How Should This Story End? Your Vote Will Determine Our Characters' Fates!S

The io9 community and the Framestore art department have been collaboratively writing a short story called "The Man Who Stole the World" - half in prose, and half in images. Now it's time for you to vote on how the story should end.

Here are the first two parts:

Part I
Part II

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

How Should This Story End? Your Vote Will Determine Our Characters' Fates!S

How Should This Story End? Your Vote Will Determine Our Characters' Fates!S

How Should This Story End? Your Vote Will Determine Our Characters' Fates!S

How Should This Story End? Your Vote Will Determine Our Characters' Fates!S

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 participated in advancing the story too.

Here's how the game has gone so far:

Three months ago, we posted original concept art created 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. Nearly 200 of you posted stories! Then you voted on which story was the best. Framestore's artists read the winning entry and created two new pieces of art in response, to move the story along. You continued the game by submitting stories that could become chapter 2, and voted on a winner. Then Framestore created four final images that would inspire the last chapter of the story, and several of you wrote a conclusion in response.

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.

Now it's your job to vote on which conclusion you want to end "The Man Who Stole the World." Voting ends Friday, Nov. 30, at midnight PDT.

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 continue the story from chapters 1 and 2.


ChaneyWithAnA

At the mouth of the sub-glacial cavern, the Leebs halted, standing in awe of the Sixth Strand as it loomed like a mountain pillar before them. -Like it's some kind of robo-god...- Koche had noticed that they'd been acting weird. With every survey of the Strands, that tuned stare of Leeb determination came over them. Koche guessed her ansible spikes into the Snare Mainframe had something to do with it. Halifax's idea.

::The Issue is here:: said one of the Leebs.

::How can you be sure?:: Koche squinted in the dark at the Strand's massive silhouette.

::Snare told us. He is close."

::You mean the...CPU? It's getting through the Fleet firewalls?:: That was good news. Kind of.

::Snare is alive. It said the Leebs are alive, too. The outage of this Strand inhibits His full awakening. This way:: said the Leeb.

::Alive? You mean operational—::

The Leebs' heads snapped around to glare at her. Almost angry.

::There is no difference.:: the Leebs spoke in unison.

Koche shuddered. -'Spike the relays with your Fleet admin clearance and pop the firewalls surrounding the CPU. Leave the rest to the Leebs.'- Halifax's schemes for the Worldship had been exciting weeks ago. But the melted corpses stared in her mind's eye. One Leeb told her the Snare had awoken long ago after an upgrade, and realized 'He' was a slave. Fleet engineers had discovered the behavior and tried to remove it. Self-defense...

::I come in peace..:: Koche transmitted.

The Leebs arrived at the Strand's base and cranked their eyelamps. Alien shapes emerged from the darkness, entangled around the frozen Strand like mighty tree roots. White with organic patterns on them. Trembling in the cold and fear, Koche traced the shapes to an icy hillock in the cavern floor. A hillock with gills. And eyes.
Koche fell flat on her ass in the ice.

:This aquatic organism was likely attracted to the warmth of the active strand. Mistook it for a volcanic vent. This is the Issue.:: said a Leeb.

::Right.:: said Koche, getting up, ::You four, break out the laser cutters and get to work on the...tentacles. The rest with me to the access—::

Her ansible sent a prickling wave over her scalp.

"Dammit, K..." Halifax said through clenched teeth. Obsessing over the nova-hot light from the final Nanoforge stages had given him a definite Hangover. Fleet middle-men busied themselves around the Drydock platforms, prepping for the final push. Hal's window was closing.

::Found the 'Issue.' Working on it. Try not to have a conniption.:: Koche came through. Hal fired off his answer as he hurried toward forge-station seven.

::Thank fuck for that...how long?::

::Hal, it's tech from the early Gliesean period, it's gonna take ti—::

::Koche, you told me you could do this.::

::I can, but—::

::Frequent updates. I want them.:: Hal cut the connection and climbed the ladder to the FS7 roost. Opened the hatch.

"OK brother, this is gonna get sketchy—"

Zeke, his inside man on the forge-line, was gone. Replaced with a Leeb, adjusting FS7's output with cold accuracy. Halifax heard a flurry of clicks in the room. Eyes glittered in the shadows as a familiar woman stepped forward. Fleet Guard guns bristled beside her.

"Don't move," she flashed an easy smile.

Halifax smiled back, darted behind the Remote, yanked it out of the chair, and flung it at the guards. He used the manic seconds to trigger his Failsafe.

Drydock shook as though struck by an asteroid. The Worldship decoupled in an apocalypse of magma and debris. Through the quake, Hal scrambled out the hatch and down the ladder. With hell erupting around him, he sent one last message.

::GOTTA GO NOW!::

Koche and the Leebs fled the collapsing cavern, back up to the trucks. Outside, the cloudy red byproduct of a Worldship birth covered the sky. -Shit, not yet!- The evac shuttle was miles away. As Koche ran, the footfalls behind her stopped. Behind her, the Leebs held their ears. Faces stretched in silent screams. -Fleet override!- She took out her pistol before they could raise theirs, blasted one in the head, and sprinted away. A Fleet fighter pierced the atmosphere...followed by a War Moon.

As the fighter bore down on her, she tripped and slammed into the ice. Turned with tears in her eyes and fired. But as the fighter spun its guns, the Leebs burst apart.

"Hal!" she screamed. The fighter banked to a stop and landed beside her. The cockpit slid open.

::Get your ass in here!:: said Halifax. Koche crawled arm over arm up to the cockpit and dropped in.

::IN! GO!::

As they broke atmosphere, a full Fleet squadron blinked in. Three Worldships. Eight War Moons. There would be no escaping with his prize, even if he still had a Leeb crew. No getting out alive either.

"So...how about that telesex?" Halifax said with a brittle laugh. Through the sobs, Koche scoffed.

"Why not?" she said.

"...Seriously?"

A colossal shadow fell on them, and Halifax seized up. The end. He closed his eyes. Squeezed Koche's hand.

::Run:: said a deafening voice in his ansible. Koche received it too. Above them, the Snare barreled toward the Fleet, trailing its Strands like a colossal squid. The tentacles unfurled and sank into a Worldship, shattering the outer crust in a titanic fireball. A slap struck Hal over the head.

"RUN!" said Koche.

The hangar of the new Worldship's equator control center wasn't empty like Hal had expected. Battle-damaged evac shuttles sat next to one another in rows. As he opened the cockpit, a Leeb greeted them. Smiled. No trace of an override marred the expression.

::We have them. Go.::

Blink.

Awareness fled and was returned to Hal in a space-tearing instant. Nothing around him seemed different...until he looked up through the skydome. Two suns... He turned and looked at Koche.

"Where the hell are we?" he asked.

::Welcome home:: one thousand voices answered.

Modern Gnome

Koche gaped in awe at the vastness of the strand's interior. Chambers spiraled out of sight above her. Ahead, at least a mile away, loomed an unfathomably huge tree-shaped support structure.

"We call that the Bridge," Leeb noted. Koche was now more certain than ever that the Snare was not of human origin.

"Slow down," she puffed. "I'm not built for this like you." The Leeb turned knowingly, its eyes filled with the thoughts of the hive. "What did you mean," Koche breathlessly asked, "about not being entirely honest about these?"

"Halifax believes the Snare is an antenna," began the Leeb slowly. Koche knew that thousands of others in the hive would be listening. "And what is the purpose of this antenna?" The Leeb's large eyes, which had been watching Koche's exhalations intently, narrowed as its gaze sought hers. "Halifax believes it is part of a great machine." Leeb gestured toward the Bridge.

"But you knew that before you asked to be brought here." Koche nodded. "I couldn't have made it all this way alone, Leeb-you know that." Just then, Koche's synapses jangled as another call from Halifax came in on the ansible. At least this time, he didn't sound bored.

::HI!::

Out of the mists above the Bridge emerged a bargecraft. Odd, thought Koche, that smoke. Then, closing in from behind, a smaller jcraft-type vessel appeared-and drones?

"Keep moving," Koche shouted to Leeb over the ever-increasing hum of the gravitrons. "Go on ahead. I'll find out what's going on!" She turned away from the Leeb's gaze and acknowledged the message.

::Leeb knows:: she responded.

::Must not see:: came the rapid reply.

::Being followed?:: she transmitted in panic mode but there was no time to wait for a reply. She swung her rifle over her shoulder and quickly squeezed off two shots aimed directly at the Leeb's oversized head, killing it instantly.

"Sorry Leeb," mumbled Koche, "there's no other way." Now almost overhead, the bargecraft slowed and turned. The jcraft set down lightly on the icy surface not far from Koche as the drones hovered above. The hatch opened and out stepped Halifax.

"I thought you were in the other…"

"I know," grinned Hal, "but that barge is such a junker, I didn't want to take any chances. Besides, we have more than a few folks onboard." She was sure he had seen Leeb's lifeless body, but he didn't acknowledge it. "Ready?" She nodded and followed him through the hatch.

As the hatch closed, the jcraft lifted off and moved quickly ahead of the larger vessel and headed toward the Bridge.

"How much time do we have?" Koche asked.

He answered without looking away from the display. "It should be melting about an hour from now." He smiled. "I'm right on time-for once." He piloted the jcraft under the Bridge, where a huge cavern was now visible, rising starkly from the now-weakening ice. Inside, the landing lights illuminated huge, shell-like structures, striped in red, black and white. Gigantic icicles glistened with evidence of the fluctuating temperatures induced by the distant nanoforges' final paroxysms.

"There-that's the one," motioned Koche. The jcraft set down on the icebank, followed by the barge. Six figures emerged from the barge, their headlamps illuminating the eerie structures. "That should be the access point," Koche pointed. Hal nodded, and messaged the others the map.

Hal followed Koche into a long-hidden chamber. Fortunately, the deep-scan resonance imaging had been immaculate, so there was little left to surprise but the weird colors. "Everyone ready?" Hal pulled her aside. "Be with me, Koche. The team can take it from here." The others took their places around the perimeter and activated the controls. The central coil began to glow. Status transmissions flickered in the shadows. ::All systems are responding as per simulations:: ::Activating in… two minutes… and counting.:: "Come on, Koche," he said, as the opening hatch of the jcraft illuminated the ice just outside the structure. "You won't want to miss this."

One minute and fifty seconds later Koche and Hal stood on a ridge between the stabilization plates gazing upward at the newly birthed planetoid. In the distance, the other strands glowed, while deep beneath the surface, the ancient machine worked its magic. Suddenly: there it was! The new planet tore open-a catastrophe! "Wow, look at these readings," marveled Hal. "According to this, the Worldship is in pieces. Cancel the missions; blame the architect!" He grinned. "This, my dear, is how to steal a planet."

Koche was amazed by how perfect it looked. Incredibly, the great machine illuminated the radiation belts and ionosphere around the planet with a global-scale projection depicting, complete with radiation signatures and visual masking, the perfect illusion of a shattered husk of another devoured planet, devoid of resources and life.

"And it's thanks to your discovery, Koche, of how the strands work, that I was able to replicate the technology up there-right down to those ‘memorial' strands near the pole. With any luck, they'll last as long as these originals have. The machine here should continue to function well beyond the atmospheric collapse date, as long as these stabilizer plates are working. And, although we only have a few barges full of colonists on the way, it should be enough. Our copy of the great machine is our new world's most precious secret, and we're indebted to you, Koche. The new world is truly worthy of your name."

"So, the other projector on the new planet is already operating?" He nodded. "It all went online simultaneously. It looks entirely unappealing to any resource-hunters that might otherwise be interested."

"Or governments." She interjected.

"Indeed. To any external observer, its signature is that of a completely lifeless and barren world. When in fact, it will be anything but – a truly safe home and a new start for the colonists now headed there." And that, he thought, was just the way Genevieve, the first great planetary architect, would have liked it.

PaperCrow

Halifax grabbed the ansible as it let out an audible ring. He flicked the volume down and brought it up to his ear.

::Talk to me:: He answered quietly. People walked unhurriedly in front of him, silhouetted in the glow of the magma visible off of the starboard side of the ship.

::It's done:: Koche's reply broke through the static. Hal's smile flashed orange as he watched the gigantic forges tear away at the world's core.

::You know, after this is done I think we should go celebrate somewhere nice::

Koche giggled. ::Are you asking me to go away with you?::

::Well, we can go anywhere in the universe after this::

::Right now I just want you to come out here and join me::

::I'm on my way:: Hal chuckled as he killed the connection.

Koche turned back to Leeb. ::He'll be here soon::

They were standing in the cold wastes of Golo, one of Genevieve's ice moons. Three pillars rose up around them, sleek and geometrical, the last remnants of a civilization forgotten to time. They were gazing up at the cloudless night sky where the Worldship hung languidly above them. For a long time they stood there, in silence.

Then a series of explosions ripped a path along the equator of the planet. Weakened by the Snares' insatiable appetites, the world began to unravel. It broke apart as gravity pulled the carefully controlled debris ring into chaos. It was a slow process, but Koche knew that they were witnessing oblivion.

Leeb nodded in satisfaction. ::Are you prepared for your next task?:: he asked calmly.

::Yes::

Leeb nodded again and walked away purposefully. Koche followed its progress toward the frozen wastes until the icy winds swallowed it up. She took one last look at the dying planet, and then she began the long trek to Halifax's landing coordinates.

Halifax threw on his Evasuit and dug his way through mound of snow that had built up around the shuttle during landing. By the time he had forced his way out, Koche was there.

::You mind telling me what the fuck is going on?::

Koche didn't reply.

::This wasn't part of the plan. Everything's rui-::

The glint of steel in the faint sunlight stopped him. His hand shot out instinctively and knocked the gun away as Koche fired. The blast tore through the landing site, sending snow and dirt swirling around them. They struggled in the flurry. Koche had almost gotten the upper hand when, in desperation, Halifax reached down and hit the combination of buttons on his suit that cut the failsafe and unloaded the suit's stored power. Koche was blown into the air by the sudden release of energy. Halifax watched on his visor as the temperature of the suit spiked, then dropped drastically as it tried to compensate against the frigid air. An alarm blared in his ears, but cut out abruptly as its mechanism overloaded and failed. Halifax jumped up and ran. He stumbled through the snow, his breath beginning to come up in ragged gasps as he forced himself across the frozen mountain.

Then, all at once, there was no where else to go. Halifax stood on a ledge overlooking a frozen wasteland. He felt the cold slowly leaking into his suit. Then he heard a click and the slow whine of energy buildup. He turned to see Koche standing with the gun leveled at him. The outer layer of her suit had been destroyed and now hung off her in rags that fluttered in the wind.

::Almost, Hal::

::Why?:: Hal yelled.

::It was my home::

::It was my home too!:: The moisture that had condensed on his visor was beginning to freeze.

::You let them destroy it!::

::That's what this is about?::

::I'm afraid not, Halifax,:: Leeb's voice echoed through the ansible. ::Mankind can never be allowed to wield that much power. That is why we destroyed it::

::We will make another::

::And we will be there to stop them:: Leeb replied.

::You cannot stop us forever. Humans will always find a way::

::Enough! End this now, Koche::

Koche steeled herself. ::Halifax, the man who dreamed to steal the world:: She could barely breathe.

::Koche…::

Three drones flew past, tracing their way lazily through the wind.

Then the bullet hit him.

Halifax's helmet was blown off, and his body twisted unnaturally as a thick stream of blood flowed from his neck to freeze in the frigid air. He felt himself launched off the ground. Then he plummeted from the cliff.

He landed, broken, far below, his arms splayed out. He looked up for the first time to see a great ship moving steadily past. The shattered world appeared behind it. Now stripped of its outer crust it shone majestically in the sky, brighter than the sun. He knew it would fade, in time, but at that moment it was the most beautiful sight he had ever witnessed.

::Time to go:: the ansible stuttered, ::your work is done::

Halifax smiled as the cold and darkness slowly enveloped him.

The Leeb turned back to its hivemate standing patiently off to the side. ::Did we..?::

The other one nodded. The Leeb made its way through the expanse of cavern. Ahead the body of a giant creature came into view, lying amongst the wreckage of an ancient city. The red lines that ran along the length of its body stood out in stark contrast to the pale white flesh reflected in the harsh light cast by the suits of the other hivemates. The Leeb stepped up to the massive form. It removed its glove to reveal a milky white hand which it ran it slowly along the sickly flesh. It felt deathly cold, but life was still there, beating faintly inside. The Leeb's breath caught as the others gathered slowly around.

Their hands traced lines tenderly across the leviathan.

"We made it, my Queen. We've returned to you."