Every time Professor Catchto returned to the Galactic Research Institute was a bittersweet reminder of the vibrant academic community that slowly disappeared over the past three thousand years. There were pictures of all past Skantar Prize winners lining the walls, with a slightly thinner layer of dust signaling the more recent ones as she moved closer to the single open office. There were only two people left doing work that would be considered for the Skantar Prize, and Todd would be disqualified from future consideration if he lost for a fifth time. The professor knew this desperation was why Todd suddenly risked sending Zap to Earth, and she was not looking forward to sharing this development with Stravelle.
The light clack of Professor Catchto’s heels on the tile floor echoed through the empty halls of the Galactic Research Institute as she marched down to see her son. The first time she wore any footwear, all her colleagues were offended and surprised that she would debase herself by imitating something from Earth, but two thousand years later almost every conscious species had manipulated their features to look more human, including the fashion that came with it. Professor Catchto liked to mix up clothing eras, currently wearing a navy toga with a white rope tied around her waist to accompany the black heels. As an Aristrean, she was able to completely change her shape at will, so she appeared perfectly human in the tall, athletic body she had created hundreds of years ago, and unlike many of the younger generations, she refused to change her look every couple of years to reflect what they saw on the GTS.
Stravelle heard the familiar clacks reach his door but was still talking into a microphone when his mother walked in. “…trust me, it’s worth it. There’s more to see. Just take those two parts… You. Over there! Give her that tool… Not that way. Ugh. Just… Just hold on. Don’t break anything.”
Unlike almost everyone else around him, Stravelle refused to imitate the feature or mannerisms of Earth’s entertainment. He still had to maintain the basic humanoid shape since the universe had adapted to it as the default form over the years, but there were little protests like his constantly changing number of fingers, ranging from zero to eight and rarely equal on both hands, or his lumpy deformed head that just recently became trendy among the universe’s counter-culture, much to Stravelle’s dismay. His lack of clothes was the simplest protest by omission. But there was one element that still startled even Professor Catchto: Stravelle’s single large eye, a big blue iris and moist cornea eerily reminiscent of a human’s, with his bushy head of hair expressing itself like an eyebrow. Few other anti-Earthers were willing to make that big a commitment to their daily appearance.
The office was littered with GTS screens, piled three or four high, balancing precariously on top of multiple tables that crowded the expansive office. Professor Catchto had not been here for a couple months and Stravelle had commandeered furniture from the empty offices since her last visit. These makeshift control towers allowed him to see multiple angles of Mitchone’s sister planet Talon at once. Several microphones were positioned in front of his face, and dozens of empty scooch shells were scattered in the corners behind him. The various mechanical guts of these crawling communication devices were in piles across every inch of Stravelle’s desk.
Professor Catchto looked over at one of the screens to find a group of the small, stark white Talconers taking apart a scooch of their own and she asked her son “how did they catch that? When did they learn to do that?”
“They did it on their own.” Stravelle’s eye remained locked on the monitors. “I guess the shine of the light gave it away. But it’s making things go quicker”
“Have you been coaching them?” she began to survey the other screens, discovering thousands more Talconers performing similar dissections.
“Of course not. I just have to keep sending more to talk to them because they are taking them all apart.”
“You sure you’re not helping them? That you’re not just nervous about the deadline?”
Stravelle responded in a discordant staccato rhythm “No. I mean I am nervous. But that’s not why I sent so many scooches. Well I sent the scooches because I need to keep talking to them. It's not really coaching though. I said they’d figure out space travel, and I think they’re close. The judges need to see them get off the surface soon or they’ll just be another failed experiment.”
“I told you to stop making promises like that. I’m not sure they’ll appreciate it if the Talconers only know how to leave because of the scooch technology… Especially if you teach them how to build the ship.”
“Todd gave the humans fire! Todd gave them rules to survive! At least I’ve never actually gone to Talcon!”
“Those are all rumors.”
Professor Catchto had slowly made her way through the desks and screens to reach her son’s side, jumping a bit when he turned and the giant blue eye stared her in the face. She brushed off the disgust and put her hand on his shoulder.
Stravelle jumped up out of his chair. “This is bullshit! Just let me finish. If you’re not here to help just leave me alone.”
“Don’t use that quiet tone with me” Stravelle yelled and turned his back.
“Todd just sent one of the Mitchonese down to Earth.”
Stravelle looked back over his shoulder toward his mother “How? He shouldn’t be able to transport that quickly. From that far. Why?”
“He’s been working on it for a while and must have finally figured it out. But I’m not sure what the judges will think about sending one of the Mitchonese to Earth. It depends what he does while he’s there. He doesn’t have a ton of knowledge to share with the humans though, so it might be safe.”
“So as long as he doesn’t call attention to himself you think Todd will get away with it? Surely everyone will see the Mitchonese down there though, right?”
“It seems like almost everyone just watched him arrive in LA, so I’m sure most of the universe will keep an eye on it. I ran here so you could hear it from me first.”
“He should be disqualified!” Stravelle stated proudly. “He can’t just send another species there.”
Professor Catchto scanned the office and the activity on Talcon again, then shook her head “Do you really want them questioning his methods? It looks like everyone has forgotten the etiquette this time.”
Stravelle’s eye opened wide, his brow hair raised, and his entire head slowly followed as if being lifted by thought. He leaned over to the microphone and told the crowds “Stop working. Wait for me.”
“Stravelle...” Professor Catchto said with maternal concern, “What are you planning?”
“I need the Talconers to work faster. I’m going to send them more tools.” Stravelle rushed down the hall with his mother close behind.
She asked “Do you really want to win like this?”
“I can’t lose to Todd. He already has everyone’s attention. He doesn’t get to have the Skantar too.” Stravelle stopped and looked back at his mother. “I’m not going to listen to you defend him again. He can’t take this from me.”
Professor Catchto gave up following Stravelle and decided to leave herself out of this Skantar battle.
The Skantar Prize was a relic from an earlier time, created so long ago it felt like it always existed. It was awarded intermittently for the greatest achievement in life creation, and any rules were implied, rather than written down. The Skantar committee had final discretion over who and what won for what reasons. This committee consisted of four judges, two from each of the creation-species: Aristreans – to which Stravelle and Professor Catchto belonged, and Prokkers – which Todd was a part of. The only real consistency of the committee’s choice was a desire to protect the academic reputation of the Skantar Prize. They had continually been resistant to any new life considered entertainment first and evolution second.
This bias is what kept Todd from winning the past four cycles. Many still believed he should have won several times during mankind’s evolution, and the entire universe thought he was a shoo-in last round after introducing Earth to Mitchone. But the more popular Earth became, the less eager the committee was to reward him.
Working in Todd’s favor this time though, was that as more and more of the universe’s population became absorbed in their observation of Earth, the less they were interested in creating new life. He was indirectly reducing his competition. But Stravelle was never distracted by Earth and always focused on his experiments, especially when his mother was helping Todd instead of supporting her own son’s education.
Todd had taken the slow and steady approach in species creation and evolution, which most argued was more sustainable. That was a necessity for his goal of perpetual entertainment. Initially he didn’t want the Skantar prize, but now felt he deserved it for having such an impact on the universe. Showing the fascination with Earth on an isolated planet like Mitchone was his way of proving his importance. But his interference with the Mitchonese by first introducing the GTS to them was controversial – he was blamed for stunting their intellectual evolution – an easy excuse for the committee to ignore him once again.
Showing an ability to transport any being over vast stretches of the universe instantaneously was a new level of creation that was sure to get the committee’s attention. Todd was able to completely duplicate Zap, memories and all, which had never been successfully completed before. He could now create a new version of Zap on Earth, murder the one on Mitchone and have essentially the same effect as traveling there. There would certainly be more ethical concerns, but the technology is undeniable and his competition too traditional.
Stravelle’s goal was to have the Talconers do in 200 years what it took humans over a million to achieve: space travel. He believed this would prove he was able to create a more intelligent species from birth than anyone before him. A reflection of himself, an ability to evolve quicker than previously believed. Space travel was generally a good benchmark for a species’ intelligence and had helped others win in the past.
This year’s Skantar prize was a battle between two individuals, two species, entertainment and academia. A student and a son.
Right from the beginning of his experiment, Stravelle was on the edge of Skantar etiquette by using Mitchone’s sister planet Talcon. It might have been immediately disqualifying to create life within 10 million light years of someone else’s experiment, but the Mitchonese had not been created by Todd, he just used the sedentary, harmless species as the control group in his experiment. That left Talcon open to anyone unafraid of their reputation, so Stravelle decided to rub his experiment in Todd’s face. It drove Stravelle crazy that Todd was too busy to notice it was happening right there.
Stravelle learned a lot of lessons from Todd, Earth, and even observing Mitchone, first and foremost to not let his creatures procreate on their own. There was a great white river that ran across the familiar desert terrain of Talcon and like the history of Mitchone, Stravelle birthed the Talconers from the milk-like liquid, fully grown. They were a third of the size of a Mitchonese and a deep white color as if they remained a part of the river. They survived almost exclusively on this liquid diet, and when they waded into it to drink, they were perfectly camouflaged. With such an abundant and obvious source of sustenance, they immediately knew how to survive and not a single one died.
Stravelle wanted to create a species so intelligent that the curiosity necessary for space travel would come naturally. That they would immediately want to know what was out there. As a rebuttal to Todd and his impact on others, Stravelle always made his Talconers’ search for something to make them smarter, with no desire to entertain themselves. There was no instinct other than one to know more.
Stravelle did not think about the need for maturation and growth though, so the Talconers became extremely co-dependent, afraid to ever be away from their thousands of siblings. Far more dependent on each other than the Mitchonese or even the smallest tribes on Earth, so they almost always stayed in groups of 500 or more, with all 5,642 in close proximity.
Mitchone (an already lethargic planet Todd made less interesting) had barely evolved as a society since the discovery of the GTS, and Earth had become far too violent because of the threats to themselves and survival instincts, so the Talconers already looked great by comparison.
Drazno has always been the only outsider on Talcon. She stayed on the edges of the constant crowd, typically as far away as she could get without drawing attention.
Crat, on the other hand, was the most popular and outgoing of all the Talconers. He was the closest thing they had to a leader, always the first to greet a new scooch when it arrived or crack another one open when Stravelle asked them to. Crat was the first to get everyone organized into groups trying to build the different parts of Stravelle’s gift to them. He promised the Talconers a key to the most wonderous things in the entire universe, and Crat was determined to get it done, mainly because his creator asked.
It was Drazno who first saw the ship coming towards Talcon. She was a few hundred yards away from theclosest group when a speck appeared in the sky between the surface and the sun on the west side of Talcon. The dot quickly gained in size and became a large round metal ship with the sun bouncing off the exterior: same yellow sheen of a scooch. It was flying towards her with terrifying speed, following as she ran to reach the group. But the ship was quickly over her head before she could warn her siblings, and the enormous vehicle crashed into a crowd, decimating several hundred Talconers in the process. They didn’t immediately understand what happened to their family members. This was the first time they witnessed death.
A door from the ship sprang open and Stravelle walked into view, standing tall and powerful, presenting himself as a savior expecting a warm welcome. But he forgot the Talconers were were only familiar with his voice and therefore unable to recognize him. This weird creature had just come from seemingly nowhere, landed on a good chunk of their population, and now presented it’s big blue eye, lumpy head, and green skin without apology. They had never even seen another animal before. After this awkward moment of silence, during which some of the Talconers began to realize their crushed siblings were no longer moving, Stravelle announced “It’s me – Stravelle! I came to help you finish. Now let’s get moving.”
Stravelle kicked a ladder out of the ship and slowly started to climb down. Crat was pushing his way through the crowd towards the crash site from where he had been supervising the organization of scooch parts in preparation for the new directions from Stravelle.
Just as Stravelle jumped onto the ground, Crat greeted him. “Hello Sir. What brings you here?”
“Well I decided to come and help. You’re slowing down and I can’t just keep sending you new parts. I need some of the others to go onto the ship and unload all the materials I brought.” Stravelle looked around and pointed to a large mass of about 150 Talconers, waving them on-board “All of you. Go start carrying things off. Get everything.”
Crat mimicked Stravelle’s motion and said “Yes. Go onto the ship everybody.” He turned back to Stravelle “But sir, I thought we were making progress.”
“I’ve been very disappointed in all of you, especially you Crat. You couldn’t get it done on your own. I’m… We’re running out of time.”
“Time for what? Are the wonders of the universe disappearing?” Crat trembled at this possibility.
“You have no idea what’s going on and it’s not worth explaining. Just do what I say and we can get someone launched in the next couple days” Stravelle stopped and looked over at Crat with a big squint in his eye. “Why do you think you can ask so many questions? You don’t need to know why you’re doing this. Just that I told you to do it. Or… Where’s Jep? I know she would be eager to lead.”
Crat immediately turned to the crowd. He saw the group Stravelle directed on their way to the ship, then looked in the distance to the piles of scooch parts and the large prototype ship they started to build. “Jep. Take a group to get all the parts and bring them over here. Let’s give Stravelle everything he needs.”
Jep led a crowd towards the parts and Crat turned back for approval, finding Stravelle had walked away and was clearing a spot on the surface for all the scooch pieces to be compiled with his new parts.
Drazno was making her way towards the ship, curious how it worked. She knew he lived in a different part of the universe but she never imagined it as somewhere she could go. With Stravelle here on Talcon, everything suddenly felt closer.
Crat made his way towards the edge of the ship to help unload and heard an unfamiliar screech of pain coming from one of the crushed Talconers still holding onto her last bit of breath, the lower half of her body crushed under the ship. “Sir – Why is she making that sound? Is she ok?”
“You know, it’s bothering me too.” Stravelle stated.
Stravelle reached into his pocket, pulled out a small remote, and aimed it towards the dying Talconer. He pressed one button and with a light zap she was burnt away. The screaming and squirming stopped. The onlookers paused for a moment, went silent and returned to work moving everything into the opening Stravelle had made. Except Crat. Crat was suddenly frozen with a fear he had never felt before. He knew something was wrong.
In short order, the thousands of Talconers had piled all available parts onto the desert in a space significantly larger than the ship Stravelle arrived on. There was little movement in the crowd and even less noise as they all nervously watched Stravelle survey the materials. He got optimistic seeing the work-in-progress ship in person, but then he stopped. “Shit. Fuck!”
All the Talconers jumped at his exclamatons. Crat looked over at Stravelle, then immediately back down to the dry, bleak surface when that giant eye whipped in his direction. He managed to squeeze out the question “what do you need sir?”
“Fuel. I forgot to bring extra fuel.”
Stravelle sat on the ground and leaned his head back with his eye closed. He began to devise different formulas for fuel from the river liquid, and maybe even the Talconer bodies underneath his ship.
The Talconer population waited in silence for some signal Stravelle was not going to just attack them all with his burning remote. A few of them looked towards Crat to do something. A couple others gave encouraging eyes to Jep, who stepped forward and said “I’m sure you will think of something sir, we will do whatever we can to he-“
Jep’s ashen body fell to the ground. Stravelle closed his eye again and laid flat on the surface, debating the easiest way to dispose of the Talconers. Typically, any experimental species would be left to live out their lives, but Stravelle certainly didn’t want any living proof of his failure in the universe.
A quick, small whirr came from the ship and grabbed everyone’s attention. Stravelle leaned his head back to see the ship – now behind him – out of the top of his eye. From this angle the ship and surface almost blended together with the sun gleaming off the ship’s shell the biggest differentiator.
Stravelle watched Drazno make her way to the ship’s door and quickly climb down the ladder. She turned to find everyone staring at her, including Stravelle, remote in hand.
Keeping his eye on this wily Talconer as he made his way back to his feet and examining the ship, Stravelle found another idea and saw his tiny future pilot as a world of possibilities “Crat, who is that?”
“I can’t see from here.” A short pause. “But it’s Drazno.”
“Drazno! Wait there.” Stravelle began to walk over to the ship with the thousands of Talconers slowly following him, trying to be quiet but unable to prevent the quaking pound of their mass movement.
Drazno tried to run to the other side of the ship.
A fresh black spot now smoked on the ground in front of Drazno’s feet. She looked over to Stravelle who was waving the remote at her with a playful warning. She awaited her punishment, frozen at the base of the ladder below the ship’s entrance but still standing tall.
Stravelle reached Drazno and inspected her closely with his one good eye, towering over her head. “Why weren’t you with the rest of them?”
“None of the others would ever be this far away by themselves.” Stravelle used the remote to point in the direction of the Talconer populace and they all gasped in fear.
Crat spoke up “She never lets us help her. She always avoids the rest of us.”
“Not even Crat would have come over here by himself. That’s why he’ll never impress me no matter how hard he tries. You’re the independent one?”
Crat slowed down his approach towards them. Crushed.
“Yes sir.” Drazno had no idea what a military was, but nonetheless she stood like an attentive soldier.
“Do you want to leave here?”
“Get back on the ship.”
“Crat, come with us.”
Drazno climbed back up the ladder, Stravelle followed closely behind, and Crat jogged to catch up. The rest of the Talconers inched closer in a massive body traffic jam.
The ship’s single large room mirrored the round shape of the shell, with a surprisingly bare interior remaining after the load of materials Stravelle brought with him had been unloaded. The interior was the same yellow color as the outside, but it looked far less impressive without the sun beaming down on it. There were four large individual seats surrounding a control desk, with buttons across the sides. One large screen sat in the middle of the desk's top.
Stravelle walked over to the desk with Drazno at his side. They both had to stop and signal for Crat to follow.
“You two are going somewhere called Earth. Drazno, I need you to find someone. The ship will tell you exactly where he is when you get there, here’s what he looks like.” A picture of Zap came up on the screen, and Drazno jumped to stand on one of the seats to look over at it.
Stravelle told Crat “You have to look too. Don’t be worried. You’re safer than everyone outside.”
Crat gulped and got onto another one of the seats, reviewing the image of one strange new creature, slightly different than the sea of other new creatures surrounding him.
“I'll figure it out if I can leave here” Drazno got off her feet and sat down to get comfy in the seat.
“I’m staying here to finish the other ship.”
“Ok great – I’ll stay with you.” Crat said with a sigh of relief.
“No, you’re leaving. I don’t want to keep hearing you beg for attention. I need someone disposable with her. Gives me two chances.”
Drazno and Crat both tightened up with fear, the latter ready to risk running past Stravelle and off the ship.
Stravelle left the threat without comment “This ship will take you to Earth. Just find him and get rid of him.”
“How?” Drazno asked.
“Take this.” Stravelle handed the remote to Drazno. “Don’t let him touch it.”
“Can’t I just go alone?”
“You’ll find a use for him.”
Stravelle looked at Crat curled up in the seat farthest from the others. “You hear that? She’s in charge.”
“But…” Crat paused. “Ok.”
“When I leave, just press this” Stravelle pointed to a small green button on the side of the console.
Drazno looked back up at Stravelle “how will we get back?”
“Do you really want to come back?”
Stravelle walked towards the ship door and gave a glance back. “Good luck you two. Crat – you better die first.” He pressed a button on the wall before climbing down the ladder. The door shut behind him.
Drazno hesitated for a moment then started the ship.
Outside, Stravelle stood looking at the crowd with his back to the shi. This roar of the engines was louder than before as the ship lifted off and sped out of view.
Stravelle stood proudly by himself, truly in command of his Talconers for the first time. Thousands were in front of him, tools at his disposal. Hundreds of bodies laid on the ground behind him, already disposed of when the ship had landed. And two more were on their way to Earth to destroy Zap, and hopefully a lot more in the process.
To be continued...