Author: Tim Ulrich

The doors opened and the small throng Joel was standing with, moved to board the lift. They shuffled into the car, jostling against each other as they settled into an impromptu formation for the brief, but cramped, journey up to the Centerline Station.

He reminisced; so short, it had only been seven months, but it was his most relaxing break in ages. Everything was slower here, and not just emotionally. To get its 0.4g, Layer 9 spun at little more than half the speed of his home Layer, 4. The best part had been that both Layers were governed by the same species. That meant the day cycle was the same (in hours if not rotations); there were minimal cultural and language differences; and, very pleasantly, he didn’t need any additional modifications to breathe the atmosphere. It had been nothing like that disastrous trip to Layer 2.

A chime and the sensation of his boots pulling him to the floor as the lift decelerated, brought him back to reality. There was a chuckle in the cabin as a rider near him outpaced the slowing floor and floated toward the ceiling. Startled, the passenger pulled themselves back down and sheepishly toggled their boots. Better late than never.

Disembarking, the passengers broke off in various directions. The locals mostly heading to jobs in the station, while the outbound travelers made their way to the already packed lines for Inspector review.

The Inspectors always creeped him out. They were fickle; enforcing undocumented rules in a manner so inconsistent that it baffled even the most astute scientists. The Inspectors’ seemingly limitless power over reality didn’t help either.

The bump of an unexpected weight in his pocket distracted him from watching his line’s Inspectors. He opened the catch and felt around. His fingertips found something.

Presenting an unknown object to the Inspectors was not an appealing thought. He looked ahead again and saw a “Quintessor” being addressed by the Inspectors. He was surprised. Always among the last of their species and, as a result, almost as powerful as the Inspectors, “Quintessors” were extremely rare. Before he could decide if pity or awe was a more appropriate feeling, fear resurfaced, and he refocused.

He wrapped his hand around a hard, smooth orb. It was warm, as though someone had been holding it tight before him though he had no idea who.

The Inspectors were now focused on a heavily augmented traveler from Layer 2. The less said about that abomination the better, but Joel was confident they were distracted. Sneaking a glance at the orb he felt fear boil to panic as he recognized an item he had only encountered in stories. Glyphs under the enamel glowed and changed. He couldn’t read the symbols, but there were fewer of them every moment.

With great effort, he pushed the questions of who, how, and why out of his mind to focus on the only one that mattered now. What do you do with an unwanted bomb?

He frantically looked for salvation and locked his eyes on the Inspectors who were now confiscating and vaporizing packages from a unit of Layer 5 clones.

He broke free of the line and sped, yelling, toward the Inspectors.


The official report indicated that the quarantine protocols, (including the severing of Layer 9 from the outside world), occurred when a solo attacker charged the Centerline Station Inspectors before detonating an unknown device which demolished a cubic kilometer of the station, in Layer 9’s largest documented explosion.