The Sisters of Light

Author : J.R.Blackwell, Staff Writer

The Sisters of Light arrived for my mother when I was eleven years old. Their robes flashed like light in a storm, shifting and unexpected. My mother welcomed them into our home. She knew why they were there but she acted like it was just a social call, smiling like they were old friends.

My mother had been a devotee of the order when she was a girl. Many proper young women became devotees before the war. Mother said that in her time, girls could leave just before they took the Oaths, before they would be sealed into service, the claws embedded in their skulls. Her parents thought that she could secure a good marriage coming from the Order, and they made great financial sacrifices for her proper upbringing. She got her good marriage, not to a wealthy man, but to a noble one. Then the war broke out and the Sisters sought old devotees for service.

Getting out of service was easy for folk that had money, that could pay the tithe towards the war effort that ensured members of the family could stay home. Father and mother hadn’t been able to pay the tithe to the government that year. They had lived on a blank hope that no one in our family would get chosen by the lottery for service. My father told me that it hadn’t been the first year they weren’t able to make tithe, but it was the only one I remember.

Two Sisters came into my home that day. Overkill. It was more than enough to convince us. One would have sufficed, a young disciple would be enough to make it known that my mother was to come, but they wanted to make a point, they wanted the family, the neighborhood to understand the price.

My mother served them tea they did not drink and gathered a pack of possessions she knew would be stripped from her in days. She called sister and I to her and hugged us. She gripped my shoulder so hard I thought I would cry. She said it wouldn’t be long before she came home again and not to worry. After ten minutes, the Sisters announced in their one, hard voice that they would be leaving now. My mother held my fathers hand until she was out the door. My father clasped the empty air, his hand opening and closing, watching the ship of the Sisters depart.

Two weeks later the Sisters sent a letter inviting my sister to come to school. My father burned the letter in front of us. We watched it smolder in the bathtub, the paper curling and glowing till it turned to cinders.

“If I went, do you think I would see mom?” asked my sister.

“No.” I said “I don’t think we’ll see mom again for a long time.” I didn’t tell her that we might never see mum again, that she might die in the war. Nobility can’t be drafted, but my mother wasn’t nobility. She had just married nobility.

When I was old enough, I applied to military school. When I entered service, my family could petition the government to return mother. My father begged me not to go. He hit me for the first time when I told him my mind couldn’t be changed. It took him a day, after I left, to petition the government for my mother. They returned her after I had served a year, after I was committed fully and her mind was gone.

They gave my family back an empty shell.

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Meeting Vanya

Author : Viktor Kuprin

October 30, 1961 – Five aircraft rose into the arctic sky from the Olyena airbase, headed northeast over the Barents Sea, towards the frozen wastes of Novaya Zemlya Island. The largest plane, a roaring turboprop Bear bomber, carried Vanya. The most beautiful, a silvery Tupolev-16 loaded with cameras and recording devices, followed the Bear. Americans called the Tu-16 “Badger”. Its Russian aircrew knew it simply as “Tupol.”

Inside the Tupol’s teardrop-shaped observation domes, Instrument Operators Pakulin and Kuchevsky tended their equipment and counted the minutes.

“Did you notice Pilot-Commander Strukov?” said Pakulin.

Kuchevsky nodded. “He wasn’t quite his giddy self, was he? An improvement, if you ask me. I think he’s looking forward to meeting Vanya.”

Pakulin stared out towards the blue sky and ice-strewn sea beyond the dome’s plexiglass. “Who isn’t?”

Strukov’s voice came over the intercom. “Attention. Approaching Zone C. Make all instruments ready,” he ordered.

“Da, Comrade Commander,” both men replied. The well-practiced sequence of toggling switches and closing circuits began. Pakulin could feel his heavy SMENA cine-camera hum as its film came up to speed. Kuchevsky prepared to trigger the banks of stop-motion cameras.

The Badger tracked north over the sea, while the Bear carried Vanya inland across the Sukhoi Nos, the “Dry Nose” Peninsula. Inside other aircraft, within bunkers and fortifications, behind walls of stone and rock, thousands waited for Vanya.

“Mark! Everyone, goggles on!” Strukov shouted. Miles away, Vanya fell free from the Bear bomber. The huge plane turned back toward the sea in a dash to safety. From Vanya’s flanks emerged a 54,000-square-foot parachute, to slow the descent enough so that the Bear would not be sacrificed.

Strukov counted down: “Pyat. Chetíreh. Tree. Dva. Odeen. NOL!”

Thirteen-thousand feet above the icy, stony plain, the largest thermonuclear device in the history of the world exploded. Four-thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima, the triple-layer fission-fusion-fusion reaction created a fireball over four miles in diameter. The flash of white light was visible 1600 miles away.

For Pakulin and Kuchevsky, for all aboard the Badger, it was the light from hell that would not stop. The entire horizon was a blinding wall of white heat.

The shock wave threw Pakulin forward, his oxygen mask smashing against the plexiglass dome. Spitting blood, vision blurred, he heard Kuchevsky screaming and felt the man’s hands slapping.

“Fire! I’m burning! Help me!”

The acintic glare of electricity arced from the floor. Pukulin instinctively kicked at the loose cables, his boots pushing them apart. He yanked a fire-extinguisher off the cabin wall, aiming its white spray at the wires and Kuchevsky’s still-smoking pant legs.

Kuchevsky sobbed, pointing toward the mushroom cloud risen seven times higher than Mount Everest.

“Look! They’ve killed the world!”

And yet, despite the nuclear scars inflicted by Vanya, remembered afterwards as the “Tsar Bomba,” life on Earth carried on.

But as the world healed, the bomb’s powerful X-ray pulse raced across the depths of space. Forty-six years later, in the star system called 26 Draconis, someone took notice.

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Butterfly Phoenix

Author : Lirael

“What’s your name?”

“Butterfly. Butterfly Phoenix.”

“Well, that’s a stupid name.”

Butterfly heard that a lot. Being only five years old, she took the insults rather well. She never even thought to change her name. She loved it. Her mother told her that her Daddy, a famous airship pilot, had given it to her when she was born, and that he’d renamed his ship just for her. Butterfly often saw her father on the television and in the newspapers, standing proudly next to his ship, the Butterfly.

Captain Phoenix ran one of the most successful trade companies on the planet, and stood at the head of an entire fleet of airships. The money poured into his accounts, and his personal accountants divided up the profits.

Being five, Butterfly wasn’t interested in the money or politics of her father’s company. Those were grown-up things. Instead, Butterfly liked to watch her father’s ships on screen. Seeing the beautiful colours of the decorated sails that they used, the flags, and the bright, shimmering designs painted across their hulls gave her a sense of pride.

The pilots and crews were always immaculate in uniforms of different colours, each individual to their ship. Those ships were her inspiration. Butterfly spoke of nothing else. Her mother, a patient, gentle woman, did her best to interest Butterfly in things more appropriate for her age and gender, but she simply refused. For her last birthday, Captain Phoenix had given her a small model of the Butterfly, and today, she had brought it to school. She’d been thrilled when someone noticed it.

“I want to fly one of my daddy’s ships someday. See, this is the one he flies now. It’s named after me.”

“I know that ship. It’s on my daddy’s plasma all the time. Captain Phoenix is the greatest airship pilot in the world!”

“I know! He gave me this ship for my birthday.”

“He did not!”

“Did too!”

“Let me see it, then!” By now, a crowd had clustered around Butterfly, and the dark-eyed boy who had approached her. Butterfly shook her head, her black hair swinging back and forth over her shoulders.

“No, I’m not allowed to let anyone else touch it.” She turned away to shield her prize, and the boy gave her a push.

“Let me see!”

“No!” Butterfly stepped back, and squared herself. The boy pushed her again, but Butterfly didn’t move. She held her ship in one hand, and balled the other into a fist. “You leave me alone, or else!”

“Shut your mouth, Butterfly! If you won’t let me see your stupid ship, I’ll just take it!” The boy lunged at Butterfly, and reached for her ship. Shocked at his boldness, she stumbled, and he took hold of her model, ripping it from her hands. One of the flags broke off, and clattered to the playground pavement.

“You broke it!”

“Hah, this piece of junk was going to fall apart anyway!” Lifting it over his head, the boy hurled Butterfly’s ship as far away as he could. It smashed into the ground, and shattered. Butterfly felt a lump form in her throat, and her eyes burned with tears. Without thinking, she took that fist she’d made, and launched herself forward, striking a punch across the boy’s face, his nose crunching from the impact.

The playground monitor was upon them in moments.

“Butterfly! You broke poor Darrin’s nose!”

“Yes, well,” Butterfly paused, giving Darrin a cold stare, “that piece of junk was going to get broken sooner or later.”

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Post War Man

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I’m surprised you decided to come out here. No, no – I’m happy you did, just surprised. Your drink ok? Good.

You must find me fascinating, kind of the poster boy for post war re-creation. I’m not the only one you know, there are a lot more soldiers just like me.

All of this… equipment that keeps me alive, these legs that I’m walking on, the tube that I piss through… it’s the best that our government can buy. The best. Sure, they can buy bombs the size of buses, and bullets that shoot through tanks, but this – this is the state of the post-war medical art right here. No expense is too great when it comes to caring for our soldiers. That’s so damn true. No expense, and even that was too great.

You like me? You like this fucking machine they made me?

I did three tours, three goddamned tours. Do you know why? Do you know what kept me going back? Because after every one, when I got home, nobody could understand. You think you’re just like us, but we’ve experienced war, and you have no idea. I was just numb, and distant, always anxious. I’d go on week long benders, try to completely self destruct, and my girlfriend would make excuses, say it was ok, that it was normal. It’s not normal. The only way I could cope, the only way to get back to my new normal was to soldier up and go back to the front.

When that car bomb blew me in half, and they bolted all this shit onto me, they said I was all better, but I was no longer ‘suitable for re-deployment’. I’m supposed to just be ‘retired’ now.

Every friend I ever had, every connection I could ever manage with another human being, they cut me off, just like they cut my fucking legs off. They’re over there, deployed, and I’m stuck here, drinking in the Vet hall with you pencil pushing assholes. You want to write a story about me? You want to show the world the ‘face of the post war man’? Screw you. We fought to protect your freedoms in countries we’d never even heard of while you stayed home and wrote about how horrible the war is. You didn’t have the balls to serve, and you come here to make an example out of me? I bought these stripes with blood and honor, and for what? ‘Retirement’? And what am I to you? A story? I don’t think so.

You’re going to mean so much more to me.

You look tired. Don’t worry, it’s all ok. I’m going to give you a chance to do your part for the war effort.

Don’t get up. I know, you can’t. You’ve had the use of a perfectly good body for the whole war, and you’ve just been here pissing it away.

I’m not going to let it go to waste.

Go on, close your eyes. The Doc’s going to put you to good use. There are guys like me dying for what you’ve got; good heart, clean liver, working eyes. What the government can’t produce, the black market can provide. Here’s your chance to be a real contributor. Me? You’re going to make me a whole soldier again, and when they’re done stitching me back together, I’m going to march right back into the recruiting office and catch me a ride on the next transport back to my boys.

Not to worry. The government will just bury what’s left of you. That’s what they do.

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The Dream of Terraforming Venus

Author : Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer

Cody Starr, the seventy-fifth Director of The Venusian Terraforming Program, removed his foot-gear and waded into the warm Venusian Ocean on the western shore of New America. The sun very slowly inched its way above the western horizon to begin the long Venusian day (equal to 243 Earth days). Eventually, he thought, we will have to do something to shorten the day to something more reasonable, or more importantly, to shorten these long, cold Venusian nights. But that would be a task for future Directors. Right now, Cody just wanted to bask in the warmth of the abnormally large sun (38% larger than it appears on Earth), and to listen to the rumble of crashing waves. Occasionally, the wind blown spray would reach his lips. How unusual, he thought, a fresh water ocean. That may take getting used to. As the sun rose on this new day, Cody allowed his mind to reflect back on the long journey that brought humanity to this unlikely shoreline…

It was over 1000 years ago that Planetologist Philip Gregory began the construction of The Great Solar Shade. The GSS, which orbited Venus like an opaque cylindrical version of Saturn’s rings, performed three primary functions:

1) It blocked most of the heat being delivered by the swollen sun.

2) It powered the converters that obtained breathable oxygen from Venus’ thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, and finally

3) Over the next eight centuries, it meticulously scooped up the rarified upper atmosphere of Venus, and gradually dissipated it into space in an effort to reduce the overall atmospheric density from 90 to 1.2 times Earth normal.

Then, two centuries ago, Dillon Holder began the process of corralling thousands of ice-asteroids to create Venus’ ocean. It was no easy feat to develop the technique that would shepherd over one billion cubic kilometers of ice from the asteroid belt down to the Venusian surface, while carefully avoiding the GSS on the way.

Just five decades ago, the Solar Shade was changed from opaque to semi-transparent, to gradually permit more sunlight to reach the surface. The Shade was also heavily magnetized to provide shielding from the potentially deadly solar wind, and cosmic rays. The planet was then seeded with a verity of hybrid plants and algae to remove most of the remaining carbon dioxide, and to provide the foundation of the planet’s food chain. Thirty years later, small animals and fish were introduced. Recently, robots began farming, and building the infrastructure that would be needed to support eventual human colonization. But for now, Cody was content to watch the genetically bioengineered birds dive into the ocean to catch the genetically boiengineered fish. Off in the distance, he could see…

“Cody. Cody.” Who could be calling him, he wondered? He turned to look toward the distant dunes. Nobody was there, but he could hear faint traffic sounds: cars, trucks, horns, and sirens.

“Cody. Scott will be here in 10 minutes. Life insurance doesn’t sell itself you know. You’ve got quotas to meet. Let’s go.”

Through his squinted eyes, Cody could see his wife pull back the bedroom curtains, exposing the smog-covered skyline of Los Angeles in the distance. He buried his face in his pillow. “Nooooo.”

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