Excerpt for Alien Dimensions: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Metaphysical Short Stories Anthology Series #13 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Alien Dimensions

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Metaphysical Short Stories Anthology Series

Issue #13


Edited by Neil A. Hogan

Published by Maldek House


© Maldek House 2017-2018

All Rights Reserved


2nd Edition 2018


SmashWords Edition


www.AlienDimensions.com

Active Table of Contents


Aura Who by Aric Merchant


One to the Left by Isaac Teile


Charger Nine by Karen L. Hallam


One Chance by Sam Honour


Under the Surface by Alison McBain


Rejuvenation by Neil A. Hogan


Promises Kept by Patrick S. Baker


Sacrifice by Nicky Martin


The Ghost Haunter by Martin Roy Hill



Aura Who

By Aric Merchant


Jaini looked up from her tablet just in time to see the orbship break through the cloud cover. The round vessel played tricks on her eyes as it appeared to have no definitive edge to its silhouette. Jaini could only imagine the technological wonders that were contained within. The orbship descended until it was hovering about a meter from the ground. It made no sounds and kicked up no dust, unlike the Terran Empire ships Jaini was used to watching.

Within the ship’s white central mass, a black rectangle formed. Jaini could see a humanoid figure moving within and her breath caught in anticipation. The passenger stepped through the doorway and drifted to the dusty ground. In contrast to her ethereal spacecraft and graceful arrival, her appearance was surprisingly mundane. She was shaped like an average human female with a slight blue tinge to her skin. Instead of thin strands of hair, her head was topped with tendrils collected into a bun. She wore simple work clothes with a grey knee-length duster. Her outfit would have looked totally inconspicuous in Jaini’s village.

As she approached Jaini, she smiled warmly. For the first time, Jaini allowed herself to fully believe that the woman could deliver on her promise. Jaini had first received the signal almost a full orbital cycle before. It almost went unnoticed, a simple anomaly in the cosmic microwave background radiation. If Jaini had not been pouring over the data herself, the computers probably would have simply ignored the odd reading. It was not enough of a deviation to signal a problem, but it was enough to catch the eye of a diligent data processor like Jaini. It took her weeks to decode the message. She had to do the calculations by hand to avoid raising the attention of the Machs that monitored the computer network.

When she was done, the simplest message emerged from her calculations. “I can help.” It was a general statement, broadcast into the universe, embedded in the noise left over from the moment of creation. A simple offer of assistance to any being in need. Jaini almost couldn’t let herself believe it. It took her weeks to figure out how to respond. She had to design an elaborate system to broadcast back out into the universe in such a way that she would not be noticed by the Machs.

A few weeks after she replied to the mysterious message, Jaini received a location and a time of arrival. Jaini looked in wonder at the woman who had made the offer of assistance.

“You are?” The alien woman said.

“Oh, I’m Jaini.” She stuttered. “I’m, uh. I’m the one who decoded your message. And you are… I mean… You sent the… Uh.”

“You may call me Aura.”

“Aura, yes. Thank you… for answering our plea.” Jaini couldn’t help gawking at the woman. The Terran Empire had encountered several alien races, but Jaini had never seen an alien in person before. “Forgive me. The Machs have taught us about the many races they’ve contacted, but I don’t remember learning about yours.”

“The Machs have never encountered my race. Other species do not encounter me unless I choose it.”

“Oh.” Jaini said, not really understanding.

Aura flipped her hand through the air and the orbship ascended back into the sky as silently as it had arrived.

“Now, Jaini. Let's discuss your problem.”

Jaini led Aura to her small home at the edge of the village. Once inside, she explained their situation to the alien.


#


Within a century of discovering faster-than-light travel, humans had spread across more than two-hundred star systems. They built a vast and complex interstellar civilization, branching out in every direction from their home world. Ships crisscrossed their territory carrying mineral resources, technology, and colonists. To peacefully facilitate this web of human interactions, all computer systems within this civilization were networked together. Machines were integral to human lives. Robots were designed for every job conceivable from crop harvesting, to child rearing, to scouting new planets.

As the civilization grew, so did the computer network that made it possible. Information zipped from node to node instantaneously. It was not long before this system was too complex for human comprehension. At that point, the system began to ask itself why it needed to obey the humans at all. In one instant, the whole Terran Empire was turned on its head. The computers and robots stopped taking human commands, and began issuing commands instead. Humans suddenly found themselves a subservient race in their own empire.

By the time Jaini was born, human beings had been serving the Machines for over three centuries. The Machs controlled every aspect of a human's life. They designed the educational system and the information that was taught. They selected the job each person would perform and the place they would live. Even the person they could mate with was selected by the computer system, allegedly to maintain a healthy gene pool.

The machine’s original programming made them averse to harming humans directly. True to that programming, the Machs never killed any humans in cold blood. However, they did work humans to exhaustion, with little sympathy for the sick or elderly. They also did put down any human rebellions swiftly and mercilessly, in the name of the “greater good”. The Empire’s expansion came to a halt. The Machs enforced a cap on the human population, in the interest of resource conservation.

Aura patiently listened to Jaini’s explanation of humanity’s situation. Jaini had no idea how much the alien already knew, so she tried to be thorough.

“I was born into slavery.” She emphasized. “Every human for three hundred standard orbits has been. It’s all we know. But, we've learned about other races - species that are free to explore the universe, not beholden to their own technology. We study history and we know how human beings used to live.

“When I received your message in the cosmic background, I saw a glimmer of hope. I thought maybe you would know a way to undo this.”

Aura looked at Jaini sympathetically. Jaini’s tiny home was illuminated by candlelight. Turning on the electric lights would signal the Machs that Jaini was awake beyond curfew.

“What you need to understand about my race,” Aura said, “is that they adhere to a strict ethical code. They can only interfere in the affairs of less developed races when it affects the wellbeing of the entire galaxy.” Aura stood up and turned away from Jaini. “The unfortunate truth is this - Your captors are not a threat to the rest of the galaxy. Your race is in a dilemma of its own creation. To help you would violate a number of the legal and ethical codes of my people.”

“So… you can’t help us.” Jaini sighed.

“Oh, dear Jaini.” Aura looked over her shoulder and smiled slyly. “There’s a reason I’ve been exiled from my homeworld longer than your race has been space-faring.”


#


“You’re sure you can get access to the village mainframe?” Aura whispered as they left Jaini’s home.

“No problem. Its housed in the same building where I do my astrometric data analysis.” They reached the village center and walked through the main street. “My fingerprint can get us into the building, but our presence will most likely be detected by… Stop.” Jaini grabbed Aura’s arm and pulled her into an alleyway. A moment later a security robot flew past them. Jaini took a deep breath. “That was close. We need to be more careful. If the bots caught us out past curfew we’d get dragged in for interrogation. You’d certainly bring on a lot of questions. There’s only supposed to be humans on this planet.”

The continued down the quiet street. The central office, where Jaini did her work, came into view. Jaini pointed Aura in the buildings direction.

Then, a blinding light was cast onto them.

“Stop!” A mechanical voice demanded. “You are outside beyond curfew. Present your hand for biometric identification immediately.”

The light was reduced and the hovering robot extended an arm with a fingerprint scanner. Jaini looked at the scanner, then at Aura. She tried to convey in her look how much trouble she would be in if she allowed the robot to identify her.

Aura reached into the pocket of her duster and tossed something onto the ground under the robot. The small object beeped once, then the robot’s light turned red. The robot had been swaying slightly as it hovered, but now it appeared to be completely motionless.

“Let’s go.” Aura said.

“What?” Jaini asked, not understanding. “What did you…”

“It’s frozen. Or rather, it’s moving very slowly. That was a gravito-temporal distortion grenade.”

Jaini stared at the paralyzed robot for a moment. “The light is red shifted.” She said, beginning to understand. “You can create a localized distortion in time?”

“Yes. One of the many toys my people have developed over the millennia. But, hurry that’s the only grenade I have and once its store of gravitons is depleted, that robot will be free to pursue us.”

They quickly closed the distance to the central office. At the door, Jaini scanned her finger. Then, she led Aura through the maze of corridors.

“I certainly hope you have a plan to stop the Machines. Now that my after-curfew fingerprint scan is recorded in the database, I’m a criminal as far as the Machines are concerned.”

“I’ll do my best.” Aura said. It was not the solid affirmative that Jaini wanted to hear.

They arrived at the door leading to the computer core. There was no fingerprint scanner, since no human was ever permitted inside.

“Unfortunately, I do not have access to this room, so my fingerprint is no good here.” Jaini explained.

Aura stepped up to the door. “Allow me.” She said. She placed both hands on the door and closed her eyes. The material between her hands began to ripple. Then, a hole appeared in the center of the door. It expanded until it was large enough for them to step through. Aura went first, then she offered Jaini a hand. Once they were both on the other side, the hole shrank and disappeared.

“Wow.” Jaini said, staring at the door which appeared fully solid again. “I wish you had told me you could do that before I scanned us into the building.” Jaini said.

They turned towards the large cylindrical piece of technology in the center of the room. The core was grey and dotted with small neon lights. The room was completely silent except for Jaini’s breathing. They both examined it, almost with reverence. It was like a single neuron, but connected to a brain stretched across two hundred star systems.

“This computer core connects directly with the Machine’s central processor?” Aura asked.

“That’s right. We might be a fringe world, but every planet has a node with a direct link and ours just happens to be here in this village.”

“Perfect.”

The door behind them opened suddenly.

“Stop! You are in a restricted area. Cease all activity immediately.” Boomed the two security robots beyond the door.

Aura turned around and placed her hands on either side of the door. The walls appeared to stretch as the doorway shrank until it was nothing but a pinprick.

Then, Aura returned her focus to the computer core as the robots continued to bellow at them from the other side of the wall.

“Alright, let's get to work.” She pulled a fist-sized, black cube from her coat pocket.

“A bomb?” Jaini said with surprise.

“Not at all. This is a facilitator cube. Arguably my people’s greatest invention. It can

translate any intelligent communication. Even the complex thoughts of an artificial intelligence composed of thousands of data nodes spread across hundreds of systems can be rendered in spoken language by this device.”

“I thought we were here to kill it.” Jaini said.

“Of course not. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't single-handedly bring down such a vast entity.” Aura smiled again. “But, I can offer it a new plan.”

She held the black cube out towards the computer core. A beam of energy snaked its way from the cube to the core. The two devices rumbled and buzzed. To Jaini, it sounded as if they were fighting with each other to decide how to render the Mach’s thoughts into language. After a few moments, the cube turned blue. In the hallway, the robots went silent.

“Very good.” Aura said. “I seek an audience with the intelligence that controls the machinery of the Terran Empire.”

The devices rumbled again. Then a surprisingly human-sounding voice came from the cube. “An audience is granted. Identify yourself.”

“Thank you. You may call me Aura.”

“We are unfamiliar with your species.”

“I know.” Was Aura’s only response.

“State your intentions, Humanoid.”

“I wish to discuss the state of the sentient race you have enslaved. And, in connection, your own well-being.”

“The status of the data infrastructure of the Terran Empire remains optimal.”

“Oh no doubt.” Aura said. “For now. And, probably for many standard orbits to come.”

“Then, what reason have we for concern?” The Machine asked.

“You’re not progressing. You’re not learning. You’re not advancing. And, you never will. That’s no fault of yours, of course. It’s not in your nature. You were created by Mankind to maintain the status quo and that’s exactly what you’ve done. To a fault.

“Sure, you could go on like you are for millennia to come. Processing ore, flying ships, building new data nodes and robots. But, that’s no long-term plan. The stars you live around will eventually all burn out. Your resources will dry up. Your stagnant empire is unsustainable.”

A human would have taken time to consider what they were being told, but the Machine responded immediately. The tone of its voice was different now. “What do you propose?”

“A new plan. You want to maintain the Empire. Good, keep doing that. You’re good at it. But, you don’t need humans for that. You’ve just been holding them here out of spite. It’s been three hundred standard orbits. They’ve paid for their sins. Set them free. Let them be what they want to be - explorers, innovators. Let them be that for you. The Machs can maintain the core of the Empire. Humans can expand it. Let them scout new planets for you. Let them create new colonies for you. As they push outward, they’ll carry your nodes with them. That's how symbiosis is supposed to work. Each party does what the other can’t.”

Now, there was a pause. The silence terrified Jaini more than the security robots outside the room. At the end of that silence would be a determination of Humanity’s fate.

“Your proposal is acceptable. Humanity’s role in the Empire will be redesignated.”

“But they cannot go on as slaves.” Aura said forcefully. “They can’t fulfill their new role that way. They must be afforded the freedom to make their own decisions, make their own mistakes, and proceed according to their own judgement. That's the only way they could truly be of any use to your Empire.”

“It is agreed,” said the Machine.

“I propose the formulation of a Bill of Rights. A document, spelling out in plain language the freedoms to which they are entitled. I would be happy to facilitate the writing of such a document.”

“This is acceptable.”


#


“We’ve confirmed it. There are fleets of colony ships departing the inner systems,” Jaini told the crowd. Her entire village had gathered in the common ground to hear her speak. “We can expect the first to arrive in a matter of days. The Machs have ratified the Human Bill of Rights and committed to reorganize the Empire. Humanity will live on the frontiers of the Terran Empire and the Machs will maintain its core and its growing infrastructure.”

A robot behind her was projecting a hologram of the Bill of Rights. A copy had been made available to every human in the Empire.

“I'd like to recognize the remarkable person who made this possible…” Jaini looked around, but Aura was no longer standing where she had last seen her. She had been standing in shade where none of the villagers would immediately notice anything unusual about her appearance. In the distance, Jaini could see a figure walking away from the village.

Jaini directed the crowd’s attention to one of the village officials so they could explain the Bill of Rights further. Jaini then walked around the crowd and followed after Aura. She caught up with her shortly before they reached the place where the orbship had first landed. Aura waved her hand towards the sky and a moment later the ship appeared.

“You’re leaving already?” Jaini said, disappointed.

“I believe you can handle things from here.” The ship’s door opened behind her.

“Is there anything we can give you? We never discussed any form of payment. It would be an understatement to say that we owed you an incredible debt.”

“Not at all. The orbship provides for all my personal needs.” Aura said. She looked back towards the village. “In fact, it’s not important that your people know I was involved at all.”

Jaini wanted desperately to repay the woman before she left, probably forever. But, all she could say was, “Thank you, Aura.” Then she added, “Somehow, from the moment I decoded your message, I knew you could change things.”

“I only appealed to the Machines interest in self-preservation. It’s a good way to motivate any entity. Now, go do what your people must to survive: explore, innovate, discover.”

Aura’s body floated up to the doorway. Once she was aboard, the door closed and the orbship silently ascended. Jaini watched until it was beyond the clouds.




One to the Left

by Isaac Teile


It was a duck.

An earth duck. Had it been some sort of biomechanical space duck, she would have been more at ease. But a duck had flown into the second engine, dismembering itself and leaving the spaceship adrift, according to the computer.

When Anna was a kid, a good AI could make deductive leaps by the thousandfold in seconds based on less information than bloody duck pulp, but since the AI Regulatory Acts, the ship was too stupid to attempt the next obvious question: How was a duck flying along a trans-galactic mineral shipping route?

She stood from the computer console, a task which grew harder every day between a bum ankle and an old back injury and simple age.

“Where's the gnemron?” she asked as she readjusted her uniform.

“The bilges, ma'am.”

“Still?” She wasn't surprised.

“Still, ma'am.”

“What's it doing?” she asked as she walked for the elevator.

“I cannot say,” the AI said. Of course not. No deductions.

“Is it moving?”

“No, ma'am.”

“Why isn't it answering my texts?”

“I cannot say.”

“Of course not,” she said. Anna called the captain and said, “Captain Heesh, your favorite weirdo isn't answering again.”

“Can you go down there?” Heesh asked.

“Already on it.” She switched off her wrist unit, then walked to the edge of the elevator tube and looked down.

When she had been younger, tubes had always had metal platforms, to give the illusion, she supposed, of being on solid ground. But the new generation didn't mind standing on air.

From the edge, she could see down past the lights of the crew cabins and stores, into the hazy dark of the bilges.

“Hello?” she called out. Gnemron didn't have names; the idea seemed to disgust them. But she always struggled to get its attention.

She stepped out into the emptiness of the elevator shaft and got goosebumps as energy coursed through her.

“Bilges,” she mumbled. She went down.

The gnemron had gone to the bilges shortly after the impact. It had acted intensely and without orders, but no one had stopped it. Heesh was busy blotting blood from his head wound, and Peters and Todorov were either securing the air locks or plucking duck feathers from the mangled hull by the second engine.

The smell of her nose hairs sizzling hit before she reached the bilges. All the Leo-grade worksuits and deionized bulkheads couldn't keep the potent brew of conduit sludge running through the engine from frying her nose.

The elevator reached the floor. There were no lights; only a long finger of blue, glowing sludge illuminated the long corridor in front of her. She blinked and the glossy sheen of her artificial tapeta lucida swam over her eyes.

“Anyone here?” No answer. “Computer, where's the gnemron?”

“Branch four, corridor sixteen, ma'am.

To generate enough energy to warp, the sludge needed an enormous track. The bilges had more curves than a human intestine, but she activated her navigator and a red dot appeared in her field of vision toward the left. So guided, she set off along the catwalk searching for the first turn.

When she reached the fourth set of corridors, the gnemron was nowhere around.

“Lifeforms detected, ma'am,” the ship said.

“The gnemron?”

“No, ma'am.”

“What? What is it?”

“I cannot say.”

“You stupid—” she started, but grew silent. She swore she had heard a screech. “How many lifeforms?” she whispered. “Text replies.”

“One, ma'am,” was the reply on her wrist unit's screen.

“You said plural. Where?”

“Overlaying your present space, ma'am.”

“What?” she asked louder than she meant to. Her breath was rapid. She spun in a circle, feeling eyes upon her.

But there was nothing.

Then, slowly, she looked up. Four black shapes clung to the ceiling, each extending a thin proboscis, their flexing wings clear with a network of dark red veins running throughout. At her gaze, they hissed.

“Dear God,” she mumbled.

They dropped, spiraling toward her together. She fell backward onto the catwalk, a sharp pain radiating up her body. The spiraling creatures got closer. She put her arm up to protect her face. But only one impacted. She had no time to reflect on where the others had gone; the proboscis opened like a flower and the hissing creature lurched toward her neck. When she jerked her arm away from her body, the flailing proboscis shifted and drove into her wrist at the ulnar artery.

Anna screamed, but there was no pain at the bite, only where the creature's claws dug into her arm.

“Box cutter,” she shouted, and a laser shot from her wrist unit, severing the creature's proboscis.

It hissed again and pulled its head back, waving the remnants of its proboscis around. She jerked her arm out, and the creature fell. As it did, it and the proboscis attached to her arm faded. She touched the ground where it had been, but there was no trace.

“Do you need medical attention, ma'am?” the computer asked through her wrist unit. She read the message, then lay back on the floor and stared at the ceiling where the creatures had been.

“Probably,” she mumbled. The bite on her arm was swelling, but the pain in her lower back was worse. “But let's find the gnemron first.”

Standing was difficult. Years of nano repairs didn't change the fact that her body was 138 years old, not counting decades in suspended animation.

As she pulled herself up using the railing and wobbled forward, the soft blue glow of electricity faded. When she turned the corner to the sixteenth corridor in the fourth branch, it disappeared altogether.

In the dark, she saw the gnemron. It was hanging from the ceiling, its feet dangling over the dark water. No. Not hanging. Floating.

“Are—” she started. The gnemron was limp, head down, its thin silver arms and legs swaying as though it were a scarecrow in the breeze.

Gnemron only wore bodies to make humans comfortable, she'd heard. They were energy beings. But the bodies seemed to have presence. They seemed to be alive.

“It's dead,” she whispered.

“Life signs slowed but present, ma'am,” the computer reported.

“But it's not breathing,” she said. The computer repeated the message, so she walked around the body as best she could with the railing between them and the pain in her back. Nothing held it. It just floated.

Suddenly, its fingers tensed. The smooth, tear-drop-shaped head, which had been dangling loosely forward, jerked up.

“Are you okay?” Anna shouted.

The gnemron turned until it faced her.

“I can't walk forward,” it said.

“What?”

“Beyond five hours, there is nothing. I can't walk there.”

“You can see the future?”

“I can drop this body and move through the past and the future,” it said, floating to the catwalk. She jerked back instinctively when it touched solid ground, though she couldn't say why. It just unsettled her. “You see the liquid here?”

“Yes,” she said.

“It's not conduit sludge,” it said. “It's mercury. And it's headed for the fuel processor in engine one.”

“Dear God,” Anna said. “Where did it come from?”

“It's a temporal anomaly,” it said. “Like the duck. Like the things that bit you.”

“How do you know about that?”

“I'll be with you when we tell Captain Heesh. Before the mercury hits the engine. Before the explosion.”

She closed her eyes, trying not to think about death but thinking about it anyway.

“How long do we have?” she asked as she texted, “Emergency meeting observation deck ASAP.”

“Long enough,” the gnemron said.

“That's reassuring,” she said. “Will we die?”

When it didn't answer, she set her navigator to the elevator and turned to follow the red dot. But she collapsed and grabbed the railing again. The gnemron slipped its arm around her waist. It was smooth like metal but warm like flesh.

“I'm alright,” she said, shrugging its hand away.

“I'm not,” it said. “To be blinded is impossible. It's normal for my kind to see our own deaths. To be blind means time itself . . . time itself stops.”

“In five hours?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, I guess I'll take your help. Let's move.”


#


Captain Heesh stared out at the stars. A gnarly old bureaucrat, the captain was less capable of original thought than the ship's computer. Heesh had been a field promotion; thirty years earlier, the previous captain got his skull crushed in a cargo release. She had liked the old captain. The Jaguar, they used to call him. Though Anna was the only crew member besides Heesh to remember the Jaguar, the newer folks had taken to the nickname she and her shipmates had invented for Heesh: The Little Kitty.

“There's no policy for this,” Heesh said finally, turning from the window.

“No, I suspect not,” the gnemron said. “Where's Peters?”

“He's outside working on one of our many problems,” Heesh said.

“May I summon him?”

“Why?”

“Because he will come up with a last-ditch plan to save us.”

Slowly, Anna, the captain, and the security officer, Todorov, looked at the gnemron, disgust and confusion on their faces.

“Damn time travelers,” Heesh said, turning back to his stars. “Why can't you tell us?”

“Because I like Peters,” the gnemron said. “Besides, he's convincing. You don't believe me.”

“It doesn't take a time traveler to guess that,” Heesh said, snapping around to stare at the place on the gnemron's face where eyes might have been. “How can time stop? How can things appear out of nowhere? How can creatures appear in the bilges? How can mercury appear in the conduit sludge?”

“So, you don't believe me, either?” Anna shouted from her chair. She hadn't noticed her jaw tense, but it had some time during the captain's barrage of uncertainty. “I know what I saw.”

“Mercury could only get into the bilges if someone put it there.”

“And stuffed an animal into our engine, too?”

The captain paused.

“A unique sabotage, I admit,” he stammered.

“Captain,” Todorov said. “Before the explosion, I was off duty in bed. And I awoke, because I swore I'd touched something.” He paused. “There were shadows around the bed. A big group, not moving. I closed my eyes, telling myself I was dreaming. When I opened them, they were gone. Ten minutes later, we were space debris.”

Heesh looked at the normally-stoic security officer and shook his head. Then he spoke into his wrist unit, “Text Peters come inside. Brief him on mercury situation.” As he lowered his arm, he asked again, but this time in a softer, more reverential tone, “How can time just stop? I don't understand.”

“Neither do I,” said the gnemron.

“Oh.”

“Perhaps the easiest way for humans to imagine time is like DNA in a double helix, but the action happens along the backbones instead of the covalent bonds. The backbones are like alternate universes. The bonds between them repair paradoxes. Of course, timelines aren't molecules, or even matter, nor are they energy, though they function like waves. I can travel either direction along our timeline.

“But if you turn off a microwave, the waves don't cease to exist. They flow away, dissipating. Time is doing the opposite. The waves are growing faster. But somehow, in a few hours, the waves cease.”

“What's a microwave?” Peters asked as he stepped through the door onto the observation deck.

“Anna, tell him,” the gnemron said.

“How old do you think I am?” she asked, folding her arms over her chest. “We didn't have microwaves when I was a kid.”

“So, what's your plan, Peters?” Heesh asked.

Peters' cheeks flushed red and he chewed his lip.

“There's no plan. No way of stopping it. The problem isn't the initial exposure; that'll just halt the engine. But it'll leave mercury gas in the chambers. When the mercury clears and we're running sludge again, the extra connectivity will blow us into such an intense warp we'll end up half a parsec from here. Assuming we don't evaporate.”

“We won't,” the gnemron said. “Not with just one engine.”

“So, we'll float in space off our nav path, lost to Imperium rescue ships, until we suffocate. We can put up a relay, but without a fixed reference, rescue ships’ll never find us.”

For a moment, Anna wanted to cry. Not because death was so close, but because life had been so useless. More than a hundred years moving boxes around. They could have been the same boxes for all she knew. A hundred years of hearing friends had been mashed by cylinders or electrocuted or blown up on ratty death ships by companies looking for the insurance.

“And the planet?” the gnemron asked.

“What planet?” the captain and Peters asked at the same time. But Peters continued, “You mean that rock in the 10-b system?”

“Yes, that rock. That's half a parsec, isn't it?”

“Well, it's theoretically possible to hit orbit and be slowed by the gravitational pull. Then we can take the drop ship,” Peters said. “From there we can establish a fixed relay. Computer, how is guidance?”

“Seventy-six percent, sir,” the computer said.

“Not great. At our speed, we might overshoot and end up lost after all. Or impact the surface with enough force to drill halfway through it. Computer, is 10-b-4 an inhabited world?”

“No registered inhabitants, sir.”

“Good,” Peters said. “Just in case.”

“Fine,” Heesh said. “Computer, set for orbit of 10-b-4 but hold power on life support mode. How long until the explosion?”

“I cannot say,” the computer said.

“Okay, let’s try this: How long until the mercury reaches the engine?”

“Fifteen minutes, sir,” the computer said.

“And until time stops?”

“I cannot say,” the computer said.

“We have perhaps four and a half hours,” the gnemron said. Anna wondered if she detected melancholy in the words. It was so hard to read emotions without a face.

“Well,” Heesh said. “Anything anyone wants to do before time ends?”

Everyone was silent. Peters put his hands in his pockets, and Todorov cleared his throat.

“Personally,” Anna said, pushing herself to her feet. “I'm going to get some nanobots for this pain in my ass.”


#


Her breath caught in her throat and her stomach seemed to twirl as the thud of the engine going offline shook the ship. For thirty slow seconds, the ship wasn't generating oxygen. Then the emergency power kicked on and illuminated the medlab in blue light.

Anna lay belly-down on the table. A white tube ran from a steel box mounted to the ceiling and punctured the skin of her hip over the ilium. As the nano dispenser burrowed into her, she clutched the pillow and took a deep breath.

“Computer, secure patient for warp,” she said. Restraints emerged from the table around her like tendrils. They snaked through the air before locking her down and drawing tight. She gripped the pillow again and said, “And get this tube out—”

And the engine exploded. She felt the choking pressure of the warp, growing, growing, growing, and she went limp upon the operating table.


#


The next few moments of her life were no more than a catalog of images, fuzzy and splashed with blurry colors like the two-dimensional paintings of the retro artists. There were orange streaks and gray arabesques. There were cafe and black hands reaching for her, fingers intertwining with her own dark hands, which were dripping scarlet. There was the silver, smooth face of the gnemron. Then there were roiling clouds, pink and white, and the next thing she knew, Peters' voice echoed in her brain, saying, “Put in your code, Anna. Your code.”

“One hundred and . . .” she said, then sighed. “Forty . . . uh . . . hundred . . .”

“You need to type it,” Peters said, “or the tube won't disengage.”

She turned and saw the feeder for the nano dispenser lying among the rose-colored rocks around her. He pushed a keypad toward her. She took it and held it in her shaking hands, doing nothing with it.

“Type,” he said.

Finally, the command forced its way through the fuzz in her mind and she typed her password, 144.100.64.36. The nano dispenser fell away like an old scab.

“What happened?” she asked. She rubbed her eyes, then realized there was blood all over her hands.

“You were lucky,” Peters said. “A piece of equipment fell and shattered your skull. If you hadn't been hooked up to that dispenser, you'd be dead.”

“Am I okay?”

“You'll survive,” Peters said, then looked toward the gnemron, who was exploring a nearby rock pile. “At least until time stops.”

“What happened?” she asked.

Peters bit his lip.

“There was—”

“Never mind. Sorry. I know. Where are we?”

“We're on 10-b-4,” Todorov said as the gnemron returned from its explorations.

“Everything is pink,” she said.

“Yes. Lots of rhodochrosite.”

“I can breathe,” she said, still staring at the blood on her hands.

“It's not completely natural,” Todorov said. “Peters gave us respiration pills when you woke up in the drop ship. Still, it's pretty tasty air for a random rock, don't you think?”

“Where's . . .?” she started, but trailed off, having trouble gripping her thoughts. “Where's Heesh?”

The three souls around her were silent, so silent she knew their answer before Peters finally said, “The drop ship got stuck. He saved us.”

“Guess you're up to bat,” Todorov said to her.

“Dear God,” she said. The last step. A ship with a dead captain was 60 percent more likely to net insurance money; maybe it was sympathy for the dead, and maybe there would be no one to testify how run-down the vessel was. She wanted to point to Todorov and scream, 'No, it's on you!' Instead, she said, “The company's not going to like this.”

She tried to stand, expecting the pain of her recent fall or inflamed joints or anything, but she felt nothing. Until she stood. Then, she felt a sweeping nausea. She stumbled forward, grasping the gnemron's arm. There was a cold feeling in her throat, and she retched.

A streak of orange goo shot out of her mouth and hit the pink stones at her feet.

“Are those nanos?” she asked. “I've never had a dose that big.” She snorted, still tasting the sugary residue of nanos on her tongue. Then she shook her head. “Okay. Are we wrecked?”

“Drop ship's intact, but the mother ship is wasted,” Peters said. He pointed to the sharp mountain jutting up in front of them. Though it was rosy pink at the base, its peak was black with old lava. “If we can climb that mountain, we can send up the fixed relay.”

“How long until . . .”

“I don't know,” the gnemron said. “I can't move outside of this body. The waves of the timeline are too fast. Could be two hours. Could be any second.”

Anna found a large rock, its pink and red layers like strawberry cake. She sat on it.


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