The featureless salt desert spread out to infinity. The horizon; is nothing but a 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?”
“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,” announced 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.”
“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 the 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.”
“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’s 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, softskin?”
“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 gently push 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.
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 and 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.
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, its 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, and 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 began to submerge.
The salt moon imploded.
The universe ignited.