Smartship Three

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Gareth watched the runnels streaking the grey steel from where condensation formed in the shadows above. The annoyed tone emerging from the hubbub that was causing the condensation attracted his attention.

“Major Gareth James. You seem to be more amused than when we started. You do realise this is a court martial with lethal tariff?”

The speaker, Brigadier Rostoph, was the hero of Purlestine Eight. Saviour of Statham Station. Liberator of the Edelfuz Reaches. He was, Gareth admitted, the warrior he aspired to be.

“Brigadier, I am aware of the weight brought to bear. What I am having trouble with is the enormous waste of time that has occurred in assembling this fiasco.”

For a brief moment, Gareth thought the Brigadier was going to achieve spontaneous human combustion. Then he saw the famed tactical intelligence kick in. Gareth smiled as Rostoph took a few minutes to scroll the charges and evidence, eyes narrowing in concentration.

He looked up: “I see that, in essence, you are accused of gross insubordination, and stealing three Assault-class Ultracruisers.”

“Yessir.”

“I fail to see a single defence entry. Your superior has given chapter, verse and diagram on your alleged crimes, along with reams of supporting material that, from my standpoint, merely states you have rudely insisted on fighting a war with complete disregard for submitting the correct paperwork. So why don’t you tell those gathered here your reasons for stealing a trio of smart warships, then promptly sending them deep into enemy-held space – where they will undoubtedly be captured and repurposed to cause us grief?”

Gareth swallowed. Time to stand or fall.

“They will not be captured, sir. I added full autodestruct cut-outs on all anti-tamper routines, and removed any failsafes that could allow a zero-check bypass. If the Blurd try anything except interdiction, the vessels will cheerfully turn into G-class fusion bombs and detonate.”

Rostoph smiled: “Which still begs the question ‘why send them?’”

“The Blurd are paranoid, sir. Despite their technological superiority, they prolong this war by being insanely over-cautious. It’s the only reason we’ve been able to gain ground, by exploiting that. But they are getting better at dealing with our ruses. Now this sector is filling with an enormous fleet. You’ve seen the intel, sir. This is their ‘Invasion Earth’ staging point.”

Rostoph wagged a finger at Gareth: “Nice summary. Question remains unanswered.”

“I sent three stealth ships with variable profile hulls, so they can look like Blurd ships of any similar size. Those ships will make a nuisance of themselves, be difficult to detect, then self-destruct at the slightest capture or subversion attempt. After that, Blurd paranoia will render them unable to resist shooting first and checking later. Especially with so many ships – ships unknown to each other, crewed by the many races that comprise the Blurd – gathering in one place, with more arriving all the time.”

“So this was all for an expensive gamble?”

“Please refer to the launch images, sir. The key feature of my plan is better seen than told.”

Rostoph scanned images of the three launches. Slowly, a huge grin spread across his face. He looked up: “This trial is over. You, Major James, are a bloody menace. I can use that. Follow me.”

Rostoph and James exited. The commandant rushed to Rostoph’s console. Three images were highlighted. Each showed the ship’s insignia, etched in reflective grey upon the matte-black hulls. They all featured the Blurd ‘trademark’: a large visicode. The commander’s brow furrowed. What on Earth? The numbers were ‘01’, ‘02’, and ‘04’.

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Soupe de Poisson

Author : Rick Tobin

Routine tapping of useless, dilated, vestigial nostrils against thick glass…perhaps a hope for release. Considering death, but they won’t allow that. Not now. I swim to the tank bottom, again, praying someone, once human, will join me. I remember land life.

Sheila glowed at Elephant Butte Lake. Not an oasis, but watering holes in the high desert are blessings. Dust devils trashed our blue tent. We saved gear that didn’t fly off. “Just for one night,” I kept telling her, convinced that moonrise over sparse mesquite and rabbit brush would be worthwhile. We rested by sleepy firelight as three visitors arrived.

My first response was to shoo them away, but Sheila was ever empathetic, always reaching to anyone like lost puppies. The two men were older than we were and rough. I knew the signs of biker gangs frequenting Albuquerque. My old man was a truck driver for the feds when they built Manzano Peak base. He warned me about felons. They gathered around us, the two bikers on either side of me, as their pet whore sat behind Sheila. It seemed odd, until she grabbed Sheila’s chest and covered her mouth. The bookcases beside me rushed in, but I swiveled past, heading for the tent where my dad’s pepper gun was stashed under sleeping bags. He warned me about the curse, the black inlaid handle made from a meteorite. “It will never wound,” he scolded, as he passed it to me days before his entry into hospice.

They were already on me as I rolled out the pistol. It happened in seconds. Two dead men lay face down in grit and sand. My feet automatically sped toward the fire. Sheila’s throat was slit open before her attacker charged me. After that, it was a blur. I remember horrifying photos at the trial. It didn’t matter Sheila was dead…it was what I did. “Such inhumanity requires the death penalty.” By then I had already been beaten twice and knifed in jail, until confined in solitaire. DARPA people visited a week later, beginning my watery journey.

What did I have to lose? Military medical volunteers wouldn’t face the gas chamber. Soon I was underground near Dulce. Researchers tested me, took blood, and held rigorous exams. In a month, I was escorted to a brightly lit room with panels of lights monitored on a far wall. Unchained and lifted into a hexagonal booth made of thick Plexiglas, I saw perforations on stainless steel flooring, while above a fan whirred. The observers adjusted instruments and then pulled a throttle bar. A turbulence of red, blue and black particles exploded upward, spinning throughout the containment. Minute shards struck, and then invaded. I collapsed into darkness from excruciating pain.

My waking was dreadful. There was no air. The doctors and nurses above me held a dripping intubation hose as I flopped helplessly, choking. “Better move him in now,” directed the doctor. “There won’t be time for an adjustment. They’ll either work or not, but open air will kill him.”

The nurses rolled me over a plastic sheet I struggled on, and into a horse-trough sized tank. It bubbled with oxygen feeds. I found instant relief, but shock, as my lungs failed. I panicked; sure of drowning…but no…I felt my throat oscillating gently. I reached up with webbed fingers to discover gills wafting fresh water over their red surfaces. That was the beginning—proof an aquanaut soldier could be developed. The beginning, only they know how long ago, as I age with my land memories in this crystal bowl, alone, but alive.

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Harmsway

Author : Erin Ritch

When I build a world in my mind, I build it from the ground up. Brick by brick, beam by beam, I know every corner as though I constructed it with my own hands. And in a way, I have. I find solace in the details. Peace in the straight, sturdy lines. In my dreams, I escape to these structures and explore them. And now, I send myself there to escape the pain.

I knew better than to land in that storm, and of all places, on Harmsway. But I was low on fuel, having been led off course by a snag in my navigation system. Damn interns, budget cuts had promoted them into Certified System Analysts and now their lack of experience was probably going to cost me my life.

I only remember glimpses of consciousness during my descent. With sickening cracks my craft tumbled through the thick trees, disintegrating in flashes of light. When I awoke, I took inventory. My head, my torso, my arms, my hands, my legs – they’re all there. My craft is shattered and I am half attached to my captain’s seat, probably from an attempt to eject at some point. I free my arm and drop to the half submerged floor. It’s at this point I realize I can’t move my legs.

“Shit,” I struggle into a sitting position. My voice causes a dozen creatures to scatter, scuttling into the black rainforest. Above me, just past arm’s reach, my radio is scratching. Somehow, someway, it has found a signal through the dense treetops. I extend my right arm and reach for the radio, cursing the broken limbs that are dragging me down.

The radio sputters as if losing charge and I hold my breath, counting the seconds in between crackles of life. The battery is on its last power cell. With my extended arm I pull myself back up into my dislodged captain’s seat. My heart pumps painfully as I focus everything on the strength in my arms. My broken craft rattles along with me as I finally strap myself into the harness.

My head is spinning and I notice a trickle of blood that has been drip, drip, dripping down my face. Fuzzy darkness begins to creep in around the edges of my vision and I feel myself slipping back to that structure in my mind, enticed by the safety of its tombs. Maybe if I close my eyes for just a moment, I can find some reprieve. Suddenly a voice shouts my name over the radio and I reach up instinctively, grabbing the radio calling out my coordinates.

“Roger your relayed Mayday,” crackles back across the radio. “Hold on.”

I was sinking fast. The floor of the broken craft was now completely submerged. I shake my head and stare down at the murky waters. Small blue algae flicker through the water, glistening even in the absence of light. Blood from my head wound falls like red rain and the organisms swarm around the droplets. Movement catches my eye as the algae part. I reach for my pocket knife, still hooked to my back belt loop.

I don’t know how long it will take help to get here. I don’t know who was on the other side of that radio. Maybe one of those interns had finally figured something out. Through my broken craft, I see the light of dawn begin to break through. In my mind, the sunlight appears through cracks in the sky. I close my eyes from atop the fortress in mind, forever safe there within those straight, sturdy lines.

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Time—Just time

Author : Lester L Weil

We were twenty years into the journey to our new planet. The ship required very little maintenance and all of us slept in our pods. The computer detected that one of the pods had malfunctioned, an unheard of occurrence. Protocol was that as Captain, I was to be awaken in the event of any problem to assess the situation. I woke to find a very confused young boy wandering the pod area. I put him to my pod and activated it and notified the computer to update the pod assignments.

Then I set about trying to correct the malfunction. With help of the computer, I discovered that the core mechanism was irrevocably broken, and without a replacement the pod was beyond repair. Almost all parts that needed replacing could be fabricated in our shop, but the pod core wasn’t one of them. There were no extra pods; there was not the space on the ship for ‘extras’.

So there would be no hyper-sleep for me. I would have to stay in real time. I would captain my ship while the rest slept in their pods, waiting to wake to a new world. They would be young and ready to start afresh. I would be an old man, irrelevant after the voyage has ended.

But I’ll be ok I told myself. I’ve always preferred living alone and the quiet days and years in space will give me plenty of time to read and play the piano, although the computer simulation is a poor substitute for my old Steinway.

So I read, thousands of books about everything. I studied history using the computer’s vast library and wrote treatises on various historical events. And what could be more useless on a new planet than an old man: esoteric earth histories. I composed not very good piano music. I wrote a novel and a book on philosophy. I played untold games of chess against the computer.

I got to know most of the passengers by name, and also their life histories by reading their files. I think of the pod rooms as my ‘neighborhoods’. The sleepers are my neighbors and I sometimes have imaginary conversations with them.

And so the years flowed by and another birthday came around. If I subtract the ‘pod’ years I am 86 today. If things go right I will spend my 87th on planet SR6973, our destination.

On this morning’s walk through the pod rooms—It’s odd that even after all these years of artificial lights I still think in terms of day and night, morning and evening. I linger in the section with families, looking at the children and again wonder what their young minds were thinking when starting this voyage. What wild and strange imaginings of their future world?

But enough of this. Today I wake the crew and we prepare for the final descent to our new home. I go to the crew’s section and start making preparations. My X/O is the first to wake. As he shook the cobwebs from his mind, he looked at me in wonder.

“Captain?—Jesus. Is that you? What the hell happened?”

“Time—Just time.”

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Price of Divinity

Author : Connor Harbison

No name. Names were to distinguish one from another. Now there was only one. Only him. The vastness of space seemed to swallow him up. From his asteroid perch he could spot a few other bodies. No planets. Not anymore, at least.

He cast a mournful eye towards the center. Nothing showed in the visible spectrum, but he could see the palpitations in gravity. The hole was there, just where he’d left it eons ago.

He remembered when the abilities first manifested. There was no explanation; one day he was ordinary, the next extraordinary. First there were accusations of steroids. Then he did things that no steroid, or any drug known to man, could do. Flying. Redistribution of mass and energy. The scientists called him the closest thing to God. The religious people didn’t like that.

He drifted cooly towards the heart of the system, letting the natural gravity well do its work. Or rather, artificial. It was man made, after all. Even if it was made by the last man.

Wars had broken out, but all he had wanted was to be left alone. His country had convinced him to fight on their side. The horrors he committed still flashed in his memory. Flesh melted from bone, bodies incinerated in an instant. Before that he had no idea what he could do.

With a twitch of his fingers he atomized an incoming asteroid. Had it impacted before the Earth disappeared it would have caused an extinction event to rival the dinosaurs. Maybe that would have been cleaner, he contemplated.

His first act of rebellion had been minuscule. His military handlers gave him a target; a small town thought to be harboring enemy operatives. He refused. They got angry, and he vaporized them.

The black hole neared with increasing speed. He calmly compared it to floating along in the rivers and creeks of his youth. Instead of water it was gravity now.

From that altercation it escalated. Ground troops were called in and quickly dispatched. Armor tried to stop him, but they were no match. Airstrikes demolished the house, but he was unscathed. Finally, the high command authorized a nuclear strike, which only served to kill everyone he had ever cared about. That was the final straw.

He came to a stop. He could see the gravity ripple before him, pouring over the event horizon. He had the power to stop himself here, but once the horizon was crossed there was no going back.

As the radioactive dust had cleared from the nuclear strike he rose into the sky. He kept rising, through the atmosphere and into space. He pointed himself towards the sun and minutes later he was in the heart of the star. From there it was a simple thing to overwhelm the core and collapse the star into a black hole. He had watched from afar as the inner solar system was sucked in. Earth’s demise barely registered on his emotionless face.

That was ages ago. He could not number the time that had passed. He had thought and rethought his actions. It took millennia, but he found remorse. Condemning a whole planet to death, for the actions of a few. He was no better than the men who had condemned the town.

He looked again at the event horizon. One step and it would soon be over. The black singularity would pull him in and crush his atoms into oblivion. He had survived countless hardships, much more than the human body was meant to endure. He contemplated a moment, then took the step.

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Cloud Eaters

Author : Rick Tobin

Bismarck, North Dakota

Jimmy Severud prostrated his nine-year-old frame on the blooming stiff flax, undulating in cobalt waves from winds caressing North Dakota’s startling-blue spring sky. Nearby, summer whispered among meadowlark calls and cricket melodies. He imagined billowing alto cumulus clouds as pirate ships adrift from Montana, meandering above grain fields, but puffy ships violently pulled sails to become thin wisps, without warning, as rapid ribbons scooting past. Fields silenced. Jimmy twisted back in awe, gazing to a menacing three-hundred-foot misty giant hovering over the rolling prairies, consuming clouds into a semi-transparent behemoth.

Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado

“Observations are now worldwide. Thousands are being confirmed by satellite. These monsters appear without warning, craft or sound, devastating clouds. I want answers, gentlemen, and now. The President’s waiting.” The Joint Chiefs’ Chairman took no solace deep in the Rockies. Confronting threats this massive called for nuclear intervention.

“General,” Dr. Elmore Baker, climatologist, responded, “We’ve tried salting clouds with silver iodide and chem trails. No effect. They prefer cumulus, but yesterday one devoured a nimbostratus over Kansas, with tornado funnels forming. High winds and lightning had no impact. If they continue we’ll have worldwide droughts in a month.”

“What about you, Carlson? Any luck deciphering that scalar wave code? Are they communicating?” The Chairman leaned towards Dr. Carlson, Berkeley’s renowned linguist.

“General, we’ve tried every decryption code…every alphabet. There is a correlation with an ancient Iroquois dialect given to them by their tribe’s Sky Mother.”

“Yes…go on…go on,” the General interrupted, flapping his right hand at Carlson to get to the point.

“Not absolutely sure,” Carlson paused, “but we interpreted one phrase as Myrgdala thirsty.

“Thirsty? That’s it? I don’t care what they call themselves. It’s obvious they want water. Peterson, what’s DARPA got ready? Can we nuke these bastards?”

Analyst Gerard Peterson delayed, waiting for tensions to drop. “Options are limited.” He halted again to gather everyone’s attention. “Radiation won’t affect them. They don’t have enough solid substance. We have no idea what heat might do, but based on lightning stories, probably little. In fact, targeting them is not feasible. They come in and out of the atmosphere we believe through some inter-dimensional portal. They’re gone in minutes. We’d waste our arsenal. The Agency, however, does have practical options, but there may be collateral damage.”

“Peterson, the last one of your collateral risks cost us an aircraft carrier off North Korea. You better be sure this time.” Red filled the General’s neckline.

“We are already set to test the use of swarm nanobots. They can combine with tenuous matter like these gas giants. Clouds of intelligent, swarming particles will spread over them, uses the giant’s contents to reproduce, and then encase them in metallic mesh allowing us to drag them into space. We believe these beasts will perish before reaching the upper ionosphere.”

“Ready to launch, you say?”

“General, just say the word. We’re already in the Pacific, far from any land mass.”

“Do it. Do it now!”

The team monitored results on their war room screens. Rockets released swarms on a targeted giant northeast of Hawaii. In seconds, a black cloud circled and engaged the invader. Its arms and legs reflected with new mesh as the bots spread…but suddenly the metal disappeared. The casing of technology became flesh as the giants solidified. Carlson rushed to answer an emergency call from Berkeley.

“General,” Carlson shouted out. “Hundreds of them are mutating simultaneously worldwide into the new form and communicating with the scalar waves. My team has deciphered a new message. Oh, God!”

“What is it man? Speak up!”

“Our world. Hungry.”

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