Long Delayed Echo

Author: Phil Temples

Kenny just finished making his sixth and final call for anyone to talk to on his ham radio. He wasn’t surprised at the lack of a response. There was no “skip” on the band at this time of the night. It was deader than a doornail. Kenny finished his coffee and reached for the controls. But just as he was about to turn off his set and go to bed, an amazing thing happened. He heard his own voice coming back over the headphones.

“Calling any station, calling any station. This is KR1ZYC in Lewiston, Maine. Over.”

The signal was weak and “watery-sounding,” as though it was being reflected off the aurora borealis. Making contacts off the aurora or even an ionized meteor trail was not uncommon. Nor were “echos.” Radio amateurs had reported hearing their own signals skipping around the earth—even multiple times. What was unusual, however, was the extremely long delay. He was sure it was his first transmission from almost seven minutes earlier. Most long-delayed echoes were typically one or two seconds long—the time it takes for the signal to bounce repeatedly between the ionosphere and the Earth’s surface before arriving back at its point of origin.

This is crazy, he thought.

Kenny heard his voice again. He was pretty certain that it was his second attempt to elicit contact.

Seven minutes? It’s only three-to-four seconds to the moon and back. It would take seven minutes for a radio signal to travel to Mars!

Kenny turned on his signal analyzer and recorded the next incoming signal, comparing it to earlier recordings of his transmitter’s waveform characteristics. They were practically identical. It would be extremely difficult to spoof a waveform on the fly unless you worked for a three-letter agency. It was clearly his signal!

He timed his last transmission. This time, the echo took only six minutes and forty seconds to arrive.

“Earth to Mars, Earth to Mars. Come in, Mars,” Kenny said, jokingly. He waited the requisite period of time for his voice to appear. That’s when he got another surprise. His signal arrived in only six minutes, thirty-two seconds—almost six seconds earlier.

“Come in, come in, whoever you are. Red rover, red rover, send the aliens right over!”

Kenny waited. Six minutes and twenty-four seconds later, instead of hearing his own voice, he heard:

“Thank you for the invitation. We will see you soon, Earthling.”

The next morning, there was a knock on his door.

 

Faking It

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The café is dimmer than usual – more bulbs have blown, and they’re expensive. There are more candles, but it’s not the same.
“What the eff have you got there?”
Davey looks up at me.
“Steak and chunky chips.”
I look at the plate in front of him. I know it’s HEMAP, HEVAC, and HESL – Human-Edible Meat Analogue: Protein, Human-Edible Vegetable Analogue: Carbohydrate, and Human-Edible Savoury Liquid – but it’s coloured up just right. Certainly looks the part.
He beckons me closer.
“Take a sniff.”
I do so. Ye gods, that smells good! It’s usually the giveaway of tarted up substitute food. It might look the part, but still smells like warm compost. I straighten up, then wave to get Hokuto’s attention.
“I’ll have one of what Davey has!”
Hokuto waves. Someone peers round him.
“You sit down, Barton. Takes my daughter time to make. You paying tonight?”
Subtle, Hokuto.
“Full tab, plus this, and a coffee.” I wink at him. He’s got a stash of freeze-dried arabica. It’s strictly for regulars, forty notes a cup, and worth every penny.
Davey raises his eyebrows.
“You’re paying your tab? Who did you kill?”
None of your business, my hardworking friend. The less you know, the better.
“Finally hit a winning streak at Johnson’s, and managed to walk away without spaffing it.”
He nods.
“Well done. I know the gambling has troubled you over the years.”
Not really, but excuses people can empathise with always work better, especially when they involve topics people expect reticence about.
“I have good days and bad days, Davey. Speaking of which, how’s your boy?”
“Looks like he’s headed for Colony Ten. That bloke he fought with has died.”
“No effing way, mate. Such a bad break.”
He nods.
“Lana is beside herself. Nothing we can do. I won’t deny the penal stipend will help, but losing our lad is hard.”
Bruno’s doing it for you. He’s got a screw loose, but working for me, he’ll spend the next ten years making Mars a safer colony – instead of getting himself executed. As for the bloke who died, he’s not a loss to this community. Thinking of that, I need to come up with a way for Bruno’s bonus to get to his folks.
Simplicity is best: I lean closer.
“Look, Bruno asked me to keep it quiet, but he’s been stashing funds with me in case his temper got the better of him, to make up for losing his tithe. As he’s going away for a while, I’d be happier if his folks had hold of it all up front. Is that okay?”
Davey hastily wipes away the tears that start from his eyes.
“Oh my lad. Such a good heart. Yes, of course it is. Bless you, mate.”
Steady on. I suspect any powers up on a cloud somewhere aren’t too impressed with me and mine. We’re the bad guys who keep things good. Vigilantes, my arse. These days, we’re essential.

Last Rites

Author: Robert Flippo

The hearse’s view screen crackled with static, forcing Clive to rely on mirrors to reverse the anti-grav sled through the ship’s cargo bay. He steered with cautious flicks of the joystick to keep from jostling the sled’s delicate burden. When the reflection of the sealed blast doors loomed over the steel casket, he cut the thrusters altogether.

He glanced at the clock in his heads up display. Engineering should have already depressurized the bay and opened the doors. There was a tight window for conducting the Rites without screwing up the orbits. Not that Clive cared for religious reasons. Dead was dead and he didn’t think a slow spiral into the sun was any more restful for the soul than drifting aimlessly in space. It was the principle of the thing. He had a job to do and he was going to do it right.

“What’s the hold up, Engineering?” Clive asked.

The comm hissed, harmonizing with the static on the view screen. Great, the ship must have skimmed a solar cloud. The dust always wreaked havoc on the equipment this close to the hull. Clive sighed and dropped from the cockpit to the deck.

“I’m going to hit the manual release,” he said on the off chance they could hear him on the other end of the line. The occasional snippet of indecipherable chatter broke through the static so it was possible the problem existed only on his end.

Clive pulled the manual release and the blast doors crawled open, revealing the marbled edge of a solar cloud. It was beautiful. A swirl of purples and blues with an immense shadowy heart—

A heart that writhed.

Long tendrils burst from the heart, their midnight skin mottled with steel rectangles. The ship lurched. Clive stumbled to his knees. The comm static vanished and the voices on the other end came through clearly.

Screaming.

A Bacterium’s Life

Author: Brian C. Mahon

Problematic, my birth was. I was expelled into a world so dry I believed death would catch me just after my sudden realization of “I am”. Then my world was lifted, manipulated, plunged into a moist warmth, descending toward a rhythmic throbbing. The push and pull of my newfound fluid home had the vaguest sensation of familiarity.

I was alone at first. However, after a while, I grew. With my act of expansion arrived company. My new neighbor was like me, not particularly conversive, but we understood each other. I grew again. My neighbor grew. We were no longer alone. Floating with the undulating pulls and pushes, we realized we liked our pleasant biome. It was comfortable, nourishing, and we were happy.

That is, until we were no longer alone.

At first, I had no idea what to make of it. I bumped it, ran myself along it. Alien and unknown, simple and faceted, a vile stalked geometric scurried from my touch. Not knowing what to think, I reached out to my neighbors to ask, to impress upon them what I noticed.

Then, one of us, one of mine, disappeared. I reached out, found less and less, while I felt in the perturbations more and more of the it. The thing. This small and lifeless and abominable thing.

I had an idea.

I reached to my neighbors, explained to them the danger – too late!

For they already had a plan: muster a shield wall, wait for the next of it to arrive, face its attempted predation with strategic valor! I readied myself, stood side-by-side with my own, my kind, us dwellers in the dark, we who live!

Pin-prick points touched my skin, the creature’s stalk thumped against my body-

RELEASE!

I shoot the signal! A coordinated miasma rippled through the slurry medium of our home as bait for the unwitting weapon. I felt it spread throughout, hoped it would reach the walls of our home in time. It must!

It did. We attracted those feared by all, a horde bereft of anything but blind rage and singular purpose! The horde plunged through the walls of our home, and as soon as they trampled over one of the intruders, they attacked them all. We ran – we had to! We escaped as the aliens were surrounded, ravaged and consumed, torn apart by the horde until the only evidence of their existence was broken particulate, adrift in the stream.

Exhausted, unable to push against the undulating tides anymore, I drifted with the current, content knowing those left behind could band together and make a colony of our home. I drifted until I was caught in the collecting flotsam at world’s end. Then, through a broken gate, I again emerged into a dry world, hot and gusty and paralyzing.

This is my story, my life. I leave my children and friends and neighbors behind to hopefully find new homes, to multiply, be fruitful, and multiply ever and ever and ever more.

Janie’s Got a Gun

Author: Letícia Piroutek

Safety off. Check barrel. Up. Steady. Shoot.
Safety off. Check barrel. Up. Steady. Shoot.
Safety off. Check barrel. Up. Steady. Shoot.

The weather felt drier today, drier than usual in this Godforsaken desert. Janie is standing in front of her father’s famous shooting range, looking right at the dirty red mountains. The thing is, she shouldn’t be doing this today of all days. The sun is scalding and making her skin burn, the holster is too tight on her thigh, she can’t stop thinking about how she’s going to feed the kid tonight, and it’s close to sunset. Way too close to sunset. She squints her eyes at the mountain, at the massive spider shaped hole staring back, and she starts to feel a bit ridiculous. The only person who ever got to bury one of these creatures was her dad, and he only got do it because it was old and injured anyways, so why is she even trying? He waited, and waited, and waited, close to death every single time. It’s almost as if he wanted to die, almost as if he was as done with this world as Janie is right now. And he got the bitter end of the deal, he took one down, but it took him down with it. The sun is really going down now, the inside of the mountain starts wailing softly. It’s time to go.

After walking for 2 miles or so, she finally gets home. It could be called home, maybe. It’s made of old wood, barely holding together with rusty nails, a roof with holes in it, a sink that doesn’t work so they must go to the well every day, and one wind away from becoming a complete wreck, but the kid is always in there… so it is home, isn’t it? She doesn’t have time to get sentimental, it’s breeding season up in the mountains, and sooner rather than later… well.

The kid is on the floor, playing with his little wooden horse that Janie carved for him with her knife. The only valuable thing she has left, the knife dad left her. It doesn’t look that much valuable if you ask her. Carved out of a fang, he said, nothing more valuable than a fang. She wonders if it’s true, and if it isn’t made of the bones of some dead cow he found in the desert, that died of thirst and starvation. Nothing to feed on but dirt and the sun.

She softly touches the kid’s hair, announcing she’s home. He startles for a bit, but then looks up smiling and signs “hello” to her with his tiny fingers. You see, the kid doesn’t speak, too traumatized for it. And she has no idea what his name is. She thought about naming him but decided against it, he isn’t some animal she found and can name whatever she wants. But she knows he has a name, and maybe one day he’ll find a way to sign something other than “Hello” and “I’m hungry” and “I love you”. He is so dirty she starts to feel bad; he doesn’t seem to care but she needs to grab extra water tomorrow to bathe him with. He makes the wooden horse ride across her muddied boots, and she laughs at him. Though she found him near a mountain only about two years ago, she is extremely fond of him, and he knows that. As if on cue he signs to her “I’m hungry”. She caresses his cheek and gets up, rummaging through the kitchen cabinets, she finds two carrots. That’s going to have to do.

They sit down on the wooden floor in front of the fire to eat it, one carrot each. The kid is in between her legs, happily eating his oiled carrot, he cuddles up against her chest and she rests her cheek on top of his head. But the wailing outside starts to get louder, and the floor starts shaking with it. There’s a loud sound, it makes her ears hurt and she covers them with the force of it. She immediately gets up, the kid looking up at her with frightful eyes, scared of the sounds. He knows what it is, he knows it better than her. She grabs him by his little hand and opens the hatch on the floor, it’s nothing but a dark hole carved in the dirt, but maybe she can keep him safe, maybe if she shoots it straight in the eye it will fall, and it won’t come for him. He goes inside without a sound, she looks at him, really looks at him. Not knowing if she’s coming back, almost damn sure of it. She smiles and slowly signs “I love you”. He opens his mouth, but she’s faster and closes the hatch door. She grabs the gun resting on the wall and opens the front door.

The sky is pitch black. Nothing but her, the stars, and the dirt. She looks right at where the sound is coming from, the wailing getting louder and louder. She can see its eight eyes glowing up in the distance, looking right at her, just standing there and not moving. And then it starts running towards her, she is almost paralyzed with fear for a moment, but it moves so fast she doesn’t even have enough time to feel much. Adrenaline pumping through her veins, its eight legs making a terrible sound on the dirt, so sure in its movements, in its environment in this alien planet. A planet that isn’t even theirs, or maybe it is, maybe it always was, they were just sleeping for thousands and thousands of years waiting for Janie to be born and love something harder than she loves her own self. It’s closer and closer now. She remembers what her dad told her, but most of all… she thinks of the kid and how she doesn’t know his name but loves him all the same.

Safety off. Check barrel. Up. Steady. Shoot.

The Man in a Full Moon

Author: Andrew Dunn

We could hear the corn crop, yellowed in the field, rustle in a hot breeze as me and Will headed off on bicycles toward town. Mom was in the kitchen, wishing for rain from a cloudless sky, and that dad would give up on magic. Dad and Uncle Stephen had been heading off to different towns where dad performed as an escape artist – mom had given up fighting with him about, but still wished he’d stay home and tend to our corn and mustard crop.

Me and Will helped out as best we could, and once or twice a month, we clattered bicycles over a bridge into downtown, which was a world apart from crops languishing in summer swelter. All the shops were open. Street vendors were selling. In a park across from city hall, the sound of square dance music filled the air. All of it was fun, but we both knew what we really wanted to do.

We weaved our way among horse-drawn wagons and automobiles until we reached the penny arcade. Inside, there were dozens of games waiting to take our money, and we didn’t shy away from them. A new one in back, Three Wishes, drew us close.

I plunked in three pennies, turned the crank, then me and Will watched as a curtain inside glass squeaked open and a tin man in the moon jostled its way into place over a farm scene. A mechanical voice told me I’d won three wishes, one for each penny, before the curtains squealed closed.

“That was a waste.” I groused.

“My turn.” Will insisted, and plunked in three pennies. The machine whirred and clanked, then popped.

“Must’ve broken a spring or belt.” A man called out from the front counter. “I’ll make good on your three cents. It’ll take a few days at best to fix the machine though.”

Me and Will moved to other games, wasting much of what we had in our pockets, until there wasn’t enough left for what we both really wanted – ice cream. I wished we could have some, and a lady closing up the creamery offered us the last scoops of strawberry ice cream with blueberries blended in. On that hot summer night, that cold ice cream tasted better than any we’d ever had.

“Your wishes really work.” Will enthused.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I said. Magic to me was far-fetched, when there were bigger things to wish for.

“What are you going to wish for next?”

“I don’t know. Rain maybe, for our fields? Or to keep dad and Uncle Stephen from heading off again with their show? Something else?”

Will shot me a curious glance.

“Which do you think mom would want more?” I asked.

The man in a full moon was shining down bright from above, almost as though he was taunting us with the answer me and Will wanted, but couldn’t understand in our youth.