The io9 community and the Framestore art department are collaboratively writing a story — half in prose, and half in images. Nearly 200 of you wrote flash fiction in response to the first pair of images we posted. Now it's time for you to vote on which of the top five stories wins Round 1 and becomes the first installment in our collective space opera tale.
The first two images were the one above, and the one below.
Click to embiggen.
Here's how the game has gone so far:
Two and a half weeks ago, we posted original concept art developed by Framestore's visual development department. Your job was to post in the comments a piece of flash fiction (no more than 800 words!) that told a story about what was happening in those two images. You posted nearly 200 amazing stories — holy crap, people, you are seriously awesome. The io9 editors read through everything and picked five stories that were well-written, dealt substantively with what was happening in the pictures, and ended on a good cliffhanger.
Now it's your job to vote on which story you want to lead into the next set of pictures from Framestore's art department. We've included the full stories below — just scroll down to read. Voting ends Sunday at midnight PST. Then we'll get the next set of pictures and move into Round 2 of the story. Start sharpening your pencils and overclocking your neural stimulators!
If you're ready to vote, skip to the poll and stories below. If you want to know more about what the hell we're doing here, well, allow me to explain . . .
Our experiment is a variation on the "exquisite corpse" method of story creation. An exquisite corpse is a storytelling method where the narrative is collectively assembled by a group of individuals. Each writer adds to the body of work by advancing the story where the last writer left off. In our version of the exquisite corpse, artists from the incredible visual effects firm Framestore will participate in advancing the story too.
Framestore: The Framestore art department has done VFX and concept design for countless companies and studios, and has worked on movies like Captain America, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows and several Harry Potter movies. Up next for the company will be FX for Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and Keanu Reeves samurai epic 47 Ronin. They also developed the zombie concept designs for World War Z.
You: You are a part of the io9 community and you are serious about writing short fiction. You don't need to be a professional writer, though we would love pros to join us. You just need to be somebody who loves to write, and wants an excuse to do more of it. Never published before? Don't be scared. Now's the time to start!
Read the stories below, and then come back and vote for your favorite in the poll here.
Empty planets were easy to come by these days. It was getting people to look at them that was the problem. After a while, the millions of different planets melded together into an amorphous hunk of multicolored rock floating in a sea of nothingness. But this was one planet that would make any tired travelers sit up and take notice.
The shuttle lurched unsteadily. Vince kept a firm hand on the controls. It was rusty, obsolete, and generally falling apart, but sacrifices had to be made when pursuing one's passions. Art supplies were quite the drain on savings.
There was a faint groan from next to him. Vince ignored it; old as she was, Agatha had been through far worse than forced sightseeing. And what a tour she was about to receive! He'd spent months toiling endlessly over the twisting, writhing columns of metal that help up his prized dome. It had been back-breaking, brain-breaking, planet-breaking work, but it would be worth it for the fame and recognition he could already hear echoing through the stars. All in all it was frankly amazing he had finished in as little time as he had.
He snuck a quick look at his passenger in the copilot's chair – still blindfolded and immobilized with good old-fashioned rope. He was prepared this time for her lectures on safety. Despite earlier challenges he was now certain the enormous structure would not collapse. He could see where she had a point; it simply would not do to crush the fervent admirers of his exhibition before they informed the rest of the galaxy of his talent.
As the dome loomed just ahead, Vincent cast a critical eye over the surface, tracing every shadow, every familiar swirl of digital paint. To anyone but himself, the artist, the illusion would be perfect. A planet within a planet. Such a novel idea, it was a wonder nobody had thought of it before. The finest work of art in the universe and still nobody else had laid an eye on it.
He needed to think carefully about how to best present his work as worthy of presentation. He needed to make sure that the shuttle did not disturb the dome while the paint was settling. He also needed to act quickly before the Museum of Fine Art noticed its curator had been kidnapped.
"You can look now," he said to his passenger, untying her hands.
"Where did a starving artist get enough money to smash two planets together?" was her first question.
He explained to her patiently. She mustn't worry if she felt inadequate, he assured her. It was meant to instill a sense of insignificance for people in comparison to the structures that towered and spiraled into the sky.
For a while she was silent, staring out at his masterpiece. They were close now, skimming the upper atmosphere where the clouds seemed to tether two worlds together.
"I'm not mad," he said emphatically after a few minutes.
"No," said the curator. "Just obscure."
"I prefer avant-garde."
"Well it's quite impressive, I'll give you that. But," she said, interrupting the smile that was spreading across his face, "I know what you're going to ask me. For the hundredth time, no. I'm sorry."
"But you haven't even seen the inside yet! You would not believe the workmanship on the columns, and they're even hollow inside so visitors can get a better angle of view. I painted the ceiling myself, you know, and the constellations don't match but I figured nobody would notice as long as there were a bunch of little white dots in the sky somewhere-"
She was shaking her head. "Vincent, you must stop this. You have vision, you have passion, but it's not going to get you anywhere if you continue wasting it on these ridiculous projects! First it was the model death ray, then the atmospheric tye-dye, many more the memory of which I'm sure I've repressed, and now look where we are: giant art-domes the size of moons! It has no purpose or aesthetic significance whatsoever. What will it be next?"
Vince thought. "Well, you did mention smashing planets together…"
The curator did not so much as smile. "I've played along with this too many times. Please don't contact me again." She reached for a trigger on the control panel.
"One exhibition," Vince pleaded, wrestling with her for the controls, "just one, reroute a highway past here or something, just so people can see!"
"Take me back," she said, and her voice was filled with such venom that he surrendered.
"Right-o. Sorry for the trouble," he said, politely enough, but inside he fumed. What was he supposed to have done? What would he have to do to get someone, anyone to pay attention to him?
I hadn't stopped checking my lynk all day. No-one had. Everyone was only a minute away from re-scrolling through their feeds to see if the image had been released yet. Apparently the FIST (Fission Instrument Super Telemetry) Probe had sent back the first ever image from inside the Orb. Something more than just static. That morning the emergency UN Assembly was going to release the image publicly. It was going to be a simultaneous release across every feed, to every lynk, on the planet. Imagine.
When my lynk vibrated, it was already in my hand even though I was driving. I wasn't far from the station and I was in a hurry. I had just had a breakthrough vision about the case I was working on – a face. It would get the captain off my back, finally. I needed to get to my desk and get it sketched quickly before it faded. My visions were shy things and unpredictable, coming and going as they pleased. I needed this. I was speeding. I glanced at the lynk screen momentarily before lurching to slam on my brakes to avoid careering into a bumbling SUV in front of me. Image loading. As I frowned impatiently into the glacial car in front, I was met with a snapshot sodden in domestic bliss - mother at the wheel, father in the passenger seat reaching back to help son get his school uniform just so, older sister headphoned and whimsical at the window. I looked back to my lynk with rolling eyes. Image loaded.
My heart gathered itself together for a moment before my eyes absorbed the contents of the picture. I blinked hard. It couldn't be. I checked I was looking at the right file, at the right feed. All the feeds were the same. Impossible. The first image ever to be obtained from inside the Orb couldn't possibly be the one I was looking at; couldn't possibly be the image now circulating billions of people worldwide. Somehow, unbelievably, the image I was looking at on my lynk, along with the rest of humanity, was a picture I had drawn. With that thought, I crashed into domestic bliss. I sunk into darkness and memory.
I was only fifteen when they discovered the Orb, twenty years before the FIST image, twenty years before my accident. Back then, of course, it was still called the Dome. We didn't know the edge extended all the way into the ground. The tests hadn't started, the probes hadn't begun, no-one had disappeared yet.
It had become one of those days when everyone remembers where they were when they heard about it. I was still at art school, in a lecture, when the feeds hit frenzy. At first the headlines didn't quite convey the seriousness and scale of what had been discovered. As I had wandered dreamily from my art lecture, perusing my feeds, it was only after several lines of text that I stopped walking. After several more, I had lowered to the college lawn, decelerated by disbelief.
The Orb was discovered in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. It was perfectly round, only three metres in diameter back then, opaque, felt like vapour to touch, a mistily reflective sky blue in colour, and had vanished at least one person, maybe more. The first, a student, Barry Glavinson, had been the one to discover it while exploring the jungle on a gap year. When the authorities had arrived and begun setting up a "protective" perimeter, Barry, perhaps realizing his discovery was no longer his, made a dash for it and jumped into the Orb. He did not appear out the other side, or ever again.
No technology functioned within it, all sensors recording only static. Any attempts to investigate its interior failed. Objects passed directly through it unchanged. In fact, it was completely inert except for any person that was completely submerged in it, never returned. Only once they dug under it did they realize it was on Orb. Since then, nothing new about the Orb has been learned except one thing: whenever anybody entered it and disappeared, it expanded slightly.
Domestic bliss mother shook me awake. My head was pressed awkwardly into the windscreen, blood thickening on my face. I tried to mumble an apology, but she shushed me caringly and pulled me out the car. I staggered to the curb, and realized my lynk was still in my hand. Remembering, I looked groggily at the image on the screen again. It was unmistakably one of mine – the icy landscape, the towering twisting pillars of frozen matter like divine tendrils, the insignificant astronaut and his rover – I had done it as a mood piece years ago, back at college, frivolously. Now it was the most famous picture in history.
The captain would probably fire me. The face from my vision, the one I had been racing to the station to sketch, seemed to have disappeared back to the dark dreamworld from where they came. However, suddenly, as if on cue, as I minded the idea of it, there it was again; a detailed face sharp in my mind's eye, clearer than ever. I couldn't believe it. In all my years of telepathy, the one thing it had never done was obey me. That was the day everything changed.
"Show me some interesting places to go visit!" Jack said to the travel agent, sitting down without any preamble.
They were sitting in an rather cramped office in a rotisserie colony outside the main Teth Gate at the edge of the solar system. Jack would have handled this conversation over the SI but a delay of 9 or 10 light hours made that unreasonable. The office was close to the colony's axis of rotation and Coriolis forces were playing hell in Jack's solar plexus. But the waves of nausea had been lessening over the passing months in space and Jack was determined to get his space legs eventually.
With the installation of the gate, Earth was part of the Teth Social Union, a polyspecific supercivilization comprising quadrillions of worlds in a million galaxies, including the Local Group. It was the Teth Hyperspace Gates that made trips over millions of light years happen in seconds. The Gates held the Union together and made the universe seem small.
Jack was a rich man in his twelfth decade when he decided to leave Earth and go touring the universe. Jack was ageless, having the strength and vigor of a twenty year old thanks the cell repair machines embedded in his tissue. Up until this point he was a restless globetrotter and itinerant scholar of three dead languages and seven living ones besides. He had a great deal of experience living for years in many countries on the Earth. He never married but had a long succession of romantic involvements, none resulting in children. He was an ideal candidate to be an explorer. He was very well educated, very experienced, restless, free of entanglements or dependencies and with a great love of the strange and new.
"Well, how about this?" suggested the travel agent, an omwele, originally from the Buzzsaw Galaxy, "It's called the Blister. Here, let me turn on the holo."
The room faded away and suddenly they were floating in low orbit over over a terrestrial planet, very Earth-like in appearance. Or it at least appear that way until a giant planet-like blister appeared on the limb of the larger planet. For all intents it looked as if the larger planet were budding off a smaller planet, like some gigantic yeast cell.
"Ummmmmm, wow! Is that really possible?" Jack asked.
"Well it's certainly real. But yes, tidal forces, Roche limits and gravitationally driven isostatic adjustment should make what you are seeing impossible. And yet this civilization has been in Teth databases for about 500,000 standard years. It's classified as a hermit civilization, given no contact or communication of any kind with the outside. In 500,000 years the creatures on these mashed together planets have completely ignored us. They've long been since be classified as safe; provided no one lands on the surface of this bizarre object. That is strictly forbidden. But other than that, you can gawk all you want from orbit. There are even observational platforms with very powerful telescopes to observe the surface.
"Yeah, this Blister is a good one. Put that on my list. Show me another."
The current scene faded into a dark icy plane, vaguely like a frozen lake, lit in very feeble light. It was a bit like on the moons of Neptune, which Jack briefly saw on his way out to the Teth gate. In the dim light, it took a while for Jack's eyes to adjust. Gradually it became apparent that huge columns of sculpted ice or rock rose from the surface of the surface of the lake.
"This one is much more polyps on or "hands on" as you Earthers say. This is a set of anchors for abandoned space elevators on the dead world of Juwe Four in the Tangerine system. a white dwarf in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Currently the dead world has an academic colony of archeologists digging through the ruins, trying to reconstruct the history of this lost species. Perhaps that interests you?"
Jack smiled broadly, "I'll have you know that my first entry into graduate scholar was based around the study of classics."
"I'm sorry, my machine translator is having some trouble with that. Classics?"
"Originally classics was scholarly field devoted to the study of dead languages of Europe. Since then it has been broadened into study of dead cultures and languages of many Earthly civilizations. Consider it related to archeology. Anyway, yes, please add this to the list as well."
And so the travel agent and Jack whiled away the afternoon planning his itinerary.
Gawd, it was early.
The Fixer processed groggily as the machine lolled drunkenly forward in a swirl of frozen perma-dust.
Ahead, the massive core anchors loomed. Ancient spiraled metal fibers, etched like cables of twisted vertebrate rising up, up, up through the cloud layer. A magnificent sight he didn't care to see.
Above, stood Mare. Locked in geostationary extra-low-level orbit. A glinting, blue marble bulging from the planetary atmospheric plane like a 7,900 mile wide zit. Her clouds intertwined, inflamed in a puffy maelstrom, with her host. Dancing between planet and planet in an impossible tango that he didn't much bother to think about.
"Business as usual," he thought as the machine skidded onto the deeply frozen sea surrounding Anchor 77-Alpha, throwing chipped ice crystals into his goggles and face. Micro-slicing his skin and coating his stubble in itchy perma-dust.
An organics error. Just what you didn't want to wake up to. And now he was here. At this hour. On the one day a year that the sun's blinding, piercing glare actually made it to surface in this godforsaken accidental tundra deep in Mare's shadow.
He'd seen it from another angle once. As a boy. His father had taken him upside on a procurement trip. From the shuttle's approach path in high orbit, it was entrancing. Quiet. Peaceful. Beautiful. But the closer you got... Uck. It teemed with people. Scrabbling. Pandering. Hustling. People. And, growing up anchorside, he didn't much care for it. But that didn't stop him from running maintenance ops "down there," as they mockingly called it. It beat working the mines to serve the heavenly masters.
Arriving, he dismounted, shrugged on his tool pack and popped the icy access hatch. Squeezing through the opening designed for a long-gone generation much smaller in stature, he plugged his burly body into the massive sinewy metal structure. 15,451 feet up. That's where the sensors said the problem was. Clipping into the dangling line of the cable lift, he uncapped a steaming thermo-bottle of karoteen-his morning ritual-and settled in for a long ride up.
The core anchors were magnificent feats of engineering. Devised to mimic the strength and flexibility of mammalian muscle, the sinewy structures were cored and built eons before his time. Tied directly to the planetary centers, they were the only things holding the two bodies together. Not gravity. Probably not even physics. A fact lost on him as he rode ever upward into the darkness. Past snaking cables, coated in slick self-replicating lubricants. Past junctions older than history. A quarter of the way through the bottle, the lift controller beeped, slowing his ascent.
There it was. He stopped the cable, and flicked on his helmet glow. Nasty little bastard. A good sized Meta-leech. Its jagged little corrosive teeth eating into a metal relay enclosure as it digested its way through to the juicy power nodes inside. Too close to a control line to kill it with fire, he ruminated thoughtfully and sipped a gulp of the karoteen.
Still warm. Good.
His better senses clouded by the early hour, he absentmindedly jabbed the worm with his spanner, eliciting an ejaculation of what one could only call "poop." It soaked his face, splashing into his cuts and eating away at the dusty surface of his skin with tenacious speed.
"Shit!" He recoiled.
The lift cable spun with his sudden movement, and he dropped the karoteen. The open thermo-bottle tumbling into the maw below.
Finding bottom, 15,451 feet down, the bottle smashed into a brittle touch screen controller, cratering the surface and triggering an explosion of karoteen. The sticky, black concoction, thick as liquid thruster fuel spilled, flowed and glugged into newly developed cracks as he furiously lowered himself. Praying. Hopefully it would freeze before it did any damage. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Why'd he have to make it so damned hot!
As he passed 14,019 feet, an ancient indicator flicked red.
At 13,047 feet, a half million micro-kinetic couplers released, clicking apart together as one.
And at 9,870 feet, 26.2 billion people screamed as they hurtled into the ether.
Halifax watched the birth of the Worldship and stifled a yawn. Everybody around him oohed and aahed as though it was the most spectacular thing in the history of humanity. And, he thought bitterly, it might actually have a chance at the title. But he was completely, unutterably bored. The fact that building planetoids took for-fucking-ever was one of the reasons that he quit being an engineer in the first place. The other was that the nanobots got to do all of the fun stuff.
Though he couldn't see the mouth of the Drydock from the observation platform, he knew what it looked like: a continent-wide ring of mountain-sized nanoforges, each shaped like a cupped palm on a stumpy, 600-mile wide wrist. Their sheer, inward faces glowed with an orange-white ferocity that hurt your brain to look at it, the waste light of the nanoforges doing their molecular boogaloo. He remembered that ache, like dull hot fingers pressed against the backs of your eyes and the underside of your jaw, digging into your sinus cavities like scavenging voles while a fist tried to squeeze your brainstem into paste. The Hangover of the Gods, his compatriots called it, from staring into the fires of creation. A small price to pay, they bragged, as they got drunk enough to drown out the pain.
The forges were devouring the planet they sat on from the inside out, enormous taproot feeders snaked deep into the mantle to siphon up the raw magma to be gnashed and masticated and eventually spat out according to blueprints that Halifax had written. Building the Worldship required a world—or most of one, anyway—so they'd designed the Drydock to cannibalize a planet. Which planet ended up dying to feed their dream didn't matter at all to the engineers, so it was cruel serendipity rather than capricious random chance that had destroyed his home. Genevieve's World had simply been the closest match to the resource profile for the Worldship's schema. His schema. In the end, Halifax had taken it personally anyway. He laughed bitterly, and the other observers nearby—mostly human, though a number of Remotes stood out garishly—pretended to ignore him.
"It'll take weeks before anything interesting happens," he told the little boy standing next to him, pale and pasty, with the too-bright eyes that meant a Rider onboard. Halifax wondered what the pocket AI was to the boy—a teacher? a parent? God? The boy looked at him, then turned to his mother to ask a question in another language. Halifax laughed again, and with a final glance at the still incredible sight on the horizon, walked away.
The Worldship—astonishing achievement that it was—looked like a growth, a tumor, eating his planet as it had eaten his career and his life. Halifax had loved it and hated it and washed his hands of the whole goddamn thing.
And now he was going to steal it.
He couldn't stop grinning as he placed the call to Koche.
In the cold, spartan room that was her current home, Koche grimaced at the tickle in her mind. She knew what it meant: a call on the ansible. And only Hal could be calling. She Flipped to the realverse and stretched, vertebrae popping from disuse. Climbing naked out of her couch, she glanced around in the vain hope that she hadn't missed lunch. Outside the transparent walls, the sky was a black dome washed with billions of impossibly clear, bright stars. Along the near horizon, dawn was brightening quickly and the walls began dimming at the bottom. Out on the icefield, a lone Leeb sped towards the nearest strand of the Snare on a jetsled, throwing up a glittering plume of snow.
The strand was massive, a mile-wide column rooted to the ice, and was doubly impressive grouped among its six fellows. They dotted the icefield like a copse of old-growth forest in the land of the frost giants, stretching skywards as far as she could see unaided. As the dawn broke, the dayline sped down the strands towards the ground, creating the illusion that they were growing even larger.
"Hal," she answered, the ansible stutter barely audible for once, "is this important?"
"Nope, I'm bored." he sounded cheerful, rarely a good sign.
"Hal," annoyance crept into her voice, "you have work to do. So do I."
"I know what work I want to do, baby," the cheeseball innuendo was comforting, but sounded forced.
Koche giggled in spite of herself, "I know, and believe me, I'd like nothing better than a little...work out here," she didn't need to force the longing into her voice, "but Leeb frowns on us using his precious blacknet anse for telesex."
"Is he there?"
Her pause told him, but she answered anyway. "He's always here."
"Put him on."