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.
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.
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.
‘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.
Author: Adrian L. Cook
Avian changed rapidly, seemingly at will. The cobalt blue feathers shielding her arms shifted to red, with crimson ends, the tip of each slightly darker, slightly shinier than the rest of the feather. She fanned her feathers, flexing her wings. The tips flashed in the sunlight as they spread.
Bree gasped. She noticed. Is that the word? Yes. She noticed the change and… thought? Yes. She thought that Avian must be a magician. Avian, with the pink feathered hair; she was tall and air-worthy. Her re-coloration complete, Avian gave a percussive “Ha!,” blew a kiss to Bree, and took to the sky.
Bree, a young woman, slender enough and short, followed Avian’s path with her enormous eyes, lifted her strikingly beautiful face so that it too caught the sun, and raised her arms to their full extension.
Bradley flinched forward, thrust his heavy glasses up the bridge of his nose, and stared at the screen. He had not given her command. His hands were too busy at present with the fidget device; they were nowhere near the directional keys.
An ancient console commercial replayed in his mind, ripped from the recesses of his childhood: “Sega Dreamcast: It’s thinking.”
“I think, therefore I am.”
Bree let her arms slacken as she thought about what to do next. Then she took a step, of her own volition, left leg forward, bent. She bent the right as well, crouching as though to leap.
She closed her eyes. The seed of intention drew forth 2001 videos of birds, streaming simultaneously. She smiled and spread her arms.
Bree focused. Is that right? Yes. She focused. At first, she drew up the image of Neil Young captured in silhouette on the cover of Harvest Moon, the fringe of his trademark jacket hanging like feathered wings. A perfect bridge, still human in form, but becoming. She narrowed her intention, downloaded footage of the eagle, the turkey buzzard, the red-tail hawk, the migrant swallow, of bird after bird in flight, until she settled on it. Yes, she thought, that was the one.
It did not hurt when the feathers sprouted. They were grey and white, black and blue. She shook her hands as one flings water away in the absence of a hand towel and the feathers popped out one final bit, achieving their intended length. Scissortail rudders sprang from her waist, and she was magnificent.
Brad’s microbrew ran a trail from the mouth of its toppled can and dripped off the table to the floor as the user frantically pounded hotkeys. He took F keys like a pianist drives ivory, but nothing stopped the ascent. She lifted off.
Thirty seconds later, Bradley found his combo.
She laughed as she rose into the light. There were no clouds in her world; nothing stood between her and the great golden orb. Her flight was so fast, so vertical, it was as if the sun was descending to meet her, to blind her. All was brightness, wonder.
She was free.
Then the World went black.
Author: Sebastien Lacasse
They washed up sometime in the middle of the night, people said. Swollen as rags with seawater and all aglow beneath milky starlight, their bodies glistened as they crawled onto the wet sand and plopped down once free of the surf. The creatures came in every irregular shape imaginable, each one stretching a few inches, coated in thick mucus.
Anna discovered the first early that morning. The sea spray salted her eyelashes until her eyes burned. She came running down from the tall grass, leaving her parents behind in a wake of small footsteps. They trailed after her, invisible snakes winding a curved path to the sea’s edge.
The first one resembled a jellyfish. The second, some sort of eel bent into the shape of a puffy cloud. Anna crouched by one, eyeing the other thousands of glistening creatures from her peripheral.
She poked at it with a stick, watching how its skin sunk with the slightest pressure. Anna turned it over onto its back. No legs or arms. No mouth. It sat on the sand in its grim, grey-tinged silence.
“Anna! What are you doing?” her mother said.
“Nothing!” she lied.
But Anna reached out one sandy finger to touch the thing, just to see if she was, indeed, dealing with nothing. Her skin met its cold, wet flesh and everything flashed an opaque, blinding white.
She swam in this whiteness for a time, looking about for her parents, for the beach, for anything familiar to her. Anna called out to the void, but the whiteness soaked up the sound. Utterly alone she swam on, bound up by the nothingness around her, made free by it too.
A dim color, like a drop of ink on paper, appeared somewhere in the vastness. A faint blue dot that swelled until it was the size of an ocean, until it was the ocean. Peach-colored sand flowed beneath her and met with the ocean again. The little cloud creatures—or maybe jellyfish creatures, she hadn’t decided yet—appeared like stars with the waning of the sun.
Anna stood up, though the world looked different now. Her feet dug deeper into the sand than before, her back stood longer and straighter. Her whole posture was more sure of itself, a new confidence in the leaner, taller body she possessed now.
Sand squashed under purposeful feet behind her. The sound of her parents coming to her side.
“Anna, you’re—” her mother caught those remaining words with a hand over her mouth.
Anna looked down at her body, too long now to really belong to her. Touching the creature pulled her through time like some tugboat of the soul. The future tied a tether to her navel and brought her here to this moment, but her parents still had the smooth faces of youth.
Anna’s father, a man with wide stone hands, took his daughter by the shoulders and looked her up and down. His eyes washed over her from head to toe, then their tide shifted to the sand and the small, grey fish lying there.
It glistened like wet diamonds, taunting them to prod it, to touch it again. He would read later about the futurefish, how they washed up unannounced on shores across the world. He would read how they made strange things happen when touched and that it was best to stay away until their effects could be better understood.
Then he would look at his daughter—all of four years old, but in a body thirty years older—and wonder why he insisted on going to the beach that morning.