What We Leave Behind

Submitted into Contest #196 in response to: Write a story involving a portal into a parallel universe.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Drama Adventure

Another planet is dying before my eyes, and I feel nothing.

The crust breaks open and peels away, revealing flashes of its fiery flesh. It glows like embers in a dying fire, stirred up by a breeze – only to be snuffed out by the thick clouds of the Swarm.

The higher we ascend, the more of it is revealed. The Swarm sits attached to Wrenix Four like a cancer; eating, converting, proliferating. A slow, billowing mass, like a mad sculptor’s creation, its tendrils wrapped around its prey like a titanic amoeba, gleaming a silver white in the sun’s light.

The sun itself would follow soon. And then the rest of the galaxy, before the Swarm would move on to the next.

The glass feels cold against my fingertips. The ship stops vibrating as it leaves the atmosphere. It isn’t the first loss of a world that I witness first hand. We salvaged this cargo hauler from an abandoned world a couple weeks back, shortly before it was consumed.

They say witnessing the purging of a world is to witness the inevitability of the Swarm, and to understand that, one of these days, you will be converted too. They say it is enough for a sound mind to go mad.

But I feel nothing.

‘Sad thoughts again?’ Simon asks. I hear his boots on the metal. The sound makes me aware of the silence. Even the screams of the planet dying before me are muffled by empty space.

In the window’s reflection I see his lanky shape, the bulky leather jacket and ammo belt wrapped around his chest. The big glasses and hollow cheeks are the only indicator that he was a scientist at some point.

‘You’ll survive,’ he continues, smiling gently. ‘I mean, George wanted you to survive.’

I close my eyes. A month ago, George locked me into a capsule and sent me on my way to safety, while he led the Swarm away in a different craft. I screamed myself sore, hoping the windows would break under my fists and empty space would take me into its cold embrace.

A sacrifice is the only way to escape the voracious horror. They’re fast, and they sniff out matter from light years away. All you can do is give up something to buy time. It is what makes the Swarm such a cruel enemy. Even if it doesn’t get you, you still wither away, slowly breaking into pieces and getting consumed bit by bit until there’s nothing left of you. Instead of my face I see a shadow in the window’s reflection, my short black hair crinkly and disheveled. I haven’t eaten in days, yet I’m not hungry. Simon is starving, but I am a ghost.

‘Trust me, Millie. You’ll be happy once you’re there,’ he says. ‘Pretty thing like you.’ Simon is trying to be nice, but his upbeat demeanor achieves nothing but to annoy me. His daughter died half a year back, his husband just three weeks ago. Yet he talks like he hasn’t lost pieces of himself. Like he is still whole.

He hovers about awkwardly until the ship computer’s artificial voice saves him. ‘Fifteen minutes until Component B52X-Midnight is ready. A medical check-up is required before the jump. Please stand by.’

‘Great,’ he says. ‘New Universe, here we come.’

He waits for me to turn and join him, but my eyes remain fixed on the apocalypse before me.

George is a part of the Swarm now. His matter and thoughts were consumed and converted – but he is still there, in some way. Maybe the creature he has become is even down there right now?

I used to hate the Swarm with all my heart, but the idea that George could be so close is strangely comforting.

Simon puts a hand on my shoulder and I let him move me away from the window and toward the massive hall of the cargo ship. White lights illuminate the circular arc of the portal machine. Not half an hour ago we found it on Wrenix Four’s abandoned surface and frantically hauled it onboard. Now it is connected to the ship’s artificial intelligence via a tangle of cables and consoles.

Four medical booths stand on the grey floor, and the ship’s computer opens two of them.

‘Let’s hope that whoever built this thing knew what they were doing,’ Simon says, all chipper.

I don’t reply.

We each enter a booth. The doors close, and a low hum reverberates all around me. A display shows a bar indicating the progress of the check-up; it moves slowly, but inevitably. Soon I’ll be travelling to a different universe, to an industrial civilization and a city called London, where everything will be fine and peaceful.

And George won’t be there.

‘How did you meet?’ he asks. His voice is dulled by the walls of the booths and the hum of machinery.

I think about ignoring him, but sometimes memories just have a mind of their own. I smile as I think back. ‘Wardnep station. We eyed each other across the café and he bought me a Saturn Swirl.’

‘Big fan myself.’

‘Not me.’ A soft chuckle escapes me. ‘I made him drink it. Told him to leave. I’d just been dumped.’

‘But he didn’t leave?’

I smile. Then I want to list all the reasons for why he turned out to be such a great human being, but the more I think about him, the more it feels like a knife is being twisted into my heart.

‘Any kids?’ he asks.

‘We tried,’ I manage after a while. ‘But it never happened. Good thing, considering.’

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Once we’re there, we’ll drink to our husbands.’

‘Don’t you miss him?’ I ask angrily.

‘Sure I do. I miss him every day. And our daughter, too.’ His chuckle is barely audible. ‘Smile of a child just melts your heart, you know? Nothing like it in the whole wide universe.’

There is one of these quiet moments in which I get the sense that he might be grieving after all.

‘I’d trade places with her any day,’ he says, and I hear him exhale a big sigh. ‘But that’s not how it works. I’m here. I miss them, and I reckon that I’ll be missing them for a very long time.’

‘Why are you so eager to move on?’

‘Oh, I’m not,’ he says, chuckling softly. ‘I just try to make sense of it. Our husbands saw something in us, and whatever it was, they wanted it to remain unconverted for a little while longer. I know my Terry would have been overjoyed to know that I’m actually going to make it out of here. And so would your George.’

He’s right, I think. George wanted me to get away. He would be happy knowing I’d actually be able to live on.

I should do my part and be happy, too.

Except being happy is like trying to breathe while being encased in concrete.

The check-up finishes and I exit the booth. I move toward the vast cargo bay window. Wrenix Four is half-way gone. The ravenous Swarm is a thick, black cloud, slowly billowing over the molten core of the planet. The sunlight only illuminates a thin layer of creatures; they glisten like spilled diamonds, like waves made of stars.

Beautiful.

Maybe I should embrace the end, instead of running from it?

An alarm claxon tears the moment apart. The room is cast in red light. A moment later I see the cause for it: A part of the planet’s crust erupted right underneath us. A super volcano, flinging a thick cloud of burning rock straight at us.

I rush to the consoles while Simon yells a command to the ship’s computer. The defensive grid activates and through the window I see a barrage of red lasers meet the rapidly approaching debris, evaporating everything it touches.

The effort is in vain. The entire vessel is shaken by a mighty blow.

‘We received a hit to the nose!’

I reach the console and check the portal’s charging progress, trying to understand what I am seeing.

Simon curses. ‘The rocks were infected. Help me isolate the systems.’

My fingers fly over the display as I shut off every system and room on the ship safe for the defense grid and cargo bay. The ship’s power core only serves to charge up the portal – our only way out.

The walls begin to vibrate as the infection spreads, and rapidly growing Swarm-creatures begin to take the ship apart, piece by piece, molecule by molecule. The low bass thrumming of hull-mounted pressure guns dies away quickly.

‘I’m putting up a force field around us,’ he says. ‘Every second counts. How far are we?’

‘Almost there,’ I say, but my throat has gone dry. My eyes are glued to the display, and the catastrophe it announces in big, red letters.

Power fluctuations.

The portal will be unstable. Only one of us can go through; then it will collapse.

I stare at the words. Red light flashes all around me. The ship shudders and trembles as it is torn apart.

I glance over my shoulder; Simon is busy gathering his remaining pressure grenades from his knapsack.

I remove the message from the screen and step away from it. I listen into myself, but there is no protest against my decision.

The cargo hauler shakes violently as something huge dislodges from its front section. Outside the window, I see the cockpit careen past, smoky tendrils of ravenous creatures trailing behind. The stars begin to spin as the ship starts to drift.

Simon stands in front of the arc, facing the cargo bay wall behind which the Swarm is approaching implacably. He is holding two pressure grenades in either hand. He must know they won’t be of much help. Pressure weapons are meant to fight off freshly grown infections, not offshoots of an apocalypse in full swing.

Still, I place myself next to him in quiet solidarity. Together we wait, witnesses to our cargo hauler’s agony.

‘What will you do on the other side?’ I ask him.

‘Same as I did the last two days. Get some food into you.’

I feel my lips curl. He is too good a person, too gentle a soul. It’s good that he will survive. It makes sense.

The feeling of a smile has become so unusual. I haven’t smiled in weeks, but now, knowing that my pain is finally coming to an end, I can’t seem to stop.

The Swarm is almost here. Outside the cargo bay doors the automatic defense system fires pressure waves, slowing the creatures down.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says, leaning over a console.

‘I don’t need to,’ I reply, thinking that he found out about the power fluctuations.

‘You saw it already?’ he asks.

‘My mind’s made up,’ I say, determined. ‘You’re going to survive, Simon. And I’ll stay behind.’

An incredulous laugh escapes him. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I’m not discussing this,’ I insist. ‘Only one of us can make it, and we both know it’s got to be you.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘I don’t want saving,’ I say, and the words feel like I am pulling a poisoned knife out of my heart.

He shakes his head, disbelievingly. Frantically, even. In fact, there is a glint of urgency in his eyes, and I’m getting the sense that he knows something I don’t. I glance past him at the display he was checking out, and indeed, it doesn’t show the ship’s status, but our medical data.

My medical data.

The sound of metal tearing and shrieking reaches through the walls, but I barely notice. My eyes are stuck on a single word shown on the display.

The next moment, the cargo bay wall disintegrates, revealing a mass of frantically writhing tentacles. The air leaves in one violent pull, leaving only the bubble inside our force field. The shift in pressure rips out wall coverings; they cut through the horrors as they’re dragged out into empty space.

Then they spill in through the gaps, monsters of all sizes. The small ones, mere seconds old, race along surfaces. The bigger ones burn their way through walls and floor. A massive tentacle breaks through the roof and smashes clean through the cargo bay, instantly turning every bit of matter it touches into tiny horrors that quickly grow and merge and convert everything they touch.

The ship’s voice sounds from the speakers one last time. The portal machine awakens, thrums, then crackles as a sparkling ball of lightning appears in its center. It rolls in place, fizzing and zapping.

I look at Simon. Tears run down his face and past his smile.

‘Congratulations.’

He activates the grenades and turns to meet the swarm. Behind me, the crackling and zapping explodes into a howling storm, shining white light at the writhing nightmare before us.

Simon flings himself at it. At once the air is getting sucked out as the force field breaks. The grenades explode with invisible force, pushing the horrors back, breaking and squashing their bodies and flesh. The pressure wave hits me and I am thrown into the white storm of the portal, just a moment before it collapses. 

***

I am falling. Spinning. Things fly past me; a cloudy sky and a tall tower made of gold, with a big clock at the side. I see a bridge, and a giant spokes wheel thing. I notice a body of water racing toward me, and I scream as I plunge into the cold stream.

A man in a fisher boat pulls me out and calls a health care service. I am bruised from the plunge, but the first thing they treat at the hospital is malnutrition. They ask about my identification, but I simply tell them I can’t remember anything.

An interim accommodation is provided for me, as well as a therapist. They try to help me find a place in this new old world. It is filled with ordinary people, and a lot of ordinary problems. Money and sex and a little philosophy. They talk about shows. They water plants. They fall in love and buy stupid things. I feel like a ghost among them. None of them understand any more than the words I’m uttering.

I find myself leaning on a windowsill, wondering if every universe has the same afterlife. But the thought is cut off as sudden nausea hits and I rush to the bathroom.

After that, I never lean on windowsills ever again.

***

The sun shines down from a brilliant sky. Through the large window in Jonathan’s office, between rooftop chimneys and sporadic canopy, I see the blue waves of the Thames gleaming in the afternoon sun. Small boats bob up and down on it. Tourists mill about on Westminster Bridge.

I smile. It’s something I do quite often these days.

‘I hear Georgie is fine?’

I return my attention to Jonathan, my therapist. His round glasses sit low on the bridge of his nose. His greying hair is kempt and professional.

‘Oh yeah,’ I say. ‘He’s more than fine. We went to the beach last week, for his sixth birthday. He picked up every second stone. I swear, he would have taken the whole beach home if I hadn’t stopped him.’

‘Sounds like a lovely day. His dysarthria?’

‘I found a good speech therapist. It’s getting better.’

‘He’s really precious to you, isn’t he? Every time you mention him you start to glow.’

A grin spills onto my face. ‘Oh, I love him with all my heart. My little explorer. He’s just like his father.

Jonathan raises an eyebrow. ‘Whom you don’t know, because of the amnesia?’

I simply nod. I’ve learned that people in this world aren’t very suspicious.

He smiles and turns the page on his notebook to get to the next item.

‘And what about you?’

It’s the one question he always asks, but never at the start of a session.

‘Quite well,’ I say, smiling. ‘I met someone, two weeks ago. Aaron. He’s five years older, but doesn’t look like it. His eyes shine like Hyde Park during summer.’

Jonathan looks surprised.

‘Progress?’ I suggest, knowing it is along the lines of what he is thinking.

He nods and writes something down.  

‘Still no contacts from your past life?’

I shake my head. ‘All demons and angels are far, far away.’

He raises an eyebrow. ‘Angels? I’ve never heard you use that expression before.’

I nod. ‘My guardian angels.’

‘You were found in the Thames,’ he argues, raising an eyebrow. ‘Starved, pregnant and without any knowledge of metros or soccer. If I were you I would at least file a complaint about your winged helpers.’

‘Still,’ I say, remembering them all with a smile. ‘They were right there. They were strong when I was weak. And they knew love. They taught me so much about love.’

‘What did they teach you?’

It is one of those questions I probably don’t need to answer, but I decide to indulge him. I consider my answer carefully.

‘It’s like a force of nature,’ I say, ‘Like wind, or the sun. And it reaches through time and space, and from one universe to the next. And not even the devil can defeat it.’

May 06, 2023 02:04

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