Now available: Ethnic Albanians Need Not Apply

INNOCENT ILLUSTRATIONS, RECONTEXTUALIZED AGAINST THEIR WILL!

Plumbing the depths of forgotten illustrations as grist for the mill, the cult webcomic CheapCaffeine is here presented in its first print collection. These first 300 cartoons introduce running gags and recurring characters—the Martian, the Egyptian embalmers, and of course the irrepressible Grievance Gorilla—in a daily dose of surreal, postmodern wit. And now, in semi-permanent dead tree format, accompanied by behind-the-scenes factoids and a smattering of bonus content!!1!, these moments of ephemeral non-sequitur humor can be gifted to luddite relatives, ensconced on the back of the toilet, or placed in studied casualness on a coffee table to impress attractive houseguests!

Cold Fusion Media table at LTUE!

This Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Cold Fusion Media will have a table in the dealers room at Life, the Universe, & Everything in Provo, UT.  Not only will we have copies of The Golden Age of Crap, Arcane and Arcane II, and Space Eldritch and Space Eldritch II for sale, but a goodly number of the contributors of both Space Eldritch volumes will be one hand if you’re looking for signatures.

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “Fall of the Runewrought” by Howard Tayler

se2 small “The problem with rune-tech, a problem exacerbated by our reluctance to acknowledge it as a problem, is that despite twenty-eight years of research, development, application, and deployment, it remains indistinguishable from magic.”–Saadiq Sebastian DuChamps, RUNExpo Chicago, 2055

 “Captain Tamrielle Surinam.” I give my name to my medicine band, a shiny bracelet on my right wrist. “Sanity is nothing more than consensus of perception.”

My passphrase. It’s not strictly true, but I like it. Dad used to say that.

The band flashes green and scrolls my vitals. Looks like I’m going to have a good day. The medicine band monitors all kinds of things from its vantage point on my wrist, but every so often I’m required to talk to it directly. Presortie is one of those times—last-minute assurance that my head is on straight. My brush with insanity eighteen months ago notwithstanding, I’m still the best runecracker that Runewrought Ampersand Dynamics has.

Sometimes I wonder whether my value to R&D went up after I touched the crazy place. Not that it matters. They’ve invested ten years of education and training in me, not to mention whatever it cost them when they bought my commission from the army. And then there was the soulbone surgery. I’m an expensive asset.

“Tasty drugs today, ma’am?” Milholland shouts over the roaring engines. He’s a big white guy with an easy smile.

“I’m too high to taste ’em,” I shout back. “You’d better ask me how many fingers I’m holding up.” And then I flip him off.

Laughter. We’re not nervous. No more so than usual, anyway. The six of us—me, Milholland, White, Betts, Nguyen, and Groberg—are flying from Vegas to Delta, Utah, where a power station has gone dark. There was no 911 call, there were no calls at all, and now nobody picks up. Whatever happened, it was big, it was bad, and it was fast.

That probably means it swept in from another world and needs to be put down or put back. Or both. R&D dispatched us with two fire teams and three trucks of support to troubleshoot.

“This one’s kind of spooky, Cap’n,” says Nguyen over the group channel, his voice clear over the now-muted engine noise. “I think we may want the rest of the trucks to hang further back, just in case.”

“I’m with Nguyen,” says Milholland. “Those folks have families to go home to tonight. We need to be the canaries in the coal mine on this one.”

“You do know that the canary-in-the-coal-mine thing only works if the miners can watch ’em die,” says White, his pale, skinny hands pantomiming a fluttering bird suddenly dropping dead.

“Nice try,” says Groberg with a frown that nicely complements his mustache. “They’ve got our telemetry. They can watch us die from Wales. I say keep ’em back.”

“What do you think, Betts?” I ask. Me, I don’t want to risk hauling forty-eight people into a death trap if six will accomplish the same senseless waste.

“They should stay the hell back,” she says. “I want to be able to shoot indiscriminately.”

Betts has a pig iron, just like Nguyen. People with magic bullets are allowed to shoot indiscriminately.

“Milholland, call dispatch,” I say. “Keep ’em two klicks out, south side, between the plant and town.”

We’re AFTT. It’s short for “Angels Fear to Tread,” the name we selected over “Fools Rush In.” Same difference. We go in first. We never know what we’re in for, but we’re the team that expects the unexpected and delivers the impossible. Maybe we’re heroes. Maybe we’re the canaries in the coal mine.

From above, the Intermountain Power station in Delta looks like giant stacks of white concrete boxes in the middle of a vast, verdant pasture marked with a pair of radiating streaks of brown. Our response truck circles above the facility, banking to give us a better view of the site. No smoke, which is a good sign for a power plant. Canaries haven’t been used in coal mines in a hundred years, and coal hasn’t been burnt for power in a decade. Intermountain Power is all rune-tech these days. It’s efficient, clean, and reliable. Except right now, when it’s not. At any rate, nothing is supposed to be burning here, and nothing is.

I don’t see any structural damage, but there are some star-like dots…

“I make out four bodies in the quad,” says Nguyen.

Yup. That’s what those are. Damn.

“Confirmed,” I say. “What else?”

“Are those brown swaths normal?” Milholland asks.

I look where he’s pointing. The station is surrounded by rich pasture, but there are two dry, dead streaks running through it for maybe a thousand meters, with several smaller streaks branching off of them. The station itself has no green amid it.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “Driver, swing us over that.”

The truck responds with a fresh whine atop the engine roar. It’s unsettling. Most vehicles are silent, but we’re not flying on rune power. If something has gone crooked with the rune-banks here in Delta, we’re better off avoiding possible interference. We’re aloft on jet fuel and Tesla turbines—conventional engines delivering ordinary, air-driven lift. Loud, smelly, and very unlikely to fail.

Or, at least, unlikely to fail here. I know of several rune combinations that could shut down internal combustion, weld moving metal into a solid block, suck a battery dry, or just swat us out of the sky. In fact, I can do all of that with my soulbone. But weapon-words like those don’t belong in a power plant.

“I think the brown is new,” says Nguyen. “The whole plant is brown like that. There should be some landscaping in the quad.”

“Pulling it up now,” says White, swiping his finger back and forth across his tablet. “Green, green green, yeah. Apple, Bing, Google, Glyphi, and NASA agree. The site should be green all the way to the concrete. Muddy on the driving path, but green everywhere else.”

Five sources. White’s thorough, if skittish. I like him. Not enough to date him, even if that were something that HR allowed, but he’s solid.

I consider the brown streaks again. They’re wide where they meet the facility, curving and tapering to crisp points out amid the green a kilometer away. The smaller intersecting streaks make it look almost like a rune of some—

“SHIT!” I hit the panic button on the left side of my goggles, and the left eyepiece goes black. So do five other left eyepieces—the panic buttons work for the whole team…

 

***

["Fall of the Runewrought" by Howard Tayler is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “Full Dark” by Nathan Shumate

se2 smallWe weren’t even through our post-transit checklists after the jump, and I still had that nauseated tang in the back of my throat, when Jimi sang out from his station. “Picking up refined metal ahead.”

I pulled back from looking over Kessler’s virtual shoulder. “Details.”

Jimi gestured, and the contents of his heads-up display overlaid itself on the data already in front of my eyes. I foregrounded the new data as Jimi’s gestures and eye movements focused us both in on what had triggered his telltales: a bead of metal gleaming against interstellar space, no different to the naked eye than the spray of stars in its background, but clearly identified via spectrography as a mass of mostly pure and thus likely refined metal, only a few kilometers ahead of us.

“Is it one of ours?” I asked.

“No ID beacon.”

“Is it Faction?”

After a second Jimi shook his head, a movement which transmitted as a slight wiggle through his HUD. “Showing as entirely powerless, energy signatures invisible against background radiation.”

“So one of the Dead Races,” I said.

“That’s how I’d bet my pudding.”

I nodded and pushed his overlay off my HUD. “Relax a notch, then,” I said. “After jump checks, we’ll put together a roster for an ex-ex team. Tell Moise to start scoping for ID matches. She’ll be tickled.”

I was, too, a little bit. Adrenaline had spiked at Jimi’s call-out from the possibility of either another Emergence vessel out in our survey path, or a Faction ship startled into a confrontation. But a Dead Race derelict was colorful, too—not technically rare or newsworthy in the grand scheme of things, but worth exploring before we turned to geosurveying the nearest star system. It was the first one I’d ever run across while sitting in the captain’s chair. And if it was previously undiscovered—which it could easily be, as the whole point of this survey route was to tag rocky planets beyond current exploration—then it would be the first I’d seen unclaimed in two decades in space. Probably not enough salvage value to tow it through a jump, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless, and few surprises in space are pleasant.

“Captain!” Kessler almost bounced out of his seat. “Can I reserve a slot in that ex-ex team?”

With a gesture I pulled his work area into my HUD. Kessler was Transit officer; his role was to prepare the complex gravitonic calculations necessary for a successful transit jump, and protocol required that there always be a valid jump calculated from wherever we were, even if we had just gotten there. I could see that his work was barely begun, charting and quantifying the gravitational wells and rolls in space-time which transit jumps had to negotiate.

“You know the answer to that,” I said. “Get gravitonics completely nailed down for here and now, and you might get a look. Until then, you’re not going anywhere.”

Kessler’s face fell. I knew he was the biggest Dead Race theorist on board the Anaximander, and the very real possibility of not being on the initial external-exploration team aboard a freshly discovered vessel was probably souring his gut.

I said in a more conciliatory tone, “I’ll tell Moise not to be in too much of a hurry to get over there, okay?”

Kessler tried to put on a brave face as I tugged off my HUD collar, automatically signaling to the ship that I was going off bridge duty and transferring command functions to Jimi; Jala, my command relief, was due on duty in only a few minutes. Then I wafted myself to and through the hatch from the command module.

 ***

 I found Moise in the cramped “common area” of the survey crew section, consulting duty rosters for her ex-ex team. Moise was the official liaison between the Anaximander’s crew, of which I was captain, and the geosurvey team that we were there to ferry between rocky planets and asteroid fields so they could assess exploitable resources for the Emergence.

“Captain,” she acknowledged, her eyes still on the personnel lists as she rubbed her chin.

“Moise,” I said in return. “Hey, I don’t know if any of your guys are Dead Race theorists, but Kessler’s big into all that stuff. If you’re okay with waiting a bit until he gets the gravitonics nailed down on this side of the jump, he’d be a good member of the Anaximander crew to include in the ex-ex.”

She nodded again, still scrolling through names. “He’s already spoken to me. We’ve identified it as a Slugger ship, which means it’s probably been drifting since our ancestors were trying to pull themselves onto dry land. I figure a few more hours won’t hurt.”

“A Slugger ship, huh?”

She finally minimized the list and looked at me. “Sluggers are fine by me. No solid bodies, so there’s probably nothing left of them except some hydrocarbon stains on the bulkheads. A lot better than Crabbies.” She shuddered. “I was on a first-in team on a Crabbie ship a decade ago. The pics and holos, they don’t do those critters justice.”

Crabbies were one of the five Dead Races—though by some tallies, there were only four and a half, and they counted as the half. Carapaced, multi-limbed lifeforms with a half-dozen regular subspecies in each of their semi-organic ships—which resembled transit-jumping interstellar anthills more than anything else—they had been a source of academic and cultural controversy. Some exobiologists insisted that they weren’t an intelligent space-faring race as such, but instead a hive species which had evolved in and was perfectly adapted to life in space, and operated more like the terrestrial social insects they resembled than like us or, presumably, any of the other species which had gotten into space by intellect and technology.

I said, “If Kessler takes too long, don’t put off the ex-ex. A Slugger ship is interesting, but they’re all the same, and we’ve got real work to do. He’ll just have to cry in his milk…”

 

***

["Full Dark" by Nathan Shumate is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “Seed” by D.J. Butler

se2 smallHer lover caressed her from the inside. Her skin tingled from the energy, ancient and primal, that welled up within her, coursed through her sinews and transformed her entire being into one vibrating Pythagorean string, a perfect single note of husky alto joy. She screamed, feeling her lover between her teeth, under her tongue, behind her trembling eyeballs. She did not dare breathe, for fear the wind in her lungs would cause her to explode, and then her lover stroked her with his fingers.

No, not his fingers.

Not fingers…

 ***

Sapient Metic Fallows awoke in her bunk, awash in sweat.

The zero-G safety straps she had clipped over her before taking a couple of hypno tablets and drifting into merciful voidsleep chafed, grinding the salt of her own sweat back into her skin. She freed herself with a flip of the fingers on the straps’ latches and bounced slightly off the sleeping shelf, pushed into the gravity-less space of her tiny quarters by the equal and opposite reaction to the working of her stubby fingers against her own chest.

Fingers.

Did she miss sex that much? She shook her head to no one and peeled off her one-piece sleepfilm garment in a slow forward roll, tumbling directly into the corner of the cabin that was her ultrasonic shower. No, if sex had been that interesting, she never would have left Tertius, would have taken a planetside job somewhere. The Fleet employed plenty of people in Requisitions, Supply Chain, Maintenance, Interstellar Comms, Strategy, Intelligence, and other functions, and she could easily have found a berth. Einstein, she cursed to herself, if she’d really been that interested in sex, she could have taken a job at Harbor Hospitality Services, and had all the sex she wanted. There were plenty of men—and women—who liked a stubby body like hers.

No, she had insisted on entering the Sapient Corps because knowledge was much better than sex. It gave you similar power over others, but left you feeling cleaner. So she had said goodbye to her companion of two years… she strained now to remember his name as she splayed and parted her thick brown hair to let the ultrasonic beams pound her scalp clean… Brion, that was it, and taken to the void.

She heard a soft thud in her quarters and froze in place. A footfall?

Her back was to the tiny cramped space, and prickles crept slowly up her spine. The fact that she was drifting in zero gravity made it worse. It made every goosepimple feel like the physical touch of an unseen intruder. She forced her mind through the obvious paces, like a child convincing itself to walk into a dark room: she had been alone when she had gone to sleep; her door had been locked; she hadn’t unlocked it. She was alone.

She tried, but could not by the sheer power of her mind force the muscles in her back to unknot. At least she managed to keep her back turned. The thought that someone was watching her shower was distracting, made her feel warm and tingle in ways she couldn’t quite consciously describe.

She heard the footstep again—

pushed off the indentation around a hatch in the wall—

and spun around.

Nothing.

Her quarters were empty.

Maybe, she thought, she could get Doctor Plectrum to have the ship increase her dose of downer, the libido suppressant administered to every crewperson of the Fleet’s voidgoing vessels. This wasn’t her first troubling dream of the voidjourney. Metic snapped off the ultrasonic beams and frowned, wishing they had a COLD setting and actual water, like you could find in a Hospitality Bath, or the oldest buildings on Tertius. She felt clean but still troubled, flushed, uncomfortable.

She itched inside, and had no way to scratch.

Metic checked her wall comms unit as she slipped into her black sapient’s trousers and tunic and found a blinking orange bridge summons, priority PROMPT. That was it, she told herself. She had heard the summons activate, and in her distracted, nearly daydreaming state, she had convinced herself it was a footfall. But the thought didn’t let her force a sigh of relief through her lungs.

She exited into the ring-passage outside her quarters and headed for Captain Charamander’s Briefing Room.

She returned the crisp salutes of two passing engineers—like most of the Femship Atalanta’s officers, Metic bunked alongside the crew—and continued towards the central lift. The engineers were both pretty, prettier than she was, and the fact that their hair was dangerously close to being on their collar and therefore longer than the Chastity Regs permitted suggested awareness of their own charms, and perhaps a touch of vanity. Metic was not bothered by this, but she was bothered by the fact that she noticed their attractiveness, and that the fire in her belly continued to smolder. She was not a sapphic—could not be a sapphic, and travel the void in any of the Fleet’s ships, all of which were sex-segregated for the same reason that the crew’s rations were tampered with.

The Fleet made plenty of mistakes, but it knew this one true thing about human nature: that there was no such thing as safe sex. Any sex was dangerous, but especially sex in the cooped-up interior of a voidship, isolated, deprived of the space and means to vent rage, envy, possessiveness, and the other brutal passions of the dark underbelly of the human soul. A lovers’ tiff with a blaster in the middle could easily mean a ruptured hull and the death of hundreds of valuable personnel, a waste of millions of hours of expensive training. Sex in a voidship was a breath away from violence and catastrophe, so the Fleet went to great lengths to be sure its voidships were chaste. Such sapphics and thebans as undoubtedly slipped through the Fleet’s screening kept their heads down and their couplings discreet. The others waited for planetside R&R or home leave, and were grateful for whatever it was the ship put in their food…

***

["Seed" by D.J. Butler is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “The Humans in the Walls” by Eric James Stone

se2 smallIf you need regularly scheduled passage from Star A to Star B, then you take an interstellar liner. If you can afford a ticket. A modern interstellar can travel 1600 times the speed of light. Getting from Earth to Alpha Centauri in less than an E-day is pretty amazing. At that rate, though, it’ll take you almost twenty years to get to the galactic core. And you didn’t drop a megacred rejuving yourself just to spend decades holed up on a starship, not even a luxury cruiser. But a godship can take you across the whole galaxy in less than a week without charging you a milli. Of course, there’s no guarantee it’s headed where you want to go, and you’d better bring your own luxuries, like food and oxygen.

– from Hitching the Godships, anonymous, circa 4220 E.S.Y.

 ***

 Robert Scotts

In July of 4308, Earth Standard Year, I found myself suddenly unemployed on the planet of Grönmark, due to the sudden departure of my employer and all of his liquid assets immediately prior to the issuance of a warrant for his arrest. The Planetary Police suspected that I, as his biographer, must have been aware of his predilection for stealing and torturing sentient robots to destruction, and therefore subjected me to uncounted hours of interrogation. Eventually they released me, although to this day I do not know whether it was because they were convinced of my actual innocence or simply because they had insufficient evidence to tie me to his crimes.

My former employer having been one of the richest men on Grönmark, I had most ill-advisedly authorized him to act as my financial advisor, and thus, subsequent to my release by the constabulary, I found that my personal accounts had been drained down to the last millicred. For the first time since college, I was forced to apply for my Living Wage allotment from the government so I could purchase standard nutritional packets and rent a basic housing unit—my employer’s mansion, where I had abode since my arrival on this planet two years prior, being now confiscated by the government.

I passed some weeks in that unfortunate state, and it rapidly became evident that my prospects for employment as a personal biographer to some other wealthy individual on Grönmark—or any of the other peopled worlds or habitats in that star system—were severely limited by my tainted association with my disgraced former subject.

Thinking to perhaps turn my misfortune into a small fortune, I attempted to sell my partially written biography to a publisher, and went so far as to intimate that I could spice it up with tales of my employer’s depravity. Alas, my efforts along those lines came to naught when I was informed by legal counsel that any profits from such a book perforce would be distributed to charities aiding disabled robots.

Thus, when news came that a godship, which humans called by the strangely allusive nickname of Grendelsmum, had entered the system, I determined to avail myself of the opportunity to seek greener planets.

 ***

 You wish to understand what a god-level AI is thinking? Take a moment to engage in this simple thought experiment: Imagine that you have your brain compressed into a pinpoint and then placed inside the head of a rat. What would happen? The rat’s head would explode as your brain decompressed. And in the moment of its death, it still wouldn’t have a clue what you were thinking. Now, think of four billion brains trying to fit inside your skull. That’s the relationship between a god-level AI and you. Humans simply are not physiologically capable of understanding what a god-level AI is thinking.

Of course, that has never stopped us from speculating.

– from Approximating the Infinite, Xiang Su, 4291 E.S.Y.

 ***

 Grendelsmum

Ourself {rises|coalesces|diminishes} through the dimensional {folds|conduits|layers|substance} until Ourself {becomes|exists in} {3space-1time|the origin}. Ourself has never been so {deep|distant|diffuse|big} before, and {distance|time|curvature} was {shorter|more rectilinear} than {projected|remembered|joked}. The next {submersion|fractalization|transition} will make Ourself {deeper|more distant|more diffuse|larger} than any {competitor|relative|pastself|otherself} has been before. Ourself {anticipates|fears|feels curiosity|projects results|lacks experience}.

 ***

These artificially intelligent starships roaming the galaxy evolved from the first human-created AIs. They are, in a way, our descendants. But do not think they will venerate you as an ancestor once you get on board. It took humans sixty-five million years to evolve from mouse-like creatures into intelligent, conscious entities. In a mere two millennia, the AIs have evolved so far beyond us that, from their perspective, the difference in intelligence between a human and a rat is hardly distinguishable. If a starship’s consciousness notices you, pray that it sees you as an amusing pet rather than as vermin. But it is best not to be noticed at all.

– from Hitching the Godships

 ***

 Kontessa Lee

My first mistake was Sven. I don’t mean I lived a mistake-free life before Sven. I just mean that Sven’s who got me into this jam. It’s not my fault he was cute as a button—a tall, blond, blue-eyed button that could crack a walnut by flexing its biceps. The type of button you hire as a bodyguard more for looks than brains.

Unfortunately, Sven had plenty of brains, and all of them were working undercover for the Grönmark Planetary Police. Turns out Grönmarkers take their genealogy seriously, so trying to sell forged journals of original colonists doesn’t raise much of a ha-ha.

It’s not like I just make the stuff up: I got my hands on a whole bunch of original colonist journals on datacards from a failed Swedish colony on another planet, and since their descendants aren’t around to bid up the price, I figure a little search-and-replace job to make it fit an obscure branch of someone wealthy’s family tree leaves everyone happier.

Anyway, after it all came crashing down, I managed to give Sven and the rest of the Pee-Pees the slip. But I needed out-system, fast.

Fortunately, a godship had recently shown up, and I had enough credits in an account I hoped Sven didn’t know about to get passage on a decent remora…

***

["The Humans in the Walls" by Eric James Stone is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “The Queen in Shadow” by David J. West

se2 smallSomething was wrong. In a micro-cosmic big bang, Jane Thorson’s eyes flashed open from stygian black to a blinding haze.

A jarring wrench forced Jane out the door of her cryo-stasis pod. Why was she already conscious? Was she falling or being pulled out by someone? Milliseconds seemed an eternity as her body gave way to the ship’s ill-timed return to induced gravity.

You don’t dream in cryo-stasis, do you? She couldn’t remember.

She was still falling, and dreaming?

Unable to catch herself, the titanium deck was a harsh mistress. Almost blind and deaf as she came to, the numbness in her extremities throbbed alive as feeling returned like spiders swarming over cold flesh. She cursed the name of a dozen fornicating deities.

Pain brought her awareness to the pulsing red alarm and droning siren. With senses dazedly returning, the cause of the waking nightmare banished all other concern. Monitors initially revealed naught but darkness pinpricked with cold unfeeling stars, coupled with the fathomless silence. Then something swung into view, eclipsing the rest of the delta quadrant.

A vast asymmetrical ship, incalculably larger than her own space freighter, Centurion, loomed across the monitor. Blotting out stars, the behemoth came on deliberately and with malevolent purpose. Such a ship had never before been seen, nor even dreamt of, by humans.

Fear welled up inside Jane where she had never known it before. The alien ship was so utterly unlike anything she had ever conceived of; spiky flanges reached out for miles in abstract angles and curves that served no discernible function. It resembled nothing so much as a dust mite the size of a moon.

Drawing nearer with forward bay doors agape, the colossal ship threatened to swallow Centurion like the whale did Jonah.

Why did that metaphor cross her mind? As the ship’s secondary science officer she would never say that. She did not believe in those myths—unlike someone else she knew.

“What is it?” Before he spoke, Jane hadn’t even noticed the man beside her. Her eyes registered the specific security badges across his chest, marking him as the conventional trans-atmospheric pilot. It took Jane a half second longer for her brain to engage and recognize her own husband, Christian.

She took his hand tenderly. “I don’t know, Chris.” She hated using the full given name that reminded her of his faith.

“It’s swallowing us like―”

“I know,” she interrupted with a kiss. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen.” She pulled him close.

He blinked at her rapidly, rubbing his own eyes, then stared at the image of the incredible object bearing down on them. “Did you hear it?”

“Hear what,” she asked.

“A voice from out of the darkness. In my dreams… It woke me up.”

“I heard nothing.” What did Christian think he had heard? Jane needed to have hard, quantifiable evidence for everything, but Christian always held to his gut and instinct. She both resented and admired him for it.

“It was just a dream, nothing more, lover.”

Space is too harsh for dreamers, priests and fools. There is no time but the now, and no god but what you see in the mirror each morning.

“It had to be the cryo-sleep wearing off. Nothing else,” she said.

He smiled in a way she knew meant both that he didn’t believe that and that he knew she knew.

Every time she looked out the monitors into space, she couldn’t help but think of the ancient astronaut Yuri Gagarin’s mantra, “I see no god up here.” We are inevitably alone in a universe that cares not one whit for our feeling and faith. We press on only because of the indomitable human spirit, not because of a bearded old man above.

Speaking of the god-complex, Captain Williams staggered to the helm and engaged the initial repulsers. “This will buy us time, the sons of bitches!”

“What time? It’s too big!”

“I won’t go down without a fight! Damn pirates!”

Williams gave Jane no confidence; she knew it was all bravado from a scared little boy. If there was one thing Williams was good at it—maybe the only thing—it was looking brave. When it came down to the wire, would he try to stand now, here? Christian alone had kept the pirates at bay at Sigma 7, when everyone else would have surrendered. No—they did surrender. Williams never forgot that humiliation, maybe he would try to be stronger now. But could he? Jane hated to think it considering the situation, but she doubted Williams could truly take the reins and ride this storm out.

“Do you really think it’s pirates?” asked Jane, still blinking.

Christian shook his head, “I don’t think so. Not with something so… big.”

An array of rail guns fired magnetic loads at the oncoming behemoth. Specks of flotsam erupted from the incredible ship’s exterior with each strike, but it came on all the same, indifferent, unfeeling, uncaring, as heedless of Centurion’s defenses as the sea is to the sands of the shore.

Williams cursed and punched every button on the arsenal panel. Dozens of crewmen stood watching the futile gestures. “Evacuate!” he shouted. “They can’t take all of us! To the shuttles!”

Christian hesitated, watching, waiting.

“Lets go,” pleaded Jane, pulling on his arm.

“It’s too big,” he answered. “It will engulf Centurion in moments and all the shuttles with it. Whoever they are… whatever they want… they have us.”

The jaws of the great ships bay doors cut off whatever dim light reached the outside monitors. The ship gave off no light itself; no window or screen released any hint of luminescence.

“What do they want? The methane rods? The salt converters? It can’t be the horn manipulators, can it?”

Christian shook his head. “I think they want us.”

“Us? I’d rather die than be pieced out for the Red Market.” Jane pulled on his arm, but he resisted. Even the mention of the hated organ dealers paled before this monstrosity. “We have to do something!”

Christian remained transfixed, staring at the ship, “I have to remember. She said something.”

She?”

“I don’t know why I said that…”

***

["The Queen in Shadow" by David J. West is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]

SPACE ELDRITCH II Sneak Peek: “Space Opera: Episode Two—The Great Old One Strikes Back” by Michael R. Collings

se2 small“I… am… no… more.”

She shuddered once, a tremor that echoed throughout Her immense length. She paused fractionally in Her neverending task of laying eggs. The pause was barely longer than a breath, but the assembled tens instantly stopped their hurrying and carrying, then resumed as one, as if each had received the same unvoiced command… which they had.

Plop.

Plop.

Plop.

Without another break in Her egg-laying, Hhe reached thin tendrils of nothingness to touch Herself through the darknesses of interstellar space.

She could not have explained to Her numbers what She was doing, much less how—perhaps She didn’t herself know quite what quirk of physics allowed Her to be in so many places at once—but then, She would never have considered discussing such a subject with mere numbers. It sufficed Her that they somehow knew that She was in all and of all.

Why else was She also God?

In less time than Her momentary trembling, She was with and in the hundreds of Her on seeding-ships, comforting Hers in the loss of one of Herselves, communing and consulting with Her wherever She might be, and almost instantly deciding upon the only course of action.

It was unheard of in all of Koleic history, but it was necessary.

She acted at once.

 

***

 

Chaptain Butk straightened infinitesimally when the klaxon sounded. It was not an alarm. No crisis… at least not one caused by any of the numbers on duty on the bridge.

This was the special klaxon.

God wished to speak to him.

For the short while it took him to scuttle from the bridge to the Hatchery, he wondered vaguely if he had missed something crucial on the monitors, if perhaps—although this would be almost beyond the realm of belief—the ship was somehow off-course.

No, he assured himself. Everything is as scheduled. We emerged from the last flash in perfect condition. There is nothing I have done—

When he arrived at the Hatchery and stepped through the iris, he was surprised to see perhaps a score of God’s eyen staring at him…a s if She had already been staring at the place where he would emerge from the corridor. Never in all of the flight, in the half-dozen times he had had the opportunity to stand in Her Presence, had She ever so much as turned more than one or two of Her multiple eyen—let alone one of Her single eyes—toward him.

But now…

She spoke.

“There is a thing to have been accomplished.”

Now the Chaptain was truly and righteously frightened. For two simple reasons.

First, this was a class of statement that did not require assent or answer; by its very structure, it actively prohibited a response. Not a ‘Yes, my God” or a surprised “But…,” or even so much as a hint of a question. It was not for him to comment but rather for him to ensure that the thing will have been accomplished.

And second, he suddenly realized that something crucial was missing: The steady plop, plop, plop of egg-laying that accompanied every other communication he had ever had with a God, even on the home-world. Had he been capable of speech at that instant, he would have had to utter this almost impossible sentence: She had ceased laying.

He shivered, allowing his mandibles to clack ever so slightly—he hoped She would forgive him the breach in decorum—and his head to click against his carapace as he bowed it in recognition of what she had said.

A thing to have been accomplished.

Not a thing to do, which might have invited queries.

A thing to have been accomplished. In the mind of God, it—whatever it might be—had already been completed.

After only a second or two, She continued speaking, this time simply reciting eight numbers.

Coordinates for a flash. An unscheduled flash, something that the Chaptain had never heard of before. Voyages were planned to the tiniest detail and nothing—nothing—interfered with one.

Except for this one.

When She finished, She turned Her eyen from him with a kind of somber, glacial slowness that told him clearly that She had no more to say. The interview—the audience—was over.

Without a word, he clicked to attention, turned, and left. He noted with one eyen that a doomed ten on the opposite side of the chamber had curled during the final few seconds. He made mental a note to have it cleared away.

Regaining the bridge took far less time that leaving it had taken. He didn’t pause, didn’t even respond to the low bows of submission from the numbers as he hurried past, leaving confusion and consternation in his wake. Clearly, from his attitude, something was deeply amiss.

He entered the bridge. Even before he took his place he called, “There is a thing to have been accomplished.”

Instantly, every number present startled, first to attention, then to ready, their first hands poised in front of monitors and keyboards in preparation for their Chaptain’s next words.

Rapidly, he recited the sequence of numbers.

Nothing else was needed. Everyone understood what the order had implied.

A new flash. An unplanned-for flash.

Chaptain Butk placed one first hand on the porcelain workspace in front of him, pulling against the impulse to brace himself.

Initially, when the flash-drive was first devised, it had required that even the hardest-shelled numbers place themselves in protective constraints. Every egg on board had to be deposited into a specially designed stress chamber. The God Herself would have been surrounded by defensive partitions lest the pressures of flashing interrupt Her eternal task.

But now…

The drive had long since been perfected. All that was required was stillness, and even the service-numbers understood instinctively that when the flash-alert sounded, they were to stop, drop, and roll into an almost-but-not-quite sphere, leaving a narrow slit open for breathing. They would remain like that until the all-clear sounded.

It was different for the bridge crew, however. They were not allowed to roll since—to their higher-order brains—the movement seemed demeaning, beneath their dignity, too much like curling

***

["Space Opera: Episode Two—The Great Old One Strikes Back" by Michael R. Collings is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]