The Tesseract

The featureless salt desert spread out to infinity. The horizon; nothing but smooth, chrome landscape under a dark taupe sky. The type-2 moon’s gravity helped her along, but the cold surface seemed to sap the warmth out of her suit with every step.

Ashley Isuuza couldn’t complain. She’d craved adventure ever since birth, and no adventure was worth taking without the prospect of death associated with it. So in theory, her little stroll across Obirus b III exemplified the very essence of a perfect, eventful life. Yet Ashley suspected she wasn’t going to live to tell her story.

The Astradelta-Obirus run had proved profitable, especially the shuttling of passengers to the salt moon. This influx of scientists caused the local economy to boom, yet not one official could explain to her the reason why they were there. That changed when the cargo ship she commanded, the Enigma Rex, came to the rescue of an orbital research station. One scientist had survived. All the others, fifteen in all, perished from atmospheric decompression caused by a critical system failure.

What the scientist told her, shattered everything she’d come to know about the universe.

“We’ve discovered a geometrical artifact,” said the dying academic, “that’s older than this stellar system.”

It made sense, Ashley figured. The tight security and tight lips.

“What kind of artifact?” asked Ashley.

“This moon is a tesseract?”

Artifact? Super-engineering?

“Human?” asked Ashley. Obirus had been colonized four thousand years earlier by the Terra Corporterium, but could they have built such a…?

“No,” said the scientist.

“Kucobi?” she asked. They were the closest alien species and roughly the same age as humanity.

The weak man shook his head, leaned over and whispered words into Ashley’s ear. Ashley struggled to decipher their meaning. With collapsed lungs, the scientist was unable to breathe. Before Ashley could inquire, he had died.

“Warning,” announce Enigma Six, the ship’s consciousness. “Control systems under polemictronic attack.”

Ashley rushed back into her ship. “Disengage,” she ordered, hoping to cut off the attacker’s access to the Enigma’s neuronet. By the time she made it to the bridge, she knew she was doomed. All the ship’s Enigmas had succumbed to the polemictron.

“You are committing an act of war,” she yelled, “Who are you?”

“I am the ‘thing that exists’.”

“Who do you represent?”

“I represent the ‘thing that no longer exists’.”

“What is your purpose?”

“I require the Tesseract.”

“What Tesseract?”

“The soft-skinned thing communicated to you the location of the Tesseract. I was unable to decipher its last words due to incomplete ‘sensory things’.”

Dangerously powerful, unaligned and of unknown origin, the polemictron posed a threat to humanity’s interests in the sector, so Ashley decided to scuttle her ship.

“I required that information,” insisted the ‘thing that exists’.

Ashley ignored it, focused on getting to the safety pod.

“I can force you,” it threatened. Ashley could sense a childish nuance in its attitude. “I can reduce the ‘breathing thing’ to levels that will make you uncomfortable.”

The evac module was an independent system allowing Ashley to manually activate the safety pod. When she heard ship’s atmosphere hiss, she jettisoned from the Enigma Rex, her home of nine years.

Relief came when Ashley sighted the twinkling lights of Porto Nortis. Four hundred low-grav steps later, she was able to knock on the metal rampart and gain entry. The outpost consisted of unregistered chloride traders, criminal rogues, and mining activists. Assistance from the Local Authority could compromise the renegade community but they could never neglect their duty of care in offering Ashley critical assistance. She would have to wait until the next shuttle to the nearest registered outpost before she could alert anyone about the incident with the rogue entity orbiting the moon.

Ashley sought out a place to rest and discovered a crowded tavern, deep inside the outpost. Half asleep in a booth, she contemplated the dead scientist’s words. They troubled her. She dreamt of the ‘thing that exists’, of it taking on a humanoid form; its fingers morphing into sharp blades. She choked, feeling the stale air in her lungs boil.

Ashley awoke, lying in a dark, wet corridor with a Sentapod wrapped around her neck. A cloaked figure sat next to her. Ashley struggled, but the Malgorian creature tightened its grip.

“No use fighting it,” said Ashley’s captor. “It only responds to my command.”

When Ashley settled back, the Sentapod relaxed. “What do you want?”

The hood came down revealing a glistening onyx-skinned Kucobani. “I, my friend, seek the Tesseract, just like all the ten known civilizations seek it.”

“The Tesseract?”

“You know it?”

“No,” she said.

“I’ve been studying humans a short time, but interpreting your truth-face was my easiest accomplishment. This ability to lie is enormously fascinating but annoyingly counterproductive. You are aware of the Tesseract existence, so hiding this fact isn’t going to benefit you.” The Kucobi were an ultra-religious race renowned for their intergalactic exploration and research in xenoarchaeology.

“Too bad it’s inside humanity’s domain,” said Ashley.

“You think this gives you ownership of such a prize?”

“Are you claiming you possess special rights to this artifact?”

“No.” The Kucobani hesitated, then said, “The artifact is the remains of an unknown alien star-city that survived a supernova eight billion years ago.”

“Eight billion?” Ashley knew of no such ancient civilization.

“This stellar explosion rendered their civilization extinct. Yet, one city survived, and aeons later, as a new star was born, this city, with its long-dead citizens, entered the gravitational pull of the young gas-giant you call Oribus b and formed into this moon. Now, I’m going to persuade you to help get me into the excavation dig. Then we’re going to steal the Tesseract.”

“I’m not doing…” Ashley felt the Sentapod strangle her. She held out her hand in submission.

“Good,” said the Kucobani. “Lead the way.”

Ashley got to her feet and staggered along the corridor, passing other outpost dwellers. No one cared about her predicament. Inside unregistered outposts, minding one’s own business was religion number one.

With a Malgorian around her neck and a Kucobani on her tail, Ashley headed for the Porto Nortis command bunker and convinced the corporate sheriff to allow them to get on a shuttle to the nearest interline.

When suiting up, Ashley asked her captor, “What’s your name?”

“My name is Mr Alien,” said the Kucobani before boarding the shuttle.

Within ten minutes they were dropped off onto an interline platform. They boarded an eastbound passenger trackcar destined for the Corioen-Volventes mines. The interline train took off towards the mountains. Within the hour it had climbed over the ridge and began a slow journey along the rim of the Corioen-Volventes crater.

“And what may be your name, soft-skin?”

“Ashley Isuuza,” she answered, trying to get comfortable with the pungent and slimy Malgorian. “So, Mr Alien… is that your real name?”

“No. My people know me as Teriann-Orfe but to you, it’s Mr Alien. Do not insult me by calling me by my designation. You’re already unpleasant enough to be around.”

“Me?” Ashley was growing annoyed. “This Tesseract, how did you come across knowledge of its existence?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

Ashley gambled that Mr Alien possessed limited knowledge about this mysterious artifact. “Some kind of polemictron attacked my ship. It wanted the same thing you wanted.”

“That was no polemictron. That was an entity that’s been dormant a long time.”

The back of the trackcar ripped apart, causing the internal air to escape within two microseconds. With faceplates snapping shut, both Ashley and Mr Alien struggled back onto their feet. Looking back, they saw a hulking cargoboto towering over them. With its metal torso riddled with bullet holes, it stepped forward, grabbed the Kucobani and threw it out of the trackcar, out into the dark abyss. The Malgorian released Ashley and slithered away.

The cargoboto leaned over and grabbed Ashley with one of its six arms. “I’m still waiting for you to answer my question,” it said over the comms.

Faced with no choice and keen to uncover the mystery, Ashley pointed to the south, “See those lights in the middle of the crater. That’s an excavation site. Your Tesseract is there.”

“I know this. But that is not my problem.”

The cargoboto lifted Ashley off her feet, jumped out of the trackcar and launched into space. Thrusters attached to its feet sent them diving into the canyon, their speed causing the thin nitrogen-rich atmosphere to resist against Ashley’s body. They landed on an icy outcrop, a few hundred metres from a guarded airlock.

“The soft-skinned things guard this,” said the cargoboto. “Get me inside, or I will end your existence.”

Ashley surveyed the campus. Four watchtowers. A central entry point. A dozen heavy troopers patrolling the periphery. She also noticed hundreds of lights moving across the darkened horizon.

Reinforcements?

Ashley, seeing no other viable option, decided it easier to take on the possessed cargoboto. She readied to lunge forward, aiming to disable its energy pack, when a flash of sparks exploded around the airlock. The moving lights emerged from the shadows, turning into quadtracks loaded with riders wearing orange miner suits.

Salt mine rebels.

“This is our chance,” she told the entity residing in the cargoboto.

Ashley slid down the embankment and ran toward the airlock. A missile hit one of the towers, the warmth of the explosion causing the salt-ice to turn into sludge. She turned to see the cargoboto crashing through the ice and disappearing into a cocktail of sulphur, sodium, and potassium mud. Ashley continued to the site, heading for the sizzling watchtower. Rebel miners were upon it, jumping into the tunnels, cracked open by the blast. Ashley followed them, her red suit not an issue with the miners. The rebels even handed her a weapon. As the battle raged, Ashley spotted mining engineers rigging the place with explosives. With curiosity pumping through her veins and the words of the dead scientist haunting her brain, Ashley pressed on.

She found the major mining shaft and descended using the rack and pinion elevator. The icy rock grumbled as bombs exploded above. The elevator suddenly stopped violently, then went into freefall. The cage-lights winked out. Terror and regret forced their way into her heart.

She shut her eyes waiting for impact and death.

When she felt gravity gently tugging in different directions, she opened them. Blue light dazzled her retinas. An infinite lattice confronted her, going off in multiple directions, each with its own gravity field. Ashley walked, on a chalky, silvery-white solid metal floor. One chamber led to another, in every direction.

She ran.

Endlessly.

Ashley saw glimpses of an inverted horizon between vectors; a chromium city. She stepped over mineralized slender humanoids on the ground; hundreds, thousands, lying stiff in awkward positions, like erbium mummies. Suddenly, a crimson light caught her attention. She stopped and entered a vector bathed in red. Two figures stood around a glowing cube suspended in the air.

“Behold the Tesseract,” said the onyx-skinned Kucobani.

“I remember now,” said the Cargoboto, it’s appendages modified with laserdrills.

“Care to help me kill this thing?” asked Mr Alien.

“What is it, exactly?” asked Ashley.

“I am their god,” said the cargoboto, “The primitive Kucobani discovered my essence in nascent times. In my slumber they worshipped. Now, after forty galactic years, I reawaken, ready to finish this war. We sacrificed everything, now it ends.”

“Never,” Mr Alien raised its weapon and opened fire at the hulking machine.

Ashley, recalling the dreadful words of the scientist, aimed, and shot at the cargoboto’s head, blowing it apart.

Mr Alien stepped forward and grabbed the Tesseract. It twisted the cube, morphing it into a pyramid. The device flashed, and the lattice world trembled, going from bright turquoise to darkest red.

Ashley reiterated the words, “End of time. End of space. End of everything.”

The Tesseract collapsed.

The excavation site submerged.

The salt moon imploded.

Space-time distorted.

The universe ignited.

The Sargasso Void

To his chagrin, I volunteered straight away.

Emmetrius wanted nothing else but to lay low and wait this out. Stranded fifty megaparsecs away from civilisation, I couldn’t understand his logic. I guess he didn’t trust me one bit, believing I would make some pointless attempt to escape his custody.

“It’s your fault,” I told him. “You’re the one who wanted to take a shortcut through the Sargasso Void knowing they had a 35 per cent failure rate.”

Travelling through intergalactic voids was a faster way of getting somewhere, especially when going between superclusters. But if something interfered with your galaxy-ship, such as a strong gravity wave, and forced it to gain inertia, then you’re stuck out there without a catapult. That’s why most galactic shipping traverse waypoints along populated cosmic filaments. Sure, it took a few hundred years to get from the Tarentum Gates to the Andromedean String, stopping and starting at a hundred or so catapult stations, but for some immortals, this felt like a tedious endeavour. Emmetrius was not a patient enforcer, nor did he enjoy intergalactic travel. To him, all civilised systems were the same. Made no sense for an enforcer whose business was to go out to these remote regions of the cosmos and bring rebels like me to justice.

“Now we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in some sterile galaxy with nothing but pirates and castaways for companionship.” I stuck it to him, mostly to beguile him into a false sense of security.

The dim brown dwarf, known as The Rogue, orbited a lonely, unnamed void galaxy. When we arrived, we joined the hundreds of stranded galaxy-ships mingling amongst the asteroids which ringed the failed star. Many of these were lifeless hulks. Others were turned into junkyards and industrial stations. The vessels that were still in good shape were clustered in low orbit around The Rogue. These castaways were locked in a ten-thousand-year war with pirates who’ve settled the tubular galaxy below. These pirates poached anything that ended up stranded in the Sargasso Void. They were busy building their own civilisation, whilst the castaways were busy building a catapult. No one in the known cosmos knew of this place and these pirates wanted to keep it that way.

“You seriously think you can take on these pirates?” he grumbled. “Salvaging that sub-cruiser won’t be easy.”

“Why do you think you’re taking me back?” I asked him.

“To be punished. You are going to be imprisoned for a long, long time. Until the end of the universe.”

“I singlehandedly conquered the entire Santerxis Galaxy, that’s nine hundred outposts. I am not being dragged back to be punished. I’m being forced back to do this again on some other far-flung outpost. I am older than you think. You have not been completely informed about my skillset.”

“Why help them if you don’t want to go back? Besides, there’s no way they can build a catapult, not with this level of technologic capability? Not in another ten thousand years.”

“I understand that.”

Emmetrius looked at me, aghast at my audacity. “You scheming miscreant.”

Entry into Striking13.com’s flash fiction contest. “Theme is, journeys”

first publiched on tablo.io.

Permian Spring

Apparently, they aren’t even reptiles.

With skin covered in scutes, boasting a vertebral sail and powerful jaws, this thing looks like a fat, bear-sized lizard, but Russell Hansard seems to think the wildlife around here predates the dinosaurs by fifty million years. Out of the two thousand surviving passengers on board the Cruise Ship Eudora, Mr Hansard is the only one who claims to be schooled in palaeobiology.

Too bad he isn’t here to see this monster. Somehow it managed to get into the ship and feast on a couple lodging in one of the balcony cabins.

“It’s the biggest one yet,” I gasp, having abandoned living in fear; embracing this impossible, marvellous world.

“What the hell is that thing?” Guillermo Michalik, a bartender, never let go of his fear.

“Corner it,” yells Kelly Slade, clutching her makeshift spear. The ex-manager leads our brigand of volunteers up to the next level.

I move closer to Guillermo. “Russell called them pelycosaurs.”

Killing the beast proves difficult. Like always, the forty-five degree incline of the decks makes hunting it difficult. The Eudora sat tilted on her starboard, sunk deep into a sand dune. The desert around her stretched out forever, as far as the eye could see. A primordial sun beat down onto the white hull, heating it up, pushing the nuclear-powered climate system to its limits.

Both factions work together. The Upper Deck Bloc — comprising mainly of crew and workers, and the Lower Deck Coalition — mostly tourists who got more than they bargained for. With pikes fashioned out of mop handles, the two brigands force the creature to the open air terrace. Hissing, it tramples over a fitness instructor, killing him, and launches itself through the plate glass fence, splashing down into the algae and dragonfly infested pool.

The decrepit state of the swimming pool inflames the despair I’ve been suppressing for the last thirty-eight days. One minute I’m floating on sapphire waters, sipping a Raspberry Mojito, next minute… madness.

Cronostorm.

That’s what I heard the captain, Lorenzo Bannerman, refer to it as. To most of us, it felted like the mother of all hurricanes. The ferocity of the wind, the violence of the sea, the towering bolts of lightning, left us all in a state of shock and panic.

It all began with a star exploding, turning night into day. Then the storm hit us, followed by a maddening descent into an oceanic hell. An hour in, the Eudora struck something hard, jolting everybody aboard. I broke my nose and fainted. When I awoke, the world was upside down or at least slanted at an insane angle. Sliding down to the promenade I climbed up a davit and looked out at the world. I discovered a vast red desert stretching out into the grey/blue sky. The air that was hot and foul. I knew right then this was not the Earth I knew. On the very first day, before the slaughter and factional struggles, Captain Lorenzo assumed command. He explained to all of us what he thought the flash of light up in space was.

The SinoPac Orbitor.

It made sense. The three supranationals were engaged in an arms race. This rivalry had been pushing science to its limits for decades. When news broke out that the time-barrier had been breached, the newsbots were less than impressed. Sending particles back through time seemed like a novel way to spend trillions. Few people were interested; fewer believed such a stunt were possible. When rumours of time-bombs surfaced, public hysteria waxed and waned. Humanity’s deep-rooted fear of atomics only existed because mankind had unleashed upon itself such titanic power.

With time-bombs, however…

No one understood the technology, let alone feared it. Time-tourism speculators positioned themselves to make a fortune, competing supranationals built massive Higgs-field displacers in orbit, and I took a vacation away from my scientific-data-appropriation business.

I knew enough about high-end technology to be on Captain Lorenzo’s governance team. That’s how I got to meet Hansard, Slade and Ottoman. We were charged with coming up with answers in a desperate attempt to restore order among the terrified passengers. But answers were difficult to attain, and even more difficult to explain to hundreds of families, paralysed with fear. Every day a new creature would attack the settlement, preying on us. Each night brought another horror.

Giant red cockroaches invaded. One bite and you bloat up until you die of heart failure.

Carnivorous dragonflies swarmed, attacking victims like piranhas, fluttering away with chunks of human flesh between their mandibles.

Rogue mammal-like reptiles terrorised and stalked us at night. Tusks. claws, spikes, the variety of these animals defied comprehension.

A small marshland due south is thought to be the source of this wildlife. The stranded cruise ship attracted them all, a ready supply of sustenance for all the carnivores in the area. A handful of passengers died during the cronostorm. A few hundred have been killed by these creatures. The rest perished during the infighting. A group of passengers, particularly a lawyer named Bobby Kost, didn’t like the idea of Captain Lorenzo rationing out food and supplies, so they instigated a coup. The riot lasted two days. Kost and his clique managed to overrun the lower deck storerooms, and rally most of the paying passengers behind him. But they were unable to secure the bridge or win over any key company engineers.

Standoff’s been in place ever since.

The pelycosaur relaxes in the murky pool, liking the shade and moisture. Only its spiky fin and snout and a spear remain above the waterline.

“What do we do?” I ask.

Slade looks at me, gives me a rare smile. “It looks happy, until it’s hungry again.”

Commotion from the below decks distracts us. We follow the shouting, downwards to the starboard; where white steel meets rusty sand. I can see a small crowd running out onto the dune, towards three pitiful-looking human beings.

Hansard’s Expedition.

Eighteen days ago, two teams set out to explore this strange new world. One, Kost’s team, went north to determine whether or not that dark, jagged landscape over the horizon were mountains. The other team led by Hansard, headed east, towards the never-ending lightning storm. He and the captain were convinced the cronostorm was still active. A gateway back may still be open, and possibly accessible.

Kost returned five days ago. He lost all his team but he found the mountains. Great, tall ranges, the largest he’d ever seen. The corporate lawyer had travelled the world; seen the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies, even the Alps, but never had he seen mountains this size. He also discovered a vast system of lakes. From the pictures he shared, it looked like paradise. Valleys covered in conifers and ferns.

Most likely, crawling with wild pelycosaurs.

Hansard appears beaten but his fiery eyes are alive with urgency. His two remaining colleagues are exhausted, suffering horrific skin injuries. I catch up with Captain Lorenzo, who allows me to be part of the debriefing committee. He even allows his mortal enemy, Kost, to join.

While the two are hospitalised, Hansard is eager to speak. Captain Lorenzo offers him a chilled bottle of Coke. “Russell, we can do this later.”

“We have no time,” he grumbles. He’s a changed man. Bitter and determined, a far cry from his inquisitive nature. He looks at us like he’s about to tell us all some bad news. “We came across the coastline.”

Each member of the debriefing committee reacts in two ways. They are either filled with joy or, like me, filled with despair.

“And the cronostorm?” asks Slade.

“Out beyond the sea,” answers Hansard.

Ottoman smacks his hands together. “Right. We’ve got plenty of boats. We can rig up some wheels, no problem. How far is this coast?”

“Yes,” says Captain Lorenzo. “That’s achievable. We can’t let the seashore stand in our way.”

“That…” interjects Hansard. “…is not the problem.”

The committee falls quiet. Hansard rubs his mouth and answers, “We found cities. The entire coast is one big city.”

The moment passes and we start breathing again. Slade puts her hand up. “What do you mean cities? Are we still in our time?”

“They are not human cities,” he replies. “They’re amphibian.”

“Frog people?” asks the captain.

“Walking, talking amphibian/mammal-like people.” Russell Hansard says. “Millions of them; living in shallow waters inside organic type dwellings. At night they have lights. You can see the entire shoreline dotted with them, hundreds of clusters, enclaves along a sprawling reef. We found networks of acid batteries made from some kind of sea creature.” He looks at our surprise. “Yes, that’s right. Electricity.

Normally, I desist from contributing, but I can’t help it. “So we’ve gone millions of years into the future.”

“No,” he says, his tone, uncharacteristically mean.

“Or, we’re on another planet,” says Ottoman. “I knew it. Time-space displacement over a two hundred and fifty million year period puts us in another region of the galaxy.”

“It’s the same moon,” growls Hansard.

He’s right. The moon is exactly the same, slightly larger than I remember. Even the other six wandering stars dance across the night sky the same as they always do. Only the constellations are completely unrecognisable.

“This doesn’t make any sense,’ says Captain Lorenzo.

“Yes, I know,” replies Hansard.

“How have we not found any fossil evidence?” I ask, sparking a deluge of question centred on the same theme.

“Subduction!” Bobby Kost’s voice booms over the manic chatter. He looks at Hansard for confirmation. “Just because some palaeontologist hasn’t found a specimen doesn’t mean it never existed. Tectonic plate activity probably forced that coastline into the Earth’s mantle.”

“Did you find your mountains?” asks Hansard.

Kost grins, “They are magnificent. Bigger than anything you’ve ever seen.”

A fatigued Hansard nods. “The Central Pangean Mountains. We are either in Spain or Morocco. Over those mountains is North America.” His voice trails off, leaving the committee to ponder this piece of scientific trivia.

I just had to break the silence. “They use acid for energy?”

Hansard’s grim demeanour returns. “And weapons. That’s what happened to Gustav and Branden. They were shot at with some kind of acid-thrower. They’re militant. They fight each other. The first day we stumbled upon a war between two city clusters.” His voice grows even grimmer. “They know we exist. Been hunting us all the way here.”

The committee erupts into turmoil.

“Why did you come here?”

“We should leave right now.”

“We’re defenceless.”

“We are screwed.”

Only Captain Lorenzo remains calm and silent. He says to Hansard, “What do we do?”

Hansard glares at him. “You’ve got fuel on this ship?”

“We are not using nuclear weapons. It’s not practical.”

“No, I’m talking about the backup generators. The diesel.”

“We have about a thousand tonnes.”

Hansard turns to the technician. “Bill, we need to arm our brigands with as many Molotov Cocktails as possible within the next hour.”

Bill Ottoman looks at the captain. Lorenzo nods. “Everyone knows what to do. Russell, how many are coming?”

“Many.”

I rush with the others up towards the ship’s port. Kost is already there looking out into the horizon with a pair of binoculars. He hands them to me. I see a dust storm. I see a horde of bipods riding heavyset four-legged animals with hippopotamus-shaped heads.

“You should come with us,” Kost tells me. “The Upper Deck Bloc will be able to fight off these things for a few days. We could get to the mountains. It’s spring now. By summer, this place will become unliveable. We stand a good chance up at the lakes.”

I smell diesel fumes. I look down at the teams filling up Coke bottles and see the irony. The fossil fuel is probably made from the buried remains of this amphibian civilisation.

“No,” I tell him. I look up at the eastern sky, towards the cronostorm raging out beyond the horizon. “I really want to go home.”