We Stand on Guard for Thee

Author: Bill Cox

I wake up drowning, fluid choking my lungs. I sit up and vomit, every part of my body heaving, liquid gushing from my mouth onto the floor. I gradually become aware, with each convulsion, of a voice, speaking softly, soothingly, the same words on a loop.

“Please don’t be alarmed. You are awakening from suspended animation. Any difficulties you are experiencing will soon pass.”

Finally, after what seems an eternity, I’ve expelled most of the suspension fluid from my body. Across from me, I hear Simon still heaving.

Despite just awakening from suspension, I feel sharp and alert, the effects of the stimulants administered by my pod. This is just as well, as we’ll only have been wakened if combat is imminent.

“Report!” I manage to croak. My throat feels scraped raw.

“Unknown vessel approaching, unrecognised type, presumed hostile,” the computer replies.

We move to our duty stations. Simon, as weapons specialist, gets the anti-matter cannons charged up and prepares a targeting package. Meanwhile, I review my readouts. The approaching vessel doesn’t conform to any known type, which is unusual. Surprisingly, it’s heading straight toward us. I check that we’re still in stealth mode. We are, so should look like a random icy body, like all the others that make up the Oort Cloud. Not one that’s been hollowed out and made into a sentry post.

Yet still the ship approaches.

“Cannons all set, targeting confirmed,” says Simon, “Just give the order.”

I should tell Simon to fire, but there’s something niggling at the back of my mind. It’s something to do with the unidentified ship. The Trappists have a hive mind and don’t usually vary their ship design. A question pops into my head and I ask it.

“Computer, how long were we in suspension this time?”

“Three hundred and seven years,” is the reply.

Simon and I exchange a shocked look. The normal period between contacts is measured in months. We’ve been asleep for over three centuries.

“Incoming message, friendly codes confirmed,” the computer intones, breaking us out of our stupor.

“Sentry Post 976309A, this is United Earth vessel ‘Augustus’. I understand that you have instructions to engage vessels of the Trappist-3 species. Please be advised that this conflict ended many years ago.”

I look at Simon, seeing my shock mirrored on his face.

“Unfortunately, due to a bureaucratic error, sentry post operatives weren’t advised of the cessation of hostilities. We’ve now been sent out to correct this error.”

Simon and I sit there in stunned silence. We’ve been out here, on the edge of the solar system, standing guard for a threat that ended centuries ago.

“We’ll land and pick you up. I know this will seem disconcerting for you, but be assured you will have a place in our new society. Indeed, the good news is that, after several centuries of peace, we’ve just started a new war with another alien species. So we’ll get you sentry operatives trained up and soon it will seem just like old times for you.”

I look at Simon and he looks at me. Something unspoken passes between us and I doubt I can untangle it all. Knowing that everyone we knew is now long dead is in there, along with the fact that the world we sacrificed so much for simply forgot about us, until they realised that they needed men like us again.

What do we owe to such a world?

I give Simon a questioning look. He nods in reply. I give the command.

“Fire.”

Weeping Willow

Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

At ten minutes to noon on February 7th, 2024, a tremendous roar went up across the city of Chicago. It was a roar that many witnesses described as a “tremendous sucking sound.” People flocked to apartment and high-rise windows and rushed to the lake shore where they saw the bottom fall out of Lake Michigan. In twenty-eight minutes, the lake disappeared beneath its muddy bottom.

The disappearance of the lake was not some magician’s illusion. David Copperfield had not shown up at Grant Park and awed his audience with so grand an act of sleight of hand. Tens of thousands of people watched Lake Michigan drain away. They walked out onto the lakebed mud like Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

In the Oval Office, the president of the United States looked at photos taken by NASA. He didn’t ask if it was the Russians or the Chinese. The president knew that something like this was far beyond the capacities of any other country. But he did want answers. And he wanted them not only from NASA and the Pentagon, but from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Back in Chicago, the authorities tried in vain to keep Chicagoans out of the lake. But people were too curious to stand behind hastily erected barricades and police tape. In the balmy weather, a party atmosphere prevailed. People sang impromptu songs and tossed footballs. Even the religious stopped their praying to praise God. News crews from scores of countries broadcast the image of a festive populace and expressed their surprise at the joy people showed over what clearly was a natural disaster.

For days, much of the world riveted its attention on Chicago. Even though water had disappeared up and down the lake so that places like Milwaukee and Green Bay were bone dry, Chicago made for a better backdrop with its supertall skyline.

But most mystifying was how Lake Michigan remained dry. Somehow, Lake Superior and Huron waters did not fill the vacuum left by the desiccated lake. Crowds gathered along the Mackinac Bridge, connecting the thumb of Michigan with its upper peninsula, to stare in amazement as Lake Huron seemed suspended by the bridge, held back by some invisible hand. It was a scene out of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. A few brave souls walked down from the bridge and stood in front of a wall of water over ninety feet tall in places. Viewers from the bridge and behind television, computer, and phone screens worldwide held their breath as a crowd of people stood at the base of the wall and shoved their hands into its chill depths. One man claimed he caught the tail of a sturgeon.

*

Winter ended, and spring arrived. Lake Michigan went from muddy to dry and soon became a hazard. Drought conditions developed, and strong winds blew dust across the Michigan basin. There were days when air quality was so poor people in cities and towns on both sides of the lake had to stay indoors. Respiratory distress was chronic, and public health officials worried that silicates, metals, and fertilizers found in the lakebed would cause widespread cancer. The novelty of Lake Michigan’s disappearance wore off. Commentators compared it to the Aral Sea.

By late spring, tens of thousands of people began to flee the Lake Michigan “coast.” Cities and towns across the interior U.S. struggled to absorb the exodus. Disruptions to the supply chain of meat and pork products, caused by Chicago’s exiled workforce, created a price inflation that led to unrest in a country already enmeshed in a presidential election. The president’s chief opponent accused him of draining the lake to flood “red states” with blue state voters, thus ensuring a landslide re-election. The president dared his opponent to provide proof, but rumor and innuendo carried the day, and a plurality of voters believed that a sitting U.S. president had drained one of the great lakes.

On the campaign trail, the president asked: “Assuming I had the power to drain the lake, how do you explain my ability to keep Michigan dry? You’ve seen pictures from the Mackinac Bridge. Who is holding up all that water?”

After this speech, the president’s opponent accused him of comparing himself to God.

Meanwhile, a team of miners, engineers, and geologists from the United States Geological Survey dug several tunnels underneath Lake Michigan. They built their main tunnel along the Chicago shore since Chicagoans were the first to report hearing the lake drain away.

For months they dug horizontally and vertically, searching for any clue as to what had happened. But the team did not find anything, not even an underground reservoir.

A week before election day, an eight-year-old boy in Benton Harbor, Michigan, told his parents that a large willow tree on their property was the source of the problem. He said that if you hacked at the willow’s “legs,” water would shoot out and refill the lake. The boy’s parents thought their son was playing make believe, but he was so insistent that the father, to humor his son, took out his axe and started chopping at a large root that extended out into the lakebed. It was a gigantic root extending more than twelve feet into the Michigan barrens.

When the axe struck the leg, a tremendous shriek pierced the air. The tree began to tremble, and water shot loose from the root. Water the color of blood.

The Cosmogonist’s Tale

Author: Alastair Millar

“All of you are now old enough to learn, children. So hear how it was, and is, and will be.” The Elder settled himself into his chair and smiled benignly. He had his audience’s full attention: it was rare for grown-ups to take them seriously, and this felt like a first step into adulthood.

“In the beginning, there was nothing but formless void. The Prime Movers had no form or substance but took the void, and shaped it through their will, creating the Over-heavens and the Under-hells and all the Worlds Between. The planets, and the stars, and the galaxies, they created them, and blessed them, making every one unique.

Then the First Ones looked upon what they had wrought and took took counsel, saying “this thing we have made should not be empty”. And so each according to their own designs made beings to fill the universe – some great, and some small, some that walked, or swam, or flew, some that were bound to surfaces or planes, and some which traversed the void; they were endless in their variety, their number beyond count.”

Young faces made O’s of wonder as they tried to encompass all of what he was saying; it was beyond their imagining.

“A few among those creatures they made capable of abstract thought, so that by being aware of themselves they might also comprehend the greater glory that surrounded them. And some of these Sentients see the truth of Creation and worship their own Creator, or the assembly of Creators, while others are blind to that truth, and seek to forge new paths on their own. Who can say which bring greater joy to the First Ones, whose intentions are ineffable?

To everything a span is given, whether it be short or long. Lifetimes are measured in the revolutions of fragile planets that themselves orbit suns which are not immortal. When it became clear that our Earth was doomed, our leaders created this Generation Ship; an apt name, for it took an entire generation of the planet’s best and brightest to design, and another to build.

Your parents’ parents’ parents left their homeworld behind them, and set out into the galaxy. They were not afraid, because they knew that others awaited them in the Great Beyond. Perhaps it will even fall upon you to find them. This, then, is our place and our mission: to find other races and species, and to take our place in the family of Creation”.

He beamed at them, and answered their excited questions for another hour.

The grey-haired Captain smiled as he watched through the ship’s discreet but ubiquitous surveillance network. His old friend had made no mention of the real reasons for their exile: horror at the short-sighted greed that underpinned a series of cold and hot wars, despair as entire populations were forced into migration by shifting climates, and desperation as competition for the planet’s dwindling resources increased even while science was held up to ridicule, and its practitioners scorned.

As young men they had rewritten the general curriculum for the passengers’ children, and rejected inflicting their forebears’ bitterness on the young. Better to give them a different story, and a new purpose. Let them forget.

The great vessel powered forward into the emptiness, birthing belief, breeding hope.

Crabby

Author: Phil Temples

I was an English Lit postdoc, down on my luck—and money—when I saw an advertisement seeking test subjects for a sleep study at a local university. It paid well; well enough that I glossed over the cautionary warnings describing the potential risks and side-effects. Along with dizziness and constipation, the fine print also stated that test subjects could find themselves unconscious for prolonged periods of time. I was prepared to take those risks. I never dreamed, however, that I might sleep for a million years. That’s how long it had been, according to the creatures who were hovering over me when I woke up.

They resembled enormous hermit crabs with large pincers, complemented by rows of smaller appendages down their chests. They initially regarded me as having the mental capacity of a rock. Imagine their surprise then, when they learned that I could communicate with them telepathically. To them, long-gone H. sapiens occupied a “dead-end” rung on the evolutionary ladder while their species was currently at the top of the food chain.

“This is Earth, right?” I asked.

“If you mean the third planet orbiting the star known by the ancients as ‘Sol’—yes, it is. We call it KGGG-GRRGG-ZSSHH!” The creature created a series of short, rasping noises produced by rubbing its antennae against the ribs on one claw.

I communicated to them that their verbal communication hurt my ears.

“We’re sorry. To us, our voice is very shrill. Let us continue to communicate by thoughts only.”

“Fine by me.”

One “crabby” came up to the table and jabbed me in the arm with some sort of probe.

“Ouch!” I said loudly, pulling back. I thought it, too, along with many other impolite words that perhaps didn’t translate. Their spokesman, a crab I called Rufus, because he reminded me very much of my pet fish from high school, pulled the offending crab aside. He explained to the offender that I was a sentient being and deserved to be treated with respect.

“A thousand pardons. [Unintelligible] will not hurt you again. He didn’t realize that your shell was so thin. Nor did I. In fact, we hypothesized that your species’ structure consisted of an internal skeleton surrounded by a calcium carbonate shell. Clearly, this is not the case. May I touch your … skin?”

“Sure, as long as you don’t poke me with anything sharp.”

Rufus stroked my arm gently. I could tell he was experiencing something akin to a mixture of awe and delight.

“And all of your species—”

“We’re called humans.”

“All humans had this same composition of outer shell?”

I realized that Ruffus’ use of the past tense was apt; I was quite probably the only human being in existence.

“Yes, different colors but the same chemical makeup.”

“Extraordinary!” To emphasize the point, a crab in the back hit one of his claws against another as if beating a drum.

#

In the days and weeks that followed, I was treated civilly. They trotted me out to meetings and seminars, where I was asked hundreds of questions about humans and life on earth one million years ago. Their species could hardly fathom the idea that we had mastered space travel, walked on the moon, and explored every planet in the solar system with space probes and robots. Their claws beat and their antennae bobbed up and down in amazement when I went into detail about humankind’s accomplishments. They were anxious to know what caused our extinction and disappointed when I told them that I hadn’t a clue.

#

It’s been well over a year since I woke up in the future. I’ve been unable to make peace with the fact that I’m the only living person in existence. I am totally alone. If there was just one other person in this world—male or female, of any age, race or ethnic origin—I might reconsider. But there isn’t. There never will be.

Last month, I started the injections that they think will turn me permanently into a crustacean. I’m already developing ‘stubs’ in my head that will grow into antennae. My hands are forming into claws. My skin’s texture is hardening markedly.

To them, I’ll always look like a freak, but soon I’ll belong to a their species. I won’t be alone in the universe. Plus, I’ll never have to hunt for a knife or fork. But I will miss the days of consuming steaming plates of Chesapeake blue crabs.

Input Error

Author: Sarah Klein

Mark stared at the screen on the small object. He shook it gently. He was fascinated it was still on. An object like this from salvage, an object he didn’t recognize – it meant it had to be at least twenty years old. As he tilted it, he saw the small black squares at the top glint in the light. Ah, solar, of course. That was so rare now he had forgotten.

There was a small screen that displayed the “input error”, several rows of buttons underneath, and holes in the side where one might put specialized wires. He pressed each button one at a time, watching as “INPUT ERROR” continued to flash across the screen – it was responding, at least.

Martin turned it and looked at the holes on the side. Most of them were tiny, but there was one about the size of a pinky finger. That would be to charge it, maybe? Mark looked around, stuck it into his pocket, and remembered it was three PM and since this wasn’t something he wanted to sell at market, he would have to put it away and look for more salvage. He sighed, shifted from foot to foot, then approached the garbage pile in front of him, using his long stick to sort through.

That night he brought it down to his workshop, but the device clicked off under the artificial light. Odd. He made a mental note to bring his tool set with him to the salvage yard tomorrow, and he’d inspect it there.

He carried it out there in the pocket of his cargo pants; he could feel its heft as reassurance it was still there. When he reached the yard the sun was already high in the sky. He told himself he should get some work done before he fiddled around with it.

It was while he was poking in a pile with his stick that he absent-mindedly put his hand into the pocket containing the object. His pinky slipped into the larger hole and he twisted it around a bit, his unconsciousness picking up on how perfectly it fit. There was a strange chirpy noise emitted from the object. Then, suddenly, he felt a crushing pain sear through it, and it was trapped. Whipping his hand out, he tried to pull his pinky out by holding the object in his other hand and tugging it, to no avail. As panic started to rise in him, he felt what seemed like a tiny needle enter his finger. He felt a bit woozy and high immediately and sat down. The panic continued to hum inside him, dulled by the disorientation of whatever had entered his bloodstream, and his limbs began to feel leaden.

He gasped as he felt what must have been wires shoved into his arm. He knew because he held up his arm, and they were beginning to spike out. The injection must have been some kind of anesthetic; he still felt somewhat distant from his core of pain and he began to thrash and flail, wires erupting out of him. After agonizing minutes it stopped, with small wires snaking out of a hundred points, threaded throughout his whole body. After the acute terror subsided, he willed himself to stand up. The wires flurried, pushed themselves into the ground, and lifted him up to his leaden, clumsy legs. He lifted his hand up, and finally loosed the object from his mangled finger. As he squinted in the sunlight, a perverse blend of man and machine, he saw the words on the screen: INPUT ACCEPTED.