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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Aardvark

Herald
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Aardvark last won the day on September 26 2015

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About Aardvark

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    THIS BOX CONTAINS ENOUGH THERMITE TO DESTROY US ALL!!
  • Birthday January 1

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    I'm interested in figuring out a way to write again. For almost five years now, I've been unable to put pen to paper and create something I'm satisfied with. It's almost like passing a kidney stone, writing of late. Hideously painful and the only satisfaction with the resulting product is that it's finally over with.

    Once upon a time, the ideas flowed freely from my head. I was able to create a story in an instant. An alternate reality that could span several centuries would come to me in a moment, in full detail. All it took was some fast finger work and viola, another scrap of literature thrown onto the great flaming refuse heap of the internet. Fortunately, they would, for the most part, land on the unburnt parts of the internet (LotWR stage circa 2001-2002 notwithstanding).

    So here I sit, unable to even piece together the fragments of language required to properly describe my inability to write. Seriously, look at that last goddamn line. Fragments of language? That's garbage! Utter trash! Honestly, the whole thing should be expunged from the internet. Obliterated! The slate wiped clean. Hell, just get rid of the slate altogether. Get a brand new slate and some new crayons for said slate. Yes, I know you don't write on slate with crayons, but we're going back to fundamentals here, people.

    So here we are. You, reading this, wondering what possessed you to even think about reading this and me, lamenting writers block. Did I use lamenting previously? That's another problem I had. Repetition. Yes, it was effective the first time. Yes, it was a charactorial trait, once upon a time. Yes, it got the bloody point across. But sweet unholy jesus, could I have possibly thought up something a little less crude?

    I'd go so far, upon reflection, to say that I was never able to write in the first place. This isn't a case of writer's block. This is my subconscious preventing my thoughts from reaching paper out of sheer embarrassment. Those primitive parts of my brain saw what the higher brain was pumping out and conspired to put a stop to it, lest my immortal soul be dragged down into that hell of bad writers, along with Frank Herbert's bastard son and Kevin Jerkface Anderson.

    So where does that leave you, the hapless reader? Well, you have the means and obviously the excess time to go back and see what all this was about. Somewhere on this page should be a "Read the back catalogue of this wanker's pontification" button. Go hit that, read it and tell me what you think. Is it really worth me attempting to tear down this creative barrier I've built around myself? Or is my subconscious right? Am I little more than a hack, best buried and forgotten, lest future generations develop brain tumours from exposure?

    Go on, I'll wait here with the radaway and the brain surgery kit.

Previous Fields

  • Characters
    Dudeosaurus Rex
  • Race/Gender Details
    King of the Awesome Lizards
  • Feedback Level
    Thick, hard and brutal. I love the abuse. Hurt me, people. Demean me, belittle me, insult me. But do it with love. Any cruel serious attempts at undermining my psyche will be met in kind. Also, any that are excessively uncreative or boring will be met with napalm
  • Geld
    25
  • Pen Job(s)
    Organ Pirate, Musical
  • Usual Preferred Feedback (Stories)
    Critical accepted
  • Usual Preferred Feedback (Poems)
    Critical accepted

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  1. Three fresh corpses, delivered straight from the battlefield, awaited me as soon as I swiped in. So fresh that their skin retained colour in places and not all the blood had congealed. Some wounds still wept, in spite of the attempts to ice the cadavers for delivery. A good distraction from all the admin work that I delegated to the assistant they refuse to hire for me. Two males, one female, from first glance. All infantry. A corporal and two privates, according to the paper work. Strong of stature, minimal enhancements, all volunteers. They were trained and conditioned as well as could be expected, and probably decently equipped to boot. By the looks of things, so were their foes. Maybe a little better. No matter, their bodies were in fairly good condition. A hole through the torso and a shattered cranium could be repaired. The bisection, on the other hand, might take a little more work. But nothing too difficult in this day and age. No toxins, infections or other surprises could be picked up, so there was little chance of rejection. That always put a damper on my day. The head case was simple to fix. A bit of replacement gray matter, a metal plate, a cocktail of exotic chemicals and some spray-on skin and he was good to go. Well, close to. Necrosis never does play fair, so a nutrient bath, along with a swarm of nano machines should take care of the rest. Half an hour later, I sealed my first customer in the tank, had a coffee and moved onto contestant number two. The holy chest had a wonder of a wound. It looked as though a perfectly circular chunk of body had been sliced out. Skin, bones, muscle, all perfectly sliced to within atomic perfection. I couldn't help but take a few shots to upload for the morbidly curious. Unfortunately for the recipient of this wound, the critter who had inflicted this upon her had stolen her heart. And part of her lungs. I did have a few replacements in the freezer, but I figured why not improve on nature? Fifteen minutes later, I had wrested the robotic replacement heart from its plastic prison and was carefully positioning it in the hole. Lining up the replacement arteries would take a delicate hand, but I had four of them at my disposal. Some replacement polymer ribs to hold it in place, a dash of stemgel to repair the lungs and a brand new spine later and she would be as good as new. Hopefully I'd have her ready by lunch. A piping hot bowl of delicious nutrislime later, which I'm sure the headcase wouldn't miss, and I was ready to work on my third victim. I had dubbed him torsoboy, for lack of a better name. This one might take a while. Ordinarily, two halves of a body can be stitched back together, assuming the wound was clean enough. This one looked as though he'd been hacked in two by a drunken lumberjack. His kidneys were in tatters, what remained of his digestive tract was sealed in a baggie, and he no longer had a spleen. All that would have to be replaced. This would be expensive, time consuming work, requiring the precision of a surgical master. I loaded up the surgical master program into the robotic surgeons and went to have a smoke. One anti-cancer stick later and it was back to work. My head case was back in one piece and ready for revivification. One small detail remained. His brain functions. Or lack there of. The headshot had taken out a fair chunk of his gray matter, and along with it, his training, reflexes, senses, most of his childhood and his ability to empathise with other human beings. Along with a whole bunch of other things that I would have remembered, had I opted to study the text, instead of how to cheat for the final exam. Not to worry, it was company policy to take backups on a regular basis. I'm sure he wouldn't miss the last few days. Or the last few weeks, as it turned out. Headcase had been bunking without his headware. Must have been one of those headcases who believed that we go through those backups, watching his most embarrassing memories for laughs. Where in a war zone would we find the time for light entertainment when there were soldiers to uncorpse? But this left me with the backup that was taken while he was in cold sleep. This could be awkward for him when he wakes up, thinking he has just arrived. Still, that was his own stupid fault. As the saying goes, "Jesus saves, and makes incremental backups." One day, I'd look up who this Jesus person was and why they were so synonymous with common sense, but for now I had a brain to retrain. The probe slipped in past his eye, then split into tiny threads, each of which worked its way into a different part of his brain. On screen came the usual layout, showing different sections and estimates of mental damage. It was tempting to just wipe whatever was left and replace it with the backup, but I would be offended if anybody ever suspected me of not exercising due diligence. And it looked as though he did have some data left that could be worth salvaging. His memories were gone, but his lizard brain was pretty much intact. Once the computer was done with restoration and reconstruction, this would save him precious weeks of rehabilitation and get him back on that battlefield in no time. There were few things I appreciated more than swift return business. Her holiness had finished her nutribath and was ready to be brought back. Having been iced so soon after death, her brain was almost perfect. A little repair and creative editing was required to ensure her final memories didn't haunt her in the next life. The event only lasted a few seconds before her conscious mind shut down, but the brain always stretches out the perception of those final moments, as if it were trying to hold onto life the only way it could. Here she was, on the battlefield, now she was falling backwards, now the sky was slowly fading from view, until blackness was all that remained. Curiously, no view of her enemy, which disappointed me. They must have learned about snipers. Fighting a rapidly evolving enemy was troublesome, but they still hadn't figured out how to inflict any truly lasting damage. A quick snip and a little tidying up and she was good as new. She might be a little puzzled as to how she went from battlefield to laboratory, but that was for the shrinks to figure out. The reconstruction of torsoboy was going well. New guts, new spine, reinforced flesh and a few optional extras that I'm sure he'd appreciate, once he'd come to terms with his second life. Also, he'd never have to do another sit-up and would never be troubled by lactose intolerance. You'd think he'd be appreciative of this huge favour I was doing for him, but some people couldn't seem to take a little bad news like "You'll be living off tasteless nutritional paste for the rest of your life". Though it was really his own fault. He should have tried harder for promotion. Then the company would have sprung for the deluxe package. With the basic framework in place, I decided to take a look at his thinker. Then immediately regretted it. He hadn't gone down as quickly as I had thought. Something big had bitten into him. An overload of pain, excessive stress and repressed primal fears had made sure his end was as unpleasant as it looked, as well as made my job a little more difficult. It was almost bad enough for me to declare it a loss and go to backups. His last was the night before the battle, so it wouldn't be too bad. But I did enjoy a challenge and this mess would take quite a bit of sorting out before I could hand it to one of the AIs. By my calculations, at least three or four hours of overtime pay worth of sorting out. With a crack of the knuckles, I got to work. The revivification team found me asleep in my chair when they came for my patients. Repairing the trauma to the Private's mind had taken a bit longer than I had anticipated, but in the end I had displayed the skill and professionalism that this company expected of me. The machines had taken care of his body and had deposited him in a vat after I had passed out, so he was good to go. Another three souls about to be welcomed into the afterlife. Then, once they had reached the minimum acceptable value for "Recovered", would be issued replacement gear and be shipped back to the Immortals Brigade. Which was a damn good thing, as they would have to live forever to have any chance of paying off the company debts they had just accrued.
  2. Aardvark

    Immanence

    Thousands of years ago, I'll remember you. Or at least a memory of you.
  3. Branches snapped and small trees were crushed underfoot, as the buck barrelled through the dense forest. Surefooted and nimble, he would never be brought down by vegetation such as this, but following close at heel were two does and their fawns, struggling to keep up. It was all he could do to crush the vegetation and give them easier passage as they fled through the forest. He desperately wanted to look back, to see if they were still with him, but he knew even that moment of hesitation could doom them all. Others had split off from the herd, in different directions, running for their lives. He knew one group headed straight for the mountains. They would probably be safe, that terrain was treacherous. He also knew one that headed back down towards the planes. That group consisted of three young bucks, who took that dangerous path knowing it would be their end. Some had already fallen. He had no idea who and couldn't possibly fathom how many, but he could feel that the herd had been wounded severely. The predators were not unfamilar to him. They had come before, in small groups, typically only taking one of two, then leaving. Sometimes, he would go a season without seeing any, but would later see evidence of their presence when they encountered other herds roaming the wilderness. He had no notion of who or why they hunted his kind. All he knew was the sound, a sharp crack, that would signal the demise of one of his family. He had learned young that the noise was a signal to run and never look back, so it was a time before he ever saw one, and even then, never close enough to make out any details. He had merely accepted that, like many things, these creatures were just a natural part of the wilderness. But today, these were somehow different. It was no longer a single loud crack, but many. They came closer than they had dared before, taking down many of his kin in one swoop before his herd had been able to flee. They also seemed intent not on the kill, but on causing suffering. The memories of the crying of a fawn as it clung desperately, but futiley to life, would haunt him to the end. And they pursued, with a speed and intent he had never seen in any creature before. They tore through the underbrush with an unnatural roar, like nothing the forest could produce. They chased and when they caught, they took down even more. Splitting up had not been a choice any of them would have made, but their pursuers had forced them to split, some showing up in the path of the herd, causing them to split off. He could no longer hear the others, so would never know if any made it to safety. All he could do was care for the few who had followed him. Who trusted him blindly, knowing that the alternative was a horrible demise. And he knew not where he was going, only that every moment he could keep going was another moment of survival. He heard another cry behind him. A fawn had fallen from exhaustion. So few left and he could do nothing about it. He wanted to stop, to turn around, to charge back into them, antlers down, tearing through them, but he knew it would be pointless. He knew he would join the dead, along with the small group following. So he ran, with only a glimmer of hope deep within his soul. There had always been a destination in mind, as soon as he realised he was in flight for his life. A place he had never seen before, in all his years roaming, and could not know how to reach. But a voice inside, something deep and primal, told him to run. If he ran, he would reach this place. He would be able to protect the herd. Protect everyone. As he raced onward, he could hear the sounds of the does and the remaining fawns fade as they fell behind. Beyond them, the distant roar of the predators. He knew that they were lost to him, but every aching fibre of his being screamed for him to turn around and protect them. Yet he raced on, urged on by that low rumbling. Roaring from his flanks, as two more predators picked up his trail. Either they had lost the small groups they were chasing, or had already caught them. Could they know where he ran to? Could they be trying to stop him? More snapping behind him, the sound of bark and branches being torn from trees and pain, as he felt his hide pierced. It wasn't serious, but enough to remind him of his peril. They were getting closer. The brush was thinning. They would be on him soon. Suddenly, the forest peeled away from him and the ground gave way beneath him. For an instant, he was flying. Then he was falling. He could see below, trees reaching up to him, getting closer. He was falling faster. He panicked. He writhed. He tried to fight this unknown and terrifying sensation. His heart almost seized, his stomach twisted. He screamed. The last thing he felt, before he crashed through the canopy and into the forest floor, was a warm, fulfilling sensation. His fears washed away, his thoughts for the others gone. He had done his best, and now it was over. He felt at home, at peace. No more wandering for food, fighting other bucks for dominance, running from strange predators. Finally, he was at peace. The primal urging told him to rest. That the others would be protected. Sleep. The hunters skittered to a halt before the cliff edge. One of them dismounted his bike and peered over, looking for where the deer had fallen. He saw nothing. Another was looking at his map, puzzled. This cliff wasn't supposed to be here. The whole valley before them wasn't on the map. The others checked their weapons. Today had been a good day for them. They had been merciless in culling these creatures. It wasn't exactly what the permit had allowed, but it wasnt' strictly forbidden to chase an oversized population of deer down on dirt bikes, firing automatic weapons. And even if it had, they would be gone before anyone could tell them otherwise. Puzzled by the abrupt ending, but thinking little more of it, they turned away from the cliff and prepared to depart. Until the ground shook beneath them. The rocks split, the trees fell and the whole cliff face gave way, dragging the hunters down with it. Their final moments were spent gripped with the same horror their previous quarry had felt, with no relief. Deep within their souls, before their bodies gave out, they felt it. That primal urge of the wilderness. It hungered.
  4. Aardvark

    Trinkets

    I set a challenge for myself, which I'm gonna do more often, as I'm sick of going for so long between writing. I picked three words using an online random word generator, then wrote a story using them as the theme. And I can't write anymore, because I forgot the bloody words.
  5. Aardvark

    Trinkets

    No sun overhead, nothing but a dark red sky, casting a crimson gloom over the landscape. No day or night in this place, frozen in eternal bloody twilight. Shadows cast in all directions from any object. Some from no object at all. Some cast from other shadows, over the cracked, dried earth. At the edge of the landscape, all around, the precipice leading to an eternal abyss of redness. Here and there could be seen a flower long wilted, or a lifeless husk of a tree, the only evidence that this hell had ever seen the cool caress of rainfall. The only sound of this lifeless place, a low howl as the wind flowed between rocky outcroppings and into numerous crevices. One dusky day or hazy night in this forgotten corner of creation, a song would cut through the howl of the wind and the tumbling of the rocks. A joyful tune, humming over the sound of the wind, for the ears of an absent audience, from the lips of a small girl. Barely a whisp of a creature, with the whitest of hair, eyes of purest ebony and a dress the shade of the melancholy of a thousand lost souls. On one arm, a woven basket, rocking back and forth, containing a few loose stones. She would skip over the cracked earth, eyes closed, humming her tune, without a care. Every so often, she would stop, the tune fading from her lips. She would sniff the air, shuffle the dirt beneath her feet and look around, before picking a new direction and skipping along, humming. She would sometimes stop to lean against the stump of an ancient tree, or sniff a wilted flower. More than once, she would reach down, clear the dirt away, and retrieving another strange rock. Around the island, she would go, collecting these small trinkets. Some, she would examine, then with a frown, toss away, forgetting about it as it slowly sunk back into the earth. Others she would keep, dropping into her basket with the rest. She would pay no heed to the basket, as it swayed effortlessly on her arm, the weight of the stones nothing to her. When she would find a certain specimen, she would hold it to her ears and listen to the sound of the stone. Sometimes, she would hear the anguished despair of the forlorn, others the desperate cries of the dispossessed. Once or twice, she would hear the agonized screams of the dying, as they hopelessly fought their inevitable fate. Each of these doomed echoes would bring a slight smile to her face, then into the basket they would go. After a time, maybe hours, maybe months, she would fill her basket and be done with her chore. Her song complete, she would take one last look at this cracked and blasted landscape and bid it a fond farewell. A tear would shed from her ebony eye for the land forgotten and she would be gone, as if never there. Her tracks would vanish into the dust and her song would fade onto the wind, until only its mournful hum remained, as it poured through the branches of the dead trees and over the small mounds of earth. In time, those small items she took would be replaced with others. Maybe she would return for them. Maybe she already had.
  6. Aardvark

    Perfume

    It always began with her perfume. That sweet fragrance, wafting in on a gentle breeze. Just the slightest hint at first, tickling my senses, gradually getting stronger, until I could almost feel it caressing my face, as if she were pulling herself closer. I could already hear the faint tapping of her heels against the floorboards as she came closer, but it was her perfume that got to me first. I could hear her now. She hummed a melody that I had heard so many times, yet could never remember. Her scent almost overpowering and the soft tones of her voice in my ears, I quickly forgot the countless problems in my life. She could do that to me. Make me forget everything but her. She was calling for me. I heard my name floating from her lips and I smiled. She would be with me soon. The tapping echoed through the room. She was all around me, humming softly, her perfume overpowering. I heard her laugh, a soft giggle, then she whispered my name again. I reached out to the sound of her voice, but she shied away, Still singing, humming and laughing softly. The distant sounds of traffic and people and the city thrumming with life faded into nothingness as her voice became all I could hear. I felt the bed give way as she came closer. I could hear her skin against the silken sheets, could feel them pull away from me as she came closer. Her smile, I could feel it. It filled me with such warmth. I could lose myself forever in that smile. She came close, whispering my name to me, sending tingles across my scalp and down my spine. I could feel her so close, but could not touch her. I raised my hands, she shifted away. I reached out, she slid from me, only returning when my hands were at my sides again. I could never resist her and she knew it. She knew how to toy with me. A tingle ran up my arm. Her fingertips gliding up and down, brushing over my skin lightly, as delicate as a feather. My legs as well, I could feel her everywhere, teasing my senses, sending little electric shivers throughout my body. I could feel her warmth as she lay close to me. Her lips so close to my ear, I could feel her breath. So close to me now. Her lips brushes against me. She kissed me, so lightly, then withdrew. Her arm over my chest, her nails tracing patterns down my chest. I shivered and arched as her fingers danced across my skin. Her breath against my neck now as she bit me softly, her teeth scraping against my skin. I could feel the room slip away, until there was nothing left but the two of us, alone together in space and time. She held me close, her fingers dancing through my hair. She whispered my name again and said that she loved me. That she would always be with me. Time lost all meaning. An eternity of eternities alone with the woman of my dreams. I told her I loved her, that I'd always keep her safe. Her lips against mine, tongue teasing my own, as she broke away. Smiling down at me as she floated away, her fingers caressing my cheek the last I felt her. I heard her voice, fading, still whispering to me as she left. Her perfume lingered, but she was gone. I breathed deep, trying to hold onto the memory of her, a losing battle as her scent faded. Then she was gone. I was alone again. Alone in that room. The neon glow of the city was already streaming back into my consciousness. I could hear them all again. The sound of traffic. The voices of a thousand others. The constant pulse of city life that I could only escape with her. I knew I couldn't keep doing this. I knew I shouldn't see her. I knew she was killing me. But I couldn't resist. Just one more evening with her. Just once, just to say goodbye. I reached over to the drawer by the bed. A slight pinprick as the draw took my DNA. Satisfied, a click followed and it popped out. Inside, a syringe full of purple liquid. The syringe tapered to a fine point. I held it up to the dim light of the room. Even with my poor eyesight, I could just make out the crude handwriting down the side. Madalina. Her name is Madalina. I jabbed the syringe into the corner of my eye and felt it go to work immediately. I could feel the nanomechanical needle now, sliding past my eyeball, into my skull. Once, this sensation had filled me with dread. Now, only eagerness. I knew how the process worked. I knew that needle would follow my optic nerve, into my brain. I knew that tiny machines would deliver nanocapsules of chemicals directly to the neurons controlling my senses, my memory, emotion centre, even to the neurons which housed my very consciousness. The chemicals would fill my neurons with new information. They would fool me into believing a new reality. A reality with her. I let the syringe fall to the floor as I lay back and closed my eyes. As I heard it clatter on the floor, it began. It always began with her perfume...
  7. Within what? Can you prove it? Can you provide immaterial witnesses? Uncorroborated statements? Dubious testimony? Outlandish claims? Anecdotal evidence to probe that you do, in fact, dwell within?
  8. I've been out of it for a long time. Brain not firing like it used to. Every now and then, I'd get a little flash of imagination and maybe have time to write it down here. But I haven't really been here in about a thousand years. So I never saw you leave. Where did you go?
  9. Aardvark

    Rigger

    Little rocks, floating in space. What can you do? Here I was, in the middle of the void, trying to hammer a heat panel back into place with a rock. Not the same rock, a different rock, but a rock none the less. Space rocks. I'd been flying along by myself, just enjoying a nice cruise through the system when it happened. Normally, all manner of scanners and sensors are constantly looking out for bits of debris flying around the place. Most things that are too small for those systems are too small to damage the hull of your average space ship. But not all. If the rock happens to be just the right size and just the right density, a one in twenty billion million trillion gazillion chance of ever happening, they can slip by the sensors and damage a ship. When you're going relativistic speeds, this is even worse. The structural containment field had absorbed the majority of the blast, siphoning off the energy of two high velocity objects smacking into each other, and the ship's frame had distributed most of the shock from the impact evenly across the whole vessel, but there was still the impact site. Which happened to be right where the main life support modules were. Oxygen recycling, water purification, waste processing, even one of the emergency water tanks were fried. The hull was warped and buckled over the impact site and the atmosphere in the ship was leaking out fast. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem. A few well placed insta weld patches and you're right as rain. Unfortunately, I was fresh out of those. Always on my list of things I'll get next time in port, but would always forget. So here I was, light hours from any planetary body, armed with a rock I'd found floating around in the void, bashing pieces of metal together to get them back in roughly the shape of the hull. Once they were close enough together, the emergency welder would take care of the rest. Unfortunately, in this world of the future, nobody had thought to put a hammer in the spaceship toolbox. Everything was a fine, precision instrument for some inscrutable purpose. Hell, the only reason a welder had been there was because the previous owner had put a few custom decals on himself and I'd needed to burn them off. Hideous things. Hammering something in the middle of space is a lot more difficult than you'd think. No gravity means that you're supplying all the force behind each blow. It also means that when you hit your target, you then have to contend with whatever force is reflected back into you. On a planet, if you lost a grip on your tool, it wouldn't matter. The thing would fly away, maybe hit someone, but you could just walk over and retrieve it. If I lost it here, I'd have to be quick or I might lose it forever. I was beyond lucky to find this one just floating nearby. I might never find another,. So I had to be real careful when beating this thing. The welder made hammering easier. I could heat the metal up to soften it. But as this was super secret space alloy I was trying to fix, it had weird properties when you heated it up. First.ly, the melting point was extremely high.. Heat being a major source of danger in space. But it also conducted heat really well. Any heat source would be conducted to the nearest heatsinks that were built into the hull. Which meant that progress was slow going, as I only had time for two or three hits before the metal had cooled down too much for me to work with. This presented me with another problem. Each time I reheated the metal, I was warping it. This stuff dealt with warping better than a lot of other materials, but there would only be so many times I could reheat this stuff before it would have to be replaced. I only needed it to last until I could jump out of here and to a station. It was just my luck that I picked an uninhabited system to go for my cruise. This was hot, hard work. My suit clung to my skin tightly, and was surprisingly good at keeping my body cool, but my muscles ached. I wasn't built for this sort of manual labour. I wasn't some planetside dirt farmer, or shipwright, genetically gifted with the kind fo muscles that wouldn't appear out of place on, say, a bear. I was fast, perceptive and, normally, lucky enough to survive piloting state of the art spacecraft at reckless velocities. Well, state-of-the-art might be a bit of a stretch. This one was decades out of date and wasn't even top of the line when it was made. Though it was cheap and customisable and had seen a lot of owners like me who just wanted to fly as fast and as far as possible, for the least amount of cash they could get away with. Cash. That's why he was out here. Another quick space run. In space. Take a shipment of... something questionable, and deliver tit to someone just as questionable. Then get paid by someone else, who seemed to be on the up and up, but was probably just as questionable as the package and recipient combined. He'd even suggested this system to fly through. Well, maybe she. Or they. Or it. I honestly had no idea what gender, species, genus or even kingdom my employer came from. For all I know, I could be delivering a nacent A.I. from some rogue machine collective to infect a poor, defenceless human world. Not that I really cared. There were millions of inhabited planets, moons, asteroids, stations and floating bits of junk in this galaxy. And, if stories were to be believed, this isn't the only galaxy in which mankind has set up shop. We've been around for so long and spread so far that nobody really knows exactly how many of us there are. The number shifts wildly every day, but always getting bigger. So what's one more planet falling to the wrath of the machines? Did machines even want to kill humans? Maybe they wanted to enslave them. Or maybe they were just sick of backwards human savages working ion inferior technology, and were planning on performing some unnecessary and unrequested upgrades. All scenarios that had happened before. Pondering and musing to myself took my mind off the hard work and the fact that I did have a finite supply of oxygen. There were several more tanks of the stuff, what with oxygen still being so important to human survival that we wouldn't totally trust a machine to keep our air clean and plentiful for us. But even with those thoughts, I managed to finish my work. Now the hull didn't quite look like something had blown a hole in it. It instead looked like someone had rent great gouges through it in a star pattern. Not exactly what you'd call spaceworthy, but it would do in a pinch. The next phase of my repairs was the hardest. Before starting, I'd gone through my ship, pulling apart all my stuff, ripping off panels, stripping down weapons, even pulling out the toilet. Anything with metal was fair game. I had to fill those rents. Or at least cover them up. So I got to work. Melting down pens, handles, frames from electronics, pieces of my precious rail rifle, and finally carving the john up into smaller chunks that I could patch in place. Long, hard work. It almost brought tears to my eyes. Some of these things I'd had most of my life. But then, if I'd wanted, I could have stayed out here and held them close for the rest of my life. Welding bits of metal to the hull was dangerous. The welder I had was designed for the material the hull was made from. Using it on bits of iron and aluminium was tricky. Even turning it down, I had to be careful, lest I slag things. A floating bubble of metal in space doesn't just cool down and hold still until you grab it. You need to cool it yourself if you want it done quickly. Then you have to go catch the thing before it floats off and you have to hope that it's cold enough for your suit to handle. As I found out three times. But with enough perseverance, I finally prevailed. My hull was patched. It looked ugly as sin. It was still glowing slightly and was a little soft. I'd have to wait for it to cool completely. I still had one more step before I was as good to go as I'd ever be. I slipped back into my ship and hooked my suit to an oxy tank. There was no point restoring atmosphere to the ship just yet. As uncomfortable as this suit was, it was designed to keep a human alive when everything else in the universe wanted that human dead. And I wasn't quite sure that the ship was airtight just yet. Fortunately, the pumps were still operational after impact and I was able to save a good deal of the stuff. Enough to give myself maybe an extra hour or two. This hadn't been the first time I'd run into something unexpected out here. Space hazards were almost a daily hazard of my line of work. Bits of debris were normally on the lower end of the spectrum, but then you had sudden solar expulsions, asteroid collisions, interplanetary terrorism or even plain old space piracy. Enough to keep someone like me on my toes, metaphorically speaking. Though it had been a while since any intelligent being had sought to end me, space was still a dangerous place. But I was still here. Skilled, resilient, or just too dumb to know when to quit, the universe wouldn't be free of me just yet. An alarm chimed. Well, not so much an alarm. A little message in my head that routed to my aural nerves. As much machinery as humans had packed into their meaty form, there were some things that we couldn't quite improve on. Though we could build better ears and neurons, we still couldn't quite figure out a better way for a machine to get our attention than through our old fashioned senses. Though we were advanced enough that we didn't need to make external noises, we still needed to generate the right nerve impulses. We still needed to hear the voice in our head, reminding us to wake up, feed the dog, buy space milk or go and do the last bit of sealing on that patchwork mess you call hull repair, you space chimp. I floated out of the ship once more. Little jets of energy propelled me along through the void. Under my arm, something I never really could explain. I knew what it was. Just not why it was. Nor why I even had the thing. It was one of those decals. Huge, gaudy, but made of plastic paints, metal frame and a super advanced bonding agent. All I had to do was pull off the backing, put the thing into place and the bonding agent would do the rest, pulling the thing taut over the hull and expanding to fill any gaps between it and the hull. In my case, conveniently seeking out and filling any gaps in my patchwork welding. Space worthy again, but at what cost. I had no idea where or why the previous owner bought these things, nor what possessed him to plaster an otherwise fine ship with them. But now I was thankful to him. And to me, for being careless and lazy enough to leave this thing in one of the storage cabinets. But now I was ready to fly again. Fly through space. To a safe harbour, where I could fix my ship properly, drop off this package and get paid. Hopefully before anybody saw what was on the side of my ship. A giant cartoon mouse.
  10. Aardvark

    Connors

    They talked fast, they dressed flash, and they seemed to be able to read minds. They were instant friends one minute, gone the next, then back the third asking to borrow a little money, just to tide them over until their next big score. They knew everybody, or at least knew someone who knew everybody. But they didn't know me, which meant I was somewhere between a curiosity and a commodity to them. The Connors were a pair of designer twins. Their mother had paid big to make sure her baby got the best start in life he could. Imagine her surprise when she got two. They had grown up poor and started playing people young. By their own words, it was to help the family at first, but after that, simply because it was so easy. They grew up seeing other people as sheep to be fleeced, even though neither had seen a real sheep outside of a storybook. They met me after I left the Beach and was enjoying west coast afternoon, filtered down through the smog. It had become my favourite time of day in this place. The light took on a golden-brown hue that I'd never experienced before. I was gazing up at the sky, nursing a cheap coffee. When I looked down, two identical strangers had joined me at my table and were looking curiously. Talking to the Connors was difficult. It was like verbal fencing, against two partners, only they were also trying to pick your pocket. They were in perfect sync. Often, they talk together or finish each other's sentences. It was hard to focus when talking to one person split in two like this. And they knew it. Still, they gave me credit that I was able to keep up with them without parting with money for so long. I didn't know how to react to being openly told that they were trying to rob me, but they were dealing with a professional listener. I think we were about even in the end. They skirted the fine line between the haves and the have nots in this country. Though they were both clearly lower class, they had all the charm and wit to rub shoulders with the richest in the city, then talk their way past the security after they lifted someone's watch or wallet. They showed me the watch. It was almost as curious to them as I was. Clearly nothing more than a status symbol, but it had a function. An archaic function that had long since been incorporated into other devices or brain mods. It didn't even use Arabic numerals, which puzzled them. After that, they both agreed to take me on a whirlwind tour of the city. Being the minority, my vote was ignored and I was dragged to all the places I'd wanted to go, if only I knew they existed. I was still very new to this place. The first place they took me was a clothes shop. I looked like too much of a tourist, I stood out, and they’d never get anywhere unless I fit in. The place they took me was a dumping house for factory seconds and last season's unsold. Between the two of them, they went through the racks and piles, talking a mile a minute between themselves. It was interesting watching this. All the half thoughts and brief notions that crossed my brain every day, they traded verbally. When I asked them about it later, they pretended not to know what I was talking about. Or genuinely had no idea. I honestly couldn't tell. The next half hour was spent having every article they found held up against me to see how it went with my eyes, my hands, and my spleen. Pretty sure that last one was them messing with me, but they seemed genuine when they told me mine was off-colour and I should really get that checked. In the end, I walked out wearing an outfit of mismatched off cuts that somehow blended seamlessly. I looked similar enough to them, but the ensemble was still entirely unique. Next was a hazy hole-in-the-wall bar. Though anti-smoking laws were in effect in this city, as repealing them hadn't been made worth the local GovCorp's while yet, the bar had a smoke machine entirely for the atmosphere. When I asked if the smoke was laced with anything, they both laughed and patted me on the back, congratulating me for thinking like a local. They even gave me back my wallet with me only having to ask twice. The bartender must have known these two well, as the tip jar quickly vanished from the counter when we approached. But he seemed friendly enough. They ordered something for me. A cocktail of some kind that had enough alcohol to get the night flowing and enough stimulants to see me to the end. It went down like a kick in the mouth, but they were drinking theirs like it was liquid ambrosia, savouring it. After all, it was going on my expense account. Drinks finished, we headed for a politimeet. They were both very active with the local political scene, being members of several minor parties and interest groups, and occasional contractors to the local GovCorp. It was essential to know people who want to be known, they told me, so I'd know them when they were known. There was a certain logic that I could agree with, but I still kept my distance, watching as they instantly melded with the crowd, bouncing from one group to the next, making their presence known, and trading news, rumours and tidbits of information with the other members. They introduced me to the head of the group, but later told me it wasn't worth my time to remember his name, as he wasn't long for this world. I asked if he'd be voted out soon and they laughed and gave me another pat on the back. This time, my wallet was safe. After that, I found myself in an express elevator, heading up the side of one of the sky piercers. It was disconcerting, moving so quickly up a superstructure, but it did give me a wonderful aerial view of the city in twilight. Neon and LEDs everywhere, the whole city was bathed in a green and purple haze, with building lights and lines of traffic melding together from up here. They were puzzled as I took photos, but put it down to my outlandish, touristy ways. We arrived at our floor, which was entirely given over to The Club. I made no comment and passed no verbal judgement as the Connors led me straight to the front of the line waiting to get in. Security recognised the two on sight and I noticed them tense, but with a flow of words, heavily based around me being an esteemed journalist for a foreign newscorp, we were ushered in. The place was beyond anything I'd ever experienced. The music was entirely unfamiliar to me and my eyes took a moment to adjust to the shifting light patterns and the glow of the various club guests' outfits. It was a maelstrom of dancing, drinking and a few more things on the edges, in the darkened booths against the walls. The Connors introduced me to a party of girls in one of the booths. I got the impression that a few weren't quite happy to see them, but they still seemed welcoming of me. I discovered just how wide spread the Connors' reach was, as each girl knew them from an entirely different class, group or setting. The few who seemed wary of my companions lightened up when they came back, sporting cocktails. We drank, we danced, we left. A few of the girls came with us, not passing up the opportunity to grab a sky cab on my dime. I didn't realise what was so special until I got the bill at the end. Still, well below the point that would alarm any of the bean counters who were monitoring my expenditure. Anti-grav only worked in a few places on Earth, for reasons that were beyond me, so it was a bit of a thrill to float above the city, as the excitable driver chatted a hundred miles a minute with the Connors, even having time somehow to slip out of conversation with them to toss comments back to us. I was in awe of her, as I'd yet to see someone who could beat them at their own game. We landed on the platform of a ritzy hotel. Security waved us straight in, not even bothering to check invitations to the event inside. At the time, I was unsure if it was because someone had called ahead and arranged things, or if they'd just assumed anybody who could afford to float here was rich enough to come inside. The event was some kind of a celebrity cook-off. The hall contained several long tables, covered in food. The guests were all obviously either upper-middle class, or knew how to fake it. Around the hall and in other rooms, there were several kitchens set up. I used my credentials to have photography unlocked and got shots of the various chefs. I found out later that the event was being run by the holographic recreation of a famous 21st chef, but his image rights were way more than my budget allowed, so I didn't seek him out. The food was what the Connors had brought us here for. The dishes were all strange, outlandish and mostly amazing. I was surprised to see that actual meat was being served, something I hadn't been able to get down on the streets. The Connors noted this too, both pulling chunks of it off skewers. Eating was one of the few times they talked. The girls had all split off from us and were engaging the various guests, leaving us three to eat and chat. Interviewing the Connors over food was difficult. They were still as evasive and difficult to pin down as ever, only now they both stopped to take mouthfuls of food. Their only comments about this were that it all came from their mother. Never talk with your mouth full and never pass up good food when somebody else is paying. I did learn more about their upbringing, but after comparing it to earlier notes, it's difficult to tell if any version of the truth was true. We schmoozed with a few of the guests. They introduced me to several more people as they had done before, using me as an interesting conversation point, before mining for information. Mining was the right word for it. They would strike with a remark, and then collect the bits of information that came free, then strike again. At a certain point, they would silently decide that they'd tapped this vein enough for now and we'd move onto the next. Each person provided something entirely different. Some was corp rumours. A few were from legal circles. One man they badgered until he gave them a recipe to his world famous Sharberry Punch. While we were chatting with a Senator Exec, they both abruptly stopped, apologise to the SE and lead me out. When I asked what was up, they just said simply, "Run". So I ran. They knew the hotel better than the security who were chasing us. We ducked around corners, slipped through adjoining rooms and hopped balconies. Eventually, we slipped out a fire escape and vanished into the throngs of people passing by the hotel. After that, we stopped by a street club to catch our breath and have a few parting drinks. The close encounter had left both of them with the impression that my luck had run out and it was time to move on. As jarring as that was, they were so diplomatic about it that it was more like seeing off old friends than two born pragmatists who were getting a free ride in exchange for a story. As I reviewed and collated my notes, I was joined by a young girl with ears growing on her upper arms. The Connors had directed her to me as a parting gift. My next story. They had also bought her the most expensive drink in the house. On my tab, of course.
  11. Aardvark

    Dust

    I knew the place was haunted when we bought it. It was a historical country house, complete with hard wood floors, high ceilings and old, heavy doors that hadn't been oiled in about a hundred years. Every night, the wind would howl past us, from the woods surrounding the house, causing the entire building to creak and groan. This town was always overcast or stormy too, which didn't help. Then, there was the history of violent murder. As was standard practice, the estate agent had told us all about the various killings that had happened in this house, ever since its construction. Apparently, every generation there had been one. Every time, a new family, a new victim. Unfortunately, this bad history didn't result in any kind of discount. Quite the opposite really; this house had been in hot demand. The auction had gone way above what the property was worth, but my mother had insisted on having it the moment she laid eyes on it. The bed and breakfast was another dream of hers. Heavens knows why, but since Dad had left us with more than enough to be comfortable, she decided to quit her job, sell up and drag me out to the country, so she could pursue one of her life-long dreams. The country air would be good for me, she said. It would also be good for me to have some forced time off that damn internet, too. Another of the in-demand selling features: The house was located on the outskirts of a radio dead zone. No mobile reception or wi-fi. By law. Of course, we still had Internet, but it was patchy, spotty and until school started again, was for her to check messages from potential guests only. So here I was, a teenager from the city, thrown into one of the most frightening places I'd ever been. No concrete beneath my feet, barely any noise from traffic of any kind, and few other people. Aside from the guests, of whom we had surprisingly many, I could count all the neighbours within a mile on one fingerless hand. Sure, I could ride my bike to the local town, and there were a few kids there, but they were all farming kids. I had nothing in common with them. So I never bothered. There would be time enough to socialise when I was forced to discover what passed for a school in this depressing place. Instead, I explored. The house was huge. Two stories, basement and attic. I'd gone through all the rooms in the house, looking for anything the previous owners had left behind. I found nothing of import at first. The place seemed depressingly unhaunted. No secret dungeon, no Indian burial ground, no blood pouring out of mysterious cracks in the wall. Nothing on the secret room front, either; I'd knocked on just about every surface and checked all the old bookshelves that were built into the now-empty library, but found no secret panels or trapdoors that lead me to any secret passages or forgotten crevasses. Though I did find something. One of the walls in the basement was slightly different from the rest. The brickwork was a different colour, the mortar looked newer. Curiosity got the better of me and I had to look further into it. Fortunately, Mother had already acquired the original floor plan from the local council and was happy to see that I was taking an interest in our new home, instead of locking myself away and moaning about it. The first thing I discovered was that the original floor plans to an ancient house that had been around since before my grandparents had been born were incredibly difficult to read. All the writing was in some strange squiggly language that I'd only ever seen on history programs on TV. So I couldn't read what most of the rooms were, but I was able to figure out one thing. My hunch was correct. There was another room behind there. I'd excitedly told Mother about this. She was shocked at first. She had thought I'd lose interest in the house quickly. She had also had a pang of regret from the moment she gave me the plans, thinking I would lose them, too. But this was something new to her as well. A wall that wasn't on the plan meant a room she could open and put to use. She quickly applied for a permit to have the wall demolished and looked in hiring a builder to knock it out. This surprised and almost disappointed me. Before talking to her, I was already putting together a plan in my head to buy a sledgehammer, wait for her to go out on a guest-free day and do the demolition myself. I would finally get use out of that old miner's headlamp I'd had floating about for years. I had even seen myself busting a head-sized hole through the wall, peering through with only the head lamp to illuminate what I could only imagine was a hidden pirate's treasure. Now all the glory was going to a bunch of contractors. The day of the demolition took longer than expected. Having a simple wall removed had been more of a struggle than either of us had anticipated. No sooner had the request been lodged with the local council, some historical society had crawled out of the woodwork to have a whinge about the destruction of a piece of local heritage. It didn't matter that this wall was unoriginal; altering that house was a travesty according to them, and from the bile which they spat while fighting the request, one akin to murdering their children with the corpses of their ancestors. But the law was on our side, as the wall was an undocumented addition to the property. The only caveat was that instead of getting a simple demolition order, we now had to hire architects and surveyors to make sure that after the wall was removed, we constructed an entrance that was as close to historically accurate as we could get. Of course, the cost of this went through the roof, but Mother was more than willing to pay for it. When the day arrived, I was giddy with excitement. Though I avoided talking to the builders as much as I could, I still found any excuse I could to go down there. The wall had been inspected and the point where old brick met new had been clearly marked. The architect had been one approved by the historical society who apparently was well aware of the history of this particular house, to ensure historical blah blah blah. By that point, I was convinced that they were all sticklers who had nothing better to do than to make other people's lives more difficult. Once more, I regretted not going through with Operation Sledgehammer. More so when it turned out that the builders had stolen my idea and were using one themselves. Though I desperately wanted to remain down there as they broke through, they shooed me off. Something about liability and safety and me not having any head, ear or eye protection. Also, I'd need boots, gloves, a breathing mask and a high-visibility jacket just to be in the room with them. So I retreated to my room and waited. Sulked, to be more accurate. The sound of sledgehammer on wall rang through the house as they worked, while I lay in bed, hating the unfairness of it all. By the time the hammering had stopped, I was waking up from an impromptu nap. I didn't remember falling asleep. Or being tired. But the noise had stopped, so they must have finished. I rushed down to see what they had found. I didn't get far. Everybody was gathered in the kitchen. Also, a local police officer was there. Mother's response to my queries was to tell me that I wasn't ever, under any circumstances, allowed to go down there. She had almost said that she'd wished I'd never found that stupid room. Or so I figured. She cut herself off after "I honestly wish you...". The builders, the lawyers and police were no help. They were too concerned with the order in which events had happened. And I couldn't go down there to look myself; the officer had already taped off the stairs. Well, I couldn't go down now. Eventually, everybody left. All I'd overheard was that some other people would have to come and look at the room, and something about safe removal. This could mean only one thing to my teenage brain. They had found a body. The murder stories were true. If I were any more excited at that prospect, I probably would have died myself. Hours later, I stood before the police tape, wearing old clothes, boots, gardening gloves and my miner's lamp. I had a cloth around my mouth and a pair of sunglasses on. They were all I could find. I felt silly, but it was three in the morning. Nobody was going to see me. The house was almost silent, creaking, groaning and howling of the wind aside. I slipped under the tape and felt my way down. Half way down, after almost slipping, I weighed up the possibility of eye injury with the probability of ankle injury and took off the sunglasses. In the basement, the construction equipment was still there. There were also lights on stands, powered by cords that snaked off upstairs. Dust still hung thick in the air, irritating my eyes. But I had to see for myself. The opening loomed in front of me, crisscrossed with more police tape. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I gulped. Suddenly, this seemed like the most terrible idea. This feeling was reinforced by my headlamp choosing this moment to flicker and dim. As the room grew darker, I could swear I saw shapes in the swirling dust floating about the room. But there was nothing for it. I had to see. I flicked the lights on. I saw the marks on the walls first. Even after all these years, the stain of bloody scratch marks was still visible. The room was covered in them. Then I saw the manacles. Ancient, rusted iron manacles. Three sets, bolted into the walls. One set had been broken open. The other two were still occupied. The occupants stared back at me, from their empty, skeletal eyes. One hung there, jaw agape. The other had no jaw. Breath held, skin numb, every instinct screaming at me to run, I looked down, to see the third skeleton lying on the floor. Even without skin, I could imagine the look of horror on his face, being trapped in the room. I started breathing again. Short, panicked breaths, as I turned to run. Then I saw it, looming out at me from the dust, a face with a mouth open wide, rushing towards me. I screamed. Next thing I knew, I was in the kitchen again. Mother was there, cradling me, as I tried to push myself further in the corner. My skin was ice cold. My breathing ragged. I was shivering and crying, muttering to myself as she held me and reassured me over and over that it was alright, that this is perfectly natural, that there was nobody else. My eyes were transfixed on the door to the basement, hoping against hope that whatever I had seen respected police tape more than I did. The wind choosing this moment to make the entire house shudder didn't help me much either. We stayed there, on the cold floor of that kitchen until the sun started peaking through the windows. That was when I felt confident enough to stand up and sulk off to bed, to dream of ghastly faces in the dust.
  12. Gotcha, less action, more backstory. Just for you, perdilhildieldielidleildelidiledlielidlielidleidli
  13. On this day, centuries ago, we heard them for the first time. We pointed our electronic ears into the sky and heard a voice from across the stars, from a race of beings who came from an alien world. Though, at the time, we remained totally ignorant of our discovery, as the voice was feeble, and buried among the echoes of the creation of the universe, billions of years before. It was not for many decades that some of our unsung scientific heroes, performing the monotonous, tedious task of analysing this old data, in our quest to discover our place in the universe, looked closely at those signals received so many years ago and noticed a pattern. Among all the random noise we had recorded in that short time we had opened our ears to that seemingly empty part of space, we found a simple rhythm, almost beyond our ability to perceive, but almost certainly unnatural in origin. The first evidence we were not alone in the universe, a pattern of radio bursts, blinking in the night. At first, the news was met with skepticism. Why would anybody think to broadcast a message that they couldn't be sure would ever be heard? Plus, this was old data, received by an ancient machine by today's standards. What if it simply misheard? We have plenty of problems here at home, without trying to find hidden meaning in the stars. But sometimes, the imagination cannot be so easily dissuaded from dreaming. A movement arose, people from all over the world, from the intellectual elite, to the simply curious, pooling their resources. We calculated where the signal would have come from in the sky. We built newer, more powerful receivers. We pointed them skyward, we turned the on and we listened. We were greeted with the most glorious sound imaginable. The distant signal was still broadcasting, still drumming its beat into the heavens. Within the next few months and years, more signals were found, on different frequencies, different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, all thumping an identical beat out into the universe. All but the most ardent doubt was eliminated. Our people knew, with certainty, that someone was out there. Who was sending the message? Could it be people like us, curious to see who else was out there? Were they far beyond us, a race of Gods, calling out to lesser mortals? Something else entirely unimaginable to us, some kind of cosmic machine, thrown together by chance? Was it even a greeting? Could it be the mere side effect of some interstellar navigation technology? Lighthouses in the stars, directing ships of an alien spacefaring people across the distant stars? The collective imagination of the people had been stirred. We wanted to know what this signal was, who was sending it, and whether their intentions towards us were for good or evil. Almost overnight, wars ended, hostilities abated, people lay down their weapons and accepted their enemy with open arms. The full resources of a civilisation were directed to answering that one burning question on everybody's lips. We studied our skies, our planet, ourselves. Our philosophers debated back and forth, postulating hypotheses of the origins of the signal and of ourselves. Our scientists and engineers worked towards a common goal of taking us out there, beyond the reach of the star that gave us life, to find and possibly meet these people. Our agriculturalists and industrialists worked to improve our resource yields, to sustain our species and our world far beyond what the short-sighted greed of our ancestors would have allowed. On the verge of contact with other sentient beings, it would almost be a cosmic joke if we were to destroy ourselves before we could even reply. After years of study, observation and theories being thrown around to explain the message, we discovered wonderfully cruel news. We had found the signal's point of origin. But it was from further than we had ever dreamed. Another galaxy, much like our own, separated by a vast gulf of empty space, was blasting this signal out into the universe. At that distance, the signal must have traveled for millions of years, growing weaker and more faint with each passing aeon. Had we not turned our ears to the heavens at the moment we did, we may never have heard it at all. But for a species barely taking our first steps off world, such a distance seemed unimaginably vast. But we were a stubborn, determined people. Though our interest waxed and waned in the years and decades that followed, our resolve stood strong. We discovered so many wondrous things in our journey. We discovered technology that would unlock near unlimited potential in ourselves. We tamed the very stuff of life, slowly turning our once chaotic planet into a harmonious utopia, where all life could coexist. We left our homeworld and spread out to other planets, then to other stars. Barriers and hurdles cropped up at every turn, but we overcame them and pushed ever onwards. Finally, after so long, we discovered a way to break the very laws of reality itself. A way to travel limitless distances, at impossible velocities. We could zip between the many stellar civilisations we had created in seconds, rather than years. We could exchange information as never before, on a galactic scale. We could go to parts of space that our kind had never been before. We could finally, with enough grit and determination, bridge the gulf between our galaxy and the one singing out to us. A craft was built, unlike anything before it. Built for a single purpose, it housed the most advanced technology, the most brilliant minds, and was loaded with records, data, even artifacts, covering the whole of our people's history. We pointed towards that distant galaxy and we flung ourselves into the void. We drew closer, moving with caution, in leaps and bounds. None had been this far from home before, so we had boundless opportunities to discover new and wonderful things about our universe. As we gathered knowledge, we sent unmanned drones back towards home, where our people waited with baited breath to hear of our endeavours. We pushed this new technology as hard as we dared, each leap taking us further than the last, each filling us with anticipation as to what we might discover on the next jump. Soon, we were able to pinpoint exactly where in the galaxy the signal was coming from. It seemed almost impossible, but it was emanating from the very centre of the galaxy, the singularity around which the galaxy spun. Whoever was sending this message, they must be truly a great species, for they had seemingly tamed one of the universe's most destructive forces. But we well prepared for this or any other eventuality imaginable. We were more eager than ever to solve this mystery. We dove into the heart of that galaxy. What we found was almost impossible to believe. An impossible structure, in an impossible place, built of an impossible material. Powered by nothing our finest equipment could detect, we could only speculate that it somehow drew power from the singularity, the same singularity it used as an antenna to broadcast its signal into space. Fear overwhelmed by curiosity and wonder, we brought our vessel as close as we dared. We broadcast signals to the structure, which were ignored. We sent machines to the structure, but still it remained impassive and unresponsive. Finally, straws were drawn to determine who would go out there. Out of most of the crew who begged for the chance to be the first, I was blessed by fate and given the responsibility of an entire civilisation, to make first, direct contact. As I flew my shuttle to the structure, I found myself enveloped in a strange field. The engines powered down by themselves, the protective fields shut off and all communication with my ship was lost. Fear gripped me, as I frantically searched for the cause, only to stop, feeling almost foolish, as the grand, impossible structure opened up and welcomed me into its belly. After all the excitement, all the centuries of effort, the will and the imagination of a galaxy far away behind me, what I found was almost anticlimactic. It was a machine, resting on a pedestal. Laughably primitive compared to that which had brought me this far, yet almost beautifully elegant in its simplicity. An empty cone, an arm resting in a cradle, a large disk of solid gold, and a handle, presumably to power this contraption with simple mechanical energy. I took the device with me, to see what could be made of it. When I returned, the excitement of my fellow crew was overwhelming. What did I see? Did they communicate? What was this strange thing I brought with me? So many questions, with answers that were beyond my capabilities. The device was sealed off and studied. It was sterile, inside and out, so no risk of extraterrestrial infection. On one side of the golden disc, we found strange grooves carved into the metal, spiraling inward. On the other, we found answers in the most unexpected form we could imagine. Crude, simple drawings, depicting two beings, so similar to us, yet so utterly alien. A crude, yet surprisingly accurate star map, showing the centre of this galaxy and several points around it, one larger than the rest. A map to their home, communicated in the most basic form imaginable. Finally, we found instructions for the device. It had been well preserved inside the structure. The ravages of time barely noticed by the cogs and gears that made up its interior. Its purpose was still a mystery. If ever one of our people had imagined something similar, it must have been lost to history. The instructions were simple. Place the disc groove side up on the machine, place the arm on the outer edge of the disc and turn the handle. The honour of starting the device went to our captain. She smiled and thanked the crew for bringing us this far, the scientists for their work in studying the device, me for risking my life to retrieve it. Her words were well rehearsed and appropriate for the occasion, but with such a thing so close at hand, we were all impatiently willing her to get on with it. Finally, her speech ended, she wound up the device, which started the disc spinning. She placed the arm down and she stepped back. We all held our breath. At first, nothing discernible happened, apart from the spinning disc. Then we detected a crackling noise, almost beneath audibility. Finally, the device burst into life, singing the most hauntingly beautiful music anybody had heard. The chilling sound of mysterious instruments in the hands of unknown virtuosos sang out to us. Then, it was joined by a choir of voices, singing in harmony, to an audience they would never see. Such a beautiful melody, so familiar, yet so unlike any we ourselves had composed. Waves of emotion washed over us, as the tempo and tone shifted. Some of us were overwhelmed and broke down in tears. Even I shed one, swept up in the song of musicians long past. Then the song died down and the machine spoke. Numerous voices, all different tones, pitches and languages. Words we could not understand, yet a message that we all knew. A hundred voices in a hundred languages, all saying "Hello, we come in peace". Our work didn't end there. We stayed around that singularity, sharing the orbit with this strange structure for as long as we dared, in the hopes that we would unlock yet more mysteries and discover yet more questions. Our study of the structure was only ended when our astronomers had finally pinpointed the star of origin for these strange creatures. It was an old star, that we could tell. Many billions of years older than our own. It drifted towards the outer edge of the galaxy, in a lazy orbit. We set course at once. What we found broke our hearts. The star we found was a bloated giant, nearing the end of its existence. What few planets remained in orbit could never have harboured life. We checked our calculations again and again, confirming time and time again that we were in the right place. We were just a few billion years too late. Though there was still so much left to discover, a pall of pessimism hung over us. One of our most ancient questions had been answered, but not the answer we wanted. Still, it was an answer, and like all good answers, it gave us a new question. We stayed in that galaxy as long as our resources would allow, hoping to pick up some trace of them, before we returned. We were hailed as heroes for returning with the device we had retrieved and the bounty of data we had discovered. And even though the news that this strange race that had called to us from across the void was gone long before we arrived, they had left us with a clue. One little bread crumb. Enough for an entire civilisation to ask, in one voice, "Where did they go?"
  14. "As we all know, there's nothing humanity loves more than a good war. Space was no different. Almost as soon as we'd colonised an extraterrestrial body, we were declaring war on it. Now, the Lunar war was our first space war," The professor droned on, in front of the classroom full of bored cadets. His eyes scanning each pupil, cataloguing each bored, distant, vague look that each was hoping passed for interest. He picked a victim at random "What were some of the difficulties early strategists had when fighting space battles... Cubbins?" Cubbins immediately snapped out of the daze he was in moments before. "Sir, ummm.... space..." the cadet stammered "Would you please repeat the question for the benefit of Cubbins, Miss Stanmeyer?" "You were asking about the difficulties primitive man had back when we first started fighting in space, sir." Stanmeyer almost surprised the professor with her quick response. He had often thought she wore the look of disinterest just to fit in, for he had never once caught Stanmeyer napping. "Very good. Now, Mister Cubbins, would you like to answer the question?" "Oh... uhh... weapons, sir?" Cubbins finally answered. "Could you be more specific, Mister Cubbins?" "They... uh... didn't shoot in space?" A chuckle went around the room, but died mercifully fast as the professor glanced at each harlequin in turn. "Crude, but succinct, Mister Cubbins. Conventional weapons didn't work in space, or didn't work as their operators intended. What was the problem with weapons in space, Miss Black?" Black looked almost as clueless as the unfortunate mister Cubbins as she answered, "Vacuum, sir? There's no air in space?" "Very good, Miss Black. Vacuum was indeed one of the many problems early man had to contend with in his first space war. Can you please name another, Mister Verrence?" Awake and almost hyper-alert, Verrence took Cubbins' fate to heart. "Sir, gravity, friction and the coriolis effect, Sir!" The professor nodded, "Good, good to see you employing that grey matter your parents gave you, Mister Verrence. Indeed, those were the problems. As man was still in early stages of space exploration, none had yet seen a need to create a space military fleet. In fact, there were several very good reasons why this hadn't been so. Who can tell me those reasons?" The professor smiled as a few hands were raised. The class was finally awake. He picked a student at random, one he didn't recognise right away. "You, start with your name, Cadet." "Sir, Cadet Thompson, Sir," the young cadet answered, "The Outer Space Treaty, the Space Preservation Treaty and the Stellar Test Ban Treaty, Sir." "Very good, Miss Thompson. Gold star for you," The professor continued his lecture, "The various space treaties of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries did indeed prevent Mankind from building any form of space military fleet. Though many continue to postulate that our ancestors had nothing but the best intentions for the future and were willing to leave all hostile intentions behind them as they stepped out into the wider universe for the first time, the actual reasoning was twofold." The professor noted a few students had started taking notes. He made a mental note to find out what the previous class was that had sent them all to sleep. "As any student of the Atomic age can tell you, the driving force behind the creation of the various space treaties was self-preservation. Technology then, as today, was unevenly distributed across Humanity and the nations that lacked the ability to go into space didn't want the more advanced nations obliterating them from orbit, or waiting up there with guns ready, the moment they were ready to enter the space race. Now, as a test of your short-term memory, who can tell me what changed?" A few more hands were raised. The professor picked another at random. "Mister Singh?" "The declaration of Lunar Sovereignty, Sir," Cadet Singh answered, "The moon attacked us, Sir" The professor nodded, slowly. Though time heals all wounds and the various nations of Earth had mostly vanished into history, some cultural grudges remained to this day. "Thank you, Mister Singh. They turned on Earth" The professor tapped a few times on his console, bringing up several images and unlocking several documents for each student. "You have all received a copy of the original Lunar Declaration. I want you to open these and read them. Those of you who have machine interfaces or any other cognitive implant, please refrain from using them and use your Mk. 1 Eyeballs instead." The professor mentally counted down, watching each student find the document and start scanning through it. "Ok, stop," He tapped a few more times on his console, locking each student out of the Declaration. "Who managed to ascertain, from that document alone, the reasons for the Moon's sudden declaration of sovereignty, in violation of the various treaties of the day?" A few of the quicker students raised their hands. "Now, can anybody tell me why I stopped you when I did?" A few more hands were raised, including Cadet Singh. The professor called on him again. "Sir, that's how long the Moon gave us before they attacked." "Indeed, Mister Singh. On February Fourteenth, at Twenty One Twenty Three Greenwich Mean Time, the self declared People's United Lunar Federation came into existence by firing on Earth using electromagnetic accelerators. The first targets hit were Asia, Australia and the Indian subcontinent. Though most of the shots were random and casualties were considered light, the city of Mumbai was struck dead on, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. At the time, India, who was still recovering from the Sub continental War, did not yet have the infrastructure in place to get relief in fast enough. In the aftermath, an estimated two point three million were dead or displaced by the devastation." He tapped a few more times on his console, bringing up various news broadcasts and information packages, also unlocking the lunar declaration. "Now, most of you should have covered this in various Terrestrial History classes, but I do urge you to study further, just to get you into the mindset of the people of the day. This was the first, and only, successful orbital attack carried out on Earth. The reasons don't matter. What matters is, the Earth had just been attacked by its first extra-terrestrial colony. And like a hive of wasps, just hit with a rock, we retaliated. Though the Moon kept firing, their next salvo struck military targets, launch bases, weapons depots, etc. That and the various nations of Earth turning their various terrestrial defences towards space mitigated further damage and avoided any more Mumbais." He watched Singh and a few others of South Asian descent cringe at the term. "Can somebody tell me what UNE stands for?" Every hand in the class shot up at this one. The professor smiled. "I gave you an easy one, it seems. How about this one? Can someone tell me the exact reasoning behind the formation of the United Nations of Earth?" A few hands went down, so he picked one. "Miss Tau-Omega," Tau-Omega stood to attention before answering, "Sir, the collective space protection treaties forbid the armament of any single nation or sovereign entity at the time. The most expedient path to stellar armament was the creation of a multi-sovereign entity created for the express purpose of taking on one specific extra-terrestrial threat, as outlined in..." The professor cut her off. "Thank you, Miss Tau-Omega." As one of the few space-born members of the academy, her intelligence and education surpassed most of the members of this academy. Culturally, they were at a disadvantage, but very few Spacemen, as they were colloquially known, ever stayed long enough to integrate. "Very good. So the nations of Earth found their loophole and started slapping guns and troops on any boat they could find. How well did that work for us, Mister Golding." Cadet Golding looked up from his screen, "Err... we won?" Once more, stifled giggles from around the room. The professor shook his head. "Strategically, we would have won eventually. We still outmatched the Moon in terms of resources and numbers. I was referring to what happened immediately after we put together our space fleet and went up there to show those Lunarians not to mess with Earth?" Golding looked vaguely around for help. Finding nothing but mirthful grins and looks of scorn from his classmates, he took a guess. "Oh... uhh... we lost?" "You disappoint me, Mister Golding. As one of our brightest and most attentive pupils, I would have thought you'd be teaching me. Can anyone help Mister Golding out?" A hand shot up. "The Battle at Lagrange 1, Sir." "Very good, Mister Cubbins. Welcome back to the land of the living. Our first taste of space warfare was the defeat at the Lagrange 1 relay station. For some reason, we had it in our heads that a colony of a few hundred thousand people would just roll over when the ire of ten billion was turned their way. Now, earlier I mentioned the problems that our ancestors faced when fighting in space. Mister Cubbins, would you like another shot at what they were?" Cadet Cubbins, face reddened, answered, "Gravity, friction and the coriolis effect, Sir." "Gold star for you, Cubbins. Gravity, friction and the Coriolis Effect. How would these three factors have affected Earth's forces, Mister Publick." "Sir, these forces do not apply in space. Gravity is too weak, friction doesn't exist and you're too far from any planetary body for the Coriolis Effect to matter." The cadet answered swiftly. There was still a stigma attached to being a Lunarian on Earth, more so than from any other extraterrestrial colony. "That's correct. We took earth weapons and put them on space ships, then wondered why we couldn't hit anything. We outnumbered them, outgunned them, but couldn't hit them, because nobody bothered to tell the targeting computers that they weren't on Earth anymore. He continued, "As you can imagine, our shots were going wide, while theirs were hitting every time. Though both sides were using re-fitted transport ships, the Lunarians had the advantage from the outset and controlled the battle. What happened next, Miss Fischer?" "It was a rout, Sir. Most of the Earth forces disabled their targeting computers and retreated, firing blindly at any radar contacts," she answered. "Correct. With the exception of the troop ship Russian Winter, which managed to slip past enemy forces and land on the moon, the survivors turned tail and ran. Follow-up analysis of the battle actually showed that we had more luck firing blind than we did relying on computers, with a recorded four recorded kills during the retreat, versus zero in the initial assault. Approximately twenty percent of the force survived the assault and returned. Can anybody else give me any other factors that affected the outcome?" More hands, he picked a few at random. "Lack of armour. The freighters weren't designed to be shot at, Sir." "The pilots weren't trained in combat. The simulators at the time didn't account for a battle over such a vast distance." "The enemy were all robots." The professor nodded. "Thank you again, Mister Singh. The enemy ships were flown and operated by AIs, only a few possessing human crew. At the time, most people on Earth still had a culturally ingrained distrust of artificial intelligence, so only employed these machines in an advisory or emergency role, in their space crafts, leaving the heavy thinking to humans. The Lunarians, who used AIs extensively in the rapid construction of the lunar infrastructure, had no such qualms. Indeed, it was shown after the fact, that target selection of the initial mass driver assault that had started the war was the result of an AI being given the instruction, 'Target the Earth and fire!'. The AIs, initially created for mining, construction and logistics, had been altered for combat. Though from their point of view, they were still just digging, building and doing what they were programmed for, their various safety parameters had been altered so that they would fire Earth and Earth forces. If I recall correctly, the forces at Lagrange 1 were run by copies of a pest-control system that had its distance and target recognition parameters altered. "The other big factor, as mentioned, was training. The pilots were volunteer freighter and transport pilots. Though they were teamed up with terrestrial air-force co-pilots, who did have combat experience, they had expected a more conventional war. As their computers failed them offensively thanks to the lack of gravity and friction, those same factors affected them defensively. The pilots just didn't take into account the distances involved. In the minds of those pilots, they still saw themselves as safe, until they were within the hundreds of kilometres, rather than the fifty thousand kilometres they were when the Lunarian forces opened fire on them. A large portion of the losses were from the opening salvo, before the Earth pilots scattered and started firing back. "I heard somebody mention armour. Can anybody tell me why this wasn't such a large factor?" Out of the class, only a few hands came up. Once more, he chose the Space-born, Tau-Omega. "Sir, space weapons are designed to crack through atmospheres and deliver crippling force to ground targets. Even then, the weapons used were converted mass drivers and mining weapons, designed to bore holes in the lunar surface and atomise minerals, aiding in extraction. Anything thick enough to stop a shot from piercing the hull would reduce manoeuvrability down to the point where you would have trouble avoiding the next shot." "You've been in a space battle, haven't you?" Tau-Omega paused, the memory still heavy in her mind, "I was very young, Sir. All I remember was huddling in the life pods until we received the all-clear." The professor nodded solemnly, then resumed his lecture, "The other major factor affecting the casualty rate among the Earth forces was atmosphere. Until that point, space craft all maintained an internal atmosphere. Of course, this meant that one breach of the hull and the air goes racing out into the void, dragging anything not nailed down. Though all troops on board were issued with hastily constructed pressure suits, few had time to seal them before their crafts started taking fire. Now days, standard practice for any ship under fire is to perform an emergency vent of the atmosphere and have all crew in environment suits, to minimise damage from potential hull breaches. The Lunarians did not have this problem. Mister Publick, can you please tell us why not?" "Air is precious on Lunar. Was precious. Still is. AI doesn't need it and outside of home, people generally carry their own supply. The ships maintained a vacuum at all times; the human crew were always suited up." "Correct once more. Nowadays, this is considered standard practice for all military vessels and a fair few civilian vessels as well. "But humans are, if anything, an adaptable species. Our second wave of vessels, which were launched months later, was better prepared for what they would encounter. Crews had been trained on orbital defence batteries and managed to see off the only actual lunar incursion into Earth space. Our forces had an almost flawless interdiction rate when it came to the lunar mass driver bombardments, which dramatically slowed after the initial salvo, eventually halting entirely. "Now, I'm sure you're all aware of the outcome, having seen the many re-enactments of the war, but who'd like to tell the class how we eventually won?" A roomful of hands shot up. This was an easy one. "Mister Golding, you should just have time to redeem yourself." The cadet spoke, far more confidence in his voice this time, "We won, Sir. The troops of the Russian Winter, aided by local insurgents, took down the lunar defences, leaving the way open for the second invasion to come in and win the day." "Close, but not quite. The Russian Winter may have been the tipping point, but it was the loyal Lunarians who won the fight for Earth." His tablet chimed. Time was running out. "It appears we have run out of time. We will cover the history of ground tactics, including the Lunar Insurgency, at a later date. Course material for this class and relevant linked subjects has now been unlocked for those of you who insist on using enhancements. For the few unenhanced of you, you'll just have to read up the old fashioned way. Next lesson will include the Mimas-Titan confrontation and how that lead to the First Solar War, for those interested in reading ahead. Once more, as this is a mandated course, you won't be specifically tested by me, and there is no additional credit material, so don't stress too hard. Do be aware, however, that other courses may view everything you learn here as assumed knowledge, so any slacking off may bite you in the end." He watched his students as they gathered their things and began to file out. A few raced to the entrance, a few hung back, wanting to quiz him on how much he knew and how much he was authorised to tell them, as always. Most just meandered, chatting amongst themselves. He couldn't help but spare a thought for them, as most would go on to military prep and basic training within a year or two. These kids were all in their early teens, their minds still fresh enough to be imprinted with the vast sums of knowledge they would need to have a shot at leaving their home and travelling to distant stars.
  15. is lurking... like some kind of lurker... who lurks...

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