Author : Duncan Shields, Staff Writer
Ringmining attracted a certain kind of personality.
Not exactly hermits but beings okay with long terms of isolation. Pairs or groups of people rarely worked the rings.
Lena should have known better.
Each ringminer scoopship was like a baleen whale. They had wide mouths to collect all the crystals and sift through them for valuable minerals. It was tedious work but the rewards were there. It tended to turn the rings grey after a century of mining but didn’t damage them other than that. The ecolegal fights had been fought and ringminers were a profession for now.
The rings themselves played hell with transmissions when a ship was in them so when a ringminer was mining, they were on their own. The particles bounced radio waves around, sometimes for years. It wasn’t uncommon to hear garbled SOS beacons from years ago. The rings were creepy. It was best to keep the coms off entirely.
Lena piloted the ship Harling’s Spur, named for Lena’s grandfather. It had been her grandfather’s ship and was her inheritance when her own father passed. So many parts had been replaced on it that she doubted it could even be called the same ship. She was a third-generation ringminer.
She’d met Jordy on a supply run to K-78, the largest general store asteroid near these parts. It had been a stop to bury her father. She’d been blinded by grief, perhaps. Jordy was handsome, long-haired and strong jawed, but she’d forgotten that appearances can be deceiving. After three nights of passion, she’d signed him on with visions of bouts of lovemaking in between bouts of mining.
The dreams of a teenager.
Jordy was new to the business and Lena was starting to think he wasn’t cut out for it.
He started complaining about boredom almost as soon as they hit the rings. “Nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do” had become his mantra. His constant sighs and huffs were contributing to the rising tension. Lena had tried to teach meditation, exposed him to the ship’s library and games system, even tried to teach him tantra but it didn’t work.
He was a social animal. Perhaps he’d been blinded by lust as well.
Either way, this wasn’t going to work out and the hold wasn’t nearly full enough to justify a return trip. Lena knew that Jordy, soon enough, would demand to be returned home no matter what the expense. He wouldn’t wait six months and he was stronger than her. Things would get ugly.
She decided to nip it in the bud.
Another reason she’d picked Jordy was that he was a drifter of no importance. He didn’t have rich parents or a large family that would miss him. She thought that marked him out as the right kind of loner for the job. She was wrong about that but the upside was that making the problem go away wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.
While he was sleeping, Lena brought the largest hammer they had down on Jordy’s head enough times to make sure he’d never wake up.
She jettisoned his body into the rings. The surplus of supplies with his absence meant that she’d be able to stay here for a year. Operating the ship by herself would be no problem. There’d be a big payday when she docked again and a year of peace and quiet to figure out a plausible story before that.
She sat smiling in the darkness, listening to the rasp of the ringdust against the hull.
Ringmining attracted a certain kind of personality.
Author : Aiza Mohd
There’s a funeral being held in the junkyard today.
Its mourners come in a neat little line of twelve, proceeding in that beautiful precision of steps that only them bots ever have. When I was young, I learned to tell for myself whenever the girl at the ticket counter, the man falling asleep behind the bar, the bored kid mopping up the aisles, was nothing but cogs and gears. Wasn’t the flawless face. Wasn’t no lack of expression, either. Was the way they walked. No human ever walks the exact way the human body was designed to walk. But bots do.
The pallbearers arrive, lowering a dark coffin onto a clearing in the heap. Eddy and I had made that clearing ourselves just a couple hours ago, though we hadn’t a clue what it was for then. Just following orders.
Eddy’s staring, too, his forearms crossed and resting on the handle of his spade. ‘Don’t cha think them wooden ones turned out kinda nice?’ he says.
I look at him. ‘Wooden?’
‘Sure. Where d’you think the junk timber went? They wanna make ‘em outta waste now. Green robots.’
‘And these ones are wooden?’ Some of the mourners are weeping. One of them has white flowers in her hand.
‘So Jackie tells me.’ Eddy’s ex-wife. She works here too. They make small talk when they happen upon each other, as though the 32 years together had never taken place.
‘Well, I bet they ain’t the important bots. Important bots probably made outta gold.’
‘It’d surprise you,’ he says in return. ‘Plenty of them VIP bots is made outta cheap material come outta landfills like this one. Singaporean President? Made of e-waste.’
‘Parts of him used to belong to Acer. Ha, ha ha!’
I look back at the funeral proceedings. The bot holding the flowers lays her bouquet coffin-side. The others bow their heads a little as she does this. Stood up like that in the middle of all that junk, with their slender black silhouettes leaning against the sunset to the west, they remind me of a scene from a movie that I’d seen as a boy.
Pretty soon, them bots start leaving the ‘yard single file, and it’s time for me and Eddy to get to work. The bots don’t dig any grave of their own – that’s what me and Eddy are here for.
As we approach the coffin, the late afternoon light glances off a silver plaque on the coffin-lid. Eddy pauses, then scuttles over to it like the sparkle-loving magpie that he is.
‘What’s it say?’ I ask him.
He’s crouched down by the thing, without a shred of respect for the dead. ‘Isaac Benjamin Crocker,’ he murmurs, callused fingers running wonderingly over the silver plaque. ‘I heard that name before. Ain’t he one of them Silicon Valley fellas?’ He pauses in a moment of conscience. Then he heaves and pries open the damn coffin-lid with his own bare hands.
‘Eddy, what in the name of Teddy Roosevelt –’ and there I stop, because I’m staring, not at the disassembled anatomy of a machine in the box, but a person. A human man.
He’s been perfectly embalmed, Isaac B. Crocker, probably by mechanical hands, but a small card been tucked under his crossed hands. My own hands trembling – very much alive over his – I pick it up and read it aloud to Eddy’s questioning face.
‘Glory be our father.’
Ain’t it peculiar how interchangeable trash and treasure are?
Author : Gabriel E. Zentner
Today’s the day.
I’ve got my ticket, got my number. Granted, everyone’s got a number. It’s not your standard lottery, and I suppose the odds are so much the worse for that. That being said, the stakes are a lot higher than a few hundred million bucks.
The world is ending. It’s really ending this time, not like way back when we had Y2K and Judgment Day and all that. This is extinction-level stuff. No way out of it.
We still can’t do much in space. Radiation, solar flares, you name it, it’ll cook us or desiccate us or… well, you know what I’m talking about. All those heroic cinema dreams of sending off brave astronauts as the last scion of humanity… yeah, not so much.
So, there’s the lottery. Every human being on the planet has a ticket, from prisoners to priests to physicists to punk rockers. What’s the prize? Why, immortality, of a sort. If your number comes up, they upload your consciousness into some kind of probe, and shoot it off into space. Not much of a chance for species survival, but hey, I suppose it’s better than nothing.
It’s time. They’re starting to read the numbers. I watch the vidscreen, transfixed, my palms sweating and heart pounding.
One hundred numbers down. Nothing. I grip my ticket tightly.
Two hundred. Not me. The ticket is slick with sweat.
Three hundred. I’m starting to think I’m going to die like everyone else.
Four hundred. I can’t watch this anymore.
Five hundred. That’s the last number. They didn’t call mine. I can barely hear the instructions to the lucky five hundred as my ears begin to pound. I’ve just received, along with most of the other ten billion people on the planet, a death sentence.
I guess we can’t all be lucky.
Author : Adam Levey
The pilot, Simon, surveyed the scene of utter devastation all around him. Spent ordinance drifted in the space between thousands of shredded warships, many the size of mountains, with gaping wounds as big as apartment buildings. Ammunition spilled from storage rooms, detonating as it collided with the debris of human achievement. The mighty fleets had been last-ditch efforts by the great powers to end the war decisively. The fact that each side had decided that their secret weapon would simply be larger versions of things that weren’t working as it was really did say it all.
Scraps of hastily retrofitted merchant ships mingled with the purpose-built destroyers and frigates. Old ships recovered from scrapyards, new ones right out of construction bays. Cutting-edge lasers, missiles, rail guns and projectile weapons as old as the idea of interstellar travel itself all blurred together into a mélange of destruction. Many of the gutted wrecks that haphazardly floated past weren’t even equipped with jump drives, they’d needed to be ‘towed’ by the larger vessels. Towing was an unreliable science; ships had up to a 20% chance of being ripped apart by the strain. Still, jump drives were expensive. The comm-channels were dead, Simon had checked. Not even static. Then again, maybe it was his own equipment that was damaged.
Before this battle, there had been many others. Hundreds, certainly, maybe thousands. Ten times as many skirmishes, acts of sabotage and terrorism. Every weapon in humanity’s arsenal had been utilised, from chemical agents to propaganda. There had been plenty of time, after all; a war that lasts centuries leaves plenty of time for experimentation. Resources had run dry, colonies had been bombed into dust, economies and industry were taxed to breaking point. Technology stagnated, except when it came to military hardware. It provided little benefit though, considering how quickly spies were able to get their hands on new discoveries and prototypes, and by the end industry was so deteriorated that advanced technology was impossible to manufacture.
Simon considered the wreckage all around him. So many civilian ships had been pressed into service…perhaps all of them. Most of the original crews had opted to stay with their beloved vessels. The military’s relief was almost palpable, since it wasn’t like they’d have any chance of providing crews; after a war lasts a century (or two, or three), volunteers become difficult to find.
It was hard to be certain, but it seemed like every fleet had fought to the last. There certainly couldn’t be many survivors. The war was probably going to have to be put on hold for a while. It was likely for the best, everyone could do with a breather. Simon smiled sardonically at this thought. Light flared as damaged reactors went critical, and capital ships were ripped apart, blast doors and engines and shield generators pin-wheeling. There was no sound, except the hiss of air escaping through the cracks in his cockpit canopy.
Author : Desmond Hussey, Staff Writer
Tensions are high in the control room as the Pegan ship passes the Moon. Speakers emit a constant chatter of enigmatic chirps, beeps and ultra-sonic tweets which constitute the Pegan language.
“You’re telling me, we’ve been in contact with them for sixty years,” Chief Administrator Swanson’s face is a study of barely controlled anger, “but we still have no idea what their intentions are?”
“That is correct, sir.” I shift uncomfortably in my seat.
“Then what the hell have we been paying you people for?” His voice rises, filling the chamber. “Assembled in this room are the world’s brightest minds and not one of you has any idea how to talk to them?” Eyes stare glumly at consoles or shoes, desperately avoiding contact with Swanson’s rage. “Need I point out the importance of establishing communication? We need to know if they’re hostile or friendly.”
“It’s not that easy.” I know I’m walking on thin ice, but I continue. “We’ve tried every known language, but have found no common denominator, no shared linguistic or phonetic keystones of any sort to build off of. We’ve tried pictures and symbols, but we share no familiar point of reference. Likewise, we have little or no context for the images they send us. We aren’t even certain if they see the same spectrum of light as we do. Earth memes lack any relatable context to Pegan ones – an arrow might mean direction or a weapon to them. We do know that their language is a highly complex one. We suspect it may even be chemical in nature–“
“Chemical?” Swanson shouts. “How in blazes do you communicate with chemicals through space?”
“Exactly our problem, sir,” I pause as he mulls this over. “We’ve had some minor success with mathematics, but the Pegans have demonstrated a comprehension far beyond our own. Our mathematical vocabulary is grossly undeveloped, much like a pre-school child by comparison. It’ll take legions of mathematicians a century to decipher the volumes of equations they’ve sent us so far. It’s a gold mine of information about the universe, but the actual nature of the Pegans remains a mystery.”
The intricate crystalline mass of the Pegan ship fills the view screen, minutes away from entering the atmosphere.
“We think,” I add tentatively, “they’re friendly.”
General Haigg butts in, barking around his cigar. “Thinking isn’t good enough, Doctor.” He addresses his aide. “Major Demakis, begin the launch sequence for the warheads. Prepare to fire on my command.”
“No!” I yell. “Activating weapons could be interpreted as an act of hostility.”
“You know this how, Doctor?” Haigg demands. “I thought we didn’t understand each other.”
“We know they’re not stupid. They only want to talk. I’m positive. Any act of aggression, even a passive one, might alarm them.”
“You’d risk an alien invasion to satisfy your hunch that they’re friendly?”
“You’d destroy our opportunity to befriend a superior alien species because you assume they’re hostile?” I retort.
“Sirs!” the radar operator calls out, “Multiple targets closing in from all directions on the alien craft’s co-ordinates. They aren’t ours.”
“Get me eyes out there!” General Haigg barks.
On the view screen, the Pegan ship glows brightly as it breaches the atmosphere over South America. It comes to rest two miles above the jungle canopy, a shining city of crystal and light.
“What are those shapes flocking to it?” Swanson asks.
“Birds,” I say, “Millions of birds.”
The sky surrounding the Pegan ship is thick with a variety of birds creating a cacophony of chirps, clicks and cheeps.
It sounds Pegan.
Author : Suzanne Borchers
Zoe watched the starlit sky reflect off the ship next to her. She touched the smooth metal, and then began pounding it. She pounded the ship’s side again and again. Despite the pain she kept pounding.
“Honey, stop.” Derek grabbed her, and held her to his chest. “You know I have to leave. You watched me build this–”
“This diseased blob,” she muttered.
“–ship for weeks in our backyard.” He kissed her hard.
Zoe leaned against him. “I wish I never met you. I wish you had crashed a million miles away.”
“No you don’t, not really.” Derek held her close. “I love you–you know that–but I have to finish my mission.”
She remembered the first time at the hospital. She nursed the burned lump called Derek with a tenderness she discovered to be love. Tears filled her eyes as she recalled how his almost lifeless body became stronger over the months he convalesced there with her. She was his personal caregiver because others were repulsed by him. It seemed so right to take him home with her when he was discharged. She loved him. How could she let him go?
“When will the ship be ready?” She didn’t really want to know, but as she felt him release her, she knew the answer.
It was then she realized that he wore the burnt spacesuit, covered with patched fabric. She closed her eyes.
“Zoe, I’ll be back. I promise.”
She touched his deeply scarred face, “No you won’t.”
“I love you.” He turned to the ship, stepped up the ladder, and then grasped the door opener. “Wait for me,” he said, opening the door to disappear inside.
“Good bye,” Zoe said. She flew into the house to watch from the port window. As the ship lifted up, she rubbed the tears from her compound eyes. “I wonder which planet is Earth.”