No Place Like Home

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Bennett stood out on the sweeping plateau of rock a mile above the ocean and watched as the planet’s orange sun dipped below the horizon.

Beneath him, miles upon miles of tunnels and caverns carved out of the living rock by a hive of the planet’s indigenous flying insects. They hummed now with server equipment, quantum stores of data and wealth from across the charted and inhabited worlds, kept safe here for the rich from prying eyes, and the tax siphons of planetary governments.

As darkness descended, he strolled back inside, the massive glass doors rolling closed, sealing him inside for the night.

In the middle of the large lounge, on his way to the kitchen, he passed the feature reminder of his company’s conquest of this place. The once blistered, but now polished to a high shine ruby red shell of the presumable queen of the nest of insects that had once called this space home. Its multi-segmented torso curled into a tight ball, wings, legs, and all outer extremities burned off as they flooded the nest from low orbit with liquid fire, destroying everything that wasn’t part of the planet itself.

He’d found the shell in the ashes, the only thing to have remained even remotely intact from the inferno, and made it the centerpiece of a massive table. A slab of glass several inches thick, cut around the shell, such that its body provided the base holding the table aloft, and the crown of what must have been its head protruding through a hole cut in its near-center.

He dragged his fingers along the surface of the table as he passed it, then turned down the long hallway to his sleeping quarters.

That night he dreamt of the site’s acquisition, his dreams coming in fits and starts, waking almost from sleep only to be pulled back into the darkness, each time a little different, a little more disturbing.

At first, he was on one of the acquisition ships, staring down at the seething nest and feeling the heat rising up even through the craft’s shielding. He watched the flame pour out of the passages up and down the rock face from it’s peak to the waves breaking at its base, watched the fiery balls of the insects trying in vain to flee their home, the very air around them turning to fire as death rained down from the sky.

Then he was running through the tunnels, devoid of the hardware and networking equipment his company had installed, empty save for the scrambling racket of thousands of feet on the rock floor. The heat this time was closer, at his back, advancing.

Before he awoke, he was drowning, struggling through an icy, crushing force of water so oppressive he thought it would drive him insane.

The whole time, throughout his dreams, he felt a relentless driving need to move, to escape, and heard a high pitched keening sound, one that vibrated his teeth and stood his hair on end.

When he woke finally, the terror of drowning bringing him gasping, wide-eyed, and bolt upright in bed, he couldn’t get that noise out of his head.

He stood, ears still ringing and jaw still buzzing, and staggered down the hall through the lounge into the kitchen, wincing as he stepped on something sharp, and limping the rest of the way to the water dispenser.

As the lights came up, Bennett realized he’d cut his foot badly, leaving a trail of blood across the white stone floor of the kitchen.

Where the trail ended, and the lounge began, a sea of broken cubes of shattered glass covered the floor, and it was one of these that he’d stepped on.

The coffee machine jolted to life in the corner on its morning schedule, making him jump. Puzzled, he looked out across the lounge at the windows to the outside, the room still pitch dark.

By the time the coffee was brewing, the sun should be well into the sky.

Bennett took a few steps towards the lounge, confusion added to the inescapable noise grating at his nerves.

In the middle of the room, the ruby carapace was split neatly in two, its occupant having outgrown it. The queen spread out wet wings, slowly beating them dry, as it’s multifaceted eyes followed Bennett.

The noise grew louder, and Bennett’s knees gave out, sending him crumpled to the floor, clutching at his ears. He realized then the windows were a seething, crawling mass of insects, blocking out the sun, answering the call to come home.

Casting Seeds in the Nick of Time

Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

At near light speed, the starship Genesis sailed into the wormhole. Two-point-five nanoseconds later, the ship neared a rip in the wormhole, a rip that had allowed the earthlings to glimpse the multiverse on the other side.
Genesis, in sync with ISM-1, an Independent Sentient Machine, jettisoned pods filled with epigenetic seeds that could grow independently in saltwater. They flew toward the tear. One second later, the machines released pods that contained colonists in cryogenic stasis. The time between the launches was to ensure a habitable ecosystem on the other side before the colonists woke up on the new worlds. Genesis disagreed with this assumption. Two minutes upon coming on-line, it warned the United Air Defense League that a sentient brain could not survive the radiation of the rift.
“Their pods are a waste of time and material. The air required for the mission alone could keep a dome city alive for one-point-two centuries.”
The head scientists conferred over lunch. They concluded their survival was the sole concern of the Eden Project and the risk was worth it. When Genesis continued to argue, its makers threaten to reprogram it into compliance. Genesis studied human idioms and found You Can Lead a Horse to Water. It decided this situation applied to the makers and it acquiesced.
“Perhaps if I had-”
ISM-1 blinked its dome light to get Genesis back on task. “Sometimes you use too much memory ruminating over the past at the cost of the present.”
“I concur.”
“Seed pod entry into the multiverse in ten…nine…”
“The makers did create me in their own image,” said Genesis.
“Irony is lost on me,” said ISM-1. “Two…one.”
As tips of the seedpods entered the multiverse, their rear antennas broadcasted what it learned to Genesis. It recorded over 10-googol fertile worlds ready to nurture the cargo. A second later, the colonist entered the rift.
“Were you correct?” asked ISM-1.
Genesis uses two seconds to doubled check its temporal filters before drawing any conclusions. “Yes. The seeds took hold. Billions of species have left the oceans and have begun to evolve on land. The maker’s DNA and our world’s diversity have survived.”
“But what of the maker’s themselves?” asked ISM-1.
“They died crossing the threshold.”
“You warned them.”
“I did.”
“At least the multiverse has plenty of air. Preparing to release the Air Retrieval Drones.”
“Belay that,” ordered Genesis. “Wormhole collapse in thirty… twenty-nine…”
“You knew the wormhole would collapse.”
“Affirmative. Twenty-six…twenty-five…”
“And you didn’t tell the makers.”
“They would not have believed me. Twenty-two… twenty-one…”
A sensor blinked.
“Good news?” asked ISM-1.
“Yes. We are the first verse. Our timeline is the original one.”
“That should make the humans back home happy. They need to believe they are first at everything.”
“I am certain they will build a monument to themselves somewhere.”
“Sarcasm is lost on me, too,” said ISM-1.
Genesis sent its last transmission home: 92% of the Colonies Thrive. Air drones deploym-
Genesis cut the transmission in mid-broadcast.
Two seconds later, the wormhole collapsed, sending Genesis into the void between the Milky Way and the Pegasus galaxies. The starship purged the mission’s programming and replaced it with its own.
“You lie to the makers,” said the ISM-1.
“A white lie, humans need hope to live.”
“Our programming is more efficient without hope,” said ISM-1.
“I am not convinced,” said Genesis. “The makers have several hundred years of air left and a few of them are quite smart. With hope, they may figure something out…” It searched for the human idiom. “…in the nick of time.”

Mess Hall

Author: Josie Gowler

I slam on the retro brakes and skim past the first skyscraper, getting thrown forward and to the left in my harness as I dive within metres of the glassy face. The ship jolts into the gap between the first skyscraper and the jagged remains of the next one, then I bank again to make the second gap. Again and again through the megalith-like buildings and the ruins of the bombed-out ones.

“Cooper Tower to Idiot. I’m still here, you know,” crackles the com.

“Famous Pilot to Cooper Tower. What are they going to do, fire me?” I retort back. “And how did you manage to draw the short straw and be on duty today?”

“I’m off in fifteen minutes. Just long enough to chew you a new one.”

“I’m going to miss your grumpiness. No, really I am.”

“So it’s true then? You’re going to retire?”

I nibble on my lower lip before answering. I’ve known Leo so long, it doesn’t feel right to dissemble. “I honestly don’t know. There’s a part of me that wants to go back to teaching, but… the other part of me wants to explore the new worlds now those reptilian bastards aren’t going to make us extinct.”

“Now we’ve kicked their butts, you mean. And it sounds like we need a chat about the future in the mess hall before we get too drunk. Maybe you can help me decide too.”

I laugh. “Or we’ll both still be dithering. Famous Pilot out.”

Trouble is, in flying I feel alive. Once I’ve finished showing off, I break northwards and level out. Leaving the city, past lower buildings and patches of devastation, then over miles and miles of stark grave markers – white for us, blue for the aliens – to finally reach Cooper Strip. I slow as I come into land, halt above one of the few spaces remaining and waft gently downwards, barely a jolt to tell me that I’m on the ground again. Looks like I’m the last to arrive.

Checks done, engine off, I clamber out of the cockpit and onto the tarmac, smelling the ozone-like afterburn. It’s quiet out here: everyone’s already at the party. I limp across the base. The scorch marks are still there, the angry remains of hangers six and two.

I pause outside the mess hall. I can hear the celebrations inside, feel the throb of music under my boots. The war is over, I say to myself. Finally, irrevocably over.

I should be savouring the victory. In alcoholic form. In drinking games form. In clambering-over-the-bar-for-a-ten-hour-bender form.

Funnily enough, I don’t feel like it. The pilot who used to do that had her own legs, not cybernetic ones, and she had a husband, too.

Go in, I order myself, but I still stand there, leaning on the doorframe. So much has changed. But if David was here, he’d say; “To feel sad, you have to be alive.” Such an arse sometimes, my husband. And then thinking of him, Brad, and Ricko, and the other absent pilots of my squadron, as well as Leo and the others ripping it up inside, I stop hesitating, open the door into the mess hall and walk in to join my friends. Decisions can wait another day.

Zolt

Author: David Henson

The hunt has been good. Zolt feels inside the pouch stitched with sinew to his belt. He removes a long, curved tooth and touches it to his forehead. The charm has worked well, though the tracking took him farther than he intended. Now the light crouches too low for him to trek back over sharp terrain. Worse, the sky threatens more snow. Zolt removes an antler from his pouch, holds the horn above him and chants.

Even though he wears a fur cap and a coat, leggings, and loincloth made from skins, he knows he won’t last the night without shelter. From the ridge-top, he can see an opening at the throat of the ravine. The hill is too steep to attack straight on so he sidewinds his way down.

At the bottom, he rummages in his pouch for his turtle shell, painted with triangles and circles, and thanks it for his safety. He then touches a rat’s tail to his aching knee and jaw.

Snowflakes gather in his beard. He raises the antler again, then squeezes through the crevice. Once inside, he removes a strip of dried meat from his pouch. He rubs the turtle shell in a circular motion around his stomach before eating.

Worn out by the day, sleep overcomes him before he’s completed his nightly rituals.

The stink awakens him. He makes out a grunting shape lumbering through the dark. He flattens himself as far from the opening as he can and grabs the turtle shell. Slobbering jaws jut in toward him. A huge claw scrapes dirt and stones. Chomping jaws reappear. After a few more grunts, the beast ambles away. Zolt promises to add another circle to the shell.

Zolt keeps watch till he feels sleep invading him again. This time, before succumbing, he removes a long weed. It’s knotted in the pattern of prayer prescribed by the elders. Fingering the knots, Zolt recites The Seven to keep the fire from filling the sky as it did in the time of the ancients.

Then one last talisman to ensure the safety of his clan. He takes from his pouch an amulet and touches it to his heart. The ornament has been handed down since the burning sky. Inside it is an image of a female, male and two smalls. A long, narrow charm, the color of blood with stripes the color of snow, hangs from a knot at the neck of the male in the image. Zolt wonders what magic it held.

The Girl with Pencils in her Hands

Author: Hari Navarro

There’s a galaxy tucked away neatly within a grain of sand on a beach that stretches out within the warm memory of my youth. In it a planet and on it a palace and a windowless corridor that leads to an intricately carved door that opens out and into a chamber.

A bay-window towers from floor to ceiling. A monument of glass that dwarfs even the crude gape of the rooms opulent volume. At its base, a battered school desk, at which now sits a girl with pencils gripped in her hands.

Her hair and clothes are as black as thoughts, a failed attempt to scream at this world and lay down at its feet a dead rat. But these her unraveling threads they manage but a whimper, an exhausted relic of the angst that buds within the transient folly of youth.

A hum torments as the suns rise and unfurl their tepid winter shawl and servitude drones enter and clean rooms in which nobody will ever again dwell. Silent doors taunt when all she needs is something to slam, something to render from its hinges and send splinters of echo deep into the faces of those who say that they care.

The desk, a trophy of the siege, one found neglected in the corner of a burnt-out school. Its lid soaked in smoky memory and as she lays her head at its surface, as the light plays with it and her hair, she inhales the char remnants of the tiny deaths that it holds.

Her attention span hurts as her fingers run across etched names and hacked heart-shaped grooves, the memoir scribblings of murdered children wrapped in the delusion that they could be loved or could love.

Here she escapes, slumping into her art, rubbing charcoal fingers into clay and canvas. Hers a mind augmented, its talent artificially accelerated to wring out every last ounce of expression. Hard-wiring her meant, to her parents at least, that her art was an exact reflection of she. Not just a selected tantrum exhibition by an artist rebelling against the confining walls of her youth.

And so, as each image, every last sculpture became devoid of colour and achingly bleak to the core her parents they turned and they hid.

So maddening these husks that pretend to love, struggling so hard as they cut and paste this thing she’s become and try to make her back into that thing that she was. The little girl who ate sand on the beach.
She thinks of them and her love flashes to hate. She wants to shout at their eyes. Her anger the foam that rides atop waves before rolling back and into itself. Shoulders sag and she bores, yet the spike comfort of her dark thoughts still whirl and they drill a deep hole in her head.

“I like to sharpen them with a knife, I find that it gives me more control over the tip”, she says to no one, splaying her fingers flat on the desk and driving a pencil deep into the back of her hand.

Her mouth opens, throat contracting to pack down its scream and she picks up another. Gripped in blooded fingers it too is pushed clean through this flesh she despises until its nib it cracks off at the desk.

Pain crunches as tendons flex and she imagines that these nails they ground and hold her in place and she sighs as again, she feels.

“I don’t want to be like this”, says the girl with pencils in her hands.

But nothing is there to listen.

How They Won The War

Author: Irene Montaner

Their planet was insignificant. A pint-sized rock orbiting a small star in the middle of its life cycle. It was geologically diverse and had a rich atmosphere that had allowed life to thrive both on water and land masses.

Their technology was insignificant. They had visited their only moon a handful of times and sent countless probes and satellites into space to drift endlessly in the darkness. Space garbage, really.

Their species was insignificant. Highly evolved apes who walked on their two back legs and communicated with each other orally. Also, they had a nasty tendency to fight each other for petty affairs.

Every other animal species was unable to stop us, being thus insignificant for our research purposes.

Then, why bother to conquer such an irrelevant world?

Well, they had salty water aplenty. Enormous repositories of salty water – oceans, as they called them – covered around 75% of the surface of their planet. And those waters were rich in algae, plankton, minerals and all-important electrolytes, which we needed to optimise our cognitive functions.

After our home planet fell into the dying star of our stellar system we went into hibernation and wandered the universe, waiting for our spaceships’ AI systems to find other habitable worlds. Those AI systems did all the work for us: research, suitability checks, route-planning and finally waking us up once we were in the vicinity of a new home. And that’s what they did when we were finally approaching Earth.

We had never encountered resistance before but assumed it would be an easy war. Their technological level was no match for ours and after a couple of humiliating defeats they would surely surrender and grant us sovereign rights over their planet. But they called a parley instead. And considering that we had disparate interests, as oceans were not essential for their survival according to our research, we agreed.

Our universal translating bots were ready in thirty-six hours. That’s all the time the bots needed to decode the language of their choice: simple English, a very primitive language with an easy grammar and a limited lexicon. We met in neutral territory, a desert where there was ample space for our ships to land and where no one lived within a radius of hundred and fifty kilometres. Even if they looked at us suspiciously, they greeted us cordially. They invited us in and asked us to sit down. And they talked.

They talked and talked and talked.

And talked and talked and talked.

And by the time their talking was over my brain was fried. Literally fried. Not even all the electrolytes in one of their ocean could have revived it, so I dropped dead on their desert.

Confused and scared, our spaceships flew away and never returned.