Star-shaped Star

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The pendant dances slowly in the air currents, attached to one of the safety release handles on the top wall of the cockpit or what groundfolk would call a ‘ceiling’. It was given to me by my daughter before liftoff. She was four at the time. I’ll probably never see her again.

There are sixteen of these pendants around the ship. Different shapes and sizes and all from different colonies. All daughters. I wonder what the odds are on that? I should enter it into the computer later.

Little girls don’t have much imagination when it comes to giving gifts to a father from the stars. Their mothers don’t have much either, come to think of it. Outpost women see me as exotic and attractive just because I drive a truck through space. I’m grateful. I just wish the work schedule wouldn’t force me to leave and that relativistic speeds didn’t age them like fruit from my perspective as soon as I left.

The little girl who gave me the first of these pendants died centuries ago. The last one, Amanda, she’s probably seven now even though I only left her mom’s rock one month ago. I always toy with bringing them along on the trip but the truck’s cramped and it’s no place for a little kid or a family.

I tell them all I’ll be back. They all give me something to remember them by. I never see them again.

I don’t really understand the gifts. Stars are shaped like balls but each of these pendants has points on them. Some of them only have four or five points. The one with the most has sixteen, all wavy lines. Most basic science in these colonies tell the people there that stars are hot spheres yet the jewelry and icons all have points. Maybe it’s to represent the glitter that I don’t see up here with no atmosphere between me and the universe.

Knowing that most of my daughters have probably passed on makes these little metal stars into headstones in a way, but I try not to think about that.

I suppose it’s better than having a bunch of plain balls floating around the cabin.

I wonder why they’d give me a representation of something that I can see a million of out of my front windshield. The last thing I want to see is another star.

And yet I keep them.

There’s a whole constellation of daughters here in my lonely ship, looking at me silently as I float from room to room.

I’ve never seen a star-shaped star.

And they’ve never seen a father.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The ship had recently shaved a comet at close to metaspeed. Nowhere near light but still enough to cause pretty serious damage.

With silicates, sparks would be flying around the cabin. Since they’d used the bios instead, it was juices and blood. The pilot was metal but the ship was meat.

He was ankle deep in a dying craft and aiming for a rest stop.

Something bubbled up on the monitor in front of him: a course to a hot rock that was close. It had an atmosphere that would support the ship but would eventually kill him if the repairs didn’t get finished in time.

He knew that he was the expendable part of the mission. It was a gamble. He squeezed the ‘yes’ organ beside the chair and the ship lurched sideways on the new course.

The hot rock came closer on the screen as the humidity inside the ship increased along with the rising fluid levels closing around him.

The ship tore down through the atmosphere, igniting as it went. The outer shell layers hardened and then shriveled as the ship sped closer to impact.

The ship hit the ocean a few hundred meters away from the coast.

The impact tested its structural integrity and found it wanting.

It cracked open like an egg into boiling water.

The pilot sank down beneath the waves. He needed no air to survive but the salt content in the water would rust him solid if he didn’t get to shore quickly. He hit the bottom and started walking shoreward in the darkness.

It took him six hours to get to the beach.

The remains of the ship washed up around him. He collected what he could find in the surf and put it all into a wet pile.

He connected what umbilicals he could find to the main processor organs and waited for a wetboot to start.

He waited for a week until the air on the planet oxidized him to the brainpan. Days later, he fell forward in pieces with a rattle into the pile of bioship remains.

The rains and heat mixed them further into a soup over the course of the next month.

Bioforms are adaptable.

They couldn’t perform at a macro level so they set about making adjustments at a molecular level, stealing from the available materials to make simpler self-propagating one-celled organic copies. They did this for years, using up the entire reserves of composting organic bioship and pilot mineral compounds at their disposal.

The volcanoes cooled over the next few millennia. The one-celled organisms became more complex. They adapted to life on the surface with the idea of building a ship to go further buried deep in their DNA.

We are the descendants of this ship. Every living thing on the planet is a result of an attempt to build a ship that failed. All evolutionary trees are attempts to create more ships or ship builders. Our duality, our two sexes, our inner yearning of something unfinished and our hybrid nature. We are coded at the most basic level to be what we are. We are the closest that the builders have come.

We have been programmed to leave and continue the journey.

We will do so.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

It’s a little ticklish when the needles go in but the anesthetic keeps her from moving. It keeps her laughing on the inside.

Grown from a vat of jaguar with a splash of greyhound and a swirl of human, she’s extremely thin and toothy. This is her last treatment before she’s shipped off to Overman Ranker’s Field Farms for training.

She’ll be part of an Assassin’s Guild nick-named The Circus. All of the killers are animal hybrids. The term ‘guild’ is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Kennel’ would be more accurate. The assassins are little more than happy pets that are conditioned to be stealthy and to kill without mercy.

An animal’s nose full of the scent from the victim’s clothing is much more efficient than a photograph/dossier when it comes to tracking a man down in the dark.

Tyrania is two years old. She’s either happy or in pain. No other emotions exist within her. The pain of punishment tells her what not to do. Right now, she’s happy. The spinal tap keeps her immobilized while the nanozomes do their knitting and pearling to the building blocks of her epidermis.

After training, she’ll be able to pass for human. The skeletal creature on the table with dark spots dotting the long, grey fur will become something more akin to human when the process is finished.

She’ll be killing in the higher classes. It’s the bear-and-croc mods that they send to the poor places.

Her long nails are retracted and painted a garish red. The newborn killers always choose cosmetics that look like blood on their nails and lips. It’s comforting to them. It’s frightening to see them smile in the mirror after their first reward of makeup. More often than not, they’ve smeared a line of lipstick around their lips. The eyes glass over with the dreams of blood as they tilt their head at their reflection.

They get trained to be human on the Field Farm. I mean, they get trained to kill people in any number of ways with the aid of mental downloads and grueling days of physical training but they’re also told how to act at the dinner table and how to keep a conversation going.

We teach them to be background. They’re expendable so there’s no exit routes planned when they’re sent on missions.

I miss the ones that don’t come back. I don’t like the ones that do. They change after a successful mission.

This one here, Tyrania, is looking straight up at the ceiling as I prepare the depilatory cream. I’m in her peripheral vision. I give her a wink to reassure her.

She smiles at me.

It’s a smile I see in my nightmares for years. I won’t do that again.

My team and I get to work making her as human as we can and I try not to catch her eye again.

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Time Streams

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

If I was tripping, my colleagues must have been as well because we all saw it. Just us four janitors on the night shift, mops and brooms dropped, staring at the nightmare in the corner of the building. It spoke to us but I couldn’t see where its mouth was.

“There is more than one timestream. They are connected.” it said.

The alien being glowed blue like a special effect from a bad movie. It took up a corner of the warehouse in a way I didn’t understand. My eyes couldn’t focus on it properly. I could make out tentacles but then they would look like arms and then tentacles again.

“To further the analogy, one could say that there are tributaries, rapids, and rivers as well, all cascading madly in one direction towards the unknowable, distant event horizon of the future. They weave, grow fatter, splash apart and trickle, adding ‘what ifs’ to each other’s histories with the participants being none the wiser before splitting off again.

To abuse the metaphor further, I would say that I am part of a corporation that builds dams. We make time lakes. Smooth-surfaced, still and stable.”

I glanced at Stephen. He stared at me in confusion and fear. We didn’t understand what it was saying. But none of us ran away. We all stood, fascinated and rooted to the spot.

“There are beings that detest the constant motion of naturally occurring time. The sudden turns, the splashing arcs, the stop-and-go nature of it. The eddies and small whirlpools of déjà vu and karmic re-entries. They don’t like the bumpy ride.

Some of these beings build crafts to navigate the streams but only the richest can afford to make them sturdy and strong. The poor ones can only strap together the equivalent of a canoe with a paddle.

They pay to take their ships and drift slowly and softly out over the unchanging surface of our time lakes.

As a bonus, our time reservoir generates huge amounts of power as multiverse entropy fights to keep the time going. We let a small stream through near the bottom to keep the universe happy and to keep the lake at a constant level. We rent the surface time and we sell the power. We win both ways.

This is all metaphor, of course, told to you in terms you can envisage.”

The being shuddered and started to lose its consistency. It seemed to go away from us, down from us, and fade out all at the same time.

“It’s hard to talk to entropic, finite beings about this. You are trapped in time but we live on top of it. But I have to tell you what’s happening.

I’ve fallen overboard and I can’t swim. I’m drowning in your dimension. I can’t conform to your angles and time direction. I was by myself so I don’t think there’ll be much chance of a rescue.

Oh no, this is it. I can’t hold on. I’m sinking.”

The creature disappeared with a shudder and a pop and reality wobbled where it had been.

Stephen looked at Jake and Peter looked at me.

We decided filing a report wouldn’t be worth the paperwork seeing as we’d all probably get fired for using drugs on the job.

We agreed to never speak of it again.

But every now and again, I think of the time lakes while I’m cleaning.

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Birds of a Feather

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

There are trillions of them and they fly in layers.

The larger ones at the top interlock together during mating season, puzzle-piece continents drifting above us. The whalescoops dive down to feed on the krillsparrows below them. Turtlehawks and wolflocusts prey on rabbitdoves and deergulls. Hummingbird piranhas flit and nip at the turkey squids, producing dark puffs of ink-cloud pollen.

Insects, plants, mammals, reptiles and unclassifiable combinations of the four. All flying. The inhabitants of this planet’s entire ecosystem are airborne and they never land because there is no land, only dark, sterile ocean thousands of miles below.

Small birds roost and nest on the bigger ones. There’s a hierarchy food and waste chain based on altitude, gravity pulling leftovers down through each layer, filtering evolution. The huge ray gliders drift through schools of brilliant parrot squirrels bursting with colour. The entire world is a continually shifting miasma of hues and sound.

At night, they glow. Flourescing horse pelicans trailing long tails of feather lights. Firefly minnow finches exploding with colour en masse looking for mates. Peacock trout cry out as they display fireworks of neon-shimmering leaves along their spines. Jellyfish Condors drip glowing willow-tree stingers to attract the mothgrouse. Deep-sky angler dragons trail ribbon-like through the lower atmosphere, dangling their lures like intelligent flares. Eel geese honk in giant arrow formations, stripes running across their bodies in synchronized communication. And the fissures underneath the massive air-island floaters above us glow with algae all colours of the rainbow.

I cannot see the ocean below or the sky above. I am a scientist and my name was Walter. My research mission ended six years ago but I elected to stay. There are skytribes here. I researched them and befriended them. Their name is birdsong that I have painstakingly learned to reproduce with my whistling.

My research helped classify them as a non-threatening, level-four primitive civilization. Tagged for quarantine non-involvement until such time as they develop the technology to explore space.

Personally, I see them as stalling at a sweet spot in their evolution that needs no improvement. There has been little to no change in them in millions of years, much like crocodiles or barracudas back on Earth.

I theorized that they started as a symbiotic relationship, remora-like with larger birds. Eventually, they started steering the birds to the best food. In time, that control made the remoras dominant and the larger birds the underlings. The remoras had to band together in schooltribes to hunt. Communities formed. Societies followed.

They have insect-like iridescent chitin armour skin. They reproduce by back spores seasonally like dandelion seeds. They hatch from eggs and go through larval stages in huge tadpole flocks. They mature into their final three stages as warm-blooded and gradient from male to female to genderless over their lives.

I’ve named the second-stage one next to me Rebecah. Her legs blend and clutch with the neck of her mount perfectly, forming the illusion of a swantaur. Her mane ripples out behind her.

She looks over at me with smile that I saw as terrifying years ago with all those eyes and beak teeth but I see as endearing now.

My mount is a ravenshark. My body is smeared with the fluorescent paint needed to mock Rebecah’s chitin skin. I have proven myself to them. They are fascinated by my ability to hold onto my male ‘stage’ for longer than usual. I have entered into their oral tribal history.

Rebecah screams the hunt scream and raises her spear. I copy her and we both dive. The hunt is on.

I live here now.

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