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Day One Hundred and Seventy-two: A New Star 2

November 9, 2011 3 comments

Continued from Day 171: A New Star 1

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The paperwork took five days to complete, even with fudging the numbers. During that time, Atris found himself nearly overwhelmed by his duties. Being the captain of a legacy ship usually involved little more than keeping people doing their daily work – maintaining systems, keeping up the greenhouse, not jettisoning themselves out the airlocks, that kind of thing.

Now, however, he found himself trying to organize a full-scale exodus from the ship. Even though the Nightfinder would remain their home once it was incorporated into Aurelius’ system, the passengers and crew ached to be allowed off. They wanted to see other places, meet other people, to experience anything that wasn’t the shipboard life they’d known for so long. Consequently, he had dozens of different disembarkation plans to consider, groups vying for prominence, and “experts” trying to get their voices heard.

In the end, he announced that he and a small group of officers and community leaders would be the first to go and present themselves to their new neighbors. Following that, people would initially be let off the ship according to their deck and section, and everyone would just have to be patient. “Aurelius isn’t going anywhere,” he said. The plan wasn’t met with great approval, but neither was it met with rage, and that was good enough for him.

Eventually, he got the signal from Beddesh that all was in readiness. He’d transmitted the documents to the appropriate branches of the Aurelian bureaucracy and they were free to board.

“Excellent,” Atris said. “My people are getting restless over here.”

Beddesh laughed, and it sounded jolly and genuine. “Oh, we’re looking forward to meeting them, too!” he said, looking a little too proud as he said it.

Atris gave him the outline of their plan, and after a little negotiation, it was approved. There would be a small ceremony for the newcomers, with all the pomp and circumstance that implied, and then an orderly immigration, part of which involved a fairly detailed interview and recording of each and every person on board. It was hard not to grimace when he heard that. It would only make the whole process slower. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it.

The next day, he and Jackev were in their dress uniforms, waiting by the airlock. Behind them was a full contingent of Nightfinder’s elite – people who had been famous when they left Cygnus and somehow managed to hold on; deck presidents and their spouses; the most interesting philosophers, artists, historians and poets they could find. Everyone was dressed up, and everyone was watching the airlock door.

Atris stood on the balls of his feet and silently wished he could pass all this on to someone else. He thought about being able to say that it wasn’t his problem, but he knew that it most certainly was.

The messenger gave him a start. “For you, sir,” she said, handing him a thin piece of paper with a number written on it.

“Thank you,” he said, but she was already gone. He took his pad from his pocket, signed into the ship’s network, and tapped in the number. It took only a moment to scan the document, and he grimaced as its meaning sank in.

“Sir, are we -” Atris interrupted Jackev with a gesture and handed him the pad. The younger man read it slowly, and his face fell. He looked up. “Sir? Does this…” He swallowed. “Does this change anything?”

Atris shook his head. “No,” he said. “Everything goes as planned. When I have a moment, I’ll take Beddesh aside and… discuss what we’ve found.” He scowled and put the pad in his pocket. “I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say.” He turned to the younger man and give him the full force of his rank and experience. “Until then, you tell absolutely no one. Do you understand?”

Jackev nodded, his expression fighting for composure. “Yes, sir,” he said. Atris wasn’t entirely certain his second could stay quiet. Not with news like that.

The crowd cheered when the airlock doors opened, and they were greeted by an applauding group on the other side. The Aurelian dignitaries looked about as comfortable in their formal clothes as did those of the Nightfinder, but they also looked genuinely pleased to be there. From the Aurelian group, Beddesh Ajaki stepped forward and gestured both crowds to silence. Atris put on his most congenial face and walked up to meet him.

“Friends,” Beddesh said. “Your long journey is over. Your lonely travels are at an end. We of Alpha Aurelius welcome you into our community as new friends, neighbors and family.” He extended a hand to Atris, who took it in a firm handshake. “Welcome home,” Beddesh said, bringing another great cheer from the assembled crowds.

When they quieted down, Atris cleared his throat. “People of Alpha Aurelius. We have traveled far and searched long for a new home, ever since Delta-b Cygnus grew unable to support those she had nurtured for so long. We are honored to be welcomed into your system, and look forward to adding to your strength and uniqueness for many generations to come.” He looked Beddesh in the eyes, and nodded when the other man met his gaze. “We are happy to be home.”

The cheering this time was even louder. The ceremony was complete, and the two sets of ambassadors and dignitaries surged forward to meet each other. The people from Aurelius wanted to see the ship that had brought all these newcomers, while the crew of the Nightfinder were more eager to start exploring their new home. The constant hum of conversation filled the bay, and the constant movement of people brought even more activity. In all of this, Atris caught Beddesh’s sleeve. “Administrator Ajaki,” he said with a smile that was hard to hold onto. “Thank you again for organizing this. I know it can’t have been easy.”

In person, Beddesh seemed much more relaxed. He grabbed Atris’ arm and gave it a friendly squeeze. “Well, you know how the beancounters are,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re in charge.” He gestured out beyond the walls of the bay. “And you know what’s out there.”

“What’s not out there,” Atris muttered.

“Aye,” Beddesh said. “What’s not out there.” He sighed. “Captain Atris, when you know that the universe is dying around you, you cling on to whatever you have.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t know how things were back at Cygnus, but here it has brought a new renaissance in bureaucracy.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case to show Atris. Inside was an ornately carved stone stamp, red with ink. “We can’t control what goes on out there,” he said. “But we can damn well control what goes on in here.” He tossed the stamp in the air, caught it, and then pocketed it again.

“About that,” Atris said, taking out his pad. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” He looked around for others. “Do you have a moment?”

Beddesh nodded without checking. “I reckon everyone will be busy here for a while, sure. Lead on!”

Atris took him to a small conference room near the bridge and closed the door. “Administrator,” he said, “where your people have cultivated bureaucracy to fight against the inevitable, mine have adopted a certain bluntness.” He put the pad on the table and called up the document he’d been sent. “We don’t see that there’s a lot of time for us to waste anymore.” He spun the pad around and slid it to Beddesh. “Any of us.”

The administrator squinted at the pad and picked it up. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. He put the pad down and rubbed his eyes. Neither man spoke for a long while.

Finally, Beddesh broke the silence. “We didn’t think you’d stay if we said anything,” he muttered.

“Aurelius has how long?” he asked. “Two generations? Maybe three?”

Beddesh nodded. “Maybe.” He picked up the pad again and flipped through it with a finger. “We’ve started making plans for an exodus within one, just in case.”

Atris pulled out a chair and slumped down in it. “What do I tell my people?” he asked. He gestured, unable to find the words he wanted. “How do I ask them to go through all this again?”

Beddesh nodded. “I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve been around Aurelius for as long as I can remember.” He looked at the wall as if he could see through it to the small, red sun outside. “I thought I would die long before he did.”

The room was quiet enough that Atris could hear the blood running through his ears. Finally, he asked, “Do your people know?”

“Only the administrators,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “And the top-level bureaucrats.” He grinned ruefully. “They’ve been funneling money into an exodus project for years. We’ve had to arrange for quite a few whistleblowers to get kicked as far out of the civil service as we can.”

Atris laughed quietly, but made himself stop. The laughing was too close to sobbing, which he couldn’t afford to let himself do. Instead, he took a deep breath and stood up. “Two or three generations,” he said. Beddesh nodded. “Okay,” Atris said, a little more loudly than he’d meant to. “That will have to do.”

He extended a hand to the administrator. “We know a bit about exodus,” he said. “Our experience is at your disposal.”

Beddesh looked surprised, but he shook the captain’s hand. “I appreciate it, sir,” he said.

“As for telling people…” Atris looked far away, through his ship to all the people in it. “As for them,” he said again, “we’ll let the future happen in the future.” He clapped the administrator on the back and smiled, genuinely this time. “Right now, let’s go meet our new neighbors.”

The two men left the conference room for the party. There would be a time to break hearts. But not today.

*****

Beddesh Ajaki’s page on 30characters.com

Day One Hundred and Seventy-one: A New Star 1

November 8, 2011 5 comments

Captain Atris Parkell let his fingers unclench from the arms of his command chair as the Nightfinder dropped out of supra-luminal space within sight of the dull red star Alpha Aurelius. Its light was dim and ruddy, but it brought tears to Atris’ eyes just to know it was still there.

“Signal to the ring-docks that we’re on our way,” he said to his Second.

“They already know, sir,” Jackev said. “We’re getting ID requests one after another already.” He ran his fingers over the communications console. “Also receiving plaintext for the translation algorithm. Doesn’t look like it should be too much trouble.”

“Good,” Atris said. He didn’t look forward to the headache he’d get when the neural encoders started their work on the local language, but he smiled nonetheless. “I suppose they haven’t had any new faces out here for a long time,” he said. “Transmit our vitals to the administrators, whoever they are, and see if they have a place for us.”

“Aye, sir.”

Artis tore his view from the shining star in the view screen to look around the darkened bridge of his ship. Too many spaces were empty after so much time, and the few people who remained to keep the ship alive were just as transfixed as he had been. He cleared his throat to get their attention.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Once we’re docked and safe, we can celebrate. For now, let’s do our jobs.” Not inspirational, as speeches went, but it was enough. Slowly, carefully, the ship moved forward through the last of the infinite darkness towards the dim red star. The only one they’d seen in a thousand light years of travel.

They’d left Delta-b Cygnus so long ago that he wasn’t sure when it was. They’d been one of a hundred thousand ships that abandoned the ancient ringworld that circled their dying sun. Their starkeepers had been sure, and the ring administrators agreed, that within a century, maybe two, the cost of capturing energy from their little star would be more than they gained. In another generation, maybe two, the star would no longer be able to support their world. DbCygnus’ life was over. It was time for another diaspora.

Each ship was sent off with as many people and supplies as they could carry, and their departure was met with great pomp and ceremony. Nightfinder had been one of the last to leave, after watching hundreds of others scatter off to all parts of a black and featureless sky. The administrators had decided to stay, to eke out as much life as they could for as long as possible. Atris couldn’t have done it, but he admired their dedication.

Nightfinder had jumped to trans-luminal as soon as they could, dropping back into normal space at semi-random intervals to see what was out there.

Every time, there had been nothing. Nothing but empty blackness as far as their sensors could detect. A thin atomic soup of elementary particles spread evenly in every direction, the occasional proto-planet that had been flung out into deep space by some long-ago catastrophe. Other than that, though – nothing.

The suicides started after a few months. They’d been sent off with as many diversions and as much entertainment as possible, as well as a full complement of counselors and therapists and mental health experts. But all that couldn’t stand up to the existential dread that gripped each and every one of them, the sure and certain knowledge that they were truly and utterly alone in the universe. Atris lost some good members of his command crew within weeks of each other. Training replacements had been difficult at best.

The last time they surfaced, however, the sensors saw something. It was faint, at the very edge of their sensors’ range, but it was there.

A star.

Atris had summoned his command crew and sworn them to secrecy. He didn’t want people’s hopes brought up only to see them brought even lower if they should find that the star was unpopulated – or worse, abandoned. It was still hundreds of light-years away, after all. Anything could have happened in that time.

The vow of secrecy had lasted very nearly ten hours. After that, the entire ship spent their short, final journey talking about their hopes and dreams for this new star, this new world that they hoped they could find a hoe in, if only for a few more generations.

Now, within visual distance of their new home, the anticipation in the ship was palpable.

Alpha Aurelius had built something that looked like a combination of a ringworld and a sun-sphere – four great rings that circled the star at different angles, each ring connected to the others by an incomprehensible series of tubes, transitways, struts and supports. The star looked like it hung in a great woven basket made of carbon-fiber and ceramic steel. Lights ran all along the rings, blinking off and on as the ship changed its angle. It was beautiful to behold. Atris stared at it for a long while, this shimmering, shining gem that hung in the endless darkness, until his Second called his name again.

“Sir, we’re receiving a signal from Aurelius.”

Atris nodded. “Put it on the screen.”

The man on the screen looked like he had put together the only nice outfit he owned by wearing pieces of other outfits that hadn’t worn out yet. The clothes weren’t bad, just it was clear that the people of Aurelius hadn’t had visitors in a long time. Behind him, the room looked dark and dingy, as if that room, too, had not been long in use.

“Greetings from Alpha Aurelius!” he said. “I am administrator Beddesh Ajaki. Welcome to our fire and share in its warmth.”

Atris resisted the urge to wiggle a finger in his ear. The neuro-linguistic implants were working fine already, with help from the ship’s computers, but it was still uncomfortable to listen to him. The original language was consonant-heavy and sharp, and the computer translation lagged a half-second behind. The words, when he spoke, felt awkward and wrong on his tongue, and he was sure that he would sound just as strange as he felt.

“Greetings to you, Beddesh Ajaki of Alpha Aurelius,” Atris said. “I am Captain Atris Parkell of the Nightfinder, and we cannot begin to express how happy we are to see you.”

Beddesh smiled, and it made his worn, leathery face look as kind and welcoming as he sounded. “As we are you,” he said. “We haven’t seen anyone new in, well… Ages, I suppose!” He laughed heartily. “well roll out the welcome mat for you, just as soon as all the official business is taken care of.”

Atris cocked his head. “Official business?”

“Better believe it,” Beddesh said. “There are forms or be filled out, tests to be take, the whole thing.” he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t like it much either, but rules are rules, right?”

“Right,” Atris said. He glanced over at Jackev, whose hands were already moving quickly to deal with all the incoming data.

“It looks like forms, Captain. They want to know where we came from, our sensor data for the entire trip, our crew contingent, ages, genders, what we have on board, all of our ship specs…” He looked up, panic visible on his face. “Captain, this is ridiculous!”

The face on the viewscreen glanced over to the side before smiling and chuckling. “Yeah, it might be a little much,” he said, “but that’s the way we do things around here. Dot every t and cross every i, you know how it is.”

Atris took a step towards the screen, his hands behind his back. “Administrator, I can certainly appreciate your desire to run your ring as you wish. But we’ve come a very long way, and it would be… comforting for my people to know that we’re docked somewhere safe. I don’t suppose you can perhaps… bend the rules a little?”

The man looked taken aback. “I… well, I’m not sure, but…” He glanced to the side again, as if he was listening to someone. Then he looked back out from the screen. “Let me see what I can do for you, captain.” He gave another of those big grins, and the signal cut out.

“Permission to speak, sir?” Atris didn’t need to look at Jackev, but just nodded. “Sir, this is going to take ages to complete.” He tapped his panel, and the main screen was flooded with document data. One of them flashed and then filled the screen. “Look at this – they want a molecular breakdown of not just our cargo, but the ship and crew! To the mole, sir!”

“Did you see how he was set up?” Atris asked after a moment. “Those clothes? That room?” He turned around. “I reckon we could tell them the ship is made of ice cream and catshit and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise until it was too late.” He glared at the screen. “Let them wait a little while, and then feed them some numbers that look like they should be right. In the meantime, get our starkeepers working on Aurelius. I want to know what kind of home we’ve come home to.”

He made an announcement to the rest of the ship that they had arrived and that they were being welcomed with open arms. The cheering echoed from one end of the Nightfinder to the other, and he let it go on as long as it wanted. When it was done, he told them that there were some official issues that had to be taken care of, for everyone’s safety, and that they should be able to deboard in a few days. “Until then,” he said, “be patient, and try not to get your hopes up. They don’t look like they’ve seen visitors for a long while.”

Beddesh Ajaki called them back a day later, and this time the translation was much easier to cope with. Still not as good as actually learning their language, but that was something to deal with later. “Good news!” he said. “I’ve talked to the bureaucrats and they’re willing to relax some of the paperwork for you, seeing as how you’re a special case.” Atris raised an eyebrow at the mention of a bureaucracy, but let the man go on. “I’m transmitting the revised data package to you now. I think you’ll find it a little easier to deal with.”

Atris glanced over at Jackev, who was squinting at his screen. After a moment he looked up, shrugged, and made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. “Thank you very much,” Atris said to the screen. “We understand how important it is to know who’s coming into your colony. We will do everything we can to satisfy your requests, and then our people are greatly looking forward to getting to know their new home.”

The smile on Beddesh’s face froze for a moment, and it looked like he was actively trying not to look away. “That’s great!” he said. “We look forward to having you!” He cleared his throat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some extra preparations to make. See you soon!” The picture snapped off.

Atris spun around. “Get to work on those documents. And get me the starkeepers.” He looked over at the screen, which was now showing the dull red star and its brilliant, enormous cage. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

To Be Continued!

*****

Atris Parkell’s page on 30characters.com

Day One Hundred and Fifty-nine: Paying Penance

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

This story was also written for a Worth1000 contest, Day and Night With a Twist, which is a little involved. The idea was to take an image from one of their Effects contests and write a story around it. I chose the entry by Delpht, which placed 15th, but it really caught my eye. Let’s hope I can do it justice.

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I couldn’t believe my guild was making me pay a penance. They knew I couldn’t make the raid, they knew I wasn’t going to be able to help them out – I mean, if I tanked my midterms, then there’d be no more gaming for me ever. And that’d be a lot worse than missing one night.

But no – next time I logged in there was a message from the guild leaders. Lignar, Vioniel and Asireg all wanted to see me in the guildhall. And that, friends and neighbors, is never good. There’s only two things they use the guildhall for – initiating new members and getting rid of the ones they don’t like, and I didn’t remember seeing any plebes brought in recently.

They put the ‘port token in my inventory, and that brought me right to the audience chamber. It was massive, as befits one of the most infamous guilds in Storms of War. Black marble pillars that reached up into the perpetual shadows of a storm-ceiling, brilliant wrought-silver floors that reflected the eternal light of the countless Victors’ Lamps that stood on tall brass stands. There was gallery seating for everyone in the guild, but this night, they were empty. It was just the three guild leaders and me.

“Unoldo,” Vioniel said, and her voice rang in the hall. She stood tall over me, her elfin armor gleaming in silver and bronze. “You let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need.”

“Look,” I said, “I told you I wasn’t -”

“SILENCE!” Asireg hefted his war-hammer and smacked it into his broad palm a couple of times. “We don’t want to hear your excuses, Unoldo.”

“But guys, listen! I told you -”

Lignar’s sword slid from its scabbard with a long, drawn-out hiss, and in a moment that blood-red blade was pointed right at me. “Dude,” he said. “Shut up.”

I shut up. The two guys looked at Vioniel, who started again. “Unoldo, you let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need. We lost some great warriors who might have survived if you had lent your magics to our cause.” My palms itched and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. Just to be on the safe side, I muted my mic.

“The standard penalty for abandoning your guild is to be expelled and branded a traitor, so that no other guild will accept you ever again. You would wander the world alone, never reaching your full potential in the Storms of War.”

“But,” Lignar said, stepping forward, “you’ve done well by us in the past. You’re a good guy, Unoldo, so we’re giving you a chance. One. Chance.”

Carefully, I unmuted my mic. This still was totally unfair. It was still a complete sham. But if I could get out of it and still stay in the guild? Hell, I could put up with whatever they threw at me.

“Okay,” I said. “I accept. Do your worst.”

*     *     *     *     *

I wandered through the night-forest, trying to find the path I’d been on, and I wondered if maybe it was time to give up Storms of War and maybe start playing games that didn’t involve other people. Tetris or something.

The new avatar I was wearing was ridiculous – a little robot creature, which was totally wrong for the server we played on. There are no robots in epic fantasy, none, but they borrowed a body from one of their friends on a sci-fi server and sent me to some custom-built hub for their little “quest.” Now instead of being a level 35 Elf, armed to the teeth with the best magical weapons I could buy, protected by ensorcelled armor and possessing so much treasure that I liked to just throw money at plebes, I was stuck in this stupid, slow, clumsy, fragile robot body.

The little blue dress and the ponytail were just adding insult to injury.

They had explained the rules, and I could hear their stupid smiles when they said it was “simple.” All I had to do was go to this hub and find the Wyrm. The Wyrm would ask me three questions, and if I could answer them before sunrise local time, then I’d be allowed back into the guild.

“No way,” I’d said. “It can’t be that simple.”

Asired shrugged. “We can make it harder, if you want.” And before I could say, “No thank you, I’ll take it as easy as I can get,” they had me teleported and re-avatared in the middle of a dark, trackless forest.

I had no map. There was no compass in my utility screen. Everywhere I turned, it looked exactly the same. Trees. Grass. Darkness. And the sound of crickets in my headphones.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I said. There was no response from anyone. I was pretty sure they were watching me, but if they were then they’d decided to keep that nugget to themselves.

“Okay, Unoldo,” I whispered. “Find the Wyrm. Answer some questions.” I drummed my fingers on my desk and checked the time. It was already one in the morning. I tabbed over to my browser and checked sunrise. 6:14 AM.

“Okay,” I said again. I waggled my fingers over the keyboard, took my mouse in hand, and began to walk.

At first, I walked in that shuddery, incremental way I used to do when I was a plebe. Back in the days when pretty much anything could kill me, so my instincts for self-preservation were pretty strong. Light taps on the keys, a constant shifting of view back and forth, just in case something was ready to jump from the shadows and take me apart.

As time crawled by, though, I started to relax. I still didn’t know where I was, but there was nothing there. No creatures had leapt out to devour me, none of the trees had reached out to rip me to shreds. Whatever this place was, it seemed like I was the only one moving through it.

Within half an hour, I was bored stupid.

There was nothing to do but walk, and I didn’t even know where I was walking to. Every path looked the same, every tree looked like every other tree, and for all I knew, I’d been walking in a tight little circle all night.

Which was why actually meeting the Wyrm scared the everloving hell out of me.

I had no warning, no sign that something different was up ahead. The trail bent right and BAM. There it was. An ugly thing, like what you’d get if a subway car had sex with a caterpillar and then dumped its horrible mutant child on top of a giant mushroom. With a hookah.

It seemed as startled to see me as I was to see it. The thing reared back, and a message started to scroll across its green, backlit face. If it had a face.

WHO ARE YOU?

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stammered out, “I’m Unoldo. I’m on a quest. Umm.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re, like, supposed to ask me questions?”

AM I? it asked.

“Oh, for the love of – YEAH!” I lifted off my headset, put my head in my hands and just ground my teeth together so I didn’t scream. My clock said that it was just after four in the morning, and I had school the next day. I put the headset on again. “You have to ask questions. I have to answer them. Then I get back in my guild. Understand?”

The Wyrm just sat there for a moment, and its hookah bubbled. It was so still that I thought maybe whoever was running it had gone offline. Finally, though: BEST FRIEND AND GREATEST ENEMY. SAVES LIVES AND TAKES LIVES. WITH A BREATH, IT CAN BE BANISHED. WITH A BREEZE, IT CAN BE FED. WHAT IS IT?

Aw, hell.

“Okay,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hunted around my desk for pen and paper. “Can you repeat that?” I asked. It did, and this time the words scrolled up along the side of the screen. I stared at them, and I swore I could feel time slipping away from me. The one thing I knew about riddles what they usually had simple things for answers, so I started running through ideas. I scratched answers down on paper and crossed them out as they failed the riddle. Not water or trees or clouds, those didn’t make any sense. If the rest of it was like this, then I was totally sc-

My head snapped up, and I shouted, “FIRE!” I flinched when I said it, and glanced up at the ceiling. No footsteps, but I couldn’t be too careful.

The Wyrm swayed slightly. CORRECT, it said, and I did a little happy dance in my chair.

A NEUTRON WALKS INTO A BAR AND ORDERS A BEER, it said, the words again appearing on the side of the screen as they scrolled across its face. IT FINISHES THE BEER AND ASKS THE BARMAN, “HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” THE BARMAN REPLIES…?

I grinned and sat back in my chair. “He says, ‘For you – no charge.'” My chemistry’s teacher’s desperate desire to be a stand-up comedian was finally going to pay off. Just not for him.

CORRECT, the Wyrm said. I leaned forward again and cracked my knuckles. One more question to go, and sunrise was still a good hour away.

This time, the Wyrm reared up, lifting its body almost vertically above the mushroom’s cap. Its underbelly lit up, pale yellow in the darkness, and a crude line drawing blinked into existence. It was a square. Inside the square were two words, one on top of the other. “dice – dice”

“Dicedice?” I muttered.

INCORRECT, the Wyrm said, and my heart started pounding against my ribcage.

“NO!” I said, and then I dropped to a whisper. I wasn’t sure, but for a moment I thought I heard the bed upstairs squeak. “No,” I whispered. “I was just, you know, thinking out loud.” I had blown it, I had totally blown the whole thing, and right when I was about to pass. But the Wyrm didn’t move. It just stayed there, its belly flickering faintly in the gloom.

I muted my mic and started trying to figure it out. There were two of them, two dice… Why two? Doubledice? No… that wasn’t anything. Why two? Why two?

A thought jumped into my head. It seemed to make sense, but there was no guarantee that it would be right. And sunrise was coming sooner than I thought.

I turned on the mic again and said, “Paradise?”

The Wyrm swayed in the darkness and then dropped back down. CORRECT, it said.

“YESS!!” I hissed, and I pumped my fist. The breath I’d been holding came out in a rush.

The lights on the Wyrm’s underside flickered off, followed by the lights on its face. The forest was once again plunged into darkness, and my screen went blank. It stayed that way just long enough to make me start to panic again, but then faded into clarity. I was back in the guildhall again, alone this time. My armor was on, and a quick check on my inventory told me that everything I had was still where I left it. Spinning in the air in front of me was a glowing scroll. I grinned and took it.

Congratulations, Unoldo, it read. You passed your first-stage initiation. There will be two more tests. Pass them, and you will be granted the title of Guild leader. You will start the second test the next time you log in.

And at the bottom, in smaller type, it said, We really had you going, didn’t we? The sentence was signed by Lignar.

I grinned madly and put the scroll into my inventory. Yup. They had me going. I logged out and stretched. The sky outside was light, and I had maybe an hour before I was supposed to get up for school. I plodded over to the sofa and stretched out. I’d probably catch hell for staying up all night and gaming, but I didn’t care.

Some things were more important.

Day One Hundred and Thirty-nine: For SCIENCE!

October 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Porter Dupree lowered the goggles back down over his eyes and leaned on the edge of the workbench for a moment. He took a deep breath, then reached up and keyed on the recorder. “Okay,” he said. “This is boot-up attempt number forty-five. Project day twenty. Failure minus five.” He rested a hand on the arm of the battered black android that lay on the bench, then reached over to the control panel and tapped a large green button. “Go.”

There was no lightning, no explosions or anything like that. Just some fluctuating graphs on his laptop screen, some rapidly-changing figures, and a schematic of the android’s body. Granted, there was a small laser array, but strictly speaking it could have just as well been covered up and hidden. If this were a science fiction movie, the writer probably would have flashed it up a bit, just to make the audience gape at the Awesome! Power! of SCIENCE! But then again, if this was a science fiction movie, he probably would have managed to get this to work forty-four tries ago.

The first time was exciting. Everything was new, all the parts clicked together snugly and perfectly. He’d tested all the circuits and all the connections, and in their pieces they worked fine. Put them together, however, and try to boot up the system as a whole, and the project was a dud. The android just lay there, gently humming but not actually doing anything much more technologically complicated than slowly warming up.

But this was science, and progress was never guaranteed. Porter would go to bed and look at the pictures he’d pinned to his wall of his favorite innovators – Tesla, DaVinci, Jobs – and remind himself that success came only after failure and the persistence to endure it. So the next day he took the machine apart and re-checked, piece by piece, component by component, connection by connection to see where the flaw was. He cleaned contacts and replaced microchips and resoldered anything that looked like it might be coming loose. Then it all went together again, the black plastic shell was snapped into place, and he held his breath as he keyed in the startup sequence again.

And… nothing.

Undaunted, he tried again, replacing parts that seemed too old or worn, revisiting his software coding, poring over circuit diagrams and trying to figure out more efficient designs before plugging it all together and starting it up, only to have it, once again, not work.

He started the project in earnest about a week after his brother Kevin died. His mother had been a complete wreck, and he needed something to do without letting her grief infect him. It started with a few sketches and the faint tickling of an idea that just… might… work. Within days, boxes started arriving at the house, filled with electronics and heat-moldable plastics. When his mother finally got around to finding out what he was making in her basement, she had told him it was an abomination, and that he would never be allowed under her roof again as long as he worked on “that thing.” His girlfriend really tried to support him during the months that he was putting the project together, but in the end, she left too. He didn’t notice for a few days.

And every night, he would go to bed and look at those pictures and think, “Tomorrow will be the day.” And every morning he woke up, ate quickly, showered if it occurred to him, and ran to the garage. He’d lost his job weeks ago, but he didn’t find out until the police arrived to see if he was dead. When he answered the door, pale and thin and blinking in the rising spring sunlight, they seemed surprised to see him alive. He hadn’t shown up in the lab for a week and a half. No one had heard from him, no one knew if he was alive or dead. Finally his boss called the local police and begged them to find out what had happened.

Of course, when he turned out to be fine, Porter was immediately fired.

But that didn’t matter. The great black android laying on his workbench would change everything. He would never need to worry about money again, once this worked.

And it would work.

He glanced over at the readout on the screen. He had spent a couple of days tinkering with the user interface, making it simpler and easier to read. All it told him at this point was the same thing it had told him before, and the time before that. All systems worked by themselves. Everything was humming along just fine. But as a whole, the connections just weren’t there, and it was beginning to grate at him. He could feel it. Something wasn’t clicking, but it was like turning a key in a sticky lock – he knew that if he could just jiggle it the right way or add just the tiniest bit more pressure, the key would catch, the lock would open, and an entire new era of humanity would begin.

But it would not begin today.

The android lay still on the workbench. The boot program was cycling through the bootup sequence, rebooting, and then starting again. Porter rested his chin on his hands and watched the robot’s fingers for a while, hoping to see one twitch. Just a little. But there wasn’t even a hint of movement.

After fifteen minutes, he halted the startup program and turned on the recorder again. “Attempt number forty-five: Unsuccessful. Will review power loads and microtransistor arrays and prep for attempt number forty-six. Failure minus four.”

Four more tries. That was about how many more he had left in him.

He turned off the laser array and turned on the overhead lights again. After his eyes adjusted a bit, he raised the goggles and spent a minute blinking. He made his way over to the head of the android. It wasn’t really handsome, but then he wasn’t exactly an artist. In any case, that was all aesthetics. Once it worked, he could pay someone to make it pretty.

He touched his fingertips to the pressure-seals at the temples, pressed, and twisted. The top of the android’s head came off with a click, exposing the glass-encased brain inside.

It floated in a thin soup of nutrients, with a web of fine wire delicately laid over and into the countless crevasses and folds. Porter carefully took the glass case, gave it a half-turn, and pulled the brain out of the android’s housing, exposing the complex metal plug that was entwined with the brainstem. Quickly, carefully, he turned around and docked it with the power station, and the little LEDs in the base lit up again. Keeping the brain alive, surprisingly, had been the easy part. When he started, it looked fine. Mostly fine. About as fine as you might expect from a freshly-exhumed corpse. It had been a lovely pale pink, full and hearty.

Now its color had gone to gray, and it floated more loosely in the bottle that Porter had made for it. The longer he kept it alive without any input from the rest of the world, the worse off it got. It wouldn’t be long before it was too far gone to be of any use.

He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and peered into the android’s skull. Everything looked okay, but it couldn’t hurt to have another look in the morning. He clicked it off and patted the bottled brain. “G’nite, Kevin,” he whispered. “See you tomorrow.”

Day One Hundred and Twenty-five: Summoned

September 23, 2011 4 comments

Neil dropped his keys in the key bowl as soon as he walked through the door and called for his cat. Despite popular belief about cats and their aloofness, Nickel usually came running to the door when Neil came home, tail raised and eyes wide. Granted, this was because Neil usually fed him right after he came home, but he chose to take it as a sign of Nickel’s unconditional love, rather than a blatant attempt to emotionally blackmail him for food.

Today, Nickel didn’t come to the door. “Nick!” He dropped his bag on the table next to the key bowl and slipped off his shoes. “Nick, I’m home!” Still no cat. Neil shook his head and trudged into the kitchen, sorting mail as he went. A bill, some advertising flyers, another bill…

And a robot sitting on his sofa.

It looked human, insofar as it had two arms, two legs and a head, which swiveled around to look at him. Other than the shape, the thing was utterly inhuman. Its body was battered and scratched, made of black and grey metal and plastic that looked like it had been through a war. Its eyes, however – or the two great circles in the front of its head that were currently staring at Neil – were luminous and bright green, slowly pulsing. The robot stared at Neil for a moment and then returned its head to its original position, staring straight ahead at an unadorned wall. “Your cat is fine,” it said. Its voice sounded almost human – almost. It had a hollowness to it that reminded Neil of the way computers always talked in movies. “It is hiding under your bed.”

Neil blinked. He cleared his throat and tried to speak, but it took a few tries before words came out. “Okay,” he croaked. “Let me check.” He backed away from the robot and, when he was out of sight, turned around and dashed for his bedroom.

The robot had been telling the truth – Nickel’s bright eyes were shining in the darkness under the bed, and the cat let out a pitiful meow when Neil ducked down. “Come here,” Neil whispered. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon Nick, we have to get out.” The cat wouldn’t move, but that wasn’t going to be part of the plan. Neil wriggled under the bed, clamped his hand on the scruff of the cat’s neck, and started to pull. “Sorry, Nick,” he said as he dragged the resisting cat out.

When he stood up, cat in his arms, the robot was standing in the doorway. Neil dropped Nickel, who immediately ran back under the bed. How had the thing sneaked into the room? He glanced down at its feet, which appeared to be shod in some kind of rubber, and that might have done it. But something that big? It should not be that quiet. He held up a hand, and the robot stepped forward. “Look,” Neil said, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but you can’t -”

The robot’s arm flashed out, and he grabbed Neil’s hand. Its grip was firm and rubbery. It dragged Neil towards it and clamped the other hand around his wrist. There was a brief stab of pain, causing Neil to cry out, and then the robot released its grip. There was a small drop of blood oozing out of a needle mark, but otherwise he seemed unhurt. He flexted his fingers a few times just to be sure. “What the hell, man?” he said. “What did you -”

“Tapscott, Neil. Thirty-five years old. Born in Boston, Massachusetts to Tapscott, Lowell and Marie.”

Neil felt his insides loosen up and a flash of heat start to wash over him. “Oh my god,” he said. “Please don’t kill me.”

“Currently residing at 454 Ingersoll Lane, Sylvania City.”

“Look, I don’t know what you think I’ve done, but really, I’m nobody here!”

“Employed by Acton Informatics as a data entry processor.”

“That’s right!” Neil dropped to his knees. Part of him knew that a robot would be immune to such a gesture of submission, as it couldn’t have had room in its programming for something like that. But it couldn’t hurt to try. “All I do is put data into databases, you know? Addresses, phone numbers, that kind of thing?” He forced a smile and tried to sound like he was enjoying a big joke. “So you can definitely just go on, kill some other guy. Right?” He cringed backwards and tried not to look into the glowing green eyes of the robot. “Right?”

The robot took another silent step forward. “Tapscott, Neil. You are summoned.” It reached down and picked Neil up off the floor. A band on its wrist flared to life, throwing off wisps of violet light that flickered and pulsed around them. “Transport is go,” it said. There was a flash, and the small, single man’s bedroom was replaced by a vast white hall.

The floor was smooth and cool when the robot released Neil, letting him drop to his hands and knees. When he looked up, the ceiling seemed to go up forever into gray shadows. The room was huge, and there were more robots standing in a circle around him. They were all identical, except for the damage they’d taken. The one who had found Neil was the most battered, but none were factory-fresh. They all stared at him with pulsing green eyes and said, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”

Neil stood on shaking legs and turned to look at them all. None of them moved. They just stared. Again, they said in a single, hollow voice, “Tapscott, Neil. You have been summoned.”

“What?” Neil asked. “Summoned, what for? Why?”

The robot who had brought him stepped forward. “To answer for your crimes,” it said. It held up its hand and tapped the palm. The lights in the room began to dim except for one corner just beyond the robots that had surrounded him. They slowly moved apart, encouraging Neil to walk forward just by the pressure of their presence. The light illuminated a long, tall pedestal, made of the same bright white stone as the floor. On it, draped with a sheet, was something that looked for all the world like a human being. The shape underneath was unmistakable, something he’s seen from countless cop shows and medical dramas.

He turned to the robots. “What?” he asked. “You think I killed someone?”

They didn’t answer, but kept walking slowly, moving him along with them.

“I didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “I can barely bring myself to kill cockroaches, so… People? That’s not going to happen.”

The robots still walked and remained silent. Neil yelped when he backed up against the pedestal and glanced down. Yup. A body. Definitely a body.

The crowd stopped walking. The robot who had brought him stepped forward and pointed to the body. “You must answer for your crime,” it said.

Neil looked at him, then at the body. He felt his mouth go dry as he realized what he was going to have to do. With trembling fingers, he plucked at the cloth that covered the body and gave it the lightest of tugs. When it slid off, he yelped, but even that was cut short when he saw himself lying on the dais.

He started at it for a good long time. It was his face. His body, down to the mole on his shoulder and the appendectomy scar. And it was cold and dead.

Neil spun around, looking from one robot to another until he came back to the one that he was most familiar with. “What,” he asked, “the hell is going on here?”

Day Eighty-Five: The Biggest Day [MAKE-UP]

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This was written for the Worth1000.com contest – “Unmet Expectations.” The instructions were: “Write a story where a key point is something/someone/somewhere that has not lived up to its expectations.”

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Secretary of State Ernest LaFayette turned off the TV in the conference room and excused himself from the meeting. He walked calmly back to his office, removing his jacket and tie as he did so, then ran to his toilet and spent the next five minutes throwing up.

The President had called him two hours ago, utterly frantic, but LaFayette’s staff had already found out from Twitter and Facebook – an alien spacecraft had landed on the National Mall, right in the middle of the Ellipse in front of the White House. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get past the cordon that had been set up. The ground was littered with correspondents, bloggers, and photographers hoping to make names for themselves.

So far, no one knew anything. The ship looked more like a piece of modern art than anything else – it was mostly white, with colored stripes down the side, and was blocky and cubic. There didn’t seem to be any windows or doors. There were nothing that looked like guns, no shimmering shields or giant robots determined to protect the ship at any cost. It just sat there.

And it was going to be LaFayette’s job to find out what it wanted.

Someone knocked gently on the door. “Mister Secretary?” It was Amy, his assistant. “Are you okay? Do you… need anything?”

LaFayette stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. “No,” he called. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “The President is on line two.”

Quietly cursing, LaFayette washed out his mouth and spat in the sink. He inspected himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a very long time, felt as old as he looked. He smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and left the bathroom.

Amy was standing by the door, looking professionally concerned. He nodded to her, and she closed the door. LaFayette counted to ten, picked up the phone and pushed the line two button. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Ernie!” He flinched. “Ernie, we’re sending a motorcade to pick you up. Should be there in about five minutes, so get yourself together and get ready to make history!”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“There’ll be sharpshooters set up, just in case, and we’ve got some helicopters watching the skies, in case there are any more of ’em. You’ll be perfectly safe out there.” The President laughed, a short bark. “Unless they’ve got some kind of death ray we don’t know about. Then you’re screwed.”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is the ultimate diplomacy, Ernie. This is what you were meant to do!”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“I’d do it myself, but for some reason the Secret Service doesn’t like the idea of me walking up to a bunch of Martians and saying Howdy. Go figure.”

LaFayette gritted his teeth at the insinuation. “Of course, Mister President.” A new Secretary of State would require, what – a confirmation hearing? Far less valuable than a President. “I should probably go, sir,” he said. “I think the motorcade has arrived.”

He hung up. Amy handed him his jacket and tie and offered him water as he walked out the door. The motorcade was huge – he had a limo, with at least five other limousines lined up behind it. Surrounding everything were dozens of police motorcycles and military vehicles. Inside his car, Amy handed him a new shirt and a young man started working on his hair. “The world is watching, sir,” Amy said. “You should look good.”

The police had cleared the streets as best they could between the State Department building and the Ellipse, but it was still slow going. During the drive, the President called three more times, trying to remind LaFayette of the importance of this event, as if it weren’t so obvious. LaFayette’s stomach burned, and his throat hurt from trying to keep everything down while he sat in the car. Amy was busy going through paperwork, but every now and then she would glance up to see if he was okay.

They were met at The Ellipse by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also did their best to impress upon him how important this event was. A young man from the Secret Service interrupted them. “Sir,” he said, breathless. “It’s opening up!”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and they all walked together towards the crowd. LaFayette wanted to run. Run far and fast and away. He bit his lip and put his hands in his pockets as they reached the edge of the cordon and stopped.

The crowd was vast and silent as the ramp dropped down from the ship, revealing a shadowy interior. Cameras were clicking in rapid-fire, and reporters were speaking in hushed tones to the rest of the world.

A dim shape appeared inside, and a murmur went up from those who could see it. The shape soon resolved itself as it stepped into the bright autumn sunlight. It was some kind of walker, eight-legged and metallic, topped with a tinted dome. In the silence, LaFayette could hear the mechanical, electric sounds of its movements and the faintest ring of its sharp footfalls on the metal ramp. The crowd was utterly silent as they watched – even the national guardsmen around the perimeter were gaping. A moment later, a second walker joined it.

When the walkers reached the end of the ramp, they stopped, their feet digging into the sod. There was a pause that lasted just slightly too long, and people in the crowd jumped when the domes atop the walkers let out pressurized gas in a bright, loud hiss and started to open. LaFayette was surprised to realize that he was praying under his breath, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. Whatever happened next would be the defining moment for humanity. He closed his eyes tightly to clear his thoughts.

The domes released a pale blue gas when they opened. From this distance, he could make them out easily. The beings sitting inside were vaguely reptilian. Their skin was scaly – one red, the other gold – and they had large, shining eyes that squinted against the sun. They were wearing what looked like pressure suits and breathing masks, but their skin was exposed to the air. Someone nearby whispered, “My god. Lizard men.”

The aliens looked around at the crowd, and then at each other. LaFayette took another deep breath. This was it. He thought about the times he had met dictators and madmen, sat down with them to negotiate peace – or at least some kind of armed stability. They had been the worst of humanity, the kind of people that would bring shame to the world. And he had been better than they. He would still be better than they.

Ernest LaFayette straightened his jacket, brushed off the cuffs, and stepped forward to meet the aliens.

He stopped in front of them and craned his neck to look up. He didn’t flinch when the insectile walkers hissed and slowly lowered themselves to meet him. There was a moment, where human first met alien, when everyone held their breath.

“My name,” he said, in a level, clear voice, “is Ernest LaFayette.” He spoke slowly and clearly, with his arms at his sides. “I would like to welcome you in peace to the planet Earth.”

The red alien’s eyes widened, and it turned to the gold one. It spoke to the other, and their voices sounded musical, like deep flutes. The red alien turned back to LaFayette and, in a clear voice, trilled, “Earth?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. LaFayette kept his expression neutral, but everyone could hear the excitement in his voice when he replied. “Yes, he said. “Welcome to Earth.”

There was a moment of utter stillness.

The red alien looked around at the crowd and the monuments and the city. It looked LaFayette up and down, and then trilled something to its partner. The gold alien responded, and they conversed in their melodic tongue. Then the red alien looked down at LaFayette and said, “Thought it would be bigger.”

Its walker lifted quickly, turned around, and walked back up the ramp with quick, sharp steps. The gold alien watched it, and then turned to the bewildered LaFayatte. “Apologies,” it said, in the same deep, flutelike voice. “It has been a very long trip.” A small patch of scales on its forehead fluttered and changed hue for a moment, and then it, too, stood up in its walker and returned to the ship.

The ramp was pulled back up, and within a few minutes, the ship lifted silently off the ground. With the world’s eyes upon him, Ernest LaFayette watched the aliens turn around and leave.

Day One Hundred and Twelve: The Earth Died Screaming

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The piece I wrote as a make-up for Day 84 – The End – annoyed me so much that I had to re-do it right away rather than wait until the end of October. The problem was basically this: It read like a history lesson, and history lessons are, by and large, boring. The only way to make people interested in history is to show events through the eyes of someone who experienced them. That’s why so many people love Lord of the Rings, but only the hard-core nerds love The Silmarillion. So I ripped it apart and did it again. I hope it’s better. This story was also submitted to the Worth1000.com contest, “The End,” so if you like it – and you’re a Worthian – go give it a vote!

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My memory has been fading. I don’t remember my childhood anymore. The name of the first girl I kissed. The street where I grew up. I want to remember, I strain and push and try, but the noise of all the other voices – the screaming and the begging – it’s all too much.

There is one thing I do remember, however. Vividly. We all remember, and it will probably be the last thing to go.

We remember the invasion.

I was arguing with my fiancée Joanne in our apartment in St. Louis. Something about plates for the wedding. Or cakes. Or something, I can’t remember, but we were arguing. And then the sky went dark, as something indescribably huge blocked out the sun. It wasn’t an eclipse. It didn’t have that kind of slow majesty to it. It was something else, something we wouldn’t fully understand until it was far too late.

It was a ship. A spaceship. An honest-to-god alien vessel, bigger than the planet itself, which had come to visit the Earth with unknown intentions. In the first few hours of its arrival, the TV news was devouring itself, trying to get information on the ship. Politicians came out and gave speeches, they interviewed every scientist who would talk to them, and flashed every amateur cell phone video that was sent to them. All they knew was what we knew too: It was big.

Its arrival caused chaos everywhere. Joanne left me in tears to go to her parents’ home in Nebraska. I tried to get her to stay with me, but she wouldn’t have it. “Family is everything,” she’d always said. I guess I just wasn’t family enough yet.

All around the city, people were going mad. Breaking windows, stealing televisions, as though there would be anything to watch after this. Cars were jacked and joyridden, and people stole jewelry by the armful. To look pretty for the little green men, I supposed. I wanted to laugh at myself for not joining in – here was the end of the world and I was still worried about being arrested. As though this would turn out to be some big mistake and the police would show up and tell me, “An alien invasion is no excuse for stealing an XBox, son.”

I called my mother in Fenton, just to see if she was okay. She told me to be careful. “There are a lot of crazy people out there, Charles,” she said. “I saw on TV that New York City is burning.”

“St. Louis isn’t New York, mom,” I told her.

“And there have been earthquakes happening everywhere, because of the gravity.”

I wanted to laugh. “Mom, that thing’s gravity can’t be…” I had to pause while the building trembled.

“Still, you mustn’t –“

The phone cut out. My apartment was completely disconnected as the cable service died. No TV, no phone, no internet, all in one terrible moment. I paced around the apartment for an hour, aimless and blind. There was no news, no updates, and for the first time in my adult life I felt truly alone.

Out on the street, people were running through the city. They were crying. They were laughing. They were drunk and sober and horny. I sat in my window and watched them until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the roof.

The ship filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Lights traced paths across its dark surface in amber and blue, great straight lines and slow curves that seemed to go on forever. I wondered what we all wondered, once we took the time to think about it. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want from us? The movies and TV shows I grew up on gave me two options: they wanted to invite us into their great galactic federation, or they wanted to invade and take over. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that humans were important enough for either.

My question was answered the next morning. With the probes.

I woke at 6:00 AM. The streets were dead. There were cars on fire and garbage everywhere, and people lying on the sidewalks. I chose to believe they had passed out. The ground rumbled under my feet as soon as I stepped outside, and I dove against a building for cover. Masonry fell from the roof, missing me by inches. When the quake was over, I thought I heard drums, of all things. I followed their sound as far as I could.

Tower Grove Park was full of people. Tents, lean-tos, people wrapped in blankets and parkas and big blue plastic tarps. There were people cooking and playing, staying together through the long night and trying to keep spirits up. When I ambled into the park, a guy in a beat-up business suit greeted me. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Feel free to camp out wherever you like, and if you have any food we’d all appreciate it.” He shook my hand and then hugged me. Then he jogged away to somewhere else, and I never saw him again.

The park was a party. A celebration. People were drumming by the dozens, dancing and spinning across the grass. There were groups telling stories to each other, reading and singing songs to each other and to the ship. If you ignored the sky, it was a festival. The smell of food filled the air, from dark, spicy chili to hamburgers and hot dogs. Not everyone was afraid, it seemed.

I didn’t join in the dance circles or the drum tribes or the poetry readings that were going on all around us. I gravitated towards others, huddling by their fire with the look of people whose entire world has been dismantled in front of them. I sat shoulder to shoulder with an older Mexican lady and we stared at the fire. We didn’t talk at first. Then she told me about her son, who was living in Los Angeles and wanted to become a teacher. I told her about Joanne and how we were planning to spend our honeymoon in Las Vegas and never leave the hotel. For a moment, I almost forgot what was hanging above us.

Then the screaming started.

The probes swarmed towards the park in the hundreds, great jellyfish made of plastic and steel. They had blinding white lights that swept the crowd, and whip-thin tentacles that trailed in the air behind them. As soon as they appeared, people panicked into the darkness. Most of them were caught immediately. What happened to those who were caught – what would happen to all of us – is the most vivid memory of all.

The probe would ensnare a person, lifting and immobilizing them in the air. Then it would slice away the top of their skull and, in one swift movement, scoop out the still-living brain. The body would then drop to the ground and the brain would be put into a fluid-filled sac that hung below the probe. Soon, each one was carrying five or six human brains dangling pendulously below its body. Some of them, having reached their limit, would glide off away from the crowd, only to be replaced by another.

I didn’t see the probe that got me. The Mexican lady prayed and ran as my arms and legs were pinned by unbreakable cables. I opened my mouth–

That’s where my memory ends. There is a blackness there, a period of infinite time in which I sensed nothing. I thought nothing and knew nothing. How those things kept us alive is something I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know for sure is that I would rather be dead now. Any death, any hell would be better than this, and I know the billions of others on this ship would agree with me.

The great, amnesiac blackness ended with awareness. First I knew myself, and then I knew the others. All the others. The noise was deafening, billions of voices full of fear and confusion. In an instant, I knew where I was and what I was. What we all were.

The brains of humanity had been networked. We had been connected together into a huge organic processor aboard the ship, and what the ship knew, we knew. We knew so much, right then, that it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing.

The Earth, hanging perfectly still in space. The mother ship disgorged thousands of smaller ships, harvesters. Some began to spray the surface with a compound that reduced any organic life to a slurry of amino acids, which was scooped up and brought back to the ship. Other vessels collected water and ice, drained the oceans and rivers and lakes, broke up the glaciers and then returned with their prizes. Some large ships brought back mountains, hewn from their roots. They tore up the continental shelves to get at what lay underneath and siphoned off the sluggish, red-hot magma that lay just under the paper-thin surface of the Earth. The process took… days? Months? Years? There was no way for us to tell in in there. In time, though, everything else was gone, leaving only a white-hot spinning iron core surrounded by the detritus of the operation.

Special ships were dispatched. They hovered by the core and primed their great engines before laying down drag hooks in order to slow it down. Slowly, slowly, for the first time in billions of years, the Earth stopped turning. The ships clamped down on the core and dragged it into the main vessel to be melted down and used as raw material.

And that was it. Where once there was a planet teeming with life and intelligence there was now a field of debris that would orbit the sun for as long as the sun shined. Another traveler here might wonder what had been there, but they would never know. Far off, the moon drifted away into other realms of the solar system, having been deemed less useful than its mother planet. Perhaps another world would take it in.

An order shot through our network, and the ship turned. Our sun swept through the ship’s field of view, and then there were nothing but the stars we thought we knew.  Humanity howled in grief and pain, and another order brought us to heel. We turned away from our sun, our home, and started to move to the next world, an impossible distance away.