Children of the Pulsars by Matthew Winchester
“Congratulations, Commander Lucius! Your Premium XLR probe is now available for piloting!”
Lucas rolled off the couch, grabbed his cane, and stumbled over to his workstation. He bumped the desk as he sat down, toppling a tower of instant-noodle bowls. The cold, week-old broth spattered on his forearm, but he didn’t notice, barely registering the sour odor.
After 3 months, it was finally ready. A probe was jutting from a crater 480 light-years from Earth, its shield-plating glowing beneath roiling air. It had cost him $1500 to get it there—there being a rocky exoplanet dubbed Tiyan-54b. He had chosen it because it was unpopular, drawing significantly less traffic than the many earth-likes that clogged Instagram feeds. He didn’t want his panoramic views to be marred by tire ruts and holo-flags that said: “Jenna was here! winky-face.” He wanted something pristine. A place where Commander Lucius could leave his pleated footprint, just as Armstrong and Aldrin had all those years ago.
He entered his password, bungled it, entered it again. The room brightened as the WuKong logo filled his monitor: a red silhouette of a monkey holding a staff.
“Welcome back, Commander Lucius.”
The greeting always triggered a twinge of arousal in his groin. By day, he was Lucas Alvarez, a college dropout with borderline agoraphobia, according to his therapist. But when he logged into the WuKong servers, he was Commander Lucius—number 5 on the Leaderboards, with over 1200 hours of exploration logged.
“You have one new probe available, Commander. Would you like to begin piloting?”
Lucas brushed his greasy, black hair out of his eyes, slipping on his VR headset.
“Yes,” he said, as he might say to a lover who asked: “Does that feel good?”
“Initializing Virtual Cockpit.”
As buttons and panels materialized around him, Lucas knew he was on the wrong planet. The previews of Tiyan-54b had promised a horizon crenellated with mesas: an atmosphere that emulated the vermilion sunsets of the American southwest.
But none of that was here. He saw muddy-maroon rocks. Pools of iridescent liquid—reminiscent of gasoline. A sky churning with clouds of smog.
His stomach twisted with frustration. He pulled up a log of the probe’s flight path, watching a yellow line trace its origin from a launchpad on Mars. The probe entered a proprietary WuKong portal, and then—it changed course, ripping through space-time and emerging somewhere uncharted.
His cell phone buzzed in his jeans. Lucas raised the headset off his sweaty eyes and opened WeChat.
Bo: “How’s 54b?”
Lucius: “Wouldn’t know. On the wrong planet.”
Lucius: “Some crazy shit dude. You gotta see this.”
He had met Bo during his second expedition, back when his only probe was the free trial EyeBot—little more than a webcam with a URL. He had landed on Titan, right on the shore of a methane lake, and Bo had rolled up to him.
“First timer, huh? Let’s take a picture.”
The selfie-stick was in the frame, and Titan’s sickly, orange haze made conditions less than ideal. But Lucas had saved that picture regardless, assigning it as his desktop wallpaper. He loved seeing his EyeBot next to Bo’s pimped-out rover, their lenses dusted with hydrocarbon snow.
They were just friends at first, swapping articles about neutron stars, traveling to Jupiter to see Juno’s corpse. NASA’s sudden defunding had left its final missions in limbo, and the Juno satellite had carried on its lonely vigil, becoming a popular tourist attraction for WuKong probes.
In that moment, watching Junos’ hypnotic rotation, he had realized that he wanted to hold Bo’s hand. He couldn’t, of course—WuKong Industries wouldn’t implement tactile feedback for another three years. But later that night, they had done things on video chat that were a lot more exciting than holding hands. And the next morning, Lucas had found himself daydreaming about Bo’s curved dick, wondering what it would taste like.
He had never told him much about his personal life. Never told him that he had fractured two cervical vertebrae when he was 17, and that the crash—entirely his fault—had left him unable to walk without a cane.
But Bo didn’t need to know those things. To Bo, he was Commander Lucius, a dashing interstellar explorer.
Bo’s avatar materialized in the corner of his visor, his golden fur tousled by simulated wind.
“Woah,” he said, as Lucas shared his view with him. “It looks like a carbon planet. Have you read about those?”
“Sure,” Lucas said. “But how did my probe get there?”
Bo rubbed his chin and stuck out his lower lip—clearly a caricatured emote overlaid by the AI.
“Could it be Intelligent Interception?”
Lucas frowned and leaned back in his pilot chair. He had always known it was a possibility. Send enough tendrils into the unknown, and the chances of encountering intelligent life increased dramatically. Ethan Liu—the founder of WuKong Industries—had discussed it in a televised interview, claiming that the risk to mankind was “negligible.”
Lucas had always assumed that when contact did occur, it would be unremarkable. Some 12-year old in Alabama would log in and find her EyeBot submerged in a brine bath of alien diatoms.
But the discovery of an intelligent species, one that could intercept and reroute his probe? That seemed unlikely.
Lucas rotated his camera 360-degrees, scanning his surroundings. There was muddy-red rock. More pools of hydrocarbons. A smoggy haze lingered in the air, and not the “clean” kind. Think LA in the 1960s.
“Not exactly a lively place,” he said.
“Or E.T. is shy.”
Lucas rolled to the edge of one of the pools, peering inside of it. The oily liquid was shallow, maybe a few inches deep.
“Take a sample,” Bo said. His avatar, a human-cat hybrid, was lying on its back, clawing at a ball of yarn.
Lucas unfolded a metal arm and submerged it in the pool. Bo winked at him, baring his fangs.
That’s when he saw it. Something buried in the sediment. He hooked it with his arm, tugging until it came free.
“What the fuck?” Bo said.
The mandible wasn’t human. It had an extra row of molars on each side. A bizarre, knobby protrusion on the chin. Lucas snapped a picture of it, then continued to fish around in the pool.
More bones emerged. Enlarged vertebrae; hooked ribs; a femur with a serial number engraved on the shaft. Lucas spent a long time looking at that one. He found the tiny WuKong logo, hidden on the femoral neck.
“Lucas,” Bo whispered, “There’s something moving. Over there.”
Lucas zoomed in on the horizon. He saw angular shapes. Refracted light. It could have been a mirage, but—no. He was certain it was real.
“Maybe we should log out,” Bo said. There was fear in his voice now, cool and smooth like a marble tombstone.
Lucas revved the motor.
“Whatever it is, it can’t hurt us.”
Bo’s ears flattened. The hairs on his tail stood on end.
“Lucas, we really shouldn’t—”
He was already driving, diverting all power to the motor. Plumes of red dust billowed behind him.
“Slow down!” Bo shouted, but Lucas barely heard him. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, gripped the joystick with greater purpose. He was vaguely aware of a twanging pain in his gimpy leg, but he tried not to think about that. Commander Lucius didn’t have damaged spinal nerves. Commander Lucius was embarking on the greatest adventure of his life.
The object came into focus. An immense, interlocking sculpture, hewn from something crystalline—diamond, he supposed, if this really was a carbon planet. It was levitating, about three feet off the ground. And it was spinning—fast.
His heart thudded against his sternum. Bo’s avatar was glitched, stuttering between a toothy grin and an agonized grimace.
The statue spun faster. Blue light strobed from the sky, and crystal humanoids danced before him. His visor flickered. The image tore, then realigned.
“I’m here!” Lucas shouted. “Commander Lucius has arrived!”
And then, as if in answer, the sky cracked open.
He read about it on the news. The Tiyanyan space telescope detected an anomaly in a globular cluster 20,000 light-years from Earth. A pulsar, which previously had blasted radio waves every 0.8 seconds, suddenly “switched off.” It was silent for 43 minutes before it started pulsing again, returning to its usual rhythm.
The phenomenon was well-documented. Pulsar emissions were said to be so reliable, you could set your watch by them. But occasionally, an astronomer would catch one going dark. Sometimes, for a few seconds. Sometimes, for over a year.
Thousands of them had been discovered in the Milky Way, spewing particle jets from their poles. Some of them spun at close to the speed of light and were thought to be billions of years old.
Lucas didn’t like to think about pulsars. Didn’t like to remember the strobing eyeball, peering down at him through parted clouds.
He had lost time. At least 30 minutes, maybe more. His visor had blinked with a “LOST SIGNAL” alert. Shortly thereafter, WuKong had suspended his account.
He didn’t want to be Commander Lucius anymore. He wiped his hard drives, did a clean install on his desktop. Bo stopped responding to his messages.
Sometimes, late at night, headlights beamed through his bedroom window. He would part the shades, see a black SUV idling in his driveway.
Once, he caught a glimpse of the license plate. It didn’t have a number or a state. Just a red silhouette of a monkey, gripping a staff.
He changed his name. Moved to Colorado.
At the grocery store, he saw a child with an unusually large chin. Her eyes tracked him as he droned around in a motorized cart. She opened her mouth and flapped her gray tongue at him.
Lucas abandoned his instant noodles and buzzed toward the exit, his palms slick with sweat. “I saw them too,” he heard the girl yell. “I saw them dancing!”
On the way home, a cop pulled him over for going 90 in a 75 mph zone.
“Have you been drinking?” the officer asked, but her words were a distant echo. The kid from the grocery store flashed in his mind. He kept seeing her teeth. Her extra rows of molars.
The curtains were always drawn. But at night, he could still see them. Thousands of beacons among the stars, pulsing through his eyelids.
One evening, while brushing his teeth, he spat clotted blood into the sink. He rubbed a finger on his aching gums, felt the new molars erupting.
In his dreams, he saw a diamond statue, spinning on an alien world. Pale, naked children, dancing beneath strobing light.
In the sky, a blue pupil, dilating.
The cool regard of an ancient thing.
Matthew Winchester is an amateur astronomer with a background in Biological Sciences research. He writes primarily at the intersection of fantasy and horror, but he leans into sci-fi when the moon is full and the Mothership demands it. He lives in southern California with his husband and two kids (cats). You can find him and his telescope where the skies are dark and the galaxies shine—or you can check out his fledgling blog.