Manifest

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

No all-powerful deity would ever admit to this wretched rock being of its hand. What God would lay claim to its deformities and corruptions. To its cancers, to the ripe budding evil that blooms within our cells and the tumours we’ve named: Persecution, Rape and War.

No, sorry, there is no benevolent father. No light riven thing to listen as we bleat and whimper about just how unfair is our lot. There is no God. But there is something next.

I know this, for I have seen it.

They’re called operations but this sortie was anything but. Bullets make for such lousy surgeons. I can’t even remember what it was called. Operation Dismembered Carcass, perhaps.

So, anyway, I held in my hands the pathway to peace. Now melted down and forged into a very, very large gun. Really it was huge and well, anyway, my… my unit it rounds onto Omar Mukhtar Street and I see her, gently whipping keffiyeh slung at her neck. She approaches and before I’ve time to raise my very, very large weapon there is a click…

Paper… Rock… Improvised Incendiary Device…

I look into the eyes of the invader. He is a good man. I look at his weapon as it stirs and I know he is just like me. He wants to be somewhere else… No, no he doesn’t, he wants to be here, only back safe in his house with his family. My eternal home… but where is it?

Where, when the land is now ash?

He… we… vaporize into a wet thud of pulverized viscera and my essence it mixes with his. And as our ruined and gutted husks slap down upon the street as dirtied clothes cast to the floor…
…we… taste each other in the sticky pink mist… and as it settles… it outlines a form.

We see it. We see the moaning white phosphorus pits of its eyes and its scream is a Qassam that falls in the night. It is manifest obstinate wet oily hate and it looks right through us… it looks right through us and it… smiles.

Flawless Stars and Dead Jewels

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

My orbit is not done. I cannot accept this. A few hours drifting have forced me to admit my stupidity. All the times I cleared up after him, excusing his selfishness as something special, like he shouldn’t have to act decently toward other people.
“Damn you, Neil. Damn you. May perfect stars shine over your unmarked grave.”
His voice is faint: “Danny, that’s no way to say goodbye. This find will let me live the life I’ve been kept from. I’ll never forget what you’ve given me, this wonderful gift of wealth and happiness. I might even see if I can support Myra through her grieving. She never understood why you left her.”
“I left her for you! You needed bailing out of jail on Rustel! I walked away from her and mortgaged everything so I could spend a year at high burn to go and save you. A year! You promised you’d speak to her for me. You told me you were sure she’d come round. Then you told me she’d moved on. Now you’re telling me she’ll grieve? You lying, self-obsessed bastard.”
The laughter over the communicator is getting fainter. He must be nearly out of range.
“Please. That’s charismatic lying bastard. After all, I got to console her over you taking off to follow me all over the galaxy. She was so hurt that you’d sent me to make your excuses.”
I try to let the anger out, but it’s too big for my mouth.
Neil continues: “I can’t help it if your lack of good looks and self-esteem made you latch onto me. I did you a favour. Remember all the good times we shared?”
“You mean all the times I found you’d slipped away with the prizes and then had to save you from the lies you told to get those prizes in the first place? Up yours. I might not be the best-looking man in the cantina, but at least I have some decency.”
“Which is why you end up watching porn while I get served, wind up penniless while I make a mint. How many times have I showed up to pull you out of hock?”
“About as many times as you left me to carry the can and only came back when you needed my spaceship to escape the towers of lies you could no longer support.”
There’s a pause, then a chuckle.
“You’re right. But my version plays better. A little philanthropy always makes me look good.”
He knew!
A series of staccato noises come from the speaker, followed by the whistle of venting atmosphere.
“Danny! There are holes in the cabin! What do I do?”
I can’t help myself: “Don’t panic. You’re in your suit. Just reach to the left, grab my spare helmet and put it on.”
“Why am I in my suit? I’m inside a spaceship.”
A familiar voice cuts in: “Because you’re playing it safe while in a dense asteroid belt, you idiot.”
Neil and I chorus: “Myra?”
“Your chances of an accident increase when you’re looting alien tombs for the memorial gems they make out of their dead. Those odds turn to a dead cert when I find you trying to abandon my idiot of a lover by stealing his ship. You’re vermin and I’m done being reasonable.”
His last words are not kind. Myra ignores him.
“Danny? After we dump the body, salvage your ship, and put the jewels back, we’re going to have a long talk.”
I’m a fool with woman trouble, and am very happy to be alive for it.

Nathan, In Acquisitions

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

“Manhattan?” the man asks, pulling out the chair across from her before pausing, “May I?” as an apparent afterthought. He sits down without waiting for an answer and waves towards the waiter. “Two more of these”, gesturing to her drink on the table between them.

Nadia’s momentarily speechless. Her expected date had just stood her up via text message, and she was planning on drinking this one off on her own.

“You look a little down,” he takes off his white woven fedora and flicks the brim absently before setting it on the chair beside him.

There was something about his expression that was captivating, his eyes alight, and she struggled to find something to say at this abrupt and unwelcome intrusion.

“Yes, unwelcome, my apologies for being presumptuous.”

She startled, had he just…

“Do you want me to leave?” He leaned back slightly, reaching for his hat.”

“No,” she finally found her voice, “I didn’t catch your name.”

He smiled, bright perfectly proportioned teeth gleaming in stark contrast to his tan.

The waiter slipped their drinks onto the table, then retreated to the bar without a word.

“Nathan,” he was speaking again, “I’m in… acquisitions, and you, my dear Nadia deserve much better than to be dismissed in an email.”

“Text message,” she corrected him, “but how could you…?”

“Text message, telex, carrier pigeon, what’s the difference? These men promise you the moon and the stars, but when push comes to shove, they deliver nothing.” That smile again. “Am I wrong?”

Nadia shook her head ‘no’, then drained her glass and exchanged it for the fresh one from the table.

“To failed relations, and chance encounters.” He raised his glass towards her, and she met it with her own reflexively.

“You all promise the stars, that’s for damn sure,” her eyebrows knitted in a deep frown.

“What if I promised you the moon and the stars and actually delivered, would that be enough for you to take a chance on someone like me?”

“I don’t even know you, and I’ve had enough empty promises to last me a lifetime.”

“But if I followed through on that promise, would you join me for a time?” There was that light in his eyes again.

“I suppose I’d have to if you could, but you won’t. Men never do.”

She’d no sooner spoken the words than he stretched his arms out wide, tugging out his jacket sleeves, and pointed up into the sky.

“That moon right there?”

She looked, the moon a pale white circle in the blue of the sky.

He held her gaze, and reaching up, pinched the pale white circle of the moon between his thumb and first finger with his left hand, produced a small glass jar from a jacket pocket with his right, and plucked the moon out of the sky, dropped it in the jar and snapped a lid on in a smooth, practiced motion.

She gaped. The sky was now featureless blue. Whatever he’d distracted her with was clearly some magician’s sleight of hand. The jar he held before her contained a very convincing replica of the moon in miniature.

“Very clever, but that’s not exactly giving me the moon and the stars now, is it?” She sipped her drink, something seemed wrong about this.

“Tough crowd, ” he smiled. “One star then to start, then we really will have to get going.”

He pocketed the moon and produced another identical jar, then reached straight above their heads, pinched the fiery orb of the sun from the sky and slipped it into the jar, closing the lid again in one smooth motion.

Everything around them was suddenly dark, save for the blaze of light emanating from the jar in his hand.

She dropped her drink.

“Now, a deal is a deal,” he said, reaching across the table and taking her hand, “it’s going to get pretty ugly around here in a minute.”

He slipped the jar with the sun inside into another pocket, plunging them into absolute darkness. He gripped her hand tightly, and in the distance, she thought she could hear herself screaming, just one familiar voice in a cacophony of confusion, then a moment later, silence.

They stood together on a beach of polished glass, purple waves shushing the shoreline next to them, the sky a shimmering haze, the patio, the people, the noise, all gone.

“What…”, she started, “where…?” The question left only partially asked.

“Gotcha!” he smiled, letting go of her hand and taking a step back. “As I said, I’m in acquisitions; moons, stars, the occasional starlet.”

“Did you really take those things? I don’t understand, without the sun…” she didn’t finish the thought.

“Yes, there will be a horrible mess, but it was inevitable, I just got the pieces I wanted while they were still available and in good condition.”

She stood once again speechless.

Nathan produced another glass jar from an inside jacket pocket, and before Nadia could protest he plucked her off the beach and dropped her inside, closing the lid and pocketing his prize.

“Now,” he said to the empty beach, “I could use a drink.”

Bait

Author: Andrew Dunn

Some would call it a sin, that one man would blindly follow another without question. If it’s a sin like they say, christen it loyalty and all of us that followed Rory Holloman vagabonds sailing far beyond virtue’s bounds.

Rory captained the Scarlett. She was small, but a fantastic ship in her own right. In Scarlett’s early years – they called her the Bedford back then – she ferried loads high up into the hills, going as far as thinning mountain air would let her. Rory saw something in her and saved that hard-working lady from the drudgery of cargo runs on charter. Rory reimagined Bedford as an airship primed for adventure, christened her Scarlett, and made rounds looking for wayward aeronauts like us. Under Rory’s helm, we crisscrossed the skies in search of it all.

We found it too. Rory piloted Scarlett on strange zephyrs that took us to the place of giants. We huddled low on our side of the gunwales while the beasts swatted at us as though we were a gnat. Then we waited inside a fat cumulus, camouflaged in mist until Rory gave the order to strike. Scarlett dove fast and low so that we could pluck a button off one of the blokes’ shirts. That button was cast from pure enchantment and earned us a poor man’s fortune when we tied up
alongside home wharf. Word of our exploit invited every eccentric soul with generous pockets to hire out Scarlett for expeditions each more exotic than the last – every deckhand and coaler on the skyfront envied us as much as they wanted to sail with us.

A scrawny hand called Cooper got the chance. Rory hired the boy off the captain of an airship stripped down to her frame for overhaul. “He’s loyal. Quick in the head and on his feet too.” Cooper’s captain beamed. Rory took those words on faith – Rory had to, the smallest of mistakes suffered at an ill-timed moment aloft could be the end of us all, especially where we were going.

Rory told us over too much mead at an hour too small and distant from first light what our next run would be. Avorna Tor. The Avorna Tor loomed far in the north, its peak pierced the clouds. The mountain’s sides were nearly vertical toward the top; their surface glassy and lacking textures that would afford human hands purchase. Climbers perished trying to reach the top in quests to see if there really was an aperture that led into a dragon’s den. Scarlett would fly to the top of Avorna Tor, where no man had been before.

“It’s weird, Rory hiring Cooper on?” I said to coaler Brice as the two of us staggered back to the Scarlett. “We’ll need to drop a lot of weight to make altitude.” It was true. I’d been thinking through calculations for the Avorna Tor run since Rory told us we were going.

“What do you mean?” Brice chuckled.

“Cooper,” I lowered my voice, “he must weigh 150 pounds.”

“Cooper’s essential,” Brice replied.

“How so?” I wondered, my mind awash in mead and the mathematics of flight.

“Think about it,” Brice explained, “if there’s a dragon up there in Avorna Tor, we’ll need something to coax it out of its den, right?”

“Bait?” I asked.

“Let’s just hope Cooper’s more loyal than he is quick in his head and feet,” Brice replied.

Protocol

Author: Joshua Alexander

Disaster.

Hacklett wheezes in my grip. His face is slicked with sweat, his eyes ringed and dark. He’s dying.

Our research on the station has been for nothing. One containment breach and it’s all gone to hell. I drag Dr. Hacklett along the red-lit corridor to the escape pods. The fungi’s advance will be suppressed by the lights for a short time, but I don’t mean to just suppress them. The pathogens are free-floating, the worst of them anyway, spores dust everything, and the pods are the only hope.

But it’s the fungus I’m worried about.

I lodged an official ethical protest when the board cleared the newly-discovered cordyceps-like fungus for Schedule II experimentation. It should have been left on the hell-hole world we found it on, but the pharmaceuticals boom is an unforgiving mistress. When it was cleared, I volunteered for the project with my old doctoral advisor, Dr. Hacklett. If I couldn’t stop it, I’d at least make sure it was done right.

That’s almost funny now.

They called it cordyceps-like after several entomopathogenic fungi that affect certain arthropods back on Earth. We were going to call it Pseudocordyceps Hacklettii. That almost seems funny now, too. The main difference between Earth’s fungus and this one was a much shorter incubation period.

Hacklett groans beside the console as I initiate the sterilization protocol. He needs help, help I can’t give him, and time is running out.

After the incubation period, much like the Earth fungus, a fruiting body erupts from the host. But this one is much larger than even the biggest cordyceps fruiting bodies and erupts with a speed unheard of among macroscopic lifeforms. Once the pseudocordyceps spores entered the ventilation system, each of our non-fungal test subjects became ticking time bombs. Literally. Hence the now-broken containment vessels.

He hoped to extract extremely promising compounds from the fungus. Immunosuppressants, cancer drugs, even one compound that regrew damaged brain tissue in mice. We would have been immortalized in pharmacology.

I step over the orange spikes of fungus anchored to the floor. The husks of beetles and grasshoppers were buried beneath the bases of the “small” ones, some foot and a half long, but the mice produced fruiting bodies as big as a man. Dragging Hacklett to the pod, I’m now intensely aware of the weight of a full-grown man. I never want to see the fruiting body that would make.

And I won’t. Technically speaking.

I open the pod door and shove Hacklett inside. It knows where to go. The decontamination process inside will at least clear the spores. His rescuers won’t be contaminated. The other pathogens, well…

But me? I’m done for. When the door slides shut, I turn to a nearby console. If I can’t stop it, I’ll at least make sure it’s done right.

FULL STERILIZATION IN 10…9…8…

I quickly type in commands, and the pods all jettison. Tight-beam couldn’t compress our data before the sequence ended, so our research parishes with me. Well and good.

7…6…

The fever is intense. No time. I can feel it growing.

5…4…

I shut down the cameras. A deep breath. Nobody needs to see this.

3…2…1…

Envision a World

Author: John F Keane

‘Envision a world,’ said the guide, ‘where photography was discovered much later than it was. Imagine no ancient discovery of light-sensitive chemicals, no early Greek photographers like Hilo of Tarsus. Imagine, if you can, a world where photography only emerged in the nineteenth century – a world where all visual representations prior to that were by draftsmen and painters. What kind of reality would have resulted? What kind of world would we live in now?’
Selema shivered. The cave was cold and the darkness troubled her. From somewhere distant she could hear the sound of dripping water.
‘In our world,’ the guide continued, ‘the existence of photographic representation has probably repressed the cults of personality required for religion to develop. Most mystics were bald, fat old men with dirty beards and missing teeth, to judge from the photographic evidence; consider the Buddha or Moses. But imagine a world where artists cloaked these men in veils of dream and legend, where reality never impinged on high ideals. Transformed into stately patriarchs, these unimposing figures would soon acquire semi-divine status.’
Selema found such a thing very hard to envision. Yet in a curious way, the guide’s words made sense. She shivered again as he resumed his talk.
‘Similarly, war in such a world would probably be far more commonplace. For us, major international conflicts are rare, occurring once every few centuries. But a world where no cameras recorded the rotting dead of Issus, Cannae or Hastings might well cloak violence in false ideals of heroism and chivalry. With vast resources being expended on war and religion, science and technology might develop far more slowly.
‘And that reality – a reality quite different from ours – could very easily have happened. If the Greeks had not been inspired to find light-sensitive media to capture pinhole images, such an unfeasibly different world might well have occurred. But what inspired the Greeks? What do we have, that such a world does not? Simple, we have… these!’
The guide flicked on his infrared lamp. The crowd gasped as the famous Photos Culture images leapt from the cave walls. Though inverted, the ancient Cro-Magnons in each scene were clearly visible, waving and grinning with spears and clubs held aloft. In one they posed before a slaughtered woolly rhinoceros, its wounds still bleeding. How astonishing that people from thirty-thousand years ago could still be seen, immortal in light! And even more astonishing how such primitive people made such images, all eighteen of them.
‘By sheer chance,’ the guide continued,’ these caves contained a light-sensitive fungus named photus clavatus. These people noticed their shadow imprints forming on the walls whenever they lit a fire. By trial and error, they learned to produce real photographs using holes in the cave walls, fixing these exposures using salt water.’
The guide made a sweeping gesture with his glittering arm.
‘These amazing images are the result. Some historians believe they represent the very foundation of our world; for, without them, we might be living in a totally different place. Of course, that is pure conjecture. These images might have had little effect on historical events. Still, it’s interesting to speculate what effect their non-existence might have had on Tlon, Mervek and the other great nations of the Earth: not to mention our colonies on Mars and Venus.’
Interesting indeed, thought Selema, checking her holographic timepiece: 14.28 on September the third, 1858. The gold transponder behind her ear chirped but she let her neural avatar handle the call, still feasting her eyes on those wonderful images.