Farmhand – A Story of Mad Science and Environmental Harm

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

The Hall of Ideas – a flash science fiction story

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.

Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms.

For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed.

At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people?

With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again.

*

Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea.

The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing.

Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision.

The screen flashed and a message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design.

The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams.

“What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?”

People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas.

Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall.

Next time, he would get it right.

*

Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him.

The screen flashed:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

“No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!”

Around him, people watched in shocked silence.

Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine.

“You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.”

He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before.

Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new?

***

This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Real Food – a flash science fiction story

It was the gun that got Liz’s attention. She hadn’t seen many guns in her life, had seen none at all in the protein plant before, and this was very definitely the first one to be pointed at her. The darkness of the barrel had a hypnotic draw that almost made her ignore the man behind it.

She raised her hands and stepped back, legs trembling, sweat breaking out across her brow. Her back pressed against the guard rail, hard and cold even through her overalls, and she found herself trapped, caught between the three terrorists and the vats below.

“We are the Real Food Front!” the leader of the terrorists bellowed. “We demand that you switch off these machines.”

When she looked back on it later, Liz realised that she should have just said, “yes, of course, right this way…”, but in the moment, her brain was lagging somewhere behind the dangers of reality.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people should be people,” he said. “They should eat real animals and plants, not some synthetic protein pooped out by bacteria.”

“That’s not really how this-”

“Silence!”

He waved the gun. Liz clamped her mouth shut, terrified that he might accidentally pull the trigger. It would be bad enough to get shot over this goop, never mind dying because some idiot’s finger slipped.

They stood staring at each other, both waiting, while his comrades peered down into the gently bubbling vats.

“I said switch it off,” the terrorist said.

“Oh!” Liz blinked, then laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, I can’t. I don’t have that level of control.”

“Then you’re no use to us.”

He shoved her hard and she fell over the guard rail with a shriek. For a moment, the air rushed past, then she landed with a splat in the vat below.

Liz flailed wildly, trying to swim through a morass of bacteria, water, and the proteins they were making. Each breath was a desperate gasp as she felt herself sinking.

Then she remembered how shallow the vat was. Blushing with embarrassment, she got her feet underneath her and stood, chest-deep in goop.

“You will provide a warning to the world of the danger this place has unleashed!” the terrorist shouted, his voice echoing through the factory. One of his comrades held up a phone to film Liz. “As genetically modified bacteria dissolve your body, the world will see how deadly their food is, why they should return to the good old ways of real food.”

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the terrorist asked.

“You know this won’t work, right?” Liz said. “These bacteria don’t eat anything but hydrogen. Even the ones that dissolve plastic can’t-”

“Of course I knew that! This was, um, a test, to show that you’re a real employee here. And now the world will see your face as we poison your precious artificial protein. No-one will be able to eat your barbaric products, as they bring the same death to the body they bring to the soul.”

One of the others had taken off a bulky backpack and pulled out a plastic sack. He ripped it open and poured white powder into the vat.

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the lead terrorist snapped.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that won’t work either. There are so many filters in this system that whatever you’ve put in, it’ll probably be taken out. And if not, it won’t make it past quality testing. Regulations are even tighter for us than for other food.”

The terrorist leaned forward, one hand gripping the guard rail. His face was red.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said. “But you people have pushed us to it. For the sake of future generations, we must return to real food.”

He unzipped his jacket, revealing a mass of plasticine-like blocks and trailing wires. One of those wires let to the switch he pulled from his pocket.

“I may die,” he declared, chest thrust out as his comrade stepped back to film him, “but by sacrificing myself to destroy the very vats that poison our people, I bring this place to a halt and prove to the world that life is worth more than this.”

Liz raised her hand, but it was too late. The terrorist ran along the gantry, vaulted the guard rail, and landed with a splat in the next vat over, out of sight from her.

There was a muted thump. A fountain of bacteria-infused goo blasted into the air, then pattered down like a thick, pink rain. Liz, already coated from her fall, watched with a smile as the remaining terrorists tried to shake off the slime.

Then the doors burst open and the police ran in.

An hour later, Liz was sitting under a blanket beside the vats while a woman from HR failed to comfort her.

“This is going to be a disaster,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Never mind cleaning the vats, the publicity from it all-”

“We sell food powders with all the taste and glamour of plasticine,” Liz said. “Until today, we were as cool and edgy as a children’s TV presenter. Now our food has survived a terrorist attack.”

She got up and started looking around for new overalls.

“Unlike the Real Food Front, I think we’ll survive.”

***

A story inspired by real attempts to make food using gas and microorganisms. Because the world is a wild and wonderful place.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

The Future of Food Gets Weirder

Our relationship with food is changing fast. As new technologies and ethical considerations take hold, it’s becoming rich territory for speculative fiction.

I wrote about food a couple of times last year – one an article about how food isn’t explored much in sci-fi and the other a flash story about the effect of changing diets. Only a few months later, the news has leapt ahead from my ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, Finnish scientists announced that they had found a way to make protein out of air. It involves soil bacteria and splitting water, and the end result is a tasteless, textureless powder with all the culinary appeal of sawdust, but still, if it works then this is huge.

If you’re going to pick out a single nutrient to synthesise, then protein is surely the most important. It’s what our bodies use to build, grow, and repair themselves. In the absence of fat and carbohydrates, it provides a source of energy. It’s why meat, fish, and dairy are so valuable in a diet, and why you have to be careful to get a good balance of simpler proteins if you go vegan.

Traditional protein is also relatively land- and resource-intensive to produce. Feeding an animal up to provide meat, eggs, or milk takes a lot more space, energy, and resources than growing vegetables or grain.

As the middle class grows around the world, wealthier people seek out more protein in their diets, and those who’ve got it aren’t giving it up. Some in the west are moving over to plant protein to reduce their environmental impact, but the pressure farming puts on the ecosystem is still huge.

That’s why George Monbiot, one of Britain’s most famous commentators on green issues, thinks that the Finnish technology could save the environment. Even if it’s not all that tasty, protein flour could provide millions of people with nutrients they need and that many lack. And because it takes far less space and energy, it could be a blessing for the environment, especially if it’s powered by solar energy. Just imagine vast vats on the edges of the Sahara, turning sunlight into precious food.

Compared with what I was writing about in No More Milk, this is a radical change, both in its practical potential and in its aesthetics. Protein flour grown in bacterial vats is some real sci-fi weirdness by current food standards, far more so than just eating beetles. The transformation this could bring is staggering, and it lends itself to some weird people, places, and events, from obsessive bacteriologists to vast food-processing vats to new organisms growing from the food sludge. The possibility that this might take off makes some previously wild speculation seem more real and will encourage sci-fi writers to move away from food as we know it.

The future of food is vital to society. Now it could be dramatic too.

Silver Sails – a flash science fiction story

Helena stared open-mouthed at the silver sails drifting across the black of space. They moved like a flock of vast and shining birds, flowing back and forth in V-shaped formations hundreds of kilometres across, blown by the solar winds between the binary stars. As they turned, one face or another would catch the light, their bright tissue rippling and folding in invisible currents.

Space

“How do they even exist?” she whispered.

Johar shrugged and steered their shuttle towards the edge of one of the flocks.

“No-one knows,” he said. “Just be grateful that they do. They’re our way out of this system.”

The nearest sail shone brightly as Johar manoeuvred them in behind it. Tweaks of the thrusters, using up their precious supply of fuel, brought them in line behind that sheet of silver.

“Your turn,” he said.

Helena rubbed her hands against her thighs then wrapped them around the grappler’s controls. Her skin was tingling, her heart beating fast, but she tried to ignore that and focus on the task in hand.

She lined up the target finder on one corner of the sail and pulled the trigger, but a jerk of her hand left the shot misaligned. The grappling cable spooled out across the void, missed its target, and trailed limply like a heavy grey thread.

“Come on Helena, you’re better than this,” Johar said. “I’ve seen you practice.”

“It’s different out here,” she said, setting that grapple to wind back in while she reluctantly lined up another one. “They’re so beautiful, it doesn’t feel right to trap them like this.”

“They’re not people, not even animals, just a strange quirk of the cosmos. They won’t know that they’re trapped.”

“I will.”

Johar sighed, unstrapped himself from his seat, and floated across the cabin to her.

“You can do this,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I believe in you. And I believe in us. We could never afford the fuel to escape the system with rockets, but with a sail and a couple of cryo cans we can go wherever we want. It’s a whole new life for you and me.”

Helena couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead, she focused on the target finder, lining up the grappling shot like she’d practised so many times. Johar was right, this was their dream.

And yet…

“What if it goes wrong?” she asked. “What if the sail tears or we can’t find somewhere to settle or the place we find is dreadful or… or… or anything?”

Johar took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Sure, any of that could happen,” he said. “But if we don’t try, we know what will happen. We’ll live here our whole lives, stuck in dead-end jobs for an uncaring corporation. I’ll live through that for you, if that’s what it takes to be together. But couldn’t we have more?”

Helena looked out across the flocks of silver sails swirling against the black. She had never known such beauty could exist, never mind that it could exist here. Did she embrace that? Or did she leave it all behind, hoping that the universe might hold something more?

“Everyone I’ve ever known lives here,” she said. “Family, friends, all the places we share.”

“If it’s too much, we can stay.” Johar let go of her shoulder and drifted back to his seat. “Sell the ship, buy a little apartment instead, get by with what we have.”

His fingers stabbed at the controls, setting a course back home, then hovered over the thruster switch.

Helena imagined that apartment, the two of them raising kids in one of the city tower blocks. She imagined snatching a few hours of leisure each week with family, treasured moments between the long hours of her job. She could live with that.

The sail they were following turned with the rest of its flock. Like vast silver birds, the sails soared through the void, shining with borrowed light. The wonders of the universe were laid out before Helena.

She stilled her trembling hand and pulled the trigger. The grapple caught a corner of the sail.

Maybe she could live with this place, but she would rather dream of something more.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Invisible – A Flash Science Fiction Story

This whole thing started for me when Gazetech brought out their smart glasses. You remember, they were the first with filters to separate out real human faces from the imitations on screens, machines, and billboards. A shortcut for the brain.

Glasses on laptop

Everyone was getting burnt out by then. The internet of things meant an endless succession of appliances trying to engage with us, using fake faces to grab our attention. Just walking down the street became a road to mental fatigue, trying to work out who was human, who wasn’t, what any of them wanted and why. You’d see tired parents and exhausted executives picking fights with holographic bank machines. Our silicon helpers were killing us with friendship.

Then came Gazetech with their solution, because apparently the fix to broken technology was more technology. A pair of glasses that would detect and blank out fake faces.

It worked. The people who bought them reported greater happiness and productivity. Within weeks, more factories were being built. Vandalism against public-facing machines plummeted.

And people started ignoring me.

I didn’t realise at first. We’ve all had people who jump ahead of us in queues or try to barge past in the street. When it happened with acquaintances, I started to think I’d done something wrong, even became a bit depressed. Then a colleague bought his first Gazetech and stopped responding to me around the coffee machine. Finally, I worked it out. I had the wrong sort of face.

Gazetech uses a variety of filters to detect fake faces – excessive symmetry, surprising stillness, average features for your gender and skin tone, stuff like that. One of them alone won’t trigger the glasses, but hit all those buttons and it’ll think you’re just another device or an advertising board.

I’d never been exceptional looking. Good enough to get dates, not so handsome that I drew admiring crowds at parties. Now I knew why – I was the definition of average.

At first, it was amusing, a novelty to tell people about, but as the glasses became ubiquitous, it became a pain. I had to keep reminding everyone that I was in the room, or I’d be entirely ignored. It was as frustrating as being a teenager.

Then came the revelation.

We’d just finished a team meeting and I was sitting alone in the conference room, feeling sorry for myself. The others had walked out, all wearing their Gazetech, gossipping away, forgetting about me. Then a couple of the company’s directors walked in for a meeting of their own, both wearing Gazetech. They closed the door, sat down, and started talking like I wasn’t even there. To them, I wasn’t.

Oh boy, the things I heard. Projects and investments that no-one else knew about. Details of a planned restructuring. Who was sleeping with whose secretary. I kept quiet and took notes.

That evening, I bought shares in one of the companies they were planning to take over. Within weeks, those had soared in value.

After that, I did it on purpose. People had got used to not seeing me, so they didn’t notice that I wasn’t at my desk. I spent my days in the corners of meeting rooms, hoovering up the company’s secrets. Most of it was useless for anything other than blackmail, and I didn’t have the streak of cruelty it took to go down that route, even against people who had stopped seeing me as a person. But there were gems amid the muck.

It took me a while to foster a contact at a rival firm. I had to prove that my information was good, without giving away how I’d acquired it. I built trust slowly, giving away crumbs so I could sell them the whole loaf.

At last they were convinced and the work started in earnest. Every month, I received a substantial transfer from an anonymous bank account. Every month, I sent an encrypted email from a secret address. Every month, our rivals made a move just in time to thwart my firm.

Eventually, management realised that they had a mole. A witch hunt started. I had one day of roiling, gut-churning panic before I realised that I didn’t need to worry. No-one was going to blame me. They had forgotten I was there.

Over the next year, the company’s fortunes plummeted while mine soared. I made canny investments based on their planned next moves, doubling what I earned from my other employers. I didn’t even have to hide my grin, because no-one saw it.

Then came the fateful day. I was sitting in the corner of a board meeting, learning about their desperate, last-gasp plans to turn things around.

The chief executive let out a deep sigh and admitted that it wasn’t going to work. She was exhausted, battered by the winds of fortune, barely holding herself together. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and looked straight up at me.

Nobody called the police. Instead, security guards brought me down here, to a quiet, windowless room in a corner of HR, for a discreet little chat. And I can be discreet. I think I’ve proved that by now.

So here’s the thing. You could finish firing me and hand me over to the police. Or you could go grab my laptop. I’ve been working on a job application for a rival firm. I can get through the doors there. I can find my way onto the inside. And then…

***

This story was inspired by a friend of mine who works in academic psychology. She went to a talk on how processing the presence of other people, trying to work out their thoughts, feelings, and intentions use up our brainpower, even when those people are actually just objects that look like people. She wondered, in a grand way, about its sci-fi potential.

Then I took the idea and made something seedy out of it.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Tone Versus Content – The Star Trek Revival

With Discovery now two seasons in and Captain Picard about to return to our screens, Star Trek is having a big TV revival. But is it doing what Trek does best?

Let’s get this out of the way first – I am totally on board with these shows. Discovery‘s diverse cast and bold storytelling are things of joy. The idea of seeing an aging Picard back in action makes my heart swell.

But the tone of Discovery, and by the look of its trailer Picard too, is very different from what Trek was. Both in the visuals and in the storytelling, things are darker, more ambiguous, less hopeful. There’s an emphasis on long-term storytelling that’s at odds with the original episodic format.

This isn’t surprising. Sci-fi TV saw a significant shake-up in the wake of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which took existing trends and expanded on them to create a gritty show with squabbling crewmates and deep, troubled characters. Much of what’s followed has tried to recapture that, and it’s led to some great TV.

But this isn’t what Star Trek was about. It was a show in which the crew fundamentally got on, in which the right decision could be made, in which the universe was a hopeful place. And it looked like it. Even Deep Space Nine, the darkest of shows from the second wave, kept that underlying tone and built its ongoing plots on the solid foundation of episodic storytelling.

The new shows have content and continuity carried over from before, but they don’t have that tone. The universe is a shadowy place, visually and morally. In Discovery, episodic storytelling takes second place to ongoing arcs, squeezed into the corners of even the most stand-alone episodes. There’s every reason to expect the same from Picard.

That doesn’t mean that it’s bad sci-fi. Far from it, there are some great stories here. But there was a Star Trek shaped gap in our viewing schedules, a place for hope and brightness in contrast with the post-BSG shows. Star Trek could have brought that and it didn’t. For better or for worse, it’s a very different beast now.

Out Now – Scrapheap Destiny

When journalist Eve goes back to her home planet, she thinks she knows what she’s after. A corporation is rebuilding the old scrap fields and they’re paying her to tell the story. But not everybody thinks that change is for the better, and Eve will find herself caught between her community, her sponsors, and her own desires.

My latest short story, “Scrapheap Destiny”, is out now in issue 30 of Neo-opsis.

Last Ship Out of the Supernova – a flash sci-fi story

A blaze of colours hurtled out of the void towards the orbital station. The light of the dying star consumed everything in its path, no less grim for all its beauty.

Crab nebula

Em gripped the controls of the Lightning Run, ready to trigger the engines at a moment’s notice.

“You said we’d be gone before the supernova started,” she shouted into the back of the ship.

“And we almost are,” Rid called back. “Just couldn’t let this stuff go to waste.”

There was a clatter as Rid and Holben dragged another crate into the cargo compartment. They’d been out all day, gathering valuables people had left behind in their rush to get away. As Rid said, there was always a profit in disaster, and he hated to let profit go to waste.

“We have to go,” Em snapped. Just looking at the approaching destruction was giving her heart palpitations. This was worse than flying scout missions during the war, worse than the rescue work on Elvrey Prime. Then, life had been uncertain. Now she could watch death coming.

“Almost ready,” Rid shouted.

Em sighed in relief. She couldn’t stand to wait here a minute longer with that terrible light hurtling towards them.

She glanced at the monitors at the back of the pilot’s cabin, the ones plugged into the station’s security systems. On one screen she saw Rid and Holben picking up their last crate. On another she saw people running, a dozen of them racing along a corridor to the shuttle’s docking strut.

Why were they still here?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted.

There was a hiss and a clang as the cargo doors slammed shut.

“Wait!” Em stared at the monitors, then back at the wave of destruction rippling through space. “Open the doors again.”

“Are you crazy?” Rid appeared at her shoulder. “We have to get out of here.”

“There are people.” She pointed at the monitor. “They’ll die if we leave them.”

“Do you want to join them?”

“I want to save them.”

“You can’t. We’re out of time and out of space. You’re the pilot, get us going.”

The light of the oncoming supernova washed out Rid’s skin, leaving his face skull white.

“We can ditch the cargo and make space for them.”

“The cargo we risked our lives for? No way.” Rid laid a hand on her shoulder. “Get flying.”

“I won’t go without them.” Em forced herself to let go of the controls and lay her trembling hands in her lap.

Rid took a step back. For a moment she thought that he’d accepted her demand. Then she felt the cold metal of a gun barrel against the back of her head.

“Fly,” Rid growled. “Now.”

Em looked down at her hands. They had stopped trembling. Outside the window, the light was so beautiful, she could almost forget what it represented.

“No,” she said. “And I know you can’t fly this thing worth shit.”

She felt a trembling again, not from her but from the gun pressed against her head.

“Dammit Em, don’t make me do this.”

“No-one’s making you do anything, but you’re running out of time to choose.” She pointed at the supernova. “Not long now.”

The gun pressed harder against her head. Rid’s ragged breath seemed to fill the cabin, a strange and rasping soundtrack to the view outside.

“Argh.” Rid whipped the gun away and stomped back into the cargo space. “Holben, open her up. We’re ditching this shit.”

Another voice rose in protest, but the cargo doors hissed open. On the monitors, Em saw the desperate refugees rush up to Rid and Holben. Together, they flung out crates of precious loot to make space for everyone on board.

The light was getting brighter. Not long now. Would they make it out in time?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted. “We’ve even kept two of the crates.”

The doors clanged shut. Em released the docking clamps and fired manoeuvring thrusters. Bright light washed across the cabin and then the supernova disappeared from view as they turned to face away from it.

The supernova was almost on them as she powered up the main engines. The whole ship seemed to hum as they hung for a moment between safety and oblivion.

Em hit the engines and prayed.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Survivors – a flash sci-fi story

The ops room was silent, the radios dead. On a screen by the door, the symbols for our starships had all turned to black. Not the grey of lost in action or blue of lost comms. Black, every one.

Image of space

With trembling hands, I drew the headset down from my ears and let it hang around my neck. I hadn’t felt this way since I’d been fifteen, sitting by a hospital bed, watching a face that was a mirror of my own turn pale then still as Dani let go her last breath.

At the command station, Admiral Burling drew her hands away from her face and looked around at the analysts, programmers, and comms officer who made up the fleet’s command staff.

“It’s over,” she said. “We gambled and lost. This base is all that remains of the fleet. Go get some rest, our work here is over.”

People rose from their stations and started shuffling out. My grief turned to horror. How could they act like this?

I lurched to my feet.

“What about the survivors?” I said. “They’ll need us to guide them in.”

I pointed at my screen, from which I’d guided whole wings of the fleet, directing them in battles that spanned entire systems, then talking them home when fried sensors and hacked systems left them blind.

Everybody turned to look at me, then at Burling.

“Whatever that weapon was, it wiped out a star system,” she said. “There are no survivors.”

“You don’t know that!”

I saw the others’ shock as my scream echoed around the room. I could be taken out and shot for talking to an admiral like that, but I couldn’t stay silent. I was a desperate, wounded creature crawling towards the faintest sign of light.

“We’ve lost,” Burling said stiffly. “It would be a waste of what resources we have to man these stations. Go sleep, before you cross a line I cannot ignore.”

“Yes, we’ve lost,” I said. “But we have to have hope, otherwise we have nothing.”

“Hope?” Burling spat the word. “Hope isn’t some panacea for your broken soul. Hope is a poison that will have you clinging to that terminal, pouring your energy into dreams that will never come true, burning away the last of your will until all you have left is the darkness and a service pistol that promises a way out.

“I’ve seen what false dreams hope can offer, and I won’t have you drag the rest down with you.”

On a console between us, a diode was blinking a heartbeat rhythm. Between the flashes, I saw how little I understood about the grey-haired woman standing across from me. I knew that she had fought other wars, had lost friends and comrades like the rest of us, had been with us an hour before when every channel went suddenly and chillingly dead. But I had never considered what more she might have seen than me, what scars she carried on her soul.

I looked at my colleagues standing uncertainly by the door. I saw the yearning in their expressions, the desperate longing to hear that not everything was lost. I imagined the weight of expectation held up by my own fragile desire, noble perhaps but unsupported by what we saw, for all of this to be alright.

I saw the trap I was talking them into, a shadow of the one into which we had unwittingly led the fleet.

“I’m sorry, Admiral,” I said.

I took off my headset. As I set it down, a sound emerged, rasping and tenuous. Was that a voice?

I clutched the headset to my ear and felt my heart hammer as I spoke into the mic.

“This is fleet command, can you repeat that?”

There it was again, almost but not quite words.

Burling glared at me and I wilted beneath her fury. I was fooling myself, wasn’t I? Fooling myself and everyone else.

Then the voice came again, louder this time.

“Fleet command, this is Gardener, do you hear me?”

“Gardener, this is fleet command.” I turned to my station, turned my back on my commander, and stared at the screen, looking for some sign of where the voice came from. “How many of you are left?”

The Admiral strode towards me, her boots thudding against the floor. I had to get proof of life before she tore me from my terminal. I had to-

“All hands to stations,” Burling bellowed. “If we’ve got even one pilot out there, we’re bringing them home.”

Her hand settled on my shoulder and as I turned to look at her I saw her smile for the very first time. Around us, people rushed to their positions, grief replaced by grins as they grabbed communication consoles and reached out across the void of space.

I remembered a face going pale and then still.

This time I could do something to help.

This time there was hope.

***

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Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.