Plant Sequoias

Author: Phoebe Wagner

The saplings haven’t grown. This is expected.
We are prepped on day one—you will not see progress. Expect none. For this reason, the deployments are for three years. The generational weight was too much for the initial ten-year rotations.
We brag and boast—we could do it, plant the tiny green bursts for weeks, months, years, a decade. We know we don’t plant for our children or grandchildren. We plant for the millennia—and the next.
We walk the dusty loam in deerhide slippers, heavy skin bags slung across out shoulders, hefting found metal tools, fire-hardened wooden shovels, and spades.
The first month, we ache with the weight of roots.
Now, our moods lightning with the saplings bags until a starscape of green stretches behind.
Sometimes, we unearth a stump. According to the elders, the sequoias were some of the last to be harvested, but when whole cities died of the cold, when no materials remained to build storm shelters, when another hurricane was swirling inland—they came for majesty.
People died for the trees. Chained themselves, defended with guns, committed mass suicide. The trees became gods to some, ghosts to others, and survival for many.
We’ve never seen a live one, just the stumps unearthed from the loam and dust the roots once held in place.
The stumps were hacked to spindles. Sometimes, a hallowed, blackened center speaks to final fires in the California winters that never should have grown so cold.
The stumps tell a story of time. As we shed our bags and scoop away the dirt, it is a broken map appearing between our fingers. A maze of promises past—of breath and shade and all that shade breeds, of moss and leaves turning to hummus and leaves eaten from stems by insects now lost.
Each ring is a word in a poem, and as we shoulder our bags, as we scoop holes and ease in the saplings’ roots, we record the first line.

Evenfall

Author: Kevlin Henney

The first sun set behind the mountains before she turned to look across the plain to the darker sky opposite. A new star had appeared on the horizon. Rising in counterpoint to the evening suns, it scored a white trail across the sky, dividing the world above in two. Then one new star became two, became three…

By second sundown the sky was combed with light, tidy parallels painted up from the edge of the plain, over and down to a ragged leading edge that chased the remaining sun into night.

By the curtain fall of third sundown they had caught up, completing their arc across the sky. The gone embers of suns were replaced by a blue–white glow. It was not the loss of sunlight that chilled her skin.

When had the ground started to hum? She felt it before she knew it. She felt the fear before she could think what to do.

The children? She could have gone back inside to wake them, to take them to the shelter, to tell them everything would be all right, to again wrap the truth in comfort and lies while holding them tight. The false promise that they could outrun everything that had happened to them. Outrun a marriage divided by war. Outrun a war dividing worlds, engulfing family after family, system after system.

The hum grew to rumbling harmonies, the horizon’s glow burst into a false and unstopping sunrise that reached up to swallow the painted streaks and remaining sky, that bled over the mountains, melting them as it flowed.

The sanctuary of this outermost system had fallen. An end approached her faster than sound. There would be no more running.

She would not wake the children. A lasting sleep was the peace she could finally give them.

Pneuma

Author: Caius Finswith

“The trick is you can’t look right at them: not like you ever could,” my partner said.

It was my latest job on Parrhesia 9 and it was all about the exotics. Transporting everything from radioactive waste to actual grass-fed beef, I’d seen just about everything. Over the course of my 6 years working on the Penny Lou transport, I’d seen my fair share of exotics too. Exotics seemed like a writhing kaleidoscope: fantastic creatures that morphed, melded and mutated into colorful beasts the human eye was never meant to see.

Pneumas were different though; no eye had been meant to see them and strangely none ever had. They seemed to be magnetically pulled to humans but it was only just possible to glimpse them out of the corner of your eye. In that heartbeat it took you to focus, they’d have flitted off to the other corner of your vision. There was never any certainty if the reflection of that old crimson sun or an oddly out of place shadow could be one of those phantoms. Parrhesia 9’s air was humid with them, wisping tantalizingly about. While our sensors were blind to them, the only thing that could perceive those phantasms were the one thing they seemed made to avoid: the eye. Because of that, we were planetside trying to cage one. Harmlessly swinging our carroll batons at a hazy half seen flicker, we desperately tried to herd, even accidentally, one into our pens.

No one was quite sure what the Pnuemas might be good for. Something so swirlingly mysterious must be beautiful when finally seen. Perhaps science could find a long-awaited answer among the doubtless thousand questions raised. At its core, the expedition was fueled by greed and a chance to monetize something about the being.

We wasted countless hours trying to catch one, all so someone else could profit. Although we had failed to catch one and the corporation was hemorrhaging funds, I couldn’t care less. What I wanted, was to see what others had only dreamed to know: the full Pneuma form. My last night planetside it happened. The corporation had ended our contract and shamelessly retreated in defeat leaving us to make our own way home.

It could have been a summer zephyr or lover’s kiss that awoke me but it was more tender. With an antithetical stillness, a Pneuma floated inches from my face. Like gasping a deep breath before going underwater, I desperately tried to memorize those gracefully slow currents and radiant edges. The natural elegance of something so ephemeral yet so tangible made me stretch out my hand to prove it belonged in the world beyond my imagination. As I dipped my hand in its outer streams, it seamlessly swirled into me, becoming one with my soul.

Worry or concern was not what I felt; rather, it was the knowledge of a grandeur which couldn’t be explained. Turning inward on myself, I would begin to search my depths to find that timeless magnificence that had united with me, long after we had left Parrhesia 9.

Lexicon-9

Author: J. P. Roquard

Dirk blinked in the bright activity of the bridge. Weapons, comms, dispatch, engineering, even the navigation and FTL stations were active. They were not all needed, but nobody wanted to miss the action. A brilliant planetrise unfolded above them all: the crisp green edge of Lexicon-9, glimmering under an alien sun.
“Paradise,” muttered Dirk.
He shook away the images of wonder that planet held, and set his jaw for the task at hand.
Nobody challenged him, but the scurrying crew silently made it clear what they thought; SciCorp should not be strolling across the Captain’s bridge at a time like this.
Captain Helberg, as always, slouched in his chair, his face a mask of boredom. His passiveness incongruous with so much activity and noise. Dirk knew his boredom was a ruse. Nothing happened on the bridge without Captain Helberg noticing. Even now, in the midst of this action, the Captain monitored every station, every decision.
Dirk spoke quickly before he had time to doubt. “Captain, you must stop this.”
Captain Helberg’s voice came slow and easy when it finally came. “Did I summon SciCorp?”
“You must listen to me. My team did not create the RPD just to see it weaponized. Do you under-”
“Are you aware, Professor, that we are executing an active engagement.”
“A tech test is hardly an engag-”
“Entering the bridge without authorization during active engagement is punishable by court-martial.”
“Captain, the RPD was commissioned with the explicit assurance it would only be used for capturing and mining asteroids. SciCorp will not easily forgive this unauthorised usage.”
The Captain became an inscrutable mask. Surrounding officers stared, faces contorted in contempt, or fear, for Dirk. Sweat trickled down Dirk’s back. Perhaps it was a mistake to be so public in his protests? What would time in the brig do to his career?
The Captain smiled, his face lit up as he chuckled. “My dear Professor, have no fear. I assure you, we are not testing any weapons today.”
The air around Dirk deflated. “You’re not?”
“No, we are not. The population of Lexicon-9 have made it abundantly clear they don’t trust us. Testing weapons in low orbit would be a terrible provocation. Who knows how they would react? No. Nobody in the Admiralty would allow such a stupid mistake.”
“Oh,” was all Dirk could manage. His anger dissipated, leaving him impotent and embarrassed, among all these busy people. “That’s good. But what… what is everyone doing? Why were all the RPD units deployed?”
An insistent beeping cut across the bridge. Everyone fell silent.
“Look,” said Captain Helberg.
A single line of fire streaked across the dark side of Lexicon-9: a shooting star, tracing its beautiful arc across the planet’s night side. It winked out, burned to nothing in the atmosphere. A second line of fire appeared. Then another, and another, brighter this time. A dozen lines danced across the planet, burning through the sky.
The biggest one didn’t streak, it hit the atmosphere with a boom. Dirk couldn’t hear it, obviously, but he could see the shockwaves ripple through the stratosphere. The gigantic ball of rock and ice burst apart, the pieces leaving heavenly columns of fire as they fell to the surface.
“My god,” said Dirk. “But… you said….”
“But nothing,” said Captain Helberg. “I said there was no test, Professor. This is not a test. This is our first, and last, strike against Lexicon-9. Congratulations, you will be remembered forever because of this.”
A thousand lines crisscrossed Lexicon-9, and answering back from the surface, the sprouting of a thousand little mushrooms of fire and dust.

The Minute Case of the Speaking Ship

Author: Amelia Brown

On the first day of the transport job, I stepped off the docking bay, heard the door seal airtight behind me, and then the ship jumped.
Which came as a surprise to me. I was supposed to be the one flying the ship. And I hadn’t sat down yet. Not to mention the fact that it was a single-rider vessel and I was staring at an empty pilot’s chair.
I’d like to say I panicked, sat down, and got a grip on the ten tons of fiber-alum steel. It could have saved me a conversation. But instead, all I felt was my brow crease as I watched the stars whip past like tiny streaks of light.
‘Hello?’ I said to the vacant space around me like an idiot.
‘Hi,’ a voice came back. It reverberated around the cabin, as though the sound came from everywhere. That was when I started to panic.
I turned around and stood with my back to the star-studded glass shield. It looked exactly the same as it had before the ship jumped: empty.
‘I, uh,’ I said in the beautiful, coherent prose that came to me naturally. ‘Let’s just hold…’ I tried again, but of course, I needed a question that got to the root of the situation. ‘Did you just make the ship jump?’ I finally asked.
‘Yep,’ came the voice again.
Tension started building just behind my eyes, as my hand inched toward the laser hanging off my hip.
‘And you would be?’ I kept my tone steady and unphased, but I was definitely phased.
‘Stan.’
‘Uh, Stan, is it? Tell me, Stan, did I plug in a personal computer chip?’ I asked Stan casually while beads of sweat began to spread across my body.
‘Nope,’ Stan said.
‘Alright, Stan,’ I said, my fingers gripping my laser’s handle. ‘Do you think you could do me a favor and turn the ship around?’
And that was when Stan began to laugh. A slow, maniacal chuckle that grew deeper, faster, and caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand straight up.
But then, I heard it. The clink of metal on metal.
I strode over and whipped open the e-vac closet. A tiny personnel tech was squatting inside holding a broadcast comm-link hacked into a panel computer; his cackle slowed, then died.
I stared at him, and he stared back.
It was less than a second before the bastard turned the ship around. But I had to hand it to him; all in all it was an interesting first day.