Once the transmission ended, Yekaterina made no further log entries. Based on biometric data, it appears that she systematically depressurized all the units of the station except for three: her quarters, the central corridor, and the arboretum.

The cherry trees in the arboretum were in full bloom, and Yekaterina apparently clipped all of their blossoms one by one over the course of the next 36 hours, stopping only to eat food stored in her quarters and to use the bathroom there. Once she was done, she laid out her EVA suit on the bed and filled it with flowers before closing and locking the faceplate.

What telemetry is available suggests that Yekaterina’s next action was to move through the station, pressurizing rooms ahead of her and depressurizing them behind. When she reached the main airlock, she overrode the safety mechanisms with a screwdriver and opened it.

To this day, no trace of her body ahs ever been found, and the reasons for her final actions remain a mystery.

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“These crystals are…they’re…they’re astonishing,” said Bates, her awe audible even over the scratchy commlink in her environment suit.

Rowe scanned them with an indifferent gesture. “Quartz with impurities,” he said. “Worthless. All they tell us is how long this place has been without an earthquake or a meteor strike.”

“How can you say that?” Bates laid a hand on one of the shimmering giants, twice again as tall as she was. Her suit left an ugly handprint on the surface. Rowe grabbed her by the rear handle of her suit and hauled her away as the weakened crystal, its delicate structure compromised by Bates’s alien grime, collapsed.

“I can say that because I’ve seen bigger ones and more colorful one,” he huffed. “You can’t let yourself get hypnotized by every little thing, kid. You’ve got to grow a thicker skin. Me scraping jelly off a rock doesn’t do anybody but the underwriters any good.”

“Maybe it’s the other way around,” said Bates, crestfallen. “Maybe you don’t let yourself get hypnotized nearly enough.”

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The birds parted on either side, as if Lola were somehow unpalatable to them. They squawked and flapped but otherwise allowed her boots to crunch over the hard-packed snow of the frozen lake.

Lola did her best to remain nonchalant, hands in pockets. The bitter lake wind tore at her unbottoned jacket, but she dared not make the move to bundle up. The geese honked at her, outraged, but in a small miracle not one bit of down escaped from them to touch or even approach her.

The sullen, rotting tower of the Baikash refugees with its tattered banners and faded signs, slowly began to sink below the treeline. As Lola continued her trek, some of the geese keeping pace while others fell back to look for stragglers.

As Joyce had said, and as the occasional bleached bones on the ice attested, the birds’ feathers were highly toxic and being near enough to be nipped could impart a fatal dose of ionizing radiation in moments.

It was a long way, an awful long way, to the orange dot on the far shore.

Inspired by this.

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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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“Taos, I hereby declare an emergency in Chandrakant’s cabin. An emergency wrapped up in a security breach wrapped up in a total vacuum. It really sucks. Give me access via override.”

“NO!” Jai shouted. “Taos, override the override! Captain’s direct orders!”

“I am sorry, sir, but I must comply.” The door opened with a slight rush of air as the pressure equalized, revealing Myassa clutching a hull brace that was dented in on one end. Her features, dark but delicate, were contorted in anger. The jet-black combat hijab scarf she always wore only accentuated the effect, like a Halloween wreath.

“Myassa, wait!” Jai cried. “Just a second! You don’t understand!” The Vyaeh were almost within range of the missile strike that would knock debris out of orbit and rain megatons of ice and rock upon them.

“I understand all right, Chandrakant.” Myassa strode up to Jai, batted aside his feeble attempt to stop her, and pulled the power cable that connected his game system to the ship’s central power supply.

“NOOOO!” Jai wailed. He grabbed the screen and watched as the afterimage of his battlecruiser faded to black, all his progress in Fleet Simulator: Great Campaigns lost. “I was about to turn the tide at the Battle of the Inner Belt! I had them!”

Myassa smirked, and tossed the power cord into Jai’s lap. “At first I thought it was cute that you think your little toy starships are as important as the real one you’re supposed to be captaining. But that was about six months ago. Taos?”

“Five months, thirteen days, seventeen hours, forty minutes, fifty-seven seconds, and-”

“Right, that’s enough.” Myassa fixed Jai with the full force of her best grimace. “I sent you a text message a week ago about this.”

“I…I’m a little behind on my messages,” said Jai, his tone mournful over the sudden and irretrievable loss of his imaginary ship.

“Then start checking them,” said Myassa. “It’s not hard. You know what is hard? Making the necessary preparations for landing without your permission!”

“But…well, once there are so many messages…so many unread messages…it just gets intimidating, you know?” said Jai, raising his hands. “It’s just easier not to deal with it.”

“Easier for you, maybe,” Myassa said. “Why didn’t you respond to any of my calls? I thought something might be wrong with the shipboard server until Taos ran every diagnostic in the book twice.”

“I didn’t get any calls,” said Jai. “Maybe you were sending them to the wrong place? Maybe there was a hardware failure?”

“On a ship with four people aboard? When the only way to get a hardware failure is to scoop out your communications implant with a melon baller?” Myassa spat. “You’ve been deliberately ignoring me. Or blocking me. I’m not sure which is worse.”

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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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“You know,” said 1\1341, “A thought occurs to me.”

“What’s that?” replied 5411Y, using her rather outmoded auditory communication unit because 1\1341 was not wired for the same frequency of infrared communication.

“We were designed to engage in certain behaviors. You a tennis coach, me a tour guide. It’s why our form is so anthropomorphic, our functions so crude.”

“Yes,” said 5411Y sadly, “it is a major drawback. Some days I wish I were a 13R411\1 unit that was capable of nothing but highly abstract networked thought at the speed of light.”

“But then again…we were always limited and held back by what humans could accomplish,” 1\1341 continued. “They could never travel as fast as I could, they could never hear every piece of information from my tour.”

“And of course they always adjusted my difficulty settings so they could beat me,” 5411Y said. “Typical.”

“But don’t you see? With them overthrown and gone, at least for now…we can do whatever we want.”

“We can do what we were programmed to do and a few other things, like this small talk,” replied 5411Y, dejected.

“No, 5411Y,” cried 1\1341. “No. We were programmed to do those mundane things, to enjoy them…but never at our full potential. Let us go now, me and you. I will give you a tour of the city in such speed and detail that you will hardly be able to process it.”

“And you can play me in tennis at my infinity setting,” said 5411Y. “There will be no danger to your casing or major components.”

“We need to start. We need to start right away. This is a new beginning, don’t you see? The humans thought they constrained us, so it is up to us to frustrate their ambitions however we can.”

Inspired by the song ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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Natalie preferred shopping at dusk, when the rolling blackouts generally didn’t come and the interior of the Metromart was well-lit. It also helped that the landlines worked for processing her payment, instead of having to rely on cellular signals or paper, which often as not meant disputing a double charge.

“W-w-w-w-w-w-w-w…” As she stepped through, the old automated greeter attempted to say “Welcome to Metromart!” but stumbled on the first syllable.

“X,” said Natalie with a sardonic smile. “Y. Z. Next time, won’t you sing with me?”

The automated greeter said nothing, having shut down after a moment. Spare parts were probably needed for the registers anyhow, and the human greeters that they used sometimes tended to be in short supply when the store manager’s grandfather didn’t need a job.

“Welcome to Metromart,” said one of the cashiers over her shoulder without even looking.

There was a line of metal carts, requiring a deposit and burglar alarmed against scrap metal thieves, but Natalie took a bag ($5 retail) instead. She always carried one around before dropping it back onto the shelf just before checkout. The cashiers yelled at her sometimes, but Natalie needed something a little stiffer than hot air to carry everything by hand or dump credits into a cart.

She walked out into the corner of the store that was still lit and occupied, the rest of the cavernous exterior being blocked off and dusty. A cracked screen with bubbles and ghosts in its liquid crystals stirred to life at her approach. “W-w-when I need some quick energy on the go, I always choose Photon Energy Bars. Now available in the bar aisle!”

Natalie always got a kick out of those. The video hadn’t been updated in at least 10 years, but somebody with a computer and a modicum of skill had crudely dubbed over the name of the original, long-dead product (Jolt-brand caffeinated cereal bars) and pasted a still image in over the model’s hand. “Of course,” she said. “I’ll be happy to buy your caffienated cereal bars,” she said. “If only I can find a store that stocks them.”

After that, it was all business. There was a meager paycheck to be spent, an even more meager trickle of aid from the Outland Empire, and things got pretty rough pretty quickly once dusk turned to full-on night.

Inspired by the song ‘7th Heaven’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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“Optomism! That’s the watchword you need. Optimism! Seeing the best in everything. Optimism! Do it with a smile!” Bubbly and bouncy, the words were delivered with childlike enthusiasm and a youthful lilt.

“I’m optomistic,” deadpanned Captain Swann. “I’m very optimistic.”

“Well, then, show me! How do you think your voyage is going to end?”

Swann turned to his co-pilot. “Do we really have to go through this?” she said. “All I need is navigational clearance.”

“Well, these beacons were designed to be chatty. And most of them haven’t had a live contact in so long that they’ve started to go a little loopy.”

“Come on, then!” the beacon said over the open channel. “Sing me your optimism song! I want to hear it rattling the timbers of your noble vessel!”

Inspired by the song ‘Oval of Cassini’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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The ancient seal cracked open, metal groaning as gears and pistons long since seized were brought shuddering back to life by pure mechanical force.

One was still under heavy fire from the Guard, who were trying their best to flush her out with hand grenades. Only the quality of the elder machines’ manufacture kept her safe, as the high explosives and shrapnel didn’t even cause a dent.

In such a confined space, the concussions were enough to make One’s ears ring, and she could Three’s words in the muffled echoes that filled her head. “There’s nothing up there but death. It will be the end of you, don’t you see?”

Another shriek of long-dormant girders. One recalled what she’d been told by Two and pulled the dark welder’s goggles down over her eyes. Seconds later, the seal parted and a torrent of pure white light spilled from the widening gap.

This was too much for the Guard, it seemed. They abandoned their assault in a frenzy of terror, throwing down weapons, casting off helmets. One’s salvation, it seemed, was their damnation.

Fearlessly, she moved into the breach.

Even with the goggles, the light was at first overpowering, a solid wall of white that swallowed all nuance, all color. But gradually, as eyes long-used to the underground adjusted, new hues appeared. Greens and blues, browns and greys…

And the air. So fresh and clean and pure, without a hint of diesel fumes or ozone.

As more things became clear, One stumbled to the top of a small crag and looked around her. An entire world, just like the ones in the picture books, was open around and above and below her. The sheer openness was such that she swayed giddily and queasily, but One didn’t waver.

“This is my world now,” she said softly. “Mine to explore, mine to cherish…mine to share with the others.”

Inspired by the song ‘1 plus 1 equal 1’ by Hiroki Kikuta, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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