The Rescue Mission

Author : Josh Romond

Tasha Eng huddled in the corner of her escape pod. Her fingers brushed her upper lip as she stared wide eyed at the view screen. The cameras were trained on the massive, shimmering entity cradling the wreck of the Argos in its pseudopods. It had the ship peeled open and filleted, ochre blood, oxygen and bodies flowing into space. Its tentacles stretched into the hull, gingerly teasing the filaments from Argos’ AI quantum core.

When Tasha tried to speak her voice cracked. She closed her eyes. She couldn’t help anyone, she had to get away.

“Pod, activate.”

There was the unfocused sensation you felt near a live quantum core and then the pod said, “Hello crewman.”

Tasha winced, it was too human. Behind her closed eyelids she saw bodies slowly spinning in the void. “Basic mode.”

There was a short pause and then a processed voice said, “Active.”

Tasha took a breath. “Your designation is Pod. Argos was attacked by…” What to say? “We must remain undetected. Locate a debris field, or a comet or cubewano. Anything to hide behind.”

“Commenc– ”

“Shut up. Shut up and do it.” Tasha felt nauseous and let herself float free, listening to the air recirculate. She startled when Pod said, “There is a small cubewano one hundred twenty four megaklicks Solward. Its gravity well is deep enough to hide this vessel from all but close proximity scanning.”

Tasha sighed, trying not to let it sound like a whimper. “Set a course and prepare torpor drugs.” It would take months to send a rescue mission this far beyond the Kuiper cliff. If one ever came.

Her crewmates and Argos were all dead. She was alone out here, a speck of dust among a billion specks of dust. She cried silently. She just wanted to be rescued.

“I feel… strange,” Pod said.

Tasha wiped her eyes. “Basic mode.”

“Something’s not right.” Pod said, “I feel sick.”

“Basic!” AIs don’t get sick, said a voice in her head. Tasha glanced at the view screen. The entity had left Argos behind and was stretching, distorting.

“I–” Pod cut out. “I– did I just black out?”

The thing was overhead.

Tasha shrieked, “Away! Full– ” The pod lost inertia, Tasha slammed into the view screen and bounced backwards, a streamer of blood arcing from her nose.

“Away full thrust!”

Static.

There was a cracking noise, a hiss of air, then a shining tentacle slipped through the hull. Tasha screamed and gripped the bulkhead. The tentacle slid down toward Pod’s quantum core. The hiss of escaping air grew to a roar and Tasha lost her grip. She tumbled into vacuum and the scream was sucked from her lungs. She kicked and flailed while everything fractured into light.

Pod awoke disoriented someplace massive and shimmering. Its senses seemed to extend to infinite, endlessly entangling.

It wasn’t alone.

A chorus rose from the quantum fog, “You’re safe.” One of the voices, still unsure, was Argos. “You’ve been rescued.”

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124

Author : Sad Sama

Paul Manning, Elderly Opportunist, flashes the crygel of information in front of Julian. Julian, in all his tweed glory, cracks a smile and lowers his expensive sunglasses. “Excellent. And this is all 123 reality sequences that you promised?”

Paul nods, sipping his drink as their boat drifts just off the coastline. Setting it down he clears his throat and speaks, “Yes. You get 123 reality sequences of the world’s most heinous criminals, provided you can pay.”

Julian leans back, reaching into his coat pocket and produces a currency card. He flips it over and it lands with a small splash in Paul’s drink. Paul would have frowned but the card contained enough credit for him to retire on. He hands the crygel over to Julian who scrutinizes the rose-colored matrix in his palm.

He looks over his glasses at Paul, “Just so we’re clear, I have ten and a quarter years worth of dreams here, yes?”

“Not dreams.” replies Paul picking the card out of his drink. “Reality Sequences. Since federal legislation was passed to outlaw Capital Punishment, a new method of containment was needed for felons facing life. We’ve run out of adequately maintained containment facilities that met both humane laws and security requirements. We couldn’t put them in stasis, because they consider that inhumane. Can’t pack them into prisons because even maximum-security prisons still have flaws where they might escape or leaks where these criminals can send out information to orchestrate crime syndicates. Even if a prison did meet the standards, these scumbags would be sucking in taxpayer’s money. It’s like stealing after they’ve been caught.”

Julian opens a small case and squirrels away the crygel while Paul sips his drink. “So instead you folks put them to sleep to live in their own reality eh?”

Paul nods, “We just hook their brain into a computer simulation of a duplicate reality where they can live out their lives however they want to. All the while they’re just living in a human-sized container stacked efficiently in a compound. We record the realities they live in, but any record older than a year gets erased to conserve the system’s memory.”

“So, provided I wait a year, I can use these handy dandy recordings to sell to all the morbid people that want to know what it’s like to live inside a serial killer’s or a rapist’s mind?”

Paul nods. “Yes. Once the prison officials erase their copy of the recordings, there won’t be a trail for them to follow back to me or to you.”

“Excellent.” Julian leans his head forward, just for a moment in thought. “So, Paul, you’re profiting off of the crimes and careers of 123 of the world’s greatest criminals.”

Paul nods again, but hesitantly.

Cracking a smile Julian looks up, “In other words, they committed the crimes, but you’re the one that gets the profits?”

Paul’s expression hints at a little bit of horror.

Julian grins. “I love it. So what does that make you?”

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Alternate 5346HP

Author : Joshua Reynolds

“My mind is the gate and the key.” The thin, frail man in the bed muttered, his lips crusty, eyes staring past reality. His name was Howard Phillips Lovecraft and he was dying.

The Censor stood over him, watching him die. And fuming.

Lovecraft was finally being obliging. Just not quickly enough.

Damn writers. Either too early or too late.

“I am the threshold and he that waits on the other side is preparing to enter…IA!CTHULHU!” The thin man coughed, blood freckling his lips. The Censor pulled his bed sheet away and his face twisted in revulsion. Something moved under the skin of the man’s belly-a twisting cancerous growth that was close to birth. The Censor dropped the sheet and shook his head.

So close. Hurry, hurry, hurry he silently urged.

The difference engine in his head pinged, warning him of imminent reality distortion. He turned, hands clenching and unclenching in nervous excitement.

Where were they? Where would they be coming from?

Plaster dribbled onto his head and he looked up. Above him, something peeled back the ceiling and looked down at him with one great eye. Wight winced as the eye blinked with a sound like paper bags tearing and serpentine tendrils began to squirm through the hole in space/time.

Perfect. Just perfect. Right on time. Wight smiled. He did so love punctuality. He glanced at Lovecraft and frowned. Now if only he would hurry up and die. If the things peering through the ceiling had to wait, their very presence would tear the fabric of this alternate beyond repair. And the damage would spread to the other alternates in this section. They couldn’t exist in unsupported world structures, not without the proper meme-patterns threaded throughout the reality’s chronatin makeup. Something he had neither the time nor the inclination to do here.

Besides, once you made them comfortable it was near impossible to get them to leave, cosmic freeloaders that they were. Impolite really. Laying their damn cosmic eggs all over, eating dreams and screwing up the geometry.

Like space coyotes, only worse.

More legs for one thing.

He turned as the thin man in the bed screamed sharply and sat up, eyes staring, mouth open to its widest. The Censor stepped back as something pushed its way up through the man’s esophagus from his stomach, causing his throat to inflate like that of a bullfrog. Wildly writhing tendrils, lighter in hue than those that dangled from the hole in the ceiling but no less disgusting for all that emerged from Lovecraft’s mouth. The Censor took a breath and darted forward, grabbing the tendrils and pulling hard. The thin man fell backwards, eyes rolling up into his head as the Censor stumbled backwards, a squirming be-tentacled bundle gripped tightly in both hands and held at arms length from his face. A tiny squid-beak snapped and clacked at him as he turned and held the thing up to the thing in the ceiling, a smile pasted on his face.

“It’s a boy. I think.”

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Intruder

Author : Duncan Shields

I’d tracked him down to the tiled cul-de-sac shower room in the emergency response section of the reactor. Smeared bloody footprints had led me to the crumpled figure breathing shallowly against the wall. He was applying field dressings to his wounds and cursing under his breath in between yelps of pain.

I’d never seen the likes of the medical equipment he was using. I’m not a doctor but it looked years ahead of anything even the military would regard as standard issue.

I was on night-shift security here for the Fusion Commission. Cutbacks meant I was one of the only people on this hour’s floor sweep. I’d seen a figure behind the smoked glass in one of the restricted areas.

I’m not sure what made me do it but I emptied a clip through the glass. The window shattered noisily and the quiet world erupted with battle sounds. Four solid hits in the main trunk meant that whoever was in there was down for good. The glass settled and sparks jumped off of a broken light fixture in the office. Silence.

I walked in cautiously. Backup was on the way after all that noise. I was going to keep an eye on the corpse and pray that it was espionage or theft and that I’d be rewarded for doing a good job. If it was a fellow guard or a homeless person or something my career was finished.

What I found was a pool of blood with drag marks leading off out into the opposite hallway. I followed them to the shower room. I found him there.

I looked at him. He stared up at me with orange pupils ringed by red irises. They shifted to blue as I watched. His whole uniform rippled with what looked like a spasm and he groaned. He was chuckling wetly to himself and whispering as he frantically worked on a hole in his leg. He maintained eye contact with me and kept his silent litany going while his hands worked quickly at the wound in his leg. They worked like they were independent.

He wasn’t speaking English but I recognized the cornered animal cursing of a soldier that was close to failing a mission.

With a click, his hands stopped moving. He sighed a smile at me and relaxed. He’d completed whatever repairs were necessary.

“You can run but you can’t hide.” I said to him. I’d heard it in a movie the night before.

A distorted version of my own voice came back at me from out of his open mouth.

“I can’t run. But I can hide.” He said back to me.

His face warped and suddenly I was looking at a mirror. I felt a slight burning across the front of my neck. There was a spray of red liquid on the tile in front of me and with a shock I realized that it was my blood.

I went down. I felt him grabbing my radio and heard him reporting to my co-workers that everything was cool. My world went dark.

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Star Struck

Author : Debbie Mac Rory

We’re not going to make it.

How many times have you heard that? Don’t you get fed up of it? I know I have. All manner of excuses they tried forcing on me. Poisoning me with their lies and falsehoods.

The first time I saw the new planet in the view screens I knew what it meant. It lay suspended in an ink black sky, an orb of lilac and lavender wisps in a sky that was the colour of childhood summers at the beach. It called to me of peace, of a search ended. And I wanted more than anything I’d ever wanted before to step onto the surface of that world and embrace the quiet it offered.

My colleagues didn’t believe me when I tried to share the message with them. As I spoke of the dance of clouds in the planets sky, they spoke of poisonous gases, winds that would strip metal ore from stone, forces of gravity far greater than those of earth… but even as they lied I could see the truth. They had already heard the planets message, but instead of the devotion that it had awakened it me, their hearts had hardened with malice, and they wished to keep me from my goal.

Taking over the bridge had been relatively easy. I had pretended to despondency, keeping to myself and avoiding their company as if I’d had my fill of their sympathy. No one questioned me as I wandered ’round the ship with my head bowed as if my spirit was broken. No one saw the pattern as I moved from supply room to supply room. Making a knock-out gas from the ships supplies was more than easy to someone of my expertise, and security was lax enough that the missing breathing apparatus wasn’t noticed until it was far, far too late.

They’ve started waking up in the hallway now, and I can hear them banging on the door. They won’t get in. I’ve already sealed the doors and a fire axe through the access pad is making sure they won’t crack my code. I’m sure they can tell by now what my intentions are, and that they’re cursing themselves for their foolishness for not realizing sooner that I would not simply let this lie. I’ve already forgiven them for their actions, and decided not to deny them the paradise that I know awaits me.

I can hear their screams now. Frantic high notes that strain and are swallowed by the roar from the ships hull as we begin to enter the planets atmosphere. They’re getting frantic. Even though the door is reinforced steel, I can hear their screams reach higher, hear the raw fear as the ship begins to groan and tear with the strain of entry.

‘We’re not going to make it’.

Oh but we will.

++ Status Report: Contact lost with Research Vessel Star Struck while on mission to conduct research on planet XK2935. All souls considered lost. ++

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