Hope Starved

June 8 YC122
Gulormola District
Skarkon II

It was well after midnight when Metz finally collapsed back into his desk chair in his safe house. The autoinjector which would wipe his memory remained where he had left it in front of his terminal, along with the desiccated corpse in the corner of the room which he’d only noticed after taking the drugs from the first injector. Above the corpse was a hastily scrawled message, written with a marker still held in the corpse’s lap along with the gun she had used to kill herself. 

If you can see this you are in danger! They’re out there everywhere. They’ll come for you. I know they’re coming for me soon, I won’t die like the others. Don’t remember! Don’t remember! Don’t remember! Don’t reme

The mystery that Metz had been unwittingly drawn into continued to expand in scope and danger. Long dead corpses, mysterious bases, lost Jovian technology, the fact that Metz seemed to have been involved in it since the beginning despite not remembering anything about it, whatever was responsible for the string of horrifically gruesome deaths occurring all across the city now, it was enough to leave Metz a nervous wreck. He was exhausted but still shaking with adrenaline. 

With shaking hands he lit a cigarette and sucked down nearly half of it in one drag. His lungs screamed but the shakes started to subside.

“Maybe you’re the lucky one, between the two of us,” he said to the corpse. He’d need to do something about that, just leaving the body sitting there was going to fuck with him to no end, but one thing at a time.

The angel fixer turned the yet unused autoinjector over and over in his hands then set it back down. The situation wasn’t contained, far from it. It would do no good to wipe his memories now. He needed to be sharp, he needed to remember, even if it might kill him. On top of everything else, the whole city was still a warzone, the damned Krullefor were still out there fighting tooth and nail against the local militias and angel troops. The last thing he needed was to be left clueless.

“Well fuck it,” he said, collecting his weapons. They hadn’t done Etraz much good but the whatever had killed him wasn’t the only danger out in the city. This point was reinforced by a distant flash of light as a dropship exploded, its flaming wreckage tumbling into the wartorn streets below. 

He grabbed the autoinjector and his portable terminal and walked over to the mummified body. The corpse belonged to a young woman, a member of the Dominations judging by the insignias on the tattered remains of her clothing. Her body was mummified, her skin shrunken onto her bones like old parchment. She must have been there for years, and nothing had touched her in all that time. The fact that a corpse had sat in the room with him for years without his ever noticing was yet another unnerving puzzle piece. What had happened to her? Was she someone Metz had known? He must have known her for her to be in his safehouse. What had happened to render her so impossible to see that not even insects had touched her? and why could he see her now? 

It hurt his eyes to look directly at the corpse, whatever effect had erased her from his notice for years was clearly still present, just weakened by the chemical cocktail that he’d taken. He forced himself to examine the body, and that was when he noticed the creatures. They were tiny many-legged crawling things and seemed to emit a faint violet light. They were slowly working to consume the corpse as well as crawling across the walls, seeming to flicker in and out of his awareness as he forced his attention to them. Despite their number, it seemed like they had barely even begun to consume the remains. Metz sucked down the rest of his cigarette and immediately lit another, he was thoroughly disgusted but somehow doubted these creatures were responsible for whatever had killed Etraz and all the others still dying out in the city. 

However, observing those tiny creatures and the body gave him an idea which he didn’t much care for. Some sort of effect was shrouding a certain class of objects from the mind. It didn’t seem to be making them invisible, just impossible to remember or commit to memory. Whatever that effect was, the drugs he had taken had reduced it to the point where he could force himself to remember. The rest of his memories had also been sharpened to an uncomfortable degree, so it seemed likely that the first autoinjector had contained some sort of memory enhancing chemical. That gave him a very dangerous idea. 

Metz went to the window and looked out over the city. Whatever was killing people was clearly hidden by the same effect that had hidden the corpse, only strong enough for him to look directly at it and still not see it despite the drugs. He watched missiles streak into the dark sky in a brilliant series of fireworks flashes, their lights fading as they travelled out over the sea towards airborne targets approaching the city. 

Etraz had seen it and he wasn’t on the drugs. So had that man who had been killed. What was the trick there? That they were aware of it? They had realized something was there and that realization had let them see it? But why hadn’t it attacked all of them? Why just Etraz? 

Because Etraz saw it, his mind supplied before he could stop himself, and that was the last piece of the puzzle he needed. 

Several blocks away from the safe house, a strange creature rose hundreds of meters above the city streets. It was An alien amalgamation of fractal limbs, like some horrifying hybrid of a tree and a spider. Long emaciated legs extended themselves and retracted into a grotesquely pulsating central mass as it moved around, sending feelers and tentacles in every direction as it shambled carefully along. 

As soon as he saw it, Metz knew it had also seen him. A knobbed tendril pulsed out towards him, making him stumble back away from the window. He fell onto his ass as the thing splashed against the window and a glittering black ooze began to seep into the room. 

Shuffling backwards, Metz clambered to his feet and ran for the door. He felt the autoinjector again and again decided against using it. He couldn’t fight something he wasn’t aware of and he needed to do something about this. Was this what was being researched in the now-destroyed base? Had the Krullefor let it out? His eyes went to the body again. No, he thought, the Krullefor had let it in. It was always out there.

He rushed from the room and slammed the door shut as the window imploded behind him. The building shook as he flew down the stairs and into the parking garage. His personal groundcar was still stashed there and he threw himself into it. Ribbons of black ooze were beginning to emerge from the stairwell when Metz slammed on the accelerator, smashing the armored car straight through the garage door and peeling out onto the war torn streets. 

The creatures were everywhere. Enormous lumbering shapes littered the horizon like a vast alien army, but they were scattered far enough apart for Metz to aim for a mostly clear direction. Civilians fleeing the war torn city honked and shouted at him as he weaved around them and blasted down the highway. He didn’t have a plan yet, but at least he knew what he was up against. He still had the autoinjector, if he could stay alive long enough to come up with a plan, he could wipe his memories and pass the plan off to his mindwiped future self, like the past him had done by leaving him the injectors in the first place. It was a desperate hopeless long shot, but it was the best he could do. 

He was abandoning the front, heading out into the deep desert, and he hoped no one would notice his absence since he couldn’t explain himself without putting his comrades at risk. The situation was beyond fucked and getting more fucked by the minute. The knowledge of the creatures had gotten into the local population and as that knowledge spread it would become harder and harder to contain, resulting in more and more deaths. 

But the first problem was staying alive, the rest would have to work itself out as he went, it was the best he could do. He pressed the accelerator to the floor as one of the creatures began moving in his direction. The city lights faded behind him and the vast and empty deserts loomed up ahead. A weaker man would have given up, would have injected himself and been done with it. But Metz Jerindold was not most men, he was The Devil You Know, the demon fixer of Skarkon, and he wasn’t about to let some monster get the best of him. He took a slow breath to control his labored breathing and drove onward into the night.

This is Not a Place of Honor

June 7 YC122 
Kalilia District
Skarkon II

While not one to be easily spooked, the more he saw of the Jovian city, the less Casmir liked what he saw. On the northern edge of the ruins, the orderly arrangement of buildings terminated in a strange distorted cityscape of misshapen thorns of an unknown dark material. 

The RSS team had already marked out a path leading towards the interior of the artificial briar patch, one which, after a somewhat annoyingly long hike, terminated in a massive monolith, a perfect cube rising ominously through the sea of spikes. It was nearly sunset by the time they made it to the cube and the thorns sent long ominous shadows across the landscape, throwing it into an uninviting patchwork of dark and light. 

A thought wormed at his mind. He had seen designs like these before. Not identical, but similar enough that he was pretty damn sure he knew why the Jove had gone through the trouble of constructing such an alien and foreboding place. 

After the long hike, Casmir knelt down on the dusty landscape. The fossilized remains of trees and scrub poked through the rising sand here and there, as invisible without the memory enhancing drugs as the rest of the ruins. 

“What do you make of this Cosra?” He said to the RSS agent who had been quietly following him while he made observations. 

The RSS Agent crouched down beside him, peering off into the artificial briar patch that had been created in the desert before them. 

“Our guys haven’t been looking at it that long, but none of us are sure of what to make of it,” she responded, “It’s about four kilometers in diameter and sits just off to the north of the city. It’s roughly circular. There were theories it might be some sort of transmission array or telescope.”

“You know why this planet is dead Captain Methanjald?” Casmir’s counterpart, Sari Atavuli said, crouching beside Cosra, connecting the same dots that Casmir was. Once you knew what to look for, the fingerprints were rather obvious. 

“Is that rhetorical?” she asked him, “I don’t. It had no atmosphere when the first colonists arrived but we know there’s evidence of there having been a biosphere at some point. Once you’ve taken the eidestics, you can see fossil plants all over the ngelgnieg.” 

“This place was salted,” Sari responded simply, running the dust between his fingers, “It was made to be as uninviting as possible.” 

“The atmosphere was blown off into space and the world was seeded with nanites that attack and kill microorganisms required for the base processes of life on most worlds,” Casmir said simply, killing the suspense Sari had been trying to build, “The nanites themselves are shielded by the same contracognative effects that shields the city, so to any normal colonists, all they know is that the world won’t support life for some unknown reason.” 

“You ever see the ruins around one of the republic’s older fission waste disposal sites?” Sari asked her. Casmir could see the gears turning in Cosra’s head, her eyes widened as it all started to click together in the fatal chain of calculations. 

“We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture…” Cosra said softly. 

“Yeah,” Casmir nodded, staring into the lopsided forest of dark stone. “This place, it’s a message, one the Jovians went through a lot of trouble to send. It’s a warning, stay away.”

“Think we should do what they ask and ship off?” Sari asked jokingly, brushing the dust off his pant legs. 

“Nah,” Casmir said, ringing his fingers and smiling faintly, “archeology is the profession of graverobbers and fools.”

He stood and approached the obelisk, “If this is a waste disposal site, there will be markings on the stone here indicating what they were burying here.”

“You think that’s what the Angels were after?” Sari said, shoving his hands in his pockets, “Some sort of exotic waste products which they could weaponize?” 

“Maybe,” he said, running his hands over the smooth stone. He walked along the flat face of the obelisk, it was easily three hundred meters on a side, it towered above them higher than any of the skyscrapers in the Jovian city, “Or maybe something that they used to irradiate this place in contracognitive effects.” 

“Why would they hide a warning behind contracognitives like this?” Cosra said, asking the question that would end her life. “If they wanted to send a message, why hide the message and the city and everything else?” 

“Because you need to be on contracognatives to be at risk from whatever they buried here,” Sari answered automatically. It wasn’t something he needed to think about, it seemed rather obvious. However, once he’d actually said it, all three of them paused, looking at one another.

“We’re all on contracognatives,” Casmir said carefully, looking around somewhat nervously now.

“Like what?” Cosra asked him, “Some sort of…monster” her voice trailed off and her eyes widened. She wasn’t looking at Casmir and Sari anymore, her eyes were glued onto a point in the middle distance, and she began backing away from them. 

“Cosra?” Casmir said nervously, looking at a spot in empty space where her eyes were glued “What do you see?” 

“It’s some sort of…it’s huge, bigger than the obelisk. I think it sees us,” she said desperately. Without warning she had her sidearm out and was firing madly up into the air, sending both Casmir and Sari diving away, “Run!” she shouted at them before her body suddenly and without warning collapsed in on itself in a horrifying squelch of blood and viscera. 

The mental image of the RSS agent’s body being obliterated in an instant was enough extra information to fill in the blanks in Casmir’s mind. Some sort of creature, wreathed in a contracognative effect, that became aware of them when they became aware of it, something hostile and malicious, something that would now be coming for him. 

He saw it, and he knew it, and it saw him, and it knew him. The archeologists took off running.

Author
Saede Riordan

Void Touched

June 7 YC122
Gulormola District
Skarkon II

Metz was five blocks from the laboratory when he started seeing the carnage first hand. The entire city of a Sa’kak was a warzone, and as night had fallen the fighting had only intensified. The crumpled sound of explosions mixed with peals of thunder from a storm that was building in the distance. Automatic weapons chattered and clattered in a near constant staccato and rockets streaked overhead every few minutes. They were expecting violence, they were expecting death, they were expecting horror, and they found it. 

There were bodies and pieces of bodies everywhere. The street had become a charnel house, a horror show, and the road was sticky with blood and viscera. There was so much, too much. Metz was a veteran of numerous battlefields including intense brutal bouts of urban warfare. What they found in the warehouse district was worse than any of that. A scene exponentially worse than the already horrible scenes of battle spread all across the coastal city. 

He had some of his best people with him and then had all seen enough carnage to be hardened to it, and they were still shaken. Vilda, who was running comms and support, keeled over and vomited when the smell of guts and viscera and blood reached her nostrils and Metz barely managed to avoid doing the same. He was a hard man, he had seen lots of terrible things, been responsible for more than a fair shake’s worth of them, and this was still one of the worst scenes he had ever come across. 

His team started with five, including him. Vilda on comms and support was one of the best hackers in his employ. Etraz was an expert with heavy weapons, Jaan was his best sniper,, Drekka was…well admittedly a bit crazy but was excellent with explosives, and Kaio had gone toe to toe with warclones in close quarters combat in addition to being a great shot. They were some of his best people and he was confident that whatever happened, whoever they encountered, they’d get the job done.

Despite all of that, despite being hardened criminals loaded for war, they hit that brutalized street and nearly came to a halt. Some of the bodies were ripped in half, some were crushed flat, and some had been impaled. Some were missing limbs, some appeared as nothing more than lumps of chewed flesh, and some were literal puddles. There was no pattern of attack, no rhythm or reason, no clear indication of what weapons had been used; just raw, brutal, indiscriminate violence at a scale that gave even Metz pause. He stumbled over the thought that nearly killed him. 

This was not done by humans. He shook his head and motioned for his team to continue. Whatever had happened, whatever was still happening based on the distant screams, it was up to him and his team to put a stop to it. 

Jaan was taking very controlled breaths, practicing paced breathing to avoid the rising panic he felt. Vilda emptied her stomach of the rest of her dinner and Drekka started babbling incessantly about “fucking brutal krullefor savages they call us the violent crazy criminal ones can you believe this I can’t believe this look at this shit–” until Metz told him to shut is mouth before he got them all shot, but it was Etraz who was the first of them to die. 

They had gone two more blocks when a man came racing up the street, eyes wide with terror. The team all leveled weapons at him but he kept running at them, screaming and begging them to save him, looking over his shoulder again and again as he approached, as if a horde of slaver hounds was hot on his heels. Metz raised a fist and they all came to a halt, fanning out across the street with weapons trained down the thoroughfare, which remained empty aside from the man who seemed nearly driven mad by terror. Metz waved him through their line and he was nearly to them when red blossomed from his chest and he looked down at a grisly and bloody hole which had suddenly appeared there. There was no sound of a shot, and Metz’s team swept their weapons across the road searching for the sniper only to realize they were facing something much worse than warclones. 

The man seemed to rise off the ground, yanked into the air by some invisible force and slammed into a nearby wall with enough strength to crush his bones and leave a bloody smear. Etraz started firing wildly, unloading his heavy machine gun into empty space on full auto, howling like an animal until out of nowhere his body collapsed on itself. His head and chest were instantly crushed and his limbs were compacted into his ruined torso. Blood splashed in every direction as what had once been a man sank to the ground with a wet plop. For a moment, there was silence, and then Drekka started babbling again.

“What the fuck Metz? What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck what the fuck! This shit is insane, what is this bullshit? How the fuck did that just happen? What the fuck is doing this–” Metz cut him off again.

“Shut up you asshole, before whatever it is hears you,” he said. Metz’s mind was skirting around a thought, the warning from his past self making him not dare even think it, and this was what saved his life, “Jaan, Drekka, go back to the command post. I want a ten block cordon around this place. Nobody in or out, nobody talks about anything, just keep the area quarantined. Say there was a chemical attack, blame whoever you want for it but keep the warehouse district secured.”

“Why do I have to be the one to stay with you?” Vilda whined as the other two retreated back down the road. 

“Because I need someone who knows computers, now let’s go.” He took off at a sprint, racing down the road towards the laboratory, ignoring the iron smell of blood which was thick in his nostrils, ignoring the screams of the dying coming from all around him, ignoring Vilda’s complaints, ignoring the more distant sounds of the battle still sweeping across the city. He focused his attention down to a point. Get to the facility, set off the device. Get to the facility, set off the device. Nothing else mattered, nothing else could matter. 

The ominous words of his past self bounced around in his head like both a warning and a curse. The less you know, the safer you’ll be, and he knew, he knew deep in his gut, in some place where the memory erasing drugs could not reach, that if he sat down and puzzled out the mystery around him, he would die as surely as turning of the world. So, he refused to think about it. He wore his ignorance like an armor and ran headlong into the jaws of hell. He had all the pieces to solve the puzzle and he very intentionally did not put them together. He kept his head clear, kept his eyes forward, if he’d run into any Krullefor marines now, he’d have been an easy target, but even the warclones seemed to be nothing but tissue paper to the–stop stop stop stop, an inner voice shrieked and he forced his mind to a halt again. Emptiness, don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. The inner voice shouted down all thoughts and Metz ran onward. 

The two Angels crossed the three blocks to the laboratory in what could not have been more than five minutes. To Metz those five minutes were the longest of his life, each second thudding past with impossible slowness. The adrenaline made it feel like he was in a dream and trying to run underwater, his body failing to keep up with his mind. The warehouse he’d been instructed to find loomed up at him, visually indistinct on the outside from any of the other warehouses all around him, but as they approached it, it became obvious that it was the place they were looking for. 

Inside the rolling doors, which had been crumpled inwards and left in pieces was a hardened airlock style hatch. It was the sort you’d find on the outside of a military starship and Metz had seen plenty of them in his days in space with the Angels. However, both hatches had been blown in with breaching charges, rupturing the hermetic seals that had kept the atmospheres separate. Metz and Vilda climbed inside and passed yet more bodies, these ones clearly Angel researchers of some sort, identifiable by their name tags and access badges. Some of them had been shot, while others had succumbed to the same grisly fate as the people outside. Fortunately, the elevator descending into the bunker seemed to be intact, one just had to ignore the corpse mouldering in the corner. 

“You sure it’s a good idea to go down there?” Vilda asked him. 

“No, but here we are,” Metz said, climbing into the elevator and pulling her in after him. He’d been given all the required access codes to open every door in the place, and as they traveled through the facility, Metz could see that he’d had a hand in its design. There was a particular style to the way the defenses and the rooms were laid out, one that he recognized as his own. That fact unsettled him more than the bodies scattered around the place. 

The bodies were an interesting puzzle which Metz had no desire to solve. Some of them had been shot, Angels and Krullefor, and the bullet holes riddling the place was testament to the desperate battles that had played out across the ruined installation. Then there were the bodies which had been mutilated in the same horrific fashion as those outside. There was also a third category of corpses which seemed to have partly mummified, as if they’d died in place years ago and had just been left there to desicate. It hurt his head to look at those, so he didn’t focus on them. 

He and Vilda made their way to the laboratory he’d told himself to go to. E296, located deep within the heart of the facility. The battle within the base had rolled through the area, and the bodies seemed to never end. When they finally reached the room, Metz looked at the door and felt as if he’d been thrown into deep space without a suit. The hatch had been opened with breaching charges, the door wrenched inwards off its hinges, and he could see, plain as day, that whatever had been in the room was gone. There were markings on the floor, scuff marks and dust patterns, there clearly had been something there, but whatever it was it was now missing, and the pattern clicked together in his head. 

The Krullefor had been after the device in this room, the device he’d needed to contain the don’t fucking think about it. The fighting led directly here. The warclones had forced their way in and taken it. 

“Fuck!” He shouted, kicking the wall in frustration. 

“Uh, boss..?” Vilda asked nervously.

“They fucking took it, they fucking took it!” he raged, storming out of the room past a startled and confused Vilda and stomped towards the command center. He didn’t have to look at maps, all he needed to do was think about where it would be if he’d built the place, because he had, even if he didn’t remember it. 

“What was in that room?” Vilda asked, “What was so important? Metz what the fuck happened to all those people?” 

“You don’t want to know,” he said flatly as they marched towards the center of the facility. 

‘Why not?” She insisted. 

“Because if you know it’ll happen to you too.” That successfully shut her up. She was clearly thinking about Etraz, because her face went pale and she seemed to start jumping at shadows. Metz rode on a wave of frustration, letting his anger at the Krullefor stomp out any stray thoughts that might lead him into harm’s way. He still had to destroy this base. He shoved a body out of the way and quickly glanced over the control panels which were fortunately free of bullet holes and still projecting their holoscreens correctly despite being caked in blood. He keyed in the self-destruct sequence and dragged Vilda back out of the base. 

The situation wasn’t contained, the don’t think about it was still out there, “Come on,” he said, dragging Vilda back towards the elevators, “We have work to do.” 

Old Bones

June 7 YC122
Kalilia District
Skarkon II

The dropship fell through the air on a pillar of thunder and fire. Beyond the windows, the sky was turning from black to blue as they rode down through the thickening atmosphere past desperate scraps of frozen cirrus. The desert World they had viewed from orbit expanded out beneath them from a jasper marble into a vast plain of blank and bright. Away in the distance, a dust storm studded through with electrostatic discharges grew from a flat smear into a wall of darkness taller than a mountain range. 

Casmir felt his bones and teeth-rattling as the vehicle descended. With battles happening all across Skarkon, the RSS supported archeology team had skipped the elevator ride and taken a military transport directly down into the ngelgneig. It was not designed for comfort and Casmir, an expert on Jovian archeology whose usual haunts were the orbiting ruins of the Ani constellation, found the experience distinctly unpleasant. G forces slammed him into his seat as the vehicle began its final deceleration burn before gently coming to a rest on the scorched, barren surface. 

It was then that the archeologist finally threw up, earning him looks of bemusement and irritation from his teammates. Arms pulled him out of his chair and down the ramp on shaky legs as his inner ear continued to reel from the violence of their descent. He fell onto the hard-packed salt plain and heaved up the rest of his lunch and was left to cough and sputter while the transport was unloaded the rest of the way. 

Finally, his stomach began to settle enough to peer around the campsite that had been set up in the middle of nowhere. It truly was that, nowhere. All around him were empty salt flats and rising heat shimmer. He could see the dust storm rolling along far to their south, and to the east, a distant line of mountains rose up out of low rolling hills. All of it, all of this vastness, was completely dead. He knew about the ngelgneig, he’d been briefed on the dead zones before coming down, but seeing it first hand was still unsettling. It was a sort of barren blankness that the eye simply slid off of, refusing to linger on the vast bright emptiness without watering and distorting. A hand appeared before him and he took it, letting the severe young RSS agent help him to his feet.

“Dr. Ultriard,” she said, shaking his hand once they were both standing, “I’m Cosra Methanjald, republic security services, I’m the head of this expedition, I assume Director Walstoj briefed you before sending you down here?” 

“Err, sort of?” Casmir said, scratching the back of his head, “I admit I’m a bit confused, I was told there were Jovian artifacts of importance to the security of the republic located here?” He turned around, continuing to see nothing in all directions. “Director Walstoj wasn’t very clear on what exactly the artifacts were.” 

Cosra smirked and pointed at the ground, “What do you see?” 

“I see that we’re in the middle of a salt flat,” Casmir answered her, raising an eyebrow. 

“Look again, closely,” she said.

Feeling a bit miffed but supposing this was some sort of test, Casmir hunched down well away from the place he’d retched and examined the ground again. It was obvious once he was paying attention. The hard crust wasn’t salt, “Impactite,” he said somewhat sheepishly, “This is a crater.”

“Good,” Cosra said with a smile, “Now for the fun part, hold out your arm please.” 

Still somewhat confused, Casmir held his arm out to her, and without warning she pulled out an autoinjector and stabbed it into his muscle tissue. “This is an eidestic agent,” she explained, “It helps retain memories in the presence of contracognative effects.” 

“What are the side effects?” he asked with some irritation, “Now that you’ve injected me without asking permission.”

“A slightly increased risk of cynosis, a decrease in the effectiveness of antidepressants, and nightmares,” she explained. 

As she talked, Casmir was looking around, his eyes growing increasingly wide as the drugs reached his mind and took hold. 

“What do you see now?” She asked him, still smiling. Casmir watched in wonder and awe as a vast alien metropolis emerged out of the heat shimmer around him. 

“This has to be the most intact Jovian outpost I’ve ever seen,” he gaped, looking around in fascination. The blast crater they were standing in was just one small section cleared out of a much larger city, one whose skeletal towers and crumbling structures climbed up all around him blocking the horizon.

Casmir’s eyes couldn’t find things to focus on fast enough. The city was unbelievably intact, nearly pristine despite the streets themselves being filled with dust and sand. The architecture bore the distinctly monolithic impressions of early Jovian, from the brutal sheer faces, to the glossy oil-like sheen, to the corrugated decorations, to the materials which seemed as if they were one solid piece from which the buildings were hewn. It was beautiful, a near work of art, and here it was, left in the desert slowly being buried in the sand, rendered impossibly invisible.

“This looks First Empire,” he said finally, awestruck, “how is it that no one knew about this? How was it that I didn’t know about this? I was looking right at these buildings when we landed, how is any of this…?” 

“This place has been irradiated with a contracognative effect,” Cosra said, “Without the eidestic we just gave you, all of this will just fade out of your memory. There’ll be nothing left but a blank spot and you’ll wonder if you hadn’t just had a bit too much to drink the night before. You could look at a picture on one of these buildings and would insist it was a blank image.” 

“Amazing…” he said, turning around and around, “What happened here? Why is this place like this?” He asked as he came back to facing Cosra. 

“That’s one of the things we brought you here to find out doctor,” she said, handing him a stack of notes and wandering off.

Mnemonia

June 7 YC122
Gulormola District
Skarkon II

Gunfire and explosions played out a distant and constant dread tattoo, punctuated by the occasional shriek of rocket fire or the hurtling and rapid thwack thwack thwack of a rotary aircraft buzzing low over the city’s rooftops. 

Metz watched ripples appear and vanish in his glass of whiskey as the distant rumbles of thunder and violence shook the room. The battle had begun in the afternoon when Krullefor marines began a combined arms assault across the Gulormola channel, launching themselves into a hail of weaponry from all the various groups in the newly independent district who didn’t want them flexing their newly minted legal authority as security contractors.

The lights in the safehouse flickered ominously and Metz wondered if the city’s powergrid would survive the next few days of violence. The room vibrated as a fireball piled up in the harbor, its shockwave climbing into the sky above the distant lightshow. Metz shook his head and took another sip of his drink. 

Despite the conflict washing across the city, Metz was focused on his computer terminal. The message displayed on it was more ominous than any of the fighting going on outside. Alien, impossible, disturbing, it settled into his stomach like the burning icy fragments of a forgotten nightmare. 

“Hi Metz,” the doppelganger said to him, “It’s me, well, you. You won’t remember making this message, and hopefully you will never have to see it. But if you are seeing this, you need to know this isn’t a forgery, so, when Alyia was dying, you promised her you would find the bastard who killed her. Unless you suddenly changed your mind about keeping that a secret after twenty years, it should serve to prove that I’m you.” 

Metz felt a cold sweat spread down the back of his neck, he took another nervous sip of whiskey, his hair standing on end. Something was very wrong, he didn’t know what this message was about, how he had sent it to himself or forgotten making it, but it was a sign that something was very amiss. Deja vu was creating a pinched feeling in his sinuses, making his eyes water as the message continued ominously along. 

“If you’re seeing this, it means something has gone very wrong and data containment has failed in our lab. Jaxia is probably dead which means containment protocol falls to you. In the back of your desk drawer is a metal box, the code to access it is 496890. Inside are two autoinjectors, you need to take the red one, it’s the only way you’ll remember long enough to do what needs to be done. After taking it you need to go to the location listed in this file and proceed into the bunker under the warehouse and set off the device located in lab E296. This should stop the containment breach. After that, trigger the self destruct on the facility and use the green autoinjector to erase your memories of the last few days. The less you know, the safer you’ll be. It’s…” the other version of him looked nervously over his shoulder into an empty corner and went pale, “Oh, and work fast if you don’t want to die.” The doppelganger picked up an autoinjector from the desk and injected himself before quickly ending the video. 

“What the fuck was that?” Metz said to himself. The sounds of battle continued in the distance, punctuated by the occasional flash of light as an explosion climbed above the rooftops of the city. The angel knocked back the last of his whiskey with a grimace and yanked open the drawer to his desk. The metal case was there. It had been there the entire time Metz realized, dumbfounded. 

Metz had looked right at that case at least a few times a week for years, any time he’d opened his desk drawer, there it was, in plain sight for him to see. It had been sitting right there the entire time, and yet something about it made Metz pass it off as inconsequential, irrelevant, just background clutter not worthy of his attention. He picked up the case, slightly afraid if he stopped looking at it he’d forget it existed again. 

As he picked it up a holoscreen keypad appeared on the surface, and Metz quickly punched in the code, removing the pair of color coded autoinjectors from inside. He still had no idea what this was about, what he was getting himself into, what he had already gotten himself into. But it was clearly deadly serious, serious enough to warrant erasing his memories. That alone made him nervous. 

His terminal chirped as a connection request came through. It was Endorsei. Normally a message from the sociopathic monster that was the Cartel’s Jovian research division commander would set Metz on edge, but he was already far more on edge than Endorsei could make him. If anything, if anyone, could know and understand what was happening, it was her. He idly thought he should have seen the message coming, of course Endorsei would know what was going on. He tapped the accept button. 

“Metz,” she said, and Metz instantly felt the blood drain from his face. Endorse was actually nervous. He could see it in her face, read it in her expressions. Something had managed to scare the monster that was Endorsei Edlrif, and that was scarier than anything he’d seen thus far. 

“I’m here,” he croaked out through painfully dry lips. 

“Did you get a message?” She asked him breathlessly. “One from…” she trailed off, uncertain.

“From myself?” He asked, “Yeah, I did. What’s this about? What’s going on?”

“I can’t tell you that.” she said,  “But I can tell you that I got one too. Do what it says. The fate of the cluster might depend on it.”

‘En, what’s happening? What is this?” He begged, desperate for answers, for more information, for anything to explain the events he was being sucked into. 

“It’s possibly the end of the goddamn human race, now get to fucking work,” she ended the message, leaving Metz once more alone in his office. He looked down at the injectors, took a deep breath, and stabbed the red colored one into his neck, just like he’d seen himself do in the message. And he saw, and saw, and saw.

The Queen of the Damned

“They played you like a fiddle Metz.” The woman was everything Metz wasn’t. He was tall and lanky, rough, ragged on the edges, with a normally relaxed and carefree demeanor, dust worn and weather beaten. He was scruffy, with eyes that made him look older than he actually was, those dark eyes had seen a thousand little tragedies. Murders, execution, torture, and worse. 

In contrast, Endorsei Edlrif looked like a paragon of the world of professional business. She was polished and sharpened, from her perfectly pressed suit to her immaculately brushed hair, the tasteful but understated jewelry she wore and the smooth and confident manner she carried herself with. She radiated an almost innocent poise, and with a face had hid her years, she would have fit in anywhere from a boardroom to a college campus. 

She absolutely terrified Metz. The crimes, the inhumanities, the deaths, they weighed on Metz like a heavy stone around his neck, he felt the weight of his deeds with every step he took. He saw the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes. He wasn’t a good person, but he felt the cost of his sins, the barbs embedded in his soul. In contrast, Endorsei had an almost insane lightness to her. She was happy, cheerful, even chipper. He’d seen her squeal with glee and clap like a little girl when a group of traitors was strung up in front of her, none of the horror seemed to phase her in the slightest, on the contrary, she seemed to revel in it.

Metz Jerindold was a fixer, he made problems go away, but he was also a leader, he took responsibility for his actions, he might be a murderous bastard, but Skarkon was his system and he was still very protective of it. He was an Angel first, but he was a Skarkon native second. He was a matari, even if many in the republic would be loath to admit he was one of them. 

Endorsei Edlrif on the other hand, was a monster. Metz had trouble believing she was actually human at times, much less Matari. The slaver’s fangs voluval appearing beneath her lips marked her as an outcast even among outcasts. She was the Cartel’s razor, gleaming in the darkness, the Queen of the Damned. 

“I had to do something,” he said, nervously taking a drag of his cigarette, “ we couldn’t just let the Krullefor continue muscling into our turf.”

Endorsei looked out the panoramic windows of their meeting room aboard her custom Machariel. The deserts of Skarkon were like a painted canvas far below them. She watched a dust storm moving across the world with only the faintest hint of disgust.

“And so you set off a nuke in the middle of the city they were basing out of, killing a bunch of random people and giving the RSS an excuse to escalate the conflict further.” She shook her head, gesturing with the sucker she’d been slurping on,  “They played you Metz, they wanted you to react so they could say they were bringing justice and restoring order, and you reacted exactly the way they wanted. Now they get to bring the hammer down and play the heroes.” 

“They won’t be seen as liberators,” Metz told her, following her eyes out the windows towards the planet, “Not in Skarkon. You don’t wipe away decades of bad blood and abandonment with a few soldiers and rations. They’d have to kill half the people down there to even begin to contest our grip.” 

“You think the republic would give a fedo’s arse if half the people on that dustball died tomorrow?” She said, raising an eyebrow.

“They couldn’t…” he said, his voice trailing off, “That’s a bad look, even for them. I doubt they would want that much negative PR.” 

“They’re going to put thousands of troops on the ground down there and turn that planet over for months,” Endorsei told him. “Long term occupations of hostile worlds are never pretty, just look at Caldari Prime.” 

“What makes you so sure they’re going to stick around?” Metz asked her. 

“Because they’re trying to find something,” she said, grinning darkly, “and they won’t leave a stone unturned if they think what they want is under it.” 

“I know they’ve got people looking for Archeotech,” Metz told her, “What are they after?” 

She giggled, “Sorry love, but that’s above your paygrade. All you need to know is that they won’t find it. We found it and took everything out over a decade ago.”

“So why are you here then Endorsei?” Metz said apprehensively, wondering if he was about to eat a bullet. 

“Oh, I’m just tying up loose ends,” she said, skipping up to the window and peering out it with a wide eyed childlike fascination, “Ooh, look at that!” She jumped up and down, pointing at something out in the desert. 

On the planet below, as if on queue, a trio of atomic explosions twinkled silently on the Ngelgneig, followed a few seconds later by five more. As far as Metz knew, there was nothing out there in the desert worth nuking. Just some mobile bases operated by various cartel backed corporate outfits. 

“There!” She said happily, “No more loose ends, no one left alive who could say anything and no easily accessed evidence. It will take them months to find out that what they’re looking for isn’t on Skarkon II anymore, and you Metz, I have big plans for you!” 

She put an arm over Metz’s shoulder, and the big man tried not to wince. She ran her fingers across his back and he had the sickening feeling of being sized up as a meal by some sort of giant predatory insect.

“You’re going to make sure the RSS’s stay on Skarkon II is an extra special one. I want you to pull out all the stops. Hold protests, throw rocks, arrange strikes, send gift baskets with grenades in the bottom, plant roadside bombs, hit squad leaders with snipers, everything you can do to turn that planet into as much of a slaver trap as possible, I want you to do it. Feel free to tap into the local discretionary fund. Fight smart, make the republic afraid of absolutely everyone on that damned planet. I want you to make it abundantly clear to them that Skarkon is not and will never be their planet, and that the people of Skarkon will never pledge loyalty to them. If they want Skarkon II, they’ll have to plant their flag in a pile of children’s corpses. Do I make myself clear?” 

“Abundantly,” Metz said, carefully removing Endorsei’s hand from his back like one might remove a venomous snake.

“Just one last thing,” he said, “That necklace you’re wearing,” he pointed to the faintly luminescent sky blue pearl hanging by a simple silver chain from her neck, “There was a girl, a capsuleer, from one of the groups operating warclones on the planet. She had a jewel like that, said it was spiritually significant to her people and wanted to know what the Angels knew about them.” 

Endorsei frowned faintly, looking at Metz and then down at her necklace. She shook her head, “That’s also above your paygrade Metz. But since I’m feeling…generous, here, give her my card.” 

She held out a small piece of paper containing Endorsei’s neocom address. He knew the card also contained some nasty malware and a tiny sliver of antimatter which could be remotely detonated, he took the card carefully, handling it like the bomb it was. 

Metz looked like he wanted to say something else, and then thought better of it, he wanted to be out of the room and away from Endorsei Edlrif as fast as possible. 

“Now take care love,” she said, giggling and shooing him out of the meeting room, already bored of the sebiestor, “Make sure to give the RSS our best welcome, and give your girlfriend that card, we’ll see about getting her a nice trinket.” 

Metz let himself be pushed out the door and practically ran back to his shuttle. 

Author
Saede Riordan

The Devil You Know

The air was thick with smoke and shit. It smelled like oil and rot, rust and decay and desperation. Between the market and the river lay the slums. Between the tank farms and the market stalls rose a shantytown of ill fortunes and shattered dreams. Young people came to the city from all around the countryside, but the city wasn’t a place where poor men became rich, it was a place where rich men became richer and poor men became criminals if they were lucky and corpses if they weren’t. 

Metz chewed on the end of his cigarette, breaking the bulb in the end as he stood in the entrance to the nondescript hovel. The only barrier from the outside was a grimey sheet hung across the hole in the building. The beat down old building reflected upon the structure’s beat down old inhabitant. Metz lit his cigarette and leaned against the frame. A show of force, they couldn’t touch him, not Metz Jerindold. The people of Kor’ali knew better than that, if those Krullefor thugs hadn’t realized it, so much the worse for them. 

“Metz please, be reasonable,” the hobbled old man who ran the ghetto was trying to tell him, “We can’t pay protection to two gangs, the Krullefor are everywhere, they won’t take no for an answer!” 

Metz smiled and shook his head, taking a drag of his cigarette. He was a tall and lanky man, attractive in his own bushwhacked and weatherbeaten way, with dark hair and darker eyes. “You’ve known me for a long time Pardin,” he said to the man. 

“Since you barely came up to my waist,” Pardin confirmed. 

“Did I ever give you the impression that this was an optional arrangement that we had here? That you could simply choose to do otherwise if you so wished?” Metz sneered at the ramshackle dwelling, stepping further into the dimly lit interior, looking like he’d stepped in something foul. 

“The Krullefor…” the old man started. 

“We’ll deal with them like we dealt with everyone else,” Metz said simply, “The Krullefor, the CBD, the capsuleers sticking their noses where they don’t belong. None of them will be here forever. They’re vultures circling a fresh carcass, but in time, they’ll wander off when they get bored, when it’s no longer in their interests to care what happens to this place. But us? we’ll still be here, and where will you be then?” 

“The council decided…” Pardin started, but Metz cut him off.

“I’m well aware of what the council has decided, and so the Angels have decided as well. You made the wrong choice Pardin, you pissed off the wrong fucking people,” He flicked his cigarette but into a corner, where it began smouldering amidst the trash and refuse. Pardin made to stand and put it out, but before he could finish rising from his chair, Metz had crossed the room in a flash and kicked the old man in the chest hard enough to crush the chair under him and pin him to the ground, knocking the wind from him. 

“What’s that old saying Pardin?” Metz said as he ground his heel into the man’s chest. “Stick with the devil you know? Well, I’m the devil you know, and since it seems like you losers have forgotten that, I’ll have to remind you all. This planet belongs to the Angel Cartel. We gave you everything you have, and just like that, can take it all away.” 

Metz snapped his fingers in front of the terrified Pardin’s face. He was still struggling to get enough of his breath back to speak as the fire from the cigarette slowly began to spread, creeping up the greasy curtains that kept out the afternoon sun. 

“Traitors to the Cartel don’t last long, Pardin, and that’s what you all are now. You, and Mex, and Codaj, your lousy little neighborhood council, and this whole thrice cursed city.

“T-Thrice?” Pardin stammered out. 

“Yes,” Metz said with a sly smile, “After today, Thrice cursed.” The fire continued to spread as Metz removed an object from his pocket and tossed it at Pardin. It bounced off his face and rolled somewhere out of sight. 

“What is…?” Pardin gasped out. 

“It’s about 100 milligrams of antimatter,” Metz explained, “See I know all about your little smuggling operation Pardin. I know about the plutonium fuel cells you have stashed here and I know how much you’re making off them. I know roughly how many there are and I know how far the radioactive particles will be carried when that bomb goes off. What a tragic, tragic loss of life, and to think that it was all your fault for not properly storing one of your antimatter mines.” 

Pardin tried to shove Metz off his chest but the younger man was stronger and had leverage, “Metz please don’t do this, please, this isn’t you, you’re…”

“What?” Metz laughed, “A good person? I don’t know where you got that idea Pardin, you think this shithole raised me to be a good person? I was raised to get a job done, to do what the Cartel needed, to fuck up the people who needed to get fucked up, and today, Pardin, your number came up buddy. Nothing personal. The Angels remember their debts, you should have done the same.” 

“Metz!” Pardin hissed and struggled through gritted teeth, but the gangster was unmoved. He calmly removed his firearm and put a round through Pardin’s head before turning and strolling out the door. The fire had spread to the wall and was climbing up the side of the building, its smoke mixing with the haze from the rest of the cooking fires. He lit another cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets, strolling off down the crowded street past a group of children playing ball and a group of old women crocheting. He didn’t warn them, he didn’t say anything. Everyone who it was worth warning had already fled Kor’ali weeks ago. 

He was already on his way out of the city when the bomb went off.

Author
Saede Riordan

Almost Dead

The fires went out before the air.

It almost would have been a mercy, to die quickly in the grip of explosive decompression. I take that back. I would have rather died with the ship.

The capsuleer warped off, leaving us, his crew, stranded here in wreckage of what was once a great warship. We knew we wouldn’t last long. We few who avoided the de-compressive explosions, who didn’t make it to an escape pod before they all jettisoned. Our lives were already over.

Had I known then what I do now, I would have saved myself the agony. I had a gun, I could have ended it. I should have.

My lover, Essina, she survived with me, and we were able to make love one last time in the wreckage of our bunks. It was good, cradling her in my arms, feeling the ship creak and groan as it slowly cooled, and air slowly escaped. It would have been a peaceful death. I had only expected that. How foolish of me.

We couldn’t see the hull of their ship, merely their searchlights as they flashed them over the darkened hull. We sent up flares, and they pulled us aboard. We thought we were safe. We were wrong.

They wore masks, hid their faces. When I tried to speak, they struck me, knocking me to the ground. I had just wanted to thank them for our rescue, then they brought out the shock prod. Essina was crying, I could hear her painfully begging them to stop as I was electrocuted. They’d taken my gun, and bound our hands behind our backs. I hoped the others fought back. I knew as soon as I saw those masks that things had gone from bad to worse. Something about the coldness in their voices as they ushered us along, it was more terrifying then the thought of dying in the dark of space.

The charnel house they brought us to, it was worse then anything out of my nightmares. Everywhere, there were bodies, suspended somewhere between life and death as their fluids were drained out of them, some were fresh, others were pale husks. I could tell by their occasional moans that they were not quite dead. I didn’t want to die like this, killed by these butchers. I bucked and tried to tackle one of the suited men, but they threw me off so effortlessly, and I was again blasted with the stun rod. One of them knelt down in front of me, I could hear his voice through the mask, “Don’t worry boy, the peace of the Red God will soon find you, and you will be blessed with repentance for your sins.”

With that, he hauled my shaking body off the floor and dumped me onto a table. I knew they were doing the same to Essina, though I couldn’t see, only hear her pleas.

They strapped us down, two of them holding us as hard metal clamps clamps were locked into place.  They cut our clothes, careful not to harm us in the process, it was strange, almost caring. Almost.

I felt pain in my legs, arms, and neck, as they prodded needles into my veins, and then the entire table, apparatus, and me, was tipped upright and neatly stacked with the others. Essina didn’t stop crying. I wish I could have reached out to her, held her in these dying moments.

She passed on before me. I was glad when her suffering was finally over.

It has been three days, and still my body refuses to let go, and so here I hang.

Almost dead.

Almost .

Author
Saede Riordan

The Things We Bury

This world was alive once. Birds sang, children ran through meadows of wild grass, the people here lived simple and happy lives. Its all gone now of course. The birds, the children, the meadows, all gone. Silence reigns supreme here, hanging heavy in the air, as if the world itself has snuffed out all sound.

I place a palm on the smooth frozen surface of the lake. Beneath the glasslike ice, fish and frogs are frozen where they swam, victims of this world’s slow death. Five years, that’s all it took since the terraforming failed, for this world to slide from a seeming paradise into a wasteland. There is no life here now. The cold blackness of space reclaimed it so quickly that barely anyone even had time to leave. As the atmosphere was blown away on the stellar winds, men, women, and children froze and suffocated in their homes. The quiet choking death of the void did not discriminate, and struck equally from the highest ranking official to the lowliest worker.

The roar of Arkazy starting up the HAV jars me out of my reverie. The engine noise rips across the silent plains like a monstrous intruder to this place of silence and death. Mada is already climbing back on the vehicle.

“Come on Selik, the city is just over the next lake according to these charts.” He calls out to me over our laser-link. I hesitantly rise to my feet, letting my eyes pan across the tundra.

“Alright, I’m coming.” I call back to him. We’re close to our goal now. It took us nearly six months to sneak into this system without detection by Federation scouts. And once we landed, it took another month to get this far. Soon, our journey would be over. This place is a tomb, and we are its grave robbers. I climb aboard the HAV and we set off across the ocean of glass.

***

The city is perfectly preserved, mummified along with everything and everyone in it by the cold and dry air. No weeds overgrow the abandoned buildings, no wild animals pick at the bones. It as if time has completely halted in this place, frozen like its inhabitants.

When Arkazy stops the HAV at the outskirts, the silence suddenly roars louder then the sound of the engine, threatening to sweep me away. We’re so close now.

Mada lets out a whoop of joy over the laser-link, throwing herself off the HAV and onto the hard ground. “Fuck yeah we made it! We are gonna be so goddamn rich!” She tossed her head back under the environmental suit and laughed at the sky.

It let my eyes follow her gaze upwards. The sky was blue once, it still is around the horizon, but directly overhead, it is stained purple and black, as if the heavens themselves are bruised. Stars twinkle even in the daytime, The atmosphere too thin to stop their faint light.

Arkazy leads the way, threading through the narrow streets. It isn’t long before we see the first body. A young women lays slumped against a doorframe, her body is completely dessicated, shrunk and dried out like a fruit left in the sun. The empty sockets of her eyes seem to stare into my soul, as if judging my presence, a living thing in this place of the dead.

Mada and Arkazy barely give pause to the bodies. They aren’t here to pray over bones. I crouch down in front of the dead woman and whisper an apology for my transgression in this place. This world belongs to the dead, and we are unwelcome here.

“Selik!” Arkazy calls over the link, I look up from the body, he and Mada are already at the next corner in the street. “Don’t fall behind, we don’t want to get separated here.” I rise and hurry to catch up to them, and we make our way deeper into the catacomb.

***

Our target is the planetary governor’s house. A large and somewhat gaudy structure in the well-to-do section of the city. The paint is peeling from its stone walls, but the building itself is as perfectly intact as the rest of this world. The story goes that the terraforming of this world failed because the governor secretly siphoned off funds from its operation for his own personal projects. The fool didn’t realize his mistake until after the atmosphere had already thinned to the point of suffocation. In his hubris, he killed his world, and his family, the riches of gold and silver left on their shelves, to be admired only by the spirits of the dead

It was this story that drew Arkazy and Mada to this place. Vultures, picking clean the bones of the dead for what trinkets they might have left behind when their souls fled this world.

The front door gives way under Arkazy’s shoulder with an almighty crack, the sound echoing off the quiet wood and stone, seeming to reverberate far longer then it should.

“15 hours left on life support. Should be plenty of time to get the entire haul.” Mada said, strolling into the house. Arkazy and I follow closely, and begin to fan out into the building. Mada starts grabbing anything that looks remotely valuable and piling it up in the centre of the foyer, while Arkazy searches for the office and the financial records of the governor. Somewhere it was assumed, would be access cards and codes to bank accounts, letting them leech off the living family of the dead man like blooders. It’s their way, but it is not mine. I think the things we bury should stay that way. This world of the dead should be left to the dead.

While they’re occupied, I make my way upstairs to the room at the end of the hallway. The room of a boy of less then ten years. My son.

His body, and that of my wife, are a dried lump on the bed. Features pinched and shrunk where they’d curled up together, trying in vain to keep out the deadly cold, before the life fled from their bodies. I feel the hot tears on my cheeks. It was my fault. I killed them, I killed this world. In my arrogance, in my short-sightedness, I had destroyed the greatest treasure of my life, and no accumulation of money would ever replace that. I didn’t deserve to live, and I didn’t want to. I would go soon to be with my wife and son.

But there was one thing I had to do first. The vultures downstairs had no idea that I was once the ruler of this place. To them, I was just another drifter, and this was just another job. But it would be their last. No one would disturb this tomb, no one would dig up these graves.

Mada had no chance to cry out before I struck her in the faceplate with the iron pipe I’d ripped from the bathroom. Her voice and life were snatched away by the bitter cold in seconds, and she crumpled upon the   rich carpeting that my son had once played on. I felt bad, killing her, but it had to be done. If she and Arkazy got back to the world of the living, they would drain the accounts of my living extended family and thrust them into crippling poverty. I wouldn’t let that happen.

Arkazy was coming out of the office when he saw Mada’s body, and he let out a scream of primal anger and rage through the laser-link. Whipping his suited head around, trying to find the identity of his lover’s murderer. And there I stood, Mada’s blaster drawn and aimed at his centre of mass.

“Selik you fucking bastard! I will tear your fucking head o–” His shout was cut short by the weapon discharge, the bark of the blaster louder then any sound heard for ages in this place. His limp body went tumbling into their pile of treasure, where he and it would remain buried. I sighed and tossed the gun down. I was so tired. I’d kept up my mask of indifference to their actions for so long, the pain finally was free to flow.

I laid down on my son’s bed, cradling his and my wife’s body, and deactivated the life support on my suit. This was the end for me. This is where I would be buried, with my wife, with my son, my world, and my heart. The cold and dark took me blissfully quick, and I shut my eyes for the last time.

Author
Saede Riordan

The Masks We Wear

It doesn’t really hurt. They were always so sure to reinforce that point. Regardless of anything else, it doesn’t hurt. But they’re wrong, there is pain. It just comes much later.

***

I’m wearing her face. Everything about what I see is perfect, as it should be. Nose, lips, tattoos, eyes; they’re all right where they belong. But the face staring back at me is hers, not mine. I’m just hiding here behind her eyes. I shouldn’t have looked.

My ship had gone down, my pod trapped in a warp disruption bubble as enemy ships circled in. I knew I was going to die. I’d died this way before. I wasn’t afraid then. Just irritated at my loss.

As I tumbled out of the clone vat and blearily made my way to my quarters, the wrongness began to set in. Something seemed off about my body. It was like I didn’t quite remember how to use it. I stared at my hands, but they looked perfect. Exactly like they should.

I was drawn to the mirror like a moth to a flame, and that is when the horror finally set in fully. Because I’m wearing her face. I’m wearing her face and it’s supposed to be mine.

I stand transfixed, staring into that mirror for what seems like hours. I couldn’t just keep standing there, there are things she should be doing. But I’m not her. I’m wearing the face of a dead woman, and matter how much I look, I can’t make her face my own. Even with all her memories, all her thoughts, her face, her clothes, I know deep down that I’m not her. I’m just what came back.

***

Its fast, I’ll give it that. The process seems to barely last longer then a heartbeat. There’s the momentary spike of pain as every nerve in the body screams and panics, and then the world dissolves into something beyond comprehension. Memories, feelings, everything that makes you a person is set flowing like a river, for that brief moment in time, we don’t exist.

***

I wonder if anyone will notice? Can they see the imposter hiding inside the skin of their friend? The being who stepped into her life when she stepped out? Does that make me her to them?

I tear my vision away from the mirror and walk carefully into her living room, picking up clothes off the floor and shrugging them on. They feel like my clothes, they feel exactly the way they should. These are the same clothes she wore before she entered the pod earlier today. Her eyes trace around the room that is supposed to be mine now. It all feels like a joke somehow, like it’s all some elaborate set piece, constructed for my benefit. As if at any moment, the walls might fall away and reveal the lie that I am to the world.

She has places to be, I know from the memories I was given. I should get going. If I’m late it might make them suspicious. How could I possibly hope to explain this to them? Do they even care? To them am I still who I was before? Can’t they see the fear in my eyes at having been pulled up into a life that’s not mine?

***

But there’s something out there, in that nothingness that becomes everything. It is as if just for a moment, The simple truth of the universe is laid out there perfectly, and everything suddenly makes sense. Some would call it God. But God is a human concept, and this is so much greater.

***

I sit down at her desk, my desk now I suppose, idly scrolling through her market orders. I have her posture, her memories, her mannerisms, her sense of humor, everything that made her, her, is what makes me, me. Does that make me her?

Practically speaking, I know there’s no difference between us. We’re the same really. Most capsuleers would shrug off this unnatural feeling because for all outside purposes, nothing has changed. Her friends won’t notice a difference, how could they? We’re identical in every way that matters.

But we’re not the same, we can’t be. She stepped into that void, and I stepped out. Simple concepts like self hold no meaning in that place. It is beyond such things. This world doesn’t belong to me. I belong in that other world, in that space between spaces where existence and non-existence become one and the same.

***

Ironically, most capsuleers never notice this place. They go through clones, stepping across that divide, and never realize how important it is. The idea of the infomorph, the being that exists in those moments solely as data. It is what we really are. Not the flesh we inhabit.

***


I can’t help it. I’m drawn back to the mirror, back to that face I am supposed to own. I know there’s more to me then this flesh though. I can’t be defined this way. I want to scream, I want to tear off my skin and proclaim to the world ‘no this is me! I’m different!’ but I know I’m not. I’m exactly the same as her, I am her. And she is me.

I’ve left that world of purity behind, and become this mask I now wear. It won’t be forever I know. Sooner or later, this body will die and I can return to that place again, and become someone new again. You can’t step across that void and come back the same person that you left as, that gulf is too great for us. But our memories will come back, our thoughts and feelings and emotions will all come back, sliding smoothly into a new body, creating a new person out of whole cloth, and we’ll be once more born into a world of pain and objectivity.

But I have to be more then this, there has to be more then this. I know there is. I’ve been there. I’ve crossed into that place and nothing will ever be the same after having done so, least of all me.

But for now, this is as things are. I am a capsuleer, a being of wealth and power. The mask is set too perfectly, and I know the eyes looking back at me out of that mirror are mine for now. I’ll wear them well, until its time for me to return, and another steps into this existence.

***

And in that moment between life and death, we must ask ourselves. Are we still these masks we wear, or can we become something more?

Author
Saede Riordan