Tag Archives: sci fi

Patrol 4, Imogen Wiggins

 

Shadows stretched and strained as two cycles sped over the uneven red terrain of Teramis-IVB. Bea scanned the landscape easily, having become accustomed to the eight-hour twilight during the course of her deployment. The horizon was indistinguishable, but the ground that stretched towards it was littered with dead technological beasts, slowly being swallowed by the scarlet vegetation. In her first month on this planet, she’d marvelled at the alien landscape; by the third, her enthusiasm had ebbed from the mundane uniformity of it. Now in her eighteenth month there, she longed for the brown mud of Earth.

Bea moved her cycle with dexterity over the terrain between Sectors Two and Three. Her partner Khali kept formation behind her, matching pace. Despite any homesickness, Bea knew the area they patrolled was dangerous. There were rebels, creatures of the land, and the greedy Kaiat to watch for, so she kept her eyes keenly trained on the surroundings.

Spotting something on the horizon, Bea cut her engine and allowed her cycle to drift to the ground. Her hand slid to her handgun. Khali followed her actions, her cycle falling silent. Staring intently through the wild red forest, Bea used the control panel on her wrist to zoom her visor in on the black object in the distance.

‘See that?’ she asked Khali. Her partner reached over and pulled her rifle from the back of her hyper-stealth armour, peering through the scope into the distance.

‘Yeah,’ Khali replied. ‘No overgrowth, can’t have been there for too long.’

‘Call it in,’ Bea instructed.

While Khali switched to the communication channel, Bea kept her visor zoomed in on the object, searching for any sign of movement. Resting in a valley between the thick trunk of a tree and a derelict battle cruiser, the shape on her display showed no signs of activity. Still, the anomaly unnerved her.

‘They want us to investigate,’ reported Khali, dismounting from her cycle. ‘See if it’s worth sending out a Reclamation Unit.’

Bea nodded in acknowledgement, swinging her leg over her cycle and pulling her rifle from the magnetic clips on the back of her armour. Leaving their cycles behind, the two moved in silence, keeping low to the ground. As they closed the distance between them and the object, it began to take shape. A crashed ship. The exterior was dark and sleek, but indistinctive, meaning it could be one of theirs, or the enemy’s.

‘Cloaks up,’ commanded Bea.

One after the other, they disappeared, reaching the unidentified ship and fanning out to circle it. Confident there was nothing hiding around the perimeter but debris, Bea headed toward the gaping hole in the middle of the ship, carved out during its descent.

‘Scanners aren’t reading anything,’ Khali offered.

‘Through here.’ Bea stepped over the threshold. Her finger rested on the trigger but she remained clear-headed.

 

 

 

The interior of the ship was as dark as its exterior. Wires hung from the ceiling, sparking with electricity, but apart from that the craft felt dead.

‘Must have dropped from some height,’ muttered Bea, assessing the damage.

They moved further forward and it began to open out, revealing a large cavity that seemed to make up the majority of the ship. Two corridors branched off towards the front and back. The inside had been cannibalised, stripped down to its bare minimum and then retrofitted with all sorts of junk. It was a stark difference to the outside of the craft. Both soldiers were drawn to what had been housed in the repurposed space. Tall vats made of metal and frosted glass—with extensive tubing running from them—lined the room. Most had fallen over in the crash. Tubes were loose and glass had smashed open during impact, letting the liquid run over the floor. A few were completely open, but empty. Only two stood against the wall as they should.

Kaiat cargo ship?’ Khali suggested, approaching one of the vats.

Bea nodded. It was likely; the retrofitted interior suggested their work. Back at the base, they tended to melt down whatever they recovered. But the Kaiat were resourceful and could move through the forest and salvage the ships better than they could. A Kai could blend into the planet’s surroundings better than anyone, though they did have the advantage. Bea felt the need to keep moving.

‘Let’s finish up. You take the back.’

Khali moved quickly to clear the rear of the ship whilst Bea turned her attention towards the front. The corridor was long. Any lighting that may have once illuminated it was now dead, leaving Bea to rely on her visor’s scanner as she moved through the pitch-black interior. She cleared two storage rooms along the passage, which were empty apart from some meagre provisions.

At the end was the cockpit. The sliding door that should have sealed it off was frozen between open and closed. Bea turned and slid through the doorway before pivoting to assess the room with rifle raised. It was quite small, and the oversized console was clearly not made for the space. The thing was a relic, with more transplants than Bea could count. She was surprised it ever worked in the first place. Looking closer, she noticed a thick black sludge pooling in the controls. She stepped around and saw a body lying next to the console.

‘One Kai here,’ Bea reported.

She edged closer, inspecting the alien. Slumped on the floor it appeared almost human, if not for the length of its limbs and the translucency of its skin. The usual bright orange of its internal organs had dulled to grey.

‘Looks like the pilot, probably died in the—’

The sound of scuffling made Bea whip around. She searched for the source, but the pitch black worked against her. Keeping her gun raised and eyes ahead, she swiped the control panel on her wrist. Her visor flickered, hesitating before switching to infrared. Scanning the room, the residual heat of the dead Kai registered on the visor, along with one other heat signature. The signature, a vibrant red amongst the otherwise black of the room, sat unmoving, crouched underneath the control panel.

Khali’s voice came over the helmets communication channel. ‘Bea?’

Bea crouched down slowly, keeping her eyes on the signature. When she became level with it she waited a moment to see if it would move. Satisfied it was still, she aimed her gun and switched off her infrared. She waited one, two, three heartbeats before flicking the switch and shining her helmet’s bright light on the heat signature.

‘Beatrice? What’s going on?’

Bea stared in confusion at what she had found.

‘Nothing. Have you cleared the rest of the ship?’

‘Yeah, crew quarters but not much else back here. All clear,’ replied Khali.

‘Okay, wait for me outside.’

Keeping the light on, Bea lowered her gun and switched to project her voice outside her armour.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, ‘are you okay?’

The child turned toward Bea’s filtered voice slightly, sneaking a glance from between tiny fingers. Bea swiped another button, lifting her visor and revealing her face.

‘It’s alright. You don’t have to hide,’ she prompted, stretching out her hand.

The child watched Bea carefully, eyes moving between her hand and her face, but didn’t make any move.

‘Would you like me you show you the way outside?’ Bea offered.

The girl lowered her hands slowly. Bea wondered briefly if the girl understood any of what she was saying, but then she began to crawl out from under the console. Bea stood up from her squat, clipping her rifle to her back and allowing the girl some space to crawl out and stand up. Bea’s helmet light illuminated the dead body of the Kaiat and the girl turned to look at it, moving to take a step closer. Bea grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away from the body.

‘Come on,’ she said, facing the girl towards the door. ‘We’re going outside, remember?’

 

 

 

In the light outside the ship, Bea looked the child over more carefully. She was filthy, the only clean skin on her made by the tear tracks down her cheeks. Her red hair was matted and she wore a dress of rough fabric. Khali lifted her visor and looked down at the small girl as they approached.

‘Well, that’s not what I expected.’

The girl either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered by the scrutiny, not even bothering to look at Khali. Khali tuned to Bea.

‘You think she’s one of the rebel’s kids?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Bea shrugged. ‘I’m going to call it in.’

She slid her visor shut and opened the communication channel on her helmet, connecting with base.

‘This is Patrol 4.’

‘Go ahead,’ came the reply.

‘The ship is Kaiat,’ she informed them. ‘Carrying unidentified cargo, one live passenger.’

The line fell silent and Bea swiped at her wrist control, calling over the cycles while she waited.

‘Understood. A Reclamation Unit has been deployed. Maintain the site until their arrival.’

The line shut off and Bea turned to Khali.

‘Rec team is on their way,’ Bea said as the cycles rolled to a stop beside them. Bea gauged their surroundings. Raised on a hill sat a battle cruiser, one of the first, crashed a few decades ago by initial Kaiat resistance. ‘Let’s wait it out up there,’ she decided.

 

 

 

The Reclamation Unit was not a subtle group. Consisting of heavy trucks that struggled to move through the dense scrub, they were often heard before they were seen. The individuals that comprised the unit matched their convoy. Heavy-set workers prepared to lift, remove and haul whatever they were tasked with. Each unit came with a director, deciding what was useful to take and what was worthless. In this case, the vats would be taken for further investigation and the ship drive and communication box would be ripped out of the console for analysis back at the base, but everything else was rubbish to be left. Bea, Khali and their charge sat and watched them get to work from atop their hill. Bea stood as the director approached them.

‘You got a passenger for me?’ the director called.

Bea nodded, gesturing toward the girl behind her, who sat cross-legged in the dirt next to Khali.

‘Huh,’ said the director, briefly amused by his unusual cargo. ‘Come on then, we’ll let these soldiers get back to work.’ He called out to the girl.

She made no effort to move, even when Khali stood up next to her. She sat still in the dirt.

The director tried again. ‘Come on kid, I’m not keen on hanging out around here. You know, trees have eyes and all that.’

Khali reached down and helped the girl to her feet, gently pushing her towards Bea and the director. Once she was close enough, the director reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Wonderful,’ he said, smiling down at his new charge. ‘You’re going to have such a good time at the mining base. The facilities are second only to Earth’s.’ He looked up and nodded at Bea and Khali before pulling the girl back down the hill. They remained perched on the hill for a while longer, surveying the area before they boarded their cycles, heading off to the next sector.

 

 
Download a PDF copy of Patrol 4 by Imogen Wiggins

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ALPHA, Bohdi Byles

Lucas?’ Tabby called down the hallway to me as I closed the back door. ‘Hey, babe, come in here for a minute!’

I walked into the lounge room, wiping my dirty hands on a wet cloth. Living on a farm meant mud, dust, and shit was just a part of my reality. I had just got back from laying out fresh hay in the barn. Our pregnant alpacas were ready to give birth at any moment.

What’s up?’

‘Shh, listen,’ she replied, gesturing towards the TV. The news was on.

I shrugged my shoulders at Tabby, not really seeing why this was so important. On the screen, there was a man helping an elderly woman out of bed. The man looked a little strange though. I couldn’t figure out why, but something was just … off.

‘It’s one of those flash new robots that have been getting rolled out by those big tech companies.’

Well, that explained why the man, or thing, looked so odd. Tabby turned up the volume just as some dorky-looking guy with glasses that looked two-inches thick started speaking into a microphone.

‘We at Dalton-Friends have completed our trials for our Friendly Artificial Intelligence and are proud to announce that they are coming to the public in the very near future.’ He looked like he was about to burst with pride. Or ego. ‘Our trials have resulted in decreases in mental disorders, and increases in both productivity as well as overall health.’

Robots helping old people, babies and socially-retarded people by being their friend. That was nice. All the same, I let out a yawn. Science was boring to me. Always had been, even in high school.

Tabby nudged me in the ribs to shut me up again. I looked out the window to the paddock closest to the house. This was where our girls were so we could keep an eye on them. Our chocolate-brown girl, Sheila, was standing by herself near the fence. This was out of character for her, usually she would be in the middle of the rest of the girls. She liked company.

Shit. Look!’ I just pointed out the window. It was going to be our first birth for the year. The sun was setting and we’d be in pitch black, not to mention the freezing temperatures and the winter winds. ‘Grab the pack, quick!’

We scrambled around, getting towels, hot water bottles and torches. The news program continued to buzz around us. Another guy with what seemed like even thicker glasses was now talking. I was too distracted to listen, but I picked up on certain things.

Highly questionable … lack emotional intelligence,’ I heard him say before being drowned out by Tabby yelling for the vet’s number. I called it out, knowing it by heart. The man on the TV continued to drone on. ‘Dangerous path.’

You’re telling me, mate,’ I muttered under my breath before switching the TV off and running for the paddock.

 

I’ve been thinking,’ Tabby said.

Hmm?’ I hummed in response, closing my eyes again. It was early afternoon the next day and we were still in bed. Sheila had kick-started some chain reaction because by the time the sun began to break on the horizon we had five healthy babies and five healthy mamas. Fred had come in early this morning and said he would keep an eye on things while we caught up on some sleep. It had been shit cold and my hands were numb. I’d told Tabby to come inside but she refused to listen, saying we were a team. 

‘Look, I know we’ve talked about it before, but you know those friendly robot things? I think we should get one.’ Tabby rolled over in bed to face me, pulling the blankets around her. ‘It’s only us two on the farm. I mean, Fred helps you with building fences and stuff, but other than him, we’re by ourselves. If we got one, it could help me with cleaning and cooking. Spring is coming soon, and we’ll be even more busy with shearing, as well as all the newborns we’re going to be dealing with.’

She made a fair point. I didn’t like that she had to do so much housework. It made me feel like I was pushing her into a typical wife role, and I hated that. It would ease the pressure on her and let her do things she wanted to do, including helping out with the alpacas because I knew she loved being around them as much as I did.

I’ll think about it, okay?’ I kissed her on the forehead.

 

Two months went by and the weather started warming up. Little flowers were beginning to blossom, trees were growing new leaves, and little shoots of grass were covering our paddocks, making the farm come alive after the cold winter. I was in the paddock with the babies. They were running around, chasing each other, curious about the world.

A delivery truck was parked outside the house by the time I rolled up on the quad bike. Who knew how long they’d been there? It was a miracle that any delivery person would drive out of town that far, let alone drive to our house. That was the guarantee by Dalton-Friends though- they would deliver their robot and set it up too. I couldn’t find Tabby when I walked inside, but there was a man standing by the island in the kitchen.

Hey, mate,’ I said, resting my hat on a chair.

Hello.’ The man turned around and tilted his head. He had the same look that the thing on the news did.

Oh,’ I said. It was our new robot friend. How was I meant to greet a robot? Almost as if he read my mind, he stretched out his hand. I shook it, surprised at how realistic his skin felt. He looked like someone I would’ve met at the local pub, even though there were no local pubs around. It made my skin crawl a little.

I am Alpha.’ His voice also had a weird hybrid human/robot thing about it. He wasn’t human, but it was almost like he wasn’t fully robot either.

Lucas,’ I said, letting go of his hand and unconsciously wiping it on my pants. Tabby walked into the room with a man behind her carrying some papers.

You must be Lucas. I’m Andrew,’ the man said. He nodded at the robot. ‘I see you’ve gotten to meet it already.’

Yeah, I was just about to offer him a drink before thinking he’d probably go a bit haywire.’

Andrew laughed. Alpha also laughed, except his sounded a lot faker, like he was programmed to laugh whenever someone else laughed. ‘They’re meant to be waterproof with cleaning and stuff, but I don’t know.’

Why is that?’ I asked. ‘What abo—’

Look, I just deliver them.’ He picked something out of his teeth and flicked it across the room. ‘It’ll probably tell you in the manual.’

Later on, when he had left and we were finished with everything outside for the day, we came back home to the hearty smell of a roast baking in the oven. Alpha had taken it upon himself to cook dinner for us, and I won’t lie, it tasted pretty damn good. Even better was that we didn’t have to worry about cleaning anything because Alpha had quietly done so while we ate.

The next morning, I woke up and got ready to head out and move the boys into a different paddock for them to have more grass to graze on. Although when I walked through the kitchen, Alpha was standing still and grinning, expecting me. There was a coffee on the bench with a plate of eggs and bacon.

You have to eat before you work,’ Alpha said, gesturing to a chair. ‘Breakfast starts your day off on the right foot.’

I sat down and let Alpha serve the food to me before he returned to the kitchen to pack away the already cleaned frying pan. Oh yeah, I could get used to this.

 

One coffee. That’s all that was needed to make Alpha go completely batshit insane. One coffee and he lost his mind. One coffee and he destroyed my life.

The morning had started out as many of the others did. Alpha had been with us for nearly a year, and the year had gone easier than any other one we had. Our alpacas were healthy, sales were up, we’d been able to invest in some cattle, and Alpha had made home life a breeze. The only thing that seemed to be going south was my relationship with Tabby.

We had talked about kids in the past, but that was always a future thing. Having Alpha meant that a family could actually become a possibility for us. Or so we thought. No matter how hard we tried though, a baby just would not come. We’d been trying for a couple of months. The only thing that did come was anger and frustration that began manifesting between us.

Tabby had bumped me while I was taking a sip of coffee, and I spilt it all down my front. That’s all it took. It wasn’t even the fact I was covered in burning coffee as much as it was that she hadn’t said anything. She just kept walking.

Are you fucking kidding me?’ I said, making her stop and turn.

What?’

What do you mean what? You just bumped me and now I’m covered in burning coffee!’

So?’ she shrugged, throwing me a rag. ‘Clean it up and change your shirt then.’

I can clean it!’ Alpha said as he walked into the room. His voice had that fake emotion in it. It was never real. A robot couldn’t show real emotion. What a fucking joke. ‘I am happy to cle—’

Alpha, shut up!’ I yelled at him. He took a step back and tilted his head at me like he always did. His mouth dropped open in a mock gasp except he didn’t close his mouth. He just looked like a stunned fish.

Don’t take out your shitty mood on him,’ Tabby said. ‘It’s not his fault you’re clumsy. Leave him alone.’

I know it was a stupid thing to do. God, it was the stupidest thing I’d ever done because he was a damn robot, but in that moment of being completely irrational, the concern that Tabby had for Alpha had outweighed the missing concern for me and I snapped.

Every single time something happens around here, it’s my fault. It’s never anyone else’s fault – not his or yours, just mine. Poor, old Lucas being a clumsy motherfucker as usual. I’ve had it, Tabby. I’ve fucking had it.’ The words streamed out of my mouth so fast that I barely even heard them. Tabby went to speak but I cut her off. ‘No, you’re going to listen to me for once. It sucks to feel like I’m second-best next to a robot that doesn’t even feel emotion. It sucks that my damn alpacas pay more attention to me than my own wife does. And it sucks that I’m stuck on this farm with the both of you!’

Tabby was stunned into silence. It was like I’d hit her with a pole. With tears welling up in her eyes, she turned and walked out of the room.

The guilt hit me immediately, brewing with my anger. It was a dangerous mix, only worsened by the surrounding silence in the room. I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. My face tingled as it flushed red.

I can help you clean that up,’ Alpha said quietly, his face returning to the fake-shock, mouth open wide again. I couldn’t handle it anymore.

I said shut the fuck up!’ I launched my mug at him and it shattered against his face, covering him with coffee.

Warning: system malfunction. Immediate reboot initiated.’ The voice boomed from Alpha but his face didn’t move. It was an automated voice.

Whatever.’ Breathing heavily, I made to leave from the room, but Alpha grabbed me by the arm and launched me across the room. I crashed into a bookshelf, the wood breaking from the impact.

I glanced up as Tabby ran back into the room. She looked at me, eyes bulging. She was trying to figure out how I had ended up smashing myself into a bookcase when Alpha grabbed her by the neck. He looked seriously angry; not that fake robot trying to pretend it had emotion. I stood up too fast and, feeling dizzy, I lost my footing and fell back to one knee.

Alpha!’ Tabby spluttered, spit spraying out of her mouth. I could see the veins in her neck pulsating, her skin tinging red from the blood rushing to her head. Her breath was a strained whistle as she struggled to get oxygen. Her arms flailed around, her hands clawing at Alpha’s, trying to wrench him off. I was scared her head would literally pop off from her shoulders.

I said I would clean it!’ Alpha screamed and launched Tabby into the kitchen. Her head banged against the edge of the counter and I heard the crunch of her skull. She fell to the floor and didn’t move.

Adrenaline raced through my veins. I jumped up and ran for Alpha, tackling him into the wall. A sharp pain jolted down my arm as my shoulder slammed into his abdomen and then into whatever metal framing was underneath the skin. I leaned back, and Alpha was glaring at me. I could’ve sworn his eyes had turned red. He reached for me before his eyes went blank. His arms fell limply to his sides and his head nodded, eyes closing. He emitted a faint hum.

I crawled over to her on one arm. Blood was pooling around her head and her chest wasn’t moving. I lifted her head gently and rested it against my thigh. Warm blood began to seep through my pants, but I didn’t care. I breathed hard and fast, squeezing my eyes shut. Hot tears streamed down my face. I kissed her on the head and rocked her back and forth. I couldn’t think straight, and my head was spinning.

I sat in silence for hours. It wasn’t until the sun had started setting that I moved. The babies had been bleating since midday. They needed to eat otherwise they would die too. I left Tabby and drove to the paddock, my body aching. Once the babies were fed and locked up in their shed—which took a lot longer than it usually did; they didn’t trust me because I was covered in crusty, dried-up blood—I headed back.

It was dark as I rolled up to the house. The lights shone through the window, but I hadn’t switched them on when I left. I jumped out of the truck and ran to the door, wincing as I tried to ignore the pain. I got to the kitchen, but there was nothing there. No Tabby. No blood. The bookshelf was still broken but nothing was on the floor.

Tabby?’ I yelled out. My heart was thumping again, and my adrenaline picked up. I ran from room to room, slamming doors open. ‘Baby, where are you!’

Suddenly, I could hear water running in the laundry. I flung the door open but stopped dead in my tracks.

Alpha was folding Tabby’s bloodstained clothes as he turned around. ‘Hello Lucas.’ 

 

Download a PDF copy of ALPHA.

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Andromeda Bounty Crew, Rhiannon Heggie

In the year 2516, there are 389 billion galaxies in the Galactic Register. In Caldwell 5 – a dwarf galaxy just outside of the Local Group and the newly emerged Milky Way – lies a glowing emerald planet almost completely covered by water.
The planets’ most evolved inhabitants are The Eight [ѶΙΙΙ], a race of conquering cephalopod molluscs who live in hive colonies along the ocean floor. Giant, transparent pods, sit atop each other, resembling plumes of smoke. Ten different colonies inhabit Yharnams’ dark waters and all vie to be the sole governing body. To secure this position, it is common practice for a colony to invade another, replacing its residing queen with their own.

 

*

 

Sirens pierced the air.
An ѶΙΙΙ was breaching the external pressure system.
ѶΙΙΙs in the defence sector barked orders,
‘Seal off all of the exits! Switch on the circulation!’
There was a blur of cobalt blue as Mikha’el slipped through a vent in the metal wall. It took only a few minutes to swim through the small maze of vertical tunnelways before arriving at another vent. This is it! The trove of treasure his Queen had hidden away! Two of his tentacles reached ahead, popped open the passageway and pulled the young mollusc forward into a dark, murky room. Black silt blanketed the floor. Strips of long-dead algae hung to the glass like wallpaper. The ventilation unit must have been turned off for this whole area. An empty trophy room lay before him; nothing more than a memory of the expeditions his Queen had commissioned. Inky tears bubbled upwards from the corners of his eyes. He swiped at them, leaving black streaks across his sunken temples. Of course, they had found it all, and had taken it for themselves! Clasping her empty amulet – a twist of gold – tightly between his yellow suction cups, Mikha’el turned and punched the emergency release. A flat, red panel popped open with a clack, and he tapped in the code. Originally intended as a failsafe should the indoor-water circulation malfunction, it would now be his only way out and to freedom. A haunting echo wavered through the vent.
‘-y did he go?’
The boy’s breath escaped his beak as a strangled whimper. That was his brothers calling. They had been sent out to find him, to bring him to her, for punishment. He would be dead before he’d ever had the chance to look for more treasure. His tentacle clenched the amulet. The doors in front of him beeped loudly. Overriding the control system would take a few minutes. Panicking, the cephalopod’s cobalt limb slammed the release three more times. Black ink sweated from pores on the back of his bulging head. After a series of beeps, the water-lock finally hissed open – barely three inches. He slipped through and reached for a mask and suit off the wall. It was worn and mouldy but still stretched to accommodate his frame, instantly adding an internal water barrier. BEEP BEEP…. SSSSsssht. Unfiltered, murky water flooded in. It slammed Mikha’el against the internal door, lifting him up and out into the abyss.
Mikha’el flicked on the helmet’s torch. Ahead of him stood the ѶΙΙΙ’s colony home – a massive erection of cold, glass cells connected by a maze of tunnelways. But around him swarmed so much life! A small creature whipped past his mask. It disappeared in a whirl of purple tendrils that disguised knife-like spikes. As he neared the ship deck, he spotted two lone guards. Good. That meant the colony thought he was still inside. Sliding past them, he spied his ride – a blackened glass roof and misshapen double-barrel propulsion system – and climbed inside. Small and compact. Familiar with the old settings, he breathed a sigh of relief as his tentacles flicked the pod to life and received a whir in response. The guards were alerted to the sound of engines starting up. One disappeared to alert others while the second strained to open the door. Before the guard could react, he was incinerated by the pressure of the pod’s escape as it shot forward and up.
The boy’s eyes lingered on his planet. A dark green mass of rapidly swirling whirlpools appeared and disappeared instantaneously. Jagged rocks, sharpened from the force of the wind, formed the only land in sight. His head spun. They must have moved the treasure to a more central location… The only place large enough would be the old throne room. Mikha’el had no chance of knowing for sure until he returned. He pulled his gaze away to check the pod’s navigation.
SEARCHING FOR: NEAREST LIFEFORMS…
…LIFEFORMS 03 SECONDS AWAY.
‘What?!’
Before the young alien had time to react, his pod blasted through the side of an orbiting ship, ripping open a sharp, jagged hole in the hull.

The ship’s ion shield was obliterated, waking Stella from the process of repairing the internal systems.
‘Stella!’ the ship’s AI immediately recognised the baritone voice of Andromeda Dave.
AUTOMATIC REBOOT: INITIATED.
‘My ship!’ Dave’s voice shrieked with incredulous rage.
VISUAL SYSTEMS: ONLINE.
Before the ship’s central monitor stood a man sporting a tiger emblazoned, sequin jacket, and the curly orange quiff of a 1950s Rock & Roll star. Protruding from underneath Dave’s arm was the bloated head of a squid. His trailing tentacles dragged behind them the charred remnants of a space suit.
‘You wrecked my ship, you goddamn slime bag!’
Mikha’el squirmed free and scrunched up his large black eyes. Without warning, Andromeda Dave’s handsome face was covered in a violent spray of black ink.
‘My… my beautiful face!’ Dave sputtered ‘That’s it! Out he goes!’ He spun around towards the airlock, arms swinging.
‘Dave, there is an issue of higher importance to attend to…’ Stella’s automated voice crackled from the screen.
‘Yeah yeah, we can deal with it after I deal with this slimeball!’ He made for the exit. The alien curled under his grip like a kitten.
‘My name is Mikha’el!’
Andromeda Dave sneered at his hostage. ‘Squidboy then.’
‘Despite the ship’s shield preventing oxygen loss,’ Stella continued, calmly, ‘we will have to find parts in order to safely complete interstellar travel.’
Dave dropped the alien with a thud, turning on his heel to face the ships monitor. Deep in thought, he caressed the main control panel. A rusted screw snagged on the skin of his hand, causing it to bleed.
‘Okay, easy! So we go to the nearest repair station, fix my baby up and then continue on the path to fame and glory!’ Wiping his palm on his pants, he glowered at the crumpled hitchhiker.
‘Impossible.’ Stella trilled. ‘Maffei Station is the closest at just under 24,000 light years away. However, the ship’s status suggests the internal-engine-capacitor could trigger an explosion at any moment.’
Dave’s brows furrowed with frustration as he considered his options.
Timidly, Mikha’el spoke up. ‘Could you… fix it if you had the right parts?’
Andromeda Dave viewed his stow-away warily.
‘What if I told you that I have some on my planet? Old spaceship parts that you can use!’
Dave glanced briefly at the monitor, then back towards the squid.
‘Sorry kid, but don’t think I’m falling for that!’ He stepped forward.
‘There’s treasure!’ Mikha’el cowered in the corner. Tentacles raised for protection.
‘Hmm?’
‘There is a trove of treasure amassed by my Queen during her reign…’ The young alien gripped a rusty chain around his neck. Now Dave was interested.
‘If I could just grab a few pieces to remember her by… you can take as much as you can carry!’ Mikha’el continued.
‘OK.’ Andromeda Dave shrugged, turning away as he feigned nonchalance. ‘Treasure and ship parts… Just like that!’ He spun around, bending so that his nose was pressed up against the boy’s beak. ‘What’s the catch, Squidboy?’
Mikha’el’s protruding eyes darted from Dave to the monitor and back again. ‘If we make it back out – you bring me with you,’ his expression was determined.
Andromeda Dave appraised the boy with a raised brow.
‘The kid has guts!’ he turned to the monitor ‘We don’t need this slimeball, do we?’ He said conspiratorially.
A dark tentacle wrapped around Dave’s arm, anchoring him in place.
‘If they find me there, it will mean my execution!’ Desperation dripped from Mikha’el’s beak.
‘This option does leave us with the lowest possibility of malfunction. We only require metal sheet and wiring. All the tools we need are already on board.’
Dave slumped in the button-back captain’s chair with a squeak of red leather. Shaking slime off his jacket’s sleeve, he reached up to clean out the translation device that lived, at all times, snuggly in his ear. He sighed and absentmindedly probed his right nostril with a pinkie.
‘Well!’ Standing abruptly, Dave swept out his arm and with an unmistakable glint of excitement in his eye, ‘To Yharnam we go!’

 

*

 

Andromeda Dave, safe inside a fluorescent orange astronaut suit, followed Mikha’el as they sunk deeper into the icy depths of Yharnam. They were soon swallowed by a thick blackness.
‘The escape pod is unrepairable.’ Stella had explained only minutes earlier, after testing Dave’s underwater communication device. ‘You’ll have to swim down to the colony yourselves.’
A small, blue light suddenly appeared before the two, quickly increasing in size.
‘There it is!’ Mikha’el’s voice shook. ‘Stick with me and stay out of the light – we can’t be seen!’
Their descent slowed as they swum down to the sea floor. Andromeda Dave’s eyes widened. A beautiful structure lay before them – brightly lit glass pods resembling pockets of air, held in time. Light ebbed from the structure, illuminating all life that swum just outside its walls.
Mikha’el led them towards an unlit tunnelway marked by a pale green torrent of bubbles which threatened to send them tumbling backwards.
‘We’ll enter through the circulation tube.’
Dave shook his head dubiously.
‘It’s the only way you’ll fit undetected! Here.’ Mikha’el held out a strip of sticky suckers which promptly wrapped around Dave’s elbow. The boy tugged them over to the opening. Once his suckers were secured, Mikha’el pulled Dave through and together they began to infiltrate the place he had so recently referred to as ‘home.’

 

*

 

A pale-blue ѶΙΙΙ patrolled the hallway Andromeda Dave and Mikha’el had just entered. In an instant, Mikha’el had them pressed flat against the inside of a metal-grey doorway. He camouflaged his body so well that the toes of Dave’s bright orange boots were all that could be seen. Dave held his breath and the guard passed without a glance in their direction.
They set off, passing through brightly lit tunnelways and huge entryways, all finished with clean-cut glass. Mikha’el slowed and stopped, indicating for Dave to do the same, before peeking around the next corner. They had arrived at a massive hallway. At the end stood two colossal crystal doors, their glass opaque with carvings telling tales of the ѶΙΙΙ’s history. Two guards floated on either side of the installation, tentacles wrapped around glass spears.
‘We must get them away from here…’ The young alien turned to whisper a strategy.
He was greeted by an empty space.
Spinning around, he saw the horrifying image of Dave swimming, unarmed, towards two very angry inhabitants. Frozen in place with fear, he watched, useless. As though in slow motion, Dave twisted the first spear from one guard and rammed it, flat end first, into the ѶΙΙΙ’s forehead. The guard drifted to the floor like dried seaweed. Despite his agility, the second guard barely had time to react before he was whacked across the side of his midsection. Out like a light. His spear fell to the floor with a clang.
The huge doors opened silently, and cold water rushed out to greet them. They dragged the guards in with them and propped them up as doorstops. Andromeda Dave turned, dusting off his palms, and froze. His eyes widened in amazement. Piles of gold were expected but the sheer number of vessels! There were small Skyships! Sails eaten away by time, yet decks still sturdy enough to carry 15 men. Underneath precious metals and gemstones as large as apples, lay the enormous carcass of a submarine. Rusted through in several places, the faded white letters on the side were unrecognisable. As Dave rubbed the goose bumps from his arms, he spotted a ship that resembled his own, and he headed over to search for parts.

‘It must be here…’ Mikha’el’s voice echoed from the centre of the room. Dave was distracted from his task. BZZT! The wires he’d been cutting sent an electrical current pulsing through his body. He emerged from the ship with his prize, hair frizzy and hand smoking, as he added the cables to the metal sheet in his rucksack. Mikha’el knelt, tentacles hunched over a plain iron chest that sat, isolated in a clearing.
‘Here it is!’ The boy jumped up and spun around to display his prize. An iridescent purple stone rested gently on his suckers. He held up the entwined casing that hung from his neck, and carefully slipped the stone inside. His face was set with determination.
‘Before she died, my mother, the Queen would always wear this. She once said that a part of her soul was here. Now I’ll have her with me forever.’
Andromeda Dave smiled and backed away, leaving the alien to his discovery. There was one more task to complete. Hopping around the piles of gold, he gathered a few metal plates and rings – items easily melted. Handfuls of diamonds and large precious stones followed, adding to his already-bulging bag.
Andromeda Dave appraised his surroundings, a satisfied smile in place. ‘We good to go?’
Mikha’el nodded, as together they pushed open the heavy doors.
Pale blue tentacles wrapped themselves around Andromeda Dave’s legs. He twisted free and saw Mikha’el, disappearing in a cloud of ink. Alerted by the lack of guards at the door, three ѶΙΙΙ had planned an ambush.
Dave heard a strangled yelp as Mikha’el tried to free himself.
‘Squidboy!’ Dave glanced at the exit. A plan…I need a plan!
‘Dave!’
Without thinking, Dave turned back towards the cloud.
‘Cover your face kid!’ He yelled. He then began to wildly kick and punch at the ink that now curled around him. His foot came into contact first – with something soft and rubbery – then his fist.
‘Ugh!’ a guard sunk below the dispersing cloud. It parted to reveal Mikha’el, covering his head with his front two tentacles, floating between two guards. Dave reached out and pushed one to the side, grabbing Mikha’el’s arm as he somersaulted and started swimming.
“Let’s go!” he screamed inside his suit. Mikha’el’s cobalt blue head and wide eyes trailed behind, followed closely by the last guard.
‘Up ahead!’ Mikha’el located the circulation pipe they’d struggled through. They had only moments to prepare themselves before jetting up the passageway in a slurry of bubbles…
As their heads broke the waters churning’ surface, Mikha’el panicked. ‘They’re coming! We need to get away from here!!’
‘Shh,’ Dave hushed ‘Give her a second…’
Mikha’el’s flustered retort was cut off by a deafening whoosh. Skimming across the water, heading straight for them, was the burnt umber hull and blue fins of Dave’s ship.
Hovering above them, a metallic ladder unlocked from the ships rear and plunged down towards the two, screeching to a stop just above Mikha’el’s head.
Andromeda Dave grabbed it in one gloved palm and heaved himself up, out of the churning water.
‘Climb aboard,’ the ship trilled. ‘We’ll complete repairs in orbit!’
Dave turned back to the boy and paused, despite straining under the rucksack’s weight.
‘Look kid. It doesn’t look like you have much to stick around for here and you’ve got guts, so you might as well jump aboard,’ he yelled down. ‘There’s just one thing you gotta do first!’
‘Anything!’ Mikha’el replied, breathless from the adrenaline.
Grinning, Andromeda Dave turned and continued to make his way up.
‘You’ve gotta commit to the bounty hunter pledge! Do you vow to write your own destiny, hunting loot around the galaxies?’
‘Yes, I’ve always loved treasure!’ Front tentacles wrapped around the rope, Mikha’el followed.
‘Do you declare that you will always protect your shipmates, facing, if need be, the oppression of authority?’ Dave pulled himself up and into the open airlock before bending and offering a hand.
‘Of course! It’s easy!’ The boy’s suckers wrapped around Dave’s arm.
‘But, most importantly, do you promise to drink, gamble and get with the ladies?’
‘Uh…I’m not sure about the odds of that last one, but I guess… I do vow to be the best bounty hunter there ever was!’
With that, he was pulled up and over, into the belly of the ship. In front of him stood his new Captain.
‘Mikha’el,’ Dave popped his helmet and placed it underneath his arm, peering at the boy from the corners of his eyes. ‘Welcome to the Andromeda Bounty Crew!’

 

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The Ring’s Travellers, Shannah Connell

The Ring’s suns had provided the citizens of Navoe planet with yet another perfect day. Trisella had been shopping with her mother in the Apollo district in the city of Drita. Her family lived in a small town called Perplexion, on the outskirts of Drita.

Big cities were even more alien to Trisella than the tiny planets orbiting her home world. Dozens of multi-coloured orbs could be seen if you looked right up into the sky, and every single one had a name, a story, and a population. However, those who had the knowledge of all of those things were few and far between, and their numbers dwindled with each passing year.

The Pocket Travellers—an ancient, evolved race of humans who flitted, with the assistance of their portals, from one planet to the next—were rumoured to have passed into extinction, and the ‘accidents’ that caused the portals to close were known as the main reason for it.

Her mother had given her permission to walk down the next street and window-shop. She was to stay in sight at all times, and after her mother had paid for her new books, she would take her daughter to lunch. Trisella strolled down the street, her boots clicking against the iron slabs. She kept her mother in the corner of her eye, and peered into windows and displays, her gaze catching the sparkle of something that wasn’t a jewel. The fractured piece of crystal was shaped like the letter C, curved and jagged at the edges, frayed in places that crystals shouldn’t be frayed. It had seen heavy damage, but it was resting on a red velvet cushion like it was some kind of sacred artefact.

Pulling away from the window and its odd crystal prize, Trisella continued down the street after checking with her mother, who hadn’t yet pulled away from the book stall. She was striding along, minding her own business, when she walked straight into someone, even though the path in front of her was empty and there was no one to be seen.

A voice cried out, ‘Blast it!’ and suddenly, Trisella was being yanked forward, the sensation like a hook beneath her ribcage, and then she was falling down, down, down through a black, airless void until her feet found the floor, her legs trembling with the impact, and she pitched forward to her hands and knees before she’d even opened her shocked-shut eyes.

Her hands were stuck in some awful goo-like substance, and the floor didn’t feel like a floor at all, because it was warm and moving and…

Ugh!’ Trisella yelped, and scuttled backwards, away from the goo, wiping her hands desperately on her dress, letting out tiny whimpers of disgust as she went. ‘What is that? Where am I? Hello?’

‘Be quiet, you moronic human!’ the voice from before hissed. ‘You’ll wake it up!’

Trisella felt a familiar shiver of indignation, but the sensation of dampness won over, and she looked down at herself again. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness of her new location, and the pulsing of the walls around her was almost soothing in their rhythm.

‘Why am I all soggy?’ Trisella asked. There was a huff, and she was suddenly hauled up and propped against the wall by a large hand on her shoulder.

‘If you hadn’t walked right into me and knocked me off-course, you wouldn’t be soggy at all, let alone in the stomach of a Waleos,’ the voice muttered, and Trisella’s guts roiled at the thought.

‘The… stomach…? Of a what?’

‘A Waleos, you idiotic child! You know, swims in the acid lakes and has terrible gnashing teeth and likes to eat small humans for snacks? A mutation of the whales of the old world.’

‘I’ve – I’ve never – what,’ Trisella stammered. In all honesty, she thought she would be far more panicked, for someone in the company of an invisible stranger, trapped in the stomach of a lake-monster. Maybe the panic would set in later.

‘Who are you, anyway?’ Trisella asked. She was quite sure that the stranger was next to her, pressed up against the wall of the… stomach. Shudder.

‘Name’s Crag,’ the voice replied, and Trisella felt her hand being shaken, even though when she squinted, she couldn’t see anything more than a vague shape before her. ‘And you’re… Trisella.’

‘How do you know my name?’ she demanded, caught off-guard.

‘It’s the duty and responsibility of a Pocket Traveller to know the names of all of the Ring’s inhabitants, no matter how small or insignificant their lives and experiences may appear.’

She scoffed. ‘Crag’ was clearly having her on. ‘Pocket Travellers aren’t real. Everyone knows that.’

‘So, do you have a better explanation for how, one moment, you were on a side street in Drita, and then you bumped into me and ended up in the stomach of a creature who lives halfway across the Ring?’

‘I…’ She didn’t, in fact, have an explanation for that. She did, however, want to get out of this… Waleos stomach, and back to her mother.

‘Pocket Travellers are very real, thank you very much, small, insignificant Trisella. Our numbers grow smaller every year, but we still exist. There are still planets to take care of and portals to fix, so we keep on going, for as long and as far as we can.’

‘Is that what you’re doing, then?’ Trisella asked, choosing to play along for now. She wished there was some light, or that they weren’t invisible, so that she could see their face. ‘Fixing portals, or taking care of the planets?’

‘Both,’ Crag answered, and pulled on Trisella’s sleeve, nudging her down the wall, and she felt the air grow hotter somehow.

‘Ewww, why are we moving? Where are we going?’ The flesh beneath her shoes squelched unpleasantly; Trisella tried not to think about it.

‘I thought you’d knocked me off-course, but it seems as though the thing I’ve been searching for is here after all,’ Crag muttered. ‘There’s a tiny planet, up in the fourteenth sector of the Ring, called Creos. Its portal—its pocket—was displaced by some inter-planetary disruption. I was dispatched to retrieve it, and the path took me through Drita, and, apparently, you.’

‘So, did you leave from Creos? How did you leave if their pocket is displaced? Do Travellers really have their own portals? Can you take me back to Drita? My mother is surely worried about me. I was supposed to stay within her sight and Drita is such a large city and she’ll think I’ve gotten lost and it will be awful and she’ll be so mad—’

‘Do you ever shut up?’ Crag snapped, exasperated. They grabbed Trisella’s wrist and pulled, and Trisella felt the fleshy floor beneath her move as the stranger hopped over something, yanking her after them. ‘Yes, I left from Creos. I have my own portal, on my wrist, like a watch. I can either use that, or use the aligned portals on the planets. Pocket Travellers are called that for a reason. We travel through the portals, and our sole duty is to ensure that they remain functional, because if they don’t—if they get broken or lost in space, like the one I’m looking for—the entire planet is cut off from the rest of the Ring.’

Trisella was gaping. She knew she was, but… she couldn’t seem to close her jaw. Pocket Travellers have their own portals? She supposed that made sense, given their name, but it seemed so absurd and impossible that she could barely understand it.

‘The hows and the whys are extremely complicated and you won’t understand so I won’t go into them here. I’ll take you back to Drita when I find the portal—if we activate my portal here, I might never make it back to this particular creature. Hopefully your family won’t think too poorly of me. We’ll make this as fast as we possibly can. Do you know what a deactivated portal looks like?’

‘No,’ Trisella replied. She’d never even seen an activated one. Perplexion was far removed from Navoe’s portal temple.

‘Well, then, you’re in for a treat!’ Crag cried out, louder than their conversation warranted, and the Waleos’ stomach rumbled in reply. Trisella would have told them off for making noise when they had told her off for the same thing not five minutes ago, but there was light coming from a hand and a face was swimming into view through the sudden, blinding brightness.

A long, pointy nose set in a narrow, impish face, wide green eyes and wild black hair, Crag was every bit the oddball that Trisella assumed him to be. His eyes seemed to be fractured, as if they were carved from gems. His skin was unnaturally clear, and almost shiny. His outfit was as patched together as her quilt at home, every single article of clothing sported a wide pocket, buttoned and zipped to oblivion, bulging in strange places and looking completely out of sorts. It was a smorgasbord of colour. His boots were the only things that matched—heavy, black ones, laces and metal and hard edges. Trisella suddenly felt extremely conscious of her plain blue dress and brown boots, her yellow hair seeming plain next to the black corkscrews on Crag’s head.

‘So, Trisella,’ Crag said, and she could count every single straight tooth he had, he was so close. ‘Shall we find ourselves a portal?’

‘And if we find it, you’ll take me back to my family?’ Trisella asked. She felt that it was probably a good idea to get all the facts before she went along with a no-doubt crazy scheme.

‘PT’s honour,’ Crag promised. ‘I’ll even show you my portable portal—here, don’t touch it for the love of—it’s here, on my wrist.’ He held out his arm to her, pointing the small, handheld light away from their faces and towards the throbbing, wet, pink floor of the Waleos’ stomach… Gross. No.

Trisella moved closer to examine the shining slab. Smooth, faultless crystal shined from a dark band encircling Crag’s wrist, looking for all the world like an extremely large wristwatch, minus the hands and the knobs. It shined with power, and Trisella was reaching out before she’d even started to think about touching it.

A hard rap on the knuckles with the back of his other hand deterred her from that path. Trisella yelped and drew her stinging hand back against her chest, hissing, ‘What was that for?’

‘You could have activated it!’ Crag snapped. ‘I want to stay in this stomach for as long as it takes to find that portal and get out of here, understand?’

Trisella glared. The light was still so harsh on Crag’s face, but she could read determination anywhere—she saw it on her little brother’s face, sometimes, when he’d decided to do something that their mother and father wouldn’t approve of. Crag might seem to be a bit of an idiot, but he had a job to do, here. She may as well go along for the ride, seeing as she had no choice and no other way out.

They made their way along the stomach wall, which looked uncomfortably like a bunch of thick, velvety, pink swathes of fabric stretched across a prison of bones. She felt like a mouse in a trap. Crag’s eyes were fixed forwards, and when Trisella focused on where he was looking, all she saw was piles upon piles of pink, acid-melting waste. She had no idea what a massive creature like this would find to eat in an acid lake, but it couldn’t be safe. The puddles of formerly-whole things that it had apparently eaten were in the centre of the stomach floor, and the part which Trisella and Crag walked on was slightly raised, still disgusting, but safe from the toxic contents of the Waleos’ diet.

‘There!’ Crag whispered, shining the light into a mountain of pinkish bones and chunks of flesh, some of it visibly, rapidly rotting. Something glinted within.

‘It’s in there?’ Trisella groaned. ‘Why?’

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ Crag replied, and pressed the light into her hands. ‘Stay here, and keep shining that light where I had it.’

He slid down the wall and into the waste, and Trisella cringed at the sloppy sound his heavy boots made. She watched, holding the light, as he donned gloves and rifled through the pile, finally coming up with an extremely filthy, possibly pre-digested crystal chunks. Trisella instantly recognised them—the velvet-cushioned item in the shop window looked just like these, if only a little cleaner.

As Crag scrambled back up the bank of the stomach-river, the Waleos let out a rumble, and Trisella almost dropped the light. The ground started to shake and roll.

‘Would you hold onto these, please, Trisella?’ Crag asked, pressing the crystals into her hands and bracing her against him with a hand on her shoulder as the rumbling of the Waleos increased.

Fear bit at her throat and pulled the air from her lungs, but Trisella gripped the crystals with both hands against her chest, and gritted her teeth against the roiling vibrations of the gooey cavern.

‘Hang on!’ Crag shouted, looping his arm through her left elbow, and a flash sparked out of the corner of her eye as he slammed his palm down on his wrist-portal and then everything was gone in a burst of darkness.

The void lasted longer than it had the last time. It still felt as though there was a hook under her ribs, but this time it felt like a harpoon, dragging her underwater, the heaviness of the air making it difficult to breathe. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it stopped, and Trisella was lurching forward once more. This time, however, Crag’s hand clamped down on her shoulder and kept her upright as she swayed, dizzy and nauseous.

The sky was red. The stars were the same, but the sky was red, not blue, and not enough time had passed for the sun to be setting already. Trisella looked around, confused. She appeared to be standing on a great stone slab, red dust flurrying from where she had landed. The sky was red.

‘Welcome to Creos, Trisella,’ Crag announced, sweeping the portal crystals out of her hands and giving them to a hooded figure off to the side of their landing place. ‘This guard will restore the crystals back to their place at the foot of the portal, so I can now take you back to your family. Shall we?’

Trisella nodded, and took the offered arm, drawing breath before Crag yanked her back into the void.

The bustling streets of Drita were a harsh change from the sinister silence of the Waleos stomach and the crimson serenity of Creos. The knowledge of what she had seen in such a short amount of time seemed to press on her brain, and her lungs felt too tight, as if she was still holding her breath from the void. Her nose seemed to burn with the acid stench of the stomach waste. She had no idea how long she had been gone—it could have been half an hour, it could have been two hours. But she and Crag stood in the very street they had collided on, and he gave her a two-fingered salute as he stepped back into his portal void.

Trisella returned it, watching as he faded, knowing that she’d probably never see him again and wishing that she had asked more questions, and only turned away when she heard her mother’s cry of relief from down the street. When she looked back, after receiving a hug and a scolding from her mother, Crag was gone.

 

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From Shattering, Ally Bodnaruk

Shattering is a young adult science fiction novel set in a far-flung future-city of August, where tensions between the Patron ruling class and anti-technology activists are building. At the centre of the controversy is the Imprint program, a new method of prolonging life using synthetic bodies and downloadable ‘imprints’ of the human mind. Mallory Li and her best friend, butler, and Imprint Bligh find themselves drawn into the mess when Mallory’s inquisitiveness sets her down a complicated path.

 

Chapter One

For tonight’s evening of never-ending torture, Mallory is stuffed into a pale-yellow dress that swishes and flounces and does nothing to keep her warm. It’s the old-school kind, the type that doesn’t know how to change colour or flash sparkling, star-bright lights. To complete the look the family’s pseudo-Butler, Bligh, carefully pins her hair up; he’s the best at not poking her scalp with the sharp hair clips, so she always shoves the box at him before Mum has a chance to grab them.

‘Make sure you leave some strands out,’ Mum instructs Bligh. ‘It’s becoming quite uncouth to have it all slicked and pinned back. Make it look a little more natural.’

‘Of course Ms Li,’ comes the butler’s response as he teases some of Mallory’s thick, black hair out of the bun, ‘is this better?’

‘Oh yes, dear, that’s lovely. Don’t you look darling Mallory?’

With the number of pins still sticking out of her hair where Bligh has yet to secure them, Mallory thinks she looks more like the bushes in the park during winter, all sticks and tufts of sad leaves rather than anything darling. Maybe she can sneak out to the park and hide in the bushes. Blend in and stay there until everyone’s either sick with worry or forget about her altogether. Whichever comes first. She can live in the park and jump out at passers-by, all wild and spiky, and be one of those human interest stories on the news.

‘Thanks Mum, it’s perfect.’

‘Call me Mother at the party, dear,’ her mother softly scolds her as she adjusts the dress straps. ‘And don’t go copying Laurel Sandifer’s weasel of a child and call me by name. They may think they’re setting a new trend, but I guarantee they just look like fools.’

‘Of course I won’t, Mother.’

Her mum pats her cheek and gives her a brief, pleased smile. ‘You are a good girl Mallory, you do your father and I proud.’

Where Did She Come From? Who Is She Really? Is There A Family Out There Missing Her? Find Out Next Week On ‘Wild-Park-Girl’.

Mallory spends most of the shuttle-ride to the party thinking about the rest of the opening credits. She’s curled up in one of the window seats, tucked against glass, while her parents sit in front speaking quietly to each other. They’re being hosted this week by Patron Ama, a biotech engineer who runs the biggest augmented reality company out there — S-A Industries. Mallory’s dad started out working under Ama, but he’d left the company a few years before Mallory was born. He doesn’t talk about it much, Jeremiah Li isn’t a man of many words — he always has too much work to do. But when he does he speaks fondly of his time at S-A, and with a great deal of professional respect for Ama in spite of Everything That Happened. That’s how her parents refer to it, capitalisation and all. Everything That Happened. From the professional disagreements, to the firing, to the law suits, to even more law suits, to her father’s own Patronage and Ama’s refusal to let the bestowing of the title go unchallenged. Most of it had gone on when Mallory was still quite little so she doesn’t remember much of anything, but she can hear just how bad it had been in the way her father describes it as ‘a hard time’ with a tired frown or her mother’s description of Ama as a despicable woman.

None of that means they can skip the damn party when Ama hosts it though. Mallory has checked. If she hates the parties with their roundabout conversations, bright lights, and intense scrutiny, she feels an incandescent rage towards the parties at Ama’s. The stares increase tenfold as people peer at her parents and Ama, waiting to see if someone cracks. They always talk to her as well, something about it looking worse if they didn’t. At least Ama seems to despise the little act as much as they do. Mallory thinks she does at least; it’s hard to get a read on her.

They have to travel through Mid-City to get to Ama’s mansion so their shuttle is gliding through the high-rises and densely packed apartment buildings. It fills Mallory with a lingering claustrophobia, so different to the meandering estates and sprawling corporate headquarters that make up the Upper-Echelon. Concrete walls rush by as the shuttle speeds along; beads of light spilling out of windows, the only thing breaking the monotony. As the shuttle line traces the buildings and edges closer to ground level, Mallory begins to notice bursts of red writing spattered against the walls.

ELITISM KILLS

PATRONAGE = MURDER

WE ARE THE OPPRESSED

The walls of August turned a canvas for those that call themselves revolutionary.

‘Pay them no mind, dear,’ her mum calls back to her. ‘All great societies must have their dissenters.’

Mallory hears her dad mutter, ‘Though why ours must be so pointlessly annoying,’ before her mum frowns him into silence.

When the revolutionaries first started becoming more active a few years back it had sent a frisson of excitement through the Upper-Echelons. It had sounded daring and brave and like their world was expanding into some great Epic. They did small things at first; graffiti and hacking jobs, a few labs got broken into. Nothing too disruptive. But then there’d been an attack in the Factories, one of the largest computerised production lines was put out of business for a week and the Patrons had sent in the Guard. There hasn’t been any revolutionary activity outside of Mid-City for over a year.

Secretly, Mallory has been a little disappointed at the lack of excitement.

As their shuttle pulls up outside Patron Ama’s house, Mallory’s stomach tightens. Ama’s house is almost a palace. It’s gargantuan. Pillars of marble and gold rise from the ground and line the entrance drive, like path markers to a temple they exclaim ‘I am here, I am grand, and you will worship me’. The house itself is a testament to technological and architectural wonders, but built in the old-time style everyone knows Ama favours. It looks like it’s made out of golden sandstone, edged in the same marble as the pillars, and decorated in elaborate gold-leaf and swirling carved patterns. But each brick is actually made of durable poly-synthetic-plastic and contains a computer processor linked back to a central server. Mallory loves it as much as she hates it. She loves the complication, the sheer brilliance of having a house built out of a computer, but she hates the arrogance it exudes. It screams power and status, a snarling beast that demands respect from all who pass through. Mallory has wondered in the past how hard it would be to hack; she’s considered getting Bligh to reprogram it to display childish images and insulting words. But actions like that would be enough to have her thrown in jail, no matter her parents’ status, so she leaves her plans as a fantasy.

Mallory imagines the house covered in sparkling butterflies and love hearts as they walk up to it just so she looks less impressed.

‘Why are you smirking? Stop it,’ her mum murmurs. ‘You have to stay in control, dear.’

‘Yes Mother, of course Mother,’ Mallory intones, pulling her face back to neutral. It’s possible, Mallory thinks, that Mum will only be pleased when Mallory successfully learns to replace her face with a blank piece of paper. Then whatever emotion she’s expected to have can just be drawn on.

Her mother gives her a cautionary look as they walk up the grand staircase and into Patron Ama’s party; Mother, Father, and Daughter — picture perfect family.

 

The ballroom is lit like gold. Opulence spills out of every corner of the ballroom, delicate flowers hang from baskets (the real thing!) while little bots flutter and flit like iridescent butterflies over their heads. But all Mallory can focus on is her shoe pinching her left heel; rubbing in a sharp, stinging way that heralds a blister. She tries to shift her weight to her right to relieve the pressure, but the movement only causes another stab of pain and a wince that she doesn’t manage to conceal. Her mum squeezes her elbow, though the conversation she’s holding with Patron Ama doesn’t falter. Mallory can tell that she’s going to get another lecture on poise and proprietary when they’re back at home. The reprimand makes her palms itch. She grits her teeth to keep the frustrated words down inside of her where they coil in her stomach like electric wires; sharp and shocking.

She’s never enjoyed the Patron Parties, endless parades of only the most powerful, the most influential. Her parents force her to attend because they think it will instil a greater understanding of August City’s politics. But the parties are boring in a way that goes beyond a lack of something to do. It’s people either ignoring her or talking down to her. We think of you as a mere speck if we think of you at all, their eyes tell Mallory as they look at her with disdain.

Mallory is not allowed to speak. Her parents are too afraid she’ll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. She’s just here for her parents to show her off while she studies the delicate balance of civility and cut-throat politics that keeps August running. She’d been fascinated by it when she was younger, the way the Patrons would circle each other with their words, talking round and round about everything except what they really wanted to say. Yet somehow they still understood each other. Her mum says it’s all about listening to the things they don’t say, the gaps in the conversation, and learning to leave those spaces in your own sentences. It had seemed kind of mystical up until her parents decided she needed to learn to do it herself.

Now it just seems stupid.

Twice a week she has to sit down with her mum and Bligh and work on her Politicking. She hates it. But Mum insists it’s what she needs to know to manage the world.

‘This is important Mallory,’ she says whenever questioned. ‘This is your future.’

Even Bligh thinks it’s important that she learns, which is saying something. Normally he agrees with her when she complains about all the dumb little things that constitute life in the Upper-Echelons. So she goes to the lessons and she tries to remember it all. She can’t help it if her inner-monologue, the one Mum is always telling her to rely on, is more interested in just screaming than in passive-aggressive implying insults.

‘Let them point out their own flaws themselves, if you can. Ask them if they’re going for a vintage style if their clothes are out of season. Wonder where their partner is if you know they called it quits,’ her mum recites. Mallory imagines punching them in the face instead.

Whatever. She swallows the thoughts down and watches old Street Fighters repeats on her QScreen in her room after every lesson. Her parents don’t like her watching ‘those kinds of shows’, the ones that are meant for the unsophisticated and uncivilised masses of Mid-City and the Factories, in no way for the daughter of a Patron. But Bligh is the only one who ever comes into her room anyway and he doesn’t care.

That’s not the complete truth. He does care, just not about what she watches. He just knows she only likes watching the fights when she’s feeling particularly angry. He even stood up for her and asked her parents if she should learn self-defence (they completely dismissed the idea, but she loves him for trying). That’s how it goes with Bligh, he just seems to get her. Ever since Dad brought him home from the lab it’s felt a little bit like it’s her and Bligh against the world. Sometimes she imagines they’re in one of the ancient cop shows Aunt Emmy studies, all well-timed jokes and a complete understanding of one-another’s psychology. Mallory and Bligh. Bligh and Mallory. They’d have pithy nicknames for each other like Robo-cop or Terrier and Mallory would always turn up late to crime scenes with a grin and two coffees while Bligh cracked jokes about crime waiting for no one.

She went through a phase when she was fourteen of asking Bligh, ‘what’ve we got,’ every time she saw him.

Breakfast Scene. Enter Mallory. Eyes crusted with sleep, dressing gown falling off one shoulder. Bligh stands at the counter, apron covering his blue button-down, a plate of eggs in one hand and a piece of toast in the other.

Mallory: What’ve we got. (It’s a statement and not a question). Serious voice.

Bligh blinks.

Bligh: ‘Breakfast?’

Yeah, it always worked better in the old shows. Bligh’s not as witty as she sometimes likes to think he is anyway.

 

Her shoe is still hurting. Damn thing. Bligh had told her to make sure to wear them in before the party tonight but she hadn’t listened. Well, she had listened; she’d just decided she had better things to do. Now her heels are burning, practically on fire, and all Mallory wants to do is take them off and sit down in a corner somewhere and douse her feet in ice.

‘And how are you doing in school, Mallory?’ Ama turns to speak to her just as Mallory is gearing up for another pain-relieving shuffle.

Mallory nearly falls over. It probably just comes across as a slight waver, a rocking movement as though Ama’s words have lashed out like a punch and tried to knock her over. Ama doesn’t speak to Mallory. No one speaks to Mallory. It’s an established fact of the world. Like gravity. Or that Bligh can always tell when Mallory is lying.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Her mother’s eyes are drilling into her. Do not disappoint! Telepathy is not needed for Mallory to know what her mum is thinking.

‘It’s going well.’ More detail, don’t freeze up. ‘We’ve begun studying the Theory of Synthetic Intelligence.’ Something else, something else. Oh. ‘Carrie might have mentioned it?’

Perfect. Ama’s niece is Mallory’s age, but is absolutely hopeless at biotech. She works in the class below Mallory for Tech Lab.

‘No, I don’t think Carrie’s class has begun that unit yet,’ Ama says pleasantly enough, but the way Mallory can see her mother smile in her peripheral vision means Ama is at least a little put off.

‘Oh, well it’s a very interesting topic.’ Neutral, keep your face neutral, she thinks. Show no fear.

Mallory thinks it’s working. She’s about to give Ama a politely snide smile, lift one corner of her mouth and duck her chin just like she’s practiced —

The ballroom is suddenly filled with darkness as the lights go out. Everything goes quiet as conversations grind to sudden halt. The lights at a Patron Party don’t just go out.

Mallory freezes in shock like everyone else. She wants to reach for her mum’s hand but doesn’t dare move because what is happening? Harsh breaths and trembling fingers. Is the room really filled with darkness or is it just empty of light? she thinks, somewhat hysterically.

Quiet voices begin to fill the void of dark silence that surrounds them.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Did Ama plan this?’

‘Why did the lights go out?’

The lights come back on as suddenly as they went out and nothing has changed. Except. No one is moving, wide-eyed as they look about the room trying to determine if this is something they need to be concerned about. No one wants to be the first one to panic.

‘Nothing to worry about!’ Patron Ama shouts suddenly to the crowd, ‘I told maintenance they had to wait till tomorrow for the tests, but clearly I need new employees.’

There’s a titter from the crowd as they pretend to relax, but Mallory can see the Guardsmen on duty racing out of the room as Ama glances around with a tight expression. A flash of red from above catches Mallory’s eye. Instead of the soft gold from before, the bots are twinkling blood red.

‘Oh dear,’ her mum says from beside her as she too looks at the ceiling. ‘We’d better go find your father.’

 

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