Of Phoenixes and Men

Author : Serban Danciu

“You know Carmen, it is as if you had lost your soul since you became a Macro operator.”

“Is that so?” Replied Carmen bursting into laughter. “My dear, let me tell you something: I DON’T give a rat’s ass. Do you understand? You don’t? All right. When you’ll start pushing the buttons you will surely do.” The woman turned and grabbed the microphone:

“Gabriel, be a sport and open the gates for the Black Velvet. Let’s fry them a bit.”

“Roger that, initializing Velvet activation protocol.” Replied the weapons’ officer of the second deck.

She then turned and looked through the exterior window of the control room. As a red fog, milions of deaf phoenixes were floating in the space between the two planets.

“Wait to see them BURN”, growled the older woman as her eyes devilishly sparkled. She then slightly leaned her head and squinted while callibrating the effect field of the weapon. Her wrinkled finger reached for the button and pushed it.

From the second deck of the Mark132-Romulus defence station, thousands of Velvety Bodies sprang forth advancing towards the alien mass like an old theatre curtain.

“B-but why? Why burn them? I mean, they do no harm…they’re just sitting there, floating around”

“Ha! Silly girl, how do YOU know they do no harm to us? How? Do you remember how WE got burned at the First and the Second Contact? The universe doesn’t want us, kid. None of the races, neither Xantellar, nor those from Andromeda, nor anybody! Nobody wants us – remember that. It’s us against them. They hate us…they think we are gross, they think of us as animals, superficial beings… and they never miss an oportunity to make fun of us. All our spies at their congresses and all their intercepted comunications say the same thing.”

“ Yes, true, but phoenixes are not a race in itself, they are just…well…phoenixes…like a natural phenomenon and they’ve done no harm to us YET. They haven’t even been studied throughly enough. Maybe they are good, maybe they are even friendly…”

“Look…I used to be like you at first. You think you can solve everything with peace and harmony around but at some point you will see that the world is nothing like that. It is a dog-eat-dog world where everyone eats whatever and whoever he can in order to survive. Kindness, compassion…these are fairytales.” The lines on her old face curved into an expression full of contempt. NOT EVEN ONCE, that they had shown us any kindness whatsoever, listen to me, NOT EVEN ONCE. So why should WE be the tolerant ones. Screw them…”

She lit herself another cigarette.

In the background, milions of searing phoenixes were screaming their bitter telepathic shouts of desperation but in space nobody ever listens.

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Unquiet Suffering

Author : Glen Luke Flanagan

The howling had been with humanity for three generations. At first, it drove people crazy – drove them to cut off their own ears in order to be rid of it. Of course, that didn’t work, because the howling came from inside.

The second generation was born with it, but heard their elders’ tales of a world without it. They dreamed of a silent world, though they had no idea what such a world would be like.

But by the third generation, the howling was simply a part of life, like the seasons, or climate change. At that point, those who preached against it were not revered storytellers; they were fanatics, lunatics.

Chief of the lunatics was Lex Tomenko, founder and high priest of the Church of Silence. Most considered it a somewhat absurd cult. Others, more paranoid – or perhaps, more wise – called it a terrorist cell.

“Silence will fall,” he promised anyone who would listen. “Silence will reign.”

Like anyone willing to commit himself to a belief and repeat it loudly and often, Tomenko attracted followers, despite the insanity of his message.

“You cannot truly hear God when the howling is with you,” he would tell them. “You cannot truly hear yourself.”

His was an impossible task, however. The howling pervaded every aspect of society; from fortune tellers offering to read your spirit animal by your howl, to computerized locks keyed to your particular howl like a fingerprint or eye scan.

It was like trying to fight the tide, or the rising and setting of the sun. The howling was a force of nature. Though no one knew its origin or its purpose, it had become part of us. It had become essential to life; or at least, to stability.

But like all rabble-rousers, Tomenko cared very little for life and nothing for stability – and like all misguided geniuses, he refused to accept the impossibility of his desires.

No one expected him to succeed. So, of course, it was that much more of a shock when he did. If the howling had caused chaos when it first appeared, its disappearance was tenfold worse. Billions of people raised from birth to accept that incessant noise as part of themselves now wandered the streets empty, alone in their own heads.

Into the void came thoughts that had long been drowned out, kept at bay by the cacophony that was no longer there. The dam was broken, and the flood rushed in. The silence was deafening.

 

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In Deep

Author : Janet Shell Anderson

I’m hoping I’m still alive.

I’m on a Goldilocks planet. GJ667Cc. The sky’s yellow; the ground’s red. As far as I can see, there isn’t a single living thing.

That’s the way the Goldilocks and Co. Mines wants it.

I’m here to mine iron, hematite, just like I did on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota before my little episode. Homicide. It wasn’t my fault. My sister’s a lawyer, so I hired her. Cheap. You get what you pay for. Now I’m here, sentenced to nine years, and it’s beyond a bitch. Every possible thing that could go wrong, has, and they say I’m to blame. Well, for killing Georgie the Childeater anyway. Nobody liked Georgie, especially after, but he was a pretty good mining engineer. Doesn’t matter; he’s dead.

I’m driving a thing called a “Scrambler X” that’s supposed to cross this landscape quick, but, like everything else here, something’s wrong with it. I can’t get to JUSTRIGHT. That’s the idiotic name of the mining camp. The thing about prisons is everything becomes a joke, or you go crazy.

And out there in the freezing red dust there’s a Something. Big. Silver. Monstrous. Walking around with a lot of legs. No head. We aren’t ever supposed to see Somethings, have contact with them, admit they exist. So they don’t. Georgie ate a baby Something. Saturday he tried to tear my arms off, stomp me to death after he had fifteen beers and some K2.

I killed him.

I’ve had enough of the Somethings, prison, mines, JUSTRIGHT, decided to go back to Lake Vermilion, Minnesota. Home. I figure it’s September. The trees along Lobe’s dock are red; the big jack pines rear up tall. The second growth firs cluster.

I go home a lot. Or dream I do.

A black bear walks up the gravel road.
My great uncle drowned here with two other men, poaching deer in winter. Fell through the ice. It’s too early for ice, but I am going to get in Lobe’s boat and drive it to the arm of the lake where they drowned. I’m not going to see silver Somethings in a Goldilocks raspberry, sunlicked desert. I’m not going to die in a prison mining camp called JUSTRIGHT because my sister didn’t know how to file a timely Motion to Suppress.

It’s a little breezy here beside the lake; gnats land on the water. Old, curled water lilies sway on the surface; leaves float toward the shore. The bear huffs, looks at me with those strange, beady eyes they have. He is thinking about raspberries. Too hot. Too cold. The dead know what bears think.

Oh man, am I dead?

He huffs again in a silver kind of way, monstrous.
I am in deep water, getting deeper and deeper, like my great uncle. The sun that never shone on Lake Vermilion, Minnesota, is turning red.

 

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Always With You

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The workshop echoes like a rendition of what the forges of the damned sound like. Amongst noises so loud they seem to have presences of their own, little figures scuttle in rituals of maintenance. Our gods are demanding and we have to comply, otherwise the threatened apocalypse will roll across the land.

In reality, the apocalypse arrived eight-four years ago. It came from the stars in ships of heart-rending beauty to turn our cities into canvasses of horror. They still argue about how many died in the initial attack versus how many died because shock rendered them unable to escape.

“Red!” My screaming order makes the apprentice jump, before he hands me the pot.

When the alien ships disgorged war-machines fifty feet high, with defences that rendered all but the crudest weaponry useless, we nearly became extinct. Then we built bigger war machines. Some went for the giant robot approach, but the sheer impracticality of that design – limbs come off too easily – cost us more resources.

In the end, the venerable war-wagon returned. Using the Victorian ethos of just scaling things up until they were effective, we ended up with the biggest all-terrain vehicles ever made.

Six thirty-foot wheels, steel-treaded, underpin an eighty-foot frame that mounts twin twelve-inch guns. We use an armour-penetrating dense shell around a high-explosive round because their defences render energy and external effects useless. Solid shot penetrates. Explosions inside their defences seem to work.

“Dryer!” He’s ready for me this time.

Our war-wagons are constructed from whatever we can find. The reactors that power them are high-output and internal shielding is minimal to allow more armour. The crew provisions are likewise minimal. Very few crew members endure more than eighteen months or survive longer than two years, even if the battles do not kill them. But by duty rotation, they serve until they die. They will not quit, because they are the last line.

I lift the dryer away. Wagon forty-four has just got its one hundredth poppy. We do not have time or space to bury our dead, even if we are lucky enough to have anything to inter. So the wagons have become rolling memorials. It suits us. No monument that stands alone under grey skies, visited infrequently. Our epitaphs roll out to fight the same enemy the men and women they commemorate died fighting against. Our oriental crews loved it immediately and everyone else has taken the belief to their hearts.

As walls shake and radiation burns, as shatterbeams and slicers howl against your armour, as primitive fear fills our rolling, man-made caverns, knowing you have the spirits of every fallen crewmember with you is the salvation of your sanity.

Victory will come, of that we are sure. Not one of us will see the second anniversary of it. We have already stated that there should be no memorial beyond the war-wagons. Let them rust where they stand on that final day. We will need no edifices, for we will be the ones who you feel beside you when you walk battlefields restored to be meadows or towns.

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Entropy

Author : Owen Vince

We suited up to see it, the last star. We donned thick helmets and heavy gear and passed from the airlocks into emptiness. Some would not come, could not face the terrible sadness, or else shunned the last light – a light that has only ever traveled dead, to us, and now it too was failing.

When it became sure that this would be the last star to cough out its light, Enni7A009, the remnants of humanity, living for so long now in ancient, mammoth vessels in our artificial phosphorescence, turned our course to the star. Out of hope, out of grudging respect ; attending the funeral of the last of a generation. Or maybe out of some died in the wool stubbornness, a refusal to accept the heat death of the universe, the refusal to accept that we were the last damned dregs of life.

At first we saw it in charts and deep images of space ; a magnified pinprick of light that traveled from the now dead, now silent star. But that was not enough. We watched ancient videos of the too-hot sun, of riders in white costumes sweating beneath its glare. But that, too, was not enough. I have never lived beyond the confines of this, our ship – what use is it to stalk the scarred, dark atmospheres of dead worlds, to glare into the shrugged sculpts of dead, collapsed stars who have given up their last? So we live in light, an artificial light ; we walk and bathe and bask in virtual realities. Our ships do not evidence a shred of their own reality; no iron grilles or bars or struts, but ancient forest glades and streams and delicate wooden pagodas.

But the sun isn’t real. Like so many of us, I keep a scrapbook – a journal, I suppose – of images of the sun, of reminders and remainders. Postcards of beach huts and woolen swimming clothes; a bright, green land with a great sun hung above it, wearing shades, wearing a smile. Clippings from a catalog of sun glasses and thin, summer shirts.

But soon, these too will be memories ; they will be signs with no signal, without reference. The next generation will ask what the “sun” means, and where it can be found in the endless night ; we will point to the source of its last flicker. And that will be all.

So we stood on the hard shoulder of our vessel, grouped or alone, our heads and faces turned to that distant volume of space. And the light, it wobbled. And it died.

And everything then was darkness, just as it had been once before.

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Null And Void

Author : Roger Dale Trexler

He sucked in a deep breath as the airlock opened. It was a force of habit. He had always been afraid of spacewalks. Too many things could go wrong, and you’re dead, he thought.

So why did he join the Space Corp?

The answer was easy: money. The unemployment was at ninety-three percent on Earth. The only jobs were out in space.

A voice came over the intercom in his helmet. “Are you outside yet?” Courtney asked. Courtney and he had been lovers on Earth, and they joined the Corp together. But, they were separated for a couple years. Courtney became a communications officer, and he a simple computer tech. He repaired minor servo systems and, when necessary, satellite equipment.

“Yeah.” He stepped to the open airlock. “I’m outside.”

He stared out into the vastness of space and, for a second, he thought he just might be the loneliest creature in the universe.

He drew in a deep breath again. The bottled oxygen was thick and stale.

“You’ve got to hurry, John!” Courtney said. “Please hurry!”

“I’m heading out now,” he said.

His accentuated the thrust in his backpack with his left thumb and drifted weightlessly out of the space station.

Once again, he took a breath.

He looked at the damage the meteor shower had done. The communication array and a small part of the hydroponics lab were damaged. The losses there were minimal. But, the communications array was shattered, and Cooper had gone out to repair it.

Cooper. Courtney’s new lover. She hadn’t even had the decency to tell him over subspace. It was only through sheer providence that John Kisat had found himself in the presence of his former lover. A simple refueling stop on the way to Ganymede to repair a deep space transponder brought them back together.

He had gotten the shock of his life when he opened the hatch to his one-man shuttle and seen Courtney’s face.

Courtney had gasped.

But, there was no tender reunion, no “I’ve missed you so.” Instead, Cooper had stepped around the corner and said sternly, “better lock it down tight, honey….there’s a meteor shower headed our way.”

Courtney looked at John, then at Cooper. “Ok,” she said.

The meteors pelted the station like a violent hailstorm. Courtney and Cooper huddled together while John sat across the room from them. Courtney never made eye contact with him. When the storm was over, she did a system analysis and informed her new lover that the communications array was damaged.

“Well,” he said, “I’ll go for a walk and fix it.”

That had been an hour ago,. Kisat listened to his former woman and her new lover talk as he went to fix the problem. They spoke so lovingly to each other.

Then, his comm went dead.

Courtney was frantic. “John! You’ve got to help!”

“Just for you,” he said.

He doned a spacesuit.

As he slipped in beside Cooper’s spacesuited form, he turned. There, almost perfectly placed in the center of his helmet, was a dime-sized hole.

The meteor shower hadn’t been completely over.

He looked at her lover’s face. The vacuum of space really was an ugly thing. Courtney would be upset anyway, he thought. It was better to spare her the agony. She was, after all, someone he loved. So, very carefully, he released the tether that held Cooper to the station and, ever so gently, gave him a push off into space.

He waved goodbye as his replacement slipped into the void of space.

Then, he turned back to the station.

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