This short story was originally published on richardholliday.co.uk on October 27th 2013.
by Richard Holliday
The sight of the rocket terminal grew to dominate Jessie’s eyes as the transit car erred ever closer. With a deep breath, partly of excitement and partly of trepidation, the young girl prepared herself for blastoff. It wouldn’t be long.
Clouds of dust, refracted by the heat of the atmosphere, billowed over the curved translucent resin that formed the roof of the transit car. It roared ceaselessly across the dry, baking Venusian landscape leaving the Colony City long-disappeared and the spaceport and shuttle growing like a sole metallic tree on the horizon.
Silence filled the transit car as the occupants, three specially-selected tourists and their entourage swept into the spaceport. One of them, an older man, turned around in his seat to look at Jessie.
“Looking forward to it still?”
Jessie was daydreaming, her attention lost on the scorched dirt outside. It took a second for her father’s voice to register and her body to turn back. “Oh? Oh yeah. I can’t wait.”
Jessie’s father smiled. “You’re in for quite a treat up there.”
Indeed, she and her friends were, as they’d been specially nominated to tour the brand new Medusa Platform space-station that had been constructed near the planet, and billed as a ‘world off-world’. Nothing more had been said, and even though Jessie’s father worked for the corporation that had built the station, Medusa Corp, she’d been told nothing except to prepare for quite a surprise.
Either her father was the God of Marketing or maybe the claims, that the very fabric of space-time had been finally bent to Mankind’s whims, were true. As with her simultaneous excitement and trepidation, Jessie’s mind remained indecisive of how it should feel. As the transit car fell into the dark shadow of the spaceport, Jessie’s mind picked a side. She’d be excited and hopeful; optimism coursing through her veins like a drug and allowing her to relax, something she thought she would never do in a spaceport.
Jessie had landed on Venus in this very spot when she was barely a child and had hated the trip. A mixture of gravity strengths, some variations never announced, made her almost perpetually sick and the solar turbulence that buffeted the rocket-shuttle like a paper plane in a breeze helped things to no amount. Space-flight still relied too much on blind luck for her liking, even two and a quarter centuries after her species first outings into the great black void, and she avoided it where possible. Venus and Colony City could be claustrophobic and depressing sometimes, but it was firm ground, the sort Jessie preferred.
With a swoop, the transit car was plunged into darkness as the colossal metal structure of the spaceport enveloped it completely. Seconds later there was a flash of bright blue light and with a sssshhhlllppp the transit car was within the spaceport’s environmental containment field. The unrelenting, harsh weather of the Venusian landscape was kept at bay at this molecular barrier, and the sense of claustrophobia inside the transit car was alleviated quite considerably by the echoey cavern of the lower spaceport. As the molecular barrier flexed around the transit car before snapping back to place with the flash of energy., the roof retracted. Instantly the cool breeze caught Jessie’s flowing brown hair and it fluttered behind the transit car like a scarf before it fell with the deceleration of the car.
“It’s been a while..” Jessie mouthed to nobody in particular as she climbed out of her transport and followed the group ad they hurried busily toward the elevator to the space lobby. Her father cleared his throat.
“Come on, Jessie. The shuttle’ll not wait for you!” he barked impatiently as his daughter reminisced about her previous time in this place. Things had changed a lot, and her mind was absorbing and comparing every nook and cranny from her last visit a decade ago. The changes, Jessie decide, were not for the better.
“Coming dad…” she mouthed, finding herself again and rushing into the elevator. Her skip was timed absolutely perfectly with the descent of the door. Knowing dad, she thought, he could make the shuttle wait. He knows people.
Jessie felt crammed into the small box. It would have been an uncomfortable trip had her friends Frantik and Barro not agreed to join Jessie on the inagural tour. Frantik, her fiery hair frizzy and voluminous, eyed the inside of the elevator impatiently. Barro was stockier and shorter and examined the floor uninterestingly. It seemed they all wanted to get the transference portion of the trip over as soon as possible.
The skylobby was situated about twenty stories up and was constructed in a great circular room that jutted from the main bulk of the terminal building on all sides, overhanging the edges of the tower both below and above. These edges were like giant cut diamonds; formed of perfect windows that gave an impressive vista of the planet surface. Jessie casually looked around at mile after mile of dust.
Living in dust for a decade softens one’s awesome reaction at the sight of it from this perspective. She huffed to her friends with that fact before walking through the busy space lobby toward the gate. Thirteen.
Stars hung in the blackness of space like infinite motes of light as the shuttle craft roared toward the Medusa Platform. A bulging plexiglass window was all that separated Jessie from the endless vacuum of the void and the cramped, claustrophobic shuttle cabin. Claustrophobia and space travel were easy bedfellows to Jessie. While there were individual seats, occupied by individual passengers, and housed in a pressurised hull, they were unlike the jet airliners of ancient history. Passengers were unable to mill around the cabin, or breathe the air freely, but were confined to pressure suits that both protected them from harsh solar radiation but also the G-forces of space travel.
Jessie felt cocooned in, and struggled to relax. This is why I hate space travel, she thought to herself, though she needed no reminder. With another dejected sigh she looked out of the window, past her distorted reflection against the darkness of the void around her. The Platform had dipped behind the great mass of Jupiter and fell into shadow. The darkness became absolute. Jessie glimpsed a light, unlike the stars that fell into backdrop around her, in the corner of her eye and it took focus just as she was about to join her friends in boredom-induced slumber.
The light came from the edges of a metal disc about the size of an asteroid, positioned far away. The light shimmered into the very essence of space around the edges of the disc, but the disc itself remained darkened and eerily mysterious. The shuttle craft approached the landing stage near the centre of the disc, past the lettering spelling out the name of the station that were picked out in outline with miniature star-like lights and as the great disc got close enough Jessie could see that where the light shimmered gently and rhythmically into space she could see what looked strangely like walkways and avenues that seemed to follow the contours of the light and faded into nothingness as they fanned out into space. There was movement, too; of fountains and billboards and people. Jessie gasped, but with a sudden bump the view was gone as the shuttle entered the landing stage with a low, grinding rumble before stopping.
Air hissed and the pressure suits were released from the grips that held Jessie and her friends firmly to the seats. Finding her feet once more, Jessie floated in the reduced gravity toward the door. Her anxiety had been replaced, as the spaceflight ended, with fresh excitement and an eagerness to explore whatever it was she’d just seen.
Jessie’s feet resonated with metallic clunks through the hull of the docked shuttle and toward the gated threshold. This led into an antechamber that the tour group was directed to wait in. A suited executive and a couple of men in hazmat suits waited by a desk. Jessie was the last one through the door from the shuttle and it snapped shut behind her.
“Glad you could finally join us, Ms. Lormitz,” the executive said nasally in Jessie’s direction, without humour. He looked through his thin spectacles right into her very being. He then turned to the rest of the group, addressing them as a whole. “Welcome to the Medusa Platform, and congratulations on being awarded places on the inaugural tour. My name is Melin Gomex, the marketing director of Medusa Corporation, and you’ll have the pleasure of my company for the duration of the tour. Don’t worry,” he laughed insincerely, “you’re in safe hands today.”
The two workers in protective suits stepped forward toward the group, the members of whom took an involuntary step back. Gomex sought to reassure them.
“Don’t be alarmed, also. We’re decontaminating guests on arrival from outside space or planetside. A sanitary station is a happy station!”
One of the techs, whose name badge read as Albo Parcus, spoke through his mask. “Step forward and through the decontamination arch. One at a time, please.”
The group followed the instruction and stepped through a narrow gap in the wall ahead that led to a door. A shimmering field of particles defied gravity almost and filled the narrow passageway. As each guest walked through, edges of the energy field lapped around their extremities, brightening the passageway. Jessie looked into the constricted opening, past the decontamination field and into a wide opening on the other side of the door. Taking a breath, for she hated small, confined space, she jumped through the field and fell onto the floor on the other side.
“We did say to step through the decontamination field, Miss,” Parcus dryly said, watching as Jessie picked herself up and looked about the space she was inside now.
“Oh wow,” Jessie sighed with awe. “Wow indeed.”
A grand fountain, over three stories high dominated the centre of the space Jessie found herself in. It was a total contrast to the cramped shuttle and claustrophobic decontamination room; a pillar of crystal that shimmered with an abundance of airy, soothing light. The disc the shuttle had passed on its way in was merely the profile of a great spherical construct of which the fountain was at the very heart of. Looking up, Jessie saw the total darkness of outer space through a translucent portion of the sphere wall that formed a perfect transparent dome above the fountain. Around and underneath were archways that led off into what looked, at first glance, to be endless colonnades.
Suddenly, Jessie looked behind her, expecting to see the decontamination arch but instead stared at a faint projection of the other side of the doorway. It shimmered beautifully in the cool, softly-blowing air of the Central chamber.
“Wh… where’s the room we were just in?!” Jessie exclaimed, worriedly. The ‘projection’, as she approached it, fizzled with energy but was unmistakably the portal to the decontamination room.
“Just there, you can see it,” Gomex calmly stated. “Why?”
“I… just walked through the door. There should be a room here!” Jessie yelped, gesticulating at the empty space. She was right; where the decontamination room would ‘logically’ be in a standard construction was merely another endless gallery.
The Medusa Platform was anything but a standard construction.
“Ah,” Gomex laughed falsely again. This was already irritating Jessie. “A slight elaboration.” He turned to the group. “May I introduce you to the grand new technology of dimensional bending, and your first experience of it.”
Jessie, Frantik and Barrow followed the group gathering around the shimmering portal, gazing through the translucent projection of the decontamination room, some examining the ‘rear’ of the portal, only to discover that, from all angles, the image resembled a straight-facing rectangular doorway. Some put an arm warily through the rippling energy which fizzled and dissipated harmlessly at their sleeves. They felt the cool, circulated air of the decontamination room alright. It really was a Gateway from one room to another; bridging the gap through solid walls from one unconnected room to another next door and linking a squat chamber at the base of the station, in among the plant and processing areas, with the grand reception area a considerable distance upstairs.
It was this particular spatial trick that made the Medusa Platform so special, and now Jessie realised that the ghostly visions stretching out into space really were galleries and palladiums built into the very substance of space itself.
“How does this all work?” Jessie asked curiously. Gomex squirmed a little.
“You’d have to bring the principles of the workings up with engineering. However, I do know that we’ve been able to craft pieces of space, like pocket dimensions, and link them with our own, and with each other. It’s really exciting stuff.”
The other tour guests murmured in assent, but Jessie was still not satisfied.
“Is it safe, though?” Jessie stammered, noticing a hardening of Gomex’s eyes at the use of the term safe. “I feel a bit compelled to ask, that’s all.
A moment passed, and the faux smile warped across the marketing man’s face once more. “Of course, you’re all perfectly safe.”
The words rang a little hollow for Jessie’s mind, but there wasn’t any reason to doubt them. Putting that feeling to one side, the tour began in earnest. Following the group, Jessie went through the first dimensional archway, a Gateway, that hugged the spherical side of the Platform and took a breath.
Where any normal human would’ve expected a pressure hull followed by the very emptiness of deep space was an instead almost infinite field of clothing rails and merchandise stands stretching for what looked like miles in all directions. The floor was a synthetic parquet that stretched around until it became a brown blur on a horizon far away while the roof faded out to reflect the stars. Between the floors and roofs was a very feint white streak of what looked like stacco polycarbide walls.
“This place is impossible…” Barro sighed. Gomex laughed. “You’ve only just seen the entree. Here, all of you should put on one of these…”
From a storage bin near the quietly humming Gateway Gomex handed out strange black devices formed like chunky wristwatches that lacked a clock face but pulsed with a seeming random, frenetic array of coloured pinpricks. Jessie cautiously strapped the device handed to her to her wrist. It was warm and there was a sensation of rapid, chaotic movement inside. It was uncomfortable.
“These,” Gomez began over-enthusiastically, “are your personal transit devices. Look around you and you’ll see gateways to other parts of the Platform. With a touch of the button, you’ll be able to walk wherever you want to go.”
“H.. How does it know that?” Frantik squeaked. “There’s only one button!”
“Your finger forms a neural interface. As I said, I’m no engineer but it works. Go on, give it a try!”
Jessie’s friends did so, cautiously pawing their PTDs with a clawed finger. Streaky light traces followed each fingertip over the glossy black surface. Gomez watched, clicked a finger and a large Gateway sprang from the floor as if by magic.
“As I said,” Gomex enthused again with a subtle hint of coercion. “Give it a try!”
Barro was the first to step through the energy field. It hissed and fizzled as his form made the step over the threshold. Trying to look through the field, Jessie could see no indication as to where her friend was. A few seconds later, Frantik made the leap and was similarly gone. Left alone with Gomex in the monumental clothing department, Jessie awkwardly avoided eye contact. He soon picked this up.
“Nowhere you want to go?”
“I just want to relax…” Jessie sighed. Gomex leapt into the air with exuberance.
“Draw a line and jump through! You’ll get what you want that way!”
“Fine,” Jessie sighed, steeling herself. Tentatively her finger drew a pattern on the face of the PTD and the Gateway opened. She closed her eyes once more as her feet took her forward. “Want to relax…” she whispered.
A buzzing of energy enveloped her as her body made the move into the cloud of energy. There was a strobing flash of bright lights and a sudden breeze whipped her hair wildly. Finally Jessie opened her eyes and took stock.
She found herself in an ocean of sofas. “Very relaxing!” she exclaimed, but her words echoed all around with no-one to hear them. While there was an almost infinitesimal number of sofas, seats, plushy chairs, loveseats and benches surrounding her position by the Gateway the place felt very empty and very hollow. Jessie was the only person in this place, and it felt as if she was the only person in the universe. Thinking back to the concept of pocket dimensions linked together, Jessie realised that she really was the only living inhabitant of this world within a world.
Who’d put all these sofas here? Jessie wondered. How had all this stuff been magiced into this pocket dimension? There was so many questions, many on universal scale, and no answers. It infuriated Jessie immensely.
Figuring now was as good a time as any for something to eat, Jessie traced out another pattern on the PTD. “I’m hungry,” she thought aloud, and stepped through the Gateway that appeared much more willingly a second time, and found her destination – the food court – to be much more relaxing than her previous one had been.
She laughed. “That’s better.” To her added relief, her friends Barro and Frantik were there as well, sitting at a nearby table. Jessie sidled up. They were already eating.
“Grab some food, Jethro,” Barro smiled, referring to Jessie’s pet name. “Looks like you need it!”
Jessie laughed, grabbed a tray and moved along to the automated food dispenser, selected a tasty-looking meal and received something that only resembled the picture slightly. Taking her food over to her friend’s table, she couldn’t help but notice a sea of identical tables, all empty.
“This place creeps me out a bit,” Jessie murmured.
Frantik coughed. “You’re right. It’s empty, I get that… but it lacks… I dunno…” she found herself unable to complete her statement. “It just lacks something.”
“It lacks soul, that’s what,” Barro finished defiantly. Frantik and Jessie nodded in assent as they instictively turned their heads precisely, like insects, to examine every facet of the quiet room. All three quickly finished their food and got up from the table, which looked messy but now strangely unique amongst an ocean of uniformity.
“I think it’s time to leave…” Jessie suggested, doodling the pattern on to her PTD. “Exit please.”
Simultaneously three Gateways opened, all destined for the same place. Without a shrug, Jessie, Barro and Frantik walked through and emerged back in the Central chamber. No-one else was there.
“Alright, this is too creepy. Where is everyone?” Frantik huffed.
A fourth Gateway opened up behind the trio with an unexpected crack of energy This took them by surprise. A loud, boisterous voice hurtled down three sets of inner ears.
“Everyone is having fun! Enjoying the place! I see you had lunch!” Gomex smiled falsely. “Why, do you not know where to go from here? There’s tons you’ve yet to see!”
Jessie looked stonily down his very pupils. The look instantly deflated his sense of fake enthusiasm. “We’d like to go home.”
Gomex’s smile faltered for a split second. “Oh. Can I not interest you in the gift shop? I’m sure you’d like a memento? And can I ask, for market research, why you’d like to go home right now?”
Barro and Frantik looked awkwardly to the floor, but Jessie was less shy. “Well, I admire the tech, and all, but this place lacks… well, it’s a shopping centre. Of all the possible ways to use this technology you create a shopping center. Is that really as far as you can go with it?”
“Well…” an obviously-flustered Gomex stuttered, “it’s only a first application of the…”
Before Gomex could finish, a great flash enveloped the Platform in a blinding light which filled the windows and domed roof. The occupants instantly fell to the floor, cowering behind arms in a bid to protect their vision as the Platform shook violently. After a few seconds the shaking ceased and the light died back down to normal levels. Gomex helped the three young guests to their feet.
“I can assure you… that was not planned! I’m sorry, er, where were we?”
Barro snorted. “About to leave, and it’d seem to be a timely exit, too.”
Weakly, Gomex acknowledged that this was a wise move. Dusting off his shirt, he let his shoulders drop in resignation. “Fine, alright, we’ll await the next shuttle.”
Waiting for said shuttle was proving an intense process. Scheduled shuttles serviced the unopened Medusa Platform four times a day, every six hours. When Jessie, Barro, Frantik and Gomex had entered the Platform Centre they’d still fourty-five minutes to wait. Bored, Jessie waited out the time on a plastic seat, counting rivets in the floor.
“Hmm…” she murmured ominously. Frantik heard this.
“What’s up Jethro?” she asked quietly as to not provoke suspicion.
The Platform shook again. “Can’t you feel those? Those… tremors?”
Frantik placed her feet firmly on the floor. The Platform was subtly but perceptibly shaking, in rhythmic waves that pulsed through the very construction. Every couple of seconds heralded a new wave of tremors, each stronger and more violent than the last. They were also closing in, and getting more and more frequent. A low wailing and booming sound emanated from every open Gateway with each pulse. The Platform began to wail, as if in dire pain.
“How long until that shuttle, again?” Barro hollered. Jessie glanced at the clock.
“I dunno about you,” Barro continued to no-one in particular, “but I don’t like a single thing about this now.”
Gomex walked over to the guests bench. “Now I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about guys. Just relax. I’ll try to get the rest of the tour group…”
He left through one of the Gateways, and Jessie’s mind was reminded of the other seventeen tour guests. Nothing had been heard of them since they’d all gone their disparate ways at the start of the tour.
Jessie was worried. Nothing seemed to be adding up, and a feeling of wrongness enveloped the waiting area with a deathly chill.
The groans and shudders were ceaseless andgrowing exponentially. Seconds passed like aeons and all Jessie, and her friends, wanted to do was to leave. This place was decidedly bad.
Six eyeballs rolled toward the shuttle clock. Seventeen minutes remaining.
Without warning, Gomex jumped through a Gateway that opened in the floor. Behind him was another figure that slumped to the floor. Unlike all the other gateways so far it wasn’t a bright petrol-blue in colour but blood-curdling red. Jessie and the others instantly jumped up to help him.
“Gotta escape…” Gomex breathed before slumping in the collective grip of the guests and the technician. It was Parcus, from before! He was still conscious, but only barely. Jessie was surprised at the severe injuries sported by their guide; his shirt was ripped in multiple places, his face lacerated and blood pock-marked across his entire body. Whatever had happened to Gomex, it’d been a brutal encounter. Parcus too looked as if he’d been in quite a fight.
“Jeez, what did this?!” Jessie breathed quickly as she and her friends placed Gomez onto the cold, steel floor. Parcus stumbled over and knelt beside them.
“Terrible things did! Almost human, I think… they came out of mid-air and attacked our team. I was the only one who could… oh God!” he wailed, recalling the horrific images in his mind of his team being torn apart. The Platform shook again, enough for dust to cloud around the joins in the structure. Parcus was, in a flash, lucid again. “You’ve gotta get out. There’s dimensional flex taking all the departments as one and sucking them all together.”
Gomex called over. “I thought the tech was totally safe, you said so yourself!”
“You saw the solar flare. It overloaded the dampeners that were keeping the departments contiguous. Now it’s all offline… it’s like the Platform is tearing itself inside out, one layer at a time. There’s not much time left!”
“What are we supposed to do?” Gomex said angrily.
“Get me to Engineering. I’ll bring the dampeners back up and stitch the department realms shut. Nothing’ll get in or out, but we must hurry before the dimensional tearing becomes too great to overcome.”
Gomex’s shoulders drooped in resignation. All the work on the Platform, all the effort on his part to promote it and be seen worthy to promote it, would be for nothing. However even he could realise the peril the situation placed the group in. The choice between sacrificing the Fiesta Platform and preventing a terminal galactic event was ultimately a no-brainer. The Medusa Platform could be rebuilt later; the galaxy, with infinitesimal different species, cultures, creeds and races could not. It would be foolhardy, at any rate, to suck the intended customer base through a black hole. “How do we get there?”
“It’s not so tough, though we’ll have to navigate the emergency passageways.”
“Can’t we use a Gateway to jump across?” Frantik asked naively. The technician grabbed the device attached to her wrist and threw it to the ground where it smashed to pieces.
“No, and don’t touch those things! They’re too dangerous now, you may end up between departments or interspersed between them. And each transit just makes the whole thing worse! It’ll be about a twenty minute walk, at best.”
“Are you really in any condition for it? You’re bleeding still,” Barro noticed astutely. He was right, and Jessie concurred. “You can’t do a twenty minute walk in that state.”
Parcus winced as he walked across the floor. “I’m going to have to do it. You can’t graduate the dampeners. It’s… not like a lever. More a series of switches that have to be activated in a set order. Christ,” he inhaled sharply with pain, “it’s the only option.”
“We’d better get going, then, I guess,” Gomex huffed. “Where’s the emergency door then?”
Parcus stumbled to a hatch against a metal wall near the curved hull of the Platform. With a laboured kick it unfolded to reveal a spiral staircase that descended into absolute darkness. The groaning metal was even louder down here. Slowly at first Jessie and the survivors edged down the stairwell in darkness until the emergency lights shone a grubby green light from above. This cast eerie shadows on the grey metal walls. Eventually the stairway levelled out into a compressed passageway that ducked around great installations encased in metal. Some of the walls were white with fatigue, and most others were dirty and covered in grime, betraying the true age of parts of the Medusa Platform. Gomex felt compelled to come clean.
“I know what you’re all thinking, so I’ll just come out with it. Medusa isn’t brand new; rather, re-purposed from military experiments. You know, thinking about all the strange goings on, it’s no wonder Medusa Corp acquired it so cheap.”
“Hmm,” Barro mused, “so we’re not tour guests, we’re guinea pigs?”
Gomex huffed. “You and me both. I thought this was my big break. The only thing I’m likely to break is my leg, now.”
A moment of silence, and stillness, enveloped the group. The platform murmured and shuddered again. Dust was dislodged and formed creepy clouds in the passageway.
“Time for moping later,” Jessie said, taking the initiative. “As a representative of the guinea pigs, I want to get out alive.”
The passage dipped under further massive machinery, with the footsteps of the survivors apparently ‘tickling’ the inside of the Platform, which whinnied and gurgled almost organically.
“Alright,”Parcus gasped as the group arrived at a closed doorway, “prepare yourselves.”
“What for,” Frantik hushed.
“We’ve gotta cross the drive floor to access the manual override. It’s a balancing act…”
“… between time and cautiousness?” Barro interrupted. Parcus raised an eyebrow incredulously and opened the door. The group gazed through and a collective sharp intake of breath occurred.
“No, literally. It’s a balancing act.” Parcus pointed at a narrow beam barely wide enough to walk on that led to an isolated control platform about ten metres away. The beam spanned a glowing orange mass that seethed with heat and smoke.
“Do we all need to get across,” Frantik squeaked. Parcus turned slowly to face her.
“Just me,” he gulped and steeled himself on his injured leg. “I’ll… well, I’ll get it done.”
He took a step toward the beam, and the platform rattled. “It’s alright, nothing bad can happen. Just a molten drive-core burning below…”
The beam was severely scorched and the heat from the drive-core below was incredible. Stepping out from the balcony, the waves of energy beat back the human form for a moment. Parcus tried again and persisted through the agony, inching across with arms extended to maintain balance. The Platform was shaking and he glanced briefly the core below. It was angry and unchained, the actual core engulfed in energy that licked up the shaft toward the opening, creating a draft of super-hot gas that stung the arms of the injured technican through his flimsy uniform. As he approached the deck on the opposite side the fabric began to blacken and smoulder. With a lurch of the platform, Parcus fell onto the deck.
The figure was motionless. On the other side of the vent, the four survivors gasped, hardly daring to breathe, and only doing so when Parcus shuffled toward the console. He pulled himself up at obvious great pain and fell onto the manual controls. His burned hands crept up from beside his torso and felt the control levers, pulling some, depressing buttons and moving dials. Time seemed to elapse so slowly that his very movements seemed laboured and pained, though this was more on account of the burns suffered. With a final great exultation of effort – for he’d been grunting in pain throughout – Parcus pulled the final lever and green lights shone across, beating through the orange haze of the intense heat. The Platform was felt to almost invert before coming to rest, the reactor core below tempered and calm now the gravity dampeners had taken hold. Curiosity beget the survivors who peered down the shaft toward the purring drive core. A cool, calm blue glow took the place of the roaring heat and bounced off the scorched shaft.
“Seems better to me…” Barro laughed.
“He’s still gotta get back,” Frantik said cautiously, watching the burned technical on the other side of the expanse struggle to face the walk back. His hands were badly scarred by heat and getting a standing position was proving difficult. Parcus managed to struggle back to the edge and began the painful tiptoe across. A minute or two passed and the technician, sweating profusely from effort, was about a third of the way across.
“You can do it!”
“Yeah,” Parcus replied through gritted teeth, “I’m doing it. Yeah, it.”
Without any warning, the Platform shook and fire erupted from the core below. Parcus stopped dead, his face paralysed with fear as the beam squealed. Turning, he saw levers on the command console had lifted, and the dampeners had been taken offline. “Shit!” he cried with frustration. “Not today! No, no, not today!”
The rest of the survivors froze on the other side of the gaping void as the whole Platform shuddered more violently than ever before. Licks of gold fire roared up the shaft and past the lone girder. It sagged and bowed; it was clearly melting. A single bead of sweat dripped from Parcus’ face and evaporated into steam. A look of resignation and knowing then befell the scorched face.
“What do we do? What do we do?!” shrieked Gomex. “Turn the thing back off!”
“I can’t…” Parcus sighed, “I can’t turn it back on without holding down the switch.”
Suddenly silence took hold. Nobody dared to breathe, and the only sound was that which came about from the hissing core below. Jessie took a step forward toward the beam, but did not step onto it.
“I’ll do it,” she said bluntly. Barro and Frantik gasped, but Parcus merely shook his head.
“No, kid. I’m no good to you anyway. I’d just slow you all down.”
“Are you sure?” Jessie begged. “Is there not some other way?”
A subtle shaking of his head was very telling. “It’s how it’s gotta be. It’s been a good life, on the whole.”
“You don’t have to do this just for us. It’s… ” Jessie stuttered, not knowing what to say to a man about to condemn himself to a fiery death, “it’s very noble of you.”
Parcus snorted with an unwilling laugh. “Huh. Well, I’ve a daughter, about your age, and if I die so she isn’t sucked into a galactic plughole than I suppose that’s how it has to be.”
“I guess you’re right,” Jessie muttered. Parcus stepped from the bending girder and heaved his way to the console.
“Look, get to the escape pods while there’s still time. I’d be happier in doom knowing at least a few people got away from this shithole.”
Jessie’s eyes glistened but the moisture soon evaporated in the relentless head. Barro, Frantik and Gomex filed back into the tunnel, leaving Jessie alone for a second as she tore herself away from the heroic technician. Finally with a nod she left into the cool blackness of the passage. As blackness enveloped her, there was an almighty hiss and a wheeze, and a man exulting in death, making the ultimate sacrifice.
The Platform stopped shaking and silence truly descended. In an open area she took refuge with the rest of the survivors.
“I really, really think it’s time we got off this Platform,” Jessie said, but her voices echoed through a seemingly-endless hallway. She looked around but her vision appeared blurry, and there was no sign of her friends. The grey wall’s features melded into a endless smear of metal that seemed like it was spinning. Flashes of blue light – Gateways opening – glared through the haze of another dimension as they popped suddenly into existence. Feeling almost drunk, Jessie took a step forward. Her feet felt as if they weighed a thousand tons and she was wading through tar. One of the Gateways floated closer and enveloped Jessie, and she blinked to find her vision mysteriously impeccable.
Something was wrong, she felt, and looked around. A department had filled the space around her, the floor filled with merchandise and the roof space an endless maze of vents and ducts. It felt unfinished and unready, but here she was.
“Barro! Frantik!” she called, getting desperate. “Mr. Gomex, are you here?!”
Nothing came in response. Jessie looked round for any signs of life. Nothing; just racks and shelves that went in all directions perpetually, with lights buzzing and vents gurgling. She walked for what seemed like hours but was merely minutes. Time itself seemed vacant in this place.
A Gateway was fused to a shelf in front of her, and this anomaly perturbed and intrigued the youngster. The energy gate was fuzzy and it made her hair stand up.
“Strange…” she murmured to herself, and turned to walk away; however, the Gateway had other ideas and as soon as her feet moved away gravity ensnared the girl and flung her, without warning, directly for the energy field. Jessie screamed but landed on the floor on the other side of the Gateway in another area of the same unfinished department.
“The hell?!” she called, dusting herself off. In quick succession, multiple Gateways opened an indeterminate distance from her position and an ominous, inhuman snarling sound filled the space around Jessie.
Instinctively she knew better than to wait and ran in any direction that seemed to be away.
Rails and shelves seemed to disintegrate into their constituent molecules on her very touch as Jessie ran past them, and her vision began to blur into smears once again. An agonising pounding sensation took over her conscious mind and her head felt as if it were trapped in a tightening vice.
Jessie screamed and fell to her knees with pain. Shadows loomed over her, trapping her against a rocky escarpment that had pierced the carpeted floor. Her vision regained lucidity in strobing fits. The Shadows were humanoid but the colour drained from the faces that seemed somewhat familiar. With each beat the faces became more distinct as they crowded around Jessie and dominated her view. Emaciated flesh hung from powdery bone onto the floor in pools that boiled on contact. The ringing in her ears was supplemented by ghastly groans and whinnies. These were not just any humans, they were the rest of the tour group! Their consciousnesses had been extinguished when the departments they were visiting ripped open on the dimensional level and their bodies, battered and charred, assumed a sort-of autopilot.
Bony fingers pressed into Jessie’s skin. The cold touch was palpable. These savages wanted flesh to replace their withered own, and a hand clasping at her skull implied they wanted more than that; the bodies were seeking a new brain to make a futile attempt at restarting life with.
“No! I won’t let you take me to Hell with you!” Jessie screamed vigorously, regaining in a flash the lucidity of her own mind and the ability to move her limbs. Defiantly she kicked out at the nearest Shadow and its ribcage collapsed like balsa wood, sending the creature itself (for it was no longer human) flying to the floor. The Shadow crumpled into a motionless heap. The others gathered around went to compensate for their fallen comrade and Jessie found it was her adrenalin that kept her fighting to get away from the scrum that had nearly enveloped her.
With a hiss, the remaining Shadows bolted back toward Jessie. Cold, black eyes were filled with death, and Jessie knew they would be less kind if she were to be caught again. There would be less mercy and curiosity; more death. Jessie had no plans on dying on that day but those plans looked with every passing millisecond to be in increasing jeopardy.
The department around her began to warp and distort again. Jessie’s feet began to feel heavy and her arms as if cast from lead. She knew that if she stopped, she was as good as dead.
Closely a Gateway opened almost on command, the concentric blue energy rings standing out against the backdrop of melting walls and distorting floors. Jessie saw it burst into being and immediately ran for it, each step turning into agony, and jumped. As she leapt her eyes bolted shut and a frigid breeze whipped through her hair.
“Nooooo!” she laboured, not knowing what else to cry as the wind ripped at her clothing and blew dust into her face. Was this the end for her? Was it reality itself ripping apart? She felt buffeted in an unknown space, nausea rising in her belly but not daring to creep up her oesophagus.
Abruptly the wind ceased. Blood flowed to Jessie’s skin and the warmth of life began to flow again. Jessie’s eyes remained cemented shut. She didn’t want to see if she was still alive, or where she was, if anywhere at all.
“Jessie” Jessie!” a voice called. It seemed familiar. The ringing in Jessie’s ears began to subside. “Jethro, wake up already!”
“I dunno,” another voice called, “maybe it’s too late?”
“There’s not time to think like that!” the first voice barked. Jessie recognised it at last, the pounding in her head disappearing in a flash of consciousness.
“Too late for what, Frantik?” Jessie coughed, sitting up in a fit of energy. Her friends looks of concern immediately evaporated at Jessie’s apparent revival.
Barro slid over. “The cavalry’s almost here!”
There was no time to question any more. Jessie was pulled to her feet and the three guests and Mr. Gomex ran. Jessie looked over her shoulder to see the Gateway she had just been flung from was not blue and tranquil; it was angry and spat shards of red energy into the rapidly distorting space around it.
The escape pod bay soon enveloped the group. There was a calming breeze of cool air that contrasted with the hot, acrid humidity of the rest of the Platform. The calmness was artificial and temporary, however; through a window the looming form of a Navy Cruiser appeared, followed by another two. Between them was the Service Ship and salvation.
“At last!” Jessie sighed with relief, though this was not shared by the others.
“Not yet,” Gomex gasped. “You missed the announcement. All this,” he gestured to the structure itself, “has to be destroyed.”
“What?!” Jessie said incredulously. “Why did nobody say…”
“There isn’t time!” Gomex coughed irritably. “We’ve about two minutes before the end.”
Frantik and Barro had been opening one of the circular hatches in the exterior wall that led to an escape pod while Gomex explained the situation to a bewildered Jessie. With a hiss of pneumatics the door creaked open and the empty escape pod beckoned. “Get in, both of you!”
Jessie followed her friends and took a seat, with Gomex coming in last. The door to the pod closed but refused to seal, preventing launch.
“One minute until Platform destruction!” came an announcement from the main Cruiser, seemingly tapping into the Medusa Platform’s PA system.
“Is there anything on this station that actually works?!” Barro exulted angrily. “Environmental seal isn’t there.”
Jessie rolled her eyes, almost knowing what was to come. “Lemme guess, the manual control’s on the other side of the door.”
Barro’s subtle nod suggested she was indeed correct in deducing another example of abysmal design.
“I’ll go,” Gomex said shortly. “There’s… there’s no time to discuss it. Fiesta Corp got you all into this horrible mess, and as the sole living employee of Fiesta Corp on this station…”
“That’s kind,” Jessie smiled weakly. “I know none of this was your doing. We’ve all been left to rot here by the highers-up.”
Gomex had already gotten up from his seat and re-opened the door. In the shadow of the threshold he smiled wryly. “Corporate manslaughter, and that’s just the start.”
Jessie snorted in agreement and nodded. The door closed and rapidly the escape pod was flung by chemical propellants far from the Platform.
Almost simultaneously, the lead cruiser opened fire. Twinkles of light erupted from it’s hull and spiralled into the very heart of the Medusa Platform. There was a heavy explosion that lit up all of space as the metal conduits and structural members folded about the dimensional singularity right at the very heart of the Platform. The reactor exploded in a fiery ball and in an instant there was nothing left. All of the rubble and debris was sucked through the singularity in a booming wave of energy, and the singularity sealed itself neatly behind it.
As disasters went, this near-one had impeccable manners.
Beaten, bruised but most of all alive and well, the escape pod fluttered aimlessly through clean space, until the Support Ship picked it up. Medical teams rushed to the aid of the three survivors. Hundreds were dead, and their remains ceased to be.
All Jessie could want now, as medics fussed about her and treated her injuries, was to be at home. Asleep.
Across the galactic horizon the Sun rose from behind Jupiter’s majestic mass and filtered through the Support Ship’s windows. Jessie had thought for a moment she’d never see this again: it was a new dawn.
© Richard Holliday, 2013