Somnium

A Sci-Fi short story written by Josh Beals

Somnium

by Josh Beals

 

Josh Beals is a novelist with a forthcoming debut titled Sins of the Saturnine. His stories center around futures affected by the politics and society of our own age, and the consequences of our choices.

Look out for the upcoming first entry into the Solar series, Sins of the Saturnine.

 

Daniel Highram awoke to overwhelming noise. Sirens, whoops, cheers, cries. Was something great or terrible happening? The rest of the dormitory already stirred. “Wake up!” said his bunkmate. “They’ve seen something in space!”

Daniel shoved himself out of bed. “You can’t be serious,” he said. His stomach turned at the thought. All his years spent studying the old spaceships he thought would never come back again—might have been for a reason. “Where?” he asked, in sheer silliness. As if any answer would suffice, other than, space.

After coming to his senses, he pulled on a pale blue jacket, a going-to-university gift from his father, and stepped outside with his bunkmate. It seemed like the entire faculty were in the streets with the students. They were all gawking at the daytime sky, as if they would be able to see anything from the ground. There were a few smart-alecks going around, telling them, “You’re silly to think you’ll see it. Space is beyond the sky! You’re looking at the sun! You’ll all go blind, you daft fools…”

Occipitus’ sun was remarkably bright, shining red down on them all. Daniel couldn’t see anything in the ochre sky, either. It was worth a try. “We should go to the observatory,” his bunkmate suggested. They went. The crowds were already incredible. Lines out the door—but Daniel’s bunkmate was the best friend of the head of the telescopic department. They were let in through a back door. The telescopist had already trained the high-power lens onto the object. Daniel was allowed to peer first.

It was at once tiny and immense. Against the enormity of the universe’s backdrop, it seemed insignificant, but the details on its hull suggested a giant. It was one of the ancient, advanced vessels, from before the Silence. The kind that could create its own gravity, the kind that could use magnetic fields to traverse a system without firing a single thruster. One of them had come here. Daniel could hardly pull himself off the viewfinder to give his bunkmate a gander. It was so small. But it was everything.

They came down from the heavens the next day. Once astronomers spotted the ship on approach, the city government cleared the derelict airport runway and made it ready for use at once. They proved prescient. A shuttle, resplendent despite its entry scorches, touched down gracefully. Gold and silver chased its hull. A massive crowd swarmed it, despite the efforts of the government agents. The boarding ramp descended, and a single figure walked out of the alien vessel.

The man was dressed in a freshly pressed, shining silver uniform. Even government officials gasped at it: it was the uniform of a Union Progress Officer. One had not been seen on Occipitus since before the Silence. Yet it had been modified: there were medallions, seemingly military related, on his breast. A thick necklace sat around his neck adorned with a circle and a cross. His hair was combed back, blond, and his blue eyes shone in the red light. It was as if a halo of light surrounded him. What was the word for that? It had been so long since Daniel had thought in these terms… was it… glory? Was the ugly, barren, sad world of Occipitus witnessing glory?

I need your attention, my friends,” he shouted. His whole being contrasted with his surroundings. For all his sterile clothes, ironed right angles, and sharp looks, his crowd was dirty, disheveled, wrinkled in more ways than one. Even so, he did not look dissuaded. The crowd silenced in awe. “For fifty years, eleven months, and sixteen days, we have been sundered from one another,” he continued. “I wish to tell you that that time has ended. A great menace assaulted our race, and destroyed the Ansible of Earth, forbidding all communication with her wayward children. Thus, we could not speak to you, and all travel between the stars ceased.” He paused, and looked down as if in sorrow. “But the Ansible is being rebuilt, and I have come to rejoin you with mankind!” He raised his hand to the sky. A cheer rang out. “You are no longer a colony of a faraway master, you are a world among worlds!” Another cheer. “To the Race!” he proclaimed, “To the Race!”

Daniel Highram followed him with the most diligent of fans. The explorer, who was named Charter-Captain Dal Parthenon, was given a royal tour of the capital city. Daniel took in every detail he uttered about the rest of the universe. What had he seen? Occipitus was a massive place alone. How many planets were peopled now? How many had he been to?

In the Museum of the Arts, Charter-Captain Parthenon explained. “I am a Charter,” he began. “We seek to rediscover what was lost in the Silence.” The crowd hung on his every word. “Among which are these pieces.” He gestured at the oil painting Touchdown on Occipitus. You have preserved some of the paintings, sculptures, and films that once made us great. That is the purpose of my occupation, to ensure that the greatest relics and inventions of our kind are never lost. There are hundreds of Charters spread throughout the heavens, reforging our legacy. I am but one.” The crowd applauded at his passion.

There was nothing more noble. He preserved humanity’s future by preserving its past.

*

Daniel watched the changes unfold around his city as he finished his college degree. Factories went up around the city, belching their pollutants in the air: one thing the Occipitans had not missed since they lost contact with the Union. But this time, they were told it was necessary. Captain Parthenon’s ship needed supplies and repairs from its long journey. It had been among the stars for a few years already. It needed thruster components, communications equipment, replacement hull plating. All things Occipitus was previously incapable of supplying it. The Occipitans built and staffed the factories enthusiastically.

Daniel also watched as the Museum of the Arts, the crown jewel of the planet, grew more desolate with each passing week. It had once been Daniel’s favorite weekend occasion to spend an afternoon with a friend at the museum. It became pointless. He heard whispers from the faculty on each of his visits. “He said he can take better care of it up there,” one said. “the Captain said there’s danger of one of our sandstorms damaging the paintings. I told him we haven’t had one in the capital in thirty years, but he insisted.” They stared at a huge empty spot on the wall.

The same excuse had prevailed for procuring most of the oils and watercolors. Soon mosaics followed, too. Then, when an unprecedented sandstorm blew through the southern end of the city (miles away from the museum), the Captain convinced the museum board to give up the sculpture collection. It was shipped piece by piece to the Captain’s ship, the Empyrean Throne, in orbit for safekeeping. Daniel couldn’t fault the board for caving; the entire population of the planet was obsessed with the Captain. They would invite riot to refuse him.

*

Daniel Highram graduated Occipitus Technical College with honors and a degree in Astronautical Engineering. The Captain’s Empyrean Throne still hovered unseen above the planet. Daniel remained obsessed with him then, despite the slights against the Museum and despite the factories.

So, when Charter-Captain Parthenon returned to the planet to make his final speech, Daniel showed up. “It is with sorrow I depart you,” the Captain began, contorting his face in sadness. “this is a great world, and we have discovered much. But I leave you with one final request: it is my desire not to leave Occipitus without allowing the rest of the Race the opportunity to witness this planet’s genius. If you desire to see the rest of this beautiful universe, I beg you to consider applying to return to the Earth with me. With that, I bid you farewell.” He stepped off the stage. There was a surge toward the application stands in the neighboring building. Daniel went with them. Wasn’t this what he was made for?

Only on the way off the planet, watching Occipitus shrink through a thick porthole, did Daniel realize the Captain had reaped a veritable harvest of his planet: Its resources, its art, and now its best and brightest.

*

Fifteen years later

The magnetocore of the Royal Hammer pulsated with a low hum in the bowels of the ship. It had set out from Tenth some weeks ago, and thundered through the heavens toward a rapidly growing shard of metal. The metal was shaped oddly, as if a dozen cubes had been smashed together and then welded as one. A name was painted in plain white on its gunmetal flanks: SOMNITE.

Daniel Highram gazed out the narrow porthole on the bridge of the Hammer, trying to decide if he had made the right decision to come here. Either way, it was too late now. He tried to think of what had run through his mind when he first learned of the station’s location…

The records of the old Union held many secrets. The fact that all of them had not been discovered already surprised Daniel. Decades had passed since the Union fell apart and Earth was rediscovered. Mountains of drives, skyscrapers full of filing cabinets, and basements crammed with servers held the wealth of the Union’s knowledge. Hidden among them were the Codices, the fonts of information that the dead regime had compiled during its long existence. These Codices were the keys to discovering lost colonies among the stars, maintaining complex technologies, and arcane inventions the arrogant scientists of Earth should never have delved into. Just one Codex could make a man’s fame or fortune. Most often, both.

Daniel Highram had found one codex, of seeming unimportance at first. Wanting desperately to fast-track his way to Charterhood, he had pooled his life savings from serving aboard the military vessel Diarheart and bought a data storage unit from a facility on the outskirts of Atlanta. They were expensive. Each one had a chance of having a Codex. Though they could harbor immense wealth, the government sold them off to get rid of the massive waste of space that was a Union data unit. They were the size of a shipping container. The policy also served to rekindle the light of exploration in the minds of those still on Earth. Every Codex led to a new invention, a new ship, the location of some hidden artifact. It brought the soul back to mankind.

Daniel would never forget the moment he walked inside his freshly pried-open data unit. On first glimpse, it was empty, save for a console at the center of the chamber. The console displayed two words: Viewer Accepted. The words vanished and a wall of text appeared. At first, indecipherable. But Daniel had a very specific set of knowledge. He had made his way in the military as a bridge technician—this was exactly his skill set. Hidden in the wall of text was a series of coordinates, and the following paragraph hid an encrypted description of the secret hidden at the destination. It was a late Union script which Daniel translated with ease. A simple description:

At 199.333.401, -222.114 Somnite Station, Drs. Diamond and Lindsey have fulfilled their purpose. Twelve copies have been ordered but production has been stalled. This console is to be viewed only by the Team Leader to visit the station and encourage the completion of the products. If the products are not delivered, a series of letters are prepared for dispatch. Acquire products at all costs.

Evidently, whatever expedition they had planned never departed. The Union must have fallen before they had the chance. Further reading in the console revealed that the nature of the ‘product’ that Dr. Diamond and Dr. Lindsey had created was paradoxical in nature. Delving deep into the machine’s code yielded a short correspondence between Union Command and the rogue doctors.

UN: The device is the legal and intellectual property of the Union. You know what rights you signed away on your contract.

DI: Myself, Dr. Lindsey, and the crew of the Somnite are in agreement. This device cannot be used. Be grateful we have not destroyed it already.

UN: And why have you not destroyed it already, indeed?

DI: That’s—you cannot understand—it’s entirely outside of your knowledge. There were enough warning signs during development to tell us this never should have moved beyond the drawing board. Only this Union would consider bending reality itself to its own ends.

[The system registers a pause]

UN: Are you questioning the moral and ethical foundations of the Hemispheric Union, Doctor?

DI: I… My word is final. I cannot give you the device.

UN: It is my word that is final, Luc Diamond. If you do not surrender the device, you will be deemed an enemy of the people.

[no reply]

[end transcription]

It was just enough to thrill the imagination. Bend reality? Warning signs? The rest of the documentation, without revealing the true functionality of the device on Somnite Station, indicated the strange occurrences that appeared during its use. Strangers walking the halls of the station. Figures seen eating in the mess hall in the middle of the night. One crew member that became convinced a copy of himself stalked his every move. As the records went on, they grew vaguer, then they cut off entirely. After the correspondence with Union Command, it appeared that the doctors cut off communication completely.

Nothing could have driven Daniel more—it was every impetus rolled into one. This was his chance to realize the dream he pondered since a child: to make famous the title of Charter once again. It had been sullied, subject to criticism it deserved not, but with a grand enough result, it could be redeemed.

Begin deceleration, look for the docking port,” Charter-Captain Daniel Highram ordered. “Bring us in gently, do not hail. Put the hull imaging on the screen.”

His small crew obeyed his orders. Among them were a medical officer, an engineer, a technician, and a marine. None of them would be coming aboard the Somnite with him. This was something he had to see for himself, and he had no desire to put any of them at unnecessary risk.

The screen displayed the scarred hull of the Somnite Station. Light meteoroid impacts had scorched and scratched the steel, but thick plating had kept the station from depressurizing. No ships were docked, but two shuttles sat dormant in the airless hangar. It seemed there was a chance that someone still lived aboard. The chances were slim, though. No one could have visited this station in at least sixty years. Even the most advanced renewability technology could not make food or water last so long.

The airlock systems are responding, sir,” said First Officer Laura Theroux. She doubled as the medical doctor for the crew. “The connections are intact and fully automated.”

At least docking won’t be one of our worries,” Daniel replied. He let his eyes trace the length and breadth of the station. As minithrusters guided them closer to the jutting docking arm, the Somnite loomed up above like a mountain. The more he thought about the place, the more he realized he didn’t know about it. Yes, there had once been a Union crew aboard. They had built it. Yes, the machine he searched for was deep within. What else was there, though? For a long time, he had assumed that the station’s original purpose was to build the machine, and only the machine. What if the Somnite held more mysteries than the one he sought? Was he ready to reveal yet another horrible secret of the dead Union?

Docking clamps rumbled and clunked into place. The automated system developed by the Union allowed the process to conclude smoothly and without intervention. In a moment, the consoles in front of First Officer Theroux turned green. Lock complete. Daniel walked to the embarkation room, where the hardsuits hung on the wall. First Officer Theroux stayed at her station while Marine John Graham and Enginemaster Michael Riasanov locked each piece of the captain’s hardsuit into place. The name fit well; especially for this one. In addition to the usual protections against the vacuum, the suit was armored for light combat. The yellow chevrons of captaincy marked his pauldrons. Marine Graham maglocked a heavy pistol to Daniel’s hip. The weapon had followed Daniel Highram ever since his first days on Earth, when he had needed to fend for himself. He never told anyone, but he had named the weapon the Beacon, because it lit up his enemies. Daniel figured the joke would be too on the nose to humor anyone.

Engage no one, if possible,” John Graham advised. “If there are multiple contacts, just say, and I’ll come.”

You talk about it like the crew will be there waiting for me,” Daniel answered. “It’s been decades. They’ll be dead or gone.”

Just stay cautious.” John Graham had a funny way of forgetting that he was talking to the captain, and phrased his advice like orders. It didn’t offend Daniel. He appreciated those who spoke honestly.

Enginemaster Riasanov pulled back the hood of the hardsuit, which resembled the shell of a roly-poly. “You won’t be needing this. The station’s airlock computer says everything’s good. The whole station is pressurized with good-quality air.”

Union technology never ceases to amaze,” Daniel replied.

Even from beyond the grave,” Riasanov noted. He looked down over his glasses, which gave him an appearance of worry. “If the resistance is too great, please just come back. You’re probably right, the crew is dead. But that might not be the only thing in your way. The Union was capable of some evil things.”

I’ll keep that in mind.” It was easy to see them as doting on him like concerned parents, but Daniel valued each one of their warnings. He knew they all disagreed with his wish to go in alone. But he was aware of the risks, and wanted them nowhere close. This was a gamble that he had staked his career on, and he would see none of them hurt or worse for his own vanity. So Daniel went alone.

The first airlock door slid open, revealing the armored bulkhead guarding the Somnite. Daniel realized four sets of eyes were trained on his back. He turned to his crew. Laura stood with her arms crossed, her brow furrowed. John Graham stroked his stubble, Riasanov hid his concern behind his wraparound goggles, and Technic Sirebrand leaned on the wall of the embarkation room, appearing disinterested. Daniel gave a smile to all of them. Only John Graham managed a smirk back. “I know this is my life’s work, but know I do it for all of you, too,” Daniel reassured them. “Let me know if the weather changes.” He gave a quick salute and turned. They saluted him back stiffly.

Daniel Highram stepped across the threshold and did not look back through the porthole. The Royal Hammer’s airlock closed. The air changed subtly in Daniel’s ears, then the Somnite’s bulkhead split asunder. There was a hiss as the air from the ship and station mingled. Behind the station’s door was an empty embarkation room. Only the emergency lights were on, the main light strips were either burned out long ago or switched off.

The walls were gray, lined by simple lights all the way down. It was easy to forget he was on a space station, because the halls were just as tall and wide as a standard building on Earth. The rest of the visual was unsettling enough. Pale blue floodlights supplied only periodic haloes of light, and the place was utterly soundless aside from distant creaks. Sometimes they were more like rumbles, as if entire sections of the station were trying to twist off in agony. Daniel was well-versed enough in astronautics to know it was just the hull of the Somnite weathering solar wind and the settling of its ancient metal.

He stepped beyond the airlock chamber, leaving behind the highly valuable Union hardsuits lining the walls. They would fetch a hefty price, with their vintage appearance and advanced subsystems, but they would have to be left behind for now. Daniel came to a fork in the corridor, where the hallway leading out of the embarkation chamber intersected with another. A distant creaking resounded again, sending out a distinct pitter patter, pitter patter. If he didn’t know the station was empty, he might have thought it was a pair of frightened feet.

A series of signs were etched into the walls at the intersection.

LEFT: RIGHT:

MESS POWER

RECREATION RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

QUARTERS SYSTEMS

Each avenue led in two totally separate directions. They would probably connect again in another section, but it might be a while before it were possible. If memory of the station’s layout served, there were only two entrances to each wing. Once Daniel entered one of the wings, the only ways out would be turning around, or powering through. In the true way of a Highram, however, Daniel picked neither left nor right, and continued straight forward.

Chance rewarded his choice at once. The small passageway led to a motion-activated door that opened to reveal a tremendous atrium. The center of the station. Daniel had heard about these: research had shown it was essential for station workers to be given some simulation of day and night. Else their circadian rhythms would run out of sync with the unchanging stillness of the heavens, driving them to slow depression. The atrium’s ceiling was a massive transparent dome letting in starlight from a field of burning suns. Red, yellow, white, blue… they stared back at Daniel. The station’s cycle was in night. Midnight, it seemed, as the adjustable filters in the dome let in the maximum level of light from the starfield. The Somnite was steadily turning, set subtly spinning by some hidden thruster decades ago, to give it the impression of day and night. Now, the dome gave view to the stars; in 12 hours, it would reveal the star in closest proximity to the station: Somnium. There would be only a few more windows in the station, to avoid breaking immersion in the day-night cycle.

A crunch resounded from behind Daniel, who had walked to the center of the atrium in his amazement. He twisted around, his hand resting on the Beacon. A figure sat there, staring back in surprise. Daniel blinked. The table was empty. The figure had been chewing. The flash hadn’t given him enough time to see any more detail.

Daniel elected to ignore that occurrence entirely.

There was no one on the ship, there were only things. Things Daniel was here to find. He wondered if it had been a good idea to keep the identity of the technology a secret from the crew. It was still a mystery to Daniel too, but at least he knew the general outline. It was an invention gone wrong, one that had even violated the morals of Union scientists. That cabal of labcoats had developed the most horrible weapons ever forged by human hands. The Somnite held an invention that harmed the fabric of reality. But like all inventions of that nature, it could be used for good in the right hands. Daniel hoped he had those hands.

He decided to make his way right for the largest wing of the structure: Research and Development. There could be no other location for the most important possession of the station. Daniel backtracked out of the atrium and returned to the intersection at the entrance. For a moment he thought he saw a loose bolt on the airlock door, but decided to keep on toward the Research wing. His mind was playing tricks on him. He couldn’t blame it, really, he was on a sixty-years derelict station, alone. Of course every horror film and mystery novel from his youth would travel forward in time to haunt him.

The Research wing’s design differed from the rest of the Somnite. Its corridors were pale white, rather than the unpainted gunmetal gray of the halls outside. Light strips set into the corridor walls blinked red, as if indicating an ancient emergency when the station still teemed with life. Whatever alarm accompanying it had probably run out of battery before Daniel was born.

Daniel gazed down a long hallway to the center of the wing. A massive vault door stared back. On the lock wheel, like those on naval vessels to keep them watertight, a lanyard hung limply. Daniel approached it slowly. On either side of the hallway, sealed doors seemed to watch his passing. He stepped close enough to read the lanyard: Somnite Discovery Program – Thirty Years of Success. The lanyard connected to a keycard wedged in a slot on the wheel. He carefully slipped it out. A green indicator blinked to red. The card read: Dr. Anna Lindsey.

It made no sense. The card was left here, but no one remained. Maybe she had left the card in the door, and gone inside the vault? Daniel realized he wasn’t being thorough enough. He needed to know what happened to the crew almost as much as he needed to have whatever rested inside that vault. It was a personal curiosity, sure, but wouldn’t he need to explain how he got the invention? The whole world’s eyes would be focused on him when he returned with the device.

He depressed a button beside the door closest to the vault. It slid open with a hiss. A skull smacked against the floor. Daniel stepped back, barely suppressing a shout. Not just a skull; a skeleton. Wearing clothes appearing as clean as the day they were put on.

Dr. Lindsey?” Daniel found himself saying into the silence. He turned to the vault. He noticed then a scorch mark on the vault bulkhead. Then another. Then one more, on the skeleton’s sternum.

Shot while trying to get inside, Daniel thought. Or protecting someone who did get inside. He found his hand resting on the Beacon. It was time to enter the vault.

He slipped Dr. Lindsey’s keycard into the wheel and turned it with great effort. Automation did the rest. The vault swung outward, revealing a lightless chamber inside. Daniel stepped within and drew the Beacon. He swept its barrel-mounted light over the night-black interior of the vault. Circuit boards, piping, and heatsinks covered the smooth, curved walls. The entire chamber resembled a sphere. Daniel stood on a flat platform at its base.

A walkway extended to the center, where a chair sat before a box. An empty chair. Daniel guessed someone had stopped whoever tried to enter the vault. Dr. Lindsey, in all likelihood, if she and the skeleton were one in the same.

The walkway hummed with reverberation as Daniel approached the box. He combed back the roly-poly shell of his helmet and sat down in the chair. The box was featureless, aside from three buttons and a tiny screen. It was nothing complex; Daniel saw the light-burn marks from digital numerals. When he adjusted his weight on the chair, the display lit up. Red numbers appeared: 10:34:30.11.3212.

A cold object rested on the back of his head. Circular. With a slight pressure. For a second, he gave it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was part of the machine. Maybe it needed an interface with the brain. Yet the pressure was too subtle for machinery—it pressed against his skull with a purpose. A breath. Someone gulped down a draught of air.

There was no way to spin around and win some kind of quickdraw. So, Daniel did the only thing that had a chance to preserve him. He mashed all the buttons on the box at once. The screen flickered and changed, and blinded him.

*

His hardsuit weighed heavy on his shoulders. The airlock sealed behind him with a hiss. Had he just woken up? Had all of that been a daydream? He picked through the memories, feeling his head hurt while he did. The box. It must have moved him here, back to where he started. Teleportation? Was that it? Was this the technology the Union had hidden away? If so, it could change everything. The way war was waged, how people were transported between the stars… There would be no more need for space elevators, no more need for bulky cargo haulers to crawl across the heavens to stem the tides of starvation. Anyone could go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

Daniel Highram had to have it. If a Charter had ever found something more valuable, he hadn’t heard of it. This would change the nature of civilization itself. He reached backward to pull up his helmet so it wouldn’t bounce around in its sheath. But he found it already extended. No harm, then. Must have forgotten when he pulled it up.

He reached the intersection of corridors and went right. He was working up a run now. Daniel could barely contain his excitement. What would his crew say? Laura would be excited… Graham would smirk in his usual way… and Enginemaster Riasanov would demand to tinker with it through the night.

The hull echoed with a pitter patter, pitter patter with his heavy steps. But his progress was arrested: a thick door had closed over the entrance to the Research wing. Just where he had entered in minutes ago. He must have triggered a lockdown protocol when he used the machine by accident. But then he remembered. In all his excitement, he had let it slip his mind. Someone had pressed a gun to his head. There was someone here. Maybe they had closed it? In that case, grabbing the box would be harder than he thought. Daniel drew the Beacon. “It’s already mine,” he assured himself.

He set out the opposite way. Each wing had two entrances, so he would use the other.

A hunger stirred in his stomach, however. He had been at this longer than he thought. In the excitement aboard the Hammer, he had forgotten to eat lunch, too. Daniel pulled a granola bar from the breast pocket on his hardsuit that he had joked he would save for a snack on the next exterior hull repair. He bit off a chunk of the bar and chewed. It had preserved well.

He realized he ate inside the room where the crew had once eaten in generations passed, and decided he would show his respects. He sat down on a bench, the Beacon in one hand, bar in the other. He was chewing when he realized someone was standing in the center of the atrium, staring right at him. He froze. And blinked. The figure was gone.

No. This had already happened. Right here. No… That figure was unmistakable. It wore a heavy hardsuit, its roly-poly helmet down, allowing the starlight to bathe its face. It was Daniel. It clicked in his mind too: when he had seen that frightened glimpse of someone in the atrium’s mess hall earlier, it had been himself too. Eating. He stood up and held the Beacon with two hands, raised to chest-level. He let the granola bar break to crumbs on the floor. No more time for leeway.

Dangerous technology, eh? Daniel thought. So, this was the consequence: artifacting. Like an erroneous smudge in a digital image, the device had imprinted a piece of the past on the present. Like it had translated Daniel’s physical form ever so slightly wrong. It teleported Daniel in whole, but accidentally spit out a frozen image of him from a few minutes ago. Yes, that was it. Just a slight error. There were scientists that could fix that. The device would still be useful. It was still Daniel’s prize. But that wasn’t all—he had seen the false image before he’d even used the machine. First, he’d been the one standing in the atrium, staring at the chewing stranger. He had seen himself then, too.

This wasn’t the time to figure out all the theoreticals. This was the time to get the device, and understand it later.

He crossed the threshold into the command section. It connected to the atrium on the opposite end from the docks. The doors were all open, like someone had needed to vent a fire from the station. Daniel hoped that someone had done so decades ago, not a few minutes. As he passed the command dais, he noticed the words HOSTILE PRESENCE ABOARD blinking in dire red script. He was sick of making guesses. Maybe it referred to him, maybe it referred to whoever shot Dr. Lindsey, maybe it was the fake him. It didn’t matter anymore.

The second entrance to the Research wing was open. Daniel held the Beacon pointed forward, approaching with care. He checked his corners, remembering every second of training for the Chartership. Quick movements, survey every potential hiding spot, no matter how silly. Daniel looked in the air ducts. He looked in trash bays, he looked in bathrooms, he looked in every stall. There was a rumbling outside. Then a creaking. The vault door.

Daniel stuck his head just far enough out of the bathroom door to see a figure step inside the chamber. This would have to be them: the one who had put the gun to his head. He went after them, keeping his footsteps as light as humanly possible in a hardsuit. He told himself the stranger couldn’t hear the thuds of his boots on the plastic floor. Daniel came to a stop halfway across the walkway. The room was so dark, he could see only a silhouette of a head before him. They were looking right at him. He froze, finger tensing on the Beacon’s trigger. But it was only a trick of the dark. They were looking the opposite direction. Silhouettes were hard to judge.

Inching forward, Daniel aimed the Beacon at the stranger’s head. Was he really willing to kill someone for this thing? He had spent most of his life hating Charter-Captain Parthenon for exploiting people. How would the world remember him for killing one? It would destroy every good thing that could come from bringing back the technology. Fame? More like infamy. Praise? More like insult. Celebration? More like a trial.

Some base instinct allowed the Beacon’s barrel to brush the stranger’s head. Daniel’s breath picked up. Either he would kill this man and bring this technology to mankind, or he would be killed himself. The target had a gun maglocked to their side.

Then the realization almost made him choke: the Beacon sat holstered at the stranger’s side, yet it was the Beacon trained on his head. The stranger wore a hardsuit with a granola bar tucked into a breast pocket, yet that granola bar lay on the atrium floor in crumbles. Daniel breathed in, and Daniel breathed back.

Not teleportation at all, Daniel thought. Time.

The horrors cascaded through his mind all at once. The ability to travel through time. The assassinations, the shifting tides of history, the empires rising and falling, victories clenched from the jaws of defeat. Like a billion voices crying out, you can save us.

A hand reached for the box’s buttons.

Daniel Highram pulled the trigger, and Somnite Station was empty.

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