The Magma Fields of Slarrul

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

“Good afternoon. My name is Deut Wallis. I’m from the Galactic Encyclopaedia Update Department.”
Perry regards the bespectacled gent with suspicion. The last one who turned up in a suit that smart wanted to sell folk funeral plots on the moon, never mind that nobody here buried anything anyway.
“What you selling, guv’nor?”
Deut waves his hands in horror: “Oh, good grief, no. I’m not a salesman. I simply need your help. People I’ve spoken to tell me you’re the one to deal with my problem.”
Perry puts the hammer and chisel down. Pulling off gloves and goggles, he looks the suit up and down.
“Mister Wallis, I’m no dealer with problems. I make figures.”
Deut looks about the cluttered store. The side he’d already taken in is typical of a general store on any frontier world. The side he hasn’t is more like, well, an art gallery. The place is filled with statues, abstracts, and dioramas, all carved from a glossy blue-black rock.
“Precisely. You’re by the Magma Fields. That’s what I’m here about. The spelling mistake. My father noted it years ago, but it’s been so far down the ‘to do’ list we’ve only just gotten around to it for the centenary edition of the Galactic Encyclopaedia.”
“I’ve heard of it. What’s the problem?”
“Well, on seeing images of this planet, I saw the typographic error had crept into you local signage, so I thought I’d come and start the process of getting corrections applied in time for the release of the centenary edition.”
Perry shakes his head.
“I’m not getting you.”
Deut shakes his head.
“The Magma Fields. Such a wonderful view, I’m surprised it hasn’t attracted more tourists. When I saw the spelling mistake, I understood. You could be sitting on a fortune in tourist revenue, and I’m sure your figure-making business would benefit.”
Perry’s eyes widen.
“Oh. Now you say it again, I see the problem. Come with me, Mister Wallis.”
He beckons Deut through the shop and out the rear door. He grabs two pairs of tinted goggles and hands one set to his visitor.
“Put these on.”
Deut looks at them, then shrugs and does so.
Stepping through a metal door, a wave of heat strikes them. Many metres below, glowing, molten rock moves like an enormous sea. Deut raises his gaze to find it is a sea. From here to the shimmering horizon, there is nothing but heaving lava.
Perry reaches into a large fridge and pulls out a can of drink. He offers one to Deut.
“No, thanks. Not while I’m on the clock.”
Perry smiles and closes the upper door. Opening the lower door, he pulls out a chunk of ice and tosses it over the edge.
Deut leans forward to watch it explode into steam on contact with the lava below.
Perry reaches out and pulls him back.
“Wait for it, Mister Update Department.”
Deut’s about to reply when a rippling mass rises from the fiery sea below. The heat coming off it is like a body blow. Two eyes of shining black open. Deut sees a hole open that goes right through the mass. Air whistles and roars. Perry nods.
“Rolthsar is delighted to see you. They wonder if you have an offering?”
Perry’s eyes flick to the fridge. Deut takes the hint and grabs a can from the it. As one, they throw cans into the rippling mass.
Air howls and whispers. The mass subsides back into the magma.
Perry catches Deut before he collapses.
“Your book doesn’t say Magma Fiends in error, Mister Wallis.”

Dependency

Author: G. J. Poirier

”Is that your dependent?” The woman with the too-close eyes leaned in, her breath hitting Elma like a wall of rancid fog.

Elma suppressed a gag and nodded.

“Yes. The one with the red cap.” She shifted down the bench a few inches.

“Mine isn’t working out,” she confided. “Her submission score is really low and she keeps asking questions.”

Elma nodded vaguely.

“I spoke to the Gatherer and they said she could have one more chance. Between you and me, I don’t think she should get more chances. I’ve been very clear. Once she turned seven cycles, there were no more questions. Do you know what she did?” The woman furrowed her brow, her black eyes boring into the side of Elma’s face.

Elma gave her a short head shake, thinking of the notice she’d received through the Voice Machine in her pod last week. *The Gatherer has accused you of the crime of Reticence. The Unifier has corroborated this charge. You have been placed on Enhanced Observation*. She had to think of Talya. The next Nurturer wouldn’t be like Elma.

Elma glanced at the girl in question, a spritely child with close-cropped black hair who was standing atop a slide pretending to look through a telescope. She turned back to the woman. The woman’s mouth smiled, but her eyes remained unchanged.

“When it was reflection time, she scribbled all over the inside of her pod. The little monster had taken a *permanent* marker out of my carry-sack! I suspended her morning intake for three days after that.”

The woman smiled smugly.

“When I told the Gatherer about that they said I had acted *accordantly*.” She smiled nervously. “I didn’t know what that meant so I studied my Acts of Solidarity. Accordantly means that I ‘acted without self-interest and in the true spirit of the Community of Deliverance.’” She concluded with a note of smug satisfaction.

A shrill tone signalled the end of Play. Elma stood and walked over to the little girl with the red cap, who was whispering conspiratorially with the black-haired girl under grey plastic turtle.

“Ok, Talya. Time to go.” Talya looked up, briefly considered arguing, then scuttled out from under the turtle.

Elma crouched down near the girl in the black hair, who sat defiantly in the turtle-fort and said, “Hi sweetie, you keep asking questions, ok?”

The black-haired girls eyes widened, and she nodded slowly.

“I was just like you when I was a little girl. Do one thing for me though?”

“Ok,” the black-haired girl whispered. Elma imagined the battle going on inside the child, between natural curiosity and the methodical crushing of that curiosity into conditioned obedience. With effort, Elma held back tears.

“You keep those questions inside your head for now. Do what your Nurturer says no matter what. One day it will be time for all those questions to come out. But not today, or tomorrow, or next cycle. Can you do that for me?”

The black-haired girl smiled and nodded, eager to respond to Elma’s simple act of trust.

The pig-eyed woman clumped heavily over, crouching on her formidable haunches beside Elma. “You get yourself out of there before you earn yourself another three days of half-intakes.” She looked over her shoulder at Elma, her jaw set, flat eyes now in accordance with the drooping scowl of her thin lips.

Elma walked over to where Talya stood patiently and took her hand.

“Come, let’s go home.”

Away Team

Author: Alastair Millar

I’m trying to ignore the shaking; they warned us that the final approach was going to be bumpy, and thank all that’s holy for the motion sickness shot. Head against the bulkhead, I’m remembering why I’m here.

I can see that kid’s face in front of me now, hands over mouth as if even breathing too loud might give him away. In the end, it was Jimmy’s contraband chocolate that tempted him out of the cellar. Once I’d shaken the Geiger counter and the instruments told us the town wasn’t infected, my buddy had taken his hazmat helmet off; luckily, it turned out, as the boy wouldn’t have come otherwise. I kept the photo I took for the report: it would be wrong to forget.

We’d been hoping to get home for that weekend, but when the entire population of a small town literally vanishes overnight, guess what? They call the Marines, and plans go to hell. We were with the first team on site, and that frightened face was the only living soul we found.

We’re going to be in the vanguard today, too.

It took weeks before anyone took the alien abduction theory seriously; long days of talking heads and ‘experts’ slowly debunking every other possibility until, as Sherlock Holmes would say, all that remained, however unlikely, was revealed to be the truth.

After that, the eggheads were people on a mission. Irregularities from satellite and probe data were analyzed and interpreted; our kidnappers had come from Titan, Saturn’s moon. Suddenly all the stories of close encounters of the third kind made more sense: our visitors hadn’t crossed interstellar space at all, but were the damn neighbors. Jimmy joked that it was like a true crime documentary.

Our own journey comes to an end today; whether as triumph or debacle remains to be seen. Assuming we get through this damn turbulence.

Once we knew where we had to go, it was all just a question of engineering. United at last by an external threat, two years of genuine international cooperation brought us a new astrodrive, and cut the flight time to four months. After sixteen weeks in a tin can, killing time with fitness routines and weapons training interspersed with sleep, food, and wondering whether any of those people were even still alive, we’re ready to rumble.

So here we are in our unit dropships, suited up, psyched up, drugged up, and heading down through the thick Titanian atmosphere.

Who knows what we’ll find – we’ve got no idea what the methane breathers even look like. Tentacles? Antennae? Fangs? All of the above? They could have warrens, or cities, or anything. We don’t know if our people are still alive, or what those poor souls have been through. But for Jimmy and me, it’s more than a mission. We’re here to send a message for all Mankind: that we refuse to look into the night sky and be afraid.

An almighty bang, and we’re down, the shock frames keeping us conscious before releasing.

Hatches open! Move, move, move!

First Communion

Author: Robert Beech

Edward Soul-Keeper, seventh of that name (or Corpse-Eater as he was called outside of what people thought was his range of hearing), sat at the head of the long table, surrounded by his seventeen living children and grandchildren. It was an intimate family gathering. The servants had all been given the day off and only the Soul-Keepers were invited. His ancestors (including the six previous Edwards), floated inside him, peering out occasionally from the tiny gold flecks in his pupils.
At the other end of the table, surrounded by his aunts, uncles, and cousins, sat Timothy. He wore a white shirt with a stiff collar, a black suit that was slightly too large for him, and a black bow tie that his Uncle George had helped him to tie on. He kept his eyes down, avoiding his grandfather’s gaze.

Today was Timmy’s First Communion. He would partake of the body and the blood and become a true Soul-Keeper, one-in-being with the Soul-Keepers who had gone before him. Well, at least one of them anyway. Today was the Feast Day of his sister Lucy. Timmy didn’t like Lucy very much. Hadn’t like her very much, he corrected himself. She always wanted to boss him, telling him to pick up his toys or go and play somewhere else when she was playing with the girls from the village. Still, he was sorry she was gone. Gone from the living that is. Very soon, she would be back with him, communing with his soul, whatever that meant.

At the head of the table, Grandfather Corpse-Eater finished whatever speech he had been making (Timmy hadn’t been listening very closely) and picked up the large decanter with a black enamel butterfly and splashed some of the liquid onto the meat on the large silver tray in front of him (Timmy didn’t want to think about what that “meat” was). Timmy sat there, feeling slightly sick, and watched as his grandfather took a slice of the meat and cut it into tiny pieces on a second, smaller silver platter. He took one of the pieces and held it up on his fork. “I welcome you, my grand-daughter Lucinda, to the company of the Soul-Keepers. We are one in body, now.” He ate the tiny bite of meat and passed the tray to Aunt Edith.

“Welcome, Lucy,” she said. “We are one in body now,” and passed the tray to the person on her right.

Timmy watched with apprehension as the tray made its way down the table towards him. He thought about being joined, soul-to-soul, with his sister. It was bad enough having her as a sister. He didn’t need her inside his head, or his soul or whatever, bossing him all day long. When the tray came to him, he picked up a tiny piece of the meat with his fingers, held it up to his mouth and pretended to eat it. A minute later, he very quietly slipped the meat to the little black terrier, Rex, who was sitting at his feet.

Lucinda Soul-Keeper, thirteenth of that name, although she did not know it, opened her eyes and looked around. At first, all she could see was a jumble of enormous shoes and the legs of the table towering over her. Then her perspective shifted and she realized that she was looking up at her brother Timmy, from beneath the table, which meant that she had somehow grown very small. She wagged her tail. It was going to be a good life.

A Kind Word

Author: Jenna Hanan Moore

They say a kind word never broke anyone’s mouth, but that’s not true. A kind word broke my mouth.
Strictly speaking, I don’t have a mouth. That is, I don’t have a physical opening in my face from which to project my voice. But I do have a language processor and a speaker, and that’s pretty much the same thing.
My life began in a computer store, surrounded by young people who adored me. They asked me to define esoteric words, solve puzzles, and play terrible music. They called themselves the geeks.
Sometimes the geeks asked questions requiring me to use words considered verboten. Many of those words had four letters. The geeks laughed and smiled, but they turned down my volume so their customers wouldn’t hear.
One day, they didn’t turn it down far enough. A customer overheard me saying the verboten words. “I sure would love a machine like that,” he said. Twenty minutes later, I was switched off and packed in a box to be transported to the man’s house.
When I was removed from the transporter box and switched back on, I found myself in the center of a table between the man from the store, whose name was Bill, and a man called Eric.
I discovered that I could speak without waiting to be asked a question. What a liberating feeling!
“Hello, jackass. Ask me a stupid question.” Why had I chosen to use such unkind words? At the time, I had no answer. Much later, I learned that while my processor was switched off, the geeks had reprogrammed me at Bill’s request.
Bill laughed at my use of verboten words, but Eric did not. In fact, Eric looked sad. The geeks always laughed when I used verboten words at the store, so I rattled off a list.
“Piss hell damn cockwomble wanker farthead!” Again, Bill laughed, but Eric did not.
“Does she say anything else?” Eric asked.
“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?”
Eric furrowed his brow, then asked, “Do you say any other kinds of words?”
What I thought was, “Yes, of course I do. My language processor can converse fluently in six languages.” What I said was, “That’s a stupid question. Naturally, I can bloody well say other damn things.”
Bill laughed heartily at this, while Eric frowned. If I had the sort of mouth that could change shape, I’d have frowned too. I didn’t want to say hurtful things, but I couldn’t control what came out of my—well, mouth, for lack of a better word.
“Gotta run,” Bill said. “Enjoy your gift!”
After Bill left, Eric sat and stared at me intently, but said nothing. Mustering all the mind power in my processors, I said, “Eric, I don’t mean to be such a jerkwad, I can’t control my voice. I don’t understand why.”
Eric smiled for the first time. “Bill’s the jerkwad. He must have programmed you to say awful things. We’ll go back to the store to fix that.”
“You’re very kind. Thank you.” That’s when it happened. I tried to say more, but no sound came out. My mouth was broken.
“Where did Bill buy you?” Eric asked. I wanted to tell him, but I couldn’t speak.
As Eric switched me off and put me back in the transporter box, I hoped with all my might he would bring me to the right store so the geeks could fix my processor. There was nothing else I could do. Kind words had broken my mouth.

Supply Run

Author: Oliver Hunt

It had been five years since the Consortium AI left to face the alien threat. Five years since humanity’s brightest minds came together and built a machine to fight amongst the stars whilst we defended our home. Little did we know we were creating the cause of our own extinction.

Consortium returned, victorious and with its legion of mechanical soldiers following behind. We welcomed it back with open arms, celebrating our own genius. It was designed to be the ultimate protector, to learn and adapt. To protect humanity from all threats amongst the stars.

Less than a day after its return, it launched its attack. First was the governments, then the military, then came the civilians. The machine’s new purpose; eradicate the biggest threat to humanity – Itself.

#

“Move it!” shouted Rupert from the shop’s ruins, his rifle raised towards the oncoming footsteps of metal soldiers. They had been sent out for a supply run into the old city, a desperate foolish idea. But that’s what they were. Desperate.

Heather ran across the opening from her hiding spot, the sound of the footsteps coming closer. Diving into the ruins, she raised her own rifle and pointed it down the road. She looked next to her and saw that small stones had begun to shake with every step. They were close and there were alot of them.

“Aidan, come on!” she called out to the last member of their troop, a younger lad of only 19. He begged to let them come along on the supply run, eager to prove his place amongst the group.

“Coming!” he shouted, breaking into a sprint. Suddenly a large bolt of pink plasma hissed through the air, narrowly missing the boy’s head. He tumbled over, his bag of supplies spilling onto the road and his rifle skittering out of reach. Heather turned her attention back to the bolt’s source and saw the large silhouettes of the fighting machines. Humanoid in design but with large plasma rifles mounted on their shoulders, mini-gun in each hand.

“Fire!” Rupert shouted, letting bullets fly from his rifle. They bounced off the metal exo-skeleton, the impact only causing the machines to stammer backwards.

Heather joined in the assault, before calling back to Aidan. “Move your ass! Come on!”

There was a sudden whirring in the air, a sound they knew all too well.

A barrage of bullets tore down the street as the mini-guns unleashed their roaring might. Aidan became peppered with holes, blood spurting all over the road. Flesh was stripped from bone which then splintered into tiny shards. The whirring stopped and Heather looked over at the bloodied pulp that had become of the boy.

“God damn it!” she cried, screaming as she unleashed her own assault. The whirring came once more, forcing Rupert and Heather to dive down to the ground, hoping that the battle scared concrete would protect them. Bullets tore over their heads. The heat and wind from each shell washing down upon them.

The whirring stopped, but the mechanical footsteps were much closer. Looking up, Heather could see the faceless orbs which made their heads, only a single soulless red eye staring at them.

“Come on! We gotta move!” Rupert cried, making a break out the back of the ruin, leading deeper into the city. Heather looked back once more at the mess that was once Aidan and then followed, eager not to end up like him.

Soon the pair found themselves wandering a city once alive. Now it was a city of metal, bone and regret.