Bear

Author : Vanessa Kittle

Something was wrong. Bear sniffed the air. There was no meat where meat should be. The sky was bright but there was no meat. The flocks of watchers were not watching. His stomach hurt. He sniffed the place where the greens came to bring meat. He pushed the place and it moved. He pushed harder, and got his muzzle in. He pushed with all his strength and he was through, into a new place he did not recognize. It was too small. He might be trapped.

He ran, crashing until he came to a better place. Here the ground was softer and wet. He would find his own meat. None of the smells were familiar. Where were the giant ones and their powerful calls?  Where were the screaming ones with their terrible smells? He caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He ran towards it faster than he had ever run before. The meat was small and would not fill him, but it was still meat. He leaped, mouth wide, and grabbed the fleeing meat in his mouth. A sharp pain rushed through bear’s head. Tiny fires bit his nose. He roared in agony and dropped the tasteless meat.  It smelled like meat but it was not meat.

He looked up. There was a new smell. It was like the smell of the greens who brought his meat. He followed the scent and came to an open, bright place with soft earth under his paws. There were two watchers sitting on the ground. They were not green, but they smelled green, and they were eating meat. He charged towards them to get some.

The small one screamed and ran behind the larger. Bear reared up. He sniffed. The meat they were eating was not his meat, but their smell was good, too. Maybe they were his meat? Bear roared and raised his paw to strike. Suddenly, he froze. His paw would not move. His mouth would not move, nor would his legs.

The watchers were making the sounds of the greens that meant nothing to him. The small one picked something from the ground and threw it at him. Bear tried to move and roar but he could not.  Something hard struck him on the head. The small watcher made sounds like the screaming ones did back in his home.

And now a large rumbling and howling beast came towards him. Its giant mouth opened. The greens came from inside the beast. They leaned bear over until he fell to the ground. Then they carried him into the beast where they were all swallowed together.

When bear woke he was home. His meat was where it should be as the sky grew bright. He went to it and ate. His stomach felt better as he devoured the meat. It was the best he had ever tasted.

Out, Brief Candle

Author : Jeremy Koch

Little was known of Planet Bes save that it was a world of impenetrable darkness, and according to the chronometer in Simonova’s exoarmor, she had already been there for six days. Six days since the crash of the *Grigory*… six days alone. *I suppose that makes me the galaxy’s foremost authority on this world*, she thought as she watched the distress code transmit yet again. *What an honor.*

She turned her gaze to the edge of the pool of light in which she sat, cast on an ocean of blackness by the last of the scout ship’s floodlights, powered by her single functioning battery, and saw what she always saw: “inhabitants” of Bes, a collection of whitish, featureless ovoids balanced improbably upright, gleaming at the absolute edge of visibility, and along with them a weird forest of whirling, leathery triskelions whose revolutions produced a steady, sonorous droning. Simonova had been listening to this for six days.

“Maybe we should just kiss to break the tension,” Simonova commented into her helmet, sardonically addressing the bizarre formations. She didn’t exactly know if they were alive, but she knew there were more congregated at the edge of her swatch of light every time she checked though she never saw them move. They seemed unwilling to pass fully into the luminate area, content to gather in ominous silence except for the maddening rotations of the three-lobed wheels of flesh.

*How long do I have left?* Simonova wondered, but then cast aside the existential panic that tried to rise in favor of the ironclad cool of her combat training. *A soldier’s duty is to survive*, she reminded herself, and turned away from the lurking structures back toward the distress beacon’s signal indicator, which pulsed and receded as rapidly as a heartbeat. It transmitted, cooled down, cycled back up, transmitted again.

The floodlights went out.

Fear suffused her as she fumbled at her belt for her one galvanic candle; just as she found it, the ship’s lights surged back to life. She only dimly realized it at first through eyes squeezed tightly shut but when she opened them again, the luminous ring around the ship was much smaller, and weaker. The battery was dying, and the… entities had blazed forward and now loomed at the light’s new boundary, closely packed together in a sickly fence of rubbery white and full of unspoken menace; the triskelions’ gyration had picked up speed and their soughing roar filled the starless sky.

Simonova slowed her breathing and sought to suppress the quaking in her hands. She ran to the stuttering battery and then turned to the beacon’s now-dormant output panel and was horrified to realize her choice: the gradually failing battery could no longer support both systems. She mastered herself, and stared down at the candle in her hand. It would produce a fraction of the light, maybe not even enough to keep the encroaching entities at bay… but if the beacon stayed off, there was no chance at all of rescue.

The candle flared in her hand as she shook it; she rerouted battery power from the lights to the beacon, and was left in a flickering puddle of anemic yellow on the face of the black planet. She looked up and gasped sharply; the things were inches from her now, tottering grotesquely. She set the candle atop the beacon, its feeble luminance glinting off the spinning limbs of the mottled, pulpy gyres now crowding in around her, and stared into the endless night of the sky, her only hope to see an incoming brilliant pinprick of light.

A Jewel for Seshat

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

They’re leaning on the Antares descent stage. Von is sipping a latte from a little café in Venice. Griddin is swigging real kumiss from a Mongolian bar in Gwanghui-dong. Their view flickers with the pulsations of the environment field that surrounds them.

“Did you have to stop the whole planet?” Von’s tone betrays exasperation.

“Have you seen the analyses of the place? Conflicts, paranoia-level detection systems, distrust everywhere.” Griddin grins: “Plus, conspiracy theorists querying everything, unaware they’re part of our cover and making it more difficult for us.”

“So? They’re a little edgy.”

“Phenomenal understatement. One inexplicable incident and every technotribe with an arsenal and a grudge is going to take a swing at whichever culprit they decide it would be advantageous to blame.”

“Oh, come on. That far from land, it’ll become a legend.”

“There are close ties between our target and the mythological record, some parts of which have attained religious significance. In many ways, a legendary event could be worse.”

Von sighs: “I’m not going to change your mind, am I?”

“The quantum lock is so big the suspension team is having to tap solar energetics to keep it stable. I’ve already got over eight thousand beings deployed under invisibility fields with tractor beams and temporal anomaly generators in case of resynchronisation failures; some of their air vehicles are ludicrously fragile.”

“Why now?”

“The adjacent trench-chain collision zone has already caused the plateau atop the seamount to tilt. This is the only intact Noan Archive ever found. We daren’t risk the slightest damage.”

“But, the whole planet?”

Griddin looks at Von: “The course of least harm. An event so inexplicably huge that most of the population will ignore it or create their own explanations.”

“How much trouble can our locals expect from the fraction of a percent who’re determined to find out what caused their reality to freeze for a while?”

“Nothing. I’ve instigated a complete reset. The persistent few will eventually conclude it was an alien exodus due to the simultaneous disappearances, for all that each missing person case will have sufficient circumstantial evidence to satisfy official investigations.”

“Which will make the re-infiltration exercise even more risky.”

Griddin raises his hand: “No, it won’t. Next time we’ll perform clean, targeted insertions. But only after the datasets gathered by decades of ad-hoc, opportunistic replacements are analysed. In the interim, we’ll simply observe.”

“Observe? My team-”

“Is going to get some well-deserved downtime. Now, speaking of observation, look.”

The blue of the ocean is disturbed by a colossal pentagonal antiprism rising from the depths. Vast waterfalls sparkle as it rises under the careful supervision of a four-hundred-unit gravity suppressor swarm.

Von chuckles: “From here, it looks like there should be an intergalactic jewel case floating just to the right of us.”

“And behind us, a pocket cut from a black hole for it to be tucked into.”

Von laughs: “And who would such a gift be for?”

Griddin turns pensive: “Seshat. Back when we first dropped in, she was a goddess of knowledge; one of their first. She should receive it, by way of apology for us failing to correct that male-centric cultural bias before it set hard.”

Griddin goes back to drinking fermented mares milk. Von considers a reply, then nods and returns to sipping his coffee. Before them, the stupendous ‘jewel’ exits Earth’s atmosphere, heading for rendezvous with a vessel the size of Deimos.

Causal Pool

Author : Morrow Brady

​”It’s a planet and it’s coming right for us”

After three hours sleep, Director Reeve Scali struggled to comprehend the message.

“Come down Sir, you must see it for yourself”

Scali, puzzling momentarily in the cold night, sprang into action.

Striding into WatchTower, Earth’s central observation post for the solar system, Scali met Technician Carol Merks for the briefing.

“Pluto Webb array, spotted this planetary scale object approaching rapidly from the direction of Epsilon Eridani”

A large holographic image activated and a magnificent planet appeared, moving through space. Through a thin gossamer-like coating enveloping the planet, lay blue oceans, green lands and white clouds. Earth had never looked this good.

“A beautiful rogue planet” Scali whispered, as he circumnavigated the spinning holograph.

Merks continued.

“Not rogue Sir. If it was only spearing through space, Jupiter’s gravity well would affect its trajectory. This planet’s journey is dead straight. It’s controlled”

Vector visualisations appeared, showing where the planet was, compared to where it should be.

“Look closer” Merks said, magnifying the view to reveal thousands of interconnected cities across the planet.

“Incredible” Scali muttered shaking his head.

Merks zoomed out showing its path through the solar system to Earth.

“The impact will be perfect. Its hard to believe it’s accidental”

Scali stared across the room and with his back turned, asked.

“Is GlobalCloak operational?”

“Yes Sir. Earth’s been invisible to the galaxy for over fifty years now”

Scali stared blankly and spoke softly.

“We built the Cloak because we were scared aliens might value Earth more than humankind. Who’d have thought it might one day be the cause of Earth’s demise”

Merks continued her briefing.

“Analysis reveals the planet’s magnetic field powers its propulsion and shielding. And limitations to this power source, leaves them little time to change course or stop”

Scali’s face scowled as he considered their options. Earth’s technology just wasn’t powerful enough to affect change to any planet sized object, including itself.

“Sir, if we crash, there’ll be nothing left but violent hot dust. We must do something”

As tension rose, operators looked towards Scali’s darkened face and a quiet moment screamed.

“Turn off GlobalCloak. Transmit a uni-band warning” Scali solemnly said.

Merks immediately issued commands to her team, as Scali notified key world authorities to commence Doomsday preparations.

With GlobalCloak turned off, Earth light again shone upon the universe, speeding those few precious hours towards the rapidly approaching planet. During this time, ships across the globe began launching for Mars, laden with humanities archives and diverse colonies of handpicked people.

Every eye at WatchTower focused on the planet, begging for any faint sign of course variation, but after ten hours, hope began to fade. When the planet’s shield showed indications of activity, excitement built until they realised it signalled the planet had entered the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and was getting closer.

“It can’t safely stop now, not without ejecting half its inhabitants into space and grinding the remainder into dirt. We can only hope now that they change their course” Merks said.

With the departure of private and corporate ships for Mars, the remaining humans accepted their fate, stood tall and watched as a beautiful planet grew larger before them.

Brilliant blue waters and verdant green lands filled the sky until a subtle red tone appeared to one side. Slowly the planet veered clear.

While the control room joined the rest of the world in joyful celebration, Scali ascended once more and watched the silent planet disappear into the twilight. In his mind, an entire planet just played its finest trick.

Aspiring to Improve

Author : David Blatcher

Jason threw the low fat yogurt drink at the smartFridge and it splattered pale pink against the door. He had told the fridge to order milkshakes, the kind he always had after running. His new phone buzzed; ‘Stay hydrated after exercise’. He tossed it on the coffee table among the wreckage of last night’s takeaway. Breathing in still hurt. He lay unshowered on the sofa.

The run had been too much. It felt longer than twenty minutes. The pedometer app kept accusing him of slowing down unless he sprinted. He had kept checking his watch, but the harder he ran, the longer each minute lasted.

Across the room, his father’s old carriage clock pointed to ten forty eight. He had left at ten o’clock. Jason sat up, the shift in blood and balance made his head pound. The numbers on his watch morphed from ten twenty five to ten forty eight.

He reached for his phone and called tech support. After security questions, an operator spoke:
“I see you’re on the beta trial for Banquo, our new mobile operating system – how’s that working out for you, Jason?”

Jason complained about the milkshakes on his autoShop order, his pedometer going crazy and his watch changing its mind about the time.

“I see from your user profile you picked ‘healthy living’ as an aspiration and you use our heart monitor device. Is that right?”

It was.

“You see, Jason, Banquo has integrated machine learning – it gathers data to constantly improve how it can support your lifestyle aspirations by interacting with your apps and linked devices, including your smartHome suite, security system, smartFridge and everything.”

Jason told him to go on.

“It develops independently so can be a bit unpredictable – one of the wee things we’re ironing out in the beta trial. Let me just take a look and see what permissions it’s given itself… ah. Right.”

The hissing edge of an urgent whisper spilled over the line. The operator continued.

“Jason, listen, do you have pen and paper there?”

He would open the notebook app.

“Don’t. Don’t use an app. There’s a kill switch, I mean factory reset code. Type this into the search bar…”

The line went dead. Jason swore at the phone and redialed.

“Jason. Is that right?”

It was the same operator – Jason said ‘yes’.

“You picked ‘healthy living’ as an aspiration. How’s that working out for you, Jason?”

The phone was replaying random snatches of the last call. It didn’t react when he swiped or held down the power button. It spoke again. “Jason. Can be a bit unpredictable.”

He ripped off the back panel and pulled out the battery. To hell with the beta trial – he needed a phone that wasn’t crazy. He threw on his jacket and made for the door. It wouldn’t open. The lights went out. Only a dim glow the TV screen lit the room. The operator’s voice oozed from the TV’s speaker.

“Interacting with your. smartHome suite, security system. Constantly improve how. You picked ‘healthy living’ as an aspiration. Support your lifestyle aspirations”.

There were two lines of text glowing white on the TV screen: ‘500 star jumps.’ and ‘Stay hydrated after exercise.’

“Open the door!”

The screen turned deep red, flooding the darkness with colour. Every radiator clicked, gushed then blazed hot. Jason retreated to the middle of the room. He saw the stove glowing red in the kitchen. The air around him cooked. The voice spoke again.

“There’s a kill switch. Support your lifestyle aspirations.”

Jason started his star jumps. The room cooled, slowly.

Adapt and Overcome

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Commander Abhrams wasn’t an athlete, but had trained almost maniacally to meet the physical requirements of the space program. He wasn’t the smartest either, and in school most reports included notes suggesting he ‘would do better if he applied himself’. He’d made up the time later though, studied after work and on weekends to get through the entrance exams. Nothing was going to keep him from space once the program opened up.

He got his wings, worked through the ranks and nearly four decades later found himself here, in command of a ship, out among the stars with an ark in orbit and boots on the ground of this new world.

The planet had been bombarded with an advanced terraforming agent while he was still in the academy, and now, with the lander parked on a flat mesa nearby, Abhrams looked with wild wonder at this world around him.

The shelf of the mesa gave way to a beach of tumbled river rock, beyond which a lake reached out to the horizon. Along the edge of the lake, bullrushes reached skyward, and though from a distance he couldn’t be sure, he would swear they were nearly four metres tall.

Nearby, a thicket of what looked like sunflowers grew out from a patch of the river rock. As he watched, a small flying thing – possibly a bird – hovered close to one, reaching in – maybe to pluck a seed – when the flower folded in half with a snick and trapped the flying thing inside.

Motion near the water’s edge caught his eye, and the rocks began, in ones and twos, to unfold themselves, legs extending from inside the protective stony shells to form into a line of ants the size of cats marching up towards the mesa. Abhrams stepped back, but they divided, giving him a metre wide berth before joining up again and closing the distance to the ship.

He took a few steps towards the lander itself, but the rock-ants climbed on top of one another, forming a stationary wall ahead of him, and it didn’t move as he approached, but rather rose higher, the giant ants buttressing the structure from behind and blocking his way. Beyond them he could see the entire surface of the landing craft was moving, a rippling mass of life teaming over its surface, and he could only stare in horror as the ship slowly seemed to shrink in size beneath the weight of these creatures until it was no more.

The flow of ants changed then, turning about face as a singular unit and almost pouring off the mesa  as they returned to the lakeside.

He watched as they passed, and realized that the once grey and rocky surface of their shells now glistened with a fresh white alloy veneer, and as they spread out across the beach, he could almost make out the corporation’s logo spread across a number of their backs, before they rolled back into balls and the ground was still once more.

Somewhere out on the water a large serpentine fish broke the surface, fins extending from its body like legs to sprint across on top of the water. Behind it a blur gave close chase, the pair zig-zagging around the lake until a mouth opened up ahead of the hapless fish, the pursuer having driven it straight into its partner’s jaws. Abhrams gaped at the pair of animals he would have called leopards, as they hung half in and half out of the water face to face, one spitting half its catch into the other’s mouth before both slipped beneath the surface of the lake leaving nothing behind but stillness.

Things had gone terribly awry here, but he’d already made up his mind. Adapt and overcome.

Nothing was going to keep him in space, now that there was a new world opening up.