Ark of Mirrors

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

One ingredient can change so much.

In this case, it caused a genocide that’s lasting my entire life.

It’s my birthday today. Me and my siblings. Well, I call them my siblings but they’re just hundreds of variations on a theme. Millibicentadodecaheptuplets, technically. One thousand, two hundred and 19 of us. All hatched on February 20th, 2352.

The fact that we still use dates out here based on the orbit of a planet a few thousand light years away makes me laugh. That we use month and day names based on rulers, gods, and religions of that planet makes me laugh even harder. The further away we get, the more arbitrary the names seem.

I wonder if we all would have died on the same day. I mean, those of us that haven’t killed themselves already.

We were supposed to be the first generation of a ship that would reach a fertile planet and populate it with little baby humans. It was to happen on our 25th birthday. Such will not be the case.

An intense wave of EM radiation knocked out the genetic blueprint downloads. The computer was left with one useable sample instead of the thousands that had been saved. Such an event wasn’t foreseen by the creators. A loss of up to 80% of the information was planned for but just one surviving blueprint was not predicted as a possibility.

At the appointed time, the ship did what it was supposed to do with limited information; it made a lot of people. Or, to precise, it made a lot of one person

Today we are all 22. We were awakened by the nurse AI at a physical age of 13 so technically we’re 35 but we don’t count those years we slept in the dream schools learning our specialities.

Genetically, we should have been diverse enough to make gloriously different children in wild combinations, creating a stable population base resistant to disease and illness. But being so similar, we cannot impregnate each other. No babies take hold. There is no purchase in our womb walls. Our sperm don’t recognize their targets.

That didn’t stop us from trying at first. They didn’t need us until puberty, you see. That was the plan. Keep us asleep in our incubeds and educate us through thoughtfeeds until we could start the party. Then wake us up and get half of us good and knocked up so that we’d land on the planet with a bunch of twelve-year-olds a few years away from starting another party of their own on the ground.

It’s all automated. The ship is going to arrive at the planetoid dubbed Sisyphus II in three years to the day. The plan was to head out, build buildings, and take stock of what wildlife is edible.

We won’t build schools or nurseries.

We stopped celebrating our birthdays here on the ship. We don’t keep a lot of eye contact and we don’t talk much. It’s like looking into a mirror but your reflection is a different gender or has a different haircut than you.

The one surviving genetic blueprint we’re all modeled on was a donation specimen from Earth labeled Jacob (Jake) Peterson. If we’re like him, it’s apparent that he was a sad person who would rather end his own life rather than face extreme hardship. Not that big a deal if he was only one person amongst a thousand. But a thousand people prone to sadness?

The ship is dark. This ship is silent. We only cry in our quarters but we cry a lot. I honestly can’t tell you if anyone will be left alive when the ship touches down.

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Plant Life

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Frouda Jeffries touched down on the soil of Binauer 4, smart boots neutralizing any toxins and spreading defoliant footsteps as she walked up to the leader of the plants.

‘His’ name was a gust of pheromones. They just called him Windy. Giant, bulbous appendages hung over ivy tentacles as he shuddered a rustling, fearful welcome to Frouda. The bleached footprints leading back to the blast crater underneath their landing craft spelled out how diplomatic they were prepared to be. They took it safe and kind with challengers to their authority but when a race was found to be an easy conquest, the masks came off.

They were here to make the kind of deal that involved little negotiation and a lot of ‘yes’ from the plant life whether they liked it or not.

“Human”, his grassreed, recently-grown vocal cords hummed. It was like talking to a harp.

“Hey there Windy.” Frouda responded. “Good to see you again. Did you consider our offer?”

“Yess” said Windy. His thousands of leaves rustled and a slight breeze rolled over him.

The thing about the plants is that their brains grew on the outside. The smarter the plant, the bigger and more numerous the brains. They grew more mindpods as they needed them to solve problems.

The thing about these mindpods is that they were delicious. Delicious meant money. They humans were here to harvest.

“You want to take our minds to eat them. And you want to keep coming back. You want to lobotomize our planet every season. And our reward for this is that you will not annihilate us. In the hopes that the fad will pass and we will no longer provide you with profit. After that point, we will be left alone to continue our evolutionary path.” Windy’s musical words drifted across to Frouda.

“Yeah. Hey, you just managed to distill a three-hundred page contract into a few sentences. I’m impressed.” Frouda said.

“We reject your offer.” Said Windy, “But we may be able to help each other.”

Frouda looked up from her wrist com at the cluster of fronds in front of her.

“As you saw, we were able to grow eyes to read your contracts. Our family grew different minds to understand your language. We grew these vocal cords to speak with you.” He said.

“Uh, yeah. So?” Frouda retorted. This was not following the script.

“We can grow humans now.” Windy said.

Frouda took a step back and bumped into something. With a startled yip, she whirled around. And saw herself staring back with a small grin.

“The fidelity to your original is accurate. It will be enough to fool your ship mates. It will tell them that the deal is off. This is the most peaceful solution.” Windy rustled.

Frouda stared slack-jawed at the vegetable copy of her. They’d even copied the suit. It was fascinating and completely believable. “Gotta give you credit, Windy,” Frouda whispered through terrified lips. “You really nailed it.”

As she brought her wrist com up to her mouth to signal the ship for help, the spores in her breathing apparatus activated, swelling up to tennis balls and blocking her intake valves. Aerosol seed flocks immolated themselves in her electronics, coating the ciruits with nectar. A mess of thorns ravaged through the fabric of her suit as shoots poured in through the holes. They grew into branches and then flowered inside of Frouda. She didn’t know plants could move so fast. Her last thought was that she smelled strawberries, not knowing if it was a gift from Windy or if the killer plants just smelled like that.

Frouda’s body disintegrated into fertilizer.

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Carroway

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I’m 43. A year on Carroway is fifty-six earth years long. Its long, lazy, almost-circular orbit kept it temperate for that whole time but the ecosystem had evolved to create 126 distinct ‘seasons’. I’d read of Earth’s four seasons of summer, winter, spring and fall repeating every twelve months. Sounded monotonous.

I’ve lived my whole life here on Carroway and I haven’t seen a single season twice. They’ve all been recorded so it’s possible to read up and prepare for them as they happen but I’ve been faced with challenge after challenge.

There’s crystal season when the mineral deposits go through a growth spurt and push up out of the earth like translucent horns. There’s a season of trees that grow up into the lower atmosphere. They stand with smooth bark, silent and ominous until they start humming. Their vibrating roots fissure open the ground and release the grass fog season. Then the trees themselves flower, blotting out the sun. Then there is a pollenfall season as the skyscraper trees die and the sun returns, shining down through their now-nude branch clusters.

The trees become soft and unstable, sinking back down to the ground like wilted celery. It’s a dangerous time. Luckily the trees bow slowly.

There aren’t many animals here except for the season when the kangabears come out of hibernation for six months and gorge themselves on the fallen skyscraper trees before going back to sleep for another fifty-six years.

There’s a season where the planet hums. The theory is that a deep-earth tectonic shift happens, making the core rub the mantle harder than usual. Like a planet headache. You get used to it until the earthquake stops it. After that, the planet feels too silent for a while.

The magnetosphere and dust particles cause shifts in the sky colour depending on what season just happened. I’ve seen eighteen different hues up there. There’s ashfall here after the post-humming eruptions. Then pigments in the ash-eating bacteria turn it all into a blue slime that dissipates until the pink grass shows up to eat the slime, turning itself blue in the process.

There’s a red snow season. There’s a season of thorned tumbleweeds. There’s a season of long, thin raindrops that hang down from the clouds like hair. Soon the season of ivy migration begins. And then the flowerworks seed pod explosion festival.

There’s a plant based war happening here that’s been going on for millions of year. It’s found a cycle. Each victor dying and feeding the next. Each challenger inadvertently existing as part of a larger circle.

Some people can’t handle the variety here but I love it.

Thirteen more years and I’ll have seen all the seasons Carroway has to offer. Not too many people in the universe can claim that, especially a human like myself with a relatively short life span. I wear that badge with honour.

Every Carroway meal I’ve had has only been for a few months, never to be seen again. I think back to the pink pricklepears I had when I was six. The thick leafsteaks I had when I was ten. The delicious brandyberries that showed up on my twenty-second birthday. So many tastes.

I’ve recorded them all here in my books. I’m the first human to keep a firsthand record of all the seasons here on Carroway.

Some cycles don’t seem like cycles because they last such a long time.

I’m looking forward to the end of the ‘year’.

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Luminaris

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Luminaris.

They called it a slingshot planet. It had what was known as a linear pendulum orbit.

So far it was the only one on record. It was caught in a gravity well between four stars of different colours. It was a planetoid that tried to thread the needle and failed every two months, nearly escaping before being pulled back through. Like a giant playing catch with itself.

Uniquely stable as far as the scientists could tell, it had been going up and down (or back and forth depending on how you looked at it) for nearly half a billion years.

The four suns were a white dwarf, a blue dwarf, a red giant, and a yellow sun like Earth’s.

The ‘orbit’ took two months. Standing on the Luminaris, a person would see the four stars huddled on the horizon to the east while at its furthest point, a bright quartet of glittering color nearly lost in the endless field of billions of quiet points of light. Then the ‘left’ orbit started and the planet sped backwards, the four zenith stars growing larger and brighter as they got closer to Luminaris. Those four stars spread farther apart, obliterating the sky with light as the planet passed through the eye of the needle and experienced a four way ‘sunfall’ from each compass point. It sweltered in the kiln of the four eyes of a cruel god as the suns washed it in radiation and then spat it out again. Then the suns dwindled to the west and the sky got dark until they huddled on the opposite horizon, waiting to grow and return to the east during the ‘right’ orbit.

For one month in between the suns, it was a permanent sunset of plaid in the sky. Sunrays shone from four different directions in four different colours, making the clouds into a circus-clown cotton-candy rainbow gallery of stripes and swirls.

The most brilliant aurora borealis of any recorded planet rippled through the clouds to add to the fun, riddling the magnetosphere with greens, yellows, purples and reds so bright that they were clear during the daylight. Shades of every colour bloomed and washed through the sky. Even new colours were invented here.

Artists wept. Writers tried in vain to capture the hues. Some people went mad from looking at it.

To go there was very expensive. People could be heard saying for the rest of their lives, with as much condescension as possible, “Oh that’s a nice green but it’s not a Lumigreen. You know what I mean? Of course you don’t. It’s like, well, it’s hard to say. You just had to be there.”

I’ve been here for eighteen years now. I was the mankind’s first trillionaire after finding a way to mine the asteroid belts. I tired of the pressures of big business and allowed a few squabbling mining corporations to buy me out. I can afford to live the rest of the days here on Luminaris and I plan to do just that.

I’m a nomad by choice here, walking from resort town to resort town across the desert of Luminaris while the storm of colour comes and goes above me. I’m mistaken for a vagabond for the most part and I don’t mind.

The sky talks to me. The colours riot. People have told me I’m delusional but the sky tells me the truth. The colours have told me how to live a life of complete peace. Buddhism seems belligerent in comparison.

The colours wash my smiling face as I walk under a kaleidoscope rainbow firestorm of epiphany.

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Pears

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Pears.

I wish to never seen one again in my life.

The colony on Arcadia had soil that would let us grow trees from Earth. We sowed an orchard outside of our newly printed house. The fibrous growths that sprouted fat and tall from the ground there looked nothing like Earth trees. Round spheres of black wood with short branches dotting it, looking more like spikes on a mine that branches on a tree.

But each branch sprouted pears and the pears were delicious.

Our strange orchard was going to let us prosper here.

But as with all frontiers, there were opportunists looking for ways out of hard work, looking for the dark delights a lawless society can give a cruel disposition.

They rode up one beautiful day. Humans. That’s important. Humans, like us. Not Arcadians.

The dragged my mother out into the yard with me and my sisters. My father they shot in the house.

As their men harvested the pears and set the nanites to dismantling our house, they had sport with us.

We were given pears. Our father’s body was crucified against the nearest pear tree on those nasty spikes. We were told to throw the pears at our father’s body. Every time we managed to hit him, we were given a prize:

We were allowed to live.

It took half an hour for them to harvest everything in our pathetically tiny first harvest. During that time, my mother missed my father’s body with a pear. So did my sister.

At the end, I was the only one still throwing pears.

The leader of the marauders, a man with kind eyes and a trustworthy face, told the men to load up the pack animals and prepare to ride off. Then he looked at me. They all looked at me.

There were twelve of them. Now, under ordinary circumstance, twelve divided by three is four. But my mother and sister were dead so there was just me.

It was a long afternoon.

It was dark before they left.

The left me facedown in the bruised and crushed pears, emptied of tears and empty of feeling. I eventually walked again with the help of the local physiotherapists after one month.

For a while I toyed with the idea of rebuilding the orchard by myself, finding a man, and starting a family. But every time I met a man with kind eyes and a trustworthy face, I couldn’t bring myself to talk.
I will make my way back to Earth and I will get a job in a factory.

And I never want to see another pear again in my life.

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