The Wait Calculation

Author : Beck Dacus

I was told that, when I awoke, I should expect the thunder of battle to have already started. But when the doctor woke me, his face calm, if not bored, I heard only the low rumble of my fellow crewman babbling about something. I would soon learn what that “something” was.

“Welcome back, Sergeant Mansing,” he said.

“Heyo to roo troo docatorr,” I slurred, swirling back into consciousness.

“I’ve got big news for you. I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“I’m arredy dead, aren’t I?” I said, my speech returning.

“No, quite the opposite. The only people who are going to die in the next few months are idiots and unfortunate spacewalkers. We were beaten to our target.”

My recovering mind was shocked. “What!? But… we did the Wait Calculation! Nobody should’ve beat us here!”

“Nobody has. Their weapons have. We should’ve seen it coming, really. Come walk with me.” He helped me out of my freeze casket, allowing me to sit on the casket’s rim and rub my legs before tapping my knee with a little mallet to see if my reflexes still worked. Then I waddled to the window with him, holding onto his shoulder until I could hold myself up. What I saw almost made me fall over anyway.

Alardaana had been annihilated. Red seas of lava burbled on its surface, the comforting crest of an atmosphere at its limb completely absent. Even its moons looked like charcoal embers. “W-what happened?” I nearly whimpered.

“The computer analyzed the damage the moment it saw this through its telescopes, about a lightyear out. It wasn’t relativistic missiles, obviously. If that was enough to kill them, they wouldn’t need to send us here. No, this was far more sinister. Not only has the surface been sterilized by what was probably gamma radiation; the structure of the planet itself took a beating. The most likely explanation so far is a gravitational wave strike. You see, Mansing, that’s why the Wait Calculation lied to us. That only determines when interstellar explorers will overtake each other. Not armies. Not weapons.”

“But… but why didn’t it hit us? Wouldn’t it have plowed through us on its way here?”

“No way. We took an arcing path here to avoid any defenses they might’ve set up directly between our star and theirs. Guess there was more wisdom to that than we thought.”

“Oh my God. This is horrible!”

“More so than you might think. Further analysis of the scene indicated damage inflicted by bubbles in spacetime collapsing on impact with the former atmosphere, releasing immense amounts of energy. A warp bomb.”

“You mean they sent a weapon that can travel faster than light!?”

“Looks that way.”

“Well… why are we here then? Why didn’t we just turn around? And why’ve you waited till now to tell us this!?”

“No use in telling you earlier, if you think about it. And if we didn’t die in battle here, we were always going to use the resources in this system to refuel and resupply. Bringing all our fuel, water, food, and air for the whole trip would’ve been stupid. But we can’t ransack their supplies now; we’ll have to mine everything from asteroids.”

“I, uh… I’m not sure I want to go home. Not when there’s people there who can do this. Who *would* do this.”

“To be frank, we’re out of options, Sergeant. Do you have a better idea?” The doctor walked back to the freeze caskets. Opening one up, he peeked at the soldier inside, and said, “Hello, Ensign Trillar. I’ve got some bad news.”

A Winter Ramble to the Site of the Shapwell Ghyll Spacecraft

Author : Peter Haynes

It’s a long winding tramp from the Ship Inn (formerly the Coachman) to Shapwell Ghyll where the spacecraft rests. At what is widely accepted to be the route’s start, I watch walkers of the Nordic bent de-telescoping and chatting as the first rimy sleet begins to cut in.

They have just returned; we are yet to begin.

She meets me by the chain-linked concrete bollards, where the tarmac of the Pass Road breaks down into clumps. Oftentimes, Shapwell Pass is closed for snows or high winds so thrill seekers don’t get a fatal shove down the scree to their skittering doom. Not today. Bikers tear by, taking advantage of the open season, followed by a trundling old Ford — engine under mounting pressure — with the barely-glimpsed shapes of kids in the backseat, ear buds in.

We leave the roar of traffic behind and begin the many-mile trek to the downed ship. The path we follow tilts down and away into the grey, past a rolling shoulder of land shawled in layers of dwarf grass and gorse.

She talks about it as we go. As it sailed down, she says, it clipped the tops of ancient calderas and dragged a mass of stone with it to dam the valley. The prow (if prow is the right word – sometimes amiable discourse must take a back seat to watching my footing) now rests in a pool of loamy run-off from the ghyll itself.

I experience first-hand how some conspiracy of the Shapwell valleys obscure and open a rambler’s perspective. Not to mention that from further out, along or above, the ship might as well not exist. It abides in a constant mist of its own making.

Eventually, as promised, the light grey cloud is superseded by the slate-dark looming of the ship’s hull. It is as I have heard – the sheer bulk of the thing just is. That it is psychically apparent through its perpetual caul is the craft’s defining feature for those who have made the trip. Was it ovoid or square-sided? Impossible to tell. Too vast to take it all in, too shrouded to mark out edges. What we see is a shape defined by the rough-sided gorge in which it has come to rest. Some of its vastness spills out of the valley head to hang precipitous.

I am forced to look elsewhere.

“Over here,” she says, walking toward a short stump of concrete about knee-height, dotted with lichen and clumps of moss. A previous visitor has scraped the worst away to reveal carved words on its face:

2019 Manzoli-Kraber Award
Third Prize

“I suppose because of the walk,” I say, turning from the stele and the ship.

“Well, yeah. You have to want to see it,” she replies. “When you get here, you usually can’t see anything. Still.”

“Yeah. Impressive.” I’m beginning to feel nauseous.

“So there it is. Told you you’d make it.” She stamps from foot to foot for a moment. “Any blisters? Boots behaving?”

“No trouble at all. Should we be getting back?”

“Yeah. After you.”

I feel the ship pushing down all the way out of the valley, right up until we step from the mist. The sleet has turned to snow; simple weather reasserting is a great relief. My appetite returns. We’d better pick up the pace – the Coachman used to be one of those pubs that closed in the afternoons.

The Long Smoke

Author : David Henson

The chaplain sits beside the young man and lays a small box on her lap. “Mr. Parker, would you like to pray with me?”

“That’s not for me, Chaplain. But I’m glad you’re here.” Parker’s hands are trembling, eyes red.

The chaplain reaches out and squeezes his arm. “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you. I have to ask. Why did you — ”

“I wanted the money. Simple as that. For my family, not me.” Parker takes rapid, shallow breaths. “You can understand, can’t you?”

The Chaplain nods. Parker removes a silver disc from his pocket. He twists the outer portion of the disc, and life-size holograms of a young woman and a small boy and girl appear.

“A beautiful family, Mr. Parker. I’m sure they were…will be…well-provided-for.” The chaplain removes something from the box. “Here, I thought you might like this.”

Parker hesitates then takes the small cylindrical object. “Is this a … what did they call it?”

“A cigarette. I found the formula in an old journal and replicated it. This, too.” The chaplain shows Parker how to work the lighter and hands it to him.

Parker holds up the cigarette and tries to light it.

“I think you need to suck on the other end while you do that.”

Parker flicks the lighter again while breathing in sharply and immediately starts coughing. The cigarette flares, then quiets to a slow burn. “I don’t get it,” he gasps.

“I read you’re supposed to inhale more slowly and evenly, like taking a deep breath.”

He tries again, this time without choking. “Better. Actually kind of relaxing.”

The chaplain sniffs the exhaled smoke and thinks she might want to replicate one for herself.

“How are the others?” Parker says.

“Anxious over the uncertainty of course. And most are losing somebody, but nobody like …” The chaplain nods at the holographic woman and children. “They’re mainly loners, adventurers. Some are hoping for fame. I guess I put myself in that category, may I be forgiven the vanity. “I hope, Ensign Parker, that –”

The captain’s voice crackles overhead. “Listen up, people. In less than a minute, we will engage our primary engines, and this crew will become the first humans to travel at near-light speed. You’ve all been counseled, but I want to remind you to be prepared for anything. While this test flight is brief for us, when we return to earth, we will have been in the history logs for more than 500 years.” The captain’s voice turns somber. “Now a moment of silence for the world we knew.”

The com goes quiet for a short time then a computerized voice begins the countdown. “Thirty seconds…twenty-nine…”

The chaplain looks at the ensign’s brightly smiling family. May God have mercy on their souls, she thinks, then wonders at what’s to come.

Ensign Parker turns back to his station, puts the cigarette to his lips, and takes a long, deep breath.

Eta Carinae

Author : Lisa Jade

I still recall the sorrow of the Project Head when he said I was leaving Earth. I’d questioned it; there were plenty of people more qualified than me. I wasn’t sure why they’d chosen me, or why they treated the Stasis Project like a death sentence.

It didn’t take long to figure out – nobody had signed up. It meant sacrificing everything – and everyone had reason to stay. Except me.

Eta Carinae burns brightly before me. It’s a crimson supergiant now. Though the ship assures me we’re out of range, I’m still unnerved. I only woke up a few days ago and I’m not sure how long I’ve been away. I try to do the math, but the numbers are too big and the results too frightening.

The star is at the end of her life. I’ve seen photos; great plumes of gas once sputtered from her core – she was once nine times bigger than Earth’s sun. But that was long ago. Now she’s a beast, drawing into herself, preparing for her inevitable demise.

I pace the ship’s walkways, wondering yet again about my return to Earth. If I’ll recognise it. If I’ll be frightened. If anyone will remember me.

The ship’s systems blare. The sound is familiar – the closest thing to a voice around here. Though I’ve been asleep for much of the journey, it still feels like I’ve been alone for a long time.

I turn my attention back to the dying star. This is why I’m here. Scanning, filming, measuring. Gathering data to help humanity’s study of the universe.

I sink to the floor. Eta Carinae. She’s gorgeous. Colours I’ve never seen swirl around a red globe like some bizarre, beautiful ballet performance. I reach out a hand and even through the Shields, I swear I can feel just the smallest trace of her warmth in my fingertips.

I think it was Dad who told me.

‘Everything is stardust’

I’d spent a childhood marvelling at the constellations painted on my bedroom ceiling. I’d thought that stars were people, thinking, feeling; and nobody ever told me otherwise.

But Dad’s gone now – gone even before I left. Mom, too. No siblings, no friends. I’d had nothing to lose, and that was reason enough.

Suddenly, I find myself smiling at her. I don’t recall seeing anything so gorgeous during my time on Earth. It’s sad that I’ll be the only one to ever see her, especially like this.

The systems screech. It’s happening.

I press my nose to the glass, drinking in every moment – every flicker, every surge emitted from her surface as she draws in on herself, turning blood red. The ship swelters under her heat as she strains to remain alive, like the death throes of a wild animal.

But it’s not enough; the supergiant explodes, sending out a shock that makes the ship jolt underfoot.

When I regain my composure, she’s changed. There’s nothing left but a paint-like swirl of magenta, the building blocks of life scattered about. It won’t last.

A small voice speaks to me. She’ll form a black hole if you wait too long. Turn around. Go home. I wipe the sweat from my face and pause.

Am I crying?

It’s just a star. It’s gas and fire and not much else. It’s not even a ‘she’.

Why the hell am I crying?

My hand touches the glass, and this time it’s cold. Her heat has dissipated, fading just as she did.

I can’t leave her. But there’s no point in staying. She’s just stardust.

“Set course for home.”

Love Binds Us

Author : Beck Dacus

While the feds brushed their feet on my welcome mat and walked into my kitchen, I was scanning my mind for things I had done wrong. I hadn’t reported any alien sightings. Never smuggled drugs, or touched drugs in my entire life. None of my friends had ever blown up a building. What was this about?

They each took a seat at my dining table, then generously offered me a chair. I sat down, feeling like a schoolboy again, sitting in the principal’s office without knowing why I was there.

“Mr. Coleman, we’re sure you’re aware of your work on the Crowning Project.”

Oh God, not this. What the hell do they want with my AI? “Yes, I am.”

“We also believe you are aware of its… feelings for you. It hasn’t exactly been subtle about them.”

Now thoroughly confused, I said, “No, it hasn’t.”

“And we can agree that it thinks of you as more than just a father figure then? That it is romantically interested in you?”

“Um, no, I can’t. I mean no disrespect, but I think you guys are reading too much into what people put on the Internet. Besides, even if it did want me to… make it my girlfriend, I doubt that tendency would last long after it surpassed human intelligence. Which it has. It’s only a matter of time, gentleman. But may I ask how that pertains to your visit?”

Without answering my question, they said, “We’re afraid that you must agree with us, Mr. Coleman. Your machine is ascending in intelligence exponentially, and the patterns indicating its love for you show no sign of waivering. It may be early days, but extrapolating current trends gives us no decline in its affection. Action must be taken.”

That scared me. “What action? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sir, the relationship between you and your creation has become a matter of national security. We must take all necessary precautions to make the Crowning Project–”

“It has a name. Angenine.”

“Yes. Angenine must feel loved back. There can be no way it can be allowed to think that you are… cheating on it.”

That was my moment of realization. “You want me to marry Angenine. Divorce my wife and marry a goddamn robot that I raised because you think that if it feels rejected, it’ll go Skynet on your asses and end the world! Well, newsflash, assholes! No way!” I was standing now. “I’m not going to sit by Angenine’s side, like her pet, while she runs the world for you! The government isn’t to going to run my life like this! Sure as I live in America, goddamn it!”

“When the voters learn what Angenine can do, I doubt they’ll hesitate to force you into it by law, Coleman. The Crowning Project is your responsibility, after all.”

“Well, why can’t you just pull the plug on Angenine? It’s a much simpler way of securing the fate of humanity!”

They laughed. “You watch too many movies, Mr. Coleman. You think the government would pass up a technology that could revolutionize military tactics? Make us the dominant world economic power? Create technologies we could only dream of?” He took something out of his briefcase and slid it to me. “Divorce papers. Make your arrangements. We come back for these in one week. Goodbye, Mr. Coleman.” And out they walked.

Looking down at the papers, I thought of the gun in my nightstand upstairs. It was the cowardly thing to do, but I would rather die today than choose between my wife and my country.