“Carefully, carefully.”

They were steering into the fishing grounds now, amid the fully-grown stalks. Bursting from the sea and rising to heights of a hundred yards or more, they were as alien as they had been at the moment they had arrived. To touch one of their many spreading tendrils was to invite death, either by being swatted aside or through the toxins they bore. But only among their many spreading fleshy roots could fishermen find any of their companions, the little wrigglers, and those were worth their literal weight in gold. Or, perhaps, gold was worth its weight in little wrigglers.

“Cast it just so, just so,” said Donovan. “The little wrigglers have to come to you. Touch a tendril and you’ll be sorry.”

“Like that boat over there?” said Carey.

Donovan glanced over at a wreck, cut neatly in twain by the mindless thrusts of a stalk. “Yes,” he said. “They are why the war ended, you see. Anything like that which we used to do excites them to terrible violence, but we also came to depend on the little wrigglers they brought with them.”

“Did someone send them to us, to stop the fighting and make us all think about the wrigglers only?” said Carey.

Donovan looked at the bobbing nets. “Maybe so,” he said. “Maybe so.”

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The Sisters of Proxima Centauri wore their traditional habits, based on what had been common street wear two hundred years ago.

“So, you think you have what it takes to be a midwife?” said Sister Mary Xargbargl. A Theodosian, she looked rather strange wearing an Earth-style t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, but the Sisters would brook no violations of their dress code.

“I do,” said Miriam Burbage, late of 1066 Vowele St., The Integral Article, Surwickshire.

“You do know that there are over 10,000 species on Maximus Prime,” Sister Xargbargl said. “Each with their own complex birthing rituals.”

“Well, I do know that 4583 of those species reproduce by budding or asexual division,” said Miriam. “So there’s that.”

“Hmph! I’ll be the judge of that,” Sister Xargbargl snapped. “How does a newly budded Pseudopodean prevent its parent’s digestive enzymes from permeating its membrane?”

“It uses its birth legs to crawl away before they soften, naturally,” said Miriam. “Do give me a harder one if you’d like to test me, Sister.”

“How long does a newly burst Chitinoid have to find a suitable host before it loses its baby claws, then?” snapped the sister. “And how do you, as a midwife, keep from being infested?”

“37.3 hours,” said Miriam. “And I’ve already switched to a garlic shampoo.”

“Where must the incision be made to keep an Eleutherian from eating its way out of its father?”

“Below the sternal vacuoles and above the hyperthorax,” said Miriam. “Are you quite finished?”

Sister Xargbargl nodded one of her heads rather grudgingly. “Just one more thing.” she said. “Why?”

Miriam looked off into the distance. “I want to help people,” she said. “If there had been an alien midwife when my sister was carrying her half-Scraglite baby, she might have lived.

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On the fourth planet, the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the system was called off. There was nowhere that the atmosphere was right; it was too thick elsewhere. There was nowhere that the oxygen and liquid water required for life existed in the proper proportions. Even allowing the remote chance that something could evolve, could survive, nothing had returned the signals they had sent using mathematics and radio waves, the universal language.

On the sixth planet, the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the system was called off. There was nowhere that the atmosphere was right; it was too thin elsewhere. There was nowhere that the sillicon and liquid ammonia required for life existed in the proper proportions. Even allowing the remote chance that something could evolve, could survive, nothing had returned the signals they had sent using infrared and polysaccharide pheromones, the universal language.

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“How much would you say it’s worth?” I had to ask the question because there was a space for it on my form. But we librarians never used the figure we were quoted, because donors chronically overestimate the value of their donations. That collection of newspaper clippings from 9/11 probably wasn’t worth $1000; we’ll talk in 500 years or so.

“Oh, priceless, priceless.” Dr. Devereaux said, her smile never wavering as her head bobbled. “It is the greatest collection of materials ever assembled on this topic, with many unique primary documents!”

“Ah, I see.” I wrote in a value of one dollar on my sheet–the usual dollar amount for “priceless.”

“Yes, I have all the interviews here–transcribed, of course, by typewriter–that I conducted between 1986 and 1992. And over here, in this box, every co-authored book and magazine article.”

The interviews were bound in rubber bands that were in the process of drying to dust, their Borneo stretchiness a distant and sunny memory. Yellowed carbon copy paper wrapped around bushels of cassettes, cornflaking to pieces around the edges…it would take an archivist and a conservator months to recover a single word. And as for the books…

The boxes were piled high with offbeat literature. Umberto Eco. Thomas Pynchon. William S. Burroughs. Philip K. Dick. I picked up a copy of Ubik–a 1985 edition, it would have been worth a few bucks to the right person if it hadn’t been scribbled up in a cramped and frantic scrawl in every margin cover-to-cover.

“How, exactly, were these…inspired…by your subject?” I said.

“Well, Ubar-17 is a multi-dimensional being of tremendous power,” Dr. Devereaux said. “From time to time he choses to invest a portion of this expanded and cosmic vision into a vessel, and the results are always spectacular. Oh, there are side effects to be sure, mental illness, reclusiveness, and so on. But it’s just one of the many marks this beautiful alien being has left on our world.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. It was sort of sad, really; Dr. Devereaux had clearly suffered from some sort of undiagnosed psychotic break int he mid-80s, one that her position as a literary critic had helped conceal. But the gloves were off now, and she was on the greased downward slope toward court-ordered anti-psychotics. “Why did you stop interviewing Ubar-17 in 1992? Did he die?”

“Oh heavens no,” laughed Dr. Devereaux. “Ubar-17 is deathless, as his kind merely transcends into a new multi-dimensional species at the end of their millennia-long lifespan. No we had…well, I can only call it a ‘break-up’ as one would have with a lover. I stupidly allowed an unflattering first draft to do out to the Saucermen Review in Phoenix.”

“I see,” I said, as indulgently as I could. “That’ll do it, won’t it?”

“Ubar-17’s servant Una advised me to retract or correct the article. She’s a dear, though I’m certain she’s not human. Perhaps a gynoid? She never does seem to age, and wears clothes decades out of style until it’s practically rotting off her body.”

“Of course,” I said, in my exasperation allowing a little sarcasm to creep into a tone I’d been able to keep strictly professional. “No human would wear ratty or out of date clothing.”

“Exactly,” said Dr. Devereaux. “One does not simply say ‘no’ to Una, as that is tantamount to saying ‘no’ to Ubar-17. I was cut off from that point on, and worse, Ubar-17 saw to it that I was added to a psychic blacklist. No reputable publisher would touch my book. I had to put it out via Saucermen Press!”

I steeled myself. It was time to try and let Devereaux down easy. “This…may not be a good match for the Hopewell Public Library collection. Have you thought about the Laramie Paranormal Collection in the Southern Michigan University archives?”

“NO!” cried Dr. Devereaux, with a vehemence that took me aback. “I’M NOT GIVING THEM SO MUCH AS ONE PAPERCLIP!”

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Respiration and Gas Exhange
Relatively little is known about the exact physiology of the Vyaeh, as contacts have been limited and no Vyaeh bodies have ever been captured or dissected. But from limited diplomatic contact, it can be inferred that their homeworld as approximately 75% of Earth’s mass and a biosphere that has a certain amount of breathable oxygen. Vyaeh have been observed subsisting without incident in atmospheres with 25-33% less oxygen than Earth, but they also appear to require certain noble gasses such as argon and krypton in much higher concentrations than Earthlike or terraformed atmospheres.

This is why Vyaeh colonies in the Disputed Systems have been observed to set up atmospheric generators even on planets with high oxygen concentrations, and why Vyaeh operating in atmospheres which appear to have enough oxygen are usually equipped with units to supply the needed gasses. Unlike humans, the systems for taking in nutrients and gas exchange are completely different; Vyaeh have spiracules on their sides that intake and exhale in a manner that is unclear but appears to be broadly similar to “book lungs” on terrestrial arachnids.

Limbs and skeleton
Vyaeh limbs are more fragile than human ones, and several have been observed to sustain major fractures from relatively minor falls. They appear to compensate for this, on planets with higher gravity, by augmenting themselves with powered germents or armor. Their skeletal structure appears to be a mixture of an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton, with the two appearing bonded in areas where greater strength is required such as the middle of limbs. It’s been speculated that the exoskeleton develops as Vyaeh age, rendering them more protected but less motile.

It has also been noted that Vyaeh vary in their number of limbs, posessing anywhere from four to eight appendages aside from their head. They have shown some specialization, with four-legged Vyaeh bearing heavy loads, three-armed Vyaeh operating as snipers or engineers, and those with the most human-like configuration (two arms and two legs) serving as commanders. Speculation exists that the number of legs is a matriarchal trait passed from mother to daughter, with males providing the neccessary genetic diversity between the various lines (not unlike cuckoos on Earth). No details on reproduction are known, though it appears to be sexual and two sexes have been noted in communications.

They appear to primarily consume liquid food with a limited capacity to grind up more solid particles in a gizzard-like organ; this has led to speculation that they evolved from herbivores or filter feeders. It has also been speculated that the other creatures often seen with Vyaeh troops, which have been observed to eat solid food, exist in a sort of symbiosis and have evolved to be “milked” of a nutrient slurry. Like so much else about the Vyaeh, this is relatively unknown.

Vyaeh posess adept but delicate “pinhole camera” eyes, perhaps most analogous to Earth chameleons and cephelopods. Their vision is poorer in terms of field of vision with notable blind spots, and their eyes must be physically rotated and focused much more laboriously than those of humans. As with their legs, the number of eyes that each Vyaeh posesses varies, with two, three, and four eyes all observed. Unlike the number of limbs, the number of eyes does not appear to be linked to any stratification of roles.

Vyaeh speech is complex, with an audible component from their “book lungs,” pheromones released from glands near their mouths, and a number of subtle shades of meaning communicated through the position of eyes and limbs. Contact and negotiations resulted in the development of a translator which can read and interpret Vyaeh language with a degree of accuracy. Their script, which relies on light frequencies outside the range of normal human vision, has likewise been deciphered to a degree through negotiations.

Vyaeh culture is primarily mercantile and matriarchal. Accumulation of power is based around accumulation of wealth, and there is no centralized military. Rather, individual units are raised and equipped by powerful figures and then sold or rented to the central government. The lack of centralized control has led to a number of unfortunate incidents, though the government has intervened several times to prevent all-out war.

Virtually nothing is known about the Vyaeh central government, the Orphaned Court. It has been speculated to be made up of ancient matriarchs, but is treated as a singlular entity. It is both the primary civil and religious leadership of the Vyaeh, but it does not seem to interfere in major decisions very often and demonstrates an apparent preference for subtle manipulation. Such is its prestige in Vyaeh society, though, that its orders are generally obeyed unquestionably and many actions appear to be undertaken with the express object of currying its favor.

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In the decades after the Fungal Wars, we often wondered why. Why the alien Fungoids had chosen to attack when they had, why we as a species had been so ruthlessly enslaved, why we seemed to have been singled out for special mistreatment.

It was only after nearly a century that we realized the race of evolved fungi had found our ideas of mushroom nudity very unsettling when they spied a toadstool in the painting by Vermeer that we had sent into the stars attached to a space probe.

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When the Great Work was complete, and Q’idaa was as his own lush and eternal garden, I’ozru summoned his children to him one last time. Then said he to the gathered R’de “four shall be your number, and your number shall be four.” He laid forth the precepts binding the Four Castes.

First were the R’odue, the Keepers of the Bonds. They were given power over workplaces, governments, and other organizational tools. Their edict was organization and cohesion, but not at the expense of love.

Second were the R’idye, the Reshapers of the Bonds. Their sphere was that which could not be organized and resisted cohesion. Theirs were the artists, the dreamers, the thinkers, the architects, and their edict was to form new and exciting things, but not at the expense of the old.

Third were the R’adue, the Movers of the Bonded. All that moved and worked was theirs to keep and maintain, and they were to be the craftsmen, workers, and soldiers of the R’de. To them was given the edict to reshape their world, but not at the expense of harmony.

Last were the R’ydae, the Viewers of the Bonds. At their feet was laid the great task of planning and orchestrating all the others, of visions and plans and overall harmony. Theirs was the gravest edict of them all: to ensure the survival of the R’de and by extension their world, but not at the expense of other groups or other worlds.

In doing so, the R’de were split into their castes and the rulers of the great Houses were selected and their membership decided upon. The last words were a warning: above all, no caste was to be held inviolate and none was to be raised above the others. It was deliberate that the R’ydae, from whom the heads of the Houses were chosen, were numbered last and lowliest though theirs would be the most visible power. They were to be servants as base as those R’adue who toiled in manual labor.

The pronouncements made, the new heads of the Houses were each given a final, private audience. I’ozru gave unto them his last wisdom and departed from the R’de never to return. His words, known only to the heads of the Houses, guide the R’de through the ages even unto now through prosperity and adversity, want and plenty, war and peace, suzerainty and enslavement.

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Vyaeh Skirmish Flotilla 21 consisted of a single cruiser, three frigates, and twelve auxiliary vessels including barracks ships, tenders, and a prize of war recently captured from a rebellious Krne settlement. The cruiser was known as the Cunynak, after the Old Vyaeh god of mercy, and like all Vyaeh vessels had been purchased by a private citizen and manned with recruits and “conscripted races” they had mustered themselves. In this case, a wealthy trader from the Vyaeh Core with connections to the Silent Court had purchased the ship, named himself commander, and recruited the officers from veteran and recently graduated members of the small but potent military class.

Though the merchant herself maintained official command, and her donation had earned her the rank and pay of Commander, she remained safely in the core and actual day-to-day command rested with Subcommander Lhayr. A dedicated lifer, but one who was from a poor family from far outside the Core, Lhayr herself could aspire to no further advancement unless by an extraordinary act of the Silent Court itself.

Such honors were only earned in battle, which the Skirmish Flotillas were well-equipped to provide.

The flotilla had not seen much action; swatting down a rebellious Krne settlement and “conscripting” the surviving adults of military age was hardly an action worth noting. The Krne were stupid brutes who rose at least once per decade per colony, and the single frigate defending the settlement had not even possessed any ship-to-ship weapons, trying instead to ram the Cunynak at sublight speed. Lhayr ached for meatier foes and more glittering prizes, and had written frequent dispatches to the Core requesting such, or information that might lead to such. Given the sorry state of Vyaeh bureaucracy and the billions of similar petitions clogging the Silent Court’s docket, she had no doubt that her missives continued to circulate endlessly in the encrypted Vyaeh FTL communications network–her civilization’s greatest shining achievement aside from its wealth.

So when Aspirant Ryll, Lhayr’s communications and liaison officer, reported an incoming message detailing the location of a lightly defended human colony, the Subcommander was all to anxious to hear.

First, she demanded to know the source. Ryll had none to give, as the message had come through the FTL network with no sender and no metadata. Lhayr then requested a targeted long-range scan of the world in question; when the results same in, they confirmed the message’s content: a human colony on the specified world, with only a handful of light vessels in orbit.

Lhayr called for opinions from her command staff and the adjutants in charge of the other vessels in the flotilla. Ryll himself urged caution, warning of a possible trap given the duplicitous behavior for which humans were known. Each of the three frigates were of the opinion that the continuing low-level conflict over systems and resources required sharp, savage blows to be struck against the humans–either to bring them back to the negotiating table or, ideally, to bring about a conflict in which the Vyaeh could assert their rightful suzerainty or reduce the impudent humans to the status of a “conscripted” race like the Krne. The auxiliary ships advised caution as well, given that the location in question was at the extreme limits of the flotilla’s range and as such they could expect no reinforcements. And the barracks ships, predictably, inquired only as to what percentage of any prizes of war they could expect.

At the end of the deliberations, Lhayr silenced her subordinates and addressed the flotilla over an open channel. The humans, she said, had too long behaved as if they were equals of the Vyaeh. History had shown that they could only be taught the error of their ways through terror, and as such terror was what they would receive. Skirmish Flotilla 21 would be the instrument for delivering a powerful and unambiguous message on behalf of the Silent Court.

And if it so happened that this message, this terror, this victory brought them glory and advancement in the eyes of any who would care to take notice…so much the better.

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At first the raid appeared to have uncovered a brothel like any other, but it soon became apparent from the subsequent investigation by the London Metropolitan Police that the establishment, known underground as “The Xenophiles Club,” catered exclusively to extraterrestrial tastes. The initial confusion stemmed from the apprehension of six Betelgeusian shapeshifters, who attempted to pass themselves off as call girls before running out of stamina and reverting to their natural gelatinous forms in custody.

In total, the raid uncovered 12 Centaurians, 8 Barnardians, 2 Wolf 359ians, 17 Sirians, and 29 Greys (a nomadic race who our devoted readers will remember has no known homeworld) in addition to the aforementioned Betelgeusians. Xenophilia of this nature is of course punishable by law under several acts of Parliament, including the Formic Statute 1533 (better known as the Bugger Act), the Offenses against the Planet Act 1861, and the Interstellar Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.

The names and affiliations of those arrested in connection with what is already being called the “Jupiter Street Scandal” have not yet been released, but sources within the London Metropolitan Police have confirmed that they include at least five members of the House of Lords, six life peers, and several of London’s most prominent mercantile heads.

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“This is just laughable,” said the editor of the Hopewell Democrat-Tribune.

“But it’s true!” cried Shaw. “I was abducted by aliens, and here’s photographic proof!” He slapped the photograph on the editor’s desk for added emphasis.

“Yeah, you Photoshopped this,” said the editor. “Look at the gradient on that alien’s skin! All that pixelation! And that pattern–you obviously found something you like and then used the clone tool to put it everywhere. This is day one stuff, kid, and I’ve been around photographs a lot longer than you.”

“I didn’t Photoshop it! I swear!”

The editor tossed the prints at Shaw, landing them on the floor instead. “Yeah, well good luck getting anyone to believe that with an alien looking so Photoshopped.”

From their cloaked observation frigate a half-mile above the city, Subcommander Ltwy Pqffyz and Majordomo Gfwfif Snpyt of the Azqhfs Invasion Fleet watched the unfolding scene with glee.

“Yet another example of our solid pre-invasion planning,” said Ltwy Pqffyz, its skin shaded like a bad gradient.

“Yes, by inventing Photoshop and seeding it among the humans, we have guaranteed that no sighting of our forces will ever be taken seriously,” agreed Gfwfif Snpyt, who was covered with repeating, pixelated patterns that looked like a grievous misuse of a clone tool.

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