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.

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Deafening Silence

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.

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Birds of a Feather

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.

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The Alien

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.

“I’m sorry.”

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.”

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Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

What a mess. I’m standing on the fifteen-foot diameter stump of a Redwood, sliced off three feet from the ground as if by a gigantic razor blade. About me, the effect radius covers nine miles. In front of me is the twisted confetti that used to be a hundred and fifty foot long aircraft.

“Ye gods. Found out what happened yet, Rudi?”

I turn and look at my second-in-command, Elys. She, like me, had invested both time and money in this project. Years of commitment volunteered to realise the dream of every science-fiction nut across the globe. We hadn’t been alone. The crowd-sourcing for this project set new records in amounts of money and speed of accrual. Now the only wise part of the investment was the failure insurance.

“I think I know. There are going to be repercussions if I’m right.”

I jump down from the stump and move toward the biggest fragment of the Stargazer that remains. “Look at this.”

“It’s a circuitboard.” Elys peers closer. “Correction. It was a circuitboard. What did that?”

I wait. She’s an accident investigator like me and the pieces of this debacle do fit together. The board is fried completely and evenly. That’s not fire damage.

A look of horror crosses her face. “Oh my god. You’re kidding.”

I look out across the devastation, where people move in numb concentration, looking for pieces of the crew where crows have settled, which is the only pointer. Human remains are as shredded as the ship.

“I can’t think of anything else that explains this. Sabotage will be proposed, especially by those even remotely to blame; but if they want to do that, then they can pay to have this reassembled.”

Elys crouches down and balances on the balls of her feet. “You think they’ll try?”

I turn my head to look at her. “Given what’s at stake, I would.”

She nods and I stand up. Time to report in. I walk over to the Control centre and a senator and the state governor close in to be my witnesses.

“Accident Investigator Rudi Teans. I confirm that the anti-gravity project was a success. The failure of the prototype was caused by two flaws. First: the magnetic field generators emitting outside their specified ranges. Second: the shielding on the electrical systems being substandard. The combination of these resulted in Stargazer suffering the complete destruction of all control systems by an electro-magnetic pulse effect as the generators reached peak load. I recommend that Federal authorities move swiftly to secure all build records and inspection sign-offs. The deaths of all eleven personnel are directly attributable to criminal negligence.”

The senator touches my arm. “What about this?” He waves his hand to encompass the blasted landscape.

“The effect zone can only be attributed to some unforeseen aspect of gravitational repulsion that is beyond my expertise to analyse.”

The governor looks me in the eye. “Did they suffer?”

I look up at the circling crows. “I hope not.”

The governor nods. “Amen.”

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Breaking the Wedge

Author : Scott Summers

At 18:55 Standard, the Breakwater dropped out of superspace above New Tellis and began jettisoning escape pods into the atmosphere. Leaking oxygen and billowing fire, the ship guns rotated on their axis and fired into the empty space overhead. Torpedoes, missiles and railgun shells hurled away from the cruiser, pushing it farther into the planetary gravity well.

Ten seconds after opening gambit, a ripple in the vacuum signaled the arrival of the Talcani cruiser. The ship had intercepted the Breakwater as it went super at the edge of the galaxy. With no place to run, the Breakwater had taken its licks and set a course for the closest defensive system. Jumping into New Tellis orbit was a bold move — one that would lead the Talcani cruiser into the heart of humanity’s presence in the galaxy.

To Commander Mason, it meant one thing: The enemy could not survive this exchange. He watched the enemy cruiser’s engines activate, a sharp burst of ion propulsion meant to correct the ship’s oblong position. It was one of the few advantages they had over the Talcani: for all their advances in weaponry and ship design, they still couldn’t fly worth a damn. They paid dearly for it now as explosions erupted across the cruiser’s backside.

A warning siren sounded from the bridge console.

“Shields!” Mason shouted.

Nearby space wavered before erupting in crystalline blue as Talcani combat beams assaulted the shields. One of the first technologies they had stolen from the enemy still proved their greatest ally in the war that followed.

Mason was beginning to wonder how long the shields would hold when a thick, golden beam — a ray of liquid sunlight — flashed past the bow on a collision course with the enemy cruiser. Planetary defenses. The Talcani pitched to port, still under the Breakwater’s guns, into the blast. Mason watched the cruiser’s portside armor disintegrate.

He had braced for a return volley when the ion thrusters stopped firing.

Mason narrowed his eyes. Talcani never gave up, even in dire straits.

“All crew evacuated, Commander,” someone reported.

“Get to your own pods,” he ordered.

Shadows dashed through the smoke. Mason ignored them. The enemy tactic piqued his curiosity. A warning light on his personal overlay signaled another beam rising from New Tellis.
Suddenly, a soft red glow shimmered around the Talcani cruiser. Mason thought they were prepping for super when he caught the faint outline of a shape.

A wedge.

Realization struck him. Sucking a breath, Mason scrambled for the weapons control panel, punched an override and took aim at the side of the wedge. Missiles and gunfire careened toward the target. The rails hit first, illuminating the shape in full form. Mason swallowed. He had done all he could.

The second golden ray shot past the bow, but instead of shredding the cruiser it split on the wedge. Fragments of the beam sheared the Breakwater’s shield. Metal groaned. Mason felt the hull above him tear away. The force of the vacuum hurled him into silent space, tumbling wildly.

As the cold air crystallized his flesh, Mason was rewarded with a gratifying sight: the missiles impacted at full force, misaligning the wedge, and the remainder of the beam skewered the cruiser through the middle.

His last vision before the vacuum took him was a glimpse of the atmosphere above New Tellis, where two dozen escape pods, glowing like tiny fragments of starlight, made their way toward safety.

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