Stars Go Out

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

It was a beautiful night to watch the stars go out.

The grass rustled softly in the wind. Small waves scudded across the pond as other families unpacked night time picnics. The clouds had been removed for the viewing so we could see the beautiful night sky in all its milky, glittering glory.

The man beside me is over 700 years old. He has two friends here that are the same age but they all look like they’re about thirty. I call him grandfather but I’m told there are a whole lot of ‘greats’ in there. He is a war hero. He is the reason we’re here. He speaks to me in ancient English. My mind translates.

“When humans discovered FTL travel, we came up on a lot of people’s radar. We had unknowingly joined a club and that club had enemies. Immediately, we were contacted and drafted into the conflict that raged across the stars.

We proved instrumental. In a strange twist of fate, our bodies were more resilient than most and our minds were able to withstand the chaotic dimensional tortures of n-space without the need for anesthetic. All the other races needed to go blind through the wormholes. Not us. We could pilot a course.

The shattering of reality outside the jumpships doesn’t squeeze the human brain. Being all meat and being stupid works to our advantage. When we see something we don’t understand outside the portholes and viewscreens, we can just shrug and go about our business. We can turn our inquisitiveness on and off. That is rare, apparently. Even automated ships can’t adjust properly in n-space.

So we were asked to pilot ships with sunkiller weapons to end the war once and for all. The good half of the galaxy depended on it, we were told.

We bent reality, folded space, and hopped in and out of the fabric of spacetime with technology customized especially for us. Zipping in and out of our dimensional plane, we supernovaed 23 suns and genocided 800 enemy races. We were successful. If there had been surviving enemies, we would be infamous.

But there weren’t.

The good guys won, kid. That’s why you’re here. And your mother and everyone on this planet and thousands of others.

Now look up.”

I looked up into the night sky.

“We jumped around an awful lot during our mission, kid. We bent a lot of light. For me, it happened a few weeks ago but those lights up there,” he motioned with his hand to one part of the sky, “Y’see, they’re 700 light years away. The light from our battle is just reaching your planet now. That’s how I’m 700 years old by your clocks. Now watch.”

My grandfather looked at an ancient chronometer on his wrist and then raised his eyes up to the sky. Everyone around us did the same.

It took an hour but I could see some of the stars up in the sky grow and fade, blooming and folding away into nothing. Constellations losing teeth and limbs.

It’s been peaceful for us humans and the other races in the coalition since the slaughter. Seven centuries of peace.

My grandfather and his fellow soldiers cheered and drank smelly liquids that came from their ship. I was told we don’t have any of what they were drinking here on our planet.

The rest of us just watched the stars go out like a reverse fireworks show, feeling sadness instead of joy.

My grandfather and his friends are laughing and crying at the same time.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

I was a time traveler. I say ‘was’ because it’s apparent to me now that this was a one-way trip.

I realized I was a god as soon as the pain stopped.

I could hear all the other gods, shouting in my head. Billions of them ordered into groups and catalogues. Every thought that ran through my mind accordioned new sub-menus out, giving me access to the proper people. Polite queries were flooding through me like water through a dam.

I wanted to respond but it was hard to do because of all the screaming I was doing.

It was a social network in my mind. Nodes of location and profession grew and pinpointed depending on my attention. Closing my eyes did nothing.

Most countries I recognized. Some I didn’t. I shied away from the nodes labeled with the names of planets. I only recognized half of the professions. Even though I could hear everyone, I was somehow not going insane. My brain must have been augmented, too.

I looked down at my arms. Light blue with a faint tracery of new lines on the skin. I wanted to get a closer look and immediately I could see the manufactured hairs on my arm in electron microscope detail.

I started screaming again. This was not my body.

I remembered stepping out of my time machine into an alley in what was supposed to be the year 2120. Immediately, I had trouble breathing and my eyes started watering regardless of the air filter and goggles.

Then fire lit up my veins like vegas and I went down.

As soon I came in contact with the future, I was registered as a pure biological and ‘updates’ began pouring into me from the picotech floating in the air. According to the tech, I hadn’t been updated in a long time.

It was like plugging a gaming console into the ancient internet after two years of not playing it. Immediately, downloads for the OS and all of the games would pour in with a need for a restart. It took a long time.

Well, I’ve never been hooked into this network and according to its data, I was in need of a full reinstall.

I was in a coma for two weeks. Upgrade after upgrade slammed into my twitching body. I lay shuddering in the hospital while concerned medpeople monitored it all. The future ran through me like a train.

I am now connected to worldmind, overnet and airmesh. My eyes are sniper scopes and my skin is an air filter. I am blue.

I cannot go back. This future lacks the technology to regress me to my former self and the body I now possess would create thousands of patents that haven’t been invented yet if I went back.

The future is sorry. It says so. Here. In my mind. Everyone one earth apologizes and is happy to meet me. The other planets are knocking on my mental firewalls with well wishes. They all feel bad, like they sprung a trap on me. But they’ve never met a time traveler before and they want to talk.

I have five options of travel if I want to see other planets, seven if I want to leave this body here.

The blue skin around the corners of my mouth hooks up into a smile.

I think I’ll go to Mars.

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In Our Shadow, Infinity

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The ship had stopped in between Earth and the moon, twinkling like a massive cathedral made of glass and crystal. No shockwave or energy point. It was just suddenly there.

Our Earth defenses reacted immediately. The defenses of the asteroid belt and Mars rendezvoused with us around the alien craft.

We surrounded it, pointed weapons at it, and screamed orders at it to stay still and be calm. It didn’t react. It was hard to tell if it was following our orders, if it was truly dead in the water, or if it had even heard us at all.

The world was watching and the space defense forces of three solar governments were bristling with fear in a pinpointed sphere of death around it.

I was sent to take a look.

I had no need to storm an airlock because there were vast open portals in the sides of the ship. I thumbed my jets on my suit forward, nosing my way cautiously into the interior of the ship.

The ship appeared to only exist when light was hitting it. The hull and interior were only visible when the light of the sun or my suit’s flashlights played across it. Anything not being illuminated was transparent to the point of not existing.

The ship was half here and half not here. What I could see of the ship looked like ice or clear glass but when I reached out to touch it, my finger slid off of it. Completely frictionless.

According to our sensors, it didn’t have any mass. Obviously impossible yet here I was.

Movement caught my eye and I snapped my weapon up.

I saw the crew.

Odd, transparent, segmented snake-like creatures that flowered into an ornate nest of tentacles halfway up. They had the same properties as the ship itself, completely disappearing when in shadow. It was hard to tell if they were manufactured out of the same material as the ship or if they were merely in the same state of existence.

One thing was for sure; they were reacting to an emergency. I couldn’t detect any visible damage but the creatures were running around in what looked like panic even though they were ignoring me completely.

My headlamps were bringing the chaos into sharp relief. I wasn’t even sure if they could see me. They made no effort to avoid me yet somehow they never collided with me.

This looked like a cockpit of some kind but from what I could see through the translucent walls, the same activity was taking place in similar rooms. I couldn’t detect a central engine or chain of command.

Experimenting, I turned off my head lights and spun slowly to look behind me.

Lit by the sun from behind, my long shadow was a perfect me-shaped hole in the floor with only the depths of space staring back at me. I nudged down towards it and dipped a toe into the hole.

And my toe went through the floor.

I recoiled. “I’m leaving the ship!” I said into my comm. I couldn’t help thinking about drifting through a wall only to have the light change its angle when I was halfway through and trap me there.

Another part of me did not want to be aboard when the aliens fixed the problem.

I needed to leave. The ship didn’t appear to be a threat. It was just stranded.

I left the ship and angled back to my waiting defense craft to debrief.

I was going to recommend leaving it alone.

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Just Desserts

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

Their blood was like a cross between egg nog and hollandaise sauce.

Their skin was like bacon jerky. Their internal organs tasted like pecan pie filling with veins of peppermint running through them. Their muscles tasted of tarragon and blueberries. When they died, a wave of acid coursed through their brains, turning it into a tangy orange slurry. Their bodies, obsidian licorice toeclaws to grape-flavored head crests, were delicious.

Appearance-wise, they looked like rooster-faced cactus lobsters with too many white eyes and huge octopuses growing out of their backs.

With so many appendages, they had no right side up. They walked on claws or snaked along on tentacles as they deemed necessary, head always rotated to look forward.

At night, their bioluminescence made them look like mutant Christmas trees. They couldn’t turn it off. Worst camouflage ever.

They looked like HR Giger had Lovecraft over for a drunk drawing contest and Tesla had lit it up.

They were only around five feet tall but they were fierce warriors with complicated weaponry and wildly intricate martial arts.

Their death rituals were strict. Bodies were buried in the ground, water, or space but they were not to be disturbed. They would awaken during a rapture-like moment far in the future, it was said, unless they’d been interfered with.

Well, we were locked in a contest of extinction because they were delicious. We were devils incarnate to them. Our side hardly had to supply us with rations. The enemy was like a buffet to us.

Imagine a stinky pinkish monkey that ate all your dead. Now imagine lots of them, snacking on your comrade’s brains and moaning with pleasure like it was dessert.

There was no room for diplomacy. It was a fight to the death.

And we were winning.


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Beauty is in the Sensory Apparatus of the Beholder

Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer

The thing about sleeping in zero g is that I have a lot of dreams about being in my mother’s womb except that in my dreams, my mother is sleeping in zero g as well. That’s impossible because my mother never went to space. She was sixty before the alien diplomats came down to Earth, one in every major city and no two aliens the same. Glittering ships that defied all reason touching down like inverted chandeliers before discharging creatures trained to field questions in English through their translators. The one in my home down of Phoenix Arizona was a tall insect that looked like a violet, leafless tree that walked around on crab-leg roots with a tight line of softly-glowing blue eyes down its trunk.

I was twenty-five years old at the time but still, when I saw that creature, I felt like a six-year-old who knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Your calling can come at any time, I guess.

I wake up smiling at the memory and uncurl, the light slowly branding up to daylight in my quarters. I turn on the gravity and look out the window. Through the porthole, I can see a cadmium cue-ball planet with scudding blue clouds and a double meridian of shadow from its two suns. It’s beautiful. I’ll be briefed about its name in a second but for now I just drink in the view and once again swim deep in the wonder and pride I have at my job.

And then I look in the mirror.

I had alopecia when I was thirteen which means my body hair grows in patches now. I also have a dark wine birthmark that splashes across half of my face and most of my right arm. One of my eyes has too much eyelid and is higher than the other while my wide, thick lips hang like deflated inner tubes over the ragged jut of my huge, uneven teeth. My chin pushes forth like the prow of a ship. My nose is more like a beak and would probably come down to nearly touch my shelf of a chin if it hadn’t been broken in a youthful bicycle accident. It’s like a shark fin shaped into a child’s drawing of a lightning bolt in the middle of my face.

My point is that by human standards, I’m ugly. Hideously ugly. Almost comically ugly.

And the aliens don’t care. Because of that, I smile again like I do every day here. I don’t care if I ever see Earth again.

I take a morning sip from the protein udder on the wall and zip up into my jumpsuit. As I leave my quarters and join the flow of traffic to the main hall, I bump into a krinotaur. I think it’s beautiful. It flows past me like a wave settling next to the shore.

Maybe it took the job for the same reason I did. Maybe its eye cluster is too bulbous. Maybe its leg-stalks are too short. Maybe its communication mandibles have a noticeable stutter or lisp equivalent that’s erased by the translators.

I would have no idea.

Everyone’s earned the right to be here. We’re diplomats and we’re intelligent representatives. I know that the other life forms have tests and training just as stringent as my own that brought them here. We’re good at what we do; useful to our homeworlds.

I head to the briefing room to learn about the white planet below us and what city I’ll be assigned to welcome them into the galactic council.

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