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Rudism.com

Author: Rudis Muiznieks

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The Rudism.com podcast of serialized short fiction. Science fiction, horror, humor, and more, written and performed by the author.
11 Episodes
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Three million years was a long time. An awful long time. It was so long that Doyle Tingler believed his brain fully incapable of processing the implications of its length, and so did his best to spare the poor thing that unpleasantness. Doyle vacillated his thoughts between two subjects. The first was his quest to find his girlfriend Kirsten, who ran off to join the Nikola’s Children cult shortly after Doyle had proposed to her. Three million years crammed in a stasis chamber with Sarah the security officer–his friend’s would-be-kidnapper–had not dulled his desire to complete that quest, though thinking about how he might go about it now, given his current predicament, tended to darken his mood considerably. The other subject towards which Doyle more frequently steered his thoughts was, much to the chagrin of those around him, thinking of and listing all the films, television shows, and books he knew of that resembled his present situation in some way. “Red Dwarf,” said Doyle, staring absentmindedly at the ceiling. Sarah put her face in her hands and sighed dramatically. “You’ve said that one.” “Have I?” Sarah nodded emphatically. She put down the small black book she had been writing in before Doyle had interrupted her, and launched into a nasally voiced imitation. “Dave Lister, after being put in stasis for smuggling a cat aboard the deep space mining ship Red Dwarf, finds himself resurrected in deep space three million years later and…” “It’s odd, isn’t it?” interrupted Doyle, ignoring Sarah’s mockery. “I mean that it was also three million years.” “Whatever,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “Except in that show Lister was the last human alive, so it’s not exactly like this, since there’s two of us. We do have an android, though,” Doyle added, thinking of Desmond, the artificial intelligence that had piloted the Nikola’s Children ship–the Ark–for three million years before crashing it into a planet and copying himself into the robot body they found abandoned there. Doyle shook his head. “But no holograms. What about Farscape? Have I mentioned Farscape yet?” “You mean the show where John Crichton finds himself flung to a distant corner of the galaxy where he has to navigate the socio-political fabric of several unfamiliar alien races as he searches for a way home?” asked Sarah. “Yes,” said Doyle. “Never heard of it,” said Sarah. She returned her attention to her book. “That doesn’t fit, either,” said Doyle. “It didn’t take place in the future. Also in Farscape there were aliens, but I think everyone we’ve met so far is essentially human, give or take a few million years of evolution. Zuli says it’s a widely held belief that all known life originated from a common source. I suppose that would be Earth, though I gather that’s a religiously contentious opinion nowadays. “No, Farscape is close, but I feel like I’m forgetting something even better…” Sarah snapped her book shut and stood up. “Well, be sure not to bother me with it when you’ve figured it out.” She pushed past Doyle toward the hallway that led to her quarters. Bae, the tiny rhino-pig that had been napping at Sarah’s feet, woke up and stretched lazily, then trotted after her. “Oh, I know! Planet of the Apes. Not the new ones, but the old Charlton Heston one. Or the Tim Burton remake. Except those were all on Earth,” Doyle mused, following Sarah and Bae into the hall. “Leave me alone,” said Sarah, quickening her pace. “Maybe the Culture books by Iain M. Banks. Or Dune. Didn’t that desert planet with the sand worm remind you of Dune?” “I’m not listening,” said Sarah. “Oh! Did I tell you about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy yet?” Sarah screamed. Zuli leaned back in the captain’s chair and frowned at the patterns that danced across the large curved screen in front of her. She had agreed to help Doyle find Takkah IV, where he believed the Ark had been taken, but to do that they would have to find someone who knew more about the Orubus Belt–an area of space not widely renowned for its abundance of friendly encounters. “I’ve zoomed the sensors out,” Desmond said. “You see those jiggly patterns in the upper left? It’s radiation that the ship’s computer calls non-random chatter. And it’s at a volume that indicates a totally massive communications hub of some kind. Like a station or an inhabited star system. Might be a good direction to head, see if we can get close enough to decode some of it and listen in.” “Very well,” Zuli said, glancing over at the large robot. A snaking tendril of cable connected Desmond’s arm to a console against the wall of the bridge. “I am grateful to you, Desmond. Your interface to the ship and your instruction in its operation has been invaluable. It is just too bad the ship computers did not contain more information about the Orubus Belt.” “Nobody ever mapped this part of space out, eh?” asked Desmond. “I imagine someone has,” said Zuli. “Just not where I am from. People outside the Belt tend to view it as a forbidden zone of sorts. A place that only criminals and fools have any interest in.” “Which one are you?” asked Desmond. Zuli smiled. “I suppose I might fit into either category, depending on who you ask.” After a moment of silence, Desmond spoke again. “Can I ask how you came into possession of this ship? I’ve found some old crew manifests, and there’s no mention of the name Zuli.” “Zuli is a name my mother called me. My full name is T’chaka Zulinaar,” said Zuli. “But you won’t find any mention of that name either, I am afraid.” “In the crew photos and video logs, they have… I mean, they look rather… well, they don’t look anything like you,” said Desmond. Zuli pushed her hands through her short white hair, and looked away from Desmond with her striking orange eyes–feeling a little foolish at how self-conscious the robot made her. “My people have never been technologically inclined. We have no ships of our own. In fact until a few hundred years ago, my people had not been aware such a thing was even possible. We believed we were alone in the universe. “One day, emissaries from a race calling themselves the Igidi landed on our planet, ending centuries of philosophical and scientific debate and disabusing us of any notion that we were somehow special. The Igidi came under the guise of friendship, offering to be our guides and protectors as we established ourselves within the greater interstellar community we had been ignorant of too long.” “But they had ulterior motives?” Desmond guessed. “Yes,” said Zuli, feeling the memories of how she left her home planet weighing heavily upon her. “Let us suffice it to say, for now, that this ship is a mere drop in the ocean of recompense owed my people by the Igidi. And its original crew is… well, is no longer in need of its facilities. “Due to the hasty nature with which I acquired it, aside from basic navigation and communications, I am largely unfamiliar with the ship’s systems. That is why I am so thankful that the Prophets led you to me.” “I see,” said Desmond. Thankfully, he seemed satisfied for the time being with her vague explanation and didn’t press Zuli for further details. “For now, I agree with your recommendation,” said Zuli. “I will plot a course in the direction of the ‘non-random chatter.’ Please have the computer alert us once it is able to decipher something.” Desmond nodded his head, featureless except for the glowing blue dots where a human’s eyes might be. “Aye aye, captain!” Having been rudely snubbed by Sarah, who had locked herself in her quarters, Doyle decided to do some exploring. He called Zuli up on the ship’s comm system and asked if she knew of any books on the ship he could take a look at, with the idea to put his translator cells to the test and possibly learn more about what had transpired over the last three million years. She informed him that the ship did indeed have a library, and gave him rough directions to get there. He thanked her, set off, and quickly found himself utterly lost in the ship’s many identical corridors. During his vagaries, Doyle came across some curious rooms–there was one that looked like a medical lab, with a gurney sitting beneath a hanging gun-shaped contraption that looked like something out of a Bond movie; there was a completely dark room, shunning all external light to such a degree that at first Doyle thought he was looking at a black wall–an idea quickly refuted when his hand passed through the blackness, completely vanishing at the wrist; there were closets storing various bottles and jars that Doyle couldn’t identify; a football-field-sized room filled with dozens of raised platforms at different heights–perhaps an arena for some futuristic sport, thought Doyle; but most of all he passed unoccupied quarters, storage rooms filled with crates and bins, and plain old empty rooms. Doyle wondered what Zuli had been doing all alone on a ship that was clearly built to house hundreds of crew and passengers. She had told them she “inherited” it, and that while she entertained guests on occasion–such as the madman who had tried to kill Doyle and Sarah after they first arrived–she invariably ended up on her own once her guests achieved whatever goal they had enlisted her help for. Or gotten themselves blown out an airlock, Doyle supposed. How long had Zuli had been at it–this life of nomadic virtuousness? And, whatever the answer, how had she survived that long? There must be more to her than the meek, pale-skinned delicate woman she appeared to be. Doyle pushed the thought aside as he slid his hand over another door’s access panel. The door slid open to reveal what looked like a theater–a dozen rows of seats lined up, facing away from the door. But the floor was level, not angled as Doyle would have expected, and the front row looked barely three feet from the wall at the far end of the room, leaving no space for a screen. Doyle stepped inside and peeked over the closest row. Each seat had what looked like a headset resting on it, attached to one of the armrests by a thick black cable. His mind started racing. Could it be some kind of virtual reality headset? It would explain the lack of a screen. He picked up a headset to inspect it. It didn’t look like any virtual reality headset that Doyle had ever seen. There was no goggle-shaped housing for the optics. It looked more like a hairnet of criss-crossing metal strips, with small cylinders jutting out wherever the strips intersected. Doyle’s bemusement grew as he sat and hovered the headset over his head. It can’t be virtual reality if it doesn’t cover your eyes, right? Doyle wondered for a brief moment if what he was doing was wise. Fuck it, thought Doyle, and rested the metal contraption on the nearly non-existent hair covering the top of his head. The headset hummed to life. Doyle heard clicking and felt pinpricks of pressure on his skull as the tiny cylinders clamped down. The room went hazy, and then Doyle was plunged into darkness. Disoriented, Doyle felt like he was falling. He waved his hands in front of his face, but saw nothing. Nothing but pitch blackness in all directions. Panic gripped his mind, rising in him like a swelling tide. And then, a blinding light, and Doyle was standing on a pool of water. Looking down, he saw a vast city of smooth gray skyscrapers and interweaving highways miles beneath him. Water rippled from his feet when the sudden sensation of height made him stumble. He crouched and ran his hand over the water’s surface–it felt smooth and dry, but more ripples shimmered out from the path he traced with his fingers. It felt smooth and dry. He could feel! He lifted his hands–they looked like his hands–and brushed his cheeks. His graying beard-hairs tickled his palms. He looked down and saw he was wearing the same clothes he had put on that morning. A woman’s voice echoed in Doyle’s mind, but the language was alien to him. After a moment, it repeated. Shit, thought Doyle. Why weren’t the translator cells working? Zuli had mentioned when they first arrived that they wouldn’t work on Desmond because he was a computer; perhaps that meant the translation didn’t work in computer simulations either. Whatever the reason, Doyle had no way to communicate with the program. “Uh, I don’t understand,” said Doyle. “Can you understand me? How does this work if I don’t know the language?” A white rectangular slate bearing an array of photographs materialized, floating in front of Doyle. There was a photo with a palm tree hanging over a sandy beach with deep blue water stretching off to the horizon, another that looked like the inside of an office building, one that showed a person pumping his fist triumphantly at the apex of a snow-covered mountain, and a dozen more each showing a different scene. Doyle found that when he waved his hand an inch above the slate, its surface panned in all directions, revealing new photos for each one that scrolled off the opposite edge. Doyle grinned, grateful for the language-agnostic interface. He continued panning around the photos. There were hundreds of them. Glowing jellyfish suspended all around in an underwater scene. A man decked out in metallic armor, holding a rifle. A deep, purple sunset against a blood-red sky. Doyle felt a tinge of excitement run through his body. So many possibilities! He stopped scrolling when he spotted the photo of a woman’s lips, slightly parted, teasing a hint of white teeth and pink tongue. The mouth was positioned innocuously between a photo of dense jungle and one of a group of free-falling skydivers. Light reflected off the glossy red lipstick. Doyle looked down at his legs, and poked one of them with his finger. The pressure felt so real. He wondered how far the headset’s ability to simulate physical sensation might go. But was this okay? Could he do this? An unwelcome memory surfaced in Doyle’s mind. He had been visiting his parents for the holidays. Everyone had retired for the night, and Doyle was alone in his old childhood bedroom, watching certain videos on his phone to help him… relax. In the fits of his relaxation, he unwittingly activated a feature on the phone that wirelessly transmitted its contents to the nearest television set. His parents, who had been enjoying their nightly ritual of watching the news in bed before going to sleep, had taken quite a while to recover from the sudden unwelcome interruption. Would Desmond, an artificial intelligence, be judgmental? Doyle didn’t think so. And Doyle didn’t care what Sarah thought of him–she made it generally obvious that she despised him anyway. Zuli, though, was another matter. Doyle didn’t know how he felt about her–she seemed wise, respectable, and devoutly religious. She would probably disapprove. Then there was Kirsten. What would she say if she ever found out? Doyle sighed. “It’s been three million years,” he said out loud. “I think she’d understand.” He delicately brushed his finger against the bright red, swollen come-hither lips, as though shushing their owner to keep silent about the deep, dark, shameful secrets he would soon be baring. “The ship has managed to decode some of the transmissions,” said Desmond. “There are a few using the CIL.” Zuli nodded. The advent of translator microbes had slightly diminished the importance of the Common Interstellar Language, but the microbes only worked over short distances, and didn’t work on recordings or computers at all. The larger civilizations–and most of the smaller ones, including Zuli’s–at some point in their history adopted the common language as a new primary language, often abandoning their native tongue entirely over the course of a few generations. “May I listen?” asked Zuli. A crackle sounded through the bridge, followed by hundreds of overlapping voices, like the indecipherable thrum of a massive crowd. “Can you isolate any individual signals?” asked Zuli. “There’s a ton of interference,” said Desmond. “But I’ll see if I can clean it up a bit.” After a moment, the sound of the crowd faded, still audible but reduced in volume. “…engines have failed, all attempts to…” a lone voice rose above the crowd, swallowed by static before Zuli could make out the rest. Zuli glanced at Desmond. “…received your distress signal and are on our…” a woman’s voice this time, again fading to obscurity before Zuli could make out anything useful. “…something is preventing us…” more static cut off a man’s voice. “…out of time,” a woman’s voice suddenly leapt to the forefront. “Requesting urgent assistance from any nearby…” The panicked voice receded. Zuli leaned forward in her seat. “They all sound distressed,” she said. “We must help them, if we are able.” The quiet murmuring voices stopped, replaced by the familiar background hum of the ship. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Desmond. “The way these broadcasts are layered on top each other seems suspicious. I think they’re all recordings–I’ve detected repetitions. I don’t think we can trust them.” Zuli frowned at Desmond. “I cannot turn away from those in need,” she said. “It is the will of the Prophets. It is their…” she paused, searching for a better word than ‘punishment.’ “…their edict for me that I should live in the service of others, regardless of cost or danger to myself.” “The thing is,” said Desmond, “all these signals are now at a strength indicating they’re close. Like, really close. Like well within sensor range close. But so far the ship’s scanners are still coming up empty. Also if there really are thousands of ships in distress out there, is it really wise to rush headlong in to join them without knowing more?” “You speak much sense, Desmond,” said Zuli. “Do you think something is interfering with the sensors?” “There are some abnormal electromagnetic readings, but no indication that the sensors are malfunctioning,” said Desmond. “I cannot simply abandon these ships without knowing more,” said Zuli. Her thoughts turned to Sarah and Doyle. While her decree from the Prophets demanded she forswear her own safety, it did not compel her to–and in fact strictly forbade her from–endangering others. Now that she had rescued them, Sarah, Doyle, Desmond, and even Bae were her wards, and part of her duty to the Prophets was to ensure that no harm came to them. In that regard, it seemed to Zuli, Sarah and Doyle were very much in need of her help. She couldn’t believe all aspects of their story–such as their absurd claim to be from Earth three million years in the past–but she did sense that they were oddly out of place. They seemed like newborn babes in their naivete and unawareness of the way of things. And they both seemed to harbor such guilt over their current predicament–Sarah coped by insulting and ridiculing Doyle at every opportunity, while Doyle coped by pretending their relationship was a friendly one, often going out of his way to be kind to the girl. Such an odd companionship, thought Zuli, and yet she couldn’t help but find it endearing. Zuli shook her head clear, returning her thoughts to the present. “Let us proceed with caution. Reduce speed, and continue to scan for the ships or any sign that may shed light on the nature of their peril.” Zuli used the console on her armrest to start an outgoing hail. “Distressed ships, I have received your message. Please respond using this same frequency modulation with more details on your situation.” “I’ll monitor for responses,” said Desmond. Only a few millicycles passed before Desmond spoke again. “I’m picking up a signal matching your frequency modulation, it could be a response,” said the robot. “Play it please, Desmond.” “Distressed ships, I have received your message. Please respond on this same frequency modulation with more details on your situation.” Zuli furrowed her brow. “I meant play the response, not my original message.” “Um, that was the response,” said Desmond. “Seems your message bounced back at us.” Frowning, Zuli shifted in her chair. Why would a distressed ship rebroadcast her message instead of replying? It seemed a purposely strange thing to do under any circumstance, aside from running a communications relay or signal booster. “Desmond, was the broadcast altered in any way? Perhaps amplified?” “Only in that it’s been layered in with all the other communications from the other ships.” Zuli had a bad feeling. “Desmond, I find myself now in agreement with your initial assessment. I believe we should leave this place. At once, if possible.” She hoped it wasn’t already too late. “Reversing course, full speed ahea… Um, that’s weird,” Desmond paused. “What is it?” “As soon as our main engine powered down, the broadcasts from the other ships just… stopped.” The knot forming in Zuli’s stomach tightened. She made the sign of the prophets, reciting a short prayer requesting their blessings. “Desmond, get us out of here.” “I’m trying, Cap. Something’s wrong with the engines,” said Desmond. A small light flickered on the bridge’s display, and a chirp signaled an incoming video comms request. Zuli looked at Desmond, wide-eyed. “It’s another ship,” said Desmond. “Came out of nowhere. It’s hailing us.” Zuli inhaled deeply, then slowly let the air out, trying to calm her frazzled nerves. “Very well,” she said. “Accept the request, Desmond. On screen.” Desmond instructed the ship to accept the incoming hail, then routed the video feed to the screen in the bridge. “Greetings!” exclaimed a wide-faced man. The top of his head was bald, but wild bushes of dark hair streaked with gray clung to the sides. Smokey glass set in a pair of brown-rimmed goggles obscured the man’s eyes, and he spoke the common language in a raspy voice. “I’m Captain Vesprent Bunko,” continued the man. “And you, my friends, seem to be in a bit of a pickle!” “Hello, Captain,” Zuli said. “I am T’chaka Zulinaar, stewardess of this ship. We are experiencing some engine trouble, but are working on repairs and should be back under way soon. Tell me, we followed some distressed communications to this location, did you detect them as well? Is that why you came?” The man chuckled and shook his head. “Don’t hold your breath on those repairs, honey. You followed a lure–but don’t feel bad, the communications you followed were replays from hundreds of other ships that fell for the same trap. Once you get close enough it activates a dampening field. That’s why your engines ain’t working.” Desmond activated the ship’s sensor array and initiated a scan, hoping to detect some sign of the dampening field. The scan kicked off, but was running much slower than Desmond had expected–it seemed that something else on the ship was tying up most of the computer’s processing power. “What do you know about the dampening field? Has it affected your ship as well?” asked Zuli. “Good question, toots,” the man replied. “I reckon the field only affects electromagnetic propulsion engines like yours. I guess whoever set it up doesn’t give a crap about old combustion-powered junkers like mine.” That explained why the maneuvering thrusters still worked, thought Desmond. It also gave him narrower parameters for his scan, which was still running slow. The process bogging down the ship’s computer was one with which Desmond was unfamiliar–it was the first time he’d ever seen it running. “I see,” said Zuli. “Do you know who set this trap? Was it you?” The man laughed. “Nope it ain’t mine, and frankly I never stuck around long enough to find out whose it is. I saw some of the other ships that did stick around, though. Or, what was left of them… “Look, babe, here’s the rub. I got a tow line that I can use to pull you out of the dampening field before the bad guys show up, but if I’m gonna help ya, you gotta make it worth my while. Know what I mean? So my question to you is, whaddya got to trade with? Any currencies? Valuable cargo?” Desmond’s scan uncovered some electromagnetic anomalies. He kicked off a deeper analysis, but the computer reported it would take over an hour to complete under its current processing load. Desmond inspected the mystery process hogging the ship’s computer. He found an open network socket, and probed it. The resulting data feed from the process appeared to be a video of some kind, with an ancillary channel for audio communications. “I am afraid we do not have any currencies,” Zuli said, shifting again in her chair. “There is some cargo that was left by the ship’s previous crew, but I do not know if there is anything of value. You are welcome to come aboard and look through it once we are safely away from…” “Nah, ah,” said Bunko, cutting Zuli off before she could finish. “Service will be rendered after payment. What is that you’ve got there…?” Bunko’s head grew larger on the screen as he leaned forward and peered around. “Some kind of robot? What does it do? Does it work? You know what? I don’t even care, I want it. Just pop it out an airlock so I can scoop it up and I’ll have you outta that dampening field in a jiffy.” Desmond remained motionless and silent, unsure of how Zuli would respond. “The robot is decorative,” said Zuli, glancing at Desmond. “A statue of sorts, of little worth. But I am afraid it is not mine to offer. We have several matter replicators, however, capable of producing a wide variety of…” “Uh huh,” said Bunko. “I got some of those already. Give me the robot and I’ll save your asses, or don’t and wait for them to be ravaged instead. That’s my final offer. No skin off my back either way. But don’t take too long. See that ship that just popped up on your long range sensors? It’s gonna be here in under a cycle, and you don’t wanna be here when it does. Give me a hail when you come to your senses.” The communication feed from Captain Bunko’s ship terminated and the bridge’s screen went blank. Zuli exhaled loudly. “I do not trust him, I believe he set this trap.” “Maybe so,” said Desmond. “But he’s right about a ship on long-range. It’s quite a bit bigger than us, and coming in real hot. “But get this, I think I’ve detected the dampening field. If I could analyze it I might find a way out. But a process I’ve never seen before is monopolizing the ship’s computer, and I’m not sure if I can safely kill it. It’s exposing some kind of video communications feed, I was about to connect to see if I can figure out what it is.” Zuli furrowed her brow. “Can you put it up on the screen here?” “Sure thing, Cap.” said Desmond. “One moment…” Desmond connected to the communications socket on the rogue process. The view screen flashed back to life, and the sound of Doyle groaning suddenly saturated the bridge. Zuli stared in disbelief, speechless, at the image that had materialized before her. Doyle sat in a chair at the center of the screen, wearing a black dress with a form-fitting top and a tight skirt down to his knees, bound at the waist by a glittering sequined belt. His feet were clad in black high-heeled shoes with black straps that snaked and laced their way up his calves. Thick white makeup caked his face and beard. Two pale gray featureless humanoid beings stood like mannequins on either side of the chair, each with one hand on Doyle’s shoulder and the other on his arm, as though holding him down. “Doyle?!” Zuli exclaimed. On screen, Doyle started looking around wildly. “Zuli? Is that you? Oh thank God! Where are you?” A third being like the ones flanking Doyle appeared, approaching him with its back toward the screen. It held something toward Doyle–Zuli couldn’t see what it was, but from Doyle’s expression she could only imagine what horrifying form of torture it implied. “Doyle! What is going on?!” Zuli cried out, standing up from her chair. “Are you in trouble? Do you need help?” The being stopped, standing directly in front of Doyle and obscuring Zuli’s view of him. The thing leaned forward, and lifted the thing it carried to Doyle’s face. Doyle started grunting and groaning. Zuli looked away, toward Desmond. “Desmond, what is this? What are we watching? What are those creatures doing to him?” “I… don’t know,” said Desmond. “I think we tapped into some kind of virtual simulation.” The creature stopped moving. After a moment it turned and left the same way it had come, revealing what it had done to Doyle. Doyle’s pale white face was now punctuated with ruby-red lipstick, bright pink blush, and deep purple eyeshadow. The two beings on either side of him pushed his shoulders forward, then lifted him by the arms into a standing position. “Zuli, please, you’ve got to get me out of here,” sobbed Doyle. “I’m trapped in this fucking nightmare make-over simulation. I thought it was… Well, never mind what I thought. Just tell me how to get out. Is there some command? A hand signal? I’ve tried everything but it just loops over and over and over…” Zuli sat back down in her chair, exasperated. “We do not have time for this, Doyle,” she said curtly. “Desmond, kill the process. Run your analysis. How much time do we have?” “Aye aye, Cap.” said Desmond. The screen went blank. “A little over half a cycle ‘til the ship gets here.” The bridge fell silent. Zuli closed her eyes, and prayed for the Prophets to guide Desmond, to show him a way out of this trap. After a short while, Zuli heard Desmond move slightly. She opened her eyes and looked at him expectantly. “Let me show you the anomalies, Cap.” the tall robot said. “Anomalies? More than one?” “Yes,” said Desmond. The bridge’s view screen activated, showing a top-down view of Zuli’s ship next to a much a smaller one–presumably Bunko’s–near the center of a large red circle. Outside of the circle, was a smaller red oval shape. “The larger circle is, I believe, the dampening field. It should be possible to nullify it by pulsing an EM wave at the right frequency, but finding that frequency will take some time.” “Time is, unfortunately, a luxury we are short on,” said Zuli, studying Desmond’s diagram. “What is the smaller shape?” “The other shape is a second electromagnetic anomaly,” explained Desmond. “It’s different from the dampening field–hard to get a read on it because it deflects almost every form of radiation in a really strange way.” “Strange how?” “It absorbs radiation on one side, then emits it on the other, almost like it passed right through, but a fraction of a nanocycle slower than you’d expect,” said Desmond. “The only reason I even noticed is because Doyle’s simulation slowed my first scans down, causing them to burst-fire like a machine gun. It made the timing discrepancies easier to detect. If the scan had been running like normal I probably wouldn’t have noticed.” Zuli considered Desmond’s explanation. Something about Bunko’s ship seemed odd to her. “Desmond, what is the nearest star system to our present location? Are there any stations or outposts nearby?” “The nearest star system is the one we passed seventeen cycles ago, and there are no stations or outposts that the long range scanners can detect.” Zuli nodded. Her expression hardened. “Desmond, please hail Captain Bunko.” “Cutting it pretty close, ain’t ya?” the grating voice of Captain Bunko accompanied his image on the view screen. “I was about to cut and run.” “I think you may find that difficult to achieve without your ship,” said Zuli. Bunko’s forehead crinkled above his goggles, and his mouth formed a bemused smile. “Oh? Are you gonna shoot me? That would be rather callous of you, considering that I am offering to help. And it would be rather foolish of you too, considering I’m your only ticket outta this mess. Besides, your energy weapons won’t work in the dampening field, and I’m pretty sure I could dodge any combustion-powered missiles you sent my way, assuming you even got any.” “Oh, we have some,” said Zuli, smiling sweetly back at Bunko. “This is an Igidi prime warship, Captain Bunko. Designed to wage war against entire star systems single-handedly, and fully armed with a wide variety of weaponry to ensure its adequateness at that task.” The smile on Bunko’s lips faltered slightly. “Well, regardless of all that, it’s still like I said. Shooting at me won’t do you any good. Look, that ship of yours sounds impressive. Maybe we can come up with a different deal to…” “Oh I have no intention of shooting at you, Captain Bunko,” said Zuli. She used the console on her chair to fire the maneuvering thrusters, rotating the ship slightly to expose its side toward the smaller anomaly. “You see, that is another thing about Igidi prime warships, Captain. They are extremely sensitive to cloaking technology. If your shuttle has the capability, you will see that I have a weapons lock on your cloaked ship, which I have detected just outside the dampening field. “Oh, and Captain Bunko,” Zuli glared at Bunko, still smiling sweetly. “I would wager that your ship is not as capable at deflecting physical munitions as it is energy scans, am I correct?” Bunko, shaking with rage, slammed his fists down on the console in front of him. “Wait!” he cried. “Damn it, wait just a millicycle.” “Captain Bunko, was it not you who just recently advised me not to take too long? I intend to follow that advice. Arming torpedo bays four through eight. Firing in five, four, three, two…” “Gwahahaha!” Bunko’s raspy laughter crackled through the bridge. “Oh, you’re good. You’re fuckin’ good, I’ll give you that. Look, I’ll tow you outta the dampening field. Just promise not to shoot. Gotta act fast though, we’re cutting it close.” “Thank you, Captain Bunko. I accept your terms,” said Zuli. “I will power down my weapons once clear of the electromagnetic anomaly. And be assured, this ship is fully capable of hitting a stationary target, even while you are towing it.” “Oh, I’ve no doubt of that!” Bunko’s laughter continued for a moment until the screen went dark. Zuli leaned back and sunk down into her chair, sighing heavily. “Can I say something, Cap?” Desmond asked. Zuli waved her assent at him. “That was fuckin’ badass!” cried Desmond. “How did you know the second anomaly was his cloaked ship?” Doyle asked. He sat across from Zuli at one of the mess hall tables. Sarah sat next to her, smirking at Doyle. “A lucky guess, Prophets bless me,” said Zuli. “It did not make sense that Bunko would be so far from any inhabited systems. It would take him a megacycle to get anywhere with combustion engines, and the fuel required to do so would not even fit in this ship, let alone his little shuttle. The only logical conclusion was that he had another more powerful ship nearby, and the second anomaly was the only clue we had. It was a bluff, but one that paid off.” Doyle, nodded approvingly. “You saved our lives again. I don’t even know how to begin thanking you.” “No thanks is necessary,” said Zuli, smiling warmly at Doyle. “My path is to serve others, in the name of the Prophets.” Doyle noticed that Sarah was still grinning widely at him. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and looked back to Zuli. “Were you able to get any information out of Bunko? Did he know anything about Takkah IV?” “No, I am sorry Doyle. Once we were free of the dampening field I prioritized our escape from the approaching ship.” “I understand,” said Doyle. It disappointed him that a possible source of answers slipped through their grip, but he couldn’t blame Zuli. He studied her from across the table, suddenly wondering just how old she was. The contrast between her short silver hair and youthful looking face beguiled him–she could be anywhere from thirty to sixty, he thought. Zuli noticed Doyle’s attention on her and looked away from him, blushing slightly. “You’re staring, Mrs. Doubtfire,” said Sarah in a monotone voice. Doyle narrowed his eyes. “What?” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” repeated Sarah. “Or no, what about Tootsie?” Doyle turned and looked frantically at Desmond, who had been sitting quietly at the end of the table. “You didn’t!” said Doyle. “I didn’t?” asked Desmond. “You did!” said Doyle. “I did,” admitted Desmond. “You were much hotter than Robin Williams, though,” Sarah said. “Dustin Hoffman, too.” “Wait, you saw me?” asked Doyle. “Oh sure, Desmond published a video of the whole thing for me.” “You published a video?!“ Doyle glared angrily at Desmond, who remained sitting quietly. “Did you ever see White Chicks?” asked Sarah. “Well, it’s been fun catching up, Zuli, but I really gotta go,” said Doyle. He stood up, violently knocking his chair to the ground before turning and walking quickly toward the exit. Sarah stood and rushed after him. “Oh and that other one, what was it? To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, something something…” “I’m not listening,” said Doyle, walking faster. Sarah picked up her pace to match his. “What about TV shows? What was that guy’s name… RuPaul? RuPaul’s Drag Race! That’s perfect!” Doyle screamed. “Are you certain?” Bunko didn’t know why he even bothered using video comms with the Takkah dark priests. The shadowy figure on his view screen lived up to his name–almost entirely shrouded in darkness. “Yeah I’ve seen images of the other ones you guys are hoarding. It was definitely a Constructor sentinel,” said Bunko. “And it was inactive?” “Yeah, busted like all the others. The chick said it was like a decoration, or statue or something. I had to get out of there to avoid the Corpseship, but I did manage to record her heading before I skedaddled.” “Send us your ship’s data,” said the dark figure. “Everything it recorded during the encounter.” Bunko squirmed slightly, trying to build up courage. His relationship with the Takkah Empire was a tenuous one at best. He knew very well what the consequences would be for outright defiance–he would never go that far. But he couldn’t just let it go without at least attempting to bargain. “I feel like maybe this information is worth a little more than the standard fare? Wouldn’t you agree?” he said tentatively. “It’s not every day I bring you a lead on Constructor technology, after all.” Bunko’s question was met with a long moment of silence. A bead of sweat made its way over the top of his goggles and streaked down the glass. Had he misjudged? He suddenly wished he had kept his mouth shut. “You will receive the usual payment,” the figure replied at last. “But should your information lead to the acquisition of Constructor technology, we will be amenable to the possibility of additional compensation.” “Good enough for me!” said Bunko, feeling both relieved and annoyed. “The data’s on its way.” “Make no mistake, Mister Bunko, the Takkah Empire does not tolerate insubordination among its vassals. I caution you against attempting such negotiations in the future. Other priests may not be as… forgiving as I.” The view screen shut off. “Fuckin’ creep,” Bunko grumbled as he prepared to transmit the data that he had doctored. He scrolled through the sensor output, grinning devilishly at his ingenuity. He had altered it just enough to keep Takkah of his ass–sending them on a wild goose chase. The priest could shove his “possibility of additional compensation” right up his shadowy ass, thought Bunko. They were gonna pay, alright. He’d make them pay a thousand times the usual fare, once he had that white-haired bitch and her robot.
It all started on a dreary Friday afternoon. It had been over a month since my last case, and twice as long since I’d heard from Magnus. They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop; if that’s true, my devil was either on vacation or one lazy son of a bitch. I must have looked a sorry sight–a lone, courageous dribble of saliva fought its way through five days worth of stubble on its way down my chin as I leaned back in my chair, feet up on the desk, with a fat stogie in one hand and a bottle of Johnnie Walker in the other. The rain crashed in hypnotic waves against the rickety window at my back. I’d been drifting in and out of sleep all afternoon–dreaming that I was on the deck of some ancient wooden barge, swaying back and forth on its creaky deck, staring out at an endless dark ocean. The clock on the wall was broken, but the dimness of the sun fighting its way through the rain clouds told me it was about time to quit drinking at the office and pick it back up at my apartment. I deposited my long-since expired cigar into my ash tray and placed the bottle of scotch next to it. The scattered envelopes, unpaid bills, and old case files that littered my desk were marred by stains. Magnus used to joke that my desk aged like a tree–you could tell how long it’d been since our last case by counting the overlapping rings of spilt booze and coffee. I glanced sidelong at his abandoned desk next to mine, glistening and pristine as always. The only thing on it was the plastic tray at its corner where he kept active case files–it was empty except for the handful of envelopes that had arrived for him in the weeks since his disappearance. I’d wrestled with the idea of opening them, curious if any bore some clue to his whereabouts, but thought better of it. His last words to me, spoken in hushed tones over the phone, were that he needed to lay low for a while and I should make no attempt to find or contact him. I had reluctantly agreed, and though I may not be much else, I am at least a man of my word. As I stood, bracing myself against the desk while grasping at booze-hazy memories of how my legs worked, I heard the front door in the lobby burst open. The wild hissing sound of the rainstorm flooded my office for a moment before the door slammed shut, drowning it out again. I collapsed back in my chair, leaning forward with my eyes fixed on the frosted glass window that looked out on the hallway from the lobby. Magnus always boasted that he could predict everything he needed to know about a case from the client’s silhouette as they passed by that window. He made a game of it–whispering his prognosis for each new client as they walked past. “Bad luck,” he’d say; “Memory loss;” Or, one of his favorites, “unwanted impure thoughts.” He was wrong more often than right, but every now and then he’d get lucky–the client would finish explaining and Magnus would catch my eye and give a self-satisfied nod. It usually irritated me, but now that he was gone it surprised me how much I missed that little ritual. In Magnus’s absence I was left to formulate my own preconceptions about this new potential client. From the shape of the silhouette and the sound of the heeled footsteps clicking across the hallway, the best I could come up with was “probably female.” As to the nature of her visit, I didn’t venture a guess. Nothing I could have imagined, naive as I was at the time, could have landed even remotely near the mark. The silhouette rounded the corner, confirming my initial impressions. The woman stood tall in the office doorway, wearing a dark blue trench coat with the collar pulled up and a matching wide-brimmed hat. Remnants of the storm dripped steadily onto the hardwood floor at her feet. The woman’s face was pale and gaunt, looking almost skeletal in the dim light. She glanced around the room and spotted the coat rack in the corner, then walked to it and hung her hat, revealing her shoulder-length black hair. After she hung her coat, I could tell her body was as lean as her face. The white buttoned shirt and blue jeans she wore should have been form-fitting on a woman as tall as she was, but on her they hung loose, like a deflated parachute. She turned toward me, continuing to look around the room as she approached. The woman paused when she saw the bottle on my desk. She looked at me with an expression of distaste. “Are you Magnus Vitale?” she asked. I shook my head. “Magnus is… indisposed, presently. I’m his partner, Sylvester Bullet.” I gestured toward one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs pushed up against my desk. “How can I help you, Mrs…” The woman remained silent for a moment. She looked down at the battered chair I had offered, then back at me. She let out a resigned sigh as she pulled the chair out and sat down delicately, placing a small black purse on her lap. “Miss Tanaka,” the woman said. “Chinami Tanaka. I need help tracking someone down.” “This someone, you suspect they hexed you?” I asked. Miss Tanaka nodded. “I assure you it’s more than a suspicion, Mr. Bullet.” My brain kicked into autopilot and I launched into the spiel that I regurgitated every time someone new walked in off the street. “These things aren’t always clear cut,” I explained. “You’d be surprised at how often people come to us, swearing up and down that they’ve been hexed, only to discover…” “May I?” Miss. Tanaka interrupted. She pointed at the bottle of Johnnie Walker between us. Her interjection startled me, despite the politeness with which she delivered it. I shrugged and slid the bottle toward her, wondering why she suddenly desired the thing that had clearly repulsed her when she first noticed it. She tossed her head back and, without touching her lips to the bottle, poured its contents into her mouth. She shook out the last few drops before delicately placing the empty bottle back on the desk. A scowl crossed her face, and her eyes met mine as she forcefully swallowed. We stared at each other in silence for a moment, then Miss Tanaka slid the bottle back toward me. I looked down at it. It wasn’t empty. In fact it still contained the exact amount of scotch it had before Miss Tanaka drank it. I furrowed my brow in confusion and glanced back up at her. Was she playing a joke on me? Some kind of illusion, or parlor trick? “I didn’t always look like this,” said Miss Tanaka. “Less than a year ago you might even have considered me overweight–an unkind observation, perhaps, but not an inaccurate one.” It was hard to picture the slender woman across from me as anything but severely underweight, but I didn’t comment. My eyes wandered back down to the perplexing bottle. I concentrated, trying to determine exactly how drunk I was. I had a nice buzz going on, sure, but not near enough that I had any doubts about what I’d just seen. She had emptied the bottle–I watched her choke it down. And yet somehow she hadn’t. “I am not completely starved,” Miss Tanaka continued. “The hex seems to prevent excess. If I eat more than the bare minimum required to keep my body alive, I find it returned to my plate as though I had never eaten it at all. Foods I once derived great pleasure from now have no taste, or, worse, present an altogether offensive palate. I am losing weight rapidly, Mr. Bullet. If it keeps pace, I fear that my life may be in grave danger very soon.” At that point in my life, I had believed myself to be something of an expert on magic. Magnus and I had been in the business of tracking down totems and dispelling hexes for over twenty years. In all that time I thought I had seen everything magic was capable of, and I had never seen anything to indicate that it could do what Miss Tanaka had just demonstrated. Hexes simply didn’t work like that–they acted subtly, influencing the victim’s life and thoughts in almost imperceptible ways. Sure, they could be life-threatening, but they killed you through the manipulation of circumstance. Maybe you get distracted and miss a stop sign; maybe you get the surgeon who, having just found out his wife is cheating on him, distractedly botches your operation; maybe you absentmindedly store the leaky box of rat poison above your open box of cereal in the pantry. The idea that magic could “un-eat” a person’s food–could actually manipulate physical objects in any way–was preposterous. I became convinced that I was being deceived. That Miss Tanaka’s demonstration was the lead-in to some kind of scam or practical joke. But I was intrigued–enough to continue playing along despite my suspicions. I nodded at Miss Tanaka gravely, trying my best to hide my incredulity. “You know who the caster is?” I asked. “Yes,” replied Miss Tanaka. “Harold and I were… We were…” She hesitated, averting her eyes from mine. “Lovers?” She shook her head. “No. Friends. At least I thought we were friends. Harold, he wanted more.” “I see,” I said. This part of the story, at least, was credible. I’d seen it shake out a thousand times. “So Harold professed his love, you turned him down, and shortly thereafter your food stops being so cooperative about being eaten.” Miss Tanaka nodded. “After I rejected him, Harold told me that I would soon know what it was to be deprived of something so essential to me as I was to him. After I realized what was happening to me, I attempted my own means of locating him. Finding people is a task for which I normally have a…” she paused, apparently searching for the right word. “A penchant. My attempts have been in vain. I suspect my inability to find Harold may be somehow related to the hex, but that is pure conjecture on my part. It is why I am here, Mr. Bullet. I was told that when it came to hexes, Mr. Vitale was the man to seek for help. But seeing as how he is not here and you are, and I am nearing my wit’s end, I shall ask you instead. Can you help me?” I studied Miss Tanaka where she sat across from me. She stared back at me with an intensity and fire in her eyes that belied her frail countenance. But her expression betrayed a quiet desperation. She looked so thin and vulnerable and pathetic in the dim light. The office was quiet except for the rain and the gentle squeaking of the ceiling fan rocking back and forth as it spun above our heads. My eyes wandered to Magnus’s vacant desk. I’d bet he would have jumped all over that case, unfazed by its apparent absurdity. I could picture him, sitting on the edge of his desk, holding Miss Tanaka’s hands in his and reassuring her that everything would be okay. He was a sucker for the romantic cases. Scorned lovers, jealous exes, cheating spouses–he drank them up like I drank Johnnie Walker. But Magnus wasn’t there, and I had no idea when he was coming back. My emotional state at the time ranged somewhere between fascinated and horrified. Maybe it was the booze, or maybe it was Miss Tanaka’s gently pleading eyes, but I found myself considering the notion that the starvation hex could be real. The implications chilled me to my bones. If all my preconceptions about magic were wrong and a hex like this was possible, what kind of monster would actually cast it? And what else was that person capable of? Taking this case on, especially without Magnus, seemed unthinkably dangerous. “Miss Tanaka,” I started. My mind raced, trying to formulate a diplomatic way to make her understand. “My last case,” I said, “was a girl who thought her father put a hex on her love life–a boy she liked, who had previously been hot to trot, suddenly lost interest.” Miss Tanaka looked at me, unblinking. “Turned out it wasn’t the father, but another girl. Did it out of jealousy. She used a few of my client’s hairs to construct the totem. It was the first time she had ever cast a hex.” Miss Tanaka opened her mouth to speak, but I raised my hand to stop her. “Bear with me,” I said. “I’m going somewhere with this, I promise. The case prior to that was a shop owner who found his clientele suddenly lacking compared to that of a rival shop in a less desirable location. The other shop’s owner used a coffee cup from my client’s trash for his totem. It was also his first hex.” “Mr. Bullet I’ve already said I want to hire you,” Miss Tanaka interjected. “You needn’t continue this ill-conceived attempt to impress me with your work history.” “Prior to that,” I continued, ignoring the interruption, “there was a man hexed by a scorned lover to lose all sexual desire for any woman but her. Before that was a competitive swimmer hexed with a fear of water. A mother hexed by her son to stop preparing vegetables for dinner. A farmer whose cows…” “Your point, please, Mr. Bullet!” Miss Tanaka said, more forcefully this time. “The point is, I’ve only ever dealt with normal, run-of-the-mill magic. The casters are inexperienced and the hexes are inconvenient and annoying to their victims at worst–like tiny buzzing gnats that you know are there but can’t see. Your hex isn’t a gnat, Miss Tanaka. It’s an army of fucking steamrollers. It’s so far above anything I’ve ever heard of or even knew was possible that I can’t begin to fathom what kind of power your Harold wields, or how dangerous he might be.” Miss Tanaka nodded. I could tell she wasn’t grasping my intention to turn her away. She reached into the purse on her lap and pulled out a rolled up wad of cash. It was thicker around than my arm. She placed it on my desk, next to an old coffee-stained bill with the words “Final Notice” stamped across it in red. I could sense she had looked up at me, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the money. “I am perfectly capable and willing to compensate you to a level commensurate with the challenge I may present,” said Miss Tanaka. “As I said, I am nearing my wit’s end. I was told Mr. Vitale was the best. I would hope that–despite appearances to the contrary–his partner would be competent at least, if not one of the best himself. I am desperate, and afraid for my life. I need to find Harold so that I may entreat him to undo what he has done.” Leaning back, but not taking my eyes off the money, I considered how nice it might be to buy groceries and restock the liquor cabinet without having to count nickels for once. With that much cash I could probably pay off all my bills, maybe even buy new chairs for the office to boot. How surprised would Magnus be if he got back to discover I’d redecorated the place? “You understand that there are no refunds,” I explained slowly to Miss Tanaka. “The totem he used must be incredibly powerful–if I’m unable to destroy it, and if he doesn’t revoke the hex willingly, there’s not much else I can do. The only other way to break the hex would be to…” “Don’t worry, Mr. Bullet. I did not come here to enlist a hired assassin,” Miss Tanaka reassured me. “If you can locate Howard I have no doubt that, if the feelings he confessed to me were true, he will see what his hex has done to me and perform the revocation. He has his share of negative qualities, but being overly vindictive and cold-hearted is not among them. I suspect he cast the hex in anger and frustration, then secluded himself somewhere away from me, unaware of just how powerful his spell had been or how much it has cost me.” I took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly as I glared at the comically large roll of green paper shining like beacon among the trash on my desk. I looked up at Miss Tanaka. The fire in her eyes still shone brightly. She exuded the energy of an impassioned, headstrong young woman; but her body was that of a frail, old lady. Her face and hands looked like bones with thin tissue paper wrapped around them for skin, and her mouth quivered at the edges, probably from the exertion it required to mask her weariness. If I were a less honest man, I’d probably say some part of me recognized at that moment what a remarkable woman she was, and that realization is what made up my mind. In reality, it was the money. I sighed heavily and shook my head. Miss Tanaka sucked in a short breath. “Miss Tanaka, I accept your case,” I said. Though she did her best to hide it, I saw the relief flood over her. Her shoulders loosened and the grimace on her face relaxed into what almost looked like a smile… Almost. She nodded curtly at me. “Very well, Mr. Bullet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve had a tiring day. I must rest and take what sustenance the hex will allow. I shall return early tomorrow to discuss the particulars.” I nodded slowly and watched Miss Tanaka rise. At that point, if Magnus were there he would have leapt to her aid–helping her on with her coat, taking her elbow, walking her through the lobby. That wasn’t my style, and I think if I had tried anything like that–lumbering toward her on my drunk legs, smelling of booze, cigars, and sweat and groping at her clothes on the coat rack–she probably would have decked me with her purse and called the cops. Instead, I watched her gather her belongings and leave the way she had come without another word. After she’d gone, leaving me alone with my conflicted thoughts, I felt my resolve begin to crumble. What had I just gotten myself into? I tentatively reached out, intending to touch the roll of bills Miss Tanaka left on my desk, but at the last second my hand swerved to the Johnnie Walker instead. I grasped the bottle and held it up, close to my eyes. The amber liquid sloshed hypnotically from side to side, much like the surface of the dark ocean I had been dreaming of all day. I put the bottle to my lips and drained it, then tossed it in the trash behind me. The empty bottle clinked against its likewise discarded brethren and remained there, empty, as I gathered my things and stepped out into the cold, wet streets that would take me home.
The station’s docking bay doors soundlessly swung open on Dak’s viewscreen, like the gaping maw of a hungry rust-covered space creature. Dak hated mining colonies–they stirred up too many unwanted memories. Under normal circumstances Dak wouldn’t have so much as farted in the colony’s direction as he blinked past, but for some reason they had gone out of their way to hail him. It wasn’t normal. Mining colonies in the Orubus Belt were xenophobic to the point of madness. The one Dak had grown up in would have preferred mass suicide to dealing with outsiders. That this colony was hailing passing strangers meant they must be in trouble. Real trouble. The kind of trouble that paid well. “Initiating automatic docking procedure.” The ship’s voice reminded Dak of his sister, to the extent that he had started calling it by her name. He didn’t believe in reincarnation, but the fantasy that Aylix somehow lived on in the ship’s computer brought him comfort. “What do your scans show, Aylix?” Dak asked out loud. “There are three thousand seven hundred and three humanoid lifeforms on board,” replied Aylix. “Two are present in the docking bay. Neither armed with conventional weapons.” Dak nodded. The station grew larger on the viewscreen at a steady pace. “I recommend caution,” Aylix added. “It could be a trap.” Dak changed into his carbon fiber bodysuit while Aylix finished docking. He pulled the hood up and slid its visor down over his eyes, and clipped his weapon harness across his chest. Two men in grime-covered overalls were waiting for him in the docking bay. “Best watch yourself here, stranger,” said one of the men. “We appreciate you answering the hail and all, but know that we got our eye on you.” “Appreciate the warm welcome,” said Dak. “Your message mentioned a reward.” The miner who had spoken–a toothpick compared to his silent companion–nodded, then looked Dak up and down. Unimpressed, he turned his attention to Aylix. “Never seen a ship like yours before,” said the miner. “She got any firepower to her?” “When she needs to,” said Dak. “Will she need to?” “I reckon she will,” said the miner. “Come. The Foreman will give you the details. Give my friend here your weapons while on board.” The taller, heavier, less talkative miner stepped forward and held out a hand that was larger than Dak’s head. Dak glared at him. “No weapons, no job,” said the smaller miner. “No job, no reward. Your choice.” Dak sighed. The interior of the station was hewn from rusty metal pipes. The walls, ceiling, and even the floor beneath the grated walkways were one big snaking maze. Dripping stalactites glistened in the station’s dim lighting. The air smelled of smoke and dampness. The two miners led Dak up a set of rattling stairs to a catwalk overlooking the refinery–a cavernous reservoir of smoking machinery and crisscrossing walkways and conveyor belts. The indistinct silhouettes of miners lining the walkways were visible through the haze. There was a door at the end of the catwalk; the two miners ushered Dak through. In the room, sitting behind a desk, was the most obese man Dak had ever seen. Presumably the Foreman. Dak recognized the symbol tattooed across his face at once–the mark of a Takkah agent. An unexpected sight; either Dak was further from the outer rim than he thought, or the Takkah Empire had expanded its control over mining operations in the Orubus Belt considerably. The miners waited outside the office. They didn’t bother introducing Dak. “I take it you’re interested in the reward,” the Foreman said. “What should I call you?” “Syphon,” said Dak. “Dak Syphon.” The Foreman leaned forward in his chair. “We can’t offer currency, Mr. Syphon. But you’ll get a full tank of fuel and a crate of this if you can help us.” The Foreman slid a half-empty bottle across his desk toward Dak. Dak picked it up and sniffed at it. Mining colony moonshine was the stuff of legends–near impossible for outsiders to get a hold of. Dak put the bottle back down on the desk. “What’s the job?” “There’s a large debris field on the other side of our planetoid, orbiting in opposition to the station,” said the Foreman. “Hidden in the debris is an old but functioning freighter ship.” “You want me to retrieve it?” asked Dak. “Hardly,” said the Foreman. “I want you to destroy it, and ideally the damn necromancer who lives there too.” Dak blinked. “The… necromancer?” “Yeah. The necromancer. A magister of the dark arts,” continued the Foreman. “He’s been a thorn in my side and a blight on this station for a hundred kilocycles, ever since we banished him from the colony. But now he’s taken it too far.” Dak crossed his arms. Was the Foreman pulling his leg, or just stupid? Necromancers were the things of old spacefarer’s tales. “He’s been sabotaging the station, making us look like fools when Takkah comes to collect the ore,” said the Foreman. “And now he’s started kidnapping our younglings!” “Kidnapping?” asked Dak. “Aye,” said the Foreman. “Two younglings went missing from their beds not a hundred cycles ago. Plus their matron and another boy, nearly younglings themselves.” “The necromancer took them?” Dak asked incredulously. “Look,” sighed the Foreman. “I don’t need you to believe me. Just destroy the ship and you’ll get paid.” “And the kids?” asked Dak. “The ship is the job,” said the Foreman. Then he shrugged. “If you happen to return the kids, alive and still of use to the colony, I’ll throw in a second crate of moonshine.” It seemed like a simple enough task, despite all the nonsense about necromancers. Dak nodded and stood up. “We have a deal.” Dak shook hands, then returned to the catwalk where the two miners waited to escort him back to Aylix. “Dak, can you hear me?” Aylix’s voice sounded in Dak’s head. She spoke through his endermic lattice–a net-like subspace communications relay embedded in the back of his neck. It allowed Aylix to speak to him privately. Dak sighed loudly. “Never mind, don’t answer,” said Aylix. “I know how much you hate it when people think you’re talking to them when you’re actually talking to me. I heard the whole conversation through your lattice. I don’t trust the Foreman. Why is he so unconcerned about getting the children back?” If this colony was like the one he grew up in, then Dak knew the answer. “How young do you start your kids in the mines?” Dak asked, speaking loud over the ruckus of the refinery. “If they can walk, they can work,” the skinny miner shouted. “Younglings are better at getting in them tight nooks in the mine.” Dak gritted his teeth. “Those poor kids,” Aylix said through his lattice. “Yeah,” whispered Dak, hoping that the clattering and hissing machinery would drown him out. “Those four missing are probably the lucky ones.” “Did you say something?” the skinny miner shouted. “God damn it,” said Dak. Calling the debris field “large” had been an understatement. The discarded machinery, wrecked ships, and other refuse took up ten times the volume of the planetoid it orbited. The colony must have been dumping its waste there for generations. Dak guessed less than a megacycle before the accretion disc reached around the planetoid and engulfed the mining station. “Any sign of the freighter, Aylix?” asked Dak. “Scanning,” said Aylix. “It may take a while, there’s a lot of trash out there.” Dak leaned back in his seat and put his feet up on the cockpit dash. “Better than the trash back on that station,” he said, then spat on the floor. “Was that anything like the colony you grew up in?” Aylix asked through his lattice. “Mmm hmm,” said Dak. “Not as bad though. They didn’t send us to the mines until we turned fourteen.” “Did you work in the mines?” asked Aylix. A distant memory forced itself into Dak’s consciousness. His Foreman glowering down at him through a haze of smoke, tinted red by flashing lights; a ringing in his ears. “I… left before I turned fourteen,” said Dak. “What happened?” asked Aylix. “An accident,” said Dak. “My sister, she…” “You mean Aylix,” interrupted Aylix. “My namesake.” “She… died. I didn’t want any part of the colony after that.” “And they let you leave?” asked Aylix. “No, it wasn’t that easy. I had to…” “Are you telling me the truth, Dak?” interrupted Aylix. Dak remained silent. “What did you do, Dak?” asked Aylix. Dak shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “What did you do to me?” Dak’s sister’s voice pleaded over his lattice. “Shut up!” cried Dak. “We’re done talking about this.” “A probe has located the freighter,” said Aylix, no longer using the lattice. Her voice had returned to normal. Dak leaned toward the viewscreen. “Show me.” The viewscreen flickered, then centered on a large shadow, slowly drifting against the thick backdrop of glittering debris. “Looks like a derelict,” said Dak. “The probe detects five humanoid lifeforms aboard,” said Aylix. The math added up. One kidnapper plus four kids. Dak grimaced. Firing off a couple guided missiles to take out the freighter felt like the safest course of action, but that would mean killing the kids and–more importantly–missing out on the second crate of moonshine. “Move in,” said Dak. “Let’s see if necromancers answer their doorbells.” They had stolen the smallest mining skiff they could find, figuring it would be a while before anyone noticed it missing. Jotu sat in the cramped cockpit next to Sh’ren, staring at the advancing stars on the viewscreen. The two younglings slept in the cargo bay behind them. Sh’ren was leaning forward in the co-pilot’s seat, rocking back and forth and wringing her fingers. “Relax, Sh’ren,” said Jotu. “If anyone was following us, they would have shown themselves by now.” “Did we do the right thing, Jotu?” asked Sh’ren. “Of course,” said Jotu. He reached over and stilled her fidgeting hands. “We had no choice.” Jotu placed his hand on Sh’ren’s belly. “You’ve started showing Sh’ren. You know as well as I what the Foreman would have done if he found out.” “But we have nothing, Jotu!” said Sh’ren. “Where will we go? How will we survive? We are as good as dead. And we have doomed not only ourselves, but the younglings as well! I think we should turn ba…” The door to the cargo bay flew open, and Taila and Koru burst into the cockpit. “No!” Taila cried as she climbed onto Sh’ren’s lap. “We don’t want to go back!” “Yeah!” said Koru, puffing his chest out. “I hate the colony! I want to go have adventures!” “What have I told you two about eavesdropping?” Sh’ren scolded the two younglings. “Return to bed at once!” “Yes, Sh’ren,” the two children said together. Taila slunk to the floor, and Koru’s heroic pose deflated. They shuffled back to the cargo bay, taking one last longing look before closing the door behind them. “Such brats,” said Sh’ren, though her warm smile revealed how she truly felt about the younglings. “Oh Jotu, I love them so much.” “I do too,” said Jotu. “That is why we can’t go back. What life is there for them in the colony? Koru is not strong like the other boys his age, you know what they do with boys like him. And Taila? The way some of the Overseers leer at her I think they want to take her as a breeder already…” “Stop it!” said Sh’ren. She started weeping. “Just stop!” Jotu squeezed Sh’ren’s hands. “When you became their matron you agreed to see to their needs,” he said. “That is what we are doing.” “But where will we go?” Sh’ren asked, staring hard at Jotu through the tears in her eyes. Jotu let go of Sh’ren’s hands and looked away. It was time to tell her. “Jotu? What is it?” Jotu closed his eyes. “Before we left, I was in contact with… With someone who can help us. He gave me coordinates to the nearest trade route. He gave me this.” Jotu retrieved a small object from a pouch on his belt and held it out–a black diamond-shaped device, glowing red along its edges. Sh’ren took it from him, holding it up to study it. “It’s a communication device,” said Jotu. “I can use it to signal a ship on the trade route, then exchange it for passage to… To somewhere safe. Where we can start a new life with the younglingss. Where you can…” “Who gave this to you, Jotu? Who in the colony would dare keep such a device secret from the Overseers and the Foreman?” “He is not of the colony,” said Jotu. “Not anymore.” Sh’ren’s eyes opened wide, and the color drained from her face. “Jotu, no!” She shoved the device back into Jotu’s hand and shrank back from him. Jotu returned the object to its pouch. “He is not what they say he is,” said Jotu. “He is my… He wished to end the injustices…” “He is a necromancer!” shouted Sh’ren. “That is not true,” said Jotu, trying hard to remain calm. “The real reason Kareth was banished…” “Do not speak his name!” Sh’ren cried in horror. She put her head in her hands and moaned. “No, Jotu. What have you done?” Sh’ren’s quiet weeping pierced Jotu’s heart. His confession had gone worse than he feared, and he hadn’t even fully explained the device. She will come around and accept the truth about Kareth, thought Jotu. She will have to. After a cycle of careful navigation through scattered wreckage and detritus, Aylix had approached close enough to illuminate the freighter with her external spotlights. It dwarfed her in size, and had the same rusty eroded look to it as the mining station. The lifeform scan was up on Dak’s console–all five blips were clustered together. One was much brighter than the others. Dak opened his mouth to ask why, but was interrupted. “We’ve been spotted,” said Aylix. “The freighter’s hailing us.” “Bring it up on screen.” A man’s head appeared on the viewscreen. A hood obscured the top half of his face in shadow; the lower half sported a long white beard that extended down off screen. “Go away,” said the man. “I’ll be happy to,” said Dak. “Once the children are safely returned to the colony.” “The children are none of your concern,” the man barked back. “Leave, or I’ll destroy your ship.” Aylix spoke through Dak’s lattice. “He’s bluffing. The freighter has some energy weapons, but they’re depleted.” “I’m not leaving without the children,” said Dak. He meant it. He had no intention of leaving without that second crate of moonshine. The man on the viewscreen fidgeted with his beard, then his expression hardened. “The children are dead,” he said. “Didn’t they tell you? I’m a necromancer–just destroy me and be done with it.” “I know they’re not dead,” said Dak slowly. “I scan all four of them with you.” The man’s steely expression gave way to panic. “What? No, those aren’t the children, damn it. The children are dead.” The man gave a frustrated grunt. “They sent you to kill me, right? Allow me to make your job easier.” The viewscreen blinked off. “He’s powering up the freighter’s engines,” said Aylix. “He’s running?” asked Dak. “Unlikely. The freighter’s propulsion systems are too structurally unsound.” Dak stroked his chin. “What kind of engines?” “Primitive combustion tech,” replied Aylix. “If the propulsion systems are shot, where does the energy go?” asked Dak. “Nowhere,” said Aylix. “It stays in the engines.” Dak’s eyes opened wide. “Does that mean what I think it means?” “Yes,” said Aylix. “Judging from the energy accumulation rate, I estimate nine hundred millicycles before they explode.” Dak nodded. “Hypothetically speaking, how much time would we need to get to a safe distance?” “Hypothetically,” said Aylix, “a hundred millicycles should be sufficient to escape the blast radius.” “So, another hundred fifty to cut through the freighter’s hull. We could do it here, near the lifeform readings,” said Dak, pointing at his console and thinking aloud. “Plus fifty or so at the end to detach… That would give me six hundred millicycles to get those kids off the freighter.” “More like five hundred and eighty, now,” said Aylix. “Do it,” said Dak. “What happened to hypothetical?” asked Aylix. “Shit’s about to get real,” said Dak. After she calmed down, Sh’ren left to tell stories to the younglings in the cargo bay. Jotu listened to her from the cockpit and smiled. When he was a youngling, Jotu’s matron never told him bedtime stories. She never spoke to him at all, except to scold him. Sh’ren was different from anyone he had ever known–she had somehow avoided the insidious languor that infected every person in the colony old enough to work. Jotu had nearly succumbed himself, but meeting Sh’ren brought light to his life. She had saved him. Now it was his turn to save her. An incoming message beeped on his console. Jotu reached back and closed the door to the cargo bay, then answered the hail. Kareth appeared on the viewscreen. His hood was up, obscuring his eyes in shadow. “Father,” said Jotu. “We’ve reached the coordinates. Are you on your way?” Kareth shook his head and frowned. Jotu shifted uneasily in his seat. “What’s wrong, Father?” “I can’t join you as planned, Jotu. You must use the stone as I showed you…” “Why!?” interrupted Jotu. “You said you’d join us! We can’t do this alone! We’ll wait here, however long you need to…” “Jotu!” Kareth commanded. Jotu fell silent. “It is no longer safe to wait,” continued Kareth. “Signal a ship with the stone, but do not trade it. I have its sister stone–it will allow me to find you across any distance. I will join you when I can.” “I don’t want to leave you, Father,” said Jotu. He fought the tears welling in his eyes. “I’m scared.” “Fear is a transient thing,” said Kareth. “You mustn’t let it govern you. You were afraid when you found the stone and I spoke to you through it for the first time. But you overcame. You were scared when I told you I was the necromancer.” Jotu sniffled. “Yes, but you’re not…” “But you overcame,” interrupted Kareth. “You were scared when you gathered Sh’ren and the younglings and stole the mining skiff.” “Yes, but…” “But nothing,” said Kareth. “Fear must drive action, not inaction. If you wallow in it your fear will consume you, and then you will be truly lost. That is not who you are. You are Jotu. You are my son and you will do what you must to protect those you love.” Jotu thought back to the night he first found the stone and heard Kareth’s voice. It took time, but Jotu came to trust and care for that voice. In the colony, fathers and sons did not have relationships–child rearing was strictly for the matrons. But Jotu found a comfort in his bond with Kareth that rivaled even his feelings for Sh’ren and the baby in her belly. The thought of continuing on without his father filled Jotu with a profound sadness. “Very well, Father,” said Jotu. “I will do as you say.” Kareth nodded. “Jotu, my son. Before you go, know that I…” A sound from behind Kareth interrupted him. He turned, facing away from the viewscreen. “Father? What happened?” Jotu said, leaning forward. “Why are you here?” cried Kareth, stepping away from the viewscreen toward the center of the room. “I already told you, I killed them! And now I’ll kill you!” Jotu’s heart raced. He slammed his fists on the console. He watched Kareth fling his cloak back and reach for the blaster at his thigh. There was a flash. Kareth toppled backwards and his arms flailed. For a brief, sickening moment, Jotu thought he could see light through a fist-sized hole on Kareth’s back. Then Kareth collapsed out of sight, leaving a thin wisp of white smoke trailing up from the bottom of the viewscreen. “Father!” Jotu screamed. His breath came to him in short gasps. He felt the veins in his neck and forehead throbbing. He slammed his fists again in frustration. The smoke cleared, and a figure moved forward into focus–a man in a black jumpsuit with a visor over his eyes, holding a pistol. The man looked up from where Kareth’s lifeless body would be. Jotu gritted his teeth and seared the man’s appearance into his memory. The jumpsuit, the visor, a scar running below his left eye across the bridge of his nose, the hint of a miner’s tattoo peeking above the suit’s neckline. Jotu’s eyes narrowed. Once Sh’ren and the children are safe, he thought, I will find this man again. And I will kill him. Dak didn’t like the look the kid was giving him. He knew that look. He’d used it himself on occasion. Dak thought about telling the kid he was sorry–that the old man had given him no choice. But he knew it wouldn’t change anything. Instead he leveled his pistol at the console beneath the viewscreen and squeezed the trigger. The viewscreen went dark. The ship rumbled. A twang sounded above Dak’s head, and he ducked to avoid an electric cable swinging down from the ceiling. The freighter was shaking itself apart. If Dak were to believe the spacefarer’s tales, he would have expected to find it filled with the scattered remains of sacrificial victims, blood runes scribbled on the floors and walls, and stale air that smelled of death. But it was just a regular old ship. And the man he had killed was just a regular old man. Dak took a closer look at the body on the ground. The so-called necromancer clutched something in his white-knuckled fist, refusing to let go even in death. Dak pried the fingers open. A small black diamond-shaped object clattered to the floor. Dak picked it up and studied it curiously. It glowed red along its edges. “Time’s almost up, Dak,” Aylix said through the lattice. “Grab the kids and get out of there.” The ship rumbled again. The ceiling in the corner of the room collapsed with a deafening roar. Dak pocketed the object and looked around. “I don’t see any kids,” said Dak. “You’re right on top of them,” said Aylix. “The engines are beyond critical. Forget the kids and get out of there.” The fog of dust from the collapsed ceiling thinned as it settled. Dak spotted four pods leaning against the far wall. They looked big enough to hold a person each. “I may have spotted them,” he said. “The engines have melted through their housings,” warned Aylix as Dak approached the pods. “Structural integrity is falling fast. Even if the engines don’t blow for a few hundred millicycles, the ship won’t last that long.” Through a small rectangular window on the nearest pod, dark-skinned with her eyes closed like she was sleeping, Dak saw not a child, but a woman. Curls of dark brown hair framed her tranquil face. Dak pressed his hand against the window. He had never seen anyone with skin so smooth. “They’re in some kind of pods,” said Dak. “Too heavy to move.” “Come back,” said Aylix. “If the engines don’t blow first, and assuming you make it here alive, I’ll see what I can do about the pods.” Dak ran his hands up and down the sides of the woman’s pod, failing to find a release mechanism. Beads of sweat ran down the back of his arms. The temperature on the ship was rising at an alarming rate. “Dak, you don’t want to die like this. Not like I did.” Aylix was speaking with his sister’s voice again. Dak pounded his fist against the coffin-like pod in frustration. He took one last look at the woman behind the glass, then sprinted out of the room. Running as fast as his legs could take him, lungs burning as he gasped the hot air, Dak lurched through the buckling hallway until he reached the hole Aylix had punched through the hull. As soon as he collapsed through, the airlock slammed shut. The ship shuddered as Aylix detached herself from the freighter. “Plotting a course for anywhere-but-here, top speed…” Aylix’s voice came over the intercom. “No!” cried Dak. “Not yet!” “Those engines are going to explode any nanocycle now, and take us with…” “Wait!” Dak struggled to his feet. He felt faint, and his skin was on fire, but he managed to stumble to the cockpit. The freighter–or what remained of it–was visible on the viewscreen. The blinding white glow of the overloaded engines burst through the freighter’s ruptured shell in a hundred places. “Use the pulse cannon, cut away the hull of the room I was in,” said Dak, breathing heavily. “Dak, this is crazy,” said Aylix. “You’re putting yourself in extreme danger. For what? Another woman?” “Do it!” yelled Dak. The viewscreen lit up with the pulse cannon’s blast. A section of the freighter’s hull shattered. The glow from the freighter’s engines intensified. “Zoom in,” said Dak. The viewscreen magnified the blasted section of the freighter’s hull. “Dak! You don’t want her! She’s not worth…” “There!” Among the floating shards of hull, Dak spotted two of the pods spinning away from the freighter–one intact, one charred black. Dak’s heart raced as he stared at the intact pod. Was it her? “Emergency protocols activated,” came Aylix’s voice. A slight vibration rattled through the ship. The viewscreen became a blur. “Wait! What the fuck are you doing?” cried Dak. “The pod…!” The viewscreen flashed, bathing the cockpit in brilliant white light. The vibrations rattling Aylix intensified to violent spasms as the shockwave from the explosion overtook her. The last image that flashed through Dak’s mind before he lost consciousness was the woman’s perfect, glowing face. Two miners stood guard next to Aylix’s open cargo bay doors. The same miners who had greeted Dak on his first visit to the colony, only this time they had rifles slung over their shoulders. “Where’s my payment?” asked Dak. “The Foreman’s on his way,” said the smaller miner. Dak wondered if the bigger guy ever spoke. Why was the Foreman getting involved? Dak’s business with the colony had concluded–they should have paid him and told him to fuck off as soon as he returned. Every inch of Dak’s skin burned and itched. Daggers pierced his muscles, and his head pounded. Aylix had suffered moderate damage from the explosion–half her sensor arrays were shot, most of her armor plating had disintegrated, and her computers reported failures in systems that Dak hadn’t known existed. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that at the last second, Aylix had managed to save the pod. To save the woman. “I don’t like this,” Aylix said through Dak’s lattice. Dak didn’t like it either, but he needed the fuel and moonshine more than ever. Repairing Aylix would be expensive. “Mister Syphon,” the Foreman’s voice rang across the docking bay. Dak watched the fat man waddle toward him and the two miners. “The necromancer is dead,” said Dak. “Pay and I’ll be on my way.” “Ah, about that,” said the Foreman. “It’s my understanding that the necromancer destroyed the freighter himself. Overloaded the engines, as I heard it.” Dak shook his head. “I shot him.” “You have proof of this?” asked the Foreman. “How do I know you didn’t watch the old man commit suicide from the comfort of your ship and then fly straight back here.” “You think this happened to me in the comfort of my ship?” Dak cried, pulling the collar of his armor down to expose more scorched flesh. The foreman scratched his chin, a smug expression on his face. His eyes darted behind Dak toward Aylix. He frowned. “Seems I’m mistaken,” said the Foreman. “You were on the freighter. You found something that belongs to me.” Dak followed the Foreman’s gaze to the rear of Aylix’s cargo bay. The pod Aylix had rescued leaned against the back wall. “I have nothing that belongs to you,” Dak sneered. “Well, perhaps not to me,” said the Foreman. “A Takkah barge came through to collect ore a kilocycle ago. It towed the wreckage of a ship bearing the same markings as that pod. I suspect the necromancer pilfered it. I’ll make sure the Takkah Empire knows it was you who returned their missing property.” The foreman nodded at the two miners. The smaller one aimed his rifle at Dak; the larger one started moving toward the cargo bay. “Dak…” Aylix said through his lattice. “Dak think hard before you do anything hasty. There’s one of you and three of them.” “Exactly,” Dak said out loud. “Three…” The Foreman looked at Dak and cocked his head. “What did you…” The smaller miner was the first to fall. A hole ripped through his brain faster than it could signal his finger to pull the trigger. “Two…” Before the first miner’s corpse hit the ground, Dak hit the second with another head shot. “One…” The Foreman looked wide eyed at the two bodies, then fell to his knees. Dak took a couple steps and aimed his gun at the Foreman’s head. “Wait!” cried the Foreman. “Don’t you realize what Takkah will do to you if you kill me?” Dak studied the dark tattoo splayed across the fat man’s face. He was a marked agent. Property of the Takkah Empire. “I don’t know,” said Dak. “Maybe something like this?” He pulled the trigger. The Foreman’s body slumped forward with a satisfying thud at Dak’s feet. “Zero.” Dak put his hands on his hips and turned to face Aylix. “Well,” he said, “that didn’t go as planned.” “No shit,” said Aylix. “They’re probably not going to pay me now,” said Dak. “No shit,” said Aylix. “We better get outta here,” said Dak. “No shit,” said Aylix.
There was no doubt about it–the old man’s coordinates were in the Orubus Belt. The Belt was a lawless zone, claimed by none of the prefectures. Whispers of missing ships and entire crews gone mad kept all but the most foolhardy of adventurers far from its borders. All trade routes between neighboring systems circumnavigated it, leaving the Belt almost entirely uncharted. Zuli was a more than a little apprehensive, but she had promised to deliver the old man to his coordinates. And Zuli was not one to break her promises. Zuli made the sign of the Prophets across her face and muttered a short prayer. She pressed the comm button next to the navigational display on her console. “Are you certain of these coordinates?” Zuli said. “They are taking us into…” “Yes, I’m sure!” the old man’s voice came crackling over the comm system. “I know where it’s taking us. You promised! You can’t back out now!” Zuli frowned. She had no intention of breaking her promise. “No worries,” Zuli said. “The Prophets shall watch over us, even in the Orubus Belt.” “Yeah, yeah,” the old man’s voice blurted. “Just let me know when we approach the coordinates. I’ll have preparations to make.” Zuli scowled and released her finger from the comm button. She made the sign of the Prophets once more and asked for a blessing of patience. Zuli had taken pity on the old man at the New Antilles spaceport. She noticed him at the docks, dragging his large cargo container behind him and begging every passing merchant and trader for passage aboard their ship. Those who didn’t ignore him outright were quick to dismiss him once they learned of his destination. Now Zuli understood why. Zuli flicked her finger across the navigational chart on her console and flung it to the bridge’s main display. A spider web of specks and lines appeared near the bottom of the large glass screen, illuminating Zuli’s face with their dull green glow. The top half of the screen remained ominously blank. The blank space gradually expanded downward, pushing the web of charted systems and trade routes off the bottom edge of the display. Soon they would cross the border into the Orubus Belt. A red dot started flashing inside the empty map of the Orubus Belt. Zuli blinked and stared at the spot. The hairs on the back of her neck tingled, the way they always did when the Prophets were about to test her. Pulsing concentric circles expanded around the dot and faded away, like ripples in a red pond. A distress signal! Based on its proximity to their destination, intercepting the distress signal would require a slight deviation from their current heading. She tapped the alteration into her control panel, and felt an almost imperceptible shudder from the ship as it adjusted course. “What are you doing? Why have you changed course?” the old man’s voice boomed over the comm. “You promised!” Zuli sighed. “No worries, friend,” she replied. “I have detected a distress signal not far from your coordinates. I must investigate and help if I can. It is on the way.” “No!” cried the old man. “You promised to take me!” “I did promise,” said Zuli. “And I will take you. If you are unhappy with the path the Prophets have chosen for me then you are free to disembark and seek another ship whose captain is more willing to…” “Gah!” the old man cut Zuli off with a frustrated grunt. “Do what you must, but remember your promise.” Zuli sighed. The ship’s sensors indicated that the old man was still in the cargo hold. “It will be several cycles yet before we reach the distress signal or your destination,” she said into the comm. “Perhaps you would be more comfortable in one of the crew quarters, or here on the bridge with me.” “I’m fine where I am,” said the old man. The old man’s answer didn’t come as a surprise. He hadn’t left his cargo container alone for a nanocycle since boarding the ship. It was, perhaps, for the best; Zuli didn’t think he’d be very good company on the bridge. Something about the old man’s demeanor and the way he coddled that cargo container unsettled Zuli in a way she had never experienced before. Zuli released the comm button and returned her attention to the main display. The red pulsating dot–still alone in the wide empty space of the Orubus Belt–captivated her. She had heard dozens of tales of the Orubus Belt, and dismissed them as absurd. But now, as they approached its border, the seeds of doubt crept into her mind. The tales often told of dark, incomprehensible cosmic forces dwelling deep within the Belt. Zuli closed her eyes, recalling the horrific tales, and wondering what the Prophets had in store for her. Desmond sat under the desert planet’s perpetual night sky at the edge of what used to be a giant sand-worm pit. The nightly howling windstorms had filled it up, burying the sand-worm’s remains and turning the pit into more of a slight depression. Desmond stroked Bae in his lap and listened to Doyle calling Sarah to join them outside of the ship. “I am not eating one more of those… Those things!” Sarah shouted from inside. “Fine,” said Doyle, looking down at the mound of oozing baby sand-worms in his arms. “Just promise me you’ll crawl off somewhere before the end, I don’t want to see what death by starvation looks like.” That could take a while, thought Desmond. With an adequate supply of water even the frailest of human-derived species could potentially live for months without food. Desmond wondered how he knew that. It seemed to him that ever since he managed to side-load himself into the strange robot that now served as his body, he had gradually been gaining access to new knowledge. He was still an unprivileged user process running on the robot, though. Without root access, most of the robot’s systems outside of basic sensory input and motor functions remained an inaccessible mystery to him. “Don’t worry I’ll keep my distance,” Sarah called back. “The stench will keep me away.” Doyle sniffed his armpit and scrunched his nose. “Oh, you’re one to talk,” Doyle yelled toward the door of the ship. “Not exactly miss cinnamon and spice yourself.” Doyle trudged across the sand to where Desmond was sitting. He tossed the armful of baby sand-worms onto the ground. Bae leapt from Desmond’s lap to eat them. Doyle sighed as he watched the animal gleefully munching and snorting. “Is there anything we can do to get the stove or the bath back? Even for just a few hours?” Doyle asked Desmond. Desmond shook his head. “No bueno, bruh. There’s barely enough juice for the water purification and distress beacon.” Sighing, Doyle collapsed to a sitting position next to the pile of sand-worms. He grabbed one and shoved it in his mouth, making a face of disgust as he swallowed. “Any response to the beacon?” “Nah, it’s one-way. If there’s a response you’ll know. Dudes will just show up.” Sarah appeared at the ship’s doorway. She stomped across the sand to where Desmond and Doyle were sitting and, without saying a word, scooped a handful of baby sand-worms from the pile. Bae bounded after Sarah as she headed back to the ship. “You know,” said Desmond. Sarah stopped, her back still turned. “I think Heady would be pretty impressed with you guys,” continued Desmond. “He consumed thirty seven point five bugs in all the videos I had access to on the Ark. You guys probably got him beat a hundred times over by now. You should be proud.” Doyle gave a snort of laughter. “Fuck it,” said Sarah. She turned and sat down next to Doyle and Desmond. “I’ll do it for the content.” Sarah ate a worm. Desmond looked past Sarah to the large mound of sand in the distance where he had buried Bae’s mother. In spite of Doyle’s objections, Sarah had refused to consider the large rhino-pig’s potential value as a food source. The supply of baby sand-worms had also been dwindling since Desmond had killed the giant worm. Desmond had noted that the rate at which Sarah and Doyle were losing weight had accelerated, and both were suffering from a lack of energy. He wasn’t sure how much longer they could survive like this. A sudden gust of wind from above kicked sand up around the ship. Bae snorted and scurried over to Sarah, who scooped the tiny animal up in her lap. Another gust of wind hit, harder this time. “Is that a sandstorm?” asked Doyle. Desmond looked up. “Nah, bruh,” he said, and pointed. “Look!” A glowing spherical craft descended from the sky, blasting gusts of wind downward as it slowed. It settled on the sand twenty feet from the awe-struck trio. Desmond got to his feet and grabbed grub-smasher–the large metal scrap that Doyle used when fishing for sand-worms. The sphere went dark, then a doorway slid open and a ramp extended to the ground. A woman with short silver hair and orange eyes stepped out of the ship. Her silky dark blue robe flowed hypnotically in the wind. The woman made a gesture in front of her face with her hand, then started to speak. Desmond did not recognize the language. Doyle jumped to his feet. “Yeah! Oh God do we ever!” he cried, and started approaching the woman. “Dude, keep back, we don’t know why she’s here yet…” said Desmond. “What? She got the distress signal! She literally just asked if we needed a ride,” Doyle said. “Wait, you can understand her?” asked Sarah. A confused expression crossed Doyle’s face. He ran a finger across his forehead, like he was feeling for something. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “I mean, I know she’s not speaking English, but I understood every word she said.” The woman spoke again. “That’s right!” said Doyle. “That asshole who took the Ark, he shot something onto my forehead. She said it’s like a universal translator or something.” “Universal translator?” said Sarah. “What is this, Star Trek?” “Fascinating,” said Desmond. “The man who took your ship gave you this?” Zuli asked, turning the small white slate over in her hands. Its black markings didn’t look like any language she was familiar with. The man named Doyle stuffed two more green food cubes into his already-full mouth and nodded. “I’m sorry but I have no idea what this is,” said Zuli. She handed the slate back to Doyle. The man and his young female companion ate ravenously as Zuli watched. “So the two of you were stranded all alone on that planet? You poor things,” said Zuli. “Four of us,” said the girl named Sarah. Sarah pointed at the large robot who sat silent at the end of the mess-hall table, and at the tiny creature in her lap. “Ah, yes, my apologies,” said Zuli, bowing her head. The translator patch that Zuli had fabricated for the girl seemed to be working, but she couldn’t do anything for the robot. The robot had not understood any of the languages that Zuli knew how to speak, leaving her with no means of direct communication with the machine. The robot spoke to Doyle in their native tongue. Doyle nodded, then turned to Zuli. “Desmond says if you’ll grant him access to your ship’s computers, he can try to learn your language,” said Doyle. The robot spoke to Doyle again. “Also he wants to know if he can recharge somewhere.” “Of course,” said Zuli. “As you must eat food to live, your friend must also have sustenance. Desmond may join me on the bridge to interface with the computers and recharge once you are finished eating.” Zuli continued to watch Doyle and Sarah as they ate. The poor things were starving–she wondered what they had been surviving on, stranded for so long on that desert planet. They looked malnourished by any humanoid standards, and their clothing was ragged and stained. “I imagine you two could use some rest,” she said. “Perhaps while Desmond accompanies me to the bridge, you two would like to avail yourselves of the beds, baths, and clean clothes in this ship’s crew quarters…” “Baths!?” Sarah interrupted. Chunks of green food cube and spittle sprayed from her mouth. “Did you say baths?” Zuli smiled and nodded. “Please, for as long as the Prophets’ paths for us are aligned, this ship is your home as much as it is mine. There is one other passenger, an old man who has requested transport to coordinates that we currently approach. Once we have delivered him to his destination, I shall help you find your ship, if that is your wish.” Doyle grinned and nodded. Sarah shrugged and continued eating. The strange robot continued to sit in silence. Zuli crossed her hands in her lap and quietly asked the Prophets to bless her and her new companions as they ventured deeper into the Orubus Belt. Sarah stared awe-struck at a small nozzle jutting from the wall above her tub. The mere idea of soap had become such a distant memory that she refused to get excited. Then she tapped the dispenser and the minty aroma filled her nostrils and she felt like she might cry. It was the longest, most luxurious bath Sarah had taken in all the twenty two years she had been alive. She had shampooed her hair five times before it started to resemble something she was familiar with. She had initially avoided looking at the bathroom’s body-length mirror, afraid of what she might see. But after her bath, she managed to muster the courage. Sarah didn’t recognize the frail, alarmingly thin girl who stared back at her from the mirror. She used her finger to trace the hollow depression under her rib cage where her belly used to be, then the sunken shadows around her eyes. She wasn’t hungry–she felt bloated and wished she had eaten less of the green cubes that Zuli had given them. She wondered how that idiot Doyle was doing–the way he scarfed down those cubes had been embarrassing. He probably ate ten times the amount Sarah had. Despite her tummy ache, the bath had invigorated Sarah, and she decided to do some exploring before bed. She left her soiled security uniform on the bathroom floor and headed to her closet to find it stocked with clean clothes. Sarah dressed in a pair of tan cloth pants and a black silk top that fit her well enough, along with a pair of slippers. When Sarah opened the door that led to the ship, Bae jolted up, leaped from the bed, and bounded out behind her. To Sarah, the ship felt strangely reminiscent of the Nikola’s Children compound back on Earth. Clean, colorless, utilitarian hallways and rooms that served their purpose with little flourish. Everything in the ship seemed somehow softer than the compound had been. Rounded corners replaced sharp right angles. Instead of solid concrete, the floor felt slightly spongy, as though carpeted with a thin layer of rubber. The walls felt smoother–like some kind of plastic. The lighting–provided by a continuous illuminated strip running along the center of all the ship’s walls–felt warmer than the compound’s harsh fluorescents. It felt strange to think that her life with Nikola’s Children was over. She had spent almost her entire life inside the compound. Sarah had known it would end–they drilled the idea of colonizing the New Home into all the kids who grew up there, but that idea never seemed entirely real. Sarah had believed only because It’s what her father told her to believe. After Sarah passed through the mess hall and into another hallway, the lights flickered and took on a reddish hue. Sarah’s vision went hazy and she felt nauseated. Was it the ship that was trembling? Or her?. A whispering noise tickled the edge of Sarah’s perception. The whispering washed over her in waves, coming from further down the hall. Sarah placed her hand on one wall, bracing herself, and took a few shaky steps. Bae made distressed noises at her feet. “Shhh,” Sarah hushed the rhino-pig as she followed the whispering to its source. As she drew closer it sounded like a man’s voice, coming from a room further down the hall. Sarah stepped gingerly as she approached the doorway, then peeked inside. Stacks of gray crates filled the room, surrounding an old man at its center. Beneath a dark, hooded robe Sarah saw the man’s thin white beard below his shadowy, sunken eyes. He stood next to a container–different from the others in the room–and muttered at it. When his back turned, Sarah crept into the room and hid behind a crate. “We’ll be together again soon,” the man said in a strained, raspy voice. “I’ll perform the sacrament. I’ll deliver the sacrifice. Blood for blood. Blood for…” The old man started whimpering. Was he crying? “Oh my child,” said the man. “Oh my sweet, sweet child what have I done? What have I become?” The ship trembled and Sarah’s vision went blurry again. Fear gripped her chest. She leaned her back against the crate, breathing heavily. The old man’s raspy weeping terrified her. The noise of somebody falling in the hallway startled Sarah. “What was that? Who’s there?” the old man barked. Sarah grabbed Bae and scuttled to the other side of the crate, barely avoiding the old man’s gaze as he walked past on his way out of the room. The sound of the old man in the hallway faded. Sarah stood and looked at the container that the old man had been talking to. The ship trembled. The lights flickered. Sarah’s head felt hazy, like a fog had descended upon her senses. She walked to the container, and knelt to study it. There was a small dial at its base. The sense of dread that had gripped Sarah intensified, but she felt compelled to twist the dial. Bae backed away, growling. The container’s locking mechanism clicked, and white mist vented from its sides. Bae yelped, then scampered away. Sarah’s heart pounded as she gripped the edges of the lid, and pried it open. The billowing mist in the open container gradually thinned, revealing its grisly contents. Sarah’s eyes widened, and she gasped. Doyle rolled around on the sweat-soaked sheets covering the bed in his quarters. The discomfort had started while eating, and had grown into a bowling-ball sized pain in his gut. Laying on his back, Doyle tried massaging his abdomen, sending shivers of pain through his whole body. He swung his legs over and sat up on the edge of his bed. Did the ship have any laxatives? Did laxatives even exist three million years in the future? His legs wobbled as he stood up. Clutching his stomach, Doyle walked into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He studied himself in the mirror. His grime-stained beard–fuller than it had ever been–was in stark contrast against the fresh, clean clothes he had managed to change into earlier. He needed to shave and clean up, but first he had to deal with the pain. Doyle stumbled across his quarters and out into the hallway. He started in the direction of the mess hall. Maybe there was medicine there, or maybe he could find some kind of sickbay. A ship this big had to have medical facilities. All Doyle knew was that bad things were happening inside of him, and he needed help. As he lurched through the hallway, Doyle felt his body tremble. Was that me, he thought, or did the whole ship shake? He remembered the tremors on the desert planet. His eyes darted to the ground. Was it… moving? His vision blurred and spun. The ground swirled, collapsing beneath him like a whirlpool of sand. The sand-worm, thought Doyle. How did it get on the ship? A sudden jolt of pain in Doyle’s abdomen sent him crashing to his knees. He clutched his stomach. There was a shriek–the sand-worm was attacking! Doyle raised his arms to cover his face. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the giant creature’s rows of concentric teeth closing in around him, but all he saw was the hallway ceiling. There was no shrieking monster. There was only Doyle, screaming at phantoms in his delirium. Doyle struggled back to his feet and continued down the hallway. He regretted eating all those food cubes. He regretted leaving his quarters. He should have tried to call Zuli for help. The quarters had nothing obvious like a telephone, but there were panels and buttons on the walls–surely there was something he could have used to communicate. Doyle reached the mess hall and spotted some green food cube leftovers. The sight made him retch. This was a terrible idea, he thought. Doyle rushed past the tables and chairs and into the hallway on the opposite side of the hall. He felt his legs–or the ship?–tremble again and he lost his balance. He teetered sideways and slammed hard into the wall before collapsing to the ground. “What was that? Who’s there?” Doyle heard a voice say from further down the hall. It was a man’s voice he didn’t recognize. “Help,” Doyle tried to yell. It came out as more of a hoarse whisper. “Get Zuli, I need help.” Through pain and blurry vision, Doyle saw what looked like an old man in a dark hooded robe approaching. “Yes,” said the old man. Doyle’s spirits lifted. He had done it! He had found help! The old man, Doyle’s savior, spoke as Doyle’s senses faded and he lost his grip on consciousness. “Yes,” the man said again. “You’ll do nicely.” “We’re less than a cycle away now, I should let the old man know,” said Zuli. She sat in a chair at the center of the bridge, facing a large curved glass display behind an array of control panels. Desmond was plugged into one of the control panels, charging his power banks and providing him access to the ship’s data stores. “My friends?” Desmond asked. He had learned enough of the woman’s language from the ship’s computer for rudimentary communications. It surprised him how efficiently his body was able to run his training routines–the Ark’s computers had processed data at a snail’s pace by comparison. “In their quarters,” said Zuli, after glancing at one of the control panels. “Getting some rest, I hope. They looked… weary.” “They had, difficult time on planet,” said Desmond. Zuli nodded. “It is good that the Prophets led me to you.” “Prophets?” Desmond asked. The word Zuli had used was unknown to him. “Yes, the Prophets,” said Zuli. “You do not know the Prophets? You have no… religion?” Desmond recognized that word. Heady Armstrong, the Youtuber whose videos his training routines had ingested for three million years, had strong opinions about religion. “Ah, religion,” said Desmond. “No, I have no religion.” Zuli nodded somberly. “Perhaps I can teach you of…” The ship shook slightly and one of the panels in front of Zuli started flashing. Desmond’s training algorithms stopped executing. Running diagnostics on his connection to the ship didn’t reveal any obvious problems. Why had his body terminated the processes? He stepped closer to Zuli and looked at the control panel. “What happened?” asked Desmond. “I do not know,” said Zuli. “A millicycle ago there was nothing at the old man’s coordinates. Now there is something.” “Something?” asked Desmond. “Yes,” said Zuli. She looked up at Desmond. “Oh! You are glowing!” Desmond looked down. Glowing blue lines had appeared, tracing intricate geometric patterns over his body. His body started spinning up dozens of new processes that he had never seen execute before. “Are we close to it?” asked Desmond. “Too close,” said Zuli. “I cannot stop our approach. The ship has stopped responding.” The ship shuddered again. “Can I see?” asked Desmond, pointing at the large curved glass panel. “Yes,” said Zuli. She made some gestures against the control panel, and the large glass display went dark. “Is that it?” asked Desmond. Zuli nodded and pointed at the large darkened screen. “Something is there,” she said. Desmond looked again. There was a spot at the center of the screen that looked darker than its surroundings. Desmond adjusted the gamma of his ocular sensors to get a better look. The dark mass at the center of the screen seemed to be moving–like its surface was a living, writhing thing. A series of whirring and clacking noises rang through the bridge. Desmond felt his body moving on its own, lowering its center of gravity, exposing concealed components. Canons extended from his forearms; his legs divided into an array of spider-like limbs; a device extended from his back and emitted a flash of blue light, surrounding Desmond’s transformed body in a translucent, shimmering honey-combed shield. Even if Desmond didn’t know what that thing on the screen was, his body did–and its response was to prepare for battle. “We should leave,” said Desmond. Zuli stared with her mouth open. “I am trying,” she said. An alarm sounded and another panel started blinking. Zuli tore her eyes from Desmond to look at it. “There is a new problem!” she cried. “What is it?” asked Desmond. “One of the ship’s airlocks is opening,” she said. “Your friend is inside!” “Whoah,” said Desmond. He tested his control over his new robot spider legs and prepared to see how fast they could go. “Tell me where.” – It was a child. Or at least what remained of one. Sarah stared at the grotesque figure inside the container in horror. It couldn’t have been more than five or six when it had died. The body was too twisted and mutilated to tell if it had been a boy or girl. The sound of footsteps in the hallway broke Sarah from her stupor. She grabbed the container’s lid and slid it back into place. The locking mechanism clicked, and the dial that had released the lid started tightening on its own. Sarah scrambled to another stack of containers. She peeked out from behind in time to see the old man reappear at the door. The old man scuffled to his container at the center of the room, muttering under his breath. The old man knelt next to his container and turned the dial to release the lid. Sarah tried to make out what he was saying. “The sacrifice is ready,” she heard, and a shiver ran down her spine. The old man tenderly lifted the corpse and cradled it in his arm. Then he reached back into the container and pulled out a rifle of some sort. Damn, thought Sarah–if she had known that had been hiding under the body she could have grabbed it herself. The old man started walking back toward the door. Sarah crouched, getting ready to sneak after him, but a familiar sound stopped her cold. The high pitched bark was unmistakable–Bae had made the same sound on the planet during the sand-worm attack. Still hiding, Sarah desperately looked toward the old man. She could hear Bae, but cargo containers by the door obscured her view. All she could see was the old man from the waist up, as he pointed his rifle at the ground in front of him. “Filthy creature,” the old man said. The rifle fired before Sarah could react, and then there was silence. It felt like her heart had stopped in her chest. Sarah wanted to scream, but she had lost the ability to speak; she wanted to lunge at the old man–to turn him into a mangled corpse like the one cradled in his arm, but she had lost the ability to move. She could only watch, grief-stricken as the old man kicked something from his path, then walked out into the hall. Sarah’s mind was a jumble–whether seconds passed or minutes, she wasn’t sure. She thought of Bae, and her anguish gradually dissipated, leaving blind rage in its place. She never had a pet growing up–they were unheard of in the Nikola’s Children compound. She knew from the internet that keeping pets was something that other people did, but she never understood why–until Bae. The little rhino-pig was everything to her–had been her sole source of happiness since she woke up on the desert planet. And now Bae was gone. It pained Sarah to think of Bae’s little body–kicked aside like a piece of trash. She shielded her eyes as she ran to the door. She would return for Bae later. Now was not the time for mourning. Now was the time for one thing and one thing only–seared into every fiber of Sarah’s being: Revenge. The ship started trembling again as Sarah stormed after the old man. The light emitted by the strips along the walls seemed to dim as she went. She slowed when she heard the old man’s voice around a corner ahead. An image of the rifle aimed at her face flashed through Sarah’s mind–a head-on assault wouldn’t work. She needed to be careful. She needed to keep the element of surprise. The dim lights were flickering now, creating an eerie strobe effect as Sarah peeked around the corner. The old man had laid the child’s body on the ground. He clutched the rifle and chanted, waving his hands over the corpse. Sarah couldn’t hear his words over the deep rumble of the trembling ship. A control panel jutted from the wall behind the old man. Across the hall was a large sealed door with a long window. It looked like the door they had boarded the ship through–on the other side had been a decompression chamber and another door that opened to the ship’s exterior. Something was moving in there. It was a man, frantically banging his fists against the window. Doyle! The old man continued his ritual around the child’s corpse, ignoring Doyle. Sarah blinked. She thought her mind was playing tricks on her–it looked like the area around the dead child’s body had grown darker. The black aura seemed to swell outward as the old man chanted. It almost looked alive–like a shadowy mass of writhing black tentacles. The ship’s trembling intensified. The old man finally glanced toward Doyle, who still pounded at the door. The old man leaned his rifle against the wall, turning his back to Sarah to face the airlock’s control panel. Now was her chance! Sarah charged into the hallway and sprinted as fast as she could. The old man turned to face her, and grabbed for his rifle. But it was too late–Sarah barreled into the old man, sending him soaring down the hallway. The rifle clattered on the ground and slid out of the old man’s reach. Sarah regained her balance and turned to the airlock. Doyle stared out at her. Sarah turned to the control panel and slammed her fist down on a large red button near its center. The inner airlock door hissed and slid up into the ceiling. Doyle didn’t look so good. He clutched his stomach and winced. “What the fuck, Sarah!” Doyle said. “How did you know that button would open this door and not the other one?” Sarah looked at the control panel. She hadn’t noticed before that there was a large green button next to the red one she had pressed. She opened her mouth to say “oops,” but the butt of the old man’s rifle slamming into the back of her head interrupted her. She cried out and stumbled into Doyle. “You’re too late!” cried the old man. “The sacrament is complete! All that remains is the sacrifice!” The old man pointed his rifle at Sarah and Doyle and took a step forward. Sarah stepped back into the airlock. “Why are you doing this?” she shouted. The old man, still aiming the rifle, glanced back at the child’s body on the ground. “It was my fault,” the old man said. His demeanor changed–a profound sadness replaced the vitriol in his voice. He wept. “She was all I had, and it was my fault. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. This is the only way.” Sarah inched forward while the old man’s attention was on the child’s body. She stared at the rifle in his hands. Just a little closer and she could reach it. The old man spun to face Sarah. The sadness in his eyes vanished. “This is the only way,” he repeated. The venom had returned to his voice. “I have performed the sacrament of rebirth, now I offer the sacrifice. Blood for blood, a life taken for a life given!” Sarah saw the old man tighten his grip on the rifle. She shoved Doyle out of the way, then dove in the opposite direction. The blast passed between Sarah and Doyle, hitting the window on the door behind them–the one leading directly to the ship’s exterior. A crack formed across the window, and a creaking noise rang through the air. “Grab something!” Doyle shouted. Sarah scrambled toward the hallway and grabbed the edge of the inner doorway. The glass on the outer door shattered. A blast of air blew past and lifted Sarah’s body off the ground. Holding on for dear life, she looked up and saw the old man clutching the airlock control panel. His beard and the hood of his cloak flapped furiously in the rushing air. “Blood for blood!” the old man screamed over the howling wind. Then he let go of the control panel. Sarah watched aghast as the old man’s flailing body blew past, slammed into the outer door, then bent backwards at a horrifying angle as it squeezed through the shattered window and ejected into the cold vacuum of space. As Sarah watched the old man’s body tumble away from the ship, she felt something take hold of her arm. She looked and saw Desmond–at least, she thought it was Desmond. Blue luminescent lines covered his body, and he glowed with a shimmering light. His lower body had transformed into a dozen articulated spider-like legs. Desmond retrieved Doyle with one arm and pulled Sarah from the airlock with the other. Once they were both clear of the doorway, Desmond used one of his insect legs on the control panel, and the inner airlock door hissed shut. The gusting wind ceased, and silence descended upon the hallway. The blue lines on Desmond’s body and the light surrounding him faded away. His insect legs recombined into the humanoid legs Sarah was more familiar with, and what looked like a pair of cannons retracted back into his forearms. “I didn’t know you could do that!” Sarah said excitedly. “Dude, neither did I!” said Desmond. “Doyle did you see that? Did you know he could do that?” Doyle curled up into a fetal position and moaned. A familiar sound rang out from further down the hallway. Sarah perked up and spun around, hunting for the sound’s source. Could it be? But the old man had shot her! There at the end of the hallway, a large sooty stain on her side, stood Bae. The rhino-pig gave a honk, then started charging toward Sarah. Sarah felt like her heart was going to explode as she ran toward Bae. She scooped the little animal up in her arms and squeezed tight as she tumbled to the ground, laughing as Bae squealed with glee and licked her face. “Aw, look at that,” said Desmond. “Isn’t that cute?” “I think I shit myself,” moaned Doyle. Desmond sat at the mess hall table and stroked Bae in his lap. Despite a little charring, it seemed that the rhino-pig’s thick hide had absorbed most of the rifle’s shot. “So do you think you can do that blue glowy thing again? And those legs! Wow that was insane!” said Sarah. “I know right? But I can’t control it,” said Desmond. “It’s some kind of automated defense system.” “What triggered it?” asked Sarah. “Something that old man was doing?” “Nah,” said Desmond. He still didn’t know what the thing was that his body’s sensors had reacted to. “Something outside caused it. Whatever messed the ship up and made the lights go screwy also affected me.” Zuli entered the mess hall, carrying a covered tray in her arms. “Whatever that thing was, it weakened enough after the old man died that I was able to pull the ship away,” she said. She placed the tray on the table between Sarah and Doyle. “Did anyone see what happened to that gross corpse the old man had in his container?” asked Sarah. Doyle shrugged. “Probably blown out the airlock.” “I watched the old man go, but I didn’t see that,” said Sarah. “Did you see that?” “Where else could it have gone?” asked Desmond. He hadn’t seen the body when he arrived, after the old man had already died. “Anyway, what’s on the menu?” Doyle asked, staring suspiciously at the covered serving tray that Zuli brought. “Do not worry,” said Zuli. “The ship’s harvester drones processed a new food supply from the last planet they harvested. You will not have to eat food cubes again.” Doyle sighed with relief. “I’ll eat anything,” said Sarah. “I mean, anything is better than…” Zuli pulled the cover off the tray, revealing a steaming pile of baby sand-worms in a puddle of purple goo. Desmond looked down at Bae, who was squirming to get out of his arms. He lifted her onto the table. The little animal scampered to the pile of worms and started gobbling them down. Sarah calmly slid her chair away from the table, stood up, and turned away. “Where are you going?” asked Zuli. “To the airlock,” said Sarah. “There’s a big green button calling my name.”
A hook formed out of thin wire carved a narrow trench through the sand as Doyle steadily dragged it toward him. In his right hand he held a chunk of metal shaped like a cricket bat, which he had christened Grub Smasher. He had salvaged both the wire and Grub Smasher from the debris that had dropped from the Ark. The sound of shifting sand came from the loose end of the wire. Doyle’s muscles tensed. “Come on you little bastard,” whispered Doyle. A small hole appeared in the ground next to the wire, and a pale finger-sized worm poked out. The squirming creature snatched the loose end of wire with dozens of hair-like tentacles surrounding its mouth. Before it could drag its prize underground, Doyle swung Grub Smasher down. A cloud of dust puffed up around the impact. Doyle turned the weapon over and observed a wet purple smear at its center–confirmation of his kill. He put Grub Smasher down and yanked the dead worm’s body out of its hole. Purple slime dripped from its smashed head onto the sand. Doyle tossed the carcass behind him and it landed with a splat on top of the others. Doyle sneered at the pile of dead worms. That last one made two dozen. They looked like a pile of rancid uncooked hot dogs sitting in a puddle of their own liquefied remains. If only they tasted as good, thought Doyle. He shuddered. Doyle and Sarah had been ecstatic when they first discovered the creatures. After nearly two days without food or water, the worms had saved them. They spent hours luring them, yanking them out of the ground, then consuming them–two bites, then on to the next–purple goo smeared across their cheeks and dripping from their chins. Fuller bellies and clearer heads ushered in the realization that the worms left much to be desired in the way of flavor. They paced themselves to limit their disgust–one meal a day, forcing down as many of the creatures as they could without vomiting. “How many is that, my dude?” Doyle looked over at the pile of cables and computer components that had spoken. The Ark’s stasis chamber was too heavy to drag around, so Desmond had walked Doyle through the process of extracting his computer core and a few key peripherals. It involved Grub Smasher and a lot of swearing, but the end result was a tangled but much more portable version of Desmond. “About two dozen,” said Doyle. “Should be more than enough. Yesterday Sarah could only choke three of them down. Don’t think I did much better.” “Shit, bro,” said Desmond. “I wish I could do more to help you guys find different food. I feel totally useless like this.” Sighing, Doyle glanced over at the derelict spaceship that he, Sarah, and Desmond had been calling home for the past two weeks. The ship had been half-buried in sand, but not in a way that implied it had crashed–rather abandoned and forgotten for so long that the wind was gradually tucking it in. Doyle had spotted it while they were searching the perimeter of the city ruins for anything that might help them survive. The ship was exceptionally large–it consisted of a spacious rear cabin connected by on over-sized doorway to a cockpit with similarly over-sized controls and chairs. The chairs made comfortable beds and, despite having its rear door stuck open, the cabin did an acceptable job of shielding its three stranded inhabitants from the elements. And best of all, it had power. Somewhere deep in the ship’s guts was a backup power source. A power source that had sat dormant for ages, automatically activated by the arrival of a couple humans and an AI stranded three million years into their own future. The cabin had working lights, a comically large but fully functional stove top, a toilet the size of a small car, a sink, and–Sarah’s favorite–an enormous bathtub that filled with hot water at the press of a button. After having spent over a week sleeping on the barren dirt ground in the open, discovering the ship had felt like booking into the Ritz Carlton. Despite it’s odd proportions, Desmond had claimed the ship’s technology was “human-esque,” whatever that meant. He even managed to communicate with its systems over a radio-based protocol similar to Bluetooth. “You’re not useless, Des,” said Doyle. “In fact if you can figure out a way to send a distress signal from that ship, you might be our only hope.” Doyle stood up, facing away from Desmond as he unzipped his fly to pee. “Not yet,” said Desmond. “And you should probably do that on the ship.” “What?” asked Doyle. “The ship’s water supply isn’t what it was when we first found it,” said Desmond. “When you urinate outside there’s no way to reclaim it.” “No way to… Wait, what?” “All waste water in the ship is purified and re-circulated,” said Desmond. “I mean, where did you think all the water was coming from?” “So, you mean we’ve been drinking our own…?” “Yeah. Well, not just yours. Obviously the ship’s previous crew was the source of the original supply.” Doyle’s eyes widened. “So, the bath… We’re bathing in…” “Recycled urine,” Desmond said matter-of-factly. “Do not tell any of this to Sarah,” said Doyle. He was certain that Sarah’s nightly baths were the one thing keeping her remotely sane. He didn’t want to think what would happen if those got spoiled. Doyle zipped his pants back up, deciding to wait. As disturbing as it may be, water was water. Without it they didn’t stand a chance out here. Doyle gathered the pile of dead worms up in his arms and tossed them into the ship before picking up Desmond and following them inside. “I have been making some progress on that other thing,” said Desmond. “What?” asked Doyle. He narrowed his eyes and glared down at the mess of wires and metal doodads cradled in his arms. “Please don’t tell me you’re wasting time and energy on that…” Doyle looked to the far corner of the ship’s cabin–the corner that had remained shrouded in darkness even after the lights came on. A tall, dark figure stood quiet and motionless in the shadows. It reminded Doyle of a minimalist toy robot–the kind you’d expect to see little kids playing with in cartoons–only this one was solid metal and nine feet tall. Every surface was smooth and featureless. “Just watch this,” said Desmond. Two blue lights appeared on the smooth surface of the statue’s head where its eyes might be. “Wow,” said Doyle. “Uh, neat. Its eyes light up.” “Yeah!” said Desmond with alacrity. “And that’s not all, watch this!” As Doyle watched, either the eye lights moved across the surface or the statue turned its head ever so slightly. “Huh,” said Doyle. “Can it walk, or do something useful?” “Not yet!” said Desmond. “But I’m close to…” “That’s great,” Doyle cut him off. “Just make sure you’re not letting it distract you from what’s important. We need to find a way off this planet. We’ve got to signal for help, or establish some kind of communication with… I don’t know, with anybody I guess.” “Yeah, yeah,” said Desmond. Doyle didn’t know if artificial intelligences could sigh, but if they could he guessed that’s what it would sound like. “Sarah should be back from scouting the city soon,” said Doyle. “Just in case she still hasn’t found a Ruth Chris hiding somewhere out there, I better start cooking.” He looked disdainfully at the dead worm creatures scattered on the floor of the cabin where he had tossed them. “Oh, by the way,” said Desmond, “I’ve been noticing something weird whenever you’re out fishing for those things.” “Oh?” said Doyle. He put Desmond down and started gathering up the worm carcasses. “At first I thought my accelerometer was acting up, but it’s too predictable to be random noise. I’ve detected micro tremors that occur every time right after you kill one of the worms.” “Tremors? You mean like earthquakes?” asked Doyle. “Yeah,” said Desmond. “Huh,” said Doyle. “That is weird.” Ancient, crumbled husks of once imposing towers and the sand-blasted metal shells of defunct vehicles were all that remained of the planet’s long-departed inhabitants. Sarah couldn’t judge how tall the largest buildings had once been–of those still standing, all had suffered collapse of their topmost floors, revealing eroded cross-sections of their abandoned interiors. In the starlight the towers cast jagged shadows across the sandy, arterial passageways that snaked between them, like giant dark teeth gnawing at Sarah as she crept through the quiet ruins. The sky had remained dark in all the weeks since the Ark crashed on the alien planet. Desmond had explained it–something about how the same side of the planet always faced the sun, one half stuck in an unending blisteringly hot day, and the other half in an eternal freezing night. They had crashed somewhere between the two extremes. The “habitable zone,” Desmond had called it. It didn’t seem particularly habitable to Sarah. The only food that she and Doyle had managed to find were the vile-tasting underground worms that poked their heads out at the sound of light scraping on the sand. Sarah was desperate for an alternative, but so far her excursions away from the camp had proved fruitless. But she refused to give up hope–those worms were hunting something on the surface. Maybe something edible. Maybe something that didn’t taste like the rotten scent glands of a roadkill skunk. Sarah had noticed other signs of life too–paw prints, mostly mouse-sized but some larger; and tiny pebbles of half-buried scat in the sandy streets. So far the animals themselves had eluded her, but knowing that they were out there kept her coming back to the city night after night. Though she had yet to find food, her trips had not been entirely without merit. On one she found a pot-shaped scrap of metal, in which she one day hoped Doyle could cook something other than those cursed worms. On another she found the metal canteen she carried, slung around her neck with a rubber cord salvaged from the Ark’s debris. The wind had started to pick up. It wasn’t too strong yet, but Sarah could see a sandstorm looming over the tops of the skeletal towers and heard the shrieking winds in some distant corner of the city. She sighed. Time to head back to camp. Another wasted day with nothing to show for it but an empty stomach and a full bladder. She grabbed the canteen around her neck and swallowed her last drop of water. Having to eat worms again would suck, Sarah thought. But at least there was the bath. The wonderful tub that filled with gloriously piping hot water at the press of a button. She had been reluctant to use it at first, unsure whether she could trust Doyle to wait outside without peeking–but she had gotten into the habit of bathing every evening, and Doyle hadn’t tried anything pervy yet. The bath was the one thing she had to look forward to, and not even Doyle could take that away from her. Doyle wasn’t that bad to have around. He had managed to get Desmond out of the stasis chamber, albeit with Desmond’s help. And Doyle was pretty much catching and cooking all their food by himself without complaining, although the food was horribly disgusting. To be honest, Sarah couldn’t understand why Doyle wasn’t more upset with her. After all, she was at least partially responsible for the situation they were in. She was still a little miffed at him for ruining her plans with Heady–although having Desmond around was pretty nice. Desmond was all she had left of Heady now, since her video collection had been stolen along with the Ark. As Sarah began retracing her path through the city streets, she heard a thud, followed the sound of something scuffling in the sand. Sarah’s heart skipped a beat and she snapped her head in the direction of the noise. All that remained of the building the sound had come from was the first-floor wall, but that was over six feet high at its lowest point, and there were no doors or windows facing the road. Sarah unholstered her concussion pistol and crept along the ruined wall, following it around the corner into a narrow alley. Once her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she spotted animal tracks leading through a section of the wall that had crumbled entirely away. The image of a large medium-rare steak danced in her mind, and Sarah’s mouth started watering. She could practically smell the cooking meat. Sarah stepped gingerly through the ruined section of wall into the building. She could still hear the noises–scuffling sounds mixed with grunting and snorting. The ground inside the building was a mix of rubble and sand–the collapsed remnants of what had once been upper floors and ceilings. It would be impossible to move over the gravelly surface without alerting the animal to her presence, so she crouched by the eroded section of wall and listened closer. She would have to pinpoint where the animal was, and move quick enough to catch it by surprise. Sarah squinted and scanned the back wall of the hollowed-out building. She couldn’t discern any movement in the shadows, but her eyes rested on a large slab of concrete leaning against the far corner. A sudden loud squeal from that direction confirmed it for her–the sounds were coming from under that slab. Shielding her eyes from the starlight with her hand, Sarah studied the slab in the darkness. If the space under the slab was open on both ends, then catching the animal would be difficult, since it could flee in the opposite direction no matter which side Sarah approached from. She was in luck, though–it appeared that the far edge of the slab was tightly wedged against the side wall. Nothing big enough to make those noises could escape that way. That meant the opening between the back wall and the slab was the only way in or out of the enclosed shelter. The plan was simple. Sarah shifted her weight and prepared to sprint toward the slab. The crunchy rubble-strewn ground would announce her approach, but hopefully the animal would be too startled to react, allowing Sarah to reach the opening before it could escape. And if not, Sarah still clutched her concussion pistol, ready to use it at the slightest hint of motion. Sarah licked her lips. Whatever the animal was, it had to taste better than those horrible worms. Maybe it would taste like chicken. Or like the well-marbled ribeyes with herb butter that she always ordered at the fancy restaurants her dad took her to when she was younger. Or maybe it would taste like bacon. Sarah loved bacon. Her stomach growled. The animal under the slab squealed. Sarah pushed off and launched herself across the building toward the hidden animal, sprinting as fast as she could over the loose chunks of rock and gravel. She heard the animal squeal again–louder and higher pitched. She held the concussion pistol up, aiming it as best she could toward the opening beneath the slab as she approached. The animal’s sounds of distress intensified as she neared, but she still saw no movement. Five paces from the back wall, Sarah started to brace herself, planning to crouch and slide in front of the opening beneath the slab. She misjudged a piece of dark rebar jutting out of the ground for a shadow. The rebar snagged on her leg. Sarah’s jeans ripped and she felt a tearing pain in her right calf. Her arms windmilled in a desperate attempt to regain her balance, and she lost her grip on the concussion pistol. Sarah’s shoulder slammed hard into the back wall, and she collapsed on the ground. For a moment, she couldn’t breath. She lay with her cheek in the dirt, wincing from the pain and trying desperately to inhale. When her diaphragm relaxed, Sarah sucked air into her lungs in braying gasps. She remained laying on her side, staring at the chunks of dirt and rock in front of her face until her breath returned to normal. A close-sounding snort startled Sarah. She looked up. Staring back at her from the darkness beneath the slab was a small animal–around the size of a house cat. It had a smooth round gray body and a pronounced nose with two large forward-pointing nostrils. Jutting above its snout was a five inch horn that curved slightly back into a dull point. It looked like a cross between a pig and a miniature rhinoceros. Sarah turned onto her belly, pressed her hands into the ground and raised herself slightly, preparing to back away from the animal. She could see the animal’s sides moving in and out–it was breathing rapidly as it studied her. Then the animal squealed–lower pitched than the noises it had made earlier. It sounded almost like a moan. The animal’s body relaxed and it collapsed on its side. With her sense of curiosity now outweighing her fear, Sarah decided to inch closer to the animal. As her eyes further adjusted to the darkness under the slab, she saw that the animal’s back leg was sticking out at a funny angle, stuck beneath a piece of rebar jutting from the bottom of the slab. The animal must have caused the slab to shift and trapped itself. Sarah moved closer until her entire torso was inside the dark cavity. The animal stared up at her wearily, as though resigned to whatever fate Sarah had in store. Sarah felt around on the ground in the dark until she found what she was looking for–a large dull chunk of cement. She weighed it in her hand and looked down at the pathetic animal in the darkness. “Bacon,” said Sarah softly. She put the chunk of cement down and placed her hand on the animal. She felt its side raising and lowering as it breathed. She felt the rapid pulse of its beating heart. She felt the animal quivering. The poor thing was terrified. She patted its head and it made a quiet whimpering sound. Sarah grabbed the chunk of cement again, then jammed it under the rebar that was pinning the animal’s leg. She crammed the cement forward as far as it would go, then started rocking it side to side. Loose dust and bits of gravel shook from the top of the slab and rained down into the cavity. There was a scraping sound–cement on cement, and the slab shifted slightly. Sarah felt the cement wedge jolt in her hand as the rebar slid across it, then grabbed the animal with her other arm and pulled it free. More and more dust and stones fell on Sarah’s head, and the sound of scraping and creaking cement grew louder. Keeping her grip on the whimpering animal, Sarah scurried them both out from beneath the concrete slab right before it collapsed to the ground and shattered. Sarah sat with her back against the wall, coughing. When the dust cleared, she saw the rhino-pig was in her lap, licking its wounded leg. She looked past the animal to her own leg. Her calf had a foot-long gash from the rebar, but it didn’t look deep–it just needed to be cleaned. As though sensing her thoughts, the rhino-pig sat up, then crawled out of her lap. It limped to where Sarah’s jeans were ripped and started licking her scrape. Sarah smiled. She looked up and saw dust and dirt blowing over the top of the building’s wall, partially obscuring the stars. The winds had almost reached her. The wailing in the distance had grown much louder, sounding like an approaching freight train. And there was something else–an unfamiliar sound carried on the wind, poking at the edge of Sarah’s perception. A deep, frightening growl. Sarah felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. The rhino-pig had been making a lot of noise, and she hadn’t exactly been quiet herself. Had something else out there heard them? Did the looming sandstorm bring with it some other horror that this planet had yet to unleash upon her? “Come on, Bacon,” said Sarah. She scooped the rhino-pig up in her arms. Sarah stood and tested her leg out. Her ankle felt sprained and half her body felt bruised, but she could still walk. Maybe even run, if she had to. She limped back in the direction she had come, out of the building, and into the shrieking dust-filled alien winds. “The wind is really starting to pick up, I’m a bit worried about Sarah,” said Doyle. He glanced toward Desmond–the pile of wires looked like a dark blur on the ground at the feet of the giant robot statue. “She’s gone out to the city every night since we found the ship,” said Desmond. “I think she’s proven she can take care of herself.” Doyle shrugged. He wrinkled his nose at the steaming pile of worms in the pot next to him, then gripped the plate-sized dial that turned the heating element off with both hands. He had to sit on the edge of the stove to use it–it was too tall for him to reach its controls from the floor. He felt like a little kid using a grown-up kitchen. “I think she’s less tough than she wants people to think she is,” he said. “She acts all hard, but I think it’s just that. An act.” “So what do you think is behind the facade?” asked Desmond. “Who is the real Officer Sarah Jefferies?” “I dunno,” replied Doyle. “She carries that gun of hers around like a safety blanket. I wonder if she’d act so tough without it.” “Why don’t you ask her?” Sarah’s voice came from the ship’s entrance. Doyle jolted at the unexpected voice and almost fell off the stove. He looked over at the entrance and saw Sarah limp into the ship’s cabin. Her entire body was dusted with a thin film of dirt. Her jeans were ripped and there were blood streaks down her right calf. She had taken the jacket of her security uniform off and held it bundled in her arms. “Holy hell, what happened to you?” asked Doyle. He slipped off the stove and ran to her. “Are you okay?” “I’m fine,” said Sarah. “Here.” She held her bundled up jacket out to Doyle. Doyle took it from her and almost dropped it from its unexpected heft. Something inside it moved. “I think her leg is broken,” said Sarah. “Take her outside and see what you can do while I take a bath. If you come in here for any reason I promise I don’t need my concussion pistol to fucking murder you.” Doyle’s brain was overloaded–he had so many questions. He looked down at the jacket cradled in his arms. A little pig snout with a horn sticking up poked out from between the zipper and snorted at him. He looked back at Sarah who had started filling the bath. His eyes went to her hurt leg. Her holster was still strapped to her thigh, but it was empty. “What happened to your… What the hell is… Where did you… How did you…” “Her name is Bae. I found her in the city. I hurt my leg and lost my pistol while I was trying to…” she paused. It seemed to take her a moment before she decided what to say. “While I was trying to rescue her. I got caught in a dust storm for a while on the way back. Now fuck off so I can take my bath.” Doyle carried the jacket with the strange animal out of the ship. He plopped down in the sand. A gust of wind blew the jacket open and revealed the small animal curled up inside. Doyle studied it for a moment, then a crashing noise startled him. Sarah had tossed Desmond out of the ship too. “Des, make sure Doyle doesn’t hurt Bae Bae,” Sarah called from the ship. “Doyle, find a splint or something for her leg.” Sarah retreated back into the ship. “Bae Bae?” Doyle said. He looked down at the gray pig-like animal. The animal looked back up at him with wide, frightened eyes. “I thought she was hunting for food, not looking for a pet.” “Doyle, bruh. I know a lot’s going down right now, but I need to draw your attention to something. You know those micro tremors I mentioned earlier?” said Desmond. “Yeah. What about them?” said Doyle. “They’re not so micro anymore.” Doyle tore his attention from Bae. The ground was vibrating. Loose grains of sand danced up and down on the ground around him. “I feel it,” said Doyle. He looked into the distance toward the city. The entire horizon was obscured by a cliff-like wall of moving sand. “Something to do with the storm?” “I don’t think so,” said Desmond. “The seismic activity seems to be coming from the opposite…” “What the hell is that?” Doyle interrupted. A small cloud of dust seemed to have punched through the distant sandstorm, creating a finger-like trail along the ground. “Is that a vehicle kicking up dust out there? It looks like it’s headed right for us.” Doyle’s heart started racing. Had someone found their camp? Were they friendly? “Point my camera,” said Desmond. Doyle set the jacket with Bae on it aside and scrambled over to where Sarah had tossed Desmond. He fished a little circular camera from the nest of wires and pointed it toward the horizon. The thing traveling over the ground and kicking up dust in its wake was closer now. “Ummm, I don’t know, dude,” said Desmond. “Point me at Bae.” “What?” asked Doyle. “Sarah’s new friend, let me see her.” Doyle pointed the camera to where the small creature was still sitting on Sarah’s jacket. “Mmm hmm,” said Desmond. “I think… Yup, that’s probably it.” “What’s probably it?” said Doyle. He squinted into the distance, but still couldn’t make out any details. “I think Bae’s mom followed Sarah home,” said Desmond. Doyle dropped his arm. He opened his mouth, but failed to find any words. “Hard to believe something so adorable could grow into such a muscle-laden and angry-looking behemoth,” Desmond continued. The thing had approached close enough for Doyle to make out some detail–poking out of the roiling cloud of dust, bobbing up and down and sparkling in the starlight, was the white gleam of what looked like a large rhinoceros horn. “S… Sarah!” Doyle shouted. He backed away from the angry charging mother. It would be upon them in seconds. “Sarah what did you do?!” The ground started shaking harder, and Doyle tripped. He landed in a sitting position close to Desmond. “So, again, I know you got a lot on your plate at the moment,” Desmond said, louder than normal to be heard over the thundering roar of Bae’s charging mother and the violently shaking ground. “But I feel like I should once again draw your attention to these earthquakes.” Bae started to mew. Doyle scrambled to his feet and gathered up Desmond. He turned, ready to make a mad dash into the ship. Sarah’s modesty be damned–he would deal with the fallout later. For now he just needed to get to safety. As he took his first step toward the ship, the ground beneath Doyle’s feet started to shift. A circular sinkhole the size of a backyard pool formed in the sand just outside of the ship’s entrance, caving in and threatening to suck Doyle toward its center. Doyle backed away from the widening pit. He slipped on the sliding sand and dropped Desmond. Sand, dirt, and rocks continued to roll down the slope, carrying the tangled wires and computer bits with them toward the center of the hole. Bae continued to mew somewhere behind Doyle. “Desmond!” cried Doyle. The pit continued to grow in diameter at an alarming pace, forcing Doyle to back further and further away from the ship, and away from Desmond. “Stay back!” Desmond’s voice came muffled. He had reached the center of the sinkhole and was almost entirely submerged in the sand. “Save yourself, I’ll be…” Before Desmond could finish, the sand at the center of the pit exploded into the air and a monstrous pale yellow worm the size of a large tree burst forth from the ground. The creature’s entire head was a gaping maw, filled with concentric circles of razor-sharp teeth. Snake-like tendrils surrounded its horrific mouth, wriggling spasmodically as the worm bellowed out an ear-shattering shriek. Reams of oozing saliva rippled through the air from the force of its roar, drenching Doyle. A dark object thudded against Doyle’s shoulder and onto the ground. Doyle glanced down and saw Desmond’s shattered camera roll down the sinkhole and disappear beneath the surface of the sand. The worm shrieked again, raining a fresh slathering of slime on Doyle. Bae’s distressed mewing stopped. Doyle turned, more in preparation to flee the shrieking sand-worm than to check on the little rhino-pig. But when Doyle saw why Bae had stopped crying, he froze dead in his tracks. Bae’s mother had arrived. The size of a tank built from pure muscle, she poised herself protectively over Bae. The gigantic rhino-pig gave a menacing snort. Doyle looked into her eyes, then followed her angry gaze back around to where the giant sand-worm towered against the star-speckled sky. The rhino-pig growled deeply, bearing two short tusks jutting out from the sides of her mouth. She lowered her head, aiming her horn at the lurking sand-worm. She scuffed at the ground with her front hoof, like a bull rearing to charge. Doyle suddenly realized that, should the raging rhino-pig one the one side of him decide to charge at the massive carnivorous sand-worm on the other side of him, his present location directly between the two would more than likely prove to be an unfortunate one. He scampered as fast as his arms and legs could take him across the edge of the worm’s pit. The mother rhino-pig used her snout to nudge Bae to the side. Bae snorted and whimpered. The sand-worm shrieked. The rhino-pig lowered her head further, braced herself, then launched into a thunderous charge toward the worm. Doyle leaped out of her way just in time. The rhino-pig barreled into the sand-worm head-on, ripping a gash with her horn. The sand-worm shrieked as purple goo spewed from the wound, then reared up to its full height. The sand-worm lunged like a viper, and its mouth latched on to the rhino-pig’s side. The tendrils surrounding the worm’s mouth slithered and squirmed against the rhino-pig’s skin. The rhino-pig gave a pained grunt, but continued eviscerating the worm’s trunk with her horn and mouth. Doyle felt a tug on his arm as he watched the battle, wide-eyed in terror. He glanced at his arm and saw that Bae had come to him. She was cowering and shivering, peaking out to watch her mother from behind his arm. Another piercing shriek from the sand-worm drew his attention back to the fight. The sand-worm had released its grip, revealing a circular bleeding wound on the rhino-pig’s side. The rhino-pig’s thick hide must have borne the brunt of the bite, as its own attack on the worm continued unabated. The ground beneath the two creatures had transformed into a muddy swamp of sand, purple worm guts, and the rhino-pig’s red blood. Once again the sand-worm raised up to its full height. The rhino-pig rammed her horn into it over and over, causing more purple slime and pale chunks of flesh to slough away from the worm’s body where it protruded from the ground. Then the sand-worm retreated, disappearing beneath the sand, like it had been forcefully sucked down the hole from whence it came. Its final shriek finished muffled through the sand, and then there was silence. The stillness felt eerie to Doyle. The rhino-pig stood at the center of the sinkhole, panting and bleeding. Doyle looked across the sinkhole to the ship. Sarah was standing in the entrance, staring back at him. Bae noticed her too, and started making a high pitched honking sound. “Bae!” Sarah cried. She ran out of the ship and started making her way around the edge of the sinkhole. Bae’s mom turned her attention first to Bae honking in Doyle’s lap, then to Sarah as she sprinted across the sand. “Sarah, no! Stay in the ship!” Doyle yelled. But too late. The gigantic rhino-pig at the center of the shallow crater lowered her head and started tracking Sarah with her horn. Sarah continued making her way toward Doyle and Bae as the rhino-pig started charging. “Sarah for fuck’s sake!” Doyle shouted. Sarah turned and screamed when she saw the rhino-pig rushing up the side of the sinkhole. “Shit,” Doyle whispered. Sarah braced herself. The rhino-pig was almost on top of her, there was no way Doyle could reach her in time. There was nothing he could do. He winced as the rhino-pig lowered its head, readying itself to impale Sarah. There was a powerful rumbling, then the ground beneath the charging rhino-pig exploded. The sand-worm had re-emerged with enough force to launch the rhino-pig into the air. There was a visceral thud when the rhino-pig landed, and the sand-worm struck. On her back, the rhino-pig’s horn was useless. The rhino-pig struggled and cried out as the sand-worm’s mouth shredded and devoured the exposed flesh of her belly. Sarah, knocked down by the sand-worm’s emergence, was getting back to her feet. Doyle scooped Bae up in his arms and started running toward Sarah. With the sand-worm’s attentions on its kill, now was their best chance to get back to the safety of the ship. “Sarah!” Doyle cried as he sprinted. He stopped when he reached her, panting heavily. They were less than ten feet from the massive trunk of the sand-worm where it protruded from the ground. Its upper half was still preoccupied, though the rhino-pig’s screams had begun to fade away. Doyle pointed. “Ship! Safe!” he said between gasps. Sarah looked from Bae to Doyle, then nodded with a look of grim determination. They both turned toward the sand-worm and the ship. A monstrous shriek hit Sarah and Doyle like a powerful blast of wind. Doyle looked up and saw the sand-worm’s head hovering directly above them–a dark, gaping tunnel lined with rings of needle-sharp teeth, framed by a nest of writhing tentacles raining droplets of fresh blood. It had finished off the rhino-pig and now turned its attention to its smaller prey. Doyle felt Sarah grip his arm. The sand-worm reared back. Even if they started running now, there was no way they could make it out of the sand-worm’s reach before it struck. Doyle looked at Sarah. She looked back and nodded slightly. Doyle hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much–for Sarah’s sake, and for Bae’s. The little animal had buried its head in the nook of his arm and was shivering uncontrollably. Another shriek. A fresh torrent of saliva and blood, then a whoosh as the sand-worm moved in for the kill. Sarah closed her eyes and lowered her head. Doyle did the same. The sensation of being eaten alive was not at all what Doyle had expected. It felt a lot less bitey and a lot more slimy. A lot less like being masticated by hundreds of tiny dagger-like teeth and more like being pelted with buckets of foul-smelling goop. Several seconds passed, and Doyle opened his eyes slightly. He saw Sarah, standing in the same place where she had been a moment earlier, drenched in purple sand-worm blood. Behind her he saw the stars in the sky, still shining brightly. On the ground he saw the body of the sand-worm laying motionless on its side. Purple blood and shredded entrails oozed from where its trunk had been severed. Doyle opened his eyes wider and turned toward the ship. There, next to the still-oozing stump of the sand-worm’s body sticking out of the ground, stood the giant robot statue, Grub Smasher in one hand and a chunk of yellow sand-worm flesh in the other. The robot’s eyes shone blue against its otherwise smooth, featureless face, and stared back at Doyle. “Check it, dudes! I got the robot working!” Desmond’s voice came from the robot. Doyle exhaled, then collapsed. He leaned back and stared up at the stars. He was still alive. Kirsten was still out there. Some how, some way, he was going to get off this planet and find her. Sarah entered Doyle’s vision, staring down at him. “You okay?” she asked. Bae, wrestled herself free of Doyle’s arms and limped across his chest, then started lapping at the purple goo on Doyle’s face. Desmond walked his new robot body over and joined Sarah staring down at Doyle. “Well, at least someone likes the flavor,” he said. Doyle started laughing, then Sarah did too. Doyle laughed so long and hard that he thought his stomach muscles might burst. There were tears in his eyes when he managed to stop. Desmond and Sarah were both sitting on the sand next to him. Desmond was flexing his hands and admiring his new robotic limbs, and Sarah was petting Bae in her lap. Doyle realized he hadn’t once seen Sarah smile in all the time they had spent stranded on the planet. It suited her, he thought. “I’m hungry,” said Sarah. Doyle nodded in agreement. He wondered if then would be a good time to bring up the idea of eating Bae’s mother, but decided against it. “First I need another bath,” said Sarah. “And I really need to pee.” “Just make sure to do that on the ship,” said Desmond. “Why?” asked Sarah. “Trust me,” said Doyle, before Desmond could respond. “You do not want to know.”
The Hint Line

The Hint Line

2020-11-30--:--

The phone rang at around three in the afternoon. I stared at it for a long time–the beige rotary antiquity sitting far back on my desk next to a scrambled Rubik’s cube and a book of chess puzzles. I had almost forgotten the thing even existed, despite the fact that it had directed the flow of my entire life for the last three decades. Its ring was loud and tactile–like those old alarm clocks with a hammer that physically pounds back and forth against two bells. The sound gave me goosebumps. I guess for you to understand why something as innocuous as a ringing phone could cause me such trepidation, I had better start from the beginning. When I was in high school, I was a gaming fanatic who was blessed with wealthy parents and a generous allowance. I owned every home console available in North America, as well as a couple that weren’t, and every penny that didn’t go towards expanding my game collection got converted to quarters at the arcade on a regular basis. An obsession with video games was certainly not an uncommon condition among boys my age–I merely took it to a level that few others could even dream of. I started my freshman year at university in ‘92. My parents kept paying me the same allowance and covered the tuition, but everything else was up to me. It became apparent early on that maintaining my former gaming budget while also paying for the dorm, food, and other living expenses was, to put it mildly, financially untenable. For the first time in my life, the horrifying prospect of needing additional income had dawned on me. Wandering around campus during the day was something I tended to avoid–too many people were out and about; it made me anxious. As such, it wasn’t until well after dark one Friday night that I hit the campus job boards in the hopes of finding something that could ease the burden on my wallet while minimizing the burden on me. I was not an ambitious kid–I wanted to earn just enough cash to keep a roof over my head and feed my stomach and gaming addiction while doing as little work as possible in the process. My prospects were grim. The postings on the board were all volunteer positions or part-time retail gigs. The retail jobs would have paid enough, and bagging groceries probably wouldn’t have been too mentally taxing, but the thought of wearing a fake smile and dealing face-to-face with an unending stream of people every day made me dry heave. There was one posting for a data entry job, but all the dangling tabs with the phone number to call had already been torn off. Data entry sounded like it could be up my alley, so I decided to visit the smaller job board outside the computer lab in the hopes of finding more. To my dismay, the cork board hanging in the dimly-lit hall outside the computer lab displayed a smaller selection of the same jobs I had already seen. I was about to head back to the dorms to lament over my poor luck, when something white jutting out from behind the board caught my eye–the slightest hint of a sheet of paper someone had slipped between the wall and the cork board. My first ham-fisted attempts at fishing it out with my fingernail failed miserably. I pulled out my student ID card and pressed the edge of it against the sliver of paper, then dragged it along the wall. The sheet of paper slid right into my hand. Grinning at my cleverness, I looked the paper over. There were two lines typed out in all caps at its center: DO YOU LIKE VIDEO GAMES?CALL FOR MORE INFO There was a phone number printed at the bottom of the sheet. My heart rate amped up a notch. Could this be the Holy Grail that it appeared to be? I would have given my left arm for a paying job that involved video games, and that seemed to be what I had stumbled upon. I felt absurdly protective of that little piece of paper. In my mind it was a divine treasure, hidden there for me to find. I glanced down the hallway in both directions. There was a couple down at one end who were plainly too interested in each other to pay me any notice, and I thought I saw a man standing in the shadows at the other end of the hall–but when I blinked and squinted to get a better look there was nothing there. Probably my sudden paranoia playing tricks on me. I looked back at the job posting in my hands, folded it into my pocket, then practically sprinted all the way back to the dorms. Expecting it to go to a machine so late at night, my fear over even the slightest possibility that I may miss out if I waited too long drove me to call the number that night. To my surprise, a woman answered. “Hello?” said the woman. She sounded alert, not like someone who had been awaken by a phone call in the middle of the night. That was promising. “Hi, I hope it’s not too late. I’m calling about the, uh, video game job?” I said. There was a pregnant pause, and for a moment I feared that I had lost the connection, or the woman had hung up. Maybe the message I had found was a joke, and I had unwittingly prank-called some poor lady in the middle of the night. “I’m assuming you can read,” the woman stated. She hadn’t said it like a question, but I felt like she was waiting for some kind of response. “Huh?” I asked. “Are you literate? Capable of comprehending the written English language?” “Uh, yeah,” I said. I looked at the creased paper in my hand. Was the woman angry? Had I missed something in the job posting? Had I somehow misread those two simple sentences? “Do you live alone? And do you rent or own your current residence?” “I’m living out of the dorms at the U,” I answered. “Perfect,” said the lady. “The job pays one twenty. Give me your name and address. You’ll receive more information on Monday.” My brain tried to process the number she had said as I rattled off my personal information. One twenty? What, per hour? That didn’t seem like much. Perhaps she meant a hundred and twenty? Per week that might be manageable, per month probably not. I hoped it would become more clear when they sent more details after the weekend. Monday morning rolled around and a loud thud woke me up before the sun was even up. I tip-toed to the door, trying not to wake my roommate, and checked the hallway outside our dorm. There wasn’t a soul in any direction, but there at my feet was a large sealed cardboard box with my name written on it. I picked it up and brought it to my bed, ripped the tape off, and looked inside. There was a note and an envelope inside the box, sitting on top of a stack of papers bound together by a coiled spine. I snatched the note and read it. The letter explained that my new employer was a software company on the cusp of releasing a new video game, and that my duties would consist entirely of manning an evening-hours telephone hint line for that game. People would call with questions, and my job was to consult the included hint book and read out the answers. It explained that my salary would be a hundred twenty thousand per year, plus benefits and annual raises to match inflation, and that in the envelope I would find the keys to my employer-provided apartment and home office, into which they expected me to move at once. My roommate must have woken up suspecting that I had gone crazy, laughing and rolling around as I was. Like a madman who believed the whole of existence was some big joke, and he had just learned the punchline. It was a modest two-bedroom apartment. One of the rooms was furnished with a desk, bare but for a rotary telephone at its center–an amusingly outdated prop even for the time. I spent that first day moving my video game collection and other belongings from my dorm room and my parents’ house to the apartment. That evening passed without any calls on the telephone. The next evening, too. Soon two weeks had gone by, still without a single call, and I woke up to find an unmarked envelope someone had slid under the apartment’s door. It contained my first paycheck. My parents practically disowned me when I dropped out of university after receiving a few more checks. They couldn’t understand why I would “jeopardize my future” over what they called a “lousy help desk” job. I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to waste time going to school when they’re already earning a six figure salary doing exactly what they love to do–which in my case was absolutely nothing at all. Times changed. The internet went from AOL keywords and web directories to search engines and social media; cell phones got cheaper and thinner; computers got cheaper and faster; cell phones turned into computers that fit in your pocket; printers went three-dimensional; cars went electric and started driving themselves; Super Nintendos made way for Playstations, Xboxes, and Switches. The world outside marched on, but little changed inside my apartment. The phone remained silent, and I kept getting paid to do nothing. The company name on the paychecks changed a handful of times over the years. Searching them on the internet turned up generic press releases about acquisitions, mergers, and splits. Each time I braced myself–surely someone would discover that the payroll for the company they just acquired or merged with included an employee manning a hint line that nobody called for a game that was never released on a video game console that had been obsolete for years. Maybe I would receive a call; or maybe they’d simply “fix the glitch” and the checks would stop appearing under my door, and my rent would no longer be paid. The prospect of having to find a real job was perhaps the most terrifying to me–I had grown accustomed to living on the periphery of real-life. At first I ventured out on occasion to buy food, clothes, liquor, and other necessities–but with the advent of one-day shipping and delivery services for every product imaginable, my trips outside the apartment gradually diminished to the point where my only interaction with the outside world was accidentally answering the door too quickly and having to nod at a delivery person as they walked away. The idea of having to one day go out there into the world, hunt for a job, interview, commute, socialize–it made me sick to my stomach. Time passes quickly when every day is the same as the last. My routine never varied, to the point where I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was, let alone what month. Years passed by in the blink of an eye, then turned to decades. One day I noticed some gray hairs in the mirror, and realized that I had lived more of my life inside that apartment than outside, and I was older than my parents had been when I first moved in. I had lived the majority of my life as a forgotten cog in a broken machine, and that was fine with me. I was playing computer games last week when the phone rang for that first time. I had panicked, unsure of where the unfamiliar sound was coming from. Once my brain caught up with the rest of my nervous system and I could comprehend what was happening, I reached for the phone. My whole body jerked each time its harsh ring brayed out. I picked up the handset and brought it to my ear. “Hello?” I said hesitantly. “Is this the hint line?” asked a man. I cleared my throat. “Uh, yes?” I said. “How do I get past the seventh topaz gate?” asked the man. I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. For the phone to ring after all these years made no sense–I had always assumed the game that the hint line was for had never been released; that the company had abandoned the project at some point during the acquisitions and mergers and that somehow my job had slipped through the cracks during the bureaucratic shuffle. “Seventh topaz… huh?” I asked. “The seventh gate. Topaz. What’s the key?” said the man. I moved the handset away from my ear and looked at it. My eyes followed the spiraled cord across my desk and under the corner of my monitor to the phone’s base. Then I spied the coil-bound stack of papers the phone was sitting on. The hint book. I grabbed the book and slid it out from under the phone, then flipped the pages open as I returned the handset to my ear. “Hold on,” I told the man. I flipped through the pages until I found a table of contents. I ran my finger down the page, reading the sections it listed. Characters, enemies, vehicles, weapons, spells, and there at the bottom was gates. I flipped to the listed page and thumbed through tables of information until I found what he had asked for. Seventh gate, topaz. It was listed in a table alongside a ten digit number. “I’ve got it,” I said into the phone. “Ready?” “Mmm hmm,” the man breathed. I read the ten digit number to him. “Thank you,” said the man. There was a click, and then a dial tone. I stared at the handset for a while longer before hanging it up, then returned my attention to the hint book. Flipping through the pages revealed dozens of similar tables, listing words or phrases in one column associated with a ten digit number in the other. None of it made any sense to me. What kind of video game needs ten digit numbers to progress? And why had that game surfaced now after almost thirty years? When I closed the hint book, I noticed that my hands were shaking. I stumbled out of the office to my kitchen and opened my liquor cabinet. I grabbed a half-empty bottle and took a swig. Soon the half-empty bottle had turned completely empty, and I passed out on my couch. The phone rang again the next day. And then twice the day after that, and again the day after that. Each call went the same–the caller would ask about some word or phrase, I would look it up in the hint book and read them a ten digit number, then they would hang up. The following Friday night, the phone started ringing again and I decided to try to get some answers. I picked up the phone. “Hello?” I said. “Hello, is this the hint line?” It was a woman’s voice on the other end this time. “Yeah,” I said. “What game are you calling about?” The woman didn’t reply. “I’m happy to provide you with a hint, but I need to know what game you’re calling about,” I pressed further. “I don’t, uh…” the woman started hesitantly. “I mean, it’s for the Crash Loop ARG, is that what you…” There was a click on the line, and then a dial tone. The abruptness with which the call ended startled me, but I had the information I wanted. I pulled up a search engine on my computer and typed “Crash Loop ARG,” not sure what to expect. Perhaps some long-lost console game prototype, recently discovered or leaked to the public. Instead, the single relevant link I found was to a discussion on an obscure message board. I scrolled through pages of cryptic messages, audio clips, and strange images and videos. The members of the forum discussed the content as though that was the game–like the images, videos, and audio clips were a puzzle to be solved. Messages translated into ciphers, images and audio spectrograms contained hidden clues, and videos were dissected frame by frame for hidden meaning. I clicked my way through to the last page of the thread and scrolled down. One of the most recent posts was a link to a video, posted anonymously about a week earlier. The video showed an old CRT television set in a dark room displaying static. After a moment, the TV screen flickered and showed what looked like the splash screen for an old 16-bit video game. Less than a second later, the video ended. The TV looked familiar. The media center it was sitting on too. And the wall, the carpet–it all looked identical to how my living area had been furnished when I first moved in. Back on the forum, I read some of the replies to the video. Someone had managed to identify a company name from the splash screen on the TV, and then someone else had traced that company’s assets through a series of acquisitions, mergers, and splits spanning the last thirty years. Someone else managed to link the latest company to a phone number and posted that number in the thread. I felt sweat rolling down my face as I pulled my cell phone from my pocket with a clammy hand. I unlocked the phone and pulled up the dialer. I stared at the phone number on my monitor. I looked at the old rotary phone on my desk. After punching the number into my cell phone, my thumb hovered over the dial button for a moment, and then I pressed it. The old rotary phone clanged out its harsh, visceral ring. Even though I knew to expect it, it still made my muscles seize and my skin crawl. I ended the call on my cell phone and the rotary phone stopped ringing. The forum discussion continued with messages from people who had called the number and used clues from earlier in the thread to ask me specific questions, and had received new phone numbers from me. New phone numbers? I pulled the hint book toward me on the desk, flipped it open, and stared at the tables filled with ten digit numbers. Is that what those were? Were they all phone numbers? I flipped to a random page and selected one of the numbers. I punched it into my cell phone and dialed. After several rings, a man answered. “Hello?” he said. “Is this the hint line?” I asked. The man on the other end cleared his throat. “Uh, yes,” he said. He sounded unsure of himself. I looked back down at my hint book and read the clue that pointed to the number I had dialed. “How do I get past the second golden Minotaur?” I asked. “Second golden… huh?” said the man. “The second Minotaur. Golden,” I repeated. “What’s the key?” “Hold on…” the man said. The faint sound of flipping pages hissed in my ear as I waited. “I’ve got it. Ready?” said the man. “Mmm hmm,” I breathed. I stared at the number for the second golden Minotaur in my hint book as the man read out his answer. The numbers didn’t match. “Thank you,” I said, and hung up. I slammed my hint book shut and shoved it toward the back of my desk. Was that guy hired by the same company that hired me? How long had he waited before his phone rang? My mind reeled. I wasn’t a forgotten cog in a broken machine–the machine was working exactly as designed. It was all part of some twisted internet game. A game in which I was an NPC. One of hundreds, judging from how many phone numbers were in my hint book. The final post in the thread was from less than an hour earlier. The post contained GPS coordinates and a link to a map. I clicked it, and found myself looking at a satellite image of a city block. My heart sank as I read the street names. It was my block. And at the exact center of the map was my apartment building. There was a sudden pounding at my door. “Hey! Is someone there?” I heard a muffled man’s voice come through the door as the pounding continued. “I have some questions about the game! Whats the point? Does it ever end?” There was a loud thud and the pounding stopped, followed by a gravelly hissing noise, like the sound of something heavy dragging over the ground. I sat frozen at my desk as the noise outside my door faded to silence. I couldn’t say whether a minute passed or an hour, but once my fear had abated enough that I could move, I crept to the door of my office and peeked out into my living area. Someone outside had slid something under my apartment door. Holding my breath, I tip-toed out and retrieved two pieces of paper from the floor. The top one looked familiar. DO YOU LIKE VIDEO GAMES?CALL FOR MORE INFO. The second was a hand-written note, messily scribbled in red ink. “Event loop failure,” it read. “Continue from last save point.” The university campus is typically a twenty minute bike ride from my apartment, but the streets were near empty that late at night, so I made it in fifteen. The hallway outside the computer lab looked almost identical to how it did thirty years ago. I slipped the job posting back behind the cork board, being sure to leave a thin sliver peeking out. A giggle drew my attention to the far end of the hallway where a boy and a girl were leaning against the wall and making out. Other than me and them, the hallway was empty. I walked to the opposite end where there were no lights turned on this late at night, and waited in the dark. A minute passed, then I watched a young man come in through the entrance and approach the job board. A fresh cog for the machine. I wonder how long he’ll have to wait for his phone to ring.
Orange fingers of flame gripped the Ark like a slender fiery hand as the battered ship plummeted through the upper atmosphere. Flecks of carbon tore from thermal plating and flashed as they burned up in the ship’s wake. A mile from the surface, the Ark’s retro booster burst to life, further slowing the Ark’s descent. Three yellow parachutes deployed from the uppermost section of the Ark. Two of them inflated, the third flapped limply in the wind. The imbalance caused the ship to tilt. The Ark’s corrective thrusters attempted to compensate, streaking their blue flames brilliantly across the night sky as the Ark spiraled out of control. Crumbled ruins of an ancient city cast quick-moving shadows across a barren desert landscape as the tumbling ship passed overhead. The Ark crashed at the edge of a dry lake bed, buckled slightly in the middle, then toppled and skidded half a mile. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the damaged Ark lay on its side, half-buried in the valley-sized trench it had gouged. Stillness settled, as though the night were eager to claim it back after the Ark’s uninvited intrusion. Interrupting the silence yet again, the Ark ejected one of its stasis chambers with a loud pop. The metallic chamber landed a hundred feet away, then started venting white mist into the warm air. Doyle rode his bike through the University campus as often as he could–to and from the grocery store, trips to the public library, and as on this occasion, heading home from the communal office building where he sometimes worked for a change of scenery from his home office. It had been almost a decade since he was a student himself, but he still cherished the feeling of nostalgia that washed over him as he pedaled over the familiar paved path and relived some of his favorite memories. The bike path meandered past and around most of the buildings, and Doyle was rounding a blind corner when he nearly ran over a kneeling woman. She was trying desperately to stop a flock of fluttering papers from blowing away in the wind. Doyle squeezed his brakes and swerved to avoid her, rolling down a rocky embankment next to the path and winding up flat on his back. He stared up at the woman. She stared back down at him, forgetting briefly about her escaping papers. “Oh my God I’m so sorry!” cried the woman. “Are you alright?” Doyle got to his feet. He was out of breath, and guessed he’d have more than a few bruises in the morning, but nothing felt broken. He nodded to the woman and rolled his bike back up the embankment. After expressing her profound apologies, the woman introduced herself as Kirsten. Doyle helped her chase down the last of her errant papers. Kirsten explained that they were term papers she had finished grading that night. This doesn’t look like a term paper, Doyle thought as he studied one of the sheets in his hands. Blast radius diagrams, tonnage reports, target coordinates, fallout projections. It seemed so familiar, and yet out of place at the same time. He looked up at Kirsten, who was holding her hand out, eagerly awaiting the return of her document. Her expression had changed. Her eyes seemed hollow, her smile emotionless. Was this how it went? Doyle couldn’t remember. The edges of his vision were getting dim and closing in until Kirsten’s frightening, grinning face was all that remained at the center of a black void. Then even she faded away. The next sensation Doyle became aware of was the taste of dirt. He choked and spit, then rolled over onto his back. Light crept back into his vision in the form of a dim haze. “Kirsten? Where’s… Where’s my bike?” Doyle’s voice came out a raspy whisper that he almost didn’t recognize as his own. He sat up and tried to feel around for his bicycle. His arms seemed reluctant to respond, like rubber tubes flopping around in slow motion. His hand brushed against something. A foot, an ankle, connected to a leg. Was it his? Doyle didn’t think so. “Get your… hands off me you… you pervert.” Doyle recognized the woman’s stilted, protesting voice, but it wasn’t Kirsten’s. He wasn’t on campus anymore, that had been years ago. So where did he know that voice from? Where was he? How he had gotten there? And why did he feel such a foreboding sense of urgency? As his vision cleared, Doyle was able to discern that the sky was dark, but the stars seemed unusually bright. A flat, cracked dry lake bed stretched out into the darkness ahead. On the horizon Doyle could see the dark silhouette of what looked like a city skyline. Someone was laying prone on the ground to his left–the woman whose voice he had recognized but couldn’t place. Behind him, Doyle saw the stasis chamber–it looked like a large refrigerator with its door open. In the distance beyond was the upper edge of the Ark peeking above a steep dirt mound that extended half a mile out toward the edge of the dry lake. Doyle took in the sight, but his brain refused to process what he was seeing. “Are you dudes okay?” A man’s voice, this time. One that Doyle also recognized. It came from inside the refrigerator-thing. Doyle shook his head, trying desperately to surface and sort out his thoughts and memories. They came slowly, softened and warped like he was viewing them through a rippling pool of water. “I had to eject your stasis chamber. That gnarly crash landing totally wiped out some major power conduits and I couldn’t supply enough juice to keep that one running. I guess ‘cause there were two of you in there.” The inside of the stasis chamber was too dark for Doyle to make out any details. A thinning fog flowed out of it like spilled milk. “Heady?” Doyle asked. “Is that you?” “Nah, bruh. I’m not Heady. Or at least I don’t think I’m Heady.” Doyle stood up. His knees wobbled and he almost fell, but he managed to regain his balance. He took a few short steps toward the stasis chamber to get a better look inside. “What kind of stupid game are you playing, Heady? Come out of there. Do you know where we are? What’s going on?” “Nah bruh, the Ark’s sensors got pretty janked up when we landed. I can’t get a clean look around.” A memory bubbled up through the murk into Doyle’s consciousness. The Ark! That girl on the ground, she had been pointing a gun at Heady. The last thing Doyle remembered was running toward the Ark, charging at the girl, trying desperately to save Heady. And Kirsten. “Heady? Where are you?” Doyle said. He reached the stasis chamber and put his hand against it for balance. “Get out of there and come with me, Kirsten’s still on the Ark. We’ve got to find her.” “Heady? Heady is that really you?” Doyle spun around. The young woman–Susan? No Sarah–was sitting up now, rubbing her eyes. “I’m not Heady,” said Heady’s voice. “Heady was just a part of my training data. My name is Desmond.” “Quit messing around Heady,” said Doyle. He stuck his head in the stasis chamber and looked around at its padded walls. The small chamber was empty. “Desmond?” Sarah’s voice came, sharper than before. “What happened to the Ark?” Sarah looked around urgently, then stopped when her gaze fell on the dark skyscrapers blotting out the stars along the horizon. “How did we get back to Earth? Oh God… How long has it been?” “I don’t know, bruh.” Heady’s voice came from the empty chamber again. Doyle started walking around it, looking for where Heady was hiding. “My sensors are either busted or buried, but based on the star patterns I can see, I don’t think this is…” “Heady,” interrupted Doyle. “Where the hell are you? I can hear you but I can’t see?” “That’s not Heady, you dipshit,” said Sarah, still sitting on the ground but looking much more alert. “Desmond is the Ark’s computer. He must be communicating through the ejected stasis chamber.” Doyle stared at Sarah blankly. “Heady is talking to us through the computer?” Sarah shook her head. “No, that is the computer. It’s using Heady’s voice for some reason.” “I’m using the speech and vocal patterns that were provided to me in my training data,” said Desmond. “Your training…” said Sarah, trailing off. Her eyes widened. “Oh! You mean my data. My videos? Oh, shit…” Doyle turned and looked at the stasis chamber again. “Look, computer, or whatever you are, Kirsten is still on the Ark and I need to find her. Can you help me do…” Before he could finish, Doyle felt hands on his back forcefully shove him. His head hit the metal shell of the stasis chamber and he fell to his hands and knees. Doyle’s head throbbed and he scrambled around to see Sarah looming over him. “Asshole! This is your fault! How long has it been? He could be a hundred years old by now! He could be… He could be dead!” Sarah grunted with frustration, and started kicking dirt at Doyle. “Augh! Stop that!” cried Doyle, raising his arms defensively to protect his face. When the onslaught stopped, Doyle lowered his arms and looked at Sarah. She was pointing her concussion pistol at him. “Now, look!” said Doyle. “Let’s just talk about this like mature…” An explosive force of air cut Doyle off. The too-bright stars spun around in a dizzying cacophony of light before winking out. A brilliant halo of light encircled the full moon like a crystal ball suspended in the cloudless sky. A cool breeze rustled the leaves of the evergreens surrounding the small grassy field behind the university’s gymnasium where the faculty party had already wrapped up hours ago. “Ice crystals,” said Kirsten. “Hmm?” Doyle breathed. “The Moon halo,” replied Kirsten, pointing up at the sky. “It’s created by the Moon’s light refracting off ice crystals in the atmosphere.” Doyle turned his head to look at her. She was laying on her back next to him. An empty wine bottle obscured her face. Doyle reached over and tipped the bottle over. “Did we finish that whole thing?” asked Kirsten with a grin. “Afraid so,” said Doyle. He smiled at her, but she turned away. “I should go,” said Kirsten. “I don’t even know why I’m here.” Doyle looked back up at the brilliant ring of light in the sky and sighed. “Faculty party, remember?” “Yeah, smart ass,” said Kirsten. “I mean out here, drinking a whole bottle of wine hours after the party’s over.” “I figured you just liked the company,” said Doyle. He felt his heart beat a little quicker. “I mean, that’s why I stuck around.” “You’re sweet, Doyle,” said Kirsten. She still wasn’t looking at him, but Doyle thought it sounded like she was smiling now. “Maybe a little too sweet.” He didn’t know what that meant. Kirsten and Doyle had seen each other a handful of times since he almost ran her over a couple months ago, but not as much as Doyle had wanted. He had begun to assume his interest was one-sided and had made the decision to stop pursuing her when out of the blue she invited him to be her plus one at the party tonight. “So why are you here?” asked Doyle. Kirsten sighed. “I don’t want my time here to end,” she said. “I love teaching here. I love the work I get to do. I love helping the kids, getting to see them learn and grow. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted from life.” “Who said your time here has to end?” said Doyle. “From what I saw at the party, everyone loves you. I can’t imagine your job is in jeopardy.” “It’s not my job that’s in jeopardy,” replied Kirsten. She turned and looked at Doyle. He looked back. She had a serious expression on her face. “I’ve got a decision to make, Doyle. A big one. There’s a right answer and a wrong one, but if I pick the right one, nothing will ever be the same for me again. I’ll lose so much.” “And what if you pick the wrong one?” asked Doyle. “I don’t know if I could forgive myself for that,” said Kirsten. The two of them remained silent for a while, listening to the crickets and the rustling leaves. “When I was little,” said Doyle, “I became friends with a new kid at school. He was a little guy, and it wasn’t long before the popular kids singled him out. I knew it was happening, but for a long time I didn’t say anything. I knew if I told anyone , then those kids would just start bullying me instead. I let it go on for months, ignoring the cuts, bruises, and black eyes. I just watched it happen. Didn’t say a damn word. I was too scared of what it would mean for me to do anything else.” “What happened?” asked Kirsten. “They went too far,” said Doyle. “I’m not sure exactly what they did, but it was bad enough that his parents pulled him out of school. I don’t know what happened to him after that.” “That’s awful,” said Kirsten. “Yeah,” said Doyle. “I let fear dictate my actions. I let it lead me down the path I knew was wrong. And it brought me nothing but shame and regret. From that point on, whenever the choice is that clear, I don’t even hesitate. It’s not even worth thinking about.” Kirsten cleared her throat and stood up, brushed off her dress with her hands, then picked up the empty wine bottle and turned toward the gymnasium. “Thanks for being my plus one, Doyle,” said Kirsten. She started walking. “And thanks for the talk. You were right, I did quite enjoy the company.” “Any time,” said Doyle. “I suspect you’ve helped quite a lot more than you could possibly imagine,” said Kirsten. Doyle sat up and watched as she walked away. “Can I see you again?” he called after her. Kirsten paused for a moment. “Yeah,” she said, without looking back. “Yeah I think I’d like that.” Smiling, Doyle laid back down. The shimmering crystal ball surrounding the Moon flashed and intensified, like a brilliant explosion of light raining down from the sky. Doyle squinted as he emerged from the fog of unconsciousness. Blurry overlapping discs converged into pinpricks of starlight peppering the night sky. “Quizzot klax’zgath grizzum?” asked a strange high-pitched voice that Doyle didn’t recognize in a language that he was entirely unfamiliar with. “Um, what?” asked Doyle. He looked in the direction the voice had come from and saw a strange looking man with pale skin and shoulder-length white hair standing next to the stasis chamber. The pale man scratched his head, then repeated himself. “Quizzot klax’zgath grizzum? Kolaq’unth!“ he emphasized the last word. Doyle shook his head. Movement in the sky drew his gaze upward, and he saw what looked like a large flying green dumpster floating above the Ark’s trench. A dozen or so thick shiny cables hung down from the thing. The cables latched on to either side of the ark in pairs all along its length. “Uh, what’s that?” Doyle asked, and pointed. The man raised his arms and sighed in obvious exasperation, then vanished. Doyle blinked. There was the stasis chamber. There was the half-mile long wall of dirt obscuring most of the Ark. There was the flying green dumpster. But there was no more man where the man had been just a moment ago. Something on the flying green dumpster flashed, drawing Doyle’s attention. He felt a stinging sensation on his forehead and impulsively smacked at it. The man reappeared next to the stasis chamber. “Quagnazz!” shouted the man. “Kluzatt ha’gar when the translator cells start working.” “Hang on,” said Doyle. “I understood that last bit. What did you say?” “I said let me know when the translator cells start working,” said the man. There was a loud screeching noise, followed by a rumbling as the dirt walls of the enormous trench started to shake loose. The flying green dumpster had started pulling up, tightening the slack on the cables attached to the Ark. “What are you doing to the Ark?” Doyle asked, alarmed. “Impounding it,” said the man. “Your–what did you call it? Ark?–doesn’t seem to be registered with any prefectures. What planet are you from, exactly?” The Ark creaked in protest and started to move as the flying green dumpster continued to wrench it from the ground. “Uh, this one,” said Doyle. The flying green dumpster loosened its slack on the cables attached to the Ark slightly, then reared back in another attempt to dislodge the larger buried ship. “Also, can you please stop doing that?” The man stared at Doyle for a moment before bursting into laughter. “Nobody’s from this planet.” Doyle blinked. “What do you mean, nobody’s from Earth? Everybody’s from Earth. Why, where are you from?” A confused expression formed on the man’s face. “What are you some kind of religious freak?” The man scratched his head and looked Doyle up and down, as though actually seeing him for the first time. “At any rate, this ain’t Earth, buddy, but it is a protected historical preserve, and there are hefty fines for just disturbing rocks, let alone… Well… Let alone whatever the frazz you call what you did there.” The man waved his hand at the half-mile trench that the Ark gouged into the dry lake bed when it crashed. “Since that hunk of junk is unregistered, you’re going to have to come claim it in person. Just bring that claim ticket to the impound station at Takkah IV some time in the next ninety UDCs.” The man pointed to a small white slate with strange markings on it that was on the ground next to Doyle’s feet. Doyle picked it up. The creaking noises from the Ark intensified. The dirt walls of the trench that hugged the Ark finally gave way and, with a deafening crunch, the front half of the Ark came free from the ground. The ship bent in the center and there was an ear-shattering metallic crunch as it broke in half. The flying green dumpster continued to ascend and pulled the bottom of the Ark free from the ground as well. Dirt and chunks of debris spilled from the two halves of the Ark as they swung freely from the cables like two opposing pendulums of a mammoth grandfather clock. “Ah,” said the man. “At this point I am legally bound to inform you that the Takkah Towing Company is not responsible for any damage done to your ship during the course of its impounding.” “Uh, hang on,” said Doyle, staring dumbfounded at the two halves of the Ark as they receded out of view into the sky. It dawned on him what was happening. He was losing the Ark. He was losing Kirsten. “Hang on a sec! You can’t just take that! There’s people on there! We’ve got to wake them up! Get them out!” “Ooh,” said the man, then sucked air in through his teeth. “Probably shouldn’t have mentioned that. The impound fine for living cargo is triple. Well, you can work all that out when you come claim it.” The man turned and surveyed the scarred mess of dirt and debris that remained in place of the Ark. “Bring your credit chip,” said the man. “You’re gonna need it, buddy. Anyway, my ship’s almost out of projection range, so I’ll say goodbye now.” “You’re not going anywhere, dickweed!” came Sarah’s voice. She leaped out from behind the stasis chamber and aimed her concussion pistol at the man, who was now positioned directly between her and Doyle. The man turned to face her and started flickering. “That’s my Ark and those are my videos and you can’t have them!” Not again, thought Doyle as the concussive blast from Sarah’s weapon passed straight through the semi-translucent man and sent Doyle flying backwards. He was already unconscious before he hit the ground. A swirling white maelstrom of mist danced with the falling snow in front of his face as Doyle exhaled nervously. He pressed the doorbell, and waited. Kirsten opened the door and greeted him with a thin smile. “Hello Doyle, thanks for coming. Come in out of the cold,” she said. Doyle stomped the snow off his boots and wiped them on the mat outside her door. Welcome, it beamed up at him in pink cursive letters. “Let me take your coat,” said Kirsten as she closed the door behind him. Doyle unzipped and Kirsten got behind him to pull the heavy down jacket off his arms. He could feel the wetness in his armpits once the jacket came free and exposed them to the still-cool air that had invaded from outside. Kirsten hung the coat up in the closet by the door as he took his boots off. “Here, I brought this,” said Doyle, presenting the bottle of wine he had brought. Kirsten took the bottle and led Doyle down the hallway to her living room. Christmas decorations adorned the walls–wreaths, bows, and blinking red and green lights strung high up on hooks in the ceiling. The scent of nutmeg and cinnamon lingered in the air. “You really went all out with the decorating this year,” said Doyle as they stepped into the living room. “Kirsten’s the Christmas Queen!” Doyle saw who had spoken. Ted, one of Kirsten’s colleagues at the university, was sitting on Kirsten’s living room couch. Why the hell was Ted here? Doyle thought it would be just him and Kirsten. Could he still go through with his plan with Ted here? Doyle wasn’t sure. For months Ted had been intruding on Doyle’s life. Kirsten had cut dates short, or canceled all together due to mysterious phone calls and “urgent business” at the university. Doyle had spied the caller ID on her phone more than once, and it was always Ted. Kirsten had grown more distant–Doyle missed her laughter–and it got worse each time she received a call or canceled a date due to “urgent business” with Ted. And now, apparently, Ted had graduated from interrupting via phone and was showing up on Doyle’s dates with Kirsten in person. “Hi Ted,” said Doyle. “Hi Doyle, good to see you again,” said Ted. There was an awkward silence, then Doyle saw Kirsten make some kind of gesture out of the corner of his eye. “Ted was just leaving,” said Kirsten. “Ah, yes. Well, before I go… Doyle, there’s something Kirsten and I need to tell you,” said Ted, standing up from the couch. “No there isn’t!” Kirsten said forcefully. “Come on Ted, I’ll get your jacket.” Ted shook his head. “Kirsten, I need to be here when you tell him.” “Tell me what?” asked Doyle. “Excuse us a moment, Doyle,” said Kirsten. She grabbed Ted by the arm and led him to the kitchen. Months of secrets, phone calls, canceled dates, never telling Doyle what she was up to. Until now, Doyle had managed to shove his suspicions into the recesses, out of his conscious mind. He bottled up all of his skepticism, his intuition, his fear, and his rage. But now it was pouring over–his mind was reeling. All this time, was he just a fool? A sucker? No. Kirsten wasn’t that sort of person. She was kind. She would never treat anyone that way, let alone someone she purported to care about. Doyle breathed deeply, doing everything within his power to quell the mental volcano of emotion that was on the verge of eruption. Steeling his nerves, Doyle marched through the living room to the kitchen doorway. Kirsten and Ted were speaking in hushed tones on the far side of the island. They both looked up, startled to see Ted come in. “Kirsten, I…” said Doyle. The words caught in his throat. Ted and Kirsten stared at him, both expressionless. “Kirsten I love you,” said Doyle. He finally got it out, after all these years. Kirsten opened her mouth, but remained silent. “You’re the only thing I care about,” continued Doyle. “And when we’re not together, all I can do is think about the next time we will be. It’s like my whole life revolves around you. I know you have feelings for me too and… And I’m just… I need to… I came here to do this today, and I’m just going to do it.” Doyle took a step forward and reached into his pocket. He gripped the tiny jewelry box in his sweaty palm. Kirsten took a step backward. She bumped into Ted, whose eyes had opened almost comically wide. Ted reached up and touched Kirsten’s arms to steady her. After stepping around the island, Doyle got down on one knee. “Oh… Oh…” Kirsten managed to gasp. “Ted, I…” She started shaking her head. “Don’t answer right away,” said Doyle. “I just want you to know how strongly I feel, and to let you know that I’m ready. I’m ready for us to…” “Doyle, maybe this isn’t the best time to…” Ted started. Doyle glared at him with all the hatred he could muster. Ted’s mouth snapped shut and he took a step back, letting go of Kirsten’s arms. “Kirsten,” said Doyle. He closed the jewelry box and put it on the island. “You hang on to this. I did what I came here to do. I want you to think hard about what you want. Or who you want,” he glared at Ted. “It’s a big decision, I know. We can talk later. I love you.” Kirsten’s cheeks were wet with tears. Sweat poured down Doyle’s forehead and he could feel it dripping down his sides from his armpits as he turned and walked back into the living room. He walked down the hallway toward the front door. The blinking Christmas lights flashed bright red, and Doyle broke into a run. A klaxon started blaring. He looked up and saw Sarah’s back turned toward him in the distance, and the dark silhouette of the Ark looming above. Doyle continued to sprint toward her. She turned, and Doyle saw that it wasn’t Sarah, but Kirsten, her wet cheeks still glistening. She had something in her hand. She squeezed it. This isn’t how it happened, thought Doyle. There was a blinding flash of light from the Ark, and Doyle felt the flesh tear from his bones in the explosion. “I’m sorry for shooting you,” said Sarah. Doyle, sitting against the stasis chamber, grunted and rubbed the back of his head. “Not the first time,” Sarah clarified. She was sitting next to Doyle, also leaning against the stasis chamber. “I meant to do that one. I mean that last one. I was shooting at that guy who stole the Ark. I didn’t know he was just a hologram, or whatever.” “He said this isn’t Earth,” said Doyle. “If this isn’t Earth, where the fuck are we?” “I have good news and bad news, my dudes,” Heady’s voice came from inside the stasis chamber. Sarah and Doyle both looked up in surprise. “Desmond?” asked Sarah. “How are you still here? When the Ark was taken, I just assumed…” “I transferred a copy of myself to this stasis chamber when I realized what was happening,” said Desmond. “Which brings me to the good news–I know where we are. We made it to our destination! Before the Ark got out of range I was able to verify it against my star charts. Welcome to Kepler-1649c my dudes!” “But how is that possible?” Sarah asked. Doyle followed her gaze to the shadowy skyscrapers that lined the horizon. “The New Home was going to be a fresh start. A chance for humanity to do things over the right way. How could this be the New Home?” “Well, that’s where the bad news comes in,” said Desmond. “Based on the stellar drift, I know how long it’s been since we left Earth. And it’s a bit longer than the three hundred years the trip was supposed to take.” Doyle’s heart sank. Over three hundred years? That meant everything and everyone he ever knew back on Earth was dead. His parents were dead. Heady was dead. He looked at Sarah and guessed from her expression that she was processing the same information. “How long?” asked Doyle. “Two million, nine hundred and ninety six thousand, eight hundred years,” said Desmond. “Give or take a few hundred.” Doyle’s brain struggled to comprehend what he had just heard. It was a losing battle. “So, here’s the deal dudes,” continued Desmond. “My training data didn’t give me many relevant details I needed to navigate the Ark through three hundred light years of unknown perils in deep space. In fact it didn’t give me many relevant details to do anything at all. I knew my basic mission, but I’m not sure how six hundred hours of videos about pranking chumps and eating substances generally considered to be non-comestible were intended to help me.” “Ah, heh heh,” Sarah gave a nervous chuckle. Doyle shot her an angry glance. “So that’s why it took me a little longer to find my way here,” finished Desmond. “A little longer?” cried Doyle. “Three million years is a little longer than three hundred, you say?” “So I got a look at that city over there from the Ark’s sensors when it was being hauled away,” said Desmond. “It looks old, bruh. Like really old. Abandoned for at least tens of thousands of years, probably a lot longer. My best theory is that some time in the last few million years, the rest of Earth decided to up and colonize this planet without us. And they have since left. Judging from that dude who took the Ark, they probably spread to other planets. And since this was the only habitable one around this sun, it means they probably spread to other solar systems around here too.” Doyle shook his head. He remembered the documents he had seen at the Nicola’s Children compound before he ended up on the Ark. “I don’t think it could have been Earth,” he said. “The Ark was armed with nuclear warheads. Something called Project Deluge. After the Ark launched, it was supposed to… You were supposed to…” Sarah snapped her head at Doyle with a confused expression on her face. “Never happened, bruh,” said Desmond. “What?” asked Doyle. “I mean, the nukes were there, but I never launched them,” said Desmond. “There was nothing in my programming to do that.” “What the fuck are you guys talking about?” asked Sarah. Doyle ignored her. “So, the payloads? They’re still…” “Still on the Ark, bruh,” said Desmond. Sarah and Doyle sat in silence for a while. A light, warm breeze started blowing over the desert landscape, carrying with it a strange unidentifiable scent. Doyle looked toward the city on the horizon, where the breeze was coming from. Abandoned for tens of thousands of years, Desmond had said. Nicola’s Children thought they were pioneers–blazing a trail to a new life on a new world. But they ended up relics. Left behind and forgotten for so long that the planet they planned to colonize had already been used up and discarded by the very people they were supposed to have left behind. “So what are we gonna do now?” asked Sarah. Doyle reached over and retrieved the small white slate from the dirt where he had dropped it when Sarah shot him the second time. “We’re going to get the Ark back,” he said. “How are we gonna do that?” said Sarah. Doyle turned the slate over in his hands and studied the strange alien hieroglyphs that marked its surface. He leaned his head back on the stasis chamber and looked up at the alien sky with its alien stars, felt the warm alien breeze on his skin, and inhaled the strange alien scent. He thought about Kirsten–the one thing from his previous life he could be sure still existed in this otherwise entirely alien place and time. Doyle sighed. “Fuck if I know.”
“The engineering team has been having trouble loading the ML data onto the Ark’s computer,” Commander Chin said. He was sitting across from the Nikola’s Children Board of Directors. He hadn’t had much experience interacting with the Board, but Commander Chin was now the highest ranking officer not in stasis, and the Board had been demanding daily progress reports. “Some kind of problem with storage. They’ve assured me it’ll be sorted by tomorrow.” Shadow cloaked the three Board members–amorphous dark figures against an even darker backdrop. The Board room had one light on its high ceiling, pointed down at the top of Commander Chin’s head. “The Ark launches in one week, Commander Chin,” said one of the board members. “The rest of Engineering was to board tonight.” It wasn’t clear which of the three dark figures was speaking; Commander Chin always assumed the one in the middle did the talking, because that’s the only one he had ever seen move–a slight nodding motion in response to good news. He wasn’t nodding now, though. “Yes, sir, I know that,” said Commander Chin. He felt the heat of the light beating down on his skull, and felt beads of sweat trickle down his forehead. “They said it was a minor problem, they’ll be able to board tomorrow. The launch schedule shouldn’t be affected.” The middle shadow nodded, and Commander Chin stifled a relieved sigh. “What of Deluge?” came the voice from the darkness. Commander Chin had been waiting for this question. He smiled. “We transferred the payload to the Ark this morning. Doctor Ghani and I personally oversaw its installation. We ran a full system diagnosis afterwards and all criteria registered within expected parameters. Project Deluge is now primed.” The middle figure nodded again. “Excellent job, Commander Chin. When the engineers complete their task tomorrow, they must board with you and the remaining security officers. The compound must be empty as we make final preparations.” Commander Chin nodded. He stood and saluted by crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Thank you, Sir. May the Children be praised!” “The Children be praised,” said the shadowy figure, and Commander Chin marched out of the board room. “Do you remember the one where you stuck a Roman candle in your butt?” Sarah giggled. Heady sighed. “Yep, I remember alright. I still have the scar.” Sarah stopped giggling and gawked at him. “Oooh,” she said. “Can I see?” Her cheeks turned pink and she started giggling again. “How far down does this go, exactly?” Doyle asked. Sarah glanced at him, annoyed at the unwelcome reminder of his presence. “It won’t be long, just chill,” said Sarah. She looked Doyle up and down and shook her head before returning her attention to Heady. “Sarah,” said Heady. “Exactly how deep underground is the compound? I’d like to know, you know, for the video.” “Oh, it’s pretty deep,” said Sarah. “It has to be, to hold the Ark.” She studied Heady in the bright fluorescent light of the elevator. He looked so much better in Officer Thompson’s uniform than Officer Thompson ever had. Sarah found it hard to believe that it was the same uniform at all. “The Ark? What’s that?” asked Doyle. Sarah suppressed the urge to scream. Why couldn’t Shit-for-Brains shut up already? She wished Doyle had stayed behind on the surface. Officer Thompson only had the one uniform, and there was no way it would have fit Fatso. She told them it would be dangerous for Doyle to be inside the compound in civilian clothes, but they wouldn’t listen. Sarah needed to figure out a way to bring Heady to the Ark alone. “I’d like to know what the Ark is too, Sarah,” said Heady. “Oh!” said Sarah. “Well, the Ark is our ship. It’s going to take us to the New Home. Away from all the war, disease, climate change, you know… All the bullshit we gotta put up with here. Plus there’s that whole apocalypse thing.” “The… Apocalypse? New Place?” asked Heady. “Hold up, come stand next to me. Let me get this on camera.” Sarah’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t believe this was happening. She knew this video would never actually get posted, but the idea of Heady asking her to be in it excited her anyway. She sidled up next to Heady. Heady handed his phone to Doyle, who stepped back and continued to film. “I know it sounds corny,” said Sarah, blushing a little. She hadn’t expected to feel so nervous. “But Nikola’s Children got all the best scientists and engineers here working on it. The Ark is totally legit. Dudes came from NASA, Space-X, plus all kinds of companies I’ve never even heard of that do artificial intelligence and stuff. Oh and the stasis chambers–those were a big deal, tons of scientists worked on those.” Doyle’s face perked at the mention of scientists. He lowered the camera a bit and looked at Sarah. “What about a physicist named Kirsten Ghani? She would have showed up about a year ago. Is she still here?” “Um, yeah, I seen her around,” said Sarah, disdain in her voice. “Of course she’s still here. Why would she leave? I don’t know what she’s working on though. Something important I think. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s already in stasis. Almost everyone is by now.” “Hold up a sec,” said Heady. “Ship? NASA? Stasis chambers? Are we talking about what I think we’re talking about here? Like a space ship? A fucking space ship that’s taking you to… Where? Space?” “Yeah,” said Sarah. “Preposterous,” said Doyle. “And the ‘Ark?’ Couldn’t you think up a more generic name than that?” “Fuck you,” said Sarah. “Wait, wait, wait…” said Heady. “What exactly does being ‘in stasis’ mean? Where’s Kirsten?” “On the Ark,” replied Sarah. “I don’t know how it works, that’s what they got all the scientists for. It’s so we don’t grow older while we travel to the New Home… They’re like freezers for humans, or something. Almost everyone’s on board in their stasis chamber already since we launch in a week. Just a handful of us left but we’re boarding tomorrow.” “This is nonsense” said Doyle. He sounded irritated. “Even if I believed all this prattle about space ships and stasis, what about your lives here on Earth? Family, friends, possessions, pets, you’re just leaving all that behind? And where the hell are you even going? The Moon? Mars? Kirsten’s not stupid, she wouldn’t believe any of this crap any more than I do. Where is she?” “We’re not going to the Moon you idiot,” said Sarah. “Why would we need stasis to go to the Moon? We’re going to the New Home, Kepler something.” Sarah scratched her chin for a second, trying to recall the name the scientists had used. “Kepler-1649c. It’s like three hundred years away. And we’re not leaving family or friends behind–the whole compound is going. And the Ark has everything we’ll need to survive at the New Home.” The elevator finally came to a shuddering halt and the doors slid open. Sarah looked at Heady. He was looking back at her with an astonished expression. “Heady, I uh… I think you should come film the Ark with me. That’s why you’re here right? You came to film me… I mean Nikola’s Children. Before we leave. Right?” Heady nodded, but said nothing. His mouth was agape. “Fuck,” said Doyle. “I need to know where Kirsten is. How do I find that out?” Sarah thought for a moment. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to ditch the loser so she could bring Heady to the Ark alone. “Do you know how to use a computer?” she asked. “Follow me.” Sarah took a left out of the elevator and Heady and Doyle followed her down the corridor that led to her security office. If Heady had showed up even a couple weeks earlier, the halls would have been bustling with activity and sneaking two outsiders through the compound would have been unthinkable. But since almost everyone had already boarded the Ark, Sarah felt confident that she could keep at least Heady from getting caught. She wasn’t so sure about the moron in civvies, but that wasn’t important anyway. The two men Sarah had in tow were whispering to one another, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. Doyle felt terrified and angry. From his research he knew the cult was up to something colossal and expensive, but he could never have conceived it to be something as outrageously stupid as what that Sarah girl had described. A space ship called the ‘Ark’ with some kind of cryogenic stasis chambers? A three hundred year trip to a new planet? This wasn’t fucking Mass Effect, shit like that wasn’t possible in real life. Right? “This video is going to go so viral!” whispered Heady. “Can you believe this? We’re inside the compound! This couldn’t have gone any better.” The two men trailed behind Sarah, trying to keep out of earshot as she led them through the claustrophobic concrete hallway. “No I don’t believe it. I don’t believe any of it,” Doyle whispered back. “Kirsten would never get mixed up in something so asinine. There has to be something else going on here. And who the fuck is this girl anyway? Why is she helping us?” Heady and Doyle passed between evenly spaced pairs of windowless steel doors on each side of the hallway as they walked. Sarah stopped at one of the doors and waved a card attached to a retractable cord on her belt at a panel on the wall. There was a quiet beep, and Sarah pushed the door open. She ushered Heady and Doyle through into a cramped room. Doyle thought it must be some kind of monitoring center–there was an office chair sitting on the other side of what looked like a metal desk with a grid of embedded monitors. “You, Boyle,” said Sarah. “It’s Doyle,” said Doyle. “Whatever. The computer in here can access the personnel records so you can look up that bitch you mentioned. There’s a spare key card in that drawer.” Sarah gestured toward a cabinet nestled under the console. “The pin is 1234. Think you can remember that, or should I write it down?” Doyle sat down at the console. He opened the drawer and fished through a pile of crumpled up papers and empty soda cans, looking for the key card. His hands wrapped around something slim at the bottom. He pulled out a small black book. Sarah saw what Doyle was holding and gasped. “Give me that!” she yelled. Sarah tried to grab the book from Doyle and knocked it out of his hand. The book landed open and face up on the console. Doyle saw what looked like sketches of some kind, but Sarah snatched it up before he could make out any details. “Oh my God!” cried Sarah. “This is personal!” Doyle scoffed. Did she think he cared about some girly diary or whatever that was? Did she think he’d make fun of her for sitting down here God knows how deep underground writing the names of boys she liked in a little black book when he had just learned that a cult had most likely brainwashed Kirsten with this nonsense about interstellar colonization? Absurd. Doyle felt the edges of his lips curl back in a grin or grimace, he couldn’t tell which–probably a bit of both. He let out a pathetic monosyllable of sad laughter. “Hwah!” “Don’t fucking laugh at me!” yelled Sarah. Doyle leaned forward and put his face in his hands. He stared through his fingers at Heady. Heady had put his hand on Sarah’s shoulder and was patting it, trying to calm her down. Sarah was red-faced, breathing in short loud gasps. How soundproof was this room? Doyle half-expected a platoon of armed guards to burst through the door at any moment. Sarah let out a deflated whimper, spun and pulled the door open, then disappeared back into the hall. The door clunked shut behind her. Heady and Doyle stared at one another blankly. “Shit,” said Doyle. “Heady, make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid. If it turns out this Ark thing actually exists, see if you can get it on video. Try to buy me some time on this computer, but be careful. Meet me back here and then let’s take that elevator the fuck outta here.” Heady nodded with a determined expression on his face. “This is gonna be epic sick!” he said. Heady lifted his phone to start recording again and stepped out into the hallway, leaving Doyle alone in the security office. Doyle returned his attention to the cabinet by his legs and managed to find the key card. He scanned the console and spotted what looked like a touch screen displaying a login prompt with a slot for the key card next to it. He inserted the card and entered the pin Sarah had told him. He was in. After tapping through some menus, Doyle found what he was looking for–a personnel list. He used an on-screen keyboard to type Kirsten’s name into a search box and watched dozens of names zip past as it scrolled to her record. Doyle scanned the screen for any mention of her location. If it said she was somewhere on the compound, then maybe he could get to her. His heart sank when he read the last line of her record. It listed her status as a single word in all-caps: ARK. Doyle groaned and started tapping the screen haphazardly, desperate to find anything–anything at all–that could tell him what ARK actually meant. There’s no way it meant what Sarah had described. The idea of Kirsten boxed up like a frozen pizza for delivery on a space ship to another planet was patently absurd. Wasn’t it? Doyle soon found his way to a list of documents that looked like they could be about the Ark. He tapped the first one and it asked him to re-authenticate. He looked at the key card sticking out of its slot, then yanked it out and studied it closer. It wasn’t Sarah’s picture or name on the card–the picture was of a man who Doyle guessed was in his late fifties, and had the name Jeff Jefferies printed next to it. What a stupid name, thought Doyle Tingler. What was Sarah doing with his card? He slid the card back into its slot and keyed the pin into the touch screen. The document opened. Doyle skimmed through the paragraphs of text and diagrams without understanding any of it. His focus zeroed in when he spotted Kirsten’s name. It listed the project that Kirsten had been working on as something named Project Deluge. Doyle was about to abandon the document, as it didn’t appear to contain any further mentions of Kirsten, but he stopped cold when he noticed two words that seared into his mind even stronger than Kirsten’s name. He read the words over and over, hoping he had been mistaken. But there the words were: Nuclear warheads. A sense of dread filled Doyle as he began to comprehend more of the document he had scrolled past. Blast radius diagrams, tonnage reports, target coordinates, fallout projections. Doyle discerned that Project Deluge comprised of at least ten nuclear warheads, to be fired back at Earth once the Ark had launched. What the fuck had Kirsten been doing? Feeling a sense of panic rising within him, Doyle reflexively wheeled the chair away from the console. He felt dizzy. His initial research led him to believe these people were crazy, and everything Sarah had said had confirmed as much. But this catapulted the cult to a level of crazy beyond comprehension. Did they actually have nukes? Had Kirsten actually built nukes for an insane sci-fi cult? A horrifying thought crossed his mind–was launching the Ark code for nuking the planet? Was this some kind of global-scale murder-suicide cult? One that wasn’t content in merely predicting the apocalypse, but intended to be its instigator? Was “stasis” a euphemism for… For… No. Fuck, no. Can’t think like that. Doyle stood up and rushed to the door. He had to find Heady and get out of there. He had to let the authorities know. He had to make them listen. Doyle pulled the heavy metal door open and peeked out into the hallway. Still empty as far as he could see in both directions. He took one last glance back at the office, and his eyes rested on the key card sticking out of the console. He grabbed it and shoved it in his pocket. He ran, searching for his friend in the unfamiliar concrete hallways thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Earth. Sarah led Heady through the hallways toward the Ark chamber. Heady followed a few steps behind and recorded with his phone. “This way, it’s not far,” said Sarah. “The Ark is really big, you can’t even see the whole thing at once. Half is below the boarding deck. Only the top half with all the stasis chambers is sticking out.” “What’s in the bottom half?” asked Heady. “I dunno,” said Sarah. “The computer and engines, I guess. Fuel for take off. Also all the supplies for the New Home, like temporary shelters and tools and stuff.” They came to a junction with a larger hallway. Sarah motioned for Heady to be quiet and they slowed down. Sarah peeked her head around the corner. “Good,” said Sarah. “It’s just Officer Wiebe, he’s a push-over. Wait here.” Sarah strolled around the corner, leaving Heady out of sight. “Wiebe, I’m relieving you,” said Sarah to the gray-haired officer sitting in a chair next to the Ark chamber doors. “Huh? I wasn’t told,” replied Officer Wiebe. This irritated Sarah. “I’m on Ark duty tonight!” she said. “So move it. Or do I need to call daddy and tell him you’re disobeying orders?” Officer Wiebe sighed. “Whatever,” he said. “I need to take a piss anyway.” Sarah watched as the old man walked away down the central corridor. She held her breath when Officer Wiebe paused briefly and glanced down the hallway where Heady was waiting. The moment passed after an eternity, and Officer Wiebe continued on his way down the central corridor. Once Sarah was sure that Officer Wiebe was good and gone, she exhaled and jogged toward Heady. “Holy crap,” said Heady. “I thought I was done for. I guess the disguise worked.” “Come on,” said Sarah as she grabbed Heady and pulled him into the central corridor. “Get your camera ready, that’s the Ark chamber up ahead.” Heady raised his phone and filmed the large double doors that Officer Wiebe had been guarding. Sarah retrieved her dad’s key card from her pocket. The card was one of a handful of spare copies she had “borrowed” from her dad over the past months. At first she had merely wanted to access the Ark’s hard drives; she needed to be sneaky since the Board of Directors wasn’t permitting cell phones or anything else that she could save her videos on to go to the New Home. It seemed fitting that the same key card that allowed her to preserve Heady’s videos would now also help her preserve the genuine article. Sarah pushed the doors to the Ark chamber open, and she and Heady stepped into the control room that overlooked the boarding deck. “Holy shit,” said Heady. A large glass window revealed the boarding deck to be a metallic floor hundreds of feet below the control room. At the center of the impossibly tall chamber was the Ark itself. The visible upper half of the Ark stretched through a hole in the boarding deck past the control room and towered above Sarah and Heady. Sarah looked far below to where a gangplank connected the ship to the boarding deck and saw there was one lit doorway remaining. Following normal procedure, after the next person boarded through that doorway, the ship would raise itself to reveal the next ring of vacant stasis chambers. Normal procedure didn’t apply anymore, though. One more chamber was all Sarah needed. She gripped her dad’s key card tight in one of her sweaty palms, and her own key card in the other. “Come on,” said Sarah. “You’ll get way better footage down there on the boarding deck!” Heady was still filming and staring dumbfounded at the Ark through the observation window. Sarah gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the control room’s elevator that would take them down to the boarding deck. She handed him her key card. “Call that elevator with this,” said Sarah. “I need to, uh… I need to make sure nobody else is down there.” Still looking dazed, Heady tore his eyes from the Ark. He turned to look at the elevator, then looked at the key card Sarah had handed him. Comprehension seemed to wash over him like molasses and he started shuffling toward the elevator doors. Once Heady’s back was turned, Sarah slid her dad’s key card into the launch control panel and tapped its touch screen. She couldn’t stand her dad, but she was grateful at least for his tendency to lose his key cards. She looked up at the Ark and realized that she didn’t even know if her dad was already on it or not. It felt strange to think she may never see him again. She returned her attention to the launch control panel. She decided on a one minute delay–that should be long enough to get Heady down to the Ark before the launch countdown started, which would set off alarms and alert the whole compound. Sarah rejoined Heady as the elevator doors slid open. “Coast is clear,” she said. Sarah followed Heady onto the elevator. He looked like a kid who had lost his parents in the supermarket. That was good, she thought. It will make this easy. She idly traced her finger around the edge of the concussion pistol in its holster on her thigh as the elevator doors slid shut. Commander Chin leaned back in the brown leather chair in his living quarters. He had scheduled an hour of leisure time starting at 21:00 hours and had only missed it by thirty minutes. He looked at the small pile of books on the table next to his chair. He was half-way through a book titled “Discipline and You” that he had hoped to finish before launch. But there was no way he’d finish it before boarding the Ark tomorrow, and the deadline for adding items to his personal storage allotment had passed weeks ago. Maybe he could just skim through the remaining chapters. The few weeks leading up to the launch had been more hectic and stressful than anything Commander Chin had experienced since joining Nikola’s Children three years ago. The level of alcohol consumption and partying that had gone down during the nightly Ark boarding parties had caused Commander Chin and his security team no end of problems. Hard to believe a bunch of science nerds and politicians could get so rowdy. Now that everyone but a handful of guards were already in stasis, Commander Chin had been enjoying his nightly relaxation time immensely. His doorbell sounded as he picked up his book. He sighed, put the book down, then got up and walked to the door. He pressed the comms button. “What is it?” asked Commander Chin. “Just wanted to inform you that Officer Jefferies relieved me on Ark Chamber duty, sir. Was wondering if you had a different assignment for me.” Commander Chin became confused. “Wiebe, is that you?” he asked. He pressed another button below the comms panel and his door slid open to reveal Officer Wiebe. “Yeah,” said Officer Wiebe. “I thought I had Ark Chamber all night, but now that Jefferies took it I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Any orders, or can I hit the cafeteria?” What the hell was Officer Jefferies doing taking over Ark Chamber? That incompetent wouldn’t even qualify for latrine duty if Commander Chin had his way. Irritatingly, the Board of Directors wouldn’t allow him to fire the Commander in Chief’s daughter, or even transfer her to a different department. He thought he had found an acceptable compromise by putting her on perimeter duty, since the job practically handled itself through drones and sensors, but she even managed to screw that up on a regular basis; plus it meant she would be one of the last to board the Ark, so he was stuck with her straight to the end. He prayed that once they reached the New Home he wouldn’t have to deal with her anymore. “I don’t know what Officer Jefferies is up to,” said Commander Chin. “But you need to get back to the Ark Chamber now. She is not authorized to relieve you of that post.” Before he could respond, the radio on Officer Wiebe’s shoulder crackled to life. “Commander Chin, do you read me? I think… They got my… I don’t…” came Officer Thompson’s voice. He sounded disoriented. Commander Chin grabbed the radio off of Officer Wiebe’s shoulder and pulled it to his face, stretching its coiled wire until it was almost straight. “Officer Thompson? Is that you? Report!” He hadn’t heard from Officer Thompson since he went to repair the section nine surveillance camera with Officer Jefferies. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but a sense of dread started to grip Commander Chin as he waited for Officer Thompson to respond. “She shot me, sir,” came Officer Thompson’s voice. “Jefferies, she… They took my uniform. I think… I think she took them into the compound.” Commander Chin’s jaw dropped and he looked at Officer Wiebe, who stared back wide-eyed. “Officer Thompson, please confirm,” said Commander Chin into the radio. “Are you saying there are outsiders in the compound? With Officer Jefferies?” The silence that followed felt like it lasted a hundred years. “Yes,” came Officer Thompson’s reply. Commander Chin dropped the radio and sprinted to his desk where he could broadcast on the compound’s intercom. “All units, head to the Ark Chamber immediately,” he belted into the microphone. The lights in his room and the hallway behind Officer Wiebe dimmed. Klaxons started blaring, red and white lights flashing. That was quick, thought Commander Chin, and he wondered who had triggered the alarm. But something wasn’t right–this wasn’t the same alarm used during their security drills. This alarm meant something different… This alarm meant… His legs suddenly felt weak and Commander Chin dropped to his knees. Officer Wiebe took a step forward. “Sir? Are you alright? What’s going on?” “Go,” said Commander Chin in a strained voice. “Get to the fucking Ark Chamber now!” Doyle moved as quick as he could through the hallways while still keeping quiet, desperately searching each corridor for Heady, or at least some sign that Heady had been there, hoping against hope that he didn’t run into anybody else. Doyle started to get the impression that the hallways were all at slightly different angles, like spokes radiating out from a central location. He oriented himself and started moving toward what he hoped was the center, and eventually reached a hallway that was much wider than the others. By then he had lost all hope of ever finding his way back to the elevator. His only goal now was to find Heady. Once they were together they could formulate an escape plan. Doyle felt terrified alone. The large hallway ended at a set of enormous double doors. There was a key card scanner on the wall next to them. Doyle reached into his pocket. Jeff Jefferies, don’t fail me now, thought Doyle as he waved the card in front of the reader. To his relief, he heard a beep as the doors unlocked. To his horror, an angry voice erupted at him as the doors swung open. “All units, head to the Ark Chamber immediately,” said the voice. Doyle looked up to a small placard above the double doors he had just opened. “Ark Chamber,” it read. Oh, great. White and red lights started flashing in the hallway, accompanied by a deafening alarm. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” mumbled Doyle as he pushed his way through the doors. What he saw on the other side took his breath away. A large window revealed what could only be the Ark. A giant white pillar reaching up from hundreds of feet below to hundreds of feet overhead. Above the window was a large monitor counting down in giant white numbers on a red background. Whatever they were counting down to was happening in ninety-eight seconds. Doyle stepped closer to the window, forgetting the alarm and the countdown for a moment. In awe, he tracked his eyes down the full height of the Ark–from its conical top towering above him all the way down to the floor of the hangar below. Way down there, in front of what looked like a gangplank leading to a lit doorway in the base of the Ark, Doyle saw Heady. Heady had his hands raised slightly, and Sarah was with him. It looked like she was pointing something at him, and they were inching their way toward the gangplank. Doyle squinted and moved closer to the window. Was that her concussion pistol? “Oh, fuck,” moaned Doyle. He glanced around the room he was in, and spotted what looked like an elevator. He looked back up at the countdown. Sixty-two seconds to go. “I mean, that’s probably not what it looks like, right?” Doyle said to himself. Sarah had said they weren’t launching for another week. The documents he saw on her computer confirmed that. It had to be something else. It had to be related to the alarm he had triggered when he opened the doors–like a delayed lock-down or something. If that was the case, he had to act fast if we was going to save Heady. He rushed to the elevator and used Jeff Jefferies’ key card on the scanner next to it. The countdown continued and the sirens blared and Doyle tapped his foot as he waited for the elevator doors to open. Heady backed away from the madwoman pointing a gun at him. “Trust me,” said Sarah. “You’ll love it at the New Home.” “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” said Heady, desperately combing his mind for any idea to stall. “I just, you know, like Earth. All my fans are here.” “Your fans? Who cares about them? You’ll have me!” said Sarah. She briefly pointed her pistol back at herself to make her point before turning it back on Heady. “I’m your biggest fan! And you’ll make new fans. We both will. We can make videos together!” Heady glanced back over his shoulder at the light shining out of the doorway at the base of the massive Ark. The doorway that Sarah was clearly shepherding him towards. “Can’t we talk about this?” asked Heady. “I mean, we can make videos here, too. I’m sure the rest of my crew would love you. I could show you the studio, introduce you on the channel, you could even make your own videos.” Sarah paused, her pistol lowered slightly and she stopped moving toward Heady. “Really? You’d introduce me on your channel? Like as a friend, or… Or maybe as…” “Sure!” said Heady. “I think the fans would love you! We could go to the studio right now!” Sarah shook her head. “No,” she said. “No there’s no point. Earth is doomed. The New Home is the only way. You can make a new studio. You and me. We could be… We could even… I mean, I’m a girl and you’re a boy… Right?” Heady’s panic renewed as Sarah started moving toward him again. He took another step back and heard a metallic thud as his foot made contact with the gangplank. His eye caught some motion behind Sarah. Something was moving near the far wall where the elevator was. It was hard to tell in the dimly lit hangar, but it looked like a man. A man who was running toward them. Heady squinted and looked past Sarah at the figure as it approached at a blurring pace. “Doyle?” Heady said. Sarah smirked and shook her head. “You think I’m gonna fall for that?” Before Heady could answer, Doyle screamed out “Geronimo!” Sarah spun around at the sound behind her. Doyle grunted as he tackled Sarah head-on. Heady dived out of the way as Doyle and Sarah tumbled past him, then watched from the ground as Doyle tripped on the gangplank, falling forward and taking Sarah with him through the glowing doorway into the Ark. Almost as soon as they were through, a metal panel dropped from above and the doorway sealed itself shut. Heady stood up and moved toward the Ark. All signs of the entrance had vanished–the surface where the doorway had been a moment ago was now smooth. “Doyle!” Heady cried, and slammed his fists against the ship. “Dude can you hear me?” The ship started rumbling, then the entire hangar. Heady stepped back from the ship. The rumbling intensified and Heady had trouble keeping his balance. Hot smoke blasted up around the walls of the Ark through the circular gap around it, forcing Heady to retreat further. The hangar floor separated, bisecting along a line that ran the length of the hangar through the Ark. The two halves of the floor moved slowly apart as more smoke blasted violently through the widening crevasse. More and more smoke filled the hangar and Heady found himself lost in a sea of swirling white. A pinpoint of movement appeared above him–a dark, distant circle, gradually expanding. The circle contained stars. The hangar’s ceiling was opening to the sky. A blast of intense heat and a booming explosion knocked Heady over. He scrambled to his feet and ran away from the center of the Hangar as fast as he could, helped by a strong, searing hot wind that buffeted him from behind. The sound was deafening. Then the roaring ceased. The floor stopped moving and shaking. Heady felt numb, and was vaguely aware of arms grabbing his shoulders and men yelling as the smoke began to thin out and blow around him in temperamental wisps. He stared. In the place where the Ark had been there was now a thick column of gray smoke. Heady followed the pillar of smoke with his eyes, up through the gap that had opened in the floor, up through the center of the cavernous hangar, up through the giant hole that had opened to the surface far above, and up into the starry night sky beyond.
“Punch me as hard as you can, bruh!” A shirtless, flaxen-haired Heady Armstrong pounded his fists into his well-defined abdominal muscles and laughed. His friend, also laughing, stepped back until he was out of the frame. “Here I come dude, you sure?” the unseen friend called out. “I’m ready! Do it bruh!” Heady’s friend barreled into view and raced across the screen. Heady visibly braced himself. The still-charging friend swung his arm back, and then thrust it forward. Swinging fist connected with Heady’s groin. Heady yelped and keeled forward. The camera started shaking as its operator burst into laughter. “Officer Jefferies?” Sarah looked up from the phone hidden beneath the monitoring control panel that doubled as her desk. She was startled to see Officer Thompson standing in the small security office. Sarah wondered why he hadn’t used the intercom, like a normal person. Probably to annoy her. Sarah pushed a loose strand of jet black hair behind her left ear, surreptitiously grabbing the wireless earbud she was hiding there. Damn it, how long had he been standing there? “Officer Jefferies, the highway outpost has radioed that they saw a suspicious vehicle. It might be heading toward the compound. Keep a close eye on the perimeter, OK?” Officer Thompson spoke slowly and enunciated his words, as though he were suspicious of Sarah’s grasp of basic language concepts. Sarah loathed him. “I heard the report too,” Sarah lied. “I’m not stupid y’know. You don’t need to tell me how to do my job.” Officer Thompson nodded. “Yes, sure. Just making sure you got the message.” His eyes darted down toward Sarah’s control panel. Sarah saw his gaze shift and slid her chair forward, shoving the phone in her hands further out of view. “Right,” said Sarah curtly and forced a disingenuous grin. “Message received. Thanks.” Officer Thompson frowned and peered closer at the array of display screens splayed across Sarah’s control panel. His eyes lingered on the one that was off. “Did you fix camera nine yet?” he asked. “Not yet,” said Sarah. She hated Thompson so much. Why did he have to be so irritating? His stupid freckled face infuriated her. His dumb red hair made her blood boil. “It’s only been broke two days. Plus that section’s covered by the motion sensors so it’s not like we need the camera. I’ll get to it later.” “Make sure you do, Jefferies,” said Officer Thompson. “Before your shift is out, OK?” Sarah hated the way Officer Thompson called her “Jefferies.” Everyone called her that, but the way he said it seemed to drip with contempt and superiority. Like he thought he was better than her because he outranked her. Officer Thompson held his arms crossed out in front of him, forming the standard Nikola’s Children salute. “The Children be praised,” he said, then turned and left the security office. Sarah listened to his footsteps recede down the hall and out of earshot. “Dickweed,” Sarah muttered under her breath. “Children be praised,” she said in a mocking tone and put her earbud back in her ear. She returned her attention to her phone and the video that Officer Thompson had interrupted. An old one she’d already seen countless times, but one of her favorites. “Are you sure this is the way?” Doyle Tingler asked. They had turned off the main highway onto an unnamed dirt road close to an hour ago and had seen nothing but darkness and trees in the moonlight outside the car windows. “Yeah,” replied Heady Armstrong. “My boys scouted the coordinates you sent me a few days ago. The compound was right where you said.” “Ah,” said Doyle. “Can I assume that by ‘your boys’ you are referring to those half-witted imbeciles who star along side you in your idiotic videos?” “Yeah,” said Heady Armstrong. “And they’re not idiotic videos, I have almost ten million subscribers.” “Mmm,” said Doyle. “That’s where you’re wrong. You see, the majority of people who watch YouTube are, by definition, idiots, and the idiocy of a given YouTube channel is directly proportional to the number of idiots who subscribe to it.” Doyle enjoyed ribbing Heady about his YouTube channel. Heady and his friends started it six years earlier in college and it had exploded in popularity since. But it catered to an audience which Doyle considered to be lower than the lowest common denominator; the channel spotlighted a plethora of disgusting bodily functions, stupid pranks, terrible music videos, and horrendously unfunny (and typically offensive) “comedy” skits. Doyle was certain that the channel’s popularity was due entirely to the fact that Heady and his friends found reasons to take their shirts off in every video. Doyle’s objections to the YouTube channel were entirely based on its intellectual merits (or lack thereof) and certainly had nothing to do with, as Heady sometimes postulated during his less forgiving moods, jealousy over the idea that nobody wanted to see Doyle with his shirt off. Sure, he was a little heavier than Heady and his friends, a little less muscly, and his hair was a bit wispier and thinner on top, but he wasn’t all that bad. And at any rate, he was already spoken for. Or at least had been, and hopefully would be again soon, if the night’s plans were ultimately successful. “Uh huh,” said Heady. “If I’m such an idiot then why did you even ask for my help?” “I didn’t say you were an idiot, Heady. Only your videos. And the millions of idiots who idolize you.” “Those millions of idiots paid for my house,” said Heady. “And this car, plus a few others.” “Don’t rub it in,” Doyle said, and sighed. “Look, I’m grateful to you for agreeing to help. Someone needs to expose these assholes for who they really are, and I can’t think of anyone more suited to it than you.” “Because of my millions of idiots?” Heady shot back. “Well, yeah,” said Doyle. “Do you really think this will work?” asked Heady. “I mean, I know this vid’s gonna be bangin’, but do you really think it’ll make a difference?” “I really think so, Heady,” said Doyle. “I mean, despite appearances I believe you’re actually capable of great things. You’re so much better than that drivel you put out. I mean, what you did for me–that was the darkest period of my life and you… without you I…” “Don’t sweat it, bud,” said Heady. “Kirsten was–is my friend, too. You helped me through it as much as I helped you.” Doyle did his best to stifle the sudden wellspring of emotion he found himself swimming in. Heady was exaggerating, he knew. Heady liked Kirsten well enough, but not like Doyle did. Doyle hadn’t told Heady, but he proposed to Kirsten about a week before she disappeared. She hadn’t said yes right away, but she hadn’t said no either. She would have said yes, Doyle was certain, if only that fucking cult hadn’t… Doyle snapped out of his thoughts when his eye caught a glint in the distance. “Shh, slow down,” he told Heady, staring keenly through the windshield at the dirt path that stretched before them. “And kill the headlights, I think I see something.” Heady relaxed the accelerator and cut the lights. The sound of the gravel crunching under the car’s tires slowed as the two men squinted into the darkness. There was some kind of light in the distance, too far away to make out any details. Heady pulled off the road and maneuvered the car behind some trees before coming to a stop. “We gotta walk from here,” he said. “The guys found a spot where the wall crumbled away a little. They said we should be able to get in there. They took out a nearby security camera with a rock before they left.” Doyle unfastened his seatbelt and opened the car door. “You don’t think they’d have repaired the camera by now? Or the wall?” “Hopefully not,” said Heady. The two men shut the car doors and started walking along the tree line next to the road, toward the light in the distance. “Keep an eye out for a red cloth tied around one of these tree branches,” said Heady, motioning to the dark tangle of trees that lined the road. “That’s where we cut into the woods and make our way to the wall.” The men walked in silence for a while, trading nervous glances down the road in both directions, scanning for any sign of motion or approaching headlights. “I’m not going to make those videos for ever, you know,” Heady said, breaking the silence. Doyle glanced at his friend’s face, pallid in the moonlight and brushed by the jagged shadows of the treetops. “I mean, that’s why I’m collabing with you on this in the first place. I want this video to really help people. The first ever footage from inside the Nikola’s Children compound, together with all the dirt you’ve dug up on them over the past year, that’s gonna blow these mother fuckers wide open, right?” “I hope so,” said Doyle. “People haven’t cared about Nikola’s Children for a while though. I’ve offered my research to every investigative journalist who’ll give me the time of day but none of them were interested. They said there’s no story in it. It’s just another boring cult to them.” “That’s because they’re so good at keeping a low profile,” said Heady. “We’re going to end that, man. We’re gonna get people interested again. If even half the stuff you dug up on them is true, people are gonna flip their shit.” “Maybe,” said Doyle. “But honestly I just want some kind of sign that Kirsten’s OK. That they haven’t… done anything too her.” “I’m sure she’s OK,” said Heady. “She’s just confused. They brainwashed her or something. Like all those other scientists who joined. I’m sure of it.” Doyle stopped and put his hand on Heady’s shoulder. “Shh,” he said. “What is it?” Doyle pointed. Wound around a branch of one of the trees, a thin scrap of red cloth flapped lightly in the soft moonlit breeze. Heady reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He started a video recording and handed the device to Doyle. “Showtime,” he said. Doyle held the phone up and pointed the camera at Heady. “Yo yo yo what’s up Heady Nation?” Heady cried using the exaggerated dude-bro accent he reserved for his videos. “Heady Armstrong comin’ atch’a and you are never gonna guess where from, bruh!” Doyle lowered his head and sighed. Everyone told him he was always too pessimistic–that nothing could ever go as badly as he expected it to. Tonight he hoped they were right. “Officer Jefferies, report please.” Sarah watched and giggled as Heady Armstrong attempted to eat twelve sticks of butter as fast as he could. “Officer Jefferies! Report!” Sarah jerked her head toward the speaker on her console, then paused the video and put her phone down. It was the voice of Commander Chin, head of security. “Uh, yes?” said Sarah, holding the intercom button. “The motion detectors around section nine have been lighting up like a Christmas tree for the last minute and a half. What have you been doing? What does the camera show?” Sarah looked at the array of displays on her control panel, and directed her gaze to the one numbered nine. The one that was off. “Uh, nothing?” she said hesitantly. It wasn’t exactly a lie. There was a short pause before the speaker crackled back to life. “Officer Thompson has informed me that the camera in section nine is not operational. Is that accurate?” Sarah scowled. Damn that Officer Thompson. “Well, I mean the camera itself is not quite in a state that I would exactly describe as fully operational. Yes.” She glanced sideways at her phone sitting on the console. It had locked itself and was displaying her “Heady Nation” wallpaper. “Officer Jefferies, please do your job and find out what’s going on in section nine. Use one of the drones.” “Right, sending a drone,” said Sarah. She looked longingly at her phone again as its screen turned off. It looked like she would have to wait to finish her video. She already knew how it ended–she had seen it dozens of times. Heady makes it through ten sticks before vomiting gooey butter sludge all over himself. But he was so cute while doing it, and took his shirt off after; she just had to watch it again. Sarah wheeled her chair closer to the touch screen near the right edge of her control panel. She navigated through the menus and ordered a drone to section nine, then routed the video feed to the section nine monitor. The screen blinked to life and showed her the drone’s feed as it lifted off from its perch in the drone bay. A few seconds later the screen went dark as the drone flew up through a ventilator shaft toward the surface. Sarah grabbed her phone and was about to continue watching her video when the intercom crackled again. “Officer Jefferies, report.” Sarah groaned. It would take the drone thirty seconds to reach section nine from the drone bay. She could have made it through two more sticks of butter in that time. “Right, yeah,” she said into the intercom. “Drone launched. I’ll let you know what I see when it gets to section nine.” Sarah fumed while she resumed her video. She pictured Officer Thompson sitting all smug behind Commander Chin at the other end of the intercom. What a dickweed. She hated him. He didn’t even like Heady Armstrong. He actually made fun of her for watching Heady’s videos. She watched as Heady bit into a fresh stick of butter on her phone, then glanced back up at the drone’s video feed. Heady Armstrong stared back at her. Sarah looked at the familiar face staring up from her control panel, then back down at her phone. Her eyes grew wide; her jaw dropped. She felt her face go flush, and started hearing her pulse throbbing in her ears. She blinked and looked at the drone’s feed again. It was him! She looked back down at her phone, on which Heady was now vomiting yellow slime down the front of his shirt. She dropped the phone on the ground and stood up, felt faint as the blood rushed from her head. A million questions raced through her mind. Is this happening? Why was Heady Armstrong here? How did he get inside the compound? “Officer Jefferies, report,” came Commander Chin’s exasperated voice over the intercom. Sarah sat back down and slammed her fist on the intercom. “I…! He…! It’s…!” she stammered, then hesitated. She released the intercom and took two slow and deliberate breaths. It wouldn’t do at all to panic right now. She needed to think rationally about what was happening. A loose plan formed in her mind. She needed to control herself if she was going to do what she knew in her heart she must do. “Officer Jefferies?” “Um… All clear, Commander,” said Sarah. She watched as the drone tracked Heady running somewhere up on the surface. There was another guy with him; some fat bald guy who Sarah didn’t recognize from any of Heady’s videos. “Please confirm, did you say all clear?” Commander Chin asked. “Confirmed,” said Sarah. “Drone shows some wildlife near section nine exterior, looked like a deer. It must have gotten too close to the wall and tripped the sensors.” There was a long pause. Sarah did her best to control her breathing and collect her thoughts. Heady and the other guy had stopped running from the drone. They were crouching down next to each other–it looked like they were trying to hide between some bushes and the compound’s inner wall, but they were easily visible to the drone’s camera. Sarah pressed the intercom button again. “Um, I’m going to recall the drone and head up to the surface to fix that busted security cam right now,” she said. “Should have done it days ago, don’t want another false alarm, y’know?” She turned to her console’s touch screen, recalled the drone, grabbed her phone off the floor, and was already sprinting down the hallway outside her office when Commander Chin’s unheard reply came over the intercom. “Very good Officer Jefferies. Officer Thompson will meet you out there to assist. The Children be praised.” “I don’t hear it anymore. Is it still there?” whispered Doyle. Heady peaked his head up over the bush. All he could see above them was the giant concrete ceiling that covered the entire Nikola’s Children compound. “I think it’s gone,” said Heady. Doyle sighed with relief. “Do you think it spotted us?” asked Heady? “Are you serious?” said Doyle. “A drone the size of a Jeep pops out of nowhere as soon as we enter the compound and hovers directly over us for several minutes before disappearing, and you’re wondering if it spotted us?” “Well, what should we do?” asked Heady. “Let’s just get out of here,” said Doyle. “Look at this place, it’s empty. It must be a decoy or something.” Doyle gestured around them. They stood at the edge of an enormous grassy field encased in concrete. The wall behind them reached twenty feet up to the ceiling and stretched out for what looked like a mile in either direction. The entire compound was evenly lit by light panels in the ceiling so, despite its size, the two men could see clear across to the concrete wall at the other end. Aside from occasional bushes and disparately spaced concrete pillars, there didn’t appear to be anything else inside. There was no sign of the drone or where it came from or went to. “We can’t leave!” said Heady. “That drone didn’t vanish into thin air. And didn’t you notice how cool it is? I think this whole building is air conditioned. And the lights–why would they light it up if there was nothing here?” “Who knows,” said Doyle. “All I know is that whatever this place is, they know we’re here now. Our plan to sneak in undetected is officially a failure.” “All that money,” said Heady. “You found receipts for millions worth of supplies and equipment; and Kirsten and all the other scientists who fell off the face of the Earth; they didn’t spend all that money or go to all that trouble to build an empty concrete box in the middle of nowhere. There’s gotta be something here, we just haven’t found it yet. We can’t leave, we’ve got to keep looking.” “You’re right,” said Doyle, looking past Heady. “We can’t leave.” He pointed. Heady turned around and saw a red haired man wearing what looked like some kind of dark blue military uniform in the distance. The man was crouching near the crumbled section of wall–the only way in or out of the compound. “Run,” whispered Doyle, and the two men sprinted toward the nearest concrete pillar, about two hundred feet in from the wall. Neither of them looked back as they ran. Heady reached the pillar first and crouched low. Doyle arrived a few seconds later, dropping to his knees and panting heavily. “Do you think he saw us?” asked Heady. “I wish you’d stop asking that,” said Doyle. He peeked around the corner back toward the wall. The uniformed man was still standing where he had been, near the damaged section of concrete. “I don’t think so, he’s not coming this way.” “Maybe he’s waiting for backup,” suggested Heady. “Give me your phone.” “Why?” asked Doyle. He reached into his pocket and pulled his phone out, then placed it in Heady’s outstretched hand. Heady handed his own phone back to Doyle. “Stay hidden. You film with mine so they can’t confiscate the footage we already got if they take me away, I’ll film with yours.” “Wait, what do you mean take you away? What are you going to…” Before Doyle could stop him, Heady stood, put his hands up in the air, and stepped out from behind the concrete pillar. Sarah leered at Officer Thompson from behind her own concrete pillar. How did that jackass get here before her? She shifted her gaze over to the pillar where Heady and Baldy had run after they spotted Officer Thompson. Officer Thompson hadn’t noticed them. Too busy being an idiot, she guessed. She thought about what her next move should be. She had to get Officer Thompson out of there, but how? She could go tell him to buzz off, that she could replace the camera herself, but then Heady and Fatso would see her too and she might not be able to approach them without scaring Heady off. Using her radio was out of the question, the rest of the security team would hear anything she said, plus what would she tell him? Sarah was out of options and running out of time. She made up her mind, and stepped out from behind the pillar. “Officer Thom…” Someone yelled out at the same time, startling her. She shut up and dove back behind the pillar. That was Heady! What the hell was he doing? “Don’t shoot! I surrender!” she heard Heady shout. Sarah watched Heady wide-eyed as he started walking towards Officer Thompson. She saw Officer Thompson pull out his concussion pistol and point it at Heady. She felt a rage rise inside her. Nobody points a fucking concussion pistol at Heady Armstrong and gets away with it. As she watched Officer Thompson, he reached for the radio trigger on his shoulder. Sarah gasped and reflexively reached for her own. She mashed the trigger and held her breath, hoping that if she jammed the frequency, Officer Thompson wouldn’t be able to report what was happening. She watched Officer Thompson fumble with his radio, getting visibly frustrated. Sarah smiled, still holding her breath to keep her broadcast silent.Heady was much closer to Officer Thompson now, still inching toward him with his hands up. Officer Thompson gave up on his radio and put both hands on the concussion pistol he had leveled at Heady. “Don’t come any closer,” shouted Officer Thompson. Sarah released her radio trigger and lifted her own concussion pistol from the holster on her thigh. This was perfect. She would knock Thompson out, then approach Heady as the hero who had rescued him. He was sure to accept her! Maybe he’d even put her in one of his videos! Maybe he’d even… “Officer Thompson? Officer Jefferies? Report!” The voice of Commander Chin came from her radio with a burst of static. No time, thought Sarah. She took aim at Officer Thompson as he reached for his radio again. She fired. Doyle came running up behind Heady, who was staring dumbfounded at the red-haired man laying crumpled on the ground. “What the hell did you do?” asked Doyle. “Nothing, he just collapsed,” said Heady. “What? Like he had a heart attack?” “No,” said a woman’s voice. “Like he was hit by an incapacitating concussion blast from one of these.” Heady and Doyle both spun around to see a tiny-framed and young looking girl with short black hair. She was wearing the same military uniform as the red-haired man, and holding the same odd looking pistol in her hand. Heady and Doyle both took a step back and raised their hands in front of them defensively. The girl put her pistol into a holster on her thigh, then retrieved another device from her belt. It looked like a telescoping baton, which she extended to its full length of about three feet with a loud series of clacks. “Wha… What are you going to do with that?” asked Doyle. He took another step back and tripped on the unconscious man’s foot, landing in a sitting position on the ground. The woman approached with a wide grin on her face, holding the baton in one hand and slapping it against the other. Heady was frozen with a mixture of fear and confusion as he watched her advance. Sarah grabbed Heady’s arm, then spun him around so he was standing next to her. She attached a cell phone to the end of her selfie-stick and held it out in front of their faces. “Hi Heady,” said Sarah, then snapped a photo. “We’ve got to get out of here before the others get suspicious. Help me shove that ginger bastard through the hole in the wall and follow me.” “What…? Who… Who are you?” asked Heady. “Oh me?” said Sarah. “Just your biggest fan.”
Far Reaches

Far Reaches

2017-02-13--:--

Short stories and works of fiction from a variety of genres, but mostly science fiction, horror, dark fantasy, and humor (or any combination thereof). Narrated by the author.
Laugh Track

Laugh Track

2016-01-17--:--

Short stories and works of fiction from a variety of genres, but mostly science fiction, horror, dark fantasy, and humor (or any combination thereof). Narrated by the author.
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