Friday, April 29, 2011

The Angel

by Keven Newsome -

“Quiet!” he hissed.

The shuffling behind ceased.

Derin reached a hand out to the translucent polymer dome that held the water at bay.

“She’s beautiful.”

“Sir, how can you tell the gender?”

“I just know,” he said.

He stepped closer to the dome wall, watching as the angel hovered outside. Large fin-like arms flapped in slow-motion, keeping the angel in a stationary position. Its long body ended in a split fin with bones strong enough to walk on land, according to prior research.

The angel tilted its aqua blue head and watched Derin as he took another step.

“Are the speakers on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hello there,” he said to the angel. The sea creature mimicked his mouth movements. “Can you understand my words?”

The creature blinked and tilted its head the other direction.

“My name is Derin. I’m a wizard of Avenir here to study your kind. This underwater facility is my home now, I hope you don’t mind. I’m not like the others. I believe you have… something, that I want to learn. I promise to never hurt you or your friends.”

Derin took more steps until his nose almost brushed the polymer wall. The angel rotated its arms and floated toward him.

From inches apart, they stared into each others’ eyes.

“Will you… teach me?” Derin put his hand to the dome surface. “There are things I need to know, questions I need answered. Will you help me?”

The angel leaned its head to Derin’s hand. For a moment, he could feel its small nose press into his palm through the polymer membrane. In that moment, something slid through his body, warming his blood and numbing his muscles.

He smiled.

A siren sounded. Derin’s skin flinched, and the angel jerked back. With a flurry of motion, the creature flipped backwards and flew along the ocean floor, disappearing into the cloud of disturbed sediment.

“Sir, we have a black water warning.”

Derin stared after the angel. “How close?”

“Half a kilometer.”

“Standby to activate the ion fence. But first, send out a bot and collect a sample.”

“But, sir, the last two never returned.”

“Try again.”

“Yes, sir.”

Derin heard the movement of feet behind him as the assistants and crew prepared to carry out his orders. But he stayed long after they had left, staring after the angel.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


by Fred Warren -

Smith leaned against the corridor bulkhead and smiled as Kate ladled out stew to the queue of ragged children, each waiting patiently for their portion. It had been a good raid--enough meat, vegetables, and water to sustain his little army for a week, maybe two. Maybe they ought to try for blankets next time—heat to the lower levels of the Avenir station had been intermittent the past few days. They could stitch some of the material into fresh clothing.

“You’re a fool, Smith.”

He slid a hand toward the knife in his back pocket, then relaxed as the speaker emerged from the shadows. “Evenin’, Wallace. Come for a bowl ‘o beetle? Kate’s in top form tonight, and it’s as fresh as it comes.”

“Already ate. Better’n this slop.”

“I doubt that. State your business, or begone.”

“Why’re you still playing nursemaid to this pack of sewer rats when you could be second in my gang and live like a king?”

A toddler circumvented the line and went straight to Kate, bowl outstretched. She administered a mock scolding, then filled his bowl anyway.

Smith chuckled and pointed at the child. “I like them. Better than I like you.”

“Whuzzat?” Wallace snatched at the pocket of Smith’s coat before he could react, coming away with a tattered book which he held up for inspection in the dim corridor lightglobe.

“Give that back!”

Wallace grinned, revealing a row of discolored teeth, several missing. “As I live and breathe…Oliver Twist! I remember when the wizards came and passed these around. Waste of time. Hardly any of us could read.”

“Enough could. Some of us still teach the young ones.” Smith grabbed the book from Wallace and stuffed it back into his pocket.

“Rot and drivel, every word. But you believed it, didn’t you?”

Smith didn’t reply. He returned his attention to the children.

Wallace’s eyes lit up. “Aha, you still do! That’s why you won’t join up with me. You fancy yourself the Artful Dodger, watching over your band of adorable urchins. Do you line them up in the marketplace when the Welfare Society matrons come ‘round? Little tin cups and thumbs in their mouths, hoping some rich, barren hag makes an Oliver out of one of them?”

“Shut up, Wallace.”

“Now me, I always admired Bill Sikes. He was a man’s man, owed nothing to nobody.” He looked Kate up and down, running his tongue over blistered lips. “Saw something he wanted, he took it.”

“Sikes found himself dangling from the end of a rope.” Smith took a step to the left, putting himself between Wallace and Kate. “You keep mixing it up with the Peacekeepers, they’ll Frank you. You’ll spend the rest of your life with a head full of chips and wires, scrubbing toilets for those barren hags you despise.”

“You think they don’t do the same to the little cherubs they adopt? Rich folk want their pets obedient and housebroken.”

Smith seized Wallace by the collar and flung him down the corridor. “Get out of here. Don’t show your face on this Level again, unless you want it rearranged.”

“Last chance, Smith. Drop the apron, and be your own man. I won’t ask again.”

“You have my answer.”

Wallace straightened his jacket, locked eyes with Smith for a moment, and spit on the deck as he stalked away.

The children fed, Kate left the kettle to stand beside Smith as he watched Wallace vanish into the gloom. She slipped an arm around his waist. “Friend of yours?”

Smith shook his head. “No. Not any more.”

Monday, April 25, 2011


by Walt Staples -

The air inside his environment suit stank of a combination of sweat, halitosis, and machine lubricant seasoned with a hint of ozone and urine. In short, it smelled like everyone else’s suit. The fact that he noticed reminded Trail Boss to change out the scrubber cartridge when they made Avenir. After that, some quality time with his rack.

“Krueger is out of position, “ a voice in his earphones snapped him out of his reverie, the slurring of the vowel combination a dead giveaway to its electronic nature.

“Thanks, Kitty.” He toggled his com. “Krueger, get your butt back in position!”

A whisky growl replied, “Sorry, Trail Boss, A.I. slip.”

Trail Boss made a face. “And you were wool-gathering.”

A laugh. “Yep, ‘fraid so. Won’t happen again…”

“‘Til next time,” every one of the drovers chorused together.

Trail Boss shook his head with a smile as he scanned the plotting board. His drovers had the herd, 231 massive ore bodies, clustered together and moving at the same velocity and on the same vector, or close enough to make no difference. He spoke to his A.I., “Kitty, recheck gravity well alignment.” Though the herd was held in a net of tractor beams from his drovers’ cutting horses, Eclectia’s muddle of gravitational fields—five major ones—generated by the pair of suns and the three nearest planetary bodies could play hob with the unwary. One miscue and—stampede! Huge chunks of planet flying in all directions as he and his trail crew tried to dodge. His father, an aunt, and two cousins had met their fate that way.

Instead of acknowledging the order, the A.I. reported, “Hitchens has broken formation.”
Trail Boss’ eyes flew to the plotting board as the blue dot that was Hitchens’ cutting horse suddenly accelerated from its station as forward starboard flanker. “Hitchens! What the—”

Her panicked voice cut over his, “Trail Boss! Trail Boss! Drive malfunction! Hard wire out!”
As she drew a breath, he spoke in a quiet, assured voice, “Roger, Sana. Status of reaction mass?”

“I can’t shut it off! I can’t—”

“Status reaction mass? Report,” he chopped her off in his command voice.

“I…Okay. Okay, “ her voice steadied. “Three-six tons and dropping.”

“Roger. Hold on,” he said calmly. He felt the sweat soaking his under suit and heard the suit’s scrubber kick up a notch to handle the increased moisture. He did a quick calculation in his head; it was rough but faster than tasking the A.I. “Sana, you should have shut off inside four-four-zero seconds. Your present delta-vee is one-niner-six. Vector is X-three-point-zero, Y-seven-point-four, Z-two-point-one. What is your Oh-two?”

Her voice was matter of fact, she’d run the numbers also. “Doesn’t really matter, does it, Mike?”

He sighed. No point in trying to kid her. “No, guess not, Curly-Top.”

“I always hated this old Nebula-six. Was saving up for a newer cutting horse. Something younger than my grandma.” She paused. “You’ll see she gets the money?”

A tear trickled down his cheek. “Yeah, no sweat. I’ll make sure.”

“We had some times, didn’t we?”

“Yep.” He swallowed. “Some times.”


“Yeah, Curly-Top?”

“Will you say it with me? You know the one.”

They began together, Trail Boss tripping over the words slightly—his folks said it a little differently. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”

Friday, April 22, 2011

Only the Strong

by Greg Mitchell -

“It’s just a fact of nature,” Trebs said in a hush, watching through his set of green-tinted binocs over the ashen terrain.

Dressler kept his eyes forward, likewise watching the battle from the safety of the makeshift roost. Up ahead, two dominant beetles tore apart their weaker brother. Even from here, Dressler heard the shrill cries of the thing, and felt pity.

“It’s the Rule of the Strong,” Trebs added as one of the larger bugs tore a leg off the smaller. “Those that are strong make the rules, you get me?”

“I get you,” Dressler grumbled, wishing Trebs would quit talking. That was always the worst part when their shifts fell together. Despite the dangers, hunting bugs for meat was usually a time for quiet reflection—a time Dressler desperately needed since the doctor diagnosed Edilyn with ash lung.

“If you can’t hack it,” Trebs droned on, as the lesser insect finally fell in a spray of yellow gore, “You don’t deserve to live, know what I’m saying?”

A warbling shriek filled Dressler’s ears. He clutched at his head, startled.Trebs did the same. Deadly pincers pierced the scrap metal roof and tore it back, red sands and heat pelting the humans inside. Another bug—one they’d not previously seen—reared up on its back crawlers, its throat emitting a high-pitched rattle.

Trebs screamed, “It’s calling the others! We—”

The beetle that towered over them dropped its foreclaw like a pick axe, piercing the meat of Trebs’ thigh. He fell back, blood gushing everywhere, and hollered in anguish. Dressler reached for his spear and jabbed at the thing, searching for the exposed underbelly.

With its other claw, the monster slapped him away and Dressler crashed through the rough wall of their roost, landing in a plume of sand. He stood, disoriented, no clue where the spear had gone. Fear took hold of him and shook hard, the sounds of Trebs struggling for his life mere feet away. Dressler dropped to one knee and brought out the rifle slung on his back. A thunderous crack echoed across the canyon as Dressler’s shot struck the beast in the eye. It howled in pain, raining yellow blood on the ruined roost, and backed away.

The gunshot had scared off the other bugs, a prime reason why most hunters used spears. Even though they lost their catch for the day, Dressler was relieved. He rushed to the rubble, where Trebs was alive and in pain.

It’d be a long, miserable hike back to camp.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Never Again

by Kat Heckenbach -

Xavia fanned herself with her outspread hand and groaned. “Is it always so hot on this level?” Her jeweled bracelets clinked softly in rhythm with the movement of her arm. She wrinkled her nose as she scanned the marketplace around her. Bare metal, garish lighting. Commoners scuttling around the meatmongers’ stands like the beetles whose meat they were there to purchase. “Why did I let you talk me into this, Tomi?”

Tomika rolled her eyes and tucked a tress of long black hair behind her ear. “Aren’t you at all curious about what goes on down here? Where things come from? How they get here?”

“Not at all,” Xavia said as they shuffled forward with the crowd. “As long as it’s on my plate and cooked the way I ask…which reminds me, I need to put in an official complaint about the chef at—”

A scream broke the surrounding chatter, and Xavia clamped her hand onto Tomika’s arm. “What’s going on?”

The mass of people in front of them shifted, but Xavia could see nothing except their backs.

Tomika pulled free of Xavia’s grasp and climbed up on a bench, her high heels ringing the metal seat. She peered over the crowd and then stepped down. “Looks like a gang fight at the other end.”

“You’re kidding me! On our level something like that would never—”

The crowd suddenly surged back, forcing Xavia and Tomika against the table behind them. Xavia reached back to steady herself, and swallowed a scream of revulsion as her hand slid into something firm but…slimy.

She lifted her hand and turned around. A beetle the size of a dinner plate lay on its back, legs splayed. Its belly was pried open, revealing a swell of glistening pink flesh.

“Ugh, oh, Tomi…I knew they were big, but…”

“Xav…” Tomika’s voice came from behind Xavia’s left shoulder. “That one’s just a baby.”

Xavia spun to face her friend and narrowed her eyes. “Take me home.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Matter of Hunger

by Grace Bridges -

Smith loitered in a dim corner of the Level 18 marketplace and chewed on his last lavabush seed. There’d be no more until another freighter docked—and then only if he was in the right place to catch any that dropped during transfer.

He peered along the row of meatmongers, noting which had shelled their wares already and which merely laid out the sections of beetle carapace with the meat still inside. He preferred the ready-to-cook variety, because it was quicker to “dispose of,” and there would be no evidence except in their stomachs.

A rumble within reminded him to be quick about his task or he’d lose the opportunity. He gave the signal agreed for today—three sharp raps on the nearest support strut. At the metallic clangs, two dozen ragged children emerged from the shadows, roughly grouped in two gangs who proceeded to charge at each other with full-throated yelling and blood-curdling screams.

The merchants, fearing the worst, ducked for cover and ran into the outer passage. The crowd of shoppers rolled back in waves with cries and screams. Smith darted along the tables as he unrolled his antigrav sack. Slab after slab of the best beetle steak slid into its dark maw.

He paused only once to look up at the staged fight—the kids actually enjoyed this, he could tell, and grinned at their exaggerated anger and fake punches.

Smith stuffed one more massive steak into the bag and pulled it along in the air behind him to a little-used service corridor. He tapped a strut to signal dispersal of the battle, then slipped inside a hatchway with the treasure clutched tight.

Tonight, the children would eat.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Deep Deep Dark

by Travis Perry -

As Ernsto Mons slipped deeper into the inky blackness, his armored dive suit creaked and popped under the pressure. He swallowed hard—he had never been a deep diver; he’d never faced the deepest depths before. But he had been a smuggler and had killed men in cold blood when he needed to; he knew he was tough, so he brushed past his fear.

The movement locator built into his suit—an expensive piece of sonar gear his wizard benefactor in Avenir had paid for, like the suit and most of his weapons—flicked with green dots of movement. Dozens of dots, moving fast, around two hundred meters below him.

He tilted his helmet forward, straining his eyes to see any sign of anything down there. The only image his retinas received was of deep, deep dark.

Ernsto swallowed hard. This is nothin’, he told himself, his brow damp with icy sweat.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


by Walt Staples -

Beach Ranks sneered at the old priest. “Why don’t you go rattle yer beads over my dinners? Maybe you kin resurrect their sorry butts. After all, there were only six of ‘em. It oughta be easy for you, sky pilot.”

Father Emil paid no attention and continued to whisper the Office for the Dead. He didn’t worry about its efficacy with a creature such as Beach. His job was to do the best he could. Final judgment was Someone Else’s prerogative.

Onslow, the young power engineer, grunted as he pulled tight the straps that held the reaction unit, transponder, and red and blue strobe that marked Beach as a Peacekeeper matter. He was still disgruntled that he’d been the engineer with the short straw.

Gunther, the investigating peacekeeper, stood to one side holding a piece of plastisheet. Following the procedure for execution, the charges and death sentence were burned into the sheet rather than read from a reader. Clearing his throat, he began to read the second part, “Beach Ranks, it is the order of the Tribunal that having found you guilty of six murders having aggravating circumstance, that you be taken this day at zero-hundred hours and removed permanently from contact with your fellow man. And may your god have mercy on you.”

Beach cackled, “They was good! You oughta try the other white meat sometime, Peacekeeper. Better than the cafeteria.”

Gunther remarked mildly, “I’ll accept that those are your last words,” and put the gag in place.

The peacekeeper asked Onslow, “Is the strobe and transponder armed?” When the other nodded, he turned to the assembled people—priest, engineer, and witnesses—and gestured toward the inner airlock hatch. “If you will…?”

They filed out, Onslow glancing back and Father Emil, still whispering, preceding the peacekeeper. Gunther pushed the button to close the inner hatch. He removed a lanyard with an ancient metal key from around his neck. He pushed the key into a slot on the airlock’s failsafe and looked away from the hatch window as he turned it. There was an explosive “whoof” and the safety light over the hatch turned from green directly to red without going through yellow.

As he turned the key back, the peacekeeper said in a barely audible voice, “Dear God, forgive us,” and crossed himself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Final Approaching

by J. L. Rowan -

As the waves swallowed the pod, Elmerin felt himself a boy of ten Foundings again. The sense of excitement and adventure that had faded with age returned with a force that startled him and left him slightly breathless. He pressed his hands to the glass of the viewport, his eyes narrowed. Perhaps now, after all this time…surely now…But as the Whale grew dim and the waters darkened, the aches and pains of elder years returned, and childish fancy bowed its head to hard-earned experience. He lowered his eyes and shuffled amongst the other passengers to his assigned seat to await the pod’s arrival at Zirconia.

He studied the water outside the porthole next to him. As black as space, and as deadly. He quashed the thought with a stab of guilt. The seas held something space never would—the sentient creatures he had spent his life trying to reach. Trying, and failing.

And now, there would be no more trying. He’d told his fellow wizards that he was retiring to Zirconia, but that wasn’t quite true.

Death had stalked him for months, and his failure at the last Approaching had made it clear that he would never realize his dream. No more Approachings awaited him—none but the Final Approaching, the journey all wizards must take.

So many years, and nothing to show for them. With a heavy sigh, he closed his eyes. It was a foolish thought, coming here to die. If he hadn’t achieved contact in the prime of his—

A vision blossomed behind his eyelids, a vision of colors and sensations, of joy and welcoming. He blinked, and saw outside the porthole a school of blue and golden fish that fairly glowed. They moved as one, and when his eyes met theirs, he was enveloped by the greatest peace he had ever known. They hovered beside him, shimmering in the darkness.

Come. The intense feeling washed over him, stronger than mere words. Come with us.

His throat closed up, and tears spilled onto his cheeks. Was it possible? After all this time? Their gaze seemed to confirm his deepest dream. A smile spread across his face, and he loosed a soft breath, releasing with it the heartache of years now distant. “I am ready when you are.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bedtime Stories

by Greg Mitchell -

“Daddy? Tell me about the angels.”

Dressler pulled the covers to Edilyn’s neck, red light from the small bunker window painting her face in harsh contrast. The sound of dirt and grit scraped against the pane glass, a constant white noise that Dressler had all-but tuned out.

“Come on, Lyn,” he sighed. “Not tonight. You really need your rest.”

Through bleary eyes, she beseeched him. “I feel fine, Dad.”

A sharp pang pierced his spirit.

Three years old and she’s braver about this than I am.

“I don’t really want to,” Dressler grinned, his nose and eyes burning with tears that he kept barred.

Please, Daddy,” the little girl begged, reminding him of all the little things in life she’d begged for. New toys, a special treat. A million trivial things he’d taken for granted. Things that would be left behind when she was gone.

Dressler cursed in his heart. Better do it. Better savor these moments. You won’t have much opportunity before long.

“Okay,” he relented, and the girl’s feet squirmed under the covers, her face brighter than 94 Ceti. “The angels are beautiful creatures that live in the ocean depths.”

“How did they get there?” she immediately asked her usual question.

“I don’t know. Maybe they’ve always been there. Maybe they came from somewhere else.”

“A boy in my class said they have magic,” she nodded eagerly. “Is that true, Daddy?”

“That’s what I hear, but I’ve never seen one for myself,” he chuckled. “I guess that’s why we have stories. Sometimes believing in a thing is more important than the thing itself. Does that make sense?”

She shook her head no.

“Yeah,” he huffed. “Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me most of the time, either.”

Pausing, Edilyn furrowed her brow, the soft shush-shushing of the windswept sands comforting, even in Eclectia’s tumultuous storms. “Daddy . . . Could the angels make me not sick?”

Dressler’s chest tightened, his breathing short. He bit on his lip, forcing his emotions back. He’d cry later, after Edilyn was asleep. He’d cry ‘til morning. “I don’t know, Lyn,” he whispered in a raw croak. “But I’d like to believe.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Midnight Song

by Kat Heckenbach -

“Sir, they’re singing.”

Spiner looked up from his lab table and found the boy staring through the tiny porthole into the pitch black of space. Surely he’d heard wrong…

“Singing, Gavin? What are you talking about?”

Gavin tilted his head to the side, but didn’t answer.

Spiner propped his chin on steepled hands and stared at the young apprentice. The boy’s freshly cut hair held the slightest curl at the back of his neck. His shirt still hung like a sack on his wiry frame despite weeks of eating four full meals a day. Fortunately he devoured knowledge as easily as he did food and had proven very quickly that Spiner made the right decision by taking him in.

Gavin sighed and turned around. “It’s stopped now.”

Spiner shook his head. “What—?”

“The sea angels,” Gavin said. “The ones Ave told me about, down on the planet. I felt it the other day, but didn’t know where it was coming from. But just now, I realized, it’s them. Not singing with sounds…” He bit his lip, and searched Spiner’s face with his gaze. Finally, his eyes brightened. “They sing emotions. They were singing…joy.”

Monday, April 4, 2011

Day is Dead

by Jim Tesla -

The day is dead, thought Tane. He’d killed it—routinely and without flinching—like he did every day, every single day that foisted itself upon him now, like a whore set on draining off life. There it lay, the day, exhausted, behind him, a memory of pulses and feelings and at least one big mistake. It was a “one big mistake” that hung there, in his recent memory, hung and wouldn’t let go …

Tane jabbed at the fire, added a log. Some called him a hunter; others, a fool.

Port X was home to him, but no, this was home—volcanoes silhouetted against a yellow-grey horizon, ash puffing under his feet with each forward step, him scrounging for enough water to stay alive, just stay alive. He stroked his gun.

A fire had spread today through a forest not far from here. The crackling had alerted Tane while he slept, the crackling and the high-pitched screams. He’d watched it burn, spear in hand, ready for whatever ran toward him from the trees. He’d gotten three giant beetles and a centipede the size of a python, and taken them to the drop-off point, one at a time. It had taken most of the day.

When he got paid, he’d go to Adagio, not Port X, and buy ammunition. It wasn’t good to be seen in Port X anymore, and it wasn’t good to be without ammo. The hunter was still the hunted—the predator, the prey.

He’d grown more capable and fearless since starting this job, and he nursed a grudge. It was the grudge that set him apart. Like most hunters in this dag-forsaken land, he’d made a few enemies. And he knew how to use a gun.

The day was dead.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Last Historian

by Grace Bridges -

In the Year 179 A.F. on this thirteenth Day of the month of Celeste.

Gryphon Silt wielded the unfamiliar writing utensil and scratched his malformed letters. Once again the archive computers were down, and no resources could be allocated to fix them. So he began all over. It had happened before, he’d learned from his mentors—the older historians that trained the younger in their days. But now he was the only one, with no student allocated.

Files pertaining to the founding of our proud Colony have been discovered to be corrupted, and so we have taken it upon ourselves to assemble what precious little information remains in the memories of those who had read it most recently.

Our distant foreparents were sent out from the earth in a large ship called the Avenir. Now you may wonder at that, for she orbits the skies of Eclectia still. But she has been modified to serve as an orbiting station, and seen many enlargements since.

Gryphon peered up at the murky water on the other side of the ceiling. The sun would rise soon on a summer day, not that it made any difference to him. In here the constant temperature created a stable, safe environment. He had taken a seawalk once, but once was enough.

Contact has always been maintained between the water people and the Avenir itself. When we had lived in the seas for a short while, we began to send reports of the creatures of the deep which we had the opportunity to encounter and study. Some reports claimed the beasts were telepathic, and sentient, and that some were benevolent and others aggressive. While this has never been scientifically proven, it has lodged in Eclectia’s folklore and is even considered true by some of the more eccentric scientists on the Avenir.

Now that more generations have come and gone, there is a certain segregation between Avenir’s people and the planetsiders. Down below are the miners and hunters, living on the land wherever it stays still long enough. Below them again are the sea-dwellers, who continue to investigate their environment as they build ever more efficient survival tools. Life in the underwater cities is surely almost as luxurious as on the Avenir.

Those who must stay on the land to mine its treasures have little contact with the Avenir, from necessity. They retrieve the ore that generates power for the Avenir and the underwater cities as well as their own settlements. It must be said that these are rough types who consider themselves the only true colonists of Eclectia.

The historian stared at the page. Was this all there was left? He dredged his memory for any flake of remembrance, any piece of what had gone before.

A shadow passed over the room. Gryphon squinted upwards and thought he recognised Mac’s sub coming in. He threw down the pen—a drink with his friend might just help to jog his brain.