There Are Ships on the Horizon, Colorless and Wrong
Published in SPACE!, Origins Library limited edition
We are not alone, reads our first message home, there are other things out here, but we came too late. They are all dead, and their ghost cities blot out the stars with their size. We will send back what we can.
We take a skin sample—or we think it is skin, but maybe it is this thing’s brain or lungs or genitalia—and load it into the printer, enter the parameters of its shape and environment into the database, and give the print command. It’s a long shot, but in our scans, some electricity still flickers along the strange, cubist networks of this being’s internal systems, and our machines have brought back the near-dead before.
The printer will be working for hours, creating the spur-points of the intricate structures necessary to sustain or, hopefully, rejuvenate life, and others that might bring it back to functionality. Our own exoskeletons are morphing in sympathy to the alien organisms brought in with the bodies, cilia sprouting from what little bare skin we still have to filter out the radioactive particles clinging to the debris, our nostrils aching with adaptation to the thinner air. It would be wise to hibernate for a few moon-cycles, the generation of such fine biology drains more signal than our ship can support while running any other systems, but we are all fascinated with the things we are pulling out of the planet’s rings. Even if we can’t run diagnostics while our machines are focused on the other thing, we can touch and guess and write personal mythologies for the simplest piece of archeologica.
This is the first alien being we have seen, and even the AIs are whirring with excitement at what this might mean for Earth.
Hibernation is a strange thing, a half-sleeping dream where things run through our minds like warm honey, sticky and slippery, swirling dreams filled with research and the shadows of our nightmares. Some of us crave hibernation, finding a rest and freedom of imagination not allowed by the stranglehold of ship life. Others fear it, the sleep leaving them at the mercy of their pasts. But we are all connected to the same machines, our systems regulated by the AIs, and our dreams lap against each other. There are usually clashing edges, muddy colors and sour syrup, but as the printers click softly away, knitting an alien life support system, our dreams brush against each other and mingle sweetly. We all dream of great discoveries, of bringing life to the stars, and sigh longingly in our sleep. They are our fondest dreams, and we share them gladly.
As we dream, the printers build a new shape out of the debris of a ruined civilization and the donations of one taking its first steps into the stars, our first shared enterprise with another race, even if it is a race only of ghosts. The AIs maintain the ships’ functions, our own ghostly intelligences riding invisible streams of signal through the halls and cracks of our battered vessels until the AIs wake us with news that the alien’s support system is ready.
Time is uncertain out here, we have lost all sense of it, and while we have our own rituals that mark the passage of things, those are lost when we all sleep, but the printers eventually stop. The rings of the alien planet have shifted, a strange phenomenon that we are still trying to decipher. Where they glowed red with heat when we first arrived, their fine bands of dust now gleam silver, and light seems to pulse from them, though perhaps that is merely the rising of the sister planet, the reflected glow from the distant white sun.
The thing the printer has created is…strange. We have often wondered what secrets the AI do not share with us, and never more than when our creations create something beyond our imaginations. This thing is nothing we have even dreamed of, though the soundless chatter of the AIs perhaps hinted at it as they brushed near our shared dreams or fed us the basic information necessary to remain alive in hibernation. AI gossip is always curious, and often incomprehensible, and so we tune it out by habit now, but the thing they have made is astounding. Frills of organic material in complex fractals spiral through an exoskeleton of woven alien metal and bone, layered edibles to feed the alien’s failing body, microbes to absorb and research its flesh and bones, cilia to communicate the discoveries to our machines and the AIs’ networks. It is unusually muted for an AI creation—they delight in bold, bright colors—but we recognize bits of pattern we have seen in the rescued artifacts, the twisting, branching designs carved into shattered building materials reproduced in delicate living organisms.
With the utmost care, we build the pieces around the body, wishing for a blueprint, the pieces melting together to form a cohesive whole. Ghost-lights glimmer off of machinery, the only sign (except for a half-felt buzzing of digital chatter in our brains) of the AIs’ relief. The creation and graft were successful. Now we wait, and work.
We find bits of what must be machines, and textiles, and household goods, bones and chunks of frozen, ossified organic matter, but none of it is whole. It is as if a great harvester has gone through this world and chewed it into bits. We begin to look to the distant stars and the erratic moons with more distrust, wondering, a little, if something is still hiding out there. For the first time, we are glad to be small and insignificant. The debris fields stretch beyond range of our most magnificent sensors. Whatever did this would not likely even notice us.
And, too, we lack words for our discoveries. Always we have discovered things only a little different from what we already knew—animal, vegetable, mineral—but we cannot even figure out if the alien thing we found is alive or dead, if it is a construct or a biology, if it was a dumb animal or one of the beings that built what these ruins came from. We do not even know if those concepts exist here.
We feel lost in a way that we think no human ever has, and only the AIs keep us from complete terror, for they understand what is around us a little better than we do. Not much, but enough. We keep looking, and in the belly of Aotea, the alien flickers incomprehensibly and does not wake. The AIs have named it Eve, and fuss over ‘her’ endlessly. We should not, perhaps, have brought so many movies and books with us. We do not have time to read, and we are tired of the movies, and the AIs are becoming disturbingly human.
Published in Shattered Queen, from Falstaff Books
It was the politest zombie apocalypse anyone could have imagined. Really, we weren’t even sure we had zombies, or an apocalypse, but some news guy called it that, and you know how these things take off.
Well, to be honest, we didn’t see it at all, at first.
Most of us grew up on comic books, horror movies and the CDC’s zombie-awareness guide. Turns out, the more you see, the more you miss.
Had it been a virus, we would have created a new medicine. Supernatural causes? We have plenty of priests. Maladies of the mind can be fixed, too. We tried every explanation we could think of.
It had been happening for a while before anyone caught on. People get stuck in ruts, zone out, go missing, have emotional breakdowns. Then a guy got hit by a car, and with a clearly broken neck, tried to keep crossing the road. Bystanders said he’d crossed that road every day of his life, but never…broken.
It took twelve police officers to bring him in, and most of them were wounded.
Once they got him out of sight of the road, he went limp, lost. The emergency doctor examined him, and declared him completely brain dead. Judging from the level of neural decay, it had been a while.
They put him in a cell and issued a bullshit report to cover the incident up.
As usual, a few nuts on the internet got hold of it, but they’d been yelling for so long that we ignored them. Then, we started to hear about friend-of-a-friend incidents. The cases were increasing. A dead woman would step out of the body bag, go to the grocery store every day, buy the same items, come home, put them away, feed the dog and fix dinner. A man went to work every morning, sat at his computer, came home. Kids went to school. They were all dead, bearing the unhealing marks of their demise. Soon we all knew things had changed, but not how to respond. It wasn’t like moaning, flesh-eating corpses were chasing us down the street. They were just…there.
It was so bloody polite.
They didn’t do anything, as long as they weren’t disturbed. They couldn’t be talked to, turned aside, moved in any way from that one compulsion. They walked in front of buses, put out the cat, stood in line in coffee shops, just…