A Bold New Experiment In Storytelling — Voting, Round 2S

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, and dozens more to the second pair. Now it's time for you to vote on which of the top four stories wins Round 2 and becomes the second installment in our collective space opera tale.

You can read the first chapter here (scroll down a bit to see it), and see the first set of images there too.

The second set of images is in this post — one is above and one below. Before you vote, be sure to read the first chapter and look at the images, so you can judge which Chapter Two you like best!

Here's how the game has gone so far:

Over a month 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. Then, you voted on which story was the best (you can read it here). Framestore's artists read the story and created two new pieces of art in response, to move the story along. Two weeks ago, you continued the game by submitting stories that could become chapter 2. There were a ton of amazing entries! The io9 editors read through everything and picked four stories that were well-written, responded substantively to the pictures and to chapter one, and ended on a good cliffhanger.

Now it's your job to vote on which version of Chapter 2 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 Saturday at midnight PST. Then we'll get the next set of pictures and move into Round 3 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.

The players:

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. Remember, it must engage substantively with the art and Chapter One.


A Bold New Experiment In Storytelling — Voting, Round 2S

Click to enlarge!

TinyPterosaur

Still intact, the Leeb thought as it examined the partially submerged truck. This Leeb did not have time to extract the vehicle, but it had been the nearest unit available for inspection. It put the call out to the collective. Another Leeb would arrive later to finish the job.
::Do we really have time for this?:: Koche transmitted.
::I do not like inefficiency:: Leeb responded, walking back towards their functioning truck ::If we can reclaim this vehicle that is one less thing to replace::
::We're not going to be here much longer; who cares about one truck?::
::I do:: Leeb popped the hatch and steam billowed around the vehicle, the truck's powerful heaters fighting against the forgotten world's frigid breath. They stepped inside, resuming their trek to the nearby strand.
Humanity had progressed in myriad ways since building of the Snare, but this part of its history had been forgotten. Like ancient ruins on Earth, there were those who would believe the great machine had not been designed by human hands, but some higher order of life.
Forever forgetful of your own ingenuity, Leeb thought, parking the vehicle before the strand's access gate. It popped the hatch to another cloud of steam and they stepped out.
::This is your first time inside one of the strands, correct?:: Leeb already knew the answer to its question, but it wanted Koche to be relaxed.
::Yeah:: Koche responded. ::Virtually, I know them up and down, but this is my first time actually going inside::
::This one has not yet been cleaned. I suggest you prepare yourself::
::For what?::
The frozen gate to the ancient strand slid open at Leeb's command, revealing an ice rimed hallway. Inside, a half dozen frozen lumps, all shorter than knee-height, and darkly colored, red and black, spreading down into frozen pools. Leeb stepped over one and proceeded to the elevator at the end of the hall. It heard Koche follow for a few steps, then paused..
::Are these... people?::
This Leeb, one of thousands, all watching the moment through its eye, turned.
::I am afraid we have been less than honest in our history of this device::

A low, unearthly groan resounded through the station, peppered by metallic clangs. The space around them was filling with planetary ejecta; increased volcanism was just one of the more spectacular side effects of a planet being torn apart. Halifax wondered morbidly if he'd be able to spot any landmarks passing by.
"Amazing view, isn't it?" A woman walked up beside him, leaning against the railing and giving him a once-over with too-bright eyes before turning back to the view outside.
"It'll get better," he grumbled. The debris would eventually form a ring that would look quite stunning, at least for a while before it too succumbed to the nanoforges' infinite appetite. Even that demise would look quite cinematic, but it was just another part of the horrible process he wish he'd never set in motion.
"You're the one who designed all this, aren't you?"
Hal wished she'd go away. "I was just another cog in the machine."
She seemed unconvinced, her bright eyes twinkling, her Rider helping to see if he was lying. "But you're the one who actually drew the plans, aren't you? You're the architect."
The key to lying to a Rider was to tell the truth, just not the right truth."I was involved in the final design."
For a little while, there was silence, as the woman turned away from him to regard the cancerous lump protruding from the shrinking world.
When she spoke again, her tone startled him. There was a deep, resounding bitterness, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and regret. For a moment, he heard himself in this woman's voice. "Did you know they were going to use Genevieve's World?"
Ah, Halifax thought. Suddenly he saw her in a new light, one that left deep shadows.
"No," he said. "No I did not."
The woman nodded, trembling almost imperceptibly. "Is this ship going to be a weapon, or a home?"
The manifold weapons integrated directly into the Worldship flooded through Halifax's mind. It would be a home, but for the rich and powerful, a weapon of oppression and a pedestal all in one. He was creating Laputa, and it was not for those of the earth.
Halifax thought of Leeb, and the ruinous genocide that had left him so few in number. But Leeb did not seek vengeance; the synthetic hive was beyond that.
No, it was Halifax who wanted revenge.
He looked back at the bulging ship, ringed by fire, surrounded by stone.
"A home."
Something shimmered in the woman's eyes, and it was not a Rider. She blinked and nodded. "Thank you."
The easiest lies to tell, Halifax thought, are the ones we tell ourselves.

SarahHawthorne

One month later Hal stood for the last time on his home planet. The glaciers of the great frosty wasteland were dropping a meter a week now. To the naked eye it appeared that the rock formations were pushing their way up through the surface; as if something were being built instead of being taken away. Anger seethed through Hal, warming him against the cold.

In the distance a small figure tromped across the slush. Hal turned, wondering whether he was about to address Koche or Leeb. To his dismay, it was neither.

"I heard you were onworld, Halifax," crackled Amma's voice across the headset. "Come to see your handiwork?"

Hal made a rude noise under his breath - a moment before he remembered his mic would pick it up. His rival, his replacement, politely ignored it. Or possibly didn't notice it. It was hard to tell with Amma.

Helmet glow softened her angular features as she joined him and turned her face to the sky. Up there, the dust cloud and debris field were hours away from choking the last safe airways off Genevieve's World. Up there, the Worldship was halfway done.

"For what it's worth," Amma said slowly, "The schema is brilliant. History will remember you as a hero for this." Hal could only shake his head. She turned to face him. Helmet glow didn't hide the suspicion in her sharp, clever eyes. "What are you doing here, Halifax?"

"I have the right to be here, Supervisor," Hal snapped.

As always, anger seemed to roll right off Amma. "Leaving it to the last minute, aren't we?"

Hal was saved from having to answer by the arrival of a jetsled, sending up a spray of icy water over their boots. Koche's face beamed at him from under a guard's helmet. Leeb's voice echoed through her vocal cords.

"Sir!" She/He threw off a salute. "The last ship is loading now!"

"Thank you, Leeb," said Amma smoothly before Hal could answer. "You have three hours remaining before the escape route is closed, Lead Engineer. After that..." She smiled without humor. "You'll be in for a bumpy ride."

Hal could feel her watching them as they sped away. He was sure she noted their path away from the habitat dome.

"It was unwise to draw attention to yourself," said Leeb in a tone of mild reproof. "We depend upon a strict adherence to the anticipated timeline. Should Doctor Lopez accelerate the program or change protocol-"

"She won't," Hal said. "Amma lives for tidy schedules. What about you? How many company Hosts are still here?"

"Fifty eight, all of whom are already aboard the final escape ship." Koche/Leeb navigated around an abandoned Croc tank, melted glacier refrozen into icicles across its roof. "Those Leeb remaining for the final breakup have been replaced by our own people. Really, Doctor, it would be much safer for you if you would allow us to implant-"

"Not a chance," Hal snapped. "Don't forget, you need my brain."

He immediately flinched, remembering whose brain Leeb was currently Riding.

"Very well," said Leeb huffily, oblivious to Hal's blunder. For an AI so easily offended, the Leeb were remarkably obtuse to their Hosts' feelings. "We'll be in touch."

As Leeb Flipped, Hal felt Koche's muscles bunch, then relax. He squeezed her slender waist through the cold weather suit. "Sorry," he whispered. "So sorry."

"It's all right," Koche said in her own voice. She sounded tired.

When the first Legion Butler AIs had been patented, it was hailed as a revolution in Human Resources. Upgrading an ansible connection into a cyborg plug could turn a hundred strangers into an instant fleet of programmable, interconnected employees. And the human Hosts served as a failsafe of their own. Each official cyborg plug was embedded with a Panic Switch, a mental toggle the Host could hit any time, immediately breaking AI control over the mind and body.

It had never occurred to the Leeb's corporate masters that anyone would even make a cyborg plug without the Panic Switch, let alone that there were people like Koche desperate enough to wear one with nothing but a promise that her AI Rider would leave politely when asked. The Leeb had a small legion of their own now, hiding in plain sight. They'd been planning this for a long, long time, well before the Worldship was a glimmer in Hal's eye.

As he held onto to Koche, speeding through the frozen night, Hal thought of Lanster Sea. Once it had rivaled the Mediterranean in beauty and life. Now he wondered what the fish and the Genny dolphins had thought as their habitat starting shrinking, then boiling. It made him angry again and he held onto that, trying to ignore his growing unease.

Abyssion

A week had passed since Halifax last contacted his collaborators, and his boredom and foul mood only intensified. Fuelling the Worldship was now making an obvious impact on its host planet – fissures had appeared along the surface, revealing a heaving molten core; to Halifax, it resembled eerie glowing veins, the plasma flowing through the cracks towards the devouring ship. On the first day, many of the planet's inhabitants showed up on the observation deck, including several scientists who had worked on the project – a number reaching in the hundreds. Now, however, the deck was mostly empty; Halifax assumed most would be back on the final day, the day the Worldship made its maiden voyage. He turned up everyday, watching for hours as the life was drained from his former home.

He sat on one of the many empty benches, a bottle of J'alla juice in hand. The luminous blue liquid was his drink of choice – it was severely bitter, but followed with a savoury sweet aftertaste. As he took another swig, a tingle flared across his mind, almost causing him to choke. With a hoarse, "'ello," he answered the ansible, hoping it was Koche.

It was Leeb. "How's it progressing?"

"Wonderfully," he replied, not bothering to hide the contempt. "Where's Koche?"

"With me. We are on our way to the hangar." Halifax knew what that meant – and felt a twang of pity for Koche. He felt none for Leeb, though; it was his idea to use the abandoned army base in the middle of nowhere to park his ship.

The strands dotted the horizon as the two hiked through the Graveyard. Old tanks, frozen over and coated in snow, surrounded them, looming over them like mechanical crags. Koche always hated this part; the remnants of the former war was an eerie look at the past, a reminder of the galaxy spanning conflict.

She spoke quietly on the ansible, her voice muffled from the wind. "We will be there soon, Hal." That thought cheered her up briefly, before the stomach-churning realization – they would also be the galaxy's most wanted criminals soon. She wasn't usually one for stress, but everything about this crazy, intricate plan must be perfect.

"Oh, no rush – I'm having the time of my life here," Hal replied, dully.

A brief pause, and he spoke again: "Its..." The words caught in his throat. He stood, slowly, eyes fixed on the planet before him. "You might want to hurry up."

He was stunned at the beauty – and slightly resenting himself for finding it so majestic. It was the planet's final hours; with the core almost completely devoured, chunks of the world's crust had broken off, drifting away into the clouds. Hal was transfixed. The last of the magma from the core was being sucked up, leaving the "veins" dark and empty. The dead planet was rocked by earthquake after earthquake, each one shaking more pieces of land free from its former gravitational pull.

"Its happening."

Leeb snapped out of the reverie the tanks always brought him, his gruff face splitting into a smile. He and Koche stood at the entrance to a crevasse, a large pathway cut through a towering cliff of ice. On each side of the ravine stood a tank, the frozen heaps of metal acting as ancient sentries, protecting the once vital military base. Leeb had spent years at this base, fighting for his ideals and beliefs, before they were – literally – shot down, by the encroaching army. He still came here often, as a reminder and a motivator. Koche and Halifax wouldn't understand; they had their own reasons, reasons they kept secret. So he would do the same.

As the pair walked through the frozen tunnel, memories of the war replayed in his mind. He called to mind the faces of all his comrades, those who had died and those who surrendered. Each step his resolve hardened, as it brought him to the one thing he dedicated his life to after the war was lost.

"Its almost time," Hal's voice rang over the ansible.

It was finally time, Leeb thought. After twenty years, it was finally time for revenge.

TemporalSword

"Hal, are you sure this thing is even going to work?"

Koche looked dubiously at the ship encased in ice before her. All but the aft end lay buried and what little she could see was not encouraging. "It looks like it's been trapped here since before the Reckoning." Six months she waited, freezing her ass off, for this?

Hal's voice came over the ansible, as though he stood right next her to on the icy plain. Would that he was, she thought. At least then I might be warm.

"We've already been over this, baby. Unless you can find us another unregistered ship, and quick, we're stuck with this one." There was a pause. "And Leeb says it'll work."

She snorted. "And you trust him?"

"Of course not," he said flatly. "Not any of them. Even assuming you can tell one from another. But he has no reason to lie. Not yet, anyway."

"Fine." Her voice matched the iciness of her surroundings. She watched as the cybernetic Gorbit powered up its laser to melt the ice away. A goddamn laser. Right out of its fucking face. She shuddered. No wonder these things almost brought the Commonwealth to its knees. Owning a Gorbit, assuming you could even find one, was bad enough. Powering it on made her a felon. Again. Between it and the ship, she had to be breaking, oh, about a dozen interstellar laws at the moment. Not that she cared. Instead, she looked back to the Crawler wistfully, a single Strand visible in the distance behind it. The sooner she was done with this the sooner she could get home and Flip back to the ZeeVerse. She turned back to watch the Gorbit work and hugged herself in a vain attempt to keep the cold at bay. "But you better make it up to me."

His voice turned overly cheerful. "Of course, baby."

"How's everything on your end?"

Halifax sat back in his seat and looked out the window. From here, aboard one of the thousands of Debris Scows, the destruction of Genevieve's World took on mind-boggling proportions. Great chunks of rock the size of cities drifted through the sun's rays, while the atmosphere slowly tore itself to wisps of nothingness below him. The Worldship itself loomed large to his right as it endlessly devoured. He was sure there was some kind of twisted beauty to it and he thought back to the people oohing and aahing from the observation platform the day before. Imagine what they'd think now, he thought bitterly. Ground level view of the end of an entire planet. His planet.

"Hal?"

Koche's voice brought him out of his reverie. "Almost ready," he answered tersely. "I'll be in place on the Ship tomorrow." Too late to save his world. "Just make sure Leeb keeps to the schedule. I need that ship in three days and not a second later."

"Ok, got it."

The tickle vanished and Hal twisted the ansible to make one more call. This time, the anse wasn't nearly as clear, a side effect of being in close proximity to the nanoforges. His contact was deep inside the Worldship, both literally and figuratively. Hal tapped a button to scramble his voice. The man on the other end did the same. The whole thing was all very cloak and dagger, like some Verse of an old spy movie.

The other voice spoke first. "I told you not to anse me until you were ready."

"I am," Hal said testily. "I'll be at the Drydock tomorrow."

"That's a day early. Unacceptable."

He shrugged, though the voice couldn't see it. " Couldn't be helped." That wasn't strictly true. Hal was just being eager, but no reason to tell him that.

"I don't care," the voice replied. "I can't get you in tomorrow."

Hal leaned forward. "You will. Don't worry, the rest of the timetable stays the same. I'll just find somewhere to hide for a day."

"You're not listening to me. I can't do it."

Hal frowned, his tone turning grim. "Yes, you will, or you know what will happen."

The voice hesitated and the ansible went silent. Finally it came back. "South Platform 134, eight a.m. Don't be late or we're both dead."

The anse winked out. Halifax leaned back and looked out the window, a smile on his face as he watched the end of his world.

Then the alarms sounded.