The Wreck of the Varangio

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

First we got lost. Then we got ambushed. If we hadn’t got lost, I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened. Which would have saved the lives of sixty-eight beings, and let me avoid drifting through uncharted space in a Terlestraian escape pod: not quite enough oxygen in the atmosphere and way too many toxins in the water.

It was day three. I had just torn the last apple juice pouch open and greedily licked up the remaining droplets, when something occluded the wan starlight coming through the viewport. I paddled awkwardly across to it, fumbling for a handhold. Accidentally turning on the exterior lights allowed me to see the hold I was looking for.

Secured, I looked out to see a huge letter ‘V’ painted on a grey hull plate so big that I couldn’t see the sides. Then I launched myself down the pod to grab my helmet, because the ‘V’ was approaching fast. The impact was tremendous, but the crumpling and subsequent shattering of the escape pod left me hanging in space, surprisingly unscathed, and drifting slowly toward the great hull.

The ‘V’ was the leftmost of a series of letters: VARANGIO. The only ‘Varangio’ I knew of had been one of the earliest colony vessels, loaded with enough to start an entire human civilisation, providing primitive defrosting and revivification routines worked, and that only if first generation cryotech did not fail along the way.

I tore a shoulder keeping myself from glancing off the hull, but I could feel the low-key thrum of a working vessel through my gloves! It took me ages to find an airlock, which was wide open: outer and inner doors. Making my way inside, I found the whole ship was under power, with lights and just enough heat in the surfaces to keep ice from forming. But this sector of the behemoth was airless and apparently deserted.

My thoughts on that were interrupted by an impact that shook the deck plates. Moving quickly to a viewing console, I checked the hull cameras. On one, three vessels had appeared. Zooming in, I saw that one of them was my former ship!

Zooming further, the other two ships were revealed to be a heavily armoured corvette of primitive design, and freighter similar to mine.

The corvette entered the Varangio, presumably returning to dock. I saw a swarm of figures start to empty the two freighters. I switched views and saw that the figures were using manoeuvring rigs but wore no suits!

Then something filled the screen – someone had seen the camera move. Pupilless ruby eyes in a white face, more lupine than human in jaw shape. The mouth split in a wide, predatory grin, revealing jagged teeth: more incisors than molars.

As I fled, I cursed. You know what survives flash freezing well? Meat. Ghoul ships are a rare menace, as the terrible tribes that crew them are loathed by all, and hunted vigorously whenever survivors live to tell of an encounter. It looked like the Varangio was the granddaddy of all ghoul ships. Fortified, bigger than any ship currently under power, running primitive technologies, cruising far beyond populated and patrolled areas, sending its corvettes out to hunt. How many degenerate generations had passed to evolve what had stared into that lens?

All I needed now was more weapons and a place to make a last stand. This meal was going to cost them dearly.

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Haptic Misfire

Author : Olivia Black, Featured Writer

Reese stood admiring the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Port Authority’s departure waiting room. He watched the crowded “open air” market several stories below as people went about their business unaware they were being observed. They built these big open spaces on stations these days so that people forgot they were on a giant metal tube circling a dead planet. Less space madness that way. He smiled at the thought of what might happen if something struck the hull and vented that entire market. A shiver ran through him, causing his fists to clench in his pockets.

“Animals in a cage.”

“I beg your pardon?” Laurel said from behind him. He turned to glance at the broad shouldered woman standing with her arms crossed.

“What time does the ship leave?” He asked, turning back to the view.

“It doesn’t. Not for you, at any rate.”

“Just making conversation. You should try it some time.”

“You should get that body somewhere discrete. Retrieval is set for twenty minutes,” Laurel said, ignoring the comment.

“Sure thing.” Another shiver more like a twitch crawled up his spine, halting at his shoulder. The grin slid back onto his face as he withdrew his hands from his pockets. In one, he held a sub-sonic pulser, a burglar’s tool designed to shatter glass without a sound. The window in front of him disintegrated into shards with a faint pop.

“Reese!” Laurel said in a warning tone. Before she could grab him, he’d thrown himself out the window, whooping and laughing the entire way down.

—-

A grey ceiling, dimly lit loomed close overhead. It was still “night time” on the station. Reese blinked and sat up, feeling this body breathing hard. This body – his body was still riding the adrenaline of his perfect swan dive. Out of habit he checked his heart rate. It was elevated, like it always was after a vivid dream, but he barely felt it. Over the past few years he’d barely spent much time in this – his body. It had stopped feeling natural to him quite some time ago. A common side effect of career body hopping.

Some of the jobs had required him to go in deep, spending months in a throw away body while his own was kept on life support in a highly guarded facility. Others jobs had him in and out in a matter or hours. Wasn’t much of a life, he had to admit, but he couldn’t remember what his life had been like before the body hopping.

They were very careful about what they let him remember. Each body came with its own set of memories, and at the right time, with the right stimulus, he remembered that this wasn’t his body at all and followed the protocol for retrieval. Except now, that hour or two where he was himself, but not himself was the only time he ever felt normal.

The interval between jobs had been getting progressively longer. More time spent in this tiny room contemplating his little slip up, the haptic misfire. They liked to remind him of it right before every job so the consequences of it lingered in his subconscious, underneath the memory presets.

He stood and dressed, downed an entire glass of water in one gulp. It was only a matter of time now. The door slid open revealing a blonde woman about half his size, but twice the attitude standing with her arms crossed.

“Oh good, you’re awake. And dressed this time. The techs are waiting on you.”

 

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Gathering

Author : Rick Tobin

“Get down!” Carol yanked private Pennington to the ground below low walls of disintegrating bricks. Enemy snipers pinned them.

“Sorry Captain. Just wanted a look.”

Pennington stared at his commander. The ship’s cook was learning the game. An alien shootout in a California town was new.

Carol did a team perimeter search. Six still huddled below withering attacks.

“Just stay low. I’ll call air support…” She halted. Pennington disappeared below her. He faded, peacefully, without distress. The game screen froze. Her remaining team stopped playing. There was no cry of sorrow. It was the price of losing a member in cryosleep.

The Company psychiatrists invented cryosleep mind sharing to prevent deep-space ‘cold insanity’ that was devastating a third in long suspensions; however, they misreported the powerful side effects as crews realized chamber failures during sharing.

Carol shook it off, excising her demons, but her remaining team disintegrated, one by one. Horrified, she hurried back to the commander’s control center for hibernation. Her fingers pushed through the panel. She dissipated into dull shadows.

“What…where am I?” She was confused while acclimating to new views. She was slipping gently away from the shredded star ship Clemens, wrenching in meteorite hail. The titanium hull sparked as it turned and twisted. A kilometer away, Carol watched flashes of oxygen reach the fusion drives hydrogen recyclers. Explosive light and pressure waves raced through her with no effect. There remained six rotating orbs nearby, within a larger glow, all drifting like her toward the double star in an unfamiliar system. The spheres rotated and trembled, sometimes approaching each other; other times drifting apart, displaying bright colors, and then regrouping. Carol felt their pull but could not discern how to reach them. She had no sense of her own body or any means to move. She thought about Pennington and his final, peaceful stare. Suddenly, she was next to one of the shimmering bubbles.

“Didn’t have any beliefs beyond life, did you, Carol?” She heard Pennington’s question clearly. It was disturbing. “No, don’t be afraid. We are still us, or at least a core of us, whatever that is. Is this my soul? Maybe we are ghosts, but we exist, even if our bodies didn’t make it home.”

“So this is it? We just drift out here, in a vacuum, forever, with no purpose? I’d rather have pure darkness. Where is all this extra light originating?” Carol felt anger replacing her fear. “This is the hell idiots believe in. This is the ultimate punishment. We’ll never see Earth again.”

“No, Carol.” A deep voice, resonant, sweet and overpowering entered her. “We are here. Our joy is your return to the colony of souls, as we exist to assist all life traveling throughout this solar system. We collect the disembodied spirits of consciousness and then reunite them with the all knowing and all loving.”

“Pennington, did you hear that?” Carol saw the other globes about her glide behind her toward a fuzzy, lustrous patch of light. It was a comet hurtling past them to the twin stars.

“I hear it, Carol, and see the beautiful gathering on its surface?”

“Every system works the same,” continued the gentle voice. “Every star is connected in the web of creation. Listen to others sing of their returning.” Carol heard soothing choruses of a million life forms she now gathered with for her soul’s continuing evolution.

“You will enter the star incubator, returning to your system of origin through the multiverse threadways. We, the shining ones, are collectors— guides. We retrieve consciousness back to source creators of every system. Welcome home.”

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A Rose by Any Other Name…

Author : Arthur Carey

Sacagawea stepped off the damaged recharging grid. Battery life registered in the “failure imminent” range. Within hours, the robot would become an immobile piece of junk in a deserted space station pummeled by raging solar winds and debris.

The scientific team studying the impending death of Copernic 362, a dwarf star of 7.7 magnitude, had left hastily in an escape pod. It was their second forced evacuation after a violent flare-up on the dying star’s surface.

Sacagawea discovered Commander Mary Callis was no longer on the communications link. Nor were her four male subordinates, Slim, Roofie, Jones, and Rako.

Initially wary of serving under a woman, the men had come to like and trust Callis. She joined in the raucous camaraderie of poker games, winning without boasting and losing without complaint. On birthdays, she “discovered” hidden flasks of joy juice and whipped up cakes from limited meal resources.

When her own birthday came, the men surprised their commander with a pseudo female companion—the ship’s made-over general utility robot. They attached black plastic eyelashes above the robot’s view slits and painted the toes of its magnetic boots red, giving it a crude female appearance if not personality.

The robot was an AI model enhanced to perform tedious data analysis. Before the transformation, the crew had referred to it simply as “the bot.” But Callis renamed it Sacagawea after a famous Indian guide in the time long ago. She downloaded data files of women’s history, lifestyles, and preferences into the robot’s memory banks and addressed it as if it were a real person.

The robot reviewed its final instructions from Callis: “Saci, we’re leaving, at least for now. We’ll try to record some of what happens from a safe distance. Try to patch any oxygen leaks. Oh…and sprinkle the garden with whatever liquid nutrient is left in the distiller. If the explosion is another false alarm, we’ll be back within days.”

But the explosion hadn’t been a false alarm, only the prelude to a series of internal blasts that tore Copernic 362 apart.

The station’s lights flickered and died, leaving the interior lit only by sparks from fried electronics equipment and lights flashing beyond the viewports.

Sacagawea switched on a headlamp and waded through strewn laboratory records, broken furniture, and discarded clothing to the attached bubble that housed the bio-regenerative hydroponic system.

Four plastic troughs bristled with greenery. The plastic drip system lay in tatters, LEDs shattered. The robot drained the last of the nutrient from a recycling tank and sprinkled it over the three troughs containing carrots, potatoes, and red lettuce.

Sacagawea pulled two scraggly plants from the fourth trough. Wilted blossoms drooped from sharp-spiked branches. The robot scanned the objects. Classification: Genus, Rosa; Family, Rosaceae; Pigmentation: Crimson; Essence: Tea; Viability: Moribund.

The robot dropped the plants and prepared to grind them underfoot. Unlike vegetables that sustained human life, flowers weren’t eaten. Therefore, they had no function. Without function, there was no justification for their consumption of oxygen, water, and light.

As Sacagawea raised a metal boot, a microcontroller running at 80 MHz and performing 100 million operations per second activated. A visual and aromatic simulation of red, white, and yellow blossoms bobbing gently in the breeze beneath an azure sky flooded the memory nodes of the robot. Sacagawea paused to consider an unfamiliar concept.

What was regret?

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Witnesses

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

We don’t have the technology to make the instruments to understand what they do, let alone resist. Every eleven months or so, grey column descends from space and encloses a city. Twelve hours later it lifts. The population is dissolved and non-organic surfaces are covered in a toxic sludge. All devices are flatlined and erased.
It’s eleven months since the last raid. Cities used to attempt evacuation, but the next grey column would be wide enough to encompass the bulk of the evacuee zones. Thankfully, people are very good at ignoring risks: earthquake, tornado, alien attack, it makes no difference. Shrugs are the response to direct queries. Well, shrugs and the stockpiling of weapons, to be accurate.

Just after dawn, I awoke to a twilit reality rent by screams and sirens. So I looked out the window and started sketching with permanent marker on plastic sheets.
I’ll add an approximate 12-hour count to my notes. For reference, it’s 01:00 and the sketches are done. Time to run.

02:00 The skies are filled – and I mean filled. Like a roiling, three-dimensional traffic jam comprised of vessels like Viking longboats. They are crewed by bare-chested, baton waving proto-gorillas dressed in knee-length black leggings and shiny boots.

03:00 When these raiders grab people, either in passing or by landing and rounding them up, they slap them with a stick. If it flashes red, they kill the victim. Any other colour and the person is flung onto the longship. When a victim arrives over the ship, they float down like they’re unconscious. Even if they were struggling when thrown, and even if they arrived way above the deck. When the longboat is two-dozen deep, stacked like fish frozen in a block of ice, it ascends.

04:00 Staying free takes a lot more effort than I expected. These bastards are very good at this.

05:00 For all the barbarous appearance, this is a ruthlessly efficient operation. The baton wielders are backed by fire teams. There is no hesitation. Any resistance and the baton team are out of there: the fire team razes the site. For tougher targets, the co-ordination with something high above is instantaneous. The response is not visible to me, but it melts everything in the target area.

07:00 Lorraine – a history lecturer – spotted some parallels: these are slave raids; could be out of a medieval European playbook. Pregnant women, young children and elderly or sick people are killed. Only those capable of surviving a long journey in harsh conditions are taken.

10:00 They just pulled out. Every ship rising in a single, co-ordinated pattern. Amazing to behold, for all that I want them all dead.

10:10 The EMP that just hit the ground was massive. I felt sick from the accompanying ULF wave.

10:15 The golden-hued gas turns a vibrant yellow in areas where it is particularly dense. I hear agonised screams that don’t last long.

10:30 The gas is the source of the residue. It’s nasty stuff: I’ve seen people in NBC suits keeling over.

10:40 I’m Kev. Lorraine and I are in taped containment suits inside the flash-sealed chest freezer at the back of the garage. We have oxygen for twenty-eight hours from 11:00. It would be great if you found us before I have to use the grenade as an alternative to suffocation. Of course, if we’re already dead, that damn gas is really insidious.

I don’t think there is a ‘fight’ option. Retaliate: seed every potential target with nukes on a two-hour count from column descent, with no ‘off’ option.
Good luck.
K&L.

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