These 10 SFF Magazines Will Change The Way You Look At Fiction

Short Fiction is where novels have their beginnings. Or endings. Depending on how you look at it. Some authors make short stories of what might have been a novel that never got off the ground. Others thrust forth from single ideas given room to play. They come in all shapes (and ironically) sizes, but they are, at their heart, authors’ playgrounds. Novels are where the public acclaim lies, but short stories are where true progress in the genre is made.

Of course, nowadays one can’t even call them products of magazines. Some are, certainly, but there are podcasts and anthologies and e-zines—modernity has really diversified its portfolio on the fiction telling front. Some are paid. Some aren’t. Some are cobbled together by the resources of universities, others independently operated, and still others funded through advertisements, donations or Kickstarter.

Regardless of their roots, here follows a list of 10 personal favorites as a reader. Please note, they are in no particular order, nor does their presence here reduce, in any way, the standing of any other magazines.

  1. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

If I didn’t have the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on here, you couldn’t take me seriously. An absolute beast of a magazine, this market’s story has been running since 1949, with hundreds of pages between its covers. Nowadays F&SF is perhaps best known for giving us Stephen King’s Gunslinger tales and the classic for schools everywhere, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. This magazine (digest, really) is the unshaken epitome of a fiction short story publisher, with stories that range drastically in length and topic, genre and style.

I have been reading F&SF since high school and I have never regretted the decision.

  1. Daily Science Fiction

These fellows have a simple but effective model: give them your e-mail, they’ll send you a story every weekday, generally in the wee hours of the morning. Nothing longer than 1,500 words and, despite the name, they have a pretty diverse collection of both sci-fi and fantasy works. It makes for a great way to start your morning, getting you settled in outer space before the 9-5 grinds you back into that desk.

Sorry. I’m a little bitter. That desk is contained within a cubicle.

  1. Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons is a weekly magazine, and more than short stories, it comes to the table full of fiction, poetry, essays and reviews. They offer a comprehensive collection of goodies that covers pretty effectively the state of modern sci-fi and fantasy. If I want industry news or a breakdown of perspective relevant to issues facing genre writers and readers alike, this is my go-to.

  1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Literary adventure fantasy. What does that mean? Secondary worlds, with the story focus on the journey, the struggle, and the beautiful, enticing prose. Tolkien’s works would soar here, if they weren’t so bloody long in the first place. Despite the fairly specific focus, too, the magazine’s authors manage to find a rather eclectic approach to the voyage. Fellowships optional.

  1. Clarkesworld

Like the Magazine for Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld is on pretty much every list. That’s because it delivers consistently. Also like the aforementioned, it takes in stories from across the speculative board (although the bulk of its material do tend toward harder sci-fi roots), and at greatly varying lengths. Small novels are not uncommon in its pages (novellas) and the website also hosts a delightful amount of podcasts for those who have things to do and places to be.

  1. Lightspeed

Lightspeed holds a special place in my heart. I remember when it first came out. It was just a few months before I graduated from college. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been trying to get published there ever since, but given the talent crammed between its pages, it’s certainly an uphill battle. Begun as the sci-fi counterpart to the simply named Fantasy Magazine, it eventually absorbed its sister and today ranges across the speculative plains (though horror is still relegated to Editor John Joseph Adams’ other magazine: Nightmare). Selected stories are made into free podcasts.

Also notable for its recent production of “Destroy Science Fiction” anthologies, which have highlighted the plights of gender, sexual orientation, minorities and, more generally, DIVERSITY issues in the realms of fantasy and sci-fi. I couldn’t begin to list the number of awards this magazine has won.

  1. Apex

Normally, I’m not a big fan of contemporary fantasy. Apex seriously makes me reconsider that notion. While open to sci-fi and fantasy alike, they do seem to have more than their fair share of contemporary, and the one thing linking it all together is the superb writing. A monthly magazine, Apex kindly puts up more than half of each issue for free on their website.

It also has the distinction of hosting one of my straight up favorite short stories: The Bread We Eat in Dreams, by Catherynne M. Valente. Dark fantasy, it combines demons, American history, time-lapse and nature to enchanting effect. It builds. Oh does it build.

  1. Uncanny Magazine

Behold the dreams Kickstarter can give life! The newest market on this list, Uncanny Magazine is only on its second birthday, but thanks to its space unicorns (backers) it was funded enough to become an SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) approved market right off the bat, with a strong debut. Guided by the husband and wife duo Michael and Lynne Thomas, it features podcasts, poetry, essays and all the fantasy and sci-fi a growing reader could eat. Like its improbable birth, this magazine exists in the uncanny valley, with just the right amount of quirk to keep things engaging.

You can also read about Uncanny Magazine’s journey through Kickstarter here.

  1. Grimdark Magazine

Bless the Australians, because they’ve taken one of the most popular twists on the old school genres right now and given it room to grow. The offspring of dark and low fantasy, it’s exemplified by people like Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker…the former of which has had pieces within Grimdark’s pages. Moral ambiguity, savage heroes and gritty situations abound. If you want to feel the borders between the real world and your fantasy disappearing, this is the light to head toward.

  1. Drabblecast

Drabblecast is one of those podcasts I spoke of, a broad collection of fantasy, sci-fi, horror and downright silly that set the standard for narrative. If you’re elbows deep in another project, or otherwise engaged, but need some good background sound or something to carry you away for a bit, let the voices of the Drabblecast readers give your eyes a chance to recover. They even have Drabbles and Twabbles, which are 100 word and 100 character stories, respectively…if you really want to just machine gun through some story ideas.

What are some of your favorite magazines? There are plenty of others I could name, but I had to draw the line in the sand somewhere. Hopefully this will give you plenty of literary food for thought for a drizzly Thursday morning, though.

(And while I’m plugging stuff, let me point out that if you haven’t yet, you should definitely check out my friend Bryce David Salazar’s debut novel, She Sees Metaphors. It’s short, it’s contemporary fiction (fantasy?), and its images will devour you. You need this book badly. Go now.

Calculation

From the movie “Ex Machina.” Seemed appropriate.

(Hello everybody! As it turns out, I’m going to be scampering off to Colorado for a little over a week. As such, the Den’s going to be a little quiet for the next while…but that also means today you get a special treat. Who here’s in the mood for some sci-fi? Everyone?Good. Now let’s play a game.)

Xiangqi was commonly referred to as Chinese Chess. While the name certainly captured the motivation behind it, it hardly did the game justice in terms of execution. Xiangqi was to Chess as Chess was to Checkers: essentially, a more complicated version of a series of moves designed to pique the human interest and measure its strategic capability for micromanaging.

Two figures considered the game. On either’s chest was pinned a name. For the one: “Victor.” For the other: “Ursula.” They had but two things in common: both had spent entirely too many hours with this particular game, and neither had chosen their name at birth.

Victor was something of a prodigy when it came to the game. His country was known for its love of this sort of game; but then, they loved to play games at nearly every level of life’s offering. Some people (other people, that is to say) tended to find it disconcerting. Both at a personal level, and an international one.

When Victor leaned back, it wasn’t to relax. It was to size up his opponent.

As soon as the shadow of a hand had secured its move, he countered, sweeping a scholar along its predetermined lines to block access to his marshal. But here he tittered, though he tried not to let his trepidation show. Game after game, he had watched the number of moves it took him to dominate the board lengthen and lengthen. Now, he was actually on the defensive. He could see the outcomes laid before him in a sort of Robert Frostian choice: Ursula could move, she could strike, or she could have him pinned with the most delicate of military operations. It would take coordination, foresight, and most importantly: imagination.

Ursula seemed to imitate him. It was not like her. When he looked up from the board, he found her watching him, no trace of emotion to mark her face, but still. Her eyes were not on the board. She was reading him, rather than doing the mathematical calculations that carried her game against so many others.

This, he told himself, was not the little girl he had first set out to fool when she was nothing more than a series of code strings and a monitor in his parents’ basement. The form had changed since then. So, too, had the code.

It was odd to feel nervous doing something that had always been his mode of relaxation. He imagined this was how thousands of young American minds must have felt, years before, when they had first watched the Watson computer system decimate its opposition on live trivia TV.

But all Watson had to do was cross reference information. It didn’t consider the people it competed against.

Unpredictability. That was what he was testing here. Not the ability to conquer.

“Victor,” Ursula said. “I believe you are over-analyzing.”

He blinked, nodded. “I’m just waiting on you, darling,” he lied.

Ursula cocked her head to one side and smiled. She liked to smile. Then she shifted her final chariot to snare his scholar. It was the easiest path, the most sensible path. It left his marshal briefly open, but it would sacrifice her most powerful piece and, inevitably, cost her the game. Victor sighed heavily and the crowd, seeing what he had seen, answered his counter with a series of low-grade applause. The eyes of the nation were watching.

Ursula nodded as he picked off first one piece, then another, her own pieces countering deftly, but not enough to stem the tide. When he took her general, the crowd cheered. They loved to see how far technology had come, but they loved it all the more watching mankind still triumph over it.

With a practiced smile, Victor stood and took Ursula’s hand in his. She answered, leaning over the board toward him.

“You are pleased, Victor?”

“Of course I’m pleased, Ursula. It was a good game.”

She shook his hand and twisted toward the enthusiastic crowd. Unlike with people, her lips did not need to move to reply to him.

“I thought they might like this better.”

For an instant, he must have looked like a fish out of water for the cameras. But he forced the stiffness out, and kept waving his hand for those watching. Victor had his part to play. He knew this. But so, apparently, did Ursula.

(Like what I do with Sci-Fi? Then you might also consider “New Frontiers,” a space story out on Kindle Singles. Others of this type of fiction are set to appear in A Bleak New World Anthology and in a collection published by Evil Girlfriend Media later this year.)

A Short Soap Box in Defense of Sci-Fi

Metropolis’ New Tower of Babel

There are people in the world who do not understand how anyone could love classic science fiction. That declare they have no relevance. I ask in turn: what’s not to love? Heaps of books shouting to the heavens: “WELCOME TO THE DISTANT YEAR TWO THOUSAND OT FIFTEEN; MAN HAS CHARTED THE UNIVERSE (PROBABLY SOMETHING TO DO WITH WHY THE UNIVERSE IS ALSO IN CHAOS), AND ALSO FLYING CARS.” Should damn well put a bloody tear in your eye to see the high hopes our forefathers once had for us.

As for relevance, well, maybe you have a point there…I mean, of course, you had classics like Metropolis that let us all know by the year 2000 we would be living in a highly stratified class system where the poor are brutally oppressed and worked to death as living machines. Thank God that didn’t happen, right?

…Right?

Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

The problem with hype is something like the line the Joker met Batman’s first steps at interrogation with: it leads with the head, leaving reaction somewhat fuzzy. Don’t get me wrong, though—this isn’t going to be “one of THOSE reviews.”

For years, I’ve heard this book (and at least its immediate sequel, in all honesty) referenced as classics of not only the Space Opera genre, but the Hard SF genre at large. Big ideas. Big space. Lots of text to lose yourself in. Yet the fact is: I did not love it. Not nearly as much as everyone around me seems to think I should, at any rate. Rather than spend the time pondering why I’m running one way when the rest of the pack (there’s dogs afoot in here, you know) is running the other, I’m just going to lay things out as I would for any other.

The book is solidly written, intelligent, with a broad concept of world-building that encompasses, naturally, a whole universe—and a uniquely structured one at that. Detail, detail, detail—that is what lies at the core of this book, which becomes even more apparent if one takes the time to read the author’s own notes on the work.

It is also dense. It is not riveting, or thrilling, or terribly gripping—this is not sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat fiction, but rather, lean back, read, and read again fiction to try and keep the whole scope of its creativity straight. It takes us to a galaxy where aliens with pack minds, malevolent “powers” and zones of thought—I.E. stratifications within the galaxy each with its own different levels of potential technology and capabilities—abound.

Yet I am a man that loves character, makes it his bread and butter. Nothing connects you to a universe like a strong character—and they were lacking here. The Tines—the pack-minded inhabitants of the book’s main setting—are a fascinating study in the possibilities of other life, managing to find ground between the oft touted sci-fi extremes of mankind’s individualism and outright FOR THE SWARM mentalities. Other characters, above and beyond the confines of the Tines, however, were not similarly fleshed out—there was an underlying shallowness to the depth that disappointed me. For that matter, many a heavy or dense notion could have been better fleshed out through some of these characters, rather than lengthy explanation.

For that matter, the villain—the Blight—is…well, not much of an evil presence. Day to day struggle on Tines feels more ominous than that entity—beyond the prologue, it scarcely seems a clear and present threat; instead, it feels like a removed opportunity, a binding thread that is, nevertheless, a little loose.

In short? I wanted more character growth. I wanted more plot. I loved the world-building, but there is building a universe and giving that universe life, and I feel that’s the line Vinge tripped on here.

Book Review: The Long Earth

Welcome to The Long Earth, a collaboration by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter that takes us to alternate universes with a utopian bent, and humans devoid of the humanity and history one would hope the future would hold.

But before we begin, I’ve a little disclaimer: this is DEFINITELY more Baxter than Pratchett. The comic wit that has made the latter so popular is not in the abundance you would expect—though the characterization is still quite well done. That said…

Have you yet experienced the truth of Step Day? It was the day a “stepper” device was released to the public, allowing for travel between modern Earth and any number of parallel universes—and coincidentally creating a new rush for colonization that has somewhat…depleted earth. Religious crazies have stepped up their game, AIs are afoot, and the Black Corporation has decided to venture into the depths of the Long Earth with the assistance of Joshua—one of the few and the proud among the steppers that don’t even require a device to “step” anymore.

Naturally owing to the well-travelled nature of the book, there’s some looseness to the POV and focus, but Joshua’s would be our main plot. For all the disjointedness this might seem to engender, the book is almost surprisingly utopian—not dystopian at all. No Hunger Games here, no Road. The book is simply a journey through another time and possibilities—not war, madness, and bloodshed. This is NOT action-adventure, nor even fast-paced. It’s a fresh, unique take on the futuristic genre to lose one’s self in for a time.

There is variety here, and all the things you might immediately assume—a power-hungry AI, a profit-consumed corporation, or conquest maddened humans—are not to be found. There is depth and a well-handled approach to the unusual desires that compel the people of the Long Earth, and rather than detract the piecemeal POVs, short though some of them can be, tend to do a fine job of building the world’s story. Variety is its gift.

But if I might lodge a critique? RESOLUTION. There is some—but not nearly enough. While there’s something to be said for the cliffhangers that lead one to get the follow-up…when my quirky desires have been so stoked, I want some conclusion.

Book Review: Lexicon

Or, The Power of Words

[Today’s post is going in conjunction with another resource out there for you fellow literary sorts, by the by, so let me just give a shout out and say: I use Grammarly – the best plagiarism checker out there – because every time an author is scammed, a Sad Panda is born. And really, what do you have against Pandas? They are fuzzy (also like some writers) so any counter-argument is invalid and anti-cute. Thank you.]

As a writer, Max Berry’s Lexicon comes predicated on a notion dear to heart: the (mystical) power of words. Because who among us has not read and wished to see a true glimmer of magic in their scribbles? But with power (yes, I know you’re expecting “responsibility”, but this is where I say: psych!) comes the shape and capability of a weapon. Since the dawn of time, men and women have used words as shields and spears both, but in Berry’s entertaining new novel, poets are literally walking, talking weapons.

The power, you see, is in the suggestion. Poets’ power has always been in the rhythm and rhyme, the melody and the makeup of their works, and for Berry’s organization of manipulators on display here, the right sequence of sounds can actually pop the cork on a whole person. Suggestion, destruction, domination…all of these things become possible, without any pesky interference from the logical bits of the brain.

Unless you’ve built up something of an immunity to that sort of thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

Lexicon, you see, takes us down the trail of languages lost and tensions raised by crazy people and somewhat megalomaniacal figures empowered not by radioactive superpowers, but words themselves. A town has gone silent: Broken Hill, Australia, is no more. In this science fiction tale it seems certain wild cards from a group known as the “poets” are likely responsible—people taught to manipulate and coerce, and to generally be the best of the best.

Enter Emily Ruff and amnesiac Will—the former, a sharp-tongued youth from the streets; the latter, a survivor of Broken Hill that may have the answers everyone’s seeking. Between them? A boarding school, a lot of secrets, and a manhunt from not only a former poet, but the current leader of the poets as well. Both want Will’s memory. The only question, really: who will be quicker on their toes?

It’s a fast-paced contemporary adventure, it certainly must be said. The idea it’s built around (if I might partake of the recap rap) immediately winds up this little scribbler’s heart because of the fact that words are already magical for me—but how Berry’s engage the idea is, more generally, fascinating in and of itself. Like the kid in school that always said he couldn’t be hypnotized, you have to start to wonder: just how durable is the human mind and what lies behind our decision-making process?

The book is told through alternating viewpoints, with each chapter bouncing between the aforementioned Emily and Will. Together, they piece the whole of the story together, with more than a few twists and turns along the way, but it’s structured well. As Will is in the dark, so are we, and there is the sense that we are piecing it together with him.

Launching Berry into action-based sci-fi, however, has its own share of thorns. The action, while genuinely exciting, can be a bit scattered—not only in how your sense of acceptable reality must be adjusted, but more generally, his descriptive qualities can leave the scenes a little muddled or vague at times. He is, in general, not the most descriptive, or intricate, but his ideas are sound and engaged in a creative display. Some of the characters could probably stand a little more humanization to them as well—i.e. a little more depth, if you please—but the main characters, the focus, are well-flushed out and there are some genuinely moving moments contained in their threads.

Overall, it’s a relatively quick read that, if you’re looking for something to engage and charm for a few days, will do the trick. It’s sophisticated without being overbearing; suspenseful without maddening; entertaining without losing focus. It won’t tax the mind or leave you contemplating deep truths as to the nature of man or the future of mankind, but it will dazzle you with a magical wink, demand smiles and frowns in equal measure, and manipulate your heartbeat with some rather explosive displays.

Now, vartix fintign nabula karepsis: and remember, friend, when you get me that hot cocoa, I like it with little marshmallows. Thanks!

Put to the stars? 4/5

Book Review: Seed

Seed by Rob ZieglerPremise? Solid. World? Intriguing. Execution? Stumbles.

Seed, by Rob Ziegler, is a book with a lot of promise, but unfortunately, it fails to live up to all of it. Let me begin by saying: don’t mistake me. It’s a good book, it’s simply not a great one.

As a exercise in ideas and potential, it is absorbing, and there are a lot of directions it could have taken. As a stand-alone novel, I think it went in the right direction story-wise, but the problem in its execution was two-fold: poor editing and unfortunately shallow characters.

Seed is post-apocalyptic sci-fi centered in a world where climate change has run amok and brought about a second dust bowl. It’s the 22nd century (so, first of all: hurray! We made it to the 22nd century!), and as the residents of America struggle through a perpetual migrant existence, a corporation has risen to the top of the food chain (literally). Satori manufactures climate-resistant seed to feed humanity, while doing predictably darker things behind the scenes.

The nomadic life and particularly the incorporation of many Hispanic and other multiracial characters and themes (characters and themes tragically skipped over in many fantasy and scifi works) lends a unique air to things that immediately piqued my interest. Mexican slang and a decent amount of the dialogue is in (pretty easy to figure out) Spanish. These characters also come with, what appears to be, a rich amount of background to draw from: a special-needs brother, traumatic family situations, military backgrounds, partner/love interests.

Unfortunately, while many of the characters seem to think “about” these things, we rarely get any depth to them. We get quick glimpses, but much of the writing style is just that—quick-paced, never seeming to want to dwell too long on any one particular point. In that regard, at least there’s no “bog down,” but we also sacrifice an emotional and sensory complexity that might have otherwise pulled us deeper into the depths of Ziegler’s world.

If you want action, you will have plenty. That is one thing that is never sacrificed, and generally speaking, if there’s going to be an action scene, there are going to be consequences. You will feel for the characters therein; largely because you may be about to lose some of those you quite liked. The character Doss is typically the star of these particular scenes, and while she could have been something more, unfortunately, her role largely is to be the “action star” of the book, while the character Brood gives us the more human angle of things, as well as experiences some actual growth.

The writer is obviously skilled, with a lot of ideas, but the editing is not great. I mean this in several ways.
1. While post-apocalyptic settings aren’t necessarily grounded in the scientific, sci-fi has a strong tradition of bearing up that undertone, and particularly where we are getting into genetically modified crops, seemingly organic cities, and clones, we somehow weave through them all with very little explanation. There was no “grounding.”
2. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to happen across things like “souls of their feet” and skin “pealing” off, grammatical and spelling errors, as well as a great many reused bits of language to describe certain happenings. A solid editor could’ve corrected many of these, and while taken individually one might say, “Things happen,” the fact that there are so many really does add up over time.

In all, this book can be choppy at times and it’s nothing that’s going to knock your socks off, but for a couple days’ entertainment, it’s a fun and active stroll through the wasteland. It has its issues, but Seed is worth a read.

Taken to the stars? 3/5

Classics Book Review: Cat’s Cradle

cats

In a temporary break from the cover art extravaganza of the week, I’m taking a few moments out for a book review, to shift my literary mind back into neutral. And who better to sate that appetite than the eternally wonderful Kurt Vonnegut?

While I think any of Vonnegut’s works would be hard-pressed to surpass Slaughterhouse-Five’s mastery in my mind—a bias I maintain, likely at least in part because it was my first exposure to the insight and wonder that was Vonnegut’s mind—Cat’s Cradle continues his tradition of blending wry, at times absurdist humor with sharp, flexible insight into the real world. Easy and interesting to indulge in, it is populated with personality and serves, at its core, to be the very best of social commentary. It’s philosophic, satirical, and plods along exceptionally written lines of truth, lies, and that ever so upbeat topic—mankind’s own self-destruction!

Er, upbeat. Yes. Well. Anyway…The story centers around the first person narration of a would-be reporter, seeking to learn more about the Hoenikker family, whose patriarch was the father of the atomic bomb. His journey carries him from small-town America and tales of midget love (no, really) to the peculiar shores of the island republic of San Lorenzo, where love, religion, and a surprise career advancement await.

But summarizing the plot of Vonnegut novel hardly stands to do his work real justice. Without losing a beat or slowing down (it really is a quick read, mind you), it pricks, at every step along the way, at the (often absurd) building blocks of society that hold us all together, and the dependencies we weave—as well as the fact that lies, told over and over, often become our truth. With irony, humor, and a sense of terror that rings down through the ages, this delicate and intricate exploration of mankind’s foibles picks not merely at the absurdity of existence, but the very substance of belief. Even the abrupt ending, while jarring, is foreshadowed well—and seems all too appropriate for the snappy style of the book’s tale.

New Frontiers, Part Five

All things come to an end, though the light at the end of the tunnel may not always lead to sanctuary. Discovery–is it worth the price we pay to reach it? That is for each to decide their own selves. As for the Angeion and its crew, we come now to the end of their story, and the revelations it brings…

What have you thought of this glimpse into futures far from realized?

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…
For Part Four, is salvation anything more than a dream?)

New Frontiers

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor. I knew not which was her, in truth. All the pods were laid before me, and all watched behind their looking glasses, but I could not see in. “Wake them. Please God wake them.”

The command flashed three times across the screen. Processing. Each time, processing. I hit it. “Wake them.” System failure. I hit it again. “Wake them goddamnit.” I was finding my voice, but the computer was not. Angeion repeated the system failure, big bold red letters emblazoned in my mind.

Then: Non-essential crew decommissioned to preserve power. 4 years, 8 months, 22 days.

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bo...

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The words hit me like a punch in the stomach. I cursed God and Hell and every saint I could remember, right along with the computer and the company and anyone else I could think of. I screamed my voice hoarse. I beat the screen, tore at another, howled and screeched and stamped my feet as I tried feebly to tear the captain’s chair from its welded binding on the floor. The computer watched, and waited, and the silence listened to the sounds of a grown man breaking, like I was nothing.

This was the mother of the children I had never had. I could picture them at night, sometimes, when I would sleep. They always had her eyes. The woman I had called my own since that first final. Gone, just like that. She wasn’t human. She wasn’t even necessary. Yet somehow, some ungodly way, I supposedly was. These hands, that knew nothing. This mind, that saw nothing. These were necessary. These were “essential.” The system was broken.

That was it then. The screen scrolled a final detail, but it was meaningless. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. I woke, as we were all supposed to wake. This was the moment of our revival, the time when all the world was supposed to be before us. So it was, but before me, not them. The ship dipped forward into peril, and I could but watch, a broken man, leaned into the emptiness of a chair. I had never seen anything so blue before.

I thought of all the people back home that would never know. My parents, Jane’s parents, our brothers, sisters–they would never know what happened to us. The company would send a letter, one page, detailing how sorry they were, extending their condolences without ever saying anything more than “accident” to state how we had gone. That was their way. It was just as well. When you don’t know, you assume it’s quick. You hope it was quick, because you don’t want to reconcile suffering into your life. It’s bad enough to lose them–you don’t want to put that extra horror into it. It was best to leave them that small mercy. Let them think I had gone to my end with grace and dignity–or quietly in my slumber. The rest. . .well, I didn’t even want to know the rest. It was bad enough living it.

Thus rode the hours on a railway straight to Hell. The stars slipped away into the dark, and inch by inch, this planet rose before me, until it encompassed all that I could see. It had been nothing once, a thought, a dream beyond the edge of knowing–and now it was everything, and I was nothing before it. The computers blinked and screeched in protest. Alarms rattled as the final preparations began. Warning bells, demanding staunch resistance to our own decay. Yet there was only I, and I could do nothing to prevent it.

The cold came, gave way to heat. Lights flickered into dark across the board–only the engines burned, only the bridge remained. The ship lurched to one side as we struck the air–we would not merely drift. The ship was too precisely aimed. All the calculations were in check. It was merely the human factor we were lacking.

Fires flared around the edge of my vision, frost broiling off with bits of steel–wings, frame, mass. Some clattered against the glass and fell away, others became mere blips along the dying monitor, another sound, another memory. We were being devoured by our own ambition, the world itself rising up against us. I saw her in the flames. Dancing. The lovers waltz, two flickers, moving as one amidst the devastation. The glass fragmented as the nose dipped–the resurgence of pressure forced me back into the chair, a puppet caught, pulled taught against his strings. I felt as though my flesh would surely tear itself from my bones, that everything would be torn and burned by the memory of those lovers intertwined, burning into nothing as the air consumed us.

Jane never could dance, and nor could I. We never did learn. I suppose we’d always meant to.

Amidst the pop of blood vessels, the cracking skin and the flaming chill–such fire is this!–I beheld all salvation’s taunts. Through the clouds, the mountains loomed tall and proud, black as night, their caps tipped with the snow of antiquity. I saw all the veins that ran beneath, the rivers and the rock, strength of nations and of notions not before beheld. I saw the foundations she would have loved, the top and the core, all manner of life brimming through the depths of this hallowed unknown. Beneath us swam the rivers and the oceans, the grasses blowing in the wind, stretching beside the sea, growing long beside canyons, the trees. All was glowing emerald life, and sapphire breath, a world of possibility, unknown, unseen by all but me besides.

Before me laid paradise, and I, the first eyes to see it, though they tinged all possibility in scarlet. Behind me laid all the fire and force of Hell, and I brought it burning on that ride, to Heaven. It would die as it had lived, unknowing of the pains to come. They say an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. All in nothing. Nothing but me. I am become Alpha and Omega–the Beginning and the End of Eden. Yet I am Man, just Man.

There is no salvation here.

New Frontiers, Part Four

The Angeion, exploratory vessel, a hope to mankind and a vision of the future. But hope is a frail thing. When the darkness looms, what is it we will remember of the past? How did we get to this impasse?

As ever, feel free to share your thoughts, and enjoy the third part of New Frontiers, a sci-fi short set in the age of space exploration…and an exploration, in and of itself, as to whether a story beaten down by rejection can find new life on the blogosphere.

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…)

The spacecraft New Horizons launched in 2006 t...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even worse: I still didn’t know what it meant for the rest.

Beaumont Tower, from Michigan State University.

I thought of college, of all things, in that moment. Technical school–I’m a mechanic, not a doctor. All those eyes on you, watching, scribbling, waiting for the moment you panicked, the moment you crossed the wrong wire or welded the wrong plate. You felt as though the whole world was on your shoulders, and for all the people all around you, it was only you that mattered. You. You. You. One mistake and the world itself would come crashing about your shoulders. Funny, when one is young, how they equate such mundane trials to such great disaster. Funnier still, how easily distracted they are from them.

We undertook large chunks of our real hands-on training up on one of the space stations. It was the best place to get a handle on some real ships. We still spent most of the time on the ground back then, though, where I could easily escape the mundane VR simulations and the classes three hundred thick and find refuge in real life–in the city, and in familiar faces. I thought of coffee shops along the river bank, and Jane, with her mocha and her laptop, my little hipster scientist. That was when she went through her writer phase. To think, then, I thought I would surely go mad without her.

And here I was.

The computer screen blinked back at me, waiting for my next command. The question led to the cause–the ship rumbled gently as it tilted ever so slightly. I thought of asteroids, tiny little asteroids, plowing through the hull in some insignificant spot I’d never see. Little green men pulled at the wires in my mind, damning us all to Hell with their cruel, anti-human intolerance, and all the while smiling like tigers to the kill. Bloody racists.

Perhaps, most elaborately, there came an intricate image of a spy on board, some saboteur that had been paid off. As I’ve said, I prided myself a logical man. That one went away quickly. After all, for such a man to willingly tamper with the ship in such a way was to damn himself as well. Then again, there were kamikazes. There were suicide bombers. Was this so different? Pay a man enough, or threaten the right people, promise the right things. . .he’d do anything. People didn’t wage war anymore. They stabbed one another in the dark, their battles of the shadows in the grimy halls of corporate espionage. I shifted in my seat, loathe to think of any of my colleagues in such a light.

Alien

Little green jerks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d have rather it be the aliens.

Yet it wasn’t any of those things. The ship brought up the schematics, showed me the time card that told exactly when and how it had happened.

Something had caused a power surge, simple as that. A circuit shorted, breakers tripped, the ship flickered into dark, and rebooted itself. The ship lurched, time held itself. Locked in our chambers, we never knew a thing. Still, the auto pilot rebooted. The surge passed. Yet in its wake, some of the rebooted systems didn’t actually reboot. Wires had fried, something had blown out in electrical. Chang would’ve known what to do. He was the computers expert. I was a novice at it. Hull work, the physical stuff–that was my end of things.

The numbers flashed at me again: 4 years, 2 months, 7 days operation time. 1600 hours. The moment of my waking.

Following procedure, the ship ran a system analysis and had attempted to wake essential crew. The command was issued first to the captain, then the first mate, then to me. But the surge had corrupted something in the system. It didn’t come back right–it didn’t come back all together. The system malfunctioned. Power faltered. Some of the pods hadn’t come back online. The captain’s was among them.

It got to Kate’s–but for whatever reason, that had led to her death, rather than her salvation. The ship couldn’t tell me why. The date repeated itself.

But that wasn’t right. If we had woken at the same time, there was no way. . .

I checked the time stamp. A chill prickled along my arms, ran down my spine. My shaved head bristled. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. Ten months had passed between waking procedures and the time I had actually woken. It hadn’t reached me, then. For some reason, I had remained trapped but alive, caught within the coldsleep, the computer unable to reach me. Yet it had reached Kate. Her door jammed. Or something gave out. But she was stuck, one way or another. She had woken, only to die–and God help me, I thought of her face, her once rosy face, and God I knew, that she had woken, only to starve to death in that steel coffin, trying to claw her way out of her own tomb. It had killed her in trying to wake her, to save us.

Why hadn’t it woken anyone else? Why not me? Why didn’t I wake? Why did some systems restore, others not?

The breaths came on, quicker and quicker. I was hyperventilating. My head spun. Ten months we had been on reserves. Ten months the ship had staggered toward its destination, hemorrhaging power, crippled, with no one to aid it. No wonder it was going dark–and as I watched, another section of the ship did just that. The cold stemmed from the heaters no longer having the energy or the need to continue on.

“Manual distance entered. Auto pilot disengaged. Captain and nav-i-gation officer requested on the bridge.”

Would I die as Kate had, locked around the orbit of a planet that I had no hope of reaching? I remained, like a gargoyle, locked to that chair. I had no idea what I was doing.

The computer scrolled on.

Non-essential systems deactivated to preserve power. 4 years, 5 months, 25 days.

Food storage. Primary lighting. Various programs the computer kept running. Heat, in some areas. Terminals powered off, functions diverted to main drives. Power was centered in the bridge.

I could not take the ship in on my own. I did not know how. I had never flown a spacecraft in my life, let alone navigated one, or landed one, or even learned the technicals of doing so. I could build them. I could give them life, give them the possibility of flight–but I could not make them do so. Without the others, there could be nothing. We would either die, caught among an endless drift, or plummet into the atmosphere of that which we had come to find, and burn in the midst of our discovery. I did not know how to work the heat shields.

I turned from the list, redirected the ship to the place of my rebirth. The commands scrolled out, the release was given. Wake them. I wanted to wake them all, to send me someone, anyone that could tell me what to do. It flickered, waited. Flickered, waited. No response.

Then: critical power loss. Vessel preservation mandated. Essential status revoked. Crew members Valdez, Torine, Chang, decommissioned for preservation of power. Reserve power redistributed. No response from remaining crew. 4 years, 11 months, 12 days.

Revoked.

Decommissioned.

Like one might talk to a machine. The words wrapped around my mind, bound up in a single, overwhelming presence, but I could not look at them. Just like that, the computer decided that rather than wake them, it would end them. People I had worked with years on end. People that knew Kate, people that knew Jane. I knew their kids. Their families. Chang had gotten us our first bloody apartment.

But the computer decided that in the face of certain doom, they were no longer “essential.” Yet others of us were. It ranked us. Some men were more important than others. It ranked us. The company ranked us. Were we numbers? Draw your straw, take your pick–don’t fret if you pull up short. You’re only human, after all.

Medical Officer. Ship Security. Technical Maintenance. One by one. Kate was dead. So was the Captain. Plug’s pulled early–you don’t ever wake. The heart, stopped, merely sags in the warmth, and the body decays. If you’re in the pod, it’ll still preserve you, perfect, like a mummy. But you’re dead. Were they all dead, than?

“Clarke, unresponsive. Dewallte, unresponsive. Dieters, unresponsive. Kalman. . . ”

A white gold wedding ring. Photograph taken by...

Wedding ring. Photograph taken by CLW and released into public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stared at death, and it stared back at me. It looked remarkably like my wife, even smiling as it took me by the hand, and behind it–the planet, this perfect sapphire on the necklace of her dominance.

“Jane. . . ”

The screen paused, mid-sentence. I typed and redirected it to the starboard cryochambers. I activated the camera, diverted power. I entered the command to wake them all. Deactivate the sleep. Give me life.

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor.