Taking flight, Part III

On Friday, a week after she’d taken her college entrance exams, Kali returned to real life in the usual way; Bear informed her that it was time to logoff of astralnet, and Kali groggily pulled the crescent-shaped eyepiece from her face. Then she brushed her brown, shoulder-length hair, put on a clean uniform, and stumbled into the kitchen for tea.

When Kali saw her mother sitting at the kitchen table, her stomach dropped. Ususally, her mother was at work before Kali woke up, but today was the day exam results would be announced. No doubt, Kali’s mother wanted to give her a pep talk.

Kali’s mother looked up from her laptop with a smile.

“You weren’t on astralnet all night, were you?” she chided gently.

“I’ve already taken my exams, so there was no point in studying,” Kali said. She walked past her mother, to the kitchen counter, and poured herself a cup of tea.

“You should still review while the exam is fresh in your mind, in case you need to re-take the exams.”

Kali winced. There was no way she had gotten a top score, and Kali knew her mother would settle for nothing less. She would likely have to take the make-up exams over the summer.

“I know, Mom. I’m just so exhausted.”

“Have you been taking the neuro-enhancers I gave you? You won’t need to sleep if you do, and there are no side effects.”

Kali shrugged, staring into her teacup.

“Kali,” her mother’s voice had a harsher edge, now. “If you don’t take them, you won’t be able to compete with the students who do.”

“I take them, Mom,” Kali said, and then stopped to take a sip of tea. “I don’t feel sleepy- I just feel worn down. I need a break.”

“You don’t have time to take a break,” Kali’s mother said. “You know that everyone is competing for the top college programs, and the best students will all use summer break to get ahead. “

“Mom-“ Kali sat down across from her mother at the table. “Even after I get into college, and take those exams, and then get some high level career- it won’t be over, will it. I can’t see when I’ll ever have time to slow down. I’ll always have to work this hard, won’t I?”

Kali’s mother threw her head back and laughed.

“Mom, I’m serious.

Kali’s mother caught her breath, and wiped the tears from her eyes.

“You’ll be working even harder, darling. That’s why you need to adjust, while you’re still young.”

Kali sighed, and then dropped her head onto the table. “It all makes me want to give up.”

Kali’s mother put her teacup down with a clatter, and walked around the table. She put her arms around Kali’s shoulders, and Kali’s senses were overwhelmed by the heavy floral perfume her mother always wore.

“Oh Kali- you’re so young. Why can’t you find your passion?”

#

“Congratulations, Kali!”

Kali was greeted at the homeroom entrance by a tall, skinny boy with messy hair. He grabbed her wrist as soon as she was close enough to grab, and pulled her toward the bulletin board in the back of the tiered lecture hall.

“Oh Alex, no- I don’t want to look. I can’t. Just tell me the bad news, now.”

“You’re in the top 10%, like me,” he said. “You scored a full 50 points better than you did on the practice test in math, and 70 points higher in language. Well, aren’t you happy?”

“I’m not in the top 5%?”

Alex stopped pulling on Kali’s wrist, and turned. “Well, you came awfully close, but-”

“So there’s no point in being happy. Mom’s going to make me re-take the test this summer. I guess I should focus more on mathematics, this time.” Kali moved to her desk, plopped into the chair, and took her bookbag from her shoulder, ignoring the crowd of loud, excited students far at the back of the room, who were crowded around the bulletin board.

“But hey- a little more studying, and you’ll be up to the top 5%. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried. I don’t care anyone,” Kali said, taking a schedule book from her bag. She tore out the front page and began writing a new schedule on a fresh sheet.

“If you don’t care, what are you doing?”

“What I have to do,” Kali replied. “I guess I’ll have to drop swimming, this summer, and stop going on astralnet, too.”

“But you love-“

Alex’s protest was cut off by a metallic screeching noise, as the antiquated pa system flared to life.

“Maria Lucas, Alex Goldberg and Kali Chaudry – report to the headmaster’s office immediately.”

Taking Flight- Part II

The arena was a large, flat dais suspended under a dome of stars.
On the dais, two fighter ships awaited their pilots, side by side. One ship was small and black, with a pointed nosecone and two wings that jutted straight back, making it look like an obsidian arrow. The other ship was larger, with a nose that curved downward and two white wings that swept dramatically to each side, making it look like a crane.
Kali observed the ships with a critical eye. Her ship- the black arrow- was agile, and would be easier to maneuver around tight corners. The other ship, however, would have far more raw power. Kali looked up at the course- which was marked by stars arranged in an intricate series of spirals- with satisfaction. A larger ship would be at a distinct disadvantage.
After observing the course, Kali took a deep breath and stepped out onto the dais to face her opponent. Immediately, she became aware of the crowd, though they were invisible. She could see their comments scroll past her, around the edge of the edge of the starry field.
~Go Ingrid! You’re AWESOME!
~Crush her, Kali-3!!! Knock that b**** down a peg.
~!!!!!<3<3<3<3DON’T IGNORE THIS COMMENT INGRID I LOVE YOU<3<3<3<3!!!!!
~!!!!!<3<3<3<3DON’T IGNORE THIS COMMENT INGRID I LOVE YOU<3<3<3<3!!!!!
~!!!!!<3<3<3<3DON’T IGNORE THIS COMMENT INGRID I LOVE YOU<3<3<3<3!!!!!
~!!!!!<3<3<3<3DON’T IGNORE THIS COMMENT INGRID I LOVE YOU<3<3<3<3!!!!!
~ ^This^
~Can you guys believe that I make $1000.00 a day working from home?? Ask me how I did it!
~!!!!!<3<3<3<3DON’T IGNORE THIS COMMENT INGRID I LOVE YOU<3<3<3<3!!!!!
~Wow, this is lame :/
~This is going to be a boring match.
“Bear, turn off the comments window,” Kali said, as she approached the ship.
“Sure thing!” The teddy bear materialized by Kali’s side once more, spun around, and the scrolling words disappeared.
Kali stepped further forward, until she reached her opponent- or rather, her opponent’s avatar.
It was a simple avatar, nothing very beautiful or elaborately dressed. Kali thought she must have been rendered from photographs of Ingrid herself. She was small, a head shorter than Kali’s avatar, and she wore a simple, blue flightsuit. Her hair was dark, and dressed in a simple braid. She smiled wryly as she bowed to Kali.
“You must be Kali-3. You don’t belong here.”
Kali took a step back. “I’m sorry, but I got a challenge letter- arena 3 at 1:45…”
“I don’t mean the arena; I mean brave sector. This used to be a little, unknown corner of astralnet, where student cadets could train. Now you ‘hobbyists’ are coming in, and treating this as though it were a video game. I’m here to prove that you don’t belong.”
She turned away before Kali could respond, and boarded her ship.
Kali stared after Ingrid for a moment, and then smiled to herself. She reached out and touched the side of her ship, and it opened up, allowing her access to the cockpit.
The seat automatically adjusted itself, and she was sitting at the controls. She did her initial flight check, and then said, “Bear-“
“Yes?” Bear’s voice cheerfully replied.
“Add this message to the chat; ‘thanks for coming to watch my race. I’ll do my best.’”
“That’s it?”
“Yes. Thank you. The race is about to start.”
Bear disappeared once more, and Kali stared through the cockpit window, at the course above. The words “pilots, get ready for takeoff” appeared above. Kali powered the engines and took the control yoke.
Get ready,
3
2
1
Takeoff!
Kali pushed the throttle and lurched forward, gaining acceleration until her ship lifted off, and through the window the stars that marked the course spun into view and then steadied as the followed. The race was on.
As expected, Ingrid’s ship had soared ahead of her’s with ease, but Kali refused to be intimidated by the growing distance between them. She pulled tight into the first curve of the course, preparing to overtake Ingrid from the inside of the spiral, but Ingrid was too quick- pulling tight into the curve with an agility that Kali would have thought physically impossible.
Kali let out a small growl, and kept her pace, trying to at least stop the gap from widening further as she flew. She focused on the course, anticipating each curve, easing the ship into each bend and then letting it follow the spiral. When she looked up at Ingrid’s ship, she was surprised to find that she’d narrowed the gap a bit. She gritted her teeth, redoubled her efforts-
And it was over.
Kali didn’t have to turn on the comments window to know what was being said. She focused on the race results, which flashed on the screen where the instructions had been before.
1st place- Mech7 3:45
2nd place- Kali-3 3:49
Kali could feel her cheeks grow warm as she realized her mistake- her overconfidence. Certainly, Ingrid’s ship should have been at a disadvantage on a complex course, but its pilot- the shining star of the Mech Pilot Academy- was not.

Taking Flight- Part I

Taking Flight, Part I
23 minutes past midnight, Kali closed her heavy, paper book with a thud.
She turned away from the book and shut her bloodshot eyes. She was too exhausted to heave a heavy sigh, and too discouraged to be properly frustrated with her work. She’d finished all of the practice problems in the last chapter, as her mother had insisted, though she was sure she’d gotten the last three answers wrong.
“You can’t expect that I both stay up all night to finish the book, and that I understand it, too,” she said aloud to her teddy bear. “I’m only human.”
She could almost hear the bear reply in her mother’s voice. “Your brother was able to do it.”
“Ergo, my brother isn’t human.” Kali finally heaved a sigh. It really was very heavy.
“No matter,” she took the bear- a puffy, white, and ridiculously adorable toy dressed in sparkly blue organza- and held it to her chest. “It’s time to dream, you know.”
Kali turned to her daybed, which took up half of her cramped room, and took a crescent shaped, metallic object and a white cord from beneath the pillow. She plugged one end of the cord into the object, and the other into the computer that sat on her desk. Then she placed the crescent over her eyes, and lay down on the bed, still clutching the teddy bear to her chest.
“Log in to astralnet,” she said aloud.
“Digital dreams-“ she murmured as lights on the crescent began to flash. “They’re the only dreams I have anymore…”
Under the shining crescent, her eyelids fluttered shut, and she found herself standing in an endless field of stars.
“Bear?”
An exact copy of Kali’s teddy bear materialized in front of her, smiling brightly.
“Good evening, Kali!” the bear said in a chipper voice. “Would you like to log into Brave Sector? You have three challenges waiting for you, and there’s a general Brave Sector announcement.”
“I’d like to hear the announcement, first,” Kali said.
“Of course!” the Bear spun around, disappearing in a whirlwind of multicolored stars, and was replaced by a woman in elegant robes that draped like a toga over her lithe figure.
“Good evening, students and hobbyists of Brave Sector. In arena 3, at 1:30 est. top academy student Ingrid Sansloy will be racing under the username Mech7.”
“Oh, wow,” Kali said. “I don’t want to miss that. Bear, decline all of my challenges for tonight.
The woman disappeared, and Bear reappeared in her place.
“You might wasn’t to check your first challenge, before you decline,” Bear said with a wink.
Bear held out an invitation, printed on what appeared to be fancy cardstock embossed with roses. There was a message on it, written in gold ink.
To User Kali-C,
Meet me in arena three at 1:45, so I may systematically annihilate you in front of the entire sector.
You have been served,
Mech7

Under the Cherry Skies

This a short story I’ve written as a companion piece to my novel, Gemini Song. It takes place after the events of that book, and before the possible sequel.

You can read Gemini Song here:

http://www.amazon.com/Gemini-Song-Bridgett-Kay-ebook/dp/B00GK5XVDM

It was a beautiful day on the planet Tara, as usual.
The sky was the perfect shade of cerulean, offset with the occasional puffy, white cloud. Apeilon, Tara’s star, shone brightly overhead, illuminating the avenue, which was lined with café tables and trees with purple blossoms.
Leah sat at a table at the end of the avenue, under a tree with heavy, low handing branches. She stared up through the branches through her pink framed sunglasses and frowned. Every once in a while, she would sigh loudly and, in response, the time would display on her glasses frames before flashing away once more.
Of course, she couldn’t blame her companions for being late. Life had been weird ever since their arrival on Tara. She’d lived in at least three different apartments so far, as space was shifted to allow for the sudden influx of refugees from the now destroyed Earth. The refugees, too, had been lulled into sloth by the pleasant atmosphere on their new world. Earth had been a paved-over, grey skied dump; there was nothing to do on Earth but work. But here on Tara there were fields, forests, streams, and endless sunny days. Many new arrivals were taking weeks off to go hiking and camping- to hell with filing reports and overseeing infrastructure building.
Thankfully, Prometheus- the great computer that ruled civilization- had been able to use the limited apartment space to incentivize workers, and the world seemed to be settling down into a routine, once more. Still, long lunch breaks were now the norm, and there weren’t many times during the day when, like now, the street cafés were almost empty.
Leah considered herself lucky. She was a member of the artist caste, meaning she had a fairly non-essential job. She could take as much time as she liked during the day, and Prometheus had still given her a nice-sized apartment all to herself. There was no one around to hassle her.
“Hey, Leah. Don’t you dare be late for rehearsal again, or I’ll hang you from the rafters.”
Well, no one but Grant.
“Hi Grant. I have plenty of time before rehearsal. You are the one who was late for tea.” She smiled sweetly at the tall, skinny man who had sat down at the table beside her.
“Oh no- late for tea. How will our dance company ever recover from such a mishap? I can see the critical reviews now. ‘Eminent Artistic Director Late for Tea.’”
“Eminent?”
“Just wait- once we debut The Music of the Spheres we’ll all be famous. It will be hailed as the greatest ballet of all time.”
“As long as I’m on time for rehearsal.”
Grant nodded. “Exactly.”
He leaned over the table and pressed a glass panel on top with his thumb, and a holographic menu in pink and lilac popped up in front of his eyes.
“I’ll have black tea, plain-“ he waved the menu away, and his order popped up automatically, seemingly from inside the table.
“We aren’t waiting for Cherry?”
As if in response to Leah’s question, a tiny, curly- haired redhead pounded up to their table, and then bent over, gasping and out of breath.
“You’re out of shape, Cherry,” Grant said. “You should take classes with the company students every day until opening night.”
“I’m already,” Cherry gasped and bent over again, panting, until she caught her breath again. “I’m already taking the advanced student class after company class. That’s why I’m late. But guys, you won’t believe what happened.”
“Does this have anything to do with the company?”
“No-“ Leah answered before Cherry could. “She’s been reading the gossip on usernet, again. She’ll believe anything they post-“
“But it’s true, this time! They have leaked videos and everything. Listen,” Cherry sat down and took a communicator from her pocket. “I’ve been reading-“
“What do you want to drink?” Leah interrupted, removing her glasses and pressing her thumb on the table. “I’m getting a boba tea, and maybe a croissant-“
“You’re on a diet,” Grant said.
“Ok, no croissant.”
“I’ll just have green tea,” Cherry said. “But listen, guys, you know that Prometheus’s orders have been getting weird ever since the Tiamat incident-“
“Do you even know what the “Tiamat incident” was?” Leah asked.
“No one knows what the Tiamat incident was!” Cherry said, shaking her ginger curls excitedly. “The whole thing is a huge secret.  First there’s a giant ether storm in space that almost destroys the computer who runs our whole society, and then a new computer called Tiamat appears from nowhere? Mysterious.”
“And some random weirdo on usernet has figured it out?” Grant said, arching his brows.
“No, but the gossip is getting really good. You know that there were peace talks recently with the colonies on the galactic rim, right?”
“Yeah, I know that. Big waste of time, though, right? It’s not like there was a war or anything. I think Prometheus just wants to keep our ambassadors from getting bored,” Leah said.
“Ok, so after the peace talks were over, Prometheus gives High Priestess Z0, and her assistant, Sister Z12, an order to go to Zairi 3 and wait for further orders.”
“Zairi 3, the resort planet?” Grant said.
“Yeah, to this really awesome resort called the Grande Poseidon.”
“Oh- I know the place. My mom went there with my ex-stepdad when they were trying to save their marriage. They got divorced anyway- she met stepdad #3 at the resort bar.”
“Anyway, so the High Priestess and her assistant go there, and a couple of weeks go by- no orders. So the High Priestess contacts Prometheus and says, ‘what’s the deal?’ Prometheus replies, ‘oh, you have high levels of stress hormones. You should take a yoga class.’”
“Wow, who cares?” Grant said. “Usernet can’t make up any interesting gossip?”
“This isn’t made up. Anyway, so she takes the yoga class, and still no orders from Prometheus. So she contacts him again and this time he said, ‘Oh hey, both you and sister Z12 have really high levels of stress hormones. You should get a couples massage , to relax.”
Leah snorted, and put her hand up just in time to keep from spewing tea all over the table. Grant just shook his head and took another sip of tea.
“That’s so cruel! Everyone knows that Z12 is totally gaga for the High Priestess, even though she’s totally clueless. “ Leah scooted her chair closer to Cherry and took her communicator, peering closely at the screen. “And the priestesses are supposed to be celibate.“
“And now I’ve lost Leah to the madness.” Grant sighed.
“Yeah, the High Priestess was completely clueless, and she tried to get Z12 to go with her to get the massage. Z12 just started crying and had a complete breakdown in the hotel.”
“It’s really awful to spread these kinds of rumors,” Grant said. “That poor woman-“
“But there’s an article in the actual news- apparently Z12 has announced that she’s really leaving the priesthood. Not only that, but Prometheus has officially announced that they’re getting rid of the celibacy rule in the priesthood. Last week, Z12- well, Katherine, she’s going by her real name now- was spotted in the same hotel again with the High Priestess.”
“And?” Grant said.
“I’m glad they got rid of the celibacy rule. It was stupid. There a lot of talented people who can’t be in the priesthood because of it,” Leah said.
“But isn’t this weird? People on usernet are saying that it’s the first of a lot of changes that Tiamat is going to make.”
“Prometheus gave the order,” Leah pointed out.
“Sure, yeah, but this all must be Tiamat’s influence. A lot of weird orders have gone out since Tiamat appeared.”
“There have been some weird things going on,” Grant conceded. “A lot of unpopular companies have been getting top venues for plays, operas and ballets. No one had ever heard of Starkid productions, and all of a sudden they have the hottest play in this quadrant.”
“Now you’re being silly, Grant,” Leah said. Prometheus has always given nonsensical orders- at least, orders that seem nonsensical. But everything always works out for the best. We’re just picking out strange orders out of a whole bunch of normal ones to fit our story of a weird new computer coming in and taking over our civilization.”
“Not weird, just different,” Cherry took her communicator back and smiled and mysterious smile. “Trust me, new, wonderful things are going to happen soon. They’re already happening.”
Leah stared at Cherry for a moment, almost in awe at the certainty in her voice, and then she shook her head and put her glasses on, again. “Sure thing, Cherry.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Grant said. “Come on, Leah. Let’s get to rehersal.”
“I’ll be along in a minute,” Cherry said. “I want to finish my tea.”
“Ok- see you at the auditorium,” Leah said with a wave. She linked arms with Grant, and the two walked between the blossoming trees on the sunny avenue.
Cherry smiled as they left, and then her communicator vibrated. She pressed the screen, and held the communicator to her ear.
“Hello- Prometheus! Yes, what are your orders? Of course. I’ve already shared the story on usernet. I’ll be sure to get Grant on board as soon as possible. I agree, he’s perfect to share Tiamat’s message. Yes, Prometheus. I await further orders.”
Cherry put the communicator into her handbag, and then stood, putting her teacup into the nearest trash receptacle. Then she put on her own sunglasses, and strode up the street, a spring in her step.
It was another beautiful day on the planet Tara.

The Mind of Astra, Part V

Somehow, Gibbs was able to return to sleep, but the calm, dreamless state was shattered abruptly by a high pitched, electronic shriek.
“My hover-bike! That little ingrate has stolen it again!” Captain Geneva shrieked before her voice broke into nonsensical electronic beeps.
“Wake up, cadets.” The Captain shouted as soon as she’d regained control of her voice. “Pack up. We need to leave now.”
Gibbs sat up and rubbed her eyes. She gazed around blearily for a few moments before making an important discovery.
“Hey, Kyrie is gone, too,” she said, pointing at the empty sleeping-bag beside her.
Captain Geneva beeped incoherently again, and Gibbs and Marsh both took this as a signal to leap out of their sleeping bags and throw everything into knapsacks as quickly as they could. Captain Geneva, still beeping, pointed in the direction of the ship, and they began the long trek back to the ship.
After approximately 30 minutes of walking, the adrenaline rush caused by abject terror of the enraged captain left her system, and Cadet Gibbs’s feet began to slow. She was tired, not just from the lack of sleep, but also from the emotional toll of defeat. She loved the forest, and she would now be forced to fight against it- to take part in destroying a beautiful, unique being. There was no way the forest could defend itself against the ship’s advanced weapons.
Gibbs had read about genocide in her history classes. Now she would take part in one.
In the next moment, however, a thought came to her. It wasn’t a happy thought, because it could not save her new friend, but it made her smile, anyway. She didn’t care what happened to her. She didn’t care if she was thrown out of the academy, or thrown into a holding cell. She would refuse to take part in the genocide, anyway.
She looked up and saw that Marsh was wearing the same smile.
“I don’t know about you, Gibbs,” he said, “but I’m sure going to miss the Argo when I’m in prison. I hope I’m able to stand on the bridge one last time.”
In that moment, there was a blinding flash of light, and suddenly, the alien world around them vanished, and they were standing in a pristine, white room, with walls covered in gleaming buttons and lights. They were aboard the Argo.
“Wonderful, Marsh,” Gibbs said. “Now, could you hope that I get my own luxury star cruiser?”
“I might be able to arrange that for you,” Bres said, waving at them from the captain’s chair.
“What is the meaning of this?” Captain Geneva demanded.
“Well, I’ve always wanted my own starship,” Bres explained calmly. “So, I decided to steal this one. I couldn’t very well leave you guys stranded on the alien world. Luckily, Cadets Morris and Chua were able to fix the quantum transporter, so I had them bring you aboard. You really didn’t have to walk all that way.”
“Get out of my chair now,” Captain Geneva shrieked. “Zenon! Phelps!” she called to the two guards standing by the entrance to the bridge, “Throw my nephew into the brig at once.”
The two guards didn’t move.
“They’re on our side, Captain,” Cadet Kyrie said. She was seated at the helm, wringing her hands, but speaking in a calm, determined voice.
“Our side?” the Captain asked.
“Don’t listen to her, Auntie,” Bres said. “She just has a little case of Stockholm syndrome. I kidnapped her, you see, so she could help me make my getaway. In fact, everyone on board is my prisoner, so none of this is really any of their fault.”
The Captain was speechless.
“Impressive,” Marsh said, grinning. “So, how do you plan to get us off this rock, anyway?”
“We’re not on a rock at all,” Kyrie explained. “We’re on course to the edge of the solar system, where we will be able to make the jump to hyper-speed. We’ll be home in approximately 48 Earth hours.”
“How-“ Gibbs gasped.
“I remembered how quickly the forest learned to speak our language,” Cadet Kyrie said, “so I decided to teach the forest to speak to our navigational instruments. The computer language is a lot more simple, logical, so it was able to learn in a very short time. It knows this sector of the galaxy better than anyone, so it’s concentrating as hard as it can, keeping noise to a minimum, to guide us home.”
Gibbs was unable to speak. She ran to Kyrie and flung her arms around her neck, and then ran to Bres and did the same.
“Stellar!” he said. “I get my own ship and hugs from cute girls. I should kidnap and steal more often.”
“Kyrie, I can’t believe it,” Marsh said. “You actually took a chance.”
“You gambled with our lives,” Captain Geneva sneered. “If we survive this, it will be by sheer luck.”
“Gibbs, Marsh, I’m getting tired of listening to her. Could you two escort her to the brig, under threat of torture and death and other bad stuff?”
Gibbs saluted Bres, and then took Captain Geneva by the arm. She and Marsh took Geneva away.
“Hey, Kyrie, when I get out of prison, can I call you?” Bres said when they’d gone.
Kyrie smiled. “If you forget to call me, I’ll hunt you down.”
The forest on the planet Astra, over time, came to be known all over the galaxy as The Oracle. Scientists from many different worlds came to study the strange new alien, and The Oracle, in turn, learned from them. During this age, there was a leap in technological progress, leading to the discovery of a way to perform intergalactic, and later, interdimensional travel.
The Oracle remained on its home world, unable to reap the benefits of its own contributions to sentient-kind, yet through the stories of other travelers, it was able to gain a greater understanding of other worlds and beings, and to travel in a way only a mind can travel. It was no longer alone.

The Mind of Astra, Part IV

Sometimes, reality defies expectations so egregiously that the human mind seeks to reject reality in favor of its own prejudices. Cadet Marsh’s race was largely free of this bias, so he was able to laugh when Cadet Gibbs, Cadet Kyrie, and Jonas Bres all said, “that’s impossible!”
Captain Geneva, a post-human, simply rolled her eyes.
The voice which had inspired these varied reactions crackled from the radio again. “Who are you?”
Captain Geneva pressed the transmit button on the radio and spoke brusquely. “This is Captain Geneva of the Starship Argo. Who is this?”
“Star…ship… Starship,” the voice echoed. “I do not understand.”
“It doesn’t understand starship?” Bres said incredulously. “And you guys call me stupid.”
“It learned to vocalize our language in a single afternoon,” Kyrie pointed out. ”Cut it some slack.”
Captain Geneva silenced the youths with a violet glare, and then turned back to the radio.
“A starship is a vessel that carries life-forms through space. Do you understand?”
“You are… life forms? You can travel among the stars?”
“Correct.”
“Strange… Strange creatures. Why did you hurt me?”
“We apologize; that was an unfortunate accident,” Captain Geneva said with another glare at Bres.
“Why have you come here?”
“That was also an accident. Your radio signals interfered with our navigational instruments, and we crashed on the surface of the planet. If you would be so kind to suspend your transmissions, we will leave peacefully.”
For a moment, there was only a confused jumble of radio noise, then, “I must think.”
“Thank you for your consideration,” Captain Geneva replied. “We are running low on supplies, so we must leave as soon as possible. Please make your decision quickly.”
“I have already decided,” the voice responded. “What you ask of me is impossible.”
Captain Geneva’s eyes dimmed momentarily, and her expression became grim. “If we cannot leave, we will die of starvation. I have no choice but to interpret your actions as hostile. This is an act of war.”
“War? What is war? I do not understand.”
“If you do not suspend your transmissions and allow us to leave, we will be forced to hurt you again,” Captain Geneva said icily.
“No… no… don’t hurt me,” the crackle became frantic- almost pleading in tone.
“Then suspend your transmissions,” Captain Geneva pressed.
“Impossible.”
“Then we have nothing more to say to each other,” she said, and resolutely turned off the radio.
Captain Geneva turned back to the cadets, who were all staring at her with horrified expressions.
“Oh! Captain-“ Gibbs said plaintively.
“Not a word, Cadet,” Captain Geneva snapped. “The situation is unfortunate, but I must put the welfare of my crew above that of hostile alien beings, no matter how pretty said beings are.”
“How could you ignore its pleas like that?” Gibbs persisted. “We’ve been negotiating with it for mere minutes. Surely, we could reach some solution if we tried.”
“Gibbs, we don’t have time to quibble. You heard the transmission yourself- the beings are unwilling to compromise. This will be a good learning experience for you. If you ever want to become an officer, you must learn to stop being so sensitive, and make difficult decisions.”
“Yes, Captain,” Gibbs said, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Good. Gibbs, Marsh, activate the force field and distribute our food rations. Cadet Kyrie, you have yet to tend to my nephew’s injuries; do so immediately. Look smart, everyone. We will return to the ship for weapons and backup bright and early tomorrow.”

***

“Hey, Gibbs, are you awake?” Marsh whispered.
Gibbs thought this was a rather stupid question. After all, even though she’d been trying to keep her sobs quiet, she knew she’d been failing miserably.
“You’d better get some sleep,” she mumbled. “We only get five hours of night on this planet.”
“My species hardly needs any sleep,” he whispered back. “But I know you need a lot. If you’re feeling up to it, though, Bres and I are going to contact the trees, again.”
Gibbs sat up with a start, and was promptly shushed by Marsh. He reached over to de-activate the force field that surrounded the camp, and then beckoned her to follow.
Gibbs, Marsh, and Bres made their way out of camp slowly, as Bres’ leg was mended, but still sore. They were as quiet as possible, keen to avoid detection. Soon, however, their silence took on a sense of awe as they gazed at the night sky.
Gibbs felt somewhat ashamed that she hadn’t taken the time to stargaze on this alien world. She’d been wrapped up with the mission, and eager to sleep when she could, but the night sky on Q4-5404-3963-9170 was truly spectacular.
In the eastern sky, two moons were rising. One was full, and bright red, and the other was small, pale, and irregularly shaped- probably an asteroid that had been pulled into orbit, Gibbs reasoned. In the north was an enormous, pink dust cloud, glittering and glowing with thousands of baby stars.
“Stellar,” Bres sighed appreciatively.
“Yeah,” Marsh agreed, before clearing his throat and assuming a more businesslike tone. “Anyway, we’re probably far enough from camp, now. I’m sure even the Captain’s bionic ears can’t hear this far.”
“That doesn’t matter, anyway,” said Bres. “She’s shut off her ears, for the night. Nothing will wake her up.”
“Are you serious?” Gibbs asked, her pale eyes wide with horror.
“That’s good for us,” Marsh said dismissively. He took the radio from his satchel and handed it to Gibbs. “I think you should be the one to talk.”
Gibbs beamed at Marsh as she took the radio, and the trio sat together on the rocky surface in a small, huddled circle. Gibbs touched the radio tentatively.
“Go ahead,” Marsh prompted. “It should already be set to the proper frequency. All you need to do is transmit.”
Gibbs nodded, bit her lip, and turned on the radio. She pushed the transmit button and said, tentatively, “Hello, are you still there?”
For a moment, there was nothing but noise, but then the alien voice spoke. “Is this Captain Geneva?”
“No. My name is Holly Gibbs,” she replied. “I’m a Cadet aboard the Argo. I’m here with my friends, Cadet Xellos Marsh, and Jonas Bres. We want to learn more about you, and we want to try to find a way to compromise, so that no one will have to resort to violence.”
There was another long silence, then the voice replied, “that is acceptable, Holly Gibbs.”
The small group let out a collective sigh. Bres flashed Gibbs and brilliant smile, and Marsh gave her an encouraging pat on the shoulder.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
“I am the mind,” was the reply. “I am the only mind on Astra.”
“Astra- is that the name of this planet?”
“I have not been using words for long. Astra is the best word I can give to the thought that represents my planet,” the voice replied self-deprecatingly.
“Astra is a beautiful name,” Gibbs said. “I don’t understand something, though. You said you are the only mind, but we’ve seen so many organisms. Which one are you?”
“I am all of them. I am a multitude. I am one mind made from many individuals.”
Gibbs and Marsh exchanged astonished looks. “Incredible!” Marsh said.
“What’s incredible?” Bres asked excitedly.
Before Marsh could reply, Kyrie’s voice called out from behind them, triumphant.
“Busted!”
***

Jonas Bres didn’t know everything, he didn’t even know most things, but he did know that when the prettiest, smartest girl you’ve ever met shows up unexpectedly on a beautiful, moonlit night, it was a good thing- even if the girl in question was yelling.
So, while Cadets Gibbs and Marsh tried to placate Kyrie with reasoning and pleas, Bres ran a hand through his hair and checked his breath. Then, when he was satisfied with the state of his grooming, he stood, flashed Kyrie a dazzling smile, and said, “hey, cutie. Glad you could make it.”
Kyrie just glared at Bres, obviously unable to see just how handsome he was in the dark.
“Just wait until I tell your aunt that you snuck out of camp. She’ll vaporize you.”
“Hey, don’t be mad,” Bres crooned. “I told Marsh that we should invite you, but he said that you would rat us out. Of course, I told him you were too stellar a babe to do something like that-“
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” Kyrie interrupted.
“We’re having a party!” Bres said.
“No, we’re not,” Gibbs sighed. “We’re contacting the trees again. We must be able to come to some sort of an arrangement.”
“You heard what the Captain said,” Kyrie said. “The aliens are hostile, and we’re running low on supplies. We don’t have time to negotiate.”
“Kyrie, we have to try and use what little time we have,” Marsh urged.
“Yeah, Kyrie. He broke my leg, sure, but I don’t think he meant to. This tree guy is pretty cool, once you talk to him,” Bres added.
“He?” Kyrie raised her eyebrow.
“We think that the entire forest is a single intelligence,” Marsh said gently. “As far as we know, it’s the only one of its kind.”
“The entire forest… but then, how is it communicating?” Kyrie said.
“We were just about to ask,” Marsh replied.
Kyrie bit her lip, looking back toward the camp. Then she sighed and sat between Marsh and Gibbs.
“Ask away,” she said.
Gibbs, in her relief, laughed out loud. Her laugh was high and clear, and rang like a bell over the quiet landscape. The whole party, though they feared detection, couldn’t help but relax and smile at the sound.
Gibbs pressed the transmit button. “Hello, again. We have another friend with us, Cadet Eileen Kyrie.”
“Your first name is Eileen?” Bres whispered incredulously.
Kyrie shushed him.
Gibbs continued, “We’re curious; how are you able to communicate with us? We didn’t see any radio equipment in the forest.”
“How are you reading my thoughts?” the mind responded.
The youths exchanged puzzled glances. Unfortunately, there were no crickets around to fill the silence with the appropriate chirruping.
Finally, Gibbs spoke again. “I don’t understand. You’re transmitting radio signals to us. How are you doing it?”
“You showed me how to think in your language. The ‘signals’ you speak of are part of my brain.”
“How can radio signals be part of your brain?” Gibbs asked.
There was a confused crackling noise, and then the strange voice spoke. “It’s difficult to remember, but over the millennia, I’ve been able to meditate on my existence. This is what I know about myself.
“Long ago, I was many. There were many unseen predators who would hurt me, so pieces of me would send signals to other pieces when it was hurt, so the others could help it heal, or try to fight the pain-bringers. Over time, the signals became more detailed.
“Centuries passed, and the predators stopped coming. Everything became very quiet, without the distress signals, but in the silence, parts of me became aware of very small, faint signals in the sky. I became aware of stars, pulsars, quasars, and the cycles of pulses that came from the sun. Pieces of me sent signals about these new discoveries back and forth along more and more ordered pathways, until logic emerged. I was awake.
“For millennia I could only think about, and talk to, the stars. Then you came, bringing with you the dimly remembered pain. You taught me your language, and I am able to think with your words, and communicate with you.”
Gibbs pressed the transmit button with trembling hands. “Thank you,” she whispered, “for telling us your story.”
Marsh stood and walked to the edge of the forest. He reached out and gently touched one of the white, moonlit blossoms with his dark grey hand.
“So, these little blossoms aren’t flowers at all, but tiny radio transmitters. They send radio signals to each other, back and forth, like neurons.”
“It can’t stop transmitting all of these signals, because that would be like dying,” Gibbs cried.
“Yes, so your little field trip was useless, after all,” a cold, mechanical voice replied. “In the end, we and the trees must be enemies.”
The small group turned to see two violet lights shining through the darkness. Captain Geneva had found them.
“I don’t blame you for trying,” she said. “I can understand why you might wish to avoid conflict. After all, this is a fascinating new species, and you are all young and curious. I suppose the loss of 4 hours sleep is enough punishment for you all. We still have 4 hours before sunrise, so let’s return to camp.”
For a moment, no one moved.
“Return to camp, now, before I decide not to be so forgiving.”
Everyone stood, and Gibbs, with fumbling fingers, returned the radio to its case.

The Mind of Astra, Part III

When Cadet Marsh had announced that he’d found a way to communicate with the alien species, he’d expected praise and adoration- or at least a friendly smile and pat on the thorax. What he didn’t expect was for Cadet Kyrie to groan, roll her eyes, and say, “someone, please, shoot me. Put me out of my misery.”
She did anyway.
“Umm, Kyrie, I know you’re scared of the organisms, but…”
“I’m not scared of them. Being torn apart and eaten by alien trees is nothing compared to my fate,” Kyrie replied.
Marsh boggled at her.
“Look behind you,” Gibbs said with a resigned sigh.
Marsh turned and saw a hover-bike, gliding easily over the surface of the planet, coming from the direction of the ship. A young, male human, with messy black hair and a cocky grin, was driving the bike with his feet as he leaned back against the seat with his hands behind his head. He made a wide circle around the group of Cadets, and then stopped.
“Hey guys,” he said cheerfully. “I’m here to rescue you.”
The group was silent for a moment- a silence punctuated by the perpetual quiet of the alien world. Then Gibbs sighed, stepped forward, and spoke.
“You’re here to rescue us from what?”
“I dunno,” the boy said, dismounting. “You guys have been out here forever, so I assumed you needed to be rescued.”
“Well, we don’t. Go back, Bres.” Kyrie said firmly.
“I can’t, baby. The captain ordered me to stay on the ship. Plus, I stole her hover-bike. If I go back, she’ll throw me in the brig.”
Marsh grinned. Bres wasn’t an intelligent human- at least, by any measurable standard- but he did know how to have fun.
Kyrie was less impressed. “Bres, as leader of this expedition, it is my duty to take you into custody, and escort you back to the ship.” She fumbled around in her knapsack, retrieving a pair of magnetic restrainers and a stun weapon, which she tried to wield menacingly.
“Stellar! I’ve always wanted to be your prisoner, beautiful.” Bres held out his wrists and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Kyrie blanched and quickly put the restraints and the weapon away.
Bres shrugged, and turned to Marsh. “So, if you guys aren’t in danger, then what’s been taking you so long? The captain and I fixed the ship’s hull ages ago, and all you guys had to do was figure out why the radio control thingies don’t work.”
Marsh sighed. “We can’t find the source of the radio interference. Gibb thinks that the trees might know something-“
“Wait, the trees?” Bres interrupted.
“For the last time, they aren’t actually trees,” Kyrie said.
“Anyway,” Marsh continued, “I was just about to tell everyone, before you arrived, that I’ve found a pattern in the radio signals.”
Gibbs and Kyrie both turned sharply toward Marsh.
“The captain said that the interference was just a lot of noise,” Kyrie said.
“Yes, it does seem like random noise, at first, but there is a subtle pattern. It’s organic, almost fractal, but it is a definite pattern.”
Kyrie’s face lit up. “Can you decipher its meaning?”
“No, but I’m going to send out a signal of my own- the usual first-contact language cipher. Hopefully, the aliens are more intelligent than I am.”
Kyrie bit her lip. “It sounds like a long-shot. Go ahead and broadcast your signal, and we’ll continue to examine the trees.”
Bres turned and started to strut toward the forest. “Great, let’s go.”
“Wait, Bres, we have to watch them from here. The trees could be dangerous,” Kyrie shrieked.
“Good. Danger is my middle name.”
“I’ll report you,” she threatened.
“I can’t get in worse trouble than I’m already in,” Bres countered.
“Finally, a mutiny!” Marsh said enthusiastically. He slung his radio over his shoulder and followed Bres.
“Wait!” Kyrie called.
Gibbs hesitated, looking first to the forest with her longing eyes, and then anxiously back at Kyrie. Finally she heaved a heavy sigh, and ran after the others.
“Get back here now! That’s an order.” Cadet Kyrie called.
She kept calling after the others until her throat was hoarse, but her voice just echoed impotently in the chilly, evening air. She finally gave up and sat behind the boulder to wait for the others, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
Gibbs wrapped her arms around herself and shivered as she gazed around the strange forest. It was unsettlingly unlike any forest on Earth. There was no quiet whisper of wind rustling leaves, no chirping birds or humming insects, and no stirring of fallen leaves or blossoms underfoot. The trees just jutted out of the planet’s rocky surface, still and silent.
Gibbs shivered again, and turned up the heat on her electric jacket.
Bres, completely unruffled, stepped up to a tree. “How do you talk to one of these, anyway?”
He rapped sharply on the tree’s trunk. “Hey, what’s this thing made of? Plastic?”

Marsh reached out and touched the tree. “I think the trunk is made of keratin, like your fingernails.”
“Oh, neat. These flowers are pretty weird, too.” Bres took a small laser knife from his pocket and cut off a blossom.
The eerie stillness was immediately shattered. All of the trees began to shudder and shake at once. The tree Bres had cut thrashed wildly, knocking him to the ground. Marsh’s radio emitted an ear-splitting screech.
***
Cadet Kyrie lay on her back, staring at the wildly thrashing trees in complete bewilderment. Seeing the blank expression in her eyes, a bystander might have thought that her brain had shut off completely. In fact, it was actually performing the very tricky function of switching from complete resentment, and a desire that her friends meet their certain doom in the alien forest, to concern for her friends, and the desire to rescue them from certain doom. Several synapses had to override her usual fear impulse, and tap into the underdeveloped courage centers of the brain.
In other words, Kyrie was in shock.
Luckily, Kyrie had been gifted with a very efficient brain, so within very little time, Kyrie was back on her feet and reaching for her stun weapon. Her brain performed another tricky operation, and she said, “wait, do those things even have a nervous system to stun?”
She put away the expensive stun weapon, picked up a rock, and rushed toward the forest.
When she reached the trees, she threw herself on the ground and crawled under the flailing branches, awkwardly pulling herself forward with her elbows while clutching her rock. She made her way toward the hideous screeching noise, ignoring the more sensible urge to run in the opposite direction.
Soon she could see her friends at the edge of a small clearing. Cadets Gibbs and Marsh each had one of Bres’s arms, and were attempting to pull him away from a tree, which had one of its branches wound tightly around his leg. Kyrie crawled over and lifted her rock, ready to bring it crashing down on the branch. A small hand grabbed her wrist.
Kyrie looked up. Gibbs was shouting something unintelligible.
“What?” Kyrie shouted back.
Gibbs let go of her wrist and reached over to turn off Marsh’s radio. Immediately, the cacophony stopped. Gibbs let out a sigh of relief.
“There, that’s better. I was saying, ‘don’t hurt the tree.’ Bres cut off one of the flowers, and that’s when they went crazy.”
“Bres did what?” Kyrie cried. “He’s a menace. We should just let the tree have him.”
“I don’t think the tree really wants him,” Gibbs replied. “It’s just lashing out-“
“Stop pulling me,” Bres cried. “The tree is squeezing.”
“Wait, do you still have the flower?” Gibbs asked.
“In- in my pocket,” Bres gasped.
Gibbs let go of Bres’s arm and reached into his trousers pocket, soon producing the blossom. It was small and white, but not at all delicate. It glinted in the sunlight in an almost metallic way.
The branch stopped squeezing, and uncoiled itself from Bres’s leg.
Gibbs held out the blossom, and gently touched it to the end of the branch. For a moment, the blossom glowed with a soft, white light, and then the light traveled from the blossom, down the branch and to the trunk of the tree. All of the other trees became still once more. The blossom fused itself back onto the branch, and the branch returned to its original position. Once more, the forest was silent and still.
“Let’s get out of here,” Kyrie urged.
***

The trip back to camp was maddeningly slow. Bres couldn’t walk, so Marsh and Kyrie had to help carry him back. They had to stop by the rock where Kyrie had left her knapsack, and wait for her to check every item, to make sure nothing was stolen. Bres was the only one who attempted to make conversation, which mostly consisted of him exclaiming from time to time, “that was totally stellar!”
When they arrived at camp, Kyrie almost dropped Bres, partly from annoyance, but mostly from surprise. She fumbled to keep her hold on him while trying her best to stand at attention.
“Captain Geneva, Ma’am!” she cried, attempting to salute, but managing only an awkward bow.
“At ease, Cadet,” the Captain said. She was standing in the middle of the messy encampment in her clean, white uniform, with her hair pulled into a sleek bun, while examining the mussed, tired cadets with a critical eye.
Captain Geneva was a tall, strikingly beautiful woman. She had a lithe, graceful figure, a perfect peaches and cream complexion, and gently glowing, violet bionic eyes. She was graced with the type of statuesque beauty that commanded instant respect and fear, from all but one person.
“Jonas Bres, you are a disappointment to your entire family,” she said, one of her electronic eyes on the injured boy, while the other still surveyed the cadets. “I should never have allowed you to tag along. I knew you would endanger the mission. You can say goodbye to your letter of recommendation. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you’re never allowed into the academy.”
“But Aunt Willa-“ Bres began.
“Not another word. You’re spending the rest of the journey in the brig. Now, Cadet Kyrie, kindly explain what Bres has done, and why you allowed it to happen.”
Kyrie’s face burned bright red as she told the Captain everything that had happened so far. After she finished, the Captain shook her head and sighed.
“Cadet Gibbs, get the portable physician from my knapsack, and see to Jonas. Cadet Marsh, explain to me why you decided it was a good idea to follow my prion-brained nephew into the forest.”
“Well, I thought we’d learn more about the organisms if we examined them up close- and I’m glad we did. We’ve learned an immense amount- we’ve learned exactly what we needed to know.”
Kyrie looked at Marsh blankly. “We have?”
“Of course we have! We’ve confirmed that the trees are definitely the source of the radio interference. As soon as the trees reacted, the signals grew more intense. I’ve been broadcasting our first-contact information for a few hours, Captain. Hopefully, we’ll be able to communicate soon.”
He handed the radio to the captain with a grin. The Captain eyed him warily, took the radio, and turned it on.
For a few moments, there was only static. Then the static seemed to coalesce into a rough, alien approximation of the human voice. The weird distorted voice simply said, “who are you?”