9Volt 2

Title: Two Stars In the Sky Like Eyes Over the Horizon

rating: 0+x

It takes a matter of seconds for Willem Albring to realize that he is not alone on the dwarf planet's surface.

"Command, something else is out here."

« Camera feed's showing nothing, Will, »

There's no reason it wouldn't. The land is a stark expanse of asteroid-peppered gray rock, dimly lit by the binary sunset of two red dwarf stars. A bright, faded blood red. Nothing is out here. Nothing would be out here. Nothing should be out here.

"It's not something I can see, Mike. I can just feel there's something else here."

« What, like gut instinct? » Michael Herrema responds over the comm link, somewhere in a spacecraft orbiting the planetoid.

"I honestly don't know."

He steps forward. 50% of Earth gravity makes his body walk in slow motion while his coffin of a spacesuit turns each movement clunky — like he's a toddler. When he reaches a five meter distance from his landing craft he freezes. The sensation is stronger now. Every part of his subconscious shouts the same warning: Don't step forward.

« Chances are, if this feels like a bad place to be you should scram. »

"Can we get approval from the other member of Command up there?"

« Yes Will, you should leave, » Anne Bryant says. « That's an order. »

He remains frozen.

« Still there, Will? » Anne asks.

« Anne, check the camera feed. »

Don't step forward. Jutting from the ground right in front of him is a pillar. Black, shining, hexagonal, scratched. The structure seems to be fused to the ground, the metal at its base fading into dusty grays, and it stretches up until it tapers at a point not far above Willem. Don't step forward because it would be impossible to walk through a pillar.

« …What the hell is… »

"You're seeing the pillar now?"

« Pillar? »

There was more than one pillar. They form an impassable wall, curving the farther they went. Willem imagines it forms a whole ring around his landing site, like a barrier. He won't turn around to confirm that, though. He shouldn't.

"Yes Mike, the pillar."

« What pillar? »

"…What are you seeing right now?"

A hologram fizzles from a projector inside his suit and onto the visor of his helmet. The view from his camera.

"Is this a joke?"

« What is there to joke about here? »

"My video feed still shows the pillars."

« …Turn back. »

Willem turns and attempts a sprint. He can bound further than on Earth but it's too slow in low gravity. Too much like hopping.

"What the fuck are you seeing?"

Six meters from the lander.

« Just move, » orders Anne.

"Can you just tell me what it is?"

Five meters. Four meters. There's no atmosphere and the suit blocks off any noise there could be, so he only hears his rhythmic heartbeat and quickening breaths.

« Move. »

Three meters. Two meters. He shuts up. Six meters. He must've strayed farther from the lander trying to find good ore to sample than he thought. Five meters. Four meters.

Clang.

The noise reverberates through his suit, originating from somewhere just behind his neck, outside.

« Fuck, it's so close. » Anne is whispering.

Three meters. Two meters. His breathing has the speed of a jackhammer but he can't stop moving now without whatever is certainly behind reaching him. One meter. One meter. One meterCLANG—

"God, anomalies are the worst," Anne says.

Willem, Michael, and Anne nod in sync. They float in their ship's "lounge," a cubic service module decked with electronics along its sides, only differentiated from the other cubic service modules decked with electronics along their sides by a snack machine.

Willem takes a sip from his coffee bag. "What was coming through over the camera feed?"

Anne tenses up. Michael's eyes dart around the module.

"What was it?"

"Well, uh, just to make sure, what were you seeing?"

"Is saying 'a pillar' not enough? It looked like the one behind you."

Michael looks behind him, runs his hand along the black, hexagonal pillar he floats next to, and looks back. Comforted.

"Alright. So, uhm…"

Shrill scratches echo. Anne stares to the doors at both ends of the module, both locked tight.

"Just tell me what the hell it was."

"It was a person. Only a few meters off."

The scratches intensify, the titanium of both doors screeching as chunks from outside the module are shorn off. Anne pushes off the wall and grabs onto an emergency exit hatch under Michael and Willem, frantically typing a code onto its keypad.

"What did the person look like?" Willem asks.

"…Wrong. Very wrong."

The doors buckle with a CLANG—

and Willem and Michael shut their eyes, bracing themselves. The banging on the door subsides and the predator slinks off, metal scraping as it moves. They open their eyes. Red emergency lights still blink, the shutters still cover the bridge's windows, metal scraps welded over the door still hold. They are still alive.

Michael whips the walkie-talkie off his belt. "Unperson's heading away from us. It's onto you."

« Fuck, okay, at least that's one of them left to deal with. »

"Status on—"

« Blew the spider-thing out of the airlock and I shot the hole inside-out. Not doing well on bullets though. »

"And the—"

« Explosives are still fine. »

"Okay, okay, good, good." His hands are shaking.

They rested in the bridge for a while, floating, listening to the same old monotonous drone of alarms and feeling the cold creep in as the ship's heating systems sputtered out.

"Something else was down there," Willem says.

"You need to repeat that? Those things crawled onto the lander. Think we know that well."

"No, not those."

Michael raises an eyebrow.

"There's four seats in the bridge."

"Yeah?"

« Almost at the maintenance hatch. From there it shouldn't be hard to get into the Drive. » She was getting close to the Lang Distortion Drive, the ships' FTL engine. If it gets destroyed then there's no chance the un-things can get out of orbit.

"And there's only three of us."

"So? These ships are just designed with four seats in the bridge. Third time going extrasolar and all of the Foundation's ships I've seen are copy-pastes of each other."

"Then why would they send us on an expedition with only three people? With a fourth bed? And enough room in the lander for two people?"

« Opening the hatch to the inside of the Drive. Time to blow this shit to— OH GOD! »

"Anne? Anne? What's happening?" Michael shouts.

« The unperson was inside the goddamn Drive! It was inside the… »

Her speech is interrupted by the sounds of twisting bone, slipping beneath waves of static masking all of the walkie-talkie's audio.

"No, no, no."

The waves of static spray from the walkie-talkie at high pressure, flooding the bridge while a nonexistent gravity forces it down into an even ocean. Liquid white noise. Before Michael can react, the arm of the unperson — as black as ink — lunges from the walkie-talkie speaker and bends down his throat. The limb's ink spills out while the throat and neck implode.

Willem takes a deep breath and plunges beneath the waves. Behind the haze of the white noise a hexagonal pillar rises from the sea floor, his anchor in a tumultuous world no, his sword in a stone. He unsheathes the pillar from the ground the instant the unperson unscreams. The thing shoots through the liquid like a speeding bullet and he swings and smashes into the unbullet. The unbullet fires itself several times in a row, every time hitting the sword with a booming CLANG—

The sound makes

[other stuff]

She cracks against the dwarf planet's surface, in the center of a ring of hexagonal pillars. The binary sunset burns two dots into her eyes but she can still see the corpses piled across the ground, all vastly unlike anything to have lived on Earth. The wreckage of alien landing craft press into the cadavers. A pale gas of memories hisses out of their heads.

Humans weren't the first to land on this world. The pillars jump to new positions instantly, shrinking the ring. (the pillars aren't the shields they are the teethCLANG—

that sends him into a tumble. No, he won't let tripping over debris stop him now.

He keeps his hand rubbing against the right wall of pillars, his sole anchor in the maze's disorienting layout. Between the booms of landing craft duplicates dropping from nowhere and crashing somewhere, the pulse of the transmission grows louder. For the first time since it rang out in the ship, in the bridge when the unperson attacked, in every world he was thrown into and killed in impossible ways, the transmission overtakes the sounds of Micahel's own breathing.

If you ignored the lower half of the transmitter, the device would be a sleek black needle, thinning to an infinitesimal point. Including the lower half, the transmitter was a twig partially snapped in half and left to break apart on its own. The full structure bent from an impact at the middle, prying out jagged edges of internal circuitry, and now vanished teeth clamped down and etched its sides.

Michael reaches into his brain and drags GUN out of his headspace. Finger twitches turn the mental extension into a more fitting SWORD, taking the form of the most generic fantasy sword he could fathom. He swings—

—and the nonexistent predator tears into its prey's informational body. Slurries of scarlet self-identities and warm thoughts bleed out in torrents, spraying out through the dark void of idea space. Scavengers swim in, widening holes in their amorphous, abstract forms to consume bloodied conceptual scraps the predator doesn't get to. They meld them into their data. The predator's teeth press into the head and the prey's last memetic cry for help goes interrupted; its head caves in.

. . .

The predator pulls away from the corpse.

There is better prey nearby.

The intrusive thought sends him into another disoriented tumble, bashing his head through a spike of broken electronics. SWORD is unimagined. The chunks of circuitry that don't puncture his skull bounce off his body and rebound off the transmitter with a

no

with a

the sound must stop

with a

stab my ears and and shred my eyes and let the sound—

with a CLANG

This is the section where Researcher Silas Michelakos, fourth crewmember, would go on an increasingly surreal journey, eventually reaching such a level of chaos that turning back to normal reality would be impossible. He would be experiencing this, if not for how the totality of information on his existence was eaten ten seconds after landing on the dwarf planet's surface.

CLANG

One meter. One meter. One meter. One—

clang

One meter, just one more meter, just one more fucking meter—

clang

—just want to get back home one meter one meter just let me out just let one meter meter out let me one—

clang

one

one

one

clang






CLANG

The Lang Distortion Drive engages its thaumic rituals, powering up for an FTL jump. Anne detonates her explosives. The Drive is fractured and aetheric energies chaotically struggle to complete a broken ritual, flowing in bizarre patterns while failsafe systems are blown into slag. New pathways for the ritual are completed and spacetime becomes a whirlpool around the spacecraft that becomes a bubble that launches out of the galaxy. The ship is shredded but it keeps traveling at thousands, millions, billions times the speed of light. It impacts a small planet and space ruptures. Tachyons surge. A hypernova expands from the point of collision and incinerates every world in its path—

This is not what happens.

This is what Anne imagines in her head as a nonexistent predator feasts on her mind, nonexistent sounds of chewing rebounding around an opened entrance to the Drive's interior — equally nonexistent. The only mental thread she can hang onto. (and from afar the unperson cries over a life it knew it once owned but has forgotten) Munch, munch, (sob), munch, clang

clang, clang.

"The last piece is in," ███ announces. They pull their mind away from the sub-subatomic circuitry and look at the whole of the transmitter.

It towers from the center of the crater, physical and informational components a sleek black with no scratches to be seen. Purple lights and X-rays flash as █ extracts all hundred of their mental copies from out of the circuits, fusing together and reforming into their standard issue corporeal body. They marvel at the device as well.

"One last test?" █ asks.

"Yes."

tugs on their head, unfolding it through 4D space in a fractal flower. The tip of the transmitter unfolds in response. Signals quickly radiate outwards and bask the planet in their cyan glow. None of it reaches the gargantuan locks of the noospheric hazard containment units looming in orbit; the suns' red continues to blanket them.

LOCKS ARE PRIMED FOR DEACTIVATION.

"Job's done, take us out of here," █ says to the heavens.

███'s body goes numb. Their information bleeds out in a fine beam at light speed, stretched towards and looped around an iridescent spindle, longer than an afterlife and thinner than a Planck length, then pulled from the planet towards—

clang

Holographic oxygen level alerts flare up on the inside of Willem's cracked visor. Their warnings are too late. The visor has been cracked for a minute and Willem has asphyxiated, air leaked out through the hole bashed into the suit just behind the back of his neck, body collapsed onto the gray expanse, six meters from the landing craft.

CLANG.


Manned Exploration Vessel (blah)-001 fails to send its weekly status update. A rescue craft is scrambled into action, sent to the last location the ship was known to have reached. When the craft arrives and its task force enters, the crew of four is found strapped into the chairs in the bridge, indefinitely comatose. A repeating signal, loaded with memetic hazards, hums from every machine. Nobody had landed on the dwarf planet's surface.

* * *

A few years later the Foundation cracks it. The ANANSI artificial intelligence construct, deep within a quantum computer's sea of calculations, comes to realize one simple part of the signal: a memetic agent doesn't need to be translated. It's an idea. It just needs somebody to convey it properly.

ANANSI's simulations could only take the task so far, so the Memetics Division runs through exposure tests. Researchers who they knew they could pull out of the deep end listen to the signal over and over, trying to keep coherent speech while their minds are bombarded. Eventually, one researcher's gibberish turns coherent.

All who orbit [unintelligible] turn back. This is a mental waste disposal zone. Contamination from compromised ideas, noospheric parasites, and [unintelligible] inevitable beyond here. Return or [unintelligible].

No language is universal. No warning can be written that will be understood by every being. Instead you don't write it, you don't tell it through a language. You tell it through the very ideas of the warning itself.

It was a shame the signal's designers couldn't stop their own warning from being contaminated, too.





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