Author : Ian Hill

“Fifteen minutes until departure.” came the monotone voice across the Metastation’s many speakers. Four figures walked along the dark main tunnel that stretched for miles in either direction, their phosphor flares illuminating only a small portion of the vast cylinder.

“Departure from what?” wondered one of the figures aloud. “We’re already in space…”

“Probably just a glitch in the programming. Nothing to worry about, Mills.” came the voice of a female.

“This place is amazing. What do you think, Davis?” said the apparent youngest of the group, Private Coulter.

The final figure, Lieutenant Davis, spoke up. “It’s nice, I guess.”

It was more than nice, in fact. The circular tunnel was impossibly large and bore many monorail tracks along its sides which were multi-tiered and housed scores of buildings. A wonder of modern engineering.

“The Keitl always go a bit… overboard.” said Corporal Mills, motioning at the immensity of it all with a gloved hand.

“Hey, Coulter, why do you thi-” began the female, but was cut off abruptly by the sharp report of a piece of metal falling to the floor.

The four soldiers dropped their flares and crouched with their backs to each other in a defensive posture, poising their rifles at the darkness.

“I thought you said no one else was here, Captain.” said Davis.

“I did.” replied the female Captain simply, lighting a new flare. Another blindingly white light erupted from her left hand and she tossed it with all her might to where the sound had come from. The beacon sailed in an arch and landed with a clatter dozens of yards from the group of soldiers, revealing nothing of interest.

“Ten minutes until departure.” came the voice again, making them all jump.

“Alright, we have to keep on moving. This place is decades old, some odd sounds are to be expected.” said the Captain, standing up from the formation shakily.

The four began to move again at a slightly faster pace towards their ultimate destination, the control room set into the side of the tunnel a few miles in front of them. After walking a few hundred more yards down the metal tube the metallic intercom came again.

“Five minutes until departure.”

“Okay, that’s really strange.” said Private Coulter, sweating visibly. “Why would someone set a looping audio clip of a count down on an abandoned Metastation?”

“Don’t ask me.” replied Mills in a bored tone.

Another sound came from behind the group, a metallic pounding.

“Yeah, there’s something in here.” said Davis calmly.

After a brief hesitation the Captain gave the order to light all the flares and set up a defensive line. The noise grew louder and was now intermingled with some electronic screeching.

“Three minutes until departure.”

The soldiers crouched again and clicked the safeties off of their rifles. “Are we cleared to fire, Captain?” asked Coulter.

“Whenever you see something, shoot it.” she replied with a nod.

The flares simmered and popped while the noises grew closer to the squad. A brief flash of metal caught the Captain’s attention and she fired a short burst from her weapon to ward off the creature.

“More over here!” shouted Davis, who was firing his weapon without pause.

Eventually all four of the soldiers were emptying magazine after magazine into the unseen crowd of beings pursuing them.

“One minute until departure.” came the intercom again, but no one heard it said over the sounds of weapons fire.

One after another the flares burned themselves out, leaving the four in complete darkness with the unidentified attackers.

The Captain was sure that her squad was gone now, afraid and cold she attempted to control her breathing. Directly to her left a queer synthesized voice spoke quite clearly. “Thank you for flying with the Keitl. Have a nice day.”


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Best Friend

Author : Bob Newbell

“Shuttle now clear from mothership. Beginning de-orbit,” said Commander King as he studied the holographic display on his control panel. Captain Rex, seated next to him, looked up at what remained of the SS Stalwart. When she’d left Earth’s solar system almost ten years earlier, the Stalwart had been a massive asteroid fitted with an antimatter mass driver engine. Having used the bulk of the planetoid as reaction mass on the long voyage to the Alpha Centauri system, the once enormous vessel was now scarcely larger than a good-sized meteoroid. “Ten years,” said Rex. “Ten years,” echoed King.

The landing craft began to shudder as it entered the atmosphere of the second planet out from Alpha Centauri A. Commander King monitored the displacement of the shuttle’s ablative heat shield as the ship dropped toward the surface of Alcenatu, the informal name the Stalwart’s crew had given to Alpha Centauri A Two.

“It shouldn’t be us. Not just us, I mean,” said Rex as he watched a curtain of fire through the view ports, the shuttle’s ablative armor wearing away as the vehicle tore through Alcenatu’s atmosphere. King said nothing for over a minute. Finally, he looked up from his instruments, turned to Rex and said, “I believe…this is what they would have wanted.” Rex stared in silence, his face colored red by the wall of flame flashing across the shuttle’s small windows. “They destroyed themselves,” said King. “No matter how much they tampered with their genetic code over the centuries, they could never eliminate their own lust for violence.” “If it weren’t for their genetic tampering,” Rex replied, “we wouldn’t be here either.”

The shuttle’s braking thrusters kicked in and the firestorm engulfing the vehicle quickly dispersed. Through the forward view ports, a surreal landscape of rolling hills covered with yellow vegetation presented itself. King piloted the shuttle toward a clearing that looked like a suitable landing site.

“We were their best friends,” said King, never taking his eyes off the control panel. “Since they’re gone, it’s right that we’re doing this.” The words “Weight On Landing Gear” flashed across the holographic display as the ship’s engines shut down.

“I miss them,” said Rex. “We all do, Captain,” replied King.

Rex donned his spacesuit and entered the shuttle’s airlock. Shouldn’t he have some historic words to say at this moment? He couldn’t think of any. The outer airlock door opened and Rex walked down the steps and set foot on Alcenatu’s surface. He walked several meters from the ship until he came to a spot that seemed to meet with his approval. He dug a shallow hole in the dirt, the shuttle’s cameras capturing everything he did. At last, the words came to him. “For all Mankind,” he said into his space helmet’s microphone as he dropped the Ceremonial Bone of Colonization into the hole and quickly covered it with dirt.

It would take over four years for the audio and video of the historic moment to knife across the gulf of the interstellar void, leapfrogging across the 200 relay satellites the Stalwart had left in her wake as she had crossed over four light-years of space. When the transmission arrived, it would set tails wagging from the Mercury outpost to the Oort Cloud Archipelago. But Rex didn’t need to wait for howls of approval. He already knew he’d acted as a best friend should. He knew he was a good boy.

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The Goddess of War

Author : Mary Ann Back

Dr. Klatua wasn’t dead – yet. But ten minutes into my session, the only thing keeping me from killing him was the Heja Root I’d smoked earlier in space dock. He was a typical Martian, four-foot-ten, reptilian green with scales here and tentacles there. His voice was shrill and warbled like an Aldarian Loon.

“Bibi, Earth women have a hard time adjusting to marriage here on Mars. What you’re feeling is completely normal. Embrace those feelings. Own them.”

“Maybe you didn’t hear me right. I said my husband, Ashat, wants another wife; two wives – at the same time.”

“That is his right as a Martian – Mormon hybrid, Bibi.”

“But he’s invoked Rune-Pfar!”

“And how does that make you feel?”

“Like I could end up dead!” A bronze figurine of Mensuc, the Martian goddess of war, mocked me from the coffee table.

“It’s true, Rune-Pfar is dangerous but Ashat has given you no choice. Accept your fate, Bibi, whatever it may be. With acceptance comes peace. ”

“Seriously? I’m paying you $250 an hour and the best you’ve got is ‘it sucks to be you?’

“Such a willful and impertinent creature you are! You have never assimilated into our culture. Human nature clouds your judgment and blinds you to the truth. You pay me for counsel and so I have given. I can do no more. Leave me.”

“Assimilate this, Moron!” I grabbed the figurine of Mensuc, hurled it through the air, and nailed him in his nardroids. Oddly, I felt better.

He cupped himself with a tentacle, glared at me through the tears welling in all four of his eyes, and scrawled ANGER DISPLACEMENT in bold letters across my chart.

“I see that!” I said, snatching the figurine on my way out of his office.

Halfway back to space dock, the distant thwack of a slamming door and a quavering curse reached my ears.

“Die Earth bitch!”

So much for psychobabble.


My star runner was a Condor XL, cerulean blue, and fully loaded with holographic G.P.S., antimatter hyper-drive, and fine Corinthian leather. It was one of a kind, like me. From Earth, also like me. Not so long ago, Ashat found us irresistible. We sat frozen in space dock, waiting for me to stop crying. Damned tears.

I glanced at the figurine riding shotgun in my jump seat. I wasn’t sure why I’d stolen it. The real Mensuc was a hard core bad ass, strong, and certain – everything I needed to be. And she’d have smacked the crap out of me if she saw me crying. Maybe that’s why I brought it along. I needed a good smack now and then.

I lit a spliff of Heja Root and inhaled so deeply it swirled inside my soul. Screw Rune-Pfar and screw Ashat. If my destiny held danger, it would be a danger of my own choosing – and not the whim of a Martian hybrid who knew nothing of love.
I nudged the Condor into open space and gradually set her free. Mars and Ashat disappeared into the black abyss of the wake I left behind. A boundless blanket of stars stretched before me like a lighted path to freedom. At the end of that path lay the Novarian Frontier. It seemed as good a destination as any. I slipped the Condor into hyper-drive.

Mensuc and I had worlds to conquer.


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Order of Service

Author : Josie Gowler

Twenty years of war. The couple sitting in front of me are younger than I was when I became Captain. Officiating wedding ceremonies is one of the supposedly pleasanter responsibilities of my job on this starship. But how can I do that with a clear conscience, knowing what I know? It’s more purgatory than perk to me. Usually it’s funerals that I conduct.

“Are you sure?” I ask them. The question carries with it the weight of three deceased siblings, two dead parents and a tetraplegic husband.

They gaze, devoted, into each others’ eyes. Untouched by tragedy, so pure, so unscarred. “We’re very much in love,” she says.

Like that makes any difference. Did I ever, ever believe that life was that simple? I do remember believing that the war would be over quickly; I even rolled my eyes when the Admiral told us to expect it to last a couple of years. How hard can it be, I thought, to gain the right to live how we choose in our own corner of the universe? Big place, after all, lots of room to share. I frown. “Love doesn’t protect you against a smart bomb.” The words come out of my mouth as soon as my brain has formed them. But I don’t regret saying them, not because I’m Captain and I can say what I like, but because it’s something that they need to think about. Then again, if the girl replies with ‘better to have loved and lost…’ I’m just going to have to slap her.

“We’ve talked about that,” the fiancé says, with a firmness that surprises me, and him, by the look on his face. It’s the first time he’s spoken. “Love isn’t limited to now. It’s not affected by space and time. One of us may die – one of us will die – but there’ll still be love.”

There’s a long pause while we all absorb what he said. It’s even silenced his intended bride. I scratch at the thick scar running down my jawline. Well said, kid. Love and pragmatism. I sigh. Give them their ceremony, their ten minutes of happiness. Before I have to make the hard decisions. Before I have to send the husband or the wife off to die in some hopeless battle half a galaxy away.

Eventually, I nod.

Hope. Someone has to have it.


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Maintain Your Equipment

Author : Clint Wilson, Staff Writer

“Damn it Jones! Haven’t you got that translator working yet?”

The ensign was baffled. He had set up translators on hundreds of worlds. This program was the very best, drawing on any slight nuances of anything that could conceivably transmit language, whether it was electrical impulse, sound, smell or motion. It could usually get a landing party hearing broken basic from any race in a day or two. “I don’t get it Captain. I’ve tried resetting all the perimeters as many different ways as I can.”

The captain looked across the river from the bay window of the cloaked ship toward the village of mindless blue bipeds running around playing, frolicking, laughing. Oh yes they could laugh. But how did they communicate? They were obviously intelligent to some degree. They slept in sturdy shelters with running water and automated climate control. They fed from long tubes that led directly to large replicator tanks. It all ran flawlessly. The crew had not once witnessed the beings perform any kind of maintenance on any of their equipment. “That’s it!” exclaimed the captain.

“What sir?”

“I’ll bet they lost their smarts somewhere along the way. They built everything too perfectly. They didn’t need to think anymore so they eventually devolved.”

“Hmmm, I guess it’s possible Captain. But that would take a long time. Do you think all this technology, all their structures and machines are really that old?”

“I’m going to order a scanning team to start dating the structures. You keep working on that translator!”

Then to the utter surprise of both men the translator suddenly crackled to life, speaking in its robotic tone. “Cattle in quadrant northeast are ready for slaughter. Prepare for killing and processing to commence.”

Both men stared at each other bewildered. Then the captain smiled, eyebrows raised. “Great work Jones! You finally figured it out.”

The ensign looked unsure. “Uh yes it seems to have finally latched onto an ancient previously catalogued language I’m not familiar with, but none of this data is making any sense. And besides, these creatures don’t keep cattle. The program must be misinterpreting something.”

The one aspect that everybody on the ship seemed to like about this place were the beautiful alien plants that swayed in the wind like multi-colored trees above the village of blue bipeds.

The translator announced again, “Initializing mobilization.”

The two men, jaws agape, stared out the window as a dozen of the colorful tree-plants suddenly stepped forward on their long stalks, and moved quickly into the village. The blue bipeds noticed it too and became nervous and agitated; something the humans had not yet witnessed.

Without warning the biggest tree-plant reached down into the throng of bipeds and scooped up a number of them, and then hurled them into the air, the blue creatures screaming aloud. Other tree-plants caught them and began to horribly rip the unfortunate beings to shreds. Still others gathered the guts and gore, and via hollow vines began spraying the biological food-fertilizer amongst their brethren.

All over the ship alarm bells sounded as the Captain barked, “Highly unexpected contingency! Prepare to abort mission! Make ready for lift off!”

The tree-plants continued methodically with their slaughter. And as the horrified ensign searched for anything else out there to draw his attention momentarily from the carnage, he spied one of the lofty giants form an upper limb into a prying tool and use it to remove the top off of one of the replicator feeder tanks. Of course, he thought. You have to maintain your equipment. You have to keep your cattle well fed.


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