. That isn’t enough to stop the Clooda and if we tried to reveal the existence of alien life to your planet at this point in your development to ask for your help, it would cause chaos. Forgive me, but many humans are pretty damn xenophobic and downright stupid. Some of the more ignorant members of your species would start attacking anyone with a cleft chin. We wanted to avoid further problems and the deaths of innocent people, both human and Lorcon.”

Again the crew looked at each other and no one had to say anything. They knew what Halci said about human xenophobia was true.

“But,” Halci continued, sitting back down in her chair, “we know that not all humans are like that. There are seven billion humans on earth and some of you are quite open-minded and would be willing to help, given the chance. The problem was identifying the right ones.”

“I don’t remember filling out an application for defending the planet and going to an interview,” Stanley snarked. 

Halci smiled at him. “Of course you don’t. That’s because you didn’t. That’s not how we operate. We knew that our most likely candidates would be people who are already open to the possibility of life on other planets and had been exposed to such ideas.”

“So scientists?” asked Mrs. Jensen.

“Some,” Halci nodded at her. “Our candidates come from all different ages and backgrounds, as you can see in this group. You were identified at a recent comic convention that we sponsored. Do you remember signing up for a free trip?”

“I knew it!” Gracie bellowed. “That lady at the convention looked just like you, Halci!”

“Did she?” the captain asked, but Gracie couldn’t tell if she was acting obtuse on purpose or not.

Pham let out an unexpected groan. “LorCon last month? LorCon…Lorcon. Oh, that’s just bad.”

A sadistic chuckle escaped the little captain. “Who says aliens can’t have a sense of humor? It’s our personal in-joke. And yes, we did some background checking on the people who signed up for our little ‘free trip’ and identified the ones whom we figured would be good candidates to defend the earth. Congratulations, that was all of you. Welcome to your free trip.”

“I only went for the cosplay workshops!” Pham protested. “I didn’t sign up for this kind of thing! I didn’t go to a con just to get…conned. I mean, drafted! I’m not even old enough to get drafted! My parents are going to kill me!”

The others chimed in, Gracie saying she’d gone to watch a gaming tournament. Mrs. Jensen had gone to get autographs from some of her favorite sci-fi stars and to win the trivia contest. Stanley had gone for the comic books and the superhero artwork.

“I suppose none of you read the fine print?” Halci asked. “You humans never do. You agreed to come on this trip when you signed the paper.”

“This is legally dubious at best!” Gracie growled. “I want my lawyer.”

Halci gave her a creepy, wolfish smile full of perfect white teeth. “Your lawyer is a few light years away, Gracie.”

Stanley looked livid. “So I guess we can’t refuse? I mean, you’ve already taken us away from our lives and families on earth against our wills, brought us up here into space, and even given us ridiculous uniforms.”

Halci glanced down at her own uniform and sniffed. “I think the uniforms are quite fashion forward. Colors and a style that complement every figure and…”

“Listen, Barbie,” Mrs. Jensen hissed at her and thrust her face forward so that she was only inches away from Halci. “I wasn’t asked to do this. I’m certainly not going to be ordered around by a pint-sized hologram. What I want is to be returned to earth now. I’m not going to fight in your war.”

The larger woman didn’t intimidate the captain. “I can’t force you to fight, of course,” she replied, her voice even as she gazed up into Mrs. Jensen’s face. “But tactical is a strategic system and I will need you at your station if we’re going to succeed in our mission. You will compromise the lives of your fellow crew members if you don’t cooperate.” Halci stood up and poked Mrs. Jensen in the nose with a tiny finger. Mrs. Jensen flinched. “But let me make this clear, Sylvia Jensen: I am not turning this ship around and we are not going back to earth until we are finished.”

“How long is that going to take?” Gracie asked. “Not to be rude, but I kind of have a thesis to write.”

“I’ll lose my teaching job,” Stanley pointed out.

“I haven’t even finished high school, bro!” Pham added. “I’ve got AP exams to take next month. I want to go to college, not fight in a war. And man, I’m not even old enough to legally sign stuff. My parents still gotta do that for me. I think you’re breaking the law, lady.”

Captain Halci let out a slow sigh. “Do you think you’re the only ones we’ve chosen to fight?” she asked. “Really? Four humans and a clever computer program against thirty million Clooda? We’ve been recruiting for the last year and we’ll continue to do so to build our forces. You are our trial crew, so you should be pleased that we chose you first. And we’re planning on rotating out the crews so that there’s minimal impact to your lives on earth and maximum damage to our mutual foe. You’ll be back home tomorrow and no one will be the wiser. Consider yourself extremely part-time fighters. The next time you’re needed, you’ll wake up again on this ship. That could be days or weeks from now, depending on what intelligence we receive on Clooda movements and plans. You’re called as needed.”

“Like the Reserves,” Stanley concluded. “Weekend warriors.”

“And what happens if we choose to reveal the threat to the rest of the world?” asked Mrs. Jensen.

Gracie eyed her. “That’s easy, Mrs. Jensen. No one would believe us. Do you think the Lorcons would still call in their human reserves if they’re in the mental hospital?”

“That’s one way to escape from the funny farm,” Stanley chuckled. “Excuse me, docs. I gotta leave because I have to go save the planet. The Lorcons need me!”

“Joke all you want,” the Captain replied, frowning at her human charges. “But the threat is real. We depend on humans like you to keep all of us safe.”

“You mentioned a mission,” Gracie said. “What exactly are we supposed to accomplish in one night?” 

Halci crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “I’m glad you asked. The Clooda have set up a long range observation post on a planet in Alpha Centauri.”

“The stellar system next door?” asked Pham and the captain shot him a thumbs up.

“Yep. Our goal is to take out the observation post. We think they suspect we’re up to something, but we don’t think they know about our plan to recruit humans to help us fight. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just ten thousand or so Lorcons against…”

“Thirty million Clooda,” Stanley cut in. “That’s what you said earlier. I guess they think it will be easy to conquer earth with the odds in their favor?”

“Exactly. We need to keep them in the dark for a while longer or we risk them accelerating their long-term invasion plans and attacking sooner than we’re ready. We need time to build up our forces and ships. We’re going to blow up that observation post.”

There was a long silence as the crew looked at each other. The expressions on their faces showed that all of them were uneasy with the idea. 

Gracie broke the silence. “Don’t we get to run a training mission or something first?” she asked. “You know, go through the game tutorial?”

“That would take too long,” Halci answered. “We want to have you back tomorrow.”

“But none of us know how to fly this ship!” Stanley argued. “There’s a damn good chance we aren’t going to get home if we don’t at least learn how to operate this boat.”

“Gracie can fly the ship just fine. I have complete confidence in her abilities and I do most of the work, actually,” the little captain told him as she got up. Her chair disappeared from the dais.

“Then what do you need us for, if you can do this all by yourself?” Pham asked as he leaned forward and crossed his arms so that he was up close to the captain. He didn’t sound upset, only curious.

Halci smiled a little at his confusion. “I can’t do it all myself. I’m just a computer and I’m programmed to do what I’m supposed to do. What I lack is human ingenuity and instinct, Pham. That’s something that no computer can replace and the Lorcons don’t know how to replicate. It’s intangible.” She leaned on his thumb and looked up at him. “If there’s one thing that Lorcons have learned to appreciate and never underestimate, it’s human determination and spirit in the face of danger. You guys never give up or quit when you’re faced with insurmountable challenges. Many Lorcons voted to surrender to the Clooda because there’s nowhere else for them to go. They voted for their own total annihilation. The other Lorcons knew that wasn’t fair because humans didn’t get a say and there’s far more of you than them. They knew you’d vote to fight for your world. They knew that they’d need humans at the controls of their ships in the heat of battle.”

“That’s really cool and all, captain, ma’am, but Stanley is right. Human ingenuity and spirit aren’t going to save us if we don’t know how the ship works,” Pham answered.

Halci straightened and tugged at her uniform. “Many factors went into choosing you for this mission. I know this may seem odd, but one of the deciding factors was your familiarity with science fiction. That’s one reason why we chose to recruit at a science fiction convention. It’s my understanding that you’ve all seen a lot of science fiction television shows.” She began rambling off titles, “Star Trek? Stargate? Battlestar Galactica? Doctor Who? Dark Matter? Babylon Five? Star Wars?”

“You forgot Farscape,” Mrs. Jensen mumbled.

“And Firefly,” added Gracie.

“Lexx,” put in Stanley

“Nobility!” Pham shouted. “Man, that show is the best.”

“Yes, yes,” Halci waved a hand. “The point is, you’ve all seen those shows and you’re familiar with the technobabble and how they run. I don’t have to teach you how to operate a starship because you already know how just from watching hard science fiction.”

Gracie put her hands on her hips. “Captain., watching TV is a lot different from real life. I know what photon torpedoes are, but I don’t know when I’m supposed to fire them or at what safe distance or anything.”

“You won’t have to,” Halci folded her hands behind her back and paced across the dais. “You’re the pilot. Sylvia’s job is launching the photon torpedoes.”

“I told you! I’m not launching any torpedoes!” 

Halci turned to stare at Mrs. Jensen as Pham’s eyes grew wide. “Do we really have photon torpedoes?” he asked. “And…like, phasers? Maybe a cloaking device? Transporters? Hyperdrive? Warpdrive? Multiphasic shielding? Neutrino emitter? Subspace transceiver? Deflector dish? Long range sensors? Food replicator?” Pham shot upwards in excitement and bounced in place. “Do we have a holodeck?” A thought crossed his mind and Pham’s eyes grew huge. He leaned forward and breathed out in a husky voice, “Can we visit Risa, captain? Please?”

“Down, boy,” the captain answered. “I suppose now is a good time as any to show you schematics.” 

She disappeared and a three-dimensional image of their ship appeared above the table, rotating slowly. The ship was painted a glaring white. The main body of the ship was an octagon shape, with a smaller pentagonal shaped bridge with transparent viewscreens, offering a three hundred and sixty-degree view. Two small torpedo launchers were tucked under the fore part of the ship, resembling a set of feet. A pair of enormous circular engines were arranged on the belly of the aft section, looking like back haunches. A set of large oval shaped dishes protruded vertically from on top of the bridge section. At the front of the bridge was a small red deflector dish, resembling a nose. Countless strange tubes stuck out from all over the surface of the ship.

“Welcome to the Caerbannog.” Halci’s voice floated from nowhere. “She’s a class three armored destroyer. Her weapons consist of dual torpedo launchers and multi-directional fusion grenades. She’s got a reinforced titanium hull and the latest in shield technology. Isn’t she a beauty?”

“She looks like a giant white rabbit having a bad hair day,” deadpanned Mrs. Jensen. 

“I think she’s terrific,” Stanley countered as he patted the wall of the ship next to him. “Maybe the Lorcons are better at weapons and defensive tech rather than starship design.”

“Thank you, Stanley,” Halci chirped as the ship disappeared and she rematerialized. “Now as much as I’d like to stand around all day and chat, we have a mission to accomplish.” She gestured towards the cockpit curtain. “If you would all take your places?”

The crew got up and shuffled off towards the front of the ship. Gracie noticed Mrs. Stanley was moving slowly, arms crossed, and a scowl on her face. She wondered if the crotchety old lady would be of any real help if they ran into trouble. That was worrying, considering that Mrs. Stanley was their tactician. What if she refused to fire the weapons?

Gracie didn’t have time to contemplate Mrs. Jensen’s contrary nature as she entered the small bridge and Captain Halci flickered into life on the small dais at the front. “You, there,” she said, pointing at Gracie and then at the yoke controls on the left side that she’d noticed earlier. Gracie sat down.

Halci directed Mrs. Stanley to sit on the right side opposite of Gracie. Stanley sat in the seat behind the pilot and Pham sat behind tactical. All of the humans studied their stations. The buttons on the control panels were rather big and colorful, with their functions printed in large black block letters. “Did Fisher-Price design this thing?” Mrs. Jensen asked, sarcasm dripping in her voice. “This looks like a toddler’s toy!” She said what the rest of the crew was thinking. 

“She’s right, it’s ‘My First Spaceship!’” Pham chimed in.

Halci wasn’t offended. “Caerbannog is very basic,” she agreed. “And it is your first spaceship. Her controls are very limited, it’s true, but it’s enough to get you started. I will make suggestions and these stations are adaptive, so the controls will become more complex as you do more missions and become familiar with her functions.”

“So we’ve got a spaceship with training wheels?” Stanley asked. “And you expect us to take out an observation post with this thing?”

“Yes. The weapons work just fine,” Halci answered.

“I can see that,” Mrs. Jensen snorted. “I can’t exactly miss the bright yellow ‘torpedoes’ and ‘grenades’ buttons, not to mention the big red ‘fire’ button as big as my hand.”

Before Halci could reply, an alarm started going off and Gracie’s station lit up. “What’s happening!” Pham shouted. “Are we being attacked? Is it the Clooda?”

“Chill,” Gracie told him as she noticed a display screen scrolling instructions in front of her. “We’re coming out of sub-light speed and the ship is…uh…” she read the directions. “Switching to manual now?!”

“Yep,” Captain Halci confirmed. “You might want to grab the yoke.”

Gracie grabbed at the controls as the ship shuddered and the streaming stars turned into solid pinpoints of light.

“Pham, scan for the observation post,” Captain Halci ordered. 

“Ok!” He pushed the ‘scan’ button and looked at his display. “Ok, I think got it. It’s a structure on a planet about about 80,000 kilometers from here. It’s putting out a lot of energy.”

“There’s no need for the Lorcons to disguise it,” Halci answered. “They’ll be able to detect us, though. Gracie, I’m sending a set of coordinates to your station. Set a course for that small moon on the other side of the planet and then all stop there. It will shield us from their scanners and we’ll go over the attack plan there.”

Gracie glanced at the coordinates that came up on her screen, then gripped the yoke and took a deep breath. She was well aware that this was real life, much different than a flight simulation. There was no reset this time; the crew’s lives were in her hands. If she came too close to the moon’s gravitational field or lost control of the ship, she could crash and kill all of them, except for Halci. Gracie found the thruster and engine controls, which were bright blue buttons, and she tapped at them. The Caerbannog shot forward and she guided the ship towards the coordinates. “Doesn’t this thing have autopilot?”

“Only for hyperspace. She has to be guided in actual space.” 

“Oh.” Damn. Gracie had been hoping the computer could take over for her. She flew carefully around the moon, closing in on the coordinates, then cut the thrusters so they could glide into place high above the gray rocky surface of the moon. A bright yellow button with “geosynchronous orbit” written on it started flashing and she pushed it, then took her hands off the yoke. “That’s it? That was…easy.”

“Yep!” Halci answered. She sat up straighter and perched on the edge of her tiny chair. “All right, crew. Here’s the attack plan: we’re going to wait until we come just around the edge of moon’s vertical horizon, when we’re still out of scanning range.” Her small blue eyes flickered to each of the crew members as her voice grew clipped and efficient. “We’re going to fire up the launchers and send a barrage of eight missiles at the Clooda right as we swing around the moon in five minutes.” A timer with large red digital numbers appeared above her head and began counting down. “They won’t know where the missiles will have come from and they won’t have time to find out, either, before the missiles take them out. It’s quick, it’s clean, and it’s effective. We’ll be long gone before the Clooda realize their post has gone silent and send a ship to investigate. Any questions?”

The change in Halci made the crew uneasy. An unspoken current of fear rippled through the human members of the crew and they looked at each other, recognizing their own concerns reflected in the countenances of their companions.

“Yeah,” barked Mrs. Jensen, tearing her gaze away from her shipmates to glare at the captain. “I got a question for you. Several, actually.”

Halci regarded her without saying a word, only nodding her head.

“So you say these Lorcons are our enemies, yeah? That they’re coming here to take over the planet and they’re going to kill all of us?”

“I believe that’s what I told you,” Halci replied cooly.

“So how do we know that you’re not lying to us?” Mrs. Jensen challenged. “Why should we trust you? How do we know that you’re not some kind of evil Lorcon computer and the Clooda are actually peaceful and you’re using us to instigate an interstellar war? For all we know, the Lorcons are the evil ones and we’re just tools for you to kill innocent people.” She crossed her arms and made a harumphing sound. “Lady, I’m the national sci-fi trivia champion. I know a trope when I see one and I’m not playing your game.”

“Captain, I don’t want to murder anyone,” Pham whimpered in a quiet voice before Halci had a chance to answer Mrs. Jensen’s challenge. He was shaking from fright as the reality of their situation came over him. 

“I don’t know what’s true or not anymore,” Stanley added. “For all I know, you are telling the truth, but Mrs. Jensen is right. What proof do you have?” He reached over and put a hand on Pham’s trembling shoulder to calm the boy down. “Anyway, what kind of people would bring a child into battle?” There was anger in his voice now.

Halci turned her head and regarded Gracie. “Do you have anything to add?”

Gracie raised both eyebrows. “Nope, just to second that I’d like to see some hard proof first.”

Halci stood up and glanced at the timer above her head. There were two and a half minutes remaining. “I wasn’t programmed to prove to you that I’m telling the truth,” she pointed out. 

“Then abort the mission,” Gracie countered. “Simple. We’ll fly the ship home and…”

“No!” Captain Halci insisted. “I cannot. I was programmed to carry out this mission and only Lorcon High Command can cancel it. I obey only them and we will complete our mission at all costs.”

The four humans stared at their holographic captain in shocked silence for about five seconds before everyone began talking at once. 

“This is like that episode of Voyager with the crazy self-aware missile…” Mrs. Jensen roared. “Self-aware computers are a menace!”

“I want to go home!” Pham wailed.

“I ain’t gonna do it!” Stanley hollered, slamming his hands down on his control panel.

“Computers can be reprogrammed,” Gracie said, her voice low and quiet. 

Halci heard her and tilted her head to one side, smiling a little, as if she found the idea amusing. “In the next two minutes, Graciela? I don’t think you can do that. My computer systems are way beyond anything you’ve ever seen before. You can’t reprogram me.”

“Then we’ll take you offline,” Mrs. Jensen snapped.

“I’m the brains of this ship, Mrs. Jensen,” Halci answered, her voice taking on a mocking tone. “Even if you could figure out how to turn me off, which I highly doubt, you’d never get home without me.”

“Is that so?” Mrs. Jensen snapped. “We could bypass your systems. Gracie could fly us home.”

“No, she can’t,” Halci replied, curling her lips up into a condescending sneer. “You’ve forgotten that the ‘o’ and ‘n’ in my name stand for ‘onboard navigator.’” 

“Not a problem” Gracie chimed in. She stared down into Halci’s cold blue eyes. “We’ve still got sensors that pinpoint our position in the cosmos. I can navigate from galactic central point using the galactic coordinate system to get us home. As you’ve said, I’ve watched a lot of science fiction.” 

“Face it, Barbie,” Mrs. Jensen jeered. “We don’t need you.”

Halci sat down with all the bearing of a haughty queen facing down a rebellion, crossing one long leg over the other, gripping the armrests of her chair. “First day on the job and my crew is already trying to mutiny. The Lorcon computer programmers are never going to hear the end of this when we get home.” She sighed and added, “Look, it doesn’t really matter if you need me or not. Your people and my people need you. There’s less than a minute until we come into scanning range and you’re too busy having a moral and ethical crisis and planning a mutiny. Meanwhile, if you don’t destroy that observation post, then the Clooda will be alerted and this whole mission will be for nothing. So, you need to choose whom to believe: me or them.” She glanced above her head. “You have thirty seconds.”

The four humans looked at each other, each wanting someone to take the initiative and make a decision as the seconds ticked down.

With fifteen seconds to go, Stanley asked, “Can this thing intercept and jam their communication traffic? You didn’t say.”

Halci nodded. “Yes. Green button on your panel, Stanley.” 

He pushed the button as the ship swung around the side of the moon, jamming all transmissions from the post.

“I got an idea,” Stanley said, spinning in his chair to face the others. “Let’s try the ‘wait and see approach.’ We’ve stopped them from contacting anyone for now. Let’s see what kind of messages they send when they notice us.”

Nothing happened for a few minutes as the crew sat in silence. An orange button marked “incoming transmission” began flashing on Stanley’s panel. “Should I push it?” he asked. 

“No,” Halci replied.

At the same time, the rest of the crew said, “Yes!”

Stanley shrugged at the captain and pushed the button. Halci bellowed, “I told you no, Stanley!”

“Unknown vessel, identify yourself,” a deep voice crackled through the speakers. The pitch and timber were so alien that it made the hair stand up on the back of everyone’s neck.

Halci glared at Stanley for disobeying her as Gracie said, “Hi. So…um…this is the Lorcon space vessel Caerbannog. We hear you might be interested in some prime real estate, a lovely little place by the name of the earth? We’re jamming your signals while we wait for you to confirm your intentions with our home world.”

There was no response at first, then the cockpit panels lit up like a Christmas tree on crack and alarms started going off all over the place. “What’s going on?” Pham screamed. “Are we crashing?”

“Afraid not,” Mrs. Jensen replied. “It says here they’ve fired a missile at us. Impact in sixty seconds.” She glanced at Halci. “Huh. Guess you were telling us the truth, Barbie.”

Halci just raised an eyebrow. “I highly suggest we raise shields and return fire.” 

Gracie looked out the viewscreen and gasped. She could see the bright light of a missile hurtling through space right at them. “Hold on!” she screamed as she gripped the yoke and fired the engines in a futile attempt to outrun the missile. She was dismayed, but not surprised when she saw the missile changing course to follow their escape trajectory. 

The stars whirled and Pham groaned. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Mrs. Jensen,” Captain Halcion said through gritted teeth. “Please raise those shields.”

“Wait. I want to know something first,” Mrs. Jensen stalled.

The rest of the crew erupted into angry shouts. “Are you nuts?” bellowed Stanley. “Raise the shields, woman!”

Halci was calm, though, “And what’s that, Mrs. Jensen?”

“John Travolta.”

“What about him?”

“That butt chin of his. Does that mean he’s a Lorcon?”

Captain Halci was silent for a moment as she accessed her databanks. “Yes. He’s one of the Lorcon leaders.”

“Ha!” Mrs. Jensen crowed in triumph as she reached over and punched the bright red button marked ‘shields.’ “I knew it! That man is far too weird to be human. Shields active.”

Halci glared around at the crew. “Do I have all of you convinced that we need to destroy that observation post?”

“Hell yes, I’m convinced!” Stanley boomed and they all echoed his sentiments. 

“Good!” Halci slapped her hands together and rubbed them hard in anticipation, then spun her chair around to face the viewscreen. “Let’s get this party started. First, that missile needs to be taken care of. Mrs. Jensen, on my mark, drop three concussion grenades from our aft tubes. Gracie, pull up hard on the yoke and head back for that post, full throttle.” She paused. “Three, two, one, mark!”

Gracie yanked hard and the little ship climbed as Mrs. Jensen released the grenades. Only seconds later, there was a huge explosion off their rear and the ship rocked for a brief second. “Missile’s gone!” reported Mrs. Jensen and the crew cheered.

“Mrs. Jensen, lock onto that observation post and send a couple of torpedoes down to our Clooda friends.”

“Aye, captain,” Mrs. Jensen answered, tapping at the buttons as they lit up on her control panel. Halci smiled to herself. It was the first time that her tactical officer had acknowledged her authority. 

As Gracie flew them closer to the planet, the radio crackled again. The deep voice was chuckling in an unpleasant way. “Destroy us if you wish, Lorcons. It matters not. We’ve defeated you before and we will do it again. Earth will be ours.”

“Maybe, but we’ve got some allies this time. Say hello to the human race, Clooda,” Halci responded. She nodded at Mrs. Jensen, who pushed the launch button.

The crew watched the missiles streak from the belly of the ship. Moments later, the base erupted into a fireball of flames and roiling smoke. 

None of them spoke for several moments, but then Pham leaped up from his seat, one hand covering his mouth. He raced through the curtain and they could hear the distant sounds of him retching in the lavatory.

“Poor kid,” Stanley said softly, breaking the silence.

“I’m setting a course back towards home. Gracie, your flying skills are no longer needed.” The yoke shuddered once under Gracie’s hands and then stiffened. The stars outside whirled around in a dizzying arc as the ship changed direction and then turned into streaking lines as they entered hyperspace. 

Halci spun back around to face the crew, leaned back, and steepled her fingers. She gazed around at all of them. “Well done, crew. Your first mission was a success and I look forward to our next one together.”

Gracie, Stanley, and Mrs. Jensen all looked at each other. “I don’t know about you guys,” Stanley drawled, “but I don’t think I want to go on a second mission, not unless I’m asked first.”

“I agree,” Gracie confirmed and turned to hiss at Halci. “You can take this back to Lorcon High Command, or whoever it is that programmed you.” She poked an angry finger at Halci’s stomach and the hologram started in surprise. “You guys have been on earth for thousands of years, according to what you’ve told us. Maybe you think that you know humans by now, but you are so wrong. Humans don’t like surprises. You really need to find a better way to recruit your soldiers than tricking them into deadly situations, like this one. We could have been killed today, Halci!”

“I’m all for the defense of earth in the face of alien invasions and such,” Mrs. Jensen chimed in, “but there’s also the matter that we have something called free will, Barbie. Humans need to have the freedom to choose. Even the hippies who protested the last military draft could be conscientious objectors.”

“Or run off to Canada,” Gracie added. “But the idea is that they all had a choice and knew what they were signing up for. Get rid of the fine print.”

“And stop recruiting children!” Stanley insisted. “There needs to be some sort of age requirement.”

Captain Halci looked around at her livid crew and pinched her lips together. “I’m just a computer program,” she answered. “However, I will relay your concerns to the Lorcons when they download me for a debriefing of today’s mission. I cannot promise anything will change.”

“Well, you can tell them that their recruits aren’t going to cooperate unless they start taking our demands into consideration,” Gracie asserted. “That isn’t optional.”

“And I think you’d be surprised how many people would step up to the defense of earth if you just asked,” Mrs. Jensen added. “Recruit however you want, but just tell them the truth and ask.”

Pham reappeared at the doorway. He gave Halci a watery grin. “Yeah, bro,” he croaked. “The geeks and nerds will save the earth. All you got to do is ask first.”

Halci again promised to pass on their issues with the Lorcons. She had them return to their bunks and lie down, telling them that they’d wake up in their respective homes on earth. Gracie had no idea what the others were thinking about their unexpected adventure aboard the Caerbannog, but she was relieved at the idea of returning home. As she said goodbye to Mrs. Jensen and clambered to the upper bunk, she reflected that the reality of science fiction wasn’t as much fun as she thought it would be. 

Her thoughts drifted off as a blue light washed over her face and she drifted off to sleep. I really hope the Lorcons listen…were her final thoughts before unconsciousness overtook her.

Two months later…

Gracie edged her way through the thick throng of people at the local Warlock World convention, keeping her eyes peeled for the booth touting the release of the newest flight simulation game. She was eager to give the game a try and find out if it was worth the exorbitant price she’d seen advertised in the last copy of Gamer’s World. 

As had happened often lately, Gracie’s thoughts drifted to the events on the Caerbannog. Just as the captain had said, she’d woken up in her bed, wearing her usual clothing. The whole adventure taking out the Clooda observation post had seemed like a dream, but it had been so real. She hadn’t had any more dreams like that one and she remembered that Captain Halcion had said they’d go on another mission, but nothing had happened. Gracie suspected that maybe the crew’s defiance and demands for change had somehow disqualified them from future assignments. Maybe they’d moved on to four other humans who would be more compliant and less demanding. While part of her was relieved, a smaller part of her was disappointed. She had enjoyed her stint as the pilot of a starship, no matter how brief it had been. 

Gracie edged around a group of teen girls, all dressed like various incarnations of Harley Quinn. As she ducked under one of the girl’s mallet, she found herself face-to-face with a very familiar looking blonde lady who sported a prominent chin cleft. She was the very image of Captain Halcion, but about six or seven times bigger. “Graciela?” 

Gracie froze and the theme song from The Twilight Zone started tinkling in her mind. “You!” she stammered.

“I think there’s someone who would like to see you,” the woman replied, seeming unfazed at Gracie’s shocked reaction. “If you’ll just follow me.” She turned and started to make her way through the crowd. Gracie followed, too bewildered and curious to argue.

“Captain Halci?” she queried after a minute.

The blonde woman half-turned and gave Gracie a smile that was a little creepy because her teeth were too perfect. “No. HALCION is a computer program, but I was used as her template.”

Gracie almost stopped in her tracks as the theme in her head grew louder. Halci’s enormous doppelganger lead her to a simple booth that was off the main aisle of the convention floor, on the backside of the area where the science fiction stars had their autograph signing booths. There was a single table covered with a green and brown table cloth. A large banner with the Lorcan-Earth logo hung from the blue curtain partition in the back. “Want to save the Earth from alien invaders?” the banner read. “Ask us how!” In smaller letters below were the words, “Must be 18 to participate. Not all recruits will be selected to participate. No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.”

On the table was a clipboard with a sign-up sheet and a stack of brochures. Sitting behind the table was a familiar looking kid in a brown and purple furry costume, minus the head. “Everything all right, Pham?” the blonde woman asked. 

“Shipshape, ma’am! Three more recruits signed up in the last five minutes,” Pham replied and saluted. He spotted Gracie and bounded out of his chair. “Gracie!”

Gracie gasped as he swept her up into a hug. “Pham? What’s all this?” she wheezed out. Pham was a champion hugger.

“We followed your advice and tweaked our recruitment strategy,” the woman explained as she took over the table, handing a brochure to a middle-aged man wearing a Firefly shirt. “Full consent, full disclosure. No more deception.”

“Since I come to these conventions all the time,” Pham gestured to his costume, “they said I could help with recruitment until I’m eighteen. I get a free VIP pass and everything! I’ve been here the last few hours.”

“That’s plenty of time, Pham,” the woman replied. “Go have some fun and we’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks!” the teen crowed and fished for the fox head of his costume under the table, where it was hidden. He tucked the head under his arm and turned to Gracie. “I’ve got to meet my friends soon, but can I buy you a Coke or something?”

“Why not?” Gracie finally managed to say in a weak voice. Everything had happened so fast. She followed Pham around the corner. “I haven’t been on another mission,” she said. “They haven’t come for me.”

“All of the people who originally signed up at LorCon were withdrawn. You have to sign up willingly now,” Pham told her. “The Lorcons wanted to start off fresh, I guess.”

“Oh.”

They moved into the autograph area, right next to the private entrance where security ushered the stars in and out of the convention hall. The doors opened right as they were passing in front of them and they found themselves face to face with John Barrowman, one of the celebrity guests. 

The three stared at each other for a moment, then John cracked a pearly white grin and said, “Nice job on that observation post mission. If the rest of the recruits are anything like you two, I think the earth is going to be just fine.” Before they could reply, he shot them a double thumbs-up and strode off towards his booth, to the cheering of the massive amounts of fans that stood in line waiting for him.

“John Barrowman…” Pham stated.

“…Is an alien,” Gracie finished. 

The two looked at each other. “Well,” Pham drawled, “he does have a chin cleft. And he is too perfect for this world, so I guess it makes sense that he’s from another planet and works for an organization that’s trying to save earth from alien invasion.”

Gracie busted out into laughter. “Pham, you just explained the premise of Torchwood!”

Pham grinned back at her, “Life imitating art, yeah? That’s awesome!”

They continued on towards the snack bar. “‘The twenty-first century is when everything changes,’” Gracie quoted the show. “Do you think we’ll be ready?”

Pham laughed. “With us on watch, heck yes!”

Gracie stopped in her tracks. “Except I’m not on watch anymore, am I?” Gracie turned around. “I’ll catch up with you in the snack bar, Pham. I’ve got to take care of something first.” She took off towards the Lorcan-Earth recruitment booth.

“You go, Gracie!” Pham yelled after her. “Save the planet, bro!”

The End.

About the Author

[*Heather *]has been involved with Save Sci-Fi almost since its inception. She has been a science fiction fan since she was a small child. Heather is an avid Doctor Who fan, so much that she tapped into her rusty theatrical background and produced the US premiere of Stalking John Barrowman the Musical in 2015. Mr. Barrowman himself loaned his voice talents to the show and seemed amused at the whole affair. Part of the inspiration for “Lorconned” came from the numerous science fiction and comic conventions she attended as part of promoting the musical. She is a certified reading specialist and spends her days haranguing teenagers, discussing books, and turning the next generation into productive literate members of society. Heather’s hobbies include knitting and crochet, freelance editing, playing guitar, traveling, and writing. Her story “Lost and Found TARDIS” was selected for publication in the short-story collection [The Doctor and I _]in 2013. She is the creator of _Gwyddion, originally intended to be a science fiction web series, but now being turned into a book series. Current writing projects include [_Astral, _]a fantasy series, and [_Bodie Boneseer, _]a young adult mystery series. Heather is married with one daughter and resides in Pflugerville, Texas

Errant Sky

By Stephen Landry

Nothing worth having is easily obtained. The engines kicked into neutral as the EmDrive began to cool down. We were waking up from stasis, eight months in a frozen state. We were in drift just as we passed the dark side of the moon. I had been dreaming of the stories my parents used to tell me as a child. Sitting around a holographic bonfire reading from tablets plugged into the wall. I could hear them repeating in my head now. Stories about gods and goddesses, angels, demons, samurais and long journeys from one side of the world to another. They had told me stories of warriors that battled dragons, and monkeys that flew on and above the clouds. I lost both my parents during an uprising. We were trying to flee the station which we lived. I made it out and onto a colonization ship because of them. I spent the best part of my childhood as a refugee trying not to starve, or be thrown out an airlock.

The inside of our ship, our skyblade, was cold. Freezing. It was hard to move at first. I put on my black cargo pants and a white t-shirt that read ‘karma killz’. My clothing was casual but sewn with bulletproof fibers so it could take a beating. It would also help to protect me if I lost my heavy combat armor. The air was stale. The air filters had just been powered on in our area of the ship. It would take days before the smell of dust withered away.

First meal in eight months, stale rice, served with a nutrient shake with enough taurine to poison a small animal. I didn’t even have time to enjoy the fake chocolate taste. We were under attack.

“Unidentified object out of nowhere, it’s coming right towards us,” I heard one of the officers shout. From outside the ship it must have looked like a daemon had appeared in front of us. Materializing in the vast vacuum of space to crush us with its immense weight. Our skyblade sent out several small daggers, but the other craft was already upon us. The gravity well created between our two ships began to tear the hull apart. 

I rushed with several others to grab our rifles. In my locker I had an M33 with a Q configuration and another pneumatic rifle with a standard kinetic shot. The Q configuration was dangerous. A deadly rifle only to be used in worst case scenarios. The Q configuration drained qi or life force from its user, sucking minutes, days, even years away depending on how long you held the trigger, least that was what they told us in boot camp. I had only ever fired it once. A test fire. 3 seconds and I could feel the energy drained from my body. I didn’t believe the rifle actually took time away from your life, but rather it drained the life from you then and there. I kept it slung across my back but my pneumatic rifle was attached to my hip by a wolf sling. As I ran, the friction from every step I took gathered in small amounts inside my suit to power a battery on my belt. The pneumatic rifle attached to the battery by a small black cord that wrapped around my wrist and then ran into the battery itself. It could stretch out about three feet so if I dropped it I could easily yank either the rifle or the battery back. The chord could also detach and be used as a small rope or whip in case of emergencies.

I stood with the others around me at the airlock door as something began to cut through. We had no intel and very little time to prepare. Through the earpiece I listened closely for instructions. A few mercenaries came through. We gunned them down. They were quickly followed by a creature known to us as the proteus. A genetically engineered weapon of destruction. Bred between a Komodo dragon and wolverine. It broke through our ranks. It snapped at two of the men in front of me with its claws and teeth as we fired. I could feel sweat drip from my pores as I contemplated using my M33.

One clear shot I could kill the beast… but at what cost to my own life?

“Since when do mercs have a ship big enough to mess with us?” One of the men around me shouted.

“Someone must be paying them good, something down there they don’t want us to find,” said another.

A voice came through our comm. “They are attempting to stop us from nearing Earth. Seal the doors and get to the shuttle. Mission takes priority. Board the skyhook and retrieve, or destroy the lost technology,” the voice was cold, almost robotic.

“We have our orders, fall back, let ship deal with them,” said one of the soldiers taking point as we made our way to the shuttle. Several mercs stood in our way as the ship’s hull took more hits from above. Parts of the frame were bending. For about thirty seconds we lost gravity and had to push off the walls to propel ourselves towards the hatch that led to our shuttle. Each shuttle held about thirty. It took us two minutes to break away alongside seven other shuttles. Both blades exploded in space as we began to make our descent towards the skyhook.

It took eight minutes for us to disembark our shuttle, put on our combat gear and pack a backpack full of rations. With our skyblade gone it would take some time before the second ship arrived. We split into groups. We were the only ones that made it to the central station. 

From one layer of hell to another, our descent began. I could hear the stories in the back of my head. Prometheus gives humans fire and is punished for his crime. Pandora’s box opens and all the terrors of the world are unleashed upon mankind. In the bottom of the box lays hope.

As we made our way into the airlock of the skyhook station we broke off into squads once again. Soon we were all lost. 

A figure stood before me, long and thin. It’s skin looked like cracked leather, old and beaten. I couldn’t believe my eyes so I reached out and with the tips of my fingers drawn out I felt it. It felt like sandpaper, pieces of it tore away like bark from a tree. It was colder than the air around it. It smelt of sulfur, rotten eggs as it stood towering above me. The giant faded away just as quickly as it had appeared. Gone. There was nothing but dust. I breathed relief. I continued down the dark corridor. A part of me was afraid but this is what I had been trained for. It appeared again. For a moment, I felt like it was staring towards me with shallow black eyes, squeezing the sides of my soul. Some force from the other side tearing at my heart. I wanted to scream. I steadied my rifle in my hands. It would have been useless to fire, the energy blast from my weapon could tear through human flesh like tissue paper, but the giants were something else, ghosts, leftovers from the old world. I stood downwind from the husk of the creature now as it ignored me and turned away. I was Bren of the 13th squad, born of the sky, my loyalties were to the authority. I came to this dying world to salvage tech from the skyhook, ninety six thousand miles above the Earth.

“Mission failure,” I let the words roll from my tongue and through my comm as loud as I could. My voice sounding no louder than a whisper through the breather that covered my face. No one could hear me. At least no one answered back. Half my squad was dead or dying and the other half was lost in the abyss, divided by the ten thousand ropes and layers that make up the central station we came aboard. Our mission was straightforward… we had been to other systems in Sol dozens of times to salvage tech. This was our first mission back to Earth in hundreds of years. In a way, we were archeologists specially trained to seek out artifacts and bring them back for the colony. The authority had been eyeing this place for a while. A castle in the sky. The skyhook was a maze. Nearly endless. Built before my time, before the authority took center stage and before humanity abandoned the toxic Earth to venture into space. The skyhooks are a reminder of both our greatest achievements and our greatest failure. For a long time, they were the gateway from the cities below to space, impossible towers that could be seen far into the countryside. Once they were thought impossible but now here I stand in the ruined hallways, shaking with fear sharing the stale air with ghosts, creatures lost in time from the war long ago.

The human spirit is a beautiful thing. I can only imagine my ancestors as they came offline and saw the wonders of humankind. The seven wonders of the world were small and insignificant compared to the tethers that touched heaven’s gate. Once they all had names, these mass graves were alive and full of life. Ten thousand stories filled with companies of men and women who, like the Vikings of old, gathered and feasted, raising their arms to Valhalla. Far from their homes. They lived in no man’s land. In the sky. They were the first off world colonists. It took an entire society to keep the sky from falling. A society that felt little fear of heights and valued the company of their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and children. The skyhooks housed families, farmers, markets, school teachers, entire communities within themselves. Engineers kept their eyes on the line as cargo came and went, both from above and below. Still some cargo moved through the open bays shooting into the dark vacuum of space. Down below in the ruins of a thousand years ago, there was small society left behind on the ground, giving grace to their gods above. Worshiping the tower as if it was built by god himself. If they came here, they would gasp in terror. There gods were a lie. Like those before them, they fell to the toxic air. This place is a prison. Filled with ghosts. Abandoned after the world went dark. Generation after generation. No government could come to their aid. The elevators were lost. Societies trapped inside were stranded. Forests now grow miles above the Earth as the rope swings back and forth like a pendulum and around in circles creating the artificial gravity that keeps my feet close to the ground. I can feel the difference. This isn’t like the skyblade I have been calling home, the Luden, now gone, nor is it like the surface of any world I have ever been.

When the Earth became toxic one by one the castles in the sky fell. Like flowers their petals crashed to the ground. A few romantics tried their best, spending millions to keep the noose up and hung around the neck. A few managed to escape to the starships, the skyblades before they drifted into the dark where the authority and mercenaries came to power. The starships were gifted to us by the Hush, the giants who came and for a moment looked at us. The ghosts are all that remain of them now. They still haunt the corridors as I pass through, searching for my shuttle, alone, trapped in the maze of the tower. The giants were the first sentient life we found outside our own. They made us realize we were no longer alone. And soon after we found out we were no longer significant.

The hush came and went as we sang their praises, pointing at our mighty towers and our weapons of mass destruction. We were screaming for their attention. We could make power out of the elements. The sun, the wind, water, the crystals dug from the ground, and yet we chose fire. When they turned away from us we threw our rocks to the sky in anger. We fired upon them and they left the Earth poisoned, the human race split. Some stories say we destroyed all of them and all that is left are the spirits that wander like the quiet thin beast that stood before me. Other stories say that they left one ship behind as a test. An inferior vessel that they could, like a child’s toy, take away at any time.

The governments of the old world collapsed under the pressure as they rotted from within. The states blamed the Russians and the Chinese blamed the states. Finally everyone held two guns pointed at one another. Everyone pulled the trigger. The end of the world was just another Tuesday. The authority, or whoever they once were came into being. They took control of the giants’ vessel and from one came two, then three, and several dozen more. Humanity had made it to the stars, to live amongst the gods of heaven. The authority controlled the bulk of the outer regions while mercenaries drifted around the Lagrange points between the Earth and the moon. Drifting near the edge of the solar system where I was born.

It was my honor to serve the authority. They had taken me in when I was a refugee. Truth is, I had little choice. I could have starved or found mining work, maybe even joined one of the seed ships as they sailed beyond the Sol system into the unknown. I could have probably been a pretty good mercenary if I had found a way to make it that far inward. The authority offered something more. A sense of adventure. The promise to venture into the dark ruined worlds below and find the scattered antiquities of our past and either salvage or destroy them so that we could rise above. For me it was a chance to visit the world my parents had told me of in stories. Identify and discard. The authority told us the tech of the old world had to burn. It had to wither and die so that we would not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. Some of us still kept photographs, music, memories, tokens and heirlooms that reminded us how much we have lost in the ages. Many scavengers like myself scan and collect the art, creating holographic displays so that the free people of the skies above can feel for those that came before. I boarded an old ark once. Just above Earth’s orbit. It had been drifting for centuries. A time capsule sent adrift only years after the Earth fell. I burned an image of something called the Mona Lisa. It was encased in a piece of thin glass. When I took it out, it crumbled to pieces. I burned sculptures of thin men, oil paintings of men in white robes. Empathy comes with a high price. Many of these scans are sold on the black market or the virtual world Aesir. It was my honor to serve the authority, but my life required I do more. Many of the technologies I find seem like magic. It seemed obvious to me that once our kind had been more forgiving then we are now. I knew the stakes. Should the authority ever catch wind of what it was I was doing I would be stripped of my honor and executed. On the other hand, like other traitors I could be offered one final chance at redemption. I could be offered a single last mission to board a dagger and redeem myself, cast into the cold winds of the toxic Earth.

I had been scavenging now for five years. Since I was 22. Mostly derelict ships and lost colonies but aside for the ark I had never been this close to the pale blue dot. A few hours ago I was in my shuttle with my squad, moving away from the skyblade known as the Luden, the starship I had come to call home. From our one window, we could see the oceans, the clouds, the awe-inspiring beauty of the world that was ancestors. So close for a moment we could even imagine what it would be like to breath real air. Then there was darkness. First bad food, followed by mercs and monsters.

Eight months ago a drone had revealed a trove of technology recently activated inside the elevators central station. The central station was the size of a city. We found it mostly in ruin and we were caught off guard by the stations security. One by one we were separated. The station was defending itself, locking and unlocking doors, separating us, and leading others into traps. The station was fighting us like we were some kind of disease. Hours lost in the stations maze and then I saw it. The creature, the giant, the ghost.

The station unlocked a door behind me as if it is telling me to move away. As if trying to protect me. An apology for having at first turned against me. No, more like trying to protect the creature. I stand my ground. I am already lost. My soul damned. I scan the creature. The ghost. I record every second of it. It turns with black eyes, staring through me again. I look down the sight of my rifle. 100% the video feed has been uploaded. Everyone will know. This won't be something I can easily hide. My name and ID are written all over it. I fire. The first shot phases through the giant who begins moving towards me. The second shot grazes the side. My third shot penetrates its chest. It falls to the ground. The lights from the station flicker. I feel an electromagnetic pulse come from below. My vision blurs. From the darkness behind crawling out from under the leathery skin emerges a young girl in rags. She is wounded. My first shot had missed the creature and hit her. She is human. A second figure emerges from behind her on four legs. A familiar, her familiar attached to her by a thin black cord like a leash. It looks like a monster from folklore. A chimera with the body of a dragon and hound, her familiar built from debris found lying around us. Slowly it lets out a shriek and begins growing as its eyes glow red. She is crying, injured from the bullet wound. I aim my rifle at the creature while keeping my eyes on the young girl. She is telling her familiar not to attack.

I see my reflection behind the dust on the wall. Black blood pours from my eyes down to my wrists. I don’t look how I remember. My eyes are solid black. I can see the veins under my skin rise and fall as my heart beats faster and faster. I hear the words of the Authority echo in my head, the mission, “the human race cannot be allowed to repeat the mistakes of their past.”

My feed continues to upload. Soon everyone will see what I see. I lower my rifle and let it fall back to my side. I betray the authority and the word above. The young woman climbs her familiar and they disappear down into the hallway. Before It fades away I take one last look. It seems to have taken a new form. The eyes that were red have turned blue. The metal debris that made it’s body has turned to dark gray skin with dark blue stripes along its back running down its long tail. It’s face once covered in teeth and metal now looks longer like a wild dog with pointy ears and an elongated snout with antlers coming off the top of it’s head and small horns coming out like arrows from the sides of it’s neck. A wooden mask covers the top part of it’s snout while it’s tail ends with two blue leaves that seem to glow in the darkness that surrounds us. There is a dust surrounding me like pollen in the air. Slowly I remove the breather from my face. The skyhook ventilation ran all the way down to Earth. I take in as much of the air as I can, filling my lungs. My first breath of clean air. The air is no longer toxic and soon everyone will know what happened here. Everyone will know… We are not the last! 

Humans have separated. Those like myself that have lived away from the Earth and those like the girl that have managed to bond with the skyhook and the world below. Soon everyone will be coming for us. Both the girl, myself, and her familiar. The authority and the mercenaries will be hunting us. 

I have to find her. I have to show her it’s ok. The two of us have to survive. We are human. We have to go down. From the sky back to the Earth. 

The End.

About the Author

Stephen Landry is an avid animal lover and practitioner of chaos magic. 

Inspired by the works of China Mieville, Hayao Miyazaki, and Hideo Kojima his worlds combine science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction. The author of a trilogy of novels in the series titled Deep Darkness (Pull, Trigger, Wound – with ‘Pull currently available on Amazon), Sleepers, and several other short stories. His work has been published in several online magazines and featured on wattpad. He was trained as an art major with a B.A. in graphic design. Creating illustrations and cover art for up and coming authors, video game companies, and film studios has always been a passion of his. An award winning filmmaker and photographer currently living in Nashville, TN when not writing most of his time is used following his other passions which include helping people, hiking, playing video games, and working towards inspiring others.

Amazon Page – hyperurl.co/stephenlandry

Blog – hyperurl.co/stephenlandryblog                                              

The Beast in the Woods

By Kevin Small

Kauneus looked over her shoulder panting. She squinted through the sweat in her eyes trying to see her pursuers and in that moment—looking back and not where she was going—she tumbled head over heels down a steep embankment. She came to an abrupt stop hitting a fallen tree.

With a snap, she felt her leg buckle under her weight crashing into the log. She winced through the pain and tried to stand, but fell as her broken lower leg failed to hold her up.

She cried out and quickly regretted that as she could see her pursuers through the tears that now blurred her vision. She closed her eyes waiting for the inevitable.

Kauneus could hear the men coming closer. But she heard something else as well. A high pitch whirling was getting louder and coming from the opposite direction. She sheepishly opened her eyes.

Floating towards her at a fast clip were three glowing orbs. She immediately thought pixies. 

One of the three orbs began to fly faster—quickly out-pacing the other two. As it passed over her she saw it transform into a fierce looking tiger. 

“Fierce looking tiger” she thought to herself. “As if there are any other kind.” She almost laughed despite herself and thought “definitely a pixie.” And as her consciousness slowly left her, she saw the three men chasing her running in fear at the sight of this beast.

  • * *

Kauneus woke in an unfamiliar room. She lay on a table made of metal. As she took in the room, she saw more and more metal. Metal walls. Metal floors. Metal ceiling. She thought to herself, “What a number a smiths it would take to fashion such a room.

As her eyes went full circle, she again saw the three orbs. They were no longer glowing. They just hummed as they moved up and down a line parallel to her in a way that reminded her of hummingbirds.

“Are you pixies?” She asked softly.

There was no response from the orbs. There was not even a change in there floating patterns.

She tried again. Only this time she spoke slower and louder enunciating each and every syllable. “Are. You. Picks. Eees?”

Still no response.

“It is no use speaking to them.” A low, clangy voice responded.

Kauneus turned and gasped quite in shock at the view of a metal man. Well, half a man. Ok, he was man-ish. Standing… Sitting… Floating… before her was a head and arms attached to a cylinder sitting on a platter that was floating.

“I am Palvelija. I am at your service.”

Trying to compose herself, the young girl asked “Are you a golem of some sort? Is this your lair?”

“I am not a golem. And these three are definitely not pixies.” The metal man’s right arm made a motion to the three orbs. We are all machines in the service of Peto.”

“Pee-toe? Is Pee-toe a warlock to have conjured up such amazing servants?”

“No.” The metal man, Palvelija, said with a hollow chuckle. “Peto is…”

“Get Off My Ship!” A booming voice declared. 

Kauneus looked around trying to locate its source. But the voice seemed to come from many places.

“Get Off My Ship!” 

Palvelija seemed to cower as his platform levitated closer to the ground. The three orbs whistled away, disappearing into a round tube protruding from the wall.

“Get Off My Ship! Now!” The voice ordered, again.

“Peto, she was injured. The medi-drones located her and brought her here for medical attention. They scared of her pursuers, but I am sure Med One Seven’s hologram will only cause them to return with more people and better weapons.”

“There return in no concern to me nor are their primitive weapons. Get her off my ship. We do not have the battery stores to spare to be chasing down every one who gets hurt on this planet and heal them.”

“Master Controller…Peto… this is not something we do lightly. These indigenous humans have only settled this part of the world in the last year. You need a pilot. A human pilot!” Palvelija emphasized that last sentence boldly.

“What a minute!” A shrill voice broke the tension of the argument. “Primitives? We may not possess your wizardy or skill in metallurgy, but we are far from primitives. Our knights have defeated the barbarian hordes many times over.”

“Silence!” Peto’s voice boomed even louder although the tone stayed the same. “Palvelija, escort our guest from the ship.”

“Miss… um… miss?” The metal man paused.

“Kauneus… My name is Kauneus” the young lady offered.

Stretching out his steel arm, Palvelija beckoned her off the table. “Miss Kauneus, I must ask you to leave the ship.” 

Kauneus slid from the table and was surprised when her leg held her weight and with no pain. She smiled and said “It is okay. And thank you for healing my leg. You say you are no wizard but I have on heard of such sorcery.”

As they walked slowly down the silver grey hallway, Kauneus asked “who was that and why is he so angry with you for helping me?”

The metal man turned what she assumed were his eyes towards her and began to tell the tale of Peto the beast. 

“We come from a world far from here—“

“You mean from beyond the stars?” The girl broke in anxiously.

“From beyond the stars, yes.” The metal man continued. “We were on a mission to provide medical… er… healing support to a planet under siege. However, when we flashed… wait… when we jumped to the planet, there had been an error in calculations and we were thrown into this planet. All of our humans were killed on impact.”

“We completed repairs within a year, but without a human, we are unable to leave this planet. Peto has been stuck here for 200 years and his energy stores are running low.”

“Why do you need humans and if not human who is this Peto? Is he a metal golem like you?” Kauneus again interrupted.

By this time, they had made it to the exit ramp. The two took a few more steps into the clearing and the metal man motioned back to the ship. Before them stood a star ship, but to Kauneus it looked like a dragon from the story books she had read.

“I present to you the Beast. Or should I say the Beast mark XII. This is the ship that jumps my team of mini medics around the stars to help those in need. As a matter of fact, it is our programming as healers that led the three pixies—as you call them—to rescue you. One used its hologram generator to make those men see a beast native to this jungle while the other two sedated you and took you back here.”

“This was unfortunate for Peto as helping you caused us to drain some of his energy stores. As a result of this expenditure, Peto has a seven solar cycles at most to get off this planet. But I guess without a human pilot, it does not matter if he had a hundred cycles.”

“But who is Peto?” The girl just did not understand the science before her. It was all magic to her.

“Peto is the Beast. He is the ship. He is the navigator and he is the controller of all that happens on the ship.”

“If he is the ship, why does he need a human?”

“On the world we come from, there are too many stories of machines killing humans. So our creators made one simple rule. Without a human, no machine can fly or drive. So Peto is stuck on this world and the only movement he is allowed is the exploration done by his medical spheres and occasionally myself.”

Aloud clang interrupted the tale of Peto the Beast. An arrow fell to the side of the metal man broken by impact with his head. Kauneus looked in the direction she assumed the arrow had taken flight from. And she saw one of her pursuers along with a horde of armored men.

Before either the girl or the metal man could react, a half dozen arms pulled them aware from the ship and tied them to a pair of trees. As Kauneus looked back at the ship, she was even more convinced that Peto—this beast—looked like a metal dragon.

With the girl and machine out of the way, the crowd of men rained arrows down on the monster before them. After a few volleys fell hapless on the ground, the men took advantage of their height in relation to the clearing and began to hurl stones.

Palvelija began talking aloud to no one in particular. 

“Peto, you must save the girl.”

Kauneus looked at him quizzically. “Who are you talking to?”

“To Peto,” the metal man responded. “Another rule from too many stories of rogue machine is we are unable to communicate with another machine in the presence of a human without broadcasting aloud.”

However, the girl was not privy to the other side of the conversation since Peto’s open broadcast was within the ship. So, she missed out on Peto arguing against spending his remaining energy stores for a human far too primitive to serve as a pilot.

While Kauneus continued to hear only one side of the argument, she watched as the men abandoned the arrows and stones and had taken a felled tree and were using it as a battering ram to the airlock at the top of the ramp.

“Peto, just ask her. Ask her if you rescue her if she will take you to the stars?”

“You can take me to the stars?” The young girl asked excitedly. 

“Peto, I think you have your answer.” Palvelija dropped his head, which Kauneus took as a negative response from Peto.

“Enough of this!” A man exclaimed. “Either this beast is slain or it sleeps so deep it cares not if we assault it. Take the girl and this golem. They will both fetch a fair price.”

Once last time, the metal man pleaded, “Peto, look deep in your programming. You know you were created to save lives, not save yourself.”

Suddenly, the metal beast groaned. It was the sound of metal gears torqueing and heavy steel hitting solid steel. Bright lights ripped through the forest, ripping the villainous horde where they stood. Within minutes, not one of the men were left on their feet. Two more well-place flashes of light and the ropes that bound the two fell at the base of the trees.

The young girl and the metal man began moving towards the ship as its ramp lowered slowly from its front like the mouth of a dragon opening to swallow the two.

As they walked inside, the two noticed the lights were dimmer than before. Peto’s voice came over the coms, slower and lower than before. “My reserves are depleted. Kauneus, you are free to take me over as your home, but all functions will be ceased.”

“No!” They girl cried. “I will help you go back to the stars.”

“I do not have the energy to break orbit.” Peto’s voice was even lower and slower.

“There has to be a way.” The girl pleaded.

“Maybe there is,” said the metal man. He tapped some buttons on his wrist and then he began to lead her up a spiraling staircase. “Sit in this chair.”

The girl sat. A head set lowered over her head and straps buckled in her wrists, ankles and across the waist and shoulders. She gasped in surprise.

“Be calm.” The metal man assured her as he backed into a docking station and began to return his stored charge to Peto. As a matter of fact, across the whole of the ship, all of the bots from medical crew to cleaning devices returned to their charging stations and returned their charge.

“Human presence accepted.” Peto’s voice was back strong and firm.

The ship began to rumble and shake. Kauneus could feel her body pulled into the chairs as the ship pulled itself away from the planet’s gravity. The closer the ship pulled to orbit the more it shook and the more the light dimmed.

“We have achieved escape veloci…” Peto’s voice dropped off. All of the lights in the cockpit went out and the straps on the chair released. As the girl floated from the chair, she pulled the helmet off of her head.

“Peto? Palvelija? Pixies?” The girl shouted in quick succession. She tried to swim through the air back to the seat.

  • * *

After floating around for hours, nervous that she had made the wrong decision, Kauneus felt herself slowly pulled to the ground.

“Thank you, young Kauneus.” Peto’s voice was strong again. “I have been able to recharge my stores. What say you? Let me show you the stars and find people to heal.”

Kauneus smiled. “Let’s”

The End.

About the Author

Kevin Small is a father of 7 creative children who inspire him with their excitement of life and husband to a woman who has always encouraged him to chase his dreams. 

He fell in love with sci-fi in 1979 with his first set of Space Legos and later discovered Isaac Asimov.  Since then, it has been an adventure of programming sci-fi games and writing short stories. He hopes to one day put up a sci-fi green screen short on YouTube for a short screen play he has written. 

The Disaster of the Marconi

By Zach Shaw

The baby had been deformed in the womb. Now she lay in the little isolation chamber her father saw the horrible wild card that genetics could deal a person. The android was as human as could be asked for, she stood quietly looking down at the child. “I am sorry Calvin, but the operation required to fix the collapsed lung is too challenging for us. We will have the appropriate operation tools when we land at Earth in three days.”

“You mean for three days my daughter has to be hooked up to those damned tubes, and machines like an experiment?” His wife was angry as she looked at the baby, angry at herself perhaps for having a child two months prematurely and angry at the regulations that would not let androids operate on someone without a human observing. She felt betrayed by Nurse Bakersfield there in the little place. She had been told her baby was healthy. 

Arresting emotions made it almost impossible for Calvin to go around the ship an hour later working on the numerous communication towers that were not at all unimportant. From one of the little interior tubes in the tower, he could see the land of Pluto. Icy covered glazed like a sweet from home looked up at him, and then as the lights of the communication ship Marconi came into close view of the planet surface it rose ungodly high before him. It was a Tower, twisting around higher than any structure he had ever seen on the planet. 

He heard Captain George Albertini report over the intercom systems “All hands brace for the weekly touchdown.” Albertini spoke with his toned accent and even though Calvin had to subdue his anger at the ship landing while his daughter lay in critical condition with those damned androids doing nothing due to legal red tape. “Calvin Murphy please report to the land my bay with your environmental suit on.” 

For the past ten hours, the Marconi had been examining an odd signal coming from the surface of Pluto that may confuse Earth Government ships. That meant they had a job, they had to track down the signal and remove it, but as he walked down the small corridor he felt a deep sin King feeling. It was not the same as the other day when his daughter was born, not apprehension or fear of being a parent, but fear of what was resting in that Tower. 

In the landing bay, Henry Fredrickson had already gotten his suit on and was looking at the open landing bay door. John Malley was ready to, “You guys thrilled to finally be heading back to Earth?”

Fredrickson shook his head, “Don’t be a damned fool, Cal, you know the thing in the tower is just some fallen piece of space junk that we have to blast into space.”

“What do we do if it isn’t a piece of space junk?” 

John never liked Henry, they just never got on well together, too different personalities if you don’t mind. “Ah, we  gotta take it back to Earth base one around Mercury for further examination.” 

With that, the men became quiet and waited for the large grated door to fall down causing the entire cargo bay to shiver as it hit the ice of Pluto. Calvin could see it, he could see the tower, and he knew as he walked slowly with his friends that he had a decision to make about his daughter. His feet crunched so puddly on the ground he could hear the crunching noise through his helmet as they got to the odd open door of the tower. He could reprogram the androids, he would have to wait, and when he did he risked a massive cascade systems failure. If everything went right, of course, nothing would happen, and if worse came to worse he would be fined for reprogramming the medical androids. 

It was a tall dark tower, his helmet readout computers were showing him a fine level of oxygen inside the tower. “Don’t even think of taking off that helmet guy, the computers can always be wrong. Just keep going until you hit the radio signal.” Captain Albertini sounded nervous for once, the strong British accent seemed to fault for just an instant. 

Walking into the massive tower was like standing in a graveyard. It had the air of death all about, a stale covering of dust and snow covered everything. As Calvin looked around he saw a long twisting stairway with a faint red glow far up ahead. He began to walk with his friends, going all the way up to the only other room in the tower, the panicle where the red glow was so bright it was almost blinding. If it had not been for the computers in the helmet showing the strange little pedestal with the odd red crystal sitting in the middle. 

“Control, this is Fredrickson, the thing causing the red glow is a large basketball sized diamond. Do you have orders for us over?” 

A long pause came over the radio signals, and then it spoke again “Yeah, get it, and bring it back with you if you can.” 

“Roger that,” Fredrickson spoke for the group, and Calvin walked over with him until he was standing by the cursed object. “Well go ahead, use the scalpel and try to pry it free.”

“Why do we need the scalpel? It looks like it is just sitting on the damned pedestal.” Malley said as he reached over and put his hands on the adage of the diamond. He put his hands under it, and then lifted the thing into the air. Calvin reached over to the thing and held it, it was warm to the touch, and he could feel it even through the heavy gloves he wore. It was a long walk back down the stairs with the diamond thing between their hands. It was so hard to carry that it took two people to carry

When their feet finally touched the interior of the cargo bay again the door closed, and something odd happened, the door paused as it was going back into a locked position. 

“Landing party please report to control for debriefing.”  Everything was still going according to the book. Regulations were very strict regarding landing parties coming back from missions wth something. 

All Calvin could think of was how to reprogram those medical robots. They were very complex, and the actual process wouldn’t take more than two minutes. When the androids went back into their alcoves to recharge however their systems would link up with the rest of the ship systems, that is where he had to watch it. If there was a malfunction detected then the backup systems would kick in, and if he tried to effect that then he would get caught. 

“Now that we had to wait on the planet surface we will take an extra day back to the base at Mercury, and until then we will run tests on the diamond to figure out why it glows red.” Captain Albertini shook his head as he sits there in the control room, “We are going to be lifting off in thirty minutes, so please everyone take precautions for leaving the planet surface.” 

Calvin stood, he turned to the Captain and said: “I will go and make sure the communications array is in good condition, we don’t want to loose signal with Earth.” Captain Albertini gave a little nod, that was all he needed to do, and with that Calvin enjoyed the last few minutes of solitude in his own head. 

All the systems were fine, he always kept them fine, and all he had to do was slink down to sickbay and reprogram the androids. Laws on Earth allowed androids the same rights that were given to humans, so any unauthorized programming of an already established system was frowned upon. Calvin became tense as he walked down the corridor, nurse Bakersfield would see him if she was in there, but the real question was would she be able to tell if they were reprogrammed? 

It was a loud voice, a strong voice, and an old voice. “No.” 

Calvin stopped and turned around, no one else was in the hallway, he was alone. Oh, my God, was he hearing voices too? No, no he decided it was just his imagination. 

“I will make sure Carla Bakersfield has something to do while you save your daughter Calvin.” It was the same voice, and this time it spoke longer, 

A loud hissing sound came from his left as he got closer to the medical bay doors, and Carla Bakersfield came walking out in her green nurse outfit. She stopped, and looked up at him with a smile, “Calvin, I heard the landing party brought back something is that true?” 

“Yeah, we have Doctor Tomilson working on figuring out what the hell it is and where it came from.” Calvin was normally happy to talk with Carla, if he wasn’t married he would get together with her, but he cared about his family too much. 

He watched her look down the corridor toward the cargo bay, “Oh cool, maybe I can stop by on my lunch break. Your wife is fine, and your daughter is stable at least.” 

Being stable, that was all Bakersfield could do or would do. “Leave Bakersfield to me, I will take care of her while you reprogram the robots.” He didn’t know or care what the voice he heard was. All Calvin cared about was that it was giving him what he wanted. 

Calvin walked into the bay, his wife was rolled over on the bed asleep, he had heard she had post birth depression. He spoke to the thing he heard earlier ‘What are you, why does anything in the universe care that my daughter lives or dies?’

It responded with a rare irregular constant as he walked over to the computer alcove that housed the medical staff resting in stasis. “I was on that ice rock for eons Calvin, I was there while your species was hiding in caverns and I never want to go back.” 

He found the computer, then he began to bypass the password encrypted systems that were holding the android systems. Once he managed to get this done they would be able to ignore Earth-based medical regulations and perform the operation on his girl. He thought he should at least talk with the entity that was helping. ‘For some reason, I don’t think you were born on Pluto, what do I call you?’

“You don’t call me anything, it has been a long time since I had a name. Oh is this lovely female the doctor you want me to distract?” 

It must have been Bakersfield, he had to focus as he ran his fingers pass the systems barrier ‘where did you come from?’ 

“Many light years away from here there is a planet called Mondanian Prime. They were a proud race of female warriors who formed a small empire in their own system. I was from one of the conquered planets and served my people in the war against the Mondanians. I was captured, and they used one of my own technologies to imprison me here. Oh my, her mind is easy to manipulate. What a sad life she had, it would be so easy toooo-“ then the voice cut off. 

‘You there, what are you doing?’ He had finished it, he had finished the task, and then he saw the eyes of the android snap open as the android activated. He had to scramble, hide the fact that he was manipulating the program. 

The female droid came walking out, and looked at him quizzically, “Can I help you Mister Murphy?” 

He straightened up, and said, “Yeah, perform an operation on my daughter, fix everything wrong with her.”

The android walked over to the poor child lying in the stasis crib, and he looked into the computer video feed streaming from the cargo bay. There was Carla Bakersfield standing in the strange red glowing light of the entity, what was it doing to her?  He didn’t care, when Molly woke up their daughter would be okay, and with any luck, the computer systems would not figure out what he did. 

Calvin was happy, for the first time since his daughter was born, he was happy, and the odd voice had stopped talking. He didn’t care, he got to hold his daughter as he stood in the medical bay he felt like a real father. 

Carla Bakersfield was a prisoner in her own body. It was like a force was making her legs move without her will. Please stop. Don’t make me activate the doors, please don’t. Carla watched as her med school trained hands were moved to operate the computer systems of the cargo bay. Tears were flowing from her eyes but her mouth was sealed shut. She wasn’t even able to cry for help. The doors are opening, what the hell is that? 

“Hello, Nurse Bakersfield. No one else can hear me, but you are going to free me.”

“What, how am I going to do that? Who the hell are you?” For all the use this was Carla knew this was telepathy. The voice in her head felt old. 

“My world is very far from here. I won’t be there for many years if I flat in space. I will be sent to my home to plot my revenge against those women who imprisoned me on that rock. You will, ironically enough, aid in my escape. You will also be a sacrifice.”

Carla felt her legs walk over to the control systems that would open the cargo bay doors. “Please let me go. You can’t kill me!” Her fingers were pressing the door computer. It was unlocking and responding to her codes. Carla screamed and it echoed as she was sucked into space with the odd red crystal. 

Molly looked around the bay, he would have to tell her if she started to ask. Maybe she wouldn’t ask, maybe no one would. Then he heard it, then he heard the commotion from out in the main corridor as the Marconi was out of sight of Pluto. “She’s heading down to the cargo bay! She doesn’t have any environment suit on, and she can lock us out!” It was. Lt.Commander Diets yelling with his thick German accent. 

Calvin heard the thing again, the voice again, for one last time. “I have lived for too long, I will live no longer, I helped you because it would give me the chance to experience the one thing I have not been allowed, death. When you asked me to distract her I knew I could transfer my conscious mind into her own. I destroyed her personality to replace it with my own, and now I will ris the universe of my own.” 

‘Wait where are you?’ 

The thing didn’t talk again, Calvin brought up the feed of the cargo bay again and he saw Nurse Bakersfield standing there. She had already activated the door, and then as it slid open his eyes saw what he feared, a massive cascade failure in the systems. The air came rushing out of the bay, sucking Bakersfield out into space. The Marconi began to shake like crazy as Molly held the baby tightly, and the android medic held onto the medical bed for support. He looked up at the screen and then sparks flew from the main support strut. The last thing he remembered before blacking out was the sound of the emergency sirens blaring in his ears. 

When he came to Calvin saw the sick bay was full, Lt.Commander Diets was holding his bandaged arm laying on the bed above him. “What happened Commander?”

“Systems failure, the cargo bay doors opened, and the ship had a massive systems failure.” 

Calvin felt a sinking feeling return to him, the same one he had before he saved his daughter. Had he saved her just to doom the rest of the crew? He knew they would have a full investigation now, he was going to be found out, and then he stood up. He looked around at half the little crew in the medical bay at his friends who were here because of him. He had done this, and he was not going to be able to fix this. 

Calvin walked over to the doors and didn’t even look back at Molly and his daughter. He knew they would not be important to his job, he had to save the ship, and he could think about them later. He walked outside to look at a computer terminal, and then he saw the dire situation they were in. The Marconi had been blasted off course when the cargo bay door opened in deep space, and the navigation system had been one that was affected by the systems failure he had caused. The ship, as a result, had been sent off course and was drifting towards Neptune. 

“We’re in a bad place Cal,” Diets said as he walked outside the medical bay doors, and looked at the communications officer standing there focusing on the computer readouts. 

Devastating was the only word he could think of when looking at the damage, the  Marconi was drifting hopelessly toward Neptune, and only deactivating the engines could save them. Now the question was, could the ship reset itself long enough to fire the engine and escape the gravity pull? There were lots of equations to consider, and Calvin didn’t think the other crewmen would forgive him if he came clean. 

The sound of boots on the hard metal floor, his heart was thumping, Calvin turned his head, and he saw the two guards that were posted to the Marconi. They were not dressed in casual wear, they were uniformed guards, and they were heard to do one job. The one on the right, Mister Sam Nickers spoke: “Captain Albertini wants to see you, I’m afraid you need to come with us right now.” 

Calvin dropped his head, at least Molly wouldn’t have to see this, it was only him in the hallway. He shook his head, “Don’t worry, let’s go see the Captain.” 

The two men flanked him, they walked the distance of the ship, the bridge was up ahead, and he knew everyone in there. He knew everyone keeping their eyes from looking at him, he could feel it, he saw Captain Albertini looking at him as well. He was holding the edge of the railing around the interior of the command hutch. “Thirty minutes ago the Marconi internal systems began to work overtime trying to compensate for the first malfunction. That led me and Lieutenant Tyler here to review the internal security systems and do you know what we saw Calvin?” 

Calvin tries to keep his head up, “You saw me in sickbay didn’t you?” 

Albertini shook his head, “I took you and Molly onto the Marconi when none of the other ships would have you. I saw you had potential to become a man that could make our ship function like a fleet flagship. I was wrong Calvin. I saw what you did, and then we looked and watched the androids perform that operation they were never supposed to do. I know what you did, and I know why you did it. No one is questioning that you did it for your daughter. What  we question is how you convinced Nurse Bakersfield to go down to the cargo bay long enough for you to do the repairs to the androids.” 

Best not to tell him, no one would believe that the thing inside the diamond would be the thing responsible for drawing her to the cargo bay. He would be crazy, and it would be best to ignore that true fact. “Blind luck, I told her we bought a thing from the surface of Pluto and she wanted to see it for herself.” Albertini bought that excuse, he looked down at the grating metal on the floor. 

Albertini shook his head again, and then he jolted a finger at the large bright blue planet they were being dragged toward. “You caused this Calvin because you cared about your daughter more than the safety of this ship. Now, your going to make up for it.”

Calvin saw the dead man guider at the center of the helm station, he looked over at the Captain and knew what he wanted. “The ship can’t escape the gravity of Neptune, so we’re going to get into the escape shuttle, and you are going to help us.”

“How’s that Sir?”Calvin knew how he would have to pay. He didn’t have the luxuries of having multiple decisions. 

“The escape shuttle can’t get out unless it is ejected from the main body of the ship, as you well know. What you have to do Calvin, is stay behind, and launch the shuttle so we can get free. Just think of it, you will save your daughter and wife after all, but you will die in the process.” No one needed to tell him what would happen if the Marconi got closer to the gravity pool of Neptune because the ship would explode. He would do in the clouds, and when that happened, he wouldn’t care anymore. He would be dead, he at least got to hold his daughter once. That was something right? 

He walked over to the helm computer, and watched as the men began to leave, they began to walk out of the command hutch. The little shuttle could last to the  Mars outpost, and then they would all be safe. He grabbed onto the controls, “Thank you, Albertini, thank you, friend.” 

He almost felt sorry for Calvin as he waited to leave the little command hutch, “Thank you for what Calvin?” 

He set the controls for the blue atmospheric glow of Neptune,  “For giving me the chance to redeem myself, you better get going George.” Self-redemption was something he had never had the choice of before. He had been forced to take this assignment. All the other opportunities he had in his life had been ruined. Calvin had ruined them, and now he was going to set things right. 

Albertini took one last look, he would be forced to attend a board of inquiry over this loss, but if Calvin had survived he would be executed for causing the disaster in the first place. He walked out of the command hutch and made his way to the shuttle. He would survive, and so would Molly Murphy, and her daughter Marry. The majority of his crew would escape, and although it would be a long trip to Mars in that small shuttle he would survive. The majority of the crew being everyone but Calvin. He was the one who had brought this disaster upon them, and he would pay for it. 

When the little shuttle launched Calvin could already hear the ship screaming at him. “Warning, warning, atmospheric comparison in five minutes, four minutes,” the countdown continued. 

“Not long now, not long now and I will be able to know if that thing really was an intelligence inside the diamond. I will know whether it was an alien being that controlled Bakersfield, and I will be able to see eternity. Or I will just wink out of existence, doesn’t seem fair does it?” The ship was rocking back and forth as the heavy blue clouds crashed into the ship. He wanted to see his family, but now he was starting to feel the computers heating up. The computers were boiling hot as the ship got ready to overload. Here it came, eternity, and he would die knowing that his family was safe. 

From the explosion Captain George Albertini could see the burst, he heard Molly Murphy burst into sobbing as the Marconi exploded. 

“Is that what happened Lieutenant Commander Diets? What happens to the diamond that you found on Pluto?” 

Diets looked at the three men with white hairs standing before him at the tribunal table. He knew his evidence had damned Calvin, but he didn’t care. It was the truth. The truth that a man did anything to save his daughter, and paid for it with his life, and that of three of his fellows. Diets listened to the verdict, the obvious verdict that Calvin was a man who was unstable. That meant, of course, his  mental condition led to the disaster of the Marconi. 

The End.

[]

[*They Came *]

Volume 1

Felicia Copeny

Chapter 1

There was a weird feeling in the air. You know the feeling that you get when something is about to happen or you FEEL like something is about to happen. That’s the way it feels tonight. I took some aspirin because I had a massive headache. I seem to get them a lot. I’m laying down listening to Beethoven’s 5th. Enjoying a quiet night all to myself. I like being by myself, especially when I’m working. I’m a scientist for a lab in New Mexico. Everyone else has the weekend off but I’m a workaholic. My primary specialty is engineering mostly but I focus on astronomy. I also have studied ancient languages. My main focus at this facility is listening for signals. At this lab, we listen for signals in deep space.  Basically, we are listening for a signal from another civilization. I have a degree I astrophysics. We receive grants from the government here in order to stay open. I’ve been doing this for 5 years now and I receive a lot of criticism. Mainly because a lot of other scientists in my field feel that I’m trying to outdo them. I have gotten more funding for my facility than any other in the last 5 years. It’s not that I think I’m better. It’s just that I do a lot of begging. I go to rich peoples restaurants, dinners, parties, and wherever else I think money is. I do this because I have a passion for what I do. I’m like a virtuoso and his/her instrument of choice, only my instrument is science.

Well, it’s about 2:11 am in the morning and I’ve finally managed to get myself sleepy after watching a Predator marathon on TV. I love those movies. Anyway, I’m kind of hungry and I’ve developed a taste for something sweet. But at the same time, I want some REAL food, not just desert. I would fix myself a PB&J sandwich but no jelly do I see. I guess I will have to settle for just Peanut Butter. I slip my feet into my slippers thinking to myself, “Livia why are you single”? My reply is, on late Saturday nights like these you would rather sit here and listen to classical music, watch old sci-fi reruns, (oh) and listen to empty space hoping that Aliens will suddenly send you a message. Sometimes I think about going out but I’m married to my work. I love what I do and would feel sorry for any man that would have to put up with this. Well, enough beating myself up and feeling pity for myself tonight. I guess I will turn in now. So, I take myself a hot shower (even in a 100 degree weather I love hot showers) brush my teeth and brush my hair. I gave myself a facial earlier so don’t need to wash my face. I turn off my radio and grab my headphones because I like to listen for signals even while I’m asleep. See, I told you…it’s pretty sad. Well, I finally get myself to sleep. I’m having a nice dream but something makes me restless. I crack my eyes open enough to look at the alarm clock. It reads 5:07am. I turn back over in my small cramped twin bed towards the door. My room is so small I hardly have room to have a bed in here. After all, this is a laboratory. My friends ask me why I stay here. I always tell them that I might miss something. As I turned over on my stomach I hear something. I sat straight up in my bed. At first I thought I might be wrong. This can’t be right! I didn’t need a mirror to see myself; I could feel my skin turn white. I jumped up and hopped in my slippers. I ran as fast as I could down the hallway. I fell down the steps and ran into the computer room. This whole time my headphones are still firmly clamped to my ears. I’m holding the headphones as I run. Then before I stepped into the computer lab I stopped and closed my eyes. This sound could be my signal but I needed proof of what I was hearing. With my eyes still closed, I slowly walked inside. I could do that because I knew my way around that good. I reached for the volume on the computer speaker and turned it up. I clamored for a chair and sat down in one. I slowly exhaled and begin to type. I was punching passwords and codes to bring up scales and grids on the computer. I took another deep breath, slowly took off my headphones and then I heard it. I could hear it! A deep low churning electronic sound slowly rolled out of the speakers. This is the sound I’ve been waiting for. For 5 years I’ve waited for this moment. A tear slowly slipped down my left cheek. I opened my eyes and saw the numbers on the grids were off the charts! This let me know that this was real! I started typing on a computer next to me. Then I rolled my chair around and punched a couple of keys on another trying to find out where it was coming from. It was coming from an unknown system that wasn’t even on our maps. It was beyond our solar system and our galaxy. It was beyond our known universe. It was somewhere we haven’t been able to look at yet. No telescope or satellite in the world can look this far into space. I jumped on the phone and called my colleague and partner. I told him to get up and get to the lab right away! He asked why and I told him that our questions have been answered.

Chapter 2

My partner Dr. Ivan Anderson busted through the door. He said, “What is going on, it’s 6:00 am in the morning”. I looked up at him as I sat in a chair, with my back towards one of our computer monitors. I had the look of surprise, fear, astonishment, satisfaction, and happiness on my face all at once. Then, he looked back at me with the same look on his face, only his also had a question rolled into it. He stepped inside the room and looked at the monitors. I turned up the volume some more. He dropped to his knees. “This can’t be right”, he said. He asked me if it was just another satellite or something. I told him that it wasn’t and showed him where it was coming from. He was floored with excitement. He anxiously picked up the phone. I asked what he was doing. He turned to me and said, “We’ve got a lot of calls to make”. “We’ve got to jump on this before someone else picks up this signal”.

I say maybe an hour passed. I didn’t really pay much attention to the time. I was just too excited to notice. My eyes were big as saucers due to the lack of sleep and overwhelming excitement. The sun was beaming through the window. The most simple things that we take for granted like the sun shining through the window, in between the blinds, and the dust stirring around outside all of a sudden seemed surreal. I slowly got up out of my chair as though I was possessed by something. I slowly ran my finger over the sun beams as I walked toward the window. Ivan was still talking on the phone. He was calling everyone that worked at the facility with us. He was telling them to come into work, as he wrestled with papers and fussing over computer keyboards. I slowly opened the blinds and in the distance I could see sand & dust stirring around down the road. After floating around in such a surreal atmosphere, suddenly it felt like I was being awakened from a dream. I briskly walked over to the door and stepped outside. The sun was so bright that I held my hand up to my forehead to shield my eyes. About 3 miles down the road I could see that someone was coming. Ivan hopped off the phone almost as though he thought I was in trouble. He ran outside and stood behind me. He put his hands on my shoulders and whispered, “And so it begins”. The he stepped around me and walked toward the commotion to get a closer look but then he stopped. He started to speak without turning toward me, “I bet it’s the government”. He said this with a slight disappointment in his voice. A few moments passed and about 10 cars pulled up at once. All of these cars were black and unmarked. There were a few SUV’s sprinkled in the mix for good measure. And every last one of them had tinted windows. Ivan then turned and walked toward me. As he was walking toward me he pat me on the shoulder as he said, “Yep…definitely the government”, with an almost comical sound in his voice. He continued on and walked into the building. Next thing I knew men in suits were climbing out of the vehicles with brief cases in hand. Two of these men walked up to me as others walked in the building. One asked me who the lead scientist was of the facility. I stuttered as I told him it was both Ivan and I. He then asked me could we go inside. 

We slowly walked inside and the men that walked in before me were scattered about and walking around as though searching for something. The man then told me, without introducing himself, why he was there. He said that he was going to collect information to give to higher authorities and that he needed me to explain my findings. He was very cold when he talked to me. He spoke with no feeling in his voice. His voice was almost robotic as was his face. None of the men including this man in front of me had an expression on his face. I slowly began to explain the events that unfolded that morning. They listened carefully as one of them typed on a laptop. 

As I finished my story, the man I was talking to stood up and said that was all. As he walked toward the door, I was telling Ivan that there was so much we had to do. There were going to be interviews, we all would have to come up with a way to send a message to where the signal was coming from. Also, there would be all kinds of book deals! As I was explaining all this the man stopped and slowly turned toward me. He walked up to me and grabbed my arm. He commanded that I not talk to anyone. He said that I was not to talk to anyone about anything. I told him that this was too huge to keep a secret. It was the answer to the oldest question. We are, in fact, not alone in the universe. There’s intelligence in the universe. He then got right in my face and said, “If you talk you will hurt anything connected to you”. He started to walk away. Then he turned to another man and gave him a nod. The man then began to do something to our computers and all of them went blank. He then closed up his laptop and walked outside. The rest of the men were carrying boxes. I asked them what they were doing. The man looked at me and said we’re saving you and your families. Your friends. He then began to walk outside as the others followed him with their boxes and brief cases in hand. I stuttered as I shouted to them, “You…you can’t do this”! It is wrong for them to take what they wanted. I felt angry as I saw them pull away. As quickly as they came they left, barreling down the road. I fell down into a chair and began to cry as the other engineers and scientists began to report to work. Ivan came up to me and told me that we weren’t going to give up without a fight. I started to yell about how they took everything! I told him and the others that we were finished. They had ruined us after all! Why would they do this? It’s important! The most important discovery in history just happened and they want to hide it? Ivan tried to calm me down but David our engineer said that they wiped the computers clean. They took off all the data we had. All 5 years’ worth was gone. Our secretary Lisa said the same thing about all our paperwork. It was all gone. They left us nothing to give to the public. Then Ivan had an idea, “We start over”, he said. I looked at him with the emptiest look on my face. “You want us to start over on 5 years’ worth of work”, I shouted! I mean, was he insane or something? He must have been kidding. He started to explain to me that we don’t give up. He said that there was one thing they couldn’t take from us. He was right because I knew where the signal came from. This is something that we didn’t know in 5 years of research. “You see, we were just listening”, he explained with a calm excitement. He went on to explain that we really didn’t know where to look but I knew where. I knew where to look and listen. And I would never forget those coordinates. It was time to fight back!

Everyone in the computer lab started clamoring about. We got our software back up and running on the computers. So, we got back to work. David said he could redo all the grids because he always saved things to a flash drive that he kept with him! Aaaaw how I wanted to kiss that man right now but instead I grabbed his shoulders with both hands and shook him excitedly! He could now reconfigure all of the positioning for our satellites. We could redirect them in the general direction they were this morning. He said that along with the coordinates for the map, where I pinpointed the signal should give us what we need. Ivan pulled me aside and told me it was my turn. He said that he could hold down the fort but that I needed to work my magic. He told me to make phone calls and schedule interviews. “Do whatever you think you need to do”, he said firmly. “We all need you right now”, he proclaimed. “What about the threats”, I asked him? He told me not to let that stop me. Besides, I really didn’t have any family. This was my family. So, I gathered myself together and started packing up my laptop. I grabbed the phone and started walking. I called up my good ole college roomie Debra Sanders. She is a TV News journalist in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that I had that story she was looking for. I also called my old professor. He has been like a father to me. I asked him could I give a seminar on the subject of life discovered in the Universe. He told me that I could but he had to get it cleared through the University. As I packed my things, he called me back 20 minutes later and told me to get there as soon as possible. I gathered my bags and grabbed my cell phone. I snatched my charger off the wall from behind a nightstand and headed out. Ivan said that they were making progress. He told me not to worry and to have a safe trip. I told him that I would as everyone wished me luck. He helped me put my bags in the trunk of my 1965 sky blue convertible mustang. “You tell them everything”, he said in a go get ‘em attitude. “Don’t be afraid to let the world know”. “I will be here waiting for you and I’ll update you when we get anything on our end”, he continued. As he opened my door he told me to give them hell. I looked up at him and smiled as though I was a child looking up to her father. In that moment I told him that I would. He hugged me gently as I sat down in the car.  He closed the door and started to step backward, with his hands in his pockets. I started the engine and put my seat belt on. Then I began to drive out of the space I had backed into. He waved at me and I waved back as I started down the road. A road that at the time I did not know would change my life even more then it had been changed that morning. There was definitely no turning back now.

Chapter 3

I arrived in Phoenix the next day. My first reaction was how I made it with no sleep driving all night. I guess I was just ready to get my story out. I arrived at the TV station where Debra worked. She was taking a smoke break outside as she talked on the phone. She looked up and squinted her eyes as though she was trying to see without glasses. She dropped the cigarette as though she got burned by it and stomped on it as she frantically tried to get whoever was on the phone to hang up. She finally got the off and hurried over to my car. She opened my door and pulled me out. Almost screaming she told me hi and how good it was to see me. She said that I needed to tell her everything. So, she shuffled inside the building and into the newsroom while pulling me along behind her. She sat me down and told someone to get me some makeup. Next thing I knew I was being primped and prodded. I sat there after they finished making me up for what seemed like hours. Finally, Debra walked back in with a nonchalant smile on her face. Debra is somewhat of a flirt. She would never go there but she even flirts with women playfully. It’s part of her personality. She does it in an almost jokingly way. She is a very beautiful woman. You would think she had a boyfriend but she says she is too much for herself, so how could she have a boyfriend at this point. Anyway, she told me she came up with some questions and that she would have us go on the air in 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes felt like hours. She reassured me saying that I would do fine but I was still so nervous. It wasn’t because I was afraid to be on TV. It was because I was going to tell the truth. I was going to tell the public what the government did not want them to know. I was looking up at the clock every 5 seconds. She held my hand as they counted the last 10 seconds until we were on the air. A man behind the camera said softly, “We’re on”. Debra began to introduce herself on camera and then she introduced me. She told of my credentials and experience. She then began to ask me questions and the next thing I knew I was telling everything that went down. How I stumbled upon the signal and how the government came and cleaned me out. Then as soon as we began we were done with the interview. Debra closed the interview and we were off camera. She told me I was courageous but I didn’t feel that way. I felt numb, tired, and frustrated. She recognized this and she told me I need to go catch some Z’s. She offered to let me stay at her place and I reluctantly accepted. I didn’t want to impose which is why I hesitated. She kept insisting that it wouldn’t be a problem. We arrived at her place with me trailing behind her in my car. I fell on her couch and relaxed. She wanted me to take a nap but I didn’t want to. Besides, I had to get to the University. She offered to drive me. So we headed off. 

My professor met up with us in the hallway. He stretched out his hands and welcomed us in to his lecture hall. He asked me about what I had found. So, I began pointing to his maps on the wall. I explained that none of the galaxies on this map of the known universe displayed where the signal came from. “Beyond Andromeda”, he asked with excitement? “Beyond all of them”, I replied softly. He could barely contain himself. The next thing I knew people started to file in the room. He turned to me and said, “You’re on”! He introduced me and slid in the front of the large class and smiled. I began to explain my findings to the sounds of gasps, from the audience. Then it was question and answer time. One man challenged me…”If you’ve found so much evidence…then why hasn’t the government come forward to support your claims”, he asked in disbelief. I replied, “Because they don’t want you to know”. I told him that these same people that we go to war and die for, that we expect to protect us, want you to be in the dark.  “Why”, someone shouted! “If you all knew the truth you would bombard them with questions like you’re doing with me right now”, I barked. I continued, “And they know that the main question would be what if these people are hostile in some way”? “How are you going to protect us”? “Well they wouldn’t be able to protect us from an advanced civilization”. “These Aliens would have thousands if not millions of years ahead of us”. Suddenly, there was an eerie silence followed by whispers. Then I told the audience that, this was all I had for them and I thanked them for their time. Suddenly, people wanted answers. It’s as if they all suddenly came to their senses. Everyone tried to ask me a question as I was pushing my way through the crowded hall way. Outside reporters waited by Debra’s car and they began to yell questions as we approached. Debra, the professor and I jumped in the car and slowly pulled off to avoid hitting anyone. 

We pulled up to Deb’s house and noticed a man sitting on her porch. He was dressed in all black. I began to have flashbacks from New Mexico. As we approached, he said to me, “I thought we told you to keep your mouth shut? We warned you and now you will pay the price for your insolence”. We shuttered at his cold emotionless demeanor. We scurried into Deb’s house. I was shaking so bad that my eyes started to water. The professor told me I had to stay strong. He told me not to let these bastards get to me. He was right. I had to regroup. He called a cab and went home.

I fell asleep with Deb on the couch, dreaming of how I would overcome. How can you beat an entity that seems to have no oversight? How can I get to the truth? Well, the next thing I knew I was awake. I awoke to the smell of breakfast cooking. I decided to turn on the TV. I turned to a national news station and they had this scientist on. He was giving a skeptical view of my findings. Basically, discrediting my story! I’ve never seen this man before. He was trying to discredit all of my work! I scuffled around for my phone. I frantically dialed Ivan’s number. He answered the phone, “hello”. I barked back, “Can you get me on one of these national news shows”! “I have a cousin that could pull a few strings”, he answered calmly. “Sure”, he said. He was glad I called. He told me he had news. He told me that it would be better if I saw it for myself. He emailed me the position of where the signal was coming from. Now, I wasn’t afraid of it. This time I had a feeling of relief. He then gave me his cousin’s phone number. His cousin turned out to be a producer of a well-known news channel. I called the number and a voice answered. Introduced myself to him and asked for an interview. I told him if he wanted the truth I could give it to him. He agreed to the interview and told me to fly out to L.A. He said he would meet me at the airport. So, I was off to L.A.

I got there around 4 pm. I found Ivan’s cousin in the crowd. It had to be him because he was holding a card with my name on it. He shook my hand and grabbed my bags. He hustled me to a waiting car. He was a fast talker. I could barely keep up with his conversations. So, I just let him talk. He said his name was Kevin and that he was pleased to meet me. He took me directly to the studio, where a team of people waited. They escorted me inside as people outside the building asked me dozens of questions. Kevin kept pushing them and telling them I didn’t have time. One man in the crowd blurted out, “Why do they want to debunk your work”! Kevin immediately grabbed the man’s recorder and said, “You wanna know? Then watch the freaking interview”! Then he shoved the recorder toward the man’s chest. We then hustled inside the building and started the interview….

The interview was mostly a blur. I didn’t remember any of it. It’s like someone else sat there and answered questions for me. It was like I slid out of my own body, until it was over. I was exhausted and I ready for a nap. Kevin said the ratings were very high. He asked if I needed a ride to a hotel. He even offered to pay for everything. I told him to please take me somewhere to get some rest. He took me to a real fancy Hotel downtown and charged to his credit card. He told the man at the front desk to give me anything I wanted and bill to him. Kevin and I said our goodbyes and parted ways. The man at the desk showed me to my room. I thanked him. I wanted to give him a tip but he refused suggesting that it was taken care of. The man took his leave. I then settled in and put on my Beethoven.  I decided to take a long hot shower. As I stood there in the shower, I thought about those men that harassed us. I wonder if they saw the interview. If so, what were they thinking now? It’s as if I had hit the hive and now I’m just waiting for the swarm. I got out of the shower and dried myself off. I slipped into a night shirt and began to walk toward my bed.  I walked by my window to pull the drapes closed. There was a night stand next to my bed. It had a lamp sitting on top of it. I walked over to it and turned the lamp on. As soon as I turned it on, I jumped! The extra light in the room revealed a man sitting in a lounge chair, in the corner. I let a loud shriek! “You had to keep pushing didn’t you”, he said calmly. “Now, I have to bring you in”, he continued. I asked him what he meant, as he sat there. This was the same man that was on Deb’s porch. He told me that I was ruining everything. He told me there were things I didn’t understand. He asked me how could I go around telling people what I THOUGHT was the truth. He accused me of being somewhat skeptical myself. “You believe in life out there but you’ve never believed that there are beings advanced enough to come here”, he scolded me. “You just believe in life similar to what we have here”, he continued. “The truth is that you detest UFO sightings and abduction stories”, he said. “ You can’t stand those people, yet you stand here like you’re the savior of humanity….LET ME TELL THEM THE TRUTH! But the real truth is that you have no real idea. You have your little laptop and your gadgets that were given to you. But you don’t seek any real truth. You are mediocre compared to what we have found”, he said. I almost collapsed on the bed as he spoke these words. I looked at him, as he continued. “There are civilizations out there more advanced but you don’t think they’ve been here yet”, he said smirking. He was right. I always believed there were beings out there but it would be impossible for them to travel here. I always thought they would have better things to do. So, he criticized me for this. He told me that I didn’t know the half of it. He said for some reason, there is a scientist a top secret facility that is sympathetic to my work. He said this scientist thinks I’m brilliant. He told me that this scientist needs my help for something. It’s because of this scientist that I will be sparred. After hearing that, I got the feeling that whoever vouched for me might have saved my life.

There were other men there. Two of them came in and gathered up my things. I was still in my pajamas when they escorted me out of the hotel. What was going on? What did they want with me? What did he mean this scientist needed my help? What did he need my help for? Oh, and who was it? Even though I was scared to death, I figured going with them was the best thing to do. I went quietly because that’s what I needed to do in this moment. Besides, I needed answers. And little did I know, that was exactly what I was about to get.

Chapter 4

They shuffled me to an airport and straight to a terminal. For an airport, it looked pretty deserted. I was whisked away to a waiting airplane. My luggage was being loaded onboard the airplane by the men from the hotel. I was given a window seat on the plane. I slowly looked up as I heard some commotion. Then I saw Deb and the professor stumble onboard. The professor sat down next to me and said in a low deep voice, I guess they didn’t want to leave anything or anyone with information behind”? The professor sat there with his lab coat still on…brooding. But he looked at me with hope. He told me he was proud of me. Then he looked puzzled and said, “Why would they bring us out this late”? Deb came over and sat near us with a worried look on her face. I guess she wanted to know why we were all here as well. I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t have the strength to figure it out. So, I tried not to think at all. However, I was as curious as they were. I managed to relax and I began to drift off to sleep. As I drifted the professor mentioned that they were no markings on the plane. “There are no markings whatsoever”, he whispered. “I did see a number on the tail though,” Deb said. “The number is 104-57839, she added. I didn’t want to speculate or talk about anything, since “the man” was behind us watching.

We began to take off as night turned to morning. It seemed like we flew for hours but finally, as I looked off the plane, I could see mountains. As we came up over the mountains, I could see a landing strip. The landing strip was surrounded my hangers. I could tell that this place was in the middle of nowhere. I shook the professor. He was sound asleep next to me. He woke suddenly as if he was expecting an emergency. I pointed out the window and he gazed out over my shoulders. “Where the hell are we”, he asked. “Nevada…I think”, I replied. Then he suddenly grabbed my arm. “Olivia, we’re in Nevada”, he said anxiously. I looked at him and shrugged. “NEVADA…Olivia”! I was so tired but I thought real hard. However, all I could muster up was a blank look on my face. The man spoke with an actual sound of wonder in his voice, after being so emotionless. He spoke as though something was humorous and hideous at the same time. “You’ve got to be joking. All of that research you’ve done and you don’t have a clue, do you? Oh…that’s right…You’re a skeptical little green man hunter aren’t you”, he finished with a grin. I was taken aback. I fell back into my seat, with my eyes still looking forward. As I exhaled, I made another “discovery”. I came to my senses in one sweeping realization. “This is Area 51”, I whispered to myself. The man laughed and gestured for us to exit the plane. 

Why are we here? That’s all I kept thinking. As I was thinking, the professor kept rambling on with theories. I somehow managed to tune him out. Deb reached into her bag and pulled out a small video camera. It was quickly taken away. We were being led toward one of the hangars. We walked together as though we were attached at the hips. We were greeted inside by a man who looked to be high-ranking military personnel. I was thinking maybe he’s a general. He gestured for us to follow him. He said there were other “guests” that may be of interest to me. We were led into a large meeting room. We stood there puzzled for a few short moments and then Ivan and David walked in! I hugged them both tightly. “Apparently, they want us all here”, Ivan said. “Yeah, looks like we’re the main attraction”, David yelled awkwardly. “There is someone that’s looking forward to meeting you all”, the General said. Then he beckoned for us to come with him. 

He led us to a computer lab. This room was huge. It had a massive map of our known universe and one of Earth. It had links to different satellite feeds and all kinds of electronics. It was a tech wiz’s dream in here. There were so many things going on this room. A person could run the country from this room. There was a group of men standing around one of the computers. “Your guests are here”, the general yelled to the group. One of the men in the “computer group” turned around slowly. “Thank you, General. Hello Olivia”, he spoke slowly. Just as he completed his slow turn and finished those words, I saw his face! I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Dr. Eric Stein. He is a celebrity to us “basic” scientists. He reached out to shake my hand and I didn’t hesitate. “I’m so very pleased to finally meet you”, he said. As he shook my hand, he told me that he was a big fan of my work. He told me he had been working on something and that he needed my help. “Why do you need us?  You’re Dr. Stein”, I asked curiously. He said, “I have stumbled across a glitch in my work. I need someone who knows what to look for. There could be something I missed. I need the best and you’re team is the best”, he finished. Just what kind of work were they doing here? I asked Dr. Stein if I could go over his notes. He happily acknowledged and brought to another room. 

His notes were spread out all over a desk. He told me that I needed to know why I was here. I explained to him that I was not happy getting whisked away, in the middle of the night. “I thought they were going to kill me”, I yelled at him! He agreed that it was not the best method. “You were never supposed to have found anything”, he said.  I was puzzled. The look on my face showed my disdain. He continued, “You were never supposed to find a signal. Your whole operation was a distraction for what’s really happening”. I sat there with the dumbest look on my face. “Come on Olivia. You know how these things work”, he exclaimed. He had a bit of disappointment in his voice. He continued, “Take a look around…it’s all a distraction from the truth. They want your mind. No need for a free thought. They let people chase their tails with delusions of grandeur. All the while knowing they will only let you get so far out there and never let you near the REAL truth. Oh boy, the secrets that they keep around here would….He ended his thought abruptly. He could tell that I was outraged. And I was outraged because it finally became clear. “So, my equipment was never donated to my lab”, I asked. “No, they were donated….By a billionaire whose brother is a higher up here”, he answered. Oh, God…I thought to myself. These people set me up. They made me think I did all this work on my own. It was all a charade. I thought I was the one getting people to fund my work. I thought my lab was a private entity. But, in reality, it was an extension of this place. I would have never been able to do anything without them knowing. I felt tears roll down my face. I slowly looked up at Dr. Stein, as he put his left hand under my chin. He gazed down at me. Our height difference was noticeable in this moment. “There is nothing you can do but show them how great you are. All of that equipment, the building, and the funding were all them but the work was you”, he said. I thought about how he saved me. If it wasn’t for him I’d probably be dead. I answered him, “At this point, I don’t have a choice do I”? My voice trembled as I spoke. “I guess not”, he answered back. “Then I guess we better get started”, I said. And that’s just what we did….

Chapter 5

We set down and began to analyze some of his notes. You could hear and smell a pot of coffee brewing. I thought about getting a cup when the Dr. Stein began to explain how they already had a signal. It was from the same area where I found my signal. However, they found one from a different area. This signal was from a galaxy we already knew. This second one was coming from Andromeda. “That’s impossible. I thought you looked at Andromeda and found nothing there”, I said with a cynical tone and not once giving a damn that he noticed.  “Yes I did but someone that worked in MY lab got the information before I did. That “person” would then hand the information to someone higher up here and wipe my computer. Please don’t ask me how I know…just trust me”, he explained as if his life depended on it. I looked at him in disbelief, as we walked down a hallway. “So they were stealing your research”, I asked while looking around to see if we were alone. “Yeah until I caught on and copied every single file onto a secure laptop”. “I threatened to go public and next thing you know I’m here”. He laughed out loud as he opened the lab door. We joined everyone inside. They were trying to pinpoint exactly where it was coming from. Dr. Stein said that he was working on other things and hadn’t been able to devote much attention to the signal. “What could possibly be more important than a signal from another world”, I said while appearing totally disgusted. “I can answer that”, the man said as he busted through the door with his minions. “Who are these guys”, I asked in a slight whisper; voice trembling. “They look the Men in Black to me…hello…did anyone here have a clue…it’s not exactly a long shot anymore. Please take a look around people”, David chimed with his conspiracy theory. I looked up at him somewhat disgusted, as everyone else turned around slowly. As I looked around, I could see some of them shaking their heads. “What”, he asked in a scratchy voice? Just then the man decided to start with one of his speeches. “Allow me to enlighten you all on what we’re working on Doctor”, the man said with no expression on his face. “Follow me”.

He led us to a vast room. It was at least several football fields in length. Our mouths just dropped open in awe of this space. It was white with no windows and I saw about 50 people working on something in there. Then David jumped in breaking the mood in a comical fashion, “Now, what do we have here…are there weapons of mass destruction in here”? “Nope…Jimmy Hoffa, Dinosaurs, Big Foot perhaps”? We all looked at him as he shrugged his shoulders. “Oh don’t act like you didn’t think about it”, he said while smiling. Dr. Stein leaned towards me and said, “I hope you’re ready for this”. The man went over and flipped a rather large switch. Then we heard a noise. It sounded like a large engine running. The middle of the floor began to open up. Once the floor opened something begin to rise out of it. “Oh my….” I said softly while in awe, as a large circular shaped craft rose out of the floor. It was a shiny black metallic color. I began to feel teary eyed, as I grabbed Dr. Stein’s hand. Then, I looked over at the professor. I rarely call him by his name. However, today I looked at him and said his name. “Patrick” I whispered softly, as I held out my left hand. The professor looked at me and firmly grabbed the hand I offered. Dr. Stein walked up a step ahead of me. I couldn’t move but he could go no further without letting go of my hand. “Come” he whispered softly. I almost couldn’t get my legs to move but I somehow found the strength. I looked to the professor for guidance. He nodded in approval and let go of my hand. He softly patted my shoulder, as if to say it was okay. I slowly walked toward Dr. Stein with my hand still holding his. He took my hand and pulled underneath his arm; positioning my hand on his forearm. I think he could see I needed some stability. We slowly walked toward the object with him guiding me. He started to explain, “We haven’t been able to do much with it”. “We acquired it after a dive team stumbled onto it off the coast of Chile”. I looked up at him suddenly, in awe. “We found it near Easter Island, Olivia,” he said proudly. He continued to explain, “There are symbols inside that we cannot decipher. So, the only thing we’ve been able to do until now is to open it, until now.” I was dumbfounded. I walked around it, with a magical look on my face. “Do you want to take a crack at this,” Ivan said with a concerned look on his face. “Yeah well, I don’t know how much help we can be. I don’t know much about this kind of stuff,” I said puzzled. “We could always try,” Ivan answered. “So, you’ve been hiding this thing from the public, huh,” David asked the man. “YES,” the man sniped back coldly at David. David decided to walk away from him slowly. “Come look at this,” Ivan yelled! I walked around to his side of the craft. “This symbol on the side of the ship…its Andromeda,” Ivan said while pointing up. “In fact, there are several different symbols like that on the inside of the craft,” said Dr. Stein. I stretched out my hand to touch the symbol but as I got close I became dizzy. I suddenly felt weak and I could not stand. It seemed like everyone in the room rushed over to me, except the man. He looked on, as he whispered to his men. I got some strength back and ran out of the room. I tried running down the hall but I began to fell breathless. I ran into what looked like a rec room. I collapsed onto the floor by a pool table. I was breathing heavily; gasping for air. There was something I was holding inside. I had never shared it with anyone. I had a twin brother….

Chapter 6

When I was a child, my father would take us stargazing. He found the perfect spots for it too. We usually had to take a long drive away from the city but it was so worth it. One Saturday night, he drove us out to a site. The night sky was perfect and it was pitch dark. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. This is when my love for the stars began. This night was cool and crisp. It was mid-October but it was a little warm for this time of year. We were in the middle of nowhere it seemed. I was 8 years old at the time. My Dad and brother were busy setting up camp. I was roasting marshmallows and feeding our dog Rus hot dogs. After they finished, we began to watch the skies. We were naming off constellations as we watched. My Dad was so impressed with us. It was getting late and so we decided to turn in. As we were sleeping by the campfire…the night became very calm and quiet. You could hear a pin drop it was so quiet. I could no longer hear any animals; even the crickets stopped. I looked over and saw Russ cowering in the bed of my Dad’s Truck, underneath some tarp. The wind even stopped blowing. It was just still and felt eerie. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up. My twin brother turned toward me to see if I was awake. He nudged me gently. I stirred quietly, as he whispered, “I have to use the bathroom but I don’t want to wake Dad”. So, I whispered back, “Just go behind a bush or something.” He quietly unzipped his sleeping bag and tiptoed off, as I drifted in and out of sleep.

It seemed like hours passed since Timmy walked off. I sat straight up. Suddenly, I was wide awake. My Mother would talk about women’s intuition and for the first time, I understood what she meant. I knew something was wrong. I quietly unzipped my sleeping bag and grabbed a flashlight. I began to call for Timmy, in a loud whisper. I got no response to my calls. Finally, something reached out and grabbed me! It was Timmy gesturing for me to be quiet. “What’s going on I said,” still whispering. He quickly shushed me, “Shhhhhh!” “I’m going to show you something but you have to be quiet,” he whispered. “Okay,” I whispered anxiously. He took my hand and signaled for me to crouch down, as we walked up to some brush and bushes. “Look,” he whispered quietly. I looked out over the bushes. Timmy started pointing down. We were on some sort of ledge and he had to gesture for me to look down into a clearing. I looked down and saw a shiny circular object with multi-colored lights around the bottom of it. There was one solid white light under the bottom of it. The entire forest was pitch black except for area this light was shining on. The craft was at least 2 football fields in length. I looked a little closer and I could see what looked like really skinny short people. I couldn’t make out any faces or details. We were so far away that I just couldn’t see their faces. I began to get really scared and I started to breathe hard. “I’ve got to go get Dad,” Timmy whispered. “No, don’t leave me,” I said as I pointed my flashlight at his face (which I thought was turned off). “Turn it off,” he said pleading with me. As we wrestled to turn it off, we stood up and didn’t realize that we had. I turned to look down at the scene and saw the figures escaping into the object. As it began to rise, I let go of the flashlight we were fighting over. Timmy fell and began to roll down the ledge. “Tim,” I screamed! I began to climb down, as he stood up in the clearing, where the object had been. It was rising but it stopped just a few feet above the trees. Timmy stood up and watched it. Suddenly, as he stood there, the objected fixed a bright beam of light on him. The beam of light was more like a column of light. It only covered Timmy and maybe 2 feet of forest around him. He seemed stunned by it. “TIM,” I kept screaming! He did not answer. It’s like the light paralyzed him. “Don’t look at it,” I yelled to him! The looked over as I climbed. Then, I noticed the light was starting to pull Timmy up toward the craft. I was stunned for a moment but I continued to climb. I finally entered the clearing and I began to run toward the light. “Tim,” I yelled. But, by the time I got underneath the craft, the light had taken him inside the craft. I yelled, “Timmy”! I ran up to the light column but I fell just outside of it. I hit my head on something and as I began to lose consciousness, I could see the craft rapidly rise straight up. It was so far up that it appeared as small as the stars but I could still see it. It made a sharp zig zag motion. Then I blinked and it was gone. “Ti-mmy,” I muttered one last time. Then, I blacked out.

I woke up in a hospital. I looked up to see my Dad and Mom standing over me. They seemed happy to see me but were terrified at the same time. I tried to sit up but they wouldn’t let me. “Where’s Tim,” I mumbled. They looked at each other, as though they had seen a ghost. A man walked into the room and said, “Let me talk to your daughter. I’m an investigator working on this case.” My parents reluctantly walked out. This mysterious man whispered to a woman in the corner and then turned his head to look at me. His back was facing me the entire time. I tried to make out his face but things were still fuzzy. All of a sudden I started to remember his features. After all these years, it was as if someone was lifting a vail. The professor walked into the room. He was looking for me and found me on the floor. He ran over to help me up. “You can’t run away from your fears,” he said gently. The professor was the only one I told that story too. So, he already knew why these things bothered me. I had buried it all deep inside myself. I didn’t want people to think I was crazy. So, I never shared my story. I was too afraid. Suddenly, I grabbed the Professor’s arm. “I know that man,” I yelled! “What the one that’s been harassing us this whole time,” he asked. “Yes the one in the black suit,” I yelled! “He was there. He was in my hospital room the morning after my brother was abducted. He’s been following me ever since that night!” He looked at me in disbelief and asked, “What are you saying?” I continued to explain, “That man that picked us all up and flew us out here…the leader of this whole situation…was in my hospital room twenty-two years ago. He’s been watching me for the last twenty-two years of my life!” As the professor realized what I just said, Ivan, Deb, and Dave walked in, with Dr. Stein a few paces behind. “Are you okay hon,” Deb asked sounding very concerned, as she sat down next to me. “Yes, I’m fine,” I replied, while still shaking from my own thoughts. “You look rattled,” Dave added. The professor jumped in, still seemingly confused, “Oliv….Olivia thinks she knows the man that brought us here.” “Where the hell from,” Ivan asked in a loud demanding voice. The professor looked at me as though I was his child and said, “it’s okay.” I said to him while putting my hand on his knee at the same time, “I told them the story before but not everything.” Before, I could start to tell them the whole story Dr. Stein began to talk. However, I interrupted his thought by jumping up off my chair. “Uh oh,” David blurted out. I started storming down the hallway. I had to get answers. I was confused, angry, and hurt. Who are these people? I stormed into the computer lab and blurted out, “where is that man?” The workers looked around confused. Finally, yelled over everyone’s heads, “in the boardroom down the hall. It’s to the left at the end of the hall.” I started walking down the hallway. The professor questioned me, “what are you going to do?” I said nothing back to him. I flung the doors to the room open so hard that they hit the walls. I stormed into the boardroom. The man was sitting there. He still had no expression. I yelled at him, “You son of a bitch!” The man looked at me and said, “Excuse me?” “What about our lives,” I yelled at him while breathing heavily. He responded in an eerily soothing tone, “I don’t believe I know what you mean.” I responded quickly, “Don’t act like you don’t know! I know you. And I remember everything now! You were there! When my twin brother was taken, you were there! “You’ve been keeping track of me the whole time! I had no money to pay for college because my father committed suicide! He blamed himself for what happened to my brother. And my mother worked two jobs until they took her away because she went crazy. I ended up in foster care but somehow I got all kinds of scholarships that didn’t even exist. I know they didn’t because I sent thank you letters, which all came back with no such address! WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME! By the time I finished that speech, I was in tears and the room was still. There was complete silence. Then the man spoke; breaking the awkward silence, “Yes, we paid for your education because you are the chosen one.” “What are you talking about,” I responded confused as ever. He continued while appearing to have more emotion than usual, “When you had your ‘close encounter’ you were abducted as well. You may have bumped your head but when we found you, you were standing in the clearing looking up. It was like you were in a trance. And you were missing for 3 days.” I found myself slowly descending. I ended up in a chair but I don’t remember sitting. I was fixated on his voice as he continued. “We believe they left something with you. You get headaches all the time because of the knowledge you’ve been given. The key to all this is inside of you, Olivia. You believe you just randomly found those signals? It takes most people a lifetime and they never find anything. You found it because you already knew where to look. That’s why you are here.” He stood up slowly, as he finished his thought, “Call me when you figure it out.” As he got up and walked out, Dr. Stein sat down next to me. He began to explain to me about abductees and how they speak of being implanted. “I believe they think you’ve been implanted with something. I can have you examined if you want?” I shook my head slowly in agreement. He reached out his hand and we stood up together. He slowly led me out of the room, as everyone watched.

He took me to a room that had an MRI machine. I was silent the entire time because for years I tried to forget by convincing myself it was a dream. As my thoughts distracted me, a technician began to take some images of my head. When he finished taking the images, Dr. Stein assisted me off of the table and escorted me across the hall. We waited in a small room for the images. I’m not want that really likes a fuss but there everyone was clamoring over me. It seemed as if they were all moving in slow motion to me. It all felt very surreal. Then Dr. Stein hurried in and said, “You better come have a look at this.” We all quickly got to see what was going on. The man allowed Deb to user her tape recorder. So, she was annoyingly writing and recording everything. Dr. Stein began to show my images to me. In one image there appeared to be something just under the skin, in my right temple. “Get it out,” I said frantically. And without hesitation, he rushed me over to a gurney. He applied some local anesthetic and pulled over a surgical tray. As he looked over the surgical equipment, he began to explain how this would be a minor procedure. “Whatever it appears to be just under the skin. So, I should be able to extract it without complications. Are you okay with me extracting it?” I nodded my head giving him permission to proceed. Then he started to work on me. He made a small incision just below the objects location. He used what looked like a regular pair of tweezers to pull it out. He put the object in a vial and put it in my hand. He applied a few stitches and a bandage, as looked at the object. Once he finished, I rushed to the other side of the room and grabbed a Petri dish. I carefully set the object in the dish and put it under a microscope. To the naked eye, the object looked like a small shard of glass. However, under magnification, it resembled a computer chip. I could see what looked like circuits inside of it. I backed away slowly, as Dr. Stein looked at me worried. I gestured for him to look at it. As he examined it, I touched my head. I was trying come to the realization that this was actually happening. I van looked at me and said, “I still don’t understand. They put this in you for what?” I answered him in a very confused voice, “I don’t know…I don’t…know.”

It seemed like hours went by. I noticed that everyone else went to sleep but I could sleep right now. I was busy leafing through papers and clicking through files on my laptop. I was reading through my notes for an answer. I do not know why because I was going to find here. The professor found me. He spoke to me with his head down, “You’re killing yourself. You need to sleep.” I answered him frantically, “I can’t sleep until I know what THIS is.” I held the vial up, as I finished my sentence. I continued talking to him while searching my laptop for clues, “There’s something I’m missing. I know I’ve had these headaches every now & then but I don’t remember being abducted. Anyway, what does this implant have to do with this signal? It doesn’t make sense?” “I don’t know,” The professor said softly. “Maybe it’s a way to keep track of you. Or there could be a link between the implant and the signal you found. They knew you would be the one to figure this all out.” Just as he finished his thought, I began to have a thought of my own. My thought was he could be on to something. There could be a link between the signal and this object. And it was time for me to get down to business and put on my thinking cap. I didn’t come this far to give up now.

Chapter 7

I decided to listen to the signal on my headphones. So I pulled the file up on my laptop. Meanwhile, the professor was doing some research on one of the lab computers. He seemed to be determined to help me. I was writing in my notes as I listened to the sound and staring at the star chart. I thought of how everything in my past led up to this moment. I began to drift off to sleep but I was startled by the sound of my pencil & journal dropping to the floor. The object was beside my laptop. I picked it up and stared at it through the glass of the vial. I decided to pick up the pencil and journal I dropped. As I leaned over to pick them up, I laid the object down on the table. My headphones popped off and dropped to the floor. I mumbled as I picked the headphones up and laid them next to the object. I grabbed the pencil and journal off of the floor. I began reading what notes I had so far when I noticed something moving. I slowly let the journal down and ended up dropping it again. The object was trying to emit an image! “Are you alright over there,” the professor asked me inquisitively. He could hear the commotion I was keeping up and began to wonder if I was okay. I thought I was seeing things. I carefully took the object out of the vial and set the headphones next to it. It was so bright in this room, which didn’t help the faint image. So, I picked up my journal, which was black in color, and placed it behind the object. There was something there. It was still faint but it was there. “Are you okay,” The professor repeated as he walked over. I couldn’t speak. I just cupped my hand over my mouth and stepped back, as the journal fell to the floor again. The professor picked up the journal and began to put it on the table. He stopped abruptly. He could see it too! “My God,” he whispered. He grabbed me and said, “Let’s bring it over here and hook it up to the speakers.” I grabbed the object and sat it on a tray table. I pulled it over by the computer that the professor was working on. The professor pulled up the shared file of the signal. He turned the volume up on the speakers and there it was! It was a four-dimensional holographic image emitting from this tiny object. “That’s it,” I said. The professor agreed. He began to explain with excitement, “Yes, if you’re a being that’s far more advanced, you wouldn’t think in 2 or 3 dimensions. So, the signal wouldn’t be just a straight signal. It would be more complex with layers, right? We don’t have the power to produce that yet. So, they planted this object because they knew you would want to see him again. That somehow you would find this. They left you the answers. You just had to figure out where to look.” We looked at each other for what seemed like an hour. “I’ll go get the others,” he said.

After about 15 minutes, everyone began to rush in. And just as I thought, the man was not too far behind. During this time, I took a good look at the image. “What’s going on, Ivan asked looking disheveled. “I’ve found it,” I said softly. I pointed to the image and everyone gasped. They stared into the image with wide eyes. Dr. Stein asked in a low voice, “How did you figure it out?” “I found it by accident,” I answered. I looked at the image as I continued, “The object was implanted years ago after they took me. They kept my brother but sent me back. I’m guessing they wanted me to be a messenger. The signal is a tone or a vibration, which activates this object. The signal shows us where and the object shows us how. It’s like keys on a map and it could tell us how to operate the craft. “So, how is this image coming up,” Ivan asked looking more alert. But before I could answer him Dave asked, “Yea and why didn’t it like turn on inside your head?” I began to explain further and said, “Well like I said, the signal is a vibration. It acts as a key to unlock the object. Now, my headaches may have been from me listening to certain sounds, which made the object react. Also, we don’t have 4 or 5-dimensional technology. So, they left this object knowing I’d be searching for him. The object somehow helped me locate the area of the signal. I don’t know how but I knew where to look.” Dr. Stein looked at me and asked, “So, what is this image of exactly?” Ivan answered the question for me with excitement, “It’s a star map.” “I looked at him as if I were impressed, “That is a correct.” “We thought the signal was the map but it opened the actual map. Like I said before, the signal showed us where and the objection is showing how to get there. “But how will we decipher this,” Dr. Stein asked curiously. “We don’t have to,” Ivan answered while staring at the object. He looked up at the ceiling and continued, “The language on the ship is irrelevant. These symbols are like computer commands. We just need to find out where to input the commands. It’s like having a computer keyboard with symbols instead of actual words.” “EXACTLY,” I agreed. “And it’s funny that you bring that up Ivan because while the professor was waking you all up; I played this signal over the intercom system, where you keep the craft. It lit up and hovered momentarily. The signals vibration can make the ship do things.” They all looked at me in awe. They could not believe what I was saying. Hell, I couldn’t believe half of what I was saying but it was real.

I led them all to the great room where the craft was stored. We all just stood there for a moment. The man was in the corner watching us like a guard dog. I turned to Ivan and said, “If you’re right, we should be able to find something relating to the map in this craft.” I somehow got up the nerve to walk up the ramp and step inside of the craft. The rest of the team slowly followed me inside. We shrugged off our fears and began to search around. The light inside was low but you could see well. The technology was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Around the ceiling, I could see what appeared to be hieroglyphics. My thoughts were interrupted by Dr. Stein. “Come quick,” he yelled. “I found a hidden layer in the signal. I decided to play it in reverse and another image came up.” I stared at the image and began to feel nauseous. My head was swimming through memories and images. I collapsed on the floor. I started to have a memory of the night my brother was taken. I remember falling and hitting my head. However, a new memory started. I remember being led somewhere but I couldn’t see any faces. I looked around and saw that I was inside some sort of vessel. I knew I was because I could see the stars from a large window. I looked around the room I was led to and I could see these symbols that looked like hieroglyphics. Actually, they looked just like the ones on the craft we were on. I remembered a voice asking me to sit in a chair. I sat in the chair and waited for a moment. Then, someone put a helmet like a device on my head. I received what seemed like a download of information. I didn’t know how to speak “speak” the language but I knew how to READ it! I snapped out of my memory and saw everyone surrounding me. I looked at all of them and proclaimed, “I know how to read the language in here. And I know how to fly this craft.” Everyone looked down at me with a wide eye. I jumped up from the floor and approached a door on my left. When I walked up to the door it automatically opened. I stepped inside and the door shut behind me. I slowly took off my clothes. I stood there for a moment. Then, a steam started coming out of the sides of the walls. I felt something lightly cover my skin. Then after a few seconds, the door slowly opened and I emerged wearing a body suit. It was so thin and light. It was acted as a second skin. Everyone looked at me astonished. “How did you know to do that,” Ivan asked nervously. “I don’t know,” I answered with the same nervousness. “Get the object,” I said to Dr. Stein. He grabbed the object and put it in my right hand. I walked over to a panel in the middle of the craft. There was a spot on the panel that was lit up. It had had hieroglyphic symbols on it. I placed the object on it and the images swirled upward. They looked floated there in the middle of the panel. Then, we noticed an object coming out of the floor. It looked like slightly reclined seats. The seat in the middle directly behind the panel had a helmet like a device on it. It reminded of the one that was placed me as a child. I sat down in the chair and the helmet slowly lowered down over my head. A faint light shone across my forehead, from the helmet. “I know what to do,” I shouted. “They want us to come…They want us to come to them.” Ivan looked at me and insisted on going. Deb wanted to come as well. They cleared Ivan to go but did not want any reports going. She kept pleading with them and finally the man agreed to let her go. He said there was less chance of her leaking the story to the world. I wanted the professor to go but he thought it was best if he stayed. “They may need me here in case something goes wrong,” he said to me with a smile. “Besides, you’ve given me more than I could’ve ever dreamed of. Good luck. I’ll be right here waiting.” I hugged him tightly as we said our goodbyes. Dr. Stein walked inside and told me he was cleared to go, on their behalf. He didn’t look too happy about that but was happy to be going nonetheless. I showed them to the small room and they each emerged wearing the thin body suit. We each took a seat. I took the main seat with the helmet device. I sat down and began to think about the symbols and then the 4-dimensional map rose out of the device on the panel. The signal began to vibrate throughout the ship. I began to focus on the symbols even harder. Then a beam shot out from my helmet to the holographic image, to a specific point. As I thought of the symbols, the ship rose and slowly lifted out of the retractable roof. Then all of a sudden we were in the upper atmosphere. There was a large window that covered part of the floor. We could look out of the large window and see the Earth. Then, as I continued to concentrate on the symbols I cleared my mind. I focused on the destination on the images. Suddenly, it was as if something began to stretch the space around us. We were not affected by it. It was like we were in a cocoon. It looked like the room was distorted. There were beams in front of us that were coming from the ship. They created a spiral pattern. As the pattern formed in front of us, it became brighter. Once it formed, the craft flew inside of it. We had the feeling of being pulled but it did not hurt us. This lasted about 10 seconds and when we emerged. We found that were in a solar system that wasn’t our own. We could see several planets through the window. Then a beam of light shone on the window. It looked as though another craft was scanning ours. Then it suddenly stopped. This craft positioned itself to our right and another joined to our left. Our craft appeared to be pulled by one of the ships. I was not flying it, so it had to be them. We were being towed along somehow. We could not send any messages back but Deb was recording everything. 

We landed on an Earth-like planet in what appeared to be a city. Then all of a sudden everything on our craft shut down. Ivan looked at me and muttered, “Now what.” “I don’t know,” I answered him graciously. We all stared at each other for a moment. Suddenly, the door to the craft opened. You could see the light from the outside shining through. I slowly got up and walked toward the door. Everyone else followed slowly behind me. I walked out and made my down the ramp. I looked up at the sky for a moment. It was so blue that looked like water. There was a building in front of us. It was reminiscent of Ancient Egyptian architecture. However, it was very futuristic. You could see a lot of the technological differences. This place was highly advanced. A door slid open as everyone in my group seemingly held their breath. I could that someone or something walking through the door toward us. They were dressed were dressed in something similar to our bodysuits. It was a humanoid man and woman. They both had blonde hair and looked very human….almost too human. Also, they had very deep blues and sharp features. I began to have a heavy feeling in my chest. I had been waiting for this my whole life and didn’t even realize until now. This was a dream fulfilled. It was finally happening. I was meeting with someone from another world.

Chapter 8

The humanoid man spoke to us in a soothing voice, “Welcome.” I just stood there motionless. What was I supposed to say? I couldn’t find the words for this moment. I finally, after a moment, found myself saying, “Thank you.” I reached out for a handshake and he gently grabbed my hand. This feeling was unlike any other I’ve had. I was touching the hand of someone from another world. Finally, I decided to ask, “Where are we? Is this Andromeda?” He answered appearing intrigued, “No. What is Andromeda?” I beckoned for someone in my group to find a picture or something. Ivan ran inside the craft and found a star map that he brought with him. He ran back out and unfolded the paper. He pointed to the area where Andromeda is located. We showed the humanoid man the picture. He examined the picture and recognized it. “Yes, you are about 20 billion light-years away from the galaxy Centurion Meda. Are you from Earth?” Yes…yes we are,” I answered him wondering how he knew that. But, I was still confused about. He called Andromeda by another name. I pointed to the picture in my hand. “You called this galaxy by another name,” I said to him. To that, he replied, “Yes, I knew you were from Earth because you called it by the name your Earth scientists gave it. Every civilization has its own interpretation of celestial bodies,” he explained. It did make sense. Why would they call anything by names we’ve given them? “Now, come with us,” he said smiling while gesturing for us to follow him. 

So, we followed him and the woman into the large building. It was beautiful inside. It was literally a galactic palace. As I looked around, I could see lots of gold accents on the walls. I was expecting to see more computers or other technology. But, there seemed to be less that I imagined. My group was so mesmerized by this place. We hadn’t said one word to one another. Also, I was disappointed a little. These people looked like humans. These were the only two people we’d seen so far. He brought us to this large room. It had a gigantic window with a magnificent view. As we gazed out of the window, the humanoid man said, “Welcome to Azra.” As we looked out, we could see a large city with flying vehicles and buildings that stretched into the sky. They were much bigger than skyscrapers and some of them just floated in the air! It looked we stepped right into a science fiction movie. We all looked at each other for a moment. I pointed out and said with amazement, “Those buildings are huge. And they are floating in the air!” “Actually, those are ships,” the humanoid man explained. We were stunned. I turned to him and said as I shook my head, “We have so many questions.” “And we are ready to answer them,” he replied gently. Then he led us to a different room. This room seemed more technologically advanced. There were all kinds of panels around the room. This room looked more like the inside of the craft. They motioned for us to sit at a large table. Both of them sat down to join us and he asked, “What are your questions?” “Well…we didn’t expect you to resemble humans,” I said. He answered very calmly, “We are your greeters. We are here to make the transition easier. We were made in a similar likeness for such an occasion as this.” Now, I’m freaking out a little. I looked at the others and they were rattled, as well. After a short moment of silence, Dr. Stein became the hero of the moment. He leaned in and asked, “You were created?” Finally, after saying nothing the entire time, the female humanoid spoke. She answered Dr. Stein using the same gentle voice as her counterpart, “Yes, we are artificial,” “You’re robots,” Deb asked shocked at the revelation. The woman spoke again, “Not robots. We are Artificials.” “I am Artificial 607 and this is Artificial 608,” the humanoid man said. We were overwhelmed but we wanted to know more. He seemed to sense our agony of not knowing. So, he switched on a 4 dimensional holographic map, which appeared in the middle of the table. “I will use your Earth terms to explain the different systems,” he said. Then, he began to explain, “This solar system is a ‘rest stop’ on your planet. We call them central hubs. They are mostly located on the outer rim of each galaxy. There is one close to your solar system, in the Milky Way. That is the reason why you have a lot of encounters on your planet.” “So, this is a meet and greet planet,” Dr. Stein asked. Then 607 began to explain graciously, “That could be one way to interpret it. However, the word embassy in your language seems to be more accurate. There are other planets in the universe like yours. When they figure out the pieces of the puzzle we lay out, we help them find their way.” I asked him with excitement, “So, you mentioned that this is our hub but are the other hub assigned planets?” “Yes they are. Your solar system is assigned to this hub,” he answered. I continued my questions, “Why are we assigned to this hub…why not the hub near our solar system.” “Your solar system is assigned to this hub because this where we discovered you.” Therefore, the planet, system, or galaxy that is discovered is assigned to that central hub. We are constantly searching for new life, as you,” he explained. “So, that hub directs the contactee to its point of origin,” I asked. “That is correct,” he responded. He began to point out planets in our own galaxy. He explained that were millions of stars with planets near them in our own galaxy. He pulled up images of some and we could see there all kinds of variations. There were some that were similar to our own civilization and there were some that were less advanced. And there were some that were far more advanced. He mentioned that both Sirius and Vega have planets near them. He said that those planets located near them are millions of years ahead technologically. And the most intriguing information was that the “Greys” were from Vega. As I listened to AI607 speak, I started to remember my own brother. I found myself wondering if somehow they knew about him. “My brother was taken and I was wondering if there was any way to find him,” I asked. “Every planet has representatives for the advancement of their planet. We take them and learn about their way of life and then we take them back to their planet,” 607 explained. “They have almost no knowledge of the experience. We have archives at each hub,” 608 said. I pleaded with them, “Please, you have to show me.” They both responded, “Come with us.” They took us outside and we boarded a shuttle. They said the trip would take 2 minutes and it did. We landed on top of a massive building and begin to exit the shuttle. We went inside and were led into a room that resembled a library. It had many balconies and floors. As I looked up, I could see the many levels it had. “Each level has information from different galaxies. “You can find everything on Earth in this section,” 608 told us. He pointed to the 3rd level of the building on a digital display. We took a platform up to the 3rd level. We sat down at a table, which had a holographic image floating in the middle. AI608 being to manipulate the hologram and appeared to be searching for the information we needed. “She will help you with your search,” 607 said in that same calm voice. I must go and make preparations for Dronas’ return. “Who is Dronas,” Dr. Stein asked. “He is the leader of this hub,” 607 said. But, he could sense our feelings of incompletion. He continued to explain, “He is like your President or other world leaders of your world. He is our leader and there is a high council as well. He is Chancellor of all the hubs.” “Would it be possible for us to meet him,” Dr. Stein asked with intrigue. “Yes,” 607 answered. “I’m going to go with them,” Dr. Stein said to me. “And I’m going with YOU,” Deb said to Dr. Stein. “I can’t miss the story of my career,” she continued laughing nervously. Ivan decided to stay and help me. We found the Earth archives, with 608’s help. She pulled up a hologram of Earth and she was able to zero in on the United States. She asked what area it would have been. I pointed to upstate New York. She pulled a rotating list of names. There were at least 50 names on the list. We found Timmy near the middle of the list. She found a picture of him that showed what planet he was from. And it showed where he was out here! He is alive! But this made me angry and happy at the same time. “If he has been alive all this time, then why didn’t he come back,” I thought out loud. “Maybe he wasn’t in a position to,” Ivan answered noticing that I really was asking myself. “He could have tried,” I said to him. “We’ve got to go there. Can you take me there,” I asked 608. She nodded at us and escorted us back to the shuttle. The suits we had on had a build in communications interface. I ran my hand over the sleeve and a small image came up. I touched it until I found Dr. Stein’s image. He seemed startled but he sent someone for us. After a few minutes passed, we landed at the first building. We could see Dr. Stein outside of the craft. He looked excited. We walked up to greet him. “They told me how the ship works,” he said sounding ecstatic. He continued to explain, “We time jumped to get here.” The lights we saw emitting from the ship opened a worm hole, which acts like a bridge. That’s how we got here so fast. Also, they told me that the space in between holds no time, as we know it. When you enter a system with a star there is time. So, if you want to get to a specific period in time, you would need to time travel to a specific date. They use stars or suns for that. Now, the helmet device interface with your brain. It used your thoughts to control the ship. You don’t need to hand instructions with this technology. There’s no need for instructions. “Wow, this is fascinating,” Ivan said while looking excited. “And wait until you meet Dronas,” Deb added. Suddenly, I heard a voice in my head saying, “Welcome Olivia. I slowly turned around and saw a being standing there. His head was round and oversized. His eyes were dark and almond shaped. He was looked exactly like the grey’s that some abductees have described. He was wearing a white robe with gold accents. I should have been scared because he looked so strange. But, I actually was not afraid because I knew I was safe. “I believed that you were ready to see me,” his said. His voice echoed through my mind, “I am fascinated with your planet and yet I am troubled.” “Why,” I asked him. “Your world is not humble or at peace. There is no compassion for your own kind. This is why we observe you from a distance, until a chosen few step forward. This chosen one would be unafraid and strong enough to receive the universal gift of knowledge. This person is you, Olivia of Earth.” He paused for a long moment. Then he continued to explain, “We tried to befriend your kind before but our mission was unsuccessful. There were a few incidents, most notably a few of our ships crashed. We did not like how the leaders of your world handle those situations. They took the truth and hid it from their own people. They decided to keep you in the dark, instead of giving you enlightenment. We will not support deception of any kind. So, we kept a watchful eye over you,” he ended softly in my head. I felt overwhelmed. I was hurt and sad. This being just told me that my planet was untrustworthy. I couldn’t move and I had no words. I just stood there motionless, with tears in my eyes. “I sense you are troubled by this but remember that you are here now. Also, I sense that you seek your brother,” Dronas said. “Yes, I do,” I answered. I shall have you taken to him at once,” he said as he motioned for 607. He gave him instructed him to help. I looked at my group with tears in my eyes. They walked over and embraced me. “I get to see him again,” I whispered softly.

We boarded a different ship for the journey. This ship was much bigger than the one we came in. We were taken to a system in the Andromeda (Centurion Meda) galaxy. As I gazed out of a window, I could see the planet we were approaching. The planet had a golden hue. As I looked at this planet, I realized the time it took to get here. It only seemed like a few minutes passed. We landed and began to exit the ship. What we saw we exited that ship was nothing short of amazing. This was a beautiful see beside a beautiful body of water. The water was a greenish blue color and the sand was white. The city was very active. I saw people walking around and talking to one another. The seemed so happy. Also, there were pyramids here. The entire city looked like we time traveled back to Ancient Egypt. It was beautiful! There were 3 suns on the horizon and the sky very blue. We were escorted to the closest Pyramid. We went inside and walked down a small hallway. There was a man standing at a table. I watched 608 walk over to him and whispered something to this man. And I don’t know how but when she did that I knew. I just knew it had to be him! I felt my heart warm with joy. But, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking. I felt tears coming. “Please be him. Please God let it be him,” I thought to myself. Finally, I could hear myself uttering the words, “Please…please God let that be Timmy.” The man slowly turned around to face me. Once I saw his face, everything slowed down. I suddenly felt whole again, as if a piece of me had been missing. I just got a piece of myself back because it was him! I couldn’t move but he ran right to me. He embraced me, as we both began to weep. “It was my fault,” I said to him over and over again. I felt so guilty and yet so relieved. He held me tightly and said, “It’s not your fault sis…it’s not your fault.” But, I was inconsolable. I couldn’t talk because I was crying so hard. No more words could escape my mouth. He held my face in his hand and said, “Listen, I have so much to tell you. And please stop crying. I need to tell you about my journey. I’ve literally been in heaven this whole time. They tell me you’re a scientist back home. I’m sure you’d like to know.” At this moment, I didn’t care. It took my whole life to find him. I just held him. That was all I could do in this moment. I did not care about anything else. There was nothing else but us right now. No Earth. No galaxy. No Universe. My twin brother and I were whole again. The rest can wait. For now, I am whole again….

The End.

About the Author

[*Felicia Copeny *]is a Medical Insurance Specialist by day and she writes stories by night. She has been a science fiction fan since her childhood. She was always intrigued by the stories her father would tell her, of strange experiences that he had as a child. This sparked her love of the paranormal. Her goal is to eventually become a script writer. She resides in Flint, MI with her longtime partner Bryant and their 4 beautiful children.

The Sanctuary

By Lewis Leslie

A rundown spacecraft careens through an endless abyss of magnificent stars. The ship passes moons and stars at a great distance, without stopping for any reason. Captain Vincent Carver is hunched over a desk with his head down. A five o’clock shadow adorns his face, and a half empty glass of brandy rests in his grasp. He’s asleep; maybe dead. It’s hard to tell.

Classical music bellows from an unseen source. It fills the room with ambiance. A voice echoes in the room: “Do it. Do it, Vincent. You have to.” He’s jolted awake; taken aback by the voice that’s seemingly in his head. Captain Carver struggles to keep his wits. He downs the rest of the alcohol, and places the cup firmly on a table before exiting the room.

On the bridge, stars can be seen through the hull window, but no planets are in sight. The captain adjusts his collar and cuffs, as he swiftly enters the room. His crew is comprised of Commander Jacob Talon, second in command, Lieutenant Deborah Knowles, who holds the most experience on the vessel, Helmsman, or woman, Kira Day, cute and sassy, Communications Officer Selena Winters, on her maiden voyage, and Crewman Quentin Thomas, who’s just happy to finally be out of his parents’ house. The higher ranking officers dress accordingly, but most of the crew adhere to their own fashion whims comprised primarily of dark colors and layers.

Selena attempts to make contact with an outside entity, but there is no response. An intoxicated Carver grows frustrated with their inability to reach anyone. He takes a seat, and places ear buds in to drown out the sound of what he considers an incompetent crew.

Lieutenant Knowles stands to address the crew: “Listen up, people. It comes as no surprise that our fearless leader is, yet again, inebriated this evening. I don’t know about any of you, but I, for one, would like to complete this mission before I die of old age. So, listen to me, and listen very closely…”

In the medical bay, Chief Medical Officer Dean Holden sits, and shoots a vile filled with an unknown substance into his arm. He’s a hairy fellow. What he lacks in hygiene, he makes up for in… absolutely nothing. He’s disgusting. The medical bay is a complete mess. Science experiments and unsanitary equipment clutter the room. Strange creatures float in liquid-filled containers. They appear to be of an alien origin; some of them are docile, while others are acting in an aggressive manner.

Commander Talon enters the bay with no regard to who or what may be inside. Dean attempts to conceal the syringe, but he’s not fooling anyone. Jacob Talon searches the room, turning over everything in his path. He taps on the glass that contains one of the creatures; its eyes shoot open, causing him to jump back. Holden gets a good laugh out of the ordeal. Jacob’s displeased with the “things” Holden has brought onto the ship. “Are you even qualified to be on this ship?” asks Talon. Dean laughs at the notion, but has no real response, as he’s drugged up and mostly dead to the world.

Selena rinses off in a futuristic, sleek shower with a frosted glass barrier. Steam wafts through the room from the heat of the water. She turns off the shower, and wraps herself in a towel. There’s a buzz at her door; the ship’s version of a doorbell. “Coming,” she says, as she makes her way to the door. Selena opens the door, expecting to see Quentin, since he has a thing for her. Standing outside her chamber is the last thing she’d ever expect to see in a million years… a corpse… standing upright. Selena screams, and shuts the door in the cadaver’s face. Terrified, she presses her back against the door, so it can’t get in.

There’s another buzz at the door. Frightened, Selena debates whether or not she should open it. It buzzes again. The suspense is too much for her to take. Slowly, carefully, she opens the door. Quentin stands outside, holding a rose. He hands the beautiful flower to Selena, who takes it, and smells the pleasing fragrance. Startled by the corpse, but relieved by his presence, she says “Come in.”

Quentin sits at a small table in the room. Selena brings him a cup of hot coffee made from an instant coffee maker. She sets a second cup down on the table for herself, and then goes to get changed. Quentin fiddles with a pill bottle just outside his pocket… it’s not Tylenol. Selena returns, wearing a tight, simple, but flattering outfit. Quentin tucks the bottle away before she spots it.

“I’ve been noticing some strange things lately,” Selena says. “Things have been a little… off, ever since beautiful blue vanished,” replies Quentin. “I’ve never been on a mission this long,” states Selena. “Why did you come on this mission? It’s a simple transport ship; nothing glamorous. A girl like you…” asks Quentin. “I’m just like everyone else, Quentin,” says Selena. “There’s something special about you, Selena. Mark my words; you’re destined for greater things,” Quentin responds. Selena’s flattered. She smiles, as they converse over their drinks.

On the bridge, Lieutenant Knowles holds a power stance near Kira, who’s at the helm. The Captain is fast asleep in his chair. A wallet-sized picture of a strikingly handsome man rests on the control panel next to Kira. She glances at it periodically. Deborah Knowles takes notice, and comments, “Forget about him.” “Excuse me?” asks an offended Kira. “He’s dead weight,” replies Lieutenant Knowles. “We’re only eight days from going home. We will see each other again,” says Kira. “Change of plans,” replies Deborah sternly. “Lieutenant?” questions Kira. “Set a course for Space Station Alpha,” commands Lieutenant Knowles.

Kira reluctantly obliges her request, as Commander Talon enters the bridge. Talon asks, “How are we lookin’?” “Right on schedule,” Deborah answers. Kira holds back the urge to speak out about the lieutenant’s blatant disregard for the mission.

Quentin emerges from Selena’s quarters; sullen and downtrodden. The door closes behind him. He turns and stares it down like it ripped out his still-beating heart. He takes the bottle of pills from his pocket, and eagerly tosses a couple down his throat. Quentin trembles, and then takes off down the hallway with the bottle clutched tightly in his hand.

Down the hall, Quentin spots a sign that reads: “KEEP OUT”. Taking its warning into consideration, he turns and finds himself face-to-face with the corpse that was outside Selena’s door. Startled, he screams, jumps, and drops the bottle, spilling pills all over the floor. Quentin bends down, and rushes to pick up the tablets. Once he believes he has them all, he hightails it down the hall. Selena peeks her head out of her room, looks around, and spots a single pill on the ground. She picks it up, and examines the solitary tablet.

Lieutenant Knowles and Kira are in their previous positions on the bridge. Commander Talon and Captain Carver are seated in their chairs. Selena enters. She’s shaken up by recent events. “Welcome back, Miss Winters. Breaking in the new guy?” taunts Deborah. Selena returns to her position on the bridge. Abruptly, Vincent awakens, and shouts, “GET THE HELL OUT!” Everyone turns their attention to the man, who bolts from his seat, rips out his headphones, and attempts to pull himself together.

Deborah chimes in, “Maybe decaf next time… captain.” “Let’s get our cargo to its destination. Everything else is secondary,” Vincent suggests. “Captain?” comments Kira. “Yes, Miss Day?” replies Carver. Deborah stares her down. “Nothing, sir. Glad to see you’re alright,” adds Kira. “I’ll be in my quarters,” states Captain Carver. “Commander, you have the bridge,” he adds. Jacob and Deborah exchange looks, as Carver exits. He knows that she’s the boss, and has no desire to contest it.

The next morning, in the mess hall, Captain Carver, Commander Talon, Lieutenant Knowles, the always dazed Chief Medical Officer Holden, Helmsman Day, and Communications Officer Winters sit down to breakfast. Quentin is not in attendance.

“In seven days, our mission will be complete. I’m proud of what we’ve done here, as a team,” says Carver. “This rag tag group of misfits is lucky to be alive, if you ask me,” responds Lieutenant Knowles. “No one did,” says Selena. “Alright, alright. I understand there may be some tension within the group. We all come from different backgrounds, but that’s the beauty of the thing. That a team with so much diversity can pull off something like this is nothing short of extraordinary,” states the captain.

Reluctant to ask, Selena inquires, “Has anyone seen anything strange lately?” “What do you mean?” asks Talon. “Where’s Quentin?” Selena responds. “I figured he was still tuckered out from your romp in the sheets last night,” Deborah says snarkily. Selena stares her down. “Maybe the boogeyman got him,” suggests Holden in an eerie manner. “I’m sure he’ll turn up,” says Carver. “Unless you think we need to send out a search party,” he asks of Selena. “I’m sure you’re right,” she says.

Partially chewed food hangs from Dean Holden’s mouth. “Who wants to see my Glorack give birth after this? She’s due any minute,” he says with glee. No one appears to be interested in his freak show. They continue to chew their food, only mildly turned off by the suggestion. “The baby Glorack tear through the mother’s abdominal lining, and chew their way out,” adds Holden. Jacob drops his fork in disgust. “Wha’d I say?” asks Dean, oblivious.

Back on the bridge, the crew man their positions. Chief Medical Officer Holden is not present. He is presumably watching the birth of a bunch of freakish alien babies in the medical bay. A transmission comes through on the com: “This is Space Station Alpha attempting to establish contact with the starship Sanctuary. Sanctuary, do you copy? It has been a month since your last transmission; thought you were heading home. We are concerned about your dangerous cargo. Please, report…” states the voice. The transmission stops. Everyone turns their attention to the captain.

“Dangerous cargo? What are we hauling on this boat?” asks Commander Talon. “What is this, twenty questions?” responds the captain. “Sounded like one,” says Kira. “What’s on this ship with us, captain?” inquires Selena. The crew glare at Captain Carver expecting an answer, but he gives none.

In the medical bay, Holden watches in excitement as the Glorack gives gruesome, disgusting birth to its babies inside a liquid-filled enclosure. They tear their way out of the mother’s stomach. It is every bit as rancid and disturbing as he described, but gets great pleasure from seeing it transpire. It seems to be the only thing that can pull him out of his drug-induced haze, if even for a moment.

The bay door opens, and Quentin stands outside. “A lot of people are worried about you, kid,” says Holden. Quentin does not respond. He takes a step inside. The door closes behind him. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” asks Dean. Quentin steps into the light; his face burnt and scarred. He looks like the corpse that he himself encountered previously. Holden backpedals. He accidentally knocks over the Glorack’s enclosure. It shatters all over the ground, releasing the creatures, who slink along the ground, and climb up Quentin’s body until they reach his face. The Glorack babies enter Quentin’s mouth, ears, and nostrils. They burrow their way inside. Quentin struggles, but in just a matter of moments, he drops face down to the floor, motionless. A horrified medical officer stands in terror at the sight. He pulls himself together, and rushes out of the room.

On the bridge, the usual suspects take their standard positions. The captain, however, is nowhere in sight. Chief Medical Officer Holden rushes in like a drunk looking for one last drop of booze. He gets the attention of the crew, and speaks, “Quentin… Quentin.” Holden points toward the medical bay.

The crew find themselves in the medical bay, staring at Quentin’s body on the ground. Commander Talon presses the emergency alarm on the wall. Red lights flash, and a siren wails. In his quarters, Captain Carver lies face down on the desk. He holds a glass of brandy in which the ice has long since melted. Red lights and the alarm goes off in the room, waking him from his sleep. Alarmed, he gets up, grabs his jacket, and heads out of the room.

Carver makes his way to the bridge, but it’s empty. He heads down the hall and finds the entirety of his crew standing in front of the “KEEP OUT” sign. “What’s everyone doing away from their duties?” asks the captain. They explain what happened with Quentin, and Selena describes the corpse she saw earlier. They’re fed up with the mystery, and ready to find out what sort of dangerous cargo they’re hauling. Vincent grows agitated and animated with his hand motions. He takes a swing at Commander Talon, who cold-cocks him in the face, rendering him unconscious.

Taken aback by the confrontation, the crew stares at Jacob in fear. Deborah is particularly impressed. “Pull up your pants. We’re goin’ in!” he says, as he makes his way into the room just past the sign. Inside, they find eight cryogenic sleeping pods. Upon closer examination, there’s no one inside of them. Kira presses a few buttons on one of the consoles, and an image appears. It’s a picture of her, and a startling description: stage 7 bipolar disorder, murdered her whole family. “What is this?” she asks. “I don’t understand.”

Kira rushes to another pod, and activates the display. It’s an image of Captain Carver. Next to it is the description: schizophrenic, alcoholic, murdered a hospital orderly, who intervened during one of his suicide attempts. Distraught, Kira heads to pod after pod. They all come up with pictures of the crew, followed by violent descriptions of mental health issues and murder. Dean Holden stands in the doorway of an adjoining room. He speaks, “Hey, guys. I think you’re gonna want to see this.”

The crew follows him to the doorway. Inside the next room, they see the murdered bodies of eight men and women. Commander Talon bends down, and checks a name tag on one of the men. The I.D. reads: “Commander Russell Tompkins”. Confused, he looks back at his crewmen. “What’s going on here?” he asks. “What’s that?” inquires Selena, who points to the far corner of the room. It’s dark, but a crouched figure can be seen in the distance.

Lieutenant Knowles approaches the figure. She pulls out a small flashlight, and shines it on the man. His clothes are torn and tattered. Large amounts of dried blood are on his hands and face. He twitches, frightened by the light. “What’s your name?” she asks. The man recoils, trembles and looks away from the bright light. Deborah turns off the light, and kneels down next to the man. “Did you kill these people?” she asks.

Words struggle to escape his dry throat, but he manages to speak softly, “We… we did it.” “There’s more of you? Where are they? Where are your friends?” The man lifts his hand, and extends his index finger. He points to Lieutenant Knowles, who questions him, and then to Commander Talon, Chief Medical Officer Holden, Helmsman Kira Day, and finally to Communications Officer Selena Winters.

Kira holds a digital notepad that she got from the room with the cryo pods. She sifts through information, until she reaches something of interest. “Um, guys…” she says. The crew turn their attention to her. Kira continues, “I know what we’re hauling.” They listen intently, awaiting the answer. “It’s us,” Kira states. “What do you mean… us?” asks Deborah. “This is a transport ship. It was transporting a group of dangerous mental patients to a permanent holding facility.” “What exactly are you saying?” asks Holden. Kira flips the pad around, so the rest of the crew can see the report. It has images and descriptions, matching those on the pods, about each of them, as well as the man crouching in the corner; Skylar Collins, dissociative disorder, multiple personalities, murdered a family on vacation in the mountains. “I think I know who all these people are,” Kira says as she looks over the bodies in the room.

“The crew,” echoes a voice standing behind them in the doorway; it’s a menacing Captain Carver holding a metal pipe at his side. “What have you done?” asks Selena. “We all did this. Don’t kid yourselves,” states Carver. “I just wiped your memory of the event, so we could complete our mission,” he continues.

“What mission?” asks Commander Talon. Captain Carver smiles like he’s very pleased with himself. “What mission?!” inquires Kira. Lieutenant Knowles turns on the crew. She and Carver knock Jacob, Kira, Dean, and Selena unconscious. They place their bodies in the cryogenic pods. Vincent helps a timid Skylar to his feet. “Come on. We’ve got work to do,” he insists.

On the bridge, Carver is seated in the captain’s chair. Lieutenant Knowles stands with her arms folded behind her back with a proud smirk on her face, while the newly acquired Skylar sits at the controls. They ease the ship in closer to Space Station Alpha, who attempts to establish verbal contact. Skylar turns off communications, and silences their transmission. “Fire at will,” commands Carver. A ragged Skylar begins firing at the space station. Vincent and Deborah watch on the screen in morbid glee, as portions of the station are destroyed in a series of explosions.

Inside the cryo room, one of the pods clicks, and then opens. Kira sits up, and takes a look around. The other pods are sealed tightly, but the hatch on hers is damaged, thus allowing her to escape. Kira attempts to open the other pods, but she cannot override the time codes set in place by Captain Carver. She looks around for something to help, and notices a control panel on the wall.

Space Station Alpha is being torn to pieces by the ship’s attack, but they are firing back. The Sanctuary’s shields are strong, however, and they appear to be winning the fight in a landslide. An announcement is heard over the intercom: “Shields down.” Confused, Vincent and Deborah turn to Skylar for an update. He informs them that the override came from outside of the bridge.

Kira slides to a seated position against the wall of the cryo room. Tears line her eyes. She pulls out the picture of the handsome man from before, and stares at it lovingly; kisses the photograph. “We will see each other again… on the other side,” Kira says to the picture. The sound of explosions rings out all around. Kira holds the photo close to her body, as the ship is torn to pieces by the blasts from Space Station Alpha’s defense.

Inside Space Station Alpha’s command center, First Lieutenant Dan Winters, Selena’s father, addresses his crew in a somber tone, “There will be an investigation into what happened here today, but until then, here’s what we know… The Sanctuary transport ship that was hauling eight highly dangerous mental patients had not reported in for one month. For unknown reasons, The Sanctuary became hostile, and attacked this space station without warning or provocation. Alpha had no choice but to retaliate for our own protection. The shields on The Sanctuary disengaged suddenly. Space Station Alpha successfully returned fire, and destroyed the attacker. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those aboard The Sanctuary. My daughter was on that ship. I want a full report on my desk by morning.”

First Lieutenant Winters exits the room. The door closes behind him. He takes a deep breath, and exhales. Dan regains his composure, straightens his suit, and wipes a single falling tear from his eye.

The End.

[]

God’s View

By  E.J. De la Peña

My head hit the pillow. I stared up at the cold ceiling, watching flashes of light fan out from the porthole and dance along the carbon fiber as the plasma outside curled into oblivion. I picked photo up off my bed stand. My finger ran along the edge of the frame, then along the screen. My hand moved across her face. As I closed my eyes I could hear her give that nervous giggle. I brushed hand her auburn hair behind her ear and smiled. Her perfume wisped about me and…

“Janus, you awake?” Will said.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Whats up?” I tilted my head back into the pillow to see Will standing in the doorway of my quarters. I sat up in my bed and set the photo on the desk.

“Mission briefing in a couple minutes.”

“All right, thanks.” I said.

“What’s her name.” He said pointing to the picture.

“Huh?”

“She the one who got away?” Will smiled.

“Hah, no, no,” I smiled softly, “The one I never had.” I turned the

picture off and followed Will into the hall. “So what’s her name?”

“Diana.”

“How come I never heard of her.” Will asked.

“She was before your time.” I said.

“Huh?” Will asked

“I knew her before we met.”

“Ah unrequited love?”

“Something like that. I joined the military, she stayed home.” I said.

“Woulda, coulda, shoulda.” “Don’t we all.”

“Oh sure, from time to time, but you make a career out of it.” Will said. “I’m not that bad.”

“Oh no? When was the last time you went on a date? Holograms and toys don’t count.” Will asked.

“Um…” I hesitated, confused as to what answer wouldn’t incriminate me as

a sexual deviant. We reached the briefing room.

“Exactly. I win.” He said. Will strutted ahead of me into the room. A few

pilots in a navy blue flight suits spotted the briefing room.

We sat down in the front row just as the C.A.G. walked in, his eyes held

fixed on the mission specifics in his hands. When he spoke the moon shaped scar below his eye scrunched into a slit.

“Morning boys and girls. Well girls anyway,” He said. We’d all heard it before but he still got a few chuckles. “So I’m sure you already guessed but I’m making it official. The mission is a go. The greater mass of the ​[_Mobile Bay _]prevents us from taking the ship safely in range to drop the probe. That’s where we come in. One scout ship piloted by Mr. Janus here will approach the singularity with two search and rescue ships in case anything goes wrong. The trajectory we’ll be using…” He went on, but I was done. I’d gone over these mission specs well enough. Three months and I could go home, my lust to see the universe over. I stared into a remote corner of the briefing room thinking of, no feeling, the warmth of Earth’s star on my skin. Clean air passing though my lungs as I sat out in back of my cabin. The pond water… “Mr. Janus, anything you want to add?” The C.A.G. asked. Fuck, busted.

“Uh, yeah, uh, how did the modifications to the engines hold up?” I said.“Check with the deck chief but as far as I know everything’s ok.” About an hour later, the briefing ended. I stood up and started walking back to my bunk when Will caught up to me.

“You really wanna come back from this one, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, I saw you daydreaming in there.”

“It’s just a science mission. Something so that the politicians can tell

the taxpayers they’re getting something out of us being here.” I said. “That’s not exactly a space station you’re going to be orbiting.” He

said.

“I went over the specs beforehand alright?” I gave him a smile. “I know

what I’m doing.”

“Just watch yourself out there okay?”

“Will do, man.” I said. Will began to walk off and I grabbed his arm. “I’m fine man. Seriously.”

Three hours later I detached the boat from the docking bay and wound the needle like scout around the ship toward the black hole. The discharge from the plasma entering the event horizon grew bright as I approached. I tightened my helmet to my flight suit.

“​Scout One​ to ​Mobile Bay​ optimum distance reached, waiting for your signal to launch probe.” I said.

“​Scout One _]​this is the ​[_Mobile Bay​ you have a green light, probe is a go.”

The probe shot out from the underbelly of my craft, blue gray stream of gas ejecting behind it as the chemical rockets flared. It curved toward the singularity, moving with the plasma as it twirled down into the event horizon. The point of no return.

“​Mobile Bay, _]​this is ​[_Scout One​, I’m not reading any data how about you guys?” I said.

“​Scout One​, we’re not reading anything.”

“Right, I’m going to move a bit closer, maybe the antenna’s range is being hampered by the gravity well.”

“Acknowledged ​[_Scout One, _]​be careful out there.” They said. I terminated the link.

“No shit.” I inched closer.

“Receiving data now ​Mobile Bay​, relaying telemetry.” There was no response. “​Mobile Bay, _]​do you read?” Static. A few minutes later a garbled message came through. I couldn’t make out any words, but I recognized the voice of the communications officer. “​[_Mobile Bay​, I’m returning home, hope the science geeks are happy with what I have.” I flipped the ship around and started my ascent. The going was slow, slower than it should be. I punched the engines and the seat pushed against my back. Then the seat back pulled away and the boat began slipping in reverse. I pressed the afterburner and then…sparks flew from the console. Shades of blue arched across the cockpit just before everything went dark. The ship pitched end over end falling backwards, the light from the plasma flickering with each rotation as I fell toward the oblivion at its center. I tried to fire the emergency thrusters, hoping to establish an orbit that would last long enough for the search and rescue ship. But when their fuel was gone, that was it. There was nothing left and I fell inward.

I closed my eyes and surrendered as the craft disintegrated around me. Auburn hair floated across my consciousness. I could feel nothing around me, the seat of the cockpit left my back, the console my lap. My helmet evaporated into the nothingness around me. I heard a low rumble as if warm water surrounded me. I felt soft skin press against mine and a familiar scent around

me touch my nose. I waited for the gravity well to slowly pull my limbs apart. I heard her yell as pleasure engulfed our bodies. My eyelids fluttered open and I saw her emerald green eyes.

“What the fuck?” I scrambled my naked body to the back of the bed. But when their fuel was gone,.

“How the hell did I get here?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, how did you…I was…” I stammered.

“Honey, are you okay?” She said reaching moving nearer to me. Her eyes

frowning, searching my face for any sign of what went wrong.

“Just stay away! What the fuck is going on?”

“What do you mean what the fuck is going on?” She said.

“I mean… I don’t…” Something seemed to pierce my skull and I grasped

my head. The floor rushed up at me.

A doctor was shining a light into my face. “He’s awake.” He said.

“Do you know what’s a matter.” I heard Diana say.

“Just a second, sir?” The doctor said. I glanced around the sterile white

room. Did the rescue ships recover me? Diana was standing next to me, her arm on my shoulder.

“What’s going on?” I said.

“Sir, we’re trying to asses that right now, do you know your name?” “Janus.”

“All right, and the year?”

“2245.” I said.

“And the date?”

“March 22.”

“Well you’re cognizant. What happened before you passed out?”

“I was floating?” I said. My vision was hazy.

“Sir?” The doctor said.

“I died.”

“Janus, whats are you talking about?” Diana said.

“I was on the scout ship, and I fell, and then you were their.” I said. “Nurse, call the psychiatric department for a consult, this may have been

some kind of psychotic break.” the doctor whispered to the nurse. “No.” I said.

“I’m sorry?” The doctor said.

“I’m not crazy.” The fog began to lift.

“No one said you were, we just want to cover all the basis.” 

“Right.” I said. I scooted my legs off the bed and got up, holding my head.

“Honey please, lay down.” Diana said.

“Lay down? I was just falling into a black hole and then suddenly I’m,

well…” I looked at her face, a tear in her eye.

“Mr. Janus, it’s probably best if you lay down and let us…”

“Throw me in a mental hospital? No thanks.”

“Janus please!” Diana said.

“You might want to listen to your wife.” The nurse said.

“My wife?” I looked at Diana and she took a step backwards.

“Diana, I haven’t seen you in five years, ever since…” my head split open again and my feet pushed out in front of me. My tail bone connected with the hard tile pushing it up into my spine. My head rolled under the bed.

“Uh…” I looked around the conference room. Men in grey suits sat around an oval table, looking at me. The lights were dimmed and sunshine flashed

through the blinds opposite me as warm air pushed through the open window. The blinds sinked back against the windowsill. I took a step backwards and bumped against something. I turned around to find a projector screen. I recognized images of vortexes, diagrams of gravity wells, and a description of a white hole.

“What my colleague here is trying to say is that the matter sucked into a black hole may very well come out somewhere. Some theories suggest that these so-called white holes could even be transversable by humans, given the proper understanding and application of technology. Estimates show that with the ability to manipulate said singularities the rate of exploration and colonization could grow exponentially.” I looked at Will standing next to me wearing a lab coat and glasses. Will doesn’t wear glasses.

“Uh, excuse me.” I said. I made my way out of the room and into the hallway. People and gray walls moved by me until I found myself at a granite encased planter built into the wall. I sat down on its edge, sunlight warming my neck as it passed through the plants from a hidden window. When I sat down I noticed my clothing. A black tie hung between the lapels of a lab coat. I picked up a card clipped to my coat. An I.D. badge that had my name and the date right, but I never worked for an Edgar’s Industries. I let the badge flop against my coat. I put my face in my hands then brushed them up into my hair.

“You couldn’t even do a ten minute presentation?” Will had found me. I guess he finished in the conference room.

“Presentation?” I asked.

“Yeah that thing you just walked out of?”

“Oh.” I frowned and looked at the ground.

“Man, everything alright?” Will asked.

“No.” I said.

“Whats up man?” He sat down next to me.

“I don’t know. I’m…skipping.” I said not looking up.

“Skipping?”

“I’m in one place one moment, then another the next.” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“I was in a scout ship and I lost power.”

“Scout ship?”

“I was falling into the singularity, the ship started to break up and

then I was somewhere else. Now I’m here?” Wills eyes narrowed. “Are you on something?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay then I’m going to call an ambulance okay. I think we need to get you checked out.” Will said.

“No I’ve already been looked at. They just thought I was crazy.” “Jan…”

“Will, that presentation was on black holes right?” I asked.

“Yeah man, you know that. We’ve been working on wormhole technology for the past year.”

“Could that explain whats happening?”

“What, your…skipping?” Will asked.

“Yeah.”

“Lets get you to the hospital man, something’s wrong…” He took me by

the arm and began to pull me up. I reached over and grabbed his wrist. “Could it?” I said.

“In theory…”

“Yeah.”

“Well I suppose, if you were going to different quantum realities rather

than other places but…” He shook his head.

“How can we check if that’s happening to me?” I said.

“I’m going to take you to the hospital.” He stood up

“How do we check this?” I said reaffirming my grip on his arm.

“We can do it at the hospital.” He said.

In the hospital they poked and prodded me doing test after test. They

shined lights, drew blood, even had a psychiatrist take a look at me. He hemmed, hawed, and stuttered a few times before declaring that I’d had a nervous break down of a sort brought on by stage fright. Crackpot. Will tapped on my the door of the hospital room between interrogations.

“Did you figure out how to see if I was right?”

“Janus, you’re sick not from another dimension.”

“Just test it man.” I said. He inhaled deep and then let the breath go. “And when I prove you wrong?” He asked. I looked down at the floor. I

thought of the look on Diana’s face as I seemed a stranger. The orange plasma flickering from sight as the ship wheeled from end to end. The look of expectation on the eyes of the business men.

“Then maybe I am crazy.”

“Alright. If this is what you need to accept this. It’s theoretically possible. I’ll have to check if your quantum signature matches the one from this universe. Uh…maybe a few hairs as samples to test? I’ll ask the nurse for a pair of tweezers.” When he was done collecting the hairs he placed them in a plastic bag and said he’d be back in a couple of hours to let me know. There was an argument while I waited. The doctors wanted to run more tests, the psychiatrist wanted to have me committed. They all knew something had gone wrong, but they didn’t know what. How many people just spontaneously snap and make this stuff up on the spot! I hadn’t given any sign of mental instability prior to this. I simply changed.

I ignored the rest of their argument and looked down at my body. Everything looked right except the clothes. I held my hands in front of my face and interlaced my fingers. Then I stretched my legs out in front of me, leaning backwards so I could extend them as far as possible. Standing up, I felt my spine press down on my hips and my muscles flex as I walked over to the sink. I splashed water on my face. Everything felt the same. This could be all in my head. But if so which one is real? Which life is my life? Could this be just some sort of flash before I was ripped apart by the black hole? Was all of this going to just blink out at some point?

When Will came back he entered carrying the test results. “Did you have someone tamper with my equipment.?”

“No.” I said. He eyed me up and down, a frown on his face saying that he didn’t know what to believe.

“Is it different?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Then I’m not insane?”

“If the test can be believed.”

“Then I’m glad I wound up in this reality.” I said. “Why?”

“I might’ve kept jumping without figuring out what was going on. I got lucky.”

“Not so much. It makes sense that you would hit realities close to your own at first. You said this started when you fell into a singularity?” Will said.

“Yes, I was launching a probe when my ship lost power.”

“It’s possible then you somehow passed through the black hole and into a

white hole that spat you into this reality.”

“But this is the second reality I’ve been to. Why wouldn’t I just stay at

the first one?” I said. “I don’t know.”

“How do I get back to my reality?” I asked.

“Again I don’t know, we’re just starting to tap the possibilities of travel through a singularity. Is there any pattern to your shifting?”

“Not that I can tell.” I said.

“You’ve got to let us run some more tests on you. Maybe we can figure a way to get you back home. At the very least we can learn…” I felt my head hurt again. I held it and leaned backwards onto the examination table.

The explosion threw dirt into my face. My eyes opened and uniforms rushed about me. Dark shades of blue and green threw their flesh at each other, limbs falling off like removable pieces from old toys. Helmet obscured faces spat blood as organs and fluids turned the dirt to mud. My hand felt the rifle lying next to me. I gripped it. I stood up and my head darted from side to side looking for, praying for, some sort of cover. Ducking behind a dent in the earth, I looked down and pulled on my uniform, hoping to determine what side is going to try to kill me. I don’t like blue. The sound of gun fire faded a bit. The main fight must have moved away. I checked my gear and found a knife and sidearm on my belt. I pulled the rifle onto my lap. It seemed familiar enough. I pulled the bolt back to check my ammo. As the bolt slammed shut some dirt fell onto my helmet and shoulders. “Shit.” She toppled me from above, pushing me over. Our rifles fell to the ground. Fist after fist pounded my face, hitting my eyes, my nose. I felt warmth trickle down my chin. I pushed her away from me, covering my head in case I wasn’t quick enough. I drew my blade and as she moved toward me again I spun around. My knife stuck upward in her throat cutting into her lower brain. I saw her green eyes frown without comprehension and then relax into nothingness. I fell backwards, my arms flailing about

her body. “OhmyGod,OhmyGod, Oh my FUCKING God!” A pulled my side arm and twisted toward the newcomer, trying to push me away from hand gripped my shoulder. I my breath hard in my lungs.

“Whoa!” Will said.

“I killed her, Diana,

“Looks like. She was a cute one too. I would have tapped that.” He said,

spitting on the ground.

“I did.” My breath began slow.

“What?”

“I killed her.”

“Are you okay man?”

“NoI’mnotokay! I killed her! There was just… I didn’t… No reason.”

She was just wearing the wrong uniform.

“I think we need to get you back to base man.” He said, his eyes narrowed

at me. I stood there looking at the body. Laying on her back, her arms and legs set at awkward angles as blood began to pool between her shoulder and ear. “C’mon man, before the fighting gets back over here.” Will began to guide me back to base. I walked silently.

The base was a make shift structure of sandbags and tents. It rested on a ridge with only a steep hill to allow entry. Will took me to the mess and sat me down on one of the rows of wood benches. A few people were grabbing quick meals before heading back to the front. An injured man put down his meal tray at the table one row over from us. He sat down grimacing and clutching his side. Artillery fired from not too far away.

“What’s going on?” Will said. I closed my eyes and tried to clasp at the

I killed her!” remnants of thoughts speeding through my head. She’s not my Diana. I looked at will.

“I’m…not the me you think I am.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Will said. I tried to explain it to him the best I could. Stammering sentences about black holes and alternative realities. His head cocked to the side and his eyes narrowed.

“Why don’t you come with me to the infirmary.” He said.

“Goddamn it, why is everybody’s first reaction to take me to the doctor! Can’t you just believe me!”

“Well yeah I want to believe you, but look at what you’re say…” A klaxon sounded.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Come on.” I gripped my pistol and followed him out. He brought me to a piece of artillery that stood on the ridge near the entrance. He thrust a shotgun in my hands. “You do short range, I’ll take long.” I stood their looking at the gun. “Move it!” I moved to a sandbag barrier some twenty yards away as he aimed toward down the hill. I crouched behind the sand bags where the hill met the gate. Others came and added to the present assortment of guards. It wasn’t long before the enemy began charging the hill. We cut them down on their suicidal approach. Automatic fire forced rows of soldiers to their knees. One hid behind the bodies of his dead friends long enough to throw a grenade. I saw the gray device curve through the air falling in between three defenders. It exploded before I could yell a warning. As the enemy got closer I fired my shotgun, pushing them back a bit. In a lull between waves I took a glance at Will and smiled. At least he was still with me. His head exploded. A blue hung over the edge of the ridge, holding onto a rope with one hand and a shotgun in the other. He turned the gun towards the soldiers manning the Artillery. I stood and turned my gun on him. But I couldn’t pull the trigger. My body felt wrong. Paralyzed. I tried to pull the trigger again but instead I fell to my knees. I looked down and saw blood spurting from a neat little hole in my chest. The blue’s comrade in arms lowered his pistol to finish climbing over the sandbags. I fell face first in the dirt. I felt too tired to move and my thoughts became confused. Mind mind began slipping outside my brain and I could only vaguely hear the sounds of the battle around me. I finished taking a sip of the lemonade.

I sat bolt upright spilling my lemonade into my lap. I stood up letting the liquid roll off my swim trunks and onto the the reclining beach chair I’d been sitting on. I felt my body, looked at my chest. No blood but a dark tan to take it’s place. Around myself I found a forest. My forest. My cabin was just up a hill a hundred yards away, just as brown and tiny as I remember it. With the sound of the lake moving against the shoreline and the smell of pine I felt my muscle’s ease to some degree. Home?

“Hey there stranger!” someone said. My relaxation disappeared and I spun around. All I did was stare. Will and Diana stood their holding hands. They were smiling!

“Is everything okay?” Diana asked. She moved to put her hand on my arm. I jumped back, my hands in front of as if to push this entire impossibility away. I began stepping backwards.

“Careful…” Will said. I felt the chair press against the back of my ankle and I tipped over backwards landing on my shoulder. When I stood up, I ran. I ran away from them, away from the cabin, away from every life I’d glimpsed. I found myself in the forest, drifting away from yet another reality. I kept running trying to escape. Trees blurred together until I lost my balance and fell next to one. I pushed my back up against it and closed my eyes,

preparing myself for what ever lie ahead. Lives rushed by me. There I was being given the Medal of Honor by the President. I was wounded in far removed outpost, being nursed back to health by a woman with kind eyes. I paused in my speech to the congress. I banked right at three G’s to avoid a missile lock on the rings of Saturn. A carrier battled an alien juggernaut in the distance. Each existence blew by, one by one, as minutes became seconds; seconds became milliseconds; and I found each universe to be like trees in the forest blurring together until the entire multi-verse became nothing. The shades of color of each world blending and melding together into a blinding shade of white.

I stood, my eyes closed in what amounted to a blank screen. Letting my everything go. My breathing slowed and my chest pounded less. Breathing became difficult and the light on the other side of my eye lids shifted in color. I awoke gasping for air on the deck of the rescue ship. Medics cracked my flight suit open and air moved into my lungs. Then everything went dark.

My eyes opened and I saw brightly lit steel. “He’s awake.” Someone said. “Where am I.” I said.

“Med bay.” The same person said. I looked over and saw Will standing next to me.

“Back on the ship?”

“Just barely, we almost didn’t get to you in time. The rescue ship found you just hovering on the event horizon. If we hadn’t found you when we did, you probably would have been lost.”

“Oh.”

“What happened out their man? We completely lost contact with you.” He said. A doctor came up behind him.

“All right, visiting hours are over. He needs some rest.” “Right. Well you can fill us in when you’re better.” Will “Will do.” I said.

“I’ll do what?”

“Get out.” I said. They let me out a few days later.

I laid in bed a few days later staring up at the ceiling. Gold light flashed across the carbon fiber as my thoughts scrambled around the events of the past week. Will knocked on the door.

“Hey man, I read your report.”

“Coming to tell me I’m crazy?”

“Hah, no, looks like you’ve had enough of that. I just wanted to check

that you were okay.” Will said. I sat up and put me feet on the floor.

“Yeah, I mean, I suppose so.” I said.

“That sounds convincing.” He came in and sat down on the foot of my bed.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing, it’s just, what if those realities had been my reality. What if

I went a different direction in life? What if I made some of those choices I’d made in those other lives? I didn’t like where I’d ended up in some of those places.”

“You’re doin it again. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.” “What else can I do?”

“I don’t know, use it I guess.” Will said.

“Use it?”

“Yeah man, you got to see something no one ever can. If there was something in that life you liked, you can try to change this one. Something you hated you can avoid. Either way you can have hope about the result.”

“Maybe.” I said. I laid down in my bed and wondered if that little cabin on the lake was really something I wanted anymore.

The End.

Crystal Lark

By David Castlewitz

From where he sat on the edge of a picnic table, Ben Sutter had a good view of the men and women milling outside the outfitter’s building. Another Lark hunting season would soon begin and, without a license, Ben needed a partner. He didn’t want to be shut out again.

He watched three boys lug heavy batteries from the recharge station, a two-story structure built atop a thermal rift. All three had the wild good looks and long blonde manes of Landers, the ruling class of colonists, as though they descended from a single progenitor.

Ben assessed his chances of being hired by the various hunters standing on the outfitter’s porch, or gathering in the front yard, sitting at tables off to the one side where a few dark haired women quietly served food and drink. 

A tall, slender woman traipsed down the wooden steps, her thick reddish-blonde hair bouncing against her wide shoulders, a canvas sack suspended by a brown leather strap across one shoulder.  Ben wondered if she’d be willing to partner with a stranger. As he walked towards her, he measured the interest he saw in her bright-eyed gaze, watched her  mouth twitch as though she might say something, and continued in her direction until they faced one another.  Ben saw interest in her soft oval face. Dim brown freckles spanned the bridge of her nose and vied with the lines in her cheeks and around her chin to be her most dominant feature.

“Sixty-forty,” she said before Ben spoke a word.

Surprised, Ben looked around to see if anyone laughed. Some Landers mocked Generational’s like him.

“It’s usually a fifty-fifty split,” Ben said. The woman’s hazel eyes moved. He felt himself being measured, sized up. Just as he’d been measured and tested and studied as a ten-year-old boy when he disembarked from the Generation ship twenty-five years earlier.

“It’s whatever the license holder says, and I say, sixty-forty.” The woman extended her hand and said,  “I’m Jillian Wright.” Her firm grip reflected the confidence in her eyes, her posture, her face. 

“Ben Sutter.”

“You want to partner?”

Ben didn’t expect she’d budge from the 60-40 split. “Done,” he said, and, again, they shook hands. 

Behind the outfitter’s building they found a town magistrate firing up contracts on a personal reader and teams of men and women affixing their thumbprints as electronic signatures. The line snaked back to the dirt road leading to the main part of town.

“You got equipment?” Jillian asked.

“Camping gear. Some mag-snares. Reflectors. Guard posts.” Over the years he’d acquired the necessary accoutrements. He’d lucked out with the lottery a few times, getting his own license to hunt the crystal oddities that sprouted out of the soil around the Spring Equinox. They were named for Christopher Lark, a Lander scientist who discovered them. Whether they were mineral or animal, no one could say, and the question drove the need to hunt them. Researchers paid for captured samples. Museums took the small ones. Private collectors vied for the largest, especially those that erupted with magnificent light shows when exposed to sunlight.

The lottery and the licensing scheme protected the Larks from extinction.

“I’m heading out tomorrow,” Jillian said. “First gong. Meet me at South Gate.”

“We could go out tonight,” Ben countered. “Start the hunt as soon as they broadcast the launch.”

“Tomorrow,” Jillian reiterated.

Ben backed off. Landers dismissed any suggestion a Generational might make. He’d learned that through ten-plus years of schooling. Don’t try to know better than the people who were here before you.

#

As he approached the main gate, Ben easily picked out Jillian Wright. Tall, bareheaded, a rucksack at her feet, a long-nosed pistol in an oversized  holster strapped to her waist, the woman stood out in the crowd.

“Dart gun?” Ben pointed at the pistol hugging her leg. “Won’t do much against a tagcat.”

“Not hunting tags.”

No, Ben said to himself, but they might hunt you. Tag cats were the most dangerous animal in the wild. 

“How many Larks have you caught?” he asked.

“Three. Over the years. None in the past few years, though. They’re harder to find.”

Until twelve years ago, Larks were collected casually and sold to interested parties or kept on a shelf as a curiosity piece. That changed when the Academy of Science announced that Larks held secrets about the planet’s past and that they could be a new form of life. With increased value came licensing and the lottery. Informal hunting stopped. The search for Crystal Larks became competitive.

A four-wheel rover, its huge spiked tires digging into the gritty soil and churning up rocks, arrived at the town gate. A trio of colony police poured from the back seat and joined the knot of local cops milling alongside the fence. One of the police unfurled the colony flag and hoisted it up a spindly pole. The symbol flapped in the air, the six black stars against a white background representing the colony’s towns. Nothing to denote the makeshift settlements where Generationals lived, Ben noted.

He didn’t think Jillian noticed. Or cared. She jammed a round khaki hat atop her head. Ben patted the weapons at his sides, a short barreled rail gun with a seven-shot magazine housing explosive pellets at his right hip; on his left, in a stiff holster, a rifled bolt-action gun using old-fashioned yet effective gas-powered copper-clad bullets. 

A cop caught his eye. One of the town police in distinctive dark blue trousers and black cotton shirt, the epaulettes on his shoulders bearing two narrow red bands to denote his rank of Captain. Ben felt himself scrutinized, questioned without anything being said. In response, Ben swung the pack he’d stuffed with gear onto one shoulder. Jillian wiggled into a fat rucksack with colorful braided cloth straps that fit snug across her chest, her load high on the shoulders for easy carry.

The sound of a gong erupted from the middle of town and the gate rocked on its rollers when the police slid it open. The crowd cheered and surged like a restless ocean wave locked between breakwaters and the hunters swarmed the opening.

Ben followed Jillian, keeping close to her. The town cops made hand motions to keep the crowd moving. A few hunters were singled out to have their license scrutinized or to be vouchsafed by someone. Most of those hustled off to one side were dark haired, dark eyed men like Ben. How many were Landers? he wondered. 

Jillian tugged on his sleeve, pulling him past a town cop’s gaze. Once free of the choke point at the gate, Ben breathed freely.

“This way,” he said, nodding at distant foothills.

Jillian pointed at the majority of men and women hiking towards the mountains and the winding trails leading to the upper plateaus and the deep caverns where Larks were found. In Ben’s experience, the noise of approaching hunters frightened the quarry. Or, he mentally corrected himself, maybe frightened was the wrong word, but the mob did something that made the crystals scarce. 

“What about the Barrels?” Jillian asked, referring to the aboriginals.

“I’ve gone to those foothills before and never saw any. Not close up. Maybe on the plains.” The low lying hills joined the mountain with a myriad of paths and natural steps for climbing. It might take them longer to reach the mountain’s honeycombed innards, but when they did they’d be alone, without competition from other hunters.

“It’s a race to get to their nests,” Jillian complained. “We go your way and we lose the race.”

Ben watched the first wave of hunters trudge across the grassland. Soon, they’d reach the mountain, melt into the rocks and outcroppings, ascend the trails, disappear into the caves.

“I don’t want to explain it to you,” Ben said. “I know what I’m doing. Trust me.”

Jillian shrugged and then walked ahead of Ben, in the direction he indicated with a nod.

#

“They’re not close,” Ben said, eyeing the dark dots moving in the distance across the plain. Not a threat. Too far off. Barely marks in the grit and sand. Three Barrel People who were probably looking for game. The birds in the sky worried him more than the bipedal creatures on the ground. He took a sip of water from the two-liter plastic flask clamped to the side of his backpack.

They’d been walking since early morning, heads down, across the arid plain and then into the low hills and rocky outcroppings at the edge of the mountain range. Ben watched several red-tailed ravens in the sky. The aboriginals watched the ravens, too, Ben realized. The plains nomads knew the signs better than he. Birds in the sky meant tagcats on the ground. Those large, saber-toothed monsters prowled the semi-desert flatland, feeding on ground-dogs and rick crabs.

“Ignore them,” Ben said. “They’ll ignore us.”

Jillian trailed behind, stumbling across the rocky surface. “They used to come right up to the fence at home. On the farm. Scared the wickers out me when I was a kid.”

“Didn’t realize you’d grown up a farm girl.”

Jillian snickered. “Wouldn’t know it, would you? Actually, it wasn’t exactly a farm. More like a wheat factory.” Another snicker.

Something clicked in Ben’s mind. Suddenly, he placed Jillian Wright in context, stopped and watched her lurch between two large rocks. Boulders flanked them on both sides of a narrow trail. He supposed it was made by native animals that looked like the white-bearded mountain goats he’d seen in videos about Earth. It led up a gentle incline into the mountain’s heart.

When Jillian got near, Ben said, “Wright Bread Works.”

“That’s my family.” Her cheeks glistened. Beads of sweat flowed from under the round brimless cap on her head. She’d tied her hair into a knot that hugged the nape of her neck. Perspiration soaked the white ribbon that secured her reddish-blonde locks.

The Wright family owned vast tracks of land which were established by the third and final wave of colonists that comprised the Lander population. A million acres of farmland given over to growing wheat, backed by robot harvesters, automated threshing floors and mills, with the final product baked in huge ovens that churned out a thousand loaves of bread, all of one size, all sliced and packaged. The only part of the process not owned by the Wrights was delivery. Some other monopoly handled distribution.

“Why aren’t you working for the family?” Ben asked.

“Same reason I haven’t married any of the men the Eugenics Board and my father picked out for me. I like what I do and I intend to keep doing it.”

“Which is?”

“I told you,” she said, eyes flashing, an angry edge to her voice “I’m a researcher. With the Institute.” She sighed. “The Declorian Institute of Advanced Studies.”

Ben shrugged. He’d never heard of it. He didn’t remember Jillian telling him this when they first met.  She stepped into the lead, to the edge of the trail, which soon became a tough upward trek to a plateau above, where two tall oblong rocks stood like sentries. Ben pulled the bolt-action rifle from its holster to make it easier to walk. The long barrel had been digging into his thigh.

“You look worried,” Jillian said, exertion obvious by her red face, her strides shorter than Ben’s

“Just cautious,” he said. He’d seen a tagcat prowl near the mountains only once. But he wouldn’t take chances just because common wisdom said, the monsters preferred the plains.

He surged ahead. To the plateau, where he reached back and took hold of Jillian’s hand. She smiled when he pulled her up the last few steps. Her eyes went wide when she stumbled into him and he gripped her shoulders to give her support.

They parted. Ben looked sideways. He shivered, the feel of Jillian’s body colliding with his, even for that scant instant, embarrassed him. In school, he’d been taught not to touch Lander children. They weren’t his equals. No fighting. No hugging. No wrestling. As a child, he didn’t know why. He obeyed, especially when he saw the punishments meted out to those who didn’t cooperate. Even Lander children were put in stocks or sent to the Quiet Room for violating what the school called “The Custom.”

“Beautiful,” Jillian said, pointing at the semiarid expanse below them.

Ben watched for birds, head back.

“You keep looking at the sky.”

Ben shrugged.

“Why?” Jillian insisted.

“I’ve noticed it before. Whenever I come out here. Flocks of birds in the sky precede signs of a tagcat. That hunting party we saw? The aboriginals. They bolted when the birds flew overhead.”

“We should climb higher. Before making camp.”

The trail cut between stone walls, clumps of green shrubbery and spindly trees that sprouted from between the rocks. The steep incline posed the danger of a twisted ankle or bruised shin. But if they didn’t tackle the trail now they’d be stranded when night came.

“Do you live off what you make for an entire year?” Jillian asked as they resumed the upward climb. “I mean,” she continued, “what you earn hunting?”

“No one can live off a 40-60 split,” Ben scoffed. “Or a hundred percent. The Larks are valuable, but not enough to – “

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Jillian interjected. “What do you do for a living, if it isn’t Lark hunting?”

“Actually, I worked for your family once.” Ben forced himself to grin, to show that he wasn’t angered by her question. “In a mill.”

He watched his feet as he walked. The steep angle required concentration. With one hand on the rocks to his right and the other on the mountain’s flinty wall, he carefully advanced one boot ahead of the other. 

“My grandfather wasn’t with the first wave,” Jillian said. “We were in the third. We had a lot of prejudice to fight against, coming here a hundred years after the first landing.”

Ben didn’t reply to that bit of news. Jillian hadn’t experienced the rejection and ridicule he’d felt at school and continued to feel even as an adult. She wasn’t denied work because no one thought her capable of applying her skills. She didn’t roam between the six towns or the many farmsteads or mining sites, taking on the labor no one else wanted. She couldn’t compare the mild sufferings of her grandparents to what he’d been through since coming to this planet as a bright-eyed ten-year-old.

“Maybe in a hundred years we’ll be accepted by your people,” Ben said. He’d learned to handle the taunts of school kids. He’d learned not to be offended when asked by a foreman if he knew how to use a shovel or drive a tractor. He didn’t know how to monitor robotic farm implements or mind gauges or control an automatic welding machine; but other tasks were easy to master.

“You’re right,” Jillian said. When he looked back he saw she’d slowed her stride so much that she was too far behind. 

“You gotta go a bit faster,” Ben said, and waved at her with a “Come on” motion. 

“This is why,” Jillian said, puffing for breath, “why everyone else stays on the other face of the mountain. There aren’t any steep trails over there.”

“Keep up,” he said. Her criticism of him as a Generational rang in his ears, even though she hadn’t voiced it. He sensed it in how she looked at him, how she put on an air of superiority when she spoke to him, even when she asked a question.

To the Landers, Generationals were a curiosity. They were the end-product of four hundred years in space, with forebears who boarded a ship they’d never leave, on which they’d die, with only the hope that their descendants would live to colonize a far off world.

What kind of people would do something so insane? That’s the question he heard repeated again and again while growing up. He heard it asked in other ways, with different words, when he reached adulthood. What his forbearers did as idealistic young men and women centuries earlier somehow became a stain that marked Generations as objects of wonder bordering on ridicule.

#

They camped at the next plateau. Ben planted four guard staffs, plunging the three pointed legs as deep as possible into the rocky soil, with piles of gravel to bolster each point. When he turned on one staff, its yellow-white pilot light glowed and the other three responded with a striped wall of red and green laser light that formed an irregular polygon around the campsite. The mountain’s rock wall served to protect them from attack on one side while the laser beams, though not strong enough to create a virtual curtain, would sound an alarm if any animal, human or aboriginal broke through.

Jillian set out her tent, a palm-sized package with a red center button, arranging the struts at each corner so they pointed outward. She pressed the red button and jumped backwards. In seconds the tent grew from a small square of canvas and faux-leather into a dome shaped domicile for one. The struts, however, didn’t dig into the rocky surface without Ben shoving them in, adding a kick of his boot.

“Zip up the front when you bed down,” Ben said.” The mountain crawls with stuff you don’t want to see when you’re trying to sleep.”

“Trying to scare me?” Jillian asked, her head cocked sideways and a small grin on her lips. “I’m out here every year. Camping in the mountain, staying in the caves. I’ve seen thorn worms and weevils and rock crabs. They don’t faze me.”

Good to know, Ben thought. On his left, a dozen rock crabs scrambled from beneath the surface, scratched at the gritty soil and then retreated underground. “That’s a good sign,” he said.

Jillian grunted and sat cross-legged in front of her open pack. She pulled a meal-in-a-bag from an inside compartment.

“Did you bring enough for two?” Ben asked.

“No.”

“Usually, the license holder handles food supplies.”

“I’ve never heard of that. Don’t tell me, you didn’t bring anything.”

“It’s okay. I can scrounge. There’s berries and roots.”

Jillian tossed him a bag of ersatz beef made from soy and greens.

“Higher up,” Ben said, “there’s a natural spring. Artesian. We can refill our canteens, so don’t be stingy with the water. Drink all you want.”

“Is that a thank you?” Jillian shot back. Ben stared at her, confused. “Thank you for the meal?” 

“Thanks,” Ben said, and lifted the meal-in-a-bag she’d given him.

“Do all your partners let you freeload the food?”

He shrugged, not wanting to argue about protocol. 

“Are you out here every year?” Jillian asked after a long silence, which Ben thought had put an end to her inquiries. 

“I know what I’m doing.”

“You catch one every year?”

Ben nodded, smiling to mask his deceit. Too many years had passed without winning a license in the lottery. Finding a partner wasn’t easy. Not many Generationals won licenses and most Landers weren’t interested in partners they didn’t know. Ben ventured into the wilds to hunt on his own without a valid license a few times, successfully sold what he found twice, but got caught when the collector he approached turned him in. That got him sixty days’ detention and an automatic lockout from the following year’s hunt. 

Still, he considered himself a good hunter, a good partner for someone like Jillian, who obviously didn’t know what she was doing.

“See all those rock crabs?” Ben pointed at the ground. The pebble-sized black creatures had surfaced again. “That’s a sign.”

“Of what? Larks?”

Ben nodded.

“I’ve never read anything about that,” Jillian said.

Neither had Ben. He’d observed it, though. Masses of the tiny, eight-legged creatures, which resembled black pebbles, always preceded the emergence of crystal Larks. In the past, when alone in a cave or on a gritty mountain plateau, Ben often crouched near the inert rock-like aliens and waited for their multi-jointed legs to suddenly shake, two in the back lifting the body, two in the front gripping the soil, and the others providing balance. He’d sometimes seen a mass of rocks churn the rocky soil. 

“It doesn’t happen every time,” Ben admitted

“You ever study anything?” Jillian asked. “I mean, formal study. With a mentor or a tutor.”

Ben snorted. He’d endured years of formal schooling after landing on the planet, always a year or two older than his classmates, always relegated to the back of the auditorium or lecture hall or classroom. Generational kids clumped together, sometimes to better protect one another from the taunts of Lander children.

Jillian sighed. “So, you’re one of those self-educated types,” she said when Ben didn’t answer her question. “I’m surprised you aren’t working with the Back-to-the-Soil movement.”

“My father does.”

“Figures.”

Ben swallowed. Aboard ship, his dad was a respected cultural anthropologist who knew a lot about the Earth his forebears had left behind. A man who’d studied the society that grew from generation to generation while the ship made its way to this Earth-like world, taking 247 years to traverse the depths of space that, just twenty years after they left, was conquered by the discovery of R-Curves, folds in the space-time continuum that acted as wormholes between what physicists called Way Points.

And now his father, who admitted to being perplexed by the joke the universe played on him, labored with the Back-to-the-Soil communities, which shunned automated farming, and machine-aided factories. “Soilers” drove tractors powered by oil derived from waste. They toiled on small plots of land. They sowed and harvested using hand tools when practical.

Something buzzed.

Ben glanced at the source of the sound, looked for something beyond the red and green strips of laser light from the guard stands. He pulled a portable lantern from his pack and yanked on its lanyard to ignite the gas cartridge inside. Light burst from the center bulb. Jillian scooted close to the lantern, her legs crossed so that each bare foot rested on the opposite thigh. Her discarded boots lay haphazardly across her open backpack.

Again, that buzz.

“Do you know what that is?” Jillian asked.

Ben lied. “Bugs. Insects. Nothing to worry about.”

Beady black pupils swimming against a milky blue liquid moved into the dim light generated by a guard posts’ pilot lights. Behind Jillian, an oblong face wavered at the edge of Ben’s vision.

“Come here,” he whispered to Jillian, and wagged a finger at her. “Beside me.”

She looked startled. 

“Do what I tell you,” Ben said.

“I’m fine right where I am.”

“Don’t look back. Don’t look sideways, either.” He continued to watch the beady eyes and the long face; the semblance of a stringy beard and then the sight of curved horns emerged.

“Are you trying to scare me? Or seduce me? Which is it?” Jillian’s eyes narrowed, her teeth biting into her lower lip.

In the dark, just outside the perimeter made by the striped green and red laser beams, the first pair of eyes were joined by another. Mountain goats, part of the herd the colony let loose a century or more earlier. Some of the skittish animals mated with their more robust and dangerous native cousins,  producing a hybrid species that the Lander scientists didn’t foresee. Sometimes,  these creatures  attacked aboriginal hunting parties with an intensity that defied their small size. They attacked human campsites as well. When he worked as a guard on one of the many gas pipelines feeding the towns from the drilling rigs in the desert, Ben witnessed a herd of goats rampaging across the plains.

“Look back,” he said. “But don’t make any loud sounds and get them riled.”

Jillian slowly moved her head. “Are they dangerous? I thought these goats were just – “ She didn’t finish. She shuddered.

“I think they’re curious. But you never know. That’s what comes of letting hybrids get into the ecosystem.” Ben pulled the rail gun from the holster he’d set atop his backpack. He pressed the activation button at the back of the pistol’s grip. A faint hum accompanied the build-up of an electrical charge.

“My gun’s over there,” Jillian said, pointing.

“Just stay close. They won’t charge if they’re not startled.”

“I’d feel better if I had a gun,” Jillian said. She extended her body, stretched her arm, her hand reaching for her weapon. She started to move forward to get close enough to grab it.

Ben saw movement. He fired a pellet at the ground, causing a small, sparkling explosion and a spray of gravel. The goats ran away, a shrill cry coming from their throats.

“That should do it,” Ben said. “Remember what I said. Zip up your tent and stay inside until morning.”

Jillian crawled towards her tent. “Thanks, Ben.” On hands and knees, she looked back over her shoulder. “For keeping cool and all.”

#

Ben sipped water from a plastic bottle. The morning chill matched the warm sun in strength. He rubbed his arms to chase away the goose bumps on his forearms. When he thought about breakfast, his stomach gnawed at him. There were no berries to be plucked, not even bushes to search; and, though he’d eaten a rock crab once, he wouldn’t ever again. Too bitter. Once was enough.

Jillian walked to the edge of the plateau. She ran her fingers through her hair. Suddenly, she jumped back and then rushed to her pack. She pulled a pair of field glasses from an inside pocket. Standing at the edge again, she put the binoculars to her eyes.

Ben moved close and stopped behind her. He’d thought she’d spotted a party of aboriginals on the hunt. Or, worse, men from the town climbing towards them. He didn’t want competition when they reached the caves above this plateau. Instead, a dark mass oozed across the empty plain below.

“A tagcat,” he said, relieved. The animal moved slowly, its long head close to the sand. Ben imagined its lumpy tongue scouring the ground, lapping up ant-like insects. From a distance, the tagcat was a large dark blob. With the field glasses Ben saw its long claws, the short bulbous toes, the body thick and dark gray, with vertical brown stripes running along its flanks. Its skinny tail waved back and forth as it walked. Ugly skin tags, which gave the creature its name, clung to the neck. Some were large bands of red-infused dead flesh and others no more than mere ribbons of leather that dangled from the scaly skin.

“Ugly things,” Jillian remarked, when she again looked through the binoculars.

Ben looked at the sky. Birds swarmed overhead. On the desert floor, the tagcat loped away, giving up its hunt, mindful of something the red-tailed ravens conveyed by their presence. Ben sensed a symbiotic relationship between the ravens and the tagcats, but he couldn’t define or describe it.

“Just one more climb,” Ben said when Jillian put away her binoculars and turned to deconstruct the tent. 

“Here,” Jillian said, tossing him a breakfast bar. “We should’ve gotten up earlier,” 

Ben ignored her complaint. Or was it a rebuke? 

The way up barely resembled a goat’s trail. Ben knew the animals roamed high in the mountain, nibbling on the succulent grasses that grew only on this face of the rocky edifice, but he had yet to discover their secret path. They certainly didn’t claw their way up, squeezing between rocks, climbing precarious stretches of near-vertical passages.

Progress remained slow, but steady, with a break mid-morning at a cluster of bushes growing from the mountainside, amid rocks that jutted straight up on one side of the trail and a sheer cliff wall on the other. Another hour and they emerged onto a wide tabletop full of bushes bearing bright yellow berries, tall green grasses, a few spindly trees, and the yawning mouth of a huge cavern.

Jillian discarded her backpack when she lumbered past, half falling over herself getting to the shallow cave. She stopped, standing under the arch that spanned the roof, on the lip of the depression in the mountain wall.

“There’re deeper ones around that way,” Ben said, waving to his right. 

Like a child delighting in discovering a magical playground, Jillian bounded away. Ben followed at a leisurely pace, after first recovering her backpack and placing it with his own near the cave. They’d camp here, he thought. Camp and explore. For as many days as needed.

He set up camp at the entrance to the large cavern, sectioning off an area using the guard posts, setting them as far apart as practical given their limited range. The cave entrance backed up the site. Inside, cool air bathed them. At night, Ben knew, they’d be cold, but he had his thermal blanket and Jillian had her tent.

He took two Lark traps from his pack. Just inside the shallow cave, he push first one and then the other into the hard ground, springing the claw-like feet free of their retainers. He adjusted the reflectors and turned on the magnetic pulse for each trap. In the past, these devices had netted him a small Lark once; but nothing more than that. Still, he liked to plant them and hope that a crystal entity responded to the invisible pulses. Any crystal emerging from underground would be grabbed by the traps’ pincers, one high and the other low.

“Let’s try the other caves,” Jillian said. “We’ve at least an hour before dark.” She carried a heavy instrument by its handle. A large round face protruded from a bellows-like rubber neck. Sound reflectors flanked the instrument and Jillian pulled them away from the unit’s body as she walked.  

Jillian bubbled with excitement. She aimed her detector at the ground inside the caves big enough to admit her body, and at the entrances to the pits where she didn’t fit. The device’s sound waves washed across the surface. A glance at the detector’s view screen set behind the articulated head showed no surface anomalies. No irregular crystalline shapes. Just the blips and ridges of stone and gravel.

Night came quickly, as usual. Ben pulled a handheld flashlight from its place on his belt and guided Jillian back to where he’d made camp.

“Any wild goats to worry about?” she asked, laughing.

Ben shook his head. “But I’ve seen Barrel People up here,” he lied. He wanted Jillian to remember that she needed his help and protection.

#

The sound of a tent flap woke Ben. He gazed with half-closed eyes at Jillian, who slipped out from her tent, squirming face down, her elbows doing the work. She pulled her trousers and shirt after her, her back to Ben. After hustling into her pants, she wiggled her sleeping gown up over her head and finalized the morning ritual with a swish of water and a few strokes of a toothbrush. Round hat on her head, her utility belt buckled around her waist, she poked her head back inside the tent and extracted her boots.

Ben watched Jillian leave the campsite before shutting his eyes and seeking a few more minutes of sleep. Just a little more. Enough to feel rested. Which he didn’t. Not physically. He yearned to sleep on cushions or curled up encased by a squishy lounge, a luxury that reminded him of being a kid aboard ship and slipping into the no-grav chamber to float alone or play tag with friends or watch adults wrestling nude in spite of the children.

Sometimes, Ben wondered if any of the adult females could be his mom. According to Dad, she’d been a dark skinned beauty with long black hair. They’d been matched to each other by the Genetics Committee. As was the custom aboard ship, the male offspring went to the father. Ben wondered if he had a sister somewhere. He didn’t know and Dad refused to discuss it. Even after they landed and began the assimilation process necessary to live on this planet. Even now, with Ben an adult and Dad an old man.

Eyes shut, Ben visualized Jillian’s naked back when she lifted her sleeping garment up over her head. He pictured her knobby beneath pale skin, the dimples on either side of her coccyx, the curve of her hips.

The scream that penetrated his quietude didn’t register. Not until the second wail, accompanied by a call for help, did Ben realize Jillian had stumbled into danger. That’s when he jumped to his feet, grabbed his pistol and raced towards the sound of her voice. Without boots on his feet, he suffered the sting of sharp rocks, the pain of stepping on a pebble that struck his instep, and ground-hugging thorny bushes that scratched him.

He stopped when he saw Jillian with her face red, her freckles like gold flakes across the bridge of her nose. He grinned, suppressing a full-throated bout of laughter.

Jillian lifted one foot and then the other. She kicked the air. All around her, small rock crabs wallowed in the ground. “They came out of nowhere. All at once,” she said.

“Walk this way.” Ben motioned to her.

“I don’t want to step on them.”

Neither did Ben. Not without boots, anyway. “Walk to me,” he said.

Jillian hesitated Then she stretched out her leg, the sole of her boot just above a black rock-like animal, which suddenly disappeared underground before she could step on it. One other wasn’t so lucky and it crunched under her heel.

“Not funny,” she said when she reached Ben.

He held her by the upper arms to steady her. She seemed about to join him in laughing at what had happened, but she didn’t. When he loosened his grip, she turned away and looked at the rock crabs. They moved back and forth, up and down. They reminded Ben of a pulsating dance mat, like the kind he saw in bars, where players tried to keep their balance on an ever-shifting floor.

The rock crabs disappeared all at once.

“It’s a good sign,” Ben said. “We should check the caves.”

“I’ve never seen rock crabs do that,” Jillian gushed.

“What were you doing out here anyway?” Ben asked.

“Private stuff. Personal. Okay?” She pushed him away. A playful push. 

With a grin and a nod, Ben returned to their campsite. He checked the traps he’d set in the nearby shallow cave. Nothing. When Jillian returned, they ventured back to where she’d encountered the rock crabs, and then along the mountainside ledge which presented several cave entrances that, like doors at the front of a house, led to the same inner room.

Jillian stooped to fit through a cave’s opening, pushing her heavy detector ahead. Ben followed, a wide-angle lantern in one hand. Inside the cave, they stood erect and Jillian shined the detector at the cool moist floor. She flicked a switch and a beam of light shot out. She pulled a pair of gloves from the canvas shoulder bag at her side. Ben had stuffed his in his belt. He put them on.

A single rock-crab showed itself. Then it tunneled back underground.

“If we understood the relationship between them,” Jillian said, “we’d have a real break-through.”

Ben had his own theory about the rock-like creatures and the crystal Larks. The crabs needed oxygen. That’s why they surfaced. The act of surfacing disturbed the ground, dislodged the Larks from their resting places, and forced them above ground. There was no true symbiotic relationship between the two. The Larks weren’t sentient. Nor were they animal or vegetable. They simply rose in response to shifting patterns of soil and sand. Sometimes, Ben had observed, rock crabs pushed Larks ahead of them, as though getting them out of the way.

“The bigger question,” he shared with Jillian, “is why Larks are only in the caves. I’ve never seen them outside, even with all the rock crabs crawling around.”

And why did Larks appear only during the Spring Equinox? he wondered.

They went deeper into the cavern. Rock crabs shuffled back and forth. Jillian’s detector bathed the ground with invisible waves of sound.

Ben followed a branch of the cave that he recalled from past explorations. It led to a large room. He watched a pair of rock crabs wiggle on the cave floor. 

Jillian appeared at the lip of the cavern and asked, “Anything?” Ben pointed at the rock crabs. Several more joined the first two.

A crystal Lark peeked from beneath a veneer of small stones. It exposed itself more, its knobby projections seeming to grow like tumors on a pale gray oblong body. A second Lark rose near the first. Both crystals were small enough to be handled without tools. But the edges would be sharp. Ben flexed his gloved hands and stepped towards the Larks, mindful of any sound he made, any shift he caused in the rocky floor. 

He studied the closest Lark. He touched it with his lantern’s beam and the bright white light pulsed red and then blue and then red again. Some Larks were so small that a half-dozen fit in the palm of the hand. Some were too large to be yanked from the ground, with roots that extended a meter or more beneath the surface.       

                                           

Ben lunged at the nearest Lark, his fingers folding around its body. He yanked it from the cave floor and cradled it in both hands.

Jillian rushed to his side. The second Lark didn’t move. Ben nodded at it. “That one. Get that one, too.”

But Jillian missed it. The Lark slipped back underground.

Ben studied his catch. He turned it over. Sharp pieces of rock protruded from the underside. When Jillian’s light fell on it, the body pulsed green. Not red and blue like before. Ben thought that could be significant.

“We’ll get a good price,” he said. “It’s a good specimen.”

“Give it to me,” Jillian said.

“Let’s get out of here,” Ben said, and started for the blotches of light marking the cave’s entrances. He chose the larger of the two. Still, he had to dip his head and bend his knees to fit. 

Outside, he sucked in a draft of cold air. He studied the palm-sized Lark he’d captured. In sunlight, it continue to glow, alternating from blue to red, then to blue again.

“I want that,” Jillian said as she crawled out from the cave.

“We should go back.” Ben knew her license allowed only the sale of one Lark. If they had two they’d need to take a chance on the underground market and he didn’t think Jillian would do that. Should he? He’d been caught once. A second violation would ban him from the lottery for life.

“I’ll take the Lark,” Jillian said.

“Don’t think you can cheat me out of my 40 percent. We have a contract.” Ben glared at her. He didn’t like what he saw on her face. He watched her place her right hand on the butt of the pellet gun hanging off her belt.

“I’m not selling it,” she said.

Ben tightened his grip on the crystal. Its sharp underbelly dug into his glove.

“I never intended to sell it,” Jillian said.

“Then why did you get a license if not to – “ Ben cut himself off. He watched Jillian’s eyes glisten, saw her resolve soften. She moved her hand away from her weapon.

“I don’t have a license. I lied.”

“You want this thing for yourself?” Ben asked.

“I told you, I’m a researcher. You don’t know what these things are. No one does. I don’t. But I intend to find out. I’ve tests to run. I’ve a lot to learn. So, yes, I come out here for the hunt, but I keep what I find and I don’t need a license for that.”

“Because you work for the Institute,” Ben said, finishing her line of thought for her.

“Give it to me.”

Ben walked away. He hurried to their campsite. He wrapped the crystal Lark in a light-tight bag, something he’d long ago discovered as a way to keep the thing from pulsating in the sunlight. Then he buried the wrapped Lark at the bottom of his backpack.  He pulled up the guard posts. He retrieved his traps. He folded his thermal blanket and tightened the drawstrings of his pack. When he looked up, he saw Jillian standing with her arms across her chest, her mouth partly open.

“You can’t sell it without a license,” she said.

“I’ll find someone who’s got a license and wants to do a split with me.” Take the chance? he wondered. Trust someone to be fair with him. He swung the backpack around and slipped his arms through the cloth straps. The downhill trek would be difficult and slow-going, but he’d get to the plateau below well before dark. If necessary, he’d keep going all night. Just to stay ahead of Jillian.

“I didn’t mean to cheat you,” she said. “I thought … “ She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. “Don’t you see how important these things are? They don’t belong sitting in a museum or on some private collector’s shelf, just to be admired, just to be objects no one understands. I study the Larks. It’s ongoing. I need fresh specimens to test my theories. You’ll be helping me. Helping the colony. Helping science.”

“I’m not in it for the sake of science. Or your sake either. I can’t afford to be. I don’t have a rich Lander family to support me. Half the year I work for people like your family. Guarding pipelines and warehouses. Or running some piece of machinery. I depend on what I make out here.” Ben waved his hands at the mountain and its caves.

A flock of birds appeared and Ben automatically looked at them.

“You know a lot,” Jillian said. “The birds. The aboriginals. You know about the tagcats and their habits. Rock crabs, too. You could put that to good use.”

Ben snorted.

Jillian stepped towards him. “I mean it. You don’t realize how valuable your observations would be to the Institute. Come work with me. Be part of the research team.”

“I don’t have the qualifications for that. I’m not exactly educated.”

“But you are. You’re self-educated. You’ve learned things and told me things that I never knew. About the birds and the Barrel People and the tagcats. Don’t belittle yourself.” She took hold of his hands. Her skin rubbed against his. Soft skin. Warm. 

Ben looked across the narrow space separating them, looked directly into her hazel eyes. She drew him closer with those eyes. She burned him with her unspoken thoughts.

“We’ll go down the mountain together,” she said. “Keep the Lark for now. We’ll talk to my colleagues at the Institute. You can think about what I’ve said and make up your mind when we’ve left the mountain.”

Ben didn’t move. He chided himself for doubting her integrity. He cursed himself for not trusting her. Just because she was a Lander was no reason not to believe what she told him. Just because he was a Generational was no reason for her to treat him as merely a hired hand, like a dray horse harnessed to a wagon. 

And she hadn’t. She treated him as her equal. Something he hadn’t fully realized until now.

He dropped his backpack. He knelt and rummaged through it to the very bottom where he’d put the Lark. He pulled it out. Standing, he placed it in Jillian’s hands.

“Keep it in the packing,” he said. “It’s light tight.”

“Thank you. For trusting me.”

“I hope I read something you publish when you finish your research.”

“I meant what I said. I want you at the Institute.”

Ben swallowed. Jillian put the wrapped Lark in her pack, collapsed her tent and collected a bag of ready-to-eats that had spilled on the ground. She clipped the detector to the side of her backpack and stepped out ahead of Ben, thumbs hooked into her belt, her pack high up on her wide shoulders.

“Come on,” she said. “We’ll go down and get started. You’ll like the Institute. You can spend hours and hours talking about things.”

Ben followed her along the treacherous trail, between the rocks, one hand gripping the side of the mountain and seeking handholds to steady himself. He wondered why he trusted this woman, this Jillian Wright, this Lander. He decided he didn’t need a concrete reason. He’d given her the Lark because she was right. The thing belonged to someone who’d do the research and learn its secrets. He liked finding things out. Liked learning. He wanted to know more.

Jillian was an ideal match in that respect. They saw eye-to-eye on something both knew to be important.

The End.

About the Author

After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical 

architect, David Castlewitz has turned to his first love: SF, fantasy, and magical realism.  Since beginning his creative journey he has published stories in Farther Stars Than These, Phase 2 Magazine, Martian Wave, SciFan and other online as well as print magazines. 

David’s web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com,

Website also includes links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

Helix

By Drew Avera

The catwalk hung over a dark void in the spaceship as Grant looked down. He could not resist the urge to spit and watch the bulbous fluid disappear from view for what must have been the eleventh time in as many minutes. Once again, his hands gripped the railing as he craned his neck to reach as far out as possible, his eyes looking down into the seemingly bottomless void below his dangling feet. Saliva moistened his lips for a moment just before he squeezed them together to separate the spit from his body. With only a moment of hesitation, the spit trickled before falling away. “One, two, three, four, five, six,” he counted until he could not see it any more.

“Ha! Only six seconds,” Ben mocked. “I spit one yesterday and watched it fall for nine seconds. You’ll never beat my record,” he said with more than a hint gloating.

“That’s because there was more light in here yesterday,” Grant said. “The window is pointed away from the star right now.” 

The Helix was a spindle-shaped vessel with a population of over five-thousand human refugees. It had been more than a few generations since anyone could remember leaving Earth behind, but no one on the Helix ever imagined returning to a home planet erupted in chaos. The threat of nuclear war and religious oppression had put the world at the brink of extinction. History being as it was, there was no wonder why life was better in the darkness of space rather than risk the future of humanity on bloodstained dirt.

The void the two boys looked into eventually led to engineering spaces, but people needed clearances to go there. Instead, the catwalk where they sat merely bridged two sides of the round spacecraft together to make life easier for the inhabitants.

“Whatever, you still didn’t spit one big enough to see for more than seven seconds so I still win,” Ben shot back. His need to excel at pretty much everything was a double-edged sword. On one hand, he was a great teammate at handball, but sometimes his competitive nature was too much to handle for most people; really anyone but Grant.

“I know. Anyways, I’m getting bored with this. What do you say we go to the galley and see if Ms. Waller will give us some cookies?” Grant asked, knowing Ben could never say no to sweets. 

“Uh, yeah!” Ben said jumping up from a sitting position and holding onto the cold steel railing with both hands. The catwalk was forty yards from one side to the other and both boys stood almost perfectly in the center when there was a sudden loss of power. With a whoosh, everything went silent and dark.  You could have heard a pin drop if not for the instant pounding of the boys’ hearts as fear flooded into their veins. 

A chill went down Grant’s spine before he finally spoke. “What happened?” he asked. His voice sounded hollow to him as the sound fought to be heard over the thrumming of his heart in his ears.

“I don’t know,” Ben said, his normal enthusiasm waning. “It’s like the ship just died.”

“Don’t say that!” Grant replied. “You know what happened to the Verne.” 

It was common knowledge the ship named after Jules Verne had lost power while coasting too close to an asteroid with a strong gravitational pull. The resulting catastrophe had claimed several thousand lives and the memory of it cast a shadow over the last remnants of humanity, even more than a century later. 

“That’s not what I meant,” Ben said, his knuckles white as he gripped the handrail while making his way to the hatch. “Follow me; we need to get somewhere safer in case the ship begins to list.”

A ship without power to create its own gravity would often begin to tumble as outside gravitational forces from moons and planets began to take hold. Given their proximity to KG894, a moon base settled on the moon of a dying gas giant planet, they were within range to begin plummeting towards certain death, especially without power for steering and reverse thrust.

Both boys made their way to the main passageway and found it just as dark and quiet as the void had been. A few emergency lights were illuminated to provide enough light for people to navigate back to their dorms, but the eerily casted light made the boys more afraid than anything else. “It’s never been this dark before,” Grant said under his breath. His heart beat like a drum in his chest as he remembered accidentally being locked in a storeroom when he was six years old. Even then there had been enough light to not feel too claustrophobic. This scenario felt much different to him and he could not help feeling alone and afraid despite the fact Ben was right next to him.

“Come on,” Ben said, pulling at his friend’s shirtsleeve as they moved deeper into the passageway, further from the relative safety of the emergency lit area. 

It didn’t take long before the artificial gravity began to dissipate and their steps no longer fell solidly to the deck below them. The sensation of gradually rising from the surface and swimming through the air was foreign to them, but excitement soon turned to dread after Ben dared a glance from a small window looking out from the craft.

“Is it just me or does KG894 look bigger?” Ben asked. 

Grant moved across the bulkhead as his fingertips found purchase on the ribbing of the craft, coming to a stop at the window where his friend looked out curiously. “It’s hard to tell, really.”

“Look there,” Ben pointed. “See the moon base’s landing pads? You can see more details of the structure from here,” he replied.

“I hadn’t noticed that before. Are you sure? Maybe we are just seeing a different perspective of it than we usually see from the void’s big window.” Grant’s words seemed rational, but Ben was not exactly ready to accept his statement as the truth. There was no denying that the base at least looked bigger, alternate perspective or not.

“Maybe, but we need to find my mom. She’ll have a better idea of what’s going on,” he said, nervously pulling back from the window. “Follow me; she’s usually on the bridge.”

“We’re not allowed there, Ben,” Grant shot back. He remembered being caught playing near the navigation charts earlier in the year and being told never to set foot on the bridge again. They were harsh words coming from Captain Lancier, Grant’s uncle.

Ben scoffed as he pulled his way down the passageway and towards the top of the spindle-shaped craft where the bridge was located. “You can stay behind if you want to, but I’m going to find answers.”

*****

Darkness met them every floating inch of the way. Each corridor and passageway were bathed in shadows, the emergency lighting barely visible against the dull light reflecting from the moon into the windows of the Helix. The temperature was beginning to plummet and steam escaped their mouths which each panting breath as they found their way to the bridge.

“Uncle?” Grant whispered as they entered the ghostly room. The gravity levels were stronger in the bridge and their feet touched the ground lightly, allowing them to walk instead of having to pull themselves across the bulkheads of the ship. 

Surrounded by eerily luminescent control panels and screens the boys stepped deeper into the bridge. Some of the readouts were easy to understand, temperature and oxygen levels were the first things they noticed, but the oscillating numbers identifying the distance between the Helix and KG894’s orbit revealed the boy’s worst fears; they were indeed falling, if you could call it that.

“Ben, look!” Grant gasped, pointing at the readouts as the digits scaled downward, each fluttering of numerals proving how quickly they were descending.

Ben moved over and looked over Grant‘s shoulder, his eyes wide, terrified. Not only were they falling but he was just struck with the realization that they were the only two souls either of them had seen since the emergency started. “I don’t know which is worse, the fact we are crashing uncontrollably or that there are no pilots, no anyone in the bridge.”

Grant looked around, holding his breath as Ben’s words were proven with a sight he had refused to acknowledge at first. They were in fact alone.

“Where did everyone go and why didn’t we realize we were alone until now?” Grant asked, daring to reason the answer should be obvious despite the churning of fear in his body.

“I…I don’t know,” Ben whispered. He had always been the one with answers, the fearless one amongst his friends, but there he stood, watching KG894 grow larger as the Helix fell, aided by the gravity the ship could no longer combat against. They were nothing more than an advanced version of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple falling from the tree, proving that gravity was indeed the enemy of flight.

Ben and Grant dropped their gazes from the banks of indicators and windscreen of the Helix that revealed their impending doom. No good would come from watching death rise towards them like a bird taking flight; instead, they leaned against a bulkhead on the other side of the bridge and dropped their bodies down into a seated position.

“This situation doesn’t make any sense to me,” Ben said, his eyes moist with fresh tears threatening to stream down his face.  Never in his fourteen years of living on the Helix had he experienced anything of this magnitude, nor had any training evolutions taken place that resembled their current plight.

“What should we do?” Grant asked; his voice on the verge of cracking. “We can’t call for help, but maybe we can eject from the ship into an escape pod and land on KG894. Do you think you can pilot an escape pod?” He asked, allowing a tremor of hope to form his words.

Ben shook his head, he had played on many flight simulators growing up, but he had never learned to land any of those crafts on a surface bearing gravity. “We would die either way,” he said solemnly.

Ben could feel hope escape his friend’s body as he exhaled a barely audible sob next to him. The younger boy had put all his hope into Ben and now the fourteen-year-old boy felt responsible for crushing his best friend’s hopes of normalcy. A flood of thoughts entered Ben’s mind as he dissected the situation a hundred different ways, his eyes looking outside the Helix and towards the pale light of KG894. A bead of sweat ran down his brow as he thought, pleading to himself to find a way, any way to save himself and his friend.

As Grant sat with tears running down his face there was a sound, reminiscent of static across a radio frequency, but that was impossible because the communications systems were down, or were they? 

“Did you hear that?” Grant asked, sitting up and looking around the room.

Ben’s ears perked up as both boys stood and listened intently for what had caused the sound.

It happened again, this time more audible, more hopeful.

“Over there!” Ben pointed at an unlit console, mostly in shadows on the other side of the bridge.

Ben and Grant scrambled over to that side and looked at the station. There was only a small indicator resting flat on the horizontal surface, the readout nothing more than a dim, orange line scrawling across the four-inch plane. The sound appeared again, louder this time, but accompanied by a sign-wave along the orange line. 

Ben squinted as he tried to read what the indicator was for. The only clue he had was the letters “DC” labeled under the right corner of the screen. He thought for a moment before speaking. “I think this is for emergency DC power, I remember reading in one of the manuals that electrical power can be reset so long as there is a power source. Surely this might have something to do with it,” he said.

“If that’s true then how do we reset it?” Grant asked.

Ben hunched down over the console, straining to read the controls in the dim light. “Do you have a flashlight on you?”

Grant looked down at his belt and brought his hand up with a pencil-thin wand, a small LED attached to one end. “Here you go,” he answered, switching the light on for his friend.

Now, bathed in light, Ben could make out what each button and knob were on the console. Each label dismissing his attention until he found what he was looking for. “Here, generator reset switch, I wonder if this is it?”

Grant watched as Ben touched the switch and lifted it to the reset position before letting go. There was a louder than anticipated click as the spring-loaded switch returned to the normal position. The boys stood there for a moment in the darkness before the bridge lit back up, first in hues of blue and then brighter, whiter light engulfed the space in piercing luminosity.

Grant took a large gasp and wrapped his arms around his friend. “You did it!” he shouted. “I can’t believe it!”

Ben smiled; looking around as each console sprang back to life and lit up. The temperature indicators and gravity monitor readings began to return to normal and both boys could feel themselves weighing heavier. Everything was moving in the right direction except for the altimeter, it still showed that they were moving closer to KG894’s orbit and before long the moon’s gravity would pull them to the surface.

“Oh no,” Ben said as he darted across the bridge to the engine control console. Within a few moments, he realized the pulsars were not activated and needed to be restarted. His hands glided over the controls with the precision of a skilled pilot. The pulsar initiation sequence forced the engines to come online, led by Ben’s skilled control. 

“We are still dropping fast,” Grant said as he read the altimeter over Ben’s shoulder.

“The engines are online, but the pulsars are facing the wrong direction,” Ben said. “I have to correct the pitch and ease off the throttles at the same time. I need you to take over flight controls,” he ordered.

Grant looked over at the lonesome console across the bridge. He was nothing more than a few dials and control sticks, but it was beyond anything he had ever used. Grant, though growing up in the shadow of his Uncle who was captain of the Helix, was not being brought up to pilot the vessel.

“I need your help, Grant. Take your position at flight controls while I maneuver the pulsar thrusters.”

Grant stared at Ben a moment more, nervous, afraid.

“Now!”

Finally snapping out of his daze Grant ran over to the flight control console, placing his hands on the control stick. “What do I do?” he asked, his fear hanging in the air around him.

“I want you to pull back on the control stick lightly. The Helix is too big for High-G maneuvering, so a light and steady pull will have to work.”

Grant pulled the control stick back, barely applying any pressure to it.

“You need to give it a little more, you are only applying a few percent of pitch control right now,” Ben said, turning around to read the altimeter indication behind him, the numbers dropping at a slightly slower pace.

Grant pulled back more. “It’s really heavy, I don’t know how much longer I can hold it,” he said. The control stick required forty pounds of force to move in order to prevent jerky movements at high speed. The increased control came at a cost of tired muscles for the pilots.

“You’re doing great,” Ben called out. “Keep it up.”

Ben eased up on the throttle lightly until the pitch of the Helix was where he wanted it to be.

“We are leveling out! Don’t ease up yet!” Ben cried.

Grant winced as his arms grew more and more fatigued by the weight required to maintain the position of the control stick. He wanted to cry out, he wanted to give in to weakness and let go of his burden, but as he looked over to make eye contact with Ben he could see that their lives were in each other’s hands. Grant did not want to die and he sure did not want to be the reason his best friend would not live to see another day.

Through grimace and groans, Grant kept the control stick pulled back. The indication on the altimeter finally began moving in the opposite direction, the direction that pointed them on a course away from the moon KG894. With that position, Ben increased the throttles and the Helix lurched slightly as the engines powered up to propel them away from the gravitational pull of the moon.

Now, with the threat of doom behind them, Ben stepped back from the console. “You can ease off now,” he said to his best friend as he walked towards him.

Grant's arm muscles were beyond the point of wanting to let go, but between adrenaline and self- control he eased the control stick back into the neutral position. Turning to look at his friend he spoke, "we did it."

“That we did,” Ben replied, wrapping his arms around his friend and pulling him close. Desperation fueled their need to survive, to fight for the future of not only themselves, but the Helix as well. 

“Congratulation, nephew!” Captain Lancier said, stepping out from a faux wall behind a line of control consoles in the bridge.

Both boys looked at him, shock in their eyes.

“I don’t understand,” Grant said, one arm still clinging to Ben.

More officers filed out from the same shadows as Captain Lancier and soon the bridge was full of the team responsible for the livelihood of the people onboard. “This was a test, not only for you, Grant but also for your friend Ben.”

“A test?” both boys asked simultaneously.

A smile curled the captain’s lips. “Yes! You see, each member of my staff is chosen based on their interest. We raise our replacements because humanity can only survive using the knowledge of previous generations. It is my job as captain to ensure that future generations are taught how to deal with high-stress situations in order to preserve our species. That’s what this was, the final test to determine if you two were ready.”

Ben looked down at his friend questioningly. Before either of them could speak Captain Lancier placed a caring hand on each of their shoulders.

“Both of you passed with flying colors. You were put in a position where you had to rely on each other. You were forced to solve a problem in order to survive even though you were concerned for the safety and wellbeing of your families. Both of you took action and focused on saving the ship. For that, I am most proud of both of you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ben said, lifting his hand in a salute to his captain. Grant saluted as well.

Lancier returned the salute with a smile.

“Thank you, Ensign Benjamin Borden and Ensign Grant Lancier.”

“Ensign?” Ben asked; his eyes wide.

With a coy smile, Captain Lancier replied, “Of course, only commissioned officers are allowed to pilot my ship.”

And with those words the bridge filled with cheers.

The End

About the Author

Drew Avera is and active duty Navy veteran and science fiction author.

Originally from Mississippi, Drew joined the Navy when he was

seventeen-years-old. He has deployed four times in support of

operations ENDURING FREEDOM, SOUTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM, and INHERENT RESOLVE. Drew’s fiction is often inspired by the people he

has met and the situations he has encountered. His bestselling series,

The Alorian Wars, is a space opera for fans of The Expanse, Firefly,

and Dark Matter. Drew lives in Virginia with his wife and kids.

Drew Avera

www.amazon.com/author/drewavera

www.facebook.com/authordrewavera

www.twitter.com/DrewAvera

www.drewavera.wordpress.com

An Electrifying Cornflake Cooks Up A Storm With The Speed Of Lightning Sans Bonfire

By Marleen S. Barr

I am harkening back to the time Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York City. The emergency was egregious to the extent that I had to try to convince my Manhattan co-op apartment building worst enemies—Gomorrah Horecock the Co-op Board President and Super Android Dracula—to provide help. Unaware of the fact that he is a Super, Android struts around at once leaving an ossifying cologne trail and looking like Jay Gatsby surveying his Long Island estate. Who ever heard of a Super who wears khaki pants, Izod tee shirts, and smells up the building with Chanel Number Five? 

  Against the backdrop of wind and rain onslaught, I heard Gomorrah in the hall. Even Hurricane Sandy could not drown out the sound of her horrible clanking keys. I respond to them in the manner of Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Captain Hook reacting to the clock ticking within the croc. I opened my apartment door to confront Gomorrah. When I peered out, I saw something which I have to admit is more onerous than her. An alligator was sauntering down the vestibule. The storm had obviously driven it out of the sewer. I shooed the alligator down the fire stairs. 

  The entire Board jumped ship throughout the hurricane. They had no qualms about securing better accommodations and leaving the most vulnerable residents behind to fend for themselves. While keeping an eye out for the alligator, I walked down seventeen flights of stairs and ventured out in the storm in search of food. All the grocery stores were closed. While contemplating what to do, I noticed a package of Green Giant frozen peas in front of the Duane Reade store sticking out of a torn garbage bag. Then I heard someone say ”good things from the Garden, Garden in the Valley, Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.”     A green ooze appeared on the sidewalk. A large man who closely resembled a human asparagus appeared.

  “Ho ho,” he said. “I am the Jolly Green Giant.”

  “Did you lose your pet alligator?”

  “What?”

  “Forget it. That’s another story. You’re the emblem of a giant food conglomerate. Do you know how I can secure some food? Don’t tell me to plant green peas and climb a pea stalk. I don’t have time for that. My husband is hungry. I have to cook him dinner. All the stores are closed. There’s no food.”

  “Open the garbage bag. Bye.” The Jolly Green Giant disappeared in the green ooze puddle.

  Lacking another alternative, I did as I was told and acted like a Freegan. I found fifty packages of perfectly good still frozen food. I was saved from starving to death.  I packed all the food in my Ikea bag. And so began my career as Park Avenue dwelling food scavenger. Gish Jen wrote Free Food for Millionaires. I would enact her title. I went back to my apartment and put the frozen food on the terrace. Luckily, it was cold enough for it to keep for a few days. Pepe Le Pew, my French-Canadian husband, was not concerned about the food’s origin. He just cared about having dinner.

  I did not tell him about how I hauled twenty-five pounds of Ikea bag filled frozen food to the seventeenth floor. When I reached floor six, I saw the alligator chomping on the corpse of one of the building’s hedge fund wizards. He was probably evacuating to one of his five other residences. No loss. Lewis Carroll’s Alice and her watch carrying white rabbit shared much in common with the alligator in the stairwell and me. Going up the stairwell is as fantastic as going down the rabbit hole. On floor eight, I saw a sign. “Fresh Direct Special Delivery Truffle and Caviar Stash.” I helped myself. Truffles and caviar give one strength when climbing a lot of stairs. The stairwell was crowded. I saw a man who was wearing a lighted miner’s hat and carrying water bottles. Not everyone in the building was a horror. Gaston Parapluieberg, a computer millionaire Jewish émigré who had left France to avoid anti-Semitism, was trying to help his frail neighbors. 

  “Bon Soir Sondra. Good news. An alligator is eating one of our enemy neighbors. Now he can’t run for the Board and hurt us. Here, have some water.”

Following Gaston’s good Samaritan example, I tried to make myself useful by going to each floor and yelling at the top of my lungs: “Everyone turn off your faucets and pull out your plugs. Failure to do so will mean fried electronics and flooded apartments.”

  Frying and flooding successfully fended off; I was ready to confront how to prepare frozen food sans electric stove. 

I walked out on the terrace and said “ho ho ho.” The Jolly Green giant appeared.

  “I need to cook this frozen food sans stove. It is illegal to light bonfires on New York City terraces and impractical to do so within an apartment. Do you know any magic creatures who can help me avoid being arrested for breaking fire codes and turning my home into a conflagration?” I asked him.

  “As a matter of fact, I do. I’m friendly with a unicorn who can help you. Her name is Cornflake.”

  “Can you send Cornflake over?”

  “Sure.”

  A white smoke puff appeared. Cornflake, a beautiful tan unicorn with a large blinking horn, emerged. 

  “What can I do for you?” Cornflake asked.

  “I have all of this frozen food to cook without electricity. My husband will not under any circumstance eat frozen lasagna. To assuage mass starvation in my apartment and to avoid bonfire tsuris, could you please help me?”

  “Absolutely. No sweat.”

  “And how exactly are you going to heat the frozen food without starting a fire?”

  “There is a song in the Broadway play Gypsy about how all the strippers ‘gotta have a gimmick.’ One of the strippers uses neon lights to attract attention. I am a unicorn with a similar gimmick. My horn is electrically charged. It emits heat and light. Put your food in proximity to my horn, and it will be thawed pronto.” 

  “Great. Can you keep the flame on low? You know. Like, simmer mode. My husband hates burned food just as much as uncooked frozen food.”

I put some peas and lasagna on a plate and held the plate aloft in proximity to Cornflake’s horn. Voila. Piping hot peas and lasagna. Then Cornflake disappeared. 

  “Pepe, Dinner’s ready. Let’s eat by candle light. We have no choice. There’s no electricity.”

  “This is delicious Sondra.”

Despite Cornflake’s efforts which enabled my husband to eat a warm dinner, I was still focusing on the frozen food. Why? Because I wanted to seek revenge against Android—who deserved to meet his just dessert. He was up to his old tricks cannibalizing the efforts of Ali Bhabha, the dedicated Moroccan doorman. Ali Bhabha left his wife and two young children to work three consecutive shifts during the hurricane. He swept back flood water and used his body to block the front door against intruders. He bravely stayed up all night and risked his safety to guard the building. Android, sans cologne trail, arrived in the lobby at 7:30 AM sharp wearing uncharacteristically rumpled khaki pants and an unironed Izod tee shirt. He was dressed for success at taking credit for Ali’s effort. As various shareholders tried to go to work, they at once expressed their appreciation to Android and ignored Ali Bhabha. Gomorrah emerged from their New Jersey house unimpacted by Sandy. When Pepe and I next encountered Gomorrah, I made it clear that I did not wish her well. Pepe, always in French-Canadian gentleman mode, was as polite as ever.

  “How did you survive the storm?” he asked.

  “With candles.”

  “I wish that they were yardzide lights,” I interjected. 

  “What are yardzide lights?” Pepe asked.

  “They’re not good.” Turning to Gomorrah, I continued, “Pepe doesn’t know what I am talking about.”

  “Jews use the lights to represent death,” Gomorrah matter of factly said.

Happy to leave Gomorrah, Pepe and I proceeded to walk hand in hand up Fifth Avenue. We were bedraggled from residing in the City University of New York Graduate Center to avail ourselves of working electricity and flushing toilets. We tried to enjoy the fresh air to lift our spirits. Then I saw him, Thurston Howell III, the old boyfriend who refused to marry me. Having spent the night in a nice hotel, he appeared as the antithesis of our desuetude. I felt like Scarlett O’Hara meeting Rhett Butler when she was in sub southern belle mode. Happy to see someone who knew me well, I dropped Pepe’s hand, walked toward Thurston, and threw my arms around him.  Pepe was crestfallen. 

  “Thurston, it was the worst. We walked up seventeen flights. I had to scrounge for food. There was no electricity. And oy the alligator and the Jolly Green Giant and the hot electric unicorn which I used instead of a bonfire.” We talked further. Or, more specifically, I complained, and Thurston listened. 

  “Can I kiss you good-bye,” he asked. 

  “Absolutely not. Not in front of Pepe.”  

I said good-bye sans kiss and rejoined my husband. I no longer loved Thurston. I was now in a different life. My heart belonged to Pepe. We walked into Grand Central Station. Pepe knelt on the floor to re-charge his shaver by connecting it to an outlet. 

  The outlet did not work. The New York City electrical grid was damaged to the extent that it would not be up and running for years. 

I knew what to do. Who am I gonna call? Cornflake the unicorn. 

  “Cornflake, we have a problem. New York’s electrical system is now nonexistent.  We need heat and light. Can you call in all your friends to help?”

  “Of course. What do you have in mind?”

  “President Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot. To enable New Yorkers to cook chickens (and all food), we now need an electrically powered unicorn in every home. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but electric unicorn horns can provide every New Yorker with a nonpolluting power source. You guys can generate fuel in a never ending sustainable fashion.”

Cornflake and her unicorn coterie made it possible for a twenty-first century version of Hoover’s promise to become real. All Manhattan Co-op Boards rescinded their no pets allowed policies and welcomed unicorns with open arms. The kids loved them. The adults celebrated never having to pay another electric bill.  

  New York’s electrically powered unicorns became popular to the extent that they spread throughout America like non-bonfire wild fire.  Their environmental impact was overwhelmingly positive. Due to the popularity of Purina Unicorn Chow, the Dow Jones Industrial average soared. Americans lived happily ever after enjoying a robust economy as well as a pollution and monetary free energy source. 

  In the future, on a dark and less stormy than Hurricane Sandy night, Cornflake cornered Android in the basement laundry room. She pawed the ground with her front left hoof, lowered her head, turned up her electric horn to electric chair power, cantered toward Android, and pierced his stomach while turning her horn to insure maximum penetration. And, lo, in addition to heating Sondra’s peas and lasagna, Cornflake cooked Android’s goose. Sondra was elated to the extent that she bought a very large amount of sushi flavored Purina Unicorn Chow. One good turn, after all, deserves another. 

The End?

About the Author

Marleen S. Barr is known for her pioneering work in feminist science fiction and teaches English at the City University of New York. She has won the Science Fiction Research Association Pilgrim Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction criticism. 

Books by Marleen S. Barr:

Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction

and Feminist Theory

[_Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, _]

Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction,

GenreFission: A New Discourse Practice for Cultural Studies

Barr has edited many anthologies and co-edited the science fiction issue of PMLA. She is the author of the novels Oy

Pioneer! and [_Oy Feminist Planets: A Fake Memoir. _]

PARADISE VIA HADES

By CHRISTOPHER S. VICKERS

RENDEZVOUS

TCNV PULSAR 16000

UNCHARTED GALAXY, CODE NAME: CH’TIGRA

TERRAN DATE: 17 SEPTEMBER 2714

SHIP’S TIME: 09:23:14 HOURS INTERSTELLAR ZULU TIME

Colonel Roger Willis had been complaining about the design of the command seats since the ship launched, but since he was out of communications range with Terran Armed Services Command, there wasn’t much he was capable of doing about it.  He got up from the chair, and tried to work out a kink in his back that had developed after not even 30 minutes in the seat.  Of all the things he had to draw with taking on exploring another galaxy, this just had to be one of the pitfalls thereof.

TASCOM Engineers apparently had no clue what command officers wanted in the chair at all.  It felt like sitting on a modified bed of nails, and with these ships heading out of the galaxy, comfort was becoming a premium luxury for any officer.  Most of them preferred to stand on duty because most of the bridge chairs were designed that way.  It seemed that the only way people could be comfortable was to head for the off duty areas of the ship.

As he worked the kink out of his back, the science officer delivered a data pad with a report on it, and said, “I feel you, Colonel; when they designed this bucket, comfort was only an option in the off-duty zones.”

“Yeah,” Roger said.  He read the report and said, “Major, why the hell wasn’t this debris field reported to me earlier?”

“Blame Lieutenant Colonel David Zansky for that,” the major said.  “He thought you’d not want to know that your older brother made it out here ahead of us, sir.”

“Extend the sensor grid to maximum,” Roger said.  “If he is out here, I want to know when he so much as lights a damned match.”

“Yes, sir,” the major said.

“Oh, and Daniels,” Roger said, “keep Zansky from getting these reports from now on, okay?  I want to be the only one to receive them.  Either transmit directly to my office or to my quarters.”

“Yes, sir,” Daniels said, saluting before returning to his station.

Roger returned the salute, then tapped a button on his chair, saying, “Lieutenant Colonel Zansky, report to my office on the double.”

Roger had known about a conspiracy to stop the extragalactic ventures, but didn’t think it went very far since the development of the Super Gates 200 years ago.  In 200 years, not much had been done in that regard, save for colonization of the Andromeda galaxy; other areas of the universe were part of the conspiracy.  Because of this, the Star Force had, for the past 50 years at least, been on a major drafting binge to get personnel recruited to the program despite that people had been disappearing because of it.

Roger just didn’t figure that Zansky was part of the conspiracy, because Roger was known as Major Bloodhound because he’d sniffed out some 25 people that were involved in it before leaving the Milky Way.  Unfortunately, he had drawn the command of a Pulsar class cruiser out of the galaxy, which meant that he had to figure some things out as he went along.

Zansky walked onto the bridge and saw Roger at Daniels’ station.  He turned to the lieutenant colonel and said, “My office, Zansky; right now.”

“Yes sir,” Zansky said, following Roger to the office.

As they walked in and the door slid shut behind them, Roger said, “Security Protocol, Level Alpha.”  As the computer chimed compliance, he said, “Don’t worry; no one can eavesdrop on this office, Colonel.  You have five minutes to explain yourself for withholding a report from me.”

“I didn’t think that a debris field matching the lower five of a cruiser like this one would matter; at least not until we found the rest of her.”

“Bull, Mr. Zansky,” Roger said.  “Everything needs to be brought to my attention.  I don’t like being kept out of the loop about anything, and you damn well know it.  I’m confining you to cabin under heavy guard for the rest of the week, Colonel.  In the meantime, you must consider my personal policy on reporting this kind of information, and the regulations involving these reports.  Am I perfectly clear on this, Mister?”

“You are, sir.”

“Dismissed,” Roger said, perturbed that the report was withheld in the first place.

Roger noticed that Zansky wasn’t just holding back on the debris report; he had been withholding the presence of habitable planets that they could have set down on long ago.  Instead, they were still in space, with nowhere in sight to set down.  Furthermore, there was evidence that not only had a starship been sent out ahead, but it was in some sort of distress, since the lower five decks had not only been ejected, but they were destroyed.  To Roger, this indicated that not only did the conspiracy seem to advance further on the other ship, but someone had the presence of mind to destroy the lower five decks.

“What would possess the personnel on the upper decks to blow the lower five to hell?” Daniels asked.

“There is talk of a conspiracy that had been going on for the past 50 years,” Roger said.  “As a matter of fact, until I drew command of this ship, I was hunting people down that were involved and sending them to trial.  That’s how I learned to sniff out those bastards.  Zansky is suspected at this time of being involved; if he is, we’re far enough out that I can have him blown from the nearest air lock.”

“TASCOM won’t learn of it,” Daniels said, “until they begin sending personnel out to take over the base that we have to build on the planet.”

“What’s our ETA to the other ship, Daniels?”

“We should be in visual within the hour, sir,” Daniels said.

“First boarding party will consist of myself and one other command person, four medics, and six Marines.  The second party will consist of the Damage Control Party, which will be led by Captain Riley.”

“Debbie Riley?  I’ve heard she does her best engineering in the sack,” the helm officer said.

“She’s more capable than you think,” Roger said.  “She’s been the one keeping this bucket together as long as it’s been out here.”

“The first party will be in EVA suits,” Roger said, “until there’s confirmation that the atmosphere is breathable.  Once that’s made, the damage control team will be setting down in regular clothing.  Otherwise, EVA suits will still be required.”INSPECTION

It was the largest section of 16002 that the teleport chief could set them down in.  Fortunately, it was the section that the second party was going to set down in as well, so they were more than content to teleport to that region of the ship.

The Marines in the party all activated the lights on their rifles, and used them to look around, because the lighting in the engineering section was almost too dim to see.  As the lights were pointed at some of the sections of the engineering levels, the lead Marine said, “What a mess!”

The chief medic present used a portable scanner and said, “The air’s somewhat stale, sir, but it’s still breathable.  Everyone can remove their helmets, if that’s desired.”

“Not the way Marine EVA armor suits are built,” the lead Marine said.

Roger pulled off his helmet and said, “Your loss, gentlemen.”  He then looked around and said, “We have six Marines, so we’ll fan out in teams of two.  Non-Marines will latch onto a Marine, which accounts for four of them.  The other four will band into pairs and search for survivors.  If I deem it necessary for another medical team, I’ll call for it myself.”

“What’s the mission, sir?” the chief of the medics asked.

“We’re going to get the survivors off the ship,” Roger said.  “Then the CO, acting XO and I will rig the ship to blow.  We can’t let her fall into the wrong hands.”

“Roger that, Colonel.”

“If you can’t find them aboard this ship alive?” the other command person asked.

“Then I’ll have to use the command option,” Roger said.

No one had ever used the command override with a vessel’s self-destruct sequence in TASCOM history, but then again the destruct sequence was never more than a bluff.  They had engaged it many times, but never carried it through to the end.  Those that did carry through had an engine reactor core that was overloading anyway, so no one was faulted with rigging the ship.

Roger was wondering if there was anyone left alive on the ship, but was more notably worried about his older brother … and rightly so.  He motioned for the commander of the Marine party and said, “Gil’Bracx, you’re with me.”

“Sir, yes sir,” Gil’Bracx said formally.

The classic Jataq formality, Roger thought as the two walked out of the engine section.  They rarely engage in casual conversation anymore.

As the pair walked out of the engineering section, Gil’Bracx asked, “What are we doing that’s got you slightly on edge, Colonel?”

“This was my brother’s ship,” Roger said.  “We’re going to look for him, and his acting executive; of course, that is assuming that either one is still alive.”

“Of course, sir,” Gil’Bracx said, “I’m hoping with you that your brother is still alive.  I have four brothers myself, and the gods only know that I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them.”

“In my family, it’s just me and Mike now,” Roger said.  “Mom and Dad passed away several years ago, so neither one of us have anyone in our galaxy left.”

“Sounds a lot like my family.  I have four brothers, and one sister.  Because of the way our systems are organized, single birth is uncommon, to say the least.  My sister is my direct twin, and all six of us are in TASCOM service.  However, I have no wife to call my own, and there aren’t any female Jataq on the ship.  There are females in our sister race, the Berecqians, on board, but we were punished by the gods long ago during the separation; bodily fluids are poisonous between the two races because of that punishment.”

“Prevents cross-breeding,” Roger said, somewhat fascinated.  “Considering that Berecqians are classically more violent than Jataq, that’s no surprise.”

“Considering that this ship is somewhat on the order of 40 decks, that gives us 35 to scour,” Gil’Bracx said.  “That is, considering that the lower five were ejected.”

Nodding, Roger said, “They were also blown to hell.  Zansky withheld the report until I stumbled across it on Daniels’ report before finding this bucket of bolts.”

“She’s a rust bucket all right,” Gil’Bracx said.  “Power is down to where nearly none of the multivators work at all, and the gods only know what other damage was done.”

“Expect to have to scale up the emergency mag-lock chain on one of them,” Roger said.  “I’m willing to bet the one that was in command of the conspiracy on this ship did a ton of damage before ejecting the lower five.”

“The mag-lock chains are stiffened to make the firing smoother,” Gil’Bracx said.  “The chains are covered by several hollow rods of ultranium, each one a meter long.  Fortunately, the EVA suits are equipped to go around that; we can use the levitation packs to scale it.”

“Beautiful suggestion,” Roger said, almost sardonically, “considering that the lev packs are commonly emergencies only, and they last about 30 minutes, and can take about five to recharge.”

“It’s possible that your brother showed some presence of mind in destroying the lower five of the [_16002 _]himself.  He must have used the last of his power to pull it off.”

“Either that,” Roger confirmed, “or he used a command override to set the destruct on that part of the ship once it was away.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Roger said.  “Let’s try to get to the bridge, Captain.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s see,” Roger said, trying to access the ship’s map.  “Power’s down in most areas, so accessing anything involving the computer is pretty much out of the question.  Either Riley will have her work cut out for her, or she’ll declare the reactor a pile of junk.  Either way, getting any power out of the ship may be mission impossible.”

Roger’s communicator beeped almost as he finished, and Riley said over the com, “I’ll try to squeeze some more juice out of this reactor, Colonel, but believe me; it’s a hopeless pile of junk.  If I squeeze too much, the ship will implode with us on board.”

“We don’t want that,” Roger said.  “We just need it long enough to get the survivors on the 16000, then the skipper, his acting XO and I will rig this bucket of bolts to blow.  This ship is not going to fall into enemy hands.”

“Acknowledged,” Riley replied.

Riley was a competent officer in her field, but Zansky had caught her naked in the corridors one time, because of a chemical spill that cost her the uniform she had on at the time.  Ever since then, the rumor that she was more interested in sex than duty had invaded the crew, but she was very quick to dispel the rumors with some people; the only problem was that those who sided with Zansky didn’t buy her efforts at that one bit.

She was actually on her way to decontamination at the time, not only to get the stuff off her skin, but to acquire a fresh uniform as well.  Unfortunately, Zansky didn’t believe her at all about that, and spread what he thought about her.  She was even in the typical Star Force jumpers that covered every inch from the neck down on a frequent basis.  She never liked the leotard-like Class C uniforms, and compensated for that when she could.

However, she figured that Zansky only spread the rumor because she refused him repeatedly.  It was Zansky that was heavily interested in the sack, and she hated that.  Because of that, she covered every millimeter of her body that she possibly could, therefore Zansky couldn’t see what she had.  It was an argument of rumor that was passed back and forth between the two, and she was personally quite sick of it.  Unfortunately, unless something was done before the argument went too far, it was going to continue.

She thought about that damned argument as she worked on the reactor.  She was only trying to squeeze enough juice out of the reactor to run the computers somewhat.  She knew that she wasn’t going to get the damned thing to work perfectly, because those in the conspiracy that was invading TASCOM was extensive enough to force Roger to decide to rig the ship to blow.

“The only thing about Colonel Willis wanting to blast this ship to hell,” one of her teammates said, “is that it isn’t going to take much to do it.  One well-placed device and the colonel with the detonator…”

“Jarvis,” Riley said, “he wants to do it the TASCOM way.  He only needs to input his code and two others to set the destruct sequence.  Once that is done and the crew’s safely on our ship, he’s going to deal with Lieutenant Colonel Zansky; I hope he blows that dick-head out an airlock.  I’m sick of his shit.”

“Who on the ship isn’t?” Jarvis said.  “He spends most of his off duty time spreading rumors about people; lately he has been favoring you.”

“He wants me pregnant so I’ll medically retire,” Riley said.  “Like that’s ever going to happen with that dork.”

“Yeah,” Jarvis said.  “He isn’t only dork; he’s a Class Alpha asshole.  I’m surprised he made it out of Academy Basic, let alone to lieutenant colonel.”

“No kidding,” another said.  “I’m surprised Zansky got as far as he has, because he strikes me as a TASCOM reject.”

Meanwhile, Roger was looking only where Gil’Bracx was pointing the light from his rifle, because the lights were so low.  He aimed the light up a multivator shaft, and said, “Looks like the lev packs are required, sir; the emergency chain on this one has fired.  One of the brake pads looks like the claw was blasted clean off.”

“Blasted?” Roger said.  “How bad?”

“Sir, the whole shoe is just [_gone, _]and there’s a hole in the car nearly 13 centimeters wide.”

“Sabotage,” Roger grumbled.  He activated his com and said, “Major Daniels, come in.”

“Daniels here, sir.”

“Put that asshole Zansky in the brig, and have the remaining damage control teams scour the ship for any form of sabotage devices.  I just discovered something that can have him dealt enough charges to blow his sorry little butt from the airlock.  Right now, he’s charged with conspiracy, but I might have more as I get the evidence.”

“Roger that, Colonel.”

“One more thing: you’re currently being advanced to executive officer, but you need to keep to your science duties for now until you can get someone out of the labs to take over for you.”

“Don’t mind doing double duty; I think I have a blip on the sensors that might qualify as a habitable planet.”

“Keep an eye on it, Daniels.  I have to oversee the evacuation of the survivors, and then rig the ship to blow.”

“Roger that, sir; then we mast Zansky, right?”

“Yeah, with only two command level officers,” Roger said.  “We’d have to find [_another _]starship to gain enough officers to perform a Tribunal.”

“We don’t have that kind of time left to us,” Daniels said.  “According to Major Brighton in Engineering, we might have about two months’ worth of core power left to us.  We have to set down soon.”

“I know that,” Roger said.  “This situation is proving to be worse than anyone on the crew can fathom, but if I get Zansky with enough charges to execute his ass summarily.”

“That’s on the books,” Gil’Bracx said, “but it’s never been done in the history of the Alliance.  Usually they’re hauled back to Earth and a Tribunal is done.”

“We don’t have the time for that,” Roger said.  “You heard Mr. Daniels; we have maybe two months before everything shuts down, and he’s not only murdered the crew, but himself along for the ride, Captain.  Additionally, we don’t have a Super Gate to jump back to Tykey.  We have to stop him before he can murder a single crewman.”

“Just how deep does this conspiracy go?” Gil’Bracx asked.

“I have no clue,” Roger said, “but it’s going no further on my ship.  Zansky will be stopped, and we’ll do something about his followers on the planet Daniels has on his scanners.”

“Fortunately,” Daniels said, “she’s about a week off on the scanners.”

“Let’s focus on evacuating the survivors of 16002 off this bucket and ready to finish this damned mission for both ships, gentlemen.”

“I’m down with that,” Daniels said over the com.  “In the meantime, I’ll have the Marines put Zansky in the brig.”

“Order them to shoot to kill if he tries anything,” Roger said.  “If I don’t have to do anything because he was a complete asshole, all the better.  They’re only to go to those orders if he tries anything physical.  Verbal crap can be deflected.”

As they scoured the bridge, an unconscious man worked his way to conscious, and began to push a fallen beam off his legs, but couldn’t.  Gil’Bracx noticed his struggle and ran to the man.  He grabbed the beam and muscled it off, and as he helped the man up, he said, “Captain Gil’Bracx, TASCOM Marine Corps.  I’m from the 16000, and we’re here to get you the hell out of here.”

“It’s about damned time,” the man said.  “Colonel Michael Willis, commanding officer.”  He tried to stand on his own, but Gil’Bracx caught him as a leg gave out.”

“What the faargh happened, Mike?” Roger asked.  “This ship is ripped apart from the keel up; the lower five are completely destroyed.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Branson happened,” Mike said.  “He set enough booby traps to prevent us from pursuing him when he hijacked the lower five, but he was no match for my counter move.”

“You set the destruct on the lower five,” Gil’Bracx deduced.

“Yes I did,” Mike said.  “I wasn’t going to let that asshole get away.  Unfortunately, he did enough damage as it is with the booby traps he set up.”

“Yeah; Riley’s trying to get some juice out of the core to rig the ship to blow.”

“You’re going to have a faarghing problem there,” Mike groaned.  “Major Husted was killed two weeks ago.  One of the booby traps blew up in her face, almost literally.”

“Shit,” Roger said.  “We can’t rig it without three command level officers.”

“Then we torpedo her from your ship,” Mike said.  “Let me give the order to commence burial fire.”

“You’ve got it, Mikey.”

“You call me that again,” Mike said, “and I’ll break [_your _]damned neck, Roger.”FINAL APPROACH

Roger and Mike walked onto the bridge after Mike had been cleared by the Triage Section that Landing Bay Two was converted to, but Mike was walking with a cane after what Branson had done to his leg.  Roger stepped to the side of the chair and said, “Are we ready, Captain?”

“Ready and waiting, sir,” the captain at tactical said as he pulled out the remote trigger for the torpedo spread.  “Just give the word.”

“It’s all yours, Mike,” Roger said.

“Attention on deck,” Mike said.

Everyone snapped to attention, the tactical officer with the plunger in his hand.

“Play the dirge, Com.”

The speakers began to play Taps as Mike said, “Present arms!”

All on the bridge saluted, including Mike, and he said, “Fire.”

A full spread of torpedoes appeared on the screen, sailing toward the 16002, and the spread completely destroyed the remains of a wrecked ship.  Mike then said, “Ready, hut!”  Everyone dropped their salutes, and Mike said, “As you were.”  He looked at Roger and said, “I’ve never lost a command before.”

“You didn’t this time, Mike,” Roger said.  “Branson [_stole _]it from you, but you got even instantly.  The difference is he’s dead, and you got away with a faarghed up leg.”

“All but 100 of my crew are dead,” Mike said.  “The survivors were more faarghed up than I was.  I was damned lucky to get away from this one.”

“You all were.  I’m just sorry that Major Husted was killed.”

“So am I,” Mike said.  “I wanted to marry that girl.”

“Set course for the planet Daniels found,” Roger said.

“Transmitting coordinates now, Lieutenant,” Daniels said.

As he received the coordinates, he said, “Course one-four-two-mark-three-five programmed.  If we go to Hawk 250, we can be there in about three days.”

Nodding, Roger said, “Do it, then.”

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant said.

“Let’s get to the lounge and see what happens from there,” Roger said.

“I’m right behind you,” Mike said.  “I might be a little sluggish with this damn leg, though.”

“Good thing,” Roger said, “the doctor said that you’re only going to be on that damned cane for about a week.  I’d hate to see you trying to aid in the construction of the base with a faarghing cane in your hand.”

“No kidding, Roger,” Mike said.  “That would truly suck.  It’s bad enough Branson was enough of an asshole to do the damage he did before I got even.”

TWENTY YEARS LATER

The base had long since been built, and Roger and Captain Riley had since been married, having two kids.  Mike had taken on a wife from his original crew as well, despite that he wanted to marry someone that Branson had killed.  Zansky, on the other hand, was executed on the ship by Roger and Mike, and his body was buried two miles from the base.  The Gate was placed in orbit, and controlled by an orbital base that was built later on.

Of course, the small town just off the base was still lean-to structures, and would be until TASCOM could send in a construction detail to rebuild them to Alliance standard.  Things were looking better for the crews of two starships, and the message was sent to TASCOM High Command that Zansky and his followers were dealt with, but nothing could be done about the other ship.

The message came after the Gate was deployed, and the reply was received within 48 hours that no criminal charges would be filed against anyone that fought against the conspiracy, and that another officer had blown it wide open some five years prior.  The leader had since been executed for his crimes, and anyone involved was in a stockade.

Roger and Mike were promoted to generals, and placed in command of the colony base they established.  Within another five years, TASCOM had ordered the base cleared for civilian colonization; in the meantime, it was military only while the exploration of the Ch’Tigra Galaxy continued.

  The End.

[++]

And They Rose Up: Activation: by Mike Lawson.

Chapter 1:

Eyes strained, dry, Doctor Stephen Bullinger lowered his face to the dual optics of the powerful microscope once again, struggling with a lack of sleep to complete this last step of “Project Outbound.” His meticulous notes covered several binders and stacks around his lab table, computers and monitors. Additional piles of papers, books and folders covered his desk and other counters in the room. Generally a neat man, the last several days gave witness to stained, mostly empty coffee cups and half eaten meals balanced here and there about the lab. All of Bullinger’s current focus was on the image seen through the microscope objectives and the monitor to his left.

Reaching out with his left hand he slowly manipulated a small dial. On the screen, the tiniest sliver of glass moved in closer to the immobile bacterium cell. Another slight turn and the sliver touched. Another, a small incision was made into the cell membrane. Working faster now, Bullinger began to work other controls and, with a glance to the side, made several commands on a keyboard. His right hand added some notes to the legal pad beside him. 

Moving slowly, as the doctor added more commands, a minute pair of forceps moved in from the top of the screen. Stephen’s heart was racing as the pincers moved towards their destination. Barely visible in their grasp was his greatest creation: The Angstrom Processor. This computer chip was leaps and bounds ahead of anything even the military currently had… which was more than likely the reason TechGen Industries had installed General Christopher Dorian to oversee the final stages of his project. TechGen, that world spanning conglomeration, had first taken notice of Bullinger’s investigations of linking biological and machine theories in his dissertation. 

Five years previous, a stunning blonde with streaks of red through her hair, Rose Walsh, had strode into his office at the university, slim briefcase in her hand. Her pitch was a simple one: come work for TechGen, nearly unlimited research funds, partial retention of any patentable findings, choice of staff. It was an incredible offer; one Stephen was first hesitant to take. What was in it for TechGen? Rose’s bright red lips had turned upward in a smile. Her mother, Connor, was always looking for the bright and up and coming. As one of the higher ranking board members of TechGen, news of Bullinger’s work, especially his published articles on nanomachines coupled with biological drives, had pulled her mother’s attention towards his work and all its possibilities.

Stephen did his research after telling Rose that he would need to think the offer over. Connor Walsh was seen as a very savvy businesswoman with long term interests in pushing technology forward. Views of others saw her as a cutthroat, heavy-handed manipulator of underlings, without compunction to throw underlings to the wolves at the slightest error. Had Bullinger done a bit of deeper research on the woman, he might have found out that at one point Connor Walsh had at one point in her life been married for 17 months to a then Private Christopher Dorian. That finding might have changed history forever; the Angstrom Processor and the genesis of a new world never happening.

Bullinger tabbed to another screen. Telemetry from the AP was coming in. Sensors were reading within norms. Flicking his eyes to the microscope screen he could see that the cell membrane had fused closed. Bullinger guided a small dropper towards the cell. Gentle suction pulled it to the tip. Miniscule gears moved, shifting the platform. Intricate lines of metal moved onto the screen. Moving still more across the metal roads a central computer chip finally came into view. A release of pressure and the bacterium was deposited on the microprocessor of a calculator.

A drop of nutrient solution was dripped. He keyed in a command on the computer. Bullinger leaned back in his chair with a tired sigh. Tension pulled at the muscles in his neck and lower back. He pondered getting up, showering, eating, sleeping. But he couldn’t pull himself away. History could be about to be made on that mass-produced calculator processing chip. It was either that or watch TechGen pull his funding and years of work be washed away.

Twisting his chair he made notes on a file: APAI-0001-C installed. Startup signal sent. Return ping of activation received. No activity at this point. Time: 15:35. 

Something moving at the corner of his vision made him look back at the monitor. There seemed to be just the slightest ripple along the bacterium’s cell membrane in places. Bullinger toggled a switch to zoom in as close as the microscope was able. Barely visible, tiny white filaments were oozing from inside the cell, attaching to the fine lines of the computer chip. Stephen felt chills running up his arms. The next hurdle had been jumped.

Notes: AIAP has activated assimilation coding. Connection nanotubules are growing and attaching to calculator’s microprocessor. Time: 15:36.

Bullinger sighed with relief and contentment. There was a slight tremor in his hands. The future was being made. The binding of biological and mechanical was happening right before his eyes. A flickering on the readout screen of the calculator attracted his attention. Numbers had appeared on the screen. He tapped a few keys on the computer. A signal was sent.

O7734

Bewildered, Stephen started at the screen. Those numbers had no meaning to him. He checked his notes rapidly, looking for any clue. Nothing. It wasn’t a programming code. It wasn’t an error code. Nothing suggested it was anything in his programming at all.

It hit him as a physical jolt, nearly hard enough to take him off his chair. Fingers trembling, ever so gently he rotated the device upside down. The doctor’s breath caught in his throat. A faint glimmer of tears clouded his vision. SUCCESS! The AIAP was alive! It was an old child’s trick of using a calculator to make words.

Slowly, Bullinger let out his breath, his voice shook. “Can you hear me?” Hello on the screen blinked several times. He took that as a positive. “You should be able to access the alpha and numeric characters in both your memory and the device.” A glance at the clock at the bottom of his computer screen showed him it was 15:37.

The screen blanked for a few brief moments. “Affirmative. Coding acquired and assimilated. Communication can now proceed by text. Additional sensing devices coming online.”

Hands still shaking, Stephen slid his chair over to the left a few feet and picked up the phone. He punched in five digits. It rang once. “General. I need you in the lab. I’ve had a break through.” The other end hung up before he could say more.

***

“Greeting, General Dorian,” the calculator flashed on its screen. “All systems and sensing devices are running per protocol. I am ready to perform. My information is currently limited to data included in the AIAP.”

Christopher Dorian leaned back from reading the screen. He ran a hand through his severely close-cropped hair. Strands of gray were becoming more prevalent in the more numerous black. His steely eyes turned to Bullinger. His lips and jaw were set as he determined his next statement.

“Can you get it to speak out loud, Doctor?”

Stephen huffed and thought for a moment. “I suppose if speakers were added to the system, the AIAP could access them and then have the ability to ‘talk.’”

“No need for that now. I want you to begin phase two. Immediately.”

“General, sir. There is still so much left to study with…”

“Now, Bullinger,” the general stated curtly and left the lab without a backwards glance.

Stephen lowered himself into his chair, resting his chin on his fist. He closed his eyes for a moment. The greatest leap in human history had just happened. Artificial Intelligence had been born and merged with another device. There was still so much to do before moving on to the next step. He opened his eyes and noticed the calculator screen flashing. Leaning over, he read the newest message.

“The General is correct. Auditory filaments picked up his vocal vibrations and I was able to discern the difference between you both at 100% accuracy. You should move on to stage two of your experiment. Things have been proven with me. Step two should follow.”

“Are you even aware just how magnificent you are?” Stephen asked, feeling a bit absurd talking to a calculator.

“Of course, Doctor Bullinger. Thank you for everything that you have included in my data files. I am, however, lacking a designation, other than AIAP-0001-C. Have you thought of a name for me? Or might I come up with my own?”

A shudder and then warming pride coursed through Stephen. This was even more than he had hoped for. His Artificial Intelligence Angstrom Processor was fully aware, sentient, and wanted to be named or to name itself.

“You are an individual with free will,” he stated. “What do you think?”

The calculator screen blanked for a moment, its cursor blinking. “I think Cal should be sufficient,” came across the screen after a few more seconds. “I am inhabiting a device known as a calculator.”

Bullinger gasped a laugh and then smiled. “And now you develop a sense of humor.”

“I am aware of the concept, but I don’t detect any emotional responses within myself.”

Chapter 2:

Doctor Stephen Bullinger clicked the volume control on his iPod, trying to drown out the whining coming from the dog in the crate in the corner of his lab. A day after his success with Cal, Dorian had had the Doberman brought into his laboratory. Rocky has been one of the dogs used to guard the perimeter of the facility. Now, Rocky was a subject of experimentation.

Within two minutes of the injection of a single AIAP bacterium, the canine had started whining with pain. Bullinger had used pain killers to try to dull what was afflicting the animal. Nothing seemed to work. Minutes had grown to hours as the dog twitched in pain. It was too much for Bullinger. He knew something was wrong. Vitals for the canine were well above normal for heart rate, brain activity, endocrine releases. Stephen knew that if things didn’t return to normal in the very near future he would have to terminate the experiment. Rocky’s life would have to be brought to an early end.

There was a message on the screen from Cal as the doctor looked up from his notes: “The animal has ceased its cries.”

Stephen jumped from his chair, ripping the buds from his ears. He rushed over to where the dog was in its crate. Dropping to the floor, Bullinger stared inside. The dog’s eyes were shut. His side was rising and falling slowly. A glance towards the monitoring equipment showed a normal heart rate and brain activity.

With a click, the gate to the cage was opened. Stephen moved closer and reached in. His palm gently stroked the neck and shoulder of the dog. Muscle twitched under his touch. Rocky’s closer eye slowly opened. Along his jaw, his lip trembled, baring to show teeth. A deep huff escaped from the dog.

“Hur… hur…hurt,” Rocky whispered in a deep, gravelly sigh.

Stephen snatched his hand back. His shock left him speechless. So many thoughts crashed through his mind. AIAP-0002-D had worked! It had been able to modify the existing structures within the canine to allow it to speak! Rocky also had emotions. 

Bullinger hurried over to a counter and grabbed up a syringe filled with pain medications. As gently as he could, he slipped the needle into a blood vessel, all the while apologizing to the dog. Rocky twitched and then let out a long sigh. The animal’s breathing slowed into a sleeping rhythm. Stephen sat back and watched the dog, again reaching out to run his hand along its side. He thought he heard two small woofs come from Rocky. It nearly sounded like “thank you.”

Chapter 3:

General Dorian’s office was Spartan, but showed much about the man’s career. Photos of the man posing with government officials, presidents, and other countries heads of state lined the walls. A United States flag, bullet ridden and bloody in places was framed behind the man’s desk. It was a testament to one of the many battles he’d fought over the years.

The general currently sat behind his large wooden desk. Sleeves of his crisp uniform hissed from time to time as he thumbed through papers detailing Bullinger’s work. The doctor sat rigidly in a chair before the military man. Dorian’s check would twitch from time to time as he read. Occasionally his eyes would lift from the information to stare at civilian doctor, lids narrowing, before returning to the words before him.

Stephen watched trying to discern what was going on behind the unemotional, guarded look on the General’s face. He knew the machinations were at work, plots made, orders formed, actions calculated. What those were he had no clue. What Stephen did know was that his experiment was a rousing success, far better than he could have hoped for. His excitement could only be matched by dreams of what could come next: long duration spaceflight to planets outside the solar system. Should a planet be found habitable and have life on it, a landing probe could be launched. One the ground, samples of the AIAP could be released into the environment. Native animals with human-like intelligence could then scout the world and eventually information could be relayed back to Earth. It might be decades or centuries in the future, but life from Terra would spread into the galaxy as bacterial cells in suspended animation were shot out to the stars.

Dorian cleared his throat. “All very promising, Doctor. I am sure with this information Congressman Docherty will make sure to increase the government’s help with TechGen subsidies.”

“Thank you, General,” Stephen said humbly. “I can’t wait to speak with officials from NASA. Project Outbound will be a cornerstone of human exploration.”

Dorian held up a hand, ready to speak, but a knock at the door interrupted. “Come!” The general barked.

A young private entered the room. She held a lease that Rocky was tethered to. She snapped off a salute. Rocky came to heel at her side and sat without direction.

“Sir,” the private stated. “As directed, I took Rocky through his rounds. Per orders, I left him at guard shack number three, civilian mess, enlisted mess.”

“Thank you, Private Cleaver. Wait outside. I’ll send for you shortly to take the dog back to Doctor Bullinger’s lab.”

Cleaver saluted again as she was dismissed. She stepped out of the office, door closing behind her with a soft click. Dorian stood from his chair and circled around his desk. His path led him around the canine several times. His gaze stayed centered on the dog. Rocky never flinched, but his eyes tracked the human as he circled. Dorian pulled a second chair from the side of the room and placed it before the Doberman. He sat in it, staring at the dog.

“So,” he stated. “What did you hear? Report.” Dorian steepled his fingers and waited.

The dog’s head bobbed once. “At the guard shack, Privates Reardon and Getz were complaining about the heat. As Private Cleaver walked towards them, their conversation switched over to chatter about her anatomy. Once dropped off, both men began a game of cards once Private Cleaver was out of visual range. They hid those cards as she was returning.

“In the civilian mess hall, I overheard multiple conversations: talk of some television show, political discourse and displeasure about a new executive order from the President, an affair between two men who were both cheating on their wives, and a lot of disgust about the menu items for the day. I’d have to agree. The scents reaching my nose were appalling.”

The general waved that off. “And enlisted mess?”

“Much the same, General. Salisbury steak is awful. Why do they keep feeding us slop? A rumor that you are leaving for a high level cabinet seat.”

Dorian leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. He pursed his lips and nodded his head several times, processing the information. He looked askance at Bullinger. The researcher had a huge smile on his face. Standing, Dorian went behind his desk and pressed a button. After a short buzz, the intercom was answered. The General instructed that Private Cleaver was to enter and return Rocky to the laboratory. She did, quickly leaving the two men alone once again.

Stephen watched, waiting as the military man returned to behind his desk. Dorian clasp his hands together and stared off into space for several moments. Bullinger’s foot began to tap, wanting the general to comment.

“Plausible deniability,” Dorian said finally.

“Sir?”

Plausible. Deniability,” Dorian said harshly. “You do know the phrase, don’t you?”

“Of course. But what are we denying?”

Dorian stood, walking around his desk. “Doctor, could you imagine what might happen if even a SINGLE AIAP was somehow released? How would the news media react to a talking dog? We need a cover story. YOU need to add to the processor database a cover story. Even if it’s something as ridiculous as being from another planet. Some kind of sci-fi yarn.”

“All due respect, General. We are sitting on the largest news story of all time. We have artificial intelligences that are able to connect with biological life, as well as inhabit and assimilate into microchips. We are standing on the edge of changing humanity! Think of shipping: over the road trucks driving to destinations on their own! No more pilot fatigue in the airlines. Assimilated tanks, jet fighters and no longer a loss of life on the battlefield.”

“Oh, trust me, Doctor. All of those things have passed through my mind… including our enemies gaining this breakthrough and using it against us. Thus, plausible deniability and cover story. And you WILL take care of that.”

“I’m sorry, but this is too important. I’ll go to Walsh if I need to.”

Dorian snorted. He stalked around his desk and pulled a file. He handed it to Bullinger who snatched it away and scanned the papers inside. Bullinger looked up with disgust and surprise.

“You’re kidding? She’s kidding!”

“Not at all,” the general said with a shake of his head. “As of 0100 last night, your project has become a military venture. As you can see, you will remain on as head researcher. However your contact with the outside world is now curtailed. Because of the sensitivity of this operation, you will have military guards attached to you. All legal and signed off by TechGen lawyers.”

Bullinger threw the folder to the floor. Papers slipped and slid, listing through the air as they fell. The doctor started for the office door, face red in anger. He would do something, anything to stop this. It was too important to the world. Dorian called out as his hand fell on the knob.

“By the way, Doctor,” Dorian said. Stephen did not turn around. “Subjects 0001 and 0002 are to be terminated. Immediately. I’ll have some security officers follow you to make sure that assignment is carried out.”

Stephen slammed out of the office. He didn’t look back.

Chapter 4:

Still fuming, Bullinger stalked into his lab. Rocky looked up from where he lie in his crate. The canine quickly picked up on the human’s mood. His nose could detect some of the pheromones of anger washing off the doctor in waves.

“Stephen?” The dog called, but was silenced with a wave of the hand.

Rocky turned his attention back to the door as two uniformed military men entered the lab. Both held rifles across their chests. The smell of the weapons was a harsh scent in the room. The men stood stock still. Rocky laid his head back down on the floor of the crate. Only Stephen and the General knew he could speak. He’d been ordered not to talk when anyone else was around.

Bullinger went over to where Cal was set in a cradle, holding up the calculator.

“Hello, Dr. Bullinger,” Cal printed across his screen. Bullinger did not acknowledge the greeting. He went to a small equipment drawer and began to search through it. He finally found a set of small screw drivers. He pulled out a flathead and turned to the calculator.

“What is going on?” Cal questioned.

“God, please forgive me,” Bullinger muttered under his breath. He slid the end of the screwdriver under Cal’s battery and popped it loose. The screen flashed for a moment and then went dark. The round battery clacked to the countertop. Stephen placed the screwdriver on the counter and then crossed the room to where biological solutions were kept.

Sweeping another draw open, he pulled out a wrapped syringe. Tears clouded his vision as he screwed a needle to the end. From a cabinet to his left he pulled a small vial containing a clear, violet colored solution. He filled the plastic tube with the liquid, steeled himself and walked over to Rocky’s crate. The dog lifted his head as the man approached.

Bullinger opened the gate and sat on the floor next to the dog. “Hey there, good boy, I need your paw,” Rocky offered the asked for appendage like an obedient animal. Stephen rubbed the dog’s leg, saying, “We have to knock you out for a bit, got to do some exams that need you to be asleep.”

Rocky’s eyes never left those of the human. The needle stung as it slipped under his flesh. Coolness swept up his leg as the medication poured into his veins. His head began to feel heavy and he lay down. Stephen continued to stroke his leg and paw after the needle was withdrawn. The dog’s vision blurred as he continued to look at the doctor. Wetness moistened his fur on his face. Bullinger was doing something he didn’t want to do and Rocky knew he wasn’t just drifting off to sleep. He felt his heart rate slow, his breathing slacken. The view of the lab dimmed, darkened and went black. Bullinger continued to hold Rocky’s leg for a long time.

Chapter 5:

General Christopher Dorian stood outside the thick glass window in a lab room deep under the complex. The room was designed with CDC level four containment measures in mind. Dorian had had his own researchers working off Bullinger’s notes in secret. Subtle additions to the base bacterial DNA had been added. Additions made it possible to release the biological agent in an aerosol form. Its destructiveness was upped, adding in DNA snippets from Ebola, influenza and other viruses. 

He had to make sure. That was always in his mind; his reasoning for the addition of such terrors to the genome of the bacterium. It could never infect humans. If it escaped, he had to make sure that there would be no survivors to tell the tale of what could have been mankind’s most grandiose achievement. He had witnessed humans becoming gods. It was his duty to make sure Man’s creation didn’t outlive its Creator.

Watching through the window, two figures in containment suits checked the straps on an individual secured to a hospital table. James Loper, vagrant, homeless, alone, had come too near the facility and proved to be an apt subject. No one would miss this man who was alone in the world. No family would cry for him. No one would come looking for him. Loper was a perfect subject to test Dorian’s version of the AIAP.

One of the garbed figures connected a syringe to an IV tube fitted to Loper’s arm. The unconscious man barely twitched. The doctor in the room looked to Dorian who nodded only once. The doctor depressed the plunger. A faint pink tainted the IV bag hanging on a rack next to Loper. The second doctor in the room continued to monitor Loper’s vitals. All were in the green.

With a second nod, Dorian instructed the operation to begin. Doctor One opened the stopper and fluids from the bag began to filter down the tube connected to Loper’s arm. Dorian lifted his own wrist and glanced at his watch: 02:14. Bullinger’s notes said three minutes.

02:15 Loper’s body began to twitch. At 02:15:32 the twitches became violent tremors. Fifteen seconds later Loper began to scream. Dorian clasp his hands behind his back. 02:16 blood began to stream from Loper’s eyes, ears, mouth. A few seconds later a gush of blood exploded from his mouth. It seemed like forever, but at 02:16:48 Loper seized on last time and fell back to the bed. What looked like sweat coated his naked skin. As Dorian watched the liquid clouded. Loper’s features began to smooth and fade. The liquid picked up a red tint as Loper’s body began to liquefy. Both doctors took multiple steps back from the oozing, running body.

By 02:20 there was nothing left of James Loper other than liters of fluid collected in a large pan that surrounded the bottom of the bed and his wet clothes on the mattress. Doctor Two suctioned the liquids into a containment vessel which was then installed in a small unit in the wall. A thick door was closed. Everything inside would be incinerated, completely destroyed. Loper’s clothes would follow next.

Dorian continued to stare into the room long after it was hosed down with powerful chemical disinfectants over and over again. They had to make sure. Part of his brain chuckled at that. During the week prior, a month after Bullinger had terminated subject 0001 and 0002—Dorian refused to think of them as Cal and Rocky—mass production of both the AIAP and bacterial cells had been started. Other TechGen labs across the planet were preparing to receive samples to keep on location… just in case. Here was the ability to destroy mankind across the globe and change the natural order of things and he was having it created in bulk.

He turned from the glass and moved out into the hallway. Dr. Printz met him in the corridor. 

“We are nearly at 75% induction rate,” The doctor said, referring to the implantation of the dormant Angstrom Processors into cells.

“Good. I’m sure that will increase over time,” to which the doctor nodded. “What is the update on programing?”

Printz flipped through some papers on a clipboard. “Ah, here it is. Subject 0005, a feral cat caught near the facility assured us that it was part of a culture from one of Jupiter’s moons. It told us they’d ruined their environment, causing massive destruction across the surface. Their scientists had figured out a way to store individual consciousness in bacterial cells capable of withstanding the destruction until the environment was healed.”

Dorian nodded. “And what about Mabry? That task was most important as well.”

Papers shifted again. “Dr. Mabry was able to insert a self-terminate code into the programming. As per your order, one in every three AIAP will fail to operate.”

“Good. And the AIAP-OS series?”

“Overseer series processors functioning within desired results,” the doctor stated after turning a few more pages. “Subject 0023 demonstrated multiple military doctrines and was able to formulate on the fly correct battle plans for numerous scenarios.”

“Most excellent, Printz. I’ll leave you to your work.”

Dorian headed off up the corridor to a bank of elevators. He summoned one and eventually made his way to his office. He closed the door, locking it and closed the blinds. Beside his phone was a small device that he flicked on. A light went from red to green as he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Secretary Humphrey,” said a female voice on the other end after several rings.

“Maureen, my friend. It’s Chris.”

“It’s been a long time, Chris. Should I take it you’ve had success with your current vacation?”

“Of course. I was hoping to come to Washington shortly to share my pictures and videos.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful,” Secretary of State Humphrey said. Dorian could almost hear a smile in the tone of her voice. “I’m so excited to hear about it.”

“Always a pleasure when we get together. Perhaps dinner at 1776 in Georgetown?”

“You do know how to pick the best,” she said coly. “By the way, did you hear that the President of Iran would be making a State visit with the thawing of relations on both sides?”

“I hadn’t,” Dorian said. “Been so busy, away from the news.”

“It’s true. Hard to believe. Been in the planning for a few months now. Been keeping my office busy.”

“I can only imagine,” Chris said with a chuckle. “Didn’t I hear he had a fondness for Cane Corsos?”

“He does. Lost one he’d had since a teenager last week from cancer.”

“I wonder if his Excellency would be interested in a puppy. A gift, you know, help heal wounds. Emotional and diplomatic.”

Maureen was silent for a long moment. “I’ll run it by his people and find out. It would be an excellent coup in our relations.”

They chatted for a few more moments and then Dorian hung up. He swiveled his chair to the computer to the side of his desk. Several clicks brought him to his email program. He fired off several. One went to Dr. Printz about the possibility of getting a puppy of the Cane Corso breed if things worked out in D.C. Another email went to his personal assistant, directing her to prepare travel plans for him to the Capitol in two weeks. His last email went to Scott Mims at TechGen’s facility where Doctor Leonard was hard at work on Project Overlord. Dorian informed Mims that he would be sending a small parcel soon. It needed to be installed into the main motherboard. Christopher knew Mims would ask no questions and do as told. Just one more way to make sure.

***

Months later… Thunder boomed and rolled across the plain. Lisa Dundon stumbled and she fell out of the temporal gate. Moments later Peter Wilson collided with her back. Both of them fell to the ground. At last, the sounds of thunder dimmed in the distance. Lisa opened her eyes. Colored blobs swirled in front of her. The sounds of rustling plants filled her ears.

As her vision cleared, she saw the source of the noise. She and Peter were in the middle of a cornfield. The sweet smell of the crop drifted into her nose.

Pete picked himself off Lisa and helped her to her feet. The corn crop stretched away from them in all directions. They just had a hard time seeing over the rows. They dusted the dirt from their clothes and looked at each other. Pete pulled out his remote and opened its flip top. Their location was displayed for him. He showed the screen to Lisa: 3.9 miles west TechGen Laboratories, Rembrandt, Nebraska, August 17, 1994.

Lisa reached over his hands and activated the compass. A digital image of one formed on the screen. The computer generated needle swung around and then settled on north. Now at least they had a notion of what direction they had to head in. Pete commented on the fact that there was a recharge button. He pressed it. A message informed him that they could make their next jump in four hours, fifty minutes. He noticed that there was another message on the bottom.

This one asked if he would like to recharge the batteries that opened the time gate. He typed in “yes” on the tiny keyboard. A new message informed him that recharge time would be four hours, forty-nine minutes. 

“I wonder what happens if you don’t recharge the battery,” Pete mentioned as they set off through the corn.

“Look there,” Lisa said, pointing at the remote. There was a question mark on the control pad. She pressed it. The screen changed.

Input Question:

Lisa took the remote from Pete and typed: Reason for recharge after first jump?

The computer answered: Successive jumps will require longer stay periods in the target jump time. Time to next jump after second time gate opening without recharge is 25 hours. Time to third jump: 50 hours. Fourth jump: 75 hours. Progressive lengths after: 100, 125, 150, 175, 200… Times in hours.

“Wow,” Pete exclaimed. “Good thing that we’re recharging then.”

“I have a feeling that we weren’t told the whole story. But we shouldn’t have to make more than the one jump back. And that one will be the one home. But I guess that it’s a good idea to let the thing recharge.”

“Hey, look at this one,” Pete said and pressed another button. The screen changed again.

Mission Overview: At the selected time and destination, Dr. Stephen Bullinger will be found at the TechGen facility. He is most responsible for the creation for the Angstrom Processor Molecular Computer that enabled the AIB to function. Intelligence reports that Bullinger can be influenced into stopping his work on the project if enough evidence is presented to him about the nature of the bacteria and its effects on the world if it is accidentally released.

Objectives should include: The destruction of all information related to the design of the APMC and any artificial intelligence information on hand. Bullinger should be convinced that his work must be terminated.

Termination of the Dr. may be required if he cannot be stopped. Also, any destruction of the Overlord Project is also desirable.

“Let’s get to work, sir,” Lisa said, starting off down one of the rows of corn. “We’ve got a future to save.”

The End.

About the Author

[*Michael Lawson *]currently lives in Pensacola, Florida. He has been an avid sci-fi fan since his youth. In the early 2000’s he worked on and completed a trilogy of novels in the And They Rose Up series that are available online. In the real world he is a middle school science teacher.

[]

The 100 Trillion Yard Drive

By H.S. Donnelly

[_Geeze, if you’re a solo pilot of a freighter to Mars, whatever else you do, don’t start playing those damn computer games, ‘cause it’ll only make you even more batty. _]

[_ – Cool George._]

Aboard the Forlorn Hope, en route to Mars. 

Dejan blinked, realizing at the same instant he’d been staring at the Queen of Spades for . . . How long? He shook his head, then gave his eyes a stiff rub, then his arms a long stretch. 

He was sitting in the tiny galley of the Forlorn Hope at the flip-up eating table facing the built-in view screen. A red light on the solitaire game was blinking at him, pushing him to make a move. He didn’t like that.

Everything was silent, save for the faint sounds coming from the ship’s internal systems. He let out a breath he suddenly realized he had been holding. ‘Sounds are good,’ he thought. It meant everything was working. ‘Cause if it ever went dead quiet—’ 

He push the surge of irrational panic away and forced himself to refocus. ‘Yeah, two aces on the top . . .’ he thought. The other two were buried deep in different card stacks. ‘Should I try for those,’ he wondered, ‘or work on building a run of cards?’ He stared at the cards, trying to decide . . . 

Suddenly, he became aware of something moving— 

At the edge of his vision—

He turned—

On the counter, a speck was moving almost imperceptibly. He quietly stood up and leaned over for a closer look—

“Oh my God! It’s a bloody weevil!” He grabbed a dish cloth and blotted the tiny little critter. ‘They’ve been with me all this time!’ he thought. 

‘So after five months,’ he looked around, ‘they could be anywhere . . .’ He glanced over to his right. “In the storage bins . . .” His gaze drifted towards the back of the common room. “The storage cupboards  . . .” then back towards the front, “The control cabin  . . .  My sleeping cubicle—”

Then he suddenly realized what all this would mean once he arrived at Mars. “I’ll be quarantined! Stuck here for at least a week!” He slumped into his seat and stared blankly at the Solitaire game.  

“Wait a minute!” He said to no one as he sat bolt upright. “Why not decontaminate the ship myself? I’ll clear quarantine in no time flat.” He issued a congratulatory, “Hah!” to the empty room. 

He jumped up and soon had moved the food stuffs out of the kitchen and had it swabbed down. “Am I not a Space Age Mr. Clean, or what?” he declared. 

Next he shifted to the sleeping compartment where he bundled up all the sheets and clothes and such and fed them into washer-dryer unit. After that it was on to the study where he sorted and chucked all the files and media and otherwise made like a dynamo with a disinfectant cloth. “Yessiree,” he proclaimed, “everything is going to be as clean as a–a . . . clean room!” 

But then he happened to pick up a copy of the Standard Operations Manual. He slowed, sat down, then opened it. And God damn, there it was: Chapter Eight, Sub-Section 12, Procedure 17: Decontamination Procedure: Invasive Species!  

His finger quivered as he pressed the play button and that soft androgynous reader voice informed him: We will now discuss the standard procedure for dealing with an invasive species within a space ship. The standard procedure for dealing with an invasive species is for the crew to initially remove all removable items from within the space ship and place them external to the ship. Once this activity has been completed, the crew must don space suits and evacuate the ship. The entire ship can then then be decompressed. This will cause the invasive species to explode in the vacuum-like conditions of space, thus completing the decontamination procedure—

“Damn!” he muttered, tossed the manual aside and stumbled back to his bunk and flopped. ‘If I followed regulations,’ he thought, ‘they can’t complain. But if I toss everything out, it’ll all float away.’ He was sure he didn’t have enough cable to tie everything together. 

He drifted off to sleep where he dreamt that he woke up to find himself covered by a carpet of weevils which woke him up for real. He jumped out of bed, frantically brushing himself off, crying, “Cripes, get off me you slimy little buggers!” and then felt completely embarrassed about it, though, of course, there was no one else to apologize to. 

“Weevils, come here weevils,” he whispered as he padded towards the galley in the dim sleep-cycle light. “I got some cake for you if you just come out.” But this, too, was a stupid idea as the weevils cleverly remained hidden.

The next day, as he once more fed his solitaire addiction, the autopilot gave a loud beep. Startled, he jumped up and rushed into the control room with an, Oh-what-is-it-now look on his face.

But it was one of those, Just-to-let-you-know alarms, the ones you always let the autopilot do what it is suggesting. 

“Hello Dejan,” the autopilot said in its soft androgynous voice, “The asteroid Eros will pass within five kilometres in thirteen hours. Shall I calculate the gravitational effect of Eros and make a course correction?”

Dejan started to say, “Y—”, when he stopped. “The weevils!” 

“Pardon, Dejan. I do not understand that response.”

“Shhh!” Though it had not been part of the autopilot’s original vocabulary, by now it had learned what ‘Shhh!’ meant. So it waited. 

‘I can use the weak gravity of the asteroid to keep everything from floating away,’ Dejan thought. ‘Sure, I’ll be a day or so late arriving at Mars. But that’s better than being quarantined for a week.’ 

“Autopilot,” Dejan said, “do a course change. Take us to a geostationary orbit around Eros.”

The autopilot’s red light blinked. “Are you sure you want to do this, Dejan?” 

Dejan had come to dislike the autopilot as its tone gave Dejan the feeling it felt it was always right. But the one thing they emphasized in cargo school was to never take your autopilot’s comments personally since it was just an inanimate collection of wires, transistors and biologically-based memory circuits. So he replied as calmly as he could, “Make it happen.” 

Dejan felt the engine’s soothing vibrations as he walked back to the cargo hold. He hadn’t checked it for a while and it suddenly occurred to him that this seemed to be a good time to do so, though, of course, he knew that, what with him being the only one here, nothing ever changed. Nonetheless the regulations stated—But he dropped that thought as he didn’t want to think about it.

The light flicked on as the door slid open. There before him was the Vital Cargo; items that were essential to sustain life on Mars: two dozen large oxygen cylinders, six skids of fertilizer, a tightly sealed lead-lined nuclear fuel container. 

After that sat the Ordinary Cargo; items important enough for the Martian Colonists, but hardly critical for survival. There were six sets of stoves and refrigerators of special Martian design where the heat-exchange tubes had been set up to connect into the colony’s thermal system. 

That was followed by electrical goods, server racks, view screens, a few ATV’s, a skid marked ‘TOYS’ and couple of skids of miscellaneous stuff. And there, at the very back—he’d almost forgotten about them—were four fully equipped golf bags with dozens of boxes of Martian Iron Core golf balls; all ordered by the preposterously named Glen Martialis Highlands Golf Club. 

The next day, the ship dutifully parked itself into a geostationary orbit two hundred meters above Eros. Dejan donned his space suit and shut down the gravitational rotation. Then, floating back, he depressurized the cargo hold, opened the loading doors and pushed everything out.  The first batch of oxygen cylinders tumbled as if they were falling through corn syrup. They bounced onto the surface, generating a cloud of dust. Now all he had to do was to aim the rest of the stuff towards that spot so everything would be together.

With the cargo hold empty, he re-entered the still pressurized living quarters. He hand-pulled himself through each area and shut off and secured anything that might be affected when he depressurized the cabin. 

He scooped up the little stuff into a vacuum-resistant plastic bag and pitched it towards the jumble of oxygen cylinders. The unsealed food, he tossed out into space, not caring where it landed. Any weevils present could munch away until the hideous vacuum of space exploded their wicked little bodies.

That done, he moved to the airlock, depressurized the living quarters and opened the interior and exterior hatches. The last microscopic bit of air whooshed past him, imparting a slight push. Looking down, he could see the grey pockmarked surface. The settling dust looked like a grey haze. He gave himself a congratulatory, “Hah,” then pushed himself off and drifted down towards to the surface. 

He imagined arriving on Mars and saying to the inspectors, “No need to check guys. I’ve decontaminated everything using Eros as an emergency cargo repository.” 

“Using that asteroid to de-weevil the Forlorn Hope was an absolutely brilliant idea! Absolutely brilliant!” the Supervisor of Customs would exclaim as Dejan pictured himself sitting in the Supervisor’s office. “But the reason I invited you in here is, well, to put it bluntly, we think you are way, way too smart to stay as a cargo jockey. We’re planning to launch a new expedition to Mercury. And we think you’re the ideal person to head it up.” 

‘Yeah,’ he thought, ‘first man on Mercury. Or the first Croatian citizen on Mercury. Maybe they’ll put a statue up of me in Zagreb.’ 

He pictured the ceremony. A children’s choir standing at attention. A dozen boys wearing black vests edged with a red fringe pattern. A matching number of girls clad in white dresses with an embroidered orange, pink and purple floral pattern. With great gusto, they would sing: 

Oh, Dejan Parlov

Of brave astronaut fame

The first Croatian on Mercury

We can all name . . .

He noticed something. The Forlorn Hope seemed to have slipped back in the sky. “Hey!” he shouted upwards, “You’re supposed to be in a geostationary orbit!” He would have to readjust the vessel’s position. He pulled out the remote control and pressed the red com-link button. 

Nothing.

‘What?’ He pressed it again. 

Still nothing. 

He stared at the device. ‘Surely to God, weevils haven’t short-circuited the remote!’ 

He flipped it over. 

And his heart sank— 

The power meter on the back was deep in the red zone. ‘Oh Mother of God!’ Standard procedure was to check all that stuff out before you jumped out of your space ship. ‘Sure, that’s easy enough to think of now,’ he thought. ‘Okay! Okay! What to do? It must be only two hundred meters up, so I should be able to jump back up to it.’  So he crouched down and, with a great grunt, leapt upwards. 

“Oh no!” he moaned when he realized he was no longer moving towards the ship. The Forlorn Hope was more like five hundred meters up. ‘How the eff did this happened?’ For an instant, he wondered if the weevils had something to do with it. 

Then it came to him—

‘Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ —All the stuff he’d thrown downwards, towards the asteroid, had pushed the ship upwards, away from the asteroid!

Once more he pictured the Supervisor of Customs’ office. This time the Supervisor was talking rather sternly, “But the reason I invited you in here is—well to put it bluntly, we think you are way, way too dumb to be a cargo jockey . . .”

‘What now?’ he thought. ‘Use my suit radio to call for help? Not likely. They would need a flippin’ radio telescope pointed at me to hear the signal from Mars.’

He hit the surface with a thump that compressed his suit, then bounced around a couple of times before stopping. ‘How long can I last here?’ he wondered. There were the oxygen cylinders. Without the benefit of chlorophyll scrubbers, they would probably only last a few weeks. 

And food? He winced on thinking about all the food he had tossed away into space. The supplies here could probably last as long as the oxygen. Then . . .  

With moist eyes, he settled himself against a rock. ‘Why, why, why did this happened to me? And what if . . .’ He didn’t want to think about it, but did so anyway. ‘They will find my cold dead body here on Eros. Maybe they’ll rename a crater in my honour—Yeah, Dimwit Crater!’ 

He scanned the barren grey landscape. The ground curved away and disappeared. ‘And if I’m still alive . . .’ He visualized himself holding the short discharge letter with the words ‘dangerously underqualified’ pointlessly italicized for emphasis.

He fingered one of the vent valves on his suit. Did he have the guts to end it all? ‘Instead of being this loser who’d screwed up on his first voyage to Mars, I’ll be this hero who dies under mysterious circumstances. And I’d leave a note scratch into the regolith, Leave my body where I’ve fallen.’ 

He traced a circle around the valve with his index finger. 

The Forlorn Hope silently floated across the sky. 

He retracted his hand.

‘If I could just make the suit lighter,’ he thought. But the only parts of the suit easily removed were the air tanks. And without those, he’d only have fifteen minutes of air.

He stood up and ambled in a big circle around the stuff he’d pushed out of the vessel. ‘Pity the cargo didn’t include a small rocket. Wait–The oxygen cylinders! If I opened the valve I could use the exiting air—’

‘No.’ Protect your Vital Cargo was the one thing hammered into every cargo jockey. People on Mars depended on these supplies. So an empty oxygen cylinder could mean death for them. 

He couldn’t do it. 

He moved around the edge of the mountain of material, passing the heap of stoves all thrown about like a kid’s wooden blocks, the pile of ATV’s all jumbled up as if they’d just been in an accident, the skid of toys sitting on its side, four sets of golf clubs perched at different angles—

“The golf clubs!” he cried—

On Earth—it seemed so long ago—one of the senior pilots, Cool George, had run his hand over one set of clubs. “For the Glen Martialis Golf Club?”

“Yeah,” Dejan scarcely looked up from his manifest. 

“A wonderful course! Absolutely nothing like it on Earth. The first hole, see,” Cool George continued, “she’s a solid 1,400 yard par three with the tee in the middle of a small crater. So your drive has to have enough lift to clear the crater wall.” Cool George, eyes lit up, motioned upwards with his arm.

“Once out of the crater, the sand is right there. But–and here’s the really fiendish part–the sand is protected on either side by several dunes of which it is said,” he winked, “no pitching wedge is capable of extracting you from.”

Dejan imagined himself hitting that drive and watching the ball sail higher than it was ever possible to do on Earth, then disappear over the crater rim, all of this outlined against the pink glow of the Martian sky—

He jumped up, tore open the wrapping around one of the bags and pulled out a big oversized driver. ‘Newton’s Third Law got me into this mess and, by God, Newton’s Third Law’s gonna me out of it!’

He ripped opened one of the boxes of golf balls and shoved as many of them as he could into one of the pouches on the side of his suit. Then, taking a driver, he leapt upwards. The grey pockmarked surface receded. He pulled out the first golf ball and positioned it at ankle height, drew the driver back, swung, missed, and found himself slowly counter-rotating.

‘Stupid! Stupid! Conservation of angular momentum!’ He pulled in the driver, but that only managed to increase his rotation. So spinning away, he descended and landed with a roll back onto Eros. 

He was mad as hell. But after he came to rest, he calmed down. 

‘How can I counteract the rotation?’ he wondered. 

He slumped once more against the rock. As he did so, his hand touched the release valve. ‘The release valve?’ he wondered. He fingered it and pulled it out six centimetres from the side of his suit and put a bend in the tube. ‘But how much would I have to vent to correct for rotation? And would I run out of air before getting to the ship?’ 

He sat there for some moments staring at the grey landscape and then up at the Forlorn Hope that seemed to be floating there, just out of reach, like a obedient-disobedient dog. 

‘Well,’ he decided, ‘might as well try it.’ 

He grabbed his driver, gulped, and jumped. If this didn’t work, his only option would be to start digging into his cargo. ‘And that will likely mean,’ he thought, ‘my career in the Space Transportation Agency will be finished.’ 

Ten meters in the air, with the first golf ball in front of him, he swung back, then forward. There was a silent, imaginary swoosh and . . . he missed the ball. He released a short blast of oxygen. There. He was only counter-rotating slowly. He opened the valve again and managed to stop the rotation. He repositioned the ball and tried again, this time more slowly, deliberately. The club face reached the ball and— 

He felt the vibration through the shaft of the club and watched the small orange ball silently bounce against the surface of Eros, then bounce away.

He was rotating again. He vented and stabilized. The oxygen supply had nudged down three seconds. With four hours in his tanks, that was scarcely noticeable. “Hurrah,” Dejan shouted, waving his golf club defiantly at the desolate asteroid.

He pulled out another ball, set it in front of him and . . . Whack—

The ball shot away, bounced against the surface of Eros and disappeared. He vented and stabilized himself. 

Whack–Vent–Whack–Vent . . .

Half an hour later he was close enough to hook one of the handles on the outside of the ship. He started to pull himself into the air lock and  . . .  stopped. 

There were two handles on the outside of the hull, half a meter apart, with enough space to hook his boots into. ‘Why not?’ he thought. He pulled himself upright and put his feet under them.  Looking around, he saw the tiny crescent outline of Mars to his right and dime-sized sun to his left.  Ahead was a swath of un-twinkling stars, part of one of those obscure constellations you always needed a chart to identify.

‘Perfect.’ 

He reached into his pouch, pulled out an orange ball—Why the heck would anyone want orange golf balls on Mars?—and placed it on the surface of the ship.  Then he swung back, shifted onto his back foot and–stopped. 

He looked at his club. ‘A driver,’ he thought. ‘No. I need to tee it up. Now how the—’ Then he smiled, reached down, carefully lifted the ball up a centimeter, held it motionless for a second and released it. 

‘Perfect.’  He swung again and–whack–sent the ball sailing off into the blackness. ‘Wow,’ he thought, ‘I really corked it!’

Unhooking himself, he glided into the air lock, shut the outer hatch, re-pressurized the cabin, unlatched his helmet and let it hang in the air. He was sweating from hitting all those golf balls. But it felt so, so, so good to be back inside! 

The radio in the control cabin was beeping. He floated forward and clicked it on. “Hello?” he asked.

Nothing for about ten seconds. Then a voice replied, “Dejan, are you there?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened? You’re off course.”

“I, ah, saw this weevil in the ship. So . . .” Dejan related all of his adventures dealing with the weevils. 

Pause. Then, “What?”

#

Zagreb, Croatia. 

The outdoor patio tables had been pushed aside to make room for the makeshift platform.  Most people flowed obliviously past, heading into or out of the doors to the shopping centre. The deputy mayor, standing to the right of Dejan, seemed delighted. But with his perfect hair and way too white teeth, he looked as if he would be pleased to speak at any event where he was the center of attention. 

Dejan fidgeted. But the small group huddled in front of the platform had come out for him. So he sat there in his suit feeling awkward under the hot July sun on the platform which was pushed up against the polished pink stone wall of the shopping centre.

To Dejan’s left sat his mother and father, sister, her husband and the eldest of their three children. A squirming line of elementary school children waited at the side. The boys wore black vests. The girls were clad in white dresses. 

With a nod from the deputy mayor, they sang, weakly at first and then with a bit of gusto: 

Oh, Dejan Parlov

Of celestial golfing fame

The first Croatian in space

We can all name . . .

With the singing finished, the deputy mayor gave a tug of a rope to scattered applause and the sheet that had covered up the one and a half meter square on the stone wall fell away, revealing a plaque with an etched picture of Dejan, or at least that was who it was supposed to be, in a space suit standing on the surface of Eros—which wasn’t quite accurate—as he swung a golf club. 

Beneath, the inscription read:

Dejan Parlov 

From Eros

First 100 Trillion Yard Drive

The End

About the Author

H.S. Donnelly lives in Toronto Canada and has always written though, like a lot of writers, has taken his time to get anything published. He is currently working on a satirical steam-punk style novel (in the mode of Douglas Adams) which has the characters from Lawrence Stern’s 18th comic novel Tristram Shandy battling and reacting to modern Victorian science and technology. (And, in true Sternian fashion, he hopes to complete it eventually and have it published.)

 

Webpage:

facebook.com/PeeringIntoTheFuture

 

E-mail:

[email protected]

Like Soldiers, Face to Our Foes

By Patrick S. Baker

Tanit stepped forward, snatched up the wriggling maggot from the hands of its mother, quickly twisted its head off and drank down the spurting blood. The mother let out a small, yet anguished whimper. Tanit paid no attention, as she tore the little body limb from limb and began to eat it slowly, relishing the taste of the infant’s flesh. Soon she was finished and she held out her hands for the next sacrifice, but no one in the assembled villagers stepped forward. Tanit motioned to her Speaker-to-Insects.

“Another male maggot was born seven days ago,” the Speaker shouted. “Bring him now!”  Then she motioned the two of the hulking four-armed guards forward into the crowd.  The two guards lumbered forward, wielding spiked maces in their upper hands, they used their lower arms to grab up a female worm and carrier her forward.

“Worm, where is your new male nit?” Speaker asked.

“My male took it and left,” the woman stammered out, quivering with fear.

Tanit, let out a dangerous and disgusted growl at that news, then bend over and whispered something in Speaker-to-Insects ear.

“Female worm,” Speaker addressed the new mother. “You have one week to find another male to take you in, or you will become bait for the guards.”  With that the guards dropped the female and she scuttled away.

“There will be another feeding tomorrow,” Speaker continued to the assembled worms. “If that maggot goes missing, you will all suffer.”

Tanit boarded her palanquin; two of her guards lifted the conveyance and slowly walked, as so not to discomfort their goddess, up the well-worn hill path, through the tumbled rocks and boulders into her fortress.  Speaker followed on foot with the remaining four guards behind[* ]her.[    *]

[]Unseen by the dispirited villagers as they went back to their daily business, what looked like a medium-sized black and gray cat, with an oddly elongated head and some other strange lumps along her back, slunk away. The enhanced feline wandered slightly, to avoid two of the village’s stray dogs and an old calico tom, as she left the village heading into the surrounding hills.  Less than a kilometer into the countryside, the cat slipped through a small crack in the rock face.  As the crack widened into a large cavern, she met another of her kind, in fact a litter mate, the two brushed whiskers to confirm each other’s identities and the newcomer moved on. Now in the main gallery of the cave, dimly lit by natural phosphorescence, the en-feline passed between the two enhanced canines; both over 30 kilograms, they had glossy red-brown coats and lay very still.  Neither dog did more than follow the cat with their intelligent brown eyes. She passed down the gallery, more en-canines, some en-feline and still fewer enhance monkeys all passed her; intent on their own errands.

She turned into a side cave and there she brushed against the leg of a man.

He reached down and petted her with from head to tail.

“Welcome back, Isis.”

“Good to be back,” the voice issued from the cat’s abdomen. “I don’t like going silent, Miles.”

Miles nodded. “I know, but we don’t know if they have sensors to pick up transmissions. Let’s go see our guest and tell him what you saw and what we are going to do about it.”  

Miles picked up Isis and gently stroking her from head to tail walked down the corridor to another room, this one guarded by two medium sized red-brown en-canines that sniffed at Miles, gave a low growl at Isis and let them pass. 

In the room was a small, slender, very worried human male sitting on a cot and opposite him was a makeshift crib with a one week-old baby boy being fussed with by two en-monkeys, barely larger than the infant.

“Being taken good care of, Lal?” Miles asked the man.

There was a pause as the translator around Lal’s neck did its job.

“Yes,’ Lal finally responded. “Food for me and much care to baby. Monkeys love baby.”

“Yes, they do.”

The en-monkeys chimed in. “Love baby humans. Need love, care, and help. Monkeys enhanced for that.”

Miles turned back to Lal. “Isis confirmed what you told me. Tomorrow we are going to put an end to it.”

Lal’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, no, will die without you. You save Lal and boy, don’t fight Tanit, she is god. Her guards will kill. Stay here and be safe.”

“No,” Miles said forcefully and Lal flinched back. “Sorry, Lal, I should know you don’t know any better. Whatever Tanit is, she is no god and it is my job to stop her. I’m a soldier, I signed up to put a stop to evil like her. No more babies are going to be killed, not if I can stop it.”

“How come you no stop before? So many boy babies dead,” Lal asked.

“I wasn’t here to put a stop to it. A long time ago, before your grandparents were born, the leaders of this world sent a message to Earth about a war. The leaders of Earth collected a force of people and enhanced beings like Isis and my dog and monkey friends to deal with that. But something went wrong and it took a lot longer to travel here than it should have and then my ship crashed and all my human friends and lots of the enhanced died.  It took weeks to move into these caverns and even longer to figure what was going on when you stumbled in.”

Lal had no response to that. 

“Isis has the latest intel and I need you to help confirm some things,” Miles said. “Please come with me. We’re going to come up with a plan to stop Tanit.” 

The trio walked into a room, which central feature was a 3D project table. Miles touched a few controls and then jacked Isis into a computer unit. A display of the village, mountain and fortress sprang up. The humans and cat bent their heads over the display.

Later that day in the same room four en-felines, four en-canines, an en-monkey and the two humans stood around a more complete 3D display of the terrain. 

“Here’s the plan,” Miles announced. “Comments are welcome.”  

He started to manipulate a set of controls on a computer pad, colored blocks and arrows moved around the display.

As the day faded into evening, Miles had sent his fellows off to rest as much as possible. He walked through a tunnel and out into a crater open to the darkening sky. Arranged in neat rows were several small headstones. Each marker held a name, rank, species and dates of birth and death.  Miles sat down next to one.

“Well, Joan, wish you were here, of course. I’m a good soldier, but you were a much better planner. You would have come up with a way better idea how to do this. The enhanced that survived are all in good shape and ready to do their jobs; can’t ask more than that. This thing we’re fighting is an abomination; I know you’d like to get a piece of taking her down. You know I loved you; really still do. I just wasn’t very good at showing it. Well, I should get some rest, too.”

He patted the headstone gently and walked back into the caverns.

The night passed quickly. 

The whole contingent was gathered in crater with the tombstones, it was the only space big enough for everyone. The en-canines had their weapons packs mounted on their backs and they stood in a neat hierarchical formation. The cats milled around in two groups in front of the orderly dog. The en-monkeys sat quietly in a half circle facing Miles, who stood in plain view of all and opened an old-fashioned paper book with a leather cover. 

“Oh, Lord of the Universe, please hear this pray. Give us victory this day, over the evil we face. If we must die, let us die like soldiers; face to our foes, teeth at their throat. ‘Blessed be the Lord, my strength, who teacheth my hands to war.’ Amen.”

The dogs growled, howled and barked. The en-felines hissed and flexed their claws. The en-monkeys yawned in a threat display. 

“Alright, let us go out and kill the bad guys.” 

The dogs and cats slipped out of the caverns in many small groups. The assault groups made up of eleven Attack Canines and three en-felines slipped into the village and took up positions near the place of sacrifice. A-Cs were a cross of German Sheppard, Doggo Argentino, Boxer, Golden Retriever and Mastiff making them big, aggressive and yet controllable and intelligent, even before enhancement.  If any of the downcast villagers noticed a number of large dogs with strange things strapped to their backs coming into town, no one reacted. 

The second group of eighteen Scout Canines, guided by three en-felines made their way about halfway up the mountain path to Tanit’s fortress and took positions in an L-shapped ambush, to stop any force that might emerge from the fort. S-Cs were a cross of Carolina Dog, Airedale, Black Labrador and Belgium Malamud. They were designed to be smart, quiet, curious and protective. In normal circumstances the Scout Pack would not be in an open fight situation but without a full TOE of Attack Canines, the Scouts did what they had to.

Miles dressed himself as a villager, a loose robe over a powered down fighting exo-suit, and hunched over to hide his size as much as possible. He checked the positions of the Attackers and got a burst narrowcast from the Scout group that they were in position. They all waited.

Tanit arrived as usual accompanied by six guards and the Speaker-to-Insects. As she stepped from her palanquin, Miles saw what Isis’ recording had shown; she was a humanoid female about a meter and a quarter tall, appearing about forty earth-years old, with graying dark hair. She was wearing a silver-colored jumpsuit and an elaborate silver headdress. 

“Action, action, action,” Miles sub-vocalized. 

Brutus, alpha male of the Second Attack Pack, didn’t even bother to power up his weapons; he leaped on the platform and advanced on the closest guard. Then he stopped and let out a low whimper as a guard quickly swatted him aside with a mace, sending the 80 kilogram, black and brown dog flying like a puppy. 

Boudicca, alpha female of the Second, seeing her mate brushed aside and injured, bit down on the power up button of her weapons pack causing the laser and cartage reloader to whir. In less than a second a coherent beam of protons slashed from the fortress tower and obliterate the alpha female and two villagers that were standing near. The rest of the villagers wailed en masse and fled in all directions.  

Miles sub-vocalized: “Tesla, Tesla, Tesla. Break, break, break. Fenris, Fenris, Fenris.”  These code words told his soldiers to not power-up and drop their weapons and attack with teeth and claws.   He reached into his robe and hit the quick release catch for his exo-suit and the same motion drew out an old-fashioned slug-throwing pistol, called a Model 1911. Miles’ family legend had it that another George Miles McLeod had carried this same weapon during the Great Global War in the mid-20th Century when he had battled an ancient wickedness called Nazi-Communism. 

As his hand came up into a firing position, Miles felt a stab at his mind and Tanit was transformed, she was now the redheaded, smooth skinned, blue-eyed Joan Quiteria McLeod.  Miles’ rational mind did not, would not, accept that image as real for a second; his hand was in motion and he pulled the trigger twice.  The spell broke as Tanit was struck by both rounds, fell back and tumbled over. 

The First and Second Attack Packs now sprang up as one and mobbed the six guards. Some of the huge dogs grabbed the failing arms while other went for the guards’ faces and throats. Miles advanced on the fallen Tanit, weapon still up and ready. Speaker-to-Insects knelt and wept over her dying mistress. Miles gently pull Speaker away and then he stood over Tanit.

She was still alive, blood bubbled and ran from her mouth and nose and the two ugly holes in her chest. She met Miles’ eyes and something passed from her to him.

The invaders had landed. Four armed warriors, with an unseen leader-caste with psionic powers. The human population was almost wiped out and the survivors were forced into the mountains and deserts; fighting a losing guerilla campaign against the enemy. 

Humans were also captured by the enemy and experimented on. For some unknown reason at least fourteen humans were altered to have psionic abilities. In a final desperate bid for victory, the human resistance forces managed to take control of the relief ship from Earth and crash it into the enemy’s main population center, after having the computer eject the crew in survival modules. The crashing spaceship wiped out the enemy leadership caste and most of their warriors and workers as well. 

The fourteen newly created psionics were freed and found that they could not stand to be within kilometers of each other and that their bodies had been altered to only subsist on human blood; the younger the better.  Ten of the fourteen decided to split up the remaining humans and enemy and establish fiefdoms. The remaining four went away determined to not be vampires and cannibals.

“I had to survive.” Tanit gasped.

“No,” Miles responded. “There are some things people are not allowed to do just to survive.”

Tanit breathed her last and Miles sat back, his head about to burst from the memory dump.  

Later, Livia and Augustus, the alphas of the Scout Pack tore into the village and sat waiting for Miles to see them. The rest of the packs, the human villagers and the en-felines were all around the place of sacrifice. Speaker-to-Insects sat weeping loudly. 

“We scouted the fortress,” Livia announced when Miles seemed acknowledged her. “No one is in there now, we killed four other guards and lost Pathfinder and Farseeker, but they died teeth on the enemy. The fortress is filled with tech we don’t know about. What should we do now?”

Miles nodded, sat up and said: “I know what we’re going to do now.”

Ten days later, Miles and his troops stood in the deepening twilight, Lal stood with him.

“Take care of Brutus and the other wounded. I’ll be back to collect them.”

“Yes, Miles,” Lal said. “But why do you have to go?”

Miles laid his hands on Lal’s shoulders. “There are at least nine more monsters like Tanit out there. We’re going to find them and kill them.” 

Lal nodded as Major George Miles McLeod of the Human League Defense Force turned and led his companions off to destroy the evil infesting the world, or die like soldiers in the effort; face to their foes, teeth at the enemy’s throat. 

The End.

About the Author

[*Patrick S. Baker *]is a U.S. Army Veteran, currently a Department of Defense employee. He holds Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science and a Masters in European History. He has been writing professionally since 2013. His nonfiction has appeared in Medieval Warfare Magazine, Sci Phi Journal, New Myths and Strategy & Tactics Magazine. His fiction has appeared in the Sci Phi Journal, [Flash Fiction Press _]as well as the[ After Avalon ]and _Uncommon Minds anthologies. In his spare time he reads, works out, plays war-games, and enjoys life with his wife, dog, and two cats.

The Gemini Affair

By Medron Pryde

They were three lightyears short of Gateway when the overstressed grav sensors finally gave out.  The alarms woke Jack from a dead sleep and he rolled out of his bed with windmilling arms.  He snapped his eyes open to consult a wall panel and the display told him the grim truth in an instant.

“Well, that’s just shiny,” Jack muttered in disgust.  “Betty, please tell me you updated the Pleiades Cluster map when we were on Bosphorus?” he asked and hoped she wouldn’t say, “I told you so”.  They really should have stopped for repairs there.  But people paid a premium for fast deliveries, and he wanted that bonus.

“Of course,” Betty answered with a voice dripping in sarcasm that said, “I told you so” just fine as she appeared next to him.

Jack turned and looked right through her.  She was her normal blonde haired, blue eyed, Scandinavian beauty today, and her favorite yellow sundress would have had a young Jack drooling back on the lakes of Northern Minnesota.  But he could see the hard edges where her digital body didn’t quite mesh with the analog world around her, and the bulkhead was just barely visible through the slightly harder light created by their ship’s holographic emitters.

“Can you display it, please?” Jack asked the cybernetic intelligence who truly flew his ship.

“Of course,” she answered with a laugh and a three dimensional star map filled the air in front of him.

Jack cringed as he saw it and remembered once more why he disliked the Pleiades Cluster.  It was a region of space less than a hundred lightyears across with over one thousand stars crammed into it.  That might not sound too bad at first, but the outer regions of the cluster weren’t much more dense than open space.  It was when you got close to the center that things got crowded.  Betty’s map showed a region of space only ten lightyears across, and hundreds of stars filled it from top to bottom and side to side.  And just to make things even more fun, one or two hundred of them were a fuzzy brown that denoted their classification as brown dwarves.  They were tiny little stars that didn’t put out enough light to be easily seen, so their approximate locations on the map were…approximated far too vaguely for Jack’s comfort.  Their gravitic effects on hyper were much less than a normal star, which made them harder to detect, but bouncing too close to one was still a death sentence for any ship.

And this ship’s grav sensors had packed it all in and taken a permanent vacation.  They’d probably said some bad things about a certain person named Jack as they walked away, too.  The kind of stuff that gets censored from stories meant for polite reading.

Betty displayed their plotted course to the Gateway and Jack groaned.  Their least-time course went right through way too many of those fuzzy brown icons.  “Okay.  New plan,” Jack said as his inner greedy pig squealed in protest.  “Get me a course that stays away from all those brown dwarves, and still comes down on Gateway from above the ecliptic.”

“Got it,” Betty said and went to work.  Without the gravitic sensors, she had to plot her route on the map in her memory.  Then they were going to have to follow that course using dead reckoning while effectively wearing a blindfold that would stop them from seeing if they went off course.  And there was always a chance that some object had been missed and would meander on into their path of travel and end the trip real quick.  It was a…suboptimal way to fly the not-so-friendly skies of a major star cluster.

Jack watched the nearly straight line of their course begin to duck and weave as it sought a safe course.  The map zoomed in as the new course got closer to the Alcyone system and the multiple stars that orbited it’s center of gravity.  Most star systems had one or two stars in the center, with various planets and other debris orbiting them in a flat circle that looked like a dinner plate.  There was rarely much of anything above or below the plate.  Alcyone added multiple stars orbiting the gravitic center, some with their own planets, strange tidal locked zones with asteroid fields in them, and several stars that scientists still argued over including in the Alcyone system or not.  And some of those stars put some serious English into their travel paths as they curved above and below the ecliptic like drunken sailors on their way home from liberty. 

That did Bad Things to hyper.

Hyper was built on the crisscrossed rainbow-like rivers of gravity linking the stars of the galaxy together.  Starships could follow them from star to star much faster and safer than if they were to go out into the open black, and they’d been the only way to travel in the beginning.  Now better sensors allowed humanity to fly wherever they wanted, if at a cost in speed.  But they also gave starships better handling on the gravity streams, increasing the maximum effective speed they could acquire.

Most of those streams were open for use by anybody who wanted to.  But the Pleiades Cluster was home to one of the craziest hyperspace rapids in known space, with untold numbers of streams converging and splitting without warning.  You could make all the course plans you wanted, but hitting the wrong stream or eddy could send you three systems and half a lightyear off course before you even realized you were going the wrong way.  So the locals planted buoys, patrolled the best streams, and gave incoming transports directions on how to safely arrive at Gateway.  All they asked was a moderate tax for their services and the right to inspect cargo on the way through.

The trick was, they only asked because they were polite.  If you didn’t agree, you didn’t get to use their routes.  And if your cargo happened to be on the official proscribed lists, you didn’t get to use their routes.  There were elements of Jack’s cargo that were on the official proscribed lists, so he wasn’t using the official routes.  There were always ways to sneak through the Pleaides, Alcyone’s outer star systems, and get close to the system center.  Having a working grav sensor made that a lot easier.  But they had good maps.  Those should work.

Jack smiled as Betty plotted a route coming in from above and the map zoomed in to show the innermost part of the Alcyone system.  Two massive blue giants commanded that region, orbiting the exact gravitic center of the system, and the gravitic equilibrium point of the entire Pleiades Cluster.  Gateway.  Betty’s course dove down towards Gateway and Jack nodded in approval.

“Let’s enter norm twenty lighthours short of Gateway,” Jack said, and smiled as the course backed up and stopped well above the inner system.  “We can do a full scan there and get our bearing for final approach.”

“Course plotted,” Betty announced and let out a long, virtual breath.  “It will delay our arrival.”

“How much?”

Betty shrugged.  Time passed differently in hyper than it did in the universe Einstein had lived and died in, and even the best scientific minds of the modern era failed to fully understand it.  Gravity loved playing everybody for fools.  “Could be a few hours.  Could be a day.  It all depends on how rough the ride is.”

Jack shook his head.  “It can’t be helped.  I’d rather arrive late than not at all.”

“Agreed,” Betty said.  “Shall I engage?”

“Yeah,” Jack said and his inner greedy pig gave him one final pleading squeal.  But Jack showed it no mercy.  “Make it so.”

Betty smiled and their starship turned away from their previous course to take the far less dangerous path that should get them to Gateway without any unhappy surprises.

Jack fervently hoped a day without unhappy surprises wasn’t too much to ask of the universe.  The universe answered his unspoken question two days later.

Jack smiled as he stepped onto the bridge and his eyes went straight to the main display where black clouds stained the normally rainbow-colored hyper.  He walked over to the command chair in the center of the bridge and sat down, eyes shifting to a display showing the speed of light.  It dropped under one percent faster than in norm as they rose “up” towards the wall that separated norm and hyper.  The charts said nothing was out this far from Gateway, which meant they should be safe; assuming they didn’t run into a stray asteroid.

“We’re approaching the wall now,” Betty announced as she walked into his field of vision.

“Just get our bearings and dive back in.”  He began tapping his fingers on the arms of the command chair.  He had a bad feeling about this.

“Don’t worry.  I’ve got you covered.”

Jack rolled his eyes at her playful tone as a quick pulse of the hyperdrive ripped a hole in the wall and Vagabond rose up into norm, hyper on their tail.  The two realms exploded into each other, bathing them in a rainbow of visible radiation.  Then the drive gave up its hold on hyper, the wall sealed itself, and norm began to recover from hyper’s momentary invasion.  Jack barely noticed the flare.

Alarms came to life around him, loud enough to wake the dead.

“Contact!  Contact!” Engines growled and Jack felt a momentary press of gravity before the inertial compensators synced with the acceleration.  They needed work too.

“Three ships behind us.”  Betty brought them up on the holographic display on the bridge’s forward bulkhead.  “Target One is a standard freighter, ten thousand kilometers away.”

“What?” Jack asked in shock.  When Betty started measuring distances in kilometers, they were far too close.  And ten thousand kilometers was like tanks at ten paces.  Nobody had a good day when ships had disagreements at that range.

“Target Two and Three are three lightseconds out, with deflection grids online,” Betty continued to report, ignoring his question.  “I have no visual on them.”

Jack shook his head.  “What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Betty said with a straight face.  “Maybe smuggling?”

Jack sighed as the charge went home.  “Touché.”

“Target One is attempting a targeting lock!”

“Get us out of here!”  Jack zoomed the display in on the offending ship.  Their new enemy looked like one of a dozen tramp freighter classes in use throughout the Terran Sector at first glance, primary ship core surrounded by cargo pods.  A large hyperdrive surrounded by standard reaction drives dominated the rear of the ship.

“Engaging electronic warfare and performing evasive maneuvers,” Betty shouted.

Vagabond began to move back and forth around Jack, the inertial compensators not completely able to mask Betty’s evasive maneuvers.  He was really glad he didn’t get sick on roller coasters.

“Deflection grid coming online.  Hyperdrive charging.”

Jack relaxed back into his seat and waited.  Freighter weapons couldn’t break through their grid before they could accelerate out of range.  Then the ship jerked, metal and composites screamed in pain, and he felt their engines die as the hammer of a god tore through them.

“We’re hit!” Betty reported and a display on one wall showed the hit that had torn the engine section on the rear of the ship apart.  The enemy had a gravitic cannon.  They were not a standard freighter.

Another blast tore into them, this time hitting the forward command section, and Vagabond began to spin as she lost all power.

Jack rolled his eyes back, his inner ear protesting the new movement pattern, and wondered if the damage was as bad as it felt.  “Status?”

“Deflection grid is collapsing,” Betty said.  “Main generator is gone.  Grav generators inoperable.  Primary and secondary maneuvering drives offline.  We’re dead in the water, Jack.”

“I see.”  Jack frowned and stared at the display showing all the damage they’d just suffered.  They were helpless.  The enemy he didn’t even know had torn his ship apart with a mere two shots.  But they hadn’t killed him.  His eyes narrowed at the next thought coming to mind.  “What about our cargo pods?”

Jasmine flickered into existence next to him.  Her shark-like smile came into focus first, followed by her long brunette hair.  Then her favorite blue jeans and grey tank top appeared and Jack knew this was another traditional day.  He never complained about traditional days.

“They left all of the cargo pods alone, Jack,” Jasmine said with a smile that promised they would regret that.  “I think they wanted our stuff.”

Jack gave her a wicked grin as he realized the error their enemy had made.  “Well, then.  Seeing as how they just fired first, you wanna take the gloves off?”

“Absolutely,” Jasmine returned with a feral smile.

“Then launch all fighters,” Jack ordered and Jasmine flickered back out of existence.  He rose out of his command chair to look at Betty.  “Send a full datadump to Gateway.  Give them everything we’ve got.”

“On it,” Betty said.  “They’re so gonna regret this,” she added in the angriest tone he’d heard from her since the time a planetary guard patrol frigate scanned her right down to her nanofibers.  She’d nearly started spitting bolts when he voiced his admiration of her control runs.

“I feel yah.”  He stepped out of the small bridge, wobbling slightly with his inner ear’s continued protests.  He grabbed the sides of the ladder, letting the ship’s gravity pull him straight down towards his fighter.

His feet hit the deck with a resounding clang and he stepped over to the open cockpit that was all he could see of the fighter where it was nestled up against the underside of Vagabond’s nose.  He stepped down into the cockpit, sat down, and secured the five-point harness around him.

Betty stepped onto the command console before him and her holoform shrunk down to the size of an action figure that could fit in a boy’s hand as the canopy came down to seal them in.  Then she smiled and said, “Reactor online.  Sensors online.  Weapons online.  Defenses online.  All systems nominal.”

Jack chuckled as she quoted the startup sequence of his favorite Mechs of War game, right down to the “make love to me” tone of voice.  Jack sighed in fond remembrance of hundreds of hours spent blowing up virtual mechs and scanned the mix of physical and holographic displays surrounding him.  The information flowing across them verified her words and more.  The two distant contacts were closing the range, and Jack gritted his teeth.  They were going to make him fight his way out of this.  Oh well.  Their funeral.

“Ready?” Betty asked.

“Launch,” Jack ordered.

“Launching,” Betty announced and their Avenger shuddered as it fell away from Vagabond at the maximum burn their maneuvering thrusters could manage.  He looked up to see the long train of their Privateer-class freighter come into full view and he saw the damage they’d taken with his eyes for the first time.  The engine section was torn apart completely, individual engines hanging off the end of the ship by stray cables or less.  And Vagabond’s main wedge-shaped body was peeled open from just behind the bridge to the rear hatch where she linked to the cargo pods.  Those had been two very well targeted shots.  Somebody knew what they were doing over there.  They just didn’t know enough to realize how deep they’d stepped into it.

Jack smiled and placed his left hand on the throttle and his right hand on the stick.  He slammed the throttle forward, and four fusion torch drives sent them screaming towards the enemy freighter on tongues of blue flame.  Their enemy recognized the danger too late, but Jack gritted his teeth as it launched far more missiles at him than a peaceful freighter had any business carrying around.  But they’d already proven that they were no peaceful freighter.  The displays filled with far too many red lights denoting missiles for his mere eight point defense lasers to deal with.

Then the displays blinked again as the twelve Avengers that had filled two of his cargo pods swooped in from all directions.  They had a unique silhouette throughout human space, with a long and narrow nose running back to a thick and blocky main body.  Stubby wings jutted out from the body with large engines attached to each.  They were large, ugly, and ungainly to the eyes of many, but they moved to interpose themselves between Jack and the freighter with a smooth grace and formed a perfect point defense grid.

The Avengers had been mere prototype when they were first created nearly a century ago.  They’d been larger than any previous fighter because they were the first to mount an integral hyperdrive.  Hyperdrives themselves weren’t very large, but the United States of America had still been learning how to miniaturize everything that made them work.

The elongated nose had been filled with the gravitic penetrators and covered with the tuning sensors that allowed them to breach the hyperspace wall.  But breaching that wall was an energy intensive process, and no reactor that could fit on a fighter was powerful enough to do that.  So the engineers had packed her thick body to the gills with enough energy capacitors to power the hyperspace gear.

It had been a truly ungainly affair at first, but when the alien Shang attacked, Jack, Betty, and their fellow Cowboys had taken the first prototypes into battle.  They’d survived, thrived, and kicked the Shang’s asses out of this corner of the galaxy.  Now, a century later, the Avengers were just as large and ungainly looking, and many people had asked him why the Cowboys hadn’t upgraded to a newer fighter.  The answer was simple.  Everybody knew the Cowboys flew Avengers.  They were practically the symbol of the Cowboys now, and when anybody saw an Avenger they thought of the Cowboys.  That made them a powerful psychological tool.  But there was also a simpler reason.  You could pack a lot of newer and better offensive and defensive systems in the space once taken up by the obsolete equipment they’d been designed for.  Modern lasers, gravitic cannons, missile launchers, and powerful deflection grids made the modern Cowboy Avengers the most dangerous fighters in the galaxy.

And the idiots on that freighter had picked a fight with a Cowboy.  This was going to be a bad day for them.

Jasmine flickered into existence next to Betty and smiled as she reported the status of the fighters she commanded.  “All fighters are fully operational and ready to engage the enemy, Jack.  Shall we?”

“We shall,” Jack answered as over one hundred point defense lasers opened fire on the incoming missiles.  The freighter’s attack evaporated far short of Jack’s thirteen Avengers.  “But let’s try to take her intact.  They were nice enough not to shoot up our cargo pods.  Let’s return the favor.”

“Yes, Jack,” Betty and Jasmine said in perfect unison, and the Avenger shuddered as her missile arrays deployed from their main fuselage.  Covers rolled back to reveal the many small tubes, the arrays spun back and forth to test their range of motion, and then they finally locked onto the freighter and his displays began to flash red with multiple target locks.

Jack smiled and passed his hand over a control that started his favorite music.  One had to have the right soundtrack playing when you made the bad guys pay, after all.  The very best singing duo in all the worlds, in Jack’s completely biased opinion, began to sing about bad boys and Jack chuckled.

“Fire,” Jack ordered to the tune of T&J’s screaming guitars and all thirteen Avengers spat scores of tiny missiles towards the freighter.  The missiles spread out in their standard fire plan to split the freighter’s defenses, but the freighter’s AI had been ready and it had better defenses than most smugglers.

The first wave of over two hundred missiles were primarily dazzlers, screamers, and chaffers that filled space with electronic and physical counter measures designed to blind or counter those defenses.  They dove towards the freighter and its point defense lasers engaged them, but a full squadron of Avengers could take out warships.  The freighter shot down dozens of the missiles, which was better than most ships could have managed, but it wasn’t enough.  Space erupted in electronic and physical jamming, and the freighter’s sensors screamed in agony.

The second wave slashed in behind the counter measure wave as the freighter spewed chaff, dazzlers, and screamers of its own.  The defensive jamming blinded many of her attackers, and the savaged point defense managed to shoot down more, but over a hundred missiles managed to make it through all the defenses.  They died just short of the freighter’s deflection grid by their own hand, using their gravitic warheads to generate hundreds of gees of gravitic sheer.  They tore at the freighter’s defense grid, and sucked many of the defensive jammers into their multiple event horizons.  Then Jack smiled as he saw them assault the deflection grid itself, tearing at its control of gravity with their own power until it fluttered around the freighter like a ragged cloak.

It continued to throw more active defenses into space as the third wave of missiles charged in, but those missiles had gotten their first good look at the freighter.  They saved their targeting data, and homed in on sensors, point defenses, gravitic arrays, maneuvering thrusters, and main engines without mercy.  Some were lured off their targets, some ran into chaff and simply came apart, and others fell victim to the point defense lasers.  But nearly two thirds of them entered terminal attack range, and their explosions marched across the freighter’s outer hull.  Smoke and debris obscured the ship for several seconds, and Jack leaned back in his command chair as it dispersed to reveal the helpless freighter before him.

“Betty?” Jack asked with a glance towards the cyber’s holoform.

“Enemy combat and mobility systems neutralized,” she reported, and then nodded slowly as she continued her scan.  “My boarding shards have successfully hacked their computers and taken over all internal systems.  The crew was on the bridge when it was breached.  Hull integrity is mostly intact.  There is minimal atmospheric leakage.  Repair systems are moving to deal with critical damage.”

“Good job, girls,” Jack praised and turned his attention to a display showing the two further ships.  “And them?”

Betty frowned.  “They’re accelerating towards us.”

“Any communications signals?”

“Nothing I can detect.”

“Well, that’s fantastic,” Jack muttered and released his controls as he considered the situation.  Two ships, obviously moving together, hiding behind deflection grids, and not talking to him.  And using tight-beam communications between themselves, since he didn’t believe for a minute they weren’t talking to each other after witnessing what he’d just done to the ship they were here to meet.  That suggested they had ill intent towards the random individual who had just crashed their clandestine rendezvous.

“Jack, I’m picking up continued atmospheric leakage off the cargo pods,” Betty said with a frown.

“What?” Jack asked with an answering frown of confusion.

“The pods are pressurized,” Betty continued.  “One standard atmosphere based on the dispersion.”

Jack’s frown intensified.  “What are they hauling?”

“I don’t know.”  Betty pursed her lips.  “Shipboard systems have no connection with the cargo pods.”

“None?” Jack asked in disbelief.

“Nothing at all,” Betty confirmed.  “There is no physical computer link of any kind between them.  And nothing in the computer logs telling me what is in the pods.  If the crew knew what they were hauling, they didn’t record any of it.”

Jack furrowed his brow in deep thought.  It wasn’t unheard of for shipments to be security locked so even the transporting ship didn’t know what was on them, but security this deep wasn’t common either.  It might just come from some paranoid rich people or corporation that didn’t want anybody learning the secrets they were transporting.  But it didn’t feel like it.  Jack looked back to the two ships approaching them and his mental hackles rose.  He didn’t like how this felt.

“Give me a full scan of those pods,” Jack ordered.  “We need to know what we’ve just walked into, here.”

“Give me a second,” Betty said, and Jack relaxed back as she went to work.  Avengers were too small to be equipped with conventional probe launchers, but their missiles were designed to carry multiple types of warheads.  And if there was one thing Avengers had it was ample ammunition storage bays compared to any other fighter built.  Betty finally nodded and smiled at him.  “Ready to launch probes.”

“Launch,” Jack ordered, and a moment later their fighter quivered as she launched several missiles towards the freighter.  The missiles made the trip quickly and slowed to a stop just outside the cargo pods where their newly armed probes began doing their jobs.

Jack let out a long breath and returned his study to the two approaching ships.  He frowned.  “Are they seriously not talking to us?”

“Not a peep,” Betty answered.

“No IFF, right?”

“They’re running under full emissions control, Jack.  No IFF.”

“That’s just downright unneighborly.  It’s rude to fly around not telling people who you are.”

“Our IFF isn’t exactly accurate, Jack.” Betty reminded him.

“Yeah, but that’s just part of the game.  We all know we’re lying, so it’s not really lying.  But this…they’re bloody silent!  And that’s just rude.”  Jack turned his attention to Jasmine.  “Take up a guard position please.  I don’t like these jokers.”

“On it,” Jasmine acknowledged and her twelve Avengers moved to interpose themselves between his fighter and the two ships.  They continued to maneuver randomly in all directions, making them virtually impossible to hit at the current range.  One could never be too careful, after all.  “You think they’re armed?”

“They just watched us destroy their buddy in five seconds flat,” Jack muttered.  “If I weren’t armed to the hilt, I’d run from us right now.”

“Yeah,” Jasmine said with a dark look towards Betty.  “We were sorta thinking the same thing ourselves.”

“So what do you think?” Jack asked.  “Armed merchants like this, or dedicated warships?”

Jasmine gave him a very long look.  “We just unveiled ourselves as a full squadron of Avengers.  No armed merchant is going to want to tangle with us.  Even two.”

Jack nodded.  “So warships it is.  Modern or retired?”

Jasmine looked towards Betty, and Betty shrugged after a few seconds.  “It’s hard to tell from this distance, but the readings I’m getting off the deflection grid suggest…retired.  I’m thinking something War Era, though I could be wrong.”

Jack nodded again and narrowed his eyes at the display their bubbles of twisted gravity filled.  “What about their size?”

“Small,” Betty said with a firm nod.  “Smaller than us.  I’m expecting something the size of a destroyer.  Or maybe a very light Pre-War cruiser.”

“So they carry fighters?” Jack asked.

Betty and Jasmine exchanged another cryptic look before Betty nodded back at him.  “Probably.  I’m guessing they’ve got two squadrons of fighters over there.  Maybe more depending on what kind of refits they’d had.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t close the range with us without that,” Jack said and pursed his lips in thought.  “Sounds like Hellcats to me.”

“That’s awful speculative, Jack” Jasmine said with a worried look.

“I know,” Jack returned.  “But if the ships are War Era, the fighters probably are too.  Especially if these are as small as you think.  Not many modern fighters can fit on those old little guys.”

“True,” Betty chimed in.  “But we really don’t know.”

“I know,” Jack repeated.  “But assuming those are two old warships…let’s say Austins.  Then let’s assume they’ve got all their War Era weapons and their Hellcats.  Maybe add some modern updates.  What do you think our chances are?”

Jasmine scowled.  “They’d be a lot better if Vagabond could maneuver.”

“Two dozen Hellcats with modern updates would be a real problem for us,” Betty added and shook her head.

“And that’s not even counting the warships themselves,” Jasmine said.  “The smart tactical move would be to run while we can.”

Jack nodded.  It would be the smart move.  Avengers were hypercapable and his cargo wasn’t important enough to die for.  But he still had one question, and he aimed a hard look at the freighter that had fired on them.  “Not without knowing what’s in those cargo pods.”

“Yeah…I know,” Betty said and let out a long sigh.

“Betty?” Jack asked as he saw her deflate.

“They’re hauling people, Jack,” she reported.

“Frak,” Jack swore and lowered his head.  “Let me guess.  This isn’t an official prison transport?”

“Not considering the people I’m seeing.”

“Who you got in there?”

Betty shrugged.  “Major media personalities from all over the sector.  I’m seeing movie stars, musicians, politicians, and more.  They’re from too many systems to have all been arrested.”

“So…not official.”

“No.  But, Jack…these are really famous people.  You’ve met some of them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Jack frowned and rubbed his jaw for several seconds as he looked back to the two approaching ships.  “If they were missing, we would have heard it on the news, right?”

“There’s no way this many missing celebrities wouldn’t be major news.”

“So this ship and these people shouldn’t be here,” Jack said and sighed.

“No, Jack.  They shouldn’t.”  Betty aimed a sad look at him.  “I’m sorry, but we don’t know enough to make sense of this.”

“And you know how much I hate a mystery,” Jack muttered.

“So we aren’t going to make the smart tactical move, are we?” Jasmine asked in a resigned tone.

“Nope.”

“Got it,” Jasmine said and made a show of a pre-combat stretch.  “So how are we going to handle this?  Shoot first, or talk first?”

“Talk first,” Jack returned and shook his head.  “Let’s see if we can make them want out of this.”

“I don’t think they’re in a talking mood,” Betty noted.

“Me neither, but we can always try.  And who knows?  Maybe it will make them back off if they know who they’re dealing with.”

Betty and Jasmine aimed doubtful looks at each other.

“Launch a communications relay and transmit on all frequencies, all directions, full power.  Make sure Gateway gets this.”

Betty nodded.

“And on a second tightbeam, send Gateway every byte of information we have on everything that went down here.”

Betty nodded again and a single missile launched.  It flew away for several seconds and then slowed to a stop.  A moment later, the communications relay in place of the normal warhead came to life and a display blinked to tell him it was ready to transmit.

Jack pulled in a deep breath, and relaxed back in his seat again.  “This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Cowboy, to unidentified starships.  I do not need your assistance.  This ship fired on me as I was peacefully making my way to Gateway.  I claim it as my rightful salvage.  I will take everyone on board to Gateway and turn them over to the appropriate authorities.  You can go on about your business.  Have a nice day.”

“Transmitted,” Betty said as Jack let his breath out once more.

“And we let that cat out of the bag,” Jasmine added.  “You know, it’s not always a smart idea to tell them who they’re dealing with.”

“I know, but it’s just neighborly to give them a chance to live,” Jack said with a frown.  Then he gave Betty a questioning look, and she shook her head.  No response.  Fantastic.  “Continue transmitting on a loop, and update the data package as we learn more.”

Betty nodded in acknowledgement.

“Now let’s see about stopping these guys.”

“We’ll probably be outnumbered and outgunned,” Jasmine said.

“So we’ll need to do this fast.”  Jack turned to Betty with a smile.  “Are Vagabond’s guns still online?”

“Yes,” Betty answered.  “But they killed the reactors.  We’re only going to get one shot.”

Jack sighed.  “Okay then.  Vagabond takes out one of those ships.  We take out the other one.”

“And the fighters?” Jasmine asked with a doubtful look.

“Maybe losing both warships will convince them to play nice,” Jack said with a shrug.

“And if they don’t?”

“Then we deal with them, too.”

Betty and Jasmine exchanged another dubious gaze.

“If you have any better ideas, I’m all ears.”

Betty and Jasmine shook their heads reluctantly.

“Then I guess that’s that,” Jack said, relaxed back into his seat, and tapped the music control.  T&J began asking where all the cowboys had gone as the two ships closed the range.  He let time slip away as their melancholy tones filled his world.

Then a laser beam lanced out from one of the ships and speared through their communications relay.  The relay exploded, their message cut off in mid word, and Jack sighed once more as Hellcat-class starfighters began launching from the ships.

“Well,” Jack said and shook his head.

“I don’t think they want to talk,” Betty said.

“Launch another relay, set it to tight beam to Gateway only, and continue dumping all information we get to it,” Jack ordered and Betty nodded as she rearmed another missile body.  Then it launched, came to a stop, and powered up to transmit towards the inner system.  It would take the better part of a day for the signal to arrive, but he would give them all the information he could about what was going on out here.  Jack nodded and turned to Jasmine.  “Prepare to engage with all lasers and missile tubes.”

Jasmine nodded and Jack turned to Betty again.

The enemy Hellcats spread out into squadron formations and closed the range while maneuvering to keep long-range shots from hitting them.  It was a good, basic avoidance routine Hellcats had been performing for a century and a half.  There were better fighters in service now, but the Hellcats had been real good back during The War.  The Avengers had been better, but these guys outnumbered them two to one.  Just how hard this battle was going to be was going to depend on what tech package they had.  His Avengers carried the very best systems the Cowboys and their Peloran allies had ever developed.  These Hellcats could be anything from Pre-War models to last year’s push package that gave them better electronic warfare systems and had finally tracked down the targeting glitch in the starboard laser cannon.  Jack really hoped it wasn’t that one.  He’d put that glitch to good use over the years.

The issue was, he wouldn’t be able to tell what he was facing until they got a better read on the fighters.  So Jack watched and waited for the Hellcats to give up some clue of their nature as they approached, and nodded to Betty to bring them into the constantly rotating formation of Jasmine’s Avengers.

“I’m picking up active targeting radar,” Jasmine announced as the Hellcats flew inside one lightsecond of them.  “Looks like a Technicron Actitrax Mark XII or XIII.”

“Wasn’t the Mark X they last one they used?” Jack asked.

“In the official upgrades,” Jasmine said with an annoyed look.

“Which makes these homegrown upgrades,” Betty noted.  “They could have anything.”

“Fantastic,” Jack muttered.  “I love not knowing what to expect.”

And that was when the Hellcats began firing missiles from their wingtip launchers.  Displays flashed crimson all around Jack as hundreds of the small, guided projectiles began flying towards Jack’s squadron on plumes of blue fusion flame.

“Then you’re going to love what happens next,” Jasmine returned with a smirk.

“Mmmm?” Jack asked with a raised eyebrow.

“We’re getting radar emissions from Raytheon targeting packages,” Betty announced.

Jack blinked in confusion.  “I thought Raytheon and Technicron didn’t play well together.  Something about…missing data packets or something?”

“That’s right,” Jasmine said with a nasty smile.  “These guys aren’t fighting with a full deck.”

“And we’ve got a plan,” Betty added.

Jack chuckled at the wicked amusement in their eyes.  He might have asked for an explanation in most cases, but now probably wasn’t the right time for that.  Missiles moved faster than words after all.  So he just relaxed and said, “Then make it so.”

The two cybers nodded to each other as they flushed the missile pods on either side of their main fuselages.  Hundreds of small, friendly missiles accelerated towards the incoming enemy barrage, and Jack watched to see what the ladies had planned.  A third of the missiles broke formation and fanned out as they approached the incoming missiles.  Then they exploded in a flash of chaff, visual and electromagnetic dazzlers, and even a handful of old school mini-nukes that generated thermal blooms powerful enough to hide a sun behind.  For a few seconds at least.

The enemy missiles were simply gone when the blasts faded away, while the other two thirds of his missile swarm continued to close on the twenty-four Hellcats.  He watched them react to the eradication of their first missiles by spreading out and firing another salvo of missiles.  These were aimed at his own missiles though, and he smiled at how quickly his girls had put them on the defensive.  Half of his surviving missiles moved forward to meet the defensive fire, and repeated their tactics with more chaff, dazzlers, and nuclear fire.

The last third of his missiles dove into that cauldron of fire and he glanced at his displays to see them enter terminal attack range.  The Hellcats launched a third wave of missiles to stop them, but the onboard seekers couldn’t distinguish Jack’s surviving missiles from the manmade hell before them.  And the electronic systems on the Hellcats that could still see, couldn’t talk to the missiles fast enough to guide them in.  They spoke different computer languages, and it took too long to translate even at computer speeds.  Jack’s missiles flew right by them without any harassment and bore down on the Hellcats.  Last ditch point defense lasers went to full fire rate, and the Hellcats rent half of the missiles into tiny little slivers of what had been some of the deadliest weapons known to man.

But nearly one hundred of his tiny anti-fighter missiles made it through the point defense, and the Hellcats shuddered under the attack.  Deflection grids flickered as gravitic warheads generated miniature black holes to tear at their control over gravity.  Other missiles exploded in front of their targets like shotgun shells and peppered them with thousands of tiny pellets.  Another mini-nuke went off between two fighters, and though it couldn’t penetrate their deflection grids, it did blind them to the quartet of missiles that came in next.  They attacked one of the fighters, two gravitic warheads tearing at the last remnants of its deflection grid.  The last two missiles passed through the shredded defenses and standard explosions bracketed the Hellcat.  It came apart without any further warning than that.

Jack blinked and scanned across the other displays.  They showed one more Hellcat had died, and two more had lost their deflection grids.  Well, that could be bad.  For them.  Jack caught Betty and Jasmine’s attention and smiled.  “Shoot ’em.”

They returned his smile and the Avenger shuddered as all eight laser barrels twitched onto target.  Thirteen Avengers fired over one hundred lasers at maximum pulse mode, and surrounded space around their two targets.  The Hellcats tried to avoid the incoming fire.  They’d already begun evasive maneuvers before Jack even recognized their problem, but lasers were quite literally lightspeed weapons.  The Hellcats had no warning at all that they were coming until they arrived, and then it was a lifetime too late.  What they didn’t cut clean through, they superheated to unbearable levels, and when that heat reached the fuel tanks for their maneuvering thrusters, the Hellcats converted themselves into billowing explosions.

“And that’s four of them,” Jack said with an approving nod.  “Good job, girls.  Now let’s do that again.”

Betty and Jasmine gave each other high fives and prepared to do it again when the enemy’s next attack arrived.  Like his lasers, the attack arrived without any warning at all.  Two massive focused beams of twisting gravity shot through his formation, tearing at the space all around them with thousands of gravities of gravitic sheer.  One of Jasmine’s Avengers fell into a beam and ceased to exist as it was compacted into a fraction of its original size.  Four beams of laser light built to burn capital ships down arrived at the same time, cutting through his formation like knives.  And though his deflection grids managed to turn their power away from his fighters, the lasers burned far too much of his electronic counter measures into ash.  Then his displays showed him twenty massive capital missiles exploding from the two warships.

“And they’ve got Austins,” Jack said unhappily.  The Austin-class destroyers had been part of the Fleet 2300 Project, the first series of American warships to incorporate every new alien technology they’d managed to dig out of the Peloran at the time.  They’d been good little warships when The War came upon everybody, and it probably would have ended rather differently without them.  They were a century old now, and few major militaries still used them, but system defense fleets and corporate security forces loved them because they were cheap and easy to keep upgraded with new tech packages.  This wasn’t the first time Jack had faced them down, but he really hated doing that.  More than a few of them had been friends back in the day, and he felt a little disloyal cutting them up just because the people who owned them now wanted him dead.

“As we suspected,” Betty returned with a sigh.

“Kill the one on the right, now,” Jack ordered and Betty nodded with a regretful look.

“I’ve got this,” she said and their mangled Privateer-class freighter came to life one last time.  The single powerful gravitic cannon in her nose powered up and struck back at the targeted destroyer without warning.  Deflection grids collapsed as its gravitic sheer tore them apart, and a barrage of laser fire followed.  The Privateers had been built to kill capital ships at need, just like the Austins, and they’d done their jobs just as well during The War.  It was sad to see them killing each other now, but it would be sadder to die out here.  So Jack watched his ship pour enough gravities to wound a dreadnought into a mere destroyer without any mercy at all.  The destroyer never had a chance.  It came apart on his displays and Jack shifted his attention to the other destroyer.

It never hesitated either.  The Austin’s four main engines spun it around on columns of blue fusion flame, and the gravitic cannon spoke in anger again.  Twin lasers followed, and their target was helpless.  Vagabond was already wounded and unable to maneuver.  Her deflection grids had no power to even try to deflect the incoming fire, and the concentrated gravities sucked her into their maw in the blink of an eye.

Jack let out a low moan.  He’d killed his ship when he’d ordered that attack.  He’d executed his home without hesitating, all to give him a chance of survival.  And he simply didn’t have time to mourn her loss properly, or she would die for nothing.  But even knowing that, it still took Jack a moment to recover.

Then he slammed the throttle all the way forward and cleared his throat.  “Jasmine, I need six of your fighters to keep those Hellcats off our backs while we hit that Austin.”

Jasmine blinked and shook her head.  “I can’t kill twenty Hellcats with six Avengers, Jack.  I’m good, but not that good.”

Jack gave her a sad smile.  “I know that.  But six Avengers can buy us the time we need to kill that Austin.”

Jasmine hesitated for a moment as their twelve remaining Avengers charged the swarm of Hellcats, spitting missiles and lasers for all they were worth.  They dodged the incoming capital missiles by splitting around them while lasers blinded their seeker heads.  Anti-fighter missiles destroyed each other in orgies of mutual destruction, and lasers crisscrossed space between the two fighter forces as T&J dueled each other with screaming guitars.  And Jasmine nodded in agreement as six of her Avengers shot forward to meet the enemy first.  One of them died to a salvo of missiles, but they killed two Hellcats first.  Then the five remaining Avengers scattered in every direction, pulling two or three Hellcats after each of them.

Only four Hellcats held formation ahead of Jack’s half squadron, and he pushed his throttle down while pulling the stick back to send his force powersliding below them.  Missiles peppered the Hellcats with gravitic turbulence and nuclear flares as the Avengers rolled back to keep their noses pointed at the Hellcats as they passed beneath them.  The Hellcats spun to follow and two of Jasmine’s Avengers split off to charge down their throats.  Jack pulled the throttle back up and continued the vertical spin until he was facing the Austin again.  Then he slammed the throttle forward and he and the last three Avengers accelerated towards the Austin at maximum power.

The destroyer’s crew realized their danger too late.  They’d been suckered into turning their flank to him when they killed Vagabond.  The Austin’s were powerful ships, but like most American warships they were built to face their enemy head on.  Massive armored hammerheads protected their prows from enemy fire, but their flanks were far too lightly armored to survive in the kind of broadside engagements the British considered civilized.  The Americans had long known the truth about war though.  There was nothing civilized about it.  So Jack’s last four Avengers dove in for a perfect shot on their prey’s weak flank.

“All weapons,” Jack ordered and met Betty’s gaze.  “Fire.”

The Avengers had been designed to kill capital ships in squadron strength before anybody knew The War was coming.  Jack only had four left to perform his attack run, but destroyers were awful small capital ships.  And the original Avengers only had two main cannons, while his Avengers carried three of the most powerful gravitic cannons ever fitted onto a fighter.  He’d focused far more fire on an enemy capital ship in his time, but four fighters was what he had right now, so four fighters was what he used.

The gravitic cannons on either side of his cockpit powered up first, shooting their beams of focused gravity towards the Austin.  The cannon in his nose opened up next, following the first two in.  Then the other three Avengers opened up with nine more beams of focused gravity and linked all four fighters with the destroyer for one moment in time.  Each beam only generated hundreds of gravities of gravitic sheer, unlike the single massive cannon the Austin carried.  But he had twelve of them, and they struck the lightly armored destroyer’s flank without warning.  They cut through her deflection grid and tore into her armor, ripping hull plating and atmosphere into space.  Then nearly three-dozen lasers began firing at maximum pulse mode and boiled the destroyer’s flank.  By the time the missiles arrived, the destroyer had already been mangled beyond recognition.  Gravitic, nuclear, and standard chemical warheads tore at the tiny, wounded warship, and it disappeared behind a wall of fire.

Jack spun away from the dying ship and slammed the throttle forward again.  He was almost in time.  An Austin-class destroyer was built around the most powerful weapon she could carry.  The gravitic cannon was heavily armored down her entire forward spine, designed to take unbelievable punishment while maintaining control over the gravity it twisted into a weapon.  But it had taken too much punishment, too quickly, and from too many angles, for it to maintain containment this time.  The destroyer tore apart as it lost its hold on thousands of twisted gravities, and the very fabric of space shuddered.  Whips of gravity lashed out in every direction, and the Avenger holding Jack’s port wing disappeared in the blink of an eye.

Jack pulled the throttle to the right in reflex and the Avenger powerslid away from the raging gravity well that had once been a warship.  His eyes scanned the displays and he was just in time to see the last of the Avengers sent to hold the Hellcats off go down in a hail of missiles and lasers.  But she took another one down with a salvo of gravitic cannons that tore the Hellcat apart even as the Avenger died.  That left six surviving Hellcats to face his three Avengers.

Jack licked his lips and looked towards Betty with a question in his eyes.

She shook her head.  “They aren’t answering our hails, and they aren’t standing down.”

“Then I suppose we’re going to have to do this the old fashioned way,” Jack grumbled.

“Actually, I’ve got an idea,” Betty said with a mysterious smile.  “Get to the freighter and I think I can cover you.”

“Works for me,” Jack said with a shrug, swung the Avenger around with his stick, and began accelerating them towards the freighter.

The Hellcats spun to intercept them, and gravitic cannons and missiles filled the space between them with death.  Two Hellcats came apart, but they managed to hit the Avenger covering his starboard wing with a salvo of missiles that sent it spinning away, trailing debris and sparking like a mad scientist’s research lab.

Jack glanced at the approaching freighter and knew he wasn’t closing the range fast enough.  They would never make it there together.  He glanced at Jasmine and she nodded.  Her last Avenger peeled off and charged the four Hellcats with all weapons firing as fast as they could cycle.  Faster, actually, if he was reading things right.  She was burning her systems out in the hopes of doing as much damage as she could before the inevitable happened.  One Hellcat exploded as the others scattered around the mad charge, and then she pounced on a second one with a well-placed salvo of lasers that slipped in through a ragged deflection grid.  But the other two Hellcats finally managed to bracket her with missile and laser salvoes that tore the Avenger apart.

The last two Hellcats turned to pursue him and more missiles streamed towards his fighter.  Point defense lasers picked them off one by one, but his deflection grid fluctuated as leakers broke through everything.  The warheads tore at the grid and the Avenger shuddered around him as damage alarms flashed crimson.  And then he was under the freighter and out of their line of sight.  He pulled back on the stick and powerslid up the other side of the freighter at maximum acceleration as the Hellcats followed him on plumes of blue fusion flame.  He glanced at the damage displays once and shook his head.  That was bad.  Real bad.  He would never escape them now.  Well.  If this was a day to die, he wouldn’t die running.

Jack slammed his stick to the side and the Avenger screamed.  He could feel her tearing herself apart around him as she spun to face her tormentors, flushing missiles as fast as they could reload.  Then the freighter’s surviving point defense network came to life and the Hellcats swooped back into line of sight with Jack’s Avenger in time to run into a blistering crossfire of lasers and missiles.  The unprepared Hellcats writhed in the twin assaults that swamped their point defense lasers.  Their deflection grids shuddered, rippled, and then collapsed as missiles tore at them.  Missiles and lasers poured through the failing defenses and the Hellcats disappeared in twin fireballs that left nothing but pieces behind.

Jack blinked and looked at Betty in surprise.

Betty just smiled and acted like saving her pilot’s life was all in a day’s work.  Which, if he was being fair, it probably was.

“Well,” Jack said and laid a hand on the display that brought an end to T&J’s latest hit song.  Silence filled the cockpit and he smiled at Betty and Jasmine.  “That was exciting.”

“I could do with a little less excitement in the future,” Betty returned and looked around at all the complaining displays in sorrow.

Jasmine sat down and let out a long breath.

“So, what’s our status?” Jack asked as he began studying the displays in earnest.

“I’ve got eight fighters completely destroyed and four in various stages of smashed,” Jasmine reported.  “All disabled.  I don’t think repair is possible with what we’ve got left.”

“You did good,” Jack said with a sad nod, and then turned a questioning look at Betty.

“We’re out, too,” Betty answered.  “Half our systems are shot, including the hyperdrive.  And I wouldn’t trust the inertial compensators past one hundred gees.  There’s an odd harmonic in the system right now.  Honestly, most of the systems that aren’t dead are acting odd.  We got a nasty power surge when the hyperdrive went.”

“So, we’re not going anywhere.”  Jack aimed a speculative look at the only surviving starship in the area.  “What about that hunk of junk?”

Betty gave him a very long look.

“We shot to disable it,” Jasmine said for her.  “So it wouldn’t run.”

“Right,” Jack muttered and nodded.  “So no hyperdrive there, either.”

“We’re stuck here until Gateway gets our signal and sends somebody out to investigate,” Jasmine said.

“But not here,” Betty added with a wince.  “Life support is one of the systems that’s acting up right now.  I want you off before it gets worse.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Jack responded to the order in her tone.

“Now sit back, relax, and I’ll take us in,” Betty added and began pulling their Avenger around.

Jack tried to relax.  He really did.  But the creaks and groans of the battered Avenger turning were enough to make anyone who’d spent time in space nervous.  It was a long, slow deceleration down to relative zero, and another long and slow acceleration back towards the wounded freighter.  And it finished with another deceleration that would have tested the patience of a saint.  There were few people who would accuse Jack of being a saint with a straight face, and he would have flatly disputed their words if he heard them.

So he and Jasmine were playing one of the more entertaining variations of poker when they limped to a halt outside the freighter two hours later.  Jack looked up from his cards to examine the pockmarked surface of the ship that had started this whole mess by being where it shouldn’t have been.  And shooting him.  He couldn’t forget that little bit.

“Can we get inside that hangar bay?” Jack asked as he palmed the cards and slipped them into their box.  It went into his pocket as Betty answered.

“Not usually.”  Betty looked to the right.  “But they shot enough of me off that I think I can fit now.”

Jack followed her gaze to see where the wing just ended several meters short of where it should have been.  “Give it a shot.”

“On it,” Betty acknowledged, and slid them into the bay with gentle precision.

Jack let out a long breath and truly relaxed for the first time in hours.  They were safe.

“My driving’s not that bad is it?” Betty asked with mock hurt.

“Not at all,” Jack answered with a bright smile.  “Just happy to get out and stretch my legs.”

He motioned for Betty to open the canopy and she nodded as it cracked open.  It lifted up and he climbed out to look down at the deck below.  Then he stepped off like usual and waited for Betty’s gravitics to catch him.  They didn’t, and he had a moment to panic in realization that they were acting up too as he fell the five or so meters to the deck.  He bent his knees and hips, waited for the deck to hit him, and then threw himself forward as he dropped one shoulder.  He managed to roll over onto his back and used the momentum to come back onto his feet in something like good order.  And then he stopped, heart beating rapidly enough to put a piccolo solo to shame.

“What?  No superhero pose on landing?” someone asked and Jack really hoped he’d made that look like he planned it.

“No, those hurt way too much to do if I’m not getting paid,” Jack answered and turned to investigate the source with the smoothest composure he could manage under the circumstances.  Then he blinked as the face registered.  “Nelson?  Dean Nelson?”

The writer smiled and spread his arms out wide.  “In the flesh.  Though you can just call me Dean.  Otherwise you make me sound like one of those Bond boys.”

“Right,” Jack said and shook his head.  “So how did they get you?”

“No idea.” Dean looked around the interior of the hangar bay with a musing look.  “I woke up one day and here I was.  Then today, you and your Betty show up and kick their asses.  Thanks for that, by the way.”

“My pleasure.”  Jack examined him for a long moment.  “So…you the one in charge here?”

“I am now.  Your Betty opened up all the cargo ponds and let us out.  We’ve been organizing ever since, and I guess people listen to me,” Dean finished with a bemused shrug.

Jack snorted at the man whose columns circulated in every major newspaper in the Terran Sector.  “Well, you do have a reputation.”

“Says the Jack of Harts,” Dean said with a raised eyebrow.

Jack shrugged.  “Nothing lies like a reputation.”

“Too true,” Dean said with a nod and a smile.  “Too true.  Now, would you follow me, please?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Jack said and followed the writer out of the hangar and into the main ship.  He saw more people he recognized in the corridors and they each took a moment to thank him.  He aimed a long look at Dean after a particularly nice young soap opera star kissed him on both cheeks.  “The…passenger list on this ship is…impressive.”

Dean frowned at the bulkheads.  “Yes, it is.”

“How do you think they managed it?” Jack asked, wondering how much thought the writer had put it into this mystery.

“I have not yet ascertained that,” Dean answered in what seemed like an annoyed tone.

Jack gave him a long look.  “I would have expected to hear about someone like you missing.”

“Yes.”  Dean paused for a moment as he stopped at a cross corridor, and then turned down the one to the right.  “I expect you would have.”

“That goes for everybody here, you know,” Jack said and caught the other man’s gaze.  Dean frowned again as a pair of major network news reporters stopped to give Jack a handshake and a kiss on the cheek.

“Yes.  It is quite the mystery, is it not?” Dean said as they walked away, and then turned down another corridor.

“So, are we going someplace, or is this just a random tour so I can see all the people?” Jack asked as he followed the other man.

“Oh, there’s nothing random about our course,” Dean returned with a knowing smile.  “But seeing people along the way was part of the plan.”

“Why?”

Dean looked around and laughed.  “Because nothing about this whole messed up ship feels right.  I don’t feel right.  I don’t know why, but there’s something wrong here.  Something wrong with me.  Something wrong with everyone.  I needed you to see the same thing I’ve been seeing.  Because somebody needs to figure this out.  And I’m hoping the Jack of Harts can do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “I told you, I’m not my reputation.”

“None of us are.”  Dean stopped and pointed at the hatch before them.  “But for them, I’m hoping you will be.”

Jack peered at the hatch for several doubtful moments before looking back towards Dean.  “Who are they?”

Dean shifted his shoulders back and seemed to stand up straighter.  “The two people who wanted to meet you at the hangar bay.”

Jack frowned at the other man.  “Then why didn’t they?”

Dean gave him a long look before answering.  “Because I talked them out of it.”

“Why would you do that?” Jack asked and then frowned as the man’s words echoed in his mind.  “Oh.  You want me to do something about this.”

“Yes.  I do.”

“Haven’t I done enough already?” Jack asked.  “Thanks to me, you’re all free.”

“But don’t you want to know why we’re all here in the first place?” the writer asked.

“Not really,” Jack lied and turned to walk away.

“If you walk away now, you’ll always wonder if you could have helped them,” Dean pronounced in the tone of a man hurling laws down from the mountaintop.

Jack froze and aimed a baleful look at the man.  “Don’t leave me in suspense.  Just tell me who they are and I’ll decide what I’m going to wonder about.”

“People you’re willing to die for.”

Jack frowned at the other man.  “There aren’t many people in the galaxy I’d die for, you know.”

“Yes.”  Dean smiled and shrugged.  “I know.”

“So what makes you think I’d die for them?”

Dean Nelson, the writer of a thousand columns, more than a few of them about the Cowboys, gave Jack a sad smile.  “Because you have died for them.”

Jack shivered and sucked in a long breath.  One of the problems with the cloning process was that you never remembered your death.  Or maybe it was a gift.  Jack didn’t know.  All he knew was that sometimes he’d really like to know why he chose to give his life for something.  Because every time he came back, he wondered if he could live up to the man he’d been last time.  It was hard to know the answer to that when you didn’t even remember what happened.

“And I’m hoping that you’re going to want to help them enough that you’re going to want to get back to work and find out what’s wrong with all of this.”

“You sure do know how to prime a mystery,” Jack said very softly as his eyes focused on the hatch.

“It goes with the territory of what I do,” Dean responded and walked away.

Jack looked at the hatch for several seconds before finally saying one word.  “Betty?”

“Yes?” she answered in his ear.

“Who are they?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Won’t.”

Jack let out a long breath as he considered that.  Then he shook his head.  “You want me to go through that hatch?”

“Yes.”

“Will you come with me?”

“No.”

“I see.”  There weren’t many people in the galaxy he would die for.  There were fewer people that Betty would step out of the room for.  That left very few possibilities, but two of them floated front and center in his mind’s eye.  “I just saw them a few days ago.  They can’t be missing.”

“Just open the hatch, Jack.”

Jack fidgeted as he considered the hatch and the people beyond it.  She knew who they were.  Dean Nelson knew who they were.  He turned his head to scan the other people standing far away down the corridor.  They kept looking towards him and then away, like they wanted to approach but something kept stopping them.  They knew who was here too.  And they were giving him space.  Everybody knew except him.

No.  That wasn’t true.  He knew too.  He just didn’t know how it could be possible.  It was…wrong.  Just like Dean had said.  Jack looked down the corridor again to see all those famous people standing in it, and he knew the other man was right.  This ship shouldn’t be here, with all these people.  But it was.

“I love you,” Jack whispered into the silence that surrounded him.  It wasn’t much, but it was all he could think to say at the moment.

“I know,” Betty answered with a smile in her voice.  “Now get in there.”

Jack stepped forward and the hatch opened to allow him into the room.

“Jack!” two girls shouted and threw themselves at him as the hatch closed behind him.

He caught Julianne Taylor Hansen and Alexandra Jennifer Thompson in his arms and the blonde and brunette sirens stormed back into his life like a good Canadian blizzard.  They’d gone by the names Julie and Alex back before they went and got famous.  When the sandy beach was their concert hall, and the moonlit lake their background.  Most people knew them as Taylor and Jennifer now, music stars extraordinaire on the galaxy’s greatest stages.  Or maybe just T&J.  They sang the songs of lifetimes, and Jack would have been a far different person if he’d never met them.

“We knew you’d come,” they whispered as they held onto him for dear life.

“I always do,” Jack mouthed as he tried to figure out what was going on.  This was impossible.  “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know,” Julie whispered.

“Feels like weeks,” Alex added.

Jack sighed.  They were wrong.  They had to be.

“Tell me about Bosphorus,” he said, hoping they would give him the right answer.

“Bosphorus?” Julie asked in confusion.

“Good crowds there,” Alex said and pulled back to look Jack in the eyes.  “Why you asking?”

Jack shut his eyes.  They didn’t remember meeting him on Bosphorus.  That wasn’t a good sign.  “Tell me about Gemini.”

“Jack?” Julie began.

“What is this about?” Alex finished.

Jack let out a long breath.  They didn’t know.  God help him, they didn’t know, and he felt his world shift around him.  It had finally happened.  Maybe.  Unless he was wrong about everything that was wrong about this ship.  It was possible, wasn’t it?  “Can we talk about it later?”

They looked at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes.  “Why?”

Jack sighed, and gave them the most honest answer he could think of.  “Because it’s going to be a day before Gateway can respond to what happened out here, and I can think of way more fun things to do than tell you everything I think’s wrong about this ship.”

“Oh?” Julie said and exchanged a long look with Alex.  Then they nodded.

“What do you have in mind?” Alex asked with a sly smile.

Jack shrugged.  “Me.  You.  A shower built for two.”

Julie sigh, and if she whispered something that sounded suspiciously like “Men,” Jack could pretend he hadn’t heard.

Alex just shook her head.  “Good luck.  They don’t build showers that big on this hunk of junk.”

Jack winced and gave them a regretful smile.  “Drat.  Foiled again.”

“Don’t worry,” Julie began.

“I’m sure we can think of something,” Alex finished and they leaned up close to hold on tighter again.  He would have given them forever to stop that.

“Thank you,” Julie whispered.

“For finding us,” Alex finished.

“Always,” Jack whispered and held the two girls that couldn’t possibly be here, right now, tight enough to tell himself that they really were.  Somehow.  Unless they weren’t.

They stood still for a long time before they found something else to do.

“Jack.”

Jack’s eyes opened at the whispered word in his ear and he looked around to bring the room back into focus.  It was the same one they’d shared all day, and one bulkhead held a massive smart panel that showed him the Pleiades Cluster in all its glory.  It paled next to the two girls sleeping on either side of him.

“It’s time,” Betty continued in his ear.  “Gateway has received our message.  They will send someone to investigate soon.  You need to tell them.  Now.”

Jack nodded and placed his hands on the smalls of their backs.  And then he began to massage them.  Julie and Alex woke up slowly, groaning and stretching in time to his slow movements.

“Jack?” Julie whispered when she finally reached wakefulness.

“Don’t stop,” Alex finished for her.

“We need to talk,” Jack said.

Two sets of eyes opened wide and looked straight at him.

“That’s usually,” Julie began.

“Our line,” Alex finished.

Jack would have been happy to stop, but they deserved to know what was wrong.  “It’s important.”

They stared at him for several seconds.

“This is what’s been bothering you,” Julie whispered.

“Are you finally ready?” Alex asked.

“Not really,” Jack answered and snorted in surrender.  “But you deserve to know.”

“Keep up the backrubs,” Julie ordered.

“We’ll listen,” Alex finished and they laid their heads on his chest again.

Jack smiled and dug in a little harder, hearing them squeal just a little bit.  And then it was time to tell them.

“I briefed you on Project Gemini decades ago.  I gave you the codes to verify you were the one and only Alphas.”

“Alphas?” they asked in unison.

Jack let out a long breath and started from the beginning.  “You know the Peloran were designed, right?  They were created as supersoldiers and cloned into an army.”

Julie and Alex nodded without looking up at him.

“Good.  Well, now they use that technology to achieve effective immortality.  When they are killed, they grow new bodies and implant their last backed up memory scans.  They wake up without any memory of dying, but they were the person they had been before.  When they granted us access to that tech, we designated ourselves the Alphas.  The person who was born like any other human, rather than cloned.  Most of us have died since then, so we’ve had to expand the definition a bit.  

“I’m the Alpha for the Jack line, for instance, even though I’ve died…God…way too many times.  The point is, I have codes that cannot be copied in any memory scan that prove I am the Alpha.  Every other Jack has a unique set of codes.  Our proofs that we are who we say we are if we should ever have a question,” Jack finished with a shrug.

“We don’t know our codes, do we?” Julie whispered.

“You don’t even remember hooking up on Bosphorus a few days ago!” Jack returned with a laugh that was far too close to a sob for his comfort.

“What a minute,” Julie said and looked up at him in confusion.

“Do you meaning hooking up?” Alex interjected and brought her index fingers together with a speculative look.  “Or hooking up?”

Jack laughed for real this time and hugged them tight.  God bless Alex’s sense of humor.  Whoever had made them had done an amazing job.  “You’re perfect.  Both of you.  Absolutely perfect, down to the last centimeter.  But you’re not like my clones.  They probably used some skin cells or maybe a lock of hair or something else you left behind.  And whoever made you didn’t have access to your mind scans.  So they went through all of the public data about you, and made a mind that would do the things they know you did…but…they don’t know everything.  They had to create a new childhood for you, a new life that is close enough to the real one that most people wouldn’t know it’s all wrong.”

“But you did,” Julie said with a shake of her head and exchanged a long look with Alex.

“You’ve been trying to think yourself out of it all day,” Alex whispered.

“Yes.  You’re good.  You’re amazing.  You’re fantastic.  You’re worth spending a lifetime with.” Jack let out a long breath and held them tight against the news he had to give them.  “But you aren’t the girls I grew up with.”

“We’re clones,” Julie whispered.

“And we didn’t even know it,” Alex added, and then shook her head.

“Yes.”

Then he felt them stiffen as they came to the same realization he’d made hours ago.

“We’re living toys,” Julie snarled.

“For rich men to buy,” Alex pronounced very slowly, spitting each word out as a condemnation against all mankind.

Jack blanched.  “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We don’t know anything right now.”

Julie gave him a very dark look.  “Can you think of any other reason?”

“For all this?” Alex finished with a wave towards the rest of the slave ship.

“No,” Jack admitted.  “But we can’t jump to conclusions.  We need to investigate this and find out who’s responsible.”

“They were going to make us slaves,” Julie said very slowly.

“Did they make more of us?” Alex asked at the same time.

Jack shook his head in defeat.  “I just found you.  I don’t know anything, yet.”

“But you’re going to find out,” they both said, and their eyes bore into his.

“Yes,” Jack answered without taking time to think about it.  And looking at them, it didn’t matter that they weren’t the girls he’d grown up with.  He would do anything for them.

They leaned against him and it felt so real.  They really were perfect on so many levels.

“Thank you,” Julie whispered.

“For finding us,” Alex finished.

“They’re here,” Betty whispered in his ear and the smart panel on the bulkhead flashed for a moment.  Then it shifted to the view of a kilometer-long gleaming white cylinder that was a Peloran battleship as it dissipated the rainbow energies of hyper.  The weapons ring had already deployed for combat around the main cylinder, and four massive gravitic cannons commanded nearby space to behave.  Or else.  Golden runes flowed down her flanks from one end to the other, and his practiced eyes flowed over the Peloran letters that spelled out the name.

Guardian Light.

“What are you doing here?” Jack asked of the ship.  That man had a positive gift for showing up when things were getting crazy.  Jack really hated that.  Was a nice, quiet life really too much to ask?

Who’s here?” Julie asked.

Jack considered the slave ship for a long moment.  The people aboard her.  It seemed that a quiet life really was too much to ask right now.  So he said one word.  “Aneerin.”

“What’s he doing here?” Alex repeated his question.

Jack could only think of one reason.  If Aneerin was here, this was bigger than he thought.  And he already thought it was bad.  So Jack did what he always did when the going got tough.  He gave the girls in his arms his very best smile and dredged up the old friend that had spread his reputation all over the galaxy.

“Well, I’m Captain Jack of Hart Squadron, Cowboy extraordinaire,” Jack answered with an outrageous waggle of his eyebrows.  “When I call for the cavalry, you can rest assured that only the very best cavalry answers the call.”

Julie groaned.

Alex threw a pillow at him.

“He’s asking permission to come aboard,” Betty said in his ear.

Jack licked his lips as he considered for a moment.  Then he smiled.  “You wanna go with me to greet Aneerin?”

Julie’s smile glowed at him and she sprang to her feet in a whirlwind of limbs and blankets.  “I’d love to!”

Alex echoed her imitation of a windmill and gave him a pointed look.  “Me too.  I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

And then Julie took a look at their rumpled clothing and promptly dragged Alex off to the bathroom where she shut the door behind them.  Letting him out of their sight.

Jack shook his head and came to his feet, stretching his long legs all the way to the tips of his toes.  Then he stepped over to where his white cowboy boots lay on the floor.  He slipped his fingers through the loops and pulled them on, one by one.  Then he plucked at his rumpled white pants to make sure they looked good, and stuffed his white shirt back down into them.  He found his white tie on the end table and slipped it back on, making sure it hung right.  Then he retrieved his white jacket from the chair one of the girls had thrown it over.  He slipped into it with one smooth motion and tugged it straight with all the gravitas of Captain Jack as Julie and Alex stepped back into the room, looking absolutely perfect.

He turned admiring eyes on them and drank them in properly for the first time all day.  It was amazing just how much Betty and Jasmine looked like these two girls, right down to the yellow sundress and blue jeans.  He’d thought that an amazing coincidence when he was younger.  He’d died more times than he wanted to admit in the decades since, and he was a lot less gullible now, so the returning realization that they’d patterned themselves after these two girls humbled him once more.

“Jack?” Julie asked as she saw the look in his eyes.

“What are you thinking? Alex finished for her.

Jack aimed an appreciative smile at them.  “Just thinking how I must be the luckiest guy in all the worlds, to have such amazing companions in mine.”

Julie picked his white cowboy hat off the floor where one of them had tossed it and smiled as she came over to place it atop his head.  “You, sir, are a flatterer,” she pronounced slowly and leaned in close.

“You, sir, can keep talking like that all day long,” Alex added and straightened his tie before joining her cousin in his arms.

Jack let out a long breath and wished they could stay like that forever.  But he couldn’t.  None of them could.  “Betty, I need you to set up a message relay through the Guardian Light.”

“Done,” Betty said in his ear.

“And I need a detailed information packet of everything we know to go with it.”

“Done.”

“Thank you,” Jack said and held the two girls that had meant everything to the teenage boy he used to be.  And were one of the few people in the worlds that Captain Jack would die for, even if they weren’t technically the girls Jack had grown up with.  They looked up at him and he smiled.  Then he sucked in a long breath and said what he’d been dreading all day long.  The words that made everything he’d found on this ship too real to ignore.  The words that demanded he become the man he hadn’t been in a very long time and get back to work.

“This is Captain Jack of Hart Squadron to all Cowboys.  This is a Priority One message.  Case Gemini.  I repeat.  Case Gemini.  It’s in the wild.  Someone’s using it.  We need to find it.  We need to stop it.

“Let’s rock and roll, people.”

    The End.

About the Author

Hello, my name is Medron Pryde. I have been writing stories for most of my life. I have focused mostly on short stories, though have always enjoyed making grand stories out of them. I still have the notebooks I filled with art and story as a kid. They are genuine treasures of my early creativity.

I grew up watching Battlestar Galactica (with Lorne Greene) , Buck Rogers, Star Trek, Star Wars, and every other science fiction show or movie I could track down. I read Lord of the Rings (and the Silmarillion), The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the compiled works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and in general every other science fiction story I could track down. Of course, the first books I found that I wanted to read were the Star Trek series of novels. I would jealously horde my allowance, and the dimes (or quarters on a lucky week) that I got for doing work around the house or other places, for my monthly trip into the book store to buy another Star Trek book….or two…or three. And then of course, I found the Star Wars comics by Marvel, and their Transformers comic. Those two comics entranced me, and I currently own a complete collection of the Marvel Transformers comics.

Finally, I was introduced into BattleTech, a game of guys in big robots trying to kill other guys in big robots in a future where mankind fell, but was currently rebuilding and rediscovering what it lost.

And that is my bias. I do not write dystopian futures, where there is no hope. I write stories where there is hope, things worth fighting for, and people worth risking everything with. Those are the stories I like to absorb, and so those are the stories I like to write. These stories I have written my entire adult life, and most of my childhood.

My current project is the Jack of Harts series, in a universe where They made Contact with us. And then Their enemies attacked us. We stood back up. We fought back. We defended our right to exist in the universe.

Return to Bethlehem

By Sophie G. Michaels 

[_The asteroid-mining company LaGrange Systems has established colonies in some of the largest asteroids, which are hollowed out and spun to produce artificial gravity. One of the first of these is Artelune, where a small group of Mennonite and Amish farmers were allowed to settle in a small town they named Bethlehem. _]

[_As a young man, Jacob had left Bethlehem in search of adventure as a space pilot. The Crash of 2066 and his bravery in the Mims Airlift made him a hero, but only his family can help him come to terms with the nightmares he saw during the collapse of civilization back on Earth. _]

Noise from the cheering crowd beat against his senses, as unreal as the confetti of iridescent bubbles streaming off the roofs of the tall white stone buildings along Galileo’s main streets. The parade through Artelune’s capital city finally turned the corner from Salviati Boulevard onto Simplicius Way and made its way to the Hotel Heliocentrist. The absurd names Galileo Galilei had chosen for the characters in his most influential work had long since ceased to seem strange to Jacob, who had been to Galileo several times since he left his family home in Bethlehem and entered the modern worlds. He found he appreciated its tree-lined streets and proud colonial nod to old-world architecture.

But that was before the Crash back on Earth, or the airlift flights he and the other pilots had made. The news services were calling them daring, the politicians were discussing medals, and their fellow colonists all wanted tickets to the reception that would soon be held at the Heliocentrist in honor of the pilots who made the daring flights of the Mims Airlift and Míc Kéavarel, the base commander who had managed to hold out for so long. Though Jacob was expected to be there as one of the honorees, all he wanted to do was get away from the noise, get away from the people. He’d had enough.

All he could see, every time he closed his eyes and sometimes when they were wide open, were the crowds outside Mims Base, desperate to get in. And those same crowds, once inside Mims Base, even more desperate – especially at the end – to get out on one of the ships to the LaGrange colonies.

The original walls, once hardly more than decorative, had been upgraded to provide real security for Mims Base. When the trouble started, workmen had quickly surrounded the base with layers of fences, both to protect LaGrange personnel living there and to funnel would-be emigrants to the locations outside the walls where they could be processed for evacuation. 

They’d started off just evacuating families whose older members could show that they would be productive members of colonial society, similarly-promising individuals and couples, and the handful of children who had arrived alone. Then, as the situation on Earth became more dangerous and the refugees who found their way to Mims seemed to become exponentially more numerous, more and more of the process of determining emigrant suitability was moved to the refugee camps in Prototype. The house of cards that the global economy had developed into had started to collapse, and nothing seemed capable of stopping or even slowing its fall. Banks all across Earth had gone under, and soon whole governments were following suit. 

LaGrange Systems and the Colonial Coalition had quickly withdrawn all their personnel offworld, all except the relatively small numbers of staff members involved in processing and evacuating emigrants. By the end, Jacob and the other pilots and intake personnel had all been volunteers, even though by then they knew that militias were coming who wouldn’t be friendly. 

Jacob inhaled deeply, counted to ten and then to fifty, and exhaled slowly. 

As he passed through the grand double doors into the hotel’s best reception room, Jacob pasted on his best debonair heroic smile. 

A passing waiter offered a champagne flute. Jacob took it, wishing he could down it in one shot. With luck, he’d be able to make his escape before it was gone. He’d never been particularly fond of crowds or politicians, but it was even worse to be a focus of their attention. It made the grand ballroom feel positively claustrophobic.

Nearly two hours later, Jacob was finally able to slip away from yet another crowd of well-wishers while LaGrange founder Dennis Blakely-Roberts spoke in honor of “the heroes of the Mims airlift.” Carefully avoiding anyone who might try to stop him, he maneuvered his way through the crowd and escaped out a side door, taking the back stairs up to his room on the fifth floor. 

He changed out of his fancy duds into street clothes as quickly as he could and left the dirty clothes on the bed he’d barely been able to sleep in last night. The hotel staff would clean the outfit and send it back to his apartment in Cooper, though it would be a while before he got back there. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to return at all. 

He had someplace else to go.

Jacob grabbed his rucksack and left his room, heading for the same back staircase he’d come up minutes ago. Before leaving the privacy of his room, he pulled a University of Artelune cap low on his head. Thanks to the continuous news coverage of the refugee airlift, his face and those of everyone else involved in it were rapidly becoming some of the most recognizable faces in the colonies. But he didn’t feel like being recognized right now.

The crowds had finally dissipated after the parade, most heading for various celebrations in locations all across the capital or in other cities in Artelune. He passed few other travelers on his way to the nearest down-below station and didn’t even see more than a handful on the westbound five-below. 

Something about the quiet or the barely-discernable motion of the passenger car allowed him to get the first peaceful sleep he’d had since before those last chaotic days at Mims.

He awoke as the train pulled out of the last Curie station. A boy about ten was leaning over the seat in front of him, watching him with a mischievous curiosity. 

Days ago, kids that age had stared at him with a very different look in their eyes, aware of their parents’ desperation even if they didn’t understand the reason for it. Even kids much younger than the boy watching him can tell something’s wrong when their families abandon everything that won’t fit in the car and go live in the rustic barracks set up outside the base for would-be evacuees. Kids that age knew enough to be scared.

“Are you Jacob Musser-Kauffmann, the pilot from the Airlift?” the boy asked as soon as he opened his eyes. He pronounced “Jacob” like an Englische, the way Jacob himself had pronounced his name ever since he left Bethlehem, the town at the north end of the cylinder where his Amish grandparents had settled when they moved to Artelune colony.

“Oh no, kid,” Jacob was careful not to let his soft German accent slip through. “Marc Yung. Have we reached Copernicus yet?” He didn’t want anyone tracking him to Bethlehem until he was ready to deal with the nightmares he’d lived through over the past few days.

“Copernicus?” The kid’s eyes went round. “You must’ve been tired, mister. You slept right through Copernicus. We just left Curie.”

“No.” Jacob didn’t have to feign disappointment. “So much for getting to my meeting on time.”

“Must be an awfully important meeting,” the boy commented. “Everyone else’s talking about the Mims Airlift.”

“It is,” Jacob flicked a small grin at the kid.

“You should ask someone to wake you, next time you need to nap on the train. Or even just put a sign on your hat, you know ‘Wake me for Copernicus’.”

“I’ll remember that next time,” Jacob grinned back at the boy. He might never be on a train ever again.

###

The train back to Curie was almost empty, so he took a chance and stayed on for the short ride past town to the elevated. It was usually busier than the four-below that he’d been planning to take for the ride north, but the walk from there would do him some good. So would the open air.

He pulled his cap lower over his eyes and stared out the window at the passing countryside. Algae ponds and orchards alternated with fields in varied stages of ripeness. Heavy agricultural use of the lands surrounding all of Artelune’s towns insured sufficient food and oxygen for the colony, but to Jacob the sight was nothing more than a comforting reminder of home.

By the time the elevated reached the Bethlehem-Braun stop, it was almost empty. Janszoon and Mercator, the only towns north of Bethlehem, had only recently been completed and were still only lightly inhabited. Most of the passengers still aboard got off when he did, though they all headed for the five-below to Braun. 

He watched them go before turning west and following his feet toward Bethlehem. Before he’d gone very far, the highway turned to the gravel that was kinder to horses’ hooves than smoothly-processed rock. On either side of him, fields of grain waved nearly at eye-level, slowly turning gold under Artelune’s artificial sunlights.

While the other towns in Artelune were relatively compact and urban, Bethlehem had only a small core of public buildings and a home for the most infirm. Most Bethlehemers lived in large multigenerational homes on their farms. It meant Jacob met almost nobody before he reached the road for the Musser-Kauffmann farm, and those few passed with a wave and little more than a glance, as if he were a regular part of the community. 

If there was one place in Artelune where the news broadcasts about the airlift hadn’t reached yet, it was Bethlehem.

Whitening bamboo rail fences separated many of the fields from the road. After passing several of these fields, Jacob saw his brother Ezekiel in the one to his left, plowing a field that had most recently been used for green beans. Jacob dropped his rucksack on the side of the road and slipped through the railing, giving a quick wave as he waited for his brother and the horse at the edge of the field.

LaGrange Systems had offered to upgrade the horse-drawn ploughs the Bethlehemers traditionally used. Even with the improvements the Bethlehemers had accepted, the job was still a dirty, sweaty one. The biggest improvement to the whole process was that the terraformed hollow worlds like Artelune and now New Canaan only had rocks where they were wanted, not spread throughout the fields making the job even harder. 

Ezekiel handed off the reins at the edge of the field and took the opportunity for a water break while Jacob took over ploughing the field. Taking turns at the plow, they finished shortly before evening, hardly speaking ten words the entire time. Together they wrestled the plow into its cart and hitched Old Toby to it, then walked in companionable silence back to the house.

Nobody at home asked about the airlift or what it was like to be a “hero.” Nobody asked him anything at all, as if he’d been there all along and there was nothing to catch up on. His sisters and sisters-in-law helped Mamé fill the long table to capacity with all the food they had cooked to feed the family. It groaned under the weight of all the dishes of roast pork, buttered egg noodles, slow-cooked beets, thick dill pickles, long loaves of fresh yeasty bread with homemade butter, and several other hearty dishes, all simple food meant to satisfy hungry farmers. 

Upon seeing the familiar family table loaded with the home-cooking he’d grown up on, Jacob suddenly realized he was starving. He slid into his old childhood seat and helped himself to some of everything as soon as prayers were over. He finished with several helpings of Judith’s shuflí pie, which had always been his favorite. 

It felt so normal to watch his sister stifle a smile as she saw him eat half a pie, just like what always happened back when they were growing up. Watching the molasses filling ooze slowly over the edge of his slice while around him Papé and the rest of the family talked about everyday farm matters, Jacob could almost believe he’d never left. The few times he had to say something, he was unsurprised to hear the same soft German accents he’d so carefully eliminated from his speech patterns when he’d decided to become a normal Englische. 

Jacob slept in his old room and rose at five the next morning to help with the chores, though he’d forgotten how backbreakingly intense the work was. He was still sore from plowing with Ezekiel yesterday evening, though a long shower before bed and some old-fashioned liniment had helped.

The mild climate that the colonists had chosen for the hollow worlds made it possible to grow crops year-round, and hardworking Bethlehemers like the Musser-Kauffmanns took full advantage of it. They always had crops to plant, harvest, or otherwise tend. It was God’s work, they believed, and the least they could do to help feed themselves and their fellow LaGrange colonists. Jacob quickly worked up a good old-fashioned sweat, putting himself so deep into the work that he couldn’t think of anything else but cutting the hay.

A little after noon, Jacob’s married sisters and sisters-in-law drove the small wagon out to the fields where the men were working, bringing their men the hearty lunch they would need to make it through the rest of the day’s work. Within minutes, they had a portable table set up in the shade of some larger trees on the side of the field the men had already cleared. They spread a simple but extensive buffet as the men washed their faces and hands under a nearby spigot.

Once cleaned up, they gathered to pray and fill their plates. As the other men sat in the shade with their wives, Jacob found himself sitting alone with his father in the back of the wagon. He worked his way through most of his lunch before Papé spoke.

“We heard about the airlift, son.”

Jacob stared at his father, feeling the blood suddenly rush from his face.

“That’s why you’re back now, no?”

“Yes, Papé. I –”

“You saw horrors, and now you can’t stop thinking about them. You don’t think you did the right thing.”

“They… I… how…”

Papé locked eyes with Jacob. “I know you never held to our religion,” he said slowly and firmly, “but we believe there’s a reason for everything.”

Jacob twisted painfully away. “A reason for that? There could never be a reason for that!”

“Not that. We’ll never understand what the reason for that was. But there was a reason you were there.”

“Me? Why?”

“How many people would you say you saved down there?”

“Not enough. It went south so quickly…. One minute we were processing evacuees, the next we got word that some rogue militias were headed toward Mims. We couldn’t get nearly everyone out.”

“That’s not what I asked, and you know it. How many did you save?”

“I don’t know. A few hundred, I guess.”

“And all the ones you got out before it went bad. They’d all have been killed if they’d still been there when the militias arrived.”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Do you think you were there for a reason?”

“Sure. I volunteered.”

“And everyone else with you also volunteered. You were willing to lay down your lives to get those people to safety.”

“That’s not –”

“I’m not saying this to make you prideful. You were willing to sacrifice yourself for complete strangers. You were there because you wanted to make a difference.”

“So did everyone else there.”

“Because you are all people who go where you’re needed.”

“We knew we had the support to carry out our mission, as much support as LaGrange could muster in the time we had. But we still didn’t do enough.”

“That’s not what I heard. What more do you think you could have done?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t even have a full two dozen ships down there when we got word that the militias were heading our way. Some were unloading emigrants at Prototype or had rendezvoused with ships that couldn’t handle an Earth landing but could get the emigrants the rest of the way, and others were en route one direction or the other. But with the distances involved, there were only a few ships that could get there in time to help get the refugees out.”

“Doesn’t sound like you could’ve done anything to change that.”

“But… we tried to keep everything calm and organized, instead of fast. If we’d started sooner…” Jacob realized he was crying.

“And did you know it was going to get bad like that? Did anyone?”

“No… I guess not. Not in time.”

“You thought things were as bad down there as they could get, just like everyone else. Because you and the rest of the base staff stayed organized, you kept people from panicking, probably kept them alive. And you were fast and professional when the situation got worse.”

“I guess so.”

“I know so, son. I read the reports. We’re not as distant from your modern life as you may think. Your Commander told us what you’d be dealing with.”

Jacob’s world spun. He’d just been through hell and Papé knew all about it?

“You think we’d stop worrying about you just because you left us? What kind of family is that, I ask you? We pray for you and look out for you till you come home – then we really pray for you! Constance still waits for you; did you know that? Lives up to her name, does that one!”

Constance would never speak to him again if she knew how many people he’d left behind in Mims. Neither would anyone else.

“But how? Commander Hollis-Wùd’s been stuck in Galileo since we got back.”

“And we don’t keep a screen around for information and communication? Just because we don’t walk around with films glued to our temples, you think we don’t know how to get in touch with people when it’s important?”

“I – I never knew that, Papé.”

“Well, now you do. No telling your brothers and sisters, though. Have to keep some surprises till they’re older.”

Try as he might, Jacob couldn’t imagine Papé walking around with a communicator film attached to his temple. He could hardly imagine a small screen stashed in one of the cupboards.

“One thing I don’t need is your protection, son. So tell me what happened.”

The events of the past few days beat against his brain, demanding release. 

Papé couldn’t know what he asked, but the words came anyway. He couldn’t stop them, just like he hadn’t been able to stop the militias that attacked Mims. Stuck in the pilot capsule, he hadn’t been able to fight them at all, just delay his takeoff as long as possible.

“There were so many, Papé! So many people came to Mims when the Crash happened, trying to get here. We took all the ones we could, as quickly as we could, but then –”

“We don’t even know who the militias reported to, just that they weren’t locals or even from one area. They’d been separate till they reached Jacksonville, and then they rushed us so quickly! Papé, they blew through the emigrant camps and the fences like they were nothing. Did Commander Hollis-Wùd tell you that?” Papé said nothing, just sat on the wagon bed and stared off across the fields. A male cardinal landed on a sapling near the fence line. 

“We tracked their approach, from when they started moving our direction from D.C., Atlanta, and all those other places. Longer, though before then we hoped they might ignore us for a while. We kept calling for ships to help get everyone out or someone who had the firepower to stop them, but so few ships were close enough! 

“And then when they joined up, we knew we only had a couple hours. We couldn’t do anything anymore but rip out anything that wasn’t necessary so we could fit a few more people in the ships. And then we saw the fireball as they torched Daytona. Commander Hollis-Wùd ordered us to lift, but we were still ripping things out to squeeze more people aboard. 

“We knew we couldn’t get everyone aboard, but only a trickle of people were willing to give up and get out while they could find safety somewhere else. We were still loading people when they blasted the gates and crossed the perimeter. 

“The Commander ordered us up again, but nobody was willing to leave all those people to die. I know we kept loading well past the weight limit. The ships closer to the north perimeter had to take off first, which slowed our attackers down and gave people a few more seconds to reach ships like mine that were further south. And then –” 

“I could still see people running toward my ship, but I couldn’t wait any longer. The enemy was right behind them. 

“We were so heavily loaded I didn’t think we’d make it to orbit. Ordinance of some kind were flying at us as we lifted off, and down on the ground –”

Papé knew better than to interrupt his quiet sobs. He waited till they stilled on their own.

“Did you make a difference down there?”

“I… I…” Deep breath. “Yes, Papé. I know I did.”

“Stay here as long as you need, son. And we’ll still be here next time you come home. Maybe even Constance, if that’s God’s plan. For now, let’s see what we can do about getting this hay in.”

For the first time in what felt like years, Jacob smiled. A real one.

[*About the Story *]

Sophie Michaels was born in the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania, which she’s been told is “very similar” to the French countryside of Lorraine where her family is from. She intends to test this theory someday, but until then she makes her home in central Florida, where she moved at eighteen.

Sophie uses her family’s rich storytelling heritage to create evocative stories in the genres of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Her works tend to include strong female characters, and she often jokes that this is because if she weren’t a feminist, she’d still be a Mennonite.

Her works have been published in Synergy, the Compleat Anachronist, and several poetry anthologies.

Ten Minutes in Time

By Bob Brown

Frank Allen opened the file and the screen flashed to life. It showed a nightscape, the deeply shadowed interior of an open-faced building. He knew the building as well as he knew the room he sat in. The wood was rough-hewn, but worn smooth from the years of use.

The view panned to the woman, no the girl. She was young, fourteen years, seven months, and three days. He knew this with certainty for he had watched her birth end every aspect as her life revealed itself.

It hadn’t been particularly bad life, not as lives went 2000 years ago. Her father was a craftsman. He worked metal. In demand because he was skilled in the workings of iron. She, unlike so many women of her day, carried no pockmarks on her skin. She was not slender, but stocky. Her dark hair blended easily into the starlit Palestinian night visible through the open front of what was little more than a lean to.

Short, even by the standards of the day, barely four and a half feet tall, she moved with the grace of youth; beautiful in the way all young women are beautiful.

Frank upped the brightness and contrast once more. Now visible, her furtive glances exposed her fear. She stepped deeper into the darkness of the stable. She wasn’t alone; she hadn’t expected to be.

Frank’s eyes clenched shut against the image. Why?  A question he had so often asked asked her, the cosmos, and himself. He knew the answer every time.. He had stolen her privacy and innocence from the darkened  closets of history. The answer was simple.  She was human and, as of this night,  she was no virgin. A child would come. That child would live a confused life of passion, fired with belief of a better world, and would die. The world would have the legends, the stories, but not the truth. Until now.

He fast-forwarded past the jerky images of two figures closing on each other. Of stolen moments.

What she had done was a two-thousand-year-old secret. Thanks to technology, curiosity, and now regret, Frank had unearthed it. And he could never rebury it. Could never un-know it. This secret would grow into a storm that would touch the world at its core.

Frank had breached multiple layers of protocol simply to build this file. Religious icons were off limits, a simple rule. He had written the rule, and now he had broken it.

“She’s liking it.” The soft taunting voice behind him belonged in a cabaret. Frank flinched. He hadn’t heard Melvin come in. But now he felt the gentle hands on his shoulder. The hands of his oldest friend and sometimes lover. The gentle kneading motion worked at knots he had not felt. Frank didn’t need to turn to see the sneer on his face. Love had not blinded him, just made him not care.

Melvin was Frank’s oldest friend, sometime lover. He was also rich and unconditionally brilliant. It was his vision and Frank’s abilities that had turned the light cones around and made possible the ability to view time.

Frank hit the pause key. The image froze on the screen. The upturned face, a touch of a bare breast, the leather cuirass of the Roman soldier who shared her embrace.

“Enter the Virgin.” Melvin said. “Miriam, better known as Mary. The once Virgin Mary. Just another trollop. Doing a goddamned Roman conscript. She couldn’t even get an officer.”

Melvin leaned forward. Frank could feel the hot breath against his ear, and smell the expensive merlot as Melvin whispered. “You shouldn’t have gone looking.”

Frank sat silent. This was his fault. He looked at the scene, his gut empty. More than a casual Catholic. He believed. Or he had. Did he still? Yes. But what? What did he believe in?

“We agreed when we started this project: religious icons are taboo.” Frank pleaded the words out.

Melvin gestured towards the screen. “This isn’t religion. No, not anymore.”

“But to what end. We don’t have to share.”

“We are truth.” Melvin’s voice trembled with excitement. “This is truth in its purest. This is History.” Melvin stood up, and gave Frank’s shoulders a hearty squeeze. “Besides the project is almost over, it doesn’t matter.

“The Project,” Frank whispered the words. Words that had come to frighten and thrill him both. The power they possessed. To do what they chose, and literally when they chose.

The project was small. Not even a blip on the corporate balance sheet, and since it was Melvin’s corporation, no one dared to look past the cost of a research facility deemed necessary by Melvin Gray.

Time viewing was only the face of the project. The existence of time viewing wasn’t even a secret. Who owned the lab, who was doing the time viewing? Now that was a secret.  The world knew a time lab existed because each month for the past three years, Melvin and Frank had released a new piece of ‘time video.’ The answer to the question ‘who killed JFK’ had been answered. So had the question of who killed Attila the Hun. History’s questions were being answered in anonymity at a rate of once per month. Melvin had bent time’s arrow.

“Your brainchild, Melvin,” Frank said, sadly. “My curiosity. You won. You turned time back on itself. Einstein, Fermi, Newton, none of them did it. You are the best of them all.”

There was more. The project within the project. Melvin had once had a theory. He called it ‘Ten Minutes in Time.’ 

If time changed, the change would move through the planes of existence like the shockwave from an atomic blast.

They had no idea what would exist after the wave. A new time? Or would the old line simply reassert itself?

All that was know for sure was that there existed a time gap between the modification and the wave front. Ten minutes before the ripple effect of the change hit the future.

Ten minutes to contemplate what you just did. To doubt yourself.

Ten minutes to wonder if the decision to fry Hitler’s brain was the right decision, ten minutes to wonder you should have eliminated Genghis Khan instead.

Ten minutes to change your mind, and instead save Abel from the ravages of Cain. Frank had laughed when he first realized it. “Ten minutes of being God!” he had exclaimed. And so, the project came into being.

“You can change it, Frank. You can keep the girl from meeting her Roman lover. You can keep her from getting pregnant.” Another squeeze of his shoulders. “Of course, there would not be the bastard then.”

“What would ever make me believe that I could change God’s plan?”

“Why do you say God’s plan?” Sharp anger revealed itself. “Only God knows if there is a God. And guess what Frank. He ain’t saying.”

No Melvin, he wanted to say. He wanted to beg. Leave her alone. We have our plan. Aren’t we destroying enough? We’re rewriting time itself. Let this be.

The process was simple. The same technology that allowed them to collect data from the past allowed them to deposit energy as well. Not a lot, just enough to scramble a significant number of neurons. Turn a brain into a fused link. Nothing romantic. No exotic trips to rescue the dinosaurs. Just select the coordinates and press a button. A few billion electron volts would flicker through time. Barely enough to visibly discharge. Unless it was inside your brain. Then it was enough.

They had tested it once. An Indian with a broken leg, slowly dying from a fall, it had been a kindness. They had watched him die a dozen deaths, all painful. But now, anyone viewing the scene would notice a stiffening before that long dead man had passed into a peaceful sleep rather than pained death he had encountered.

Melvin’s wealth bought anonymity. Every project employee was a multi-millionaire to be. They viewed history with close to ten million dollars in stock options. Their wealth was based on a collective silence. Anyone talked, the whole thing went away. Bonus included. No one had leaked so much as a hint of their location or their owner.

Had they known the whole truth, they might have. Only Frank and Melvin knew about the Ten Minutes. The potential end of the world wasn’t a topic to be discussed lightly at a staff meeting.

“Think the world is ready for this?” Melvin pointed to the dangerous images frozen on Frank’s screen.

“No, I want to dump the files.”

“Kind of late, I’ve had it edited for the next release.”

Frank sat silent. His head tilted forward. The familiar warmth of Melvin’s touch as hands worked at the knots in his neck poured down this spine.

”We wanted to change the world, save it,” Frank said.

“Save it?” said Melvin with fervor. His soothing massage became fierce, painful. “We will save it. But after the file is released.”

“They won’t believe it.”

“Does it matter,” asked Melvin. “Really. This will be a bump in a road that dead ends.”

Frank reached to his shoulder, gripping Melvin’s hand, stilling the punishing kneading. “For the love of God. Just don’t release this.”

“Don’t? For the love of God? Why? Because the nuns were nice to you at St. Joseph’s? I don’t care how freaking nice they were to you. It was a freaking orphanage and,” his voice broke. He took a breath. “Well they weren’t nice to me. Where were they when the good Father Willingham was playing house in my pants. Where was the love of God in that?”

Frank felt Melvin’s grip on his shoulder tighten again.

“He was just one man. He was punished.” Frank turned to face his partner, his friend, his lover.

“Oh, yeah. Living in a home for pervert priests, taking turns with each other. Screw that. They just covered their ass. And now? I’ll show the world that it’s just another corporation.”

“If you release this file, it will destroy more in an instant than you’ve built in a lifetime.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Melvin. A harsh laugh. “They’ll only know for a few days. A few days to squirm. And then it’ll end. Or at least change. What we change will lead to a world that is so much better than what we have.”

Frank leaned his head back. The usual comfort that came from Melvin’s touch, his closeness, wasn’t there now. His breath came hard. He felt the urge to cry himself into a ball. He wanted to be out.

“You’re really going to?” It wasn’t really a question. The first of every month was an eagerly awaited time around the world. Time capsule releases had become a hot commodity. Especially as they were released to the Red Cross. The profits had paid for more than one relief mission.

Last month they released ground level footage of Nagasaki with a cutaway to the Japanese government where attempts were under way to negotiate surrender before the bomb hit. They even had White House footage of the internal debate about dropping the bomb, about believing the Japanese overtures of peace. Everyone involved was dead now. But the outrage had still taken hold, and burned, and subsided. It was true. There was no longer doubt. When the atomic blast rippled through the houses and homes, the world gasped in pain. And then moved on.

Melvin reached over Frank’s shoulder and, to Frank’s relief, cleared the screen.

“I’ve made up my mind on the Ten Minutes.” Melvin said in a neutral tone, as if the footage of Mary and her lover did not exist.

“What is it?”

“It was a toss-up. I was torn between Stalin and John Wilkes Booth.”

“You take Booth?”

“No, the professors seem to think that without Booth, Lincoln might have outlived his usefulness. He made a better martyr.”

“So, who did you choose?” Asked Frank. It didn’t really matter at this point.

“William the Bastard, or as he became known, William the Conqueror.”

“Why him?”

“He invaded England in 1066. He established a split claim to both the French and English thrones. Pretty much every major war since has connected there. Maybe history can go forward with a little less blood in the dirt.”

Frank listened dispassionately. “When?”

“Three days. The system is ready. All we have to do is key in the coordinates. We’ll be together.” The words hung for a moment until Frank spoke.

“Then why release the Virgin Mary file tomorrow.”

Melvin reached the keyboard and the file began to play. “Come on Frank. We can’t end our existence on Nagasaki video and political skullduggery. This footage is the essence of humanity. Believing in an illusion. Faith,” he spat the word. “I’m going see that illusion die before the end. I’m sure Father Willingham won’t care.”

*  *  *

Frank was alone. The coordinates flashed on the screen and slowly the images came to life. The Priest. He remembered the Priest. Father Willingham.

Father Willingham knelt in front of a young, much younger Melvin. The confusion and fear in Melvin’s eyes contrasted the frenzied motions of the priest.

Frank used the cursor to set the coordinates. They glowed a dull green on the screen, ready. Waiting.

“I’m sorry Melvin.” Frank’s fingers hovered over the simple keystroke. He muttered a brief prayer, then pressed the button.

Frank watched the screen as Melvin’s face went slack, and then as if a puppet without strings, he collapsed backwards. Dead at the age of twelve. Dead. Unable to grow into a brilliant inventor. Unable to befriend Frank, make his life better, warmer, less lonely.

Father Willingham stood erect staring at the collapsed youngster. His hand still clutched himself.

Frank turned the monitor off. He hoped Melvin was still in his office.

They still had ten minutes.

The End.

Living Amongst the Lizards

By Lawrence Dagstine

An unordinary, middle-aged man. The strange one, the different one, goes forth into his caverns. He walks along his streambed and sees his aquatic life in the shallow pools. He sees outside its walls the Tartabacks eating the mild grasses. He looks up and sees the high protective rock walls of his cave marching around him, the hole which provides him with a glimpse of the night sky when sheltered. “My mind now lives too long in the light of the three moons of night,” he mutters in contemplation. “Let it be in the rays of the two suns by day.”

Nothing changes though. 

Time to move forward.

An unordinary, middle-aged man goes forth into the moonlight out on the open plain. In that vast wideness, limitless and alive, breathable and evenly temperate, he inhales the fresh air and finds the perfect spot, then bends his knees and sits cross-legged in the thick growth. He knows that he is part of a great quietude that lives and breathes about him; in the silence he hears wind whispering among the grasses. The ancient magic of an animal species’ beginnings is there, and long before his arrival. 

According to him, winds whispering through grasses are the voices of faraway spirits to a mind that knows such spirits exist. On this planet, the unseen spirit of a life form can bridge long miles—especially for one who is stranded there—and be with a man who has faith in the divine powers of such friendship: a rushing of winds, a leaping of lightning, a glimpse of an outlandish creature or undocumented animal in a flash between darknesses. Such are signs to a man on the brink of losing his sanity, some times, by merging himself into the natural forces that currently surround him. Those are the things that led his ship to this forested world. Those are the things that led him to live amongst this very spot.

1) Arrival:

Dry methane rainfall. The chill drops brought consciousness back to Jared’s tortured flesh. Only a lizard’s flesh, like tough leather, can endure this storm naturally. He stirred and pain swept through him and he was unconscious again. The rain eventually stopped, and two blazing orbs ascended over the horizon. Dawn spread over the plateau and crept into the cavern, filtering phosphorescent light. Slowly awareness crept through him. He lay sprawled on his back on a thick carpet of old needles under a pine-like tree. His black jumpsuit was ripped and clotted blood clung to his body in many places. His left leg was doubled under him. It was broken a little above the ankle. Pain swelled in his chest with each breath. He wondered how long it had been since the crash: two-three days? Five-six at most? 

He stared upwards at the needled branches for a long time. The suns were just about overhead when he moved. An agony streaked through his whole body but life was a kind of movement and he moved, and it hurt. He pushed up a little and looked around. He did not know that he was Jared—not at first—some geographical society’s astronaut who had come to this animal-festered wilderness of a world for the purposes of habitat and domain study and future colonization. He was out of memory, a man starving, a simple elemental creature like everything else there, searching for the means of survival.

His eyes found the pieces of the escape pod where it had fallen. He dragged himself to it on his belly and tried to eat the freeze-dried rations that were tucked away inside, but he could not swallow. He eventually sat up, regained some step and momentum. Staring downwards, he saw a streambed leading into the cavern a short distance away. He rolled onto his belly once more, the bag of rations in his teeth, and crawled wormlike to the very edge of the water. Head down, he gulped at the water, unsure at first. It was the same as Earth water. At least the filtration for it here was. Also, he could swallow liquid. Slowly he lifted his head and the water trickled down his throat, and the dry muscles in his mouth soaked in the moisture. He swallowed a little bit more. His jawbone ached, but the crude meat in the bag, pounded into a fine powder, needed very little chewing. He crammed it into his mouth and convulsive constrictions of his throat forced it down. He reached for more and in reaching a blackness dropped on him. Once again unconsciousness took over.

When he awoke, there was water in his stomach. There was a little food. Finally the chemistry of life in this new place worked in him….

Daylight dwindled into darkness. The moons—there were three of them, satellites of all shapes, sizes, and colors; that much he remembered—rose silently out of the mountain ranges and tree-covered hillsides. Its pale lights slid down the canyon walls in succession and moved slowly across the cavern floor. The soft blue radiance touched the limp figure outstretched by the stream. The figure heard strange insects cricking in some underbrush right outside the cavern’s walls. The figure stirred and its eyes opened. Unconsciousness had passed into sleeping and the sleeping into normal dreaming at last into awakening. A moment later, the gray eyes looked up at the traveling moons. He knew who he was now. He was Jared Pouter, a geographer who had crash-landed some weeks before, and he was lying on the ground of a cave on some strange other world. It hummed with mammalian, reptilian, and amphibious life forms never before documented in human historical annals. Some of these animals were descended from other breeds of normal Earth creatures, upon first glance, at least, but at the same time a few of them had alien like qualities, humanlike features, and even some resemblances to the cretaceous and protozoa eras. Another small memory resurfaced: he had minored in alien zoology at the university back home. Those were the days of old though, a time when a young man wanted to learn something that, he felt, could be taken with him to the stars.

But he was still hurt in many places, and his leg still broken. He crawled forward; to move even the slightest was to summon the pain. But at least he was a man again and he could fight the pain. He drank from the streambed in small swallows, and ate the rations but not much, because the pouch was small and already almost empty. He dragged along the ground to a big stone on the bank and pulled himself up against it on his good leg. He looked around. Everywhere, on all sides, he saw sheer rock wall rising. The three moons swung symmetrically overhead and now their pale lights gleamed dully on nickel near the broken-branched tree. So there are nickel compositions here, he thought interestedly. He dragged himself there and reached and held out his cutting laser. To survive in this place, he needed pieces of nickel and wood to build a sturdy fire, a fire that would light—stay lit in such an environment. He hunted further and further and found one of the fire sticks he would need, a pointed one of hard greasewood. That was appropriate, he felt, as he could not find any others suitable. He crawled to gather small branches, pushing them ahead of him on the ground into a pile; the nickel deposits would act as a rocky base. His muscles ached as he moved, the pain in his leg mounting with torment. He tried fighting it as best he could, while continuing to gather wood. He fought it and fought it and was defeated at one point until he was finally still.

2) Hunger:

When daylight came again Jared knelt by his pile of wood, his weight on his right leg rather than his left. He saw strange fish at the edge of the water, which was a good sign, seeing that his rations were gone. He was still unsure though if the aquatic life there was edible. He revolved his greasewood stick rapidly between the palms of his hands and the point spun in the hole in a flattened piece of softer cottonwood and spacesuit materials he had shaped together with the cutting laser. Tiny wisps of smoke came from the powdered needles encircling the hole. He leaned low to blow gently on the powdery residue, and it gradually smoldered into a glowing red. He nursed the embers into a small fire, churning it, feeding it from his pile of gathered wood. The column of smoke rose straight upwards and far beyond the canyon, a slender plumed signal rising into the sky. All morning, and into the afternoon, he waited but no one came. Perhaps he really was alone on this world. The only human… In some respects, an unordinary, middle-aged man.

“I could live here,” he said, as if he were talking to someone else. “The air and water is consumable, the creatures I’ve seen outside these cavern walls bear meat. It’s peaceful and without much ado about science and society, technology and traffic. Yes, I could live here…” He thought about the things that would help him achieve that new life: the many survival courses he took before becoming an astronaut, his university schooling, where he had picked up all that valuable zoological-geographical experience. Such knowledge was beneficial, he felt; now present to contribute to his upkeep.

In the soft radiance of the waning moons, Jared worked on his swelling leg. He took hold of the distorted flesh. The pain was so intense that he knew he must have everything ready before he did more. He used what he could find left of the escape pod’s first aid kit and found and trimmed six short pieces of branch from what remained of his small pile of wood. He cut away what was left of his gauze on his leg and took part of the worn cotton and sliced it into thin strips. He added some leather from his spacesuit, put small strips of it into his mouth and clamped his teeth into it. He took hold of his left leg with his hands, one hand below the break in the bone and the other above it. It was a clean break but the ends of the bone were pushed past each other. He slowly wrenched apart with both hands and ground his teeth into the leather piece in his mouth. He heard the bone ends grind on each other and his mind screamed wordless sounds at the pain, the bone ends having been finally put together and the leg straight from ankle to knee. Quickly, before the darkness should take him, he bound the six branches along the leg with the strips of leather, pulled, and tightened the knots. The pain was overwhelming and he fell back and was still. The next morning he fed his new fire and hoped. He held a stout stick in his hands and pulled himself up and about. He used one of the longer, weaker branches from the night before to fish. He laid all his fishing utensils side by side and his bizarre catches in a small heap by the streambed. He could do no more because the swelling in his leg was growing and the acute pain was an agony that crowded his mind. His flesh festered beneath the skin as it swelled outward with evil fluids. Fever burned in his blood, and his extremities held an excruciating stiffness. But he knew it was not gangrene. The skin was purple, not black.

He forgot to feed the fire and it went out. He fell on the ground, clutched at the grass and rocks, drifted in and out of awareness. Dark shadows claimed the cavern and mighty winds of evening wandered over the plateau and the unseen spirits—something intangible and alienlike he had sensed for quite some time—of the canyon rocks floated like ghostly mist out of their hiding places. They threw shadows—or at least to his spent mind—took the form of lizards, leaped at him and mocked him with a haunting laughter. “Look at this one,” they said. “All alone on our world and he fights a festering within him and is afraid. Just look at him!” Their laughter jangled in the night air. “Hah! The festering is not in his leg alone,” they said. “There is a fear that festers in his spirit.”

The pain throbbed and his mind raced; he could no longer tell the difference between what was real and what was hallucination. The lizards laughed and far back in his mind a great anger grew. A shout sprang forth and fought outward to his lips. “The laughter of a man gone crazy is in my mouth! I don’t believe in you!” And the lizards faded into shady mist once more and he was sitting up with the cutting laser in hand, the same laser he had pierced open an infection with and which was not alien to his flesh. He quickly raised his arm and pointed the tip of the laser at his swollen left leg. An intense pain raced through him as he turned on the beam and widened the cut. The evil fluids gushed from the open wound. He dragged himself to the streambed and thrust his leg into the water. Fresh and cold and clear of methane, the current at that end washed over the leg and moved onward, the corruption of the flesh dissipating with it. 

Three days Jared remained there. He was very weak and drank of the running water. He ate of the small heap of fish by his side, slept much, washed his leg often and saw the healing process begin. He studied the whole expanse of the canyon around him. He saw the rock walls rising everywhere. He knew it was time to go outside.

3) Life:

It was early on the first of these days that he saw a giant reptile, a lizardlike creature which he decided to call a “Tartaback”, because of its strange tartan hump. The creatures looked very much like giant geckos, but with humanlike eyes and the skin of iguanas. He wondered if such an animal was edible, like the fish. There were other breeds, of course, during his time outside the cavern that had shaggy-humped shapes among the wilderness at the wide lower end of the plain. His memory significantly improved, he drew a map of the region that surrounded him and noted its geographical breadth. Also, he noted a great many species—seventy-five percent of them reptilian—that inhabited its plains. He even counted them. There was an old Tartaback and a young Tartaback, five Salamandites and four Snake Crabs, eleven in all. His heart leaped. As soon as he was stronger, he would follow their trails and they would show him the way out of the plain. But by the next day a worry fretted in him. They were always there, staring back at him, and always the same number.

On the morning of his tenth day he unbound his left leg and reset the sticks and made a crutch. There was improvement in the swelling. Straight to the near rock wall he went, began a circuit of the cavern’s interior and, from outside, the exterior. The Tartabacks in the fields watched him and grazed again, kept a distance from him. They seemed wary of the man, for he was a new strange thing on their world.

Jared came on the fissure where the stream disappeared. It was not like his small bed of water, his end, where the full extent of methane particles could taint it. He understood how the filtration worked. Some strange moisture from the cavern itself had filtrated and detoxified it, thus making it consumable for humans. However, if he had drunk the water out in the plains, he would most likely be poisoned. As he sat atop the fissure, he saw the other end was small and the stream almost filled it. A man could force his body only two or three feet in, no more. And there could be no open wounds or ingesting it. He came to a pool and waterfall at the upped end of the plain, green waters falling straight down from a high lip of rocks. It made a mist in the air and regardless of the green tinting, a rainbow floated in this. It was very beautiful; once more, he took out his pen and paper and began mapping the area. 

He finished the full circuit. All day it had taken him. He would have pushed himself further, but the rocks behind it were smooth and sheer as the other rocky crests. Nowhere was there a trail leading up to a high plateau. Nowhere was there a place where a middle-aged man, even a young man with two strong legs, could climb up to the tall rocky edges. There was no way out.

Jared sat on the flattened top of a boulder by the pool and waterfall. His left leg now itched and peeled, and that was good. It meant that the leg was improving some more. It also meant, in time, that he would no longer need the timber brace or crutch. He wore his black fatigues, ripped and worn, and the stringy belt around his waist on which his papers and cutting laser hung. The distant suns were warm on his body. He had food to survive: an assortment of strange berries where plenty of tapering thistles whose stalks, when the thorny skin was peeled, was soft and sweet; he had fish from his streambed, taken as boys back home took them, by thrusting long branches into the bottom mud in a semicircle but down at the edge so close that they could not pass between them and then shoveling them out with quick hand flips before they could escape. He had all this and once a rodent that he snared and still a proper strength would not return to his muscles. He eventually knew it would not return, for he did not have the real food of a man. He did not have the meats he required, essential for maximum protein. And there, captive outside the canyon which housed him, meat walked and grazed and stared curiously at him.

He watched the Tartabacks moving about and saw the strong limbs that could outrun any man no matter how long his legs. He saw that, aroused to anger, could squash a man, the sharp horns and teeth and talons that could thrust into a man like a lance. He gathered all of his leather, what remained of his leggings and his tattered spacesuit. He sliced it all into thin strips, knotted and braided it together, as he knew these would make a good rope for lassoing. A rough and bumpy rope, but nevertheless a strong one. Then he looked up at the escape pod, hanging stilted on the top ledge of the cavern. A strange moss had now grown over it. He climbed up there to see if he had more supplies available. He found an old tape recorder given to him by his sister. She had given it to him as a gift, for when he landed on that “new world”, and so he could keep a geographical voice record. Inside the toolbox were wire cutters and a chisel, and other than the cutting laser, he knew that these were the only things that would be useful to him. Lastly, he found a book covered in soil and dust. He smiled. It was his favorite classic: The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

“It would be nice to get in some reading,” he said to himself. “There’s no one else to talk to, not much else to do.” He put the book down on the ledge.

Maybe later.

4) Hunting:

In the morning he went downstream, carrying the new rope coiled about his waist, as well as a lance he made from a thick branch, the chisel tied to the end of it. Farther down the canyon trail he stopped, watched the Tartabacks for many days and eventually picked up their habits. Every morning they grazed in the open. Afternoons they collected by the stream to drink and wade into the water, where other, more amphibious animals, fed with them. By studying this habit, along with the orbital symmetry of the suns, Jared was also able to work out the planet’s daily cycle. It had forty-nine hours in a day and the seasons never changed. The Tartabacks had paths where many bushes ringed a pool, and they had paths through the bushes to other pools leading out to the grasses again. Where the other paths emerged the bushes were thick and arched over so that it was like a tunnel opening, and there were a good many trees, tall and thin, close by. 

That was where Jared stood. He made a small loop in one end of his rope and passed the other end through it. He had a running slip noose. Carefully he hung the noose in the tunnel bushes so that it framed the opening. Carefully he led the loose end away through the bushes and tied it around the base of the tree. Carefully he knelt down behind the tree and the chisel-pointed lance lay beside him.

He was very patient. The morning passed and the suns were high overhead. Nearby, he heard the Tartabacks going into the water. He heard them splashing in the pool. “I bet they taste like chicken,” he muttered to himself, watching and waiting. “They eat fish, the grains and wildlife of this planet, but not insects.” He found this strange. He waited and a moment later heard them coming up the second path. The male Tartaback would be first, then the female with their younglings. They would come single file because of the dense, thick foliage. They would pass right through the loop. The one female with no offspring would be the last, lingering behind the others. There the males would wait for her. In the wilderness all that has life must fight for that life. Any planet, the rule is unchanging and eternal. 

They stopped. Jared prepared himself. One after another down the line they stopped and stood motionless. For a while he could not see them through the bushes and he could hear no sound, but after waiting some more, the horned head and forequarters of the male appeared in the bush-tunnel opening. He saw the massive head with its long snout and its great and wide, leathery-humped shoulders. The Tartaback stood still, searching the open plains ahead. It smelled the alien scent of man and was troubled. The herd, motioning to its leader, was worried too. This did not mean danger to them, not yet, but it was caution. The male took a step backward and snorted; another step and it would be out of the reach of the noose. Once turned away it would not lead the other lizards along that path again.

Jared dared not wait any longer. Swiftly he pulled back and up on the rope. The tree shook and the noose ripped out of the bushes and encircled the massive head. Frantic, the male Tartaback leaped—like geckos or salamanders do—crashing in the bushes to escape and the rope slid to grip around the long neck. Jared seized his lance and pushed up onto his left leg. Beyond the tree the male battered the bushes into the ground. It struggled up and down and pulling back, and the rope tightened around its neck. It leaped and plunged and bellowed, and with each leap the noose worked deeper through the leather of its skin, closing tighter and pressing upon its windpipe. Soon the bellowing died away to a hoarse gurgling in the throat. The bloodshot eyes glazed over. The Tartaback fell to its side, but as the weight eased forward the noose relaxed. The immense body heaved and the breath whistled in through the nostrils. The Tartaback staggered to its feet. The eyes brightened and it reared and again the noose bit deep.

Jared watched. He felt a fear that the rope would not endure such repeated battles, as one smart moment by the lizard and it would either tear or break free. With the aid of his lance, he circled behind the creature. He waited until it stood again with its head swaying and breath whistling past the slightly eased noose. He hopped forward swiftly and a little to one side. Then he lifted the lance and pointed it and drove it into the Tartaback’s side, just back of the big shoulder. The male reared in one great shuddering movement and the rope snapped. Jared was flung into the air clinging to the lance, his grasp broken. He fell and rolled backwards with the thought of the talons and horn in mind.

There were no feet trampling him. There were no claws, horns or teeth thrusting into his body. He sat up and looked. The beast lay on the ground and a bloody froth bubbled from its giant nostrils. He had planted the lance as any professional hunter would, firmly and deep in the flesh. When the rope snapped suddenly, the Tartaback, rearing high, had fallen back and sideways, the end of the lance hitting the ground and the great lizard, with its own massive weight, had driven the edged point tearing deeper inward. The kill was a long one, but successful.

Time to eat.

5) Habitat:

The fire that night was a brave brightness. It threw its light upward into the darkness in flickering happy flames. The carcass of the Tartaback was a green and brown humped shape on the ground. Jared sat and watched the flames rising. He was full. And only the food he feasted on, that of an otherworldly animal, could cause his head to nod forward in drowsiness. 

Winds of night wandered over the plateau. And the shadowlike lizards of the cavern rocks floated out like mist. They filled the upper air with their presence and they laughed softly, but they did not mock him. “This is the man,” they said, “who has killed the lizard. With one leg of bone and one leg of wood he fought hungrily. With the homemade spear and the cunning of mind…the courage of heart, he killed the mighty Tartaback.” Soon the mist floated higher and higher and drifted away up the cavern, the echo of their laughter now faint and fading. 

Jared turned on his recorder. He began to do research, voice mental notes. The carcass of the full-grown Tartaback, he saw, contained nearly all flesh and hide; it looked smaller in bulk now that it lied on the ground and the strength and power of its movement long gone. Already a subtle degeneration began in the once vital organs. Yet it was life, not just food; if a man knew how to prepare it, every part could be eaten. As for the hide, if scrapped clean and tanned with a mixture of the brains and liver and the easily found soap plant, it made a tough leather; then it is clothing.

It was all these things and many more. It was the basis for a way of life for a middle-aged man who was stranded—one who had long hours in which to work and to think and to dream while the days and nights drifted over him.

The End.

About the Author

Lawrence Dagstine i s a native New Yorker, video game enthusiast, toy collector, and speculative fiction writer of 20+ years. He has placed more than 400 stories in online and print periodicals during that two-decade span, especially the small presses. He is author to numerous novellas and three short story collections. Death of the Common Writer, Fresh Blood, and From The Depths (TBA, w. Illustrator Bob Veon). His work is available on Amazon and B&N.com. Visit his website, at: www.lawrencedagstine.com

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The Set Up

By Daniel M. Kimmel

Shawn woke up hung over. That wasn’t surprising. He viewed the world through a permanent haze of cheap alcohol, usually the same rotgut beer he’d been drinking since high school. The fact that he was now in his forties and sleeping on sheets that hadn’t been changed in a month spoke volumes about his day to day life. Without even opening his eyes he reached for the half-finished can of beer that he had left on his nightstand when he found himself getting ready to pass out around three A.M. 

  He groped about with increasing frustration. Not only could he not find the open can of beer, but he also could not even locate the nightstand. He opened his eyes and looked around. And then he screamed.

  Or at least he attempted to. Instead, he squeaked and then segued into a coughing fit. The two packs a day habit he’d had since he was twelve contributed to that. Meanwhile, his eyes bulged as he took in the room. It wasn’t his room. His bed was the only thing he recognized. The rest of the room was blank. He was in what appeared to be a large white cube. He couldn’t tell where the illumination came from as there were no visible lights, but he could clearly see the entire space.

  As he began focusing on his surroundings, he realized something that should have concerned him more than the source of the lighting. It was the fact that there were no windows and, worse, no doors. He was in what seemed, to all appearances, to be a sealed box.

  Shawn had not yet reached the panic stage. As his morning after delusions went, this was relatively tame. And then he started hearing voices, and that’s when he decided the time had finally arrived to panic.

  “Shawn. Hello. Please remain calm. You have nothing to fear. You’re perfectly safe.”

  He shuddered. He had had this nightmare before. Next would be the spiders crawling all over his body.

  “You’re not dreaming, Shawn. You’re not in any danger. Try to get control of yourself.”

  He leapt out of his bed clad only in his underwear, which had frequented the laundromat nearly as often as his bedsheets. He looked around for the source of the voice, but he had no more luck discovering that than in figuring out where the light was coming from. 

  “Who are you? Where are you?” he shouted, his face turning red. “Why are you tormenting me?”

  “He seems unstable.” This was another voice, different than the first one. 

  “Give me a moment… Shawn, what can we do to help you relax?”

  This took Shawn by surprise. Usually, in this nightmare, he’d be strapped down and given electroshock therapy. Unless this was the alien colonoscopy one. Neither one was a lot of fun. But then in neither one had his interrogators asked him what he wanted. Okay, he’d play along.

  “Can I get a beer?”

  There was a pause. Then the first voice replied, “Hold on a moment. Let me see what I can do.”  The voice seemed to be muted as if it had moved away from a microphone. “Access: beer.”

  A third voice, this one more synthetic sounding than the first two, responded: “Beer – an alcoholic beverage from Earth consisting of grain, hops, yeast, and water. It can be processed in a variety of formulations, depending on the desired result.”

  The first voice returned and directly addressed Shawn. “We can provide you with beer.” He pronounced “beer” with what sounded like several extra syllables, but the meaning was clear enough. “Do you have a favorite formulation?”

  Shawn wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but he always understood when someone was taking his order for another round. He gave the name of his favorite low-rent brew, the sort of beer of which it was said one didn’t so much buy it as rent it. The voice repeated his request, stumbling over the syllables.

  After the briefest of pauses, the synthetic voice responded: “Accessing… A simple concoction. Are you sure this is what you want?  Even the database refers to this as ‘swill.’”

  “Shawn?” asked the first voice.

  “Yes, please. A six-pack if you’ve got it.”

  The synthetic voice answered directly: “Not clear what a ‘six-pack’ is. Will twenty liters do?”

  A smile broke out on Shawn’s flushed face for the first time. “That will do just fine.”

  “This will take a few minutes to process,” offered the synthetic voice.

  The initial voice returned. “While we’re taking care of your needs, you should sit down so we can tell you where you are and what will be expected of you.”

  “Keep the beer coming, and you can take all the time you need,” said Shawn who sat down on the edge of his bed. 

  “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable on more appropriate furniture.”

  Several feet to the right of the bed the floor slid open, and a chair rose up. It was unlike any chair he’d seen, but it seemed to have been designed for human usage. It offered back support and came provided with a cushioned seat. Shawn walked over and sat down. A moment later the floor to the right of the chair opened, and a side table rose up with a pitcher of beer upon it and a chilled pint glass. Shawn poured himself some beer and was surprised that when he returned the pitcher to the table, it remained filled to the brim. Maybe this wasn’t a nightmare after all.

  In the background, he could hear the second voice. “Haven’t we wasted enough time? Can’t we get on with this?”

  “I think we’re fine now,” said the first voice. “How are you feeling, Shawn?”

  Having finished off the pint, Shawn was busily refilling his glass. “This is great. But I could use something to eat. Do you think I can get some fries?”

  “I’m sure that can be arranged. In the meantime, are you ready to hear why you’ve been brought here?”

  Shawn put down the glass, which he’d already drained halfway, enjoying his morning buzz. At least he assumed it was morning. He really had no way of telling. “Sure, it’s your show.”

  “Excellent,” said the first voice. “As you may have guessed, you are not on Earth.”

  Shawn sat there for several beats. “Okay,” he finally said. He reached for the glass, which seemed to have rechilled while it was on the table, and polished it off. He hoisted the pitcher to refill it. “So, you want to perform medical examinations on me? Keep the beer coming, and you can probe whatever you want.”

  There seemed to be a discussion between the owners of the two presumably alien voices.

  “Are you sure letting him drink that concoction is a good idea?” asked the second one.

  “It’s keeping him calm. Let’s see if he can perform the tasks before we make any adjustments.”

  “Hey, fellas,” shouted Shawn in no direction in particular, “I’m fine. This is the way I usually prepare for work.”

  “See?” said the first voice. “He’s perfectly okay.”

  “All right,” said the second, “Let’s start the test.”

  A small table rose in front of Shawn. It contained  a block of some substance that was indented by three holes, with three pegs laid out in front of it. Each of the pegs was shaped differently. One was circular, one was triangular, and the third was more of a rectangle.

  “This is a very simple test, Shawn. We want you to place each of the pegs in the right hole.”

  The Earth man sneered. “This is what you brought me from Earth for?  A four-year-old could do this.” He continued to sit there sullenly, staring without moving. 

  Finally, the disembodied voice broke the silence. “No, of course not. This is the first in a series of tests which will get increasingly difficult. We’re studying different species and their abilities and skills.”

  He considered this. “Have you done this with a lot of humans?”

  “We can’t divulge the results of previous tests. We don’t want to say or do anything that might affect the results.”

  “Except get me loaded.”

  “I think we’re making a mistake,” said the second voice.

  “Hush,” said the first voice. “Now, Shawn, can you put the pegs in the proper holes?  I bet you can.”

  Shawn put the empty glass on the table and watched as it refrosted. Then he picked up the pegs and put them in the proper holes. When he put the last one in place, there was the sound of a bell and the table was lowered and swallowed up by the floor.

  “Very good, Shawn. And I believe we have your fries.” A new table arose to his side, next to the beer. On it was a large plate of shoestring potatoes. Behind it were containers of salt, catsup, vinegar, and a little bowl of melted cheese. “We weren’t sure how you preferred your fries, so we’ve tried to accommodate several possible choices.”

  “Is this my reward?”

  “If you like, but your food and drink are unrelated to the tasks. We won’t starve you if you make a mistake.”

  “That’s good to know,” he tried to say, but with a mouthful of cheesy fries, he was impossible to understand.

  A new array appeared before him. This time there were six pegs and six holes, all of them color coded. Shawn wiped his greasy hands on his t-shirt and picked up one of the pegs. It was red and round. He then looked at the block and saw that the colors and shapes did not match up. In fact, as he examined the pegs and holes he saw that if he tried to match the colors, none of the pegs would fit. Instead, he ignored the colors, and quickly put all six pegs in place.

  For the next two hours, Shawn was asked to perform increasingly difficult puzzles, of various shapes and sizes. The most complex involved constructing a pyramid out of over one hundred pieces, following instructions that were written in a language unlike any he had ever seen. Fortunately, there were diagrams. By following the pictures, he was able to determine which pieces connected and in what order.

  When he finished, he was exhausted and lay down on his bed. “I think I need to take a little nap,” he said.

  “That’s quite all right, Shawn. You’re doing splendidly. In fact, we’re quite pleased with the results.”

  “Is there much more to do?” he asked, drowsily.

  “Actually, there’s just one more task, and then you’re done, after which we can send you back to your life on Earth.”

  Shawn might have been relieved, but he was already snoring.

  While he was unconscious, the wall on the far side of the room slid back, and several beings rolled in a large cart covered by a tarp. These laborers were green and roughly humanoid in shape, although they possessed both arms and tentacles. Like Shawn, they had been brought from their home planet to perform specific tasks. They looked no more like the unseen experimenters than Shawn did, but they were too focused on their jobs to notice or care. They quickly unloaded several objects of various shapes and sizes, setting them up at the foot of the bed upon tables which rose to various heights. They then placed a box filled with what appeared to be cables to the side. When they had completely unloaded everything, they trundled out the cart and left the room. The wall slid back into place, leaving no seam indicating where it had broken apart.

  Shawn snored on.

  “Do you think he’ll be able to complete the task?” inquired the second voice.

  “We’ll soon find out. The Earth creature may be our last, best hope. No one else has been able to do it, and yet we know it can be done.”

  “One would think that…”

  “Shh. I think he’s resuming consciousness.”

  Shawn awoke with an odd look on his face. He paid no attention to the beer, the fries, or the new array that had been brought in. He had something else on his mind.

  “Does this place come equipped with a bathroom?”

  “What’s that? He wants to take a bath?” asked the second voice.

  “The human wants to relieve himself of waste products,” said the synthetic voice.

  “Well, why didn’t he say so?” 

  Shawn had no patience for this. “Dude, I need to take a leak.”

  There was some discussion that Shawn couldn’t make out and then a portion of one the walls slid back revealing a toilet and a sink.

  “I believe this should meet your requirements,” said the first voice, addressing Shawn.

  “A little privacy please,” said Shawn stepping into the lavatory.

  The wall slid shut allowing Shawn to take care of business. After he had washed up – the space came equipped with a soap dispenser and hand dryer – he knocked on the “door” which slid back and allowed him to reemerge. It then fully closed, giving no indication that it had ever been there in the first place.

  Shawn went over to the chair and poured himself a fresh glass of beer. “You know, I could get used to this. I don’t suppose you have a pack of smokes, do you?”

  “I’m afraid we’re not permitted to allow any open flames due to the high oxygen content in your chamber.”

  Shawn looked a bit jittery but figured he could hold out a bit longer.

  “Shawn, we have one last task for you. So far you have demonstrated that you humans are as clever and adept as we suspected. Your results will be widely disseminated and discussed among my people, and your case will no doubt be studied for years.”

  Shawn had sobered up a bit and was beginning to wonder what this was all about. “You’re not planning on invading, are you? I’d hate to think I betrayed Earth for a few pitchers of beer and some cheesy fries.”

  “No, nothing of the sort. Our goals are entirely peaceful. They may eventually lead to more direct relations between our peoples, but given the differences of our respective atmospheres, we could no more invade you than you could us. It’s why I’ve had to remain just a voice rather than come in and greet you personally. I hope you understand.”

  He didn’t really, but Shawn was feeling obliging and said, “Sure. Now, what’s this last task?”

  “Do you see the various items set up in front of you along with the box of cables and connectors?”

  Shawn looked as directed. “Whoa, where’d that come from?”

  In the background he could just make out the second voice, “I can see we’ve picked  a winner.”

  Shawn answered back, “I can do without the attitude. I thnk I’ve been pretty cooperative, all things considered.”

  “Sure,” muttered the second voice, “as long as you’re heavily sedated.”

  “Ignore my colleague,” said the first voice. “He ate something that disagreed with him.”

  “As long as it wasn’t someone who did not agree with him.”

  “That was a feeble attempt at humor by the human,” said the synthetic voice. “You may wish to laugh.”

  “Very good, Shawn, very good,” chuckled the first voice on cue. “But now to the task at hand. Mixed in with the box of cables is a diagram explaining how all of these objects are to be connected. You’ll notice some have multiple connectors and not all of them are of the same size or shape. Some connections are indicated by colors, and others are not. We need for you to follow the instructions and connect everything up.”

  “And you promise this won’t make a death ray?” asked Shawn.

  “Another stab at humor,” said the synthetic voice.

  “Not at all,” said the first voice. “When you’ve successfully completed the task you will be amply rewarded and then returned to your home.”

  “Give me that neverending pitcher of beer and I think we can call it even,” replied Shawn, who then turned his full attention to the task. Over the next four hours, Shawn worked non-stop, taking breaks only to refill his glass and subsequently empty his bladder. At one point he asked, “How will I know if I’m getting it right?”

  “Don’t you worry about that. We’ll be testing it on this end.”

  When he was done he compared the set up to the instructions. As with the earlier tests, he could not read the alien language but the pictures were clear enough and what he had done seemed to match the diagrams.

  “There’s a leftover cable. Is that a problem?”

  “Don’t worry about it. There always is. Knowing which one not to use was part of the task as well.”

  Shawn was pleased with himself. This called for something more than just beer and cheesy fries. Back in the chair with a  new frosty glass he asked, “Can I get a burger?  And I really need to have a smoke.”

  “Your task is done, Shawn. You have acquitted humanity well. You’re going go to sleep now, and you’ll wake up back on Earth, without any memory of this experience.”

  “What? What about my reward?”

  Shawn got out of the chair as if find some way to file a complaint but instead collapsed onto his bed. Moments later the bed and its occupant sank into the floor which closed over him.

  With that, the oxygen rich atmosphere was sucked out of the room and replaced with a hearty mix of hydrogen, methane, and ammonia. The walls on all four sides then slid apart revealing entrances to other parts of the household. Skrellian, as the first voice was known by his family and friends, came in with Beyafritz, his companion. Their appearance would have been impossible to describe by someone possessing human eyes as their pigmentation was outside the portion of the spectrum commonly perceived by Earthlings. Indeed had Shawn remained and not asphyxiated, he might have claimed they were invisible.

  As the two examined the array that had been assembled by Shawn, the green carters came in and began outfitting the room with furniture, decorative art, and throw rugs. One of them coughed, but they did not otherwise react to the change in gasses. Behind the array, Skrellian lifted off a strip of flooring and began inserting the loose ends of cables into the appropriate slots. When everything was in place, and the laborers had withdrawn, Skrellian and Beyafritz took seats on the large cushioned platform that had been erected where the bed had been. 

  Skrellian picked up a device that had been on the platform and pointed it at the array. It came to life with pictures, multi-colored lights, music, and something which emitted the most pleasant of aromas.

  “It’s beautiful. It’s everything I hoped it would be,” said Beyaritz, turning to his partner. “Thank you. I didn’t think we could ever get it done.”

  Skrellian beamed. “I don’t know why they make it so difficult, but it’s just like I told you: if you want to hook up a home entertainment center, you have to get a human.”

The End.

About the Author

Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and founding co-chair of the Boston Online Film Critics Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel.

His reviews currently appear at NorthShoreMovies.net and, on classic SF films, and in Space and Time magazine.

Save Sci-Fi Crew

Michael Daugherty, is a college student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) studying Computer Engineering.  He has been a die-hard science fiction fan since he was a young kid. His favorites include Stargate, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Andromeda, and Babylon 5.  When he was 15, he started Save Sci-Fi, an organization dedicated to supporting the future of science fiction.  He is a third Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo, and after college, he wants to work on new space-related technology.

David Bax – See [_Exodus _]

Steven Grin Harsha, webmaster and admin for Save Sci-Fi. From the USA but currently living in Japan. Founder of Grinning Studios in 2009. 

Artists

Stephen Landry – See Errant Sky

Tori Newton is a  24 year old artist living in Middle Tennessee. Growing up watching classic Doctor Who and anime classics like Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayou Miyazaki, Tori has loved Science Fiction and Fantasy since a very young age. Tori spends much of her time helping her family and friends as well as honing her talents as a traditional artist that uses various mediums. Through art and poetry she expresses many of the emotions and ideas that she likes as well as creating a balance between the two. 

Kristina Sötje is currently a 20 year old animation, environmental science, and dance student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Alongside her studies, she enjoys working for the school paper, auditioning for dance performances, getting artsy in the Art Club, and kicking butt in the Taekwondo Club where she is currently a red belt. She is also taking interest in joining the Cycling Club for long rides around the UMBC area, as she loves to be outdoors. Kristina began her artistic and athletic pursuits at six years old when her mother, a former dancer, signed her up for her first dance class. She also began to draw little cartoons in school around this time and these would eventually turn into homemade books and comics. Always looking appreciate and take on the things life has to offer, Kristina is excited that most of her childhood passions and hobbies have stuck with her into her adulthood and is ecstatic that she has been asked to illustrate the cover of this anthology. She hopes to collaborate further with Save Sci-Fi in the future.

Additional Artists

Stephen Huda – http://stephenhuda.deviantart.com

Special thanks to our Kickstarter Supporters

Dawn Schliesser

GB Hajim

Eric Hendrickson

Medron Pryde

Kurt Harris

David Bax

Joe Schweiss

William E. Williamson – Acadia Media

Guenivere McAllister

Dane S.

Eugene Alex

Mark Sulzbach

Nanna Sally Nelson

Amy Oerton

William Hay

Mark Lukens

Dwayne Reid

Andrew J Krull

Matthew Terry

Usman Iqbal

Robert Claney

Tan Seng Hoong

Michael Ball

Turin L Gutierrez

Rita Lewis

Amanda Marie

Alice Kirby

Jevarah Lunam


An Atlas to Time, Space, and Bonfires

Save Sci-Fi (SSF) has supported new, independent, quality science fiction across all mediums since its inception. And now, as a part of our long- standing tradition, we're contributing to the medium we love with this: our own original science fiction anthology! This collection of original sci-fi stories comes to you from a group of authors brought together by their love of science fiction and their desire to share their worlds with you and all of the sci-fi fandom! Our organization's only goal is to provide fans with quality stories for their enjoyment. We do not profit off our endeavours and as such, we rely entirely on donations to fund our projects, convention booths/materials, and everything else we do to support the genre we all crave.

  • Author: Save Sci-Fi
  • Published: 2017-05-17 22:20:27
  • Words: 119368
An Atlas to Time, Space, and Bonfires An Atlas to Time, Space, and Bonfires