This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s Webb Space Telescope.

2022 AbSciCon Creative Science Writing Contest

Winners' Entries Compliation


Short Stories: Fiction


First place

“Martian Melody” by Lydia Kivrak

Listen closely -
on geologic timescales, you see,
Mars is actually quite noisy.
It’s mostly the wind
holding this planet tightly
singing a constant low undulation
punctuated with the short sharp shrieks
of a week-long
global cacophony of dust.
More subtle is the grit of sand
chafing and smoothing larger rocks
like clenched teeth
grinding down enamel.
The occasional staccato clicks and clacks
of boulders breaking
is quiet
compared to the loudest sound:
the rare explosion of an impact
rumbling far through the ground.
Once, there were other noises:
the rush of gurgling streams
the lap of water on a lakeshore
gentle bubbles of volcanic mud
violent crashes of water breaking
through walls of ice
and, perhaps,
something quieter-
the subtle vibration of molecular bonds
the tiniest zap of a redox reaction
the imperceptible splash of a swimming microbe
maybe even
the occasional squelch
of life.
Some say, if you press your ear to the ground,
you can still hear them-
in the last hidden pools.
for the first time in billennia
new sounds have been resonating
through still cliffs.
Mechanical, metallic movement,
clicks and beeps
wheels crunching rock
an engine humming,
harmonizing with the wind.
The sounds of unpacking a toolkit:
a drill-bit, a laser
a microphone.
And perhaps the wind is singing
because after an eternity of song
for the first time,
someone hears.
For the first time, on Mars,
there are ears.

Second place

“Once is Never” by Yunha Hwang

    Oh, what a strange dream.
    I looked in the mirror,
    and nothing stared back.

    And then I looked up,
    not a single star in the night sky!
    Just a smothering utter abyss.

    Then it struck me, if there
    is nothing beyond us,
    did we ever exist?

    If we happened just once,
    then einmal ist keinmal,
    once is never.

    Never had I felt so alone,
    in this singular sequence of
    mistakes, that we call life.

    How bizarre, to have lived
    and not lived at all.

    And how disorienting, to disappear
    before I can awake from a dream.

Third Place

“On Waiting” by Annaliese Meyer

The sky should be on fire
They told me
As our backs grew damp with early dew
Every star should reach with wonder to our eyes
But the blackness does not burn
For the universe is in a footrace with light
And it is surely winning
And though the darkness remains
We listen
For with eyes pressed shut all sounds grow stronger
We shout, we send our signals crying
Convinced we are not alone in yearning for the light
Immense ears askance to waiting sky
And nothing yet.
We can hardly hear our own echoes.

Honorable mention

“Six Limericks of Astrobiology” by Vince LiCatar

Remote detection is sometimes a pain
The engineering’s a strain on the brain
But we’ll labor for years
And even sometimes through tears
All this work just to sniff some methane
And so NASA says follow the water
But most everywhere’s colder or hotter
So to find worlds in the zone
Like to Goldilocks known
Is going to need a really good spotter
If we do find some microbes on Mars
Will they toast us in all of the bars?
Or will public opinion
And false claims of dominion
Insist we’re really alone in the stars?
Sweet Europa is covered in ice
And its atmosphere’s not very nice
But the high radiation
May spark funny causation
Like swimming schools of mutated mice
To search for a habitable zone
You’ve got to get off of your phone
It takes rockets and scopes,
Math, spectra, and hopes
To find hints that we’re not all alone
Will we one day be living on Mars?
And if so, will we drive Martian cars?
They should not run on gas
Such a move would be crass
Let’s not bring our mistakes to the stars.

Short Stories: Fiction

First Place

“Pinpricks” by Margaret Weng


    They came to Mars with good intentions. My mother came with seeds, dreaming of a densely laden orchard on the orange earth. Others came as builders, to stretch the limits of plastic and steel. They were obeying the impulse of their species: to survive and spread, to spread and then survive. They wanted to sink their foundations into virgin earth, land unsoiled by human touch. They came with millions of dollars of funding, years of research, and the confidence of experts.

    They had trained for months in the desert east of Los Angeles. My mother kept a journal, recording the difficulties of their small steel bunker, their lack of privacy. At the end of their training, they had gone to a local restaurant to celebrate. Tired and smelly, they had piled into booths and benches, not looking at each other. “Where are you all coming from?” the waiter had asked, stacking laminated menus at the end of the table. “Mars,” my father had said, twirling a sugar packet between his fingers. And everyone had smiled.

    They had all made sacrifices. My mother, for example, had left a tenure-track job at the University of California Davis. My father had been a mechanical engineer at a top aerospace company. They had families—parents, siblings, cousins. Yet they could not shake their secret restlessness, the voices that urged them away from known comforts toward the promise of better discoveries.

    They came with a sort of fatalistic optimism. Earth, the great experiment, was failing. The seas were dying and the fish had become poisonous—their eyes hazy, their scales hardened, and their stomachs full of microplastics. On Mars there were no fish to kill or forests to raze, no life at all that any mission had detected. On Mars there were no colonial nations, no race or class, just the small nucleus of a new society.

    When the mission launched, they were reasonably certain that they could live out their lives on the Martian surface. They carried supplies that would sustain them for twenty years, twenty-five if rationed, after which they hoped to be completely self-reliant. Earth communications were provided from a surprisingly low-tech radio device. As a child, I used to speak to mission control in Houston, turning the dials and not believing anything really existed beyond the darkness until voices came through the speaker with a sharp crackle.

    The crew was a pilot program of only fifty people. Children were an ethical question. Any children born on Mars would stay there indefinitely, certain to inherit an uncertain and hostile world.

    Of course, under the loneliness of an orange-and-black sky, with the sharp rasping cough of sandstorms against the walls of the compound, some turned to the comfort and familiarity of sex. Survive and then spread, spread and then survive. My father found my mother in the greenhouse while she was marking growth charts. He thought it was endearing that she had a smudge of dirt on her left cheek despite the sterility of her white lab coat. He thought it was unnerving but beautiful that she had recorded birdsong to play in the greenhouse, so that the plants wouldn’t have to grow in silence. He pretended there was a problem with the irrigation mechanism that only he could fix, which required him to be in the greenhouse for long hours tinkering with stretches of pipe while my mother walked up and down the rows, reading the undersides of leaves like a language.

    When I was born, the rest of the crew tried their best to ignore it. The compound was no place for a child: it was a scientific research station, meant for serious work. The wind outside was empty, not the wind of the Mojave with its warm insect hum. I crawled through the severe hallways and played with strange lost things: stray Post-its, silver lugnuts, raw rice from the bags in the storeroom. Rice was a non-renewable resource: the starch we grew and ate most often was potatoes, which required the least amount of processing. My mother’s one concession to extravagance was the orchard where she grew oranges, apples and pomegranates. The ceiling was clear and let in the light. At sunsets, she held me on her lap to watch the blue flash. “On Earth, sunsets are red,” she told me, but I couldn’t imagine it. Nor could I imagine cities, houses like our compound arranged across the landscape for miles and the people moving between them, crowds of people, more than a thousand, flowing down the roads in their cars and bicycles and buses and trains that I had only read about in stories.


    The ship carried twelve oxygen recyclers, to be installed throughout the compound. The material for the walls was an ultralight alloy. The hold was filled with cans of insulation and sprayable concrete to build the floors and foundations. Being lightweight was key. Lightweight and foldable. Each gram of material brought aboard cost $2,300 in fuel. Each astronaut was given a small quart-sized pouch for personal belongings, which had to weigh no more than one pound. The astronauts lived in the landing pod until they were able to build the compound. It was almost a year before it was fully habitable.

    There were, of course, miles and miles of pipe. The pipe was compressible, but even so it took up a quarter of the hold. Pipes were necessary to transport things like water, gases, waste. A heating solution was carried by special pipes through the walls and ceiling to help insulate the buildings. It was the pipes, not the walls, that really kept the astronauts alive: walls, no matter how radiation-shielded, were useless against the freezing and airless dark.

    Among the things my mother brought in her quart-sized bag: an e-reader, filled with as many titles as she could fit. A map of the Earth. A pair of earrings that had been her mother’s. The business card for a barbeque joint that read HOWARD’S, Open Nine to Five, Hwy 65, Lubbock, Texas.

    Among the things my father brought: A Rubik’s cube. A letter from his sister, which he never let me open. A page from an engineering textbook. A picture of a young boy, which could have been himself.


    My mother taught me in the free time before dinner: math, science, Martian geography. I learned the names of valleys people had once thought were seas, canyons mistaken for alien canals. When my father needed to venture Outside, my mother and I stood on the other side of the airlock chamber, listening to his breathing as he strapped himself into the EVA suit. He was gone for ten or twelve hours at a time, performing maintenance on the compound or helping one of the scientific teams with an experiment. He would show me the routes the night before, explaining what he had to do. He took me into the viewing room as another Martian day crept into the horizon, pointing at the miles of shifting pinkish sand before us.

    When I was fifteen, people started to show signs of sickness. It was the soil. My mother’s crops had been planted in a mixture of Martian gravel and fertilizer. They discovered that the gravel was home to an extremely slow-growing nanoarchaea, an ancient relative to Earth, thought to have diverged soon after the last universal common ancestor. It had persisted through the long Martian winter by doing what no life had done before: living in geologic time. Some cells were estimated to be nearly a million years old, their cytoplasm thick as maple syrup and filled with DNA stabilizers. The addition of nitrogen fertilizer had stimulated a bloom of these nanoarchaea in the greenhouse soil, unfurling in the dark. Over the years, they had colonized our bodies, settling in the stomach, the bloodstream, the liver. Spreading below the surface like a bruise.

    By the time we understood this this my mother could barely stand, her body riddled with tumors. She sat beneath her trees and ate pomegranates. I peeled them for her and handed her the seeds, her fingers as fragile as eggshells.

    Officially, the greenhouse had to be abandoned. Most of the seed stock was gone. They would have to start again on what had been saved in the storerooms. The others blamed my mother. They didn’t understand why she had planted an orchard when vitamin C tablets worked just as well. They thought she had probably been careless with the soil screenings. They had always known she would be the weak link, a woman prone to sentimentality in her science, who brought sex and children to their perfect world.

    Some of us got sicker, while others recovered. My father and I survived, but more than half the astronauts died. We couldn’t bury the bodies because the Martian ground was too hard. We built a cairn for them, beneath the branches of my mother’s trees, out of basalt rocks gathered from Outside. Then we took down the outer walls of the greenhouse to let the ferocious atmosphere reclaim it all.


    The others began to talk of leaving.

    Of course, it was impossible to leave. The technology did not exist. They had figured out so much before this trip. They had invented lighter and stronger materials, new food-storage techniques. They had consulted with a psychologist on what color to paint the walls. They had trained for starvation, for disaster, for stranding and for crashing, but they had not created a rocket that could both land on and lift off the Martian surface. This was a complex engineering problem and the astronauts hadn’t wanted to wait for it to be solved. Resupply ships could still launch from Earth if they needed anything. Such was their confidence, their desperation.

    They radioed for help every night. At first, it was a request for a resupply ship: medical supplies, building supplies, garden soil. More food to supplement the dwindling stocks. But the radio was silent. No reply came from Earth. I wasn’t as panicked as the others. In my heart, I had always known that the cities my parents talked about were made-up words. My father spent a day inspecting the radio equipment and determined it was in perfect working order. The radio messages grew more urgent. Eventually, they set it to constantly broadcast SOS, like castaways fanning the smoke of a signal fire. After a month of no contact, in the middle of the night, my father shook me awake. It was time, he said, to use the Telescope.
    He helped me suit up quietly. We didn’t want anyone to ask where we were going. There were a lot of factions forming in the compound and alliances were tenuous, mistrust deep-seated. One group had seized control of the storeroom and insisted on measuring out every portion of food. Still, supplies were dwindling. My father turned the handle of the airlock and we stepped Outside.

    My feet were protected from jagged rocks by the thick layer of memory foam in the soles of my boots. We climbed the first hill without speaking and set out across the meteor-speckled landscape, keeping an eye out for hidden craters. The ground was silvered by the light of the two pale moons, Phobos and Deimos. The low gravity made uphill portions easier but downhill harder, as I had to fight to keep my feet on the ground.

    After about an hour’s walk, when my oxygen tank needle had begun to dip slightly below the three-quarter mark, my father stopped abruptly and said, “We’re here.”

    I looked behind me. The compound had disappeared behind a ridge, so that we seemed entirely and terminally alone. In the distance I could see the hazy outline of Olympus Mons, which swallowed the horizon. Before us was another building made of the same shiny silver material as our compound. My father took a set of old-fashioned keys from the pocket of his EVA suit and with great difficulty inserted one into the door.

    “This is the Telescope,” he explained to me as we stepped inside. “It was created so that we could monitor Earth. Only a few people here know about it—it was top-secret, funded by the military. There’s also a secure radio line to Earth that’s always operational.”

    He flipped on a bank of lights and I blinked as my eyes adjusted. The room was empty and cold, sheltered by glittery chrome walls. In the middle of it sat a huge telescope pointed at an opening in the ceiling. My father pointed at a second set of doors that had a familiar airlock symbol on the side.

    We stepped in and cycled through the airlock. My father explained that you could see the readout from the telescope on the computers in this room, as well as use the secure radio channel. There were enough emergency rations to last years, and a supply of weapons and ammunition.

    He crossed over to a desk and booted up a big bank of computers. He tapped away for a few minutes.
    Then his voice got very quiet. “Look,” he said to me.

    I looked over his shoulder at the image onscreen. Years ago, my parents had explained how the continents of Earth were outlined by tiny pinpricks of light, a delicate lacework of highways and towns. Now all we saw were swirling clouds moving across the face of the planet. It was night on Earth but there were no lights, the oceans and continents nearly indistinguishable. “Where are they?” I asked him.

    “Gone,” he said, reading lines of coded messages on the screen. I asked him to translate the messages for me but he refused. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, shaking his head. He was a person who believed in outcomes, the blessed ignorance of facts. He would say to me often: It doesn’t matter what you think. It’s what you do that counts. “It doesn’t matter which country invaded, whose resources they wanted, who set off the first bomb. They’re gone,” he said, “and we’re here.”

    I went silent. My father started to make plans. What we would bring back to the compound, how we would survive. Later the colonists, led by my father, emptied their quart-sized pouches into a controlled burn in the communal living space, the only fire that has ever been allowed in the compound. They all pledged to forget Earth, to set new points of reference, to recalibrate their standards for their new world. This had been their mission after all, the mission of no return. Instead of building a new society, they were now composing a eulogy. There was never another child born in the compound and there never will be. Before the bags were burned I took my mother’s e-reader. I wanted to know what she had left, why she had come.

    Eons from now, the cairn where we buried my mother will stand untouched, her body frozen to the planet’s surface. On Earth, the shifting tectonic plates will do their work. Tenuous weeds will rebuild the soil, new rivers will carve canyons through the lace of city streets, rubbing away our mark in a geologic blink. As though we had never been there. As though our species had been born and died on the Red Planet, which holds our mistakes and memories forever.

Second Place

“Encounters” by Teresa McCarrell

    Auberginne Falcon’s homeworld was beautiful. It had taken over a hundred and fifty years to find it after the fateful day of her death.

    Byzantine had a perfect memory. Every second of the screaming of the crew of the G. S.S. Explorer 951, the cries of both friends and people that were merely polite, was permanently engraved in memory. The starship had been attacked by another vessel, and destroyed in the onslaught of laser fire. Byzantine was made of essence. The essence was like gas. Perhaps more like plasma, or simply just energy. Something that could absorb laserfire without harm. But that didn’t make saving people possible, not when the gas was incapable of trapping air around people when wrapping around them.

    Byzantine sighed. Some of the crew had died like that. Auberginne…

    Byzantine shook away the memory, and peered out from an alley. This was a marvelous city. If only Byzantine had known about it, back then…if the people could’ve been teleported to safety into this city…
    Byzantine slid to the ground.

    The sound of thunder began to rumble in the sky. Lighting crackled. Byzantine looked up at it, recognizing a similar weather phenomenon that other worlds had. Rain was awful, reacting poorly to their strange hair… Although Byzantine had learned to mimac foreign skin tones, that utterly alien true nature was ever present in the hair. But, Byzantine thought the suffering of being rained on was deserved.

    The rain had just begun to fall, sizzling as it hit that hair, when something blocked it from above.
    Byzantine looked up, misty orange eyes meeting a pair of empathetic green ones.

    “Hey, kiddo. Are you ok?” A young woman stood over him, tilting her umbrella to keep the rain from falling onto him. She was very surprised to encounter the child crumpled in the alley. This simply didn’t happen on Ornith. No one abandoned precious children in the streets like this, not when they were so hard to have. No one would have such a unique looking child without them being blasted on social media either
    Byzantine’s head slowly shook. “Nothing’s ever “ok”… but… I guess so.”

    The woman shook her head. “Are you all alone out here?”


    She pursed her lips. “That’s not good. What happened to your family? If I may ask?”
    Byzantine looked down. “I …….”

    “You don’t have to talk about it. Hey, let’s get you to the police, they can help out.”

    “No government!” Standing up, the oversized shirt was almost comically large on the small frame.

    The woman looked very sad, for some reason that Byzantine couldn’t understand.

    “The government won’t hurt you.” She said.

    “It has before, and it will if I let it again.” answered Byzantine.

    “Well….” the woman hesitated. She looked over at Byzantine once again. “If you don’t have anywhere to go, come and stay with me and my roommate for now. We’ll figure this out together.”

    “You would welcome me into your home…?” asked Byzantine.

    “What can a kid like you do to two adult women?” The woman held out her hand. “I’m Eva’la Serafinski. What’s your name and pronouns?”

    “My name is Byzantine. Please call me ‘Zany.’ I’m a boy.” Despite the chilly air, Byzantine’s hand was oddly warm in hers.

    Together, the two walked along the Ornithian sidewalk in the lightly pattering rain. Zany came up to about the height of Eva’la’s waist when standing, so he didn’t have to reach his hand high to hold hers. Yet, it was enough to make his oversized sleeve slide down to his elbow. Eva’la glanced at his arm, finally comprehending the complete lack of feathers on his body. If there were a few feathers mixed with his hairs, he could have passed for being part birrlin, the people of Ornith, but there were not. Zany had settled on this form long ago, and he had not thought to change it to better blend into this world.

    “You’re not from this planet either, huh?” asked Eva’la. Clearly not birrlin, Eva’la had a full head of hair.

    “No, I’m not.” Zany said, not offering more details.

    Eva’la was brimming with curiosity, eager to look this child up in the system once they got to her apartment.

    Zany could sense some of what Eva’la was feeling. He could look into her mind and see her exact thoughts, but he wasn’t to pick through a person’s private, jumbled thoughts. He had learned others disliked that. He couldn’t stop himself from sensing her feelings though, unlike how mind reading was an active power he had to focus to use, sensing others’ locations and feelings was instinctive.

    Lost in thought, Zany noted that Ornith was a relatively advanced world compared to many he had seen. The paved pathways that he and Eva’la were walking on were broad, consisting of sweeping sidewalks bordering some form of metal vehicle tracks. The sidewalk portions of the pathways were studded with patches of vibrant purple plant life. Occasionally, a long and sleek vehicle would swoosh down the tracks. The tracks were electromagnetic, Zany could sense it. He sensed the essence…no, they called it energy… flowing through the tracks. In a way, all energy called to him. He could absorb it and make it part of his own form, or he could manipulate it in any way he wished. It was an ability he had avoided using most of his existence though, because he hated feeling different from the mortals. He could never be one of them, but that didn’t stop him from pretending his very best. Zany looked up at Eva’la. She also appeared lost in thought. They walked in silence until they reached one of the many tall, glossy buildings on the street. Eva’la took out a small, glossy card from her pocket, and tapped her to the doorknob, unlocking it. She led Zany to an elevator. They took the elevator to the 235th floor and walked down a hall. Eva’la tapped her card to one of the doors in the hall, and it slid open as well. Eva’la ushered Zany into the unit and closed the door. Eva’la had tried to pry about Zany’s origins a few times during the walk, but once it seemed he was close to running away, she stopped, and they had walked in silence.

    She now cleared her throat. “My place is only a one bedroom, but I’m sure you can have the couch. We’ll have to ask my roommate when she gets home. Now… I’ll get us some hot beverages, then we can really talk about where you came from and who you are, huh?” After saying that, the door made a soft locking sound, closing Zany into the unit with Eva’la.

    Zany was slightly afraid, feeling the excitement in Eva’la’s aura. He struggled to remain in control of his own emotions. One of the many flaws he had, which was probably a trait of his species, was that he instinctively wanted to radiate his emotions. He didn’t know whether it was due to his species or just a unique trait of his, since he had never met another of his kind. If his fear emanated from him, and she felt it… who knew how she would react.

    The easiest way to solve this would be to see what was really in Eva’la’s mind.

    It could be awful. But, he had to do it.

    Zany reached his mind out to Eva’la’s. There was very little resistance, and then he could navigate her mental space.

    This little kid is so interesting looking… I need to know how it’s possible for his hair to look like it’s got actual stars in it. Wonder if it would freak him out if I touched it. That’s rude though, right? For sure. When’s this kid last eaten? What does he eat? I’m so curious!

    “Don’t touch it.” Zany blurted.

    Eva’la blinked. I shouldn’t touch his hair, huh? Weird that he’d say that right when I was wondering.. Somewhat suspicious.. Her eyes narrowed. Don’t some species have mental abilities? It’s illegal to use something like that, but, maybe the kid doesn’t know.

    Zany suppressed a sigh, as well as a new wave of fear that nearly emanated out of him.

    “I should go.” Zany looked pointedly at the door.

    Eva’la shook her head. “Do you have mental abilities?” she asked outright. Not that anyone would admit to it. Maybe I can get him in a corner where it’s obvious. Oh, hang on, he could be dangerous. He could be a spy! I should’ve brought him into the lab instead of into this home. Kestrel’s going to be SO angry with me.

    Zany’s hands clenched a little in his oversized sleeves.

    “What are you?” Eva’la asked. Seriously, I’ve never heard of a species with stars in their hair. I have to know how that works. I have to know if those are real. I’ve got to get him into the lab!

    “I… I’m a Celestial. I think.” His voice was really small. A little bit of fear radiated from Zany in a small wave, permeating the air around him for a moment.

    Eva’la almost fell to her knees in shock. She reached for Zany, gripping his shoulders. “What was that? What was that?!” Was that a mental ability? No.. my mind wasn’t affected.. I don’t feel fear? Was it an ineffective mental ability?

    Zany looked up at her. “Eva’la…” For a moment, Zany considered teleporting away. There was still so much of the planet to explore. But, he could feel her deep joy and curiosity. She seemed intrigued by him… which made him intrigued by her.

    It was so rare that someone was anything but afraid of him.

    “It was my own feelings.” Zany answered honestly. “But, I’m not afraid anymore.”

    “Your own feelings? How..?”

    “Um… it’s hard to explain. My feelings don’t stay in my mind unless I’m trying to keep them to myself. And, that’s hard to do!”


    “I’m really sorry! I do my best to keep them inside, but sometimes the feelings get too big, and… And they… spill out..” Zany hung his head a little.

    Eva’la looked gently at him. “It’s ok. It wasn’t mind control, so, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t do it in public. If someone thinks you have the ability to control people, that would end poorly. Do you have the ability to control minds?”

    “No! I can see what others are thinking and feeling, and share my own thoughts and emotions, but I can’t affect others. And I wouldn’t want to either.”

    “That’s good. There’s another thing I’ve been curious about… your hair. It looks like it’s got small stars in it, unless I’m mistaken?”

    Zany touched his hair. “You’re not wrong. That’s what it looks like. It…” he trailed off. If only he could wear a hoodie. But the hoodie would be singed where it touched those stars.

    Eva’la was intrigued. “Could I have a sample of it?”

    Zany flinched. “No!” Pain, the feeling of being held in a small enclosure, energy drawn from his burning form. Stars produce energy, they said. Energy can be used as fuel, they said. He wasn’t a person, he was just fuel. So he burned and burned, fueled and fueled a powerful starship. There was no feeling besides agony from the cramped tube ripping his very essence apart. Fission, they said. Nuclear fusion in a living thing, no, in a sentient fuel? Pain, until the starship was destroyed and he was finally free and was Byzantine again, not just energy and pain.

    He came out of the fierce chokehold of memory when Eva’la splashed water onto him. She was shaking lightly. Zany hated water. He was shaking too.

    “Your hair!” exclaimed Eva’la. “It’s moving! And… you’ve been radiating sadness and fear, I think? It… what happened? I’m sorry that I asked for a sample. I won’t take anything from you without your consent!”

    Zany’s orange, star-flecked “hair” had begun to resemble gas. The edges of each strand was slightly blurred. In addition, his skin had taken on an orange tint to it, with the impression of stars visible beneath the surface.

    “Sorry….” whispered Zany. Then he smiled. “You’re so nice..!”

    What exactly have I brought into my home? Eva’la wondered. “Kestrel’s going to be upset…”


    “Oh. My roommate, Kestrel Falcon. So, I do have to get her permission before you can actually stay here, but I’m sure she’d be up for it.” Eva’la suppressed her next words. You’re just so interesting. She swallowed. I can’t let you get scared away. I’m so lucky to be the one who found you.

    “Falcon..?! Like, Auberginne Falcon?” Zany lept up, floating for a split second before landing. He composed himself fully, his hair and skin somehow losing their alien aspects. Then he cleared his throat. “Are birrlin a species in which names are passed through families?”

    “Well, are names passed on in your specie’s families?” asked Eva’la. Does he have a family? Is he naturally born from some species we’ve never seen, or was he made?

    “I don’t know…” Zany frowned, wanting an answer to his own question. Again, he was tempted to simply check her mind.

    “You don’t know?”

    “Is Kestrel Falcon related to Auberginne Falcon?”

    Eva’la held up her hands. “I don’t know her whole family. You can ask her when she comes back.”

    “Oh… ok.”

    “I’m going to make dinner. What do you eat?”

    Zany shifted a bit. “I don’t eat.”

    “You..don’t eat?”

    Zany bit his lip. “I…I.. don’t. Solid food is…gross.”

    Eva’la leaned in again. Would he freak out if I took notes during our conversations? “How do you live without food? Are you alive?”

    “I.. I think I’m alive?” his voice got small. “I grow… I talk… I make friends… I feel pain… what makes something a someone? What’s the difference between people and fuel? Just because I.. I’m not…” he trailed off.

    “Living things grow, reproduce, and die. If you don’t eat, how do you get carbon and electrons?”

    “I don’t die…” his voice was barely audible.

    Eva’la stared.

    The moment of silence grew.

    “I think you’re alive.” she said after a moment. “You could be too young to understand death. If you’re not alive, you’re an amazing AI. With an incredible holographic projected form. I’ve heard about that kind of thing, in another sector.”

    “I think I’m alive too. Because it hurts to think about not being alive.” Zany reached for his hair, playing with the wavy ends of it, looking so much like a lost child. “Carbon… electrons? Electrons are part of electricity, right?”

    Eva’la took out the glossy card that had let them into the building and unit. “Have you seen one of these before?”

    Zany shook his head, eyes widening. “No? Wait. The people… the people in starships have them, right? G-cards?”

    Eva’la nodded. “G-cards, also known as Galactic-cards, because anything in the galaxy that you need to get done can be done with these things. Have you ever used one?”

    “Um… no. I can’t have one because I’m not a citizen.”

    “You have interesting levels of knowledge about our society. Knowing that only citizens can have G-cards is already unusual, because everyone on every planet is a citizen and gets one once they reach school-age.. And you seem passionate about one of our long-dead historical explorers. But, you’re not from any world in the known systems, and you haven’t been to school, or else you’d know what carbon and electrons are.”

    Zany waited while she thought out loud. Not saying anything. Not denying anything.

    Eva’la tapped the card twice, causing an opaque hologram screen to pop up. There were many colorful icons on it.

    “These are games,” said Eva’la. “This is the Gifi app, which you can use to access the Galactic Intrinsic Free Internet and learn about stuff.” She tapped the icon for the app. A plain screen popped up, with a box in it. She tapped it, and a rectangular grid popped up beneath the box, with letters on it. “Can you spell? Hang on, can you read and write? You speak our language very well.”

    “I can read and write, yes.” Zany looked transfixed. He typed out “c-a-r-b-o-n?” into the search box of the Gifi app.

    “That’s good! Read about carbon while I cook myself something to eat. If you want to go backwards, hit the tiny arrow in the lower left. If you want to go to the main screen to try some of my games, hit the circle in the lower right.”

    “Ok!” Zany said. His eyes were glued to the hologram screen as Eva’la gently set the G-card into his hands. “Carbon is an element highly abundant in all known living things..” he read quietly to himself, as Eva’la went into the kitchen.

    Zany was beating the 105th level of Grumpy Asteroids 2 on the G-card when the door to the unit slid open. A birrlin woman stood in the doorway. She had a mass of red feathers on her head and smaller masses of red feathers above her eyes, drawn close in a confused frown.
    “What in the galaxy?” she asked.

    “Hi… I’m Zany…” Zany kept playing the game while he glanced shyly at her. “Are you Kestrel Falcon? Are you related to Auberginne Falcon?”

    “What in the galaxy??” she repeated. She stepped inside. The door slid shut soundlessly. “Eva!!”
    Scrambling sounds were heard in the kitchen.

    The red-feathered woman stomped past Zany and into the kitchen. “Is this a kid? Why’s there a kid in our house? What’s with his head— is that hair or not? What are you doing?”

    Eva’la was writing up notes by hand on the side of a box. “I gave him my G-card, so I had to put my notes from my conversation with him on something. Kestrel, please don’t be upset. This is a fascinating discovery for science! That kid’s hair looks like it can move on its own, and he said he doesn’t eat!”

    “With you trying to cook, we might not get to eat either.” Kestrel sullenly turned off the food de/rehyrator that had been beeping since she entered the unit. “How can you even burn anything with this? It’s so easy to use!”

    “Ah?” Eva’la registered the burnt odor in the air. “Oh. No. I didn’t burn the food. That… must’ve been… uh…?” She was confused for a moment, then remembered. “I think the kid, Zany, burned his clothes when he was freaking out earlier.”

    “What exactly have you brought in here?” Kestrel asked again.

    “Stop asking, and let me explain.” Eva’la answered.

    In the other room, Zany paused the game, and set the Gcard on the table. I guess I can’t stay here. I don’t want people to fight over me. And the way Eva’la looks at me sometimes…

    When Eva’la and Kestrel walked out of the kitchen, Zany was gone.

    Kestrel was scowling. “Why was he asking if I’m related to Auberginne?”

    “I don’t know.” Eva’la picked up the Gcard. She gasped. “Kestrel, he was almost finished with this game.”
    Kestrel turned towards her. “So?”

    “The game’s got a lot of puzzles. Without them, and if you skip reading the storyline, the playthrough is only an hour. I’ve been cooking for a little over an hour.”


    “Kestrel, you can’t skip the puzzles. And this item equipped on his character can only be gained as a reward for completing bonus puzzles you get if you read the storyline. This kid is a genius! A genius, new species we’ve never seen before! And he slipped through my hands..!”

    “Our hands. I’m not letting some strange child run around in this sector.” Kestrel laid a hand to her hip, where a laser-blaster was comfortably strapped. “I’ll find out what’s going on here.”

    “Don’t shoot him!”

    “I won’t. I don’t want to shoot a kid.” Kestrel turned and walked outside. “Now, he can’t have gotten far.”

    Eva’la looked at the de/rehydrator a little longingly, thinking of the food inside. Then she hurried after Kestrel. She didn’t think Kestrel would use her weapon, but couldn’t be sure Zany wouldn’t be intimidated.

    On the other side of the massive city of Avia was a museum. All museums on the planet Ornith were free, as Zany was discovering when he walked in without objection.

    Not that Zany truly understood money.

    He drew his new hat a little more over his head, the price tag swinging off the back.

    “Go Blue Boys!” exclaimed the hat, in colorful text that was decidedly not blue.

    Zany had no idea who the Blue Boys were, only that this hat was easy to grab without gaining attention.

    The material was a little tough too, so it would hold up for a while before his hair burned through it.

    He wandered in the museum, amazed at the skeletal remains of species that had once walked on this planet. Many planets were like this, Zany realized. They started with very small lifeforms, then got bigger ones, then sentient ones. Some species stopped existing, and new species took their place. It was how life was on planets.

    “Excuse me?” A man came up to Zany.

    Zany turned to him, holding onto his hat. “Hi! Do you have any information on Auberginne Falcon here?”

    “Yes, we do, on the sixth floor. Where are your parents?”

    “Thank you!” Zany began to walk briskly away.

    “Kid..!” The man rushed after him.

    Zany ducked behind a corner, focused, and vanished. He reappeared on the sixth floor. A group of kids stared at him. A finger raised to point.

    Quickly, Zany went to some exhibits outside of their line of sight.

    After a while, he found what he was looking for. “Auberginne…” Eyes brimming with misty tears, Zany remembered fondly the woman who had found him lost and alone in space, and given him affection.

    157 years ago.

    The G.S.S Explorer 951 was in the midst of an extremely dull 5 year mission of gliding through an unexplored sector for mapping when the crew suddenly experienced more than they thought they would, particularly after having been conditioned for 2 years of boredom that nothing happened on these missions.

    The starship had momentarily detected something unidentified before the signal vanished. The crew were terribly nervous.

    In one of the engine rooms, the reason for the nervousness was nervous itself. A small clump of what appeared to be orange, sparkling gas had slowly pushed its way into the ship through one of the engine exhaust vents. It had been so long since it had crossed paths with other beings, and couldn’t resist the lure of interacting with them. But it had learned from previous encounters. Simply appearing to these beings from outside of their protective container— a starship, they called it— would merely result in them shooting things at it, not communicating. It was better to go closer to them, absorb their language, take a form similar to thiers, and then, finally, finally communicate. Unsure about its chances if it moved around the starship prior to this process, the gas hid in a corner as someone came in to inspect the engine. An alarm was blaring, the engine wasn’t suited for such hot gas to force its way through those specific components.

    The junior engine technician wrung his hands. “Honestly, I don’t know what happened—it was so weird. The engines did … something…and orange exhaust came out?”

    The senior technician frowned. “Orange exhaust.”

    The junior nodded.

    The senior technician gestured at the orange pressed into a dusty corner. “That….?”

    Gasp. “Yes, exactly. It’s so sparkly! No, hang on. It looks like it has stars and black holes in it?”

    “Huh, that it does. That’s obviously not part of the ship, we should stay away from it and notify the captain.”


    The gas slowly swirled as it began to comprehend the thoughts in the solid beings’ minds. Feelings were always easy for it to pick up from foreign minds. Images and sounds were something that now made sense after it had learned to take a solid form and experience them on its own, long ago. Words were difficult at first though. Eventually, by associating words in beings’ minds with the feelings and what their senses experienced while the words were in their mind, it was able to understand what meanings were associated with words. And based on images in their minds, it could tell that the beings in the ship came in a variety of forms. It chose one that reminded it of its favorite species from the past, and began to force its gas into the form.

    The junior screamed as the gas began clumping and forming a body. He practically lept behind his senior. The senior wasn’t less unnerved, but hid it better. She closed her hand on her laser gun, prepared to level it at the unknown …thing. It wasn’t yet clear if it was a weapon or entity.

    “Identify yourself!” She shouted.

    Where the gas had been a moment before, there was now a tangle of limbs and hair. Two legs neatly folded beneath the cascading orange hair. Two arms carefully parted the hair from a softly featured face. The being’s skin was a shade lighter of the orange that its gas had been, the color that its hair now was. The stars and black holes from its previous form were still present. A shy smile broke onto its face, as if oblivious to the deadly threat a laser gun could pose. Gentle eyes belied an ancient mind, far older than the young form in front of the two engineers.

    It worked its lips for a moment, remembering how to use them, and then spoke with words it had found in their minds. “Hello! I am not…” there was a momentary pause as it searched again. “Not hurt you! Greetings, peace.” It held up its hands.

    The junior officer slipped a shiny metal card out of his uniform, and pressed the logo on the front, enabling a holographic screen to pop up in front of him. He tapped at it, sending a warning alert of an intruder to the rest of the crew.

    “You come in peace…through our engine?” The senior frowned.

    The being felt her displeasure. “Apologies…. Want.. I want friends. I …did not want to hurt you or ship.” At its moment of distress, the being’s hair became a little gaseous, the ends of it floating.

    Alarms were blaring through the ship.

    “We don’t have time for this, security can question it. We have to fix the engine quickly.” The senior rapidly changed focus to open a panel on the wall.

    The being floated a little, moving closer. Some of its skin changed, the top layer seeming to separate to form what appeared to be a skin-tight outfit, an imitation of the uniforms of the crew, except that it retained the same star flecked appearance as the rest of its body.

    The junior shuddered. “Stay back!” He drew towards his senior to help her work on the ship. Of course a vessel that wasn’t intended to encounter others didn’t have a large crew. There were no other engineers to assist them.

    If they didn’t fix this, the ship wouldn’t fly anymore. They would be adrift until another ship found them, which, this far out from civilization, would be upwards of two years… that would use up a lot of their supplies. It would be close.

    “Apologies… I …I’m sorry…” the being’s voice wavered as the ship’s alarms blared on.
    The captain strode in and began speaking frantically to the engineers. Then she turned to the orange being rocking in the corner, repeating itself over and over in its soft, tiny voice.

    “It’s….a preteen child.” She stated, frankly. “A child of an unknown species that damaged our ship, but can grasp that and is upset….but, child, can you help us? We won’t point our weapons at you. Do you understand?”

    The child lifted its head. Seeing the tears in the captain’s eyes, and sensing the connection between the feeling of sadness and the liquid in her eyes, the child made some of its own eye liquid. Or, it tried. It appeared gaseous.

    “I want to help! How?”

    The captain gestured at the engine. “They say you’ve melted some components in the right engine. So, it’s having a meltdown. We can survive without this engine working, but we can’t survive if it keeps going critical and explodes. So, maybe, if you could go in and remove the melted parts…” she trailed off, watching the child’s confused but earnest expression. It turned its head to the engine, and then the entire thing vanished.

    The people in the room gaped.

    The child suddenly looked shy, becoming very aware that now the scale of power difference between itself and these people was even more apparent.

    They’re nice people. I shouldn’t have come here though, it thought.

    “Where are you from?” The captain inquired, as the engineers began to debate how the engine could’ve gone away, where it could be now.

    “What are you? Who are you? Why are you here?” She continued raining down questions.
    The child smiled, a small flash of happiness that didn’t reach those sad, old eyes. “I want friends…but you will die someday. All friends do. It’s so sad. I’m …” it grappled for a word. “Don’t want to be sad anymore.”

    The captain reached for the child, wanting to pat it, but it quickly dashed away. It watched her carefully.

    “I’ll be your friend,” said the captain. “I don’t know what you’ve been through, but right now you can claim asylum on our ship as our guest.”

    The child’s eyes teared up again. “Ok. I’ll stay with your ship until you die!” Its lip wobbled. “What’s your name?”

    She smiled. “I’m the Captain of this vessel, so that’s what you can call me. But my name is
    AuberginneFalcon, from the planet Ornith. What about you, do you have a name?”
    The child’s face lit up.

    “Yes! I am Byzantine, and what you can call me is Zany!”

    “You’ve very interested in my great-aunt, aren’t you?” Kestrel said, looking at Zany, who was gripping the display of Auberginne’s contributions to space exploration before her disappearance.

    Eva’la was a little behind her, lost in reading a plaque.

    Zany looked at Kestrel. “So, she is your family?”

    Kestrel nodded.

    Eva’la came forward, stepping in front of Kestrel. “Did we scare you away earlier? We’re sorry.”

    Zany’s expression wavered. “I shouldn’t stay with you.”

    Kestrel spoke up. “Eva says you’re not a citizen.”

    Zany looked up at them. His eyes were faintly tinged with an orange haze, similar to tears. “I’m not a citizen of your planetary confederation. I’m from both outside it… and before it.”

    “A homeless child claiming to have come from beyond the known star systems is quite a story. Eva believes it, but I’m not sure that I do.”

    “It’s ok if you don’t believe me or not. I don’t care.” Zany turned back to the exhibit on Auberginne.

    “Why are you so interested in this Ornithian explorer?” asked Eva’la.

    Zany shook his head. “She was my friend…”

    Kestrel frowned.

    Eva’la slowly shook her head. “How? If the government knew about you then, how come there’s no record of you anywhere?”

    “No government. What I am scares the government…” his eyes brimmed with misty orange tears again, remembering discovering the identity of the ones who had attacked Auberginne’s ship. One of her own crewmates had reported that the ship housed a “dangerous being,” and so, another government vessel had attacked them.

    Kestrel grew silent for a moment. “Kiddo, I am the government.”

    Zany whimpered a bit.

    Eva’la lightly hit her arm. “Don’t scare him again!” She turned to Zany. “Auberginne worked for the government, yet you called her a friend. We want to be your friends too.”

    “You might be nice to me, but what about her?” Zany shyly peered at Kestrel.

    “I’m tentatively interested. Let’s put it that way,” said Kestrel. “I don’t mind if you stay on our couch, solely because I’d rather have you where someone responsible can keep an eye on you than have you fall into the wrong hands.”

    “Harsh…” Eva’la mumbled.

    “I might be heavy handed with my words, but it’s better than mincing them,” sighed Kestrel.

    “Wait. You want me to stay with you? Isn’t it dangerous for you? What if other people find out?” Zany’s eyes were wide.

    “It’s fine, it’s fine,” Eva’la said, waving her hand a little.

    Zany broke into a grin. For a moment, the feeling of happiness flooded their vicinity.

    Kestrel stood, frozen. Eva’la laughed.

    “It’s not as weird the second time!” Eva’la elbowed Kestrel. “He’s so interesting!”

    “I’m so happy to make new friends.” Zany kept smiling.

    Kestrel stared at him, then sighed. “Let’s go, before someone investigates that mental push of emotion.”

    Eva’la held a hand to Zany. He took it.

    “Cool hat, by the way,” she said, teasingly.

    “Is it?” asked Zany.

    “The Blue Boys are an underdog music team in a music drama show. If you like, you can watch it on Eva’s Gcard,” responded Kestrel. After a beat, she took Zany’s other hand. After confirming that it felt like a regular hand, she relaxed some.

    “Why not yours?” asked Eva’la.

    “Some of us are busy and need theirs,” answered Kestrel.

    “I’d love to watch it!” Zany beamed.

    The three of them walked out together, hand in hand.

Third place

“A Sky Beneath the Crust” by Rohan Chowdhury and Anurup Mohanty

    When the Pod turned upside down, Athena’s notions of reality followed suit.

    Athena’s mind catapulted faster than the Pod that she knew was falling between two parallel sheets of ice. Captured in an extraterrestrial free fall, she could no longer remember what she was doing inside the cramped chamber altogether. Athena glanced at her crew – now halved from leaving three astronauts behind. A small red dot shone above their heads, casting the two people in front of her into dull silhouettes. Her heart echoed in her ears and the cracks in her throat dried further at the thought of calling out to her crew for help. She felt nauseous but knew there was nothing left to retch, for her insides felt hollower than the void that lay outside the Pod.

    Her only source of comfort was the seat that she was clasped onto. Realizing that she could no longer move her hands or legs, she gave in to the immobility that was gaining control over her. The straps that kept her from falling seemed to tighten around her body, asphyxiating her slowly.

    She wondered if this was it.

    ’Distance to impact: 1000 meters.’

    She closed her eyes and allowed the glow of the red dot to consume her. Flashes from home filled her mind as she sunk into her torpor. Home, which had become a distant memory left two and a half years behind, a distant memory that would take two and a half more years to return to. A memory gradually fading, of a home, of a people, and of a planet tethered to the tiny hurtling Pod by means of a 43-minute delay.

    ’Distance to impact: 800 meters.’

    It took a while for Athena to register the Pod’s voice. When she did, she opened her eyes, allowing her vision to adjust to the dark interiors, noticing the red glow settling on the silhouettes of the crew members again.

    ’Distance to impact: 500 meters.’

    The preprogrammed voice cut through the dead silence of the crew. Athena saw her crew relaxing their shoulders, unstiffening themselves. Athena let herself calm as well, deafening her echoing heart by taking a violent gasp of breath.

    ’Distance to impact: 400 meters.’

    I am Athena Hulman. Woman, 38. From Utrecht, Netherlands. Astronaut, GSA. Flight Commander, Zeus II.

    ’Distance to impact: 300 meters.’

    I am inside the Pod with Takehiro and Riya. We’re here to save the planet. We’re here to do the right thing.

    ’Distance to impact: 200 meters.’

    We’re here to save the planet. We’re here to do the right thing.

    ’Distance to impact: 100 meters.’

    We’re here to do the right thing.

    ’Distance to impact: 50 meters.’

    We’re… here to do the right thing.

    ‘Brace for impact.’

    We’re here to do the right thing?

    Athena closed her eyes again as Europa consumed the Pod in a silent splash.


    As Zeus II neared completion of its flyby past Mars, Hassan looked out of the window. The rusty planet looked like a large abandoned piece of spherical debris floating in space. Coupled with its two oddly-shaped moons, it reminded him of his irritable old neighbor who lived with his two kooky cats.

    Hassan chuckled to himself. An estranged rover was perhaps still crawling in those valleys that once had rivers gushing through it. When it was established that Mars was once home to life, it became an arena for space agencies worldwide to explore settlement strategies. Space exploration discourse shifted towards giving humanity a new home on an extraterrestrial planet, and missions were funded exorbitantly.

    The efforts failed, of course. When matters on Earth took a turn for the worse, scientists globally had to re-prioritize. Despite having expended humongous resources on Mars, the scientists failed to question what led to life abandoning the planet – and whether the fate of Mars would ever be met by Earth.

    Hassan turned towards the crew. ‘Folks,’ he began. ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’

    ‘Too late to ask that question now, isn’t it?’ Riya responded while heating a sealed cup of frozen hot chocolate.

    Hassan walked across to the circular lounge where everyone was. The rest of the crew were mostly disinterested in his question. Takehiro and Svetlana were busy beating their brains out over a game of Monopoly. The game proved ineffective in stimulating Oliver’s senses, who had conveniently passed out on the table next to the duo. Athena, undisturbed by the commotion, was nose-deep in a novel opposite the drama.

    Hassan walked over to the center of the lounge and cleared his throat audibly. A couple of heads turned towards him. ‘Does Mars ring a bell?’

    ‘It does,’ replied Athena. ‘It rings a bell to a door that’s best kept closed.’

    Hassan smiled. ‘How long?’

    ‘As long as possible, Hassan,’ Svetlana jutted in, her eyes still fixated on the board. ‘Riya’s right. It’s too late to bring this up now.’ Takehiro squinted his eyebrows, struggling to concentrate on the conversation while focusing on the game.

    ‘Honestly, I feel all of you are running away from this because it’s making you question your presence on the spacecraft right now.’

    The crew filled Zeus II with a silence as potent as the vacuum outside.

    No one spoke, until Takehiro let his cards fall onto the board, ceding the game.

    ‘I do not see how we’re wrong, Hassan,’ he said. ‘At this point in time, there is no better alternative to the oxygen crisis. Europa is our only hope right now.’

    ‘I’m not denying that.’

    ‘Are you implying that we abandon the mission and let everyone die?’

    Hassan sighed. ‘I’m not saying that, Takehiro. Zeus I sent signals of life on Europa back to Earth. But they’re mere biosignatures at this point of time. It’s been years since we received the data without any concrete understanding of what those organisms are, how they behave and interact with each other, and how they manage to survive in the subsurface oceans of the moon. To dive into its ecosystem unsolicited could mean grave danger – not only for us but for the existing life forms as well.’

    ‘Hassan, we’re not off all the way to meddle with the life forms there,’ Svetlana snapped. ‘We’re just going there to collect microbial samples and leave.’

    ‘How are we collecting microbes without meddling with life forms?’

    ‘You’re just offended by the fact that most of the funding from your Mars mission was re-allocated for Zeus II,’ Svetlana hissed.

    Hassan’s smile melted away to expose an expression as cold as steel. His wordlessness provoked Svetlana to attack him further.

    ‘You’re only a part of Zeus II because they had no place to put you after pulling the plug on your mission. Do you even want to be here? Do you even wish to see this succeed?’


    Witnessing the situation escalate between the two, Athena interjected before Hassan could say any more.

    ‘Svetlana, I think it’s best to leave it at that. What happened on Mars wasn’t in any of our control. And for all that matters, never forget that you were on that mission as well. And so were Oliver and Riya. If anything at all, be grateful to Hassan that you’re a part of this crew.’

    Svetlana rose from the table and flung her cards on the Monopoly board in disgust. ‘Grateful you say? Grateful indeed! I’m here stuck on this spacecraft for the next four and a half years, away from my daughter, away from my family.’

    She looked at Hassan. ‘Of course, we’re not doing the right thing. And it’s not just about us meddling in an alien ecosystem. It’s us, astronauts and scientists – yet again – trying to clean up the mess that billions have created back home. And in this mess that we’ve created, we’re very likely to interfere in a foreign ecosystem and cause a rupture to it. This is the first time we’re on to something like this, but is there any guarantee this will not happen again? No. Because we never learn. And we never will. But I’d rather be here, even if I do feel trapped. I’d rather be here than someplace back on Earth, wondering if my child will ever live past the age of seven. Or if I’d have to witness the ones close to me die one by one in front of my eyes. I’d rather be here, trying to be of help, and not question the morality behind a mission that we have no choice but to execute.’

    Nobody said a word. Svetlana had spewed a bitter truth that everyone had been trying to avoid, casting the entire crew into a rigid, immobile spell. Hassan’s eyes screamed confusion, for he was at a loss for knowing how to mend the wounds he had undone.

    Svetlana had made a fair point. The onus was yet again on scientists to clean up the perfectly avoidable human mess of plastic disposal. Decades of ignorance had led to an accumulation of microplastics in the Earth’s oceans. The microplastics, harmful in general to the prevalent oceanic ecosystems through its adverse effects on marine wildlife and carcinogenic food chain biomagnifications, turned even more fatal when they led to a mutation in a virus that took on phytoplanktons in a murderous rampage.

    Phytoplanktons have always been crucial to the persistence of life on the planet. They have been consistent providers of around 50 to 80 percent of the total oxygen on Earth – significantly outnumbering that produced by trees and plants around the globe. Phytoplanktons lay at the very base of the food chain, facilitating an important source of nutrition for all marine life. With the mutated virus – named R5T6 – gradually diminishing phytoplanktons across oceans, global oxygen levels dipped by half a percent, and the risk of extinction for all marine life sent all humans scurrying.

    The fear was legitimate. Scientists began to cordon off oceans, creating artificial lakes uninfected by R5T6 in a frantic attempt to save marine (and human) life. The task was mammoth – to synthesize spaces across a planet draped in blue was close to impossible. Efforts were slow, and cans of oxygen became a commodity in obsessive demand (some even extravagantly flavored with customizable scents of lavender, rose, and jasmine). As these efforts took force, there was – for a while, for a very brief while – a bit of hope.

    Things changed, and hopes came crashing down when dolphins started disappearing from the oceans. Paranoia set in yet again – stocks crashed, governments were blamed, propaganda ensued, doomsday clocks began ticking across the internet, all with their own renditions of Judgment Day. More and more people took to faith – questioning why God would do this to them while believing that God would indeed solve all of it. But despite the bells, the gongs, and the prayers, God had fallen silent.

    When science finally came in with its answers, it stated that all of life on the planet had just over a decade before everything ended. Humanity turned to anarchy, and matters turned dire as each individual began to take to their own. In all of this mass helplessness, everyone hoped for a brief glimmer of hope from the skies above.

    And in a very strange turn of events, the skies did respond with a glimmer of hope. Zeus I, an uncrewed spacecraft making the rounds of Jupiter’s moon Europa, sent a brief signal confirming biosignatures gathered from a watery plume that shot up from the moon’s subsurface oceans. The biosignatures strengthened as more and more data was gathered from other plumes that confirmed the existence of life on the planet. Programmed to collect samples and return to Earth, what happened next completely blew the minds of scientists who were able to study the extraterrestrial water a couple of years later.

    The scientists found an alien microbe species in the sample with a curious trait – the ability to independently synthesize oxygen. Hope was reignited like a bright, burning flame in the dark, and efforts were initiated to make the microbes proliferate in oceans under a controlled environment. However, when everyone realized that the alien microbes multiplied way slower than the rate at which the phytoplankton were dying, an alternate solution had to be fast-tracked.

    Confronting their own limitations, space agencies all across the world joined hands and came together to form what was known as the Global Space Alliance (G.S.A). Funds were pulled from existing missions, whose future lay uncertain. Teams were reassigned, and in less than a year, the Zeus II was built, utilizing every spacecraft prototype ever designed to build the largest ever, one that would take a human crew of six to facilitate the collection of the microbe-rich water directly from Europa’s subsurface ocean. With very limited scope for errors, complete automation of the process was ruled out. The risk was paramount, and it would take the crew five years to return with the microbes.

    A lot could change in those five years. Oxygen levels could sink further. Half of marine life could become extinct. Humans could perish from the massive disruption in the food chain. And yet, they had to take a risk.

    They had to take a risk for yet another crisis fabricated by humans. For a crisis that could very well repeat itself again – perhaps while donning a different yet familiar mask. Through a solution that entailed banking on the fact that an alien ecosystem would hopefully not be disrupted by their actions. A solution in an alien ecosystem, for which six astronauts from planet Earth were willingly disrupting their lives.

    As Mars became a smaller distant sphere by the second, each knew nobody was wrong. Seven months into the mission, Hassan still felt that what they were doing would neither teach humanity a lesson nor be beneficial for the long-term benefit of the solar system. Svetlana was positioned correctly in her denial as well – for the truth was indeed too much to take in, and it was best to stay mum and keep going.

    ‘So please Hassan,’ Svetlana said, her voice pleading yet stern. ‘Please.’

    She stormed off into the dormitories. Everyone sunk into a state of denial, choosing not to address what just took place before them. They sunk into their activities again – Athena got back to her book, Takehiro picked up the cards, and Riya finished her cup of hot chocolate in a swift gulp. Oliver, whose stupor had been decimated by the ongoing quarrel, looked over at Hassan. Hassan stared back at him, but he knew his mind was elsewhere. Hassan walked away from the lounge, resuming his position by the window side next to the glowing emblem of the Earth with the letters G.S.A. imprinted on them, staring into the darkness of outer space. Some things were better left to the abyss.


    Riya’s shaky voice that broke the silence in the Pod. ‘The Pod to Zeus II. We have hit the subsurface ocean.’

    Athena opened her eyes. The exteriors were as dark as they could be. Takehiro enabled a few systems to counter the tides in the subsurface ocean. As he pressed a few buttons on the Pod’s panel, the vehicle whirred itself into a small submarine, slowly beginning to turn towards the ocean bed that was nowhere to be seen.

    ‘I wonder if they can hear us,’ Riya said. There was no acknowledgment from Hassan’s side from Zeus II.

    ‘Riya,’ Takehiro said, distracting everyone from the contemplation. ‘Turn on the infrared feedback systems. Let’s see what we’re heading towards.’

    Riya did as she was told. The surroundings were dark with no light seeping in. It was almost as if they never left the vacuum outside. As per G.S.A’s instructions, the crew decided against using the lights on the Pod, for it might startle the life forms.

    The panel was dark, the screens on minimum brightness. The thermal cameras gave no significant infrared feedback and the altimeter had recalibrated itself, now displaying ’94 Kilometers’. The crew was fixated on spotting a more visible sign of the significant biosignature that had been observed by Zeus I. Their eyes were attentive to the red dot of light in the Pod, knowing it would turn green upon detection of the microbes.

    The Pod kept creeping downward, and there were still no signs of life. Takehiro was beginning to grow impatient. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and his shoulders were terse again.

    ‘Takehiro,’ Athena whispered, her eyes moving swiftly between the panels and the screens.

    There was a faint shimmer of orange being displayed from the thermal cameras. It seemed to have been dispersed unevenly, slowly rising upwards. There were different shapes and sizes, and it almost seemed like…

    ‘They’re disintegrated pieces of something,’ Riya said.

    ‘Maybe the source of the biosignatures,’ Athena offered. Takehiro agreed with her. ‘Riya,’ she asked, ‘Is there any way to make this thing move forward faster?’

    ‘Yes, Commander,’ Riya said, turning the thrusters to the very maximum level.

    Takehiro’s eyes opened extra wide, as he tried to make sense of what he was witnessing. ‘Looks like someone tore a jellyfish apart,’ he commented, with a hint of offense at his own thoughts. As they moved forward, the remnants increased in number, till finally, a faint green shimmer was visible at a distance.

    ‘Are these the Europan life forms?’

    Twenty two minutes had passed since the Pod had leaped into the ocean. 28 kilometers below the surface, the apparent biosignatures became more vivid, the faint light allowing the Pod to navigate.

    In a crisp robotic bleep, the red dot that shone above their heads turned green. The microbial samples in the oceans had reached a sufficient quantity to be collected and carried back home.

    ‘Takehiro,’ commanded Athena. ‘Enable the sampling systems.’

    Takehiro did as he was told. Through an analog lever on the minimalist panel, the Pod began collecting the water samples. Scientists back on Earth calculated that they would require samples from at least 50 gallons of water – a massive amount that would give them enough microbes to culture. There was an inbuilt system in place to ensure that the Pod wasn’t carrying the humongous amount of water back home – for the microbes would be separated whilst retaining the least amount of water in the Pod’s tanks.

    The faint light from outside, however, kept getting brighter. It seemed to be coming from a thick structure that was covering the middle of the ocean infinitely on either end, consisting of small moving beings of varied shapes radiating green. The light became stronger as everyone glued their eyes to the panel, meters away from the floating beings blocking their way. The remnants were still emanating from the structure, losing the luminescence as they floated upward towards the pod.

    ‘Guys,’ Athena said. Everyone turned their heads towards her.

    ‘These are Europan life forms, for sure. But they’re dead.’

    An eerie silence dawned over The Pod.

    ‘What do we do?’ Riya asked.

    ‘We wait.’


    After the Pod had collected 3 samples of varying intensity, Athena took a call.

    ‘The Pod to Zeus II. Sample collection complete,’ she spoke into the transmitter. ‘We’re off to explore the subsurface ocean.’

    As they tread further downwards, the green assumed an uncomfortable bright tone, merging with the red-turned-green-dot above their heads. The thermal cameras had gone bonkers, constantly depicting a screen of red. The Pod had no option but to wait and see how long this went on for.

    Takehiro hypothesized that the structure would eventually come to an end. He said that these were apparently dead icelings which had floated up to a point where they had accumulated. The luminance could have possibly emerged from the fact that Europa was subject to immense radiation even below the crust – and there was something that made these creatures light up green as they perished. The topmost of these perished creatures disintegrated slowly, owing to tidal erosion.

    Suddenly, just as The Pod crossed over 5 kilometers through the structure, Takehiro’s hypothesis came true. The thermal cameras stabilized into the darkness once more, the screens turning black as they escaped. Riya allowed the light to come in through the panels once more. But as she did so, there was a collective gasp let out by the crew.

    Europa was no longer dark. It shone a dull green below the crust.

    It was bizarre. It was unexpected. It was confusing. And what followed was even more unbelievable.

    The infrared cameras started off with multiple small orange dots that emerged out of nowhere, moving slowly, occupying half the space on the screens. As they descended to 40 kilometers below, the dots became larger, redder, and began teeming more and more rapidly. The green light allowed the crew to make out small specs in the distance. At 45 kilometers through, they were practically amongst the dots – which had now become full-blown shapes – visible through the panels to the crew who had their jaws dropped in amazement.

    Organisms of varied shapes and sizes, some closely resembling the ones back at home, swam right next to The Pod. Riya brought the vehicle to a halt for two reasons – one, so that they could pause for a moment and appreciate, and two, so that the crew could decide on its next course of action.

    As they peeked out of the panels, they saw multicolored fish-like eels swimming in enormous schools, a smack of jellyfish-like creatures – only this time they didn’t seem to be floating aimlessly like the ones in the Earth’s oceans; through their transparent bells, the crew could see -

    ‘Brains?’ Athena blurted out. ‘The jellyfish here on Europa have brains?’

    ‘This could mean several things,’ Takehiro mused, excited by the finding. ‘One, there’s more oxygen in the water than we thought would be available, courtesy to this magic microbe. Two, the layer of dead icelings matter might have caused some sort of inexplicable obstruction to the collection of data for Zeus I. It showed definite changes in the levels of oxygen varying with the tides, but none of the evidence pointed towards levels that could trigger interesting evolution of this sort. Three…’

    ‘Three,’ Riya interjected, getting up. ‘I think it’s time we finally go out for that swim.’

    Takehiro let off a laugh. ‘Sure,’ he said.

    ‘C’mon crew. We all did a brilliant job,’ Athena lauded her fellow astronauts. ‘Let’s go interact with some Europans!’

    Everyone took turns to go to the depressurizing chamber one by one and set foot outside into the green waters. Everyone was equally flabbergasted, although Takehiro was probably too excited to get back to Zeus II and play with his newfound organisms.

    Athena, Riya, and Takehiro spread out in three different directions, each tethered to the Pod by a strong metallic cable. The school of eels swam right past The Pod, coming in close contact with the three of them, curious but not hostile, with a fleeting span of attention. Athena pet one of them, trying to hold it in her hands, but it slithered right through them, moving on to Takehiro who tried to play with it in a similar manner.

    ‘It’s so intriguing,’ Takehiro’s voice could be heard through their spacesuits. ‘These organisms seem to be evolved versions of our oceanic species but must have such a different perception – ‘

    ‘What in the name of god is that,’ Riya said, part afraid, part astonished, part curious. A group of organisms – almost as tall as an average human but looking seemingly close to an organism that could be best described as a marine kangaroo – came swimming across to them. It was a small group of three, inquisitive to the commotion caused by the strangers.

    One approached Riya, who without thinking twice caressed the region behind its gills, treating it like she would treat his pets back home. The marine kangaroo seemed to love it. ‘Hey guys, look, I just made my first friend here!’ she laughed.

    The rest of the two approached Takehiro and Athena, rubbing their mouths over their suits, contemplating whether to nibble it or not. Athena laughed and caressed the marsupial-like marine, thinking about her labrador while doing so.

    ‘Athena, Takehiro,’ Riya said, visibly surprised. The two turned over in her direction. ‘This one’s carrying a mini marine marsupial!’ she exclaimed, pointing to a small head popping out of the marine kangaroo’s pouch. ‘That has to be the most adorable thing! An extraterrestrial baby!’

    She bent over to have a closer look, but in the process of doing so, one of the limbs of the organism touched a switch on Riya’s arm, flipping it on and activating the flashlight atop her visor. The light flashed squarely onto the offspring, and Riya switched it off as soon as she realized what occurred. But it was too late.

    As the light hit the offspring, almost all of a sudden, it floated out of its pouch. The small body seemed to have gone lifeless in an instant and was beginning to turn transparent. As soon as it lost all its color, it began to transmit the same green luminescence that they had seen in the structure up above – more intense towards the bottom, gradually fading out at the top. It floated further upward to eventually coalesce into the green skies.

    ‘No… this can’t be happening…’ Riya expressed.

    The marine kangaroo, upon registering the events, turned hostile. It opened its mouth, and emanated a silent scream that only the other two of its companions could hear. The three marine marsupials ganged up on Riya, unleashed themselves on her body, tearing her spacesuit apart and mutilating it. Riya’s screams were muted as the organisms tore the systems apart. Athena and Takehiro watched in horror, as Riya enabled the emergency retraction and exit systems, drawing the two into The Pod and applying the emergency thrusters to zoom back to the surface through the green Europan sky beneath the crust.

Short Stories: Non-fiction

One entry was submitted for the non-fiction category, which was a white paper originally submitted to a call by The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) for the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032. A copy of the white paper by author Flora Ardenghi Dutra is available at the NASEM site.

Updated: October 5, 2022